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February 14, 2012


What’s War For

by Mike M

The journalist David Rieff has a marvelous essay at FP today, deconstructing the accelerating the accelerating trend toward humanitarian war.  Rieff raises, indirectly, a question of which we, as a strategic actor, have lost sight–rather unbelievably, given the significance of the issue.  Just what do we go to war for, anyway?

The question has been hopelessly muddled by the lack of obvious threats against which to rally war planning and the proliferation of US global responsibilities, which has us in the mind to wage war, or some facsimile thereof, for a dozen or more objectives.  This is all fairly novel stuff:  The idea of sending “the nation to war” to free a fairly obscure (to most citizens) North African people from an autocrat who had, fairly recently, done precisely what the world had told him to do in regard to his most dangerous behavior, would have struck most Americans in 1900 or 1930 or even 1960 as fairly ludicrous.

But the clarion call today might be termed system stability.  It’s constantly at risk, we are told, from some threat or peril or another–proliferants, genocidal maniacs, failing states–and it’s the job the the US to grab a bunch of friends and states that see a sudden self interest in jumping on the Coalition of the Moment bandwagon, to salve the risk.  Without this constant tending, so the argument goes, the international system would gradually collapse into anarchy.

This is where, of course, the neocons and the international institutionalists and P2Pers join company.  All of them see a global system imperiled by some constellation of forces.  All of them advocate a forceful–kinetically forceful–American policy to shore up that system, lest we collapse back into the dark ages.  As Rieff nicely points out with some clever petard hoisting, all of them are very willing to ignore the very norms they espouse to get US forces on the ground in these situations to do the dirty work they think needs doing.  Hence Iraq, and soon Iran; hence the Balkans, and Libya; hence demands to shove our brigade combat teams into Darfur, and Syria.

What is crucial to understand about all of this, however, is its status as an ideology, rather than proven empirical fact about global politics.  There are many flaws in the Requirement to Intervene to Save the System theory:

1.  Intervention often–in fact, usually–causes as much instability as it allays.  Exhibit 1 is of course Iraq.  Exhibit 2, should we choose to go that route, could easily be Syria.

2.  By disregarding norms of noninterference, or by end-running the security council, or by setting up new norms of global war-on-my-demand, the policy risks–as Thomas Barnet nicely argued in his recent essay, discussed in an earlier post–lowering entry barriers for anyone to go to war.  If we can take out Gaddafi, why can’t Russia do the same with a nettlesome leader in its Near Abroad?

3.  The argument that these threats, “if left to fester,” will ruin system stability is weak.  Good research suggests failing states don’t generate terrorism more than others.  Yes, massive genocidal instability can shake up a neighborhood, but history is full of such things.  On proliferation, we have a superb example of a contrary case:  After years of saying what “we would not tolerate,” we let North Korea get the bomb.  The world still turns.

4.  There are good reasons to believe that the international system today is robust, not brittle.  States and non-state actors are dependent on networks of capital, trade, information; the number of value-sharing major postmodern democracies is very high; etc.  The system can sustain occasional exceptions better than the interveners think; and moreover, the system, by its influence, exercises a natural and automatic gravitational effect on outliers, regardless of whether we invade them.  Hence, for example, Myanmar.  Thus the default strategy of relax and wait makes much more sense than hurry up and invade.

We risk being pulled into a series of endless wars based on an ideology with no foundation in fact.  The problem, partly, is that we have no contrary standard–no persuasive set of criteria to answer to the question, “When, actually, do we think it right to commit the nation to war?”  What’s amazing, when you think about it, is that we’ve been muddling along through so many twilight wars that we’ve forgotten even the significance of the question.  Of course, there can be no final answer in advance of specific contingencies; and a parallel trend–the blurring boundary between peace and war, courtesy of such emerging tools as cyber–makes this whole enterprise more challenging than it would have been a century ago.  But a nation can have broad guidelines–a general sense, for itself, of how it views the military instrument as a means of statecraft.  Right now, that sense has wilted; we’ve become far too fast and loose with a hugely unpredictable and dangerous tool.

Herewith an initial take on some guiding criteria.  The United States would consider going to war:

  • As a response to intentional attacks, either on the United States or treaty allies, by either direct or indirect means;
  • As a response to a permanent act of territorial or other major aggression that threatens to undermine international order; or
  • When the international community, in a truly collective and unified voice, makes a determination to endorse a legitimate act of multilateral use of force for the common good to achieve specific objectives.

There’s no reason I can think of not to stop there.  I added “permanent” aggression to #2 to distinguish something like the Gulf War from something like the Russian-Georgia situation of 2008–we don’t want to get dragged into every temporary skirmish or coercive raid.  And “direct or indirect” in #1 is added to give leeway so that if Iran is hosting a massive cyber facility that is screwing with us, we can take it out.

Whatever criteria we settle upon, one thing is clear, and it’s the theme behind Reiff’s thoughtful little piece.  It is time to return the act of war to the place it belongs:  As an extreme, rather than common and persistent, act of state.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Andres Ploompuu
    Feb 15 2012

    Well said, Mike. As always.
    I can’t help but wonder about the historic roots of this default to military solutions. I suspect it goes all the way back to uniquely American history, as described in Dr Tretler’s presentation each year to the students at NWC. Americans have always favored quick returns on investment, fast results, and have had little interest or tolerance for subtlety or long term efforts of any kind. Does it not follow then that Americans would develop a love for the military? Bombs, troops, tanks, and aircraft carriers make for much better, visible, concrete action on TV than do diplomats and aid workers arriving at some obscure airport. It’s a cultural preference with us.
    And yet the consequences at the national level are pretty ominous. More military flailing, resulting in more ill-feelings and resentment abroad, causing more military flailing . . . I think you’re right: we need a serious examination of what we believe to be global leadership. I would suggest it rely more on example than “defending global interests.”

  2. Ghandi
    Feb 19 2012


    Another great, thoughtful piece, thanks.

    I think many who advocate for R2P, make the following error in logic. They equate “military power applied” to “protection achieved.” When in fact, the military instrument is useful primarily in the destruction of things, if used well, bad things. (I know there are plenty of examples of the non-destructive use of military power, but fundamentally it is designed to make bad things go away.) Things like your opponent’s military power, or more specific targets like individuals or threatening inanimate objects, such as a SCUD missile or Slobodan Milosevic’s summer home. It can also be used in a broader sense to destroy an opponent’s industrial potential or even his credibility with the establishment of no fly zones (it’s wasn’t really about the people living in the swamps around Basra).

    However, the military instrument is an extraordinarily inefficient tool to build things with. As we’ve seen in our recent attempts to use COIN or “Clear, Hold, Build” in its many forms in Iraq and Afghanistan. It can do those things for a while; primarily by stopping bad actors from doing what they do, but it costs an extraordinary amount of money and in the end is only temporary.

    Real “protection” must be a permanent thing that is self-sustaining and come from within. It comes from the establishment of institutions and cultural devices to prevent governments or anyone else from abusing, terrorizing, or killing groups of people within its scope. This gets to the original social contract: submit to one of several flavors of sovereign and your life may not be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” When we assume that OUR military force can provide that for another citizenry, we are establishing ourselves as part of THEIR contract.

    So, with the social contract as my guide, I think your list above may be too narrow. The requirement for international consensus in #3 being an example I could not live with. Fundamentally, I only need to use military force when I have a reasonable belief that the thing I seek to destroy or change with military power may interfere with my sovereign contract, that between the American people and our government. I believe that this provides a more flexible and theoretically sound guide. If my calculations and logic are reasonable, then the part of the international community I care about will support my actions. But, the test must be of the logic itself, not from the international community’s sanctioning of it. The former is fundamental; the latter is an amorphous and unreliable guide.



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