Less War Rather Than More Troops

Christopher Preble, director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, argues that, “The answer to military strain is not more troops but less war.”

Even the most powerful country in the world, measured both in terms of our military might and our economic vitality, must make choices. Our military is second-to-none, and our men and women in uniform are well-trained, extremely qualified, and highly motivated. But they cannot be everywhere, and they cannot do everything. We must be willing to evaluate each mission according to a crucial set of criteria: Is it vital to our national security? Have we exhausted all available alternatives? Does it have a reasonable chance of achieving its stated objective at an acceptable cost?

That’s a classic Realist position and one I’ve supported for years. Unfortunately, it’s an ideal type and not nearly such an easy template to apply as it would seem.

John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson thought Vietnam met those standards. Bill Clinton thought that Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Haiti, and other interventions did. George W. Bush and a bipartisan consensus in Congress thought Iraq did. Indeed, I can’t think of a single major use of American military might the decision makers didn’t think passed that test. Indeed, almost by definition, they thought the costs acceptable since, after all, they accepted them. It’s only when things don’t go according to plan that the costs escalate beyond the perceived reward.

The operative public policy question, then, is that since the history of the last fifteen years or so demonstrates that the United States’ political leadership will repeatedly find our national security interests served by sending troops into nasty situations abroad, how do we build a force to accommodate that reality?

via Jim Henley

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. And just to further complicate this, build a force to meet the threat. After world war two, there was serious thought that old fashioned shooting wars were past. Korea and Vietnam suggested that perhaps not all wars would be shooting wars. We built and army geared towards defeating a massive soviet invasion of western Europe, but never used it for that (gulf war I came as close as we ever got). Fighting terrorist in Afghanistan and defending against a Red China invasion of Taiwan need very different tools and training.

    While certainly parts of the military can be re-purposed, a lot can’t (e.g. a submarine in the above two examples). And given finite resources, where do you place your bet? Because if you optimize for only one type of threat, you leave yourself vulnerable to others.

    We have been taking a technology route, trying to substitute dollars and technology for manpower and casualties (both ours and non-combatants). A single plane with one person has a greater chance of hitting a specific target than a WWII 1000 plane raid with over 10,000 people. But that also has a cost. The number of casualties we would accept for one battle now makes us groan when looking at several years of combat. We currently face an enemy that we can see a body count of 100 enemy combatants killed in a single day with no seeming change in the situation. But if the enemy managed to inflict 100 casualties in one day on us, we would change. So our force multipliers have also created a leverage that multiplies our losses.

    I agree that we need to find answers to the questions (independent and including any current conflicts), but the questions to ask are much more complex than just how many troops.

  2. legion says:

    Is it vital to our national security? Have we exhausted all available alternatives? Does it have a reasonable chance of achieving its stated objective at an acceptable cost?

    It’s also rather disingenuous to say this without also noting that a number of people tried to ask these same questions before we went into Iraq in the first place and were derided, insulted, described as traitors, terror-symps, etc., etc.

    I ask you, how can Preble unashamedly write things like

    No one disputes that our military is stressed, but the Army’s problems did not begin in 2003. The first Bush and Clinton administrations reduced the size of the military by roughly 40 percent after the end of the Cold War, but this smaller military has been used more times and in more places in the 15 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall than it was throughout 45 years of confrontation with the Soviet Union.

    and then pretend like it’s something that nobody knew about 5 years ago? As though such wisdom only has meaning when a conservative writes it, when the same words coming out of the mouth of a liberal as little as six months ago would have merited calls for execution live on Fox News?

  3. James Joyner says:

    Preble’s from the libertarian Cato Institute. The American Conservative is a paleo-con mag that is in favor of an isolationist foreign policy.

  4. M1EK says:

    “George W. Bush and a bipartisan consensus in Congress thought Iraq did.”

    Load of nonsense. The bipartisan consensus was for using the threat of force to make Saddam let the inspectors complete their work. And, of course, we know how that turned out.

    No declaration of war. Still, even now.

  5. Jim Henley says:

    and then pretend like it’s something that nobody knew about 5 years ago? As though such wisdom only has meaning when a conservative writes it, when the same words coming out of the mouth of a liberal as little as six months ago would have merited calls for execution live on Fox News?

    Crikey, legion. Preble did as much to argue against the Iraq War as anyone. You’re slandering one of the good guys.

  6. Tlaloc says:

    The operative public policy question, then, is that since the history of the last fifteen years or so demonstrates that the United States’ political leadership will repeatedly find our national security interests served by sending troops into nasty situations abroad, how do we build a force to accommodate that reality?

    No, the lesson is that if we have the military there are too many pressures to use it, so what we need to do is scale it back to the point where it really is a self defence force rather than designed for foreign invasion (as it is now).

  7. Bandit says:

    Load of nonsense. The bipartisan consensus was for using the threat of force to make Saddam let the inspectors complete their work. And, of course, we know how that turned out.

    Pure comedy gold!

  8. legion says:

    Jim,
    Sorry, I didn’t recognize the name – I just worked from what I felt was the tone of the article…

  9. brainy435 says:

    yetanotherjohn, what are you implying about submarines in your comment? That thay could not be of any help in Afghanistan or Taiwan? Because if that is what you meant, you are incorrect. I served on a submarine for 6 years and saw combat twice, against Iraq in 98 and Kosovo in 99. We launched Tomahawks against both. I would be surprised if submarines were NOT part of the opening of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Just because we can’t get a boat in country doesn’t mean we can’t hit it.

    As far a Taiwan, there is a bit of water between it and China and subs would be vitally important if we needed to defend it, both to repell invasion forces and deny sea support.

  10. brainy435,

    I was trying to say that a submarine would be a great tool for defending Taiwan from a Red China invasion, but not as useful hunting terrorists in Afghanistan. I agree that they could launch a cruise missile, but you are spending a lot of money for a launch platform that could be handled much cheaper.

    There are a lot of weapons platforms that can be of some use, but that doesn’t mean they are optimised. The whole point was that you shouldn’t just look at the number of troops, but also at how you equip/train them and at the strategy/tactics to achieve the goal.

    I hear some complain about the F-22 as not being the best weapons platform for an anti-terrorist campaign. And they are right. But for securing the air space in a more traditional war, they are great. We need to have a balance to react to the different threats.

    M1EK,

    How do you explain the title “Authorization for the USE of Military force”. I know it would be convenient for Hillary to re-write history, but can’t we deal with reality as it is, not as it would be convenient for the left?

    Tlaloc,

    We tried your idea once. Very minimal military. Ended up with over 300,000 US dead when the people who built the bigger military went to war against us. Read some history, you might learn something.

  11. brainy435 says:

    yetanotherjohn, I see your point, now. I agree with you, then. The problem then becomes that it takes a new system so long to get through the bureaucracy, that by the time it does, it’s already obsolete.

  12. Tano says:

    “…almost by definition, they thought the costs acceptable since, after all, they accepted them. It’s only when things don’t go according to plan that the costs escalate beyond the perceived reward.”

    Thats pretty obvious.
    I think you make this too complicated because you ignore the obvious lessons. Bush Sr. and Clinton made wise judegements about the use of the military, Bush Jr. hasnt.

    “The operative public policy question, then, is … how do we build a force to accommodate that reality? ”

    Or better. How do we insure the election of political leaders with better judgement.

  13. Tlaloc says:

    We tried your idea once. Very minimal military. Ended up with over 300,000 US dead when the people who built the bigger military went to war against us. Read some history, you might learn something.

    Since you have the history book, tell me who won that war? Just curious since after our massive military buildup the only wars we’ve won have been against ridiculously tiny targets.

    Are you sure you read that history right? I’m just saying is all…

  14. Steve Verdon says:

    Or better. How do we insure the election of political leaders with better judgement.

    You can’t, hence institutions like our Constitution with its built in system of checks and balances.

  15. JohnG says:

    People need to stop making ridiculous arguments like “It was a vote to authorize a threat, not war” or “If Bush vetoes the emergency spending bill then it means he is cutting the troops off.” We all know exactly what Congress intended when they passed the authorization, and we all know what Congress intends with the emergency spending bill. Instead of hiding the intent so that people can dodge blame down the line, why don’t people and Congress give the public some respect and just say “This is what we want, this is why we are passing the bill?” I mean I know why (because we can’t take stands on the issues of the day, lest public opinion changes tomorrow), but it’s just really tiring to keep seeing these hide the ball arguments.

  16. Jim Henley says:

    You can’t, hence institutions like our Constitution with its built in system of checks and balances.

    Yeah, that was fun while it lasted.