Saturday, March 25, 2017

National Security and Military Legitimacy: When Might Must Be Right

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            Military power is the hard power that complements the softer powers of foreign policy to promote and protect U.S. national security interests.  When the legitimacy of U.S. military power depends on public support in the area of operations—as it does in the Islamic nations of the Middle East—large numbers of U.S. combat forces can make that public support elusive.  

            Standards of legitimacy in Islamic nations differ from those in the U.S.  For example, the freedoms of religion and speech are precluded by apostasy and blasphemy laws, and women and non-Muslims are denied equal protection of the law; and since non-Muslims are considered infidels in Islamic nations, a large U.S. military presence can undermine the public support and legitimacy needed to achieve strategic political objectives.

Following the brief combat phase of military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, military operations evolved into counterinsurgency operations (COIN), in which U.S. political objectives became paramount.  Those objectives have depended more on public perceptions of legitimacy than on military might, and that has necessitated a drawdown of U.S. combat forces.
            Unlike COIN, counterterrorist operations (CT) involve military strikes or raids against terrorists.  They are brief in duration and conducted by small contingents of special operations forces or drones; but like COIN, excessive force in CT can cause collateral damage that can turn an otherwise successful military raid into a political defeat.

            Military might must be right when U.S. national security objectives require public support.  Lethal force must be restrained to avoid the collateral damage that undermines public perceptions of military legitimacy, and military operations must be closely coordinated with other elements of U.S. foreign policy to build the public support needed for mission success.

            The U.S. has the most powerful military forces in the world, but overwhelming military force can never be a substitute for political legitimacy—and it is often lacking in governments in the Middle East and Africa.  To protect vital U.S. national security interests in those regions, diplomat warriors are needed to work closely with indigenous forces and U.S. civilian resources to deny insurgent forces the legitimacy they need to recruit followers and succeed.

            President Trump’s call to “start winning wars again” by spending more for conventional military weaponry and combat operations and cutting the State Department budget for foreign assistance is wrong-headed.  The protection of U.S. national security interests requires a national strategy to identify threats and the military capabilities and operations needed to counter them.
Before President Trump’s first address to Congress, his national security advisor, General H. R. McMaster, reportedly advised him to “describe the battle against The Islamic State and al-Qaeda as a global and generational war that the U.S. should fight in partnership with its Muslim allies.”  Trump ignored McMaster’s advice and asserted an America First national strategy that was more focused on nation destruction than nation building in Islamic cultures.

Radical Islamist terrorism is a major threat to U.S. national security.  To counter that threat the U.S. must provide military aid and security assistance to Islamic nations.  Only Muslims can undermine the legitimacy of radical Islamism.  It is the religious ideal that drives Islamist terrorism.  President Trump’s defense and budget proposals ignore that reality and other lessons learned in legitimacy, jeopardizing U.S. national security and military legitimacy.

Notes and commentary on related topics:
On Trump’s pledge to ‘start winning wars again’ as “ignorant and delusional—and highly dangerous,” see

On how the battle to define an “America First” foreign policy (and military legitimacy) divides

On military legitimacy generally, see Military Legitimacy: Might and Right in the New Millennium (Frank Cass, 1996), manuscript posted at under Resources at  On the diplomat-warrior, see chapter 5; on lessons learned in legitimacy, see chapter 6. 

On the application of legitimacy to the  special operations training and advisory mission, see Back to the Future: Human Rights and Legitimacy in the Training and Advisory Mission in Special Warfare, January/March 2013, posted in Resources at (See

On a containment strategy to defeat Islamist terrorism, see

On the diplomat-warrior: a military capability for reconciliation and peace, see

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