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Using Military Force When Deterrence Fails
Prepared remarks of Secretary of Defense William Perry , the Aspen (Colo.) Institute Conference, Sunday, August 06, 1995

I'd like to start my talk with a trivia question for you. What president ran for office on a platform of economic renewal, who, when his term began, found himself faced with intractable security problems -- messy border disputes, prolonged peacekeeping operations and a conflict in the Balkans -- and then said in a fit of exasperation: "It would be the supreme irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs?"

All good trivia questions are designed to mislead. So you may have guessed Bill Clinton, but the correct answer is Woodrow Wilson.

In Wilson's time, America wanted to focus on its domestic problems -- and we still do -- Democrats and Republicans alike. But we know how history dealt with Wilson's hopes.

With the end of the Cold War, all of us, including President Clinton, had high hopes -- hopes that a new world order would emerge. Some even forecast that the ending of the Cold War would bring about "an end of history." But history is being written every day in the mountains of Korea, the deserts of Kuwait, in the streets of Port au Prince and in the hills of Bosnia. Indeed, it has turned out to be a very dangerous world.

The dangers of military conflict fall into three broad categories. The first is the danger of a worldwide conflict. There have been two world conflicts since Wilson spoke his words, with more than 50 million killed in the last one. Today, with the advent of weapons of mass destruction, future worldwide conflicts are truly unthinkable.

During the Cold War, [Russian scientist and political dissident] Andrei Sakharov said, "Reducing the risk of annihilating humanity in a nuclear war carries an absolute priority over all other considerations." That priority is still true today on the anniversary of Hiroshima, for there are still more than 40,000 nuclear weapons as a last deadly legacy of the Cold War.

The second danger is the spread of regional conflicts around the world. Today, medium-sized countries -- North Korea, Iraq, Iran -- driven by virulent nationalism and armed with modern weapons can cause enormous damage to their neighbors.

The third danger is the proliferation of communal wars, fanned by ethnic and religious hatreds. Many of these hatreds were long suppressed by the rigid structure of the Cold War order. Unleashed, they erupt in a violence we thought the world had outgrown. A few years ago [Sen.] Daniel Moynihan wrote that "ethnicity is the great hidden force of this age. He was correct, except that this force is no longer hidden.

The best approach to conflict management is preventative; the next best approach is to deter by using the threat of military force; and if deterrence falls, we must finally be prepared to use that military force.

Preventing conflict involves creating conditions that make conflict less likely. Like a doctor practicing preventive medicine, we want, if possible, to prevent conditions that provoke conflict from occurring, or at least heal them before they are serious. Some have argued that these efforts are not the business of the Defense Department. I disagree; I call them "defense by other means," and we have launched major programs in the Defense Department to carry them out. The most significant of these is the Nunn-Lugar Program.

Five years ago, the United States and the Soviet Union were facing off with enough nuclear firepower to obliterate the globe. We no longer aim those weapons at each other; instead, we are working cooperatively to vastly reduce and dismantle our nuclear stockpiles. Under the Nunn-Lugar Program, the United States has helped the former Soviet republics remove more than 3,000 nuclear warheads from deployment and destroy more than 600 bombers and launchers.

We are also addressing the issues raised by the infrastructure that created those weapons by linking American companies with Russian defense industries to turn their Cold War arms factories into commercial enterprises. The U.S. and former Soviet republics have identified more than 100 arms factories that are prime candidates for conversion, most of them in Russia.

The Defense Department provides technical help and seed money through the Nunn-Lugar Program. For example, we helped the Russians convert a factory that made electronic warfare parts into making hearing aids. These Nunn-Lugar Programs, which are under attack in the Congress as we speak, are prime examples of what I have called defense by other means.

The Nunn-Lugar Program goes hand in hand with our efforts to assist the economic redevelopment of Russia under the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission. These efforts are essential if we are to lock in democratic reforms and market orientation in Russia.

We are also preventing the conditions of conflict by bringing Central and Eastern Europe into the security architecture of Europe though the Partnership for Peace. We have invited the former members of the Warsaw Pact to create strong, interactive links to NATO by joining us in joint training and joint peacekeeping exercises. After only 18 months of existence, 26 partner nations are now participating at many different levels. We will have 10 combined exercises this year, including Cooperative Nugget, which will be held at Fort Polk, La., this week.

And Partnership for Peace has brought more subtle breakthroughs, the kind of progress you can appreciate only if you look back at the way things were. Partners are now submitting their defense plans to their parliaments for approval, creating legislative oversight of military planning for the first time in their histories. And countries like Hungary and Romania, which have historic grievances with each other, are more focused on cooperation with NATO than acting on their differences.

Through these activities, the Partnership for Peace not only draws these nations closer to the West and helps make them ready for NATO membership, it also brings them closer to each other, again preventing the likelihood of conflict.

Another form of prevention is through controlling the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons. The Framework Agreement with North Korea is a prime example. It not only halted the North Korean program, but when fully implemented will roll it back, a result that goes far beyond IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] requirements. The sanctions on Iraq and Iran and the extension of the Nonproliferation Treaty are all part of an extensive effort to keep nuclear weapons out of the global conflict calculation.

We can also prevent conflict by sustaining and building upon our strong alliances with NATO, Japan, Korea, and by developing new security relations with China and India, ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] nations and with nations in our own hemisphere. Just last week I hosted the first-ever meeting of defense ministers of this hemisphere, and we developed programs to build on the confidence-building measures that have helped avoid conflicts in this hemisphere.

These preventive measures have been largely successful. A measure of their success is the absence of conflict, therefore the absence of CNN [Cable News Network] coverage. Therefore the public as a whole is not familiar with these programs or their success. In this respect, CNN lets us see our world, but it does not help us understand it. It is a classic case of "the dog that didn't bark."

So we have had real successes in conflict prevention, but we cannot be complacent. Far too often we are unable to prevent conflict and are forced to use the threat of military force to deter it.

Deterrence was the primary security objective of the Cold War. We pointed virtually our entire security effort at the Soviet Union and paid particular attention to the threat of a nuclear attack. It was a concerted national and alliance effort. Today, we need to establish comparable objectives to deter major regional conflicts. Deterrence stems from military capability coupled to political will, and that political will must both be real and perceived.

For example, deterrence failed in Korea in 1950 when North Korea doubted our political will. Since then, there has been no doubt about our deterrent capability and political will to help defend South Korea. However, North Korean leaders could again miscalculate if they had a nuclear arsenal. That is why the framework agreement to halt the North Korean nuclear program is so important.

Deterrence failed again in Iraq in 1990 because Iraq doubted our political will to defend Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. By contrast, deterrence succeeded in 1994 when Iraq again threatened Kuwait, because our political will was manifested by rapid deployments to the gulf countries of U.S. forces.

Within days after Iraqi forces had moved to the Kuwaiti border, we had deployed to the gulf 200 fighter aircraft, an armored brigade, a Marine expeditionary unit and a carrier battle group. These forces created in a few days the presence that it took many weeks to achieve in 1990, and faced with that presence, Saddam Hussein sent his brigades back to their barracks. This was a clear example of why it is better to deter a war than to fight one.

But when deterrence fails, we must then be prepared to use military force to prevail. In this case, the goal of conflict management is to prevail as quickly as possible and with minimum casualties. That objective drives the size, structure and composition of our military forces today. It requires us to have our forces in a state of high readiness. It requires forward positioning of forces, 100,000 in Europe, 100,000 in the East Asia-Pacific region and about 20,000 in the Southwest Asia theater. It requires maintaining pre-positioned equipment in the gulf, Korea and Europe. And it requires carrier task forces and Marine expeditionary units afloat, able to move quickly to any crisis point. Finally, it requires that we have forces on high alert in the U.S. and that we have the lift capability to rapidly transport them and their equipment.

Let me offer you my personal assurance that our military forces today meet those requirements -- and that our forces are capable of meeting any military threat that we anticipate.

But how do we decide when to use military force or the threat of military force? The answer is determined by whether our vital interests are concerned -- where the survivability of the U.S. or a U.S. ally is threatened by military force, by economic strangulation or by the threat of nuclear weapons.

How does this formula apply to Bosnia -- the focus of today's headlines? It is clear that the status quo in Bosnia is unacceptable. So we must question: How did we get in this situation, and how do we get out of it?

First, how did we get into it? Bosnia applied for and was granted U.N. membership in 1991. In retrospect, it is clear that that judgment took insufficient consideration of the views of the Serb minority and the Croatian minority in Bosnia. In any event, the decision was made, the Serbs in Bosnia rejected the decision and rebelled. The Croatian minority also rebelled, starting a three-sided civil war. This became a war of aggression as Serbia sided with the Bosnian Serbs.

Thus, like Vietnam, it was civil war aided by outside aggression -- the most difficult of conflicts to manage. The Bosnian Serbs acquired most of the heavy weapons, tanks and artillery of the Yugoslav army that was based in Bosnia. Therefore, they had a distinct military advantage, and they conducted a largely successful military campaign that was accompanied by ethnic cleansing -- driving out the other ethnic populations. In 1992, more than 100,000 civilians became casualties, and many hundreds of thousands of people became refugees.

This caused the U.N. to send in a peacekeeping force to attempt to deliver humanitarian aid to alleviate the suffering, and they have had a significant degree of success in meeting that goal. In 1993, the civilian casualties dropped to 13,000, in 1994 to 3,000. Three thousand casualties is still a tragedy, but it is a dramatic improvement over the suffering before the U.N. came in.

But while the peacekeepers were delivering humanitarian assistance, a war was going on in Bosnia, and what was really needed was a peace enforcement operation. In my opinion, the correct approach in 1991 would have been for the U.N. to have given the task to NATO. Indeed, we and the international community tried to patch up this flaw by calling in NATO after the fact to provide air support for the peacekeepers and to help protect the safe areas.

There have been problems evident with this arrangement all along, but these problems became manifest when the Serbs overran Srebrenica and Zepa. It became clear that UNPROFOR [U.N. Protection Force] must either be fixed or the pressures to withdraw it will become irresistible.

If UNPROFOR withdraws, unless we wish to turn our backs on the Bosnian people, an alternative I reject, we must supply some form of assistance to the Bosnian government. The most obvious assistance would be to send U.S. or NATO military forces. Both President [George] Bush and later President Clinton decided that while we have important interests in the Bosnia situation, those interests are not sufficient to justify the commitment of U.S. forces as combatants in the conflict. Therefore, we have not and will not become combatants.

Many have argued that we could solve the problem by supplying arms to the Bosnian government. On Friday evening, here in Aspen, [former British Prime Minister] Lady [Margaret] Thatcher made a strong appeal that the proper course was to withdraw UNPROFOR and then supply arms to the Bosnians. In her view, this would allow the Bosnian government to win their war and justice would be done. I wish that were true, but her focus on aggression ignored the civil war aspect of the conflict, and her appeal to principle wished away the most likely consequences of such a course of action.

Before her talk, she told me, "You won't like my talk." After her talk, I told her that I found it compelling and thought that three-fourths of it was right: right that morality was on the side of the Bosnian government; right that UNPROFOR had failed in some of its key goals; right that the status quo was unacceptable and new action was necessary.

But I told her that I believed that she was wrong on what action should be taken. Wrong because we cannot separate the correctness of a principled action from its probable consequences.

Pulling out UNPROFOR would have the following consequences: The U.N. would call on NATO to assist in the withdrawal, which would be risky, costly and shameful; all delivery of humanitarian assistance would cease; Gorazde would fall, and Sarajevo and Tuzla would be endangered -- there is no possibility of getting arms in soon enough or to the enclaves; and there would be enormous pressures on the U.S. to send in military forces to assist the beleaguered Bosnians.

The proponents of sending arms say that only U.S. arms are necessary, that they are not asking for U.S. military forces. Friday night Lady Thatcher quoted Winston Churchill's 1940 message to Franklin Roosevelt: "Send us the arms and we will finish the job."

It is a good analogy, but it proves a point quite different from that intended. For we did send the arms, but it was not possible for Britain to "finish the job." In the end, we also had to send more than 10 million American troops to "finish the job."

So if sending in arms is not sufficient, and if we are not willing to send in troops, what can we do about the tragedy in Bosnia? Three actions are currently under way. The Serbs have been given an ultimatum on Gorazde and the other safe areas that NATO will conduct major air strikes if they attack safe areas. That ultimatum seems to be working at Gorazde. The British, French and Dutch have sent in another 10,000 ground troops armed with artillery and armored personnel carriers. These reaction forces have been successful in opening supply routes to Sarajevo. A Croatian offensive is under way which will take the Serbian pressure off the Bihac enclave.

But let me be clear. Neither these military actions nor any others that I believe to be realistic will bring about a military solution in Bosnia. But all of these developments combined suggests there may now be a window of opportunity for a negotiated peace settlement that will preserve a Bosnian state.

All of us want peace in Bosnia, just as we want a peaceful and stable world. But we need to remember FDR's caution: "Americans take pride in the fact that we are softhearted, but we cannot afford to be soft-headed."

I can tell you, that as long as I am secretary of defense, I will not send U.S. ground forces to be combatants in the war in Bosnia. And I will continue to argue against other proposed actions that sound easy and cheap but which will prove ineffective or even counterproductive.

Let me close by recalling where I started -- with the complexity of the world after the Cold War. Of the three types of conflicts I mentioned, the last -- the communal type -- has proven to be the most difficult and absorbed the most attention in the media.

But let me remind you that if we got the first or second type wrong, the worldwide conflict or the major regional conflict, the consequences would be far more devastating to world order and to our national interests.

I would argue that we have gotten them right, but precisely because we have gotten them right they don't get much media attention. Since World War II, we have prevented another worldwide conflict; during the Cold War by a dedication to vigorous deterrence; since the end of the Cold War, we have worked hard to create the conditions that can prevent another worldwide conflict. Since Vietnam, we have fought and won one major regional conflict, but we have deterred several others that would have been very costly. A large part of the credit for these successes goes to America maintaining highly ready military forces, robust alliances and aggressive forward defenses.

There is still strong public support for these policies. To squander America's public support for those policies by misguided involvement in a communal conflict would be both a mistake and a tragedy.

I would like to close with a line from the last page of Voltaire's "Candide." After being brutally mistreated and having all his ideals and dreams shattered, Candide declares that the only thing worth doing is to live in peace and to cultivate our garden.

That is what conflict management is all about, "to live in peace." And if we succeed, we will all be able "to cultivate our gardens."


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