When to Use Force

Speaking of stomach-churning, you might want to take a look at Robert Kagan’s Washington Post op-ed on the conditions under which the United States should use force in its dealings with other nations. Then again, you might not. Here’s his opening paragraph:

Was the Iraq war the greatest strategic error in recent decades, as some pundits have suggested recently? The simple answer is no. That honor belongs to the failure to take action against al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden before the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans on U.S. soil on Sept. 11, 2001. And if one wants to go back a few decades further, it was the failure to stop Hitler in Europe and to deter war with Japan, failures that dwarf both Iraq and Vietnam in terms of their tragic consequences and the cost in lives and treasure.

I’ll answer the question. We should only use force when it is just to do so and all other alternatives have been exhausted. None of the examples he cites meets those criteria.

Not wanting to take the measures short of using force that would have obviated the use of force does not not mean that you have exhausted all alternatives. It means you just don’t like the alternatives.

If you can subject the choice to a cost-benefit analysis, you should not use force. Using force under the circumstances is unjust and immoral. Not to mention illegal if it hasn’t been authorized by the UN Security Council.

19 comments… add one

  • steve

    I think you are correct except that I would not restrict approval to the UN Security Council. That means Russia, China, France, the UK and the US have permanent privilege and can protect anyone they want, even if it is only to irritate another power. I think you can also include NATO or similar groups.

    Since I can’t let Kagan’s comment pass, I think the difference with Iraq is that it was completely elective and did not support any of our interests. The reasons for going to war were weak all along and we knew it before going to war. The have since been confirmed. I don’t think ti was really knowable that Hitler would start WWII ahead of time or that bin Laden would have the Towers attacked. Stopping bin Laden, or Hitler of that matter, probably also resulted in a war. Those may or may not have been more manageable, but I doubt it. We certainly weren’t prepared for a war in the late 30s. The Brits weren’t a lot better off. Last of all, a big part of th issue with Iraq was the poor level of management of the war, especially the political part after the immediate “Mission Accomplished”. If we had functioned at that level during WW2 the Germans would still be sitting in France. (Ok, that might actually be better but you know what I mean.)

    Steve

  • TastyBits

    In my opinion, he writes a lot but says nothing. He makes the same mistake as many. He thinks he can somehow read the future. Had the US invaded Germany in 1938, nobody knows what the consequences would have been. It is known that something different would occur, but there is no way to know that it would be better.

    Ditto for Iraq or Vietnam with this difference: These actions had or should have had goals, and we can know if these goals were met. By that measure, Iraq was a failure, and Vietnam was/was not a success. (Vietnam was part of a larger strategy, and I do not have the time or energy to engage in a lengthy debate over Cold War strategy. If you think it was a failure, so be it.)

    Preemption assumes the ability to know the future, and the ability to alter that future. Without being able to prove the first, there is no way to know the second. Germany or Iraq may have been fated to arrive at their outcome. We assume that the future is a flexible, but without being able to re-run the experiment, we cannot validate this hypothesis.

    There are many reasons to use force beyond the immediate application, and the main reason may not be the immediate application of force. It may be the demonstration of one’s abilities, willingness, or brutality in the application of force. “Make an example.” “Let everybody know you mean business.”

    With the exception of a monarchy, I find morality for a country to be a meaningless concept. Morality for most individuals is malleable when necessary. Countries should act in their best interests, and those interests are determined through a cost-benefit analysis.

    The costs and benefits include more than “blood and treasure” or world-wide standing. In democratic countries, this analysis includes the will of the public. In the US, the public usually places a high cost on the use of force, but once the force is in-place, they will decrease this cost. The public can also reverse its opinion, and therefore, it must be courted throughout the entire operation.

  • steve:

    I think you are correct except that I would not restrict approval to the UN Security Council.

    We are a signatory to a treaty that requires us to seek approval from the UNSC before using force other than in cases of self-defense. If we are going to ignore the treaty, we should withdraw from it formally.

    If we had functioned at that level during WW2 the Germans would still be sitting in France.

    I think they may already be. The last time I was in Paris, admittedly many years ago, I stayed in a German businessman’s hotel and spoke German. I was treated royally. I do not believe I would have been treated as well if I had spoken English.

  • michael reynolds

    Tasty:

    It is known that something different would occur, but there is no way to know that it would be better.

    That is the essential problem with intervention.

    The essential problem with non-intervention is that you surrender the initiative, which makes you prey rather than predator.

    I don’t accept Dave’s very rigorous standard for use of force. I think there are times when pre-emption is warranted. For example, we had intelligence from decoded intercepts that indicated Japan was going to attack. Not with details, but we knew the general lay of the land. Now, with that knowledge in hand, I think we’d have been justified in bombing Japanese naval facilities – a reverse Pearl Harbor.

    There’s no way to be certain that the downstream effects would have been better, but that applies equally to all human action, and all human inaction. We have to make our best efforts to understand, and we have to be prudent, but we do not have to be able to demonstrate that we can absolutely predict the effects because that is and always will be beyond our abilities. In other words, we have to operate on a sort of reasonable man standard rather than a “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard.

    I also have no great issue with diplomatic hypocrisy. Yes, we are required by treaty to consult the UN. Does that mean we have to consult the UN? Not if it’s inconvenient. So should we bail out of the treaty? No, because it’s still of some use to us. The day may come when the world has the sort of system of laws that has real teeth, that is applied with real consistency, but for now I see international law as aspirational rather than controlling. Law without an enforcement mechanism is kind of sweet, but not to be taken seriously.

  • TastyBits

    @michael reynolds

    I do not have a problem with using force. I have a problem with using force half-assed or using morality as cover. Force is a means and an end. It needs no justification. You either choose to use it, or you choose not to use it.

    The interventionists have a string of losses, but they continue to spout the same nonsense. I am tired of hearing that they were really right, but I am not smart enough to comprehend this truth. The truth is that they lack the will to achieve their goals.

    One difference between action and inaction is goals. We can know if goals were met. We can also generate a realistic scenario of the logistics of engaging Hitler in 1938, and it is unrealistic. I also doubt he would have responded to League of Nation sanctions or a boycott of the Olympics.

    So, a preemptive strike would have required the same military buildup, and it would have required a location. Where was this going to take place? If our fantasy includes all of Europe uniting against Hitler, let us have Hitler respond to the threat of an Olympic boycott – problem solved.

    I would suggest the US get back to basics with the Cold War counter espionage techniques. Combine these with techniques for penetrating organized crime gangs, and you would have the terrorists on the run.

  • ...

    I believe we should use force to defend our borders. That probably means lining all elected federal officials up against a wall and shooting them – preferably with M198 howitzers. Just to be sure.

  • steve

    Dave- I don’t remember the Russians getting permission to take over the Ukraine. Shrug. I think that in an ideal world you are correct, but we live in a messy one. We can, and should, seek UN approval, but if all we can get is NATO or some equivalent, that may be the best we can do.

    Steve

  • Dave- I don’t remember the Russians getting permission to take over the Ukraine.

    The standard you want to hold us to is the behavior of the Russians?

    My view is that we should be much more hesitant before entering into treaties than we are because we expect to follow them. When we enter into a treaty others should expect us to follow it.

    I believe that uncertainty about our behavior does not work in our favor. Quite the contrary, it invites adventurism.

  • michael reynolds

    Dave:

    Any time you establish a rule you define a vulnerability. Every system has holes.

    If the choice is between establishing a consistent position with all the (very real) benefits of law on the one hand, and winning on the other, I choose winning. I would love to see a world where international law ruled. As you may recall I wrote a blog post long ago on the desirability of world government. But we are not there, and yes, one’s enemies inevitably dictate at least some of one’s position.

    I’m too tired to think about less obvious examples, so I’ll go to WW2: We made common cause with the second greatest monster in modern history in order to beat the worst monster in human history. We burned cities full of women and children. We did things we now have to obscure with all sorts of golden glow greatest generation propaganda. We won.

    I don’t think the point is primarily to behave ourselves admirably. I think our job is to prevail. I’ll still take a dirty win over a clean loss.

  • If the choice is between establishing a consistent position with all the (very real) benefits of law on the one hand, and winning on the other,

    and yet, somehow, by some remarkable coincidence we keep failing in our strategic objectives by doing what we’ve been doing.

    If the choice were as you say, I might agree with you. But it isn’t. The choice is between a strategy that fails because of its half-heartedness and arbitrariness and one that won’t. The wars we’ve lost are the ones in which we were unable to persevere until strategic victory had been achieved because they were wars of choice.

    Every war is dirty. There is no good war. That’s an illusion that will drive us into war after war after war.

    However, sometimes we simply have no choice and those are wars that are just and that we must fight.

  • TastyBits

    The US does not really like to go to war, but if the country has to go to war, they want it done competently and quickly. In addition, the entire country needs to go to war. During WW2, a civilian’s daily life was affected by the war effort – rationing.

    The US will tolerate covert operations. This is why the Cold War was able to last 50 years. Assassinations, funding coups, selecting strategic client states, and training rebels are things the country will tolerate, and now, droning terrorists can be added.

    At the time, these were controversial, and today, I doubt either side would be find them acceptable.

  • Andy

    Tasty,

    “The US does not really like to go to war”

    Not sure the evidence supports that conclusion.

    Dave,

    Not every use of force has to be pre-authorized by the UNSC. There are exceptions as well as interpretations which have not been adjudicated. Regardless the authority granted to the Congress and President on the use of military force cannot be abrogated by the UN Charter or any treaty.

    That said, I agree with your general point that wars should be just and a last resort.

    Oh, and to the readership since I’m in Africa, if anyone happens to pass Robert Kagan on the street, would you please do me a favor and kick him in the jimmy…hard. Thanks.

  • TastyBits

    @Andy

    Other than WW2, which conflict has the US public liked getting into?

    Some were under questionable pretexts. Some were clandestine. Some were gradual. Most were controversial.

  • steve

    TB- All of them. We are very supportive of going to war. Even suggesting that maybe the Iraq War was not a good idea got you branded as an America hater. Vietnam, Grenada, Panama (just lump in every incursion below our border), Desert Storm, Korea, Vietnam. We may have gotten antsy when they take a while, but we are eager at the beginning. Gotta kill a Commie for Christ.

    Steve

  • michael reynolds

    Steve:

    Indeed. People always love war. For about six months.

  • michael reynolds

    The wars we’ve lost are the ones in which we were unable to persevere until strategic victory had been achieved because they were wars of choice.

    That is absolutely true. Americans have short attention spans. And as we have discussed on previous occasions, Americans no longer have the stomach for Hiroshimas. We are short a few Scipio Aemilianuses. (Pluralizing Latin? Hmm.)

    I think that speaks well of the American people. I’ll never hate someone for not wanting war. But I don’t like policies that function as straitjackets. It’s a conundrum: a status quo superpower with an endless appetite for military intervention and no appetite for actual war.

  • TastyBits

    @steve

    None of those conflicts had public support. After the conflicts were started and US troops were in battle, the public began to support the actions. Other than WW2, none of the conflicts you cite had overwhelming public support prior to the operation.

    Americans do support troops in combat, but this is not the same as supporting sending them into combat.

    If the US supported war, there would be troops in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Iran, and Ukraine.

  • ...

    Oh, and to the readership since I’m in Africa, if anyone happens to pass Robert Kagan on the street, would you please do me a favor and kick him in the jimmy…hard. Thanks.

    If I meet him in the ‘hood, I’ll do at least that. I don’t wear steel toes, though, so I can only do so much damage.

  • Ben338

    I don’t want to quibble, but it is incorrect to say a war is illegal without UNSC approval. We are in the UN as a result of a treaty. A treaty is the same as a law, meaning it can be superseded by a law. When something (e.g., the Iraq War resolution) has been passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the President, it becomes law. A new law supersedes an old law. Hence, the USA can go to war any time there is Congressional authorization, regardless of how that authorization is titled.

    International law does not prevent Congress from ignoring a treaty because international law does not exist. We do not recognize any international body as having enforcement power over us, and our Constitution explicitly states it cannot be subordinated to anything else. The Constitution neither creates nor permits any mechanism for binding a future Congress on policy matters, except for the Constitution itself. This is as it should be. Our republican form of government would be perverted beyond recognition if the will of The American people were made subordinate to an international body over which they could not exercise any control. This allows us to make mistakes, ignore our promises to other countries and otherwise engage in activities some may find abhorrent, but it is a necessary price of freedom.

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