The FP transcript (VII): How our experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq shaped our approaches to Libya and Syria
- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Ricks: Michèle, you looked like you were about to say something.
Flournoy: I think that this discussion is about the alignment of objectives. Are they consistently aligned with our interests? And is the level of cost bearable and appropriate, given the nature of our interests?
I saw that sort of insight applied to subsequent cases. I think the experience of Iraq — the inherited operations of both Iraq and Afghanistan — caused us to have a very fundamental strategic discussion about Libya, for example, and why we weren’t going to put boots on the ground, invade the country, own it, et cetera. People have said, you know– it’s the caricature of leading from behind, and that this is some terrible mistake for the U.S.
What it was, was really circumscribing our involvement to match what were very limited interests, to say we are going to play a leadership role that enables others who have more vital interests to come in and be effective. But we are not going to be out in front; we are not going to own this problem; we are not going to rebuild Libya.
I think that the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan — working through how do you get operations back onto a track where your interests and your actions are aligned — also informed things like Libya, like Syria, and so forth. You can argue whether or not that we made the calculation right, whether we got it right or not. But I’m just saying that the conversation — the fundamentals conversation — did happen in subsequent cases because of, I think, the experience in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ricks: Would you say that President Obama — to put you on spot — is good at having that sort of conversation?
Flournoy: In my experience he is. If the staff doesn’t — if the process doesn’t serve it up to him — he’s usually pretty good at saying you’re not asking the right question, the right question is “x.”
Brimley: I mean just as a two-finger on that. That was my first month at the White House when that happened. And it was an amazing process to watch almost from start to finish as a case study in how a president considers the use of force.
Ricks: You’re talking about Libya?
Brimley: Yes. When you read the history it seemed to me that with the decision to invade Iraq, there might not have been a formal National Security Council meeting where the benefits were voiced in open session in a proper process. But [on Libya] the president held at least three or four full National Security Council meetings and dozens of deputies and principals meetings to weigh that issue.
Ricks: And was the question why front and center?
Brimley: Yes, very much so.
Point No. 2: When you look at the mechanics of what we did in Libya, we provided a set of capabilities that were unique. We had unique comparative advantage: air- to-air refueling, ISR architecture, command-and-control architecture.
Alford: Geography mattered on that too.
Brimley: Geography, yes absolutely. The fact that we had a presence in the Mediterranean already was very helpful.
Alford: And you have an ocean.
Brimley: Right. We provided this set of unique capabilities that were enabling for other partners, to include partners from the Gulf to act in ways that they hadn’t before. Every situation is different.
But I think that process, at least for someone like me relatively young, as a case study in how we think about how we think about use-of-force decision-making and the way we provide unique capabilities in the future is hugely informative.
The second thing I’d say on Libyais that as a young person, my limited experience dealing with these issues has been informed almost entirely by Iraq and Afghanistan. So when we were debating Libya, people in my generation were very sort of hesitant to really almost do anything. Almost a hard-core realist approach of “it’s not really core to our national interests; we shouldn’t get involved.” But the people, I think, who had came of age in the Clinton administration who dealt with limited uses of force — no-fly zones — were much more willing to entertain creative solutions. So people in my generation, I think, going forward will tend to be an all-in or all-out.
Ricks: There’s an article to be done there on the generational qualities in foreign policymakers.
Brimley: I think the people within the Clinton administration having dealt with a couple of these use-of-force decisions in the ‘90s were much more creative in how they thought about ways in which we could use force but not go all in.
Alford: A great example, real quick. I was a second lieutenant in Panama when we took out Noriega. And by December 26th the Panamanian people were on our side, but that could have easily been a counterinsurgency fight, but the Panamanian people were very Americanized. We invaded that country, took out its leader, and rebuilt it. And it happened like that because the Panamanian people said yes. By February I was home, drinking beer.
(More to come about, especially about the relationship between golf and force structure)