Advancing a Free Society

The Limits of Limited Force

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The European Union has approved a concept of operations for sending troops to Libya.  But not to force Mommar Gaddafi from power, the political objective to which the governments of the United States, Britain and France are publicly committed.  Instead, the EU proposes to have soldiers protect the delivery of humanitarian assistance, should the United Nations deem that helpful, and are now working on operational plans to that effect.

If this sounds reminiscent of the folly of half-hearted Western intervention in the Balkans in the early 1990s, it should.  The United Nations Protection Force did not protect people in the Balkan wars, but by allowing the delivery of humanitarian assistance it broke the siege imposed by Serbs.  Yet all the while, European governments piously claimed they were neutral, even as their actions prevented the Serbs from achieving their war aims, and were outraged when the UN force was treated as a party to the conflict and they were pulled deeper into the Balkan wars.

We in the West have a tendency to wrap ourselves in the mantle of virtue when using military force, which is no bad thing except when it leads to sloppy thinking about how to use force effectively.  Too often, limited uses of military force convey to our enemies the limits of our interest in solving the problem, as has the air campaign in Libya.  We care enough to help at the margins, but not nearly enough to marshall the military power and political will to achieve our objective.

Micah Zenko, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, has written a terrific book examining a broad range of case studies on limited uses of force and concludes that they achieve their military objectives half the time (not bad, well above Ted Williams’ best season batting average).  But they achieve their political objectives less than 7% of the time.

Much of the explanation for why limited uses of force so seldom do what they set out for is that political leaders have sweeping political objectives -- “it is impossible to imagine a future for Libya with Gaddafi in power” -- considerably broader than the military means they propose to achieve that outcome.

Military force is a blunt instrument; it cannot achieve sophisticated political effects.  But it can foreclose some outcomes if political leaders are clear about their objectives and match their means to them.  That has not happened in Libya; nor will the EU sending soldiers to deliver humanitarian aid close the gap between our objectives and our means.  The problem with limited uses of force is that 93% of the time, our enemies figure out we’re bluffing.

(photo credit: Jim Howard)