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Lighter footprint, similar missteps

October 31, 2012

Jason Fritz makes some strong points about light-footprint intervention, and its unimpressive contributions to to American foreign policy:

The purpose of this short post is not to lobby for boots on the ground in Libya, but on the contrary to caution those out there who think that we can simply help these rebel groups with air power. For example: here. If our actions in Libya did create a gratitude account with the Libyan people, great. But that does not translate to those warlords that wield power through their militias as often their fight will be with other militias as they strive for greater influence. Without boots on the ground, we are unlikely to be able to stop these violent struggles for power if we can’t be there to broker the peace and help move it along.

As much as military analysts bemoan the general public’s lack of understanding of the effort and violence of a no-fly zone, the longer peace is much harder to accomplish without large numbers of troops on the ground to provide stability after the regime falls. If we are not willing to put troops on the ground before or after our service as a rebel-force air force, then we should seriously contemplate refraining from intervening in the first place. Or at a minimum, not be surprised when our actions do not provide the stability for which we had hoped.  That is where I have issue with the RAND paper: it discusses the light-footprint as a problem in developing long-term stability, but it does not discuss the real nature of our initial intervention and how we have not yet succeeded in using it to accomplish long-term foreign policy objectives.

Much of the debate within the policymaking elite about intervention is fundamentally procedural. Certainly, there is no large ideological bloc of advocates of neutrality or non-interventionism, as there was before the 1950s. Nor does the somewhat younger Cold War realist faction seem to hold particular influence over policy today. The most vibrant debates seem to remain about when and how to intervene. While much ink spilled during the run-up to the U.S. joining Libya’s war over at what point a humanitarian crisis demanded a military response, much of the debate over Syria (often seemingly oblivious to a public with little appetite for intervention) grapples with whether the U.S. ought be seeking a purely indirect strategy of arms provision, establishment of no-fly zones, and so on.

Two long and costly wars, an unenthusiastic public, and an uncertain fiscal climate all militate against impulsive intervention, but the question now lends more stress to how large a footprint it will entail and what countries will participate. While these procedural differences matter enormously for mitigating the risks and costs of new wars, overemphasizing their importance fails to grasp at the vital question of the policy basis for initiating them in the first place, as well as the larger strategic issue of connecting those policy ends to the ways and means available.

Even more confusingly, the constraints pushing interventionist policymakers towards light footprint approaches are leading to a misleading repackaging of rationales and rhetoric. While there was some buzz about control giving way to credible influence, this provides false reassurance. Influence sounds collaborative and relatively low-intensity, while control sounds domineering and difficult.

As J.C. Wylie pointed out, though, power control plays an essential role that underpins influence. The problem Fritz identifies with light footprint interventions is that they seek a long-term outcome (at the minimum. U.S. influence) without a reliable mechanism for establishing lasting control over Libya’s key political-military actors. Ultimately, influence and control are not fully separable. The sinister meme in American foreign policy and national security debate is that when something is reduced, we can achieve the same ends when it is “smart” – “smart power,” “smart defense,” etc. The United States struggled to achieve its long-term objectives in Iraq with 150,000 troops and an direct role in Iraqi reconstruction. It should be no surprise that America’s past bombing campaign against a disappeared regime grants the U.S. very little power control in Libya, nor should it shock anyone that American influence over a patchwork of Libyan armed factions is not achieving desired ends.

As Fritz notes, there are fundamental problems in the planning process that will dog U.S. attempts to achieve long-term objectives in interventions to replace hostile regimes with pro-U.S. security partners that will persist regardless of the type of military force sent in to accomplish the initial objectives of regime change. Basic problems in these interventions still remain, such as a credible political component to the overall strategy, effective human intelligence, and a set of well-defined and prioritized limited objectives commensurate with the size of the force that allow us to adequately assess the conditions of victory, among many other issues. Unfortunately, the conditions that so often push the U.S. towards light footprint interventions, such as a desire for a rapid or prophylactic response,  or to seize a perceived opportunity to advance U.S. interests within a limited time-frame, militate against rectifying any of those problems. The obfuscating seduction of military action  – the fury and immediacy of its decision – and its malign consequences for policy planning are well and alive even in the latest reincarnation of a lither, smarter form of military action. To quote from Fritz’s post again:

 If we are not willing to put troops on the ground before or after our service as a rebel-force air force, then we should seriously contemplate refraining from intervening in the first place. Or at a minimum, not be surprised when our actions do not provide the stability for which we had hoped.

A low-cost failure to achieve our objectives is still a failure, and in a context of limited resources, seeking the cheapest way to execute a half-baked idea is a dubious form of prudence.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. TrT permalink
    October 31, 2012 2:35 pm

    I’m not sure I can agree “light touch” is the problem.
    Afghanistan saw masses of ground troops, for sustained periods, to no effect.

    The UKs intervention in Oman quite possibly never went over 500 men.
    And yet was so overwhelmingly successful that almost no one has even heard of it,

    Is the problem in Libya/Afghanistan the scale of involvement?
    Or is it the fractured nature of the “side” we backed?

    All the disparate groups in Libya have in common is that they hated Gadafi more than they hated each other.
    Is it any surprise they are now fighting one another?

    If the US wanted to maintain its light touch approach in Libya, it could carry on its policy of bombing factions in Libya that displease it…..

    • October 31, 2012 10:44 pm

      Light footprint interventions aren’t inherently bad – but they are when you’re conducting an intervention with extremely broad, transformative objectives. For things like punitive raiding, limited CT operations, etc, a small force can be appropriate.

      The British intervention(s) in Oman were very limited in their goals, which is part of the reason why they were successful. There was no real attempt to nation-build or transform the governing culture of the country. Not only that, but British forces employed tactics that would be morally unacceptable today. They did so in service of basically perpetuating a feudal, autocratic government, and even in their coup to support Qaboos, they didn’t really seek to change Oman’s government overall.

      So yes, after a few interventions over a period of a few decades, the British sorted out Oman decently, but they did so in the service of very limited objectives. That’s where the real contrast is today with the U.S., which would still like to have the same objectives that would require nation/state-building, but without the work or risk of actually doing it.

      • TrT permalink
        November 3, 2012 5:32 pm


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