Leadership: June 16, 2000

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UN Troops; Peacekeeping is an increasingly popular use for American troops. Unlike a similar enthusiasm early in the 20th century, today's version is destroying America's military power. During the first three decades of the 20th century, the US marines were sent into to disorderly foreign nations so frequently that they were half jokingly referred to as "State Department troops." In the late 20th century, intervention became fashionable again. The numbers tell the tale. From 1956 to 1992, U.S. troops were sent into foreign nations 51 times. About 1.4 interventions a year. Since 1992, we have also gone in 51 times; about 6.5 times a year. That's nearly a fivefold increase. A third of American armed forces are currently tied up supporting various peacekeeping missions, even more if you include those in the half century old Korean "police action." But so often are U.S. troops called on, usually at the behest of the United Nations, that you now have the American army referred to as "UN troops."

But this is not quite true. Most of the real UN peacekeeping troops are from anywhere but the United States. Less affluent nations are eager to offer troops for UN service, as the UN pays these soldiers more than they make in their own countries. Contributing troops to peacekeeping operations looks good, and pays well. The UN shakes down the wealthier nations to provide the money. Most American peacekeepers are tied up in NATO sponsored operations in the Balkans. U.S. troops are also stationed, for one reason or another, in 55 nations. 

Since the end of the cold war in 1990, America's armed forces have faced more changes than at any other time in its history. Radically new weapons, a new, and uncertain, array of potential foes, new demands for peacekeeping missions and, worst of all, a lack of strong leadership. During the 1990s, America spent over $25 billion on peacekeeping. That was about one percent of the defense budget, but it was also a time when the armed forces were being reduced by a third. There was a lot of bureaucratic pushing and shoving over which projects would get cut. Politicians didn't want bases closed, as that annoyed local voters. Same with expensive weapons projects, for the contracts were spread around to as many congressional districts as possible. Even within the armed forces, there were many officers who saw these cold war era projects as still important, important enough to push just about anything else out of the way. This ongoing budget brawl has had some predictable effects. Training got cut. There was less money for keeping equipment maintained and up to date. Promotions slowed down. People got scared and insecure. The more able officers began to bail out, as careerism and caution got in the way of innovation and bold leadership, No one wants to take any chances when the budget is shrinking and no one is sure of what, or who, will get cut next. .Right after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, many the fast track officers were talking about their resumes and what kind of opportunities there were outside the military. The brass began to notice the lower quality of leadership. This became more of an issue once Bill Clinton became president and the military was ordered to become more sensitive to cultural, gender and sexual differences. If that wasn't bad enough, the policy of "zero tolerance" came along with all the other mandates. So supervision was increased. Avoiding any political incorrectness became a higher priority. NCOs, who for centuries had been left to manage the troops, now increasingly found themselves being closely supervised by an officer. Colonels and generals kept a close eye on captains and lieutenants. CYA (cover your ass), not boldness and initiative were now the guiding rule for a successful military career.

With lower quality leaders, you had lower quality troops. And the word soon got out that the armed forces were not what they once were, and it became harder to get any troops at all. This became an important issue as peacekeeping became the major mission. While fighting a war requires a lot of skill, peacekeeping requires more. This soon became apparent, as did the post Gulf War demand that there be no casualties. When things heated up in Somalia during the 1994, there were a dozen American generals in the area, every one of them anxious to avoid any "problems." Eighteen American soldiers got killed anyway, but this did not dampen politicians enthusiasm for peacekeeping, it just made everyone more determined to do it without getting any Americans killed. We can see how this works in the Balkans. American troops spend about 60 percent of their time peacekeeping, and 40 percent providing security for themselves. But the British troops spend only 14 percent of their time in self defense, and get a lot more done in the peacekeeping department. American troops, much to their chagrin, are increasingly seen as a bunch of wussies by the other NATO (and especially the Russian) contingents they work with. Good at giving impressive briefings and building themselves luxurious accommodations, but of dubious worth when the chips are down. 

Ninety years ago the U.S. marines took another approach to peacekeeping. Officers, NCOs and men were told to keep the peace, and they did. There was no micromanagement, nor fear of taking losses if that was required to do the job. Actually, the marines are still that way. This makes politicians leery of using marines in peacekeeping operations. "Too aggressive" is the excuse most often given. Then again, there may be something to all that. Decades of marine peacekeeping in Central America and the Caribbean did keep things quiet, but didn't change any of the nations involved. The current American policy is to pull out if things get too hot. Hard to do that with marines, as they will quell any unrest quicker than the folks back in Washington can issue a "cease and desist" order 

Many army officers, feeling themselves in a no-win situation, have suggested that brigades of specially trained military police be organized just for peacekeeping missions. But to do that would admit that the concept of using combat troops for peacekeeping is a mistake. That is politically unacceptable. Illusions are much easier to sell. Welcome to the 21st century. 


 


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