A little bit at war

Wall Street Journal's Max Boot says that, contrary to the Powell doctrine, America can and should fight small wars, build nations and do without an exit strategy.

By Suzy Hansen
May 16, 2002 10:08PM (UTC)
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In his autobiography "An American Journey," Colin Powell wrote that he and many others who had fought in Vietnam "vowed that when our turn came to call the shots, we would not quietly acquiesce in halfhearted warfare for half-baked reasons that the American people could not understand or support." In what we now know as the Powell doctrine, he shaped that sentiment into a set of conditions for engaging in war: The United States should commit forces only if the conflict is vital to "national interests." The American people must support the war. There should be clear military objectives. There should be a plan to get out. Wars should be fought only if clear, quick and overwhelming victory is guaranteed.

According to Max Boot, Powell's concerns are understandable, but the conditions of the Powell doctrine run counter to most of the small wars America has fought since the beginning of the republic. In his unabashedly imperialistic second book, "The Savage Wars of Peace," Boot chronicles such minor, lesser known conflicts as the Philippine War, the Pancho Villa Punitive Expedition, and American involvements in Russia, Nicaragua, China and throughout the Caribbean. Those are not wars that Americans tend to remember, yet Boot suggests that they have much in common with the wars of the last decade in Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti and Afghanistan. For Boot, all of these wars -- bloody wars, often without clear-cut outcomes -- are not only integral to the expansion of American power and world stability but also, simply, inevitable.


Boot was almost finished with "The Savage Wars of Peace" when Sept. 11 drew America into the war on terrorism. For Boot, Sept. 11 reinforced what his research had already proven: that the United States' far-reaching international interests require that we keep an eye on every corner of the globe and that we be ready, willing and capable of stepping in whenever the occasion might arise. Although his ideological stance is obviously arguable, Boot's ideas about the "American way of war" add to an already hearty debate about the United States' use of military power.

Max Boot is the editorial features editor of the Wall Street Journal. He spoke to Salon from Washington, D.C.

How do you think the myth of America's engagement in mostly large wars of overwhelming power has affected foreign policy? Were you surprised to find the quantity of small wars in American history?


That myth has had a big effect on the way we've conducted policy, especially in the last decade. Ever since the end of the Cold War, the military has been deeply reluctant to get involved in smaller, more amorphous conflicts in places like the Balkans, which don't fit the neat criteria devised under the Powell doctrine. That's basically a way of saying that we only do big wars where we can win quickly and go home after a massive victory. But, unfortunately, that mind-set, which is very widespread especially at the Pentagon, does not take account of the ambiguities that confront America. We have so much power in so many places around the world that we wind up getting involved in situations that don't meet the neat criteria of the Powell doctrine.

And there's nothing new about that. This has been happening since the early days of the republic. I was absolutely amazed to find how many of these wars there actually have been, because most of them are forgotten. Between 1800 and 1934 there were 180 landings of Marines abroad. It's an amazing figure: 180 landings in 134 years. This was at a time -- during the 19th century -- when most of us think of the United States as being isolationist. Far from being isolationist, we were landing troops all over the place: Sumatra in 1832, Korea in 1871, Samoa in 1899, and on and on. None of these landings fit the criteria of the Powell doctrine.

By "small war," what do you mean exactly?


"Small war" was a term that was popular around the turn of the 20th century to describe encounters between Western troops and guerrilla forces in the Third World. It's a literal translation of the word "guerrilla." And for that reason I don't talk about, for example, the Spanish-American War, which was a conventional conflict between two great powers. But I do talk about the Philippine War -- which resulted from the Spanish-American War -- which was a war pitting American troops against Philippine insurrectos, resisting their attempts to take over the Philippines.

Would say that the majority of these small wars were successful, and if so, how would you define "successful"?


I would say that the majority of them were successful, but it's hard to say. One notable exception was President Wilson's intervention in the Russian civil war in 1918 to 1920. But you ask an important question, which is, How do you define success in a small war? It's not always easy to do. In a big war, it means that you occupy the enemy camp and dictate peace terms. But in a small war, that just is not possible. If you think about it today, for example, the war on terrorism is a small war. There's no enemy camp that we can march into. We're fighting people who are not states but amorphous groups like al-Qaida. So how do you know when you've won?

The answer is you don't. The analogy I use is that a small-war mission is akin to what a police department does. You don't expect a police department to eradicate all crime in a city and then go home to the suburbs. But you do expect that they will keep crime at a tolerable and fairly low level. Likewise with small wars: You try to achieve your objectives at a fairly low cost, but you don't suffer under the illusion that you're going to have a complete and total victory anytime in the near future.

What are our expectations now? Do we suffer under such illusions?


One of the problems today is that we have this expectation of total victory, which is implicit in the Powell doctrine mind-set. Unfortunately, very often we just can't deliver that. Sometimes when we try to deliver it, it becomes very harmful. For example, in the Korean War, when MacArthur tried to go all the way to the Chinese border and tried to conquer all of North Korea, it was a classic military prescription for what constitutes victory -- to subdue and occupy the enemy. But, in fact, that was going too far, because to subdue and occupy North Korea would require a war with China and possibly with the Soviet Union. That was too high a price to pay, and therefore we settled for something less than complete victory. North Korea would stay communist and South Korea would be free. In retrospect, that's a pretty good bargain, but it goes counter to the notion that the military has to seek total victory every time they take to the field of battle.

Some of the wars you documented went on for quite a few years. Would you say that these small wars were more successful the longer we maintained a presence in the region?

Generally that's the case. There's a real problem if you just go in and get out. We saw that in Haiti in the 1990s, where we put President Aristide back in power, which may have been the right thing to do. But then American troops pulled out. As a result, Haiti has sunk back into political violence, crime, poverty, disease and all sorts of other problems. Holding one election or putting one person in power doesn't change the long-term outlook for a society and doesn't create stable institutions that can deliver peace and prosperity. Sometimes to do that you need a longer-term occupation, the most successful example being our post-World War II occupation of Germany, Japan and Italy, which transformed those fascist states into paragons of liberal democracy. Most small wars haven't delivered such a clear-cut outcome but they have helped to move countries like the Philippines, for example, down the road toward liberal democracy.


Do you think that we were hesitant to engage in conflicts in the 1990s because of the Powell doctrine, or because of what happened in Somalia?

It was a combination of those two things. Somalia really reinforced the Powell doctrine. The Powell doctrine is built on some bad experiences -- the major bad experience was Vietnam. But Somalia reinforced that and made the military and the government very wary of "nation building." In fact, if we'd wanted to, we could have succeeded in Somalia. If you read the book "Black Hawk Down," at the very end of it, the Rangers and Delta Force troopers didn't feel defeated. Although they'd lost 19 of their comrades, they felt like they'd emerged victorious and they were ready to go back into Mogadishu and finish off Aidid. They weren't given the opportunity to do that. That may have been the right decision to make; I'm not saying we should have made a long-term commitment to Somalia. I'm just saying that that doesn't necessarily mean that you can't do these kinds of missions.

But that was the message that Gen. Powell and a lot of generals took out of Somalia. They wanted to stay away from those conflicts, and as a result of that, they were tremendously hesitant to go into Bosnia when the ethnic cleansing was going on there. They made all sorts of arguments about how you couldn't do Bosnia unless you put in hundreds of thousands of troops, and that really scared the Clinton administration.

Which didn't turn out to be true?


Well, it turned out to be false, because right after Gen. Powell retired as Joint Chiefs chairman, we did get involved in Bosnia with a very low-level intervention using Croatian troops on the ground and some American and NATO firepower in the form of warplanes. That delivered a pretty fast end to the Serbian offensive and allowed the Dayton peace accords to be negotiated, which, however imperfect, have delivered peace to this region. That's a good example of how a low-level use of American force delivered fairly quick results.

It seems that part of the reason you wrote this book was to say, "These wars are nothing new. We've always done them." Do you think such an understanding of our history will make people more supportive of them? Or are you saying that they have been a part of American policy and American power forever and therefore simply always will be?

I'm saying both. Small wars are inevitable. They're an outgrowth of American power. We've always had so much power in so many places in the world. We would intervene even if the situation didn't meet very rigid realpolitik criteria for intervention. I think that's going to be the case in the future. The reality is that whether you like small wars or not, and you can certainly argue about specific instances -- should we go into Rwanda, Haiti, Afghanistan, etc. -- history clearly shows that this is going to be the dominant trend for the American military. The message I take away from it is that they better be ready for it. They can't avoid these things. We're gonna be drawn into them whether we want to or not, and the only question is: Are we going to do these well or badly? And I hope that we'll do them well.

And you say that we have to be bloody-minded if we're going to act imperialistically.


Sometimes, yes. Some of our 1990s small wars were fought with a zero-casualties mentality. Troops going into places like Haiti and Kosovo were told "Force protection is job 1." Well, that makes a lot of them ask: If force protection is job 1, what are we doing here? Why don't we just stay home? The military realizes when it's sent abroad that there are dangers implicit and that there's the possibility that troops might lose their lives. They know that's the profession they've taken. It's a mistake to run these operations to produce zero casualties. At the same time, we don't want to lose young men and women. But sometimes it's unavoidable in the course of doing the mission. We have to be careful not to structure these [missions] in a way that produces zero casualties because, while it's good not to lose anybody, there's a danger that you're not getting the mission done if you're not risking anyone in combat, either.

You write that, historically, Americans have shown support for these small wars. But don't you think that most Americans share Colin Powell's feelings about Vietnam and that legacy?

The real lesson regarding the American people and Vietnam is that the American people will not support losing wars. I don't think the problem with Vietnam was that it dragged on or that we lost a lot of casualties. The real problem was that there was no sign that we were winning. Support for the war stayed pretty high even through 1968 as long as you could credibly say that the casualties were heading toward victory. But once it became clear that there was no victory in sight, support collapsed.

I'm not saying that the American people are going to support each and every one of these interventions. But it doesn't matter that much. The president has a lot of leeway as commander in chief under the constitution. When he sends troops into battle, he's given a lot of leeway politically, and as long as they're successful, it's not a problem. For example, the U.S. interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo were not tremendously popular but nobody stood in the way as long as President Clinton was determined to do them and as long as they turned out well. Now they're not that controversial even in retrospect. If the president is determined, and ultimately successful, he doesn't need to worry about mobilizing public opinion.


But Americans will always demand to know why we're there in the first place. You talk about the transformation of American idealism, from the "white man's burden" to nation building and human rights. American leaders often say there's some sort of moral imperative for engaging in war. How important is it? Is it mostly for public opinion?

It's a big part of the reason why we go. It's complicated. For an intervention to really work, it needs more than a moral imperative; it needs some kind of strategic or economic interest. But you can never discount the moral imperative. That's always a big part of the reason why we fight wars, whether it's to free Cuba in 1898 or to free Kosovo in 1999. And it's not just idealistic window-dressing. Supporting American ideals abroad is not only good morally, it's good strategically. By promoting liberalism and democracy and stopping ethnic cleansing and other things, we are really supporting American interests in the world because we benefit from a stable world situation.

You write about the "nation's interests." What does that mean now?

There's an endless debate about what's in the nation's interests. Some people like Gen. Powell would say we should limit wars to defending the nation's "vital national interests." But then the question becomes, what is a "vital national interest"? People often try to define it very narrowly as only attacks on American soil or attacks on American citizens. But if you look at the long history of American involvement in small wars, our interventions have never been limited to "vital national interests."

To cite one example, there was the occupation of Veracruz, Mexico, in 1914. Some American sailors were briefly detained by the Mexican authorities, and then they were released. But that wasn't good enough for the admiral who commanded the local U.S. naval squadron offshore. He demanded that the Mexican government fire a 21-gun salute to the U.S. flag, or else. The Mexican government refused, so the result was that the U.S. wound up occupying Mexico's principal port for several months. There were other reasons for the occupation, but that was the precipitating incident. It's hard to argue that getting a 21-gun salute to the Stars and Stripes constitutes a "vital national interest." So we've often gone to war for reasons that might seem marginal in what I call a realpolitik interpretation of our interests, but that's the way it is. America has always had interests abroad and we've always found ourselves drawn into these smaller conflicts.

I thought it was interesting that in a punitive expedition, it's harder to determine whether or not it's successful. Why is that? How can we view our war in Afghanistan that way?

We've never suffered as horrific an attack as we did on Sept. 11, but we've certainly suffered other attacks on American soil and on American citizens. We've invariably retaliated. But when all we do is a quick retaliation, it's hard to know whether the situation has gotten better or not. One example is in 1916, when Pancho Villa raided Columbus, New Mexico, and killed a number of Americans -- and Gen. Pershing was sent with 10,000 men after him. Well, he never got Pancho Villa. Pershing captured or killed a number of Villa's men, but then he also risked a war with Mexico. In the meantime, Pancho Villa was still alive and recruited a new band of followers and went on the warpath once again. It's very hard to say whether the Pershing mission was a success. It didn't really create law and order in northern Mexico. That's probably not our job, but that's what it would have taken to ensure success.

Now in Afghanistan we face the question, how do you measure success against the Taliban and al-Qaida? It's great that we've put them on the run even though it's too bad that we haven't captured Osama bin Laden. But it takes more than putting them on the run. If we want to make sure that Afghanistan does not become a haven of terrorists in the future, we have to make sure that it has a stable and secure government. And the only way to do that is with American or allied peacekeeping forces to assist in the growth of a secure government.

So you think we should have American peacekeeping forces there?

Yes. The great mistake we made in the 1990s was helping kick out the Soviets from Afghanistan with nothing to replace them. The Taliban and al-Qaida filled that vacuum and, as a result, the World Trade Center is no longer standing. We paid a very heavy price for ignoring what happened in Afghanistan. I hope we pay attention to what's happening there today, lest it once again becomes the breeding ground of terrorists.

Do you think it the Bush administration made a mistake by signaling to the world that we wanted to shift attention to Iraq so quickly, even though you do believe we should go into Baghdad?

I don't think it's a mistake to start thinking about Iraq, but it's a mistake to suggest that we're going to pull out of Afghanistan anytime soon. Clearly, the government of Hamid Karzai and the people of Afghanistan desperately want American peacekeepers there, along with allied troops, to help keep the warlords at bay and to help create a stable situation where the people can flourish. We can do that at the same time that we're thinking about Iraq. The American military is big enough that we can keep a small peacekeeping force in Afghanistan -- a few thousand men, sort of like what we have in Bosnia and Kosovo -- at the same time that we're preparing for a larger war with Iraq.

In Afghanistan, can you explain what you mean by "nation building" versus "state building"?

"Nation building" is this buzz phrase that we've heard so much about, and people talk about how difficult it is. There's something to be said for that: It's very difficult to create a national consciousness if one doesn't already exist. That's certainly a problem in a number of countries that were basically created by European colonizers and don't have a long history of nationhood and don't have a lot of national consciousness. Creating that is a very long-term effort. But it's much easier and much quicker to create an effective state. We know how to create an effective state; we have a pretty effective government here at home and we've had experiences with military occupations in places like Germany and Japan after World War II. State building is a much more doable goal than nation building, and hopefully if you create a successful state, then the sense of nationhood will follow.

How do you feel about expanding our presence in different countries that might be vulnerable to breeding terrorists?

I don't know enough about the individual situations in Yemen or the Philippines or Georgia. If we're fighting a war on terrorism, we certainly should be trying to root these groups out from all the places where they might hide. They do tend to hide in chaotic states like Yemen or Georgia. You get into more difficult questions in some of those cases because some of those governments are pretty despotic. You want to be careful of not supporting the government in oppressing its own people and getting on the wrong side of the people in that region. That's a tough balancing act.

That brings up the question of an exit strategy. People want to know when this will all end and what our limits are. You write that many of these small wars haven't included exit strategies. What are the dangers in that?

We've done pretty well not having exit strategies, and it's generally a mistake to think about exit strategies. Instead of exit strategies, you should be thinking about how to achieve your objectives and about gaining victory. America still has not had an exit strategy from World War II or the Korean War, because decades after the wars that brought them there, American troops remain stationed in Germany, Japan, Italy, South Korea. That's perfectly all right. I don't see any reason why American troops have to be based only in the continental United States. In fact, in the small wars that I chronicle, quite a few of them dragged on for many decades. We were in Haiti for 19 years, we were in the Philippines for 46 years, and we were in China from the 1840s to the 1940s. There's no need to have an exit strategy every time we go in somewhere. That's just one of these myths that's gone up in the 1990s, and it can be very harmful to an effective deployment of American military power.

Just look at the Balkans today. If American troops left and if the other allied troops left, the killing would start tomorrow. We need to keep the troops there -- and even if they're there 50 years from now, I don't think that's a problem.

But the response to that would be that it's cultivated a culture of resentment against America in so many corners of the world because we've maintained this pervasive presence. Especially in the Arab world.

I don't think they're resentful. I think they're grateful. If you talk to people in Bosnia or Kosovo or Afghanistan, from everything I hear, they're saying, We want Americans here -- please, please, Yankees, come here. They're not saying, Yankees, go home. Because they know that American troops come as liberators, not oppressors. We're the only thing that prevents a return of warlordism and violence in those unstable regions.

Back to Iraq, you write that pulling out after the Persian Gulf War without going after Saddam Hussein was a huge mistake.

In retrospect it's hard to argue otherwise because over a decade later Saddam Hussein is still in power and still developing weapons of mass destruction. There were many reasons why we didn't go to Baghdad in 1991, but many of them have to do with the fact that the American military in the original Bush administration were very afraid of what I call a "small war," the occupation of Iraq. I don't think there would have been a lot of fighting involved, but they were very afraid that it would be a "quagmire." They didn't want to get "bogged down." All these buzz phrases. That's one of the many pernicious effects of the Powell doctrine. In retrospect we would have been much better off with some kind of international occupation of Iraq, moving it along the road toward democracy, instead of the situation we face today, where we have to go in once again and fight a major battle with Saddam Hussein.

But I think that raises a major question concerning how America can act in today's world situation. The rest of the world is very much against our going into Iraq. Can America still make these decisions to wage small wars alone? Isn't it possible that even though historically we have always done so, that that has changed now?

We physically have the capability to do it alone because our military resources are so much vaster than anyone else's. It's preferable that we don't do it alone. It's preferable to have the help of allies. In Iraq, we probably need at least two allies -- Kuwait and Turkey -- as staging areas. But ultimately we will have that support. A lot of the hesitation and opposition you've been hearing in the Arab world to a campaign against Saddam Hussein is a result of American indecisiveness over the past decade. They've seen us poking a stick at Saddam but not removing him, so naturally they're afraid to support us if Saddam Hussein is still going to be around after the Americans leave. They're the ones that would be in danger because they're left behind in a very bad neighborhood. I think privately what Arab leaders have been telling the U.S. government for at least a decade is that if they see that we're serious and we're going to get rid of Saddam and finally overthrow him, they will be behind us because they don't like Saddam, either. He threatens them as well. But they're not going to be behind half-hearted measures that leave him in power.

Then why do you think that Cheney's diplomatic mission was such a failure, and that the other Arab nations showed solidarity with Saddam? Do you think that's only because of Israel?

Yes. There's a lot of posturing going on among the Arab states. They get a lot of mileage out of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict because, basically, all those states repress their own peoples and they try to cloak that by invoking the evil Zionist entity or the evil United States. They try to channel their people's hatred of them toward hatred of Israel and the United States. That's the game they're playing. I wouldn't put too much stock in these ritual declarations of solidarity with Saddam Hussein. All those dictators in the Middle East hate one another and would be delighted to see Saddam fall at the first opportunity.

Obviously, the book reinforces that small wars are part of our history. But just because we've always done them, does that mean that they're applicable to the contemporary world situation?

Not only have we done them, but we've usually done them pretty successfully. They have achieved American goals whether those were to create freedom of the seas -- as we did with our war against the Barbary pirates in 1801 to 1805, in our wars against the Caribbean pirates in the 1810s -- or whether our objective was to create stability in unstable countries like Haiti or the Dominican Republic. We achieved that, at least in the short term.

There's a broad range of reasons why we've gone into small wars, and we've been generally more successful than not. We have to be prudent with the use of our resources and realize that no nation, no matter how rich, can afford to wage war without end. I'm not saying, Rush out and send American troops everywhere around the world. But when we do send them, we can be reasonably confident they will be successful and that Vietnam, this great disaster, was the exception, not the rule. We've done many messy, complicated missions before with much greater levels of success.

About Vietnam: Some people might say that one tragic example is enough. Do you think that's Powell's attitude -- that everything has hinged on that one tragic war?

I think so. It's understandable. I did not fight in Vietnam; Gen. Powell did. It's understandable that he would be much more traumatized by it than I am. There's a whole generation of American officers who are really traumatized by what happened in Vietnam and the way that morale in the armed forces plunged in the wake of Vietnam. They had a very tough decade in the 1970s trying to get back on their feet. But pretty much all of the small wars in the 1990s, except for Somalia, were pretty successful. That's much more the pattern and the norm of American history than this one huge disaster. Vietnam, in a lot of ways, was a unique situation. There were a lot of reasons why we lost that are not at all repeated in places like Iraq or Afghanistan or Bosnia. What I'm trying to do is widen our historical focus beyond Vietnam to these other wars, which are also very applicable to the challenges we face today but had a very different outcome.

Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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