... when the stakes warrant, where and when force can be effective, where no
other policies are likely to be effective, where its application can be limited
in scope and time, and where the potential benefits justify the potential costs
There can be no single or simple set of fixed rules for using force .... Each
and every case is unique.
-- President George Bush, "Remarks at the United States Military Academy," January 5,1993. 
The proposition that force and threats of force are a necessary instrument of
diplomacy and have a role to play in foreign policy is part of the conventional
wisdom of statecraft. And it is true that history as well as recent experience
supports the view that efforts to deal with conflicts between states
solely by means of peaceful diplomacy do not always succeed and may
result in substantial damage to one's national interests. On the other hand,
one finds in history many cases in which threats of force or the actual use of
force were often not only costly but also ineffective.
Given that historical experience supports the necessity of resorting to force
and threats of force at times, but also emphasizes the risks of doing so, we
are left with a central question in the theory and practice of foreign policy;
that is, under what conditions and how can military force and threats of force
be used effectively to accomplish different types of foreign policy objectives
at an acceptable level of cost and risk?
Efforts to address this question have sharply divided American strategic
thinkers ever since the Korean War. After the Korean War, many military and
civilian strategists argued that the United States should never again fight a
limited, inconclusive war. Either it should stay out of such conflicts
altogether, or, if it intervened, it should use whatever military force might
be required to win a decisive military victory.
Those who subscribed to this lesson of the Korean War quickly came to be known
as the Never-Again School. The strategic doctrine they advocated
regarding American military intervention was appropriately labeled
all-or-nothing--that is, either the United States should be
prepared to do everything necessary to win or it should not intervene at
A quite different lesson from the Korean War experience was drawn by other
foreign policy specialists. They argued that the United States might well have
to fight limited wars again. One had to expect that other regional conflicts
would occur in which the United States felt obliged to intervene because
important interests were at stake. Quite appropriately, those who drew this
particular lesson from the Korean War came to be known as adherents of the
Limited War School.
The disagreement over strategy between adherents of the Never-Again and the
Limited War viewpoints has persisted ever since and has had an impact on
American policymaking in a number of subsequent crises which I do not have time
Let me jump ahead to the period of the early and mid-1960's. By then, the
Never-Again school lacked powerful spokesmen and it was unable to prevent
large-scale U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. However, the costs and
unsatisfactory outcome of that war triggered a major revival of the Never-Again
point of view. In President Reagan's first term, his Secretary of Defense
Caspar Weinberger articulated a powerful and highly influential version of the
old Never-Again philosophy. Weinberger and the Secretary of State George
Shultz engaged in an impassioned, at times acrimonious debate over this issue.
Shultz was not oblivious to the "lessons" of Vietnam but, echoing elements of
the earlier Limited War school, Shultz observed that situations do arise when a
"discrete assertion of power" is needed to support our limited objectives.
Shultz argued that diplomatic efforts not backed by credible threats of force
and, when necessary, with use of limited force will prove ineffectual,
resulting in substantial damage to U.S. interests.
Since the debate between Weinberger and Shultz, the use of force as an
instrument of U.S. foreign policy has continued to be a difficult, often highly
controversial issue. The problem has taken on new dimensions in the
geopolitical context of the post-cold war era. Presidents Bush and Clinton
have had to confront a striking paradox. The United States has emerged as the
only superpower and it possesses overwhelmingly superior military capabilities.
And yet we have repeatedly experienced great difficulty in employing the
strategies of deterrence and coercive diplomacy to persuade adversaries to
forgo or stop actions that impose on U.S. interests.
Several aspects of the post-cold war era have added new wrinkles to the dilemma
of whether and how to use force and threats of force to back diplomacy. The
domestic consensus that undergirded American foreign policy during the cold war
has been shattered. Since the end of the cold war there has been lacking
anything approximating a national consensus on what the leadership role of the
United States should be in international affairs. Lack of agreement on the
nature and importance of our national interests in this new geopolitical
setting has added new dimensions and twists to the debate as to when and how
force and threats of force should be employed. Moreover, there is little
prospect that a new national consensus can be forged to provide an underpinning
to a coherent, consistent foreign policy.
This problem has been further complicated by the proliferation of
intra-state conflicts in the post-cold war era, which in recent years
vastly outnumber conflicts between states. The international community has
been overburdened by crisis situations that call for peace-making,
peace-keeping, nation-building, and humanitarian assistance.
Let me turn briefly now to the question whether any useful "decision rules" or
specific guidelines can be formulated and agreed upon for using force or
threats of force to deter or deal with these many challenging crises. Perhaps
the best general answer to this question was given by President Bush in his
"farewell address" at West Point in January 1993. President Bush stated that
"there can be no single or simple set of fixed rules for using force.... Each
and every case is unique."
Nonetheless, if not decision rules at least some guidelines of a rather general
character are possible. President Bush himself proposed several, and I think
it is significant that his guidelines implicitly but clearly rejected or
qualified those that had been proposed by Caspar Weinberger. And indeed, the
practice of the Bush administration on important occasions deviated from
Weinberger's rules. First, as Bush's intervention in Somalia indicated, U.S.
military forces were committed not only, as Weinberger had urged, when "vital
interests" were at stake. Second, as Bush's policy in dealing with Saddam
Hussein in the Persian Gulf crisis indicated, it is not the case that U.S.
forces will be committed only when there is a minimal risk of casualties.
Third, again as the Gulf War indicated, it is not the case that U.S. forces
will be committed only when there is strong public support for doing so.
(However, it is also true that the American public must understand and support
the objective being pursued and be persuaded that the stakes warrant putting
American lives on the line.)
Let me summarize now the general guidelines that can be extracted from
President Bush's West Point address and by the practice of his administration.
The first guideline is: do not commit U.S. forces unless you believe it will
make a critical difference. Second, do not commit U.S. military forces unless
there is a high probability of success. Third, define the military mission
carefully, and tailor and circumscribe the mission to enhance the likelihood
that it will succeed. Be it noted that this third guideline implies that
"winning" is not simply a matter of making sure that overwhelming force is
used; rather "winning" is in the first instance a matter of choosing the
objective of the intervention wisely and limiting it if necessary.
Let me turn in the time remaining to the problems we have experienced in making
effective use of deterrence and coercive diplomacy--two
strategies that have received or will receive attention in some of your panels.
Both of these strategies require the ability to make threats of force that will
be sufficiently credible and sufficiently potent in the eyes of the adversary
to persuade him not to act against our interests or to stop or undo what he has
As I noted earlier, in the post-cold war era the United States has repeatedly
experienced great difficulty in making threats that were credible and potent
enough to deter or coerce adversaries. Two particularly striking examples will
suffice to illustrate the inability of a superpower that is in possession of
overwhelmingly superior military capabilities to make sufficiently credible and
sufficiently potent threats, the paradox I alluded to earlier. In the Persian
Gulf crisis, despite an amazing demonstration of U.S. military capabilities
deployed to the Gulf and a declared willingness to use force if necessary,
Saddam Hussein refused to comply with the demand to remove his troops from
Kuwait and had to be expelled by force.
The second example concerns the efforts of the Reagan and Bush administrations
to persuade the Panamanian dictator, Manuel Noriega, to leave office by
threatening to use force, if necessary. After ineffectual efforts at coercive
diplomacy to gain this objective, President Bush was finally forced to send
combat forces into Panama to capture Noriega.
How can the failure of coercive diplomacy in these cases be understood? While
it is difficult to understand Saddam Hussein's mind-set or his calculations, it
would appear that he was insufficiently impressed with the credibility or the
potency of U.S. threats of force. He may have been influenced more by an image
he had formed of U.S. irresolution, one which attributed to the United States a
peculiar reluctance and inability to sustain casualties that stemmed from its
catastrophic experience in Vietnam.
As for Noriega, it is clear that only a stronger variant of the strategy of
coercive diplomacy coupled perhaps with "carrots" and efforts to provide him
with face-saving would have been necessary to overcome his unwillingness to
give up power. (This was perhaps a "lesson" learned and finally applied by the
Clinton administration in its efforts to remove the Haitian dictators.)
Analysis of the Bush administration's efforts to pressure Noriega reveals that
it employed a weak variant of coercive diplomacy, resembling a "try-and-see"
approach rather than an ultimatum.
This interpretation of the Noriega case gains strong support from General Colin
Powell who stated in an interview that the limited military actions taken by
the U.S. in 1988 and 1989 probably reinforced Noriega's pre-existing perception
that the U.S. was irresolute, and that he could possibly persevere.
The authors of a recent study of these and other cases have offered the
trenchant observation that "there is a generation of political leaders
throughout the world whose basic perception of U.S. military power and
political will is one of weakness, [leaders] who enter any situation with a
fundamental belief that the United States can be defeated, can be driven away."
In support of this observation, these authors cite the statement by Mohammed
Farah Aidid, the leader of a key Somali faction, in a conversation with
Ambassador Robert Oakley, U.N. Special Envoy to Somalia during the U.S.
involvement there in 1993-1995: Aidid said, "I've studied Vietnam and Beirut.
I know that all I need to do to send you home is to kill some Americans."
Aidid was proven to be correct! The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Somalia by
the Clinton administration after U.S. soldiers died in a clash with Aidid's
forces was not only a humiliating experience, it also confirmed perceptions
that America lacked resolve, and it severely complicated and undermined U.S.
efforts thereafter to make effective use of threats of force.
It is clear that domestic public and congressional support for threats or use
of force is a critical variable. Such support does not guarantee success, but
without it, presidents have great difficulty making threats of sufficient
credibility and of sufficient potency to back their demands on adversaries. The
American public's strong aversion to the risk of suffering casualties, a legacy
of Vietnam, is all the more constraining when the U.S. is confronted by
intra-state conflicts that have become so prominent in the post-cold war era.
Ever mindful of the public aversion to casualties, presidents have been
reluctant to make threats as clear, potent, and credible as required by the
situation. They have reacted cautiously or not at all to some challenges to
One can acknowledge that the United States has been correct not to intervene in
every one of many crises around the globe. American interests do not always
clearly require us to do so, and the international community itself is
overwhelmed with such crises and cannot respond to all of them. But often U.S.
interests do merit some response and the response, if any, has tended to be a
minimal one taken in the hope of limiting the extent of involvement and
As a result, the United States has often acted in ways that inadvertently
support the image of American irresolution. Even in cases when firm U.S.
military action was finally taken--Panama, Haiti, and Bosnia--it came only
after considerable delay. Such belated responses could not be counted upon to
erase the image of U.S. hesitation and irresolution held by foreign leaders who
thought they could benefit from the pronounced reluctance of the American
public, Congress, and the administration leaders to accept the risk of
casualties. For the simple fact is that the inconclusive threats and delayed
military action taken by the U.S. in many situations are likely to be perceived
as others "more as signs of weakness than as potent expressions of America's
true military power." As a result, foreign leaders are likely to be willing to
withstand American threats--necessitating the U.S. either to resort to force
to achieve American goals, or to engage in embarrassing retreats.
There is much merit in General Colin Powell's observation that "threats of
military force will work only when U.S. leaders have decided that they are
prepared to use force." The logical and practical implication of this
observation is that when presidents are not prepared to use force, threats to
do so should not be made. General Powell also pointedly observes that when
resorting to force, "The president must begin the action prepared to see the
course through to its end.... He can only persuade an opponent of his
seriousness when, indeed, he is serious...."
The dilemmas regarding use of force and threats of force in American diplomacy
will not yield to the imperatives of the Weinberger Doctrine. It is noteworthy
that not only the Bush administration but also President Clinton's has found it
necessary to introduce some flexibility in applying the Weinberger Doctrine.
Force has not always been used, as Weinberger argued, only when truly
vital U.S. interests are at stake. Force was used by President Clinton in
Haiti and again in Bosnia--as, indeed, earlier by President Bush against
Saddam Hussein--with only marginal domestic political support at best, and
not with the "reasonable assurance" of assured domestic support Weinberger held
to be a prerequisite. And Weinberger's injunction that U.S. combat forces
should be employed only "as a last resort after exhausting other means" for
safeguarding U.S. interests has been subjected to considerable questioning.
So, in conclusion, I note that rightly or wrongly, the press of world events
has driven American policymakers inevitably toward Secretary Shultz's
prescriptions for use of force in support of diplomacy.
These important emendations of the Weinberger Doctrine in the direction of
Shultz's position have been taken uneasily and have occasioned considerable
criticism. By no means do we have a synthesis or a clear resolution of the two
competing points of view. The tensions and dilemmas surrounding the use of
force and threats of force remain and they can be expected to challenge
American presidents, Congress, and the public into the foreseeable future.
Talk at CSIS Security Strategy Symposium, Renaissance Washington DC
Hotel, June 25, 1998. This paper draws from a paper of the same title prepared
for the Dedication Conference of the George Bush School of Government and
Public Service, Texas A&M University, September 9-10, 1997, which will
appear in a forthcoming publication.
Reprinted in Richard N. Haass, Intervention: The Use of American
Military Force in the Post-cold war World (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie
Endowment, 1994), Appendix F, pp. 199-204.
A recent study of the case finds that the Bush administration "...never
stated clearly and definitively that the U S. would he willing to invade the
country and throw Noriega out if he did not comply with the demand to
relinquish office...a [sufficiently] potent threat was never made.... Nor was
any deadline set for his compliance with the demand.... U.S. verbal demands
were not directly supported by tangible military actions. Although
reinforcements were sent to the Canal Zone and some exercises were held there,
they were all downplayed U.S. officials and explained by a general concern for
the security of the zone in light of deteriorating U.S.-Panamanian relations."
Barry Blechman and Tamara Corman Wittes, "Defining Moment: The Threat and Use
of Force in American Foreign Policy Since 1989," National Research Council,
Committee on International Conflict Resolution. Occasional Paper No. 1
(Washington, D.C. 1998).
Interview with Robert Oakley by Blechman and Wittes.
Blechman and Wittes.
Colin L. Powell, "U.S. Forces: Challenges Ahead," Foreign Affairs,
vol. 72:5 (Winter 1992-1993), pp. 32-45. Powell, "Why Generals Get Nervous,"
New York Times, 8 October 1992, p. A35. (Quoted by Blechman and
Blechman and Wittes. At the same time, however, other criteria associated
with the Weinberger Doctrine continue to characterize the approach of the
Clinton administration, in particular the requirement for clearly defined
political and military objectives, and its adherence until recently to the
requirement that a specific exit time be set for removal of U.S. forces when
they are committed to a crisis area.
smith & holbrooke +
uses of military force +
nation building +
lessons of vietnam
tapes & transcripts
pbs online +
web site copyright 1995-2014
WGBH educational foundation