Edward N. Luttwak, "Give war a chance" Foreign Affairs
Jul/Aug 1999, Volume: 78, Issue: 4
AN UNPLEASANT truth often overlooked is that although war is a great evil,
it does have a great virtue: it can resolve political conflicts and lead
to peace. This can happen when all belligerents become exhausted or when
one wins decisively. Either way the key is that the fighting must continue
until a resolution is reached. War brings peace only after passing a culminating
phase of violence. Hopes of military success must fade for accommodation
to become more attractive than further combat.
Since the establishment of the United Nations and the enshrinement of great-power politics in its Security Council, however, wars among lesser powers have
rarely been allowed to run their natural course. Instead, they have typically
been interrupted early on, before they could burn themselves out and establish
the preconditions for a lasting settlement. Cease-fires and armistices
have frequently been imposed under the aegis of the Security Council in
order to halt fighting. NATO's intervention in the Kosovo crisis follows
But a cease-fire tends to arrest war-induced exhaustion and lets belligerents
reconstitute and rearm their forces. It intensifies and prolongs the struggle
once the cease-fire ends-and it does usually end. This was true of the
Arab-Israeli war of 1948-49, which might have come to closure in a matter
of weeks if two cease-fires ordained by the Security Council had not let
the combatants recuperate. It has recently been true in the Balkans. Imposed
cease-fires frequently interrupted the fighting between Serbs and Croats
in Krajina, between the forces of the rump Yugoslav federation and the
Croat army, and between the Serbs, Croats, and Muslims in Bosnia. Each
time, the opponents used the pause to recruit, train, and equip additional
forces for further combat, prolonging the war and widening the scope of
its killing and destruction. Imposed armistices, meanwhile-again, unless
followed by negotiated peace accords-artificially freeze conflict and perpetuate
a state of war indefinitely by shielding the weaker side from the consequences
of refusing to make concessions for peace.
The Cold War provided compelling justification for such behavior by the
two superpowers, which sometimes collaborated in coercing less-powerful
belligerents to avoid being drawn into their conflicts and clashing directly.
Although imposed cease-fires ultimately did increase the total quantity
of warfare among the lesser powers, and armistices did perpetuate states
of war, both outcomes were clearly lesser evils (from a global point of
view) than the possibility of nuclear war. But today, neither Americans
nor Russians are inclined to intervene competitively in the wars of lesser
powers, so the unfortunate consequences of interrupting war persist while
no greater danger is averted. It might be best for all parties to let minor
wars burn themselves out.
THE PROBLEMS OF PEACEKEEPERS
TODAY CEASE-FIRES and armistices are imposed on lesser powers by multilateral
agreement-not to avoid great-power competition but for essentially disinterested
and indeed frivolous motives, such as television audiences' revulsion at
harrowing scenes of war. But this, perversely, can systematically prevent
the transformation of war into peace. The Dayton accords are typical of
the genre: they have condemned Bosnia to remain divided into three rival
armed camps, with combat suspended momentarily but a state of hostility
prolonged indefinitely. Since no side is threatened by defeat and loss,
none has a sufficient incentive to negotiate a lasting settlement; because
no path to peace is even visible, the dominant priority is to prepare for
future war rather than to reconstruct devastated economies and ravaged
societies. Uninterrupted war would certainly have caused further suffering
and led to an unjust outcome from one perspective or another, but it would
also have led to a more stable situation that would have let the postwar
era truly begin. Peace takes hold only when war is truly over.
A variety of multilateral organizations now make it their business to intervene
in other peoples' wars. The defining characteristic of these entities is
that they insert themselves in war situations while refusing to engage
in combat. In the long run this only adds to the damage. If the United
Nations helped the strong defeat the weak faster and more decisively, it
would actually enhance the peacemaking potential of war. But the first
priority of U.N. peacekeeping contingents is to avoid casualties among
their own personnel. Unit commanders therefore habitually appease the locally
stronger force, accepting its dictates and tolerating its abuses. This
appeasement is not strategically purposeful, as siding with the stronger
power overall would be; rather, it merely reflects the determination of
each U.N. unit to avoid confrontation. The final result is to prevent the
emergence of a coherent outcome, which requires an imbalance of strength
sufficient to end the fighting.
Peacekeepers chary of violence are also unable to effectively protect civilians
who are caught up in the fighting or deliberately attacked. At best, U.N.
peacekeeping forces have been passive spectators to outrages and massacres,
as in Bosnia and Rwanda; at worst, they collaborate with it, as Dutch U.N.
troops did in the fall of Srebenica by helping the Bosnian Serbs separate
the men of military age from the rest of the population.
The very presence of U.N. forces, meanwhile, inhibits the normal remedy
of endangered civilians, which is to escape from the combat zone. Deluded
into thinking that they will be protected, civilians in danger remain in
place until it is too late to flee. During the 1992-94 siege of Sarajevo,
appeasement interacted with the pretense of protection in an especially
perverse manner: U.N. personnel inspected outgoing flights to prevent the
escape of Sarajevo civilians in obedience to a cease-fire agreement negotiated
with the locally dominant Bosnian Serbs-who habitually violated that deal.
The more sensible, realistic response to a raging war would have been for
the Muslims to either flee the city or drive the Serbs out.
Institutions such as the European Union, the Western European Union, and
the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe lack even the U.N.'s
rudimentary command structure and personnel, yet they too now seek to intervene
in warlike situations, with predictable consequences. Bereft of forces
even theoretically capable of combat, they satisfy the interventionist
urges of member states (or their own institutional ambitions) by sending
unarmed or lightly armed "observer" missions, which have the same problems
as U.N. peacekeeping missions, only more so.
Military organizations such as NATO or the West African Peacekeeping Force
(ECOMOG, recently at work in Sierra Leone) are capable of stopping warfare.
Their interventions still have the destructive consequence of prolonging
the state of war, but they can at least protect civilians from its consequences.
Even that often fails to happen, however, because multinational military
commands engaged in disinterested interventions tend to avoid any risk
of combat, thereby limiting their effectiveness. U.S. troops in Bosnia,
for example, repeatedly failed to arrest known war criminals passing through
their checkpoints lest this provoke confrontation.
Multinational commands, moreover, find it difficult to control the quality
and conduct of member states' troops, which can reduce the performance
of all forces involved to the lowest common denominator. This was true
of otherwise fine British troops in Bosnia and of the Nigerian marines
in Sierra Leone. The phenomenon of troop degradation can rarely be detected
by external observers, although its consequences are abundantly visible
in the litter of dead, mutilated, raped, and tortured victims that attends
such interventions. The true state of affairs is illuminated by the rare
exception, such as the vigorous Danish tank battalion in Bosnia that replied
to any attack on it by firing back in full force, quickly stopping the
THE FIRST POST-HEROIC" WAR
ALL PRIOR examples of disinterested warfare and its crippling limitations,
however, have been cast into shadow by NATO's current intervention against
Serbia for the sake of Kosovo. The alliance has relied on airpower alone
to minimize the risk of NATO casualties, bombing targets in Serbia, Montenegro,
and Kosovo for weeks without losing a single pilot. This seemingly miraculous
immunity from Yugoslav anti-aircraft guns and missiles was achieved by
multiple layers of precautions. First, for all the noise and imagery suggestive
of a massive operation, very few strike sorties were actually flown during
the first few weeks. That reduced the risks to pilots and aircraft but
of course also limited the scope of the bombing to a mere fraction of NATO's
potential. Second, the air campaign targeted air-defense systems first
and foremost, minimizing present and future allied casualties, though at
the price of very limited destruction and the loss of any shock effect.
Third, NATO avoided most anti-aircraft weapons by releasing munitions not
from optimal altitudes but from an ultra-safe 15,ooo feet or more. Fourth,
the alliance greatly restricted its operations in less-than-perfect weather
conditions. NATO officials complained that dense clouds were impeding the
bombing campaign, often limiting nightly operations to a few cruise-missile
strikes against fixed targets of known location. In truth, what the cloud
ceiling prohibited was not all bombing-low-altitude attacks could easily
have taken place-but rather perfectly safe bombing.
On the ground far beneath the high-flying planes, small groups of Serb
soldiers and police in armored vehicles were terrorizing hundreds of thousands
of Albanian Kosovars. NATO has a panoply of aircraft designed for finding
and destroying such vehicles. All its major powers have antitank helicopters,
some equipped to operate without base support. But no country offered to
send them into Kosovo when the ethnic cleansing began-after all, they might
have been shot down. When U.S. Apache helicopters based in Germany were
finally ordered to Albania, in spite of the vast expenditure devoted to
their instantaneous "readiness" over the years, they required more than
three weeks of"predeployment preparations" to make the journey. Six weeks
into the war, the Apaches had yet to fly their first mission, although
two had already crashed during training. More than mere bureaucratic foot-dragging
was responsible for this inordinate delay: the U.S. Army insisted that
the Apaches could not operate on their own, but would need the support
of heavy rocket barrages to suppress Serb anti-aircraft weapons. This created
a much larger logistical load than the Apaches alone, and an additional,
evidently welcome delay.
Even before the Apache saga began, NATo already had aircraft deployed on
Italian bases that could have done the job just as well: U.S. A-10 "Warthogs"
built around their powerful 30 mm antitank guns and British Royal Air Force
Harriers ideal for low-altitude bombing at close range. Neither was employed,
again because it could not be done in perfect safety. In the calculus of
the NATo democracies, the immediate possibility of saving thousands of
Albanians from massacre and hundreds of thousands from deportation was
obviously not worth the lives of a few pilots. That may reflect unavoidable
political reality, but it demonstrates how even a large-scale disinterested
intervention can fail to achieve its ostensibly humanitarian aim. It is
worth wondering whether the Kosovars would have been better off had NATo
simply done nothing.
THE MOST disinterested of all interventions in war-and the most destructive-are
humanitarian relief activities. The largest and most protracted is the
United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). It was built on the model
of its predecessor, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency
(UNRRA), which operated displacedpersons camps in Europe immediately after
World War II. The UNRWA was established immediately after the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli
war to feed, shelter, educate, and provide health services for Arab refugees
who had fled Israeli zones in the former territory of Palestine.
By keeping refugees alive in spartan conditions that encouraged their rapid
emigration or local resettlement, the UNRRA's camps in Europe had assuaged
postwar resentments and helped disperse revanchist concentrations of national
groups. But UNRWA camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank, and the
Gaza Strip provided on the whole a higher standard of living than most
Arab villagers had previously enjoyed, with a more varied diet, organized
schooling, superior medical care, and no backbreaking labor in stony fields.
They had, therefore, the opposite effect, becoming desirable homes rather
than eagerly abandoned transit camps. With the encouragement of several
Arab countries, the UNRWA turned escaping civilians into lifelong refugees
who gave birth to refugee children, who have in turn had refugee children
of their own.
During its half-century of operation, the UNRWA has thus perpetuated a
Palestinian refugee nation, preserving its resentments in as fresh a condition
as they were in 1948 and keeping the first bloom of revanchist emotion
intact. By its very existence, the UN RWA dissuades integration into local
society and inhibits emigration. The concentration of Palestinians in the
camps, moreover, has facilitated the voluntary or forced enlistment of
refugee youths by armed organizations that fight both Israel and each other.
The UN RWA has contributed to a halfcentury of Arab-Israeli violence and
still retards the advent of peace.
If each European war had been attended by its own postwar UNRWA, today's
Europe would be filled with giant camps for millions of descendants of
uprooted Gallo-Romans, abandoned Vandals, defeated Burgundians, and misplaced
Visigoths-not to speak of more recent refugee nations such as post-ig45
Sudeten Germans (three million of whom were expelled from Czechoslovakia
in 1945). Such a Europe would have remained a mosaic of warring tribes,
undigested and unreconciled in their separate feeding camps. It might have
assuaged consciences to help each one at each remove, but it would have
led to permanent instability and violence.
The UNRWA has counterparts elsewhere, such as the Cambodian camps along
the Thai border, which incidentally provided safe havens for the mass-murdering
Khmer Rouge. But because the United Nations is limited by stingy national
contributions, these camps' sabotage of peace is at least localized.
That is not true of the proliferating, feverishly competitive nongovernmental
organizations (NGOS) that now aid war refugees. Like any other institution,
these NGOs are interested in perpetuating themselves, which means that
their first priority is to attract charitable contributions by being seen
to be active in high-visibility situations. Only the most dramatic natural
disasters attract any significant mass-media attention, and then only briefly;
soon after an earthquake or flood, the cameras depart. War refugees, by
contrast, can win sustained press coverage if kept concentrated in reasonably
accessible camps. Regular warfare among well-developed countries is rare
and offers few opportunities for such NGOS, so they focus their efforts
on aiding refugees in the poorest parts of the world. This ensures that
the food, shelter, and health care offered-although abysmal by Western
standards-exceeds what is locally available to non-refugees. The consequences
are entirely predictable. Among many examples, the huge refugee camps along
the Democratic Republic of Congo's border with Rwanda stand out. They sustain
a Hutu nation that would otherwise have been dispersed, making the consolidation
of Rwanda impossible and providing a base for radicals to launch more Tutsi-killing
raids across the border. Humanitarian intervention has worsened the chances
of a stable, long-term resolution of the tensions in Rwanda.
To keep refugee nations intact and preserve their resentments forever is
bad enough, but inserting material aid into ongoing conflicts is even worse.
Many NGOS that operate in an odor of sanctity routinely supply active combatants.
Defenseless, they cannot exclude armed warriors from their feeding stations,
clinics, and shelters. Since refugees are presumptively on the losing side,
the warriors among them are usually in retreat. By intervening to help,
NGOS systematically impede the progress of their enemies toward a decisive
victory that could end the war. Sometimes NGOS, impartial to a fault, even
help both sides, thus preventing mutual exhaustion and a resulting settlement.
And in some extreme cases, such as Somalia, NGOs even pay protection money
to local war bands, which use those funds to buy arms. Those NGos are therefore
helping prolong the warfare whose consequences they ostensibly seek to
MAKE WAR TO MAKE PEACE
Too MANY wars nowadays become endemic conflicts that never end because
the transformative effects of both decisive victory and exhaustion are
blocked by outside intervention. Unlike the ancient problem of war, however,
the compounding of its evils by disinterested interventions is a new malpractice
that could be curtailed. Policy elites should actively resist the emotional
impulse to intervene in other peoples' wars-not because they are indifferent
to human suffering but precisely because they care about it and want to
facilitate the advent of peace. The United States should dissuade multilateral
interventions instead of leading them. New rules should be established
for U.N. refugee relief activities to ensure that immediate succor is swiftly
followed by repatriation, local absorption, or emigration, ruling out the
establishment of permanent refugee camps. And although it may not be possible
to constrain interventionist NGOS, they should at least be neither officially
encouraged nor funded. Underlying these seemingly perverse measures would
be a true appreciation of war's paradoxical logic and a commitment to let
it serve its sole useful function: to bring peace.
EDWARD N. LUTTWAK is Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International
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