Military Force and Burden Sharing

08/01/2012 11:03 am ET | Updated Oct 01, 2012

In an earlier article I attempted to describe the change of strategy affected in Obama's first term. I limited myself to talk about the primary way in the ends-ways-means linkage of strategy, specifically drawing down the way of counterinsurgency and nation building and ramping up the way of counterterrorism and manhunt. Now I'd like to talk about another aspect of strategy called burden sharing, and what approach the presidential candidates will likely take.

The Obama administration now has an established record to examine. The U.S. responded to revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt largely through diplomacy and was supportive of populist revolution, even though both deposed autocratic rulers had been pro-American. Libya drew the strongest military response from the administration. Now, the U.S. is dealing with Syria, a former Soviet client state, with military restraint and aggressive diplomacy.

When confronted with intrastate wars (revolutions and civil wars as in Vietnam, Kosovo, Egypt, Libya, and Syria), the menu of options remains pretty much the same.

• Stay out of it
• Seek a diplomatic solution with belligerents, regional actors, or global actors
• Impose an arms embargo to starve the conflict
• Supply the weaker side to give them a fighting chance
• Supply the favored side to promote a desired outcome
• Intervene with standoff capabilities
• Intervene with ground forces to separate the factions and end the conflict
• Some combination of the above

In the case of Libya, the administration responded with limited military strikes from offshore, without ground forces, with UN authorization, without U.S. congressional authorization, and through the NATO alliance.

Burden sharing in Libya followed from stakeholder analysis. Libyans had the most at stake followed by European states along the Mediterranean with large North African populations. American vital interests (survival) were not at risk. The Libyans carried the main effort themselves. The French led in providing a no-fly zone and air interdiction. Qatar provided its entire complement of French Mirage fighters, and its transport fleet ferried supplies and weapons to the rebels. The U.S. provided what only the U.S. could provide, precision guided munitions and the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets necessary for targeting. Protected from Gaddafi's air forces and mechanized land forces, Libyans on the ground won their own hard-earned freedom. Gaddafi was killed by Libyans. The cost to the United States was $1B and no lives.

Looking back through modern history, Obama's approach to burden sharing most closely resembles that of Eisenhower and Nixon. Many of my generation hiss at the sound of Nixon's name, but bear with me for a minute. Nixon, elected to bring Johnson's wars in Indochina to an end, announced his approach soon after taking office. The Nixon Doctrine promised moral and diplomatic support, equipment, and maybe even advisers and trainers, but America's allies would have to fight their own wars with their own teenagers. In short, the Doctrine told our friends to act more like allies and less like protectorates. This is a division of labor that shifts the burden away from the U.S. when our vital interests are not at stake but allows the U.S. to remain engaged internationally with a demonstrable role on the world stage.

With no track record to interpret, Romney is in the same position as Obama four years ago, and that position is common for presidential aspirants. Still, his position deserves examination. Romney waffled on Libya but eventually criticized Obama's approach as too weak. More recently, Romney has talked about strong military response in Syria and Iran. His calls may genuinely reflect his world view or they may be campaign rhetoric written by Romney's national security team now taking shape. His advisers have a wider view of U.S. vital interests. They consider U.S. credibility as guarantor of world peace to be a vital interest, thereby justifying the use of military force. And Romney's advisers are inclined to initially act unilaterally but are willing to accept the contributions from a coalition of the willing. Diplomacy represents appeasement, the UN represents subordination, and both represent weakness. The will and ability to use military force assures American primacy according to this line of thinking.

There are many pressures on a president for "strong" action. There are fewer pressures on a president for "wise" action. Honest people can disagree over what constitutes wise action. The use of military force is one of the things you are choosing when you vote in November. Choose wisely.