The limits of military power

Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading Joe Nye’s The Future of Power, but every event I’ve been to lately around DC has reminded me of the limits of military power in achieving U.S. national security objectives.  It is certainly not lack of admiration for the prowess of the American military–they are fantastically good at not only the military tasks that are their bread and butter, but also at the many other tasks presidents toss their way.  And if you haven’t had the privilege of hearing David Petraeus or James Stavridis talk, you’ve missed some first class intellectual heft.

But consider today’s problems:  Iran, Syria, Afghanistan.

If Iran did in fact plot with a Mexican cartel to murder the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., what are we going to do about it?  Sure there are military options, and

people who advocate them.  If the plot had succeeded we would probably have used one or two like leveling Quds force headquarters with cruise missiles or capturing a few Iranian miscreants in Iraq or Afghanistan.  But it is all too obvious that the Iranians would respond, blowing up some favorites of ours or grabbing a few more Americans taking walks in Kurdistan.  The more realistic options in response to a plot that did not succeed are the nonmilitary ones I pointed to yesterday.

Syria is a case where military intervention like that undertaken in Libya might make a big difference, and some of the protesters against President Assad’s regime would like to see it happen.  But it won’t:  the Russians haven’t even allowed a denunciation of the regime’s violence against the demonstrators to pass, and the Arab League is sitting on its duffs.  I know there are some who still hope NATO will undertaken the kind of unauthorized campaign it unleashed from the air against the Serbs in 1999, but it isn’t going to happen so long as Bashar keeps the level of atrocities in the daily dozens.  The protesters are in for a long struggle without foreign force on their side.

In Afghanistan, the Americans have really brought to bear most of their military capability, without a clear result.  No one serious believes any longer that there is a military solution there.  We’ll have to settle for a political arrangement that gives the Taliban (hopefully not Al Qaeda) some significant measure of what it wants.  Afghanistan is looking more and more like Vietnam, less and less like even Iraq.  We aren’t likely to come out in 2014, when withdrawal is to be completed, with much.

Let’s not even discuss Israel/Palestine and North Korea, where American interests are certainly at stake.  American military capabilities are vital to shaping the environment in both places, but the opportunities to use it are very limited.  It is more an insurance policy against gross misbehavior by one of the protagonists than a tool that we can use on a daily basis. In Joe Nye’s terms, military power in these environments can be converted into influence, persuasion and agenda-setting (i.e. soft power) even if use of American force is not likely.

Of course our flag officers know they need stronger civilian counterparts in defending national security.  They have repeatedly called for beefing up civilian capabilities.  But it isn’t happening.  Congress is tearing the budget of the civilian side of foreign policy to shreds, even as the game of chicken between Republicans and Democrats on the budget approaches the moment of truth.  I think we know what will happen if it comes down to cutting the national security budget, which includes both military and civilian expenditure.  The military may not like what it ends up with, but it will be a feast relative to what the State Department and the Agency for International Development have on their plates.

That's me, working closely with the U.S. military







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