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Posted at 1:30 PM ET, 11/16/2010

What's behind limited military force?

By Micah Zenko
Guest Blogger

About this blog: Limited military force is often a favored U.S. response to global threats in the belief that it will get the job done without substantial death or collateral damage. It can range from extreme – and unfulfilled – recommendations of regime-changing assassination to drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan. But how effective is this type of military endeavour? In “Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World,” recently published by Stanford University Press, Micah Zenko examines 36 instances of limited force to assess their purpose and outcome. Here, Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, analyzes the rationale for this military policy.


When facing with a persistent foreign policy problem requiring a response, civilian officials often turn to the low-cost tool of limited military force. As President Obama’s Counterterrorism Czar, John Brennan, noted over the summer: “We will exercise force prudently, recognizing that we often need to use a scalpel, not a hammer.”

However, limited force is rarely as surgical or precise as one would imagine from Hollywood blockbusters or Pentagon YouTube videos. In reality, the intelligence used in targeting sites can be wrong, weapons systems fail, weather interferes, and humans routinely make mistakes.

Furthermore, while limited force is often an effective military tactic, it is a poor substitute for longer-term strategies intended to counter threats from targeted groups or states. Such strategies require political reconciliation, economic development to provide jobs for the unemployed, governance that is both honest and capable, and effective security forces that protects the population.

Civilian officials believe force can be the solution for two reasons: First, under pressure to act, and seduced by the allure of limited force, these officials elevate military options above other instruments of statecraft. Second, they have unrealistic expectations about what military power can achieve and are often not serious about confronting the structural issues that created the foreign policy problem in the first place. As the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers explained to me: “A lot of people not wearing military uniforms don’t really understand what it takes to conduct military operations.”

There are three consequences of this misguided faith in limited force:

First, there is the problem of moral hazard. The low-cost and low-risk characteristics of limited force make it more likely that civilian officials will order bombing raids or cruise missile strikes against foreign adversaries over other more resource-intensive uses of force. In doing so, they satisfy the perceptual need to “do something” without too much scrutiny of the efficacy of the military response.

Second, the readily available option of limited force compounds the persistent under-resourcing of non-military instruments of statecraft. Most civilian officials recognize the dire need to strengthen the civilian expertise required to implement the long-term development and governance programs, as best stated by Defense Secretary Robert Gates: "Military success is not sufficient to win."

But compared with the celerity, tangibility and political expediency of limited force, long-term and laborious diplomacy and development policies almost invariably lose out.

Finally, limited force undermines its own political objectives by tarnishing the image of the United States. In Pakistan, for example, drone strikes are increasingly perceived as the face of U.S. foreign policy, with three-quarters of residents in the tribal areas opposing the strikes.

Yet, in response to the summer floods, the United States provided $360 million for relief and recovery efforts, and deployed military helicopters and a transport aircraft to evacuate populations and deliver supplies.

However, as Washington Post columnist David Ignatius noted: "The U.S. military has been working hard to provide flood assistance, but most of that is invisible to Pakistanis. They read about American drone attacks but not about helicopters bringing food supplies.”

Ultimately, civilian officials must recognize that to effectively counter the persistent threats from non-state and state groups, limited force must be integrated into a comprehensive, coordinated, and prioritized strategy that utilizes all elements of national power.

By Micah Zenko  | November 16, 2010; 1:30 PM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags:  drone strike pakistan; limited u.s. force; u.s. military options  
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