The Skeptics

Learning the Limits of American Military Power

An apparent terrorist attack downs an aircraft en route to Cairo. Bomb blasts rip through several Baghdad neighborhoods, killing at least seventy. An Afghan police officer turns his gun on his colleagues, killing eight. Saudi Arabia wages war in Yemen. Nearly five million Syrians are registered as refugees by UNHCR, with perhaps six million more displaced internally by the five-year long civil war raging there. According to some reports, 470,000 Syrians have been killed. ISIS still holds Mosul.

The DC foreign-policy establishment has a cure for what ails the Greater Middle East: more U.S. intervention. More (illegal) support for the Egyptian regime. An open-ended U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan. More advisers for the Iraqi government in Baghdad. More bombs and missiles for the Saudis. More air strikes and special ops troops to take on ISIS, perhaps with a full-scale ground offensive not far behind.

This interventionist impulse is not new. In his opening remarks before the “Advancing American Security” conference hosted earlier this week by the Charles Koch Institute, Andrew J. Bacevich produced a slightly tattered cover from the New York Times Magazine, dated March 28, 1999. A clenched fist, painted in the stars and stripes in vivid red, white, and blue accompanied the headline: “What the World Needs Now.” The subtitle “For globalism to work, America can’t be afraid to act like the almighty superpower that it is.” The article by Tom Friedman concludes “The global system cannot hold together without an activist and generous American foreign and defense policy.”

Bacevich and many of the fourteen other speakers (myself included) over the course of the day offered a different take. They pointed out that U.S. intervention—especially military intervention—was at least partly to blame for the chaos consuming the region. And they suggested—sometimes delicately, sometimes less so—that the use of even more force would offer few solutions. Oftentimes, it makes manageable problems worse—though the effects are mostly felt by peoples elsewhere, not by Americans here at home.

Former ambassador Chas Freeman noted that policymakers rarely ask the question “and then what?” when contemplating whether or not to use force. As we have seen in Iraq, Libya and elsewhere, military victories often merely reveal underlying political problems that the U.S. military cannot solve. The RAND Corporation’s Gian Gentile, drawing on his own experiences as a combat commander in Iraq, observed that the intricacies of nation-building—i.e. COIN—would not be easily be mastered, even by a military as skilled and adaptable as our own. And COIN is still likely to fail, given the myriad impediments that obstreperous partners and irreconcilable foes can put up before even a determined military’s path. The scale of the undertaking necessary to achieve success is rarely outweighed by the benefits. And then there are the opportunity costs: more than one speaker at the CKI conference pointed out that our attempts at nation building abroad had drawn needed resources away from nation building at home; even the out-of-towners had heard the stories about DC’s failing Metro.

But Bacevich was particularly well-placed to start the conversation about the broad contours of U.S. foreign policy. His latest book, a military history of America’s adventures in the Greater Middle East, is filled with reminders of the limits of military force.

As he surveys the seemingly endless series of campaigns and minor interventions, all the way up to full-scale land wars, such as the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, and the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the one idea that emerges repeatedly is that U.S. military operations were often ineffective, and sometimes pointless. Even apparently clear-cut military victories have failed to produce equally decisive strategic gains for the United States.