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The Staying Power of Petty Tyrants

As predicted, despite Sunday’s scheduled Yugoslav election and his waning popularity among the Yugoslav people, Slobodan Milosevic found a way to remain in power. Milosevic’s resilience--and the similar longevity of Saddam Hussein--illustrates the constraints on the world’s only superpower when waging coalition warfare against petty tyrants. After the dust settles and the rubble is cleared, tin pot dictators usually endure--sneering at the United States. The staying power of such autocrats demonstrates the futility of fighting brushfire wars against them.

America--so as not to appear to be a superpower bully--usually encourages the token participation of allies in its military adventures. Yet allied sensitivities usually prevent the United States from prosecuting the all-out war needed to dispose of the odious despot of the day. NATO allies would have vociferously opposed any U.S. plan to remove Milosevic using an offensive against Belgrade. Similarly, during the Gulf War, a major reason the United States refrained from “going to Baghdad” was the certainty that its Arab allies would have abandoned the coalition. Furthermore, in each conflict, plans to remove the annoying strongman--bringing the prospect of heavy U.S. casualties--probably would have eroded support for the war in the United States.

Thus, the United States usually conducts a limited war and then becomes mired in an attempt to contain the dictator. But the American public’s limited interest in the foreign policy elite’s objectives in far-flung regions allows the despot to outlast the containment policy. Already Congress is talking about mandating the withdrawal of American forces from Kosovo. Similarly, sanctions against Iraq are eroding and the United States no longer has the will to wage war to compel Saddam to permit the reentry of weapons inspectors.

The American public becomes interested only when significant casualties occur (for example, in the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon) or when a protracted involvement is floundering (for example, in Vietnam). Then the drumbeat to withdraw U.S. forces becomes deafening. Therefore, frustrating experiences with Yugoslavia and Iraq, as well as painful lessons in Vietnam and Lebanon, should make a republic such as the United States leery of fighting regional wars in the world’s backwaters.

Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at the Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office.

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