This past week, the president finally and rightly deployed U.S. air power against ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) in Iraq. Interestingly, the critique on the left was that this was the first step in deploying ground troops and the critique on the right was that it may not go far enough. These criticisms imply two points. First, both sides rightly accept U.S. engagement in the world, even if it contains a military component. Both criticisms are a victory for internationalism over isolationism. The second implied point asks how the military is deployed. Both sides are asking how much the military should be used.
However, the question that everyone is missing: When should the military be employed? This is the fundamental foreign policy question in the post-Cold War world.
The Gulf War was widely supported in 1991 as was the no-fly zone that lasted until 2003.
The Iraq War was hailed by the public as necessary in 2003, but by 2006 the public was calling for withdrawal.
In the 1990s, Afghanistan and the rising Taliban were an after-thought, yet we had no issues removing the Taliban after 9/11. Now, we are clamoring for withdrawal.
Bin Laden was not a priority until after 9/11, despite the attacks on the embassies in Africa in 1998.
The Balkans warranted intervention in the 1990s, but Rwanda did not.
It seems that after almost 25 years we have not worked out a framework for intervention, specifically military intervention.
Respecting geopolitical and military goals
Before we can develop a framework for military intervention, we first need to determine our foreign policy goals. It is fair to say that American interests are best served in a stable world, with minimal threats to the United States and its allies, governed by nations preferably with liberal values. If this is the accepted premise, then it is possible to determine a policy framework.
This policy framework would identify two types of issues: geopolitical issues and military issues. Geopolitical issues are those that oppose our foreign policy goals but involve recognized or accepted governments that are integrated into the global economy and the diplomatic realm. The solutions to these issues includes diplomatic, economic, humanitarian and civil society-building measures with a military sub-component. That military component could mean containment measures, forward deployment without combat, intelligence sharing, assistance to allies and opposition groups. Response to natural disasters also would tend to fall under geopolitics.
Military issues are those that counter our foreign policy goals, especially threats to the U.S. and its allies, where governing institutions are isolated from the broader world or absent altogether. Of course, how and what military forces are deployed should be based on what is needed to guarantee success without placing American lives unnecessarily in danger. Genocide tends to qualify as a military issue.
The success and failure of recent interventions take on new perspective when viewed through this lens. The invasion of Afghanistan was effectively a military issue and required military intervention. Al Qaeda is not legitimate, and the Taliban were isolated from the world.
As for Operation Iraqi Freedom, there is no doubt that Iraq was a problem. However, it was geopolitical problem. Iraq had a government that was integrated into the world. The mistake was that we treated it as part of the war on terror, which required a military solution on par with Afghanistan, and thus, the military became our only tool. Diplomatic action and smarter sanctions coupled with a stronger military sub-component, including a stronger no-fly zone, an armed weapons inspection, and the building of an opposition, might have better served our goal of ensuring no weapons of mass destruction and might have limited Saddam Hussein’s influence.
To a certain degree our Libyan intervention made the same mistake. We instituted a light military intervention in the form of air support without the required diplomatic effort for rebuilding the country.
When the geopolitical and military lines blur
This leads to another consideration in the geopolitical-versus-military response. Sometimes military issues evolve into geopolitical issues,and vice-versa. Afghanistan started as a military issue after 9/11, and after more than 13 years it is now a geopolitical issue — still warranting our attention but in a different way. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1991, this was a geopolitical issue. However, when Iraq chose to isolate itself, the problem evolved to a military issue. After the Iraqi army was rolled back, Iraq again became a geopolitical issue.
So how does this framework apply today? We have finally realized that ISIS is a military issue that will only be solved militarily. ISIS is not a legitimate government, and it poses a threat to the United States. Air strikes and military assistance are justified. However, the long-term stability of Iraq is a geopolitical issue. U.S. troops policing the streets of Baghdad are not the solution, but a residual contingency force stationed in Iraq out of harm’s way might be in order. Such a deployment would be part of increased diplomatic attention to ensure a cooperative relationship between the U.S. and the Iraqi government.
Russia remains a geopolitical issue. Economic sanctions coupled with diplomacy to ensure Ukraine’s independence are critical. However, they need to be strengthened with a military sub-component that contains Russia ambitions. Increased deployment of NATO forces and missile defense in the Baltics and Poland plus military aid to Ukraine will demonstrate our commitment and ensure that containment.
The problem of North Korea also is geopolitical but barely so. The only real connection that North Korea has with the outside world is China. Thus, the only thing keeping North Korea a geopolitical issue is the ability for Sino-American relations to pressure North Korea into better behavior. Otherwise, North Korea unfortunately is a military issue that involves a rogue regime with nuclear weapons.
Whether he’s happy about it or not, the president has ended the foreign policy fantasy of American isolationism. Now it is imperative that he and the rest of our national leadership develop a framework to determine when military engagement is justified. Most importantly, they must lead public opinion to support such a policy.