George Weigel

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The Question of U.S. Military Intervention

In the just-war tradition, the use of proportionate and discriminate military force derives its moral legitimacy from its capacity to advance a just political goal. The end does not justify any means; but the means derive their justification from their linkage to a just end. (Or, as a Jesuit moral philosopher of the old school once put it, “If the end doesn’t justify the means, what does?”)

Thus the possibility of U.S. military intervention in the Balkan crisis is not, and cannot be, an independent variable in the strategic and moral calculus. The question of military intervention at any of the levels being proposed in the late spring of 1993—an air cap over all of ex-Yugoslavia, air raids on the artillery around Sarajevo, destruction of the logistical and transportation grids by which support for Bosnian Serbs (and Bosnian Croats?) gets into the war zone, “turning out the lights” in Belgrade (and, according to some, in Zagreb), even an invasion to impose order—cannot be seriously addressed absent answers to a cluster of prior strategic and moral issues.

Specifically: What political goal are we trying to achieve? It cannot simply be to “stop the fighting.” That was what we tried in Lebanon in the early 1980s and, to a lesser extent, in Vietnam. But armies are not police forces. A modern army relegated to a stationary “peacekeeping” role in a still contested situation, and thus deprived of its capacity to maneuver, is an army that has lost its most potent strategic and tactical asset. It is an army that has become a sitting duck, a target, rather than an instrument for achieving a just political end.

So “stopping the fighting” has to be linked to something else. Is it the Vance-Owen plan with its complex scheme of ethnic cantonments within a weak Bosnia-Herzegovina? Is it Vance-Owen as an interim agreement creating the circumstances for a new negotiation on future relations among the states that once made up “Yugoslavia”? What ;s a “just and lasting political solution” to the current crisis? Who should define—and enforce—that solution? In the absence of persuasive answers to these questions, the use of military force looks more like an act of desperation (or petulance) than an act of statesmanship.

Then: How committed are we to seeing this through? Can the Administration give guarantees to the American people, the U.S. military, our Western European allies, the United Nations, and, last but hardly least, the people of ex-Yugoslavia that an America committed enough this month to use military force in the Balkans will not be distracted from the effective pursuit of its goal next month by, say, a raging domestic debate over the b.t.u. tax? (Or homosexuals in the military. Or the latest outrageous statement from the Surgeon General-designate. Or a Supreme Court nominee’s babysitting arrangements. Or the pursuit of the First Lady’s “politics of meaning.” Or whatever.)


Taking Out the Guns of Sarajevo


Some would argue that the justification for limited military action in Bosnia is retribution, linked to deterrence: air strikes on the guns of Sarajevo would punish the Bosnian Serbs for their outrageous behavior, while deterring possible repeat performances. “Punishment for an evil already committed” is a classic component of “just cause” in the just-war tradition (although it is not prominently cited by most just-war theorists today); and the idea of a (well-deserved) punishment with a likely deterrent effect has its attractions.

But there are serious military questions about the air-strike option that have not been satisfactorily answered. When was the last time that “precision air strikes,” without any follow-up by ground troops, effectively shut down hostile artillery in mountainous terrain? Moreover, what is the evidence that spasmodic air strikes, seemingly unrelated to any other serious diplomatic or military initiatives, will have a deterrent effect? If the air strikes fail (and the Clinton administration was publicly discussing tactics, aimed at minimizing risk to American pilots, that seemed likely to result in failure), wouldn’t the likely consequence be to embolden, rather than deter, the aggressors? Moreover, if punitive and/or deterrent air strikes against the Serbian guns around Sarajevo are justified, what about air strikes against the Croat forces that took advantage of the diplomatic chaos of mid-May (created by the recalcitrance of the Bosnian Serb “parliament”) to launch a brutal attack on the Muslim town of Mostar?

Air strikes as an escalatory “signal” to the Other Side, in the middle of a shooting war, to Get Its Act Together are a use of military force whose connection to a feasible political goal is not self-evidently clear. The early bombing campaigns of the Vietnam War were precisely such exercises in “signaling”: and they did no discernible political-military good. Indeed, the whole concept of “signaling” grew out of the rationalist Shangri-La that was Robert McNamara’s Pentagon in the heyday of the “systems analysts” and “whiz kids” (one of the more generally sensible of whom, Les Aspin, is now the SecDef). “Signaling”—through “graduated steps” up the “escalation ladder”—assumes that politics is an algebraic exercise in which action taken on one side of the equation yields a predictable and commensurate reaction on the other side. That may make sense in seminars at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. But it is hardly the way the politics of the Balkans have worked for the past millennium or more.


The Chiefs’ Criteria


The role of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and their chairman, General Colin Powell, in this debate should have put to rest any lingering notions of “American militarism” in those who had drunk too deeply from the wells of the sixties. Indeed, the chiefs’ dovishness (better, their skepticism about the proposed military options cited above) has served a useful role in forcing the new kids in town to think a little more seriously about the use of U.S. military power in the Balkans. But not a completely useful role.

Today’s senior American military leaders— most of whom were introduced to Southeast Asia as junior officers—remain deeply affected by their own strain of Vietnam Syndrome. Doctrinally, they are committed to a concept of America’s military strength in which technological superiority makes possible the application of overwhelming force at the decisive point through rapid, maneuver warfare (the “AirLand Battle,” in the jargon). Politically, today’s military leaders seem to doubt the staying power of both the populace and the politicians in conflicts where there is no direct threat to national survival. And so the chiefs, especially General Powell, have expressed deep skepticism about any use of military force in which the political goal is not clear, the military tasks are not clearly achievable, the kinds of power the United States can bring to bear are not necessarily decisive, and the political will to victory is not conspicuously present.

These are all reasonable concerns. They are, in fact, specifications of the just-war tradition’s criterion of “reasonable chance of success.” In the just war tradition, as in the minds of the chiefs today, you don’t send in the troops (or the F-16s) and then “see what happens.” No: if you’re interested in serious (and morally justifiable) war-making rather than “signaling,” you have a real political goal (which means you know how the war should end), and you use the proportionate and discriminate means appropriate to achieving that goal with the least threat to your own people. By raising these issues. General Powell and others have done a public service.

But one does wonder if the chiefs (and General Powell in particular) haven’t redefined “reasonable chance of success” to mean “assured victory.” “Reasonable” does not mean “certain.” A reasonable chance of success is (to put the matter crudely but accurately) a better than 50-50 chance. General Powell and his colleagues now seem to want to raise that to, say, 80-20, or perhaps even 90-10. But that is an impossibly high standard.

Moreover, while the chiefs’ nervousness about the staying power of the political leadership and the people is not unwarranted, the most recent test of that staying power suggests that the generals may be overdoing the skepticism. The case in question is, of course, the decision to stop the ground war in Iraq short of the achievement of our real (if unstated) political goal, the removal of Saddam Hussein from power—which many analysts believe would have come to pass had we kept going up the road to Baghdad for another forty-eight or seventy-two hours.

By most accounts, that decision was shaped in part by General Powell’s worry that the pictures from the “Highway of Death” being broadcast by CNN and others would erode public support for the war effort. (Powell reportedly was concerned also that continuing to attack the fleeing Iraqi forces would have been “unchivalrous.”) Well, we now know that there was no mass slaughter on the highway out of Basra; moreover, it has been plausibly argued that closing the Basra Pocket would not have required a “turkey shoot” of Iraqi forces. Stopping when we did had two entirely undesirable results: Saddam Hussein remained in power, and the Iraqi tyrant retained two of his Republican Guard armored divisions—which were then used to suppress, with far greater slaughter than took place on the non-existent “Highway of Death,” the rebellions of the Shi’ites and Kurds.

Hindsight is, of course, 20:20. But the public criticism of “stopping too soon” began almost immediately—which suggests that there are other than-hindsight grounds for arguing that General Powell’s misreading of both the situation on the ground outside Basra and the political situation in the United States led to an unsatisfactory conclusion to what had been, until then, a textbook case of military and political success.

The current dovishness on the uniformed side of the Pentagon may also reflect the military’s skepticism about its commander-in-chief. President Clinton’s relationship to the Selective Service System during Vietnam is not, I think at the bottom of the present disease. Rather, there seems to be a deep-seated concern throughout “the force” that when it comes to military life, the military ethos, and the proper use of military force, the president and his people just don’t get it. The president’s palpable unease in performing so routine a chore as inspecting troops—or even returning salutes— suggests that this worry is not groundless.

The fact that Bill Clinton, Rhodes scholar, never served in uniform is no argument about the possible effectiveness of President Clinton, Commander-in-Chief. Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose only personal experience with a uniform was wearing a sailor suit as a little boy, ran a rather effective war effort. And Ronald Reagan, hardly a veteran warrior, was similarly no slouch as commander-in-chief. But President Clinton comes out of an intellectual and political milieu—the Sixties Left—that was not simply ignorant of the military but contemptuous toward it on what it took to be moral grounds. And of course recent Clinton administration attempts to use the armed forces as a laboratory for social engineering in the matter of American attitudes toward homosexuality have not enhanced the confidence of “the force” in its boss.

This unhappy situation between the constitutionally designated commander-in-chief and the armed services he commands bears on the question of what the United States should do in the Balkan crisis. If all the means/end questions raised above could be satisfactorily answered, we would still be left with a hard question: Do we trust this president and his advisors to run this thing?

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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