Saturday, August 21, 2010

America's Cancerous Militarism - Part 3

Why should Americans or anyone else not directly in their boresights care about U.S. hyper-militarism?  Well, American or not, there are plenty of reasons.

One is the health of the United States itself.   For a long time America has been writing militaristic cheques counting on its foreign creditors to make them good.  When you're in hock to everybody and still running in the red in every way imaginable you can't afford to spend more than every other nation combined on militarism.   Why fix Afghanistan instead of fixing Detroit?   At the federal, state, municipal, corporate and individual levels, America is awash in debt.  When your military budget runs to $700-billion a year plus tens of billions more off the books that can really clog your fiscal arteries.

It's not as though Washington has reaped any great financial recovery from its wars in Afghanistan or Iraq.   It thought it would but it also thought those wars would be won decisively and very quickly.  America isn't even remotely safer due to those adventures.   If anything the Afghanistan and Iraq wars have degraded America's security.   They showed that all the King's horses and all the King's men can't always win all the King's wars.  They showed there are ways around America's technical and firepower superiority.   They showed that America's generals are, at best, mediocre especially when saddled with ideologically-bound political leadership.

Another reason is that America has become used to leaning on its "allies" to join in its military misadventures.   Being allied for some purposes doesn't mean being allied for all.  Being allied doesn't mean signing on to become another country's Foreign Legion.   Heads of allied countries are going to have a tougher time with their voters in future in selling protracted military campaigns in support of the United States.

Yet another reason is that American values are less compatible with other nations' these days.   Not everybody sees affluence as the equivalent of liberty, not everyone looks to its military to anchor its prosperity.  Christian fundamentalism hasn't taken hold elsewhere as it has in America and a lot of outsiders are leery at its impact on America's agenda.  Neoconservatism may be trying to stage a comeback in the United States but it's a movement that's alien to other cultures.   America is coming to look less and less like a liberal democracy with each passing year and, in the process, is distancing itself from its traditional allies.  It is by no means clear that Obama will manage to reverse that before Movement Conservative Republicans reclaim control of Congress.

American militarism has facilitated American bellicosity and that undermines global security and stability.    American forces conquered small countries at either end of Iran but that did nothing to contain or weaken Iran.   Instead it transformed Iran into the major player in its corner of the Middle East/South Asia.

Another reason is that the great problems confronting us in the 21st century simply cannot be resolved by military force.   You can't address global warming with superior firepower.   Airpower cannot overcome spreading desertification.  Artillery and tanks won't arrest deforestation or the collapse of global fish stocks.  The world's most powerful blue water navy cannot fix the world's freshwater crisis. If we're going to find global answers to these global threats, it won't be through the coercive powers of militarism.   The only role militarism can play in these dilemmas is if and when we utterly fail to find effective global solutions in time.   If anything, American militarism will distract the United States from confronting these potentially existential challenges perhaps until it's too late.

It is morally reprehensible to resort to military force to bolster a nation's prosperity and economic dominance.   America cannot parlay its position as the dominant global beggar into global economic hegemon by relying on militarism to sustain an unsustainable economic advantage.   America's emerging rivals won't have that.  Neither will America's friends.   That can only lead to a state of perpetual warfare that none of us can continue to bear.

The charade is over.  Anybody who ever was willing to believe in a benign, much less benevolent, American foreign policy anchored in coercive force has seen the light.   America is at risk of acquiring the legitimacy in its foreign policy once reserved for the Soviet Union.   America does not go to war to defend ideals but to advance American interests.  We get it.

The Project for the New American Century, once put in practice, became the project for the fizzled American decade.   American exceptionalism is a spent force, at least beyond America's borders where it once mattered.

If, as Bascevich claims, militarism took hold in the United States at least in part due to its perceived utility, it's difficult to imagine how that motive could survive into the 21st century.   What possible utility remains in militarism post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan?   America's potential rivals will not be thwarted by U.S. militarism from claiming their share of the pie, that is global resources.   American militarism may in fact drive smaller, resource-rich countries away from the United States and directly into the arms of ascendant countries like China.

Today China is making deep inroads into resource-rich Africa.   America, by contrast, was rebuffed by African states when it sought to establish its own military command for their continent, Africa Command or AfriCom.  They weren't interested in American assurances that AfriCom would not meddle in their affairs.   American aid has been immensely popular in Africa but American militarism remains unwelcome and who could be surprised at that?

During the Cold War it was much easier for the major powers to impose their will over small states.  Nations were aligned ideologically - Western (capitalist), Soviet (communist), or simply non-aligned.  Today small states are more apt to be aligned on regional or economic groupings in which ties to major powers are looser and more transferable.   South America, long the preserve of the United States, has broken free to forge an independent, regional alliance.   Africa, once almost entirely colonized by the West, today finds itself drawn elsewhere to Asia and the Middle East.  The Caucasus, once under the heel of Soviet masters now finds itself courted by rivals Russia and the United States.  Spheres of influence, once tidily arranged, are today vague and shifting, diminishing the importance of coercive militarism.

In a multi-polar world America may pay dearly for choosing coercion over persuasion as its foreign policy.   But if the benefits are dwindling as the risks climb ever higher, why would America not simply abrogate militarism entirely?   Probably because it's a habit not easily shed.    In fact, Bacevich argues that dislodging today's embedded militarism will require fundamental change in the way the United States is governed:

Heed the Intentions of the Founders

...Although politicians make a pretense of revering [the Constitution], when it comes to military policy they have long since fallen into the habit of treating it as a dead letter.

...Nothing in that compact ...commits or even encourages the United States to employ military power to save the rest of humankind or remake the world in its own image...  To the contrary the Preamble of the Constitution expressly situates military power at the center of the brief litany of purpose enumerating the collective aspirations of "we the people.  It was 'to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense,  promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."

...Only if citizens remind themselves and remind those exercising political authority why this nation exists will it be possible to restore the proper relationship between military power and that purpose..,.

Revitalize the Concept of Separation of Powers

...An essential step toward curbing the new American militarism is to... call upon Congress to reclaim its constitutionally mandated prerogatives.   Indeed, legislators should insist upon a strict constructionist definition of war such that any use of force other than in direct and immediate defense of the United States should require prior congressional approval.

The Cold War is history.  The United States no longer stands eyeball-to-eyeball with a hostile superpower.   Ensuring our survival today does not require, if it ever did, granting to a single individual the authority to unleash the American military arsenal however the perception of threats, calculations of interest, or flights of whimsy might seem to dictate.

View Force as a Last Resort

This requires an explicit renunciation of the Bush doctrine of preventive war, which in arrogating to the United States prerogatives allowed to no other nation subverts international stability and in the long run can only make Americans less secure.  In its place, the United States should return to a declaratory policy more consistent with its own established moral and religious traditions, with international law, and with common sense.

Enhance U.S. Strategic Self-Sufficiency

With globalization a fact of life, autarky [a policy of self-sufficiency and non-reliance on imports or foreign aid] is more than ever a chimera.   The argument here calls for something more modest:  taking prudent steps to limit the extent of U.S. dependence on foreign resources, thereby reducing the pressures to intervene abroad on behalf of ostensibly 'vital' material interests.

Ever since the onset of the Cold War, Americans have persuaded themselves that their well-being requires the guarantee of unencumbered access to the world's resources...  For decades, this notion has provided an infinitely elastic rationale for sticking America's nose in other people's business.

Organize U.S. Forces explicitly for National Defense

Focusing on defense rather than on power projection implies jettisoning the concept of 'national security,' an artifact of the Cold War employed as a device to justify everything from overthrowing foreign governments to armed intervention in places that most Americans could not locate on a map.

Devise an Appropriate Gauge for Determining U.S. Defense Spending

...Militarists and those who dream of global empire have proposed their own answer.   Their requirement is quite simple:  they want more next year than last, and more still the year beyond that, regardless of the situation prevailing beyond U.S. borders.

A better approach, one more likely to limit adventurism abroad while still meeting essential U.S. security requirements, would be to peg U.S. expenditures in relation to what others are spending.  To stipulate, for example, that the United States should match the next ten most lavishly spending powers combined would assure U.S. military capabilities not only far in excess of any potential adversary but also in excess of any remotely plausible combination of adversaries.

Enhance Alternative Instruments of Statecraft

The natural accompaniment to a doctrine that views hard power as a last resort is to increase the attention given to so-called soft power, the ability to influence rather than merely coerce and to build rather than merely demolish.

The rest of Bacevich's recommendations deal with reforming the American military itself.  He advocates the return of the "citizen soldier" concept to connect the American public directly to their military.  He endorses restoring the traditional role of the National Guard and Reserve forces who are intended to be actual "reserves" rather than bodies available to incorporate into an imperial army.   Finally he wants to reconcile the American military profession to American society.   This is his most radical recommendation.   The former West Point professor recommends that the officer corps be drawn solely from candidates who have obtained their bachelor's degree at a civilian university.

Bacevich urges Americans to heed the warnings of their Founding Fathers:

...George Washington pointedly advised his fellow citizens to be wary of 'those overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.

...of this Washington was certain: to cultivate military power for its own sake and to indulge in the ambitions to which large armies gave rise was alien to the entire conception of the New World.  To seek safety in an overgrown military establishment was to replicate the errors of the Old World, home to kings an d sepulchres and empires but not to freedom and republican virtue.

Bacevich warns that his countrymen have fallen into the trap of delusion:

...Misremembering both bad wars and good, Americans fostered a fresh set of illusions.  These illusions - not only or even in particular our outsized martial pretensions - constitute the heart of the problem that is present-day American militarism.   For from these illusions come expectations that George Washington would find astonishing: that through the determined exercise of its unquestioned military dominance the United States can perpetuate American global primacy and impress its values on the world at large.

If it persists in these expectations, then America will surely share the fate of all those who in ages past have looked to war and military power to fulfill their destiny.   We will rob future generations of their rightful inheritance.  We will wreak havoc abroad.  We will endanger our security at home.  We will risk the forfeiture of all that we prize.


In preparing this three-part examination of Bacevich's The New American Militarism, I was wary of coming across as another anti-American Canadian.   Yet what I have done is to simply restate the wisdom of an intensely patriotic American, a career U.S. Army officer who served from Vietnam to the Persian Gulf; an academic who lost a son, himself a U.S. Army lieutenant, to an IED in Iraq.

I am not remotely anti-American nor have I been at least since I did my undergrad in the U.S. back when the Vietnam war was raging.    Canada needs the United States and, in so many ways, we will be affected by the health and wisdom of that country as we meet the many challenges that confront mankind in this 21st century.   As I noted above, the path American is on, this hyper-militarism, will not help our continent meet the environmental, social and security calamities coming our way.  If anything it will distract, perhaps even destabilize, America when we'll need it most.


fern hill said...

Fascinating. Thank you for doing this.

Equating affluence with liberty explains so much of the current nuttiness south of the border, doesn't it?

The Mound of Sound said...

Silly notions seem to accompany perceived exceptionalism and hyper-nationalism. This was evident in 19th century Brits and came violently gushing from the Japanese in WWII.

Much of the "nuttiness" America manifests today eerily resembles what Britain went through toward the end of its empire. Today's American notion of "policeman of the world" was expressed by the Brits as "white man's burden." Each, in turn, believed that the solution to the world's problems was in imposing their "values" on others.

Militarism played a big role in the end of the British empire. Few realize it but the supposed "British bulldog" of the dark days of WWII is a total myth. Indeed, Churchill and his war cabinet spent a great deal of time pondering what deal they could get from Hitler, what Britain could give up to appease him, because their country was abjectly broke, gutted, and had no funds to continue a war with Germany. It was only when Roosevelt stepped in with financing that the British government rallied.

Now America's self-proclaimed main military threat is also its principal creditor. America's military rival finances America's ill-conceived military adventurism.

Brilliant, no?