How the United States Should Use Military Force

by Richard N. Haass

Questions of whether and how to intervene with military force are at the heart of the debate over American foreign policy, and for good reason. Military force remains the ultimate instrument of national policy, one with the potential to do the greatest good or harm-and cost a great deal in blood and treasure in the process.

Ironically, the end of the Cold War has intensified the debate, probably because there are more choices now and less consensus as to where and how the United States should use force. There is no doctrine to guide decisions since containment no longer applies. Nothing has taken or, arguably, can take its place so long as the international situation remains unstructured and fluid, as is currently the case.

One of the few things clear about the post-Cold War world is the prevalence of strife within or between newly independent countries. Sometimes the fighting is defined by ethnicity or tribe; sometimes government, or the lack of it, is the main problem. The result is conflict that has many of the characteristics of civil war: the absence of a clear battlefield, no sharp line between combatant and civilian, multiple parties and deep emotion that makes ending the fighting nearly impossible.

All too many recent examples come to mind: Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti and, above all, Bosnia. In such situations, the United States will have stakes that are humanitarian and possibly economic and strategic. The size of the stakes will for the most part be modest or less than vital, where it seems neither U.S. security nor prosperity will be undermined if many die or are left homeless. Still, U.S. security may be affected and, regardless of the specifics, this country's sense of decency and morality may be offended by what Americans see or know is going on. The result can be pressure to do something, often with military force.

Military intervention in the affairs of another state tends to be for one of three purposes: nation-building (recasting the institutions of the society), humanitarian (providing protection and the basics of life), or compellent/peace-making (bolstering an arrangement in the absence of consent or tilting in favor of a local contender).

Whether to intervene will always be difficult. Just because the United States cannot intervene everywhere does not mean it ought not intervene anywhere. But difficulty highlights the need to be able to explain and defend decisions to intervene as well as not to intervene, if domestic and international support are to be forthcoming.

Three factors ought to shape the decision to act in such situations: the scale of the problem, the existence of non- humanitarian interests and the availability of military options that can provide relief at acceptable costs and promise better results at no greater costs than alternative measures. A decision that ignores any of these factors risks serious problems on the ground as well as at home.

Like humanitarian intervention, nation-building can be motivated by how a state treats its own people or by a desire to transform a state's foreign policy so that it does not use force against neighbors. But nation-building is a far more ambitious enterprise. Humanitarian intervention, both unarmed and armed, is limited. In means and ends, it is distinctly different from interventions designed to make a country secure and stable-a goal that requires replacing the existing political authority (or creating one where none exists) so that local peoples can lead relatively normal lives. Nation-building may require defeating and disarming local opposition and establishing a political authority that controls the legitimate use of force.

Successful nation-building can involve going to war, as in the case of Japan and Germany in World War II. In both cases, nation-building required years of occupation. To succeed, nation- building sometimes must seek to do nothing less than to remake a political culture. It is more demanding in the near term than humanitarian intervention but potentially less so over the very long term. It is highly intrusive, as even limited nation-building efforts in Panama, Grenada, and Somalia demonstrate.

Opportunities for nation-building will be rare-certainly less common than humanitarian interventions. Few regimes are that dangerous, and even when they are, not many outsiders will want to pay the price to reform them. Also, it is impossible to be confident that values the United States seeks to promote will take root. Neither the United States nor the world would likely stand for the sort of methods imposed on Germany and Japan after World War II.

More recently, the United States shied away from nation- building in Iraq. It did so out of concern that it would take years, be opposed by the American people and Arab members of the coalition, result in substantial casualties and still probably fail in the end. In Somalia, nation-building was not given a fair chance; it was never preceded by the necessary peacemaking. But even if those measures had been taken, there is no guarantee that nation-building would have worked or been worth the cost.

Haiti is perhaps the best test case. The political and military weakness of the regime and the absence of civil strife meant that an intervention could gain control of the country with relative ease; the major challenge comes now in nation-building, a task shared with others that will be difficult, take years and still possibly fail.

One less ambitious alternative is safe havens. They can be created as a magnet for people or, preferably, where the endangered people already are if they happen to be in one or only a few places. Aircraft and a modest number of ground forces may be required to protect the humanitarian area or areas and to make a safe haven safe. The area can be protected by establishing a weapons-exclusion zone around it and a no-fly zone over it. Air forces would be kept ready to carry out large, punitive attacks on those who violated the area in any way.

This is akin to what the French did for a time in Rwanda and what the United States did in Somalia and is still doing in northern Iraq. It was what the United States and NATO ultimately did in Bosnia but only after the cities designated as safe by the United Nations had suffered years of attack and after two had, in fact, fallen. This approach has obvious limitations. Safe havens are open-ended and offer no guaranteed exit date for those who maintain them. Some pilots and ground troops will be lost. Except in situations where an endangered population already is located in one area, establishing safe zones can either fail to protect some people or force them to migrate to safety, thereby rewarding the aggressor. Most of all, safe havens are limited in what they propose and can accomplish directly.

Still, safe havens offer an attractive policy option. They can provide a respite, not a solution, from a problem at an affordable cost. They can remain in place at modest cost until the politics of the situation evolve. Safe havens thus not only may keep people safe but may also buy time for other approaches-sanctions, covert action, providing arms, diplomacy-to work.

Opportunities for peacemaking and uses of force to affect the course of events by turning the United States into a limited protagonist in a struggle will be rare. Peacemaking refers to military actions more demanding than peacekeeping, which takes place in a consensual environment. Peacemaking usually occurs in an "uncertain" environment and requires defeating any local party prepared to use force. Peacemaking is what the United States now finds itself doing in Bosnia.

Vietnam and Lebanon demonstrated that peacemaking is demanding militarily and difficult to sustain politically at home because of the high costs and uncertain prospects for success, and in the target country where nationalist pressures, the difficulties of working with disorganized internal forces and the need to act with great restraint add complications. It can, however, be carried out successfully, as Grenada and Panama demonstrate. Still, very few situations will involve interests of sufficient importance to justify the costs of direct American military participation.

Coercive actions-limited military steps threatened or carried out to affect a target actor's behavior-are easier to mount. The problem is what to do if they do not succeed. The choice then tends to be between peacemaking, war-fighting or backing away and choosing some other policy, be it arming the favored faction or something else, such as sanctions, diplomacy or covert action.

Much of the American debate has focused on the choice between going it alone and acting with others. In reality, the need or opportunity for unilateral action will be rare. Most interventions will be partly multilateral since the United States would usually need one or more forms of assistance: base rights, overflight, combat forces, intelligence, economic help and political support. The questions worth asking are whether the United States would want to limit the involvement of others and, when such involvement is necessary or desirable, what form it should take.

These are difficult questions to answer, for multilateralism brings with it both benefits and problems. On the positive side, it is closely tied to international legitimacy. Arab contributions in the Gulf War were critical, albeit for political more than military reasons, just as support of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States was useful during the Grenada action. Foreign involvement helps at home where resentment is all but certain to undermine support for costly and extended intervention if the United States bears most or all the economic, military and human burdens.

But multilateralism is not cost-free and costs transcend the share of U.N. operational costs. Keeping the Gulf coalition intact necessitated going to the United Nations, which slowed down the use of force. Multilateralism can mean loss of control over the situation on the ground. A good example is Somalia, where the United States encountered problems over strategy and operations because it shared responsibility with the United Nations and other countries that contributed troops. Bosnia is another example. European humanitarian operations were constantly cited by European governments to justify opposing the aggressive policies suggested by the United States. Bosnia also illustrated the problems of a cumbersome chain of command which involved political and military officials representing the United States, NATO and the United Nations.

There are a number of approaches to multilateralism to choose from: loose collaboration among concerned nations; coalitions of the willing, regional organizations; international forces organized by and under the United Nations; or a standing U.N. army. A policy based on informal coalitions will be best for most situations. It offers flexibility and the support of others without requiring that everyone be won over as a prerequisite for U.S. intervention.

Other approaches hold less promise. Loose collaboration lacks the integration and coordination needed for any large-scale effort. Strengthening regional organizations ought to be a goal but will require years if it comes to fruition at all. Such organizations tend to lack the consensus to take on non-core missions. NATO is a partial exception. The United Nations is most attractive as a legitimizer for war and as an organizer of peacekeeping. Anything more ambitious seems both impractical and, arguably, unwise given the divisions in the Security Council and the organization's shortcomings.

The United States needs to maintain a unilateral military option. It cannot plan its forces on the assumption that others, including the United Nations, will be willing or able to bear the burdens of major military undertakings. Nor does the United States want to give others a veto when it decides to intervene with force. Indeed, in some cases, such as large-scale combat or war-fighting, multilateralism will be mostly supportive of the United States. In others, particularly preventive and punitive actions, rescue efforts, or intervention in places where there are special interests or a special role, U.S. leaders may want or need to act alone.

As a rule, modest and short-term interventions lend themselves most to unilateralism. Unilateral uses of force maximize speed, secrecy of decisionmaking and implementation, as well as political and military freedom of action. This was the case in the Philippines and Panama, as well as in the Iran hostage rescue effort and Libya. It was also the case in June 1993 when the U.S. launched cruise missile strikes on Iraq. Unilateralism can also be helpful when deterrence or compellence are called for. It avoids the time-consuming debates of joint efforts and does not require building a broad consensus.

But acting alone has its drawbacks beyond being hard to execute without help from others. Unilateral action can be expensive and risks loss of domestic support as Congress and the people ask why the United States is alone in bearing burdens. It can also be controversial internationally as questions of legality and legitimacy inevitably arise, and it runs the risk of stimulating unilateral actions by others. In any event, the United States will not have adequate forces to come close to meeting all the claims on it. It will have to do some things with others or do nothing at all.

There is little reason for U.S. involvement in traditional peacekeeping unless it is sought by the protagonists and U.S. interests justify the contribution, as in the Middle East. U.S. peacekeeping forces have added to the stability of Israel's relationship with Egypt and could do the same for Israel and Syria.

Similarly, the United States should normally stay outside of peacemaking and nation-building. These missions do not exploit the unique capabilities of U.S. forces for high-intensity combat. They are time-consuming and tie down U.S. troops. And they are inherently costly, whether measured in dollars or casualties. Where appropriate, the United States would be wise to advocate armed humanitarian zones as an alternative. If, however, peacemaking or nation-building are deemed desirable and feasible, such missions should be undertaken by coalitions, either formal regional organizations or something more informal. The United States should insist that in return for its support the mission be designed with adequate appreciation of the risks and costs.

U.S. participation in multinational peacemaking and nation- building raises special questions. Lebanon and Somalia suggest that U.S. involvement can stimulate opposition and aggressive action; in many settings, taking on the United States and demonstrating an ability to kill or capture soldiers of the world's only superpower has local political value. The United States can offer intelligence, transportation and logistics support as an alternative. Yet it can be difficult for the United States to lead if it is unwilling to share the risks. Some combat participation may be required if others are to be persuaded to join in.

U.S. willingness to operate under the command of others should depend upon circumstances. As a rule of thumb, the greater the stakes and the greater the U.S. role, the more U.S. forces will need to act under U.S. commanders. But where U.S. forces are a small part of an overall effort, there is no reason to preclude non- American command, particularly if U.S. forces enjoy considerable autonomy within the mission they are assigned. Here, the NATO parallel comes to mind. U.N. or non-American command poses little problem if the operation is kept to peacekeeping in a context that is truly consensual. The bigger issue is not the command arrangements but whether U.S. forces ought to be involved at all.

Prospects have improved for the United States intervening effectively in cases that involve real or imminent aggression by states against their neighbors. New conventional weapons, the end of the Cold War risk of global war, the fact that many adversaries may find themselves lacking sufficient power-all support the ability of the United States to use force effectively on the battlefield. This potential will only be realized, however, if the United States is willing to use ample force early and decisively.

Three developments, however, are less encouraging. First, the United States will be challenged and face humanitarian problems more often in the future. Second, some of the challenges may include unconventional weaponry. To avoid being deterred from acting for fear of large-scale casualties, the United States must develop strategies and weapons that reduce the chance or benefits of escalation to chemical, biological and/or nuclear arms. Third, there is declining popular and congressional support for military interventions. The proper response is not to bow to this mood, but to take it into account.

Intervening effectively for other purposes, particularly internal conflicts, is fundamentally different. The advantages of modern military technology often are irrelevant in civil conflicts fought in congested areas where friend cannot be distinguished from foe. TV news film may increase our desire to act when we see innocent people suffering at the hand of their government. But intervening in internal situations can prove difficult and dangerous-even for a great power-if the protagonists are willing to fight to the end.

This does not argue for always staying out of such situations. Military force cannot substitute for political and economic efforts, but it can provide a context in which they are more likely to succeed. It may be necessary to act when the need is great and the use of force has a chance of improving conditions at a cost commensurate with the stakes.

The United States will also want to consider a properly balanced division of labor among itself, regional organizations and the United Nations. Here, though, the presumption should favor continued U.S. leadership. There is a real question about how much the United States can and should seek to devolve responsibility to organizations such as the United Nations.

Multilateralism can be useful or necessary. It can also be cumbersome or an obstacle. It is not, however, an alternative to U.S. leadership. Multilateralism is most likely to be effective if the United States leads in making the case for a collective response and contributes to the common effort. The more ambitious the undertaking, the more U.S. leadership and participation will be necessary and the more the United States will want to act in a loosely structured fashion. By contrast, the more uncertain the stakes and the greater the gap between stakes and likely costs, the more careful the United States ought to be about lending its support, much less direct involvement, to any effort.

What makes a great power great is, in part, its willingness to intervene militarily for interests that are less than vital. But no power, no matter how great, can intervene everywhere. This is especially true for democratic powers where constraints are as much political as resource-driven. The United States can intervene with military force, but where its interests are perceived to be modest, the costs must also be modest. Or, there can and should be limited uses of military force for limited purposes so long as the value of the interests protected exceeds the expense.


Richard N. Haass ('95) is director of national security programs for the Council on Foreign Relations. His most recent book is "Intervention: The Use of American Military Force in the Post- Cold War World."

[back]Return to COSMOS 1996 Table of Contents
[back]Return to COSMOS Journals