No end of a lesson on the “big stick”

By Derek Leebaert | March 31, 2017

When, how, and under what conditions should the United States use force—the “big stick” as Teddy Roosevelt called it in 1901—is among the most compelling of subjects to explore at any time, and even more so at the start of a new presidency. Should the country guarantee the world’s order, defend the liberties of its oppressed, and hold the frontlines of stabilization, not least by resisting the current crop of terrorist groups? To do so, in contrast to more distanced postures, requires making a case for what Eliot Cohen invokes in The Big Stick as “the American policing function.” By this he means an assertion of “America’s global engagement backed by armed force” which, in turn, implies military primacy—and, it might be added, economic primacy too.

THE BIG STICK: The Limits of Soft Power & and the Necessity of Military Force, Eliot A. Cohen. New York: Basic Books, 2016.  

Cohen is a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University, and like many distinguished academics in the US system of national security policymaking, has served in senior appointive positions at the State and Defense departments. He is also known for having taken a stand against “President Donald Trump’s antics,” and for predicting within 10 days of the inauguration that Trump’s deficiencies of character and temperament, as manifested in a belligerent nationalism, are endangering the nation. Since Cohen has been a leader of the Republicans’ “never Trump” movement from the start, in March 2016, readers are likely to contrast his views on the role of military with those emerging from the new administration.

The Big Stick sets out to instruct US leaders, and the wider public, how to employ hard power in new ways and for new circumstances in the aftermath of 15 years of chronic war. That worthy purpose has also assured his book extensive press attention, as well as scrutiny among the civilian defense establishment; and the book arrives with a blurb from Gen. (ret.) David Petraeus attesting to its being “brilliant, timely, hugely important.”

Cohen’s clearly-argued account delivers six rules for the use of force. They include: “Understand your war for what it is, not what you what you wish it to be”; “Planning is important, being able to adapt is more important”; “While engaging in today’s fight, prepare for tomorrow’s challenge”; and “A president can launch a war; to win it, he or she must sustain congressional and popular support.” These conclusions follow such further observations as “sheer mass no longer counts the way it did during World War II,” and “it is not enough to have an ample arsenal, however; one needs to know how to use it wisely.”

All together, this guidance provides the framework for how the US civil and military leadership is advised to think about its needs to manage, contain, and reduce challenges posed by Russia, by China’s expanded armed strength, by likely nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea, and by radical Islamic movements such as ISIS. Two questions arise as his argument unfolds: At whom is this book aimed, given that these remarks are essentially staff college truisms, and what is in fact new in the author’s attempt to create “an intellectual infrastructure of hard power” for US civilian authority, soldiers, and the citizenry?

Doubts about the book’s originality intensify as one encounters Cohen’s return to familiar arguments surrounding “the unhappy outcome of the Iraq and possibly even the Afghan war.” He dwells on the 2003 invasion of Iraq that arose from what he styles the desire “to inflict a blow that would shock” the Arab world. Again we hear that Saddam Hussein had “relationships” with Al Qaeda, no matter that, on the issue of radical Islamic terror, Saddam was closer to our side than to theirs; that Professor Samuel Huntington’s 1996 tract, The Clash of Civilizations, foretold the green peril of Islam rolling over some notional map, unimpeded by national borders; and the assertion that what Cohen goes on to term “lesser forms of torture,” such as waterboarding, “probably yielded useful information,” for all the contrary evidence. Readers find themselves back in the day of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as Cohen addresses the stormy present to intone that, in any showdown with China, the United States must understand that “a shooting conflict could last much longer than a week, and that it is prepared for such a possibility.” On the eve of the Iraq invasion, after all, the nation was guaranteed that the intervention would last “six days, six weeks”—at worst “six months”—before a satisfied departure.

Although Cohen counsels against being “overwhelmed by these experiences, or to read too much into them,” it’s hard to see from his evidence what, by these lights, civilian war planners would be doing much differently from a decade and a half ago. That’s worrying, since he anticipates that the United States will soon find “itself compelled to intervene again in Muslim lands.” Yes, he believes that we’ll do better the next time: Decisions will be made carefully, thoughtfully, prudently, by “shrewd American statecraft.” To be sure, such an effort would have to be better than in those earlier years, which heard Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz’s assurances that any differences between Iraq’s Sunni and Shia were “exaggerated.”

Next time we can get it right, goes the argument, providing we correct various mistakes in tactics, diplomacy, and all-around management. But there’s one thing about “hard power”; it’s a stirring phrase, but, if it’s to make any sense, it must be examined aspect by aspect. How might the hard power of military might, economic substance, and political strength apply specifically once Americans are “compelled to intervene again in Muslim lands”—and what might those be? Pakistan, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia?

The prospects for doing better next time are not reinforced by obtuse appeals to history, as are to be found in the author’s synopsis of the war in Korea. That at least is a story which is imperative to get straight in any discussion of the use of force. Three months after the war began, in June 1950, America had achieved its original mission of rescuing South Korea from Communist invasion, at a cost of 5,394 lives. But in October, we embarked on a counter-invasion of North Korea that brought GIs and Marines up to China’s frontier along the Yalu River. Beijing’s intervention followed in November, hammering our forces into the longest retreat in US history and taking another 28,345 American lives in the north, before an armistice was reached in July 1953 virtually along the original border between the Koreas. Yet Cohen reinterprets this history to conclude that “[i]t was the Clausewitzian style [i.e. actual fighting] that stopped the Chinese offensive in Korea, and had Americans been willing to resume the offensive, would probably have allowed them to push the Chinese all the way back to the Yalu.” This “would probably” is a gigantic leap of faith that contradicts judgements of the time by the Joint Chiefs and the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees: US military capacity was stretched thin; it was China, rather than the Americans, that had not begun to escalate; and 500,000 Soviet Red Army troops stood poised near North Korea. That’s shown in the declassified transcripts of the hearings on Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s firing, as referenced in H. W. Brands’ The General vs the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War. This was a conflict, after all, in which the 8th Army also didn’t have enough artillery shells, mortar rounds, and grenades at the battlefront; emergency stocks had to be diverted from US forces in Europe, and GIs were compelled to recover, whenever possible, every shell casing used in the heat of battle to be recycled as scrap metal, due to logistical failures at home.

Cohen’s book repeatedly summons Clausewitz, that eminent philosophizer of the wars of Bonaparte, on matters big and small. But it skirts the insight that is most apt to current circumstances. War is an instrument of policy—which reminds us that the policy range of a modern developed society is encumbered with a hundred substantial and competing priorities. Those include global warming, healthcare, bond ratings, and immigration, in addition to another overseas intervention. Less advanced societies, or determined factions therein, meanwhile focus on their one life-consuming cause. Thus, insurgents can endure being ground down for a decade or more while their enemies face endless distractions—eventually to grow weary, to go home, and to let the locals sort out their own antagonisms.

If the United States is “to respond forcefully,” Cohen advises, we must be “able to meet an opponent measure for measure, and to escalate quickly to forms of conventional conflict that they wish to avoid.” Yet such “measure by measure” US escalation has too often proved to be precisely the type of response that our most deadly opponents have intended to provoke. Repeatedly, Washington has shown a startling tendency to play into enemy hands. A dozen years after Korea, for instance, North Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh astonished the Soviet premier, Aleksei Kosygin, who had warned him of the dangers of not settling with the Americans before they escalated. “I want them to send more troops,” replied that stern old warrior. Comrade Ho had recognized that a sprawling industrial democracy would before long sicken of a gallant but ill-conceived intervention, while his people were set to sacrifice millions of lives for national unity. Similarly, America’s plunge into Iraq and its years of illusory nation-building in Afghanistan stand as Exhibits A and B of our unconscious determination to fulfil the greatest hopes of a Bin Laden or al-Baghdadi.

The Big Stick is not a book that likely would have been written by a senior foreign service officer or any savvy commander: It conceptualizes too neat a world. Cohen harks back often to the less intricate terrain of an earlier time, as when he argues that during the Bush and Obama administrations “there was no adroit ramping up of a massive and ingenious campaign of political and psychological warfare against radical Islam, as occurred against the Soviet Union during the early stages of the Cold War.” Leave aside the fact that such dubious efforts—to recall the fostering of Hungary’s doomed rebellion in 1956—were directed at European audiences. It just doesn’t follow that, because America held the non-Soviet world together once, it could do so again in vastly more complicated circumstances. In any event, it’s hard to believe that Americans will long embrace further messy policing functions, let alone further interventions “in Muslim lands.” In the years ahead, after all, such adventures can be expected to occur against the backdrop of events that will all too likely fall on us simultaneously: decomposing European unity, one more global financial calamity, an uprising of the Palestinian resistance against Israeli occupation.

Cohen is impatient with field commanders who see more than these simplifications. “There are very few major uniformed strategic thinkers,” he concludes, in contrast to the professors who plumb the depths of the world struggle. In arguing this point, he rebukes a slew of retired officers: Adm. Samuel Locklear, former head of Pacific Command, for warning Americans against “talking ourselves into conflict with China”; Gen. James Cartwright, late vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, for declaring in 2012 that Russia was “not an enemy”; and Gen. David McKiernan, who commanded US forces in Afghanistan in 2009, for “simply not [being] the right leader for a counterinsurgency campaign.” Gen. McKiernan, we may recall, had warned at this juncture that to attain a worthwhile outcome in Afghanistan would take a decade, perhaps 14 years—which didn’t quite fit the latest new thinking demanded by his superiors. The book is also threaded with self-contradictions. For example, it censures President Obama for undercutting American credibility—and, ipso facto, for inciting Russia’s seizure of Crimea and annexation of eastern Ukraine—by failing to use force once President Assad’s regime crossed that famous “red line” of using chemical weapons in Syria. At the time, Congress—which was responding to a clamor of public revulsion—adamantly opposed yet another intervention, no matter how defined, in Muslim lands. Yet only a few pages later Cohen sensibly concludes that “substantial use of the armed power of the United States should get support from the people’s representatives in Congress.” This inconsistency is as jarring as is his emphasis on how America has “failed miserably” to wage a war of ideas against radical Islam, as “the Eisenhower administration’s Psychological Warfare Board” did against Moscow. Of course, Washington has invested billions in mammoth Madison Avenue initiatives to convey America’s ideals, while trying to refurbish the country’s image in the Arab world. But, as former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen cautions, “We need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate.”

Cohen makes one exception to his concerns with nuclear proliferation, with US credibility when the White House’s strictures are defied, and with transmitting American values of freedom and self-determination to Islamic peoples, and that involves the role of Israel, the strategic and moral interests of which are presented as identical to those of the United States. Inconvenient facts are therefore ignored. Israel, for instance, had been “absolutely vital,” according to CIA sources, to apartheid South Africa’s nuclear weapons program in the 1980s, which developed a half-dozen Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs. Today, the Likud leadership is making real the vision of a Greater Israel for which, as Defense Secretary James Mattis has attested, America “pays a military-security price every day.” “Either [Israel] ceases to be a Jewish state,” he has explained, “or you say the Arabs don’t get to vote — apartheid.”This alarming term has recently been used with equal concern for America’s own priorities by former Secretary of State John Kerry. Such a contradiction in policy must be weighed in any serious discussion of how the United States will even consider resorting to force in the Middle East.

    When the outcomes of our country’s major uses of force—as in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan—do not match expectations, the enthusiasts of action seek to persuade us that it was the particulars that were gotten wrong, not that the objective was misconceived. The aspirations were misphrased or the follow-through bungled. How could the original proposition, such as wishing to “change the pattern of Middle East politics,” not have been sound? And that is what can be distilled out of Cohen’s faith in the universal efficacy of what he calls “the lash of US military power.”

    Before being appointed counselor to the secretary of state in 2007, Cohen explained his disillusionment with the war in Iraq that he had adamantly endorsed at the outset: “What I didn’t know then that I know now is just how incompetent we would be in carrying out the task.”

    It was a common lament among the civilian proponents of that war who all condemned “mismanagement.” But note the “we” in this observation—at first glance a generous assumption of responsibility, but which on closer look proves to redistribute blame everywhere but on the speaker and his fellow civilian champions for launching an invasion. Instead, the “incompetence” imputed is directed against those who had to implement these policies—US infantry colonels in Fallujah, Agency for International Development specialists struggling with Iraq’s electrical grid, GS-15 auditors coping with Halliburton and Blackwater.

    Inadvertently, a key message of The Big Stick is for readers in uniform to look twice, before the guns start firing, at what’s being offered by civilian defense intellectual orthodoxy. Many of these ideas remain remarkably consistent despite changes of administration or party. For instance, the energetic, self-assured, and well-schooled political appointees who fill various national security staff positions in the Trump administration will find little to disagree with in The Big Stick, nor, likely, would the president himself, given his unselective rhetoric, for starters, about Muslim lands. Military leaders, however, will be skeptical. They take history seriously, as at Fort Leavenworth’s Center for Army Lessons Learned. They strive to assure that strategy is more than a twisting sequence of ad hoc decisions hammered out under the stresses of domestic politics. They require detail and precision to execute the nation’s gravest decisions. It’s an ideal moment for these professionals in the uses of military force to help improve a vital debate that has too often been shaped by theorists.

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