As part of our special investigation “Mission Creep: US Military Presence Worldwide,” we asked a host of military thinkers to contribute their two cents on topics relating to global Pentagon strategy. (You can access the archive here.)
The following dispatch comes from Robert D. Kaplan, a national correspondent for The Atlantic and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. His latest book is Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts.
In Defense of the Pentagon’s Small, Small World
It is important to realize that dozens of deployments simultaneously around the globe need not overstretch a military if those deployments are by and large small. But one big sustained deployment like Iraq can wreck the whole manpower system. It is also important to realize that all of these deployments are closely monitored by Congress. I was in Nepal in the middle of 2005, covering our military mission there, when its activities were halted for the time being by Washington because the king had suspended the political party process, in addition to other anti-democratic infractions. I was in Algeria the same year to witness the first US military mission there after that country had held free elections. Unlike during the Cold War, these missions for the most part are restricted to fledgling democratic countries.
Between risk-prone invasions like Iraq on one hand and isolationism on the other hand, there are these low-cost, low-risk, tediously unspectacular training missions and other small deployments. I have embedded on these missions in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and have found them generally not bellicose, not utopian, not a distortion of our values, and the epitome of half-measures, full of compromises with the host nation, as well as replete with a recognition on a daily basis of our own limitations.
The problem, ironically, is that while small enough to avoid quagmires, they are big enough to get us into trouble sometimes. I was in Georgia in early 2006, embedded with the US Marine training mission of the Georgian army, and I intimated in print and on television in 2007 that we were dangerously close to interfering with a Russian-Georgian feud, even as our limited mission would not provide the Georgians with the means to affect the outcome. Our training mission was provocative to the Russians, but ineffectual in stopping their aggression.
But the fact that we get ourselves in trouble here and there does not mean the concept of small missions worldwide is wrong. It just means that we have to fully consider all the what-ifs of each one. It is these missions that provide the incentive for our troops to learn foreign languages and study local cultures. To wit, what’s the point of a French-language program at Fort Bragg if there are no training missions to former French colonial Africa? These missions, as I’ve witnessed, also pave the way for more adroit disaster-relief interventions like the one that followed the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004-2005. And because populations are growing in absolute terms in environmentally and seismically fragile zones, humanitarian intervention will be part of our military future. Keep these missions going, I say, but with strong civilian oversight.