Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World

  • Published

Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World by Micah Zenko. Stanford Security Studies, 2010, 240 pp.   

Though the collapse of the Soviet Union meant the end of the United States’ foremost geopolitical adversary, it did not mean the end of global resistance to American foreign policy goals. During the five presidencies since the end of the Cold War, the US has found itself at odds with many international actors, and American policymakers have often attempted to resolve those conflicts by employing military force. Aside from the two Gulf Wars and the invasion of Afghanistan, that military force has often been employed in uniquely limited packages. 

In his historical analysis Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World, author Micah Zenko, Whitehead Senior Fellow on the US and the Americas Programme at Chatham House, illuminates the often-shadowy world of these packages, which he calls discrete military operations (DMO). As defined by Zenko, these uses of force refrain from attempting to control territory and usually involve destroying equipment and facilities or causing casualties in pursuit of military and political goals. The book seeks to evaluate US policymakers’ past choices and offer recommendations as to how limited force can be more effectively applied in the future. Though initially published in 2010, it has remained relevant over the past decade as American policymakers have opted time and time again to use limited military force in pursuit of geopolitical goals. 

Zenko examines 36 historical cases of the use of DMOs, synthesizing their causes, successes, failures, and ultimate outcomes into compelling findings on the nature of limited application of military force. Also, he examines case studies of particularly instructive operations in detail. These case studies form the core of the book and lay out the historical context around the events and the decision-making processes of presidents, policymakers, intelligence professionals, and military officials surrounding American limited uses of force. Ultimately, the book concludes that while DMOs are mostly successful at achieving military objectives, they are very often ineffective as a strategic tool for achieving political goals. 

To reach this conclusion, Zenko isolates the political and military objectives of each DMO included in the study and evaluates each operation’s effectiveness separately across both categories. Analysis of the data reveals that more than half of DMOs met all of their military objectives, but only two of the 36 cases evaluated achieved all desired political objectives. He correctly assesses, however, that raw data does not tell the whole story. In the case of a human undertaking, such as the decision to apply military force, psychology, history, and geopolitical context all have important roles to play in building a complete understanding of events. In pursuit of this deeper understanding of the nature of DMOs, Zenko conducts in-depth studies of four cases: the Iraqi No-Fly-Zones of 1991–2003, Operation Infinite Reach in 1998, the CIA targeted killing in Yemen in 2002, and the 2002 proposed operation targeting Khurmal, Iraq. 

Of particular note is his examination of Operation Infinite Reach, the 1998 action in which, as a response to al-Qaeda attacks on US embassies in Africa, President Bill Clinton authorized two cruise missile strikes on a pharmaceutical plant in El-Shifa, Sudan suspected of nerve gas production and an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan where a senior leadership meeting was purportedly taking place. Zenko argues that the operation failed, both militarily and politically. He lays out the respective military objectives: kill Osama bin Laden and destroy the El-Shifa facility. Bin Laden was not killed because his travel plans changed at the last minute. Consequently, he did not end up at the targeted al-Qaeda  training camp at the same time as did the 66 BGM-109 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles fired from the Arabian Sea. The El-Shifa facility was successfully destroyed. Overall, the attack was a partial military success, but, Zenko writes, on both fronts it was a political failure. Instead of deterring al-Qaeda, as the administration intended, the Afghanistan attack only further cemented the bonds between al-Qaeda  and their Taliban hosts. The destruction of the El-Shifa facility, which turned out to be only tenuously connected to bin Laden, failed to inflict any meaningful damage on al-Qaeda or to coerce the Sudanese government from continuing to host terrorists. Zenko argues that these outcomes point to a larger truth: achieving political objectives with DMOs is extraordinarily hard. 

The consistent factor, Zenko writes, that ties together most of the political failures is that DMOs are often designed with clearly unattainable political objectives. They do not take into account the biggest driver of adversary behavior: the pressures created by the general populace, living on the ground, who decide on their own if they will support, resist, or remain neutral to the international terrorist organizations working among them. 

Based on his findings regarding the nature of DMOs, Zenko recommends several focal points for military planners and policymakers going forward. Among them is his assertion that senior civilian and military officials should work toward building a unified and realistic picture of what DMOs can and cannot accomplish. This recommendation is all the more pressing due to the fact that in the decade since the publication of the book, American policymakers have continued to use limited force in pursuit of political goals, which, as Zenko predicts, has rarely resulted in political success. Though an update to the case studies to reflect the past 10 years of DMOs would be a welcome addition, the intervening decade in no way lessens the impact of the truths Zenko surfaces. Both policy professionals and laypeople will find Between Threats and War helpful in parsing the increasingly complex nature of American use of force. 

1st Lt Winston R. Atnip, USAF 

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."