The Bible recounts that, after conquering Jericho, Joshua sent a party to reconnoiter toward Ai. Upon returning, the scouts assured their commander that this quarter of the Promised Land would fall easily. There would be no need to use the entire army. "Spare the whole people such a toil," the scouts urged. "The enemy are not many." Joshua detached only a token force to subdue the region. But the people of Ai, unimpressed with the reputation of Joshua's army, resisted fiercely and turned back the attackers. They pursued the Israelites to a place called Shebarim, where "they made havoc of them."
Today, the United States is ambling toward a Shebarim of its own. Barely seven years after the triumph in Desert Storm, American military thought and practice have lapsed into posturing and willful self-delusion. As a result, the world's only superpower seems bent on forfeiting its capacity to use military power effectively. The problem is not a lack of capability. The problem is confusion--at the top--regarding the utility of force as an instrument of policy.
To be sure, military activism has been emblematic of the Clinton style of governance. The president who, as a young man, loathed the military has employed it more often, for more varied purposes, and in a wider variety of circumstances than any commander-in-chief since Franklin Roosevelt: periodically flinging threats or missiles at Iraq; fighting (and losing) a small, but bloody, conflict in Somalia; dispatching troops to democratize Haiti; embarking on an open-ended deployment to Bosnia; responding (belatedly) to genocide in Rwanda; and sending U.S. forces into zones of instability from Kuwait to the Taiwan Strait.
The administration's responses to successive crises and its justifications for those actions (or nonactions) have created an emergent military paradigm. The paradigm has four basic principles. The first is faith in technology. American military supremacy is clear-cut, genuine, and indisputable. In an earlier age, heavy industry testified to the nation's military might. Today, the U.S. comparative advantage in exploiting the information revolution for military purposes serves an analogous function. The second principle is confidence in the potential of a militarily dominant power to overawe would-be opponents--in administration parlance, "diplomacy backed by force." Simply wielding the "big stick"--aircraft carriers steaming toward Taiwan or the rapid deployment of troops to Kuwait--should suffice to bring all but the most obdurate adversaries to their senses. That anyone should get hurt in the process is unnecessary, pointless, and even counterproductive.
When threats do not suffice, the U.S. uses force as a precision instrument: this is the third principle. Thus, the new paradigm inclines the United States to expend military power in increments. The ideal U.S. operation is limited in purpose, scope, duration, and effect. It minimizes the risk of casualties (whether ours or theirs), avoids collateral damage, precludes any possibility of meaningful retaliation or the danger of "quagmire," skirts moral ambiguities, and achieves its desired effect through suasion rather than brute strength. Such episodes are not to be confused with waging war, a concept that is antiquated and obsolete.
The final principle--a corollary of the third--is to employ ground forces only as a last resort. This principle manifests itself in an inclination to intervene reluctantly, late in the game, and then on a massive scale. It also manifests itself in tendencies, once troops deploy, to subordinate their nominal mission to the imperative of "force protection" and to seek withdrawal at the earliest conceivable opportunity. The new American military paradigm values soldiers on the ground less as units of fighting power than as a constabulary or a symbol of political resolve.
This paradigm responds to multiple needs unrelated: to national security as such. It comforts the sensibilities of officials who have distaste for things military but find themselves in command of a juggernaut. It testifies to their virtue and good intentions. It offers assurance that U.S. military power serves not only national interests but also the interests of all humanity. No one has espoused this view more vigorously than Madeleine Albright. During the most recent Iraq crisis, the secretary of state proclaimed: "If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future."
Politically, the new military paradigm has served the administration well. Through an eventful first term as commander-in-chief, President Clinton violated its principles only once and suffered his sole bona fide disaster-the bloody slaughter of crack American troops by the ragtag forces of Mohammed Farah Aideed in October 1993. The president promptly cut his losses, calling off the war, bringing the troops home, and blaming the United Nations. He has not strayed from the new paradigm since.
Beyond the political realm, however, the new doctrine has had pernicious effects. Ideally, a nation's concept of how to employ military power derives from strategy: a realistic appraisal of interests and threats and of means and ends. Unfortunately, the new American military paradigm has evolved in response to political rather than strategic imperatives. Obfuscation rather than clarity has resulted, Albright's boosterism offering a case in point.
The most recent confrontation with Saddam Hussein--in which the administration conducted a de facto plebiscite on the advisability of military action against Iraq--exposed the true extent of American confusion over the effective employment of military power. When Saddam in late 1997 refused to submit to further U.N. weapons inspections, the administration's first response sounded tough. Clinton vowed this time that if force were required the United States would "eliminate" Iraq's capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction (WMD). An ostentatious build-up of U.S. forces in the Gulf ensued. The media reported in detail the comings (and goings) of American aircraft carriers and the movement--by quantity and type--of warplanes. Press reports described the extent and the schedule of the American deployment, provided details of which allies would (or would not) offer assistance, and assessed the capabilities and limitations of forces assembling in the region. The administration revealed everything except H-hour and the actual target plan.
Yet, even as the build-up proceeded, the Clinton paradigm began to assert itself. In order to insure the elimination of Iraq's WMD program, would the administration use ground forces? Absolutely not. Even with precision weapons, could air power alone actually destroy the entire Iraqi WMD program? Probably not. Would the administration consider targeting those elements, such as Iraq's Republican Guard, that sustained Saddam's hold on power? Not really, given the likelihood of U.S. losses and civilian casualties. The administration argued itself into a "surgical" campaign of only four or five days and approximately 500 sorties. This effort, dubbed Desert Thunder by the Pentagon, would, at most, "diminish" Iraq's WMD capabilities.
At the Pentagon on February 17, Clinton explained that Saddam "threatens the safety of his people, the stability of his region, and the security of the rest of us." If the Iraqi dictator were to succeed in acquiring weapons of mass destruction, the president declared, "some day, some way, I guarantee you, he'll use the arsenal." Yet removing this threat lay beyond U.S. capabilities. "Let me be clear," the president said. "A military operation cannot destroy all the weapons of mass destruction capacity." At best, we could leave Saddam "significantly worse off than he is now."
The contradictions intensified the very next day at the now-notorious town-hall meeting in Columbus, Ohio. Albright, Secretary of Defense William Cohen, and national security adviser Sandy Berger tried to make the case for Desert Thunder before a national and international audience. The only sure way to get rid of Saddam was through invasion, noted Berger. But such an operation would "require a major land campaign and risk large losses of our soldiers" and was therefore unthinkable. The danger Saddam posed to America's children and grandchildren notwithstanding, "our strategic interests as a nation" would be best served simply by "containing the threat Iraq now poses."
For his part, Cohen freely acknowledged that the scaling back of American military plans had been dictated by a reluctance to accept even minimal casualties. Responding to a question posed by an American soldier, Cohen vowed, "we intend to take care of you … we intend to minimize the risk to your lives.… We will do our level best to minimize the risk of harm." Cohen concluded: "That's why it has been very carefully circumscribed in terms of the mission itself." Nor were American casualties the only limiting factor. Berger promised that, in designing Desert Thunder, the administration had "taken every precaution that we can to minimize civilian casualties." (As Albright would write in Newsweek, "We care about the Iraqi people.")
What the administration really envisioned, in short, was "diplomacy backed by force." That is, it still hoped that flaunting the big stick would suffice to cow Sad dam. In that sense, the administration readily conceded the initiative to its adversary. "Saddam holds the keys to ending this crisis," Cohen admitted. "He holds the keys in his hands."
The catastrophe at Columbus showed how the Clinton team had worked itself into an untenable position. It had portrayed the threat as malignant, and, at the same time, adhering to the tenets of its military doctrine, it had opted for equivocal action. "We are talking about using military force," Albright argued, "but we are not talking about a war. That is an important distinction." But the administration's insistence upon such distinctions pointed either to embarrassing failure or unwanted escalation. As in Mogadishu, but this time with far larger consequences, the president cut his losses. Albright flew secretly to New York to ask Kofi Annan to devise the fig leaf that would permit the United States to back down.
The effects of this episode will ripple well beyond the Persian Gulf. The defective military paradigm that gave birth to this failure is unlikely to pass away when the second Clinton term ends. It may be a principal legacy of the Clinton years, creating precedents and public expectations that could shackle the next president and the one after that. Deluded about what can be accomplished through the mere possession of military strength, and advertising their fears as if they were virtues, those who guide the fortunes of the world's only superpower have embarked upon an experiment in virtual disarmament.