THE WRITTEN WORD American Force: Dangers, Delusions, and Dilemmas in National Security

By: Reviewed by MAJ Bradley J. Krauss , US Army

American Force: Dangers,
Delusions, and Dilemmas in
National Security

by Richard K. Betts

New York: Columbia
University Press, 2012
Paperback: US$22.00
367 pages


A lengthy absence from the academic world can make returning to graduate school an intimidating proposition. Those of us who have been military practitioners more than theorizers over the past decade have found it necessary to push aside introspective thought in favor of preparing for the current or next challenge. When the time finally comes to make the leap back into academia and expand our minds' ability to think critically about the world, we inevitably face some start-up costs: recalling and dusting off long-forgotten theories, catching up on domestic and international events and their consequences, recalling the lessons of history that apply to current realities, and thinking critically about where we stand as citizens and professionals. If I could recommend one book to a friend who is preparing to embark on a graduate-level study of national security in general or defense analysis in particular, Richard K. Betts's American Force: Dangers, Delusions, and Dilemmas in National Security would be that book.1

This collection of essays, some not previously published and others recently revised, focuses on the United States' role as the sole post–Cold War superpower and the current threats to its continued peace and security. Betts's dedication of the book to a young Army officer killed in Iraq at the height of the surge in 2007 may initially lead the reader to think that American Force is an overall condemnation of American interventionism and militarism, typified by the second invasion of Iraq in 2003. This assumption would be only partly true. While Betts is highly critical of the invasion of Iraq under false pretenses, he does not oppose the general principle of using military force to achieve political objectives. He does favor using the military decisively in circumstances where it can genuinely further US national interests. Betts also notes that not every adversity requires military force and not every upheaval is truly a threat. In sum, American Force seeks to both define the national security landscape and lay out options for those charged with maintaining it.

In "Part I: The Post–Cold War Hiatus," Betts describes how the United States effectively built the NATO alliance as an extension of American power and influence to deal with the Soviet Union. This strategy proved effective: it brought about the USSR's collapse, ended the Cold War, and ushered in an era of US unipolarity. With the end of the persistent threat of large-scale nuclear war, the United States no longer feared a debilitating attack from a single near-peer competitor but began to suffer unexpected lesser pinpricks from smaller developing states and non-state actors. No longer hindered by the need to confront communism and the Soviets at every turn, the United States was free to intervene wherever it saw fit. What US leaders must do more effectively, Betts argues, is first determine the criteria for intervening militarily and once the decision to intervene is made, fully commit to resolving the crisis—and avoid jumping only halfway across the ditch.2 Additionally, while the threat from weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is still very real, today we expect them to arrive under the radar, in the hands of a rogue actor instead of atop a state's intercontinental ballistic missiles. Betts contends, however, that the United States still relies too heavily on using its nuclear capability to deter states; those actors most likely to use WMD do not have a return address against which states can retaliate.

"Part II: History Strikes Back" tackles the difficulties and challenges facing the United States in the post-9/11 world: terrorism, military interventions ranging in scale from covert action to outright war, China's rise, and Russia's resurgence. In most cases, Betts notes, terrorism offers a high psychological impact compared to the relatively minor physical damage it imparts, and so will remain a popular tool for those who oppose the United States' global primacy but are ill-equipped to match its military might. For those instances in which the United States does consider confronting an identifiable opponent with force, Betts argues that the US military must maintain a minimum spectrum of capabilities, from deterrence to counterinsurgency to conventional superiority. This will ensure that the US effort will be both effective (the policy objectives are achieved) and efficient (success comes at the lowest possible cost in blood and treasure). Despite the fact that neither China nor Russia can rival raw US military power and professionalism, China's continued rise as a regional hegemon in the western Pacific and Russia's attempt to reassert power against NATO represent the only true threats to unipolarity. Betts advises that both should be countered through either a multilateral approach, the reassertion of Western hegemony, or a balance of power. He underlines this entire discussion on the use of force with an argument that the preemptive use of force has validity in international law, while wars of prevention are in essence acts of unprovoked aggression.3 In the twenty-first century, one of the more tempting preventive measures is air strikes. Betts warns that when weighing the merits of such a strike ahead of time, decision makers should consider not only what they know the strike might destroy but also what might be hidden from them and left intact.4

Finally, in "Part III: Decision and Implementation," Betts questions how accurate Samuel Huntington's models of civil-military relations are today, given the drastic changes in the geopolitical environment since The Soldier and the State was published in 1957.5 Betts notes that although most democracies' civil-military relations tend to lie somewhere between the extremes of outright hostility and perfect harmony, the system works as long as senior military leaders don't become political appointees and the military and political leaders can openly discuss their views with each other. He then seeks to answer the question of whether even a well-crafted strategy—a necessary preparation for waging war—can tie political objectives to military outcomes in a meaningful way. To do so, he outlines 10 critiques of how well strategies (and by extension, strategists) predict the best way to link policy with operations to achieve victory.6 To avoid sounding like a pessimist regarding the importance of aspiring to good strategy, Betts provides a rebuttal to each critique. He concludes that for strategy to be effective, the use of force should generate significantly more benefits than costs; strategies should be kept as simple as possible; and policy makers need a strong understanding of the military tools they seek to deploy.

Before concluding this section, Betts takes on a topic that tends to be a lightning rod in discussions of this nature: defense spending. He notes that US defense spending today is at about the same level it was (adjusted for inflation) during the Cold War, even though the United States no longer faces a near-peer enemy like the Soviet Union. The Pentagon, he concludes, should focus on emerging threats and avoid frivolous spending on individual services' pet projects or the pursuit of new capabilities at the edge of the "realm of the possible."

Now that I'm in the second quarter of my graduate studies, I find that American Force offers an informative perspective on many of our class discussions. Betts has something valuable to say for anyone who needs to get the juices of critical thinking flowing or generate some original thought in class. For instance, his discussion of the military interventions in Kosovo and Bosnia were directly relevant to our studies of peacekeeping operations in a class called "Joint Military Operations," and his critiques of strategy would have made for lively discussions in the Naval War College's "Strategy and Warfare" course. Betts's explorations of nuclear deterrence, China's rise, just war theory, and civil-military relations would be useful background for deterrence studies. Finally, the material he covers on "big small wars," terrorism, cyber warfare, and military interventions is centrally relevant to studies of conflict in the information age.

One area where Betts could have provided a more in-depth analysis concerns US options for dealing with the rise of militant Islam. He gives cursory attention to radical Islamism within the context of his chapter on "Terrorism" but suggests that terrorism is a reaction within the Muslim world to US hegemony and the worldwide propagation of Western media, politics, and popular culture. In fact, Betts gives fewer than four pages to addressing the root causes of violent jihad, and even fewer to evaluating whether terrorism is simply a tactic chosen to pursue broader political objectives. He may have done this intentionally to avoid getting bogged down in an unsolvable argument over motives and intentions. Instead, he emphasizes that because the actual risk of becoming a victim of Islamist terrorist violence within the United States is so ridiculously low (and will remain low, unless a group like al Qaeda gets its hands on WMD), there is little need to waste time and energy worrying about solving the underlying issues. He seems to propose that the United States should resign itself to the ire of the Muslim world because, on the one hand, it won't back down from its obligations and commitments in the Middle East and on the other hand, the prospects that the United States will be able to effectively recast itself as a benign force for good in the region are very low. Interestingly, one danger that Betts does acknowledge is a future war, not against sub-state Islamist actors but "against a coordinated international coalition of revolutionary Islamist regimes." 7 If the rise of ISIS over the past year represents the beginning of such a movement, perhaps Betts will reconsider his position and entertain the notion that the United States should devote greater energy to understanding and addressing the underlying motivations of jihadist violence instead of trying to simply bomb these groups into submission.

One other small point of contention I have with American Force is its imprecise use of the term "unconventional warfare" (UW). For special warfare practitioners, like me, this term has a very specific meaning that involves using an auxiliary, underground guerilla force to disrupt, overthrow, or coerce a government. American Force first addresses "unconventional warfare" in the introduction with the claim that "unconventional, irregular, or asymmetric warfare … takes place in the midst of civilian populations and collateral damage is usually extensive—and it is unconventional warfare that is most common in the unipolar world." 8 UW practitioners would argue that, by our definition, unconventional warfare is uncommon, especially from a US perspective. Furthermore, unconventional warfare itself is not inherently violent, though it can use violence as a tactic. In chapter five, Betts refers to Iraq and Afghanistan as "unconventional wars" and also claims that "technological substitution for manpower gives the modern American military its edge, but it cannot be applied very well in unconventional warfare." 9 I believe the confusion is unintentional and that Betts uses "unconventional warfare" interchangeably with "asymmetric warfare" or even "counterinsurgency" to describe the characteristics of a given war, rather than using the professional definition of it as a method for waging a specific type of warfare. Only readers like me, with specialized knowledge, will take issue with such an imprecise use of terms. If American Force is truly meant to appeal to the national security practitioner, however, then Betts should pay more attention to the precision of his terminology.

In the preface to American Force, Betts worries that readers who are practitioners of national security may find American Force glib, arrogant, or inhumane. To the contrary, I found his arguments to be insightful, thought provoking, relevant, and devoid of partisan rhetoric. American Force is a well-rounded exploration of US national security policy and the use of military force that is a must-read, not only for experienced and aspiring practitioners but also for the average reader who is interested in understanding current US activities abroad.

About the Author(s):

MAJ Bradley J. Krauss is a US Army Special Forces officer and graduate student at the US Naval Postgraduate School.

  1. Richard K. Betts, American Force: Dangers, Delusions, and Dilemmas in National Security (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).go back up
  2. Betts, American Force, 12. Betts quotes from Carl Von Clausewitz's famous treatise, On War: "A small jump is easier than a large one, but no one on that account, wishing to cross a wide ditch, would jump half of it first." Betts returns to this metaphor several times to highlight instances where a military objective is known but the commitment to achieving it is half-hearted or incomplete and leads only to failure. For the original quote, see Book VIII, chapter 4 of Carl von Clausewitz, On War,, n.d.: back up
  3. People are sometimes confused about the difference between the terms preemptive war and preventive war. One side starts a preemptive war when it receives or perceives a credible, active threat of aggression from an opponent and chooses to act first. International law upholds the right of a state to preempt an imminent attack. A preventive war, by contrast, is launched by one side against a perceived opponent with the intention to prevent a possible future threat from arising. International law does not recognize a right to launch preventive war.go back up
  4. Betts, American Force, 139. go back up
  5. Samuel P. Huntington, The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957).go back up
  6. See Betts, American Force, chapter 10: "Plans and Results: Is Strategy an Illusion?"go back up
  7. Ibid., 286.go back up
  8. Ibid., 13.go back up
  9. Ibid., 153.go back up
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