The Limits of Military Power

There’s a discussion this week over at TPMCafe of Matthew Yglesias’ imminently available book, Heads in the Sand. It focuses on Yglesias’ vision of a “liberal internationalism,” by which he means the forward leaning diplomatic engagement, under the auspices of a multi-lateral system of institutions and laws, that characterized American foreign policy throughout the Cold War. Specifically, on his blog, Yglesias has targeted the use of pre-emptive war as an effective non-proliferation strategy.

I call attention to it not only because it’s an interesting discussion, but also because it folds in nicely with this short monograph (.pdf) by Carl Connetta, which I found on the Projects on Defense Alternatives website, and which serves as something of a backstory to Yglesias’ argument. Connetta points out that, starting with the First Gulf War, America has become seduced by the image of a surgical, omnipotent military capacity.

. . .Back in April 2003, flush with the illusion of victory, President Bush had asserted that:

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.

This is the “new warfare hypothesis” and it did not originate with President Bush. It has helped shape US thinking about the utility of force since the 1990-1991 Gulf War. . .

This is the image that Donald Rumsfeld tried to impose not only on the invasion of Iraq, but on the Army in general. And I think possibly before the ideological and strategic explanations that Yglesias offers for recent American interventionism, but at the very least in addition to them, this tempting image of military power as a clean and efficient policy tool accounts for a great deal of the temptation to use it as a panacea to what otherwise would be considered problems in need of a political solution.

I’ve discussed the growing militarization of stabilization and humanitarian operations before. Connetta points out that pre-emptive threat prevention, too, used to be the diplomats’ bailiwick:

In the past, threat prevention and “environment shaping” were largely in the purview of the State Department. But a feature of our post-Cold War practice has been the increasing intrusion of the Pentagon on the provinces of State. Parallel to this, diplomatic functions have been increasingly militarized. Thus, today, coercive diplomacy plays a bigger role relative to traditional “give-and-take” diplomacy. Similarly, “offensive counter-proliferation” — that is, arms control by means of bombardment — has grown in importance relative to non-proliferation efforts. Even US programs in support of democratization and development have gained a khaki tint.

The outcomes in both Afghanistan and Iraq have demonstrated that military power remains a blunt instrument, with unpredictable and costly consequences. Even given the narrowest and most clearly defined missions, it rarely achieves unassailable outcomes (consider that the Iraq War has been in part explained by the failure to topple Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War).

But not only have we expanded the mission set considerably, it’s also become commonplace in policy discussions to concede the need to grow the military. The perverse logic, as Connetta points out, consists of demanding a greater capacity without questioning what it ought to be used for:

. . .What we have demonstrated in Iraq and Afghanistan is that the most powerful nation on earth, unobstructed by a peer rival, commanding 22 percent of the world product, and consuming 50 percent of all defense spending cannot — in six years — bring a modicum of stability to two countries containing just 1 percent of the world’s population. . .

These outcomes might and should teach us something useful about the limits on the utility of military power.

Both Yglesias and Connetta demonstrate the way in which the American foreign policy discourse has been overtly militarized. Part of that has to do with the domestic political residue of the Vietnam War and the rise in the 1990’s of the liberal hawk movement as a response (one of Yglesias’ central theses), part of it has to do with the Pentagon’s bureaucratic imperative to grow, and part of it has to do with the very real trauma of the attacks of 9/11. The key point is that the military has done everything we’ve asked it to do, in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The problem is not so much that we haven’t given it what it needs to accomplish the task, although that is certainly the case, but that we’ve asked it to do too much to begin with.

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