May 16, 2018

Perhaps the most indelible public spat between a U.S. diplomat and the U.S. military remains that between U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell. Their argument might seem odd today, but at the time Albright, the diplomat, was arguing for the need to deploy U.S. armed forces in support of humanitarian intervention in the Balkans. Powell, the soldier, was adamant that U.S. armed forces should not be used for such contingencies. Powell summed up his views on the proper use of U.S. armed forces in an article for the journal Foreign Affairs entitled “U.S. Forces: Challenges Ahead.” Subsequently known as the “Powell Doctrine,” the article highlighted a U.S. foreign policy dilemma which has never been resolved: if standing idly by is intolerable, as Albright insisted, is intervening with armed force something that will generally advance or hurt U.S. interests? Can military intervention succeed, and if so, how limited might the circumstances be?

Powell’s vision of a well-intentioned military intervention leading to disaster became real in Somalia in 1993, where a humanitarian intervention morphed into a publicly disastrous failure to capture a warlord, the deaths of 18 U.S. special operations forces, and the capture of a U.S. helicopter pilot. This operation went wrong for many reasons, but one point to consider: There was no diplomatic support for U.S. forces going in. The collapse of the Siad Barre government in 1991 had resulted in both a complex new political mosaic, and the flight of international embassies, including the U.S., from Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu.

A decade later and things got much worse. In 2001, in response to 9-11, the United States led a military intervention to punish (and ouster) the Afghan Taliban. The lack of a coast or amenable bordering allies forced the U.S. to rely on special operations forces. In that fight, operating in their traditional role as support for local actors, the United States and its allies rapidly dismantled the Taliban, whose decade of brutality and corruption had deprived them of the base of popular support needed to mount anything other than a conventional defense. Short term it proved a major victory, but long term? An unqualified disaster; largely because the George W. Bush administration made no use of U.S. diplomatic support in planning a post-win strategy.

In 2003, and against the advice of not only senior U.S., but allied diplomats, the George W. Bush administration committed the U.S. military to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Although the military intervention seemed to go well in the short term, the president did not assign a senior diplomat to the important project of Iraq’s post-war reconstruction. Instead, the president chose L. Paul Bremer III — a man with limited knowledge of the Middle East, its peoples, politics, or history — to lead the transition from dictatorship to democracy. Again, bayonets had led the way, and brilliantly, but lack of diplomatic engagement led to insurgency, terrorism, and civil war.


Leave a Reply