The president’s most sacred duty is protecting our national security, while Congress appropriates hundreds of billions of dollars in support of it and the Pentagon is tasked with maintaining it. An assessment of American military operations over the past two decades illustrates the lack of logical, coherent national security strategies. As a result, the safety of our citizens at home and interests abroad suffer continual degradation.
Every president since 9/11 has emphatically assured the nation he is doing everything in his power to keep the country safe. In the horrific aftermath of 9/11, President George W. Bush stated he had to send our armies into Afghanistan and Iraq to fight our enemies “over there so we don’t have to fight them here.” President Barack Obama promised to keep the nation safe by surging tens of thousands of combat troops into Afghanistan, increasing drone strikes worldwide and launching punitive attacks against opponents in countries such as Libya and Syria.
Barely four months into his term, President Donald Trump has continued the trend by dramatically increasing the rate of bombing in the Middle East and continuing or expanding the use of special operations forces and other covert operations. Each commander in chief assured the nation that the use of force was necessary to keep the nation safe, yet it is becoming evident that our reliance on the use of force has not improved the nation’s security.
In 2001, for instance, there was one U.S.-recognized terrorist group — al-Qaida — operating in Afghanistan. Today, after more than 15 years of major military operations at great cost in terms of lives and taxpayer money, a staggering 20 groups exist, and the terrorism threat persists. Afghanistan has been a failure because our policymakers don’t understand the concept of grand strategy and how it should inform leaders of when, how or whether force should be used. We have instead treated the employment of military power as an end unto itself, rarely considering what strategic outcome we seek to achieve by its use.
We have the strongest military in the world. The president can order a strike on nearly any target worldwide, and the Pentagon can successfully accomplish the mission. What is rarely considered, however, is what the successful application of that military power is intended to accomplish.
Before a policymaker recommends or orders the use of military power, he or she must first have a vision for outcome sought — a grand strategy — otherwise he or she risks expending enormous resources and sacrificing American blood in missions that do not serve our national interest or make the homeland safer. A guiding strategic vision can change that dynamic. Before any military action in any theater would be ordered, its effect on the grand strategy would have to be assessed.
If such use would not directly or indirectly facilitate the attainment of the strategy’s objectives, other means to address a given matter would have to be utilized.
For a real-world example of how a coherent strategic vision might have led to a better judgment in the past, consider Obama’s 2011 decision to use air power in Libya. At the time, Libyans’ protests against Moammar Gadhafi’s dictatorial rule had turned into a general uprising, and Gadhafi had killed many protesters in an attempt to regain order. Any decent and moral person would have been outraged by the repression and desired to stop it. But before ordering military strikes against Gadhafi, however, Obama would have had to answer a few critical questions in light of the strategic guiding principles.
As distasteful and brutal as they were, did Gadhafi’s actions threaten American security? Would the use of U.S. military power make the chaotic situation stable? It was evident at the time that the likely result of the dictator’s fall would have been a struggle for power among many competing groups, and a civil war would be possible. Therefore, should the president have used military power?
As it was, the U.S. had no guiding strategic principles, and we injected ourselves into Libya’s internal political conflict with decidedly negative results. American military intervention did not foster stable relations with Libya but did result in an explosion in violence and chaos in the north African country that continues to this day. Most crucially, it did not advance American security.
Had there been a grand strategy guiding this mission, diplomatic means would have been the clear solution. Because of the major defections from the Libyan government and armed forces, it is possible that the conflict might have ended via diplomatic and political means, minimizing the loss of life and stabilizing the situation in Libya. When diplomacy fails, military options remain as a last resort.
There are, regrettably, many other recent examples where the use of American military power was used without a guiding strategy and resulted in a worsening of a bad situation: Afghanistan after 2002, Iraq after 2003, Somalia, Yemen and Syria, among others.
Before the current administration follows this poor track record of using the U.S. military in ways that do not support American security objectives, the president must direct the formation of a logical, rational and achievable grand strategy. It is time to break the bad habit of using military power in ways that degrade our security.
Retired Army Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis did four combat deployments. He is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities, a foreign policy organization focused on “a strong military to ensure security, stability and peace.”