Nora Bensahel, Ph.D.

Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)

Country: United States (District of Columbia)

Research Interests

Military Intervention

Foreign Policy


US Defense Policy

US Military


Journal Articles:

(2018) "Why Americans Aren't Really Worried About War with North Korea", War on the Rocks

The American is at best lukewarm to the idea of a war with North Korea. In September, two polls found that 58 percent of respondents supported military action against North Korea if peaceful means fail, but in a follow-up question, 63 percent said military action should only be taken with the support and participation of other countries. In October, polls showed that 62 percent opposed a preemptive strike on North Korea, and 64 percent believed the North Korean military program could be contained without military action. And a December poll showed that only 39 percent supported taking military action against North Korea to end its nuclear program, down from 49 percent three months earlier. With such tepid support, there should be a robust and heated U.S. national debate about going to war with North Korea — involving not just policymakers, but the public writ large. Instead, it sounds an awful lot like crickets.

(2017) "How to Talk to A Veteran", War on the Rocks

The growing gap between soldier and civilian underscores a quietly crumbling facet of American citizenship: the obligation of everyday citizens to understand and take responsibility for our military and its members, and to understand what we ask our men and women in uniform to do on our behalf. Connecting personally with the veterans around us can strengthen that bond and help restore some of that sense of responsibility between soldier and citizen.

(2017) "The Growing Danger of a Nuclear First Strike on North Korea", War on the Rocks

The escalating tensions over North Korea have brought the United States closer to war on the Korean peninsula than at any other time in decades. Yet Washington is just as likely as Pyongyang, if not more likely, to initiate the first strike — and would almost certainly use nuclear weapons to do so. Such a strike may be the only way to decisively end the North Korean nuclear program, but its incalculable effects would extend far beyond the devastation and destruction in Korea. Its political, economic, and moral consequences would permanently and disastrously undermine U.S. interests for generations to come — and must be avoided at all costs.

(2017) "The Three Things the Army Chief of Staff Wants You to Know", War on the Rocks

Milley delivered three big messages during the roughly hour-long event (which you can watch in its entirety). The first focused on preparing for the future battlefield, a subject he’s publicly addressed before. But the second and third ones staked out strikingly new ground, including the need to disobey orders (!) and a call-to-arms to his troops about their vital relationship with American society. His messages are important not only to soldiers, but to the American public and its leaders as well.

(2017) "Mirages of War: Six Illusions From Our Recent Conflicts", War on the Rocks

As this wartime generation continues to ascend to the most senior ranks of the U.S. military, they will have two major responsibilities: to provide military advice to policymakers and to make strategic choices about weapons and force structure that will determine how the United States will fight its future wars. However, their view of the future may be deeply affected by their past experiences in ways that they may not even be aware of. We believe that there are at least six illusions drawn from the recent wars that may seriously distort how these combat-experienced leaders think about and plan for future conflicts.

(2017) “Darker Shades of Gray: Why Gray Zone Conflicts Will Be More Frequent and Complex", Foreign Policy Research Institute

Gray zone conflicts are neither war nor peace, but instead lie somewhere in between. As I’ve written elsewhere, “their defining characteristic is ambiguity – about the ultimate objectives, the participants, whether international treaties and norms have been violated, and the role that military forces should play in response.” Such ambiguities enable adversaries to pursue their interests while staying below the threshold that would trigger a military response – and, if they remain ambiguous enough, they might avoid any response. They are therefore a smart approach for revisionist powers, who wish to change the current U.S.-led international order to better serve their own interests. According to Hal Brands, the goal of gray zone approaches “is to reap gains, whether territorial or otherwise, that are normally associated with victory in war. Yet gray zone approaches are meant to achieve those gains without escalating to overt warfare, without crossing established red-lines, and thus without exposing the practitioner to the penalties and risks that such escalation might bring.”

(2015) "Can the U.S. Military Stop Its Brain Drain?", The Atlantic

His surprising logic is that winning the unpredictable next war will be less about advanced war machines and silicon chips than about out-thinking the enemy, and having a force chock-full of bright, adaptive leaders who can quickly navigate complex problems under the intense time pressures of modern combat. To Carter, winning the next war is all about talent.

(2012) “Pivot but Hedge: A Strategy for Pivoting to Asia While Hedging in the Middle East,”, Orbis

The U.S. government's new emphasis on the Asia-Pacific represents a bold strategic choice that could animate U.S. national security policy for years to come. Yet the United States must balance its rightful new focus on the Asia-Pacific with the volatility that still exists in other areas of the world. The United States should pivot to the Asia-Pacific—but to protect its vital interests, it should also hedge against threats elsewhere, particularly in the greater Middle East. To implement a “Pivot but Hedge” strategy, the U.S. government should do three things. First, it should exercise caution when cutting the defense budget. Second, it should give the military services greater leadership roles in specific regions: naval and air forces should lead in the Asia-Pacific, while ground forces should lead in the greater Middle East. Third, it should maintain expansible, capable, and well-trained ground forces as a hedge against global uncertainty.

(2006) "Mission Not Accomplished: What Went Wrong with Iraqi Reconstruction", Journal of Strategic Studies

This article argues that the prewar planning process for postwar Iraq was plagued by myriad problems, including a dysfunctional interagency process, overly optimistic assumptions, and a lack of contingency planning for alternative outcomes. These problems were compounded by a lack of civilian capacity during the occupation period, which led to a complicated and often uncoordinated relationship with the military authorities who found themselves taking the lead in many reconstruction activities. Taken together, these mistakes meant that US success on the battlefield was merely a prelude to a postwar insurgency whose outcome remains very much in doubt more than three years later.

(2006) "A Coalition of Coalitions: International Cooperation Against Terrorism", Studies in Conflict and Terrorism

The term “coalition against terror” is commonly used, but is fundamentally misleading. Multiple coalitions against terror exist in different issue areasincluding military, financial, law enforcement, intelligence, and reconstruction. These coalitions are independent of each other, and yet inextricably linked, both enabling and constraining each other's actions. Actions taken by the military coalition can undermine the intelligence coalition, for example, by destroying documents and other information during attacks. Overlapping membership may also cause challenges, for countries who disagree with the approach of one coalition many restrict their cooperation with the others. A successful counterterror strategy must account for the interactions of the various coalitions, understanding how actions taken in one area may cause tradeoffs and unintended consequences in others.

(1999) "Separable but not Separate Forces: NATO's Development of the Combined Joint Task Force", European Security

This article argues that the Combined Joint Task Force has profoundly affected the European security architecture. The CJTF structure shifted the terms of the European security debate from whether NATO should have a role in the post‐Cold War world to how NATO should act in this new security environment. The CJTF therefore helped NATO to survive its post‐Cold War existential dilemma, and to emerge with the same level of cohesion and cooperation that it possessed during the Cold War.

Books Written:

(2008) After Saddam: Prewar Planning and the Occupation of Iraq, RAND Corporation

This report provides an unclassified treatment of the post–major combat military and stabilization activities. It begins by examining prewar planning for postwar Iraq, in order to establish what U.S. policymakers expected the postwar situation to look like and what their plans were for stabilization. The report then examines the role of U.S. military forces after major combat officially ended on May 1, 2003. Finally, the report examines civilian efforts at reconstruction, focusing on the activities of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and its efforts to rebuild structures of governance, security forces, economic policy, and essential services prior to June 28, 2004, the day that CPA dissolved and transferred authority to the Iraqi Interim Government

Book Chapters:

(2007) "International Institutions and Military Effectiveness: Fighting Alongside Allies and Partners", in Creating Military Power, Stanford University Press

Creating Military Power examines how societies, cultures, political structures, and the global environment affect countries' military organizations. Unlike most analyses of countries' military power, which focus on material and basic resources—such as the size of populations, technological and industrial base, and GNP—this volume takes a more expansive view. The study's overarching argument is that states' global environments and the particularities of their cultures, social structures, and political institutions often affect how they organize and prepare for war, and ultimately impact their effectiveness in battle. The creation of military power is only partially dependent on states' basic material and human assets. Wealth, technology, and human capital certainly matter for a country's ability to create military power, but equally important are the ways a state uses those resources, and this often depends on the political and social environment in which military activity takes place.


(2016) The Future of the Army: Today, Tomorrow, and the Day After Tomorrow, Atlantic Council

The pernicious combination of a shrinking force, declining resources, increasing global commitments, and the renewed possibility of major power conflict present the Army with momentous strategic challenges. It is facing inevitable tradeoffs between the need to fight today’s wars while preparing for the possible wars of the future—and the need to pay for both in a declining budgetary environment. Army leaders must approach these challenges with imagination, creative solutions, and unrestrained thinking about both present and future wars. They must forge an Army that is up to all manner of tasks, staying faithful to the core values of their people and the profession of arms. In short, they must build the next US Army—a force that balances today’s demands with those of tomorrow, which could require much more from the force and its people. This report provides a range of recommendations to help Army leaders build the next Army successfully. For analytic reasons, we present recommendations for what the Army will need in three distinct time horizons: today (2016-2020); tomorrow (2020-2025); and the day after tomorrow (2025-2040 and beyond). In practice, though, there are no clear divisions among these time periods, and they will inevitably overlap. However, the Army must start preparing now for all of these time periods. Our report is designed to offer fresh ideas that spark debate, challenge hoary assumptions, and animate the need for change. We have one overriding goal: to ensure that the US Army remains the preeminent fighting force in the world for the remainder of this century.

(2013) Building Better Generals, Center for a New American Security

In Building Better Generals, the CNAS Responsible Defense (RD) team urges policymakers and military leaders to redouble their efforts to create an “adaptive and creative officer corps” that is prepared to address a wide range of 21st Century challenges. CNAS RD Program Director, LTG David Barno, USA (Ret)., Deputy Director of Studies Dr. Nora Bensahel and Research Associates Kelley Sayler and Katherine Kidder stress that after 12 years of irregular warfare, the combination of a volatile security environment, declining defense budgets, and newly constrained U.S. military capabilities risk producing an officer corps ill-prepared for its future challenges. Thus, the authors suggest new investments in flag officer education, assignments, and evaluations to better prepare senior military officers for the fast-moving dynamics of tomorrow’s world.

Media Appearances:

Radio Appearances:

(2017) NPR's Here and Now

Reactions to the bombing of Syria

(2017) NPR's Marketplace

Discussion of the new UN Secretary General and his relationship with President Trump

(2017) NPR's Marketplace

Discussion of why President Trump does not like multilateral trade deals

(2017) Southern California Public Radio

Debate about whether women should be required to register for the draft

(2017) The Washington Post's Can He Do That?

Discussion of President Trump's authority to order airstrikes against Syria

(2016) NPR's All Things Considered

Discussion of how the different presidential candidates are pledging to address the threat from ISIS

(2015) The Diane Rehm Show

Discussion of the U.S. strategy against ISIS

(2014) The Diane Rehm Show

Discussion of the U.S. Strategy to Counter ISIS

Newspaper Quotes:

(2017) New York Times

Reactions to the bombing of Syria

(2016) The Atlantic

Why Hillary Clinton is courting Republican foreign policy expers

(2016) The Hill

Discussion of the size of the U.S. Army

(2016) The New York Times

On the Senate vote to require women to register for the draft

(2016) Washington Post

How drafting women became a wedge issue during the presidential campaign

(2015) New York Times

On Senator John McCain's priorities as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee

(2015) The New York Times

Why Congress has resisted passing a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force

(2014) U.S. News and World Report

Discussion of the role of foreign policy and national security issues in President Obama's State of the Union address

(2013) The Washington Post

On the effects of the Department of Defense budget cuts

(2011) The Washington Post

On the effects of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' criticism of NATO allies