President Obama’s commitment to reducing America’s reliance on the military instrument of power is well-known. It has been a constant theme of his presidency – from his first presidential campaign through his major speech on foreign policy at West Point earlier this year. It is therefore paradoxical that the administration’s foreign policy outlook and operational style have made use of the military instrument almost unavoidable. By failing to understand that the space between war and peace is not an empty one – but a landscape churning with political, economic, and security competitions that require constant attention – American foreign policy risks being reduced to a reactive and tactical emphasis on the military instrument by default.
Despite the President’s warnings at West Point that we must not “rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences,” we did exactly that in Libya – years after the mistakes and lessons of Iraq had become apparent. It is now accepted that the U.S.-led coalition that helped to overthrow the Libyan dictator had no substantive plans to consolidate political order following the use of military force. Some two years after that military action, the United States began to “consider” the “possibility” of establishing a military training mission for Libya’s fledgling security forces. In a recent New York Times interview, President Obama expressed regret about America’s failure to consider the requirements of stability. Libya remains a symbol of a one-off reliance on a narrow band of military power: the use of just one aspect of military power as a tactical instrument to target enemy forces remotely, in which military force is not connected to an operational plan for subsequent political consolidation.
The tactical mindset that dominates national security decision-making prioritizes military means over political ends and confuses activity (such as the bombing of enemy positions) with progress. Because the use of military force is not connected to operational plans for subsequent political consolidation, the United States vacates the space between war and peace. And because they cannot match American military power directly, it is in this space — battlegrounds of perception, coercion, mass atrocity — that America’s enemies and adversaries prefer to operate.
In Iraq, the decision to withdraw all American troops reflected a narrow view of the utility of military forces. Military forces were seen as belonging to a separate phase of the war and therefore less relevant to diplomatic and political efforts to consolidate gains and exert influence to maintain the tenuous political accommodation among Iraq’s communities. The Administration’s belief that the complete withdrawal of American troops would mark the “end of the war” reduced that conflict to a purely military one – not the intense political competition that it was in reality. The complete withdrawal was equivalent to President Bush’s now infamous “mission accomplished” speech in 2003. The hope seemed to be that once American troops departed, fierce competitions would wither away or somehow sort themselves out through Iraq’s “democratic” political process, which was still in its most vulnerable infancy. This was a form of narcissism, by defining conflict purely on the basis of our participation, and naiveté, by not acknowledging that in the absence of armed conflict there would still be a competition for influence and power. In Iraq, our interests demanded continued engagement in the space between. We left it empty.
In Syria, at least as far back as 2006, when Bashar al-Assad called King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia a “half man,” Samantha Ravich, former Deputy National Security Advisor to Vice President Cheney, observed that Riyadh had sought to work with the United States and others to consider regime change in Syria. The door was open to combine U.S. expertise with Saudi resources to empower anti-Assad opposition groups, thus undercutting not only the Syrian regime itself but also Iran’s regional power – by undercutting its proxy in Damascus. However, little was done during the waning years of the Bush administration on that front, and the Obama administration did even less. As a consequence, when the civil war broke out in 2011, the United States had few levers to pull to help arrive at the outcome we wanted. The opposition was left essentially on its own. Meanwhile, the Saudis went their own way. The result was a fractured Western-leaning opposition and an empowered jihadi movement.
In Libya the United States failed to undertake political engagement following the use of military force. In Syria, we eschewed the politics up front and watched our options dwindle to tactical military operations without a clear sense of how these actions are connected to strategic outcomes.
Outside of the Middle East, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), the United States has been seen to be in diplomatic retreat for many years. As the perception of an immediate military threat abated in Europe, the United States had seemingly withdrawn from the diplomatic and political competition – the space between – in the region. We saw Europe as a success story, a land where cooperation rather than competition was the rule. The gradual eastward extension of the EU was seen as history marching, rather than political jostling among competitors (Russia in particular). When this competition heated up, first in Georgia, more recently in Armenia, and most tragically in Ukraine, we were latecomers, surprised at the violence and advocating a firmer posture than many of our allies. Our relative disinterest suddenly turned into prodding European allies to impose greater sanctions on Putin’s Russia. But in many European capitals, in particular those closer to Russia, there is great disappointment in this on-and-off posture: Washington is involved only when the competition is nearing or at a military stage, and pays less attention in the time and space between. According to Wess Mitchell of the Center for European Policy Analysis, numerous senior CEE officials have expressed disappointment with Washington’s diplomatic neglect of the region and tendency to avoid “run of the mill relationship management.” No wonder, then, that Poland’s foreign minister Radek Sikorski reportedly complained about the US-Polish relationship as being “not worthy of anything,” apparently expressing frustration at what seemed to be this policy of extremes by the United States.
Russian aggression against Ukraine highlights what many Russia-watchers for a long time have known: that Russia rarely separates the political realm from the security realm. As Russia expert Mark Galeotti has observed, Russia continues to pursue “non-linear war” and its operations in Crimea and now in eastern Ukraine continue to demonstrate that Moscow is conducting politically focused operations. Moscow has never ceased to compete. The end of the Cold War and the succeeding years of geopolitical retrenchment marked only a change in how that competition was waged. And the recognition by Moscow of its weakness relative to the United States and its allies simply meant that the area of competition would be more political and diplomatic than military. The United States, on the other hand, interpreted the end of arms races and clashing military plans as the end of competition. But we had only entered the space between.
Disengagement from the political landscape that engenders violence is most apparent in the counterterrorism sphere. Here, the administration’s policy has effectively embraced both the tactics and flaws of the Bush administration’s “war on terror.” By deliberately delinking “terror” from the aspirations and agendas that drive it, the current administration has, as Audrey Cronin has written, delinked the use of drones from a broader political strategy. While many experts parse and debate the differences among jihadi groups, focusing on their networks and differing tactics, it is important to emphasize that these groups are linked by an overarching common agenda: a retreat from modernity and the imposition of extreme sharia-based societies.
This tactical mindset undergirds emerging policies such as “responsibility to protect,” a doctrine developed by Kofi Annan and endorsed by key current and former officials in this administration, including the current U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power. The doctrine places a moral obligation on states to protect their citizens from mass slaughter, assigns all governments the responsibility to protect their people from horrific crimes, and establishes that all nations have a stake in helping them meet that responsibility.
But absent an active operational approach to managing that space between peace and war, as we watch horrific events unfold within countries, we may be forced to choose between passivity or large scale intervention only after genocide seems inevitable. Prevention is highly political. It would require the advancement of values that place a premium on human life. It would mean advocating for and supporting indigenous groups that recognize those values. Instead, the more prevalent view seems to be that expressed by Congressman Jim McGovern who recently warned that while ISIS was horrible, the United States was “heading down the path of choosing sides in an ancient religious and sectarian war” [emphasis mine]. To have meaning, doctrines like the “responsibility to protect” will require choices, up front.
Finally, this tactical mindset provides an explanation for the apparent failure to appreciate how to leverage military force for strategic ends. This view leads to an under-appreciation of its broader deterrent value and the role that military forces can play in shaping security environments and consolidating tactical gains to ensure progress toward policy goals. Military forces – strong land forces especially – provide reassurance and tangible presence of American commitment. One of the key insights of the recently released National Defense Panel report was to make the important point that powerful U.S. military capabilities can shape events and provide options that may, by their mere existence, deter others from taking actions that require a U.S. military response. They help to establish the conditions to allow U.S. diplomats and policymakers to engage in that space between peace and war.
The emphasis on short-term military tactics as opposed to the strategies that must undergird the use of force occurs on both sides of the political spectrum. Isolationists on the right are prey to the view that American power abroad equates purely with military power, and as such is too expensive and costly (in American lives) to project. Their version of power is far too narrow. America is about more than its military power abroad. Although many on the right correctly highlight the importance of American economic power, few seem to embrace ideas about how to constructively shape and influence. While many Republicans in Congress are now advocating for strikes against ISIS, the key question will be whether they will support the consolidation and active diplomacy that will also be required to address the drivers of conflict.
The tragedy of America’s inability (or unwillingness) to develop the mindset and the mechanisms to compete in this “space between” means that we reduce our options and in the end, resort to the military instrument. Peace does not exist in a state of inertia. It must be actively and consistently maintained by engaging in the political competitions that are its constant feature.
Dr. Nadia Schadlow, who writes on defense and foreign policy matters, is a former member of the Defense Policy Board and a senior program officer at the Smith Richardson Foundation.