The Vietnam conflict continues to be the touchstone for both the military and
policy makers committed to avoiding future foreign military "quagmires." As
the United States made the seemingly inexorable transition from being advisors
to undertaking covert operations, bombing and deploying ground troops, the
strategy of "incremental escalation" emerged as the military's bête
noire. Military frustrations during the "war without fronts" were
heightened by diplomatic and humanitarian constraints on operations in North
Vietnam. Protest and resistance at home and abroad underlined the pitfalls of
pursuing prolonged, costly and divisive wars alone. And the ultimate defeat of
South Vietnam in 1975 strengthened the resolve of those who would avoid
"unwinnable" limited wars in the future.
Sandstorms and equipment malfunctions caused the cancellation of the surprise
attempt to rescue over sixty American hostages held by revolutionary students
at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Failure turned deadly when eight Americans were
killed after a helicopter and a transport plane collided at a remote desert
staging area. The disaster reflected military disarray and lack of
preparedness and, after Ronald Reagan took office, helped launch the largest
peacetime defense build-up in the nation's history.
Twice during the early 1980s the United States deployed troops to Lebanon to
deal with the fall-out from the Israeli invasion. In the first deployment,
U.S. marines helped oversee the withdrawal of the PLO from Beirut. In the
second deployment, 1,800 marines were sent as part of a multinational force
after Israel's Lebanese allies massacred civilians in the Palestinian refugee
camps. Given a vague mandate to restore order, support the weak Lebanese
government, and work for the withdrawal of all foreign forces, the troops
slowly became entangled in the Lebanese civil war. On October 23, 1983, a
truck bomb exploded at the vulnerable marine headquarters, killing 241 marines
-- the largest loss of life in a military operation since Vietnam. For the
military, Beirut becomes a symbol of ill-considered political objectives and
poorly-defined rules of engagement.
Within days of the Beirut disaster, President Reagan ordered the invasion of
Grenada, following the overthrow of Marxist President Maurice Bishop. Planners
sought to protect 600 American students on the Caribbean island, and head off
the possibility of another hostage scenario only two years after the freeing of
the Iran hostages. In addition, the Reagan administration sought to use the
invasion to eliminate Cuban and Soviet influence in Grenada. U.S. forces faced
greater than expected resistance and took significant casualties. Though later
cited as a model for similar actions, the operation also pointed up serious
problems, including inadequate intelligence, poor communications, and
Following a bomb attack on a West Berlin discotheque frequented by American
servicemen, the Reagan administration launched a punitive raid on Libya, the
suspected sponsor of the bombing. Planes from aircraft carriers and Britain
targeted sites allegedly associated with the training and support of terrorist
activities. The raid was also part of a larger struggle with Libya throughout
the 1980s over its support for international terrorism and its claims over the
Gulf of Sidra. Though its long-term utility was debated, the attack was
evidence of the Reagan administration's increasing willingness to use military
force in pursuit of certain discrete, limited goals -- despite the
Involving over 27,000 U.S. troops, the Panama invasion was, up to that time,
the largest American military operation since the Vietnam War. Dubbed
"Operation Just Cause," the intervention's stated goals were the protection of
the Panama Canal and the lives of 35,000 Americans in Panama, as well as the
promotion of democracy and an end to drug trafficking. The powerful surprise
attack quickly overwhelmed the Panamanian defense forces and resulted in the
capture of its leader, Manuel Noriega.
To force Iraq out of Kuwait, George Bush formed a large and diverse
international coalition and deployed over a half-million U.S. personnel to the
Persian Gulf region as part of an allied force. The success of Operation
Desert Storm set a new high-water mark for the military and underscored the
principle of committing overwhelming force to clear and achievable objectives.
Both allied and popular support was largely maintained throughout the campaign.
In this way, the Gulf War appears to validate the military doctrine espoused by
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell.
More on the Persian Gulf War.
Toward the end of the Bush administration, the United States sent approximately
25,000 troops to Somalia to assist the United Nations with the distribution of
famine relief supplies. By the time Bill Clinton took office in 1993, U.S.
troop levels had been vastly reduced, largely replaced with forces operating
under the UN flag. However as UN clashes with local "warlords" increased,
American troops became engaged in policing and wider peacekeeping operations.
After 18 U.S. Rangers were killed in a firefight in Mogadishu on October 3,
1993, the United States briefly reinforced its troops but retreated from the
more ambitious "nation-building" agenda previously outlined by Secretary of
Defense Les Aspin. Criticized for having made decisions that may have
contributed to the disaster, Aspin resigned two months later.
More on the firefight in Mogadishu.
After negotiations and sanctions failed, Clinton sent U.S. troops to Haiti to
restore ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power and to head off a
potential wave of Haitian refugees. A last-minute deal, brokered by former
President Jimmy Carter, allowed the troops to go ashore unopposed by the
Haitian military and police. Most U.S. troops withdrew within a year, though
several hundred remained to pursue a wide agenda of peacekeeping, humanitarian
and engineering activities. While Clinton administration officials
consistently hailed the intervention as a model effort to restore democracy and
promote stability abroad, political, economic and social conditions gradually
eroded. In March 1999, the U.S. commander responsible for the remaining
military personnel reportedly recommended ending the five-year military
presence on the island due to continuing instability.
Following the deadly bombing of a Sarajevo marketplace, NATO forces launched
the largest military action in the alliance's history. Two weeks of NATO air
strikes, combined with a strong Croat-Muslim offensive on the ground, pushed
Bosnian Serbs to the negotiating table. In November, all the warring parties
met in Dayton, Ohio and agreed to a peace settlement. The airstrikes,
painstakingly approved after years of negotiations with allies and the
military, appear to support the position that limited military attacks can be
useful diplomatic tools.
Citing Serb atrocities and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, the U.S. and NATO
unleashed air attacks on Serbia after the failure of the "mini-Dayton" peace
talks held in Rambouillet, France. President Clinton outlines no "exit
strategies" and warns that air strikes will continue as long as necessary.
From the start, the Clinton administration ruled out sending U.S. ground troops
to the Balkans, though debate over the utility of air power alone repeatedly
revives the issue. Vast floods of refugees spill into neighboring countries,
threatening to enlarge the crisis and sparking criticism of the lack of
contingency planning by NATO.
Sources: Congressional Research Service, "Case studies on use of force by US,
1950-91" Report 92-757-F (1992) 106 pp.; Richard N. Haass, Intervention: The
use of American military force in the post-Cold War World (Washington: The
Carnegie Endowment, 1994) 259 pp.
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