The use of force always entails grave dangers and human costs, and progressives have been leery particularly since the Vietnam era of supporting it, even to prevent or end mass atrocities, repression, and other systematic human suffering. Wise leaders will always remain wary of war. But wisdom also requires us to acknowledge two dramatic changes in our ability to use force for good. First, in a single generation, our ability to intervene without heavy casualties has improved dramatically. Second, the range of diplomatic and legal tools for legitimizing such interventions has likewise expanded. During this same period, we have been reminded tragically of the real and staggering human cost of inaction, most notably in the 800,000 lives lost in Rwanda. The tendency to feel less moral responsibility for the results of inaction and to overvalue the risks of acting in difficult situations is natural, but it is ultimately indefensible.
These new conditions present progressives today with a historic opportunity—to embrace a slight tipping of the scales toward action in the age-old balance between the horrors of the world and the horrors resulting from the military actions that might prevent them. This shift should be seen more as a marginal adjustment than as a dramatic ideological recalibration, but this new-generation understanding can mean the difference between paralysis and action.
Consider the post-Cold War era in American foreign policy. Putting aside for a moment the responses by George W. Bush’s Administration to September 11, this era offers three major examples of the use of American hard power since the fall of the Berlin Wall: under George H.W. Bush, the Persian Gulf War in response to a dictatorial invasion of a sovereign nation; under Bill Clinton, the Kosovo air campaign to stop ethnic cleansing; and under Barack Obama, the international campaign to oust Moammar Gadhafi from power and prevent attacks on civilians in Libya.
Whether or not one agrees with any or all of these missions, they share significant characteristics: a casus belli that mingled idealistic and realpolitik concerns; a cool (rather than hot) decision to proceed to war; the careful employment of regional and allied support; and the use of targeted, decisive force. It is not surprising in retrospect that Barack Obama claims a strong affinity for the foreign policy of the first President Bush. Seen as a continuum, these interventions represent the arrival of a new era of decisive pragmatism in the threat and use of American force, one in which the U.S. government has greater technological and normative capacity to act, and a growing body of case studies from which to refine its operational decisions to maximize its effectiveness.
Our Evolving Diplomatic and Military Arsenal
Operational developments since the end of the Cold War have substantially improved our capacity to wage smart military operations that are limited in time and scope and employ precise and overwhelming force. This presents progressives with an opportunity—one that is too often seen as a curse—to expand the use of force to advance key values. Our technical capacities, ranging from accuracy of systems intelligence to smart weaponry, now allow for previously impossible operations. Today, we have the ability to conduct missions from the air that historically would have required ground troops. And we possess an admittedly imperfect but highly improved ability to limit collateral damage, including civilian casualties. Among other things, this means fewer bombs can accomplish the same objectives, with early estimates suggesting that the Libyan air campaign required one-third the number of sorties as earlier air wars.
Changes in the capacity to use force reduce the barriers to military action, but they do not eliminate timeless standards for validating violence. Here, too, however, the new century bears witness to dramatic innovations, as the post-Cold War era has finally produced a nimble, complex, and relatively functional source of multilateral legitimacy. During much of the Cold War, the U.S.-Soviet divide paralyzed the UN and overshadowed or stunted most regional institutions, while universal norms amounted to aspirations on paper rather than widely enforceable absolutes. The collapse of the bipolar world created room for NATO, the Arab League, the European Union, the African Union, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to broaden their membership and influence. International norms began to look more like laws—some triggering action in the face of genocide or ethnic cleansing, as in Kosovo, and others given force through regional tribunals to hand down judgments, as in the case of Liberian dictator Charles Taylor. While the UN Security Council remains the most formal standard for international legitimacy, many nations consider it less representative than regional bodies and less responsive than reality sometimes demands. Today, the United States has a range of options to validate such uses of military might for humanitarian concerns.
To assess the uniquely modern combination of tactical precision and new-era legitimacy, it is worth looking more closely at two of the post-Cold War uses of force cited above. The Gulf War still reflected many aspects and limitations of a traditional ground war. The two multinational air campaigns in Kosovo and Libya, however, reflect the new opportunities created by weapons technology and diplomatic innovations. Even in a period that many observers associate with the decline of U.S. influence because of financial, political, and diplomatic limitations, these case studies suggest ways in which we continue to expand our capacity to act, and act legitimately, in the face of grave threats and injustices.
The Kosovo War
In many ways, the 1999 Kosovo War represents the meeting place of nimble force and modern multilateral engagement. Technologically, the NATO air campaign demonstrated a dramatic improvement in the accuracy and concentration of smart bombs, more precise systems intelligence, and greater transparency of hits and misses. The improvement in accuracy was due in part to the internal campaign at the Pentagon for greater precision, based on an understanding of the moral and operational costs of higher civilian casualties, and possibly on an awareness that the ability to conduct lower-casualty wars could reduce the barriers to using force in the first place.
The air campaign included targeting of key installations—military and infrastructure—that crippled the Serbs’ efforts to complete the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo Albanians. The campaign was stunningly successful in stopping the atrocities on the ground through air power, producing no U.S. casualties and civilian casualty estimates ranging from 20 to 500 deaths. Not just the volume but the ratio changed—civilian casualties have generally, and often dramatically, outnumbered combatant casualties in modern warfare, but that flipped decisively in the case of Kosovo. While the war left in its wake reprisal killings and hundreds of thousands of displaced people, most humanitarian experts have acknowledged that it was a solid example of rapid, decisive, multilateral action to stop widespread and systematic crimes against humanity.
The action also broke new ground diplomatically. Russia’s Serbian sympathies prevented an authorization of force by the Security Council. But NATO was willing to act on European soil, and this, combined with an increasingly robust international norm for prevention of genocide or ethnic cleansing, provided significant legitimacy for intervention. While some misread this precedent as saying that the United States could shoot first and be proven legitimate later by its success, the clearest lesson here was that international norms (preventing atrocities) and regional interests (NATO on European soil) could trump fully inclusive global processes (intransigent UN) where the barriers to that process are grounded in crass realpolitik.
The Kosovo campaign thereby showed a new-generation approach to legitimacy. The increasingly robust body of international norms and even formal laws, as well as the growing regional legitimacy of NATO, gave the Clinton Administration more choices than “legitimate” paralysis on one hand and unilateral invasion on the other. In fact, by the end of the century, the world increasingly accepted humanitarianism and enforcement of established rules of collective security as a rationale for interventions and validations of force even without a UN Security Council resolution. The emerging consensus on the use of force for such ends was of course shattered in the wake of the second Bush Administration’s claims about the Iraq invasion—first the allegations regarding WMD, followed by an ex-post use of humanitarian motives—that have strained our credibility.
The Kosovo War gives cause for both pride and caution as the United States contemplates future action on humanitarian crises. Yes, it provides guidance on how to execute an almost surgical intervention. But we also must keep in mind that precisely because the atrocities we averted were massive and imminent, the military strategy so tactically straightforward, and the result so casualty free, the campaign set the bar at an unrealistic height. Future missions are likely to be much more complex, with more gray than black-and-white areas.
Libya and Gadhafi
The fledgling legitimacy innovations of the Kosovo campaign proved to be fully grown by the time Moammar Gadhafi moved to brutally crush popular uprisings earlier this year. In a rare convergence of international condemnation and an even rarer willingness to back that up with action, the Arab League, NATO, and UN Security Council demanded that Gadhafi relinquish power to prevent the slaughter of civilians.
The U.S. and global decision to intervene in Libya to protect civilians reflected not just the new generation of legitimacy for use of force, but a generation of policy-makers around the world who had learned from Rwanda and elsewhere the tragic cost of inaction. Gadhafi was making explicit threats of a “no mercy” attack on Benghazi. I previously worked for a war crimes tribunal that nearly indicted Gadhafi for his role in crimes against humanity in West Africa, and newly discovered mass graves appear to show he was already slaughtering his own citizens. His track record and rhetoric suggested that the probability of escalating atrocities was clear and present.
This was not the opinion of one ideological faction in one government, but a view shared by leaders across the UN, Arab League, and NATO. The United States unquestionably had realpolitik rationales for this intervention, including a desire to signal to the 60 percent of the Muslim and Arab world below the age of 30 that we recognized a new era in the region in which governments must be accountable to their people. In this case, those strategic concerns aligned with our motives to protect civilians. Today, Gadhafi is dead, and the Libyan people have their first chance for democratic, accountable governance in decades.
The tactics of the Libya campaign also reflect a progression from the breakthroughs of the Kosovo War. Weapons precision increased, along with the quality of systems intelligence and the comfort level of intra-NATO cooperation. More data needs to be collected to assess civilian and collateral damage, but most independent sources suggest surprisingly low figures for a military engagement that amounted, on many levels, to a civil war on the ground.
Though enormous challenges lie ahead that will almost certainly include some setbacks, Libya appears likely to join Kosovo as a second major example in as many decades of a military intervention conducted in a relatively short period of time, with historically low casualty rates in the midst of a dire humanitarian situation and demand for intervention from within the nation and the region. American casualties were zero. Insurgent fighters and the vast majority of the population have cheered the victory as liberation, and courageous Syrians who face daily threats of death for standing up to their own repressive regime have taken comfort in Gadhafi’s fall. These accomplishments are no small feats for those who care about human dignity, democracy, and stability.
The ultimate costs and benefits of the Libya intervention will continue to add up in the months and years to come. But what we believe to be the far greater cost—the price of inaction—can never be known. Recent history tells us that the human, moral, and strategic cost of inaction is not an academic hypothetical. It was real in Rwanda. It was real in Darfur, where an unprecedented level of activism and Bush Administration rhetoric failed to translate into serious results—due, among many complicated reasons, to a reticence among some progressives to endorse the use of force, and to the negative impact other Bush Administration actions had on claims of legitimacy for decisive action. Today, the Khartoum regime presides over its successful efforts to permanently change the demography of Darfur. Progressives often demand action in the face of abject human suffering, but we know from recent history that in some situations moral condemnation, economic sanctions, or ex-post tribunals don’t save lives. Only force does.
Throughout history, and especially in recent years, progressives have seen plenty of evidence to doubt the righteousness or efficacy of military action. Engagements that were meant to be minor police actions escalated into protracted guerrilla warfare. Even in the most noble of wars, the damage to civilians and infrastructure was catastrophic. And good intentions were invoked on more than one occasion as a cover for far more sinister uses of America’s military might. Progressives have been keenly aware of systematic and grave injustices and entrenched human suffering, but translating this into action meant validating a militarism that many found distasteful or relying on a UN system that seemed unable to move.
We have cause for hope that today we possess a set of technical and diplomatic weapons that moves us beyond the traditional choice between the protracted human suffering brought on by paralysis and the often dubious claims of militarized moralism. There are effective checks on the application of increasingly effective weaponry. But there are also reasons for humility. Even in the most successful and surgical interventions, we must be ready to play a role in filling the power vacuum and easing the sectarian tensions produced. We must, for example, develop the conflict and post-conflict “civilian corps” that was meant to accompany the Iraq surge and was a top priority in the recent Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review by the State Department. If previous generations questioned whether nations could join forces to stop a dictator, the new generation is acutely aware that military force must be a complement to a political solution that includes supporting new leadership and systems of accountability and laying the foundations for a stable economic future.
We must realize that force is only one element of a coherent national security strategy and foreign policy. We must accept the reality—whether or not one accepts its merits—that other nations are more likely to perceive our motives to be self-interested than values-based. But in a world where egregious atrocities and grave threats exist, and where Kosovo and Libya have changed our sense of what’s now possible, the development of this next generation of power can be seen as a historically unique opportunity to reduce human suffering.