THE DANGERS OF U.S. MILITARISM
Date 2010/11/7 16:20:00
[Published in FOREIGN AFFAIRS, New York, November/December 2010]
It is time to ask a fundamental question that few in an official or political position in the United States seem willing to ask. Has it been a terrible error for the United States to have built an all but irreversible worldwide system of a thousand or more military bases, stations and outposts?
This system has been created to enhance American national security, but what if it has actually done the opposite, provoking conflict and creating the very national insecurity it is intended to prevent?
The most compelling arguments for opposing this system of global bases are political and practical. U.S. military bases have generated apprehension, hostility and fear of the United States, and they have facilitated futile, unnecessary, unprofitable, and self-defeating wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now seeming to be inviting enlarged American interventions in Pakistan, Yemen and the Horn of Africa. The 9/11 attacks, according to Osama bin Laden himself, were provoked by the “blasphemy” of U.S. military bases in the sacred territories of Saudi Arabia. The global base system, it seems, tends to produce and intensify the very insecurity that is citied to justify it.
AN ACCIDENTAL EMPIRE
The United States’ present global military deployment seems not to have been the product of conscious design, nor was it assembled absent-mindedly. In part, it is the natural result of bureaucracy left unchecked. At the end of the second world war a precipitous dismantling of America’s wartime deployment, demanded by public opinion, was checked only by the outbreak of the Cold War. The United States’ intervention in Vietnam brought some base expansion in Southeast Asia, but after its failure in Vietnam, the American military was determined to have nothing further to do with insurgencies, and quickly returned to reorganization and retraining for what it still considered its primary mission: classical warfare in Europe in the event of a Soviet invasion. This eventually led to the brilliant Blitzkrieg against Iraq in the first Gulf War, fought under the “Powell Doctrine” of popular support, overwhelming force, focused objectives, and rapid withdrawal.
Global deployment and its intellectual rationalization was a phenomenon of the military’s restored confidence. During the Clinton years, the United States avoided foreign military interventions until the war in the former Yugoslavia forced another short, successful American/NATO operation. The Pentagon took advantage of the opportunity to expand its role and seize unoccupied bureaucratic territory -- as well as a major new base in the Balkans, in Kosovo.
As Dana Priest writes in her book The Mission*, global base expansion came about largely without press or public attention. The consistently well-financed military was available to the president when the underfunded diplomatic agencies and the CIA offered unimaginative or unsuitable responses in moments of seeming international emergency. The proffered military solutions were positive, prompt, and unilateral, and the armed forces were ready to execute orders without arguing. In so doing, they conveyed to both domestic and international audiences an image of American power and world leadership.
This logically led to reinforcement of the military’s role in U.S. foreign policy. Central Command in Tampa, Florida, at the time led by the persuasive and ambitious General Anthony Zinni, was given military responsibility for troubles in the Middle East. From this beginning, a system of regional commands developed for other parts of the world, with individual commanders, planning staffs, and operational capabilities. Thus U.S. military proconsuls emerged, well-financed and independently powerful regional “commanders in chief” (“CinCs”), dealing directly with political as well as military authorities in their regions of responsibility. They soon became more influential than U.S. ambassadors, and were treated by the regional governments as the authentic representatives of the United States. This resulted in a major shift in U.S. foreign policy operations. The State Department and diplomacy lost influence, and within the military system, the individual service chiefs found themselves reduced to the unglamorous functions of administration, training, and procurement, rather than their traditional troop-command role.
With the arrival of the George W. Bush administration,
the U.S. military culture was challenged by Donald Rumsfeld, who was determined to rescue “civilian control of the military” from what he considered the bloated size and gargantuan inefficiency of the Pentagon bureaucracy, both uniformed and civilian. Moreover, he saw other internal enemies of his new regime: congressional and judicial checks on executive power; the State Department, and the CIA, which he deemed weak, and the supposedly risk-averse joint chiefs of staff.
The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, with technologically-advanced special operations units, air power, and the support of the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance, was a demonstration of what Rumsfeld imagined as the future of warfare. Rumsfeld kept in his office the famous picture of a mounted U.S. Special Forces officer galloping alone across the Afghan plateau, presumably directing B-52 air attacks and his native auxiliaries to victory over the Taliban.
The post-invasion chaos in Iraq, which followed the successful “shock and awe” taking of Baghdad, left the country and its reconstruction entirely in the hands of the Defense Department. Eventually, General David Petraeus’s version of classical counterinsurgency practice -— rewritten and issued as doctrine by the army -- together with subsidies to tribal groups to fight the insurgents, and the troop “surge” in 2009, created the conditions for a national election in March 2010. A stable government has yet to emerge.
The Petraeus counterinsurgency program has now been attempted in Afghanistan, without notable success. Meant to progressively “clear and hold” territory under Taliban control, the international forces have been able to execute the first stage but unable to hold their conquered territory and so prevent reinfiltration by the insurgents and halt a Taliban return to power.
The setbacks to Washington’s counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan first became widely known to the American public in April 2010, when U.S. forces withdrew from the Korangal Valley in eastern Afghanistan. The abandonment of their main base and its five satellite outposts followed similar withdrawals for the same reasons in two other regions during 2007 and 2008. The New York Times played The Korangal Valley story was much played up at the time, considering that U.S. forces had been in the Korangal for five years, and had suffered 42 fatal casualties “and hundreds wounded.”
When the Americans had arrived in 2005, the valley and its people had little to do with the war. “Occasionally a Taliban or al Qaeda member” passed through, a Special Forces officer, Major James Fussell, said in a study of the affair, “but the people of the valley were by no means part of the insurgency.”** The U.S. presence immediately turned them into insurgents, not necessarily because they welcomed the Taliban but because they rejected foreign occupation. General Stanley A. McChrystal, who ordered the evacuation, told The New York Times on April 15 that holding these valley outposts did more to create insurgents than defeat them.
Like the U.S presence in Korengal, the U.S. global base system was built to defend perceived U.S. interests abroad and to conduct globl interventions (or indeed, if called upon, to wage a world war).It is a system intended to deter war, but from the start, it has provided the means, the opportunity, and an incentive for U.S. military interventions in foreign countries.
THE MYTHICAL CLASH
In 1993, the late Samuel Huntington attracted international attention by writing in these pages that the “next world war” would be not a clash of states but of civilizations. The example he speculatively cited was a war between Western and Islamic civilizations for global domination. He forecast that the Arabs (“Islamic civilization” according to his terminology) would fight the United States (Western civilization) because they believed the United States posed a fundamental threat to Islamic religion and society.
He also said that the Chinese (“Confucian civilization”) would be allies and supporters of the Arabs, furnishing them with arms and munitions.
His forecast proved wrong -- as did President George W. Bush’s similar argument in 2001 that it was hatred of western liberties that inspired the radical Islamists. In fact, the rise in radicalism and increased support for a return of Sharia law, with its strict interpretation of the teachings of the Quran, were actually the product of a grave internal crisis within Islam. The objectives of the Islamist movement are to purify Islam and the practices of Muslims, and remove western influence -- not to conquer the West.
The Islamic renewal in modern Muslim societies is in many ways similar to political nationalism, but without a single “national” base. Although the Islamic world has always considered itself a spiritual community under religious leadership, when this community is threatened, it generates political resistance. The Islamic revival is also the result of a larger cultural crisis in Islam linked to loss of the leading position in Mediterranean civilization that it occupied from the early European Middle Ages until the European Renaissance.
This loss was not caused by military defeat but rather by endogenous historical forces in both the Islamic and Western worlds -- notably the separation of religious and political authority in the West (pope and emperor, each legitimate in his own realm), and the distinction made between theology and philosophy in the Christian, Aristotelian West.
These two developments made possible secular rationalism and scientific thought following the Renaissance and during the Enlightenment, as well as the western secular state. Orthodox Islam remained, and remains, in a wholly religious intellectual universe.
Al Qaeda is the product of a confluence of factors: the twentieth-century revival of fundamentalist Islamic thought, the failure of efforts by the Arab states to create a successful unified “Arab Nation” during the interwar years, meant to replace the destroyed Ottoman system and the Arab caliphates that had preceded the Ottomans, the consequent imperialist division of the eastern Mediterranean between the British Empire and France, and the partition of Palestine and establishment of Israel.
U.S. policy after World War II made Saudi Arabia and Iran U.S. clients, and took for granted that Islam was an outmoded way of life destined to be replaced by a version of the modernization that now exists in the West. This rests on the erroneous assumption that all civilizations are progressing toward a common end, and that the United States and its allies are the most advanced in this process.
It assumes that because science and technology progress, cultures and political systems do so as well. But crude Rome rose at the expense of Greek high civilization, and both were preceded by the sophisticated cultures of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Persia. It was the Bible that introduced the notion of history as a progressive process leading towards a redemptive conclusion that would give meaning to all that had preceded. This laid the groundwork for the form of secular millenarianism that developed during and after the Enlightenment. A similar view has reigned in U.S. foreign policy specifically since the time of Woodrow Wilson, but ultimately derives from the Calvinist Puritan – and the American Pilgrims’ – vision of God’s redeemed society being established on earth, a notion that persists today in certain American political and Protestant religious circles.
The belief that America is destined to confer democracy upon the world and that “it is America’s job to change the world, and in its own image” (as Condoleezza Rice wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine two years ago) has, in part, been responsible for the extraordinary rise of military influence in the U.S. government and in the country’s political culture. However one cannot found an intelligent U.S. foreign policy based on the assumption that the United States’ present power and its place today in international society are the natural culmination of human social and political development, destined naturally to be followed by everyone else. The Greeks, who knew a thing or two about it, called this hubris.
THE NEW MILITARISM
The historian Andrew Bacevich argues that this hubris has been accompanied by the development of a new American militarism. During the Cold War, American political ideology became a sentimental and oversimplified imitation of the Marxism the United States was then combating. It assumed that Washington’s good intentions and democratic ideals were all but universally recognized outside the Communist bloc, which was not true, as Americans were to find out in Vietnam.
In the wake of the Vietnam war, Americans “persuaded themselves that their best prospect for safety and salvation [lay] with the sword,” Bacevich writes. Convinced that “the world they inhabit is today more dangerous than ever and that they must redouble those exertions,” he argues, “they dutifully assented.” As a result, the idea of projecting power globally became ”standard practice, a normal condition, one to which no plausible alternatives seem to exist.”
The United States today displays certain characteristics of a classical militarist state, as the great modern historian of militarism, Alfred Vagts, has described it -- a society in which military and internal security demands are paramount, its political imagination obsessed by vast threats yet to be realized. Vagts wrote that militarism has meant “the imposition of heavy burdens on a people for military purposes, to the neglect of welfare and culture….”It exists, he notes, as “a civilian as well as a military phenomenon.”
Although aspects of militarism existed in the European professional armies of the pre-Westphalian period, the word entered the modern political vocabulary as a term of abuse at the same time as imperialism did, during France’s Second Empire (1852-1870). Modern militarist states, beginning with the Second Empire, Vagts argues, have always been vulnerable to narcissism – a charge that could easily be leveled against the American military services today. The United States Air Force is obsessively focused on aircraft so technologically advanced as to have little practical use in contemporary war, designed to counter Soviet weapons systems that never were and never will be built. (This is not to speak of the planned hypersonic suborbital bomber to operate along the edge of the atmosphere, scheduled for 2035.)
The United States Navy, as William Lind, the military theorist notes, maintains eleven large aircraft carrier battle groups cruising the seas, “structured to fight the Imperial Japanese Navy,” even though submarines are today’s capital ships: those that determine the control of blue water. One can add that American army officers, once rather puritan in attire, have today acquired a taste for military adornment more appropriate to nineteenth century operetta -- their uniforms covered with decorations, campaign ribbons, insignia of personal accomplishments, attachments signifying previous duties, and other trivial ornamentation. General of the Armies George C. Marshall, who commanded all American armies in world war II, declined to wear the decorations he had won in the first world war because he considered this inappropriate for the desk officer he had become, sending young men to their deaths.
TODAY’S DUAL CRISES
The United States increasingly finds itself the well-meaning leader that empowers individuals whose entourages often prove unsavory, and who themselves develop, to borrow a phrase from former Vice President Dick Cheney, "other priorities." Iraq has been declared, almost certainly with unwarranted optimism, an independent democracy from which the U.S. will withdraw all its troops in 2011. Withdrawal seems increasingly the preoccupation of the Obama administration in dealing with Afghanistan as well, at the same time that the Pentagon is building what would apppear to be an "enduring" base complex there, able to serve as an American center of strategic power in the region.
Despite the peace talks that in November were supposed to occur between President Hamid Karzai and elements, at least, of the Taliban leadership, and although the American military facilitatd the organization of these meetings, no concluions have at this writing been made known. Leading American experts on Afghanistan argue that a settlement will only be possible if such an agreement is supported by Russia, Iran, China, Pakistan, and certain other states in the region, all of them disturbed by the expansion of U.S. bases near their borders.
The Taliban themselves have asserted that complete withdrawal of American and NATO forces are a condition for any peace settlement. This clearly is a central issue in the Obama administrations’s policy decisions. Withdrawal would presumably be opposed in the Pentagon (as implying defeat) and by the Republican and domestic populist opposition to Obama. The existing global base system is proving to be a fundamental obstacle to any settlement in the region.
CHECKS AND BALANCES
The United States, now in possession of military forces larger than those of all its rivals and allies combined, began as a nation that abhorred standing armies. The issue of quartering British troops became a serious irritant in relations with Britain in the mid-eighteenth century, and taxation of trade to support a British army in the American colonies was one of the principal sources of pre-revolutionary discontent during the quarter-century leading up to the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
The U.S.Bill of Rights, appended to the 1787 Constitution, provided that “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” But a federal army is not mentioned until Section 8 of Article I of the Constitution. The relevant clause says, in its entirety, that Congress possesses the power “to raise and support armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years.” A later clause in the same section provides for mobilization of the state militias to “execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections, and repel Invasions,” but the power to appoint militia officers is reserved to the states, and the militia must be trained by the states “according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.” Article II of the Constitution, dealing with executive power, says only that the president “shall be Commander-in- Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual service of the United States.”
Despite the nineteenth century mobilization of the world’s first great industrialized army by the Union in the Civil War, followed by its rapid demobilization afterward, American public opinion until the mid-twentieth century remained hostile to standing armies. At the outbreak of the World War II, the U.S Army was a professional force of 175,000 men, including what then was known as the Army Air Corps. Rapid postwar demobilization was slowed by the outbreak of the Cold War, and thereafter the U.S. military remained a conscript force (without peacetime American precedent) until after the Vietnam War. The U.S. military services thus remained a citizens' army, the officer corps included a large aand influential component of mobilized reserve officers and newly commissioned officers from the conscript army.
The most important result of substituting today’s professional army for a citizens’ army is that it has created an instrument of national power that is no longer directly accountable to the public. During the Bush years, and to an extent under the Obama administration, it has been used in a manner, and employed methods that would have been unacceptable in the past. Thus a professional army -- supplemented by a nearly equivalent number of civilian mercenaries that is directly accountable only to the Pentagon exists primarily to augment the national "military-industrial complex" leadership, with its corporate and political interests, against which Dwight Eisenhower warned many decades ago. The defense and securities industries are today he most important components of the U.S. manufacturing economy, and their corporate interests now are in a position to dominate Congress, as well as an inexperienced administration. Without excessive exaggeration, one might say of the United States today what once was said of Prussia -- that it is a state owned by its army
Between the beginning of the Cold War in Europe and the present war in Afghanistan, a period has passed that included the Korean War, the Vietnam War and Cambodian invasion; U.S. interventions in Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador (indirectly), Somalia (in connection with a UN operation, followed by sponsorship of an invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia), and two invasions of Iraq and one of Afghanistan None except the Gulf War deserves to be called a victory.
The United States' millenarian notions of a national destiny and the militarism that has infected American society have been responsible for a series of wars from which Washington has gained little or nothing, and suffered a great deal, while contributing enormously to the misfortune of others.
Within its borders, the United States is invulnerable to conventional military defeat; that cannot be said of its forces deployed elsewhere. U.S. security is far more likely to be found in a noninterventionist foreign policy designed to produce a negotiated military withdrawal from both Afghanistan and Iraq, without leaving bases behind, and a general disengagement from military interference in the affairs of other societies, leaving them to search for their own solutions to their own problems. So drastic a reversal of U.S. policy will not be possible without heavy political costs, both domestic and foreign. Nevertheless, the time has come for U.S.policymakers to begin considering reversing course.
© COPYRIGHT 2010 BY WILLIAM PFAFF. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.