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Micah Zenko

Conflict Avoidance

President Obama's National Security Strategy aims to prevent the emergence of wars. So why won't the White House get behind its own strategy?

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

On Friday, Nov. 29, President Barack Obama released a letter to congressional leaders which he wrote to "inform you of my intent to release a new National Security Strategy in early 2014." The National Security Strategy (NSS) was first required as part of the Goldwater-Nichols defense reorganization legislation of 1986. The law mandated that the president submit an annual report to Congress outlining U.S. national security interests, goals, and objectives, as well as the adequacy of capabilities to achieve them. (Since 2002, presidents have submitted them every four years.) The NSS is intended to provide strategic yet prioritized guidance from which national security agencies base their own guidance documents, budgets, directives, and policies. For the Pentagon, this includes the National Defense Strategy, National Military Strategy, Guidance for the Employment of the Forces, and others. But this theoretical flow of guidance documents is rarely indicative of how things work in practice. One very senior Pentagon official in the George W. Bush administration told me that he never saw the infamous "preemptive war" NSS of 2002 before it appeared on the White House’s website.

To be fair, there’s a lot to read. Because each NSS is frankly too long — the first comprehensive one developed under President Ronald Reagan was 41 pages; the latest was 52 pages — they tend to be remembered (if at all) for one or two notable highlights. For example, Obama’s 2010 NSS was characterized by analysts as the anti-Bush strategy, which highlighted America’s restraint in the world and renewed partnerships with friends and allies. The last paragraph under the "Invest in the Capacity of Strong and Capable Partners" section on page 27 declared the objective: "Prevent the Emergence of Conflict." This includes a few generalized goals that "will help us diminish military risk, act before crises and conflicts erupt, and ensure that governments are better able to serve their people."

Conflict prevention’s placement as a policy goal deep within the NSS, and the lack of specificity about how this is pursued, says a lot about how the U.S. government thinks about preventing future wars. In a major speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in 2009, President Obama asserted: "one of the best ways to lead our troops wisely is to prevent the conflicts that cost American blood and treasure tomorrow." However, as debates about future roles and missions unfold, the military’s theory and practice of conflict prevention remains as under-prioritized and under-developed as in 2009. President Obama should elevate the importance of conflict prevention in the next NSS, and the military should act accordingly in terms of future strategies, training, education, and doctrine.

The common refrain one hears from military officials is that the mere presence of U.S. forces in any given region has a stabilizing effect, and deters the outbreak or escalation of conflict. Of course, this assumption is subjective depending on the intended audience’s interpretation. Consider the Pentagon’s reaction to China’s unexpected and confusing declaration of an Air Defense Identification (ADIZ) that extends over disputed territories in the East China Sea. In response, a U.S. official soon announced: "We will ensure our view of how the U.S. operates in that area is clear. At some point there will be something to demonstrate that." It didn’t take long. Just days later, the United States flew two unarmed B-52s through the ADIZ without informing China. U.S. military officials understandably contend that such routine flights are intended to assure its ally Japan, and emphasize the principle of free navigation in open seas or airspace. Of course, Chinese officials might perceive these moves as an aggressive escalatory response to Beijing’s announcement, which itself followed Japan’s own ADIZ declaration.

The potential for misperception in the East China Sea is heightened by what little insights Pentagon officials have into Chinese military thinking and decision making, despite years of military exchanges. As Air Force chief of staff Gen. Mark Welsh recently acknowledged of his Chinese counterparts: "What their motives are, ambitions are, I wouldn’t even pretend to guess those." The B-52 flights are known as Phase Zero, or "shaping" operations, "to dissuade or deter potential adversaries and to assure or solidify relationships with friends and allies." Yet, Welsh’s admission gets to a core dilemma in preventing an outbreak of hostilities: How can the U.S. military influence the opinion of Chinese leaders, if it does not know their motivations?

Beyond "shaping" regional environments, there are a range of discrete programs that military officials count toward preventing conflict: training of foreign military officers within the United States, conducting joint training exercises, and other capacity building efforts for partner and neutral country’s militaries. Much of this falls under the broad umbrella of geographic combatant commands’ (COCOMs) theater security cooperation plans. According to many COCOM officials and staffers, these are often developed and implemented without due sensitivity to specific sources or "drivers" of instability or conflict, namely what triggers could lead to an outbreak of hostilities. Of course, no one’s infallible: A fitting example of how these programs can backfire is Gen. Amadou Sanogo, who, in 2012, led a coup in Mali after participating in several military education training programs in the United States.

The first step to rectifying the U.S. military’s under appreciation for conflict prevention is for President Obama to provide a clear statement of support near the top of the 2014 NSS. Without reframing U.S. national security around anticipating, preventing, and mitigating conflicts that bear on U.S. interests, the military cannot undertake corresponding changes in its own strategic guidance documents. Of course, the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development are lead actors in "upstream" prevention, but only the military has the funding, personnel, planning capacity, geographic reach, and relationships with foreign security officials to have an immediate impact on the ground.

There also needs to be further prioritization of conflict prevention in military doctrine and directives. For example, there is a Pentagon directive for stability operations (number 3000.05) that mandates: "Stability operations are a core U.S. military mission that the Department of Defense shall be prepared to conduct with proficiency equivalent to combat operations." This sentence, first published in 2005, signaled to all military agencies the importance of stability operations, and outlined the 83 specific tasks that are supposed to be developed and implem
ented in a coherent manner. There is no comparable directive for conflict prevention, but if defense leaders believe preventing conflict is as important as winning wars, there should be.

Conflict prevention should also be a point of emphasis in the professional military education system. You won’t find Barnett Rubin’s 2002 classic, Blood on the Doorstep: The Politics of Preventive Action on the course list at West Point. Nothing analogous to the subject is offered at service academies or universities. You will not see conflict prevention or mitigation publications on the professional military reading lists of the service chiefs or combatant commanders. I’ve reviewed master’s theses written by mid-career officers — often a predictor of emerging themes and missions in the military– and there are none on this topic. Without developing a body of knowledge and policy-relevant recommendations, the military’s preventive programs will be based on untested assumptions and inadequate information, which appears to be the case with regards to China.

Finally, there should be a continued focus on closer interagency cooperation in preventive action. U.S. government agencies have come a long way in recognizing and forcing collaboration and coordination in the field. For example, COCOM theater security cooperation plans are often developed in conjunction with ambassadors’ country plans, and every geographic COCOM deputy is a civilian. Yet, making prevention-related communities in different government agencies work together requires constant attention and encouragement.

There is also the rarely stated dilemma of allowing ambassadors and civilian officials greater insight into the "black" Special Operations forces that operate within their regions or country. If the future warfighting is — as Pentagon officials contend — one where Navy SEALS and Army Delta teams conduct small-footprint lethal operations against suspected adversaries, then civilian officials must have more routine insights into what those operations are. As things stand, many retired ambassadors lament special operations actions. They’ve told me, in so many words, the same thing: "We don’t really know what they do, but we deal with the aftermath."

In May 2011,  the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, emphasized:

The reason I’ve been in the military my whole life is try to prevent wars…. I think that is a noble goal that all of us should seek, to end wars and prevent wars as much as possible…we work hard to try to be engaged globally in a way that is preventive in nature, so that wars won’t take place in the future.

Mullen’s passion for peace is echoed by many general officers, who have experienced first-hand the brutal costs and consequences of war. And while they recognize the importance of preventing conflicts that could bear on U.S. national interests, they also convey that it must be a priority for the White House first to get increased attention, and that they need a lot of help thinking about this issue. After a dozen years of warfare, and subsequent focus on counterterrorism, stability operations, and counterinsurgency, it is time to place conflict prevention at the forefront of objectives for the military.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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