A Crucial Research Agenda: How Do Adversaries View US Use of Military Power?


2014-06-22 by Robbin Laird

The crisis in Iraq is the latest chapter in the post-Arab spring narrative.

But Iraq is not an-itself crisis but part of a wider context starting with Benghazi, to Egypt, to Syria, to Iran and back again.

Actions across any one part of the region reverberate throughout the region and shape the way ahead for any Western power.

The US has unique military power available for use in the region.

It also has an historical legacy: a significant Iraq engagement recently concluded with a number of on the ground participants with the US in shaping the post-US occupation.

The US is not simply an historical bystander.

And the ongoing engagement in Afghanistan is itself affected by lessons learned from Iraq by those working for and against US interests in Afghanistan.

A significant Inside the Beltway debate and effort to shape a realistic post-Arab Spring policy is clearly needed.

This would be true even if the Russian leader had not clearly demonstrated that the assumption that Russia would acquiesce in the Western led and shaped post-Soviet order is clearly no longer valid. The European security order, and that of the Mediterranean and the Middle East is clearly now a work in progress, with Putin busily engaged to reshape the situation to reflect what he perceives to be the proper role of Russia in the region.

Beyond the policy debate, a critical consideration is to avoid simply debating with ourselves.

It is crucial to focus as well on how adversaries view the likely actions of President Obama and his Administration with regard to the use of military power in supporting US objectives in Europe and the Middle East.

President Obama has worked hard to differentiate his views and the role of his Administration from past ones. He has succeeded. The world understands that he approaches the use of military power differently from the past, and adversaries and allies alike are reaching their judgments about what this means for them.

A clear research agenda for the policy community in the United States is to do a realistic assessment on ourselves: what conclusions are being reached by allies and adversaries alike about how the US will use military power affect my policies and interests?  

One answer is to look at the President’s evident sweet spot with regard to military power. The President has prioritized counter-terrorism as the number one issue facing the US with regard to usable military power and his preferred means is a new strategic triad: the use of NSA-led intelligence gathering, the use of drones and selective use of Special Forces.

The President tends to view military power as a means of law enforcement.

Putin has mocked the President with regard to Ukraine and in so doing revealed his judgment about the current US approach.

In a late May characterization of US policy and its limits, Putin made this comment:

Who is he to judge, Putin told CNBC during an interview this morning.

‘Who is he to judge, seriously?’ he repeated, according to a translator. ‘If he wants to judge people, why doesn’t he get a job in court somewhere?

There is a clear means-ends issue.

If the preferred pattern is the use of NSA-Drones-Special Forces, then those means define the ends. One looks to apply the formula broadly, whether or not strategic ends will be met by such an approach.

The new strategic triad is rooted in a belief that “boots on the ground” and “airpower” are not only different things but steps in a ladder of escalation. For example, the options which the USN-USMC team can put on the table rapidly to insert and withdraw force – boots and airpower simultaneously – is not relevant unless there is a military relevant law enforcement activity in prospect.

The triad can be deployed and removed easily it is believed, although the footprint necessary to do intelligence and use drones tends to be overlooked.

Notably, the parallels between Iraq and Afghanistan are not in play, and considering how the friends and deadly enemies of Americans in Afghanistan are drawing conclusions about US behavior AFTER the US has withdrawn.

The Iraq crisis is the first test of the Obama West Point doctrine, and the President’s words clearly inform adversary and allied perceptions as well.

If one looks at those words, it is clear how limited military power is in the President’s panoply of power tools.

Indeed, the President counterpoises diplomacy with military action, a virtual dichotomy that Putin has clearly recognized before the speech and has acted upon.

The overall tone of the speech is that the US is a unique world leader. There is no recognition in the speech that he is direct confrontation with a leader he sees his task as gaining global fear and respect to return Russia to its place in the world, or the clear intent of the PRC leaders to expand their power in Asia and beyond.

Yet these are not bumps along the road but key challenges directly facing the US, the West and our Asian allies.

The President clearly puts military power in its place:

“Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”

The President highlights the transition from having too many hammers to what he views as the proper approach:

Four and a half years later, as you graduate, the landscape has changed.

We have removed our troops from Iraq.

We are winding down our war in Afghanistan. Al-Qaida’s leadership on the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated, and Osama bin Laden is no more.

And through it all, we’ve refocused our investments in what has always been a key source of American strength: a growing economy that can provide opportunity for everybody who’s willing to work hard and take responsibility here at home.

What is the residual role of the US military?

The good news is that there are no direct military threats – no mention of nuclear threats – to the US; there are only indirect threats to the US via allies and partners and only lingering law enforcement threats writ large threats from terrorism.

Our military has no peer.

The odds of a direct threat against us by any nation are low, and do not come close to the dangers we faced during the Cold War.

Russian and Chinese challenges are put in the category of the indirect threats via our alliance basket.

Russia’s aggression towards former Soviet states unnerves capitals in Europe while China’s economic rise and military reach worries its neighbors.

And the role of US military power in supporting US global interests?

But to say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution.

Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences, without building international support and legitimacy for our action, without leveling with the American people about the sacrifices required.

Tough talk often draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to slogans…..

I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak.

And lest one misses the point about the reluctance to use military power other than the triad:

Because the costs associated with military action are so high, you should expect every civilian leader — and especially your commander in chief — to be clear about how that awesome power should be used.

And what is the strategic rationale for the new strategic triad?

I believe we must shift our counter terrorism strategy, drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.

And the need for a new strategy reflects the fact that today’s principal threat no longer comes from a centralized al-Qaida leadership.

Instead it comes from decentralized al-Qaida affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused in the countries where they operate.

And this lessens the possibility of large-scale 9/11-style attacks against the homeland, but it heightens the danger of U.S. personnel overseas being attacked, as we saw in Benghazi.

It heightens the danger to less defensible targets, as we saw in a shopping mall in Nairobi. So we have to develop a strategy that matches this diffuse threat, one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military too thin or stir up local resentments.

The President is meeting his objectives stated in 2008:

“I don’t want to just end the war, but I want to end the mind-set that got us into war in the first place.”

But while he is changing the American mindset, the world is a tougher place.

The words of his West Point speech were barely dry when Iraq broke and the crisis in Ukraine deepened.

How will the new triad work to deal with these situations?

Or is Putin reading the President correctly that Russia can recover its place in the sun while Europe deals with its Euro crisis and President Obama puzzles over which nails and hammers might be used if necessary?

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