Yes, Sometimes There Are Military Solutions to Political Problems

October 13, 2015

Leading up to the 1999 Kosovo War, some critics argued that Western military intervention would fail. One foreign policy analyst predicted it would “mire Americans in another internecine conflict,” since Kosovo consisted of “incompatible ethnic interests that are unlikely to be dislodged by an American presence.” Another analyst suggested a military intervention was “misguided in the extreme” and “the strife in Kosovo is precisely the sort of conflict that Washington should avoid,” shortly thereafter arguing that the United States “sought to micromanage a guerrilla conflict while ignorant of the realities on the ground.” Another pundit asserted that violence in the Balkans was merely “the continuation of the deconstruction of the Ottoman Empire” and so “if you wish peace, stay out of the Balkans.” One week into the NATO bombing, another piece argued that “as in numerous ethnic conflicts in the Balkans and elsewhere, the opposing sides’ objectives cannot be reconciled” and that the overall U.S. rationale for intervention remained “unconvincing.”

Such arguments helped advance a general notion that the violence in Kosovo was a symptom of deeply rooted ethnic grievances. It seemed Western military power would be ineffective or even counterproductive because no military solution could resolve the intractable political problems.

Today, the headlines are quiet when it comes to Kosovo. Why? Because NATO’s military intervention was a success. Kosovo became a dog that didn’t bark — the chaos dissipated, so there was little for journalists to report. Although the situation remains far from perfect, the widespread killing stopped and security vastly improved. To this day the United States is extraordinarily popular in Kosovo, as symbolized by the presence of Bill Clinton Boulevard in the capital city of Pristina, with a prominent bronze statue of the former American president nearby.

Today we occasionally hear similar logic that there is no military solution to a crisis (for example, against the self-proclaimed Islamic State) because it won’t resolve underlying sectarian grievances and political problems. This logic can be at least partially accurate. Are there complex political problems in many recent internal conflicts, such as those in Syria, Iraq, Libya, or elsewhere? Absolutely. Does this mean Western military intervention would be self-defeating? Oftentimes yes, but not necessarily in every case.

Practically every conflict — whether internal or interstate — has underlying political issues that helped spark the violence. After all, war is “merely the continuation of policy by other means,” as the Prussian sage observed. Such a political problem (or often, a convergence of problems) may involve disputes over borders, resources, treatment of ethnic groups, disparities in wealth or status, national policies, desires for greater autonomy, dreams of independence, or many other issues.

To be sure, calling attention to these underlying issues is a useful reminder about their salience to a conflict and is undoubtedly worth frequent re-emphasis so as not to lose sight of them. However this alone does not tell us if military force would be appropriate. That should derive from an assessment of whether military force can (or should) contribute to the desired political end state, as part of a broad strategy of tools — economic, diplomatic, military, and beyond. It should entail a careful determination as to whether the proposed military intervention would actually work, and whether the expected benefits are worth the costs — especially in terms of American lives and treasure.

Usually the answer will be no: Military force wouldn’t work, or it’s simply not worth it, or it can’t be done at acceptable cost. But in some cases, the answer might be yes.

Recent assertions that Iraq needs a long term solution to its political problems (as argued here, here, here, and here) — while 100-percent accurate — can become a way to shut down debate and justify inaction. Taken to an extreme it suggests a rigid divide between political and military realms that simply doesn’t exist. Political and military components can be two sides of the same coin. On rare occasion, the use of force may be necessary to create stability or favorable conditions that pave the way for a political outcome. This can prove true in either internal war or interstate war, whether the goal is to relieve the plight of Kosovar Albanians or to enable the original 13 U.S. colonies to declare independence from Great Britain.

The discussion above hardly implies the United States should use force casually across the globe to try to fix every vexing political problem. Certainly not every conflict will yield results as positive as those in Kosovo, and a policy of frequent military interventions would be foolish, wasteful, and unsustainable. But it does suggest that, on an exceptional occasion, Washington and its partners may need to selectively use force to contribute to political change abroad as part of a comprehensive strategy. Because in the end, that’s precisely what war does — it helps provoke political change, for good or ill. The challenge is to discern the few truly sensible interventions from the sea of likely misadventures and quagmires.


Brendan Gallagher is a U.S. Army Infantry major and a Princeton Ph.D. student. He has completed multiple tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. The opinions and assertions contained herein are the personal views of the author and are not to be construed as official or as reflecting the views of the U.S. Army or the Department of Defense.


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