When the Cold War ended two decades ago there was a widespread belief that the greatest threat to U.S. troops would be boredom. It seemed they faced a future with little to do besides polishing their boots and staging the occasional military exercise.
Yet U.S. presidents are calling on the military more often than ever, with U.S. forces carrying out more than a dozen separate operations since the first Gulf War in Iraq in 1991.
As President Obama weighs his options in Syria, polls show that most Americans oppose any new U.S. military adventure after the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“God knows Barack Obama is having fits over what he’s having to do now,” said Bob Scales, a retired Army major general who headed the U.S. Army War College. “The American people don’t want to do this. Congress doesn’t really want to do it. And the push certainly isn’t coming from the uniformed military.”
So why is the U.S. military being ordered into action so frequently, often for missions like Syria that are considered optional?
Analysts offer up a host of reasons:
A Messy World: During the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union often managed to impose order by propping up authoritarian leaders. No one saw this system as ideal, but it often prevented conflicts from erupting or spreading.
Syria offers a good example, analysts say. As a superpower, the Soviets staunchly backed the late Syrian president, Hafez Assad, for many years. A much weaker Russia still supports his son, Bashar Assad, but this hasn’t kept Syria or other Arab states from sliding into chaos.
U.S. military intervention in Syria would have been highly improbable during the Cold War because it could have provoked a major confrontation with the Soviets. Now the U.S. sees itself as the lone guarantor of world order and does not have to worry about a superpower rivalry.
“The Cold War acted as a governing force. The U.S. and the Soviets were often cautious because they were always concerned about an escalation to a nuclear war,” said Jim Dubik, a retired Army lieutenant general now with the Institute for the Study of War.
“Since the Cold War ended, there’s been a vacuum as to what international strategic framework will take its place,” Dubik added. “That debate is still going on and without a recognized framework, it’s a more Hobbesian world.”
High-Tech Wars Seem Easier: Setting Syria aside, the U.S. is already carrying out ongoing military strikes in three other countries — Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.
Drones, cruise missiles and other high-tech weaponry have made it possible to wage warfare by remote control with little immediate risk to U.S. forces. This is an appealing option for presidents because they can declare that they are doing something to deal with an international crisis.
But analysts say it can merely project the false impression that the president is solving an intractable problem.
“After so many years of war, we as a country should be much more sophisticated about what force can and can’t do,” said Dubik. “The Syria problem is not a problem you solve by bombing. But these days, bombing is the easier option. The real solutions to problems — economic issues, political questions, ethnic and sectarian rivalries — these are much harder to fix.”
In several cases, U.S. firepower has ousted or helped oust leaders such as Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. Yet all those countries remain deeply troubled.
“There’s a big difference between a love of pyrotechinics and furthering U.S. strategic interests in the world,” said Scales. “And they don’t often come together.”
Modern Pressures On The President: If the American public, the military and many in Congress all have their doubts about U.S. military intervention, then why is Obama feeling such pressure to act?
The relentless glare of the media, the incessant talk about military plans and the endless videos of dead and wounded Syrian civilians can make it seem that a U.S. decision to act is inevitable.
Writing in The Atlantic, journalist Conor Friedersdorf argues that “the pressure is being applied by a tiny, insular elite that mostly lives in Washington, D.C., and isn’t bothered by the idea of committing America to military action that most Americans oppose.”
Friedersdorf then goes on to write what he considers a more accurate version of the Syrian crisis:
“President Obama faces increasing pressure from lawmakers, foreign-policy experts, constitutional scholars, and anti-war activists to refrain from striking Syria. Opponents of war worry that an insular group of hawkish Washington, D.C., elites will succeed in prompting an intervention the consequences of which they cannot anticipate, despite widespread public opposition to U.S. involvement. The concerns of Syria anti-interventionists vary, but all agree that the president should not unilaterally decide to attack tyrant Bashar al-Assad’s regime, even granting that recent chemical weapons attacks on civilians were atrocious.”
Obama contributed to his burden by declaring last year that Syria’s use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that could not be crossed. The president said Friday that he hadn’t made a final decision about what to do in Syria. But with five U.S. naval ships in the eastern Mediterranean, U.S. military action appeared to be a question of when, not if.