THE FORRESTAL LECTURE, UNITED STATES NAVAL ACADEMY FOREIGN AFFAIRS CONFERENCE
Two thousand years ago, the Roman poet Horace wrote, "Force without wisdom
falls of its own weight."
Nothing I do as Secretary of Defense is more important than my role in
advising the President on when and how to use military force in the post-Cold
War world. In this world, we no longer face the monolithic threat of the
Soviet Union. Today the threats to American interests stem from ethnic
conflicts, nuclear proliferation, and humanitarian crises. Our responses to
these complex and diverse situations require flexibility, hard choices, and
sound judgment -- in short, wisdom.
Wise decisions about the use of force or forces have a political and
military and an ethical element. The political element
involves a judgment as to the nature of interests at stake, and whether the use
or the threat of use of military force is the most appropriate way to protect
those interests. The military element involves a judgment as to the
capability of U.S. military force to achieve our goals, and the probable losses
entailed. The ethical element involves whether achieving our goals by
using our military is in keeping with America's fundamental respect for human
life -- the lives of our men and women in uniform and the lives of people of
These questions must guide our decisions because one of the most profound
decisions a President can make is whether to risk the lives of our men and
women in uniform, or threaten the lives of the people of another nation. The
courage, loyalty, and willingness of our men and women in uniform to put their
lives at risk is a national treasure. That treasure must never be taken for
granted -- yet neither can it be hoarded like a miser's gold. You and your
colleagues are in uniform for a purpose -- to defend our Nation and its
interests against threats here at home and abroad.
As Secretary of Defense, it is my job to help the President decide when and
where military forces should be employed, and how -- by making clear what
interests are at stake; by asking whether force can be used effectively to
advance those interests; and, the ethical side of the question, should force
be used for those purposes; and finally, by determining what level of force is
Over 50 years ago, President Roosevelt faced this awesome decision. And he
decided to deploy America's fullest military power to help defeat the forces of
tyranny and aggression on two sides of the globe. This decision was pretty
clear cut. America's interests clearly were at stake -- indeed, our very
survival was at stake. Some decisions about the level of force in the Second
World War have been debated by historians.
President Truman's decision to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima was perhaps
the most dramatic. The political element of this decision was sharply focused
-- to end the war quickly, once and for all. The ethical element was more
complex. By dropping the bomb, as Truman put it, "the force from which the sun
draws its power has been loosed..." But by ending the war quickly, the bomb
would save tens of thousands of American lives, and hundreds of thousands of
Japanese lives, who would have died in combat. Truman made the decision -- the
ethical decision --- to save those lives.
Today, unlike during World War II, most of the current and foreseeable threats
to our interests do not threaten the survival of the United States. So we do
not face the level of political and ethical questions about using force that
FDR and Truman faced. But the problems we face are still very complex and very
dangerous. So they still require us to think clearly about the use of military
Today, there are three basic categories of cases in which we may use our armed
forces, all of which involve political and ethical questions. The first
category is when our vital national interests are threatened. The second
category is when important, but not vital, national interests are threatened.
And the third category is when a situation causes us deep humanitarian concern.
I want to consider each of these in turn.
A threat falls into the first category of vital interests if it threatens the
survival of the United States or key allies; if it threatens our critical
economic interests; or if it poses the danger of a future nuclear threat. If
we determine that we face such a threat, we must be prepared to use military
force to end that threat. We must be prepared to risk a military conflict to
protect our vital interests. But we also must be prepared to weigh our
political aims and our ethical responsibilities with great wisdom.
Our confrontations with Iraq over the past few years involved our vital
national interests, since they involved all three threats: a threat to key
allies, to critical economic interests, and a future nuclear danger. In 1990,
Iraq invaded one ally, and threatened another. It verged on
controlling all the Gulf's oil, which amounts to two-thirds of the world's
reserves. Control of that much oil would allow a hostile state to blackmail
the industrial world and threaten the health of the world economy. And the
revenues from that much oil would allow Iraq to renew -- with vigor -- its
plans for building the bomb.
So in 1990 we knew our vital interests were at stake. Our political aim was
to blunt the threat to those interests quickly. We marshaled our forces and
sent them to the Gulf. But it was 6 months before we actually used force.
Why? First, to prepare our forces so that victory would be assured and with
the minimal loss of life. But also because we had an ethical responsibility to
exhaust all possibilities for a peaceful resolution, to make war the last
resort. And we did exhaust these possibilities.
The decision to start the war was indeed, a decision of great moment. We, as
a nation, made a political decision that we had to respond. We also made an
ethical decision -- that the cost of not stopping Saddam Hussein's aggression
outweighed the potential risk to American, allied and Iraqi lives.
We also faced a tough ethical decision when victory was near at hand.
President Bush decided for political -- and ethical -- reasons, not to make
Baghdad and the capture of Saddam Hussein the goal. There were many reasons,
but the paramount one for the President was that the cost in casualties from
all sides would have been too high. He has received much criticism for that
decision, but I believe that he was correct.
Saddam posed another serious threat last October, when Iraqi forces amassed
near the Kuwaiti border. So we marshaled overwhelming forces in the Gulf,
deploying troops to augment the troops already there. This decision was not
taken lightly. The President and I fully recognized that sending troops to the
Gulf again risked conflict and American lives. But once again, the cost of not
deterring Iraqi aggression outweighed the potential risks. This time, our
quick action acted as a deterrent, and the Iraqi forces returned to their
garrisons without a fight.
The political and ethical questions are difficult when we have vital interests
at stake. They are even more difficult in the second category of cases, when
we have important, but not vital interests, at stake. These cases are more
difficult because we have an obligation to weigh the risks against the
interests involved, and because the threats are not always clear cut. But we
must be willing to consider the use of some level of force commensurate with
our interests. We want to influence the outcome in these cases because certain
outcomes will advance our interests while others could harm them. But our use
of force will be selective and limited, reflecting the relative importance of
the outcome to our interests.
We have a range of options here, from using U.S. military assets for
logistical operations, to using U.S. combat forces. The decision of what to
use -- whether it is a C-130 transport or an Army division -- will reflect the
cost we are willing to pay to achieve the outcome we want.
Our military action in Haiti falls into this category. Haiti's elected
government was overthrown by a military dictator. This threatened important but not vital -- U.S. interests: namely, our interest in protecting democracy
in this hemisphere; in preventing the flow of refugees; and in our deep concern
in putting a halt to a cruel, systematic reign of terror over the Haitian
We could have used military force to protect those interests, but initially
the risks outweighed the benefits. However, over time, economic sanctions and
diplomatic efforts failed to resolve the threat, and indeed the threat to our
interests began to increase.
There came a time, a significant moment, where the President and I decided the
threat to our interests were great enough that we needed to take action. But
we were prepared to call off the invasion up to the moment the first
paratrooper left the plane, because we had an obligation to prevent the loss of
lives if we could.
As in Iraq last October, the threat of military action was sufficient
to avoid the use of military force. However, in this case the threat
only became fully credible after forces were actually launched. When the
military junta finally stepped down at the 11th hour, we did call off the
invasion. And we arrived as friends rather than invaders.
Bosnia is another case where important, but not vital, U.S. interests are
threatened. It may be the toughest security question we face today, both from
a political and an ethical standpoint, even though it's clear who the
aggressors and victims are. The Bosnian Serbs are the aggressors. The Bosnian
government and its supporters are the victims. The atrocities perpetrated by
the Serbs, in particular the "ethnic cleansing," are abhorrent.
Some say America has an ethical obligation to solve the Bosnian tragedy by
entering the war on one side or the other. But America doesn't have enough at
stake to risk the massive American casualties, as well as casualties from other
parties and civilians, that would occur if we participated in a wider war.
That course is unacceptable.
At the other end of the spectrum are those who say that America should do
nothing; that Bosnia is a tragedy, but not our tragedy. Well, doing nothing is
ethically unacceptable too. And it's unacceptable from a national security
standpoint as well. Because we do have a security interest in preventing the
violence from spreading and stimulating a broader European war. We do have a
security interest in limiting the violence. And we certainly have a
humanitarian interest in mitigating the effects of violence and the human
suffering. And we have been able achieve these goals in Bosnia at an
acceptable risk to Americans.
It is a tough ethical decision to stand aside when evil is being done. It's
not a decision that makes you feel good. But we have decided to not commit
U.S. troops to Bosnia to end the war. The cost in American lives -- not to
mention the cost in Bosnian lives -- would be too great -- especially when
weighed against the limited U.S. interests at stake.
But we have decided to commit U.S. forces to the region to prevent the
spread of war in Bosnia, limit the violence, and mitigate the human suffering.
For example, we have placed troops in Macedonia under U.N. command to help
prevent the spread of the violence. We are enforcing the no-fly zones, and
heavy weapons exclusion zones around cities. And we are airlifting food and
medical supplies for humanitarian purposes.
These actions have been effective. So far the violence has been contained to
Bosnia. We have seen civilian casualties drop from 130,000 in 1992 to around
2,500 in 1994. And thus far in 1995, there have only been about 100 civilian
casualties. And we are engaged in the longest humanitarian airlift in history
-- 3 years long, 14,900 sorties -- longer than the Berlin airlift. And of
course, we are participating in diplomatic efforts to achieve a negotiated
settlement based on the plan that the multi-national group has put forward. In
spite of these efforts, nobody can feel satisfied from an ethical standpoint
about Bosnia. Cases where we weigh our interests against the risks are, by
their very nature, morally unsatisfying.
Ironically, this also holds true when America is faced with the call to
respond to humanitarian crises. On the surface, deciding whether to respond to
earthquake, starvation, disease, or civil wars may seem easy. But it's not.
Because our forces cannot -- and should not -- be sent to resolve every
humanitarian crisis, everywhere.
Generally the military is not the right tool to meet humanitarian concerns there are other organizations, government and private, that exist to do this
important work. We field an Army -- not a Salvation Army. Under certain
conditions the use of our armed forces is not appropriate.
The civil war in Rwanda was a human catastrophe of massive proportion. Yet
intervention by U.S. forces would not necessarily have been effective and
certainly would have involved casualties. Like many others, we decided to
concentrate on using diplomatic tools until the military and civil conflict
exhausted itself. Those diplomatic tools proved to be ineffective. That
conflict and the resulting exodus of more than two million refugees created a
human tragedy of Biblical proportions. The starvation, disease and death
dwarfed the ability of the normal relief agencies to cope, and the need for
relief was urgent. At that point, under unique conditions we were able to
In the entire world, only the United States military had the unique capability
to jump start the relief effort, and begin saving lives in the short term.
Only the U.S. military could conduct the massive airlift, over long distances,
on short notice, to bring in the specialized equipment needed to relieve the
suffering. And we did.
The Joint Task Force quickly set up an airlift hub at Entebbe and 24-hour
airport operations at Goma and Kigali. And the relief flights surged.
American planes delivered nearly 15,000 tons of food, medicine and supplies to
the refugees. U.S. troops were called from Europe. And before two nights
passed, they began making clean water for the refugees at Goma. That stemmed
the cholera epidemic and dramatically curbed the dying.
The lesson learned from Rwanda is that there are times when we can, and
should, intervene in humanitarian crises, but only if four criteria can
be met: first, if we face a natural or manmade catastrophe that dwarfs the
ability of the normal relief agencies to respond; second, if the need for
relief is urgent and only the military has the ability to jump-start the
effort; third, if the response requires resources unique to the military; and
fourth, if there is minimal risk to the lives of American troops.
Choosing the right thing to do in a chaotic world is not as simple as some may
think, particularly when it comes to using military force. It's not merely a
matter of asking your heart. You also have to ask your head. You have to ask
yourself, can American interests be protected without resorting to using force?
And more importantly, is it worth -- truly worth -- risking the lives of our
men and women in uniform?
There's a painting that hangs outside my office in the Pentagon. It depicts a
poignant scene of a serviceman with his family in church. Clearly he is
praying before a deployment and long separation. Below the painting is a
wonderful quote from Isaiah.
God says, "Whom shall I send and who will go for us?"
And Isaiah replies, "Here am I; send me."
When we talk about using military force, we are talking about the lives of the
people who say, "Here am I; send me;"
And every decision we make to use force must bear them in mind.