In a recent speech on Syria, President Obama said the United States “doesn’t do pinpricks.” The comment was obviously meant to reassure our allies that we have their backs and will enforce our red lines with overwhelming force if necessary. It was also meant to project a posture of toughness and deter our adversaries from using chemical weapons or cavorting with terrorists.
But ever since the winding down of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with the possible exception of Libya, it would seem the United States only does pinpricks. Consider that of our 40-plus uses of military force since the end of the Cold War, all but five were against non-state actors such as al-Qaeda, according to Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations. They have involved targeted assassinations, covert “snatch and grab” raids by commando forces, and airstrikes from unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. Moreover, such pinprick strikes remain wildly popular, despite our creeping isolationism. A February 2013 Washington Post/ABC News poll found that over 80 percent of Americans support the use of targeted killings.
There’s trouble with the fact that pinpricks have become the norm. First, there is confusion over whether we are technically at war or not, and if so, with how many countries. No wonder former defense secretary Leon Panetta stumbled when 60 Minutes asked him this question last year, before giving a muddled answer about fighting “nodes” of al-Qaeda across the globe. Under Obama’s watch, the size and scope of our Special Forces has expanded and is now present in some 120 countries. In Pakistan alone, the U.S. has carried out over 300 drone strikes since 2008, not including raids like the one in May 2011 that killed Osama bin Laden. In a recent paper, Linda Blimes and Michael Intriligator of Harvard and UCLA, respectively, argue that we are fighting at least three wars that are not officially “declared”: in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Whether we are at war matters because there is a different body of international law that gets activated in cases when a country is actually at war. Tanisha Fazal of Notre Dame points out in a recent paper that countries increasingly have avoided formally declaring war as a way to absolve themselves from being accused of war crimes. Moreover, this semantic confusion muddles the concept of sovereignty, which has upheld the idea of statehood for nearly four centuries. The president looks hypocritical when he says that intervening in Syria would raise sovereignty concerns, but then regularly violates the sovereignty of states like Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, and others harboring suspected terrorists.
Second, these operations are increasingly done away from the public’s gaze and often involve zero casualties on our side, creating the illusion of being cost-free. But as retired general Stanley McChrystal recently told Foreign Affairs, “[A]lthough to the United States, a drone strike seems to have very little risk and very little pain, at the receiving end, it feels like war. Americans have got to understand that.” Such pinprick operations get almost no oversight by Congress, much less the media, and so we know little of who is targeted and why. The result is baffling statements by CIA director John Brennan that U.S. drones have killed zero civilians, which human rights group say is patently false.
Third, these pinpricks have deepened the rift between our military and civilian leadership. These strikes are overwhelming popular among lawmakers because they scratch the itch to appear to be “doing something” and acting tough on terrorists, without asking any sacrifice of the American people. As Andrew Bacevich asks in his new book, Breach of Trust, "Why deploy lumbering armored columns when a missile launched from a single Apache attack helicopter or a bomb fixed to an Iranian nuclear scientist's car can do the job more cheaply and with less risk?" Yet, our military brass remains skeptical of such tactics. They tend to either support either Big Wars or no wars at all (Consider the rationale of the Powell Doctrine, which calls for using overwhelming force with clear goals and a clear exit strategy). What irks military leaders most are half-measures that overpromise but under-deliver, while needlessly putting their troops in harm’s way. The military impulse, writes Columbia University’s Richard Betts in his 1991 book Soldiers, Statesmen, and Cold War Crises is “worst-case contingency planning for any conceivable disaster,” whereas the tendency among political leaders is “to ‘satisfice’ rather than optimize, to shave as much as possible from the military estimates of their requirements.” The rift reached a crescendo in recent months when a retired Army major general penned an oped in the Washington Post decrying the “amateurism” of the president’s approach to conflicts such as Syria.
Fourth, countries across the globe are beginning to mirror the United States by modifying their military doctrines in favor of lighter footprints and "pinprick"-style targeted assassinations. Nearly 70 now possess drones, even those at peace with their neighbors. Brazil, for example, has begun carrying out cross-border raids against drug gangs in Bolivia (and also just purchased a fleet of Israeli-made drones as an insurance policy). It’s only a matter of time before such targeted strikes and “hot pursuit” raids become routinized. Moreover, we are increasingly outsourcing our operations to other countries, providing them arms, training, and U.S.-supplied targeting intelligence. The recent attack by Shabaab militants against a mall in Nairobi, for instance, was in response to Kenya’s U.S.-backed cross-border incursions into Somalia. Pinpricks, contrary to public opinion, are far from risk-free.
Finally, a military policy overly reliant on targeted strikes does not signal U.S. strength and resolve— just the opposite. Our apparent unwillingness to commit ground forces to any cause undermines our ability to deter our adversaries. Nobody has ever given up their nuclear or chemical weapons stockpiles because of a threat of a drone. Israel struck Syrian weapons on nearly a half dozen occasions over the past few years, but that did not deter Assad from using his chemical stockpiles or strengthening his ties with Hezbollah. Nor does it help when Secretary of State John Kerry says that any U.S. intervention in Syria would be “unbelievably small” (small like, say, a “pinprick”?). That kind of talk is unlikely to make Assad sweat much. Nor is it the kind of rhetoric that Harvard game theorist Thomas Schelling had in mind when he described deterrence as “the art of coercion and intimidation.”
To be sure, one might argue that the United States has always been in the pinprick business. The Cold War era was rife with minor incursions to covertly put down Marxist rebel movements or to overthrow leaders not to our liking. But the current spate of pinpricks is on another scale, not in terms of their ability to provoke a nuclear war, as was the case during the Cold War, but in terms of the amount of collateral damage incurred and what it has done for our standing in the world. “In these recent cases,” James Fearon of Stanford wrote in a recent Monkey Cage blog post, “U.S. military (and CIA) personnel are actual trigger pullers on a scale much larger than they were in Chile, Cuba, Nicaragua, and the like.”
President Obama’s assertion that the United States does not do “pinpricks” ignores Washington’s long history of limited military interventions. Indeed, the cornerstone of his administration's whole counterterrorism policy is one of pinprick-style killings, not brick-and-mortar nation-building. And as Americans continue to lean more isolationist and casualty-averse, we can expect future U.S. uses of force to follow in this pattern. The point is not that such types of targeted attacks should be phased out, but rather that there are unseen and unintended costs to fighting our adversaries with limited strikes rather than with overwhelming force. Live by the pinprick, die by the pinprick.