America must abandon its blind faith in force

As US airpower was pounding Saddam Hussein’s forces half a world away, Zbigniew Brzezinski appeared before the cameras on NewsHour. “We have to look critically beyond the slogan ‘New World Order,’” he said, imploring us instead to ask “is there really a new world order, or is there an order based on the supremacy of one superpower, namely the United States?” His critique of an overextended America too appetent for armed solutions to global conundrums is more palatable today in the post-Iraq War era than it was when it was first delivered. A war almost universally regretted is an easy one against which the words of Brzezinski can be deployed. But it was not in 2003 that he spoke these words. The year was 1991. [1]

A decade hence, the American public still looked approvingly upon the Gulf War Brzezinski was skeptical of in 1991–63% of them to be precise. The quest to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait would continue to win the popularity contest of American wars against its younger, deadlier counterpart of 2003, the Iraqi contretemps Brzezinski is better known for criticizing against a raging tide of public opinion. Brzezinski never cowered in the face of public pressure unlike many of his compatriot intellectuals and public servants. No matter the context, he always approached armed confrontation through a critical lens, exemplifying how the mind of a statesman and responsible citizen ought to always work (though seldom does).

Now the elder statesman is gone. His legacy remains for us to digest in a time of global uncertainty — the legacy of a contrarian skeptical of the merits of force in an increasingly complex world. Indeed, that is what Brzezinski sought to communicate. We must “look critically,” as he said, beyond not only slogans but egos, appetites and smokescreens. It is a sober, tempered and prudent vision of foreign policy that we are left with in his wake. That vision’s adoption, however, is up to us.

In the aftermath of the end of the ground war in Iraq in 2011, we have seen a resurgence of restraint-minded foreign policy thinking paralleled by a perpetuation of the very policy behavior it critiques. From a UN authorized NATO intervention in Libya to President Trump’s rash decision to land 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase, a bellicose foreign policy heedless of war’s pitfalls seems to remain the zeitgeist of today’s American strategic mindset. Lessons were doled out aplenty in Iraq (and continue to be) but it seems few lessons were learned.

Yet the importance of a restrained foreign policy is today more apparent than ever before. Our world order is complex, interconnected and more fragile than most would care to admit. Gone are the days of a global system undergirded by a US and Soviet duopoly, the ripple effects of actions being suppressed just below society’s surface. Today, a tangled latticework of states, cultures and interests compounds the consequences of any action and no action is more consequential than the use of force.

War is the most unpredictable and dangerous enterprise a state can undertake. The US, as recent experiences convey, is no exception to this rule, though presidents, the perennial vanguards of America’s foreign policy trajectory, will always prefer to believe otherwise. Here is a hard truth not often enough revealed to US commanders in chief: the moment a president has given the green light to use force, they have lost control of the situation. No amount of planning, clairvoyance or strategic insight can guard against a fog of war that thickens with every passing moment. These things afford policymakers and warfighters only a veneer of control over a project destined to run into unforeseen circumstances. Though this has always been true of war, it is especially true of today’s conflicts. The complexity of the modern global strategic environment and the delicacy required of operations in today’s battlespaces necessitates a reevaluation of the very notion of armed intervention. This occurs from two separate angles. The first is obviously policy. What is necessary is a reorientation toward a policy ethos that is underpinned by an understanding of the virtues of restraint, not one that is ever-inclined to march to the drums of war. Secondly, and perhaps more difficultly, we must transform the way the public thinks about and civically approaches considerations of the use of force. Often the outcome of the former is predicated on the latter.

In the policy realm, force has often been thought of as a panacea for global ills and security challenges. This mode of thinking is a relic of the Cold War, an era in which, as the Heritage Foundation states in its recently published index on US military strength, “the US used the Soviet threat as its primary reference in determining its hard-power needs.” The more prevalent the threat, the more prominent the role of hard-power.

It was a simple calculus but one that does not serve the US well in the 21st century for two main reasons. Firstly, it is increasingly difficult to determine the specific nature of today’s threats. The diffusion of terrorism to ISIS and its localized affiliates in an ideological and operational space once occupied largely by an Al Qaeda hegemony only a decade or so ago is but one of a multitude of examples showing just how fast security threats adapt in today’s global environment, a reality made more stark when matched against the comparative strategic stagnancy of the Cold War. Secondly, the primacy of US military power in the abstract is no longer an appropriate metric for American preparedness to confront the challenges it faces. The fallacious assumption that it still is can lead to disastrous results. Security assurance does not necessarily follow from a more powerful military. However, hubris often does. From Somalia to Iraq to Libya and beyond the prevailing mechanism behind any fruitless and harmful intervention was always America’s confidence in its own military preeminence, the tragic irony being that this hubristic spirit completely missed the point. Indeed, US military might is preeminent. It also did not save America from calamity in armed misadventures that wrought nothing but lost lives, drained coffers and destabilized regions.

Only a restrained foreign policy well-moored by a humble understanding of and respect for war’s wider consequences will yield the appreciation of prudency that our statecraft desperately thirsts for. The Pentagon is truly in the market for wisdom, not just F-35s. The sooner policymakers understand that, the sooner our present paradigm of seemingly calendrical war interspersed only by more war can be broken.

The other more daunting mission for the restraint-minded is revolutionizing the way the public understands conflict and international relations generally. This invariably brings us back to Brzezinski whose wary relationship with America’s interventionist propensities led him in 2003 to reject the war fervor of the Bush administration that got the better of many others in the nation’s intellectual acropolis. For all his cerebral austerity, there was an unpretentiousness to Brzezinski’s foreign policy doctrine that today’s leaders — and those of the future — could profit from. He knew what he knew and knew what he did not. Those with the power to mold public opinion must understand that the gravity of their assertions can produce real ripples in the policy realm.

The media, of course, has played a major role in the stifling of restraint and the encouragement of America’s weaponized adventurism. Media complicity in Iraq War zealotry is well documented but jingoism in the press did not die with the end of the ground war. On April 7, President Trump, in response to an April 4 chemical weapon attack in Khan Shaykhun, Syria which killed dozens, ordered multiple cruise missile strikes against a regime airbase near Homs. Setting aside the fact that the regime’s culpability is still questioned, this marked a major departure from America’s Syria strategy which had, until then, veered clear of armed confrontation with Bashar al-Assad, a client of Russia. The notion that this ill-considered action risked an unnecessary clash with Russia and a widened conflict did not seem to bother the likes of Brian Williams who adulated the “beauty of our weapons” as captivating images of seaborne missile launches came rolling in. As long as the fourth branch of government is collectively inebriated by the “beauty” of war, we as a nation and a global community will be unable to recognize its ugliness until it is too late.

The post-Cold War order has doubtlessly produced many challenges, some of which will require force to deal with. But the understanding of force as the overriding catholicon for the suffering of other peoples and our own has achieved only more suffering, greater instability and an entrenchment of strategically ambiguous conflagrations worldwide. Restraint ought to be the spirit of the day. That means the application of a prudent foreign policy tempered by wisdom, anchored by experience and undaunted by the ordination of a world order wherein armed conflict truly is a last resort.

[1] Gati, Charles. (2013). Zbig: The Strategy and Statecraft of Zbigniew Brzezinski. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. P. 165.