Towards a Post-Interventionist Era? The Military Intervention against the Islamic State

Hausarbeit, 2016

21 Seiten, Note: 1.7




1. Introduction

2. Exploring “Post-Interventionism”
2.1 Limits of Interventions
2.2 Characteristics of Future Missions
2.3 Post-Interventionist Discourse
2.4 Libya – Heralding a Post-Interventions Era?

3. The Military Intervention against the Islamic State
3.1 Background
3.2 Characteristics of the Mission
3.3 Discourse

4. Conclusion

5. Literature

1. Introduction

Has the world of international intervention come to a turning point?[1] Many observers claim that the interventions in Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003) have left Western societies tired and exhausted. Casualties and considerable material costs in combination with sobering results are said to have led to a growing uneasiness in Western societies when it comes to sending troops abroad. Against this background the hypothesis is put forward that future interventions will be harder to legitimize and are likely to differ in their character. Academia is debating this development vividly. The 2012 conference of the Bundeswehr Institute for Social Science in Berlin for instance brought up the issue using the title “The Armed Forces: Towards a Post-Interventionist Era?“.[2]

How will future interventions look like? Some point at the 2011 NATO-led military campaign in Libya, which differed from earlier missions in several aspects, and argue it might herald a new type of intervention (Leuprecht 2013: 68). But there might be more change in the world of international intervention. Scholars like David Chandler argue that the Libyan case illustrates a shift towards a post-interventionist discourse. This discourse, Chandler claims, evolves around the paradigm of resilience and moves away from liberal internationalist claims of Western securing or sovereign agency towards a concern with empowering those held to be vulnerable (Chandler 2012). The conflict between sovereignty and intervention becomes discursively dissolved this way.

Three years after the toppling of Muammar al-Gaddafi in September 2014, a US-led group of states decided to intervene again, this time to fight the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq.[3] The coalition committed itself to “degrade, and ultimately destroy, IS through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy” (US Department of State 2014). The mission, which is still running, includes airstrikes, arming and support of local ground forces and humanitarian efforts.

This intervention offers the opportunity to examine whether the post-interventionist paradigm holds ground. The case has been selected for two reasons. It is the first major Western military intervention since Libya with all NATO members being involved – albeit to varying degrees. Moreover, there has been a vivid public debate, especially in the United States, regarding the issue of whether and how to intervene. These aspects make the case well suited for a further examination in order to find out if it displays post-interventionist features. The focus of the case study lies on the United States. Under the name of “Operation Inherent Resolve” the country provides by far the largest part of financial and personnel resources to the fight against IS and clearly was the driving force in assembling the coalition. With its unique military capabilities and leading role in NATO the country has a long history of military interventions. In the post-interventionism debate the US is a case frequently referred to.

In a first step this paper will explore the blurry notion of “post-interventionism”. For this purpose, it gives an overview over current trends in Western security politics and societal developments that might affect the future of military campaigns. This section also draws on research about the Western discourse which is associated to intervention. The aim is to present a set of features and trends characterizing military interventions in a proclaimed post-interventionist age. In this context the paper also shortly addresses the question if the Libyan case can serve as an example for post-interventionist practice. In a second step the focus turns to the US-led military campaign against the Islamic State and the discourse associated to it. After providing some basic background information about the case, the section sets out to examine to which degree post-interventionist characteristics can be identified. In the conclusion the findings are summarized and the question whether Western society is moving towards a post-interventionist era is addressed. In doing so the author strives to contribute to the ongoing debate about the future of military intervention.

2. Exploring “Post-Interventionism”

The blurry notion of “post” tends to be used when a period has come to an end but nobody has come up with a name describing the new phenomenon adequately. This makes a further examination necessary in order to outline which developments could have led to a turning point in the practice of military intervention. First of all, however, it is important to mention that post-interventionism does not mean non-interventionism but a different type of intervention. Following the news, one can easily conclude that interventions are and probably will stay a frequent phenomenon in our globalized world. Therefore, this analysis starts from the observation, that Western military interventions in the last two decades have been increasingly confronted with financial, societal and political resistance and limitations.

2.1 Limits of Interventions

Military interventions are costly endeavors. The Congressional Research Service calculated in 2014 the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to amount to approximately $1.6 trillion (Congressional Research Service 2014). Harvard economist Linda Bilmes, however, estimated the true number to be between $4 and $6 trillion including long-term medical care, disability compensation for service members, veterans and families, military replenishment and social and economic costs in her accounting (Bilmes 2013). As a consequence of these wartime spending choices, the United States will face constraints in funding investments in personnel and diplomacy, research and development and new military initiatives, Bilmes forecasted. Moreover, the US defense budget has shrunken from $711 billion in 2011 to $596 billion in 2015 (SIPRI 2016). In times of financial crisis and austerity many European countries are in a similar situation.

In the past two decades several scholars have argued that Western societies have entered a post-heroic age. US strategic thinker Edward Luttwak was the first to popularize the term “post-heroic warfare” in 1995 (Luttwak 1995). He cited mainly sociological reasons for the decreasing enthusiasm for sacrifice in war. According to Luttwak, the average number of children per family has shrunken considerably in Western societies during the course of the twentieth century with the result that parents are increasingly wary of losing their children in war. Others, like Christopher Coker or Herfried Münkler, followed Luttwak’s claim pointing out that in the West the warrior ethos has been in decline in past decades (Münkler 2002, Coker 2002). Coker referred to the concept of “risk society” to explain why Western societies strive to avoid death or injury on the battlefield. Whatever reasons are given for the emergence of this post-heroic mentality, its proponents predict that it will create issues for Western war-making capabilities. This societal development not only makes military recruiting on an individual level harder, but also leads to a decreasing willingness to accept civil or military casualties. Research suggests that this casualty sensitivity differs according to the type of conflict and depends on the national interest understood to be at stake. It is stronger when the conflict is perceived as a “war of choice” and not as a “war of necessity”, which serves self-defense and national survival, by the population (Freedman 2006). If democratic publics perceive wars as unnecessary or in vain, casualties create more disapproval (Gelpi et al. 2005).[4]

The political record of Western military interventions in the last two decades is at best mixed. The war in Afghanistan is perhaps the best example for disappointed expectations and disillusionment when it comes to ambitious peace- and state-building missions. While some Western politicians are still trying hard to frame the mission a success, many experts and the media are painting a much darker picture (e.g. Brummer 2011). The slowed troop withdrawal since 2014 due to the poor security situation in the country raises the question in the public what was bought with blood and treasure. In consequence of this, the political costs and risks for decision makers to opt for an intervention far away from home have considerably increased. Defense Secretary Robert Gates bluntly put it this way in his 2011 farewell address: “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined” (New York Times 2011).

2.2 Characteristics of Future Missions

How will these financial, societal und political limitations affect coming interventions? How will Western intervention policies look like in the future? Of course developments like this may be hard to predict, given that unforeseeable events like the 9/11-attacks and the following “war on terror” significantly shaped Western intervention practices in the past. Nevertheless, military strategists and scholars claim that we are already witnessing consequences of the presented findings. They are debating them vividly and take them as a basis to formulate hypotheses about the near future of Western military interventions. The most prominent ones are presented below.


Western military interventions will be more selective and more obviously oriented towards the respective national interest than those in the past. Some fear this could lead to a drawback regarding world society, cosmopolitan or human rights considerations (Giegerich/Kümmel 2013: 14). This assumption has to be treated with caution though. The motives, interests and considerations which ultimately lead to a country’s decision to intervene are rarely transparent and often assessed controversially.

Size and Scope

Interventions will be less ambitious than in the past. Complex and costly state-, nation- and peacebuilding missions will become rare. US Strategists are increasingly calling for a reorientation of the country’s grand strategy. They stress that most comprehensive military interventions affect American security at best marginally and therefore fail a cost-benefit test (Friedman/Logan 2012: 180). In times of fiscal austerity, we are likely to witness shorter interventions with limited objectives and expectations.

No Boots on the Ground

Western military interventions will strive to prevent “boots on the ground” to keep the number of casualties small and evade problems of legitimation. In the democratic peace literature several risk-transfer paths are discussed to bypass a “casualty trap” – a stalemate situation where military operations are ceased to avoid additional casualties, thereby forestalling mission accomplishment (Schörnig 2010). One is the deployment of mercenaries, the personnel of private military companies (PMCs), rather than regular soldiers. Largely due to a lower transparency of these forces, the public is less likely to know about potential losses (Avant/Sigelman 2010). Another option, whose use and effects are increasingly discussed in the public as well as in academia, is the military reliance on unmanned systems, mainly drones. Due to various reasons they are relatively cheap compared to the deployment and maintenance of conventional air force (Sauer/Schörnig 2012: 370). Most notably, however, they allow the protection of troops from above or even to substitute them and thereby to prevent losses. Additionally, the precision-guided munitions, the real-time intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance – supposedly – allows for striking with enough precision to minimize or even avoid civilian casualties and unnecessary damage.[5] A third way to deal with casualty sensitivity is the reliance on a combination of air forces (manned and unmanned), special operators and allied local forces on the ground to minimize the exposure of one’s own troops. Military advisors like Fernando Luján see this “light footprint” missions quickly becoming a central part of American strategy (Luján 2013).


Western interventions will be harder to sell to the war-weary Western public. The political pressure to use the existing resources for domestic problems will increase at the same time. A 2013 poll of the Pew Research Centerfound the lowest public support for an active US foreign policy since 1964, as well as a growing desire to focus away from the world stage (Pew Reserach Center 2013). Currently, the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump presents himself as a spokesman for this isolationist trend in public opinion, calling his agenda “America First” (The Washington Post 2013).[6] When he speaks of setting conditions for defending NATO allies against a potential attack this can be interpreted as an attempt to address a growing part of the American population exhausted by the wars of the past (New York Times 2016).

David Chandler argues, as presented in detail in the section 2.3, that a post-interventionist discourse using the resilience paradigm can be able to rescue the credibility of military campaigns and thereby evading problems of legitimation (Chandler 2012: 225).


[1] In this paper the notion of intervention is used in a narrow and military sense, meaning the “deliberate act of a nation or a group of nations to introduce its military forces into the course of an existing controversy” (US Department of Defense 2011). Moreover, the focus lies on military interventions of so called “Western” countries, mainly NATO members.

[2] Since 2013 “Center for Military History and Social Sciences of the Bundeswehr”.

[3] According to the US State Department, there are 66 participants in the coalition, including Afghanistan, Albania, the Arab League, Australia, Austria, Bahrain, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Egypt, Estonia, the European Union, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Iraq, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Kosovo, Kuwait, Latvia, Lebanon, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Malaysia, Moldova, Montenegro, Morocco, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Oman, Panama, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Republic of Korea, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Somalia, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States (US Department of State 2014).

[4] For a critical examination of the “post-heroic condition” see Scheipers (2014).

[5] The use of drones can be understood as one element in the “Quest for Bloodless War”, a term coined by Robert Mandel. Other tools and strategies to minimize wartime casualties, described by Mandel, are nonlethal weapons, precision-guided munitions, and information warfare (Mandel 2004).

[6] Trump’s incoherent and partly contradicting pronouncements on US foreign policy make it impossible to label him isolationist though. Trump for instance also stated he would “bomb the hell out of ISIS” (The Washington Post 2015).

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Towards a Post-Interventionist Era? The Military Intervention against the Islamic State
Freie Universität Berlin
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towards, post-interventionist, military, intervention, islamic, state
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Anonym, 2016, Towards a Post-Interventionist Era? The Military Intervention against the Islamic State, München, GRIN Verlag,


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