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Great care must be taken in the use of military force

Published Oct. 12, 2005

There has been a spate of commentary recently over the use of American military force to deal with the vexing problems of an untidy post-Cold War world.

The military has been criticized for being too reluctant to use force. In a recent editorial, for example, the New York Times suggested that the military has a "no can do" attitude and asked whether America is getting a fair return on its defense investment.

The editorial even reached back to the famous exchange between President Lincoln and Gen. McClellan during the Civil War. Lincoln, frustrated with McClellan's slowness in engaging the enemy, told him, "If you don't want to use the Army, I should like to borrow it for a while."

Let me respond by reviewing a little more recent history. During the last three years U.S. armed forces have been used repeatedly to defend our interests and achieve our political objectives.

In December 1989 a dictator was removed from power in Panama. In that same month, when a coup threatened to topple democracy in the Philippines, a limited use of force helped prevent it.

In January 1991 a daring night raid rescued our embassy in Somalia. That same month we rescued stranded foreigners and protected our embassy in Liberia.

We waged a major war in the Persian Gulf.

Moreover, we have used our forces for humanitarian relief operations in Iraq, Somalia, Bangladesh, Russia and Bosnia. American C-130 aircraft are part of the relief effort in Sarajevo.

All of these operations had one thing in common: They were successful. There have been no Bays of Pigs, failed desert raids, Beirut bombings and no Vietnams.

Today, American troops around the world are protecting the peace in Europe, the Persian Gulf, Korea, Cambodia, the Sinai and the western Sahara.

Americans know they are getting a hell of a return on their defense investment, even as the critics shout for imprudent reductions that would gut the armed forces.

The reason for our success is that in every instance we have carefully matched the use of military force to our political objectives.

George Bush, more than any other recent president, understands the proper use of military force. In every instance, he has made sure that the objective was clear and that we knew what we were getting into.

We owe it to the men and women who go in harm's way to make sure that their lives are not squandered for unclear purposes. Military men and women recognize more than most people that not every situation will be crystal clear. We can and do operate in murky, unpredictable circumstances. We offer a range of options.

But we also recognize that military force is not always the right answer. If force is used imprecisely or out of frustration rather than clear analysis, the situation can be made worse. Decisive means and results are always to be preferred, even if not always possible.

So you bet I get nervous when so-called experts suggest that all we need is a little surgical bombing or a limited attack.

When the desired result isn't obtained, a new set of experts then comes forward with talk of a little escalation. History has not been kind to this approach.

The crisis in Bosnia is especially complex. Our policy and the policy of the international community have been to assist in providing humanitarian relief to the victims of that terrible conflict, one with deep ethnic and religious roots that go back a thousand years. The solution must ultimately be a political one. Deeper military involvement beyond humanitarian purposes requires great care and a full examination of possible outcomes. That is what we have been doing.

Whatever is decided on this or the other challenges that will come along, Americans can be sure that their armed forces will be ready, willing and able to accomplish the mission.

Finally, allow me to set the record straight on Lincoln's frustration with McClellan. Lincoln's problem with McClellan was that McClellan would not use the overwhelming force available to him to achieve a decisive result. Lincoln had set out clear political objectives. McClellan acted in a limited, inconclusive way. We have learned the proper lessons of history, even if some journalists have not.

Gen. Colin L. Powell is chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

New York Times