Barry Blechman on Using Force Without War

If there is one book worth reading (or rereading) this summer given the current state of the world, it’s Force Without War, published back in 1978. The basic premise of the book is that discrete and symbolic low-level uses of armed forces are effective at achieving near-term foreign policy objectives, but that the success rate erodes over time. We caught up with one of the books coauthors, Barry Blechman, a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center (and cochair of a new task force report on preventing illicit trade), to discuss the book over 35 years after it was published, and what lessons it holds for our current efforts in Ukraine, Syria, and other crises abroad.



How can we demonstrate resolve and deploy force without war when it comes to deterring adversaries like Putin’s Russia? 

The main thing is that the most effective demonstration of resolve is by putting boots on the ground. That’s why if you look at Ukraine and the Russian maneuvers along its eastern border, the Russian threats are more credible than anything we could do, because we’ve made clear we would not get into a ground war over Ukraine. But it also says that if you want to limit the consequences of the Ukraine situation elsewhere in Europe, it would be more effective to put ground forces into, say, the Baltic states than just deploying F-16 and other fighter aircraft. And, indeed, we are now putting in 600 men into the Baltics for exercises. If we are concerned that Russian actions vis a vis Ukraine could create an unraveling of the NATO alliance, then we should be considering to deploy more permanent ground forces in NATO countries that border Russia.  Personally, I do not think this is necessary.  Nor do I think it would be wise, as it would only make it more difficult to eventually bring about a reconciliation with Russia, which should be the ultimate goal.

What role do targeted and escalated sanctions like the ones we see against Putin confidantes play into your formula for force without war, and are they effective? 

Targeted sanctions can be effective as complements to military threats or even as substitutes for them.  They must be of sufficient scale to truly impose economic hardship on the targeted leadership elites.  The Iran sanctions have been successful in getting Tehran to the negotiating table and to suspend its nuclear program.  The sanctions imposed so far on Putin’s buddies are unlikely to succeed in my view, however, as they are too narrow in scope.

You discuss the prospects of proxy warfare in your book, a concept that is making a resurgence. Is that a viable option in Ukraine?

You have to have a partner on the ground who is capable. I don’t see a Ukrainian opposition to Russia that has the moxie or ability to withstand the onslaught of Russian covert operative.  It’s remarkable what’s going on in eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainians seem unwilling to offer any resistance.  Without a confident partner, I don’t see what military options we might have.

When the adversary is a nuclear state, I would assume this limits our use of force. How can you project resolve when we are obviously unwilling to risk nuclear annihilation over, say, Kharkiv?

It depends on the history of the situation and the balance of interests between the US and the other nuclear power.  No one doubts we would risk nuclear war to defend the members of NATO – an alliance to which we have been committed for more than 60 years.  The Ukraine, though, is another story.  It’s not a member of NATO, the country itself is split, and there is a long history of it falling into Russia’s sphere of influence.  Threats of military intervention there would not be credible, which is not to say that we could not use diplomacy, economic sanctions, and economic and military aid to Kiev to help stabilize the situation.

Conversely, what role does nuclear weapons play in cajoling others or deterring aggression? Some say had Ukraine kept its nuclear weapons it would still have Crimea.  

Ukraine had ICBMs. It could not stop Russian subversion with them. I don’t see why Ukraine’s possession of nukes would have stopped Russia from subverting Crimea the way they did. Its a kind of low intensity war. It’s not really new. The Soviet Union did this in Eastern Europe following the Second World War. Its a kind of political warfare, combined with covert operations, so it’s not new. We’ve seem to have forgotten about that. Its not something weve thought about, but Putin apparently does have much greater ambitions than it seemed just a few years ago.  In the long run, I believe it will backfire against him, his cronies, and the Russian economy.

Talk a bit about coercion and deterrence, which relies on both capability and credibility. We have the former, but do we need more of the latter to carry out threats?

It’s harder to coerce a foreign leader into doing something we want than to deter it from doing something we don’t want it to do.  The former requires a visible step that will harm the leader politically at home and abroad.  To not do something, however, is easily explained as never having been considered.  In either case, to comply with U.S. wishes, the foreign leader must believe the threats being made by the President and that will depend on a panoply of factors having to do with the president’s reputation, the situation and how it had evolved, and many other factors.

You describe in your book discrete political operations. Micah Zenko has a whole book out about discrete military operations. What’s the difference, and what advice would you give if you were writing your book in 2014, in a world of drones?

Since Steve Kaplan and I wrote our book in the 1970s, US military forces have acquired capabilities that were only dreamed about forty years ago.  Drones are only one small manifestation of this “revolution in military affairs.”  Today, we can be aware of situations that threaten our interests anywhere in the world and reach out promptly with deadly force – small or large – to deal with it in a discrete manner.  If I were to rewrite the book today, I would put much greater emphasis on special forces and covert operations.

I thought it was revealing about where the country stood when the Syrians crossed the chemical weapons red line: I don’t think there was a single member of Congress who supported military action, except maybe Lindsey Graham.

How do you see Americas policeman role in the world evolving in the future?

I think we’ll see U.S. technological support for other countries, like our support of the French in Mali, or the role we played in Libya. It’ll be strictly secondary. We’ll provide surveillance reconnaissance, intel, tanker support, and munitions. We can also accomplish specific objectives on a larger scale without getting drawn into occupation. Take the first Gulf War in 1990. We moved a very large force into Kuwait and drove out the occupying Iraqi forces. Mission accomplished.  But we then resisted the temptation to let mission be transformed into getting rid of Saddam Hussein – a very wise decision.

How would you evaluate our policy in Syria? Isn’t that a textbook case of trying to use force without war?

In Syria, we’ve been overly cautious and unwilling to look at options between pure diplomacy and some kind of major military intervention. There are lots of things that could have been done early in the conflict, including demonstrative uses of force off the coast, while threatening to use air forces to curb Assad’s basrbaric use of air power against civilians. We could have backed that up by putting carriers into the Mediterranean in a highly visible way, or deploying ground-based air forces to neighboring states, and threatening to establish a no-fly zone if the Syrians did not stop bombing civilian targets.

Probably the question is whether you want to try to resolve the underlying source of a threat to US interests, such as the existence of an unstable country where terrorist groups can train, or just deal with the threat as it emerges. We can’t create a democracy in Syria, but as extremist groups gain territory and begin to organize, we can preempt and deal with them from afar.  We have the means to do it, to move anywhere quickly and decisively. There are discreet options which, in my view, are much better than large-scale military occupations.

The country appears to be leaning isolationist. Does this make the threat of war less credible if youre the president?

I think domestic politics are a huge factor. The president’s hands are tied. He’s constrained by a popular anti-war sentiment and by the military’s determination not to get involved in another war while still trying to recover from the last two. Former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates’ recent book talks about political figures and about how quickly they turn to military instruments without understanding the costs and risk and unintended consequences of using force. There are morale problems within the military ranks. There’s no stomach for another war. It’s easy for the Republicans to call Obama weak. I thought it was revealing about where the country stood when the Syrians crossed the chemical weapons red line: I don’t think there was a single member of Congress who supported military action, except maybe Lindsey Graham.

You can’t underestimate the anti-war feeling in the country. I chaired a working group on Iran and then went to 50 different cities to discuss the report. The working group, consisting of former military officers and diplomats and regional experts warned against a military operation to destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. They envisioned a huge operation because of the many facilities in their nuclear infrastructure and the need to destroy their air defenses. We also would have to minimize Iran’s ability to retaliate, so to remove its naval facilities and cruise missile sites. It would be a huge air war that would go on for weeks. When I explained that to people, the initial thought of people was: We don’t want another war. Thirteen years of war is a long time.  The American people want our troops to come home.

You mentioned morale problems within the military. Is there a divide between the civilian and military leaderships when it comes to the use of force?

Part of problem is the mentality of the military. With the exception of special forces, they want to ensure that the mission is accomplished with minimal casualties, so it has to be done in a big way. If we are going to take out Syria’s chemical weapons, for example, we’d have to first destroy Syria’s air defense system, set up search and rescue teams. We would need people on the ground to be sure we have the right targets. This turns it into a much larger operation. Reagan’s raid on Libya was a very small operation. This mindset toward military operation started really with Bosnia. There was a pilot down, and a huge operation was set up to rescue him. When seeking to intervene in Bosnia, President Clinton promised there would no casualties. US troops stayed buttoned up in their locations. We only went out in big armored convoys. You’d see a British officer with one bodyguard strolling through the worst part of town and actually talking to people. The U.S. wouldn’t think of doing that. It all goes back to Bosnia.

Do you think Obamas predecessors had more credibility? 

President George W. Bush drew repeated red lines concerning the North Korean nuclear program, but he never backed them up and, eventually, the North Koreans actually tested a bomb. He presumably would have credibility, since he used military force in Afghanistan and Iraq.  But the North Koreans probably believed that given our deep involvement in the Middle East, we would not have the stomach for a new war in East Asia.

Who’s a president that exemplified how to get his way abroad without resorting to war?

Eisenhower was extraordinary. He had this bellicose rhetoric on foreign policy, but he was very cautious about putting American soldiers in harms way. He never lost an American soldier once the Korean war came to an end, yet he had enormous credibility. For example, he intervened into the Lebanese Civil War in 1958 by deploying U.S. ground forces there, but he didn’t send the troops to where the rebels were; they were deployed safely away to avoid a shooting war. That’s quite the opposite of what Reagan did. His advisors didn’t have the smarts to keep U.S. forces out of civil conflicts that were unwinnable – the result was the several hundred Americans killed in the bombings of the Marine barracks and embassy in Beirut. Eisenhower was cutting conventional forces for economic reasons but compensating for it by emphasizing nuclear retaliation. When the chairman of the Joint Chiefs came to him and suggested the use of tactical nuclear weapons to save the French, he practically laughed them out of situation room. We were certainly not going to use nuclear weapons in Asia again only ten years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The ironic thing is that had the liberal Adlai Stevenson been president, he wouldn’t have been able to say no to the Chiefs; he didn’t have the credibility to stand up to the advice of the military.


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