The Virtue of Doing Nothing

Over the next decade, I suppose (and hope) that we will see a flurry of analysis to describe what the US military learned from our extensive intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan.  If we are to best prepare for future conflicts, then this collection of lessons learned applied directly to structural and procedural changes in our training and combat doctrine are essential. 

From my personal experience, despite individual and small unit gallant exploits, I am left pondering the limitations of military intervention.  In the end, we are left with an illusion of control- the military can temporarily secure tactical objectives, but, outside significant political shifts and evolution, United States’ strategic goals fall short.

As we begin to leave Iraq and Afghanistan, a political revolution is underway in the Middle East and North Africa.  The Obama Administration is choosing to interdict discreetly, lightly and indirectly on a country by country basis. 

Perhaps, one lesson learned will be that the holy grail of military intervention is discrete, indirect FID/SFA used sparingly in Phase Zero.  Certainly, we are trying a mixture of FID, SFA, CT, air power, and international support to achieve our current objectives, but have we considered the virtues of doing nothing?

In essence, over the next decade, our military strategy would be to allow the internal dissent and reformation and focus on containment to not allow internal violent disruption to cross borders and extend into the greater region.

While this is the anti-thesis of Manifest Destiny and a duty to spread democracy, capitalism, and a responsibility to protect, in many ways, it embodies the true laissez-faire, freedom, and liberty.

In this post-colonial world, can we have the courage to do nothing and allow the people to determine their own way ahead?

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I appreciate the comments in what I consider a Socratic Dialogue. For this entry, I simply took up an argument on what I felt was an understated approach- should we limit our military intervention?

Outside of the anti-war folks, I often wonder why we have so forgotten about containment over direct action when it comes to military affairs.


Perhaps a small point, but niether Iraq nor Afghanistan were "interventions," both were elective, both were optional, and both were invasions. Certainly "doing nothing" was not a viable option at the time, but hopefully we have learned a thing or two about what might be more appropriate and effective responses to attacks by non-state actors in the future.

There will likely never be a clear, clean, obvious response that presents itself. Non-state actors by definition take advantage of the sovereign rights of others to prepare, stage and execute their attacks, and do not need, and typically do not ask for nor have the support of the states they trespass upon. This is the great frustration for states, and no less so now than on 9/11. How does one deter such attacks? How does one respond to such attacks? How indeed without violating the sovereignty of others in efforts to preseve the sovereignty of ones self?



I am unsure if a blanket exhortation to "do nothing" is what is offered here as much as a caution about embracing its opposite - "do something" - or "do something's" erstwhile and more imperative companion "we must do something."

As is relatively well known, not making a decision is also making a decision - and sometimes prudence, caution, and patience are of great value in allowing a situation to mature and ripen to the point where not only is the right decision more obvious, but the resources and will to execute it have been cultivated.

The author is right to both welcome, and fear, the analysis of the last decade of war. Because the forces to "do something" are hardwired into the American psyche. Action is better inaction, the future is more relevant than the past, change is good, etc. While most readers have lived enough of life to realize that all change is not good, that action for the sake of action is usually merely counterproductive, such personal lessons rarely make their way into the public square or public policy. In these arenas the person of action is often rewarded for merely "doing something." Indeed the pressure to "do something" is relentless, and certainly far greater than the relative passivity of those who would urge or counsel caution.

Certainly, as the DoD faces substantial budget cuts, as the Arab Spring continues to leave large question marks about the future landscape of the Middle East, as the issue of Chinese power grows, as Europe and the US remain mired in economic stagnation - now is the time for careful consideration, rather than the normal whipsaw of domestic and foreign policy change we are used to emanating from the vagaries of Washington political winds. Or, to give the DoD its due share of blame, the empire building and rice bowl protection rackets that have filled the military and defense related professional periodicals of late.

In sum, I agree with the author - the only Manifest Destiny in our lives is eerily similar to the original, self-appointed. What must we do in the world? What can we afford to do in the world? How do we reconcile these two? These questions cannot be answered by doing strictly "nothing," but nor do their answers lie in the requirement to "do something." A little thinking might be in order...

@ MikeF:

Typically thoughtful SWJ post. Sadly and typically for me, I am going to be difficult. What does it mean to "do nothing?" When I read an assertion in a foreign policy or military blog, or in the New York Times, or from a public official, my difficult and contrarian nature leads me in the direction of "poking holes" in the arguments offered.

Standard wisdom is that we "did nothing" during the 90s in Afghanistan which is why we are in the fix we are in today. Let's examine this assertion more carefully. For the purposes of this discussion, I will link the following:

"A collection of newly-declassified documents published today detail U.S. concern over Pakistan's relationship with the Taliban during the seven-year period leading up to 9-11...."There is no doubt Afghan militants are supported from Pakistan soil." While Musharraf admitted the Taliban were being sheltered in the lawless frontier border regions, the declassified U.S. documents released today clearly illustrate that the Taliban was directly funded, armed and advised by Islamabad itself."

"America's primary actor in this subterranean narrative was the CIA, which shaped the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan during the 1980s and then waged a secret campaign to disrupt, capture, or kill Osama bin Laden after he re turned to Afghanistan during the late 1990s. During the two years prior to September 11, among other programs the CIA's Counterterrorist Center worked closely with Ahmed Shah Massoud against bin Laden. But the agency's officers were unable to persuade most of the rest of the U.S. government to go as far as Massoud and some CIA officers wanted."


"During the 1990s, the World Bank and several donor partners provided a “surge” in external aid to support Pakistan’s social sectors. Despite the millions of donor dollars spent, the program failed. Poverty was higher in Pakistan in 2004 than it was a decade earlier when the antipoverty program began. This working paper re-releases a CGD analysis of the World Bank’s program, which was prepared in 2005 by CGD researchers Nancy Birdsall, Milan Vaishnav, and Adeel Malik."

The CGD blog states that the Pentagon has been briefed on some of this? I suppose the recommendation is to give yet more aid with the idea that our intervention makes things better. No, pretty consistently it has made things worse. Since about 1947. Thank the UK, too.

At any rate, the State Department, the CIA, the Defense Department and the World Bank/UN/Asian Development Bank seems, from my vantage point, to have learned NOTHING. Not in twenty years of making the same mistakes over and over again. After a a military aid surge in the 80s and a World Bank social developmental aid surge in the 90s, Pakistan tested a bomb in 1998. Where do you suppose the money for the Taliban push and the bomb came from?

Let me put together a different narrative, one different than the official Washington line.

1. We worried about the Taliban in the 90s but lazily thought we could work through the Pakistanis to give us bin Laden.
2. Prior to 9-11, it was difficult to get American officials to take the threat from the region seriously and the American people would not have understood.
3. Nevertheless, we tried working with Massoud, Nawaz Shariff and Musharraf ALL to no avail. That's why some in the military think we have allies within the PakMil: you mistook the "fig leaf" operations between your special operators and theirs for reality.
4. We did try and build schools in Pakistan prior to 9-11 and all at the expense of Afghanistan. The money was diverted toward bombs and bullets. That was the real "ignoring the region." DC is filled with friends of the Pakistani elite and couldn't bear to lose those lovely contacts and contracts.
5. Our institutions cannot vet or audit the system although various DC officials swear up and down that they did. Oh yeah? Prove it. Because you know what? You can't.

We repeated every error of the 80s ad 90s in the 2001-current period. Perhaps we are slated to do it again. The Pressler Amendment is a huge canard. So we cut off a little money from 1998 to 2001? Big deal. We dumped millions (billions over decades) in via the World Bank prior to that and western nations kept an eye on none of it.

That's the real story. Do nothing? Please. We've NEVER "done nothing." We have always meddled in that region and pretty consistently so. We did attempt a Marshall plan over decades. It failed miserably.

Perhaps Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter or the other R2P advocates could tell me what moral responsibility Western international institutions have in arming the PakMil? What case might innocent Indians, Afghans, Pakistanis and American families have in International Criminal Court given that international monies were never properly tracked within a system well known since the late 70s for nuclear games-playing?

Being a foreign policy mandarin means never having to say you are sorry. Well, never fear. I'm sure this time things will be different. I feel sorry for the military, actually. You've been given pretty dire advice by your "AfPak" experts, I reckon.

I went too far in some of my initial comments to this post. To say that "at any rate, the State Department, the CIA, the Defense Department and the World Bank/UN/Asian Development Bank seems, from my vantage point, to have learned NOTHING," is ridiculous hyperbole. My apologies.

I worry, however, that the sort of study I linked tends to be examined within the context of doing more, not less. I am disturbed that in the gallons of ink spilled on this subject I hadn't come across how much our "Bretton Wood" institutions attempted in that part of the world during the 90s. Officials often talk of ungoverned or poorly governed spaces within the context of scarcity. Perhaps we should examine the evidence of abundance rather than scarcity?

I believe the term for this is "masterly inactivity" which was a policy of the British government with regard to India during certain periods of "The Great Game".

After a decade of war and the onset of our economic problems, this policy is worth considering.