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The Limits of Force: Back to the Wild West?

For all of its faults, the Obama administration was acutely aware of the limits to the use of American military force, whether it was struggling with terrorist organizations or contemplating the impact the use of force would have on achieving U.S. national security objectives.


The Wild West may be coming back. When the West was wild, it was a time of lawlessness. A time when shoot-outs were an unpredictable, regular occurrence. A time when might worked hard to rule over right. A time when fear overcame hope and accountability. It was not, to put a fine point on it, a time when life in the West seemed really “great.”

For all the criticism Barack Obama’s foreign policy has received (some of it from yours truly), we may miss him very soon. For all of its faults, the Obama administration was acutely aware of the limits to and wisdom of the use of American military force, whether it was struggling with terrorist organizations or contemplating the impact the use of force would have on achieving U.S. national security objectives. It is far from clear that the next incumbent in office has anything approaching such an awareness, which may bode ill for our security as a people.

I was reminded of how aware the president was about the uses of force when the administration, in December 2016, quietly released a 61-page report (call it a brief) on the legal foundations for its policies on using force against terrorist organizations. This brief, together with the extraordinary interview the President gave Jeffrey Goldberg for The Atlantic in April 2016, and his speech in Tampa on December 6, 2016, provide a thorough and detailed explanation of what he has been doing for the past eight years. For a reasoning and mindful President in a town full of gunfighters, his rationale on the use of force is compelling. It is based, for the most part, on the rule of law, unlike the views of the gunfighters on Capitol Hill and the new gang riding into town this month.

The Counter-Terror Brief

The very dry report, with the equally dry title of “Report on the Legal and Policy Frameworks Guiding the United State’s Use of Military Force and Related National Security Operations,” is available to the public. Very little of it is surprising, from the uses they have made of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) to conduct military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and against the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), to the legal justifications for (highly debatable) drone attacks on suspected terrorists in other countries, limits on the use of torture, and the fate of the detention facility at Guantanamo. We have been hearing this legal brief piecemeal for the past eight years.

The report provides one-stop shopping for the arguments the administration has made over the past eight years in defense of its counter-terrorism military strategy. As Lawfare editor Ben Wittes put it: “It just is not possible to read this document and not come away with a sense that the administration has endeavored to think through the range of issues it confronts in overseas terrorism operations in a systematic fashion and to make the framework it has developed as public as possible.”

The report supports the argument Obama made in his Atlantic interview and in his most recent Tampa speech: the United States cannot shape or determine all global events. Trying to do so leads to “overreach,” resentment, and, in some cases, outright failure. Moreover, terrorism is just one challenge the U.S. faces, and, at that, not the most significant. Making the terrorist challenge into a global threat to our very existence backfires: “Today’s terrorists can kill innocent people, but they don’t pose an existential threat to our nation, and we must not make the mistake of elevating them as if they do. That does their job for them. It makes them more important and helps them with recruitment” (from the Tampa speech).

The Obama approach to the terrorist threat has been, for the most part, focused and deliberately measured–the sheriff knows whom he has in his sights, and is not firing wildly down the street. The legal brief names the specific terrorist organizations that are targets for the use of American force consistent, they argue, with the 2001 AUMF: al-Qaeda in its various manifestations (e.g., in Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, and Syria) and its direct offspring, IS.

I said “for the most part.” Even this sheriff has some wild fire going on–deputies that are keeping eyes on other folks. The U.S. is also using “military force,” through the activities of the Special Operations Forces, in more than 80 countries around the world, all deemed “counter-terrorist” operations. The authority for these activities clearly lies outside the administration’s justification under the 2001 AUMF, or, at the very least, the report does not provide a legal brief for those activities, which could get the US into deep trouble in other countries. (And there is that pesky question, which the report does discuss, of whether drone operations are actually effective or, instead, are a counter-productive tactic in combatting terrorist organizations.)

Terrorist organizations are not the only focus of U.S. military forces. The role of the U.S. military in the Middle East is only partly covered by the legal brief and the AUMF. But here, too, the President has been cautious and limited. The clearest demonstration was the decision not to enforce a red line against Syrian chemical weapons in 2013. The AUMF would not have provided any justification for such a strike. However unacceptable the Assad regime may be, it is not al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or IS. The Syrian case has become controversial because the president did not use force when he said he would. It is the starting point for virtually all of the criticisms of the president’s overall foreign policy.

Knowing the Limits of Force

But the decision not to bomb Assad’s chemical weapons (or his regime) is consistent with a broader goal of limiting and clarifying when and how U.S. military force should be used. “Where am I controversial? When it comes to the use of military power…[t]here’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses. Where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions” (from the Atlantic interview).

The critics of this decision (and they are many, Democrats and Republicans alike) have argued that in drawing the line, then failing to follow through, Obama destroyed his (and America’s) credibility. He is very aware of that critique, but given his view on the need for limited and focused uses of force, proceeding without UN authorization–and without Congressional support–would have gone beyond the rules: “Dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force” (from the Atlantic interview).

He might have argued–rather, I will argue–that the muscular desire to attack with force advanced by his critics had no more logic than an assertion that “a man is not a man unless he is prepared to fight.” Machismo masquerading as policy makes bad policy, as Lyndon Johnson found out in Vietnam. The Obama critics never really worked past round one to assess the next step after such an attack. Assad would have still been in power, and countries around the region–even ones that detest Assad–would have resented yet another American military strike in the Middle East.

It is magical thinking to assume that chaos would have stopped with such a strike. The next step would have been to strike Assad, and, history suggests, regime change is only possible with an invasion. Where would we have been then? American forces would be in the middle of turmoil they could not resolve–a two-front war at the very least with IS on one side and Assad’s military on the other. Other armed factions, such as the Al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra), might have also joined in.

The last time that movie played out in the Middle East, the outcome was not pretty. Nearly 5,000 American soldiers died; over 30,000 more were wounded, firefights against American forces broke out everywhere in the country, and the new regime folded like a cheap suit before the IS assault in northern and western Iraq. To put it another way, an attack on Assad’s chemical weapons would have been a classic first step into a quagmire–or, to use the President’s phrase, it would have been “stupid shit.”

Criticize the Syria red line decision all you like. Option B was exactly where most Americans did not want to go: another gut-wrenching, unwinnable war in the Middle East with U.S. ground forces in the middle. As Obama said: “What I think is not smart is the idea that every time there is a problem, we send in our military to impose order. We just can’t do that.” Accepting what you cannot change is part of the 12-step recovery from foreign policy immaturity.

What Will Trump Do?

The new gunslinger in town, some seem to say, might agree. After all, Trump has promised both “greatness” and “non-intervention.” The same day as the President spoke in Florida, he said it again in Fayetteville, NC: “We don’t want to have a depleted military because we’re all over the place fighting in areas that we shouldn’t be fighting in. It’s not going to be depleted any longer…We will stop racing to topple foreign regimes that we know nothing about, that we shouldn’t be involved with. Instead, our focus must be on defeating terrorism and destroying ISIS, and we will.”

But this is a pretty wild and inconsistent gunslinger. With Trump, there is never a lot of analytical detail, even thoughtful rationale for his foreign policy prescriptions. Rather, it is a scatter fire of contradictions. We’re going to make America great and respected again, the President wussed out in Syria, and we’re going to defeat IS. It’s a little hard to get to the IS part without the force part, and, clearly, a large military is part of the “greatness” meme: “We will build up our military not as an act of aggression, but as an act of prevention,” Trump said. “In short, we seek peace through strength.”

Shorn of details, which it probably never had to begin with, this set of bumper stickers is hard to square. Are we to presume that that the U.S. can defeat IS, and restore respect, just by increasing the volume of muscle mass in the American military (already today the world’s dominant military force by far)? Or is it reasonable to guess that Trump would be all too tempted to “use it,” in order not to “lose” that respect? Non-intervention and fighting terror in the same breath? Unlikely. Build an even larger force, but never use it? Unlikely. No more nation-building? Maybe, but wait to see what he does with those 80 countries’ worth of special operations forces.

The agenda of the new gunslinger is too broad, the swagger too pronounced, and the lack of depth too apparent. He has surrounded himself with military men, who, decent or wildly unpredictable as they may be, grew up in a community that sees the military instrument as the centerpiece of U.S. national security policy. It could be a wild and unpredictable ride in Dodge City for the next four years.

Gordon Adams is Professor Emeritus at American University’s School of International Service and a Distinguished Fellow at the Stimson Center.


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