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Aspin's Views on Use of Force: a Closer Look

AS the new administration prepares to pare the defense establishment to its smallest size in four decades and to integrate gays openly into the military, its national security strategy has not received much attention.

Yet comments made by Les Aspin at his confirmation hearings for defense secretary suggest he does have a coherent set of principles about the use of force, a key element of security. Mr. Aspin's ideas constitute one side of a policy debate that deserves closer scrutiny.

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After Vietnam, United States military officers became very reluctant to go to war without strong public support and good prospects for a decisive victory. This thinking is shared by important civilians: As President Bush has often said, the path out of a conflict should be as clear as the way in. Force is not the proper policy instrument if used imprecisely or out of frustration. In the mid-1980s, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger crystallized these principles. Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell has em phasized the "decisive force argument" repeatedly, most recently to counter proposals for intervention in the Balkans. The Weinberger/Powell principles have not precluded force, as Grenada and the Libyan bombing campaign indicated, if it could be used quickly and with little loss of life. Nor did they preclude Desert Storm, which enjoyed strong public support. Operation Just Cause in Panama and the Somali relief mission also fit this model.

But using force in the Balkans or other unforeseeable post-cold-war trouble spots might not fit. Aspin has a framework for dealing militarily with many of these murkier contingencies. For one thing, he argues, popular support at the beginning of a war is no guarantee that the public won't change its mind. From his experience in Congress, he also cautions that the American people must see that their military forces can be used effectively in less-than-extreme circumstances. These are important arguments. What is their strategic rationale and what are their implications?

But we must still think carefully about the domestic and international coalitions any US president needs to use force effectively.

At home, President Clinton must deal with a military establishment that views him warily and is undergoing its most serious identity crisis in decades. He cannot govern effectively in national-security matters without the confidence of senior officers. They will not and should not have veto power over his specific policies, but they must be satisfied that their professional judgment is being taken seriously.

Unfortunately, that thinking could conflict with the principles Aspin articulated. Aspin's argument that force can be used to punish aggressors without necessarily forcing them to yield may quickly wear thin. What if a foreign adversary is willing to absorb significant pain? The reemergence of virulent nationalism hidden by the cold war presents conflicts that are not always amenable to the kind of punishment that even highly sophisticated modern airpower can mete out - especially if the perpetrators of violence, as in the Balkans, have substantial local support.

Punishment works best in highly centralized states, such as Libya, where a leader, a ruling group, or command-and-control assets can be targeted.

In other circumstances, punishment not tied closely to clear objectives - destruction of the adversary's ability to use violence - can lead to the kind of open-ended commitment military officers will strongly resist.

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RELATED problem is assuring the public that force is being used discriminately and prudently. Mr. Bush struck a popular chord in promising Americans that he would not put their sons and daughters "in harm's way" unless casualties were kept to a minimum. If "punishment" becomes an acceptable reason to use force, uncertainties about the enemy's willingness and ability to resist an acceptable settlement could make such promises meaningless.

Americans, moreover, will reject behavior that seems indifferent to the suffering of innocent civilians, especially if the specific purposes of the military engagement are not compelling. However precise our weapons are, punishment strategies necessarily use force in a less measured way than those limited to stopping and destroying enemy forces.

Finally, a security strategy based on Aspin's arguments could pose problems for America's international credibility. During the cold war, fear of falling dominoes implied strong reluctance to abandon even interests of little intrinsic value. Resisting anywhere meant resisting everywhere. This belief always involved exaggeration. Yet there is little or no evidence that Soviet leaders became more expansionist in the 1970s simply because the US withdrew from Vietnam - a view widely shared.

Today, conflicts are localized. So there are even less geopolitical links between decisions to intervene. But because the US now lacks the resources for multiple solo interventions, its world leadership is constrained differently. Desert Storm ushered in a new kind of politico-military activism - coalition engagement through multilateral organizations. Whether Washington uses the United Nations, NATO, or some other group as a source of diplomatic, logistic, military, and financial support, it will need a llied consensus to mount any sustained military intervention. Unless its objectives are defined so as to achieve clear-cut results, US allies (also having limited resources) could lose confidence in US judgment.

Aspin rightly claims that "decisive force" thinking can handcuff US diplomacy in an era when policymakers might want to use force in many different places under many different circumstances. To avoid this, military officers should not impose such restrictive conditions on force that it becomes useless in the uncertain, more violent world we are entering.

At the same time, as General Powell warns, Aspin's looser criteria pose the danger that force will be used to make us feel good momentarily. If that backfires, the isolationism we saw during the last presidential campaign could strengthen. Civilian defense officials must therefore convince their military counterparts that any decision to use force will include criteria for terminating the operation and building a domestic case for it. Otherwise, by undermining domestic and perhaps international support f or an activist foreign policy, Mr. Clinton's national-security planners could get the opposite of what they want.

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