Tag: The Power Problem

Libya Begets Syria?

A little over a year ago, as members of the Obama administration were pondering military intervention in Libya, skeptics (including The Skeptics) pressed them to explain how that situation differed from other comparable cases elsewhere in the world. If Libya, why not Yemen? Why not Bahrain? Why not Syria? We may soon learn the answer to that last question. And their too-permissive—or merely haphazard—approach a year ago might pave the way for an intervention in Syria that would be ill-advised, if not disastrous.

At the time of the Libya debate (to the extent that there was one), the president and his foreign-policy advisers dismissed concerns that the intervention in Libya would set a precedent. “It is true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs,” President Obama said in a televised speech to the nation on March 28, 2011. But, he continued:

that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right. In this particular country—Libya—at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale… To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and, more profoundly, our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are.

At other times, the administration alluded to a loose set of guidelines to explain why it might choose to use force, guidelines which the Libya case met but other cases supposedly did not. These included the likelihood that a large-scale loss of life was imminent; the belief that prompt military action would prevent this violence; and the support of the international community, ideally a formal sanction in the UNSC (absent that, the approval of a regional body, such as the Arab League, might suffice).

Notably absent was sufficient consideration of whether our vital strategic interests were at stake. They were not in Libya, and they are not in Syria.

We should strive to avoid foreign intervention in all but very rare cases. Because getting in is always much easier than getting out, the burden of proof must always be on those making the case for war, not those advising against.

Beyond that, we must know what mission the U.S. military has been tasked with performing. We must have a reasonable estimate of the likelihood that it will achieve its mission. And we must have some sense of the likely costs in blood and treasure. Finally, we are a nation of laws, not of men—and decidedly not of one man. The president has very little authority to send troops into harm’s way, and he has none when U.S. security is not at stake (a criteria that Barack Obama endorsed as a senator but abandoned when he assumed a higher office). If the Obama administration is considering military action to remove Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria, it should obtain formal congressional authorization for such action. And it should do that before going to the United Nations.

No other country is afforded such choices. No other country is able to project power over great distances and on very short notice. No other country has a track record of frequent foreign intervention, even when such operations have no direct connection to advancing our own security. This pattern of behavior constitutes our unique power problem. It is precisely because the United States has used force on numerous occasions over the past two decades that we need a particularly stringent set of criteria governing our future interventions. There is an almost endless parade of aggrieved parties calling on Uncle Sam to save them from harm. And when Washington refuses, or merely drags its heels, they will say: You fought to save Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo, why do you then refuse to aid Muslims in Northern Africa or the Levant? The United States must have a ready answer.

But the Obama administration, cheered on or goaded by liberal and neoconservative hawks, does not have one. Yet. And its halting signals are likely to embolden those calling for yet another war.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Helping the Haitians

The tragedy unfolding in Haiti has elicited an outpouring of sympathy, and it is hardly surprising that governments and NGOs from all over the globe are mobilizing resources to aid in recovery. Help is flowing to the shattered island: teams trained in rescue operations, emergency medical services, security personnel, and financial aid. This type of assistance will likely continue for some time.

The U.S. military is also involved. Several Navy and Coast Guard vessels shipped out almost immediately. A few thousand Marines are helping to restore order, and more might soon be on the way. Such a ground presence makes sense, provided that the mission is carefully defined, and the long-term expectations are tempered by a dose of humility. The United States has, after all, intervened repeatedly in Haiti, and it remains the poorest country in the hemisphere. One might even conclude that our interventions have contributed to Haiti’s chronic problems, a consideration which should give pause to those calling for the United States to commit to a long-term project to fix the country.

One can make an argument against sending military assets to deal with such crises. A nation’s military is designed and built for one purpose – to defend the nation – and when it is deployed for missions that do not serve that narrow purpose there is a risk that the institutions will be rendered less capable of responding to genuine threats. I question the wisdom of humanitarian intervention on those grounds in my book, The Power Problem, stipulating, among other things, that the U.S. military should be sent abroad only when vital U.S. interests are at stake.

All that said, President Obama’s decision to swiftly deploy U.S. personnel to Haiti is appropriate on at least two grounds. First, sending troops into harm’s way – and usually into the middle of a civil conflict, as we did in the Balkans and in Iraq – is very different from mobilizing our formidable military assets to ameliorate suffering after a natural disaster. The latter types of interventions are less likely to engender the ire of the people on the losing end (and there always are losers). Humanitarian missions are also less likely to arouse the suspicion of neighbors who might question the intervener’s intentions. Indeed, there was a measurable outpouring of support and goodwill toward the United States after the Bush administration deployed U.S. military personnel in and around Indonesia following the horrific tsunami of late 2004. Genuine humanitarian missions, “armed philanthropy” as MIT’s Barry Posen calls it, are likely to be far less costly than armed regime change/nation-building missions that must contend with insurgents intent on taking their country back from the foreign occupier.

Another important consideration is a country’s interests in its respective region. Humanitarian crises, even those whose effects are confined within a particular country’s borders, often pose a national security threat to neighboring states. What has happened in Haiti over the past 48 hours might meet that criteria, but the White House’s immediate motivations seem purely altruistic. My frustration is that the U.S. policy since the end of the Cold War of actively discouraging other countries from defending themselves ensures that they will have little to offer when a similar natural disaster occurs in their own backyard, which means that the U.S. military is expected to act – even when our own interests are not at stake.

But that is a discussion for another time. The scale of the tragedy in nearby Haiti cries out for swift action, and I am pleased to see that many organizations – both public and private – have stepped forward to help. I wish these efforts well.

America’s Power Problem

Numerous polls show that Americans want to reduce our military presence abroad, allowing our allies and other nations to assume greater responsibility both for their own defense and for enforcing security in their respective regions.

But why haven’t we done so?

In his new book, The Power Problem, Christopher A. Preble contends that the vast military strength of the United States has induced policymakers in Washington to broaden the perception of the “national interest,” and ultimately to commit ourselves to the impossible task of maintaining global order.

Preble holds that the core national interest — preserving American security — is easily defined and largely immutable. In his view, military power is purely instrumental: if it advances U.S. security, then it is fulfilling its essential role.

Preble spoke at Cato about what we views as the proper role of the United States in the world.