6 Questions to Ask Before Starting Your Next War

Only Americans can stop their country from participating in strategically misguided, irresponsible, and immoral adventures.

Americans watch President George W. Bush address the nation on March 19, 2003 in Marlton, New Jersey.  (Don Murray/Getty Images)
Americans watch President George W. Bush address the nation on March 19, 2003 in Marlton, New Jersey. (Don Murray/Getty Images)

The somnolent overseers of foreign policy on Capitol Hill have unexpectedly been stirred to action. Unfortunately, it required Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s order of the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi for policymakers to do their jobs. Nevertheless, 56 senators deserve credit for calling on U.S. President Donald Trump to remove military forces “as part of the conflict in Yemen.”

The declaration was especially meaningful because the Pentagon wanted to pretend that U.S. forces were not co-combatants in the Saudi-led air war in Yemen, despite providing weapons and logistics support, targeting assistance, in-air refueling, and (earlier) combat-search-and-rescue support. In August, Secretary of Defense James Mattis erroneously announced, “In Yemen, as a general statement, we stay out of the war ourselves,” while on December 6, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford falsely claimed the United States was “not a participant in the civil war in Yemen nor are we supporting one side or the other.” Sen. Tim Kaine described the Senate as “insulted by that. … We don’t find that to be believable.”

The Yemen civil war will not be the last strategically misguided, irresponsible, or immoral war in which the United States is an active participant. Before Trump and his successors authorize the next (initially) limited intervention or full-scale war, here are a half-dozen questions for citizens to consider:

First, are there national interests at stake that are best achieved through the use of combat arms, and which are worth the costs and consequences? Admittedly, “national interests” is a subjective rationale, often deployed without context to defend any war. Some are more concrete and measurable, such as preventing a catastrophic attack on the homeland, or defending a treaty ally, while others are nebulous—and may even be worsened with military force—such as enhancing regional stability, or upholding international norms. So, look for the national interests being cited by White House and Pentagon officials, and consider if the U.S. military is both best suited and likely to achieve them.

Second, what, if any, is the domestic and international legal justification? The domestic legal rationale for most deployments of the armed forces since 9/11 was outlined by the White House after Trump authorized a cruise missile attack in Syria in April 2017: “The President has the power under Article II of the Constitution to use this sort of military force overseas to defend important U.S. national interests.” (No legal counsel would broadcast what force the president does not have the power to approve.) The Obama administration consistently claimed that its nonbattlefield drone strikes complied “with all applicable law.” (They did not detail exactly which body of laws applied, or how.) When legal arguments for war consist of “because the president can,” or “trust us, it’s legal,” recognize that these pretexts are deeply contested by many legal scholars, or flimsy based upon any reasonable interpretation of the law.

Third, what allies or partners are signing up, and what exactly are they contributing to the intervention? Before undertaking a new war, every administration claims to have the backing of big and diverse coalition of eager allied militaries. In the post-9/11 era, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld routinely proclaimed that “the largest coalition in human history” supported America’s global war on terrorism, while, when the first bombs were dropped in Syria in 2014, President Barack Obama described the partnership to fight the Islamic State as “an unprecedented international coalition.” But in both wars few countries ever contributed directly to kinetic combat operations, and their initial levels of commitment dissipated over time as the perceived threats decreased, domestic opposition grew, and success appeared ever more distant. Thus, when U.S. officials tout sizable coalitions, investigate whether those countries will be footing any portion of the bill, actually dropping bombs, or deploying their troops into harm’s way.

Fourth, what are the intervention’s political and military objectives? These are difficult to discern by design. Aggressor states generally offer a buffet of justifications for violating another state’s sovereignty, in order to gain the broadest possible support from segments of the population that might otherwise be opposed to each new war. For example, I counted five justifications for the U.S.-led intervention in Libya in 2011, and seven as Obama signed up to back the air war in Yemen in 2015. But political objectives can be distilled into three categories: compulsion, to stop or alter a purposeful and ongoing adversary behavior; deterrence, to dissuade an adversary from taking a certain action by threatening something that it values; and punishment, destruction without the primary intent to influence future behavior. Military objectives are more straightforward to assess, and usually involve killing people, destroying things, or capturing and controlling territory.

Fifth, are those objectives obtainable with the American and partner military resources committed, and apparent domestic political will? Since the farcical Pentagon prognostications about the cost of the Iraq War—which Rumsfeld pegged as costing “something under $50 billion,” while his deputy Paul Wolfowitz was claiming the soon-to-be destroyed country could “finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon”—U.S. officials have not made promises about the human losses, taxpayer costs, and time required. Yet they still try desperately to influence citizen perceptions. For example, on the eve of the intervention in Libya, White House spokesperson Jay Carney termed the effort “a time-limited, scope-limited military action, in concert with our international partners, with the objective of protecting civilian life.” Note Carney’s skillful effort to minimize the United States’s perceived commitment, while emphasizing alleged non-U.S. contributions, and omitting the fact that regime change was the actual goal. You do not have to be a retired general—and given their anchoring in personal experience, it might be best not to be—in order to evaluate how probable it is those objectives will be met.

Finally, can officials define what a successful end state looks like? Envisioning a successful outcome to any war, and then judging how likely it is to occur is challenging. Be skeptical of any public figure who confidently forecasts war outcomes before they start. Nevertheless, campaign planners actually do articulate these end states with guidance from civilian officials, and the military’s sequenced courses of action are indeed intended to reach such an end state. A military intervention without a clearly defined end state is nonstrategic and fundamentally aimless from the start. When in doubt, remember the question that Maj. Gen. David Petraeus asked journalist Rick Atkinson at the outset of the Iraq War in 2003: “Tell me how this ends.”

Before the next war, listen to U.S. officials for the information that will allow you to answer the six questions presented above. But also listen to the retired service members, national security analysts, legal scholars, nongovernmental organizations working in conflict regions, and—most importantly—people living and working in the targeted countries. They have nonofficial, well-informed, and independent perspectives that often go unheard in major media outlets during the national debates—such that they exist—that proceed each new road to war.

It’s clear that citizens cannot count on their elected representatives to do their jobs when it comes to how America’s serving sons and daughters are deployed in war. Senators and representatives either do not understand the issues well enough to ask tough questions, are incapable of asking such questions, or are inherently deferential to civilian and general officers who brief them or appear before them in hearings. In war after war after war, Congress becomes engaged far too late to make a difference, after too many lives and resources have been lost forever, and then often only when there is a partisan political advantage to do so. Prior to the next war, form your own opinion by answering these questions for yourself.

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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