Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 07:45 | SYDNEY
Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 07:45 | SYDNEY

Does military intervention work?


Sam Roggeveen


23 April 2008 12:16

World Politics Review’s Judah Grunstein makes an argument I’ve been toying with on this blog, about the excessive militarization of national security policy. But the case for reducing the profile of the military in foreign policy is perhaps a bit tougher than Grunstein allows. His argument against the excessive militarisation of foreign policy is built on the evidence from the Bush Administration's wars:

The outcomes in both Afghanistan and Iraq have demonstrated that military power remains a blunt instrument, with unpredictable and costly consequences. Even given the narrowest and most clearly defined missions, it rarely achieves unassailable outcomes...The problem is not so much that we haven't given (the military) what it needs to accomplish the task, although that is certainly the case, but that we've asked it to do too much to begin with.

But the Afghanistan and Iraq wars were both brilliant successes in their initial aim of overthrowing the existing local regimes. Not only did the US military achieve this aim in very short time in both cases, but the use of precision weapons allowed them to do so with low friendly and civilian casualties (by historical standards). War remains a blunt instrument, it is true, but in US hands it is far less blunt than it used to be. And even in the present insurgency stage of both wars, the US is paying a pretty low human cost.

Of course, both wars have unleashed local forces that the US and its allies are struggling to deal with, and this is good evidence for the 'unpredictable and costly consequences' Grunstein refers to. But a broader sample of post-Cold War conflicts suggests that foreign intervention in civil wars has been a success. The Human Security Report concludes that the main driver behind a massive decline in civil conflicts since the end of the Cold War 'has been the extraordinary upsurge of activism by the international community that has been directed toward conflict prevention, peacemaking and peacebuilding'. That activism has not been military in all cases, but military intervention has played a major part. 

So although there is a great deal to be said for encouraging early non-military solutions to disputes so that force will not have to be used later, the relative success of military solutions does encourage greater dependence on it.