While there’s nothing particularly new about the fact that America is helping build the capacity of more than 100 foreign militaries, this approach has grown more popular—and for good reason: It’s seen as a sweet deal. The United States has spent billions (versus potential trillions) on this “indirect approach,” working by, with, and through, foreign partners in innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint efforts to achieve its security objectives. It has trained, advised, assisted, sometimes accompanied, and enabled. While it has generated a cornucopia of terminology, it has failed to confront the fact that, in truth, many of these activities constitute a low-key means of achieving the outcomes of a major military intervention without the requisite investment of blood, treasure, and political capital that comes with formal declarations of war—or attention to risk.
Since 9/11, Washington has generally been content to grant the Pentagon ever-increasing authority and dollars for such missions. As former defense secretary Bob Gates put it, helping partners to manage their own security is “in many ways the ideological and security challenge of our time.” Both conducting large-scale combat operations and ignoring potential enemy safe havens is politically untenable. So helping foreign forces combat mutual adversaries was both an excellent middle ground and a way of “doing something” when doing nothing was unacceptable. As one of the original authors of President Obama’s Security Sector Assistance presidential policy directive, I was a believer.
What’s less clear to me is if the Washington establishment embraced building partner capacity and its many related activities with serious consideration of what, precisely, they were authorizing. The rhetorical leaps from equip, train, advise, assist, and, in some cases, accompany, may appear minor, but are quite consequential in practice. The relative low risk of a small special-operations forces training mission versus a large-scale deployment may be preferable, but it’s not negligible. And the shifts between low-profile reconnaissance mission and high-intensity man hunt or ambush are not easily constrained by law or policy.
This brings us back to the Niger debacle. Recently, Jack Goldsmith and Marty Lederman, two former senior officials in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, debated on Twitter with Charlie Savage of The New York Times over what legal authority the U.S. special forces in Niger were operating under. “What’s amazing,” Goldsmith tweeted, “is that the three of us are debating the possible legal basis of [a] large troop deployment abroad. That should not be obscure.”
He’s right: It shouldn’t be, yet it is left conveniently murky. While Goldsmith and Lederman are better guides for the legal question, as a wonk who watched and sometimes helped expand this gray zone, my perplexity breaks down in three ways.