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Death by a Thousand Cuts: Small Operations Such as East Timor Can Tax U.S. Forces


Of the expected 7,500 personnel from the Australian-led multinational peacekeeping force now entering East Timor, only 200--intelligence and logistical specialists--are American. The small U.S. commitment might seem justified by the noble goal of bringing peace to a territory wracked by violence. But even a small deployment raises much larger questions.

The ad-hoc nature of recent U.S. foreign policy provides no guidelines about when U.S. military forces should be used for peacekeeping or even to fight wars. In most cases, minor peacekeeping or war-making operations should be handled by friendly powers in a particular region.

The U.S. does possess unique military capabilities--among them intelligence and logistics. But if the U.S. military keeps providing such capabilities for even small operations; U.S. friends and allies will never have the incentive to develop those vital capabilities.

Worse, the potential always exists for the U.S. to become much more heavily involved than initially planned. If things go badly--for example, if the Indonesian military decides to suspend cooperation with the Australian-led peacekeeping force--even a small U.S. commitment implies that the powerful U.S. military will once again bail out the regional power. East Timor could be another quagmire, such as Bosnia or Kosovo, waiting to happen.

Furthermore, even small-scale peacekeeping commitments can prove to be “death by a thousand cuts” for the already stretched U.S. military. The same military units tend to be used over and over in such missions. And many military personnel joined the armed forces to defend the nation, not to support Australians in a remote part of the world unimportant to U.S. security. No wonder the military is experiencing problems recruiting and retaining personnel. Long-term military readiness is further eroded because training to fight wars has to be either forgone or made up. Moreover, equipment and the resources to replace it are expended.

The mission in East Timor must be seen in a broader context. How many East Timors can the United States and its military endure without becoming overextended?
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 has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and 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. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.

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