The Case Against Military Activism

The Lowy Interpreter’s Sam Roggeveen takes me to task for too quickly dismissing the efficacy of military intervention here. But I think his post brushes aside some pretty significant considerations that argue against his conclusion that “. . .the relative success of military solutions does encourage greater dependence on it.”

To begin with, Roggeveen distinguishes between the “brilliant successes” of the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions, and the costly quagmires of the post-invasion counterinsurgencies. My argument is precisely that the tempting successes of the former, which are indisputable, led us to ignore the predictable (and predicted) dangers of the latter. Here, I’ll refer once again to Carl Connetta’s citation (.pdf) of President Bush in the immediate aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, because I think it perfectly illustrates the kind of fallacy that blinded us to the cautionary voices being raised at the time:

By a combination of creative strategies and advanced technologies, we are redefining war on our terms. In this new era of warfare, we can target a regime, not a nation.

To use contrasting analogies, President Bush’s remarks posit the state as a biological cell, with the regime as its biological nucleus. In this version, we can essentially genetically modify the cell/state, using our laser-guided military capacity to replace its DNA, thereby changing its behavior without damaging its integrity.

What Iraq, and to a certain degree Afghanistan, has revealed is that repressive states bear more of a resemblance to an atom than to a cell, where the regime is the atomic nucleus that binds things together. Of course, splitting an atomic nucleus unleashes all of its enormous potential energy, and the position in which we currently find ourselves in Iraq is akin to trying to contain the explosion after having detonated a nuclear bomb.

The danger that Connetta identifies (and rightly so, in my opinion) is that the entire American military establishment is feeling a gathering pressure from the operational center of gravity in Iraq to shift its emphasis to counterinsurgency operations. The full significance of that is startling enough to warrant more than a moment’s reflection. The military of the world’s dominant power (one that unlike, for instance China, faces no internal challenges to its sovereignty) is increasingly flirting with a doctrinal commitment to manpower-intensive, time-consuming, resource-absorbing counterinsurgency warfare, despite the fact that we’ve yet to convincingly demonstrate its longterm effectiveness.

Roggeveen also cites the Human Security Brief which, as he says, make a case for foreign intervention as a successful policy tool for reducing intrastate (civil) wars. But the report’s summary of what kinds of “international activism” has been emphasized in the post-Cold War era seems to strengthen my argument, rather than weaken it. Here are direct quotes from the leading bullet points:

– A dramatic increase in preventive diplomacy and peacemaking activities.
– An increase in international support for UN peace-making.
– An increase in post-conflict peace operations.
– An increased resort to economic coercion.
– An assault on the culture of impunity.
– A greater emphasis on reconciliation.
– Addressing the root causes of conflict. (pp. 153-155)

The one bullet point that supports Roggeveen’s case, ie. “A much greater willingness to use force,” is nevertheless followed by this paragraph:

The Security Council has been increasingly willing to authorise the use of force to deter ‘spoilers’ from undermining peace agreements and in so doing to restart old conflicts. UN peace operations are now routinely mandated to use force to protect the peace, not just their own personnel. (p. 154)

I would argue that when it comes to conflict resolution, America ought to take advantage of its own preventive diplomacy as well as that offered by the UN and regional multi-lateral institutions. Similarly, when military stability operations are necessary, we should use the force multiplier represented by UN and regional peacekeeping operations (which are dramatically less costly to mount than an American operation, and have the added advantage of empowering regional actors) as a first resort. For counterinsurgency, we should continue to develop our competencies, but we should apply them using the “El Salvador model” of advisors, with the targeted use of special forces operations when American vital interests call for it.

The very effective and very tempting high-tech operations, though, should be considered a hole card — something along the lines of an insurance policy taken out in the name of American vital interests, but also for the good of the global community — to be played when there’s no other option at our disposal.

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