The Era of Limited War

The Leslie Gelb op-ed piece that I flagged yesterday also contained this brief passage that’s been buzzing around in my head ever since:

The two groups of realists should seek common ground on the issue of humanitarian intervention. Americans know they can’t be true to themselves and do nothing about genocide. Failure to act against this particular evil corrupts society and inspires deep cynicism, something genuine conservatives always feared.

Yet it is foolhardy to try to tame the problem through nation building. Our experience, as in Bosnia, shows we have a good chance to stop or abate the violence through limited military actions like arming the victims and surgical air strikes.

Regardless of whether you agree or not with Gelb’s take on surgical strikes vs. nation building, his point about humanitarian interventions being the central challenge to the use of American military force would be right on target if we were engaging in that debate in 1999. Two events since then have changed the nature of that debate, however, and I suspect that they will serve as bookends to the interegnum period following America’s unipolar moment: the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the Russian invasion of Georgia.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq because, while the logic of national security and the breach of UNSC resolutions were used to justify it, it amounted to a unilateral military action in defiance of significant global opposition. In launching the invasion, the U.S. ignored Russian and Chinese concerns and signalled that it would no longer submit itself to the multilateral restrictions that characterized the post-Cold War period.

The Russian invasion of Georgia because, while the logic of self-determination and UN peacekeeping mandates were used to justify it, it amounted to a limited military action to advance political and strategic objectives. It could be that Russia would have opted for tension and crisis to reclaim its sphere of influence regardless of American policy over the past five years. But the invasion of Iraq, independence of Kosovo and encroachment of our military presence in Eastern Europe, combined with our weakened posture due to an overstretched military, certainly did nothing to discourage the Russian calculation.

It could also just be self-serving rationalization or a self-fulfilling prophecy, but the Russians have been saying for a while that American unilateralism would legitimize the use of force to resolve diplomatic crises, and the invasion of Georgia might be the opening bell to just such an era of low-level, limited wars that only ten years ago would have seemed like a throwback to the 19th century. You can be sure, for instance, that Hugo Chavez has been paying attention to the lack of serious consequences for Russia in the aftermath of the invasion, and I’m sure he’s not the only one.

The problem being that neither the American military instrument nor American public opinion is well-adapted to such conflicts. So while the question of humanitarian interventions that Gelb identifies has not disappeared, I’ve got a suspicion it will no longer be the central one with regard to the deployment of American hard power in the near future. It’s admittedly a pessimistic view that may or may not be borne out by events. But it’s hard to see how to get this cat back into the bag.