Rethinking an Active U.S. Military Policy

As the Obama administration concludes a long overdue disengagement from Iraq and attempts to bring about a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan, it is imperative that policy makers not lose sight of the crucial role that an active foreign military policy plays in supporting and sustaining Washington’s vital interests. Coupled with a domestic economic crisis, the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan resulted in virulent calls for a contracted and continued U.S. military policy. It is naïve though to expect that the United States should possess the world’s most powerful and technologically advanced army in the world simply as a deterrence measure; it has shown willingness to use it to further its own interests and to suggest that the U.S. military wholly contract in light of the failures of the past decade is foolhardy and in-fact undermines U.S. interests. While failures abound, other U.S. military initiatives have been successful and helped the United States immensely. As such, the question confronting policy makers is not one of if the United States should have an active military policy, but rather how it should be conducted.

Courtesy of Ryann Quintano via Flickr

Critics of an active U.S. military policy use the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as evidence of the dangers such a course of action.  In the case of Iraq, this was largely a reaction to the Bush administrations cowboy-esque military adventurism and complete disregard for international norms; conversely, the long and drawn-out nature of the Afghan war was seen as proof of the U.S. military’s ineptitude. However, recent rises in favorable foreign opinions of the United States have largely been a reaction to military initiatives: scaled down operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and a limited ‘successful’ engagement in Libya. Nor does an active military policy tit-for-tat result in hostile foreign attitudes towards Washington; for example, during the Clinton administration there were a greater number of foreign military interventions, yet world opinion of the United States remained high and actually grew throughout the decade. While there are many factors which contribute to overall U.S. power, including wealth and social capital, the U.S. military, for better or worse, has played an outsized role in this process and should not completely ‘relax and recline’ in light of changing global dynamics. Its presence around the world ensures the security of those countries under its umbrella, often vital allies; promotes the continued delivery of products and services essential to the viability and survival of the U.S.; and domestically fuels a central, albeit ethically debatable, military-industrial-complex which produces jobs, innovation and, when needed, can protect and project U.S. national interests.

The United States cannot reasonably be expected to forego what it perceives as immediate threats to its own national security, primarily nuclear proliferation and sub-state terrorism, and must continue to apply forceful and consistent pressure against those individuals and governments that seek to acquire or use these means. Some unilateral tactics from the Bush era remain, and though unpopular, are vital to U.S. national security. Chief among these are the use of predator drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen to hunt down and kill key members of al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Other necessary unilateral tactics include the use of intelligence services to infiltrate and gather information on these groups and their actors. Though morally and ethically debatable, these tactics have produced concrete and measurable successes and therefore must continue, albeit in the most secretive way possible. The decision to engage in unilateral military action is not one to be taken likely, but when dealing with ‘rogue states’, which are irrational, unreasonable and immediate threats to national security, unilateral action is sometimes a necessary evil.

Whenever possible, the United States must conduct its foreign interventions using a multilateral approach. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was done unilaterally, without United Nations (UN) backing or NATO assistance, and as such the operation was seen as unjust and illegal.  However, when the United States has conducted foreign military interventions using a multilateral approach with UN backing, as was seen in Iraq in 1991, Bosnia in 1993, Afghanistan in 2001 and Libya in 2011, world opinion is far less likely to turn against Washington, especially if the operation is internationally sanctioned and has a humanitarian context. However, these operations must be done at the lowest possible cost. According to a report released by Brown University, the total cost of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan is between $3.2-4 trillion dollars; analysts use these statistics to shed light on how not to conduct U.S. military policy. All ‘successful’ contemporary U.S. military interventions have been conducted using limited resources and thus while still subject to criticism and analysis’ at home and abroad, can be more easily refracted and defended. For example, U.S. involvement in Libya,

Chart 1.1: U.S. Military Expenses
Military Operation Most Expensive Year Annual Cost (2011 dollars)
Bosnia-Herzegovina 1996 $3.4 billion
Iraq (no-fly zone) 1998 $2.1 billion
Kosovo 1999 $2.4 billion
Iraq (war) 2008 $146 billion
Afghanistan 2011 $119 billion
Libya 2011 $1 billion
Source: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments; Congressional Research Service

which was extensive and ultimately helped tip the scales against Moammar Qadaffi, cost only $1 billion dollars and enjoyed wide international support, conditions not seen in the two major post- Cold War conflicts, Iraq and Afghanistan. Concurrently, interventions during the 1990’s cost roughly the same (see chart1.1) and when successful, were generally greeted with applause and when unsuccessful were easier to move onwards from.

Furthermore, it is essential that the United States significantly increase its troop commitments to UN Peace Keeping Operations (UNPKO). According to data obtained from the UNPKO website, the United States currently contributes a grand total of 144 military and police officials to UNPKO, which places it 58th globally in terms of total contributions, right between Cote d’Ivore and Croatia. While annual U.S. budgetary contributions to UNPKO routinely amount to over $2 billion, the infinitesimal troop contributions are morally negligible and politically dangerous. Those countries seen as potential balancers of US power (India and China) or checkers of it (Pakistan) contribute over 19,000 troops and security personnel to these operations. While the United States easily surpasses these countries in measures of military effectiveness, capacity and global influence, the latter being seen in the hundreds of U.S. military installations abroad, the U.S. military’s public face lacks a humanitarian element needed to further boost world opinion and as such needs a facelift. Admittedly, not every decision should have a moral compass attached to it, but limited engagements with low risk and a humanitarian framework can make for good PR. With the final withdrawal of U.S. troops in Iraq approaching, it would be wise of the Obama administration to divert some of these troops to UNPKO. Such an endeavor would keep troops employed, garner favorable opinion from the public at large and to those in the policy-making community, expand and project U.S. power.

In certain instances, it is acceptable for the United States to use its military power unilaterally but in a limited capacity and towards either humanitarian or self-interested ends. In October 2011, the Obama administration announced the deployment of 100 U.S. military advisers to Uganda to help locate Joseph Kony, the ICC indicted leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army who is charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes related to the LRA’s activities in Uganda, the DRC and Sudan. Although covert U.S. military involvement in Uganda had been occurring for some time, the Obama administration trumpeting it and proverbially beating its chest about it has resulted in higher foreign opinion. At the same time, the United States should continue to assist in the training of military and security personnel in the developing world, continue manufacturing and exporting crucial military technology and continue to establish military bases abroad. Doing so perpetuates and establishes U.S. influence and, allows Washington to provide considerable capacity to developing countries in the form of defense assurances and contemporary military capability, all the while ensuring that Washington retains its influence in the developing world.

In assessing U.S. military policy in the coming decade, policy-makers, rather than bringing about a contraction of U.S. military policy and a realignment of our national priorities inward, must instead urge a strategic expansion of military policy, albeit in far more limited ways. Thus far the Obama administration has handled its foreign policy masterfully but must articulate a long-term vision of what role the U.S. military will play in the years ahead. Where issues of national security present themselves, the United States must act forcefully to defend its own vital interests; in certain instances it will be necessary for the U.S. to act unilaterally but whenever possible Washington should attempt to do so in a multilateral fashion. Where humanitarian issues arise and the world community comes calling, the United States should offer its services so long as its own interests are not undermined. The U.S. military must not become a latent and reactive entity, nor must it become an avaricious monster that inspires fear; it must be used responsibly to further the interests of the United States, and though it seems counter-intuitive, promote peace where possible.


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