War Stories

The New Interventionism

How Obama is changing the way the United States wages war.

What is the path for American intervention in places such as Libya war going forward?
What is the path for American intervention in places such as Libya war going forward?

Photograph by Ahmad al-Rubaye.

The future face of American warfare is very likely on display now in Africa. Libya, the coast off Somalia, and now the borderlands of Uganda—it’s a fair bet that these theaters of conflict, far more than Iraq or Afghanistan, foretell the shape of our military adventures. What this suggests is a return to the “advise and assist” missions of the Cold War, with international terrorists (or, on occasion, particularly hideous thugs) replacing international Communism as the predominant threat.

There are risks, of course, that such missions can escalate to full-scale fighting, especially if the “advisers” are “combat-equipped” and authorized to shoot in self-defense—as is the case with the 100 advisers that President Obama recently sent to help the Ugandan government beat back the rapacious insurgents of the preposterously titled Lord’s Resistance Army. These risks, though, are minimized as long as our aims are well-defined, our presence is necessary (and, better still, requested), the scope of operations is sharply limited, and the costs aren’t too onerous.

Obama is reportedly sensitive to the dangers of escalation, so it’s no surprise that his interventions, at least the ones he’s initiated, share precisely these traits. It’s too glib to speak of an “Obama doctrine,” as many of these traits will probably mark our interventions in the foreseeable future, almost regardless of who sits in the White House. (I italicize almost in a nod toward the current crop of Republican candidates, most of whom not only know little about the world but boast of their indifference.) This constraint stems less from any president’s personality than from two defining aspects of our era: sharply limited resources and a global political system in which “power blocs” have grown in number and shrunk in size. These two facts impede daydreams of glorious expansionism.

The interventions we’ve seen in the past year don’t neatly fit the familiar categories of “realist,” “moralist,” or “neoconservative.” Most of them were meant to help an ally (or at least a nonhostile government in a region of strategic interest) stave off a quite hostile, dangerous insurgency. A few (most notably Libya) were meant to help people resist their own government’s violent oppression.

Especially in the case of Libya, many Republicans gloated, and some Democrats despaired, that Obama took his cues from George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda.” But this wasn’t the case at all. Obama intervened to protect the Libyan people (and, implicitly, to assist their efforts to oust Qaddafi from power) only after a) the Arab League unanimously requested the protection—an unprecedented event—and b) the United Nations Security Council authorized military action.

Many on the right criticized Obama for not doing more, sooner. Some on the left criticized him for doing anything at all. But now that the fighting is all but over, the balance he struck—what he did and did not do—seems just about right. If he had done nothing, Qaddafi would still be in power and tens of thousands of Libyan civilians would almost certainly be dead. If he had done everything, we’d now be blamed for all the problems and stuck with the massive reconstruction bill—whereas in fact we’ll help pay for some of it, but, hey, the Europeans took the lead in war, and so they’ll have to take the lead in peace, too.

Where we go from here—not so much in Libya but in thinking about threats in the world and how to deal with them—is a question that has the military chiefs in a sweat, because whatever the answer, it almost certainly involves massive cuts in their budgets and their programs.

The Army and Marines in particular are facing an existential question they haven’t had to deal with since the end of the Cold War: What is their reason for being? Where can they claim, with straight faces, that they might need a few hundred thousand troops to fight a large-scale conventional war anytime soon? We’re leaving Iraq (by Iraqi law), we’re easing out of Afghanistan, we are not going to invade Iran (a country three times the size of Iraq and at least as hostile, even in the pro-Western cities, to the idea of foreign occupation), Russia is in no shape to re-create the Red Army (nor is Germany, Poland, or the Czech Republic eager to host its troops), and if we do someday get into a war with China, it’s going to be fought at sea and in the air; it certainly won’t be a ground war.

This isn’t to say that the Army should be decimated. There’s always North Korea to deter, and some other contingencies that justify staying prepared as a hedge. But it’s hard to make a case for a huge land force. Advise-and-assist missions tend to involve dozens of troops, at most a few hundred. Many veterans of these missions, most of them Special Forces officers, say that a small footprint is best: it helps us remember that we’re helping allies fight their war, not turning it into our war; and it lets us retain our leverage, in case the government we’re helping turns out to be no better than the rebels they’re fighting. (We can fit all 100 of our advisers inside a single C-17 airplane.)

Does this suggest that Donald Rumsfeld’s vision of “military transformation” is right—that all we need are a few units of Special Forces backed by smart bombs dropped from Air Force jets or fired from Navy carriers?

Well, for many scenarios, yes. But for some scenarios, no, we need more. And for the wars that Rumsfeld helped unleash, we needed many more.

The distinction goes back to the political goals of a war, which is to say the political nature of warfare. The Bush administration, with Rumsfeld as its chief war planner, used a relatively small invasion force to topple Saddam Hussein—and, before then, a much smaller force (the proverbial handful of Special Forces units, backed by air power and local guerrillas) to oust the Taliban from Afghanistan. But destroying a regime creates a vacuum, which tends to end up filled with something. And if the destroyer doesn’t help fill it—with security, justice, institutions of government, the restoration of services—then the most ambitious, well-armed factions of society will. And if the society lacks roots in democratic practices, then anarchy or civil war or some new monster will inevitably loom.

That’s what happened in Afghanistan at the end of 2001 and Iraq in the spring of 2003: A small fraction of the U.S. military threw out the bad guys in swift order; but there was no plan for the aftermath—and, after much delay and denial, we had to build a plan on the fly, at the cost of much blood even now and with mixed results at best.

The intervention in Uganda is very different. There is no pretense of reforming its government or improving basic services. The Lord’s Resistance Army isn’t a classic insurgency; it offers no ideology with which the government has to compete for popular appeal. It seeks power through rape, abduction, intimidation and conquest. All U.S. forces have to do is help the government (which wants our help) kill or capture a couple hundred of the most repellent “rebels” on the planet.

By the way, for those, like Dick Cheney, who think that Obama doesn’t take the war on terror seriously: President Bush sent a few dozen special-ops forces to tangle with the LRA back in 2008; its leaders got away. Maybe Obama will do better with 100.

The administration isn’t identifying who these 100 advisers are, but John Pike and Joseph Trevithick, of the research center GlobalSecurity.org, figure that most of them come from the 3rd Special Forces Group (airborne), tasked to U.S. Africa Command, with the rest coming—as they generally do in these situations—from “three-letter agencies” in the intelligence community.

In the past few years in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Special Forces groups have become quite proficient at tracking bad guys, then killing or capturing them. It’s a lot easier to do that than to help build a new society. In this case, the society-building won’t have to be part of the mission. If it did, my guess is Obama wouldn’t be going there.