The Future of War (no. 17): Policymakers’ options will be reduced to operating under the radar or going all-out in a big war

The Future of War (no. 17): Policymakers’ options will be reduced to operating under the radar or going all-out in a big war

By Lt. Col. Dan Manning, USAF
Best Defense Future of War essay contest entrant

Necessarily, America’s view of war and the calculus involved in making the decision for military intervention have been, at least temporarily, altered by its operational experience in both Afghanistan and Iraq. America’s appetite for committing thousands of troops and billions of dollars to military interventions is not the same as it was in the afterglow of the end of the Cold War or in the fear driven aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. While America’s core national interests have not changed significantly, the arguments national leaders use to convince the democracy to go to war have lost their savor and will be ineffective in the 5- to 10-year future.

In the recent past, Americans could be persuaded to go to engage in military action through a steady diet of arguments such as "we must take preventative action to thwart an evil regime’s evil plans," "we must eliminate a ruthless dictator and install a democracy," or "we need to eliminate terrorist havens in ungoverned spaces" — with a side of stopping human suffering. These arguments were sufficient for military intervention in Iraq during both Operation Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom, as well as in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Libya. President George W. Bush argued the United States should go to war because an evil Middle Eastern dictator likely possessed chemical weapons. When President Obama, however, tried to use similar arguments to build support for U.S. airstrikes in Syria after its government actually used these weapons, Americans’s support for the airstrikes plummeted to 28 percent according to a Pew Research Center poll, and America’s most reliable coalition partners could not muster parliamentary support for any action. 

What changed? Americans have become habituated to the threat of terrorism with persistent warnings in airports, on public transportation, and nightly news. In the years after 9/11, Americans have adapted to a new normal, and attacks such as those against the Boston Marathon remind Americans that they are vulnerable to terrorism at home, even after committing thousands of lives and billions of dollars to fight it abroad.

Additionally, Americans now realize that replacing an evil regime with a democratic one is not as easy as its post-Cold War experience would suggest. In the 1990s, establishing democracy seemed as easy as flipping a switch in Eastern and Central Europe. Erstwhile enemies of the Warsaw Pact succumbed to the inexorable attraction of self-determination and cast off their shackles of oppression to walk to the light of democracy. It sounded so nice that former Vice President Dick Cheney famously predicted Americans would be greeted as "liberators" in Iraq. America’s attempts to impose democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan have not produced the responsive, citizen-led governments U.S. policymakers envisioned. Even when America is not directly involved in regime change as in the Arab Spring, democratic conversions are violent, slow, and sometimes lead to U.S. officials being pelted by tomatoes and shoes, as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton experienced in Egypt in 2012.

In the future, U.S. policymakers will continue to feel a responsibility to respond to threats, even if they cannot convincingly articulate those threats to the American people. As a result, policymakers will continue to pursue very small, very limited military interventions where possible. Drone strikes are among the smallest of these interventions, but small footprint, low press interventions such as those currently ongoing in Djibouti, Mali, and the Central African Republic will continue to be palatable.

On the other side of the coin, America could be presented with a threat so obvious and ominous that it cannot be ignored. It is impossible to out-think the irrational, but it is plausible that miscalculation or a mistake might lead to a country like North Korea taking an action sufficiently threatening American interests in the Pacific and forcing a major U.S. response. With nuclear weapons in the mix, you can bet America’s most advanced weapon systems will be put to use along with thousands of troops.

America, however, will shun interventions that are neither very small nor very large as policymakers find themselves unable to convince neither the war-weary American public nor its war-weary coalition partners to take on another fight. Any intervention requiring nation- or state-building or without a direct impact on the lives of Americans will be dead on arrival. Recognizing these new limits to America’s ability to use its power, U.S. policymakers might seek to intervene early and often as long as doing so would not dominate the current news cycle. Ironically, this could mean that America’s difficult experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan could lead to an increase in the absolute number of U.S. military interventions in the future, even while the relative size of these interventions continues to decrease.

Daniel Manning is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force. He served as an A-10 pilot in Afghanistan and in various international affairs positions. He is also a Ph.D. candidate in international development at the University of Southern Mississippi. The opinions in this piece are his and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Air Force or the Department of Defense.

Tom’s note: Got your own publishable views of the future of war? Consider submitting an essay. The contest remains open for at least another few weeks. Try to keep it short — no more than 750 words, if possible. And please, no fancy formatting, no footnotes or recycled war college papers.