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Why Are U.S. Presidents Calling On The Military So Often?

U.S. forces transfer a missile for a fighter plane as the military prepared for war in Iraq, in Saudi Arabia in 1990. American presidents have been calling on the military frequently since the end of the Cold War more than two decades ago.
Gerard Fouet
AFP/Getty Images
U.S. forces transfer a missile for a fighter plane as the military prepared for war in Iraq, in Saudi Arabia in 1990. American presidents have been calling on the military frequently since the end of the Cold War more than two decades ago.

When the Cold War ended two decades ago there was a widespread belief that the greatest threat to U.S. troops would be boredom. It seemed they faced a future with little to do besides polishing their boots and staging the occasional military exercise.

Yet U.S. presidents are calling on the military more often than ever, with U.S. forces carrying out more than a dozen separate operations since the first Gulf War in Iraq in 1991.

President Obama now says he's ready to take action against Syria, but he faces a Congress and a public skeptical about another military adventure in the Middle East, even if it's being billed as a limited operation.

"I know well that we are weary of war," Obama said on Saturday, stressing that any action would not include sending in U.S. ground troops.

Given this backdrop, why is the U.S. military being ordered into action so frequently, often for missions like Syria that are considered optional?

Analysts offer up a host of reasons:

A Messy World: During the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union often managed to impose order by propping up authoritarian leaders. No one saw this system as ideal, but it often prevented conflicts from erupting or spreading.

Syria offers a good example. As a superpower, the Soviets staunchly backed the late Syrian president, Hafez Assad, for many years. A much weaker Russia still supports his son, Bashar Assad, but this hasn't kept Syria or other Arab states from sliding into chaos.

U.S. military intervention in Syria would have been highly improbable during the Cold War because it could have provoked a major confrontation with the Soviets. Now the U.S. sees itself as the lone guarantor of world order and does not have to worry about a superpower rivalry.

"The Cold War acted as a governing force. The U.S. and the Soviets were often cautious because they were always concerned about an escalation to a nuclear war," said Jim Dubik, a retired Army lieutenant general now with the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.

"Since the Cold War ended, there's been a vacuum as to what international strategic framework will take its place," Dubik added. "That debate is still going on and without a recognized framework; it's a more Hobbesian world."

High-Tech Wars Seem Easier: Setting Syria aside, the U.S. is already carrying out ongoing military strikes in three other countries — Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.

Drones, cruise missiles, stealth bombers and other high-tech weaponry have made it possible to wage warfare by remote control with little immediate risk to U.S. forces. This is an appealing option for presidents because they can declare that they are doing something to deal with an international crisis.

But analysts say it can merely project the false impression that the president is solving an intractable problem.

"After so many years of war, we as a country should be much more sophisticated about what force can and can't do," Dubik said. "The Syria problem is not a problem you solve by bombing. But these days, bombing is the easier option. The real solutions to problems — economic issues, political questions, ethnic and sectarian rivalries — these are much harder to fix."

In several cases, U.S. firepower has ousted or helped oust leaders such as Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. Yet all those countries remain highly unstable politically.

"There's a big difference between a love of pyrotechnics and furthering U.S. strategic interests in the world," said Bob Scales, a retired Army major general who headed the U.S. Army War College. "And they don't often come together."

Modern Pressures On The President: Why, exactly, does Obama seem to feel so much pressure to use American military force?

"The polls are clear. The American people don't want to do it. Congress doesn't really want to do it. And the pressure sure isn't coming from the uniformed military," Scales said.

Yet the relentless glare of the media, the incessant talk about military plans and the endless videos of dead and wounded Syrian civilians can make it seem that U.S. strikes are inevitable.

Writing in The Atlantic, journalist Conor Friedersdorf argues that "the pressure is being applied by a tiny, insular elite that mostly lives in Washington, D.C., and isn't bothered by the idea of committing America to military action that most Americans oppose."

Friedersdorf then went on to write what he considered a more accurate version of the Syrian crisis:

"President Obama faces increasing pressure from lawmakers, foreign-policy experts, constitutional scholars, and anti-war activists to refrain from striking Syria. Opponents of war worry that an insular group of hawkish Washington, D.C., elites will succeed in prompting an intervention the consequences of which they cannot anticipate, despite widespread public opposition to U.S. involvement. The concerns of Syria anti-interventionists vary, but all agree that the president should not unilaterally decide to attack tyrant Bashar al-Assad's regime, even granting that recent chemical weapons attacks on civilians were atrocious."

Obama made the military option more likely when he declared last year that Syria's use of chemical weapons was a "red line" that could not be crossed. In the coming days, he will have to make the case to Congress and the American public that a limited military strike is the best option in Syria, a country where none of the options is appealing.

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Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.