By James Kitfield
When President Barack Obama spoke from the White House last September to rally a war-weary nation behind limited strikes against Syria, the vast power he wielded as commander-in-chief seemed more curse than blessing. The United States was the only nation that could punish and deter a dictator from continuing to slaughter his own people with chemical weapons, Obama argued, even as Congress sought to tie his hands and reject a military option the American public overwhelmingly opposed. So the president who campaigned as the man to get America out of its wars was left to argue that military action made sense when an important principle was at stake.
“What kind of world will we live in if the United States of America sees a dictator brazenly violate international law with poison gas and we choose to look the other way?” Obama asked, stressing at the same time that the United States was not the world’s policeman. “But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes American different. That’s what makes us exceptional.”
Call it the curse of the “indispensable nation.” With an unmatched military — the only one with truly global reach — presidents feel constant pressure from political factions, interest groups and close allies alike to right the world’s myriad wrongs using our military for the simple reason that we alone can. That sense of uniqueness also plays to a national psyche nursed on the mother’s milk of ‘American Exceptionalism,’ and a strategic culture that favors decisive action and quick fixes. With new military technologies that can translate the waggle of a joystick in Nevada into an explosion half a world away, the reflex can be even stronger to reach for the hammer in America’s superpower toolbox, and to view international problems as a nail.
In his new memoir “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War,” Robert Gates argues passionately for a change in the strategic calculus behind America’s use of military force. Gates was the only defense secretary to serve two presidents, from different political parties, in two costly and ultimately unsatisfying conflicts.
“Today, too many ideologues call for U.S. force as the first option rather than a last resort,” Gates writes. “On the left, we hear about the ‘responsibility to protect’ civilians to justify military interventions in Libya, Syria, Sudan and elsewhere. On the right, the failure to strike Syria or Iran is deemed an abdication of U.S. leadership. And so the rest of the world sees the U.S. as a militaristic country quick to launch planes, cruise missiles and drones deep into sovereign countries or ungoverned spaces… Our foreign and national security policy has become too militarized, the use of force too easy for presidents.”
During the nearly half-century standoff of the Cold War, counsels on the use of military force were tempered by fears that a confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union could end in nuclear Armageddon. Even that restraint was not enough, however, to dissuade Washington from the Vietnam War, which cost the lives of more than 58,000 service members and ended in the U.S. military’s first major defeat.
With Vietnam firmly in mind, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell, a Vietnam veteran, proposed what became known as the “Powell Doctrine.” Devised in 1990 to dissuade civilian leaders from stumbling into military actions without thinking through the potential repercussions, it amounted to a sort of when-to-use-military-force template. According to the “Powell Doctrine,” U.S. leaders should use military force only:
- If a vital national security interest was threatened and the U.S. military was given a clear and attainable objective;
- When the risks and costs had been fully analyzed and all nonviolent policy options exhausted;
- When there was a plausible exit strategy to avoid “endless entanglement”;
- When the proposed action enjoyed broad support from the American people and the international community.
Ironically, two signature successes during Powell’s tenure as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs conspired to render his doctrine obsolete: the end of the Cold War; and the overwhelming victory of U.S. military forces over the Iraq Republican Guard in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Those historic achievements ushered in an era in which U.S. military action was viewed as quick, decisive and relatively low-cost.
“The lesson that many Americans drew from those nearly simultaneous events was that we had war figured out, and had achieved such a level of military dominance that it would be our strong suit throughout the post-Cold War era,” said Andrew Bacevich, professor of International Relations and History at Boston University, and author of “The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War.” “That notion that military power provides a way to fix problems decisively and quickly took hold in our national psyche, and it carried over into our politics.”
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