Outdated on Intervention

August 30, 2013

When it comes to the use of lethal military force, responsible military leaders have long relied on somewhat cold and rational calculations of vital national interests, definable costs and benefits, and longstanding international norms.  In the modern era, however, all the hard-worn military strategy axioms about only using force when directly threatened or with clear intent, purpose, and exit strategy are vanishing in favor of the so-called “responsibility to protect civilians” (known as “R2P”) and a general concern for humanitarian ideals. While this may appear morally superior to pragmatic non-intervention, it is nonetheless bad policy whose logic has been surpassed by new potential costs of starting a war in an era of globalized asymmetric threats.

Sound farfetched?  Just ask the owners of the New York Times, whose website was just hijacked by a tiny and otherwise unimportant group of pro-Assad cyber criminals known as the Syrian Electronic Army.

What we are witnessing is the dawn of a new era of warfare, one where power really is in the hands of the people—meaning all the people. Today’s social media tools enable mass demonstrations, and strengthen the power of groups—such as the Syrian Electronic Army and secret cabals like “Anonymous” —with the ability to strike anywhere, in any way, and with potentially catastrophic effects, such as prolonged power outages, wiped out bank accounts and business records, or even nuclear meltdown.  Such impacts and the cascading death and destruction that cyber groups can create, whether intentional or not, necessitate an update to the classic interpretation of total war because any action deemed inappropriate by others, be they state or non-state actors, now invites reprisals from any number of large and small disassociated groups that can strike globally and without warning against targets far from the battlefield.

Why is this reality such a sea change for the planners of military conflict?  Let’s be honest with ourselves: if a large part of the case against action is that Syria is not strong enough to directly impact our national security interest, then a large part of the case for action is that Syria is not strong enough to meaningfully retaliate.  The strong do what they will while the weak suffer what they must, and Syria is deemed an easy target that we can strike at will and with impunity. While this assessment rings true for conventional military concerns, it misses the broader reality of today’s much more complex and asymmetric threat environment.

Indeed, it may be worth the cost of a few dozen Tomahawk missiles or a couple planeloads’ worth of standoff missiles fired to send a message about our disdain for the use of chemical weapons.  We may even be willing to accept the likely inevitable, but easily dismissed, issue of local Syrians caught in the crossfire as “collateral damage”, even if we also recognize that for those killed or wounded the damage seems anything but collateral.

But what if the retaliatory consequences turn out to be much worse than we estimate by hitting closer to home?  What happens if there is retaliation not just against the U.S. government, but also our businesses and financial markets and critical infrastructure?  No one thought that the response to 9/11 would result in a decade’s worth of war on two fronts, each of which has cost much in blood and treasure only to end in uncertainty and risk of future conflict in a region just as, if not more, inflamed as it was a decade ago.  And very few could have foreseen that the Arab Spring would bring to power the Muslim Brotherhood, or that the Egyptian military would depose them.  In the chemistry of today’s armed conflict, reactions to events are neither predictable nor proportional, and in a world of multiple ever-mutating and often loosely aligned sub-state groups this means the outcomes are increasingly unpredictable.  If the past is any guide, such attacks may involve tit-for-tat kidnapping of civilians or killing of diplomats abroad, mimics of the Russian cyber attacks that turned out the lights in Estonia, or even the use of Stuxnet virus to degrade Iranian nuclear capabilities. As cyber activists and terrorists continue to come to the fore, the unknowable downsides may well continue to mount exponentially.

When it comes to asymmetric cyber and terror threats, the future looks a lot like the very distant past, a time more like that of the Vikings, when roving hordes scoured the countryside, took what they wanted by force, and moved on before others even knew the attack had taken place.  Put in this context, we must better understand the full risks in weighing the when, where, and how of applying military force against others.

Finally, though it shouldn’t need to be said, properly assessing the pros and cons doesn’t negate the need to be able to rely on the use of force to defend our critical interests; rather, it simply restores the use of force to its proper place—as a policy tool of last, not first, resort.


J. Michael Barrett is the Principal at Diligent Innovations, a strategy consultancy for the national security and homeland security markets. A former Fulbright Scholar and Naval Intelligence Officer, Mike served as the Director of Strategy for the White House Homeland Security Council, an Intelligence Officer for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and Senior Analyst for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.


Image Credit: DARPA