The New Moral Climate for the Use of Force

Nov 13, 2001

The U.S. needs new rules of force to fight President Bush's "war on terror" and 21st century threats, says General Shelton in his keynote address for the first Carnegie-Georgetown Forum.

Edited transcript of the first Carnegie-Georgetown Forum, cosponsored by the Carnegie Council and Georgetown University (Washington, D.C., 11/13/01)

A couple of months ago, a letter from this fine University's president crossed my desk at the Pentagon. Doctor DeGioia asked for my thoughts on the ethics of military force, suggesting that the decades I've spent in American uniform might give me some unique insight into the issue.

It was a nice vote of confidence. And, yes, I do have some combat experience, as well as some thoughts that may stimulate discussion. So I eagerly accepted the invitation. That was on the 5th of September. Now, in light of the events of the 11th of September, the issue takes on a whole new meaning.

As I was preparing for this evening's remarks, I reread John's letter, and was especially struck by his comment that "political, social, and technological changes in the international system have forced leaders and citizens alike to reconsider assumptions about the ethics of military force." I can't imagine a more politically, socially, and technologically-driven event than the despicable attacks against our country on September 11th. The very circumstances of these attacks may force a change in what we consider the ethical use of military force.

Tonight's remarks are based on one fundamental truth: that the attack we suffered in New York and Washington two months ago was not a crime of petty scofflaws, but an act of war against the United States by a trained cadre of terrorists. That understanding must color our thoughts as we wrestle with new concepts and assumptions about the lawful use of force. If you're not sure that this was an act of war, consider it this way: Had we been attacked with cruise missiles, it would have been clear cut. In this case, we faced hijacked airliners, which were essentially the poor man's version of a cruise missile, used exactly as a weapon of war would be used, to equally devastating effect. It's not necessary to delve into the legal niceties of whether the attacks were state-sponsored or the acts of a terrorist organization. For the thousands of victims, the result was the same.

I would like to offer two points for discussion:

  1. The rules have changed since the attacks of September 11th, as the circumstances under which we defined the lawful use of force no longer exist.
  2. You cannot debate the lawfulness of the use of military force absent a framework that includes all elements of national power. Debating the use of military force is meaningless without considering its use in conjunction with the diplomatic, informational, and economic instruments of statecraft as well.

I'll address each of those ideas in turn, but first let me set the stage with a review of traditional thinking on the lawful use of military force. We must have that common staging ground to effectively define the new concepts that recent events have dictated.

Since the rise of the modern nation-state, wars typically have been contests fought between states over territory, for economic gain, or for strategic advantage. Efforts to limit the use of war and codify the lawful use of force in war, predate the First World War. The devastation of that war led to an international peace movement that aimed to ensure that the Great War was, indeed, the "war to end all wars." One of this movement's champions was President Woodrow Wilson, and his goal, embodied in the League of Nations, was to avoid the types of misunderstandings and arguments that led to war.

The high water mark of the inter-war Peace Movement was the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, where war itself was outlawed as a tool of statecraft. Sadly, the events preceding World War II showed that the effort to outlaw war effectively denied states the right of self-defense. Avoiding conflict and the appeasement of evil led only to a greater conflict and more suffering in the long run.

World War II provides us a powerful and tragic example of what happens when the world fails to stand up to naked aggression. We attempted to balance the two - the idealism inherent in President Wilson's vision, and the reality dictated by the need to defend our interests and those of our allies. The result was the United Nations. Although the UN Charter strongly discourages the use of military force, it also recognizes that there are circumstances in which war is necessary by acknowledging that states have the inherent right of individual and collective self-defense. Indeed, there is also a value in collective security: an attack on one is an attack on all.

As expected, there have been a number of serious and sometimes extremely divisive ethical and legal debates arising from the armed conflicts in which the United States has fought since World War II, from Korea and Vietnam to our involvement in Grenada, Panama, and Operation Desert Storm. For various reasons, each of these conflicts drew opposition, both at home and abroad, and the debate still continues over whether they fit the requirements to justify war for either self or collective defense. In each case, however, the stated intent was to defend vital U.S. interests and those of our allies and friends. They, therefore, were justifiable uses of military force.

More recently, a similar debate has emerged in the aftermath of the Cold War, centered on the use of force during humanitarian military interventions within states that have violated the human rights of their own citizens, and not for more traditional acts of aggression against other states. Demands for action have been fueled by the so-called "CNN effect." The visuals of terror and suffering, coupled with instantaneous satellite communications and the Internet, compress the time period between learning of events and responding to demands to "do something."

Much has been said and written about the failure of the international community—especially the United States—to label the mass murders in Rwanda as genocide and act appropriately, or the length of time that it took for NATO to intervene in Bosnia. On the other hand, others have condemned the United States for its use of force in 1999 in Yugoslavia, when NATO intervened to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, as well as for its use of force over the past ten years in Iraq, where we have imposed No Fly Zones to prevent Saddam Hussein from not only terrorizing his neighbors, but—more importantly—his own Shi'ite and Kurdish populations.

I would argue, however, that this debate is too shallow. A more helpful exercise would be to move beyond a specific situation to probe the larger issue of intervention itself. The key is to consider the proper role of military intervention within the context of using every available tool of national power in pursuit of our national interests.

Therefore, I ask you: does the debate over the use of force to stem human rights violations reveal gaps in international law, or the failure of the will to see existing laws through to their logical conclusion? Or perhaps both?

So far, I've focused on traditional concepts of the lawful use of military force. The debate over our role in Iraq or the Balkans has been conducted through the lens of an old paradigm surrounding the laws of war. Two months ago, however, that lens was shattered. It's time now to build and focus on a new paradigm, and to determine whether the existing rules are adequate to address the current threat. Principally, we must answer the question: "What of non-state actors?"

Currently, the primary focus of the law of armed conflict is on nation-states, and the law addresses non-state actors as unlawful combatants. But what if the non-state actors act as belligerents? This is clearly the problem we are facing today.

Our prime suspect in the September 11th attack is a non-state actor. How do we respond, then, within the limits of the current laws of armed conflict? Are we constrained by those limits when our new enemies were not?

The terrorists responsible for attacking the World Trade Center and other civilian targets flouted the traditional conventions of war by targeting and attacking innocent civilians, who are not lawful objects of attack. For terrorists, non-combatants are a legitimate target. There is, of course, a huge difference between that concept and the collateral damage and deaths of non-combatants that result from military forces attacking lawful targets.

What is the correct response morally and ethically? And once we decide, will it help or hinder our inherent obligation to defend our interests and those of our allies? These are the questions you must help us answer in light of the September 11th attacks. Beyond these serious questions of what constitutes a lawful use of force—the limits on the lawful use of force and whether the limits against non-state actors should now be relaxed—I often reflect not only on the justifiable use of force, but also on its judicious use.

The Armed Forces constitute a formidable hammer in our nation's tool kit. But not every problem out there is a nail. While America is blessed with the world's strongest military, military strength alone is not sufficient to overcome or solve the emerging problems that threaten peace and stability around the world. The population explosion, competition for land and scarce resources, including water, the spread of infectious diseases such as AIDS, bitter ethnic and religious hatreds, poverty and the demand for illegal drugs—such factors help to foster instability, fuel unrest, and magnify the potential for armed conflict. Many of these problems defy military solution, yet the military is often called upon to restore order once conflict breaks out.

I would submit that a wiser approach is to prevent potential flash points from erupting into crisis would require us to confront the broader issues from a regional perspective, and with a coherent unified action plan. It means bringing together multiple government agencies in a concerted use of all elements of national power. In many cases, it requires seeking international cooperation as well.

We don't need to start from a blank sheet of paper in furthering this approach. As many in this audience are aware, a framework for U.S. interagency cooperation is already defined in Presidential Decision Directive 56, which brings all the appropriate elements of our government to bear on complex contingency operations that involve America's national interests. Since 1997, we've had the guidelines for creating a coordinated planning effort. What has been consistently missing is the timely application of other governmental services either before the outbreak of conflict or, if conflict has already broken out, once the Armed Forces have restored peace.

It's my firm conviction that for the military component of an operation to have any long-term benefit, civilian agencies and appropriate international organizations must be prepared immediately to step in once the fighting stops to restore the rule of law, set up a functioning court system, and provide other vitally important civic and commercial services. This does not mean that we ought to become—either factually or theoretically—an "occupying power." We should integrate the military and civilian elements at the front end of an operation so they all move forward together toward the same end.

To drive this point home, we've seen President Bush remind us that this current conflict requires much more than simply a military response. Our Armed Forces, the diplomatic corps, and other government agencies play complementary roles in fostering international trust and understanding. They are aided by the international involvement of American business and industry. By encouraging free markets and representative government, we enhance the prospects for world peace, security and prosperity. This is compounded by work with our allies and friends both bilaterally and through regional and international forums.

You see the pattern here. The best plan of action must include the use of all elements of national power. An argument about lawful use of military force absent that framework is meaningless. We can define what's lawful, no matter what the circumstances, only through considering the military's role in that larger effort involving all elements of our power.

Make no mistake—preserving the peace, security, and prosperity that we all want will require a strong defense. Just imagine a world without a powerful America. But notice I said strong defense, not strong military. That's necessary too, but a strong defense goes beyond the military might of the United States, a proper use of which is definable only as part of a larger and broader effort.

Today America faces a new array of national security challenges. We must be equal to the task. Part of this broad effort requires that we determine the adequacy of the rules for lawful use of military force, given the circumstances thrust on us two months ago in New York and Washington. Another part requires defining our best use of military force in a larger effort that includes all elements of our national power. Fortunately, we have a civilian national security team that understands that fully. And we have senior military leaders —my successor and good friend General Dick Myers foremost among them—who understand that as well. They're masters of the interagency process, and they relish being part of that larger national security team.

For your part, I encourage all of you to help us define what's necessary to meet the new security challenges of today's unconventional defense environment. Be creative in your search for solutions to complex national security problems. Don't just think outside the box; build a new box. We can't afford to be constrained by old paradigms. September 11th showed us why. Help us define what is now proper and lawful in the use of military force. And help us reinforce the absolute necessity of considering the use of that force only in the context of a larger plan that uses every other element of national power we can bring to bear.

In closing, let me leave you with a heartfelt thought. There are few callings higher than that of serving one's country. I sincerely hope that many of you— Georgetown's best and brightest—will join with those of us in uniform in this worthy mission.

Thank you again for inviting me today, and for you attention. May God bless you, and may God bless America.

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