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A nation must think before it acts.
Lord Acton’s famous maxim about the corruptive influence of power is just as true with regard to “absolute” military force as it is with regard to power in the domestic political realm. He might even have added that command of unmatched technological prowess can blind policymakers to lower-profile, lower-cost ways to achieve their nation’s goals. Some security problems can be solved with a sledgehammer, or only with a sledgehammer. But far more common are those foreign policy challenges that can be solved—or prevented altogether—by measures short of violent conflict, even where routine diplomatic instruments prove ineffective. As the reigning superpower, the United States must not eschew forceful diplomacy or violence in extremis when its strategic interests are at stake. But Washington’s current overreliance on aerial bombardment as the weapon of second (if not first) resort diminishes America’s prestige, sullies its espousal of a liberaldemocratic new world order, and endangers its strategic relations with other major powers. Less confrontational options can achieve U.S. goals without the “harmful side effects” that include a strained Western alliance and strained relations with China and Russia, not to mention civilian deaths and material destruction. That “less confrontational” option is covert or indirect action abroad, and it offers today, no less than during the Cold War, an effective alternative to the unacceptable risks and costs of military operations.