Has the USA ever taken unilateral military action?

Has the USA ever taken unilateral military action?

We are searching data for your request:

Forums and discussions:
Manuals and reference books:
Data from registers:
Wait the end of the search in all databases.
Upon completion, a link will appear to access the found materials.

In the post-American Revolution era, has the United States ever taken unilateral military action against another country besides during the Civil War?

Yes, the USA has frankly engaged in unilateral military action so many times, it would be serious work just to count them all.

Just among declared wars, three of the five (a bare majority) were one-on-one wars that the USA declared first.

Among non-declared wars, this has been a common scenario. Presidents Reagan and Bush in the 1980s engaged in 3 of them that I can think of off the top of my head (Grenada, Panama, and the Libyan bombing).

Interestingly the official Marine hymn mentions two such military actions in the first line: The Mexican/American War, and the First Barbary War.

To name just a few of the better-known instances:

  1. Canada and Britain in 1812;
  2. Cuba1 in 1898;
  3. Assorted Indian Nations throughout the 19th century: Sioux, Apache, Cheyenne, etc.; and
  4. Grenada in 1983;


  1. The unilateral action was not against Spain, at least in a technical sense. Congress took unilateral action in support of Cuban independence, upon which Spain declared war on the U.S.

Is the U.S. an Empire?

Mr. Schroeder is Professor Emeritus of History, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

At the January meeting of the American Historical Association Professor Schroeder gave an electrifying address on the differences between imperialism and hegemony. AHA President Lynn Hunt ran up to him afterwards to implore him to write an op-ed. At our request, he did so.

American Empire is the current rage--whether hailed or denounced, accepted as inevitable or greeted as an historic opportunity. Common to the discourse is an assumption, shared also by friends and foes abroad, that America already enjoys a world-imperial position and is launched on an imperial course.

But that assumption involves another: that America is already an empire simply by being the world's only superpower, by virtue of its military supremacy, economic power, global influence, technological and scientific prowess, and world-wide alliances. The term "empire," in short, describes America's current condition and world status, and is equivalent to phrases like "unipolar moment" or "unchallenged hegemony."

This is a misleading, unhistorical understanding of empire, ignoring crucial distinctions between empire and other relationships in international affairs and obscuring vital truths about the fate of empires and bids for empire within the modern international system. A better understanding of empire can point us to historical generalizations we ignore at our peril.

First a definition: empire means political control exercised by one organized political unit over another unit separate from and alien to it. Many factors enter into empire--economics, technology, ideology, religion, above all military strategy and weaponry--but the essential core is political: the possession of final authority by one entity over the vital political decisions of another. This need not mean direct rule exercised by formal occupation and administration most empires involve informal, indirect rule. But real empire requires that effective final authority, and states can enjoy various forms of superiority or even domination over others without being empires.

This points to a critical distinction between two terms frequently employed as synonyms: hegemony and empire. These are two essentially different relationships. Hegemony means clear, acknowledged leadership and dominant influence by one unit within a community of units not under a single authority. A hegemon is first among equals an imperial power rules over subordinates. A hegemonic power is the one without whom no final decision can be reached within a given system its responsibility is essentially managerial, to see that a decision is reached. An imperial power rules the system, imposes its decision when it wishes.

Powerful implications flow from this definition and distinction. First, hegemony in principle is compatible with the international system we now have, composed of autonomous, coordinate units enjoying juridical equality (status, sovereignty, rights, and international obligations) regardless of differences in power. Empire is not.

Second, those who speak of an American empire bringing freedom and democracy to the world are talking of dry rain and snowy blackness. In principle and by definition, empire is the negation of political freedom, liberation, and self-determination.

This empire/hegemony dialectic yields some profound historical lessons, offered here without proof, though historical evidence is abundant:

1) There are circumstances (the absence or breakdown of inter-state or inter-community order) under which empires have historically provided a certain order and stability, though almost always accompanied by overt and latent violence, disorder, and war. Where, however, a relatively stable international system of autonomous units already exists, attempts to make that system work and endure through empire have not only regularly failed, but overwhelmingly produced massive instability, disorder, and war.

2) Recurrently throughout modern history leading powers have at critical junctures chosen empire over hegemony, and thereby triggered large-scale disorder and war. In some instances, the choice was conscious and demonstrable, in many others less clear-cut and more debatable. Nonetheless, the historian can point to repeated instances over the last five centuries where leader and powers, having the option between empire and hegemony, chose the path of empire, and thereby ruined themselves and the system.

3) The converse also holds. Where real advances in international order, stability, and peace have been achieved (and they have been), they have been connected with choices leading powers have made for durable, tolerable hegemony rather than empire.

4) Recent developments reshaping the international system (e.g., globalization, the rise of new states, the growth of non-governmental actors and international institutions, developments in weaponry, etc.) reinforce this longstanding trend, making empire increasingly unworkable and counterproductive as a principle of order, and hegemony more possible, more needed, and more potentially stable and beneficial.

These are not academic propositions. They illuminate the choice for America today. It is not an empire--not yet. But it is at this moment a wannabe empire, poised on the brink. The Bush Doctrine proclaims unquestionably imperialist ambitions and goals, and its armed forces are poised for war for empire--formal empire in Iraq through conquest, occupation, and indefinite political control, and informal empire over the whole Middle East through exclusive paramountcy. The administration pursues this path even in the face of a far graver challenge by North Korea to both its imperial pretensions and its own and the world's security.

History here warrants a prediction, based not on analogies or examples from the past but on sober analysis of what can and cannot succeed in this international world. If America goes down the path of empire, it will ultimately fail. How, when, and with what consequences, no one can tell--but fail it will, and harm itself and the world in the process. Not the least harm will come from thereby wrecking an American hegemony now clearly possible, needed, and potentially durable and beneficial.

In July 1878, at the end of the Berlin Congress that patched up peace in the Balkans after a Russo-Turkish war, Prince Bismarck told an Ottoman delegate, "This is your last chance--and if I know you, you will not take it." Bismarck's words, slightly altered, apply today. This is our best chance--and knowing us, we will not take it. But there is hope. Circumstances, the frictions of war, the pressures and pleas of allies, the maneuvers and resistances of opponents, new foreign dangers, challenges, and distractions, and domestic problems and politics could yet deter this country from a potentially tragic choice of empire and compel it to settle for hegemony. In other words, that special Providence Bismarck once said was reserved for fools, drunkards, and the United States of America may again come to our rescue.

Major Military Operations Since World War II

World War II was the last war fought in which the President asked Congress for a declaration of war. Since then, United States armed forces have been in combat several times, including the following:

Communist North Korea, supported by China, invades non-communist South Korea. UN forces, principally made up of U.S. troops, fight to protect South Korea. The Korean War is the first armed conflict in the global struggle between democracy and communism, called the Cold War.

The U.S. orchestrates the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion, an unsuccessful attempt by Cuban exiles to overthrow Fidel Castro's communist regime in Cuba.

In 1955, communist North Vietnam invades non-communist South Vietnam in an attempt to unify the country and impose communist rule. The United States joins the war on the side of South Vietnam in 1961, but withdraws combat troops in 1973. In 1975 North Vietnam succeeds in taking control of South Vietnam. The Vietnam War is the longest conflict the U.S. ever fought and the first war it lost.

U.S. president Lyndon Johnson sends marines and troops to quash a leftist uprising he fears the Dominican Republic might follow in the footsteps of Cuba and turn communist.

U.S. troops form part of a multinational peacekeeping force to help the fragile Lebanese government maintain power in the politically volatile country. In 1983 241 U.S. Marines and 60 French soldiers are killed by a truck bomb. The multinational force withdraws in 1984.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan invades the Caribbean island nation of Grenada to overthrow its socialist government, which has close ties with Cuba. A U.S. peace-keeping force remains until 1985.

U.S. President George H. W. Bush invades Panama and overthrows Panamanian dictator and drug-smuggler Manuel Noriega. Noriega is later tried and convicted on a number of charges, and is imprisoned in the United States.

Iraq invades the country of Kuwait. The Gulf War begins and ends swiftly when a U.S.-led multinational force comes to Kuwait's aid and expels dictator Saddam Hussein's forces.

A U.S.-led multinational force attempts to restore order to war-torn Somalia so that food can be delivered and distributed within the famine-stricken country.

After Haiti's democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide is ousted in a coup in 1991, a U.S. invasion three years later restores him to power.

During the Bosnian civil war, which begins shortly after the country declares independence in 1992, the U.S. launches air strikes on Bosnia to prevent ethnic cleansing. It becomes a part of NATO's peacekeeping force in the region.

Yugoslavia's province of Kosovo erupts in war in the spring of 1999. A U.S.-led NATO force intervenes with air strikes after Slobodan Milosevic's Serbian forces uproot the population and embark on a plan of ethnic cleansing of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian population.

The Taliban government harbored Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda terrorist group, responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. After Afghanistan refused to turn over Bin Laden, the U.S. and UN coalition forces invaded. The Taliban government was ousted and many terrorist camps in Afghanistan were destroyed. Thereafter, the Taliban begin regrouping. By 2005, the Taliban and coalition troops are it was engaged in ongoing clashes with coaltition troops. The year 2006 was the deadliest year for U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan since 2001.

On May 2, 2011 (May 1 in the U.S.), U.S. troops and CIA operatives shot and killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

May 1, 2012, President Obama and President Karzai signed the Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of America. The Agreement provides for the possibility of U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2014, for the purposes of training Afghan Forces and targeting the remnants of al-Qaeda. Afghanistan will be a Major Non-NATO Allyand as such, the U.S. will support the training, equipping, advising and sustaining of Afghan National Security Forces, and social and economic assistance.

Despite plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, ongoing instability (and continued U.S. interest in the region) has led to the U.S. remaining heavily involved. There is still no clear end in sight, as the Taliban has resumed offensive operations as of March 2020.

The U.S. and Great Britain invade Iraq and topple the government of dictator Saddam Hussein. The U.S. engagement in Iraq continues for the next several years amid that country's escalating violence and fragile political stability.

On Aug. 31, 2010, President Obama announces the end of U.S. combat missions in Iraq. Effective September 1, 2010, the military operations in Iraq acquired a new official designation: ??Operation New Dawn": the U.S. is still committed to providing support to Iraq for further development in the areas of defense and security education and culture energy human rights services and trade.

In 2012 militants in Iraq and Syria declared a new caliphate and rapidly seized a large territory. They began a widespread propaganda campaign to cultivate domestic terrorism in other countries and to recruit new members. The United States and other NATO allies began a long campaign to contain and reverse the spread of ISIL.

By 2018, ISIL no longer held any territory in Iraq, and severely declined in Syria. The United States continued airstrikes against the Assad regime as well as against the remaining ISIL holdouts. These airstrikes, by March 2019, contributed to ISIL losing all of its remaining territory. InOctober 2019 a US airstrike caused the death of ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.


For historical perspectives, we're joined by two men who've written extensively on American diplomacy and the use of American power. James Chace, a professor of government at Bard College in New York. And Philip Zelikow, professor of history at the University of Virginia and director of the Miller Center of Public Affairs. And joining them is one of our regulars, presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, director of the Dole Institute at the University of Kansas.

Welcome to you all, and Richard beginning with you, has the United States taken this kind of action before &mdash that is a preemptive military assault, to force a change of regime, in a country that has not attacked us?


We have, although, you know, we were rather late for this whole business of empire. Remember we were more of an isolationist than an interventionist country.

It was the Spanish-American War at the end of the 19th century that ushered us somewhat reluctantly onto the world stage even as it was going on, there was an enormous debate which involved President McKinley at the White House, among others, as to whether the United States would be a liberating or an occupying power.

And in the end it was decided that we would keep the Philippines, we would not liberate them, in fact until 1946.

Repeatedly in the first half of the 20th century, American presidents of both parties sent Marines throughout the western hemisphere in particular &mdash usually for economic interests.

It was sometimes hard to tell whether American foreign policy was being made at the State Department or the United Fruit Company, which was known as "the Octopus" by Latinos.

All of that began to change, intervention in fact was redefined with the advent of the Cold War, the creation of the CIA, instead of the Marines storming the beaches we had covert operations Guatemala in 1953 in Iran we put the shah back on the Peecock throne. So I think when we're talking about intervention, we want to be very careful not to limit it to traditional military operations.


Professor Chace, given that we have a long and rich history of intervention, but what about really military invasion as opposed to covert operations, would you say there's a long history, even if you define it by the military, as a military assault?


Of course there have been direct military assaults as well with the aim of changing regime.

For example, Wilson sent in 1914, I believe, troops into Mexico to change the regime. He failed to do so, by the way, but he certainly tried to.

Regime changes were made a number of times, in order to, by sending troops in, sending Marines in, in order to try to make a regime responsive to economic needs, to be, in other words, stable.

More recently, however, of course, we have sent troops into Panama, roughly 30,000 troops out in the Panama Canal zone in to Panama itself to arrest Noriega, which we succeeded in doing and therefore to change the regime. We, of course, sent troops into Haiti, also to change the regime. And we might very well have kept troops in Somalia, also to change the regime.

So we have certainly used military action in order to do so. In fact, we also sent troops during the Gulf War under President Bush's father. And the aim really was to change the regime in Iraq &mdash to get Saddam Hussein out.

However, we were unsuccessful in doing so.


Professor Zelikow, what would you add to that?

First of all do you share that assessment that there is a real long history here, and what would you add to it?


There is a long history here. What's different this time is that the reasons for considering American intervention are dramatically different.

In the past, we've intervened for regional stability, for reasons of human rights, because we thought there might be an indirect threat of the United States.

Here the rationale is that if we don't intervene, a country may develop weapons of mass destruction that might be used directly against America or one of its friends. Now, that's different.

The only precedent I can think of that's directly on point is an invasion that didn't happen. It was President Kennedy's decision to invade Cuba if diplomacy failed to get Soviet missiles off that island. And he was quite prepared to first launch a major air strike and then if necessary invade that island rather than let America tolerate the threat he thought would be posed by weapons of mass destruction there. And in a way that's more analogous to the kind of threat that's motivating consideration of this possible intervention against Iraq.

I'll add &mdash differing with Professor Chace &mdash President Bush in 1991 did not have the objective of overthrowing the Iraqi regime they deliberately considered whether to make that one their objectives, and whether you disagree with it or not, they made a very considered decision not to make that one of their objectives.



Well, I would say it was an implied objective. They were not certainly willing to go into Baghdad in order to get rid of Saddam Hussein. But I do believe that they would certainly have preferred Saddam Hussein to have abandoned the regime. And I think that the administration at that time very much hoped that would happen.

But it's also true, as Professor Zelikow points out, that President Bush at that time was very much worried about instability in the region. So it was a delicate balance that went on. And you can argue on either side, whether President Bush senior was actually successful in what he was trying to do.


Richard Smith, pick up on the point Phil Zelikow made about how different this rationale is, that is, it's to anticipate and head off a future threat, one that involves the nature of weaponry, rather than the litany of some of the other reasons you gave: economic interests, ideological confrontation and so on?


Sure. Well, you know, we don't want to be prisoners of history. We want whatever perspective it affords, but there are unprecedented situations. And I think Professor Zelikow is quite right in his interpretation of this.

I would add that the whole nature of intervention, as I said earlier, as it has evolved, and the weapons available to various presidents have evolved, so has the justification.

Interestingly enough, there has always been a Wilsonian strain in American foreign policy, an idealistic belief in self-determination, and in some ways it was suppressed during the Cold War because everything was seen through the prism of U.S./Soviet rivalry, including intervention.

Since the end of the Cold War, look what happened in Bosnia, for example. There was an enormous intervention by a coalition of western forces to try to remove a genocidal dictator, Slobodan Milosevic earlier during the Cold War almost certainly that would not happened, because it would not have been defined as being in America's immediate national interest.

So these unprecedented situations do arise intervention is redefined in some ways as the threats are redefined.


Professor Chace, would you agree with that, that the reasons change as our definition of our national interest changes?


Well absolutely. It's a question of how we see threat. There have not been military threats against the United States, except at that point, which Professor Zelikow referred to in Cuba when Soviet missiles were in place.

But we do interpret threats differently. There is the question of what we perceive as an ideological threat. Are interventions covert especially in the western hemisphere against Guatemala, indirectly against Chile as well, and certainly against Castro in 1961 at the Bay of Pigs. These were essentially ideological threats. Our fear that communism would spread in the western hemisphere and ultimately perhaps undermine certain institutions in the United States, so it's the nature of threat that has changed over time.

Now it is a question of possible military threat to the United States &mdash military in the sense that, in the case of Iraq, that we may be talking about the possession of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction. So we redefining the threat differently. Once again going back to the Gulf War of President Bush senior.

The real reason that the United States went into that war was to assure the flow of oil and reasonable prices and that no country such as Iraq would have large control over the region. That was not what was usually given as the reason &mdash except when the Secretary of State James Baker, when asked why we went into Iraq at that time, said the reason was jobs, jobs, jobs&hellip That was as close as he came to really speaking openly about the notion that a vital resource could be denied the United States.


Phil Zelikow, you began this colloquy about the nature of the threat and how different this was, except for the Cuban Missile Crisis. What are your thoughts on how that has evolved through history, in other words, why it evolves, why it changes?


Well, it's changed with the nature of threats themselves. In an era where nations are battling for trade routes or colonies or commerce, and those are their most important interests, naturally conflicts are fought around that.

In an era where the greatest threat to our country's safety is the weapons of mass destruction that confer the powers that used to belong to armies and fleets, to small groups of people, well then, our military defenses against those threats also must change.

And Margaret, let me add that another big difference between the Iraqi case and some of the historical cases is that we're already in a state of open hostilities against Iraq. We've been in an open state of hostilities against Iraq for years.

Now, they don't get on the front page very much, but the president knows because he has to prove them, we're engaged in military combat operations over Iraq almost every day. We're maintaining with our military power a protected zone of, in northern Iraq, where the Kurds are allowed to have a nation defended by the constant use of American force or threat of force. We are policing Iraq right now with planes flying patrols every day. So we're already in a state of low-level war with Iraq at the moment.

So if there's a transition, it won't be a transition from a nation with which we're at peace to a nation that suddenly we attack.

This is a nation that is already in open hostilities against us, it's tried to kill President Bush, it's tried to do other things against Americans, and we're in operations against them every day.


Would you also say that a corollary difference &mdash or parallel difference is the open nature of this debate? Senator Biden and the Senate is now starting this huge open debate which they hope to continue. Is that unusual?


Yes. There is almost a deliberate theatrical quality to the way this issue is being ramped up for national attention that also seems unusual historically. And maybe that's an artifact of our media age.

In part it's an artifact of how much power America has, that we have the luxury to deliberate in a careful way about what may be an acute threat to the United States without being impelled to act on the force of events.


Richard Smith, your thoughts on that, the unusualness of this public debate?


Well, only in a democracy. I mean, that's a great irony is democratic values in the end that we and our allies are sworn to defend. And I said to someone earlier today, the only thing this week that's getting more publicity than our prospective invasion of Iraq is Bruce Springsteen. I think there goes our tactical surprise.


The Security Council is authorized to determine the existence of, and take action to address, any threat to international peace and security. In practice this power has been relatively little-used because of the presence of five veto-wielding permanent members with interests in a given issue. Typically measures short of armed force are taken before armed force, such as the imposition of sanctions. The first time the Security Council authorized the use of force was in 1950 to secure a North Korean withdrawal from South Korea. Although it was originally envisaged by the framers of the UN Charter that the UN would have its own designated forces to use for enforcement, the intervention was effectively controlled by forces under United States command. The weaknesses of the system are also notable in that the fact that the resolution was only passed because of a Soviet boycott and the occupation of China's seat by the Nationalist Chinese of Taiwan.

The Security Council did not authorize the use of significant armed force again until the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990. After passing resolutions demanding a withdrawal, the Council passed Resolution 678, which authorized the use of force and requested all member states to provide the necessary support to a force operating in cooperation with Kuwait to ensure the withdrawal of Iraqi forces. This resolution was never revoked.

On 8 November 2002, the Security Council passed Resolution 1441, by a unanimous 15–0 vote: Russia, China, France, and Arab states such as Syria voted in favor. It has been argued that 1441 implicitly authorized UN member states to wage war against Iraq without any further decision by the UN Security Council. The representatives in the meeting were clear that this was not the case. The United States Ambassador to the United Nations, John Negroponte, said: " [T]his resolution contains no "hidden triggers" and no "automaticity" with respect to the use of force. If there is a further Iraqi breach, reported to the Council by UNMOVIC, the IAEA or a Member State, the matter will return to the Council for discussions as required in paragraph 12. The resolution makes clear that any Iraqi failure to comply is unacceptable and that Iraq must be disarmed. And, one way or another, Iraq will be disarmed. If the Security Council fails to act decisively in the event of further Iraqi violations, this resolution does not constrain any Member State from acting to defend itself against the threat posed by Iraq or to enforce relevant United Nations resolutions and protect world peace and security. [3] " The ambassador for the United Kingdom, the co-sponsor of the resolution, said: " We heard loud and clear during the negotiations the concerns about "automaticity" and "hidden triggers" – the concern that on a decision so crucial we should not rush into military action that on a decision so crucial any Iraqi violations should be discussed by the Council. Let me be equally clear in response. There is no "automaticity" in this resolution. If there is a further Iraqi breach of its disarmament obligations, the matter will return to the Council for discussion as required in paragraph 12. We would expect the Security Council then to meet its responsibilities. [4] " The message was further confirmed by the ambassador for Syria: " Syria voted in favour of the resolution, having received reassurances from its sponsors, the United States of America and the United Kingdom, and from France and Russia through high-level contacts, that it would not be used as a pretext for striking against Iraq and does not constitute a basis for any automatic strikes against Iraq. The resolution should not be interpreted, through certain paragraphs, as authorizing any State to use force. It reaffirms the central role of the Security Council in addressing all phases of the Iraqi issue. [5]

The UN has also authorized the use of force in peacekeeping or humanitarian interventions, notably in the former Yugoslavia, Somalia, and Sierra Leone.

Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of collective or individual self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by members in exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security. [6]

Thus there is a right of self-defence under customary international law, as the International Court of Justice (ICJ) affirmed in the Nicaragua Case on the use of force. Some commentators believe that the effect of Article 51 is only to preserve this right when an armed attack occurs, and that other acts of self-defence are banned by article 2(4). The more widely held opinion is that article 51 acknowledges this general right, and proceeds to lay down procedures for the specific situation when an armed attack does occur. Under the latter interpretation, the legitimate use of self-defence in situations when an armed attack has not actually occurred is permitted. Not every act of violence will constitute an armed attack. The ICJ has tried to clarify, in the Nicaragua case, what level of force is necessary to qualify as an armed attack.

The traditional customary rules on self-defence derive from an early diplomatic incident between the United States and the United Kingdom over the killing on some US citizens engaged in an attack on Canada, then a British colony. The so-called Caroline case established that there had to exist "a necessity of self-defence, instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment of deliberation,' and furthermore that any action taken must be proportionate, "since the act justified by the necessity of self-defence, must be limited by that necessity, and kept clearly within it." These statements by the US Secretary of State to the British authorities are accepted as an accurate description of the customary right of self-defence.

Pre-emptive force Edit

There is a limited right of pre-emptive self-defence under customary law. Its continuing permissibility under the Charter hinges on the interpretation of article 51. If it permits self-defence only when an armed attack has occurred, then there can be no right to pre-emptive self-defence. However, few observers really think that a state must wait for an armed attack to actually begin before taking action. A distinction can be drawn between "preventive" self-defence, which takes place when an attack is merely possible or foreseeable, and a permitted "interventionary" or "anticipatory" self-defence, which takes place when an armed attack is imminent and inevitable. The right to use interventionary, pre-emptive armed force in the face of an imminent attack has not been ruled out by the ICJ. But state practice and opinio juris overwhelmingly suggests that there is no right of preventive self-defence under international law.

Protection of nationals Edit

The controversial claim to a right to use force in order to protect nationals abroad has been asserted by some States. Examples include intervention by the UK in Suez (1956), Israel in Entebbe (1976) and the USA in the Dominican Republic (1965), Grenada (1983) and Panama (1989). The majority of States are doubtful about the existence of such a right. It is often claimed alongside other rights and reasons for using force. For example, the USA intervention in Grenada was widely considered to be in response to the rise to power of a socialist government. The danger that this posed to US nationals was doubtful and resulted in condemnation by the General Assembly. As with the above examples (except the Entebbe incident), the protection of nationals is often used as an excuse for other political objectives. [ citation needed ]

In recent years several countries have begun to argue for the existence of a right of humanitarian intervention without Security Council authorization. In the aftermath of the Kosovo crisis in 1999, the UK Foreign Secretary asserted that, "In international law, in exceptional circumstances and to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe, military action can be taken and it is on that legal basis that military action was taken." It is very difficult to reconcile this statement with the UN Charter. When NATO used military force against the Yugoslav state, it did not have authorization from the Security Council, but it was not condemned either. This is because veto-wielding countries held strong positions on both sides of the dispute.

Many countries oppose such unauthorized humanitarian interventions on the formal ground that they are simply illegal, or on the practical ground that such a right would only be ever used against weaker states by stronger states. This was specifically shown in the Ministerial Declaration of G-77 countries, in which 134 states condemned such intervention. Proponents have typically resorted to a claim that the right has developed as a new part of customary law.

There has been widespread debate [7] about the significance of the phrasing of article 2(4), specifically about the use of the solitary word "force." There is a strain of opinion [ according to whom? ] holding that whereas "armed attack" is referred to in article 51, the use of the word "force" in 2(4) holds a wider meaning, encompassing economic force or other methods of non-military coercion. Cyber-attacks, according to some frameworks such as the Schmitt analysis, could be seen in some cases as being a use of force. Although such measures may be banned by certain other provisions of the Charter, it does not seem possible to justify such a wide non-military interpretation of 2(4) in the light of subsequent state practice. This article covers the threat of force, which is not permissible in a situation where the use of actual armed force would not be.

The Tragedy of the American Military

The American public and its political leadership will do anything for the military except take it seriously. The result is a chickenhawk nation in which careless spending and strategic folly combine to lure America into endless wars it can&rsquot win.

In mid-September, while President Obama was fending off complaints that he should have done more, done less, or done something different about the overlapping crises in Iraq and Syria, he traveled to Central Command headquarters, at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida. There he addressed some of the men and women who would implement whatever the U.S. military strategy turned out to be.

The part of the speech intended to get coverage was Obama’s rationale for reengaging the United States in Iraq, more than a decade after it first invaded and following the long and painful effort to extricate itself. This was big enough news that many cable channels covered the speech live. I watched it on an overhead TV while I sat waiting for a flight at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. When Obama got to the section of his speech announcing whether he planned to commit U.S. troops in Iraq (at the time, he didn’t), I noticed that many people in the terminal shifted their attention briefly to the TV. As soon as that was over, they went back to their smartphones and their laptops and their Cinnabons as the president droned on.

Usually I would have stopped watching too, since so many aspects of public figures’ appearances before the troops have become so formulaic and routine. But I decided to see the whole show. Obama gave his still-not-quite-natural-sounding callouts to the different military services represented in the crowd. (“I know we’ve got some Air Force in the house!” and so on, receiving cheers rendered as “Hooyah!” and “Oorah!” in the official White House transcript.) He told members of the military that the nation was grateful for their nonstop deployments and for the unique losses and burdens placed on them through the past dozen years of open-ended war. He noted that they were often the face of American influence in the world, being dispatched to Liberia in 2014 to cope with the then-dawning Ebola epidemic as they had been sent to Indonesia 10 years earlier to rescue victims of the catastrophic tsunami there. He said that the “9/11 generation of heroes” represented the very best in its country, and that its members constituted a military that was not only superior to all current adversaries but no less than “the finest fighting force in the history of the world.”

If any of my fellow travelers at O’Hare were still listening to the speech, none of them showed any reaction to it. And why would they? This has become the way we assume the American military will be discussed by politicians and in the press: Overblown, limitless praise, absent the caveats or public skepticism we would apply to other American institutions, especially ones that run on taxpayer money. A somber moment to reflect on sacrifice. Then everyone except the few people in uniform getting on with their workaday concerns.

The public attitude evident in the airport was reflected by the public’s representatives in Washington. That same afternoon, September 17, the House of Representatives voted after brief debate to authorize arms and supplies for rebel forces in Syria, in hopes that more of them would fight against the Islamic State, or ISIS, than for it. The Senate did the same the next day—and then both houses adjourned early, after an unusually short and historically unproductive term of Congress, to spend the next six and a half weeks fund-raising and campaigning full-time. I’m not aware of any midterm race for the House or Senate in which matters of war and peace—as opposed to immigration, Obamacare, voting rights, tax rates, the Ebola scare—were first-tier campaign issues on either side, except for the metaphorical “war on women” and “war on coal.”

Why does civilian technology grow ever cheaper and more reliable while military technology does the opposite? An animated explainer narrated by James Fallows.

T his reverent but disengaged attitude toward the military—we love the troops, but we’d rather not think about them—has become so familiar that we assume it is the American norm. But it is not. When Dwight D. Eisenhower, as a five-star general and the supreme commander, led what may have in fact been the finest fighting force in the history of the world, he did not describe it in that puffed-up way. On the eve of the D-Day invasion, he warned his troops, “Your task will not be an easy one,” because “your enemy is well-trained, well-equipped, and battle-hardened.” As president, Eisenhower’s most famous statement about the military was his warning in his farewell address of what could happen if its political influence grew unchecked.

At the end of World War II, nearly 10 percent of the entire U.S. population was on active military duty—which meant most able-bodied men of a certain age (plus the small number of women allowed to serve). Through the decade after World War II, when so many American families had at least one member in uniform, political and journalistic references were admiring but not awestruck. Most Americans were familiar enough with the military to respect it while being sharply aware of its shortcomings, as they were with the school system, their religion, and other important and fallible institutions.

Now the American military is exotic territory to most of the American public. As a comparison: A handful of Americans live on farms, but there are many more of them than serve in all branches of the military. (Well over 4 million people live on the country’s 2.1 million farms. The U.S. military has about 1.4 million people on active duty and another 850,000 in the reserves.) The other 310 million–plus Americans “honor” their stalwart farmers, but generally don’t know them. So too with the military. Many more young Americans will study abroad this year than will enlist in the military—nearly 300,000 students overseas, versus well under 200,000 new recruits. As a country, America has been at war nonstop for the past 13 years. As a public, it has not. A total of about 2.5 million Americans, roughly three-quarters of 1 percent, served in Iraq or Afghanistan at any point in the post-9/11 years, many of them more than once.

The difference between the earlier America that knew its military and the modern America that gazes admiringly at its heroes shows up sharply in changes in popular and media culture. While World War II was under way, its best-known chroniclers were the Scripps Howard reporter Ernie Pyle, who described the daily braveries and travails of the troops (until he was killed near the war’s end by Japanese machine-gun fire on the island of Iejima), and the Stars and Stripes cartoonist Bill Mauldin, who mocked the obtuseness of generals and their distance from the foxhole realities faced by his wisecracking GI characters, Willie and Joe.

From Mister Roberts to South Pacific to Catch-22, from The Caine Mutiny to The Naked and the Dead to From Here to Eternity, American popular and high culture treated our last mass-mobilization war as an effort deserving deep respect and pride, but not above criticism and lampooning. The collective achievement of the military was heroic, but its members and leaders were still real people, with all the foibles of real life. A decade after that war ended, the most popular military-themed TV program was The Phil Silvers Show, about a con man in uniform named Sgt. Bilko. As Bilko, Phil Silvers was that stock American sitcom figure, the lovable blowhard—a role familiar from the time of Jackie Gleason in The Honeymooners to Homer Simpson in The Simpsons today. Gomer Pyle, USMC Hogan’s Heroes McHale’s Navy and even the anachronistic frontier show F Troop were sitcoms whose settings were U.S. military units and whose villains—and schemers, and stooges, and occasional idealists—were people in uniform. American culture was sufficiently at ease with the military to make fun of it, a stance now hard to imagine outside the military itself.

“Full-victory—nothing else”: General Dwight D. Eisenhower gives the order to paratroopers in England the night before they board planes to join the first assault in the D-Day invasion of Europe. (U.S. Army Signal Corps/AP)

Robert Altman’s 1970 movie M*A*S*H was clearly “about” the Vietnam War, then well into its bloodiest and most bitterly divisive period. (As I point out whenever discussing this topic, I was eligible for the draft at the time, was one of those protesting the war, and at age 20 legally but intentionally failed my draft medical exam. I told this story in a 1975 Washington Monthly article, “What Did You Do in the Class War, Daddy?”) But M*A*S*H’s ostensible placement in the Korean War of the early 1950s somewhat distanced its darkly mocking attitude about military competence and authority from fierce disagreements about Vietnam. (The one big Vietnam movie to precede it was John Wayne’s doughily prowar The Green Berets, in 1968. What we think of as the classic run of Vietnam films did not begin until the end of the 1970s, with The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now.) The TV spin-off of Altman’s film, which ran from 1972 through 1983, was a simpler and more straightforward sitcom on the Sgt. Bilko model, again suggesting a culture close enough to its military to put up with, and enjoy, jokes about it.

Let’s skip to today’s Iraq-Afghanistan era, in which everyone “supports” the troops but few know very much about them. The pop-culture references to the people fighting our ongoing wars emphasize their suffering and stoicism, or the long-term personal damage they may endure. The Hurt Locker is the clearest example, but also Lone Survivor Restrepo the short-lived 2005 FX series set in Iraq, Over There and Showtime’s current series Homeland. Some emphasize high-stakes action, from the fictionalized 24 to the meant-to-be-true Zero Dark Thirty. Often they portray military and intelligence officials as brave and daring. But while cumulatively these dramas highlight the damage that open-ended warfare has done—on the battlefield and elsewhere, to warriors and civilians alike, in the short term but also through long-term blowback—they lack the comfortable closeness with the military that would allow them to question its competence as they would any other institution’s.

The battlefield is of course a separate realm, as the literature of warfare from Homer’s time onward has emphasized. But the distance between today’s stateside America and its always-at-war expeditionary troops is extraordinary. Last year, the writer Rebecca Frankel published War Dogs, a study of the dog-and-handler teams that had played a large part in the U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Part of the reason she chose the topic, she told me, was that dogs were one of the few common points of reference between the military and the larger public. “When we cannot make that human connection over war, when we cannot empathize or imagine the far-off world of a combat zone … these military working dogs are a bridge over the divide,” Frankel wrote in the introduction to her book.

It’s a wonderful book, and dogs are a better connection than nothing. But … dogs! When the country fought its previous wars, its common points of reference were human rather than canine: fathers and sons in harm’s way, mothers and daughters working in defense plants and in uniform as well. For two decades after World War II, the standing force remained so large, and the Depression-era birth cohorts were so small, that most Americans had a direct military connection. Among older Baby Boomers, those born before 1955, at least three-quarters have had an immediate family member—sibling, parent, spouse, child—who served in uniform. Of Americans born since 1980, the Millennials, about one in three is closely related to anyone with military experience.

Interactive graphic: The first map above (in green) shows per-capita military enlistments from 2000 to 2010, grouped by 3-digit zip code. The second (in red) shows the home towns of deceased soldiers from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Enlistment rates vary widely—in 2010, only 0.04 percent of the Upper East Side of Manhattan (zip code prefix 101) enlisted, while the U.S. Virgin Islands (prefix 008) had an enlistment rate of 0.98 percent. When it comes to lives lost, U.S. territories (particularly Guam) shoulder an outsized burden. (Map design and development: Frankie Dintino. Sources: Department of Defense, US Census Bureau)

The most biting satirical novel to come from the Iraq-Afghanistan era, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain, is a takedown of our empty modern “thank you for your service” rituals. It is the story of an Army squad that is badly shot up in Iraq is brought back to be honored at halftime during a nationally televised Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving Day game while there, is slapped on the back and toasted by owner’s-box moguls and flirted with by cheerleaders, “passed around like everyone’s favorite bong,” as platoon member Billy Lynn thinks of it and is then shipped right back to the front.

The people at the stadium feel good about what they’ve done to show their support for the troops. From the troops’ point of view, the spectacle looks different. “There’s something harsh in his fellow Americans, avid, ecstatic, a burning that comes of the deepest need,” the narrator says of Billy Lynn’s thoughts. “That’s his sense of it, they all need something from him, this pack of half-rich lawyers, dentists, soccer moms, and corporate VPs, they’re all gnashing for a piece of a barely grown grunt making $14,800 a year.” Fountain’s novel won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 2012, but it did not dent mainstream awareness enough to make anyone self-conscious about continuing the “salute to the heroes” gestures that do more for the civilian public’s self-esteem than for the troops’. As I listened to Obama that day in the airport, and remembered Ben Fountain’s book, and observed the hum of preoccupied America around me, I thought that the parts of the presidential speech few Americans were listening to were the ones historians might someday seize upon to explain the temper of our times.

Always supportive of the troops: Crowds in Macon welcome back 200 members of the Georgia National Guard's 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team returning from Afghanistan, September 2014. (David Goldman/AP)

I. Chickenhawk Nation

If I were writing such a history now, I would call it Chickenhawk Nation, based on the derisive term for those eager to go to war, as long as someone else is going. It would be the story of a country willing to do anything for its military except take it seriously. As a result, what happens to all institutions that escape serious external scrutiny and engagement has happened to our military. Outsiders treat it both too reverently and too cavalierly, as if regarding its members as heroes makes up for committing them to unending, unwinnable missions and denying them anything like the political mindshare we give to other major public undertakings, from medical care to public education to environmental rules. The tone and level of public debate on those issues is hardly encouraging. But for democracies, messy debates are less damaging in the long run than letting important functions run on autopilot, as our military essentially does now. A chickenhawk nation is more likely to keep going to war, and to keep losing, than one that wrestles with long-term questions of effectiveness.

Americans admire the military as they do no other institution. Through the past two decades, respect for the courts, the schools, the press, Congress, organized religion, Big Business, and virtually every other institution in modern life has plummeted. The one exception is the military. Confidence in the military shot up after 9/11 and has stayed very high. In a Gallup poll last summer, three-quarters of the public expressed “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the military. About one-third had comparable confidence in the medical system, and only 7 percent in Congress.

Too much complacency regarding our military, and too weak a tragic imagination about the consequences if the next engagement goes wrong, have been part of Americans’ willingness to wade into conflict after conflict, blithely assuming we would win. “Did we have the sense that America cared how we were doing? We did not,” Seth Moulton told me about his experience as a marine during the Iraq War. Moulton became a Marine Corps officer after graduating from Harvard in 2001, believing (as he told me) that when many classmates were heading to Wall Street it was useful to set an example of public service. He opposed the decision to invade Iraq but ended up serving four tours there out of a sense of duty to his comrades. “America was very disconnected. We were proud to serve, but we knew it was a little group of people doing the country’s work.”

Moulton told me, as did many others with Iraq-era military experience, that if more members of Congress or the business and media elite had had children in uniform, the United States would probably not have gone to war in Iraq at all. Because he felt strongly enough about that failure of elite accountability, Moulton decided while in Iraq to get involved in politics after he left the military. “I actually remember the moment,” Moulton told me. “It was after a difficult day in Najaf in 2004. A young marine in my platoon said, ‘Sir, you should run for Congress someday. So this shit doesn’t happen again.’ ” In January, Moulton takes office as a freshman Democratic representative from Massachusetts’s Sixth District, north of Boston.

What Moulton described was desire for a kind of accountability. It is striking how rare accountability has been for our modern wars. Hillary Clinton paid a price for her vote to authorize the Iraq War, since that is what gave the barely known Barack Obama an opening to run against her in 2008. George W. Bush, who, like most ex-presidents, has grown more popular the longer he’s been out of office, would perhaps be playing a more visible role in public and political life if not for the overhang of Iraq. But those two are the exceptions. Most other public figures, from Dick Cheney and Colin Powell on down, have put Iraq behind them. In part this is because of the Obama administration’s decision from the start to “look forward, not back” about why things had gone so badly wrong with America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But such willed amnesia would have been harder if more Americans had felt affected by the wars’ outcome. For our generals, our politicians, and most of our citizenry, there is almost no accountability or personal consequence for military failure. This is a dangerous development—and one whose dangers multiply the longer it persists.

O urs is the best-equipped fighting force in history, and it is incomparably the most expensive. By all measures, today’s professionalized military is also better trained, motivated, and disciplined than during the draft-army years. No decent person who is exposed to today’s troops can be anything but respectful of them and grateful for what they do.

Yet repeatedly this force has been defeated by less modern, worse-equipped, barely funded foes. Or it has won skirmishes and battles only to lose or get bogged down in a larger war. Although no one can agree on an exact figure, our dozen years of war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and neighboring countries have cost at least $1.5 trillion Linda J. Bilmes, of the Harvard Kennedy School, recently estimated that the total cost could be three to four times that much. Recall that while Congress was considering whether to authorize the Iraq War, the head of the White House economic council, Lawrence B. Lindsey, was forced to resign for telling The Wall Street Journal that the all-in costs might be as high as $100 billion to $200 billion, or less than the U.S. has spent on Iraq and Afghanistan in many individual years.

Yet from a strategic perspective, to say nothing of the human cost, most of these dollars might as well have been burned. “At this point, it is incontrovertibly evident that the U.S. military failed to achieve any of its strategic goals in Iraq,” a former military intelligence officer named Jim Gourley wrote recently for Thomas E. Ricks’s blog, Best Defense. “Evaluated according to the goals set forth by our military leadership, the war ended in utter defeat for our forces.” In 13 years of continuous combat under the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, the longest stretch of warfare in American history, U.S. forces have achieved one clear strategic success: the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Their many other tactical victories, from overthrowing Saddam Hussein to allying with Sunni tribal leaders to mounting a “surge” in Iraq, demonstrated great bravery and skill. But they brought no lasting stability to, nor advance of U.S. interests in, that part of the world. When ISIS troops overran much of Iraq last year, the forces that laid down their weapons and fled before them were members of the same Iraqi national army that U.S. advisers had so expensively yet ineffectively trained for more than five years.

“We are vulnerable,” the author William Greider wrote during the debate last summer on how to fight ISIS , “because our presumption of unconquerable superiority leads us deeper and deeper into unwinnable military conflicts.” And the separation of the military from the public disrupts the process of learning from these defeats. The last war that ended up in circumstances remotely resembling what prewar planning would have considered a victory was the brief Gulf War of 1991.

After the Vietnam War, the press and the public went too far in blaming the military for what was a top-to-bottom failure of strategy and execution. But the military itself recognized its own failings, and a whole generation of reformers looked to understand and change the culture. In 1978, a military-intelligence veteran named Richard A. Gabriel published, with Paul L. Savage, Crisis in Command: Mismanagement in the Army, which traced many of the failures in Vietnam to the military’s having adopted a bureaucratized management style. Three years later, a broadside called Self-Destruction: The Disintegration and Decay of the United States Army During the Vietnam Era, by a military officer writing under the pen name Cincinnatus (later revealed to be a lieutenant colonel serving in the reserves as a military chaplain, Cecil B. Currey), linked problems in Vietnam to the ethical and intellectual shortcomings of the career military. The book was hotly debated—but not dismissed. An article about the book for the Air Force’s Air University Review said that “the author’s case is airtight” and that the military’s career structure “corrupts those who serve it it is the system that forces out the best and rewards only the sycophants.”

Today, you hear judgments like that frequently from within the military and occasionally from politicians—but only in private. It’s not the way we talk in public about our heroes anymore, with the result that accountability for the career military has been much sketchier than during our previous wars. William S. Lind is a military historian who in the 1990s helped develop the concept of “Fourth Generation War,” or struggles against the insurgents, terrorists, or other “nonstate” groups that refuse to form ranks and fight like conventional armies. He wrote recently:

During and after even successful American wars, and certainly after the standoff in Korea and the defeat in Vietnam, the professional military’s leadership and judgment were considered fair game for criticism. Grant saved the Union McClellan seemed almost to sabotage it—and he was only one of the Union generals Lincoln had to move out of the way. Something similar was true in wars through Vietnam. Some leaders were good others were bad. Now, for purposes of public discussion, they’re all heroes. In our past decade’s wars, as Thomas Ricks wrote in this magazine in 2012, “hundreds of Army generals were deployed to the field, and the available evidence indicates that not one was relieved by the military brass for combat ineffectiveness.” This, he said, was not only a radical break from American tradition but also “an important factor in the failure” of our recent wars.

Partly this change has come because the public, at its safe remove, doesn’t insist on accountability. Partly it is because legislators and even presidents recognize the sizable risks and limited payoffs of taking on the career military. When recent presidents have relieved officers of command, they have usually done so over allegations of sexual or financial misconduct, or other issues of personal discipline. These include the cases of the two famous four-star generals who resigned rather than waiting for President Obama to dismiss them: Stanley A. McChrystal, as the commander in Afghanistan, and David Petraeus in his post-Centcom role as the head of the CIA. The exception proving the rule occurred a dozen years ago, when a senior civilian official directly challenged a four-star general on his military competence. In congressional testimony just before the Iraq War, General Eric Shinseki, then the Army’s chief of staff, said that many more troops might be necessary to successfully occupy Iraq than plans were allowing for—only to be ridiculed in public by Paul Wolfowitz, then Shinseki’s superior as the deputy secretary of defense, who said views like Shinseki’s were “outlandish” and “wildly off the mark.” Wolfowitz and his superior, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, ostentatiously marginalized Shinseki from that point on.

In that case, the general was right and the politicians were wrong. But more often and more skillfully than the public usually appreciates, today’s military has managed to distance itself from the lengthening string of modern military failures—even when wrong. Some of this PR shift is anthropological. Most reporters who cover politics are fascinated by the process and enjoy practitioners who love it too, which is one reason most were (like the rest of the country) more forgiving of the happy warrior Bill Clinton than they have been of the “cold” and “aloof” Barack Obama. But political reporters are always hunting for the gaffe or scandal that could bring a target down, and feel they’re acting in the public interest in doing so.

Most reporters who cover the military are also fascinated by its processes and cannot help liking or at least respecting their subjects: physically fit, trained to say “sir” and “ma’am,” often tested in a way most civilians will never be, part of a disciplined and selfless-seeming culture that naturally draws respect. And whether or not this was a conscious plan, the military gets a substantial PR boost from the modern practice of placing officers in mid-career assignments at think tanks, on congressional staffs, and in graduate programs across the country. For universities, military students are (as a dean at a public-policy school put it to me) “a better version of foreign students.” That is, they work hard, pay full tuition, and unlike many international students face no language barrier or difficulty adjusting to the American style of give-and-take classroom exchanges. Most cultures esteem the scholar-warrior, and these programs expose usually skeptical American elites to people like the young Colin Powell, who as a lieutenant colonel in his mid-30s was a White House fellow after serving in Vietnam, and David Petraeus, who got his Ph.D. at Princeton as a major 13 years after graduating from West Point.

And yet however much Americans “support” and “respect” their troops, they are not involved with them, and that disengagement inevitably leads to dangerous decisions the public barely notices. “My concern is this growing disconnect between the American people and our military,” retired Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under George W. Bush and Barack Obama (and whose mid-career academic stint was at Harvard Business School), told me recently. The military is “professional and capable,” he said, “but I would sacrifice some of that excellence and readiness to make sure that we stay close to the American people. Fewer and fewer people know anyone in the military. It’s become just too easy to go to war.”

Citizens notice when crime is going up, or school quality is going down, or the water is unsafe to drink, or when other public functions are not working as they should. Not enough citizens are made to notice when things go wrong, or right, with the military. The country thinks too rarely, and too highly, of the 1 percent under fire in our name.

A new F-35, part of the first delivery of an anticipated 144 planes, in a hanger at Luke Air Force Base, in Glendale, Arizona, before an unveiling ceremony, March 2014 (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

II. Chickenhawk Economy

The Draft: Why the Country Needs It

"If citizens are willing to countenance a decision that means that someone's child may die, they may contemplate more deeply if there is the possibility that the child will be theirs."

Read the full story by James Fallows in the April 1980 Atlantic

America’s distance from the military makes the country too willing to go to war, and too callous about the damage warfare inflicts. This distance also means that we spend too much money on the military and we spend it stupidly, thereby shortchanging many of the functions that make the most difference to the welfare of the troops and their success in combat. We buy weapons that have less to do with battlefield realities than with our unending faith that advanced technology will ensure victory, and with the economic interests and political influence of contractors. This leaves us with expensive and delicate high-tech white elephants, while unglamorous but essential tools, from infantry rifles to armored personnel carriers, too often fail our troops (see “Gun Trouble,” by Robert H. Scales, in this issue).

We know that technology is our military’s main advantage. Yet the story of the post-9/11 “long wars” is of America’s higher-tech advantages yielding transitory victories that melt away before the older, messier realities of improvised weapons, sectarian resentments, and mounting hostility to occupiers from afar, however well-intentioned. Many of the Pentagon’s most audacious high-tech ventures have been costly and spectacular failures, including (as we will see) the major air-power project of recent years, the F-35. In an America connected to its military, such questions of strategy and implementation would be at least as familiar as, say, the problems with the Common Core education standards.

Those technological breakthroughs that do make their way to the battlefield may prove to be strategic liabilities in the long run. During the years in which the United States has enjoyed a near-monopoly on weaponized drones, for example, they have killed individuals or small groups at the price of antagonizing whole societies. When the monopoly ends, which is inevitable, the very openness of the United States will make it uniquely vulnerable to the cheap, swarming weapons others will deploy.

The cost of defense, meanwhile, goes up and up and up, with little political resistance and barely any public discussion. By the fullest accounting, which is different from usual budget figures, the United States will spend more than $1 trillion on national security this year. That includes about $580 billion for the Pentagon’s baseline budget plus “overseas contingency” funds, $20 billion in the Department of Energy budget for nuclear weapons, nearly $200 billion for military pensions and Department of Veterans Affairs costs, and other expenses. But it doesn’t count more than $80 billion a year of interest on the military-related share of the national debt. After adjustments for inflation, the United States will spend about 50 percent more on the military this year than its average through the Cold War and Vietnam War. It will spend about as much as the next 10 nations combined—three to five times as much as China, depending on how you count, and seven to nine times as much as Russia. The world as a whole spends about 2 percent of its total income on its militaries the United States, about 4 percent.

Yet such is the dysfunction and corruption of the budgeting process that even as spending levels rise, the Pentagon faces simultaneous crises in funding for maintenance, training, pensions, and veterans’ care. “We’re buying the wrong things, and paying too much for them,” Charles A. Stevenson, a onetime staffer on the Senate Armed Services Committee and a former professor at the National War College, told me. “We’re spending so much on people that we don’t have the hardware, which is becoming more expensive anyway. We are flatlining R&D.”

Here is just one newsworthy example that illustrates the broad and depressingly intractable tendencies of weapons development and spending: the failed hopes for a new airplane called the F-35 “Lightning.”

Today’s weapons can be decades in gestation, and the history of the F-35 traces back long before most of today’s troops were born. Two early-1970s-era planes, the F-16 “Fighting Falcon” jet and the A-10 “Thunderbolt II” attack plane, departed from the trend of military design in much the same way the compact Japanese cars of that era departed from the tail-fin American look. These planes were relatively cheap, pared to their essentials, easy to maintain, and designed to do a specific thing very well. For the F-16, that was to be fast, highly maneuverable, and deadly in air-to-air combat. For the A-10, it was to serve as a kind of flying tank that could provide what the military calls “close air support” to troops in combat by blasting enemy formations. The A-10 needed to be heavily armored, so it could absorb opposing fire designed to fly as slowly as possible over the battlefield, rather than as rapidly, so that it could stay in range to do damage rather than roaring through and built around one very powerful gun.

There are physical devices that seem the pure expression of a function. The Eames chair, a classic No. 2 pencil, the original Ford Mustang or VW Beetle, the MacBook Air—take your pick. The A-10, generally known not as the Thunderbolt but as the Warthog, fills that role in the modern military. It is rugged it is inexpensive it can shred enemy tanks and convoys by firing up to 70 rounds a second of armor-piercing, 11-inch-long depleted-uranium shells.

And the main effort of military leaders through the past decade, under the Republican leadership of the Bush administration and the Democratic leadership of Obama, has been to get rid of the A-10 so as to free up money for a more expensive, less reliable, technically failing airplane that has little going for it except insider dealing, and the fact that the general public doesn’t care.

The weapon in whose name the A-10 is being phased out is its opposite in almost every way. In automotive terms, it would be a Lamborghini rather than a pickup truck (or a flying tank). In air-travel terms, the first-class sleeper compartment on Singapore Airlines rather than advance-purchase Economy Plus (or even business class) on United. These comparisons seem ridiculous, but they are fair. That is, a Lamborghini is demonstrably “better” than a pickup truck in certain ways—speed, handling, comfort—but only in very special circumstances is it a better overall choice. Same for the first-class sleeper, which would be anyone’s choice if someone else were footing the bill but is simply not worth the trade-off for most people most of the time.

Each new generation of weapons tends to be “better” in much the way a Lamborghini is, and “worth it” in the same sense as a first-class airline seat. The A-10 shows the pattern. According to figures from the aircraft analyst Richard L. Aboulafia, of the Teal Group, the “unit recurring flyaway” costs in 2014 dollars—the fairest apples-to-apples comparison—stack up like this. Each Warthog now costs about $19 million, less than any other manned combat aircraft. A Predator drone costs about two-thirds as much. Other fighter, bomber, and multipurpose planes cost much more: about $72 million for the V-22 Osprey, about $144 million for the F-22 fighter, about $810 million for the B-2 bomber, and about $101 million (or five A‑10s) for the F-35. There’s a similar difference in operating costs. The operating expenses are low for the A-10 and much higher for the others largely because the A-10’s design is simpler, with fewer things that could go wrong. The simplicity of design allows it to spend more of its time flying instead of being in the shop.

In clear contrast to the A-10, the F-35 is an ill-starred undertaking that would have been on the front pages as often as other botched federal projects, from the Obamacare rollout to the FEMA response after Hurricane Katrina, if, like those others, it either seemed to affect a broad class of people or could easily be shown on TV—or if so many politicians didn’t have a stake in protecting it. One measure of the gap in coverage: Total taxpayer losses in the failed Solyndra solar-energy program might come, at their most dire estimate, to some $800 million. Total cost overruns, losses through fraud, and other damage to the taxpayer from the F-35 project are perhaps 100 times that great, yet the “Solyndra scandal” is known to probably 100 times as many people as the travails of the F-35. Here’s another yardstick: the all-in costs of this airplane are now estimated to be as much as $1.5 trillion, or a low-end estimate of the entire Iraq War.

The condensed version of this plane’s tragedy is that a project meant to correct some of the Pentagon’s deepest problems in designing and paying for weapons has in fact worsened and come to exemplify them. An aircraft that was intended to be inexpensive, adaptable, and reliable has become the most expensive in history, and among the hardest to keep out of the shop. The federal official who made the project a symbol of a new, transparent, rigorously data-dependent approach to awarding contracts ended up serving time in federal prison for corruption involving projects with Boeing. (Boeing’s chief financial officer also did time in prison.) For the record, the Pentagon and the lead contractors stoutly defend the plane and say that its teething problems will be over soon—and that anyway, it is the plane of the future, and the A-10 is an aging relic of the past. (We have posted reports here on the A-10, pro and con, so you can see whether you are convinced.)

In theory, the F-35 would show common purpose among the military services, since the Air Force, the Navy, and the Marine Corps would all get their own custom-tailored versions of the plane. In fact, a plane designed to do many contradictory things—to be strong enough to survive Navy aircraft-carrier landings, yet light and maneuverable enough to excel as an Air Force dogfighter, and meanwhile able to take off and land straight up and down, like a helicopter, to reach marines in tight combat circumstances—has unsurprisingly done none of them as well as promised. In theory, the F-35 was meant to knit U.S. allies together, since other countries would buy it as their mainstay airplane and in turn would get part of the contracting business. In fact, the delays, cost overruns, and mechanical problems of the airplane have made it a contentious political issue in customer countries from Canada and Holland to Italy and Australia.

The country where the airplane has least been a public issue is the United States. In their 2012 debates, Mitt Romney criticized Barack Obama for supporting “green energy” projects, including Solyndra. Neither man mentioned the F-35, and I am still looking for evidence that President Obama has talked about it in any of his speeches. In other countries, the F-35 can be cast as another annoying American intrusion. Here, it is protected by supplier contracts that have been spread as broadly as possible.

“Political engineering,” a term popularized by a young Pentagon analyst named Chuck Spinney in the 1970s, is pork-barrel politics on the grandest scale. Cost overruns sound bad if someone else is getting the extra money. They can be good if they are creating business for your company or jobs in your congressional district. Political engineering is the art of spreading a military project to as many congressional districts as possible, and thus maximizing the number of members of Congress who feel that if they cut off funding, they’d be hurting themselves.

A $10 million parts contract in one congressional district builds one representative’s support. Two $5 million contracts in two districts are twice as good, and better all around would be three contracts at $3 million apiece. Every participant in the military-contracting process understands this logic: the prime contractors who parcel out supply deals around the country, the military’s procurement officers who divide work among contractors, the politicians who vote up or down on the results. In the late 1980s, a coalition of so-called cheap hawks in Congress tried to cut funding for the B-2 bomber. They got nowhere after it became clear that work for the project was being carried out in 46 states and no fewer than 383 congressional districts (of 435 total). The difference between then and now is that in 1989, Northrop, the main contractor for the plane, had to release previously classified data to demonstrate how broadly the dollars were being spread.

Whatever its technical challenges, the F-35 is a triumph of political engineering, and on a global scale. For a piquant illustration of the difference that political engineering can make, consider the case of Bernie Sanders—former Socialist mayor of Burlington, current Independent senator from Vermont, possible candidate from the left in the next presidential race. In principle, he thinks the F-35 is a bad choice. After one of the planes caught fire last summer on a runway in Florida, Sanders told a reporter that the program had been “incredibly wasteful.” Yet Sanders, with the rest of Vermont’s mainly left-leaning political establishment, has fought hard to get an F-35 unit assigned to the Vermont Air National Guard in Burlington, and to dissuade neighborhood groups there who think the planes will be too noisy and dangerous. “For better or worse, [the F-35] is the plane of record right now,” Sanders told a local reporter after the runway fire last year, “and it is not gonna be discarded. That’s the reality.” It’s going to be somewhere, so why not here? As Vermont goes, so goes the nation.

The next big project the Air Force is considering is the Long Range Strike Bomber, a successor to the B-1 and B-2 whose specifications include an ability to do bombing runs deep into China. (A step so wildly reckless that the U.S. didn’t consider it even when fighting Chinese troops during the Korean War.) By the time the plane’s full costs and capabilities become apparent, Chuck Spinney wrote last summer, the airplane, “like the F-35 today, will be unstoppable.” That is because even now its supporters are building the plane’s “social safety net by spreading the subcontracts around the country, or perhaps like the F-35, around the world.”

Admiral Mike Mullen, the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a press conference in Baghdad in August 2011. (Joseph Epstein)

III. Chickenhawk Politics

Politicians say that national security is their first and most sacred duty, but they do not act as if this is so. The most recent defense budget passed the House Armed Services Committee by a vote of 61 to zero, with similarly one-sided debate before the vote. This is the same House of Representatives that cannot pass a long-term Highway Trust Fund bill that both parties support. “The lionization of military officials by politicians is remarkable and dangerous,” a retired Air Force colonel named Tom Ruby, who now writes on organizational culture, told me. He and others said that this deference was one reason so little serious oversight of the military took place.

T. X. Hammes, a retired Marine Corps colonel who has a doctorate in modern history from Oxford, told me that instead of applying critical judgment to military programs, or even regarding national defense as any kind of sacred duty, politicians have come to view it simply as a teat. “Many on Capitol Hill see the Pentagon with admirable simplicity,” he said: “It is a way of directing tax money to selected districts. It’s part of what they were elected to do.”

In the spring of 2011, Barack Obama asked Gary Hart, the Democratic Party’s most experienced and best-connected figure on defense reform, to form a small bipartisan task force that would draft recommendations on how Obama might try to recast the Pentagon and its practices if he won a second term. Hart did so (I was part of the group, along with Andrew J. Bacevich of Boston University, John Arquilla of the Naval Postgraduate School, and Norman R. Augustine, the former CEO of Lockheed Martin), and sent a report to Obama that fall. [Here is that memo.] He never heard back. Every White House is swamped with recommendations and requests, and it responds only to those it considers most urgent—which defense reform obviously was not.

Soon thereafter, during the 2012 presidential race, neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney said much about how they would spend the billion and a half dollars a day that go to military programs, except for when Romney said that if elected, he would spend a total of $1 trillion more. In their only direct exchange about military policy, during their final campaign debate, Obama said that Romney’s plans would give the services more money than they were asking for. Romney pointed out that the Navy had fewer ships than it did before World War I. Obama shot back, “Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.” It was Obama’s most sarcastic and aggressive moment of any of the debates, and was also the entirety of the discussion about where those trillions would go.

J im Webb is a decorated Vietnam veteran, an author, a former Democratic senator, and a likely presidential candidate. Seven years ago in his book A Time to Fight, he wrote that the career military was turning into a “don’t break my rice bowl” culture, referring to an Asian phrase roughly comparable to making sure everyone gets a piece of the pie. Webb meant that ambitious officers notice how many of their mentors and predecessors move after retirement into board positions, consultancies, or operational roles with defense contractors. (Pensions now exceed preretirement pay for some very senior officers for instance, a four-star general or admiral with 40 years of service can receive a pension of more than $237,000 a year, even if his maximum salary on active duty was $180,000.)

Webb says it would defy human nature if knowledge of the post-service prospects did not affect the way some high-ranking officers behave while in uniform, including “protecting the rice bowl” of military budgets and cultivating connections with their predecessors and their postretirement businesses. “There have always been some officers who went on to contracting jobs,” Webb, who grew up in an Air Force family, told me recently. “What’s new is the scale of the phenomenon, and its impact on the highest ranks of the military.”

Of course, the modern military advertises itself as a place where young people who have lacked the chance or money for higher education can develop valuable skills, plus earn GI Bill benefits for post-service studies. That’s good all around, and is part of the military’s perhaps unintended but certainly important role as an opportunity creator for undercredentialed Americans. Webb is talking about a different, potentially corrupting “prepare for your future” effect on the military’s best-trained, most influential careerists.

“It is no secret that in subtle ways, many of these top leaders begin positioning themselves for their second-career employment during their final military assignments,” Webb wrote in A Time to Fight. The result, he said, is a “seamless interplay” of corporate and military interests “that threatens the integrity of defense procurement, of controversial personnel issues such as the huge ‘quasi-military’ structure [of contractors, like Blackwater and Halliburton] that has evolved in Iraq and Afghanistan, and inevitably of the balance within our national security process itself.” I heard assessments like this from many of the men and women I spoke with. The harshest ones came not from people who mistrusted the military but from those who, like Webb, had devoted much of their lives to it.

A man who worked for decades overseeing Pentagon contracts told me this past summer, “The system is based on lies and self-interest, purely toward the end of keeping money moving.” What kept the system running, he said, was that “the services get their budgets, the contractors get their deals, the congressmen get jobs in their districts, and no one who’s not part of the deal bothers to find out what is going on.”

Of course it was the most revered American warrior of the 20th century, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who warned most urgently that business and politics would corrupt the military, and vice versa. Everyone has heard of this speech. Not enough people have actually read it and been exposed to what would now be considered its dangerously antimilitary views. Which mainstream politician could say today, as Eisenhower said in 1961, that the military-industrial complex has a “total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—[that] is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government”?

Seth Moulton, a few days after his victory in last fall’s congressional race, said that the overall quality and morale of people in the military has dramatically improved since the days of a conscript force. “But it’s become populated, especially at the highest ranks, by careerists, people who have gotten where they are by checking all the boxes and not taking risks,” he told me. “Some of the finest officers I knew were lieutenants who knew they were getting out, so weren’t afraid to make the right decision. I know an awful lot of senior officers who are very afraid to make a tough choice because they’re worried how it will look on their fitness report.” This may sound like a complaint about life in any big organization, but it’s something more. There’s no rival Army or Marine Corps you can switch to for a new start. There’s almost no surmounting an error or a black mark on the fitness or evaluation reports that are the basis for promotions.

E very institution has problems, and at every stage of U.S. history, some critics have considered the U.S. military overfunded, underprepared, too insular and self-regarding, or flawed in some other way. The difference now, I contend, is that these modern distortions all flow in one way or another from the chickenhawk basis of today’s defense strategy.

At enormous cost, both financial and human, the nation supports the world’s most powerful armed force. But because so small a sliver of the population has a direct stake in the consequences of military action, the normal democratic feedbacks do not work.

I have met serious people who claim that the military’s set-apart existence is best for its own interests, and for the nation’s. “Since the time of the Romans there have been people, mostly men but increasingly women, who have volunteered to be the praetorian guard,” John A. Nagl told me. Nagl is a West Point graduate and Rhodes Scholar who was a combat commander in Iraq and has written two influential books about the modern military. He left the Army as a lieutenant colonel and now, in his late 40s, is the head of the Haverford prep school, near Philadelphia.

“They know what they are signing up for,” Nagl said of today’s troops. “They are proud to do it, and in exchange they expect a reasonable living, and pensions and health care if they are hurt or fall sick. The American public is completely willing to let this professional class of volunteers serve where they should, for wise purpose. This gives the president much greater freedom of action to make decisions in the national interest, with troops who will salute sharply and do what needs to be done.”

I like and respect Nagl, but I completely disagree. As we’ve seen, public inattention to the military, born of having no direct interest in what happens to it, has allowed both strategic and institutional problems to fester.

“A people untouched (or seemingly untouched) by war are far less likely to care about it,” Andrew Bacevich wrote in 2012. Bacevich himself fought in Vietnam his son was killed in Iraq. “Persuaded that they have no skin in the game, they will permit the state to do whatever it wishes to do.”

Mike Mullen thinks that one way to reengage Americans with the military is to shrink the active-duty force, a process already under way. “The next time we go to war,” he said, “the American people should have to say yes. And that would mean that half a million people who weren’t planning to do this would have to be involved in some way. They would have to be inconvenienced. That would bring America in. America hasn’t been in these previous wars. And we are paying dearly for that.”

With their distance from the military, politicians don’t talk seriously about whether the United States is directly threatened by chaos in the Middle East and elsewhere, or is in fact safer than ever (as Christopher Preble and John Mueller, of the Cato Institute, have argued in a new book, A Dangerous World?). The vast majority of Americans outside the military can be triply cynical in their attitude toward it. Triply? One: “honoring” the troops but not thinking about them. Two: “caring” about defense spending but really viewing it as a bipartisan stimulus program. Three: supporting a “strong” defense but assuming that the United States is so much stronger than any rival that it’s pointless to worry whether strategy, weaponry, and leadership are right.

The cultural problems arising from an arm’s-length military could be even worse. Charles J. Dunlap Jr., a retired Air Force major general who now teaches at Duke law school, has thought about civic-military relations through much of his professional life. When he was studying at the National Defense University as a young Air Force officer in the early 1990s, just after the first Gulf War, he was a co-winner of the prize for best student essay with an imagined-future work called “The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012.”

His essay’s premise was cautionary, and was based on the tension between rising adulation for the military and declining trust in most other aspects of government. The more exasperated Americans grew about economic and social problems, the more relieved they were when competent men in uniform, led by General Thomas E. T. Brutus, finally stepped in to take control. Part of the reason for the takeover, Dunlap explained, was that the military had grown so separate from mainstream culture and currents that it viewed the rest of society as a foreign territory to occupy and administer.

Recently I asked Dunlap how the real world of post-2012 America matched his imagined version.

“I think we’re on the cusp of seeing a resurgence of a phenomenon that has always been embedded in the American psyche,” he said. “That is benign antimilitarism,” which would be the other side of the reflexive pro-militarism of recent years. “People don’t appreciate how unprecedented our situation is,” he told me. What is that situation? For the first time in the nation’s history, America has a permanent military establishment large enough to shape our dealings in the world and seriously influence our economy. Yet the Americans in that military, during what Dunlap calls the “maturing years of the volunteer force,” are few enough in number not to seem representative of the country they defend.

“It’s becoming increasingly tribal,” Dunlap says of the at-war force in our chickenhawk nation, “in the sense that more and more people in the military are coming from smaller and smaller groups. It’s become a family tradition, in a way that’s at odds with how we want to think a democracy spreads the burden.”

People within that military tribe can feel both above and below the messy civilian reality of America. Below, in the burdens placed upon them, and the inattention to the lives, limbs, and opportunities they have lost. Above, in being able to withstand hardships that would break their hipster or slacker contemporaries.

“I think there is a strong sense in the military that it is indeed a better society than the one it serves,” Dunlap said. “And there is some rationality for that.” Anyone who has spent time with troops and their families knows what he means. Physical fitness, standards of promptness and dress, all the aspects of self-discipline that have traditionally made the military a place where misdirected youth could “straighten out,” plus the spirit of love and loyalty for comrades that is found in civilian life mainly on sports teams. The best resolution of this tension between military and mainstream values would of course come as those who understand the military’s tribal identity apply their strengths outside the tribe. “The generation coming up, we’ve got lieutenants and majors who had been the warrior-kings in their little outposts,” Dunlap said of the young veterans of the recent long wars. “They were literally making life-or-death decisions. You can’t take that generation and say, ‘You can be seen and not heard.’ ”

In addition to Seth Moulton, this year’s Congress will have more than 20 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, including new Republican Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Joni Ernst of Iowa. The 17 who are already there, including Democratic Representatives Tulsi Gabbard and Tammy Duckworth and Republican Representatives Duncan D. Hunter and Adam Kinzinger, have played an active role in veterans’ policies and in the 2013 debates about intervening in Syria. Gabbard was strongly against it some of the Republican veterans were for it—but all of them made arguments based on firsthand observation of what had worked and failed. Moulton told me that the main lesson he’ll apply from his four tours in Iraq is the importance of service, of whatever kind. He said that Harvard’s famed chaplain during Moulton’s years as an undergraduate physics student, the late Peter J. Gomes, had convinced him that “it’s not enough to ‘believe’ in service. You should find a way, yourself, to serve.” Barring unimaginable changes, “service” in America will not mean a draft. But Moulton says he will look for ways “to promote a culture where more people want to serve.”

For all the differences in their emphases and conclusions, these young veterans are alike in all taking the military seriously, rather than just revering it. The vast majority of Americans will never share their experiences. But we can learn from that seriousness, and view military policy as deserving at least the attention we give to taxes or schools.

What might that mean, in specific? Here is a start. In the private report prepared for President Obama more than three years ago, Gary Hart’s working group laid out prescriptions on a range of operational practices, from the need for smaller, more agile combat units to a shift in the national command structure to a different approach toward preventing nuclear proliferation. Three of the recommendations were about the way the country as a whole should engage with its armed forces. They were:

Barack Obama, busy on other fronts, had no time for this. The rest of us should make time, if we hope to choose our wars more wisely, and win them.

To read more about the arguments for and against the F-35, see this list of articles and official statements compiled by James Fallows.

The House’s Role

For most of the modern era, the House has acted quickly once Presidents have requested formal declarations of war. Traditionally, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs has considered bills sending American troops to fight abroad, and in at least one instance, in 1924, the House has pulled “legislation tending to promote peace and discourage war” from the Judiciary Committee and referred it to the Committee on Military Affairs. 20 Beginning with World War II, all declarations of war have come before Congress as joint resolutions, and in each instance the House suspended the rules in order to quickly pass the measure. 21

The decision to send the nation to war is perhaps Congress’s gravest responsibility, and in the House war votes can be solemn, weighty occasions. For the Members, to declare war against a foreign power is to send their constituents, their neighbors, their family, and even themselves into harm’s way.

One day after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in early December 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt addressed a Joint Session of Congress, laying out his cause for war. When the House gathered immediately afterward to discuss Roosevelt’s request, Jeannette Rankin of Montana repeatedly sought recognition to address the chamber. Twenty-four years earlier, Rankin had voted against America’s entry into World War I, and on the eve of World War II, even as the war resolution against Japan went through its first reading, Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas, who witnessed Rankin’s previous vote in 1917, refused to recognize her. As Members prepared for the final vote, many approached Rankin hoping to convince her to vote for the war at the very least they hoped she would vote present, or abstain all together. When the reading clerk reached her name during the roll call on the resolution’s final passage, Rankin voted no, the only vote against. The bill passed 388–1. “As a woman I can’t go to war,” she said, “and I refuse to send anyone else.” After the chamber erupted in protest to her vote, Rankin waited in a phone booth before the Capitol Police escorted her back to her office.

With one exception early on, votes to declare war in the House tended to pass with overwhelming majorities. Declaring war or passing an AUMF, however, is only the first step. Once the fighting begins, Congress assumes another constitutional role: that of oversight.

Country (War)Date House Vote
Great Britain (War of 1812)June 4, 181279–49
Mexico (War with Mexico)May 11, 1846174–14
Spain (War of 1898)April 25, 1898Voice vote
Germany (World War I)April 6, 1917373–50
Austria-Hungary (World War I)December 7, 1917365–1
Japan (World War II)December 8, 1941388–1
Germany (World War II)December 11, 1941393–0
Italy (World War II)December 11, 1941399–0
Bulgaria (World War II)June 3, 1942357–0
Hungary (World War II)June 3, 1942360–0
Rumania (World War II)June 3, 1942361–0 22

When can a president use military force? The answer is complicated

If the Trump presidency is a series of tests of the balance of power, his use of military force in Syria may be among the most complicated yet. That’s because last week’s U.S.-led airstrikes against chemical production facilities in Syria were not authorized by Congress, were not in response to an imminent threat to U.S citizens, and were not given a green light by the United Nations, though the U.K. and France were involved in the operation as well. This raised a larger question: What are the real and theoretical limits on a president’s power to use military force?

Here’s a look at some guiding laws and documents.

Constitution: The Constitution offers conflicting guidelines on when a president can use military force.. In Article I, it states: “The Congress shall have Power … to declare War and … to raise and support Armies.” But in Article II, it states that “the President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States … when called into the actual Service of the United States.”

Declarations of war: The United States has only been involved in five officially declared wars. It has engaged in authorized conflict (see below), however, on numerous other occasions.

Authorizations of military force: When hostilities fall short of a formal declaration of war, Congress has authorized the use of military force to send troops into conflict. It’s a long practice dating back to 1798, when President John Adams and Congress tussled over how to combat French ships that were attacking American merchants (ultimately Congress did grant an authorization for force in that case). Since then, Congress has passed roughly a dozen AUMFs, according to the Congressional Research Service. The most recent authorizations came in 2001, to fight terrorism, and in 2002, to engage in Iraq.

The War Powers Act: As opposition to the Vietnam War grew, Congress passed a new law in 1973 to limit presidential power to launch the military into armed conflict. The War Powers Act became law after Congress overrode President Richard Nixon’s veto. It allows the president to use military force only with congressional approval or in response to a direct threat requires the president to notify Congress within 48 hours of putting troops into hostilities and limits such actions to 60 days without congressional approval, among other measures.

The problem with the War Powers Act? Multiple presidents have virtually ignored it or bent these rules, with no consequences. In 1986, Ronald Reagan attacked sites in Libya in retaliation for a bombing which injured Americans, but did not have congressional approval. In 1999, Bill Clinton launched airstrikes in Yugoslavia, aimed at preventing genocide, without giving proper notice to Congress or consulting lawmakers. In 2011, Barack Obama authorized military strikes in Libya, and argued that the War Powers Act simply didn’t apply.

Where are we now? As Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., told NewsHour Monday, Trump’s moves in Syria represent “a grey area.” Courts have not laid down a clear line the Supreme Court declined to hear a case brought by members of Congress against Clinton on this issue. In general, presidents have been able to take unilateral action without congressional approval. And Congress has not agreed on how or when to challenge that.

When Should the US Intervene? Criteria for Military Intervention in Weak Countries

When should the United States intervene militarily in weak countries? This is a topic of pressing international concern because the United States keeps intervening in weak countries. We are currently involved indirectly in Libya and very deeply in Afghanistan, as well as still being involved to some extent in Iraq. We have a propensity to engage in this kind of activity, but it hasn&rsquot always worked out well for us. We need to reconsider the issue, and I want to discuss what the criteria should be for the United States when intervening militarily.

The following is an edited transcription of Professor Robert Keohane&rsquos talk at Cornell University.

When should the United States intervene militarily in weak countries? This is a topic of pressing international concern because the United States keeps intervening in weak countries. We are currently involved indirectly in Libya and very deeply in Afghanistan, as well as still being involved to some extent in Iraq. We have a propensity to engage in this kind of activity, but it hasn&rsquot always worked out well for us. We need to reconsider the issue, and I want to discuss what the criteria should be for the United States when intervening militarily.

The first question is: what is a weak country? What do I mean by saying, &ldquointervening in weak countries?&rdquo A weak country is a country not capable of preventing a United States invasion, where we can successfully at least take over key cities. So we are not talking about China or Russia, we are not talking about Brazil, or South Africa. This does not rule out the possibility, of course, that weak countries can use violence to inflict high costs on the United States. In earlier generations, Vietnam was a weak country. The United States, in a sense, intervened in Vietnam. The Vietnamese, especially the North Vietnamese, successfully used violence to drive the United States out. A weak country can stop the US from beating them but it could make the enterprise very costly for the United States.

I am going to talk about six cases or seven cases. You can count Afghanistan twice. The Gulf War in 1991, non-intervention in Rwanda in 1994, Kosovo in 1999, Afghanistan after 9/11, Iraq in 2003 continuing even now, Libya this year, and Afghanistan now. Let&rsquos call it six cases or seven depending on how you divide the Afghanistan case.

I am a little taken aback here because there is a friend of mine in the back who knows a lot about Afghanistan [Jason Lyall of Yale University] and it reminds me of a story I should tell: I am like a man who survived the Johnstown flood and did nothing else to distinguish himself during life, but was a good person and therefore went to Heaven when he died. When the man was met at the pearly gates by St. Peter, the angel said, &ldquowe have a custom in Heaven: everybody gets to do a show and tell during their first afternoon in heaven, so you can talk about one episode in your life.&rdquo So, this man, who was rather boring, started going on and on about how he had survived the Johnstown flood. St. Peter looks more and more dubious and says, &ldquoIt is all very well that you talk about the flood, but do not forget that Noah is in the audience.&rdquo Noah is back there, so I could be in trouble.

Vladimir Putin and Muammar Gaddafi

I am going to talk about these cases, and Afghanistan is going to be the punch line. My key argument is that the criteria for intervention should depend first on US interests. It is key to differentiate the criteria that apply when the US has strong interests, when the situation is crucial to US interests, as opposed to when the US does not have crucial interests.

More demanding criteria are needed when the United States does not have crucial interests in the area than when it does. I believe that the Gulf War (1991) and Afghanistan after 9/11 represented crucial US interests. Therefore, different criteria apply for the other cases.Rwanda is in italics because nobody intervened.

So, I have one situation here where there was not intervention, where, as you will see, I think that the United States should have intervened. So, here is the outline of the lecture. I am going to talk first about US power and US interests because they are related. We have to understand that the evolution of US interests, and the shifts taking place in these interests, in my view, come from shifts in US power. Before we can actually make judgments, I am going to talk about criteria justifying US military intervention when crucial US interests are involved. It is in those cases, in my view the Gulf war in 1991 and Afghanistan in 2001, that there were crucial US interests involved.

In general, I think these criteria have often been met in those situations. I will then turn to criteria that should be met when crucial US interests are not involved. In general, it seems to me that these criteria have often not been met. We have often fallen short. The conclusion will then focus on when the United States should intervene. I am going to emphasize the key role of the exit strategy. Is there an exit strategy that is plausible? As you will see, I am not disposed toward the continuation of our intervention in Afghanistan.

I want to provoke thinking not just about Afghanistan, but about how to respond when the situation arises, which will recur in your lifetime, when somebody proposes US intervention in a weak country and tells you it is going to be cheap. I do not want to tell you what to think &ndash but I want to urge you to think carefully when military intervention is proposed. Let me tell a story from my father&rsquos notebook, which makes the point.

The story is about Robert Maynard Hutchins, who was the dean of Yale Law School at the age of 28. Think about that if you are 33 and still in graduate school. He later became the president of the University of Chicago. But it was 1925, and Hutchins, in his capacity as the dean of Yale Law School, was entertaining William Howard Taft. Taft was the former President of the United States, the current Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, and the most distinguished jurist in America at the time.

Taft was also a man who was sure of his own presence and importance and he weighed about 350 pounds. He was an imposing figure in every respect. So, Taft turns to Dean Hutchins and says, &ldquoWell Mr. Hutchins, I assume at Yale you teach your students that all judges are fools.&rdquo To which Hutchins responds, &ldquoNo, Mr. Chief Justice, at Yale we teach our students to find that out for themselves.&rdquo So you can find this out for yourselves, not me.

My key argument is that the criteria for intervention should depend first on US interests.

I think you should at least have some criteria in mind when intervention is proposed. The first set of questions is about interest and power. Interest and power are related to each other in that interests are endogenous to power. What your interests are depends, in part, on what your power is. It is clear that the interests of Belgium or Switzerland are different from those of Germany, China, or the United States. There are certain things that small states simply cannot do. They cannot have an interest in maintaining world order. So, as power expands or contracts, so do interests. For example, as British power contracted in the years after 1914, British interests also gradually contracted.

Britain had huge interests in India, interests in the Middle East and the Suez Canal, and it shed those interests gradually when it could not maintain them anymore. Britain did not have the power to do so. The United States conversely, after World War II, expanded interests beyond Western Europe and even into Asia. Throughout the Cold War it expanded its interest into places like Afghanistan and the Congo. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States expanded its interests into Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Those were not major interests of the United States during the Cold War because the US was fairly sure it couldn&rsquot influence events there. And as I mentioned, the British interests, as well as French and even Dutch interests, contracted as their empires collapsed.

So if you&rsquore asking what a state&rsquos interests are, you have to know how powerful it is. A power shift will affect what its interests are. They are not written in stone forever. The United States, despite what former Governor Romney said in his recent speech, is manifestly less powerful and financially capable than it was 20 years ago. Compare now to 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and there were no rivals on the scene. China was not yet in world politics. I am not talking about US collapse I am not saying there is a collapse in US power.

Power is relative. So while the US is less powerful and financially capable than it was 20 years ago, it still remains the most powerful state in the system. We do not want to confuse relative decline with the proposition that the US is weak. The United States is not weak, but it is less powerful than it was 10 years ago. America is not in absolute decline, although America&rsquos cultural and economic preponderance will become less dominant than at the beginning of the century. America will face the rise of many others, both state and non-state actors. Power being relative, the US will be less powerful in the future.

It follows, then, that US interests will need to contract and that a sensible US foreign policy will not maintain the range of interests that were sensible when the US was as dominant as it was in 1991. What are the candidates for reduction? Where should the US sensibly pull back? I think Central Asia is an obvious case that is not crucial to our interests. We got along fine not doing anything about it until the collapse of the Soviet Union, and to me, in general, this includes Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In the 1970s, I would joke in class that Afghanistan was the place in which we had no interest. It is about as far as you get, especially since we are going to have to reach some sort of modus vivendi with China. We are going to have to focus on maintaining our crucial interests visà- vis China&mdashKorea, Southeast Asia, and the areas around the South China Sea&mdashas opposed to the secondary interests that might conflict with China in Central Asia. I think that Africa, except for major oil producers, the Mediterranean, and South Africa, is also not an area of great US interest.

It is impossible for the US to control the world, so the goal of preventing havens for terrorism must be abandoned. After all, terrorists can go lots of places they do not have to be in Afghanistan. They can be in Yemen, in Somalia, or in 50 other countries. So, the notion that your goal is to prevent havens for terrorists and therefore we should be in a particular place is senseless. It would only be sensible if terrorists committed themselves to one place and refused to move.

US soldiers board a CH-47 Chinook helicopter during a military operation in Afghanistan

Let us go back and think about foreign policy interests for a minute. Arnold Wolfers, in a book published almost 50 years ago, made the distinction between possession goals and milieu goals. 1 Possession goals are what you want to have, especially for security and prosperity: the security of your homeland, access to resources, and markets needed for economic growth.

Then there are milieu goals, like a safe world for democracy at home or a world with opportunities for cultural infusion. I am not talking about a world safe for democracy abroad what I am talking about is what do we need for our democracy? The answer is that we have to have a world absent severe threats because such threats can lead to a garrison state.

The necessary means to crucial interests are also crucial interests. If one could show that something in itself is not a crucial interest, but a necessary means to obtain a crucial interest, you should treat it like a crucial interest. I have four here, which I think are crucial to American interests. Although you can see I am critical of US foreign policy, you can also see that I am not an isolationist. One crucial interest is the maintenance of fairly democratic governments in Europe, Asia, and the Pacific rim of Asia. That means Japan, South Korea, Australia, and perhaps other countries. The second crucial interest is access to crucial sources of energy, especially in Saudi Arabia.

Unfortunately, given the policies we have followed or failed to follow over the past 40 years, we are highly dependent on energy from abroad. Third, we need access to other important markets. The US economy is not nearly as globally oriented as Europe&rsquos major economies, but it depends substantially on global markets. If those markets were cut off, the US would certainly suffer. Finally, it is a necessary means for crucial interests like world peace that we maintain a strong working interest with major rising powers, including the BRIC powers of Brazil, Russia, India, and China. These, I would say, are the four necessary means to crucial interests, and they compound into a crucial interest or the equivalent of a crucial interest.

Crucial Interests

Now I want to turn to the second part of the talk. Suppose that crucial US interests are involved. The two cases I want to keep in mind are Iraq in 1991 and Afghanistan in 2001 after 9/11. I think there are five criteria for justifiable intervention when crucial US interests are involved:

  1. Military action must not be unjust. It does not have to be just, but it must not be unjust.
  2. There must be no superior strategy than use of force.
  3. There needs to be a politically sensible exit strategy that retains the key achievements of the intervention. If the only exit strategy throws away your achievements, you should not be doing it in the first place.
  4. The goals should be clearly specified with indicators so we know if we are achieving them.
  5. Finally, there should be an explicit procedure for periodic reevaluation and substantial transparency.

Just war theory identifies just cause and proportionality as the two critical features for a just war. One should not go to war unless, consistent with normative theory, one has just cause. For example, one might be attacked or one&rsquos ally might be attacked without provocation. Second, one should only go to war in a proportional way. We should not use nuclear weapons, for example, to respond to a border incursion.

Even if the incursion would give you just cause to fight, it does not give you just cause to blow up the other country with nuclear weapons. Joseph S. Nye wrote a very good book around 25 years ago on just war theory, which he summarizes as requiring appropriate motives, means, and consequences. 2 Motives must be to rectify a situation, not to aggrandize oneself. Means must be proportionate, and the foreseeable consequences must not be negative.

In my view, the Gulf War in 1991 and the war in Afghanistan after 9/11 meet both sets of criteria. The US or an ally was attacked, and the response was proportionate. The second criterion, that there must be no superior strategy to the use of force, is also met in these two cases. Saddam refused in 1991 to meet Security Council mandates he had plenty of time to respond to threats of force. And in Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban refused to turn over the 9/11 planners or credibly promise no further attacks. In the Gulf War, the US had a clear exit strategy. It was to liberate Kuwait and restore its government, which had previously been able to run itself quite nicely with no substantial internal opposition.

The government&rsquos legitimacy was intact, the infrastructure was intact, and there was a clear exit strategy: drive the Iraqis out, deter them from coming back, and let the Kuwaitis run their own affairs. In Afghanistan in 2001, I think there was not a clear exit strategy. I believe there could have been one. We could have handed over Afghanistan to the Northern Alliance and its allies and let them make the necessary deals to stay in power. Instead of propping them up, say, &ldquoNow you work out your own salvation.&rdquo We didn&rsquot do that, so there was no clear exit strategy. Fourth, there must be goals clearly specified with indicators. These goals were clear in the Gulf War: the restoration of Kuwaiti sovereignty and the destruction of the Iraqi army, sufficiently enough to prevent a new attack. There were indicators associated with that. The destruction of the Iraqi army as a fighting force against a strong opponent was clear from the photographs of burned out tanks indicating that Saddam&rsquos army had been destroyed, and the Kuwaiti government returned to power.

Unfortunately, the subsequent goal of making Saddam respect UN resolutions was openended. It did not have clear indicators, and it was not quite clear what would qualify as meeting those indicators. In Afghanistan, I think the goals were not well-specified, and I think that one of the faults was that the goals kept expanding. If you listened to the Bush Administration, the goals included nation-building, democratization, and women&rsquos rights. The prospect of nation building in Afghanistan was remote and the prospect of democratization was even lower. The prospect of sustainable women&rsquos rights was essentially nil. These goals were unrealistic, rhetorical goals. They were not really specified, and they kept on expanding.

Finally, there should be an explicit procedure for reevaluation. UN Security Council authorizations do require periodic reports. But the Security Council authorizations are somewhat ambiguous, and there was not enough attention, in my view, to explicit reevaluation in the US political system. There should be requirements for congressional hearings, even if nobody wants to do it. We need to have monitoring and more transparency of reevaluation.

So what is the report card on these crucial cases? On a pass-fail basis, on the whole, it is a pass. These actions were not unjust that is a high pass. There was no superior strategy than force: high pass. There was a politically defensible exit strategy in the Gulf War: high pass. Afghanistan failed, but it could have been better. To some extent goals were specified with good indicators: marginal pass for the Gulf war and for Afghanistan. There was some procedure for re-evaluation, although it could have been specified better: marginal pass on this criterion as well.

Three high passes and two marginal passes do not earn honors, but they clearly sum to a passing grade for the Gulf War. For Afghanistan we have two high passes, two marginal passes, and a failure: a generous grader would give this performance a pass. Being generous, I conclude that in both cases the initial action was justified. However, there was too little attention paid to avoiding mission creep in Afghanistan, which is partly where our current trouble comes from.

Non-Crucial Interests

Now I am going to turn to non-crucial interests. I have different criteria for intervention for these interests. Because you do not have to intervene, there should be higher standards. If you have to intervene, because you are being threatened or attacked, lower standards apply. But if you do not have to intervene, you should have a higher standard. So I have four identical criteria: no superior strategy than force, exit strategy, goals and indicators, and a procedure for reevaluation. Those, it seems to me, still apply. But I am going to alter the just cause part. I said, and I emphasized when I got to the just war part in my previous discussion, that where there are crucial interests, we can properly have motivations that do not stem from a desire to act justly. You have a justified motivation to defend yourself or to respond to attack, so justice is not your only motivation.

That is why I said that responses to attack or severe threat must not be unjust, but they may be defended as neutral with respect to justice. You still have the right to defend yourself even if you are not acting to improve justice in the world. But when no crucial interests are involved, it seems to me there must be just cause there must be a positive reason to act and justice must be a key motivation. It must be possible to defend the intervention on the basis that justice needs to be done and there must be an intervention in order to maintain some form. That distinction will make it more demanding for the cases in which the United States did not have crucial interests.

US President Barack Obama

I have four additional criteria for situations in which there is not a crucial US interest. The United Nations has enunciated one of the most imaginative and best acts of the UN, in my view, in the last decade.

It has enunciated over the last 10 years something called the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which I will discuss below. It seems to me that, if we are to intervene where our interests are not at stake, others should also believe that R2P criteria are maintained. There is a responsibility that we are taking, but others also must take it with us.

Second, there should be a broad international consensus. There need not be a UN Security Council resolution because a veto applies there, but there should be at least nine votes, which would pass a resolution, with no veto, with more support from the region affected. It should not just be outside interveners saying, &ldquoOh no, this is a terrible situation in your region,&rdquo the people in the region also need to care.

Third, there needs to be widespread and genuine international participation. I mean not just voting for it, but also participating in the operation. If the operation is not mandated by US interests there is no reason why it should be executed only with US troops and US forces. If it is a general world interest or global interest, others should participate not as much maybe or as with many resources, but they should be prepared to participate. Finally, there should be an indigenous opposition, which is preferable to the status quo. There should be somebody to hand power over to when you are through with the intervention.

I want to say a word about Responsibility to Protect. This came from the initial proposals made by the International Commission on State Sovereignty in 2001, endorsed by Secretary- General Kofi Annan over the next few years, and debated over the course of almost a decade in the UN. A report by the current Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon in 2009 was accepted in principle by the UN General Assembly: that is, the General Assembly endorsed the principle that states have a responsibility to protect their own people. This was the first time that this was actually enunciated in international law. It is not legally binding strictly speaking, but it is what is known as &ldquosoft law.&rdquo It was a normative injunction passed by the international community.

A US Army physician&rsquos assistant provides medical assistance to an elderly Serbian woman in Kosovo.

According to the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, there is an international responsibility to assist. States have a primary responsibility to protect their own people if they fail to do so or egregiously violate that responsibility and persecute their own people, then the international community has the responsibility to respond and assist.

So this doctrine puts a big hole in the old sovereignty norm that basically said that states could do whatever they wanted to their own people. The Responsibility to Protect is limited to four specific crimes, and especially crimes against humanity and ethics. As I mentioned, these are norms and not a legally binding treaty, but they are of strong form.

Analyzing Six Cases of Intervention

How do we get a broad international consensus? The definitive evidence would be a UN Security Council authorization, something that in some cases we have gotten, like the Ivory Coast Intervention in the spring of 2011 that was supported by a Security Council resolution. In the Libya intervention there was also a Security Council resolution supporting it. That is definitive evidence for legitimate international intervention, but I do not think that we should make Security Council authorization a necessary condition.

That would allow one, maybe two states, if they were Permanent Members of the Council, to veto crucial action in defense of the Responsibility to Protect their own citizens. In fact, there is a norm developing that is a little softer than the first norm, that a veto is illegitimate in essential situations the UN Secretary-General has enunciated it before. So a consensus could be declared if the otherwise required number of states&mdashnine in the Security Council&mdashactually voted in favor of the resolution, even if a Permanent Member voted no. 3

I talked earlier about participation. There should be broad participation: active engagement by more than one or two states, not just by us. And there should be active logistical support by a number of other states. In other words, they should not just passively sit back and raise their hand in the Security Council or General Assembly.

One of the most important criteria is that there has to be an indigenous opposition to the repressive regime. If there is no coherent indigenous opposition, which you can rely on once we&rsquove thrown out the bad guys in the state, then there is no exit strategy and no way to get out without undermining the actions. Now, if that is hard, you have to make a judgment. Is a coherent, indigenous coalition capable of ruling? Is it feasible? Do you have a reason to make a flawed judgment? It is a difficult judgment.

I think we have to ask this question: after we intervene, if we succeed in totally ousting the regime and restore order, is there a group of people or locals who we can hand power over to? I am not saying they have to be democratic, but they have to be effective and potentially better than the people prior. Now, take a look at Figure 1.

Somalia Rwanda Kosovo Iraq Libya Afghanistan
Force essential? Yes Yes Yes Yes &ndash to remove Saddam Yes Yes &ndash to defeat Taliban. No to contain Al Qaeda
Exit strategy? No &ndash polity fragmented Yes &ndash opposition Yes &ndash sovereign Kosovo No &ndash until at least 2007 If opposition coherent No &ndash plan depends on viable govt.
Goals clear? Not after famine Yes Yes Not after removing Saddam Defeat Qaddafi (not UN goals) No
Reevaluation? Only after disaster N/A Implicit (low commitment) Not until too late No explicit plan Perhaps finally in 2011 Obama drawdown
Just cause? Yes Yes Yes Unclear Yes Unclear
R2P? (Yes) Not tested (Yes) Unclear Yes No
Consensus? Yes (Yes) NATO only No Yes Decreasing
Broad Involvement? Yes &ndash 35+ states Not tested NATO involved No &ndash US-UK mostly Key NATO players Decreasing
Internal opposition? Incoherent Yes Yes Mostly exiles Yes, but divided US supports government
Justified? Not longterm Yes Yes No Yes &ndash risk of anarchy No

Figure 1: Intervention criteria where the United States lacked crucial interest.

Now you get the big picture. What I have done is simply to take my nine criteria on the left hand column and the six cases across the top. So the first issue: was force essential to achieve the objective? The answer is yes in all of these cases we could not have achieved the objective without force. So there is no easy way out. We are already in the hard cases, where in order to do anything effective, we needed to use force.

Is there an exit strategy? Well, there was not in Somalia. The first Bush Administration intervened in Somalia in 1992 and the Clinton Administration maintained the intervention until the Black Hawk Down incident in October 1993. But, there was no exit strategy there was no one we could see to turn the reins over to. Ironically, in Rwanda, where we didn&rsquot intervene, there would have been an exit strategy. There was a Tutsi movement, self-organized without our help, and we could have intervened with an easy exit strategy. We should have intervened there.

There was also an exit strategy with Kosovo: having an independent Kosovo. It would not have been run by the people you want next door to you, not your city council in Princeton, New Jersey, but they were able to run their own affairs with some help and not a huge amount of money. In Iraq, I think there was no exit strategy until at least 2007 it was notably absent in the Bush Administration&rsquos original intervention strategy. In Libya, it is still questionable whether the opposition is coherent enough to run a peaceful, orderly state. . If the opposition movement that defeated Qaddafi is coherent, then we&rsquoll have an exit strategy. If they are going to start fighting each other, we won&rsquot. I think that we do not have an exit strategy in Afghanistan that will preserve the gains we hoped to achieve.

What about the goals, are the goals clear? The goal in Somalia was first to save people from famine that was a clear goal. The other goal was to improve governance in Somalia, which was not achieved. There would have been a clear goal in Rwanda: stopping the murder of 800,000 people in two months. But tragically, there was no intervention in Rwanda. There was a clear goal in Kosovo: to get the Serbs out and let Kosovo run their own country. In Iraq, there was one clear goal: remove Saddam. After that, it seems to me there was not a clear goal. In Libya, there was a clear goal: defeat Gaddafi, even though this was not the same goal that the UN approved. The UN approved a much more minor goal, but NATO took that as authorization to do what they pleased. In Afghanistan, I think it is not clear what the goal is there is no attainable goal.

There was an implicit reevaluation in Kosovo we scaled down our involvement and said we are not going to solve all these problems for you. In Iraq, we did not reevaluate until awfully late. In 2005-2006 we said, &ldquoOh, we&rsquore in trouble here, what should we do?&rdquo We are not there yet in Libya. I do not know if there is a plan for reevaluation, but I think there should be. And maybe Obama is reevaluating in Afghanistan.

If there is no coherent indigenous opposition. then there is no exit strategy and no way to get out without undermining the actions.

Now I turn to the other criteria. There was just cause in Somalia, Rwanda, and Kosovo. I think it is very unclear in Iraq what the just cause was for invasion. Saddam was a dictator, but it is not clear that Saddam was killing more people than have died after the invasion. But I think in Libya there was just cause, because Gaddafi was murdering his people and threatening war, and R2P was applied there. In Afghanistan, I don&rsquot see just cause now. There was just cause in 2001, but now there are maybe one hundred al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan.

Finally, let&rsquos consider The Responsibility to Protect. It was not in place in the 1990&rsquos, so Somalia and Kosovo are in parentheses. It was not tested in Rwanda because, tragically, there was no intervention. There are lots of oppressive regimes in the world. If you were committed to liberating people who were oppressed then you would be liberating lots of countries. In Libya, I think Responsibility to Protect criteria were met, but in Afghanistan I believe they are not.

Is there a consensus? Well, in general in Somalia and Libya there was consensus. In the Rwanda case, there could have been. In Iraq there was not. We did not have a lot of support if you look at the American coalition: the US and Britain, a few NATO allies, and a lot of tiny little states without any resources to speak of. The Bush Administration had an obvious, self-interested reason for going to war. I think we are seeing a decreasing consensus in Afghanistan.

With regard to the question of the internal opposition, the problem was that in Somalia there was no coherent opposition, unlike Rwanda and Kosovo. In Iraq, the problem was that Saddam&rsquos opponents were mostly exiles and they were not broadly integrated into the society. In Libya, there was internal opposition, which was crucial. In Afghanistan, the US supports the government. If the government were coherent, this could be OK but I do not think it is.

Finally, I ask, &ldquoWere these operations justified?&rdquo In Somalia, we should have provided the famine help and then gotten out. In Rwanda, we should have intervened. This was, ironically, the case that meets the criteria best and we did not intervene, to our shame. In Kosovo, we were right to intervene it meets the criteria quite well. In Iraq, we were wrong to intervene. There was no exit strategy. There was no broad consensus. There was no broad involvement by others. There was no coherent opposition. There was no just cause under Just War Theory. And there was no valid, in my view, Responsibility to Protect justification. So it is a genuine, crashing failure, and I think that it should never happen again. In Libya, I say cautiously &ldquoyes,&rdquo although I recognize that there is a lot of risk here, especially the risk of anarchy and division among the revolutionaries.

Our current involvement in Afghanistan is not justified. It is not quite as bad as Iraq, but I think it is close. There is no exit strategy I can see, the goals are unclear, the R2P criteria are not met, and it is not a &ldquoResponsibility to Protect&rdquo situation. There is a declining consensus and commitment by others. And there is a very weak, feckless government, which is weak and unable even to prevent people from walking in and suicide bombing one of their leaders. It does not command much widespread support.

So my conclusion is as follows. Leaders in the future will call for military intervention, so you will have to think about it&mdash10, 20, or 30 years from now. Beware of what Stanley Hoffman calls &ldquothe hell of good intentions.&rdquo 4 Do not let an idealistic set of good intentions lure you into supporting intervention without asking tough questions. I think that three of these six interventions, in the absence of crucial US interests, were unjustified, at high cost. So if you remember this talk, 10, 20, or 30 years from now when a new president proposes intervention,

I would say be cautious and ask, &ldquoHas he or she articulated an exit strategy? Is this strategy based on the identification of a coherent opposition, which will be capable of running the country in a more decent manner, at least than the people they have already got, when they are allowed to be in power?&rdquo These are hard cases, and you have to make sure all the criteria line up.

If a vigilant public does not hold its government accountable for interventions in a coherent way, the United States will continue to engage in poorly conceived or badly motivated interventions, as well as in those that are justified. As James Madison said in Federalist paper number 10, &ldquoenlightened leaders will not always be at the helm.&rdquo It is up to us, in the attentive public, to offer criticisms as well as support on a reasoned basis to hold leaders accountable and give them incentives to enact sensible and justified policies.

Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will

WASHINGTON — This was the enemy, served up in the latest chart from the intelligence agencies: 15 Qaeda suspects in Yemen with Western ties. The mug shots and brief biographies resembled a high school yearbook layout. Several were Americans. Two were teenagers, including a girl who looked even younger than her 17 years.

President Obama, overseeing the regular Tuesday counterterrorism meeting of two dozen security officials in the White House Situation Room, took a moment to study the faces. It was Jan. 19, 2010, the end of a first year in office punctuated by terrorist plots and culminating in a brush with catastrophe over Detroit on Christmas Day, a reminder that a successful attack could derail his presidency. Yet he faced adversaries without uniforms, often indistinguishable from the civilians around them.

“How old are these people?” he asked, according to two officials present. “If they are starting to use children,” he said of Al Qaeda, “we are moving into a whole different phase.”

It was not a theoretical question: Mr. Obama has placed himself at the helm of a top secret “nominations” process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical. He had vowed to align the fight against Al Qaeda with American values the chart, introducing people whose deaths he might soon be asked to order, underscored just what a moral and legal conundrum this could be.

Mr. Obama is the liberal law professor who campaigned against the Iraq war and torture, and then insisted on approving every new name on an expanding “kill list,” poring over terrorist suspects’ biographies on what one official calls the macabre “baseball cards” of an unconventional war. When a rare opportunity for a drone strike at a top terrorist arises — but his family is with him — it is the president who has reserved to himself the final moral calculation.

“He is determined that he will make these decisions about how far and wide these operations will go,” said Thomas E. Donilon, his national security adviser. “His view is that he’s responsible for the position of the United States in the world.” He added, “He’s determined to keep the tether pretty short.”

Nothing else in Mr. Obama’s first term has baffled liberal supporters and confounded conservative critics alike as his aggressive counterterrorism record. His actions have often remained inscrutable, obscured by awkward secrecy rules, polarized political commentary and the president’s own deep reserve.

In interviews with The New York Times, three dozen of his current and former advisers described Mr. Obama’s evolution since taking on the role, without precedent in presidential history, of personally overseeing the shadow war with Al Qaeda.

They describe a paradoxical leader who shunned the legislative deal-making required to close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, but approves lethal action without hand-wringing. While he was adamant about narrowing the fight and improving relations with the Muslim world, he has followed the metastasizing enemy into new and dangerous lands. When he applies his lawyering skills to counterterrorism, it is usually to enable, not constrain, his ferocious campaign against Al Qaeda — even when it comes to killing an American cleric in Yemen, a decision that Mr. Obama told colleagues was “an easy one.”

His first term has seen private warnings from top officials about a “Whac-A-Mole” approach to counterterrorism the invention of a new category of aerial attack following complaints of careless targeting and presidential acquiescence in a formula for counting civilian deaths that some officials think is skewed to produce low numbers.

The administration’s failure to forge a clear detention policy has created the impression among some members of Congress of a take-no-prisoners policy. And Mr. Obama’s ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron P. Munter, has complained to colleagues that the C.I.A.’s strikes drive American policy there, saying “he didn’t realize his main job was to kill people,” a colleague said.


Beside the president at every step is his counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, who is variously compared by colleagues to a dogged police detective, tracking terrorists from his cavelike office in the White House basement, or a priest whose blessing has become indispensable to Mr. Obama, echoing the president’s attempt to apply the “just war” theories of Christian philosophers to a brutal modern conflict.

But the strikes that have eviscerated Al Qaeda — just since April, there have been 14 in Yemen, and 6 in Pakistan — have also tested both men’s commitment to the principles they have repeatedly said are necessary to defeat the enemy in the long term. Drones have replaced Guantánamo as the recruiting tool of choice for militants in his 2010 guilty plea, Faisal Shahzad, who had tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square, justified targeting civilians by telling the judge, “When the drones hit, they don’t see children.”

Dennis C. Blair, director of national intelligence until he was fired in May 2010, said that discussions inside the White House of long-term strategy against Al Qaeda were sidelined by the intense focus on strikes. “The steady refrain in the White House was, ‘This is the only game in town’ — reminded me of body counts in Vietnam,” said Mr. Blair, a retired admiral who began his Navy service during that war.

Mr. Blair’s criticism, dismissed by White House officials as personal pique, nonetheless resonates inside the government.

William M. Daley, Mr. Obama’s chief of staff in 2011, said the president and his advisers understood that they could not keep adding new names to a kill list, from ever lower on the Qaeda totem pole. What remains unanswered is how much killing will be enough.

“One guy gets knocked off, and the guy’s driver, who’s No. 21, becomes 20?” Mr. Daley said, describing the internal discussion. “At what point are you just filling the bucket with numbers?”

‘Maintain My Options’

A phalanx of retired generals and admirals stood behind Mr. Obama on the second day of his presidency, providing martial cover as he signed several executive orders to make good on campaign pledges. Brutal interrogation techniques were banned, he declared. And the prison at Guantánamo Bay would be closed.

What the new president did not say was that the orders contained a few subtle loopholes. They reflected a still unfamiliar Barack Obama, a realist who, unlike some of his fervent supporters, was never carried away by his own rhetoric. Instead, he was already putting his lawyerly mind to carving out the maximum amount of maneuvering room to fight terrorism as he saw fit.

It was a pattern that would be seen repeatedly, from his response to Republican complaints that he wanted to read terrorists their rights, to his acceptance of the C.I.A.’s method for counting civilian casualties in drone strikes.

The day before the executive orders were issued, the C.I.A.’s top lawyer, John A. Rizzo, had called the White House in a panic. The order prohibited the agency from operating detention facilities, closing once and for all the secret overseas “black sites” where interrogators had brutalized terrorist suspects.

“The way this is written, you are going to take us out of the rendition business,” Mr. Rizzo told Gregory B. Craig, Mr. Obama’s White House counsel, referring to the much-criticized practice of grabbing a terrorist suspect abroad and delivering him to another country for interrogation or trial. The problem, Mr. Rizzo explained, was that the C.I.A. sometimes held such suspects for a day or two while awaiting a flight. The order appeared to outlaw that.

Mr. Craig assured him that the new president had no intention of ending rendition — only its abuse, which could lead to American complicity in torture abroad. So a new definition of “detention facility” was inserted, excluding places used to hold people “on a short-term, transitory basis.” Problem solved — and no messy public explanation damped Mr. Obama’s celebration.

“Pragmatism over ideology,” his campaign national security team had advised in a memo in March 2008. It was counsel that only reinforced the president’s instincts.

Even before he was sworn in, Mr. Obama’s advisers had warned him against taking a categorical position on what would be done with Guantánamo detainees. The deft insertion of some wiggle words in the president’s order showed that the advice was followed.

Some detainees would be transferred to prisons in other countries, or released, it said. Some would be prosecuted — if “feasible” — in criminal courts. Military commissions, which Mr. Obama had criticized, were not mentioned — and thus not ruled out.

As for those who could not be transferred or tried but were judged too dangerous for release? Their “disposition” would be handled by “lawful means, consistent with the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States and the interests of justice.”

A few sharp-eyed observers inside and outside the government understood what the public did not. Without showing his hand, Mr. Obama had preserved three major policies — rendition, military commissions and indefinite detention — that have been targets of human rights groups since the 2001 terrorist attacks.

But a year later, with Congress trying to force him to try all terrorism suspects using revamped military commissions, he deployed his legal skills differently — to preserve trials in civilian courts.

It was shortly after Dec. 25, 2009, following a close call in which a Qaeda-trained operative named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had boarded a Detroit-bound airliner with a bomb sewn into his underwear.

Mr. Obama was taking a drubbing from Republicans over the government’s decision to read the suspect his rights, a prerequisite for bringing criminal charges against him in civilian court.

The president “seems to think that if he gives terrorists the rights of Americans, lets them lawyer up and reads them their Miranda rights, we won’t be at war,” former Vice President Dick Cheney charged.

Sensing vulnerability on both a practical and political level, the president summoned his attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., to the White House.

F.B.I. agents had questioned Mr. Abdulmutallab for 50 minutes and gained valuable intelligence before giving him the warning. They had relied on a 1984 case called New York v. Quarles, in which the Supreme Court ruled that statements made by a suspect in response to urgent public safety questions — the case involved the location of a gun — could be introduced into evidence even if the suspect had not been advised of the right to remain silent.

Mr. Obama, who Mr. Holder said misses the legal profession, got into a colloquy with the attorney general. How far, he asked, could Quarles be stretched? Mr. Holder felt that in terrorism cases, the court would allow indefinite questioning on a fairly broad range of subjects.

Satisfied with the edgy new interpretation, Mr. Obama gave his blessing, Mr. Holder recalled.

“Barack Obama believes in options: ‘Maintain my options,’ “ said Jeh C. Johnson, a campaign adviser and now general counsel of the Defense Department.

‘They Must All Be Militants’

That same mind-set would be brought to bear as the president intensified what would become a withering campaign to use unmanned aircraft to kill Qaeda terrorists.

Just days after taking office, the president got word that the first strike under his administration had killed a number of innocent Pakistanis. “The president was very sharp on the thing, and said, ‘I want to know how this happened,’ “ a top White House adviser recounted.

In response to his concern, the C.I.A. downsized its munitions for more pinpoint strikes. In addition, the president tightened standards, aides say: If the agency did not have a “near certainty” that a strike would result in zero civilian deaths, Mr. Obama wanted to decide personally whether to go ahead.

The president’s directive reinforced the need for caution, counterterrorism officials said, but did not significantly change the program. In part, that is because “the protection of innocent life was always a critical consideration,” said Michael V. Hayden, the last C.I.A. director under President George W. Bush.

It is also because Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good. “Al Qaeda is an insular, paranoid organization — innocent neighbors don’t hitchhike rides in the back of trucks headed for the border with guns and bombs,” said one official, who requested anonymity to speak about what is still a classified program.

This counting method may partly explain the official claims of extraordinarily low collateral deaths. In a speech last year Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s trusted adviser, said that not a single noncombatant had been killed in a year of strikes. And in a recent interview, a senior administration official said that the number of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan under Mr. Obama was in the “single digits” — and that independent counts of scores or hundreds of civilian deaths unwittingly draw on false propaganda claims by militants.

But in interviews, three former senior intelligence officials expressed disbelief that the number could be so low. The C.I.A. accounting has so troubled some administration officials outside the agency that they have brought their concerns to the White House. One called it “guilt by association” that has led to “deceptive” estimates of civilian casualties.

“It bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants,” the official said. “They count the corpses and they’re not really sure who they are.”

‘A No-Brainer’

About four months into his presidency, as Republicans accused him of reckless naïveté on terrorism, Mr. Obama quickly pulled together a speech defending his policies. Standing before the Constitution at the National Archives in Washington, he mentioned Guantánamo 28 times, repeating his campaign pledge to close the prison.

But it was too late, and his defensive tone suggested that Mr. Obama knew it. Though President George W. Bush and Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican candidate, had supported closing the Guantánamo prison, Republicans in Congress had reversed course and discovered they could use the issue to portray Mr. Obama as soft on terrorism.

Walking out of the Archives, the president turned to his national security adviser at the time, Gen. James L. Jones, and admitted that he had never devised a plan to persuade Congress to shut down the prison.

“We’re never going to make that mistake again,” Mr. Obama told the retired Marine general.

General Jones said the president and his aides had assumed that closing the prison was “a no-brainer — the United States will look good around the world.” The trouble was, he added, “nobody asked, ‘O.K., let’s assume it’s a good idea, how are you going to do this?’ “

It was not only Mr. Obama’s distaste for legislative backslapping and arm-twisting, but also part of a deeper pattern, said an administration official who has watched him closely: the president seemed to have “a sense that if he sketches a vision, it will happen — without his really having thought through the mechanism by which it will happen.”

In fact, both Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the attorney general, Mr. Holder, had warned that the plan to close the Guantánamo prison was in peril, and they volunteered to fight for it on Capitol Hill, according to officials. But with Mr. Obama’s backing, his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, blocked them, saying health care reform had to go first.

When the administration floated a plan to transfer from Guantánamo to Northern Virginia two Uighurs, members of a largely Muslim ethnic minority from China who are considered no threat to the United States, Virginia Republicans led by Representative Frank R. Wolf denounced the idea. The administration backed down.

That show of weakness doomed the effort to close Guantánamo, the same administration official said. “Lyndon Johnson would have steamrolled the guy,” he said. “That’s not what happened. It’s like a boxing match where a cut opens over a guy’s eye.”

The Use of Force

It is the strangest of bureaucratic rituals: Every week or so, more than 100 members of the government’s sprawling national security apparatus gather, by secure video teleconference, to pore over terrorist suspects’ biographies and recommend to the president who should be the next to die.

This secret “nominations” process is an invention of the Obama administration, a grim debating society that vets the PowerPoint slides bearing the names, aliases and life stories of suspected members of Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen or its allies in Somalia’s Shabab militia.

The video conferences are run by the Pentagon, which oversees strikes in those countries, and participants do not hesitate to call out a challenge, pressing for the evidence behind accusations of ties to Al Qaeda.

“What’s a Qaeda facilitator?” asked one participant, illustrating the spirit of the exchanges. “If I open a gate and you drive through it, am I a facilitator?” Given the contentious discussions, it can take five or six sessions for a name to be approved, and names go off the list if a suspect no longer appears to pose an imminent threat, the official said. A parallel, more cloistered selection process at the C.I.A. focuses largely on Pakistan, where that agency conducts strikes.

The nominations go to the White House, where by his own insistence and guided by Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama must approve any name. He signs off on every strike in Yemen and Somalia and also on the more complex and risky strikes in Pakistan — about a third of the total.

Aides say Mr. Obama has several reasons for becoming so immersed in lethal counterterrorism operations. A student of writings on war by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, he believes that he should take moral responsibility for such actions. And he knows that bad strikes can tarnish America’s image and derail diplomacy.

“He realizes this isn’t science, this is judgments made off of, most of the time, human intelligence,” said Mr. Daley, the former chief of staff. “The president accepts as a fact that a certain amount of screw-ups are going to happen, and to him, that calls for a more judicious process.”

But the control he exercises also appears to reflect Mr. Obama’s striking self-confidence: he believes, according to several people who have worked closely with him, that his own judgment should be brought to bear on strikes.

Asked what surprised him most about Mr. Obama, Mr. Donilon, the national security adviser, answered immediately: “He’s a president who is quite comfortable with the use of force on behalf of the United States.”

In fact, in a 2007 campaign speech in which he vowed to pull the United States out of Iraq and refocus on Al Qaeda, Mr. Obama had trumpeted his plan to go after terrorist bases in Pakistan — even if Pakistani leaders objected. His rivals at the time, including Mitt Romney, Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Mrs. Clinton, had all pounced on what they considered a greenhorn’s campaign bluster. (Mr. Romney said Mr. Obama had become “Dr. Strangelove.”)

In office, however, Mr. Obama has done exactly what he had promised, coming quickly to rely on the judgment of Mr. Brennan.

Mr. Brennan, a son of Irish immigrants, is a grizzled 25-year veteran of the C.I.A. whose work as a top agency official during the brutal interrogations of the Bush administration made him a target of fierce criticism from the left. He had been forced, under fire, to withdraw his name from consideration to lead the C.I.A. under Mr. Obama, becoming counterterrorism chief instead.

Some critics of the drone strategy still vilify Mr. Brennan, suggesting that he is the C.I.A.’s agent in the White House, steering Mr. Obama to a targeted killing strategy. But in office, Mr. Brennan has surprised many former detractors by speaking forcefully for closing Guantánamo and respecting civil liberties.

Harold H. Koh, for instance, as dean of Yale Law School was a leading liberal critic of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism policies. But since becoming the State Department’s top lawyer, Mr. Koh said, he has found in Mr. Brennan a principled ally.

“If John Brennan is the last guy in the room with the president, I’m comfortable, because Brennan is a person of genuine moral rectitude,” Mr. Koh said. “It’s as though you had a priest with extremely strong moral values who was suddenly charged with leading a war.”

The president values Mr. Brennan’s experience in assessing intelligence, from his own agency or others, and for the sobriety with which he approaches lethal operations, other aides say.

“The purpose of these actions is to mitigate threats to U.S. persons’ lives,” Mr. Brennan said in an interview. “It is the option of last recourse. So the president, and I think all of us here, don’t like the fact that people have to die. And so he wants to make sure that we go through a rigorous checklist: The infeasibility of capture, the certainty of the intelligence base, the imminence of the threat, all of these things.”

Yet the administration’s very success at killing terrorism suspects has been shadowed by a suspicion: that Mr. Obama has avoided the complications of detention by deciding, in effect, to take no prisoners alive. While scores of suspects have been killed under Mr. Obama, only one has been taken into American custody, and the president has balked at adding new prisoners to Guantánamo.

“Their policy is to take out high-value targets, versus capturing high-value targets,” said Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the intelligence committee. “They are not going to advertise that, but that’s what they are doing.”

Mr. Obama’s aides deny such a policy, arguing that capture is often impossible in the rugged tribal areas of Pakistan and Yemen and that many terrorist suspects are in foreign prisons because of American tips. Still, senior officials at the Justice Department and the Pentagon acknowledge that they worry about the public perception.

“We have to be vigilant to avoid a no-quarter, or take-no-prisoners policy,” said Mr. Johnson, the Pentagon’s chief lawyer.

The care that Mr. Obama and his counterterrorism chief take in choosing targets, and their reliance on a precision weapon, the drone, reflect his pledge at the outset of his presidency to reject what he called the Bush administration’s “false choice between our safety and our ideals.”

But he has found that war is a messy business, and his actions show that pursuing an enemy unbound by rules has required moral, legal and practical trade-offs that his speeches did not envision.

One early test involved Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban. The case was problematic on two fronts, according to interviews with both administration and Pakistani sources.

The C.I.A. worried that Mr. Mehsud, whose group then mainly targeted the Pakistan government, did not meet the Obama administration’s criteria for targeted killing: he was not an imminent threat to the United States. But Pakistani officials wanted him dead, and the American drone program rested on their tacit approval. The issue was resolved after the president and his advisers found that he represented a threat, if not to the homeland, to American personnel in Pakistan.

Then, in August 2009, the C.I.A. director, Leon E. Panetta, told Mr. Brennan that the agency had Mr. Mehsud in its sights. But taking out the Pakistani Taliban leader, Mr. Panetta warned, did not meet Mr. Obama’s standard of “near certainty” of no innocents being killed. In fact, a strike would certainly result in such deaths: he was with his wife at his in-laws’ home.

“Many times,” General Jones said, in similar circumstances, “at the 11th hour we waved off a mission simply because the target had people around them and we were able to loiter on station until they didn’t.”

But not this time. Mr. Obama, through Mr. Brennan, told the C.I.A. to take the shot, and Mr. Mehsud was killed, along with his wife and, by some reports, other family members as well, said a senior intelligence official.

The attempted bombing of an airliner a few months later, on Dec. 25, stiffened the president’s resolve, aides say. It was the culmination of a series of plots, including the killing of 13 people at Fort Hood, Tex. by an Army psychiatrist who had embraced radical Islam.

Mr. Obama is a good poker player, but he has a tell when he is angry. His questions become rapid-fire, said his attorney general, Mr. Holder. “He’ll inject the phrase, ‘I just want to make sure you understand that.’ “ And it was clear to everyone, Mr. Holder said, that he was simmering about how a 23-year-old bomber had penetrated billions of dollars worth of American security measures.

When a few officials tentatively offered a defense, noting that the attack had failed because the terrorists were forced to rely on a novice bomber and an untested formula because of stepped-up airport security, Mr. Obama cut them short.

“Well, he could have gotten it right and we’d all be sitting here with an airplane that blew up and killed over a hundred people,” he said, according to a participant. He asked them to use the close call to imagine in detail the consequences if the bomb had detonated. In characteristic fashion, he went around the room, asking each official to explain what had gone wrong and what needed to be done about it.

“After that, as president, it seemed like he felt in his gut the threat to the United States,” said Michael E. Leiter, then director of the National Counterterrorism Center. “Even John Brennan, someone who was already a hardened veteran of counterterrorism, tightened the straps on his rucksack after that.”

David Axelrod, the president’s closest political adviser, began showing up at the “Terror Tuesday” meetings, his unspeaking presence a visible reminder of what everyone understood: a successful attack would overwhelm the president’s other aspirations and achievements.

In the most dramatic possible way, the Fort Hood shootings in November and the attempted Christmas Day bombing had shown the new danger from Yemen. Mr. Obama, who had rejected the Bush-era concept of a global war on terrorism and had promised to narrow the American focus to Al Qaeda’s core, suddenly found himself directing strikes in another complicated Muslim country.

The very first strike under his watch in Yemen, on Dec. 17, 2009, offered a stark example of the difficulties of operating in what General Jones described as an “embryonic theater that we weren’t really familiar with.”

It killed not only its intended target, but also two neighboring families, and left behind a trail of cluster bombs that subsequently killed more innocents. It was hardly the kind of precise operation that Mr. Obama favored. Videos of children’s bodies and angry tribesmen holding up American missile parts flooded You Tube, fueling a ferocious backlash that Yemeni officials said bolstered Al Qaeda.

The sloppy strike shook Mr. Obama and Mr. Brennan, officials said, and once again they tried to impose some discipline.

In Pakistan, Mr. Obama had approved not only “personality” strikes aimed at named, high-value terrorists, but “signature” strikes that targeted training camps and suspicious compounds in areas controlled by militants.

But some State Department officials have complained to the White House that the criteria used by the C.I.A. for identifying a terrorist “signature” were too lax. The joke was that when the C.I.A. sees “three guys doing jumping jacks,” the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp, said one senior official. Men loading a truck with fertilizer could be bombmakers — but they might also be farmers, skeptics argued.

Now, in the wake of the bad first strike in Yemen, Mr. Obama overruled military and intelligence commanders who were pushing to use signature strikes there as well.

“We are not going to war with Yemen,” he admonished in one meeting, according to participants.

His guidance was formalized in a memo by General Jones, who called it a “governor, if you will, on the throttle,” intended to remind everyone that “one should not assume that it’s just O.K. to do these things because we spot a bad guy somewhere in the world.”

Mr. Obama had drawn a line. But within two years, he stepped across it. Signature strikes in Pakistan were killing a large number of terrorist suspects, even when C.I.A. analysts were not certain beforehand of their presence. And in Yemen, roiled by the Arab Spring unrest, the Qaeda affiliate was seizing territory.

Today, the Defense Department can target suspects in Yemen whose names they do not know. Officials say the criteria are tighter than those for signature strikes, requiring evidence of a threat to the United States, and they have even given them a new name — TADS, for Terrorist Attack Disruption Strikes. But the details are a closely guarded secret — part of a pattern for a president who came into office promising transparency.

The Ultimate Test

On that front, perhaps no case would test Mr. Obama’s principles as starkly as that of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric and Qaeda propagandist hiding in Yemen, who had recently risen to prominence and had taunted the president by name in some of his online screeds.

The president “was very interested in obviously trying to understand how a guy like Awlaki developed,” said General Jones. The cleric’s fiery sermons had helped inspire a dozen plots, including the shootings at Fort Hood. Then he had gone “operational,” plotting with Mr. Abdulmutallab and coaching him to ignite his explosives only after the airliner was over the United States.

That record, and Mr. Awlaki’s calls for more attacks, presented Mr. Obama with an urgent question: Could he order the targeted killing of an American citizen, in a country with which the United States was not at war, in secret and without the benefit of a trial?

The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel prepared a lengthy memo justifying that extraordinary step, asserting that while the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process applied, it could be satisfied by internal deliberations in the executive branch.

Mr. Obama gave his approval, and Mr. Awlaki was killed in September 2011, along with a fellow propagandist, Samir Khan, an American citizen who was not on the target list but was traveling with him.

If the president had qualms about this momentous step, aides said he did not share them. Mr. Obama focused instead on the weight of the evidence showing that the cleric had joined the enemy and was plotting more terrorist attacks.

“This is an easy one,” Mr. Daley recalled him saying, though the president warned that in future cases, the evidence might well not be so clear.

In the wake of Mr. Awlaki’s death, some administration officials, including the attorney general, argued that the Justice Department’s legal memo should be made public. In 2009, after all, Mr. Obama had released Bush administration legal opinions on interrogation over the vociferous objections of six former C.I.A. directors.

This time, contemplating his own secrets, he chose to keep the Awlaki opinion secret.

“Once it’s your pop stand, you look at things a little differently,” said Mr. Rizzo, the C.I.A.’s former general counsel.

Mr. Hayden, the former C.I.A. director and now an adviser to Mr. Obama’s Republican challenger, Mr. Romney, commended the president’s aggressive counterterrorism record, which he said had a “Nixon to China” quality. But, he said, “secrecy has its costs” and Mr. Obama should open the strike strategy up to public scrutiny.

About four months into his term, President Obama pulled together a speech defending his policies. Standing before the Constitution at the National Archives in Washington, he mentioned Guantánamo 28 times, repeating his campaign pledge to close the prison.

Credit. Doug Mills/The New York Times

About four months into his term, President Obama pulled together a speech defending his policies. Standing before the Constitution at the National Archives in Washington, he mentioned Guantánamo 28 times, repeating his campaign pledge to close the prison.

Credit. Doug Mills/The New York Times

Mr.  Obama in the Oval Office with Thomas E. Donilon, left, the national security adviser, and John O. Brennan, his top counterterrorism adviser.

Credit. Pete Souza/The White House

A picture of President George W. Bush is replaced with one of President Obama at Guantánamo Bay.

Credit. Pool photo by Brennan Linsley

Tribesmen protested in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, against ties with the United States, just days after President Obama took office in January 2009.

Credit. Emilio Morenatti/Associated Press

A house destroyed by authorities in Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan.

Credit. Ishtiaq Mehsud/Associated Press

Iraqis listened to Mr. Obama’s speech from Cairo in June 2009, intended to reach out to the Muslim world.

Credit. Moises Saman for The New York Times

“This program rests on the personal legitimacy of the president, and that’s not sustainable,” Mr. Hayden said. “I have lived the life of someone taking action on the basis of secret O.L.C. memos, and it ain’t a good life. Democracies do not make war on the basis of legal memos locked in a D.O.J. safe.”

Tactics Over Strategy

In his June 2009 speech in Cairo, aimed at resetting relations with the Muslim world, Mr. Obama had spoken eloquently of his childhood years in Indonesia, hearing the call to prayer “at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk.”

“The United States is not — and never will be — at war with Islam,” he declared.

But in the months that followed, some officials felt the urgency of counterterrorism strikes was crowding out consideration of a broader strategy against radicalization. Though Mrs. Clinton strongly supported the strikes, she complained to colleagues about the drones-only approach at Situation Room meetings, in which discussion would focus exclusively on the pros, cons and timing of particular strikes.

At their weekly lunch, Mrs. Clinton told the president she thought there should be more attention paid to the root causes of radicalization, and Mr. Obama agreed. But it was September 2011 before he issued an executive order setting up a sophisticated, interagency war room at the State Department to counter the jihadi narrative on an hour-by-hour basis, posting messages and video online and providing talking points to embassies.

Mr. Obama was heartened, aides say, by a letter discovered in the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. It complained that the American president had undermined Al Qaeda’s support by repeatedly declaring that the United States was at war not with Islam, but with the terrorist network. “We must be doing a good job,” Mr. Obama told his secretary of state.

Moreover, Mr. Obama’s record has not drawn anything like the sweeping criticism from allies that his predecessor faced. John B. Bellinger III, a top national security lawyer under the Bush administration, said that was because Mr. Obama’s liberal reputation and “softer packaging” have protected him. “After the global outrage over Guantánamo, it’s remarkable that the rest of the world has looked the other way while the Obama administration has conducted hundreds of drone strikes in several different countries, including killing at least some civilians,” said Mr. Bellinger, who supports the strikes.

By withdrawing from Iraq and preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan, Mr. Obama has refocused the fight on Al Qaeda and hugely reduced the death toll both of American soldiers and Muslim civilians. But in moments of reflection, Mr. Obama may have reason to wonder about unfinished business and unintended consequences.

His focus on strikes has made it impossible to forge, for now, the new relationship with the Muslim world that he had envisioned. Both Pakistan and Yemen are arguably less stable and more hostile to the United States than when Mr. Obama became president.

Justly or not, drones have become a provocative symbol of American power, running roughshod over national sovereignty and killing innocents. With China and Russia watching, the United States has set an international precedent for sending drones over borders to kill enemies.

Mr. Blair, the former director of national intelligence, said the strike campaign was dangerously seductive. “It is the politically advantageous thing to do — low cost, no U.S. casualties, gives the appearance of toughness,” he said. “It plays well domestically, and it is unpopular only in other countries. Any damage it does to the national interest only shows up over the long term.”

But Mr. Blair’s dissent puts him in a small minority of security experts. Mr. Obama’s record has eroded the political perception that Democrats are weak on national security. No one would have imagined four years ago that his counterterrorism policies would come under far more fierce attack from the American Civil Liberties Union than from Mr. Romney.

Aides say that Mr. Obama’s choices, though, are not surprising. The president’s reliance on strikes, said Mr. Leiter, the former head of the National Counterterrorism Center, “is far from a lurid fascination with covert action and special forces. It’s much more practical. He’s the president. He faces a post-Abdulmutallab situation, where he’s being told people might attack the United States tomorrow.”

“You can pass a lot of laws,” Mr. Leiter said, “Those laws are not going to get Bin Laden dead.”