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Courageous Restraint?

Posted By Alan W. Dowd On May 21, 2010 @ 12:42 am In FrontPage | 50 Comments

Hoping to win more hearts and minds in Afghanistan, the U.S. and its NATO allies are planning a commendation to recognize “courageous restraint” among troops in the field. According to a NATO statement, the goal would be to “celebrate the troops who exhibit extraordinary courage and self-control by not using their weapons.”

What an apt metaphor for the Age of Obama. If there is a coherent theme to President Obama’s foreign policy, it seems to be constraining and restraining American power.

Consider the “New START” agreement. From Moscow’s perspective, New START will constrain the U.S. from building and deploying additional missile defenses. New START, according to the Russian interpretation, will “be viable if the United States of America refrains from developing its missile-defense capabilities quantitatively or qualitatively.”

Where would the Russians get that idea, if not from the administration? And if this is so, then it means the administration is unable to recognize that missile defense is, by definition, defensive. In other words, the goal of missile defense is to constrain America’s enemies.

Then there’s the related issue of the Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which is all about constraining the United States. Among other things, the NPR pledges that the United States:

Will not conduct nuclear testing, and will seek ratification and entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty,

will not develop new nuclear warheads, and

will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and in compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations.

Obama’s NPR also removes the protection afforded by what Defense Secretary Robert Gates calls “calculated ambiguity.” “If a non-nuclear-weapon state is in compliance with the nonproliferation treaty and its obligations,” Gates explains, “the U.S. pledges not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against it.” Instead, such an enemy “would face the prospect of a devastating conventional military response”—even if that enemy “were to use chemical or biological weapons against the United States or its allies or partners.”

“Calculated ambiguity” has kept America’s enemies on notice and off balance for decades—and, not coincidentally, has kept America and American forces safe from nuclear, biological or chemical attack. As Eisenhower counseled at the beginning of the nuclear age, quoting Gen. Stonewall Jackson, “Always surprise, mystify and mislead the enemy.”

Obama clearly doesn’t subscribe to that commonsense view. In fact, he recently took a huge step in the opposite direction by revealing the size of America’s nuclear arsenal.

Meanwhile, the likes of North Korea and Iran play games with the world—and appear to be under no constraints whatsoever.  For instance, in the past 12 months, North Korea has detonated a nuclear weapon, test-fired long-range missiles and blown a South Korean ship out of the water, killing 46 sailors.

Likewise, Iran has shown no restraint in response to Washington’s restraint. Last summer, as the Iranian people rose up against a sham election and as Ahmadinejad’s henchmen crushed the popular revolt, the President was virtually silent. The sad irony of the President’s restrained reaction to the Twitter Revolution was that it answered his own rhetorical question of a year before, albeit in a manner his supporters would never have imagined. “Will we stand for the human rights of…the blogger in Iran?” he asked during his 2008 rock-concert speech in Berlin. Last summer provided the answer.

And it gets worse. When evidence of a secret Iranian nuclear-fuel plant came to light last autumn, there was no reaction from the White House. In fact, it was French president Nicolas Sarkozy who spoke up: “Since 2005, Iran has violated five Security Council resolutions…An offer of dialogue was made in 2005, an offer of dialogue was made in 2006, an offer of dialogue was made in 2007, an offer of dialogue was made in 2008, and another one was made in 2009…What did the international community gain from these offers of dialogue? Nothing.”

Perhaps nowhere is the policy of restraint and constraint on better display than in Afghanistan itself. German forces, for instance, refer to a seven-page guidebook before engaging the enemy. Until mid-2009, they were even required to shout warnings to enemy forces—in three languages—before opening fire. The joys of coalition warfare.

The president has told us, over and over, that Afghanistan is a “war of necessity.” It was so important, as the New York Times reported, that the president gave his military commander “extraordinary leeway” and “carte blanche” control to choose “a dream team of subordinates.”

But when Gen. McChrystal asked for the resources necessary to win this war of necessity, the president balked. Then, after a lengthy re-review of his own policy, the president concluded that “it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan,” before promising that “after 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.”

Of course, vital national interests don’t have expiration dates, and letting the Taliban know when the U.S. military will end its offensive won’t make victory any easier to achieve. But victory is probably not the goal in this era of constraint and restraint. As the constrainer-in-chief himself puts it, “I’m always worried about using the word ‘victory.’”

That brings us back to NATO’s “courageous restraint” idea.

The notion that there needs to be a commendation for restraint is based on the false and faulty premise that U.S. forces haven’t used restraint to date. In fact, as Lt. Col. Tadd Sholtis told Navy Times, “Our young men and women display remarkable courage every day, including situations where they refrain from using lethal force, even at risk to themselves, in order to prevent possible harm to civilians.”

Indeed, the U.S. military is so self-restrained that the world doesn’t even notice. Just think about what happens when the U.S. military makes what we civilians, from 7,000 miles away, call a mistake: It court-martials people, changes target sets, scrubs missions, orders bombing pauses, investigates, apologizes and invests in ever-more precise weapons to prevent mistakes.

The fact is, the American military of today is the most lethal force in history, which makes its self-restraint so impressive. U.S. forces could flatten Kandahar, kill anything that moves in Waziristan, erase all the Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden and all the terror camps in Syria, eliminate the North Korean and Iranian thugocracies, and turn Mosul into glass—all in less than 24 hours. But they don’t do those things. The reason? Thankfully, the means are as important as the ends to Americans and their military.

This is not an argument for shooting first and asking questions later or for countenancing battlefield brutality. Rather, it’s a reminder that U.S. forces in Afghanistan are already holding their fire enough. They already think twice before squeezing the trigger. We shouldn’t expect them to think three times.

The people who know best—those who have served—worry about the unintended consequences of rewarding and thereby encouraging “courageous restraint.” As Clarence Hill, national commander of the American Legion, observes, “Too much restraint will get our own people killed.”

Veterans of Foreign Wars spokesman Joe Davis adds, ominously and presciently, “The creation of such an award will only…put more American and noncombatant lives in jeopardy. Let’s not rush to create something that no one wants to present posthumously.”

Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security issues.


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