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Square-Peg, Round-Hole Syndrome

Kosovo: The disparity is great between what we ask of our military and what it is designed and staffed to do.

April 07, 1999|M. THOMAS DAVIS

The crisis in Kosovo--the calls for a cease-fire notwithstanding--illustrates a disturbing disparity between the foreign policy expectations placed on our military forces and what they are currently designed and sized to accomplish.

We are asking forces intended for fighting traditional major regional adversaries to deal with a civil war and unfolding humanitarian tragedy. It is a poor fit.

In his 1994 book, "Diplomacy," former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger succinctly describes the two major foreign policy philosophies of 20th century America. The first is identified with Theodore Roosevelt and his dictum to "walk softly, but carry a big stick." Roosevelt advocated a foreign policy based solely on national interests, arguing that the nation should be prepared to take strong steps when necessary and softer ones where appropriate.

The second philosophy comes from President Woodrow Wilson. It advocates an equally activist approach based upon international law, international institutions, collective security and that devilish detail embedded in Wilson's famous 14 points: self-determination. Under this concept, America's international actions would not be motivated by national interests, but rather by the protection of the rule of law wherever and whenever it is challenged.

Although quite distinct, both theories in practice saw America playing a major international role. Since most Americans tend to see foreign policy as either internationalist or isolationist, the distinctions between Roosevelt and Wilson were often misread. Kissinger notes with some bemusement that even his own mentor, President Richard Nixon, hung the portrait of Wilson rather than Roosevelt in the White House Cabinet room, a selection symbolically demonstrating that although Roosevelt's conception might be more globally compelling, Wilson's won the hearts and minds of Americans.

The Clinton foreign policy follows Wilson, but its military strategy mirrors Roosevelt. Our diplomacy in the current crisis calls for an end to a humanitarian disaster; has resorted to a multi-national effort based on the NATO alliance; frequently references the illegality of Serbian actions, and supports self-determination for Kosovo Albanians with only infrequent and unconvincing references to national interests. It is classic Wilson.

Meanwhile, our military is structured to accomplish one central thing: winning two major wars simultaneously in theaters where our interests would be most threatened. To do so, we have built a military around advanced weaponry and emphasizing air and sea systems that are not well-suited to support international organizations in protecting international legal structures. It is classic Roosevelt.

We are now seeing the results of such a divergence between our foreign policy agenda and our military capability. While our air forces conduct an extensive bombing campaign against Serbian infrastructure and, to a more limited degree, Serbian forces, Belgrade's army conducts the very operations against ethnic Albanians that NATO's actions were intended to prevent.

Stopping ground actions conducted principally with guns and knives requires ground forces that can operate at an identical, intimate level. It is labor-intensive work; we have a capital-intensive force, reminiscent of Roosevelt's Great White Fleet.

In attempting to follow Wilson's blueprints while using Roosevelt's tools, we are driving square pegs into round holes. This fundamental disconnect is the principal reason that the military is under such stress in meeting an expanding set of missions for which it is neither designed nor sized.

As the Pentagon struggles to meet what it believes to be its primary mission--winning the two major theater wars--the foreign policy structure continues to ask it to perform a different task.

In budgetary terms, operational and maintenance costs are at historic highs as a percentage of the defense budget, while personnel costs are historically quite modest, suggesting that too few are being asked to do too much. What America needs is a different force structure, perhaps one with a different mentality. If the missions are to be like Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti, Bosnia and now Kosovo, then American forces need a different balance. Our light infantry, military police and special operations forces must be more numerous and our more advanced forces must be smaller, more technologically sophisticated and much less manpower-intensive.

This is not to say that current military forces are wholly irrelevant. The armed forces must be prepared for larger Roosevelt-like conflicts, and many of the forces and systems required to fight the larger ones can play specific roles in the smaller ones. The use of the B-2 bomber for precision strikes against Serb targets through heavy cloud cover being the most prominent case.

But in dealing with a Wilsonian world of ethnic conflict and strife, one size simply doesn't fit all.

M. Thomas Davis is a retired U.S. Army colonel.

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