What Good is Military Force?

We Have Forgotten How Useful it Can Be

Jeff Bergner

The Weekly Standard

October 17, 2016

Former Assistant Secretary of State and Staff Director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and NSF participant, Jeff Bergner, takes exception to the piece we published on the Forum this week arguing against the American propensity for employing military force to resolve global challenges.

In his article that appears in this week’s issue of the conservative-leaning Weekly Standard, Bergner laments that “there seems to be a political consensus that the use of force is almost never a good idea”.  He says this leads to a false choice between “rebuilding America and being the world’s policeman”.

Bergner argues, in contrast, that quite often American foreign policy objectives are important enough to justify the likely costs of American intervention in terms of lives lost and treasure expended.  Bergner provides an extensive examination here of the record of American intervention abroad, marked by both success and failures– including in Rwanda, Iraq, Afghanistan, the former Yugoslavia, and other areas in which American Forces have been dispatched.

In some cases we accomplished our goals of ending the violence and establishing peace and a stable regime (e.g. Grenada).  In others, like Afghanistan and Iraq, we have witnessed extensive deployments with mixed results.  While the use of force to remove Saddam Hussein from power was “remarkably quick and efficient”, the U.S. achieved less success as time wore on.  The American public became fatigued with what was perceived to be an indefinite deployment in a sectarian quagmire.  Much the same could be said about Afghanistan, where as Bergner argues , “the initial military attack was tactically brilliant and accomplished its low aims at low cost”.  However, the U.S. experience in Afghanistan since 2003 has proven how difficult and time consuming it is to construct a “new Afghanistan”.

Similarly, American intervention achieved its initial objectives in other areas, such as Libya and in support of the Kurds.  In fact, Bergner argues, in virtually every instance since 1973 where military forces would have been employed, “most of these times it has been successful”.  Yes, there have been outright failures such as Beirut and Somalia, “but the use of force remains an indispensable policy tool”.  Bergner acknowledges that the employment of force has significant costs, both in terms of lives lost or maimed, and the expenditure of significant funds.  However, he reminds us that “judgments about the use of force should not assume that inaction is always cost-free”.  For example, if President George H.W. Bush had not driven Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, would Saddam have moved on the Saudi oil fields and cornered a vast share of the World’s oil reserves?

Yes, he concedes, inaction is generally politically safer than reaction.  But to secure American national interests Bergner argues that “the use of military force is not always the worst option.  Sometimes it is the only option.”

Here is the link to Bergner’s thoughtful article: