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Military Power Is Not a Foreign Policy Panacea

A recent article by Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations serves to illustrate how some elite thinkers in the United States have come to view the application of deadly force as a cure-all for a wide range of foreign policy challenges. In the February 10 edition of the Financial Times, he wrote [1] that it was the U.S. failure to “arm and train the Free Syrian Army” that allowed the Syrian regime to stay in power. To counter perceived American inaction, he recommended solutions ranging from “doing more to arm the moderate opposition, to declaring a no-fly zone. Drones could strike al-Qaeda operatives in Syria; air power could create humanitarian zones near the Turkish and Jordanian borders.” While Mr. Boot castigates the White House for “inaction,” he does not bother to address the most critical question: what happens after these steps are taken?

For example, he argued we should train and arm “the Free Syrian Army.” Yet as has been widely reported, this so-called ‘army’ is a fractious, incongruous alignment of disparate groups, many of whose goals are antithetical to American interests and who often fight among themselves [2] as often as against regime forces. Moreover, he does not address how these individual actions fit into a comprehensive strategy. How does he imagine the U.S. will identify al-Qaeda operatives within Syria for drone strikes? What end would these drone strikes seek to achieve? Kill “some” of the leaders? 10 percent? 50 percent? What would be the strategic utility of such a course of action? Given that nearly unfettered drone strikes have proven inconsequential in Pakistan and Yemen, how will sporadic strikes in Syria change the tactical balance?

Perhaps most importantly, advocates of military action frequently fail to consider this possibility: what sort of Syria would exist if their suggested military actions succeeded and the current Syrian regime did fall? What would be the likelihood that the grudging cooperation currently at play between radical and moderate Islamic groups on the rebel side would erupt into open warfare in the struggle for control of a post-Assad Syria? What would the United States do if an al-Qaeda affiliated coalition gained control of the Syrian state? These are hardly hypothetical possibilities.

Yet the default position by opinion leaders like Mr. Boot is to use military power first, and worry about the consequences later; the effects suffered by the men and women who live in the target country seem to get little consideration. As bad as the situation in Syria is today—and it is an unmitigated humanitarian nightmare—the application of American military power in the absence of a realistic and attainable strategy could make it worse. It is instructive to note that the U.S. military operations that were actually conducted in Libya in October 2011 [3] were very similar to what Mr. Boot suggests for Syria, yet as Reuters reported on March 7 [4], even “two-and-a-half years after the fall of former leader Muammar Gaddafi, the oil-rich North African state is struggling to contain violence between rival forces, with Islamist militants gaining an ever-stronger grip on the south of the country.”

Whether it’s a deteriorating situation in Venezuela, foreign troops in Crimea, warring tribes in Africa, or a deteriorating situation in Pakistan, the use of U.S. military power is often the worst response for both American interests and those of the foreign population. Highly complex and volatile situations frequently don’t require the application of violence to solve.

The American people have a right to expect that their government will protect their physical security and shepherd their economic interests worldwide. The government has an obligation to safeguard these interests in the most effective way possible. There are unquestionably occasions when the application of lethal military force is necessary to protect the American people, and I strongly affirm this right and obligation. But I just as strongly argue that the reflexive application of military power without first having weighed carefully the potential consequences—or without first having expended considerable efforts to find non-violent solutions—can work against American self-interest.

The opinions in this article are those of the authors alone, and do not reflect the views of Department of Defense or the U.S. Army. Daniel L. Davis is a Lt. Col in the U.S. Army, has been deployed four time to combat zones, was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for Valor in Desert Storm, and currently serves in the Washington, D.C. area. 

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#1 Comment By philadelphialawyer On March 10, 2014 @ 10:48 am

All true, except that I believe these “thinkers” see the resulting chaos and failed State status of the targets of US intervention, to use a tired cliché, as a feature, not a bug. Near anarchy, the lack of a real central government, the breakdown of law and order, these are all disasters for people on the ground. But Max Boot is not on the ground, and never will be. What he sees instead is another “enemy” of the USA and Israel and the West sent to the dustbin of history. Joining the regimes in Iraq and Libya, and others as well. OK, some anti Israeli, anti Western and maybe even anti US terrorist acts may come in the blowback. But that backwash is well worth it, to Boot, in exchange for a taking another piece off the chessboard. Terrorists can’t really achieve anything, in the long run. But Arab nationalist regimes, for all their failings and their history of failure, conceivably can. And what they seek to achieve is anathema to Boot, et al.

If a subservient client State like Jordan can’t be created, it is better to have no State at all in Iraq, Libya and Syria, and perhaps, if the Boots of the world get their way, in Afghanistan and Iran too. In the long run, perhaps, all of this will work to the USA’s disadvantage, for folks have long memories, and don’t like having their nations and their destinies toyed with so cavalierly. But Boot is not a long range thinker. All he can see is today’s headline and tomorrow’s winning score, not decades down the road resentment coming home to roost.

#2 Comment By SDS On March 10, 2014 @ 1:13 pm

Max Boot is given too much credit as an -“elite”-“thinker”-

#3 Comment By James Canning On March 10, 2014 @ 2:08 pm

Max Boot is one of the more extreme neocons advocating grosquely high levels of “defence” spending by the US, and military intervention here, there and other places even when putting in American troops makes things worse.

#4 Comment By Uncle Billy On March 10, 2014 @ 3:14 pm

Max Boot has never seen a problem that cannot be solved by the use of American military power. Whether it is Syria, Ukraine, or anywhere, Boot seems to think that the use of American military power, especially air power can solve any problem. This is insanity and arrogance.

I don’t believe that Boot has ever served in the US military, yet he seems very anxious to commit US troops to every problem nation in the world. Why would anyone listen to him?

#5 Comment By Termsofcontradiction On March 10, 2014 @ 7:29 pm

This article was shared on r/CredibleDefense. A place online for people to share and discuss military and defense related issues.


#6 Comment By Fran Macadam On March 10, 2014 @ 9:41 pm

“… the use of U.S. military power is often the worst response for both American interests and those of the foreign population.”

Finally the semblance of a military mind that isn’t an oxymoron.

Who actually has the insight to know what our interests are, and why the response that is worst for us is due to other interests being served.

The problem about referring to “American interests” is that is a remarkably vague description that is misleading in that it implies some kind of consensus by the American people or actions that are taken to benefit them. Closer analysis shows that while there those whose interests are no more than allegiance to the American dollar, damned little of what they want to happen coincides with the people’s opinions or is other than detrimental to their well-being.

“The American people have a right to expect that their government will protect their physical security and shepherd their economic interests worldwide.”

The problem for this is, that almost no ordinary Americans, in the millions, have any such interests worldwide. Rather, those few elites with millions worldwide or who want to make more millions there at the expense of others, want the power of the military at their back, so the best deals for them can be made, “with the full faith and force” of a United States gunboat ready to make war instead of love docked in the harbor.

I am glad to see Lt. Colonel Davis at least partly channeling Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler, who came to loathe the misuse of the U.S. military as politically controlled enforcers subservient to Wall Street financiers and their private foreign business deals.

There are American interests, and then there are those who just want to make more interest.

#7 Comment By Puller58 On March 11, 2014 @ 7:13 am

Once again, Boot’s core concern is that Israel not lose its grip on the US foreign policy. While the US being engaged in countries unrelated to Israel might seem contrary to that idea, it happens to go to the terror that neocons have about “isolationism” taking hold and getting the US to break off the “special relationship” with the Jewish state.