Why is bombing the only option in Washington's policy toolkit?
Just two days after the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) captured territory and military installations in Iraq, Washington foreign policy commentators and policymakers are considering options for responding. And unsurprisingly, the scope of the debate about what to do in Iraq has broken down into bombing, or not bombing. Sen. Lindsey Graham declared on the Senate floor, "I think American airpower is the only hope to change the battlefield equation in Iraq." President Barack Obama later said "I don't rule out anything," to which White House Press Secretary Jay Carney later explained, "We are not contemplating ground troops. The president was answering a question specifically about air strikes." The debate shrinks immediately around whether and how to use the tactic of force.
Though it is commonly referred to as Maslow's Hammer, the concept of privileging the tool at hand, irrespective of its appropriate fit to solving a problem, originated with the philosopher Abraham Kaplan. In his 1964 classic, The Conduct of Inquiry: Methodology for Behavioral Science, Kaplan discussed the issue of the abstract nature of techniques, particularly the scientific method, used by scientists, whether conducting surveys, doing statistical analysis, or deciphering foreign language inscriptions. He worried that, since "the pressures of fad and fashion are as great in science, for all its logic, as in other areas of culture," certain preferred techniques in which a scientist finds him or herself particularly skilled could predominate over all others. As Kaplan described this phenomenon:
"I call it the law of the instrument, and it may be formulated as follows: Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding. It comes as no particular surprise to discover that a scientist formulates problems in a way which requires for their solution just those techniques in which he himself is especially skilled."
Kaplan's fuller context for the hammer attributed to Abraham Maslow -- who just re-packaged the idea two years later -- was worth bearing in mind during President Barack Obama's speech last week, which was primarily a defense for the contexts in which he applies military force. As Obama noted, "Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail." Though Obama's speech provided no additional information about his thinking, it was useful because it reinforced the singular conception of what foreign policy entails for many in Washington: military force.
Somewhere along the line, in many influential schools of punditry and analysis, the totality of U.S. foreign policy has been reduced to whether presidents bomb some country or adversary, and the alleged impressions that this decision leaves on other countries. The binary construction employed by these pundits and analysts is that a president either demonstrates strength and engagement with air strikes, or fecklessness and detachment in their absence.
Today, the U.S. military has over 400,000 troops stationed or deployed in 182 countries around the world -- primarily conducting force protection, training, or security cooperation missions, but these troops do not factor into this equation. The binary choice is either bombs, or isolationism. Of course, the activities of the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, Treasury Department, or any other government agency and entity working abroad are wholly disregarded or given short shrift at promoting and implementing foreign policy objectives.
This vast overestimation of what military force can plausibly achieve runs totally contrary to what the past dozen years have demonstrated, at tremendous cost and sacrifice. The interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya show that the use of force as the primary instrument did not sustainably secure U.S. interests in those countries over time, nor assure U.S. allies of its mutual defense obligations, and had no latent capacity to deter potential adversaries. Nobody on earth today is scared of America because it put 170,000 troops in Iraq, 100,000 in Afghanistan, and led a seven-month air campaign over Libya. If anything, the resulting instability or outright chaos led most to reach the opposite conclusion. Yet, somehow pundits continue to think and argue that sending troops or bombs into another country today will achieve this in the future. Op-ed militarism never dies, even as its underlying logic repeatedly does.
While "the pressures of fad and fashion" apparently compel pundits and analysts to demand the use of force to address unstable or threatening situations, it is rarely accompanied with a definable or measurable military or political objective that it is intended to achieve within the targeted country. You rarely hear such pundits state explicitly what exactly military force is supposed to accomplish. Rather, it is a mindless demand to apply some military tactic to elicit some feeling -- presumably fear and awe -- among third-party witnesses. The most remarkable characteristic of this school of thought is that those within it also claim to be transcontinental mind-readers capable of knowing what specific U.S. instrument of power will change the calculus of potential adversaries. Unsurprisingly, it is always military force.
Though never referred to by proponents of militarism, there is an actual joint planning process and universal task list that the military uses when planning and conducting operations. These documents provide the common reference points and actions that all affected service members are supposed to know. Nowhere in U.S. military planning documents can you find missions like "demonstrating resolve," "exhibiting strength," or "retaining superpower status." It is impossible to make other countries think of you what you would like. Their impressions are highly situationally dependent, and the result of the power and interests that surround a discrete country or issue. Their opinions of the United States are not merely based upon whether the president decided to bomb someone or not.
It is unfortunate that military force -- the most lethal, destructive, and consequential foreign action that the United States can undertake -- suffers from such a dismal and imprecise discourse. It contains meaningless and empty metaphors characterized by crude gardening references, all options forever "on the table," "setting the bar" higher, and Obama vowing to "take very tough actions." Military force is about blowing things up and killing people. Trying to ascribe virtues to its nature, or magical powers to its effects, is misleading and imprudent. Much of Washington does not see force as the solution to the world's problems because the U.S. military has the best hammer, but rather because of the influence and supremacy that it falsely ascribes to it.
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