Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Legitimacy of Engagement and Containment National Security Strategies

   By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            The U.S. strategy to preserve the Union in 1860 and current strategy in Afghanistan have something in common: They are both engagement strategies based on U.S. military intervention and occupation; and in both instances, a containment strategy like that used against the Soviet threat in the Cold War would be more legitimate than direct engagement.

            The legitimacy of U.S. military strategy is grounded in self-defense and the defense of others, a corollary of the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as we love ourselves.  The just war doctrine is based on the moral imperative to use the least force necessary to protect life and liberty, and that principle has been incorporated in the law of war.   

            The Cold War containment strategy against the Soviet threat limited U.S. combat operations to proxy wars.  But a proxy war in Vietnam proved disastrous for the U.S. when it put misplaced reliance on superior military force.  It was a violation of the just war doctrine and a painful lesson learned in legitimacy that was ignored in the U.S. military intervention in Iraq.     

            The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was cheered by the U.S., which has promoted self-determination over the preservation of political unions since its own Revolution—the one exception being the U.S. Civil War.  Ironically, Russia learned more from the Cold War than the U.S.  It now relies on a containment strategy to counter U.S. and NATO strategic interests.

            A containment strategy does not preclude combat operations, so long as they are of limited scope and short duration.  Large-scale “quick and dirty” U.S. combat operations in Grenada (1983), Panama (1989) and Iraq (1991) accomplished U.S. strategic objectives.  Since then there have been many successful clandestine U.S. counter-terror (CT) strikes and raids.
            The U.S. military invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was justified by the Taliban’s 9/11 attack on the U.S., but since then U.S. stability operations in Afghanistan have lacked legitimacy due to the corruption of the Afghan government they have supported.  The corruption of racist governments in the South following the U.S. Civil War created similar issues of legitimacy.  It would take almost 100 years to provide racial justice and reconcile the North and the South.
            The legitimacy of military strategy is determined by its cost in lives and money.  Today a containment strategy could save U.S. blood and billions of dollars in Afghanistan; and in 1860 it could have saved 600,000 American lives—if Abraham Lincoln had been patient and favored a containment strategy to undermine the legitimacy of the Confederacy rather than a civil war.

            In 1860 slavery was considered anathema in the civilized world.  That would have denied the Confederate states the political legitimacy and trade they needed to survive.  The slave trade had ended, and the U.S. and other nations would have supported the liberation of slaves and boycotted trade with slave-holding nations.  That would have spelled doom for the Confederacy.

            The Civil War and slavery are history.  Today Islamist terrorism is the dominant threat to U.S. national security, and in Afghanistan a containment strategy that relies on Afghan forces to conduct combat operations in what is an Afghan civil war is the most legitimate way to defeat Islamist terrorism, with the U.S. role limited to advisors and trainers and occasional CT strikes and raids.  It is not a war for the U.S. to win or lose, unless we foolishly choose to make it so.

            Trump should take a lesson from LBJ, who converted an advisory mission in Vietnam into an American war in 1965 when he pledged “the U.S. will not lose its first war on my watch” and deployed the U.S. Marines.   President Trump’s emphasis on the U.S. “winning” in Afghanistan is a strategic error.  It is as misplaced as a measure of success in Afghanistan as was LBJ’s reliance on a body count of North Vietnamese and VC in Vietnam.  

            When public support is needed for U.S. strategic political objectives, as in Afghanistan, a containment strategy is more legitimate than direct U.S. military engagement.  That strategic principle was ignored in the U.S. Civil War, Vietnam and Iraq.  Wherever U.S. combat forces create public resentment they can turn a military victory into political defeat.  We should remember our painful lessons learned in legitimacy to avoid repeating them.


On lessons learned in legitimacy and the legitimacy of military operations generally, see Barnes, Military Legitimacy: Might and Right in the New Millennium (Frank Cass, London, Portland, 1996), posted at

On Religion, Law and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy, see

Fareed Zakaria has described Trump’s recently announced U.S. policy in Afghanistan as more of the same Bush and Obama policies that ignored issues of legitimacy.  Zakaria concludes that “…half a century later, at a lower human cost, the U.S. has replicated its strategy in Vietnam.”  See

Related Commentary:

(12/29/14): Religion, Violence and Military Legitimacy

(1/11/15): The Greatest Commandment: A Common Word of Faith

(4/12/15): Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy

(7/19/15): Religion, Heritage and the Confederate Flag

(10/25/15): The Muslim Stranger: A Good Neighbor or a Threat?

(4/16/16): Religious Violence and the Dilemma of Freedom and Democracy

(8/27/16): A Containment Strategy and Military Legitimacy

(9/3/16): The Diplomat-Warrior: A Military Capability for Reconciliation and Peace

(4/1/17): Human Rights, Freedom and National Security

 (8/19/17): Hate, History and the Need for a Politics of Reconciliation

(8/26/17): Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy in Politics and War

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