A Missing Shade of Gray: Political Will and Waging Something Short of War


The term “political will” is frequently used to explain the disposition of individuals and groups to take action. When it comes to the use of force, America has a political will problem. After more than 15 years of conflict, Americans are increasingly likely to express “war fatigue,” though fewer Americans are connected in any meaningful way to the military than ever before. Americans seem tired of hearing about conflict and of seeing images of wars being fought in their name.

Yet at the same time, many argue that American reticence to leverage its military has and does make the world a more dangerous place for America and its friends. In an attempt to square the circle, successive administrations have attempted to use the military in ways that have strategic impact without a high risk of casualties, contributing to a phenomena described recently by Rosa Brooks as “everything becoming war.” Yet, success at waging these protracted campaigns outside of “traditional” war has so far eluded the U.S. military and also the larger government.

In one sense, this is surprising. Within the Department of Defense, many of the specialties useful for waging campaigns short of war — such as information warfare, psychological warfare, civil affairs and security force assistance — reside principally within special operations forces, who have become go-to for a wide variety of politically sensitive missions. Conventional forces, too, are increasingly equipped to conduct short-of-war missions, particularly with respect to security force assistance. Moreover, the positioning of conventional forces as well as military exercises are routinely intended to influence adversary decisions in ways short of war. The necessary tools for doing so are available within the military, and when they are not — “moral hazard” problems aside — they are often available via the use of proxies. So why has America had such difficulty waging long-term campaigns in this space?

Further, why does the United States consistently fail to find its feet when it comes to international competition short of war? There are a few reasons.

First, at a national level, the development of a strategy for campaigning short of war would need to be nested within a larger national strategy. It is impossible to “shape” an environment if there is a lack of clarity as to what purpose the nation is “shaping” toward.

Second, although the tools to wage short-of-war campaigns are well established, this is not as true for the military’s capacity to use them—current operational models show that “shaping activities” still remain a low priority. And, even if this weren’t the case, there are not yet effective mechanisms established to coordinate all of the shaping activities of the U.S. military, let alone those of the U.S. government.  Overly compartmentalizing shaping activities limits the scope of what is possible, even if and when the end goal of shaping is identified.

Third, hazy escalatory dynamics complicate the risk calculus for taking action in the gray zone. The current conflict in Syria, China’s aggressive island building, and recent actions taken by the Russian government to meddle in the U.S. election all present opportunities for unconventional responses. But the confusing and confounding nature of interactions in the lower space of the escalatory spectrum have stymied effective American action. There are no established rules of engagement in this space, nor are there established off-ramps along the path to escalation. Further, because actions in this realm are often taken opportunistically, it is difficult to discern which adversarial actions reflect minor interests and which reflect critical ones.

These issues, though problematic in their own right, are part of a more fundamental problem: Political will acts as a constraint on “short of war” campaigns more than it does for conventional campaigns.

Components of American Political Will

The president commands the armed forces and establishes the ways and ends of military action. Behind these outcomes, however, lay decision-making processes that have an important bearing on the way the United States applies military power to national security challenges. Personalities and leadership styles, of course, matter. In addition, the president’s decision to use force is also a function of threat perceptions and the need to satiate public support for action or to acquiesce to public opposition.

Identifying a “threat” does not itself determine how the military will be used to combat that threat once the decision to use force has been made. To understand this dynamic, one must look beyond the White House and consider how external factors influence presidential decision-making. Three constraining factors — Congress, public opinion, and bureaucratic friction — all contribute to the commander-in-chief’s political calculus when confronted with the decision of whether to employ military capabilities, and, if so, which of those capabilities should be employed and in which manner.

With respect to Congress, the ability and willingness of the institution to constrain presidential decisions to use military force has decreased in recent decades. The protracted and low-intensity nature of recent conflicts has only exacerbated this trend. The War Powers Act of 1973 was expressly passed to codify the role that Congress saw itself playing in restricting the president’s ability to deploy forces unilaterally. Not only has Congress failed to utilize the enforcement mechanisms outlined in the law, but it has also acquiesced to increasingly loose interpretations of the “national emergency” exception, which grants the president the right to employ force in cases where the United States has been attacked. Absent countervailing legislation from Congress, the president arguably has de facto authority to deploy armed forces in short-of-war situations.

For Congress, inaction is a path of far less resistance — politically, temporally, and institutionally — than creating the legislation necessary to thwart a presidential decision made under ephemeral conditions. Congressional oversight of the executive’s decision to employ military force, particularly against non-state actors, has, for better or for worse, become more of a matter of public relations than a tool used to constrain the actions of the president.

While Congressional constraints on presidential actions are in some ways a function of public opinion, the latter also acts as a direct influence on presidential decision-making. The general public’s decreased exposure to the military has led to inconsistent expectations that frustrate experts as much as they push presidents toward covert or, at the very least, “light footprint” applications of force. Ongoing wars and public outrage at feeling misled about the reasoning behind certain uses of force have further incentivized actions that minimize the risk of casualties. Thus there are strong incentives in place to use light footprint tools even when a specific military mission would benefit from a larger, conventional force.

With respect to public opinion, presidents play an important role in shaping the country’s ongoing narrative about the use of its military. Even in cases where the risk of casualties is higher, the public will often defer, initially, to the president’s judgment until they have time to observe the military engagement unfold. If a president is able to clearly and persuasively communicate how military action will advance the national interest to the general public and the military itself, he will likely enjoy a high level of public support for the application of force throughout a campaign.

Despite the sentiments to the contrary expressed during the last election, the president also benefits from support for his initiatives from the elite or “opinion shaping” segment of society. Since Watergate, however, the media has taken a generally skeptical position vis-à-vis presidential power, and the larger public is often ambivalent about the decision to employ force in circumstances where the risk of incurring casualties is low. In other words, they may not pay attention until their gaze is drawn to a particular initiative by opinion-shapers. Elite opposition makes presidential initiatives more politically difficult, while support theoretically translates into increased presidential maneuverability.

The executive branch acting at the president’s command, however, is not a unitary actor. The senior officials that support the president, by design, influence his opinions and threat perceptions. In turn, each of them is influenced by a stream of information emanating from their respective agencies that must be filtered in some manner, due to either resource constraints or because of pettier reasons, such as institutional parochialism. Not all presidents are masters of building coalitions within their own administrations, and a misalignment between the president’s inclinations — or his political will — and those of his advisers will result in friction, restricting presidential maneuverability.

Even if we assume that senior advisers are aligned with the president, institutional and personal preconceptions influence the president’s ability to achieve a specified goal. The options presented to a commander-in-chief by senior military officers will only represent a small segment of the possible options. Heuristics, as well as institutional and cognitive biases, learned both informally and formally throughout a military officer’s career, constrain the variety of options presented to the president. This problem is compounded if the president has little or no experience with the military, as has been the case in recent years.

Political Will and Constraints on Unconventional Warfare

Measuring political will as a function of Congress, public opinion, and the national security bureaucracy is difficult enough with respect to “traditional” war, but for campaigns short of war, the role of political will becomes even more complex. The utility of competing short of war is clear: it expands America’s strategic advantages, fosters and cements relationships with allies and partners, and costs less than full-scale conventional war. But, these advantages do not in themselves outweigh perceptions both within the U.S. government and outside it that have constrained the effectiveness of protracted campaigns.

From the decision to engage to the decisions of which capabilities to employ, “short of war” challenges confound, confuse, and reduce a leader’s confidence in the validity of how he perceives a given situation. They often require long-term commitments, evade simple metrics indicating success or failure, and confound the boundary between hard and soft power as well as the distinction between civilian and military responsibilities. As Nadia Schadlow discussed in Warriors and Citizens, American strategic culture is largely at odds with protracted, low-intensity conflicts, especially those that confound traditional conceptions and acceptable timelines of failure and success. Public opinion, Congress, and the national security bureaucracy all show evidence of this tension.

With respect to public opinion, Americans consistently express their preference for military campaigns to be short and to feature an overwhelming application of military force, two characteristics that are antithetical to long-term campaigns outside of declared war. Further complicating the public’s conception is the difficulty of measuring success in such campaigns, and that some of the most publicly scrutinized examples of “short of war” maneuvering, such as in Vietnam, left an indelible distaste for these campaigns within the public’s minds.

This viewpoint became further entrenched in the decades that followed the Vietnam War, and especially since the end of the Cold War. Following America’s ascent to sole superpower status in the 1990s, the so-called Powell doctrine became the driver behind America’s approach to warfare. It placed a premium on the use of overwhelming force. In consequence, without strong presidential leadership or the specter of an existential crisis, the public will not support the kinds of long-term endeavors that effective campaigns against strategic competitors require.

Conducting such campaigns covertly might mitigate the constraint presented by public opinion, especially in the short-term. But where public opinion may be less of a constraint in such cases, other constraints are stronger.

First, the emphasis on overwhelming force described above has led to the presumption that pre-conflict measures, or what the military calls “phase zero,” must always be thought of in terms of how they nest within subsequent, kinetic phases of conflict. Thus the military resists the employment of non-kinetic means in phase zero in a manner that it does not during conventional — or even other kinds of low-intensity — campaigns. Outside of the relatively small special operations community unconventional warfare does not integrate well into the military’s fundamental conception of operations. Although the Joint Staff is currently taking steps to change this, the problem is not simply one of approach. Effectively campaigning short of war requires a long-term commitment of resources that have long received short shrift even within the special operations community, where phase zero operations are most well thought through.

Deploying “indirect” resources — whether via special operations or conventional forces — to conflicts whose ends are consistently shifting and whose connection to American security interests may be unclear is incredibly “culturally stressing” to the American military. Doctrinally, systemic operational design attempts to address this issue, but doctrinal changes will do little to address the disconnect between American perceptions of how the military should act in war and peace versus how it in fact does act — consciously or not — to shape environments outside of kinetic conflict.

Second, institutional and legal impediments inhibit the conduct of long-term campaigns short of war. With respect to Congress, two pertinent pieces of legislation, the Hughes Ryan Amendment of 1974 and the so-called Boland Amendments (the first of which passed in 1983), serve as mechanisms to constrain a president’s ability to conduct covert operations through the power of the purse. For officials that must be re-elected every two or six years, not all will be willing to support activities that may be unpopular if the existence of those activities were eventually publicly revealed. Thus, secrecy may, counter-intuitively, undermine operational longevity.

Unclear jurisdiction further complicates and constrains covert actions. Whereas the War Powers Act is clearly aimed at the deployment of armed forces, placing it squarely within the jurisdiction of the armed services committees, jurisdiction is less clear with respect to covert operations. If a mission is primarily conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency, for example, but with support of assets belonging to the Joint Special Operations Command, both the armed services committees and the intelligence committees have an interest in overseeing the activity. Jurisdictional complications within the executive branch add additional opacity and friction to a process that is already complicated, as anyone familiar with the Title 10 vs. Title 50 debate will know.  And, even if specific missions are approved, the process is sluggish enough to prevent the kinds of nimble adaptations to ground circumstances that short of war campaigns require.

Implications and Recommendations

Although the idea of campaigning “short of war” is frequently discussed as a way to address what is now being called the “gray zone” between war and peace, in truth, neither such campaigns nor “gray” competition itself are novel concepts to the American government. But, whereas the challenge may not be novel, America’s reliance on high-end threat deterrence has caused the government’s capability and aptitude to compete in areas outside of “traditional” war to atrophy. Redeveloping unconventional warfare capabilities and capacities will only be part of the solution. Abysmal levels of public trust in government, as well as the parochial concerns of the national security bureaucracy, will continue to challenge any president wishing to employ an unconventional warfare-centric strategy.

Few of America’s adversaries face the same constraints on the use of the tools outlined in this article, nor on the ability to apply them in an organized and strategic way. An American president could not institute approaches such as Russian maskirovka or Chinese “unrestricted warfare” without running afoul of Congress, becoming mired down by bureaucratic inertia, or being constrained by public opinion. America’s adversaries are aware of such constraints and have become increasingly adept at leveraging them.

Overcoming the political will challenge requires strong presidential leadership, first and foremost. This begins with knowledge. The president and his advisers must fully understand what has been called the “changing nature of warfare” and that the United States should improve its capabilities to counter unconventional threats. If this prerequisite is met, there are several steps that a president should consider taking to build the political will among the public and within government institutions necessary to foster and apply unconventional warfare capabilities:

Public. Although public trust in government is at an all-time low, presidents are not helpless in the face of public opinion. A president should clearly communicate the nature of unconventional threats to the public and articulate both the national security imperative of addressing those threats and the logic behind addressing simmering problems before they boil over into full-blown crises. Details of specific missions should remain covert, but broad outlines of the necessity to conduct such missions should still be communicated to the public.

Executive Branch. First, the president should appoint an issue manager for unconventional threats that liaises with the intelligence community and relevant aspects of the military, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Special Operations Command, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. This issue manager would serve a similar function to the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low intensity conflict, but with authorities that extended beyond the Pentagon and the intelligence community. This role will, first and foremost, ensure that relevant doctrinal reforms currently under discussion in the military will receive input and buy-in from outside of the Pentagon. The U.S. government’s current lack of an authoritative issue manager that oversees the unconventional warfare efforts of the entire government not only prevents effective interagency cooperation, but it also prevents the development of a universal strategy and operational approach to unconventional threats. This issue manager should reside within the National Security Council, which should be tasked with ensuring that the intent of the president and the issue manager is executed. The National Security Council should retain its currently powerful position, in other words, but should return to focusing less on operations and tactics and more on strategy.

Congress. The president’s approach to Congress should mirror his approach to the public. Given the legislative hurdles established after the Vietnam War, Congress could exercise its ability to restrict or prohibit funding for short of war activities more easily than it could for publicly acknowledged activities. If the activities are publicly acknowledged, the president must forcefully make the case for their importance while still attempting to minimize the bureaucratic requirements necessary to execute a campaign: emphasizing the importance of agility is essential. The staff of the issue manager should communicate frequently with the Congressional intelligence, armed services, and foreign affairs committees and emphasize a focus on unconventional threats to the executive branch organs that frequently interact with Congress.

Whether one believes that “gray zone” threats represent a new challenge or not, the United States has long overlooked the importance of competing in unconventional ways. Unconventional threats cannot be addressed through high-end deterrence alone. Although this “shade” of gray has been considered and discussed in the special operations and intelligence communities, the larger national security establishment has yet to develop the political will required to effectively leverage it. Doing so will require the development of novel approaches to and an expanded understanding of war, but the tools to counter unconventional threats are mostly already in place. What’s missing is an organization and coordination of these tools that aligns with a recognized need to conduct unconventional warfare. Harnessing political will is the first step to remedying this problem.


Phillip Lohaus is currently a Research Fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where he focuses on special operations forces, the intelligence community, and the evolving nature of international competition. His most recent report focuses on escalation dynamics and the use of special operations forces in gray zone conflicts. He previously served as an associate with the Long Term Strategy Group and as an intelligence analyst with the U.S. Department of Defense, a period which included assignments abroad in support of U.S. Central and Special Operations Commands.

Image: U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Alexander Holmes