by Edward N. Luttwak
Foreign Affairs Journal
Published by the Council On Foreign
Edward N. Luttwak
is Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and
An unpleasant truth often overlooked is that although war is a great
evil, it does have a great virtue: it can resolve political
conflicts and lead to peace. This can happen when all belligerents
become exhausted or when one wins decisively. Either way the key is
that the fighting must continue until a resolution is reached. War
brings peace only after passing a culminating phase of violence.
Hopes of military success must fade for accommodation to become more
attractive than further combat.
Since the establishment of
the United Nations and the enshrinement
of great–power politics in its Security Council, however, wars among
lesser powers have rarely been allowed to run their natural course.
Instead, they have typically been interrupted early on, before they
could burn themselves out and establish the preconditions for a
lasting settlement. Cease–fires and armistices have frequently been
imposed under the aegis of the Security Council in order to halt
fighting. NATO’s intervention in the Kosovo crisis follows this
But a cease–fire tends to arrest war–induced exhaustion and lets
belligerents reconstitute and rearm their forces. It intensifies and
prolongs the struggle once the cease–fire ends—and it does usually
end. This was true of the Arab–Israeli war of 1948–49, which might
have come to closure in a matter of weeks if two cease–fires
ordained by the Security Council had not let the combatants
It has recently been true in the
Balkans. Imposed cease–fires frequently interrupted the fighting
between Serbs and Croats in Krajina, between the forces of the rump
Yugoslav federation and the Croat army, and between the Serbs,
Croats, and Muslims in Bosnia. Each time, the opponents used the
pause to recruit, train, and equip additional forces for further
combat, prolonging the war and widening the scope of its killing and
Imposed armistices, meanwhile—again,
unless followed by negotiated peace accords—artificially freeze
conflict and perpetuate a state of war indefinitely by shielding the
weaker side from the consequences of refusing to make concessions
The Cold War provided compelling justification for such behavior by
the two superpowers, which sometimes collaborated in coercing
less–powerful belligerents to avoid being drawn into their conflicts
and clashing directly. Although imposed cease–fires ultimately did
increase the total quantity of warfare among the lesser powers, and
armistices did perpetuate states of war, both outcomes were clearly
lesser evils (from a global point of view) than the possibility of
nuclear war. But today, neither Americans nor Russians are inclined
to intervene competitively in the wars of lesser powers, so the
unfortunate consequences of interrupting war persist while no
greater danger is averted.
It might be best for all parties to let
minor wars burn themselves out.
Today cease-fires and armistices are imposed on lesser powers by
multilateral agreement — not to avoid great–power competition but
for essentially disinterested and indeed frivolous motives, such as
television audiences’ revulsion at harrowing scenes of war. But
this, perversely, can systematically prevent the transformation of
war into peace.
Dayton accords are typical of the
genre: they have condemned Bosnia to remain divided into three rival
armed camps, with combat suspended momentarily but a state of
hostility prolonged indefinitely. Since no side is threatened by
defeat and loss, none has a sufficient incentive to negotiate a
lasting settlement; because no path to peace is even visible, the
dominant priority is to prepare for future war rather than to
reconstruct devastated economies and ravaged societies.
Uninterrupted war would certainly have
caused further suffering and led to an unjust outcome from one
perspective or another, but it would also have led to a more stable
situation that would have let the postwar era truly begin. Peace
takes hold only when war is truly over.
A variety of multilateral organizations now make it their business
to intervene in other peoples’ wars. The defining characteristic of
these entities is that they insert themselves in war situations
while refusing to engage in combat. In the long run this only adds
to the damage. If the United Nations helped the strong defeat the
weak faster and more decisively, it would actually enhance the
peacemaking potential of war.
But the first priority of U.N.
peacekeeping contingents is to avoid casualties among their own
personnel. Unit commanders therefore habitually appease the locally
stronger force, accepting its dictates and tolerating its abuses.
This appeasement is not strategically purposeful, as siding with the
stronger power overall would be; rather, it merely reflects the
determination of each U.N. unit to avoid confrontation. The final
result is to prevent the emergence of a coherent outcome, which
requires an imbalance of strength sufficient to end the fighting.
Peacekeepers chary of violence are also unable to effectively
protect civilians who are caught up in the fighting or deliberately
attacked. At best, U.N. peacekeeping forces have been passive
spectators to outrages and massacres, as in Bosnia and Rwanda; at
worst, they collaborate with it, as Dutch U.N. troops did in the
fall of Srebenica by helping the Bosnian Serbs separate the men of
military age from the rest of the population.
The very presence of U.N. forces, meanwhile, inhibits the normal
remedy of endangered civilians, which is to escape from the combat
zone. Deluded into thinking that they will be protected, civilians
in danger remain in place until it is too late to flee. During the
1992–94 siege of Sarajevo, appeasement interacted with the pretense
of protection in an especially perverse manner: U.N. personnel
inspected outgoing flights to prevent the escape of Sarajevo
civilians in obedience to a cease–fire agreement negotiated with the
locally dominant Bosnian Serbs — who habitually violated that deal.
The more sensible, realistic response to a raging war would have
been for the Muslims to either flee the city or drive the Serbs out.
Institutions such as the European Union, the Western European Union,
and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe lack
even the U.N.’s rudimentary command structure and personnel, yet
they too now seek to intervene in warlike situations, with
predictable consequences. Bereft of forces even theoretically
capable of combat, they satisfy the interventionist urges of member
states (or their own institutional ambitions) by sending unarmed or
lightly armed “observer” missions, which have the same problems as
U.N. peacekeeping missions, only more so.
Military organizations such as NATO or the West African
Peacekeeping Force (ECOMOG, recently at work in Sierra
Leone) are capable of stopping warfare. Their interventions still
have the destructive consequence of prolonging the state of war, but
they can at least protect civilians from its consequences. Even that
often fails to happen, however, because multinational military
commands engaged in disinterested interventions tend to avoid any
risk of combat, thereby limiting their effectiveness. U.S. troops in
Bosnia, for example, repeatedly failed to arrest known war criminals
passing through their checkpoints lest this provoke confrontation.
Multinational commands, moreover, find it difficult to control the
quality and conduct of member states’ troops, which can reduce the
performance of all forces involved to the lowest common denominator.
This was true of otherwise fine British troops in Bosnia and of the
Nigerian marines in Sierra Leone. The phenomenon of troop
degradation can rarely be detected by external observers, although
its consequences are abundantly visible in the litter of dead,
mutilated, raped, and tortured victims that attends such
The true state of affairs is illuminated
by the rare exception, such as the vigorous Danish tank battalion in
Bosnia that replied to any attack on it by firing back in full
force, quickly stopping the fighting.
All prior examples of disinterested warfare and its crippling
limitations, however, have been cast into shadow by NATO’s current
intervention against Serbia for the sake of Kosovo. The alliance has
relied on airpower alone to minimize the risk of NATO casualties,
bombing targets in Serbia, Montenegro, and Kosovo for weeks without
losing a single pilot.
This seemingly miraculous immunity from
Yugoslav anti–aircraft guns and missiles was achieved by multiple
layers of precautions.
First, for all the noise and imagery
suggestive of a massive operation, very few strike sorties were
actually flown during the first few weeks. That reduced the
risks to pilots and aircraft but of course also limited the
scope of the bombing to a mere fraction of NATO’s potential.
Second, the air campaign targeted
air–defense systems first and foremost, minimizing present and
future allied casualties, though at the price of very limited
destruction and the loss of any shock effect.
Third, NATO avoided most
anti–aircraft weapons by releasing munitions not from optimal
altitudes but from an ultra–safe 15,000 feet or more.
Fourth, the alliance greatly
restricted its operations in less–than–perfect weather
NATO officials complained that
dense clouds were impeding the bombing campaign, often limiting
nightly operations to a few cruise–missile strikes against fixed
targets of known location. In truth, what the cloud ceiling
prohibited was not all bombing—low–altitude attacks could easily
have taken place—but rather perfectly safe bombing.
On the ground far beneath the high–flying planes, small groups of
Serb soldiers and police in armored vehicles were terrorizing
hundreds of thousands of Albanian Kosovars. NATO has a panoply of
aircraft designed for finding and destroying such vehicles. All its
major powers have anti–tank helicopters, some equipped to operate
without base support. But no country offered to send them into
Kosovo when the ethnic cleansing began—after all, they might have
been shot down.
When U.S. Apache helicopters based in
Germany were finally ordered to Albania, in spite of the vast
expenditure devoted to their instantaneous “readiness” over the
years, they required more than three weeks of “predeployment
preparations” to make the journey. Six weeks into the war, the
Apaches had yet to fly their first mission, although two had already
crashed during training.
More than mere bureaucratic
foot–dragging was responsible for this inordinate delay: the U.S.
Army insisted that the Apaches could not operate on their own, but
would need the support of heavy rocket barrages to suppress Serb
anti–aircraft weapons. This created a much larger logistical load
than the Apaches alone, and an additional, evidently welcome delay.
Even before the Apache saga began, NATO already had aircraft
deployed on Italian bases that could have done the job just as well:
U.S. a–10 “Warthogs” built around their powerful 30 mm antitank guns
and British Royal Air Force Harriers ideal for low-altitude
bombing at close range. Neither was employed, again because it could
not be done in perfect safety.
In the calculus of the NATO democracies,
the immediate possibility of saving thousands of Albanians from
massacre and hundreds of thousands from deportation was obviously
not worth the lives of a few pilots. That may reflect unavoidable
political reality, but it demonstrates how even a large–scale
disinterested intervention can fail to achieve its ostensibly
It is worth wondering whether the
Kosovars would have been better off had NATO simply done nothing.
The most disinterested of all interventions in war—and the most
destructive—are humanitarian relief activities. The largest and most
protracted is the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).
It was built on the model of its predecessor, the United Nations
Relief and Rehabilitation Agency (UNRRA), which operated
displaced–persons’ camps in Europe immediately after World War II.
The UNRWA was established immediately after the 1948–49 Arab–Israeli
war to feed, shelter, educate, and provide health services for Arab
refugees who had fled Israeli zones in the former territory of
By keeping refugees alive in spartan conditions that encouraged
their rapid emigration or local resettlement, the UNRRA’s camps in
Europe had assuaged postwar resentments and helped disperse
revanchist concentrations of national groups. But UNRWA camps in
Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip provided
on the whole a higher standard of living than most Arab villagers
had previously enjoyed, with a more varied diet, organized
schooling, superior medical care, and no backbreaking labor in stony
They had, therefore, the opposite
effect, becoming desirable homes rather than eagerly abandoned
transit camps. With the encouragement of several Arab countries, the
UNRWA turned escaping civilians into lifelong refugees who gave
birth to refugee children, who have in turn had refugee children of
During its half–century of operation, the UNRWA has thus perpetuated
a Palestinian refugee nation, preserving its resentments in as fresh
a condition as they were in 1948 and keeping the first bloom of
revanchist emotion intact. By its very existence, the UNRWA
dissuades integration into local society and inhibits emigration.
The concentration of Palestinians in the camps, moreover, has
facilitated the voluntary or forced enlistment of refugee youths by
armed organizations that fight both Israel and each other. The UNRWA
has contributed to a half–century of Arab–Israeli violence and still
retards the advent of peace.
If each European war had been attended by its own postwar UNRWA,
today’s Europe would be filled with giant camps for millions of
descendants of uprooted Gallo-Romans, abandoned Vandals, defeated
Burgundians, and misplaced Visigoths — not to speak of more recent
refugee nations such as post-1945 Sudeten Germans (three million of
whom were expelled from Czechoslovakia in 1945). Such a Europe would
have remained a mosaic of warring tribes, undigested and
un-reconciled in their separate feeding camps. It might have
assuaged consciences to help each one at each remove, but it would
have led to permanent instability and violence.
The UNRWA has counterparts elsewhere, such as the Cambodian camps
along the Thai border, which incidentally provided safe havens for
the mass–murdering Khmer Rouge. But because the United Nations is
limited by stingy national contributions, these camps’ sabotage of
peace is at least localized.
That is not true of the proliferating, feverishly competitive
nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that now aid war
refugees. Like any other institution, these NGOs are interested in
perpetuating themselves, which means that their first priority is to
attract charitable contributions by being seen to be active in
Only the most dramatic natural disasters
attract any significant mass–media attention, and then only briefly;
soon after an earthquake or flood, the cameras depart. War refugees,
by contrast, can win sustained press coverage if kept concentrated
in reasonably accessible camps. Regular warfare among well–developed
countries is rare and offers few opportunities for such NGOs, so
they focus their efforts on aiding refugees in the poorest parts of
the world. This ensures that the food, shelter, and health care
offered —although abysmal by Western standards— exceeds what is
locally available to non-refugees.
The consequences are entirely
predictable. Among many examples, the huge refugee camps along the
Democratic Republic of Congo’s border with Rwanda stand out. They
sustain a Hutu nation that would otherwise have been dispersed,
making the consolidation of Rwanda impossible and providing a base
for radicals to launch more Tutsi-killing raids across the border.
Humanitarian intervention has worsened the chances of a stable,
long-term resolution of the tensions in Rwanda.
To keep refugee nations intact and preserve their resentments
forever is bad enough, but inserting material aid into ongoing
conflicts is even worse. Many NGOs that operate in an odor of
sanctity routinely supply active combatants. Defenseless, they
cannot exclude armed warriors from their feeding stations, clinics,
Since refugees are presumptively on the
losing side, the warriors among them are usually in retreat. By
intervening to help, NGOs systematically impede the progress of
their enemies toward a decisive victory that could end the war.
Sometimes NGOs, impartial to a fault, even help both sides, thus
preventing mutual exhaustion and a resulting settlement. And in some
extreme cases, such as Somalia, NGOs even pay protection money to
local war bands, which use those funds to buy arms.
Those NGOs are therefore helping prolong
the warfare whose consequences they ostensibly seek to mitigate.
Make War to
Too many wars nowadays become endemic conflicts that never end
because the transformative effects of both decisive victory and
exhaustion are blocked by outside intervention. Unlike the ancient
problem of war, however, the compounding of its evils by
disinterested interventions is a new malpractice that could be
Policy elites should actively resist the
emotional impulse to intervene in other peoples’ wars — not because
they are indifferent to human suffering but precisely because they
care about it and want to facilitate the advent of peace. The United
States should dissuade multilateral interventions instead of leading
New rules should be established for U.N.
refugee relief activities to ensure that immediate succor is swiftly
followed by repatriation, local absorption, or emigration, ruling
out the establishment of permanent refugee camps. And although it
may not be possible to constrain interventionist NGOs, they should
at least be neither officially encouraged nor funded.
Underlying these seemingly perverse
measures would be a true appreciation of war’s paradoxical logic and
a commitment to let it serve its sole useful function: to bring