In a prescient article in Foreign Affairs in 1994 entitled “The Mystique of U.S. Air Power,” the historian and strategistEliot Cohen, writing in the wake of the Gulf War, argued, “Air power is an unusually seductive form of military strength, in part because, like modern courtship, it appears to offer gratification without commitment.” If he were writing such an article today, he might substitute special operations forces (SOF) for air power. And, in fact, Cohen haswritten about SOF in the past, stating,
By their mere availability and past successes elite units may subtly distort policy-makers’ perspectives on politico-military problems. This does not imply that policies are undertaken just because the tools to execute them exist. Rather, elite units sometimes seem to offer an easy way out of a serious problem, and in so doing mislead political decision-makers….
But even that was written before the revolution in U.S. SOF capabilities that took place after the aborted Operation Eagle Claw hostage rescue attempt in Iran in 1980 and the further increases in capabilities over the past decade-plus of war.
Today, SOF is widely viewed as a primary tool in both contemporary and future American foreign and defense policy. As retired Army Lieutenant Colonel and War on the Rocks contributor Douglas Ollivantwrote last week,
An elite consensus on the “New Way of War” has been emerging for some time now. Among defense policy experts, think tanks, echoed at Aspen and Davos, the way forward seems clear. The future belongs to cyberwarfare and includes a terrorism problem that will be dealt with by drones and SEALs, and the need to be prepared for the possibility, however remote, of a large-scale naval and aviation campaign in the Far East against a rising China.
Perhaps this should not be surprising. Writing on U.S. strategic culture, Carnes Lord has noted that,
Americans are a pragmatic people, with a tendency to seek technical solutions to isolated problems and a preoccupation with the here and now at the expense both of the past and the future. This means, among other things, that Americans tend to lack the historical memory that is critical for understanding other cultures, as well as the future orientation and holistic thinking that are the preconditions for strategy.