When to use force

William Safire

January 08, 1993|By William Safire

WHEN a departing president makes a serious effort to examine and articulate the idea that guided his foreign policy, attention should be paid.

At Texas A&M last month, George Bush made a first try. The speech was the product of a committee covering its posterior and deserved the shrug it received.

At West Point this week, President Bush took another crack at it. He focused on his text with one main writer, Richard Haass, and at last produced a speech with a theme: when to use force.

"Force can be a useful backdrop to diplomacy," he told the cadets, "a complement to it, or if need be, a temporary alternative." He rejected "some easy formula to apply to tell us with precision when and where to intervene with force," but then set out his guiding principles: "Using military force makes sense as a policy where the stakes warrant, where and when force can be effective, where no other policies are likely to prove effective, where its application can be limited in scope and time, and where the potential benefits justify the potential costs and sacrifice."

The president did not use the usual formulation of using force only when our vital national interests are at stake. Why not? "The relative importance of an interest is not a guide. Military force may not be the best way of safeguarding something vital, while using force might be the best way to protect an interest that qualifies as important but less than vital."

Stop and read that a few times. I take "military force may not be the best way of safeguarding something vital" to refer to the need for diplomacy during the Berlin Airlift, or economic sanctions and the marshaling of world opinion against Saddam Hussein before Desert Storm.

The part after the "while" about protecting an interest "less than vital" undergirds his decision to send troops to Somalia. The Horn of Africa is not a vital interest of the U.S.; anarchy or any faction's control in Somalia has no effect on American security. However, the human right to avert starvation is a non-vital but still important American interest, and force is the best way to protect our lesser interest there. Therefore, Mr. Bush sent troops to enforce order.

This may have been thought through afterward (in the Nixon days, we called it "post-planning") but at least we now have a framework to embrace the Bush foreign policy. Unfortunately, with his concern lest "principle displace prudence," Mr. Bush flinched from applying his force criteria to the Balkan savagery. He fudged: "it's not been clear that the application of limited amounts of force . . . would have had the desired effect. . ."

At the moment, the mediators Lord Owen and Lord Vance are submitting a plan dividing Bosnia into semi-sovereign ethnic cantons, much as Arik Sharon has proposed for Israel's West Bank. The peacemakers' hand would be strengthened by a credible threat of multinational force against practitioners of ethnic cleansing.

What if the incoming president were to apply the Bush force principles to Bosnia? The stakes and potential benefits in terms of human life do warrant force; but can it be effective, and with an end in sight?

Serbs are stubborn, but the majority are not irrational; I think the prospect of sustained bombing and economic blockade, combined with the buildup of their enemies, would contribute to a willingness to settle. This is a part of the world that understands balances of power.

A date certain should be set for the allied arming of Bosnian and other anti-Serb forces; if a ground war is required to supplement punitive air strikes against military targets, we should begin with the local war's Bosnia-Herzegovinization (Bosnianization for short).

The rationale for the use of force "should not be confused with either unilateralism or universalism," President Bush said; we do not go it alone and we do not go it all over. Then, thinking of Panama, he hedged: "Sometimes a great power must act alone."

Only after rejection at the polls did Mr. Bush stop to think aloud about his world view. In the end, his prudence still outweighed his principle, and he drew no lessons from his appeasement of dictators or delay in dealing with anarchy and Balkan aggression. But his closing thoughts at West Point offer his successor the rudiments of a much-needed Clinton Doctrine.

William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.

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