TCS Daily

Fighting Selfish and Selfless Wars

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - November 22, 2005 12:00 AM

As a general rule, foreign policy realists believe that nation-states are primarily motivated to rationally maximize their power. As a consequence, nation-states do not generally undertake foreign policy or military activities that do not have tangible and potentially power-maximizing national security benefits attached to them. At the same time, realists understand that the desire to conduct a foreign policy motivated by humanitarian concerns runs strong in the United States. As a democratic republic that holds freedom as its central value, we wish to help other countries become free whenever we can. We are horrified as a country by reports of barbarism, inhumanity and mass genocide.

The United States primarily acts in order to maximize its own power. But the humanitarian impulses cannot be denied. And the task for those responsible for crafting American foreign policy is to try to reconcile the two impulses and form a coherent national strategy for military interventionism. As such, foreign policy architects must understand what factors will be at play in deciding whether or not to intervene in situations that entail purely national security concerns; situations that entail a mix of national security and humanitarian concerns; and situations where humanitarian concerns are the only ones that govern.

In some ways, it is easiest to deal with a situation where vital national security interests are the only ones at stake and military intervention may be required. In such situations, assuming that the benefits clearly outweigh the costs of intervention, the United States faces a relative no-brainer in deciding whether or not to intervene. As with all military operations, however, the U.S. will be faced with the following challenges:

  • Ensuring that the issues at stake are clear both to policymakers and to the public at large.

  • Ensuring that American forces have the proper strategy, tactics, equipment and manpower to complete the mission at hand.

  • Ensuring that there is a viable exit strategy.

It is worth pointing out that if there really are clear national security issues at stake and the benefits of intervention outweigh the costs, policymakers will perhaps be willing to skimp on some of the challenges outlined above. This isn't advisable, of course, but if the national security interests at stake are vital ones, policymakers may be willing to be more lax about the existence of a viable exit strategy and may be willing to replenish materiel and manpower as the war goes on. After all, the greater the impact of a given war on certain national security objectives, the more willing policymakers will be to fight it.

That relative lack of hesitancy means that policymakers will be willing to accept a higher loss of blood and treasure so long as the benefits of achieving the national security goals in question continue to outweigh the costs. So even if policymakers have to enter a war in which the deployment is not fully complete (but perhaps can be replenished as the war goes on) and even if there is no viable exit strategy at the start of the war, the war may still be fought because of the national security issues at stake. The one goal that policymakers cannot skimp on is ensuring that the issues at stake are clear both to policymakers and to the public at large. If this goal is not met, political support for the war will be weak.

But what to do when the national security interests inherent in a particular foreign policy problem or opaque or are hidden? Consider the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia and the rampant ethnic cleansing that began as a result. Most people categorized any effort to intervene on behalf of the Bosnian Muslims and the Kosovar Albanians as purely humanitarian in nature, designed to ward off the genocide of the Serbs.

But a strong argument can be made that there were national security issues at stake as well. Yugoslavia disintegrated because the downfall of the Soviet empire allowed long-dormant nationalist antagonisms to rise again to the surface. There was -- and still is -- a danger that such nationalist antagonisms could rise to the surface in the former Soviet republics. If they ever do, given the trouble the former Soviet republics have in accounting for nuclear materiel and the scientists who work on the production of nuclear weapons, any conflict could potentially become cataclysmic by having a certain nationalist group obtain control of nuclear technology and the services of rogue nuclear scientists.

The U.S. -- along with Europe -- clearly had an interest in preventing ethnic conflict in a potential nuclear tinderbox. Intervention was designed to satisfy pressing national security concerns as well as the humanitarian concerns that received more press attention.

Iraq is another case where both realpolitik concerns (state sponsorship of terrorism; the anticipated threat of weapons of mass destruction; Iraq's past efforts to establish a destabilizing regional hegemony) merged with humanitarian concerns (the stated goal of freeing the Iraqi people from a Ba'athist dictatorship and the current drive to reconstruct Iraq along democratic-republican lines).

In cases where there are both national security and humanitarian concerns at issue, it becomes especially crucial for policymakers to fully identify the issues at stake both for themselves and for the public at large. By focusing attention almost solely on the humanitarian issues at stake in the former Yugoslavia, policymakers and pundits failed to do full justice to the scope of interests entailed in addressing the crises in Bosnia and Kosovo. Since there are clear national security interests at stake in such a circumstance, policymakers may again conclude that the benefits of interventionism strongly outweigh the costs and act accordingly in dealing with issues of military strategy, tactics, equipment and manpower, as well as the formulation of a viable exit strategy. To make clear the national security goals at stake, policymakers ought to discuss them as fully and as openly as they do humanitarian concerns. This is a difficult task that oftentimes has the paradoxical effect of lessening support for a particular military endeavor; recall that the administration of George Bush the Elder was able to campaign most effectively for military action in Iraq by arguing the humanitarian interests and lost support when Secretary of State James Baker went out and claimed that what was at issue for Americans was "jobs, jobs, jobs" if Iraqi aggression and its effects on the economy went unchecked. But it must be done to give a full and complete accounting of the reasons for a particular military action. Additionally, policymakers have the responsibility not only to point out the obvious national security interests, but the ones that may be down the road as well. For example, regarding Iraq, policymakers may have wanted to discuss the long term interests the United States may have in upsetting a destructive status quo in the Middle East as well as the near-term interests in stopping the suspected stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction. These goals are sure to engender debate and controversy, but that does not mean they should not be discussed and analyzed.

Finally, there are the purely humanitarian interventions where there is no discernible American national security interest at stake. The Clinton Administration's decision to threaten military intervention in Haiti and the genocide in Rwanda are examples of purely humanitarian interventions. In such situations, if policymakers wish to involve American forces, the issues will have to be explained with an eye towards convincing the American public at large that intervention is necessary despite the lack of national security interests. But the deployment of materiel and the development of a viable military strategy, tactics and an exit strategy become especially important in these circumstances. The American public responds well to humanitarian intervention but since there are no national security issues directly affected in purely humanitarian cases, the desire of the American public to expend blood and treasure is lessened.

Additionally, it is useful to have some kind of metric to use in order to be guided in our decision over whether or not to intervene in a purely humanitarian situation. We cannot intervene in all such situations and so intervention may be limited to situations approaching the level of genocide in Rwanda; situations where, absent American intervention, a catastrophic loss of life may result. A case by case determination can guide policymaking in this regard. This may mean that American intervention will not take place in certain situations where humanitarian interests are at stake; a deeply regrettable outcome but one made inevitable given the fact that the American military has access only to finite resources, capabilities and manpower.

Obviously, the debate over balancing realpolitik concerns with humanitarian interests when it comes to the use of the military will go on for quite a long time. But even as we debate the nature of our future military involvement, we have to recognize the need to establish firm guidelines in deciding how to use our military. The presence of such guidelines will help us make better and more efficient decisions and will ensure greater success in military operations. They will also allow us to better marry our idealism with the realist interests that drive policymaking both in America and around the world.


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