The New White House and Congress on the Use of Force

By Daniel L. Davis

The Pentagon recently announced the deployment of U.S. troops in Norway, Poland, Lithuania, Syria, and Africa, increasing America’s combat power and footprint abroad. This alarming development is not in response to any heightened military threat. Luckily, the incoming Administration and new Congress have a chance to rectify this dangerous tendency. If they fail to do so, however, the risks to American national security will rise to dangerous levels.

There is no Grand Strategy discernable in the simultaneous global deployments recently ordered, and more important, there is no unifying vision for how the forces will be used. For example, beginning in 2014, President Obama authorized—without congressional debate or approval—the deployment of a small number of troops back into Iraq, and the following year gave the order to begin airstrikes in Syria. Since that time, however, the size and scope of both missions have been consistently expanded. 

At no time since the missions started, however, has the White House clearly articulated a strategy and national objective for this use of force. Once the deployments have been announced by the Pentagon, military leaders typically explain the tactical purpose of the troops—i.e., explain that troops will go and help this rebel group or jets will attack that extremist organization—but completely unaddressed has been any discussion of what the mission was intended to accomplish. 

Such omissions make it impossible to determine if there is any utility to the nation in conducting a given task, nor are there any metrics announced by which the tactical utility of the mission could later be measured. U.S. military personnel are the most capable and trained in the world, and successfully accomplish the vast majority of every tactical task given them. But since there aren’t any present metrics to gauge mission success, no one can say whether these tactical engagements contribute to U.S. national security. 

The use of the U.S. Military must be directly tied to a grand, national strategy designed and approved by civilian leadership in the White House, and authorized and funded by Congress. No such dynamic currently exists, and the dysfunction has unquestionably harmed U.S. interests.

Wars have increased, terrorist threats have grown unabated, and U.S. military power has deteriorated over two decades of perpetual use. The cause of the military’s decreased ability to defend the nation from the full range of threats is its overuse, its employment into areas that do not represent vital national interests, and in the conduct of missions against marginal threats. None of those problems will be resolved merely by throwing more money at it. To the contrary, it would most likely exacerbate the problem, since policymakers would in all probability believe the increased funding would allow them to continue the perpetual employment.

To the military’s credit, there has been a renewed emphasis on training for full-spectrum conventional operations. That is a good first step, but alone, it is not enough to solve the readiness problem. There are, however, two major steps that could restore the ability of the Armed Forces to guarantee U.S. national security.

First, the incoming Administration must break with the status quo of the past two decades and minimize the employment of lethal military power. President-elect Trump has repeatedly promised to get the U.S. “out of the business” of regime change. Let us hope his restraint includes ending the propensity of sending our troops abroad to conduct numerous inconsequential missions.

Second, Congress must rediscover its constitutional mandate. It must once again commit to conducting hearings and investigations before decisions are made on the use of force abroad. The charge to Congress is to actively certify that any proposed military mission is only approved and funded if it is in the national interest. If examination proves a given mission is necessary, then Congress should by all means fully support and fund it. But if not, then we rely on them to perform their role as a necessary check on unnecessary military adventures.

If the future Administration commits itself to a more judicious use of the military and if Congress rediscovers its constitutional power to act as the people’s agent, then the readiness of the Armed Forces may be restored without the spending taxpayer dollars we do not have. 

If the nation sends the military abroad in fewer cases, the troops will suffer fewer casualties. Military equipment – like jets, tanks, other armored vehicles – will not see wear and tear at the current alarming rate. Maintaining the enormously expensive logistic lifelines necessary to support each foreign mission would be lessened. 

All of these measures would significantly reduce the financial strain on the federal budget.  More important, however, is that soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines would be able to conduct more of the training necessary to ensure that if ever faced with an existential threat, there would be no question of their ability to defeat it.

The permanent, unaccountable, and ineffective use of the military has become the norm. The new President and Congress have an excellent opportunity to quash the ineffective status quo that has reigned for 16 years. For the security of the nation, I hope they don’t let this chance slide by.

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments.

This piece was originally published by The National Interest on February 5, 2017. Read more HERE