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United States — Warrior Nation?

Do peacekeeping missions make U.S. troops unfit for combat?

June 13, 2001

Do peacekeeping missions make U.S. troops unfit for combat?

For sure, Paula Dobriansky wasn’t pulling her punches. “Peacekeeping missions adversely affect combat readiness and effectiveness. Waging war and maintaining peace require different skills,” was one of the other astonishing conclusions to which she came in her opinion article in the Washington Post.

This indictment of U.S. participation in peacekeeping missions — expressed by someone who, at the time, was about to become one of President Bush’s top diplomats — indeed strikes most of the rest of the world as inappropriate in the post-Cold War era.

It particularly worries European members of NATO, which are increasingly concerned about keeping the U.S. committed to the “in together, out together” principle on NATO interventions and peacekeeping missions. Mr. Bush and his foreign policy team will have their work cut out explaining away the views of political appointees like Ms. Dobriansky.

The article was published on January 30, 2001, a week after President Bush took office, and fittingly entitled “Out of the Balkans.” It was obviously intended as a statement of Ms. Dobriansky’s availability to fill a senior administration positions after George W. Bush was elected to the White House. On March 12, Ms. Dobriansky was in fact nominated to a position in the State Department. She was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate on April 26.

But far beyond this one person, it is no secret that key policy makers in the Bush Administration, with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld leading the charge, view peacekeeping as an unnecessary burden on the U.S. military — and would prefer Europe to shoulder the burden itself.

Nevertheless, past studies have shown that most U.S. soldiers consider these peacekeeping missions a meaningful and rewarding task. Maintaining stability in a troubled region like the Balkans offers professional soldiers the opportunity to make a constructive and meaningful difference. Undoubtedly, this is good for morale and good for personnel retention.

But it almost appears as though U.S. opponents of peacekeeping missions are afraid that a six-month stint as a peacekeeper will taint their “warriors” to such a degree that they become virtually useless to combat missions thereafter.

Peacekeeping missions pose a realistic operating environment for support units — especially in logistics and communications — to hone their vital skills. And for combat troops, they offer the opportunity to spend extended time in the field, often under uncertain or even somewhat dangerous conditions that approximate the vagaries of real combat better than the training back home.

However, the readiness rating system used by the military is biased against peacekeeping operations. When troops from a division are used in peacekeeping operations, they are not able to engage in combat training and the division is downgraded to a “not ready” for war rating.

According Joseph Cirincione, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “this is another anachronism. Peacekeeping troops are actually more ready for the actual missions confronting the U.S. military then are the troops stuck training to counter heavy mechanized enemy divisions they will likely never face.”

Many military strategists agree that the most likely conflicts of the future won’t be wars “where the gloves come off,” but rather low-intensity conflicts that will be fought with severely restrictive rules of engagement. By that logic, the “inculcation of the warrior spirit,” which the U.S. Under Secretary of State advocates will be of far less use.

Instead of “warriors” who see the world in terms of black and white and rely on raw firepower, what is needed in such conflicts are soldiers who have experienced the ambiguity and confusion of places such as the Balkans.

It is important to remember that the views of Ms. Dobriansky were expressed before she became a member of the administration and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. government. But nevertheless, if senior members of the administration have publicized such views in the Washington Post, America’s allies cannot help but wonder what message the United States is trying to send.