Lethal Military Power: A Foreign Policy "Dead End"

By Daniel L. Davis

It is common when professional sports teams or major corporations fail to achieve success that they will fire the coach or leaders responsible and then hire a new leader who jettisons the tactics or policies that led to the failure and charts a new course.  In Washington, when foreign policy fails – even if disastrously – the leaders who formed and directed the policy are almost never fired.  The strategies themselves not only aren’t changed, but are frequently reinforced in a “double down” fashion.  The results are as predictable as they have become common: American interests abroad suffer and national security is placed at increasing risk. 

Instead of acknowledging that US foreign policy has suffered some egregious failures over the past decade, firing the leaders responsible, and hiring new ones who will craft and implement new approaches, Administrations of both parties have chosen to merely repeat the failure, or in some cases reinforce it. If there is a common theme to the failures, it is that Washington chooses to base its policies on the threat or use of lethal military power to force foreign groups or states to comply with US preferences. This approach routinely fails to produce beneficial outcomes for the US.  Three recent examples highlight this troubling dynamic.

The first came last Tuesday when retired three-star Army general David Barno argued in War on the Rocks that perpetual war is obligatory and necessary for the United States. In “The Price of Perpetual War,” he wrote that the US “did not choose this era of perpetual war. It is the price of living in a world where, for the first time, terrorist groups and malevolent individuals can reach the United States and wreak havoc from virtually any corner of the world… The threats are real and must be countered.” 

Yet aside from complaining that Congress has failed to authorize much of the military adventurism – a complaint I wholeheartedly support – the general explains nowhere in the article how all these wars and military operations actually reduce the threat of terrorism on American soil.  The only proscription Mr. Barno seems to advocate is to perpetually apply concepts that have proven ineffective. 

Second, on May 16th the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) published a foreign policy paper, Extending American Power, written by of group of acclaimed former high-ranking government officials.  In it they offered a comprehensive vision for how the United States ought to conduct its foreign affairs.  It doesn’t take much examination of this paper to discover the weaknesses upon which it is based.  Two key examples illustrate the flaw visible throughout the report. 

Extending American Power argues that the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) hasn’t been robust enough and that the US must “scale up substantially” its military efforts.  They assume that if the leaders and followers of ISIS are destroyed, the threat will die with them.  Evidence argues persuasively to the contrary.  As was the case when bin Laden’s al-Qaeda morphed into the regional al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2004, which was severely degraded in 2008 and subsequently reemerged as ISIS.  There is every reason to believe that if ISIS were somehow defeated, some other violent group would simply pick up the banner and continue the fight.

Third, the idea that US combat power is the go-to solution to every international problem was reinforced just days ago when the commander of US Special Operations Command General Raymond “Tony” Thomas addressed the National Defense Industrial Association’s Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa.  He explained matter-of-factly that the special operations community was engaging in “very direct action because we are trying to rectify five failed states and an extremist phenomenon that’s gone rabid. Once we get that back in the box, eventually, I hope, we can have the right sort of access, placement, connective tissue, to retain stability.”

These three specific examples illustrate a mindset that is endemic throughout our country’s leadership: the United States has the moral authority to unilaterally determine what is appropriate behavior internationally, “fix” failed states, and has the right to use military power to punish violators.  More troubling, those who advocate for this mindset also assume that if they apply the proper amount of force, international stability benefiting America will be established or restored.  But the strategies employed by such advocates have failed to accomplish anything close to these outcomes. 

What is needed is a hard-nosed willingness of America’s highest elected and appointed leaders to hold senior policymakers accountable when plans they crafted or approved ended in failure and American interests were impaired.  The architects of those flawed strategies and the generals and admirals who oversaw the disaster on the ground would be removed from their positions.  These highest leaders would then seek out new men and women with new ideas that would have a chance to turn the deteriorating situation around and give them a chance to lead.   

There is nothing guaranteeing the next leader would succeed where the old ones failed.  But one thing should be crystal clear by this point.  Trying to accomplish American foreign policy objectives by the use of lethal military power is a dead-end, losing proposition that has proven to be ineffective.  It is time America and its leaders acknowledge this reality and begin giving new leaders with new ideas a chance.

Daniel L. Davis is a widely published analyst on national security and foreign policy. He retired as a Lt. Col. after twenty-one years in the U.S. Army, including four combat deployments, and is a member of the Center for Defense Information's Military Advisory Board.

This piece was originally published by Real Clear Defense on June 1, 2016. Read more HERE