As the uprisings of 2011 continue to roll across the Middle East, one inevitable question seems to center on whether, or in what cases, the United States should contemplate the use of American forces to intervene in the situation(s). Eqaully inevitably, there is widespread disagreement about answers along fairly predictable ideological lines.
Because so many of the country’s land forces either are tied down in or have been exhausted by a decade of fighting two wars in the region in Iraq and Afghanistan, nobody of note has openly advocated putting American “muddy boots” on the ground in any of these conflicts. This admirable show of restraint is not because the civil uprisings are much less important to the United States or the world (it is not difficult to argue that most of the countries experiencing violence are as important to the United States as Iraq in particular), but because either the force is not available or the calculation is that even the American public would support such action. Still, on one side exemplified by John McCain (who could, one is reminded with a shudder, could be president of the United States) hectoring General Carter Ham, the Pentagon’s front man in this situation, about whether imposing (with American air forces) a no-fly zone in Libya might have brought about a different result (a Qadhafi overthrow) than the current impasse. General Ham, who is a bright guy, to his credit refused to rise to the bait on this one, sardonically telling the Senator such determinations were not military and thus not part of his portfolio. (Personal note: General Ham was a student of mine at the US Air War College in 1996-97, and was then a very perceptive student of the utilities and limits of military power.) The political left equally predictably decries any use of force in the current situation, arguing either that these are civil wars (they are) where our interests are not clear (which they are not) and that it is not clear whether our intervention might help under any circumstances (equally true).
Even the suggestion that the United States might use force to affect the outcomes of these various uprisings is curious. For one thing, they are all internal, civil affairs, with autocratic governments under varying degrees of siege from suppressed populations who want the old leader out, replaced by some alternative they we (and they) cannot define. These are, in international legal terms, strictly speaking none of our business, and although we may oppose dictatorial rule in principle, it is not clear we support an as-yet undefiined alternative. Who, for instance, is the alternative in Egypt? Moreover, our past catches up with us: if dictatorial leaders either professed anti-communism, ant-terrorism or both, we have probably supported them, making changing horses embarassing. We did pull the plug on Mubarak,but can we do so with Saleh in Yemen, where we clearly have no clue about the dynamics or other consequences of various outcomes (other than fearing Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula–AQAP–might benefit). Thus, the question “force for what?” has to be asked.
Stephen Walt, in a posting in Foreign Policy (online) dates April 4, 2011, offers some insight into why these questions even arise. In the article, he lays out five reasons the United States employs force so much, and he comes up with five answers that help frame the application of force to the Middle East. First, Walt argues, we use force “because we can.” The U.S. has lots of sophisticated military capability (most of which no one else has), and it is pretty easily available. Second, “the U.S. has no serious enemies,” which has two implications. One is that we don’t need our forces to deter non-existent enemies, and the other is that there is nobody who can–or wants to–oppose us when we do. The third reason is the existence of the All-Volunteer Force (AVF). Its existence largely removes the restraint of public displeasure, since nobody is involuntarily forced to implement force decisions. The fourth, “It’s the Establishment, Stupid!” argues that our political establishment has become in essence “force-happy,” seeing military solutions as the answer to all our problems (the neo-conservatives are singled out as the leading evangels of this phenomenon). Fifth and finally, “Congress has checked out,” meaning the Congress no longer asserts its constitutional perogatives to approve or disapprove applications of force. Taken in combination, Walt argues, the result is a green light for the U.S. government to view almost everything as a military problem with military solutions. Why should the current situation in the Middle East be any different?
Well, there are three differences. One is that there is some evidence the American public is becoming war weary enough that appeals to force do not resonate so well today. I have not, for instance, seen any groundswell behind the McCain position on no-fly zones (admittedly, I never listen to or watch Fox “News”). Second, it is indeed not at all clear what American interests are in this situation or how U.S. military action would positively achieve achieving whatever goals we might have in the area.
The third reason may be the most defining: the budget crisis. Any U.S. application of force in the current uprisings is going to be expensive at a time when there is great pressure to bring down government spending. The Tea Partiers exclude (hpyocritically, in my view) defense spending in budget cuts to bring down deficits, but any serious advocacy of added defense spending to support military adventurism in the Middle East at a time when other budget oxen are being gored is probably politically unsupportable. Moreover, as Papa and Baby Paul would quickly point out in their libertarian way, overseas military activities are not exactly how one shrinks government. It thus may be that an unlikely coalition of the right and left, starting from opposite motivations, may come together to torpedo any dreams/nightmares that are entertained about inserting American force into the uprisings of 2011.