The U.S. Role in Peace Operations: Past, Perspective, and Prescriptions for the Future

Report Defense

The U.S. Role in Peace Operations: Past, Perspective, and Prescriptions for the Future

August 14, 2003 9 min read
Jim Carafano
Vice President, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute
James Jay Carafano is a leading expert in national security and foreign policy challenges.

Americans are not well prepared to deliberate on U.S. participation in peace operations. They know little about their history. Most Americans learn about war from books in which battles end on one page and peace breaks out in the next chapter. The shadowland in between, where the military is used to constrain rather than to inflict violence, is rarely discussed. At the same time, the language used to describe and debate operations that could include anything from monitoring a border to battling insurgents is little known and poorly understood.

The armed forces' appreciation is not much better than that of the public at large. Among the traditions, experiences, preconceptions, and routine practices that determine how the military wages the fight for peace, the most powerful force shaping its thinking is a "tradition of forgetting." The services, particularly the Army, have a long record of conducting various kinds of peace missions. Traditionally, however, the armed forces concentrate on warfighting and eschew the challenges of dealing with the battlefield after the battle.

The Army's experience and knowledge in peace operations have never been incorporated into mainstream military thinking in any major, systematic way. For example, the official report on the U.S. participation in the occupation of the Rhineland after World War I noted that, "despite the precedents of military governments in Mexico, California, the Southern States, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Panama, China, the Philippines, and elsewhere, the lesson seemingly has not been learned."1 After World War I, the tradition of forgetting continued. As the United States prepared to enter World War II, the military discovered it had virtually no capacity to manage the areas it would likely have to occupy. The Army did not even a have a field manual on the subject before 1940. In fact, one of the planners' first acts was to root out the report on lessons learned from the Rhineland occupation.2 After the Second World War, the Pentagon largely forgot about the problem and continued to reinvent solutions each time it faced a new peace operation.

The military's reluctance to think deeply about the place of peace operations in military affairs derived from a rich tradition of Western military theory, typified by the 19th century Prussian thinker Carl von Clausewitz, who emphasized the primacy of winning battles and destroying the enemy's conventional troops. Clausewitz, a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, could perhaps be forgiven for not even mentioning peace operations in his classic treatise On War. After all, peacekeeping operations were something new and novel in his time, first conducted by allied forces dismantling Napoleon's empire in 1815.3 The U.S. military, which could look back on over a century of these operations by modern states, had less of an excuse.

It is little wonder that in the post-Cold War world, soldiers, let alone policymakers and the public, have difficulty distinguishing between operations in Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq, or for that matter intelligently debating the appropriateness of potential future interventions in Liberia or other world trouble spots.

Public policy debates would be greatly served by a common framework for describing the various kinds of military peace operations and their implications for U.S. security.4

Though there are no universally agreed upon terms to describe them, military peace operations can be divided into three types of actions.

Post-Conflict Operation

The first, and most clearly relevant for U.S. military forces, is a post-conflict operation. Post-conflict activities are an integral part of any military campaign in which U.S. forces are required to seize territory, either to free an occupied country, as was the case during the liberation of Kuwait during the 1991 Gulf War, or to dispose of an enemy regime, as during the postwar occupations of Germany and Japan. Such missions are not "optional" operations; they are an integral part of any military campaign.

The military's appropriate role in post-conflict activities is limited, but vital. Nation-building is a task for which military forces are neither well-suited nor appropriate. In addition, prolonged occupation ties up valuable military manpower that might be used elsewhere. Yet, after any campaign the United States will have moral and legal obligations to restore order, provide a safe and secure environment for the population, ensure people are being fed, and prevent the spread of infectious disease. In short, the military's task is to provide a secure atmosphere for the reestablishment of civilian government and domestic security and public safety regimes.

In addition, maintaining a safe and secure environment in the post-conflict phase will be vital for ensuring the national interest that precipitated U.S. involvement to begin with, whether that task be disarming and demobilizing an enemy force, hunting down the remnants of a deposed regime, or restoring a legitimate border.

Finally, the initial stages of any occupation have to be primarily a military-led effort. Only the occupation forces can provide the security and logistics needed to get the job done and offer a focal point for the unity of effort required to make the troubled transition from war to peace.

While this is an inevitable task for the U.S. military in any conflict, it is one that arguably receives little attention from the public, policymakers, or the military itself. In both the Iraq and Afghanistan operations there are abundant signs that public expectations have been far from realistic. Before the battle, everyone wants clear answers on what lies ahead, but there are few military activities more difficult than predicting the end state of a conflict. It is unlikely that, prior to the onset of post-conflict operations, the military can provide firm assessments on the cost, character, or duration of an occupation.

Once operations are underway, public expectations that post-conflict activities will be smooth uncomplicated, frictionless, and non-violent are equally unrealistic. There is a "fog of peace" that is equally as infamous as Clausewitz's "fog of war," which rejects the notion that any military activity can follow a prescribed rulebook.5

While civilian expectations and assumptions are usually wrong, the problems of public misperception are often aggravated by inadequate military preparations. Iraq may offer a case in point. Occupation duties are never easy, and it would be unrealistic to expect normalcy to quickly return to country that has been exploited by a ruthless dictator for decades. But while it is too soon to judge the effectiveness of the occupation, it does seem that preparations for the post-conflict period were inadequate.6

Peacemaking Operations

A second category of peace operations could be labeled peacemaking.7 This involves the use or threat of violence to compel compliance with resolutions or sanctions designed to end conflict. These are the most problematic of all peace operations. The most significant challenge is determining the appropriate level of force and the correct rules of engagement, a calculus that in part requires the consent or at least the acquiescence of local warring factions. No mission is more contentious. The history of U.N. peacekeeping operations is replete with failures that resulted from an inordinate mismatch between available forces and actual requirements.8

Maintaining neutrality is an equally difficult challenge for peacemaking operations. This is particularly true for the United States. As a global power with interests in virtually every corner of the world, it is difficult to conceive of many conflicts where America would be seen as a neutral power. Even when a third-party intervention force is recognized as neutral, turning that status into a military advantage can be extremely problematic. An effort to appear neutral may actually prolong the conflict, preventing either side from defeating the other. Neutral intervention might mean little more than abetting "slow-motion savagery."9

The reality of peacemaking operations is that to inflict peace, military forces may have to go to war against one or more of the combating factions. This suggests that powers should become involved only where they are capable or willing to employ decisive force. There are cases in which small units have succeeded in ending fighting with a mere show of force. In addition, some have argued that if the international community had intervened with only a brigade-sized contingent of a few thousand troops in Rwanda in 1994, a horrific genocide could have been prevented. Such examples, and the humanitarian compulsions of Western powers, often lead to calls for intervening in intrastate conflicts--looking for cheap wins.

On the other hand, there are also instances, such as operations in Somalia, where the supporting countries, when faced with stiff opposition, were unwilling to escalate violence and withdrew in failure. These disasters do little to ameliorate conflict, damage the prestige of the intervening powers, and sour Western tastes for future operations.

The dynamics of peacemaking suggest it should receive the same careful consideration from states as deliberations over actually going to war. Nations or coalitions should be wary of engaging in these activities if they lack the will or capability to follow through. National interests should be commensurate with the lives and national treasure that might be required if peace fails and combat operations begin.

Peacekeeping Operations

A third category of peace operations might be called peacekeeping.10 Here, operations are undertaken with the consent of all major warring parties, and are designed simply to implement a peace agreement. The United States is currently conducting a number of these missions around the world, including in the Sinai, Kosovo, and Bosnia.

These activities are usually the most clear-cut of any peace operation. The force requirements are known and relatively stable, and the threat of violence minimal or at least manageable. With less uncertainty and fewer resources potentially at stake, states are likely to be far more willing to participate even when less than vital national interests are on the line.


Of these three missions, post-conflict operations are undoubtedly one with which the United States must remain concerned in the future. They are an inevitable responsibility at the conclusion of a campaign. Ensuring that the military does the right things after the war and works with the right people are skills not easily learned and quickly forgotten. The United States needs to prepare better for the post-conflict period. Someone has to have clear responsibility for the doctrine, detailed coordination, force requirements, and technologies required to efficiently mount these operations.11

The need to conduct other peace operations is a matter of strategic judgment. The United States is engaged in a global war on terrorism, a war that may take many years, and require the extensive use of our troops. The armed forces are already straining to meet the demands of global conflict. America needs to pace itself and reserve its military instruments for advancing vital national interests. In that regard, peacemaking operations should be avoided, as they could well embroil the United States in conflicts that would require substantial military resources.

America should also refrain from taking on major roles in peace enforcement operations. These activities offer substantially fewer risks than peacemaking, but that means many nations with only a modicum of military capability and some outside support can also perform them. The United States should reserve its forces for the great power missions that require the preponderance of military power that only the United States can provide.

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

1. American Military Government of Occupied Germany, 1918-1920: Report of the Officer in Charge of Civil Affairs and Armed Forces in Germany (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1943), p. 64.

2. James Jay Carafano, Waltzing into the Cold War: The Struggle for Occupied Austria (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2002), pp.11-13, 19-22. Typically in post-conflict planning, the U.S. military fails to implement the lessons of previous operations, coordinates poorly with allies and nongovernmental organizations, and participates inadequately in interagency planning.

3. Erwin A. Schmidl, "The Evolution of Peace Operations from the Nineteenth Century," in Peace Operations: Between War and Peace, ed. Erwin A. Schmidl (London: Frank Cass, 2000), p. 7. For a detailed history of the occupation of France by the allies see, Thomas Veve, Duke of Wellington and the British Army of Occupation in France, 1815-1818 (Westport, Ct: Greenwood Press, 1992).

4. In 1995, the Pentagon produced its first joint doctrine for military operations other than war, which included a general discussion on various kinds of peace actions. The categories included the following. Peace Building: post-conflict actions, predominately diplomatic and economic, that strengthen and rebuild governmental infrastructure and institutions in order to avoid a relapse into conflict; Peace Enforcement: the application of military force, or the threat of its use, normally pursuant to international authorization, to compel compliance with resolutions or sanctions designed to maintain or restore peace and order; Peacekeeping: military operations undertaken with the consent of all major parties to a dispute, designed to monitor and facilitate implementation of an agreement (ceasefire, truce, or other such agreement) and support diplomatic efforts to reach a long-term political settlement, and, Peacemaking: The process of diplomacy, mediation, negotiation, or other forms of peaceful settlements that arranges an end to a dispute and resolves issues that led to it. Department of Defense, Joint Pub 3-07, Joint Doctrine for Military Operations Other Than War (June 16, 1995), III-12 to III-13. The Defense Department categorization is confusing. It also conflates both military and civilian activities into a single set of definitions. This paper suggests a simpler framework focused primarily on military operations.

5. See the discussion in Manfred K. Rotermund, The Fog of Peace: Finding the End-State of Hostilities (Carlisle, Pa.: Strategic Studies Institute, November 1999), pp. 47-52.

6. In Iraq, initial post-conflict activities should have focused on providing a safe and secure environment, searching for weapons of mass destruction programs and the infrastructure that supports terrorism, and securing Iraq's oil resources for the future reconstruction of the country. See Baker Spring and Jack Spencer, "In Post-War Iraq, Use Military Forces to Secure Vital U.S. Interests, Not for Nation-Building," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1589, September 25, 2002. With the exception of averting a wide-spread humanitarian crisis and gaining quick control of the oil fields, in many respects U.S. operations seem to have missed their mark. Of particular concern, it does not seem the coalition had forces properly tailored to accomplish the main objective of the campaign, tracking down and rooting out the hidden elements of Iraq's illegal weapons programs.

7. The United Nations charter does not define this term. Peacemaking operations, however, are consistent with Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter. U.N. military operations approved under Chapter VII (e.g., the Korean War, the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War) are coercive in nature and conducted when the consent of all parties in a conflict to cease hostilities has not been achieved.

8. See, for example, the discussion of operations in Bosnia in Thomas R. Mockaitis, Peace Operations and Intrastate Conflict: The Sword or the Olive Branch? (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1999), p. 104.

9. Richard K Betts, "The Delusion of Impartial Intervention," in Managing Global Chaos: Sources of and Responses to Global Conflict, eds. Chester A. Crocker and Fen Osler Hampson (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace, 1996), p. 335.

10. The United Nations Charter does not use this term. Peacekeeping operations, however, are generally undertaken under Chapter VI of the U.N. Charter, and are conducted with the consent of all involved parties. A recent example of this is the 1999 U.N. operation in East Timor.

11. See, for example, John S. Haven, et al., "War Termination and Joint Planning," Joint Force Quarterly No. 8 (Summer 1995),
pp. 95-101.


Jim Carafano
James Carafano

Vice President, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute