Armchair Warriors

Civilian strategists often think they understand the use of force better than their generals do. Here are 10 cockamamie military schemes that thankfully never came to pass.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates once observed, "I have seen a lot of civilians make a lot of proposals for a lot of silly military actions." In response to foreign-policy problems that resist easy solutions, the quick allure of military force is the civilian's siren song. Many proposals -- while informal or semiserious -- are preposterous and overlook even a basic understanding of political objectives, military strategy, geography, and logistics. Here are the top 10 most ridiculous military options offered up by U.S. government officials or civilian commentators over the last few decades. Thankfully, these would-be civilian follies, based on unrealistic and often dangerous notions of what military power can achieve, were quashed before they left the drawing board.

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What: Acheson's armed division on the autobahn
Soviet provocation in Eastern Europe

In 1961, with tension high between the United States and the Soviet Union over Berlin, U.S. President John F. Kennedy asked former Secretary of State Dean Acheson to launch a systematic review of U.S. policy toward Germany. To signal America's strong commitment to defending West Berlin, Acheson's suggestion for dealing with the Berlin crisis was to send "an armored division, with another division in reserve" up the autobahn through East Germany and into West Berlin. Acheson admitted, "There is… a substantial possibility that war might result." Kennedy wisely opted instead to bolster military readiness but avoid an outright provocation of the Soviet Union.

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What: Gates's air war in Central America
Sandinista military buildup

In 1984, Robert Gates, then the deputy director of intelligence, offered a "straight talk" memo to his boss, CIA Director William J. Casey, that endorsed supporting the Contra rebels in Nicaragua with a "comprehensive campaign openly aimed at bringing down the [Sandinista] regime." Among the "politically most difficult" measures Gates proposed were "the use of air strikes to destroy a considerable portion of Nicaragua's military buildup."


What: Reagan administration's Operation Rose
Muammar al-Qaddafi

In 1985, officials in the Reagan administration's National Security Council developed Operation Rose, which envisioned a joint U.S.-Egyptian land and air military campaign that would sweep into Libya to remove Muammar al-Qaddafi from power. The Pentagon considered the notion ludicrous, but dutifully developed plans that showed that Operation Rose would require six divisions and 90,000 U.S. soldiers. Needless to say, it didn't happen.


What: Bill Clinton's black ninjas
Osama bin Laden

In 1999 or 2000, after the failed attempt to kill Osama bin Laden with some 80 cruise missiles launched into the al Qaeda camp in Khost, Afghanistan, a frustrated President Bill Clinton thought that somehow the United States could "scare the shit out of al Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters into the middle of their camp," according to the 9/11 Commission.


What: Mining the Iraq-Iran border
Iranian arms in Iraq

In 2005, columnist Melik Kaylan, claiming that most foot soldiers and resources supplying the Iraqi Sunni insurgency came from outside the country, proposed "an effective method of interdiction… the laying of minefields" along the entirety of Iraq's borders -- some 2,250 miles.


What: Pat Robertson's Red Scare
Hugo Chávez

In 2005, to prevent Venezuela from becoming "a launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslim extremism all over the continent," conservative pastor Pat Robertson declared "that we really ought to go ahead and [assassinate]" Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez because "it's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war."


What: Bombs over Pyongyang
North Korea's ballistic missiles

In 2006, William Perry and Ashton Carter, secretary and assistant secretary of defense in Bill Clinton's administration, respectively, proposed bombing North Korea's Taepodong long-range ballistic missile while it was poised to launch. In a nod to bipartisanship, in 2009 Philip Zelikow, a State Department official during George W. Bush's administration, also endorsed bombing North Korean missiles.

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What: The invasion of Zimbabwe
Robert Mugabe

In 2008, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen called for using an unmanned Predator drone to kill Robert Mugabe -- a scheme one-upped by former diplomat and human rights advocate John Prendergast, who suggested a "messy in the short run" multinational conventional military invasion to oust the Zimbabwean president.


What: Clip Khartoum's wings
Omar Hassan al-Bashir

Over the past few years, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has proposed several military operations for dealing with Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir's regime in Khartoum in retaliation for its systematic human rights abuses against Sudanese populations. In 2006, Kristof recommended that the United States "enforce a no-fly zone in Darfur by using the nearby Chadian air base in Abeché"; called in 2008 for the United States to "warn Sudan that if it provokes a war with the South… we will destroy its air force"; and this year urged U.S. President Barack Obama to warn Bashir that "if he initiates genocide, his oil pipeline will be destroyed and he will not be exporting any oil."


What: March to the Sea (of Waziristan)
Osama bin Laden

This October, Jack Devine, a 32-year veteran of the CIA, advised Obama to "forget about nation-building in Afghanistan and, like [Gen. William Tecumseh] Sherman marching across Georgia during the Civil War, march our army across eastern Afghanistan, pressing forward even into Pakistan's Northwest Frontier, and continue the march until we capture [Osama bin Laden]." Devine hoped to avoid the invasion because once Pakistan knew of the U.S. plans, "it's a pretty good bet that we would have bin Laden's head on a platter." Uh-huh.

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National Security

Addicted to Drones

Is the allure of war by remote control the root cause of America's dangerously unbalanced foreign policy?

"The military's impressive, isn't it?," U.S. President Bill Clinton remarked to his aide George Stephanopoulos in 1994, as the 82nd Airborne Division stood by for orders to invade Haiti to remove the Raoul Cédras's regime from power. For civilian officials, the military's ability to find and destroy things from a safe distance never ceases to amaze. The CIA's ongoing drone strike campaign is a particularly redoubtable example, with drone operators in the United States taking out targets in Pakistan's tribal areas. In September alone, the agency launched more than 20 unmanned drone strikes against suspected al Qaeda and Taliban operatives in Pakistan.

These recent drone strikes epitomize an important trend: When confronted with a foreign-policy problem that threatens U.S. national interests, civilian policymakers routinely call on limited military force such as drone strikes, cruise missile attacks, and special-operations raids. Many experts -- from pundits to anonymous U.S. officials -- laud such drone strikes as a low-cost, highly responsive, and effective military tactic. In practice, however, drones -- like other uses of limited force -- have substantial downsides that deserve attention given their increasingly prominent role.

One largely ignored downside is procedural and pertains to an unsexy and wonkish aspect of policymaking: interagency coordination. Under pressure to act in response to a threat and seduced by the allure and responsiveness of limited force, presidents elevate military options above other instruments of statecraft. Inevitably, after the missiles are launched, they announce their intention to keep the pressure on targeted adversaries with a follow-on campaign using all elements of national power. Once the bombs have been dropped, however, and the politically necessary "do something" box has been ticked, complex, robust secondary measures rarely come to fruition.

For example, in August 1998, in retaliation for bombing U.S. embassies in East Africa, the Clinton administration launched cruise missiles against a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan suspected of producing nerve gas and against al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden was thought to be hiding. The Clinton administration announced the strikes as the opening phase of a long-term fight against al Qaeda, with one White House official promising: "This is not a one-shot deal here." Yet, as the 9/11 Commission revealed, subsequent attempts to apply political, diplomatic, and economic pressure on al Qaeda and the Taliban floundered. Nothing focuses the attention of senior policymakers more than the quick prospect of using military force, but once they do so, competing interests soon eclipse the original threat.

Another shortcoming is that the readily available option of limited force compounds the persistent underresourcing of non-military instruments of statecraft. Most civilian and military officials recognize the dire need to strengthen the civilian expertise required to implement the long-term development, capacity-building, and governance programs designed to handle the underlying terrorism and other security challenges -- as best stated by none other than Defense Secretary Robert Gates, "Military success is not sufficient to win." But compared with the celerity, tangibility, and political expediency of military force, long-term and laborious diplomacy and development policies almost invariably lose out. Congress is just as guilty of this mindset as are executive branch policymakers -- legislators are on the verge of whacking around $4 billion from President Barack Obama's foreign-affairs budget, which is projected to be only 7 percent of the forthcoming defense budget.

Perhaps most troublingly, limited force undermines its own political objectives by tarnishing the image of the United States regionally. In Pakistan, for example, CIA drone strikes are increasingly perceived as the face of U.S. foreign policy and denounced by mainstream figures from media commentators to pop singers. (According to a recent poll in the tribal areas, more than three-quarters of residents living there oppose drone strikes.) The sensationalist Pakistani media amplifies misperceptions by presenting harmful untruths that go unchallenged by U.S. officials, who are gagged by rules governing covert operations -- even though the drone strikes are the world's worst-kept secret.

As Washington Post columnist David Ignatius noted with alarm on Sept. 29: "The U.S. military has been working hard to provide flood assistance, but most of that is invisible to Pakistanis. They read about American drone attacks but not about helicopters bringing food supplies."

On the bright side, there is a growing recognition in U.S. policymaking circles that limited force alone is not the answer. In April 2009, while heading U.S. Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus worked with the U.S. intelligence community and the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen to produce the first comprehensive military strategy for that country. In December 2009, Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed the Afghanistan and Pakistan Regional Stabilization Strategy that details the key initiatives, resource requirements, and milestones for all relevant U.S. government agencies. Confronting threats from Pakistan, Yemen, and other troubled states requires exactly this sort of comprehensive, coordinated, and prioritized strategy that integrates all available elements of national power to provide security and opportunity to affected populations, while countering the rise of violent extremism.

President Bill Clinton was correct: The military is an impressive foreign-policy tool. But senior officials must appreciate that limited force is simply a tactic, and not a substitute for a strategy.