The Cost of Foreign Intervention

Thursday, December 5, 2013
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Any grand strategy has essentially two elements: ends and means. As Stephen Krasner explains, a grand strategy envisions "how [the world] ought to be, and specifies a set of policies that can achieve that ordering." John Lewis Gaddis says: “Grand strategy is the calculated relationship of means to large ends.” These elements—ends and means—are intimately related: a state cannot maintain a strategy that seeks ends that are beyond the means it is able and prepared to devote to those ends. Every grand strategy should at some point, therefore, address the feasibility of the ends it proposes.

Grand strategies for the US depend upon a wide array of means, including diplomacy, alliances, economic activity, partnerships, and in particular fiscal capacity and a willingness to support the requisite military infrastructure. Some critics of US strategic objectives assume that the US, though “war weary” and under significant economic pressure, remains the dominant military and economic power with sufficient means to implement a grand strategy with ambitious ends. The problem they have with US grand strategy is its aims.

  what economic recovery  
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Fareed Zakaria concludes, for example, that the problem facing the US is not any lack of power and resources, but its inability to respond effectively to the rising power and influence of the rest of the world. (“The Post-American World.”) This brings to mind Barry R. Posen’s point that the US propensity to seek “more control” in responding to “the negative energies and possibilities engendered by globalization” itself “injects negative energy into global politics as quickly as it finds enemies to vanquish.” (“The Case for Restraint,” The American Interest, Nov/Dec 2007). Francis Fukuyama blames “state weakness” rather than strength for the diminished significance of US conventional military power, but he too reaches the conclusion that US strategies have failed because of the ends they seek, not any lack of means: “even if the United States had significantly larger military forces, it would still be unable to use them effectively to achieve the political goals it sets for itself.”

This essay makes no effort to address criticisms of US strategies based on their quest for ends “that cannot be realized,” as Krasner puts it; indeed, I agree with some of those criticisms. Rather, this essay is focused on means. The US (as Posen and others unhappily predicted) continues to advance strategic plans far more ambitious than Posen and others would prefer to see, so the capacity and willingness of the US to fund a national security infrastructure capable of implementing those plans is an essential consideration in testing their viability. In that regard, clearly both the capacity and willingness of the US to fund its national security infrastructure has diminished.

Strategic thinkers generally agree the US public is “war weary” and reluctant to support foreign interventions, especially those that could prove costly in terms of funds and casualties; and US deficit spending far in excess of historical levels has resulted in mandated across-the-board reductions in defense-related expenditures, which is reducing US military capacities. US government strategic assessments take these realities into account (as do similar proposals by non-government experts), but they nonetheless advocate robust objectives. They do this by presuming or explicitly contending that the robust objectives sought can be achieved, despite the reduction in available resources, by utilizing US advantages in technology and planning to deal effectively with asymmetric threats and other current national security challenges but at reduced costs.

That the US remains committed to robust strategic aims is evident in the Obama Administration’s formal strategic pronouncements and conduct. The 2010 National Security Strategy relies less on preemptive force and unilateral action than the Strategy issued under President George W. Bush (the significance of which is lessened by President Obama’s commitment to using preventive force against Iran and his repeated, unilateral actions in striking Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders). It states explicitly, however, that "there should be no doubt" the US "will continue to underwrite global security—through our commitments to allies, partners and institutions; our focus on defeating Al Qa’ida and its affiliates in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and around the globe; and our determination to deter aggression and prevent the proliferation of the world's most dangerous weapons"; and it reserves “the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend our nation and our interests . . .” The Strategy acknowledges that no single nation can guaranty peace alone, but it takes on specific, highly ambitious tasks and does not condition its commitments on the availability of partners. The promise to "renew American leadership" is intended to convey the desire to restore international confidence so as to enhance US influence, not to indicate any intention to stop leading.

To achieve its ambitious objectives the Strategy calls for integrating "all elements of American power" and "updating" national security capacities. This translates into maintaining "our military's conventional superiority [not necessarily its former strength] while enhancing its capacity to defeat asymmetric threats." "We are strengthening our military to . . . excel at counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, stability operations, and meeting increasingly sophisticated security threats, while ensuring our force is ready to address the full range of military operations." Minimizing the need to use force “means credibly underwriting U.S. defense commitments with tailored approaches to deterrence and ensuring the U.S. military continues to have the necessary capabilities across all domains—land, air, sea, space, and cyber.”

Strategic guidance issued by the US Department of Defense in January 2012 reaffirmed US ambitions, and provided greater detail as to how the US government plans to fund the capacities needed to achieve its objectives. “We are shaping a Joint Force for the future,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta wrote in releasing the guidance, “that will be smaller and leaner, but will be agile, flexible, ready, and technologically advanced. It will have cutting edge capabilities, exploiting our technological, joint, and networked advantage.” The Joint Force contemplated through 2020 will be tasked with the full range of “Primary Missions” in the 2010 Strategy, but in “this resource-constrained era” the US will “reduce the ‘cost of doing business’” through manpower, overhead and acquisition reforms, “retain and build on key advancements in networked warfare,” and “whenever possible, . . . develop innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches to achieve our security objectives . . .” The plan also expressly provides that, while US forces will be “ready to conduct limited counterinsurgency and other stability operations if required, . . . [they] will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations.” While the US will continue to pursue the full range of its traditional missions, including humanitarian intervention in response to natural disasters and mass atrocities, the “overall capacity of U.S. forces . . . will be based on requirements” demanded by a more limited “subset of missions,” specifically countering terrorism and aggression, maintaining an effective nuclear deterrent, and defending the homeland.

A recent Brookings report written by Adm. (ret) Gary Roughead and Kori Schake, "National Defense in a Time of Change,” makes specific recommendations on military spending designed to meet the reductions mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 without damaging US capacities needed to deal with "the threats we are likely to face." While recognizing that the US is "war weary" and that cuts in defense spending are certain, the authors assume that, regardless of size, the US “will continue to be the major security provider in the international order, counted on to use political heft and military force to protect our security and our allies, and to project ideas that are important to us."

To find the means to do these things the report recommends manpower, acquisition reforms, and continued reliance on the "diverse tools" that have helped the US cope with the challenges of Afghanistan, including "increased surveillance and more precise and timely intelligence." We should expect restricted access to countries where threats are developing but be prepared to overcome them by designing forces capable of dealing with them from "offshore" through the ability to utilize "unmanned platforms," as well as by learning to "fight" in cyberspace. They believe that the new threats can be defended against effectively through these measures even in the context of reduced expenditures.

These proposed strategies reflect the consensus among US leaders of both parties that the US should continue to commit to objectives that are robust, albeit with qualifications. They all rely on the premise that the US will be able to accomplish much of what it has traditionally sought to achieve with fewer resources, and despite the public’s war weariness, by (1) obtaining and using better intelligence and controlling cyber space; (2) using methods of physical attack, especially drones and tactical missiles, that avoid or greatly reduce US costs and casualties; (3) limiting the duration and objectives of interventions requiring on-the-ground US forces.

One would think that US strategic planners should be free to rely on modern technologies and other means and practices they believe would reduce the costs of achieving robust ends, rather than being forced to give up attempting to achieve ends they regard as essential to US interests. The trend in current strategic planning for fitting limited means to robust ends have thus far treated such options for reducing the costs of military interventions as both lawful and legitimate. Increasingly, though, legal and ethical arguments are being advanced that seem likely to affect the ability of the US to resort to these options, in addition to questions about their utility, and so may demand more careful consideration of their actual availability.

1. Better Intelligence and Control of Cyber Space. The US unquestionably has superior abilities in the collection and analysis of intelligence. Experience indicates, however, that it is far from clear these abilities will consistently be used in optimal ways. Battlefield intelligence does convey significant advantages to US forces, but cannot as readily be shown as to general collection and analytic abilities. Furthermore, metadata collection and other NSA programs are being challenged as illegal and as ethically inappropriate violations of privacy. Even if these programs prove able to reduce defense costs in significant amounts (beyond their own cost), public resistance to them is increasing within the US and abroad, including among allies, which could eventually be translated into legislative restrictions.

The US may have superior abilities in cyber space, but they are likely to relate to forms of attack that the US could use during armed conflict, or when the identity of the attackers can be reliably determined. The Cyber Command will develop effective defensive and offensive capabilities, but these cannot prevent the major and growing expenditure now required by all sectors of US society to defend against cyber intrusions and attacks from both private and public sources. Cyber-space challenges are in fact likely to increase rather than reduce national security challenges and costs.

2. Reliance on “Offshore” Methods of Intervention. The US has relied in recent years on interventions from outside the borders of target states to avoid putting US military personnel into hostilities. President Clinton's high-altitude bombing of Serbia as part of a NATO operation in order to stop the Serbs from driving Muslims out of Kosovo is an example, as is the offshore destruction by several NATO powers of Colonel Gaddafi’s military assets in Libya. A substantial increase under President Obama in the use of drones to conduct military strikes in foreign countries has enabled the US to disrupt and kill terrorists and Taliban leaders without exposing US forces to physical risk. The US government and other strategic planners believe these types of interventions, and ultimately the use of robots in other contexts, will allow the US to achieve important security objectives at lower fiscal and political cost.

The propriety of using such methods is increasingly being challenged, however. Serbia accused NATO of illegally bombing its civilian infrastructure, arguing that NATO’s planes flew too high to be able to target accurately in their effort to avoid anti-aircraft weapons. The ICTY Prosecutor declined to press charges against NATO, but went so far as to examine most of the individual sorties to determine whether they disproportionately harmed non-combatants. Would the Prosecutor have been as accommodating if the US had acted unilaterally?

The use of drones to kill individuals who are believed to have attacked US targets or to be planning such attacks has been investigated and condemned as violating international law on several grounds. The UN Special Rapporteur has concluded that attacks in Pakistan are illegal without Pakistan’s permission. Others condemn using drones to attack individuals in a foreign state even with its government’s permission on the ground that individuals targeted are being “executed” without due process, and based on claims that the attacks are causing unacceptable levels of collateral damage. As reliance on robotics in the conduct of military operations grows, moreover, opposition based on legal and ethical grounds increases; UN reports and conferences are calling for a moratorium on the use of “lethal autonomous” robots in armed conflict, arguing that such weapons violate the basic principle that warriors, not weapons, must be responsible for complying with the laws of war. A growing literature by both civilian and military analysts challenges the value expected from the “revolution in military affairs” inspired by technological innovations. 

3. Limiting the Duration and Aims of On-the-Ground Interventions. Recent US strategic doctrine indicates a major shift in the means that will be available toward the ends of “stability and counterinsurgency operations.” According to the Department of Defense’s 2012 Strategic Guidance, the US does not plan to fund a military capable of undertaking “large-scale, prolonged stability operations,” a limitation presumably applicable to most missions contemplated for the Joint Force, including counter-terrorism and humanitarian actions. Here, again, the strategic planners who crafted this practical limitation on the types of interventions now widely viewed as likely to be both unaffordable and futile, have assumed the US could, when it chooses, intervene to conduct a stability or counterinsurgency operation, and then leave if it becomes either large-scale or prolonged.  

Here, too, however, arguments are being advanced based on various formulations to the effect that every intervention carries with it responsibilities that effectively prevent them from being deliberately limited in cost or time. The most commonly expressed formulation is the idea that, in the words of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, "if you break it you own it." The implication is that, if the US intervened in Iraq, it would "own" at least some of the vast and expensive problems created by such an intervention. 

Another way this sort of limitation has been expressed is that the intervening state, much like a “trustee,” "owes" the state and/or population into which it has intervened (even in self-defense) the assistance necessary to enable a legitimately elected government to maintain order and govern effectively. This position, advanced by such writers as Noah Feldman in What We Owe Iraq: War and the Ethics of Nation Building, is being shaped by scholars into a “law of post-intervention duties” (“Jus Post Bellum”) that goes beyond and is inconsistent with the conservationist principle underlying the existing Law of Occupation based on applicable Geneva Conventions and International Humanitarian Law (IHL). One scholar, K. E. Boon, explains this effort as follows:

[J]us post bellum should be based on the emerging norms of accountability, stewardship, good economic governance, and proportionality. Jus post bellum triggers principles in play in periods after armed conflict, moving away from war (ab bello) towards justice (ad jusitiam) and peace (ad pacem). Jus post bellum expands the traditional binary rules of international law into a tripartite system, which will bring the law into closer conformity with the challenges presented by the peace-making, peace-building, and post-conflict practices of today.

Another scholar, Carsten Stahn, has explained why and how the moral concepts underlying just war theory are changing into legal rules:

Certain adjustments must be made, if the idea of ‘jus post bellum’ is translated from a moral principle into a legal notion. . . . [T]he applicability of principles of post-conflict peace can no longer depend exclusively on moral considerations, such as righteousness of waging war. The concept of a fair and just peace must be framed by reference to certain objective rules and standards that regulate guidelines for peace-making in the interest of people and individuals affected by conflict. . . . [P]eace-making is not strictly aimed at a preservation or return to the legal status quo ante, but must take into account the idea of transforming the institutional and socio-economic conditions of polities under transition. In this sense, peace-making differs from the classical rationale of the law of occupation. The ultimate purpose of fair and just peace-making is to remove the causes of violence. This may require positive transformations of the domestic order of a society. In many cases, a fair and just peace settlement will ideally endeavour to achieve a higher level of human rights protection, accountability and good governance than in the period before the resort to armed force.

These ideas are far from having been established as binding law. While their proponents rely on humanitarian principles such as the concept of the Responsibility to Protect, this doctrine, if accepted, would deter interventions aimed at protecting groups from genocide and other serious violations of humanitarian law.


Efforts to limit the flexibility available to the US to develop a grand strategy based on advanced technologies, relatively inexpensive methods, and selective engagements may ultimately fail, but should be taken seriously. A strong tendency exists that disfavors relatively inexpensive interventions. That requires political and military planners to take into account that grand strategies based on the view that the US will be able to take full advantage of its claimed technological superiority, and limit its interventions as it sees fit, may be mistaken.

To the extent this turns out to be so, military interventions are likely to be more expensive than might be feasible due to legal or ethical limitations. The US remains free to argue that its “inherent” right of self-defense, or to exercise collective self-defense, cannot be limited by legal or ethical arguments that have not been universally accepted. But grand strategists should more carefully consider the potential impact of such arguments to ensure they are making realistic assumptions as to the means required for the objectives sought.