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The Intervention Debate: Towards a Posture of Principled Judgment

Authored by Dr. John Garofano. | January 2002

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The Continuing Debate.

Despite a decade with which to absorb and adapt to the implications of the end of the Cold War, the United States has not settled on a basic disposition towards the use of force. A debate continues between two main camps, force proponents and force conservers, defined by diverging views on the costs, risks, and effectiveness of using U.S. military force for traditional and emerging challenges. Realists and idealists, Democrats and Republicans can be found in each of these two groups. The debate was temporarily submerged in the unity that emerged following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Yet by the end of that month, the administration?s stand on the force-conserving side of the debate was already shaping U.S. strategy by eschewing operations that could lead to nation-building and humanitarian operations. It is likely that the debate shall re-emerge as a central issue of contention as U.S. foreign policy returns to something resembling ?normalcy.?

The two poles in the debate may be summarized as follows. Force proponents consider military power merely the first among equally valid instruments of national power, suitable for shaping the security environment as well as for responding to direct challenges to important or vital U.S. interests. These active internationalists were generally supportive of U.S. interventions in Bosnia, Rwanda, Haiti, Kosovo, and elsewhere. They believe America has a unique role in history as the sole superpower, and that it must use its power to stand up for its values as well as for a broad continuum of national interests.

Force conservers, on the other hand, believe that recent administrations have wasted precious resources on idealistic and perhaps politically-driven adventures. Such activities, argue these critics of the frequent use of force, weaken the country?s ability to defend against the threats that truly matter and will inevitably arise. Whereas force proponents stress the long-term opportunities found in crises as well as the interconnectedness of vital, important, and humanitarian interests, force conservers echo Secretary of State John Quincy Adams? admonition that America should ?not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.? Near-term threats to interests that are vital rather than merely important or humanitarian, and maintenance of the nation?s military readiness and effectiveness against the potentially serious military challenges, inform the position of the force conservers. They usually opposed U.S. intervention in situations where we had no clear vital interest at risk.

Each school holds related views on how force should be employed once its use has been sanctioned. Active internationalists believe it is suitable in a variety of situations and may safely and rationally be meted out in measured doses, while force conservers prefer to use force in overwhelming bursts. Activists have confidence that limited force can usefully serve diplomatic goals, but conservers doubt the utility of limited force for vague political ends.

A final, critical distinction between the two schools bears on the guidelines that should inform decisions on the use of force. Active internationalists resist laying out maps or plans that would carefully guide when force is to be used and how. Force conservers prefer clear and strict criteria and like to refer to the Weinberger and Powell doctrines, discussed below, as examplespar excellence of guidelines for policy.1

The oppositional nature of this debate adversely affects U.S. foreign policy. Strategy lurches from one side to the other, the product of elections, temporary political clout, and the winds of executive-legislative relations. This satisfies neither camp; heightens rather than lowers the shrillness of the debate; sends mixed signals to allies, potential enemies, and to instigators of local violence; and places great strain on the most frequently used foreign policy instrument?the military. In addition, lack of agreement on the purpose of military power leads to missed opportunities as well as to thinly supported operations, such as that in Somalia. When an intervention is the result of a tenuous political compromise, strategy and resources for the mission may also be compromised, potentially leading to unexpected casualties and rapid withdrawal.

This antithetical yet unresolved debate also has serious implications for military innovation and adaptation. Without some clear sense of where the nation is likely to send it, the military will resist risky, expensive, and painful changes in hardware, doctrine, and organization. Political uncertainty makes innovation a risky strategy for organizations and for leaders of those organizations.

For the Army, the strategic review undertaken by the Secretary of Defense makes a resolution of the intervention debate even more imperative. Initial reportage indicates that there will be a renewed emphasis on long-range weapons and indeed long-range, remote approaches to the use of force. Yet although strategic priorities are a vital and welcome development, policymakers, as I argue below, will continue to be buffeted by unexpected situations and subjected to unanticipated motivations to use force. This extends to the actual emplacement of troops on the ground. Basic agreement on how and when force will be used would assist the Army and all the services in adapting to international and national trends.

This monograph argues that there is common ground between the two schools of thought, and that this area can be expanded. The common ground is found in the realm of judgment?the ability to discern and weigh the myriad factors bearing on complex international dilemmas while following some basic guidelines. In a world where new values, norms, and challenges confront the remaining superpower, no escape from judgment can legitimately be sought in a clear and fixed blueprint for action, in a rejection of all guidelines, or in a retreat from the gray areas of the national interest. What will be described as the Powell-Bush argument?to be distinguished from the Powell Doctrine or other pre-set formulas?provides a useful starting point for expanding the area of agreement. Recommendations will then be made for improving the quality of this judgment in lasting ways.

Though unsatisfactory to ideologues, judgment is a more useful construct than strict criteria and full-fledged doctrines. Judgment acknowledges that all use-of-force decisions have unique characteristics, while doctrine and narrow criteria are static and based on questionable generalizations. Judgment is based on principles of permanent relevance, including such basic facts as the strain that peace operations place on the military and the need for limited force options by policymakers and diplomats. Frequently the activist approach ignores these constraints. Criteria and doctrine are usually politically loaded and of fleeting relevance, based on prior political or ideological positions; judgment acknowledges the continuous evolution of the international security environment.

Policymakers inevitably confront situations that are in many ways new and frequently sui generis. Neither unbridled activism nor strict criteria prepare them adequately for these tasks. Judgment allows for necessary discussions about the frequency with which force can be used, the matching of ends with required resources, and the risks associated with various responses, including inaction. Doctrine and strict criteria assume or posit certain values for these factors and then avoid further debate, while the activist approach pays little attention to costs.

Presidents will enter office with various degrees of expertise and even interest in foreign affairs, and with advisors and advisory systems of varying degrees of effectiveness. Domestic politics will always influence foreign policy, frequently to its detriment. And as was seen merely a decade ago but forgotten prior to September 11, the security environment can change fundamentally and without warning. For these reasons, we should begin to think about how to make decisions on using force regardless of these inevitable limitations. This requires an agreed-upon posture of flexible, ?principled judgment? and the institutional support necessary for it.

The dichotomy in the current debate belies four approaches that administrations have adopted since the Vietnam war. These are described and critically assessed in Part II. In Part III, the author sets forth several principles that should guide future decisions on the use of force. Finally, in Part IV he discusses possible methods for institutionalizing better judgment in complex decisions.

Conclusion and Implications for the Army.

Principled Judgment is, in part, a philosophical approach to the use of force and, in part, a series of guideposts. There is in it an element of ad hoc-ery to the extent that ?judgment? outweighs the guiding light of ?principles.? Yet previous approaches have lacked both an appreciation of the importance of judgment as well as an acknowledgment that old categories no longer obtain. The government at large and the general public require some understanding of what has changed since the fall of the Soviet Union. For their part, administrations?senior political and military leaders who work together to decide when and how to use force?should acknowledge that the upper reaches of the system could use some institutional innovation in order to improve decisions when judgmentbeckons. It is hoped that this combination of realistic principles and institutional renewal will lead to wider political agreement on when and how to use force.

The George W. Bush administration entered office on the force-conserver end of the spectrum of approaches to the use of force. Initial guidelines emerging from the Office of the Secretary of Defense emphasized four objectives: the assurance of friends and allies; the ?dissuading? of future adversaries; deterrence and the successful opposition at attempts at coercion of the United States; and the defeat of adversaries should deterrence fail.143

Yet is likely that public and congressional pressure will demand responses to some crises, and that members of this administration?as in all previous?will find that the moral and reputational aspects of some situations require action. The Powell or Powell-Bush argument, as opposed to the Powell doctrine, will prove more relevant in the long run. In addition, there is always the possibility of a major, as yet unforeseen regional conflict. Rumsfeld has wondered aloud what name of a country or what word for a military capability wasn?t mentioned during my confirmation hearings 4 months ago that within a year could come up and dominate our lives. . . . (This is) the kind of thing that has happened every 5- or 10-year period in my lifetime.144

Terrorism, the first shock to the administration?s plans, is the crisis of the moment. Yet even without September 11, and after the terrorist networks are essentially disrupted or destroyed, this combination of likely public pressure, unforeseen regional developments, and the inherent flexibility in the Powell-Bush Argument mean that the Army will have to be prepared to execute missions of a limited nature and intensity. This is particularly important because, since 1989, Army buying power has decreased 37 percent and Army modernization funding, 41 percent. The funding squeeze points to the importance of coordinating the political leadership?s intervention strategy with service requirements to execute that strategy.

Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki has stated that the Army ?must train soldiers and leaders to adapt readily to conditions across the spectrum of military operations and build organizations capable of attaining dominance at every point on that spectrum.? He recognizes that this spectrum will likely include contingencies ranging from traditional conflict ?to the instability caused by the collapse of states unable to meet the strains of resource scarcity, population growth, and ethnic and religious militarism. . . . As the number of potential challenges increases, the requirements for U.S. landpower will also continue to increase.? The Army?s first two Initial Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) will provide organizational and conceptual models for rounding out the Interim Force. Together with the Interim Armored Vehicle, the Army will proceed until its transformed, Objective Force is able to maintain the same kind of dominance across the future spectrum of violence as it was able to guarantee under the traditional, two-major theater-war scenario. 145 The war on terrorism should accelerate these innovations.

Beyond maintaining dominance across the future spectrum of violence, policymakers and senior military leaders will have to grapple together with reactions to developments in friendly countries, on the borders of allies, in states that affect regional stability, or in failing states in which there could be a massive humanitarian crisis. As Steven Metz has argued, the nature of future conflict is likely to include a significant number of limited, ambiguous, cross-cultural operations, rather than having either a predominantly traditional or predominantly humanitarian hue. 146This will require some efforts at anticipating these developments, preempting them or preventing their spread, and responding with a coordinate civil-military-social plan that will allow withdrawal upon early success. The goal is to provide realistic plans for long-term resolution of the problem for which the United States intervenes, thereby making possible the early withdrawal of troops. The role of ground forces is central to efforts along each of thesedimensions of anticipation, preemption and prevention, and intervention.

Finally, future crises will require skill sets that in some cases diverge from those involved in fighting and winning the nation?s major wars. Policymakers must recognize that the Army requires the resources to develop and train with these skills even as it maintains responsibility for more traditional tasks.


1. For a wide-ranging discussion of the many attitudes towards interventionism that I have here grouped into two main camps, see ?American Power?For What? A Symposium,? in Commentary, January 2000. Other summaries of the debate are found in Richard N. Haass, Intervention: The Use ofMilitary Force in the Post-Cold War World, Rev. Ed., Brookings Institution, 1999, Chapter 1; Michael O?Hanlon, Saving Lives with Force: Military Criteria for Humanitarian Intervention, Brookings Institution, 1997; Forum in The National Interest, Winter 1999/2000. See also, ?Why and When to Go In,? Economist, January 6, 2001; Michael Ignatieff, ?The Next President?s Duty to Intervene,? New York Times, February 13, 2000, p. 17; ?What in the World?? U.S. News and World Report, April 24, 2000, p. 18; Charles B. Shotwell and Kimberly Thachuk, ?Humanitarian Intervention: The Case for Legitimacy,? Washington, DC: National Defense University Institute for National Security Studies, July 1999; Alexander Haig, Jr., ?The Question of Humanitarian Intervention,? Foreign Policy Research Institute, February 2001; The Commission on America?s National Interests, America?s National Interests, July 2000.

143. Thom Shanker, ?Defense Chief will Propose Military Change in Course,? New York Times, June 15, 2001, at http://www.nytimes. com /2001/06/15/national /15MILI. html?searchpv=day03.

144. Jim Garamone, ?Rumsfeld Review Takes Advantage of Unique Moment in History,? American Forces Press Service at http: / /www.defenselink.mil/news/May2001/n05312001_200105311. html.

145. General Eric Shinseki, Statement before Airland Subcommittee, Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate, 2nd session, 106th Cong., ?On the Army Transformation,? March 8, 2000.

146.Steven Metz, ?Future of Land Warfare,? unpublished manuscript, June 2001.