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US Analysis: The Limits of Military Power (Miller)

James Miller writes for EA:

Last week, Tom Ashbrook (On Point Radio) interviewed Andrew Bacevich, retired U.S. Army colonel, and professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His newest book, Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War, examines the constant war-readiness of the United States.

Bacevich points out that America has had a history of a military engagement with the rest of the world. From the opening salvo of our independence, through our expansion in the West, our early imperialist conquests (Puerto Rico to the Philippines), and the World War/Cold War era, the US has a long history of spreading its ideology through military might, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. Large parts of the global map have been written by United States military involvement, from the Monroe Doctrine to the defeat of the Axis powers to containment of Communism.

However, Bacevich, a former colonel, argues that the policies that built American power need to change, as they no longer work in the modern world. The numerous conflicts and interventions that the US has engaged in since 1945 have resulted in limited short-term success and even more limited long-term success. The expansion of American power over the last few decades has coincided with the growth of economic disparity, global jihadism, nuclear proliferation, and many other negative events, many of which have at least partially been caused by the unintended consequences of American policy.

To be clear, neither Bacevich (nor I) are appealing for disarmament or pacifism. Instead, Bacevich points out that Teddy Roosevelt's "speak softly and carry a big stick" policy has changed, since World War II, into a yell loudly and hit people with a stick approach. He asserted that we have placed ourselves as the chief military enforcers of the world, and this approach has serious consequences at home and abroad. He also questions whether these actions are the moral responsibility of the people of the United States.

The constant use or threat of our military might to maintain global order has put America in the position of picking the winners and losers in the rest of the world. The problem is that the United States has a nasty habit of backing less-than-upstanding leaders. Washington is then partially responsible for the actions of those leaders, as well as the backlash against these leaders if and when they are challenged by their own people. Haiti, large parts of South America, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and the Shah of Iran are all prime examples.

One of the primary weaknesses in our military approach is the sheer cost of war. Since 2001, more than $1 trillion has been spent in Iraq and Afghanistan alone, not to mention the expense of our ramped-up intelligence and security operations across the globe. We have largely financed these operations by borrowing from places like China.

In other words, to maintain our national security and expand our global reach, we traded our influence in Iraq and Afghanistan for billions that we gave to the second-most powerful economic and military power in the world. (If this was a video game, the scale of this mistake would be immediately obvious, right?) While our future generations are paying this debt while also struggling to maintain our global position, future generations of Chinese will be able to use the payments on these debts to springboard to dominance.

Furthermore, neither of these wars occurred in isolation. Both were partially, or entirely, started as a result of the intersection of American militaristic engagement in the Middle East and the long-term, unintended consequences of those actions. What were the costs of installing dictators, redrawing maps, leading coups, defending Kuwait, maintaining a no-fly zone, supporting guerrilla fighters in Afghanistan, or any of the myriad of other actions, both big and small, that have had known and unknown consequences? What are the costs to maintain the readiness to jump into these situations at the drop of a hat?

None of this even considers the human costs: upon soldiers, their families, the wounded, the dead, or the millions of civilians affected by this violence. We also have not considered the human and financial cost of terrorism and the security designed to stop it, terrorism that can often be directly linked as a response to US foreign policy.

There are larger problems with this over-reliance on military might to solve global problems. Because of the human and economic costs of military engagement, the United States has picked and chosen which threats or humanitarian crises they respond to. Any time the price tag is too high, the political or physical terrain is too disquieting, the domestic political will is lacking, or our forces are engaged elsewhere, the U.S. is forced to ignore places that perhaps should not be overlook. As long as military action is the primary tool of choice for affecting global change and stability, other tools become blunted.

Wars like Iraq and Afghanistan are not exceptions to the rule; they are the new rule. Long gone are the days where superpowers constantly worried about widespread conventional warfare. Instability is rife in large parts of Africa, Southeast Asia, parts of South America, the Caribbean, and of course the Middle East. As the world gets hotter, water dries up (or floods), and conflict over oil rages, the United States will need to rely on less expensive and dangerous tools than the threat of force.

To adequately prepare for these problems, both political parties in America will have to drastically rethink their beliefs on American military dominance. Bacevich points out that this problem is bigger than the obvious spike in neo-conservative expansionism. Both Democrats and Republicans are drinking from the "police the world and expand the role of the military" Kool-aid. In fact, no major politician, on either side of the aisle, has successfully advocated an isolationist or military-reductionist platform in recent years. These thoughts are like political Kryptonite. The generations of reliance on an ultra-strong military are so deeply ingrained into the American psyche that it is hard for us to even contemplate the idea that this military strength might have become a liability.

The time has come for America to rethink its obligation to police the world, especially in its use of the military as its strongest negotiating tool. Bacevich is repeating many of the same warnings that we have heard from commanders over the generations, including Dwight Eisenhower in his speech about the military-industrial complex. When are the politicians finally going to take the hint?

Reader Comments (4)

See also this 2 August interview with Bacevich on Q&A with Riz Khan
Additional guest: Blake Hounshell, the editor of the US magazine Foreign Policy

Policing the world" rel="nofollow">

August 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine

[...] Read the Entire Article on Enduring America [...]

Thanks Catherine, he's a fascinating guy with a lot to say. I was thinking about how his line of thinking applies to Iran. Perhaps if the U.S. was not self-mandated to monitor Iran's nuclear program, Obama would not have felt the need to recognize Ahmadinejad as the legitimate leader of Iran after last years elections.

August 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDissected News

[...] small government and individual rights, have bargained away personal freedom for national security, given away wealth for imperialistic goals, become radical in both their adherence to and opposition of certain aspects of the Constitution, [...]

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