Micah Zenko faults the tendency in our foreign policy debates to ascribe military force with virtues and powers that it doesn’t possess:
Military force is about blowing things up and killing people. Trying to ascribe virtues to its nature, or magical powers to its effects, is misleading and imprudent. Much of Washington does not see force as the solution to the world’s problems because the U.S. military has the best hammer, but rather because of the influence and supremacy that it falsely ascribes to it. [bold mine-DL]
When Zenko refers to magical powers, he is talking about the belief that by using force the U.S. can show its “resolve,” shore up its “credibility,” and send clear messages to other governments around the world. Zenko describes the people that believe this:
You rarely hear such pundits state explicitly what exactly military force is supposed to accomplish. Rather, it is a mindless demand to apply some military tactic to elicit some feeling — presumably fear and awe — among third-party witnesses. The most remarkable characteristic of this school of thought is that those within it also claim to be transcontinental mind-readers capable of knowing what specific U.S. instrument of power will change the calculus of potential adversaries.
This belief is part of the illusion of control that many Americans have with regards to foreign countries. Not only do hawks credit the use of force with great efficacy to remedy political problems in another country, but they imagine that in doing so the U.S. will reassure allies and clients everywhere and inspire fear and anxiety in rivals and enemies. In practice, we have seen how ill-considered and reckless uses of force have often had the opposite effect from the one promised by war supporters. Invading Iraq over the objections of several major allies filled many otherwise U.S.-aligned governments and their publics with dismay and anger. U.S. alliances have been put under enormous strain by these wars of choice, and have been left much weaker than they were twelve years ago. Both the Iraq and Libyan wars have certainly alarmed hostile regimes and rival powers, but not in the way that hawks thought they would. These wars haven’t deterred authoritarian regimes from repressing their people, they haven’t discouraged the pursuit of nuclear weapons, and they haven’t made these other governments more accommodating to U.S. goals. On the contrary, these wars have encouraged some of them to become more aggressive in their respective regions, they have given other regimes new incentives to acquire a nuclear deterrent, and have prompted some authoritarian regimes to clamp down even harder out of the belief that the U.S. wants regime change in their countries as well. The wars have also provided these governments with occasions for mocking the U.S. when its policies in these countries have backfired and produced chaos and instability.
The funny thing is that many of the same people that think uses of force demonstrate “resolve” and protect “credibility” don’t react to other governments’ uses of force in the way that they think other states will react to ours. When Russia seized Crimea, that didn’t make hawks in the U.S. more likely to take Russian interests seriously or to show them more respect. Instead, it just intensified their existing hostility to Russia. If China uses heavy-handed and forceful tactics to stake out its claims in disputed waters, they don’t think this benefits China’s reputation with other governments, and instead of being impressed by it they take it as a challenge. When Iran props up an ally with its own forces and proxies, that just provokes American hawks to demand that the U.S. involve itself somehow in the conflict. Hawks routinely and unwittingly discredit their arguments about “credibility” and “resolve” with their predictably negative reactions to uses of force by other states.
It is impossible to make other countries think of you what you would like.
As Zenko says, the truth is that other states interpret U.S. military action in ways that its supporters don’t expect. They reach their own conclusions about a U.S. willingness to use force based on the circumstances of the situation and the relevant interests at stake. Many hawks think that using force sends specific “signals” to other governments that will influence their decision-making, but other states routinely don’t get the message that Washington tries to send and interpret U.S. actions in a way that doesn’t serve U.S. interests at all.