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Defining Missions, Setting Deadlines
Prepared remarks Anthony Lake, assistant to the president for national security affairs, George Washington University, Washington, Wednesday, March 06, 1996

Defense Issues: Volume 11, Number 14-- Defining Missions, Setting Deadlines U.S. interests require the military to keep peace in the wake of internal conflicts, but tightly tailored missions and sharp withdrawal deadlines must be the norm for these operations to succeed.


Volume 11, Number 14

Defining Missions, Setting Deadlines

Prepared remarks of Anthony Lake, assistant to the president for national security affairs, George Washington University, Washington, March 6, 1996.

I want to speak with you today about the most difficult issue any president has to face: the use of American force abroad. This is a good time for this discussion. Six weeks from now, the last of more than 20,000 American troops assigned to the U.N. mission in Haiti will come home. About an equal number are serving in Bosnia to help keep the hard-won peace there. Both missions reflect answers to difficult questions about when to use force -- and especially how to use it.

Let me start by putting my thoughts in a larger context.

Halfway between the end of the Cold War and the start of a new century, we're living a moment of hope. Our nation is secure. Our economy is strong. All around the world more people live free and at peace than ever before.

But the promise of this moment is matched by its perils, as the desperate and despicable acts of the enemies of peace in the Middle East so sadly remind us. Old threats like ethnic and religious violence and aggression by rogue states have taken on new and dangerous dimensions, and no one is immune to a host of equal opportunity destroyers: the spread of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, organized crime, drug trafficking, environmental degradation. Individually, each could undermine our growing security. Together, they have the potential to cause terrible chaos.

Faced with both the promise and the problem of our time, there are those on both the left and the right and in both political parties who would have America retreat from its responsibilities.

Some proclaim that America must stay engaged, but then would deny us the tools and the resources to match their rhetoric. These backdoor isolationists would stop us from working with others to share the risks and the costs of engagement. They would gut our diplomatic readiness and cut our assistance to those who take risks for peace. They fail to recognize that the global trend toward democracy and free markets, and the opportunities it creates for our people, is neither inevitable nor irreversible. It needs our support, our resources and our leadership.

Others, call them neo-know-nothings, argue that with the Cold War won, it's safe to withdraw behind a Fortress America. It is not the American way to retreat or refuse to compete. We can't build a wall high enough or dig a moat deep enough to keep out the threats to our well-being or to isolate ourselves from the global economy. As President Clinton said in his State of the Union address this year, we must confront these challenges now -- or pay a much higher price for our indifference later.

The history of our century makes this truth very clear. After World War I, America withdrew from the world, a vacuum that was filled by the forces of hatred and tyranny. After World War II, we stayed involved, we worked with others, and we led, patiently, persistently and pragmatically. And we helped create the institutions that secured half a century of security and prosperity for the American people.

For the past three years, the Clinton administration has built upon this bipartisan legacy of leadership by reducing the nuclear threat, supporting peacemakers, spreading democracy and opening markets. I'm proud of the results, for our own people and for people around the world.

We stayed engaged with Russia and the other states of the former Soviet Union despite our differences because it is in the interests of the American people that we do so. Now there are no Russian missiles pointed at our cities and citizens. Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakstan are giving up the nuclear weapons left on their land when the Soviet Union collapsed. We are safeguarding nuclear materials and destroying nuclear weapons so they don't wind up in the wrong hands, and we have taken the lead in securing, extending or promoting landmark arms control agreements: START [Strategic Arms Reduction Talks] I and II, the [nuclear] Nonproliferation Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Chemical Weapons Convention.

We applied steady, patient pressure to North Korea. Now it has frozen its dangerous nuclear weapons program.

We're waging a tough counterterrorism campaign with stronger laws; increased funding, manpower and training for law enforcement; sanctions against states that sponsor terrorism; and closer cooperation with foreign governments. Now those responsible for the World Trade Center bombing are behind bars. We've foiled attacks on New York City and on our airliners. We've tracked down terrorists and brought them to justice around the world.

We sent our troops, ships and planes to the Persian Gulf when Saddam Hussein moved his forces towards the Kuwaiti border. Now Kuwait remains safe and the world's energy supply secure.

We backed diplomacy with force in Haiti. Now the dictators are gone. Haiti has celebrated the first democratic transfer of power in its history, and the flood of refugees to our shores has ended.

Our troops are standing up for peace in Bosnia. Now its playgrounds are no longer killing fields. A dangerous fire at the very heart of Europe is not raging as it had been for four years. The Bosnian people have their first real chance for peace.

We are standing with those taking risks for peace through good times and bad.

Now in Northern Ireland, the determination of [British] Prime Minister [John] Major and [Irish] Prime Minister [John] Bruton is pushing the peace process back on track with a date certain for negotiations and, we hope, a new cease-fire.

In the Middle East, we know that fanatics will stop at nothing to kill the hope for peace. As you know, the president has ordered a series of steps to express our complete support for the peacemakers there as they fight terrorism.

We must also not lose sight of the tremendous progress that has been made toward a comprehensive settlement or the fact that the overwhelming majority of people want peace. We will not rest until that desire becomes reality.

And we negotiated a better deal for America as we opened markets abroad. Now our exports are at an all-time high, and hundreds of thousands more Americans have jobs at home. With Japan alone, this administration has completed 20 separate trade agreements. The sectors covered by those agreements, from auto parts to medical equipment, have seen their exports increase by 80 percent. That's almost twice as much as exports from other sectors, which are also growing fast.

Not one of these achievements came about easily or automatically. They happened because we kept our military strong while adapting our alliances to new demands; because we acted with others where we could and alone where we had to; because we were patient enough to stick with diplomacy, but prepared to use force; because we rejected isolationism, but recognized that we cannot be the world's policeman; because in each and every instance, we brought together our interests and values, and we acted where we could make a difference.

Some people, in a curious bit of nostalgia for the Cold War, complain that our policy lacks a single, overarching principle --that it can't be summed up on a bumper sticker. But while we are operating in a radically new international environment, America's fundamental mission endures. The same ideas that were under attack by communism and before that by fascism remain under attack today. Now, as then, we are defending an idea that has many names -- tolerance, liberty, civility, pluralism --but shows a constant face: the face of the democratic society. Now, as then, our special role in the world is to defend, enlarge and strengthen the community of democratic nations.

In pursuing this mission, our interests and ideals converge. We know from experience that democracies rarely go to war with one another or abuse the rights of their people. They make for better trading partners, and each one is a potential ally in the struggle against the forces of hatred and intolerance whether those forces take the shape of rogue nations, ethnic and religious hatreds or terrorists trafficking in weapons of mass destruction.

What we have left behind are the certitudes and simplifications of the past, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. During the Cold War, policy makers could justify every act with one word: containment. We got the big things right -- our policy of containment won the Cold War. But even the best policy can become the worst straitjacket if it is pursued too rigidly and reflexively, as we saw in Vietnam.

Now we have the opportunity to think anew about the best ways to protect and promote America's interests and ideals. Our tools of first resort remain diplomacy and the power of our example, but sometimes we must rely on the example of our power. We face no more important questions than when and how to use it. From our experience in countering traditional aggression, as in the Persian Gulf, and contending with more novel crises, as in Haiti and in Bosnia, there are some principles on the use of force that I would like to discuss with you.

First, let me cite one underlying and enduring principle: We will always be ready to use force to defend our national interests. Until human nature changes, power and force will remain at the heart of international relations.

This begs the question of just what those interests are. I would cite seven circumstances which, taken in some combination or even alone, may call for the use of force or military forces;


  • To defend against direct attacks on the United States, its citizens and its allies;
  • To counter aggression;
  • To defend our key economic interests, which is where most Americans will see their most immediate stake in our international engagement;
  • To preserve, promote and defend democracy, which enhances our security and the spread of our values;
  • To prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism and international crime and drug trafficking;
  • To maintain our reliability, because when our partnerships are strong and confidence in our leadership is high, it is easier to get others to work with us; and
  • For humanitarian purposes, to combat famines, natural disasters and gross abuses of human rights.

Not one of these interests by itself, with the obvious exception of an attack on our nation, people and allies, should automatically lead to the use of force. But the greater the number and the weight of the interests in play, the greater the likelihood that we will use force once all peaceful means have been tried and failed, and once we have measured a mission's benefits against its costs in both human and financial terms.

In Haiti, when we saw democracy stolen from its people, a reign of brutality take hold in our hemisphere, a flood of refugees to our shores, international agreements consistently violated and efforts to resolve the impasse through negotiations and sanctions fail, the case for intervention was compelling. In Bosnia, the worst atrocities in Europe since World War II, a dangerous fire at the very heart of the Continent, our commitments to our NATO allies and a peace agreement the parties were calling on us to secure required us to act.

But more than the "when" of using force, Haiti, Bosnia and some other recent interventions highlight principles that get at the "how" we should use force.

First, threatening to use force can achieve the same results as actually using it, but only if you're prepared to carry through on that threat. The best trained, best equipped and best prepared fighting force in the world has a unique ability to concentrate the minds of our adversaries without firing a shot.

In Haiti, when the military regime learned that the 82nd Airborne literally was on the way, it got out of the way. In the Persian Gulf, as soon as President Clinton moved American forces in the region, Iraq moved its troops away from Kuwait. And by backing diplomacy with the presence of U.S. forces to deter attack on the South, we convinced North Korea to freeze its dangerous nuclear weapons program.

A second principle is that the selective but substantial use of force is sometimes more appropriate than its massive use, provided that the force is adequate to the task, and then some. President Clinton refused to engage our troops in a ground war in Bosnia because he knew that no outside power could force peace on the parties. To do so would have risked a Vietnam-like quagmire. But this summer, the combination of NATO's heavy and continuous air strikes, Bosnian and Croat gains on the ground and our determined diplomacy convinced the Bosnian Serbs to stop making war and start making peace. Now our troops are in Bosnia not to fight a war, but to secure a peace they produced through the deliberate, calibrated use of force.

A final principle is this: Before we send our troops into a foreign country, we should know how and when we're going to get them out. Sounds simple, even obvious, but carefully defined exit strategies for foreign interventions have not been a hallmark of our foreign policy. Now they are, and that makes sense for America and for the people we're trying to help.

I don't want to be doctrinaire in asserting an exit strategy doctrine. When it comes to deterring external aggression, as in the Persian Gulf or the Korean Peninsula, or fighting wars in defense of our most vital security interests, a more open-ended commitment is necessary. But increasingly, our interests require that our military keep peace in the wake of internal conflicts. For these operations to succeed, tightly tailored missions and sharp withdrawal deadlines must be the norm.

The first step is to give our armed forces a clear mission with achievable military goals, as President Clinton did in both Haiti and Bosnia.

In Haiti, we asked our armed forces to return the elected government to power and restore a secure climate so that civilians could train a police force, hold elections and begin reconciliation.

In Bosnia, our soldiers are overseeing the implementation of the military side of the Dayton accords -- separating the armies, maintaining the cease-fire, securing transferred territory -- while civilian authorities help the Bosnian people rebuild their lives and their land. In both places, our troops are highly trained and heavily armed, with very clear rules of engagement. And the executive branch and Congress are united in their commitment to our military's goals and success, as they were in Operation Desert Storm.

Contrast these operations with Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia. There, clear and achievable missions for our military were not defined. In Vietnam, our society blamed our soldiers for a defeat that was not theirs. Because we neglected to ask the right questions and establish clear military goals from the start, the men and women of our armed forces paid a terrible price both in Vietnam and on their return home. We must never put them in that position again. Never.

The next step is to set deadlines for withdrawal based on the mission's goals. In Haiti, our military leaders informed the president that our troops could complete their military tasks in a year and a half and in Bosnia in about one year, and they will.

Here's why setting deadlines is so important: Neither we nor the international community has either the responsibility or the means to do whatever it takes for as long as it takes to rebuild nations. There are many reasons for this.

First, providing a security blanket without making clear it's on loan, and not for keeps, only gives those we are helping the comfort to evade their own responsibilities. It creates unreasonable expectations that the hard work will be done for them, not by them.

Second, assuming too much responsibility for a nation's future tends to undercut the very government you are trying to help. In Vietnam, the more we assumed responsibility for a weak Saigon administration, the more dependent it became and the more open to charges it was a puppet regime beholden to foreigners. Unless you make clear that your mission is limited in scope and duration, you risk delegitimating a government in the eyes of its own people.

Third, overstaying one's welcome ultimately breeds resentment of our presence and provides an easy target for blame when things go wrong. That target will be us.

By carefully defining the mission and clearly setting a deadline, we serve notice that our only goal is to give governments and people the breathing room they must have to tackle their own problems. This "tough love" policy may sound harsh to some. It may strike others as a gamble, but consider the alternative: self-defeating efforts to take on responsibilities that are not ours to create unsustainable dependencies instead of giving nations a chance to make their way independently.

It is a dangerous hubris to believe we can build other nations. But where our own interests are engaged, we can help nations build themselves and give them time to make a start.

I believe we can see the benefits of our exit strategy doctrine in Haiti and Bosnia.

Given the chance, the Haitian people quickly focused on the ballot, not the bullet; on trade, not terror; on hope, not despair. In just a year and a half, with our civilian help, they have completed presidential parliamentary and local government elections, trained a police force, dramatically improved the human rights situation and begun to reverse the economic decline of the coup years.

Haiti remains the poorest nation in the Americas. There is no guarantee democracy will ever take hold or the economy will prosper. But its people now have a real chance to build a better future for themselves and their children. And for the U.S. forces who are leaving when we promised they would, we can say "mission accomplished."

The same logic applies in Bosnia. Its people understand they have a window of opportunity that our military opened to decide their future in peace: to freely choose their own leaders; to begin to rebuild their roads and schools, their factories and their hospitals; to reunite children with their parents and families with their homes. At the end of this year, when our troops leave, we can reasonably hope that the people of Bosnia will have developed a greater stake in the peace than war, that peace will have taken on a life and logic of its own.

But let me make one point absolutely clear: The breathing room our military is providing in Haiti and Bosnia must be filled with the oxygen of reconstruction assistance. What we call civilian implementation is the vital and necessary companion to any peacekeeping operation. Our allies agree. That's why they are providing about 80 percent of the civilian assistance for Haiti and for Bosnia. The sooner people in conflicted countries recover the blessings of a normal life, the surer the chances our troops will leave behind them a legacy of peace and hope.

That's why Congress should unfreeze the modest amount of outstanding development assistance for Haiti to fund primary education, child care and immunizations. Now. And that's why we are working with Congress on our request for $200 million to assist civilian reconstruction in Bosnia -- money that will support economic revitalization and reform, the deployment of international police monitors and our demining efforts -- money that is needed now.

In both Haiti and Bosnia, our armed forces are doing everything we have asked of them and more. We should live up to their example. Their missions will only succeed if the civilian side can do its part. Holding back the dollars we need for relief and reconstruction doesn't serve our soldiers, it doesn't serve the people we're trying to help, and it doesn't serve our nation's interests.

One of the great privileges of my job is to travel around the world and to see firsthand the respect our nation enjoys. People look to us for leadership not only because of our size and our strength, but also because of what we stand for and what we're willing to stand against. Now, perhaps more than any other time in our history, America has a unique ability to make a difference for our own people and for people around the world.

Our duty is to help use this power as wisely as possible, to steer by the stars of our interests and our ideals. As President Clinton has said, we can't be everywhere. We can't do everything. But where those interests and ideals demand it and where we can make a difference, we must not hesitate to lead. We haven't, and we won't.

You must not hesitate, either. Many of you here today are embarking on careers in foreign policy. Whether you do so as teachers or researchers, government officials or journalists, you will have an opportunity to weigh in on the great foreign policy questions of our time. Weigh in with passion, weigh in with argument, but above all, weigh in. America needs to hear your voices. It needs to feel your enthusiasm.

Right now, no question is more fundamental and no outcome more important than America's role in the world. We can succeed only if we continue to lead. That is the lesson of what has come to be called the American Century. If we heed its call, we can remain a force for freedom and progress around the world and for real security and prosperity at home. And the next century will be an American century, too.


Published for internal information use by the American Forces Information Service, a field activity of the Office of the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), Washington, D.C. Parenthetical entries are speaker/author notes; bracketed entries are editorial notes. This material is in the public domain and may be reprinted without permission. Defense Issues is available on the Internet via the World Wide Web at