In his 1977 study on military and civilian influence on U.S. uses of force, Soldiers, Statesmen, and Cold War Crisis, political scientist Richard Betts examined Cold War military intervention and escalation decisions. Comparing the opinions of the Joint Chiefs of Staff with those of civilian leaders, Betts found, “The stereotype of a belligerent chorus of generals and admirals intimidating a pacific civilian establishment is not supported by the evidence.”
This sentiment of the military’s reluctance to seek military solutions to foreign policy challenges is echoed by many military and civilian officials. In his memoirs, Robert Gates noted: “In more than twenty years of attending meetings in the Situation Room, my experience was that the biggest doves in Washington wear uniforms.” Gates also remarked bluntly in a 1996 interview, “I have seen a lot of civilians make a lot of proposals for a lot of silly military actions.”
There is no body of civilians that more consistently makes unrealistic demands for the use of military force than editorial boards and opinion-page writers of major American news outlets. These appeals range from full-blown cockamamie schemes to semi-practical, tactical uses of force to resolve complex and enduring political problems of debatable relevance to U.S. national interests. This practice is a bipartisan exercise, ranging from the quixotic militarist, Nicholas Kristof, to the military-planning staff embedded inside the Wall Street Journal editorial page.
Most of these editorials or op-eds follow the same format: characterize the current U.S. strategy toward the foreign policy problem as inadequate or (better yet) “weak;” highlight that the “international community” has allowed the issue to go on for far too long; describe the president as aloof or disinterested; and obliquely refer to one or two military tactics (no fly/drive/kill zones are particularly hot commodities these days) or objectives purportedly requiring minimal effort (often noting the size of the U.S. military) that might resolve the problem—and have the added benefit of demonstrating presidential “backbone” or American “will.”
There are also improbable psychological benefits ascribed to the U.S. military by these authors. For example, today, the Wall Street Journal claimed, “A show of preparation for intervention might prod Syria’s officer corps to solve the Assad problem on their own.” Last week, three members of Freedom House wrote: “Merely planning for serious military options would have an important psychological effect on the regime and its military forces, possibly prodding more defections.” Last year, the former chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force contended that discussing a no-fly zone in Libya would “change [the Qaddafi regime’s] calculation of who might come out on top. Just the mere announcement of this might have an impact.”
Having read hundreds of these “tactics-first” proposals for using the U.S. military over the past fifteen years, two underlying themes is that the authors are impatient and the current nonmilitary strategy is not having a demonstrable impact. There is a cognitive bias called hyperbolic discounting, which is defined as “the tendency for people to increasingly choose a smaller-sooner reward over a larger-later reward as the delay occurs sooner rather than later in time.” I suspect that the desire to resolve an enduring problem in the near term explains many of these tough-guy (or girl) proposals. Given that it costs nothing to propose sending someone else to bomb or occupy another country, it’s the least tough and most thoughtless thing for someone to write. Why should we take these proposals seriously?