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Chairman’s Corner: Three Principles for Use of Military

By Navy Adm. Mike Mullen
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 5, 2010 – As I laid out during the Landon Lecture this week, our nation has been at war continuously over the last nine years against a syndicate of Islamic extremists, led by al-Qaida and supported by a host of both state and nonstate actors. I have watched -- and advised -- two administrations as they have dealt with this struggle, and I have come to three principles about the proper use of modern military forces.

The first is that military power should not, maybe cannot, be the last resort of the state. Sometimes, the military -- because of its unique flexibility and speed -- may be the first, best tool to use. But it should never be the only tool.

Use of military forces must be accompanied by other instruments of national and international power. Defense and diplomacy are simply no longer discrete choices, one to be applied when the other one fails, but must, in fact, complement one another throughout the messy process of international relations.

And I believe that U.S. foreign policy is still too dominated by the military. Should we choose to exert American influence solely through our troops, we should expect to see that influence diminish over time.

In fact, I would argue that in future struggles of the asymmetric, counterinsurgent variety, we ought to make it a pre-condition of committing our troops that we will do so only if and when the other instruments of national power and our allies are ready to engage as well.

The second is that to the maximum extent possible, force should be applied in a precise and principled way. Precisely applying force in a principled manner can help reduce those costs and actually improve our chances of success.

This doesn't mean we don't do the things necessary to win. It means we do those things as mindful as we can about the impact to the innocent people we are trying to protect. Each time we kill a civilian inadvertently, we not only wreak devastation on the lives of their loved ones, we set our own strategy back months if not years. We make it hard for people to trust us.

Frankly, the battlefield isn’t necessarily a field anymore, but rather is the minds of the people.

My third principle is that -- in the very dynamic security environment we find ourselves in -- we should welcome a constant struggle between policy and strategy.

The experience of the last nine years tells us two things: A clear strategy for military operations is essential, and that strategy will have to change as those operations evolve. In other words, success in these types of wars is iterative, not decisive.

We will win, but we will do so only over time and only after near-constant reassessment and adjustment.

The notion proffered by some that once set a war policy cannot be changed, or that to do so implies some sort of weakness, strikes me not only as incompatible with our own history, but also as quite dangerous.

War has never been a set-piece affair. The enemy adapts to your strategy, and you adapt to his, and so you keep the interplay going between policy and strategy until you find the right combination at the right time.

The day you stop adjusting is the day you lose.

(Navy Adm. Mike Mullen is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.)