Project on Defense Alternatives







What Justifies Military Intervention?

by Charles Knight
A PDA Commentary, 27 September 2001



This commentary is adapted from a speech by Charles Knight to the Ethical Society of Boston on 4 February 2001. With a Postscript addressing the new "war on terrorism" (revised 10 March 2003) and Selected Readings on Just War, Total War, and Strategic Bombing (revised 01 March 2002).


A question to consider: What justifies military intervention?

I begin my exploration of this question by recounting my relationship to it as an American citizen during the recent Kosova/Serbia crisis. Events in Kosova unfolded for me against a background of many years of horrendous Serb nationalist behavior in Croatia and Bosnia. By the time that the Kosovar nationalist efforts at succession heated up in 1998 I was deeply suspicious of Serb intentions and proclivities toward other nationalities in the confederated republic of Yugoslavia.

I thought of it as a positive step when the United States and a few other great powers of Europe commanded Serbia to negotiations at Rambouillet. It seemed like an opportunity to settle a difficult and dangerous situation peacefully by negotiation: a relatively benign use of big state power to pressure warring parties in smaller states to the table. It was not until months later that I learned of the extraordinary demands placed on the Serbs by the U.S. negotiators...demands that in essence and effect guaranteed Serb rejection of agreement.

Events unfolded quickly after the Serb rejection: the Serbs escalated their campaign against the KLA and began a well-planned program of expulsion of people of Albanian ethnicity from the territory. NATO began a bombing campaign against Serb forces in Kosova, but in the greater part against targets inside Serbia proper. The U.S. Secretary of State reportedly thought that three or four days of bombing would force the Serbs back to the negotiating table... what she had conceived as coercive diplomacy would instead become a medium-sized war.

For me the pictures of thousands of Kosovar on the roads, forced to flee their burning villages, together with stories of hundreds and perhaps thousands murdered by Serb militias, reminded me powerfully of the genocide during World War II. In my judgement at the time, the scale of the immediate harm being done appeared to require that "something be done to stop this atrocity." Hadn't I and thousands of other sincere Americans solemnly pledged "Never Again"?

My country was in another war, but was this one justified? At least two criteria of Just War Doctrine appeared to be satisfied (see Mona Fixal and Dan Smith, "Humanitarian Intervention and Just War" and Bjørn Møller, Kosovo and the Just War Tradition for a useful explications of Just War Doctrine.) Resort to armed force was a last resort; initiated only after negotiations failed to arrive at agreement. And the anticipated harm of armed intervention was relatively small compared to the immediate harm it sought to end. At worst the use of armed force was the lesser of the evils in the existential choice we faced in this emergency.

Nevertheless, I recall being immediately troubled by several things. First, there was the announcement by President Clinton that only air power would be used to compel a change in Serbian behavior. I was troubled by what I know about Air Force strategic bombing doctrine. This is a military doctrine imbued with ideology; it chaffs against the limitations of prohibited targets (one of the key notions of Just War Doctrine) -- in particular, strategic bombing doctrine orients toward the idea of Total War in which civilian economic and social infrastructure is viewed as intrinsically complicit and involved in enemy war efforts and therefore legitimate to target for destruction (for a discussion of the confluence of Total War doctrine, jihad, and genocide a century ago see James J. Reid, Total War, the Annihilation Ethic, and the Armenian Genocide, 1870-1918).

This orientation of strategic bombing doctrine is supported by practical considerations: it turns out that it is far easier to hit and destroy civilian targets than military ones from the air. This would prove to be the case once again in the war with Serbia. Indeed the bombing of Serbia took a predictable pattern: the targeting of primarily military assets in the early days gave way, as the war dragged on for weeks, to the targeting of more and more transportation nodes, public buildings, and economic infrastructure. Increasing civilian casualties inevitably accompany widening bombing campaigns.

In the Gulf War the allied forces achieved a decisive military victory over Iraqi occupation forces within a few weeks from the onset of offensive action. Allied air forces targeted and bombed a great deal of Iraqi civilian infrastructure outside the immediate Kuwaiti theater of action; Destruction of many of these targets deep inside Iraq could only have the most marginal effect on the fighting in the Kuwaiti theater, especially in a short war. As it turned out, this choice to target Iraqi national infrastructure was the cause of the greatest loss of life in that war, as thousands of Iraqi civilians died in the months after the war as a result of the destruction of facilities vital to the distribution of power and food stuffs.

Secondly, I was troubled by the nagging question, By what authority did the United States and NATO intervene? The NATO treaty speaks specifically of the obligation of the allies coming to the common defense of NATO members... and all of Yugoslavia was outside the NATO treaty area. The UN Security Council is authorized to call on member nations to intervene to stop aggression as it had after the invasion of Kuwait ... and the U.S. declined to seek a UN Security Council resolution authorizing the intervention against Serbia.

So by what authority did the U.S. intervene? Although the President referred to the humanitarian crisis as a moral justification for military action against Serbia, it remains unclear by what authority he ordered intervention. The U.S. did gather the consent and coalitional support of allies in an exclusive alliance neighboring to the region of conflict. It is reasonable to believe that NATO countries had an interest in the Yugoslavian conflict, but without U.N. Security Council resolution it remained outside NATO purview to intervene.

Some will argue that no other country was prepared to take on the responsibility of stopping Serb atrocities. Had the U.S. taken the matter to the Security Council, Russia and/or China would have most likely vetoed the intervention. Russia has a long history of strategic and ethnic ties to Serbia and China and is suspicious of any Western intervention in the sovereign affairs of a nation, especially under the cover of humanitarian motives. Accordingly, in a situation where some nations tacitly condone great harm to a defenseless people, it is a moral obligation of other great powers with the means to step forward and take action either in concert with like-minded nations or alone, if necessary.

This, I have come to believe, is a dangerous rationale; principally consistent with the notion that "might makes right," suggestive of an arrogance of power, and likely to contribute to international relations dynamics destructive of the peace in the longer run.

As a nation we have come to understand that due process is an essential, and perhaps defining, characteristic of the best approximation of justice in civil disputes and criminal affairs. Why is process is so central to achieving justice? Because when passions are high it is hard for us to fairly weigh evidence. Furthermore, a process that requires judgements by juries and panels of judges makes sure that more than a few people with some meaningful degree of power to reach independent judgements share a common assessment of the evidence and its relevance before a verdict is rendered.

Compare this process to that used in the aftermath of the 1998 bombing attacks on several US embassies in east Africa. Citing evidence from unspecified intelligence sources of complicity with the suspected perpetrator, and invoking the "inherent right of self-defense," the President and his security advisors in Washington decided to retaliate against a pharmaceutical factory in the sovereign nation of Sudan, thousands of miles away from where they sat.

Such a process of deciding to use deadly force violates nearly all of our notions of due process of justice. In this case the injured party takes it upon itself to be prosecutor, judge, and jury and allows the accused no opportunity for testimony or witnesses.

Quite simply we can not hope to calm the impulse to settle international disputes with violence if we condone such instances of unilateral retaliation by great powers. Moreover, I believe we must come to appreciate that justification for military intervention requires adherence to a commonly agreed upon decision-making process for intervention.

In the case of Kosova there can be little doubt that prescribed procedures of decision-making were not followed! U.N. resolutions clearly state that nations are prohibited from engaging in offensive military action against sovereign members without sanction from the Security Council. The U.S., in leading the NATO alliance into offensive battle, disregarded this exclusive authority and responsibility of the Security Council and took it upon itself to intervene in the Kosova conflict. The Serbs were legally correct to assert that United States and NATO were engaged in aggression.

Returning to the dilemma of intervention in early 1999: On the one hand, we have the facts of Serb expulsions and murders of a largely defenseless people -- acts with potential genocidal outcomes that begged for intervention by those able; On the other hand, the most ready and able nation does not have the direct and immediate authority to intervene. What should be done?

  • Intervene with some reasonably good prospect of stopping the great harm being done?
  • Or follow the prescribed process for seeking authority and legitimation and take the issue to the Security Council, knowing that effective intervention will likely be blocked by other members of that Council?

The best answer I believe is one conditioned by consideration of what other actions the primary actor (the United States, in this case) is prepared to take; it is conditional on the wider policy context in which the decision is made. If the decision to intervene without authorization is truly exceptional to a sustained commitment by the United States to support the development of an effective international process of authorization of military interventions... then it might well be justified in this extraordinary emergency. It might stand up to scrutiny as "the best in a bad situation."

If we had witnessed the leadership of the United States emerge from the Kosova/Serbian war with renewed and vigorous commitment to the U.N -- with, for instance, a proposal to expand the permanent membership of the Security Council and eventually replace the veto privileges of the permanent members with a 2/3rds rule -- then making a pragmatic exception in this case of intervention would be justified.

Unfortunately, history reveals quite another context for the Kosova intervention. I believe this decision represented a historic turning point in the post-Cold War era in which the United States deliberately sought to reassert American unilateralism and put an end to the growing international expectation that military interventions must be sanctioned through the Security Council. I have concluded that this was not so much a case of taking "the best option in a bad situation," but rather a case of the United States taking advantage of an instance of abhorrent Serb behavior to reassert its prerogative as the world's greatest power to use its power as it alone (or at best, an exclusive alliance) sees fit.

Writing in the journal Survival (Winter 1999-2000), Francois Heisbourg offers additional historical context:

...the implications of the Kosovo war are of the utmost importance. The US appears to be taking the lead in overturning one of the few fairly consistent rules of international relations since the Westphalian Treaties -- that war is not waged against a sovereign state which has not itself militarily attacked another sovereign state. ...The step was revolutionary in character even if the West under US leadership did not present it as such, let alone justify it as such.

The decision by the US to go to war in this instance reflects the successful culmination of efforts by conservative Realists to regain nearly complete control of post-Cold War US foreign and security policy. These conservative Realists are ideologically dismissive of and opposed to any global security institutions which do not narrowly serve the interests of the United States. Therefore they can not tolerate any real power residing in collective decision-making in the Security Council or any other globally inclusive institution.

Condoleezza Rice, the new National Security Advisor to the President, is one such outspoken conservative Realist. In a recent article in the journal Foreign Affairs Dr Rice writes:

Power matters, both the exercise of power by the United States and the ability of others to exercise it. Yet many in the United States are (and have always been) uncomfortable with the notions of power politics, great powers, and power balances. In an extreme form, this discomfort leads to a reflexive appeal instead to notions of international law and norms, and the belief that the support of many states -- or even better, of institutions like the United Nations -- is essential to the legitimate exercise of power.

U.S. interests are served by having strong alliances and can be promoted within the UN and other multilateral organizations, as well as through well-crafted international agreements, ... [however,] multilateral agreements and institutions should not be ends in themselves.

It appears that Dr Rice targets precisely the "discomfort" I spoke about at the beginning of this commentary. And indeed I am uncomfortable with her "notions of power politics." But not because I want to deny that "power matters," but rather precisely because I believe power matters so much that it must be constrained and checked in order to provide the basis of peaceful relations.

In this essay I will not attempt to outline an alternative to the conservative Realist's world view. But I do want to offer my version of a realistic assessment of the situation:

  • First, today Realists have nearly complete (or hegemonic) command of our national security apparatus.
  • Second, transcending the Realist's world of Hobbesian power politics to a world of shared power and responsibility for armed force is a project that may well take another two hundred years. Certainly that is a long time when viewed from any particular person's life, but if we don't take the positive steps we can now, and instead allow the world to repolarize in the next fifty years, we can be sure things will get a lot worse before they get better.
  • And third, conservative leadership of American security policy has squandered the opportunities afforded by the post-Cold War reduction in tensions, security windfalls, and surplus Western military and economic power. They have neglected to even begin the process of constructing the institutions and capabilities that can constrain the exercise of armed force and provide non-violent means of settling conflict. The best opportunities are fleeting.

What I have addressed so far are questions about U.S. military power in use or action. I conclude with some thoughts and observations about U.S. military power in repose. Most strategists understand that military power has the greatest value in repose, in other words when power is present as potential for violence rather than violence in action. Military power in repose is thought to deter opponents and to leverage effect in negotiations. Some strategists go so far as to suggest that the use of military power in war signifies the failure of military power to effect a satisfactory outcome in peace. I believe this rather overstates the potential usefulness of military power, but I mention it to call attention to an error we make if we only attend to the ethics of military power when war is imminent.

Over the last twenty years the United States has accumulated a very large arsenal of relatively accurate long-range stand-off conventional weapons. Ninety-nine percent of the time this power is in repose, under the sea or waiting at airbases. Nonetheless, the United States now possesses the capacity to rapidly destroy with conventional munitions a substantial portion of the leadership and vital national assets of any nation on Earth. The U.S. military can effect this destruction from platforms protected by their great distance from their targets or by stealth technology or the superior capacity to destroy counter-air artillery, missiles, and aircraft. With these capacities and advantages any such warfare is essentially one-sided, as it was with Serbia.

Furthermore, it is now the policy of the United States to deploy as soon as technologically feasible missile defenses, in both national and theater variants. By this means the United States seeks to add a formidable shield to its already very sharp sword.

Such a military posture can not result in long-term stability: in Realist terminology it worsens the "security dilemma" for other nations. Increasingly other nations are literally subject to the power and will of the United States. Few nations will simply acquiesce to such vast widening of military power differentials; Especially if this is associated with the military activism demonstrated recently by the United States. Other nations will do what they can to narrow the gap. As the fundamental defense of their national sovereignty against an unconstrained and unilaterlist United States becomes more difficult, it will appear increasingly attractive for a number of countries to acquire Weapons of Mass Destruction as the best available means to strategically balance against U.S. military power.

In anticipation of this developing strategic situation, the United States has been preparing for what is called "offensive military counter-proliferation," meaning preemptive bombing of facilities in other countries used for developing and making weapons of mass destruction. The new administration is pre-disposed to such military action against Iraq, and I expect we will see a very substantial counter-proliferation raid against Iraq within a few months to a year.

More broadly, by militarizing arms control, our government will likely put an end to the hopes for a permanent non-proliferation arms control regime nascent in the Non-Proliferation Treaty and Review Process.

By embracing unilateralism in the expectation of short-term advantage and in the vain hope of permanent advantage, our government's present security stance contributes to a dynamic that breeds fear, suspicion, and uncertainty on all sides. The emphasis on bolstering and exploiting military primacy invites competition and undermines the very stability goals it is supposed to serve. It helps sustain a militarized international system and could eventually lead to a repolarization of the world. In sum, the present orientation runs the risk of contributing to its own problem set. In effect we create the insecurity we seek to overcome when we accept military power unchecked by international decision-making authority rooted in global norms and process.

Postscript on the War on Terrorism

After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001 the President of the United States has declared a "war on global terrorism." Several things about how this war has developed so far are notable in light of the foregoing commentary:

  • The Bush administration has called the terrorist attacks "an act of war." For most of the period since the 17th Century the word "war" has referred to belligerency between military units, usually under the flag of a nation state. Assuming Osama bin Laden organized these attacks, we have a situation in which a non-state agent best described as a religious fanatic or criminal gang leader has mounted violent raids on a great power. If the attacks of September 11 had not resulted in such a large number of deaths it would seem quite reasonable, even routine, to define them as criminal acts, not acts of war. The situation is complicated, however, by the fact that Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States in 1996. In that context the United States may be understood to be responding to bin Laden's declaration of war with its own declaration of war against his non-state organization, al-Qaida.


  • The Bush administration did not ask Congress for a declaration of war against al-Qaida, but instead declared a "war on global terrorism." This may make for effective political rhetoric, but its meaning in the English language is far from clear. Terrorism constitutes a tactic of political struggle. We could conceive of outlawing it, but "making war" on it is only understandable in the context of the peculiar American political mobilization campaigns represented by the "War on Poverty" and the "War on Drugs."


  • In recent years the situation has been further complicated by the tendency in public rhetoric for the term "war" to be used to refer to the development of organised force against various national and international activities regarded as anti-social -- 'the war against the Mafia', for example, or 'the war against drug cartels'. Not only is the fight to control, or even eliminate, such organisations or networks, including small-scale terrorist groups, quite different from the major operations of war: it also confuses the actions of two types of armed force. One -- let's call them 'soldiers' -- is directed against other armed forces with the object of defeating them. The other -- let's call them 'police' -- sets out to maintain or reestablish the required degree of law and public order within an existing political entity, typically a state. Victory, which has no necessary moral connotation, is the object of one force; the bringing to justice of offenders against the law, which does have a moral connotation, is the object of the other.

    Eric Hobsbawm, London Review of Books, 21 February 2002


  • The Bush administration's preference for "war" over "crime" and the ill-defined meaning of a "war on terrorism" are not without important consequences. The Bush administration has declined to affirm that the laws of war apply to their military campaign against al-Qaida or even the soldiers of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. These laws of war include, inter alia, a prohibition against announcing an award for a person "dead or alive" and they require humane treatment of prisoners and civilians.


  • Were the U.S. government inclined to respond to the attacks as "criminal" rather than "war" acts it would face a situation in which the international apparatus of justice is so underdeveloped that it can not immediately offer a realistic option for bringing these particular criminals to justice. Conservative Realist policy makers have willfully neglected the development of this tool and have thus helped construct a world true to their ideology in which military action or war appears to be the only recourse. Consider this example with ironic timing: On 10 September 2001 the U.S. Senate passed an amendment sponsored by Indiana Republican Larry Craig to "prohibit the use of funds for cooperation with, or assistance or other support, to the International Criminal Court..."


  • However, underdevelopment of international apparatus of justice does not prevent national criminal justice establishments from bringing their considerable capabilities to bare on the al-Qaida organization. Many hundreds of al-Qaida suspects have been arrested and are now being held in the jails of numerous countries. It is likely that largely non-violent criminal procedures will turn out to be the most common and effective means of interdicting and dismantling the al-Qaida organization.


  • Nonetheless, this is an instance in which American passions are so high as to preclude "due process and even-handed justice" when the prosecutor, judge, jury and even some of the victims are from the same circle of officials in the White House, CIA, and Pentagon. It is precisely the sort of situation in which Americans alone should not sit in judgement of the accused criminals; in other words, even-handed justice could only be expected from an international court and multinational jury.


  • In regard to the justification for limited military action by the United States there is an important difference in this case from that of Kosova/Serbia. On September 11 the United States was directly attacked. In recognition of this fact, on 12 September 2001 the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 1368 condemning the terrorist attacks and citing "the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense in accordance with the Charter."


  • Given the inadequacy of international civilian justice institutions and the absence of an international force to arrest the suspected perpetrators, it may be deemed justifiable, in this instance, for the United States to take military action to interdict the particular perpetrators of this horrendous crime, providing sufficient evidence of guilt is assembled beforehand and presented to the international community (on 04 October 2001 the government of Great Britain released a summary of evidence against bin Laden and al-Qaida).


  • By the foregoing standard it is not justifiable for the United States to target other individuals or countries that do not have direct responsibility for organizing the attacks.


  • It appears quite likely that the United States will extend its war on terrorism to preemption or prevention of potential terrorism by way of offensive military counter-proliferation strikes on Iraq and, perhaps, other nations. It is doubtful that the widely recognized "right to self-defence" properly applies to military activity other than that which is very narrowly focused on an aggressor (as distinct from a potential aggressor); in other words, it can not be construed to legitimize preemptive or preventive militarized counter-terrorism.


  • The Bush Administration has not sought authorization from the Security Council for specific military actions. This furthers the policy precedent of the Clinton Administration in the Kosova/Serbian war and the overall trend in U.S. foreign policy toward unilaterlism and avoidance of collective process and accountability.


  • Broadly speaking, if the United States uses its immense military power in an unbounded "war on terrorism" in a manner substantially unchecked by international decision-making authority grounded in global norms and process it will contribute, intentionally or not, to a global insecurity dynamic tending to stimulate remilitarization and repolarization.


  • On 11 September 2001 and in its aftermath international (in)security got a lot worse. It will be up to all of us to make it better. May we find the wisdom to learn how and to take the actions necessary.


Selected Readings

Bread and bombs
from "Strange Victory: A critical appraisal of Operation Enduring Freedom and the Afghanistan war"
Carl Conetta. Cambridge, MA: Commonwealth Institute Project on Defense Alternatives Research Monograph #6, January 2002.

An America above the law
Jonathan Power. Boston Globe, 15 October 2001.
Posted on the Commonwealth Institute Website.

Ethics of this war have yet to be spelled out
Shaun A. Casey. Boston Globe, 11 October 2001.
Posted on the Commonwealth Institute Website.

Disengaged Warfare:
Should we make a virtue of the Kosovo way of war?

Carl Conetta. Cambridge, MA: Commonwealth Institute Project on Defense Alternatives Briefing Memo #21, May 2001.

Military Intervention and the European Union
Martin Ortega. Paris, France: Institute for Security Studies of WEU, March 2001.

Why Milosevic Decided to Settle the Conflict over Kosovo When He Did
Stephen T. Hosmer. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation Project Air Force Research Brief #71, 2001.

The Princeton Principles on Universal Jurisdiction
Stephen Mercado, ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Program in Law and Public Affairs, 2001 (.pdf file).

Kosovo:  A Review of the Rules of Engagement
William Church. InfoWar.com, undated.

The Efficacy of Strategic Bombing:  World War II to the Kosovo Campaign
Greg Tomlin. Monitor Journal of International Studies (Spring 2001), The College of William and Mary.

Just War and Humanitarian Intervention
Jean Bethke Elshtain. Research Triangle Park, North Carolina: National Humanities Center Ideas, 2001 (.pdf file).

Humanitarian Intervention, NATO and International Law
Clara Portela. Berlin, Germany: Berlin Information-center for Transatlantic Security, Decmeber, 2000 (.pdf file).

After Kosovo:  The Risks and Deficiencies of Unsanctioned Humanitarian Intervention
Jim Whitman. Journal of Humanitarian Assistance (28 September 2000).

Kosovo and the Just War Tradition
Bjørn Møller. Paper for the Commission on Internal Conflicts at the 18th International Peace Research Association conference in Tampere, 5-9 August 2000, (.pdf file).
Posted on the Commonwealth Institute Website.

U.S. Military-Strategic Ambitions:  Expanding to Fill the post-Soviet Vacuum
Charles Knight. Cambridge, MA: Commonwealth Institute Project on Defense Alternatives Commentary, 14 June 2000.

Kosovo and the Challenge of Humanitarian Intervention:  Selective Indignation, Collective Intervention, and International Citizenship
Albrecht Schnabel and Ramesh Thakur, eds. New York, NY: United Nations University Peace and Governance Programme, March 2000.

Kosovo/Operation Allied Force After-Action Report
William Cohen. Arlington, VA: Office of Secretary of Defense, DoD, 31 January 2000 (.pdf file).

Life After the Cold War
Condoleezza Rice. Foreign Affairs (January/February 2000).
Posted on the Council on Foreign Relations Website.

Interventionism Reconsidered:  Reconciling Military Action With Political Stability
Lutz Unterseher. Cambridge, MA: Commonwealth Institute Project on Defense Alternatives Guest Publication September 1999.

The Lessons and Non-Lessons of the Air and Missile War in Kosovo
Anthony H. Cordesman. Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, revised 20 July 1999 (.pdf file).

The Coming Transformation of the Muslim World
Dale F. Eickelman. Cambridge, MA: Commonwealth Institute Project on Defense Alternatives Guest Publication, June 1999.

Just War and Intervention:  The Challenge of the International for Social and Political Thought
Justin Rosenberg. Sussex University Joint Social and Political Thought Seminar, 27 May 1999.

Contrasting the Theoretical Just War Doctrine with the Strategic Air Campaign of the Persian Gulf Conflict
Raleigh Finlayson. Modus Vivendi (1999), Rhodes College International Studies.

Humanitarian Intervention and Just War
Mona Fixal and Dan Smith. Mershon International Studies Review #42 (1998).
Posted on the Mount Holyoke College International Relations Website.

The Development of US Strategic Bombing Doctrine in the Interwar Years:  Moral and Legal?
Peter R. Faber. 1996/1997 Journal of Legal Studies, United States Air Force Academy.

Total War, the Annihilation Ethic, and the Armenian Genocide, 1870-1918
James J. Reid. in R. Hovannisian (ed.), The Armenian Genocide: History, Politics, Ethics, New York 1992, pp. 21-47.
Posted on the Commonwealth Institute Website.


Citation: Charles Knight, What Justifies Military Intervention? Project on Defense Alternatives Commentary. Cambridge, MA: Commonwealth Institute, 27 September 2001.
http://www.comw.org/pda/0109intervention.html

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