Small Wars Journal

The Virtue of Doing Nothing

Thu, 10/27/2011 - 11:47am

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?


Robert C. Jones

Wed, 11/02/2011 - 7:45am


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?



Scott Kinner

Tue, 11/01/2011 - 5:15pm

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...

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.