The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Why We Fight?

April 7, 2011

Steve Walt asks an interesting question: Is America addicted to war? He gives five reasons why we find ourselves in constant war:

1. Because we can
2. Because we have no serious enemies
3. The all volunteer force
4. It’s the establishment stupid
5. Congress has checked out

The first three and the last point all speak to the limited international and domestic structural constraints the United States faces on the use of force. The fourth speaks to the agency involved. On this point he argues:

the foreign-policy establishment is hard-wired in favor of “doing something.” Foreign-policy thinking in Washington is dominated either by neoconservatives (who openly proclaim the need to export “liberty” and never met a war they didn’t like) or by “liberal interventionists” who are just as enthusiastic about using military power to solve problems, provided they can engineer some sort of multilateral cover for it. Liberal interventionists sometimes concede that the United States can’t solve every problem (at least not at the same time), but they still think that the United States is the “indispensable” nation and they want us to solve as many of the world’s problems as we possibly can.

Walt’s hook for the piece is that Obama ran as an anti-war candidate and yet not only are we still in Iraq, but Obama escalated our troop presence in Afghanistan and now we are in Libya. Walt also challenges the core rationale for the Libyan intervention:

As in Iraq, the real purpose of our intervention is regime change at the point of a gun… Moreover, as Alan Kuperman of the University of Texas and Stephen Chapman of the Chicago Tribune have now shown, the claim that the United States had to act to prevent Libyan tyrant Muammar al-Qaddafi from slaughtering tens of thousands of innocent civilians in Benghazi does not stand up to even casual scrutiny.

First, Walt is right on the lack of structural constraints as major factors in the frequency of U.S. wars/interventions. We fight because we can — and we can do it, by historical standards, with limited international and domestic repercussions and costs

And, second, I think this is a fair question and I think that looking at the role of the foreign policy establishment is key. We do fight a lot of wars and we do so across administrations. The military, the defense industrial complex, and the foreign policy apparatus — government and think tanks — all seem to have been socialized to a significant degree behind the idea that war or the use of force is a normal condition.

But, I think there is a bigger challenge and set of questions that need to be considered in all of this. We live in a highly globalized world where both our actions and our inactions have real consequences. We spend most of our time focused on cases of U.S. military action. This makes a certain amount of intuitive sense and I don’t want to minimize the costs and consequences of the use of force. But it also strikes me that if we are trying to understand and explain why the United States gets involved in wars and intervention, we have to study cases of non-intervention to see what factors or patterns emerge from those cases. Likewise, if we are going to evaluate the consequences of U.S. wars, we need to try to measure the consequences of not acting. And, we need to understand the use of American force in the larger global pattern of war.

In my own work, I look both at decisions of intervention and decisions of non-intervention — turns out there are more cases of the latter. (John Bolton would love us to bomb North Korea, Iran, and probably Syria too — and probably all on the same night). I’ve argued that intervention decisions are the result of political contests within the foreign policy establishment over when and where to intervene and how these battles play out through the media to influence public and political pressure for and against intervention. A number of factors such as elite consensus, executive branch information and propaganda advantages, and crisis duration are all important in these outcomes, but so too are the credibility of the arguments.

I think this is particularly important in any assessment of the influence of liberal interventionists on decision making. For the most part, humanitarian interventions are far less frequent than one would expect given the number of acute humanitarian crises that have occurred in the past two decades. In other words, and contrary to Leslie Gelb’s rant, liberal interventionists often lose their battles within the foreign policy establishment — partly because they are often internally conflicted on calling for the use of force and partly because the threat of violence to civilians is not always clear.

In the case of Libya, the liberal interventionists were able to prevail in their policy advocacy because there was a broad consensus at the United Nations, within the Arab League, in Europe, within the human rights and humanitarian NGO community, and within the White House that there was an imminent threat to civilians in Benghazi. In this regard, I think Walt’s characterization that there was no credible threat is wrong. (And, for the record, Alan Kuperman’s cut-and-paste-re-hashed-moral-hazards-everywhere op-ed in the USA today has not “shown” anything about this case.)

None of us are privy to the specific U.S. intelligence reports on Libya in the run-up to the March 18 Security Council decision, but both the CIA and the State Department now have strong war crimes and mass atrocity analysis units and we’ll have to wait for the FOIA release of their internal analysis to fully understand how the administration saw the situation unfolding. But, we can infer from a number of things that there was a broadly held view (beyond just the views of the “fiery” Samantha Power) that there were real and credible threats to civilians. In addition to my earlier post on this, we have the Arab League warning of serious threats to civilians, the United Nations Security Council has rarely acted as quickly as it did with UNSC Res 1973, and several human rights organizations issued specific warnings. In addition, both the ICRC and Medecins Sans Frontieres were forced to withdraw their personnel from Benghazi in the week before UNSC Res. 1973 was passed because of intensifying security concerns and both issued warnings about the peril s to civilian populations with the war spreading to the highly populated Benghazi.

Furthermore, we have some pretty good indicators of when episodes of mass political violence are most likely to occur. Barbara Harff’s 2003 APSR article tracks numerous instances of mass political killings — including the mass killing of civilians. Retributive politicide are strategies designed during or in the immediate aftermath of political rebellion and are often implemented by regimes when political rebellions have been defeated. We have plenty of cases of this phenomenon such as Sri Lanka, Guatemala, East Timor, Angola, and Sudan. Many of the warning signs of this type of impending violence existed in Libya — such as Qaddafi’s political ideology; the breadth and intensity of the political uprising against his rule; his prior record of violent repression against political rivals and dissidents; the tribal dimensions underlying the East-West divide in Libya (and the political opposition); and the scenario that if he prevailed by successfully using coercion as a means of regaining control, we would likely see the future use of intense repressive violence to maintain control.

Had these conditions not existed and had we not had a broad consensus on the threat to civilians, I’m confident that we wouldn’t be fighting in Libya today.

But, even more broadly, it’s not clear that the consequences of U.S. humanitarian interventions — or robust international peacekeeping missions — are all bad. We still may see a bad outcome in Libya, but the intervention decision itself is part of something broader in the world today. The use of force has been a constant in international relations for centuries, but as Joshua Goldstein argues in his forthcoming book Winning the War on War (due out in late summer from Dutton) the nature of war is changing — we are witnessing far fewer interstate wars and we are employing new approaches to the use of force to quell civil violence and to protect civilians — battlefield deaths have declined in every decade for the past five decades. Furthermore, as Ted Gurr noted noted over a decade ago, the decline of ethnic conflicts may well be attributable to the new ways the international system has been able to respond to episodes of mass violence and new tools for international conflict resolution and mitigation — much of which has come with significant U.S. military and diplomatic leadership. Lise Howard’s work and Page Fortna’s work on the efficacy of peacekeeping operations also suggest that our collective ability to deploy coercive force in selected instances may be a contributing factor to a reduction in global patterns of conflict.

AS evidenced by Walt’s post, there is considerable frustration today with the extent of American military engagement in the world — Iraq was one of the biggest strategic blunders in American history and I remain uncomfortable with the size of the defense budget and the extent to which American troops have become the face of America around the globe. I am also keenly aware of the challenges facing the international action in Libya today. Nonetheless, I’m also aware that the broader trends on conflict and war seem to be pointing in the right direction and American power (including the use of force) in some instances may be contributing to that trend.

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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.