Between Threats and War

U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post–Cold War World

Foreign policy analyses written by CFR fellows and published by the trade presses, academic presses, or the Council on Foreign Relations Press.

Read an excerpt of Between Threats and War.

Limited military force—using enough force to resolve a problem while minimizing U.S. military deaths, local civilian casualties, and collateral damage—has increased since the end of the Cold War despite its ineffectiveness, writes Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Fellow Micah Zenko in Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the PostCold War World. The author examines thirty-six such cases, which he terms Discrete Military Operations (DMOs), undertaken by the United States over the past twenty years, and demonstrates that they have achieved just over half of their military objectives and less than 6 percent of their political objectives.

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"It is time for the U.S. civilian and military leadership to reevaluate their approach to limited uses of force. While DMOs are an impressive and responsive tactic, they are no substitute for a comprehensive, coordinated, and prioritized strategy—using military and non-military tools," asserts Zenko. For example, over 150 drone strikes completed since 2004 in Pakistan have failed to deter al-Qaeda from using that safe haven to plan international terrorist attacks. DMOs in Yemen and Somalia have proven equally ineffective in preventing terrorist activities, including an attempted attack on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas day 2009.

Drawing on comprehensive research and dozens of interviews with senior civilian and military leaders, Zenko recommends that policymakers consider:

  • More Military Options. "To elicit a broader range of options, the president's civilian advisors must consistently listen to the concerns of their military counterparts, reframe their intended political objectives, adjust their desired end state, and, most important, argue repeatedly and with a unified voice for a greater quantity of options."
  • Politically Aware Military Advice. "Military leaders should not expect the type of precise guidance that political officials simply cannot provide: the promise of broad and deep domestic and international support, few operational constraints, and a clearly articulated desired end state."
  • Minimizing Targeted Killings. "Targeted killings of suspected terrorists should be used sparingly, and only for those senior operatives who are clearly culpable for previous or likely future attacks against Americans, and then only in close coordination with an overall security strategy for the state in which they reside."
  • A Unified Voice. "The most important recommendation is for senior civilian and military officials to develop a much more unified agreement about what DMOs can realistically achieve." They must have a "clear, open, and frank dialogue about exactly what the foreign policy problem is, what the operation is intended to accomplish, and to what degree (if any) force should be utilized."

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Reviews and Endorsements

Zenko's analysis of the limited use of force is brilliant and timely. He breaks new ground in moving beyond Cold War thinking to assess the efficacy of specific military measures in a unipolar environment. This work is a major step in sharpening the application of U.S. military force to achieve political aims abroad. A 'must-read' for anyone--military or civilian--who wants to participate in or understand U.S. national security decision-making.

General Wesley Clark, U.S. Army (ret.), former supreme allied commander Europe

In his important work on discrete military operations, Micah Zenko studies the use of cruise missile strikes, small air raids, and other such limited uses of force that became the norm in much of the post-Cold War era. Zenko reminds policymakers of the uneven track record of such operations while also providing rich new historical detail on matters such as the contemplated (but ultimately foregone) strike near Khurmal, Iraq, on the Ansar al-Islam extremist group in 2002. Highly recommended.

Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow and director of research for foreign policy, Brookings Institution

This book is readable, relevant, and insightful. It represents exceptional analysis on a topic that few have explored in such detail. It is well researched, well documented, and well organized. I recommend it to all civilian and military leaders pondering the utility and efficacy of direct military strikes against sensitive targets.

Colonel Robert M. Cassidy, U.S. Army senior fellow, Center for Advanced Defense Studies

Between Threats and War is one of those rare but valuable works that uses rigorous scholarship to illuminate the dynamics of security decisions. Both theorists and security practitioners will find it challenging and useful.

Steven Metz, U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute

In the News

Micah Zenko on Conversations with History

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Micah Zenko at the World Affairs Council of Northern California

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