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Mission Leap

Author: Micah Zenko, Douglas Dillon Fellow
August 22, 2014
Foreign Policy

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On Feb. 12, 1993, journalist Christopher Burns filed a story from Somalia containing a term that had never before appeared in English language press: "The U.S.-led military mission to halt clan warfare and get aid to the needy has unofficially widened its role to include such tasks as rebuilding houses, digging wells and creating police forces. Officials call it 'mission creep.'"

As America's recent intervention in Iraq gathers steam, the phrase and its implicit warnings have reemerged among policymakers and public commentators. Worryingly, though, it seems some top officials don't get it. As President Barack Obama noted on Tuesday: "Typically, what happens with mission creep is when we start deciding that we're the ones who have to do it all ourselves. And because of the excellence of our military that can work for a time. We learned that in Iraq." This is a puzzling lesson to take away from Iraq: rather than preferring unilateralism, the Bush administration begged every country with deployable military forces to participate in the invasion and occupation.

On Wednesday, Pentagon spokesperson Rear Adm. John Kirby offered a more concise definition: "mission creep doesn't refer to numbers of sorties, numbers of troops, numbers of anything. It doesn't refer to timelines. It doesn't even refer to intensity. It's about the mission itself." This is true in the technical sense of how the Pentagon defines a mission: "The task, together with the purpose, that clearly indicates the action to be taken and the reason therefore."

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