Academic journal article Policy Review

The Politics of Airstrikes

Academic journal article Policy Review

The Politics of Airstrikes

Article excerpt

IN THEIR BOOK Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers (1986), Harvard professors Richard Neustadt and Ernest May make an important observation. Washington decision makers, and even academics, students, journalists, and the average citizen, "used history in their decisions, at least for advocacy or for comfort, whether they knew any or not." While most of their work concentrates on the question of whether or not decision makers, within the limits of their circumstances, could have done better, it also focuses on how decision makers often misread cases in history and draw inaccurate comparisons and parallels. Munich framed many decisions after World War II. Vietnam has been the military's frame of reference for over two decades, and the past decade has seen the Gulf War used as the antithetical comparison to Vietnam. Whether these analogies are appropriate or not, they are used over and over, often to the detriment of thoughtful reflection. The military itself indulges too often in complacent hindsight, and it has done so again in looking back on the Kosovo air campaign, Operation Allied Force.

Much of the debate since Allied Force, especially in military circles and the Air Force in particular, has centered around the dissatisfaction of many commanders with the strategy of the campaign. These commanders are critical of the basic strategy choices made by NATO's leaders, arguing that politicians needlessly hampered the application of a coherent and doctrinally pure air power strategy, thereby risking American credibility and also prolonging the war itself. What is most disturbing about this after-action chastisement is the absence of the appropriate collegiality coupled with civilian primacy that is necessary for both healthy civil-military relations as well as good national policy. Exacerbating this is the military's misreading of both the Vietnam War and the Gulf War. Vietnam is remembered as a case of air power being undermined by civilian control of air operations, with images of President Johnson and Secretary of Defense McNamara on their knees in the Oval Office selecting targets. The Gulf War is remembered as a textbook case of proper civilian noninvolvement, with President Bush, Secretary of Defense Cheney, and others merely standing back while the air planners conducted a lethal and successful strategy.

Both of these notions are incorrect, and they are especially harmful because they lead to the subsequent conclusion that politicians should only set objectives, not involve themselves with military plans or scrutinize the conduct of operations. A closer study of Vietnam, Iraq, and Kosovo reveals a far more complicated relationship between civilian policymakers and military leaders in setting air strategy than is generally understood either by military leaders or their civilian masters. The fundamentals of success in air warfare are candor, collegiality, and a common sense of purpose. And it is time to put to rest the unsupportable notion that civilians should only give broad guidance and then stay out of the way.

The criticism

LIEUTENANT GENERAL MICHAEL SHORT, now retired, served as the Air Component Commander during Allied Force. He has publicly decried the strategy of an incremental, gradual escalation, appealing to the president and those above him in the military commands (the regional commanders in chief, or CINC's), that they should heed the advice of airmen, who best understand how to carry out a campaign. Just weeks after the end of the war in an interview with the Washington Post, he declared that "as an airman, I'd have done this a whole lot differently than I was allowed to do. We could have done this differently. We should have done this differently." He further expanded his argument in a speech at the Air Force Association Air Warfare Symposium in February 2000:

We need to prepare our politicians as best we can for what is going to happen. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.