When Obama should go to war


Today’s question: Under what circumstances should or shouldn’t the United States get involved militarily around the globe? How do we distinguish between the Balkans and Darfur and Iraq and Afghanistan -- or any of the new situations that are going to face the Obama administration? David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lawrence J. Korb debate President-elect Obama’s national security priorities.

Our military is still in demand -- use it wisely
Point: David B. Rivkin Jr.

Whether to commit American forces to combat, or even to introduce them into an environment where combat operations of varying intensity are likely, is the most difficult and momentous decision facing any president. It ought to be approached carefully, with due deliberation and in a manner best designed to build substantial public support for the undertaking. While it is difficult to come up with any detailed pre-cooked policy prescriptions on how to handle future military engagements, here are some key relevant policy drivers.


First, the military engagement has to advance America’s national security interests. In most circumstances, this means that the failure to use military force is likely to produce significantly worse consequences than the resort to force. This calculus does, of course, have to reflect the inherent uncertainties and risks involved. To be sure, we have to recognize that these risks and uncertainties are not only associated with the use of force; failure to intervene is also capable of producing negative consequences, which have to be analyzed in the context of considering the same kinds of risks and uncertainties.

The possible use of force against Iran is a good case in point. Its costs would likely be high and its consequences are difficult to map out fully. Yet, the consequences of allowing the current Iranian regime to acquire nuclear weapons are so dire that the U.S. may well have no choice but to launch military operations designed to destroy the Iranian nuclear infrastructure. Figuring out when this decision has to be faced would be a very difficult task, especially given the inherent intelligence uncertainties and the past intelligence failures associated with the predictions of the particulars of the late Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs.

Second, a military engagement has to be undertaken with the maximum possible degree of support from our friends and allies and should be viewed as legitimate. Ideally, we would be able to garner tangible support, in a form of troops and resources, from other countries and secure appropriate resolutions from the United Nations Security Council. To be sure, there may well be instances in which such support proves impossible to generate. This should not rule out, of course, the possibility of a unilateral U.S. action; however, the stakes involved would have to be very high and the consequences of not acting very perilous.

Third, serious consideration has to be given to the question of the availability of the U.S. military and budgetary resources that would have to be committed for any new engagement. The current economic crisis and the ongoing U.S. commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan greatly complicate the task of finding such resources. Accordingly, any new commitments would have to be approached with extreme caution. It is for this reason that the incoming Obama administration should be extremely leery of becoming involved in any humanitarian interventions such as Darfur. We can provide diplomatic support and even commit transportation and air-power assets, but committing U.S. ground forces would not be prudent.

Resource-related pressures aside, the U.S. is likely to remain the best source of providing military power to deal with the threats posed by the world’s most dangerous countries. This is the case both because of our formidable military capabilities and the robust nature of American war fighting doctrine, capable of supporting both high- and low-intensity combat operations. By contrast, most of our allies have neither the capabilities nor the inclination to contribute in a meaningful manner to major combat operations. Accordingly, it would be logical for the Obama administration to push for a “division of labor,” whereby other countries become primarily responsible for the peacekeeping operations and humanitarian interventions. The fact that the Obama presidency will start with a large reservoir of global support should make this task easier to accomplish.

Because the U.S. is already engaged militarily in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration needs to approach military commitments in ways that learn from our past mistakes and build on our successes, particularly that of the “surge” in Iraq. Fortunately, given the president-elect’s decision to retain Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, there is every reason to be optimistic that he would handle the Iraq and Afghanistan operations in an appropriate manner.


David B. Rivkin Jr., partner in the Washington office of Baker Hostetler and a contributing editor of the National Review and National Interest magazines, served in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations in a variety of legal and policy positions.

Wars of choice versus wars of necessity
Counterpoint: Lawrence J. Korb

David, you are correct that sending America’s brave young men and women into harm’s way -- whether it is in the Balkans, Darfur, Iraq or Afghanistan -- is the most difficult and momentous decision facing any American president. And while your list of “relevant policy drivers” should come into play, you leave out the most important factor, namely whether the war is one of choice or necessity.

If the war is one of necessity, then the president should not be concerned about such issues as resource constraints or support from home and abroad. For example, in World War II, we spent more than 40% of our gross domestic product on dealing with the existential threats from the Axis Powers. The Korean War was also a war of necessity, as is the war in Afghanistan. The wars in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf in 1991 and Iraq were wars of choice, as would be a war against Iran or a military operation in Darfur.

When it comes to wars of choice, the president should use a different set of criteria. First, he must ascertain whether the objective can be achieved by a means other than military force. For example, can the threat from a state like Iraq or Iran be contained and deterred? Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, the head of U.S. Central Command from 1997 to 2000, argued that Hussein’s regime was not only contained but was growing weaker by the day.

Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, who commanded Centcom from 2003 to 2007, argued that a nuclear-armed Iran could be deterred, just as China and the Soviet Union were during the Cold War. It is doubtful that the late former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic could have been deterred from his ethnic cleansing in the Balkans or that the janjaweed militias can be deterred from violence in Darfur.


Second, the president must follow the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine. He must ensure that the conflict has the support of the American people by letting the public know the worst-case scenario. He must also be prepared to use all of the force necessary to achieve our objectives and have a clearly defined exit strategy, so that we will know that we have achieved them.

President George H.W. Bush clearly used this doctrine in the Persian Gulf War. The U.S. sent more than 500,000 troops into the theater, and when we achieved our objective of removing Iraqi forces from Kuwait, the president ended the hostilities rather than going on to Baghdad and overthrowing Hussein. In 1993, President Clinton initially offered to send 30,000 troops to the small area of Bosnia to enforce a future peace accord.

Third, the administration must do a cost-benefit analysis of the proposed military operation. The costs must involve not only the price in blood and treasure to this country, but also the damage to the country and citizens of the invaded country and the damage to our reputation if the reasons for taking the military actions are spurious. It is clear that the Bush administration never did this before going into Iraq. Not only did it underestimate the costs in blood and treasure, it never weighed the costs of diverting forces and attention from Afghanistan, the central front of the war on terrorism.

Fourth, a war of choice should be sanctioned by an international organization. The U.N. authorized the Persian Gulf War and the use of force in Bosnia. NATO authorized the war in Kosovo and, with the U.N., the war in Afghanistan. Not only does this legitimize an operation, but it also leads to other countries providing manpower and resources. After the U.N. sanctioned the Persian Gulf War, member states contributed more than 200,000 troops and $50 billion. In Afghanistan, NATO has contributed 35,000 troops and tens of billions of dollars.

If the Obama administration uses these criteria for deciding on the wars of choice it will confront, it should avoid the mistakes of the Bush administration.

Lawrence J. Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former assistant secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration.


Response from David B. Rivkin Jr.

Larry, the reason I did not articulate the distinction between the wars of choice and the ones of necessity is because I think this entire construct is both strategically specious and ahistorical. To begin with, most wars in American history -- or, for that matter, in the history of any country -- involved varying degrees of choice. The Revolutionary War was very much a war of choice since the American colonies’ grievances against Great Britain, while real, were not overwhelming; indeed, a large percentage of the American population, perhaps even a majority, had opposed the bid for independence. While Lincoln’s decision to preserve the Union was undoubtedly correct, the Civil War was also a war of choice: The South could have been allowed to secede -- as many in the North thought prudent and appropriate.

World War I was clearly a war of choice; neither the geopolitical equities nor even the moral considerations clearly mandated America’s intervention on the side of the Entente powers (France, Great Britain and Russia) against the Central powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary). Even the U.S. entry into World War II featured a great deal of choice.

In this regard, while the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor made the war in the Pacific inevitable (although the U.S. could have abandoned its colonial possessions and its economic position in East Asia to avoid war), despite Hitler’s symbolic declaration of war against the U.S., Franklin Roosevelt’s decision not just to go to war in Europe but for several years to allocate the bulk of America’s resources to the combat there at the expense of the war in the Pacific was very much a matter of choice.

This choice, by the way, was hotly contested at the time within the U.S. body polity. And, in an argument eerily reminiscent of the claims by today’s critics that the Iraq war was a distraction from the war in Afghanistan (from which the Sept. 11 attacks were launched), Roosevelt’s many critics bitterly chastised him for not concentrating on the war against Japan, the country that had attacked us at Pearl Harbor. The notion that the Korean War was a war of necessity is also difficult to credit. Here again, many American critics of that war viewed it as a strategic distraction. It was exceedingly unpopular, consumed much American blood and treasure and ended in a stalemate that lasts to this day.

To emphasize, I happen to agree with the strategic choices made by the Framers, Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Roosevelt and Harry Truman. In this regard, for example, Roosevelt was absolutely correct in believing that the Nazi Germany posed a greater strategic threat to the United States than Imperial Japan. Accordingly, we had to focus first on ensuring that Great Britain did not succumb to the German onslaught and pour resources into the European theater; the question of who attacked us at Pearl Harbor was not a major policy driver.


However, to present these choices as self-evidently sagacious is both to misread history and sell short the strategic acumen of American leaders involved. In a further effort to air brush history, you also conveniently overlook the fact that all of the past great American wartime leaders, and particularly Roosevelt, made selective use of intelligence and cannily manipulated the American public opinion, in an effort to rally support for their wars of choice.

This brings us to Iraq and the picture that you draw is a caricature, missing all of the strategic nuances and complexes. To begin with, with all due respect to Zinni, the Hussein regime was not contained by the time the war began. Then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell spent a great deal of time early in his tenure trying to build support for “smart” sanctions against Iraq, but he was unsuccessful.

The sanctions regime essentially broke down by 2002, with Russia, China and even our European allies anxious to normalize relations with Baghdad. So the real strategic choice facing the Bush administration was not between launching a regime change effort in Baghdad -- a venture admittedly replete with costs, risk and uncertainties -- and a well-contained Iraq, but the choice between a war and the emergence of the post-sanctions Iraq run by a homicidal dictator, hell-bent on reestablishing his weapons stockpiles and enjoying hundreds of billions of dollars of oil revenues and great popularity in the Arab world as the new Saladin who stood up to the West and had survived.

When the Iraq dilemma is properly presented, the choice made by the Bush administration at the very least does not appear to be as frivolous as you and the other Iraq war critics suggest.

The bottom line is that these types of choices are never easy, and the trade-offs are rarely clear cut. Simplistic constructs such as the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine mostly function as the rationalizations for not using force, irrespective of the merit involved in any particular situation. The false dichotomy of “choice versus necessity” obfuscates rather than illuminates the difficult strategic landscape that decision makers have to navigate.