Mariano Aguirre: Vietnam to Iraq and AfPak ... traps of history

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mariano Aguirre is managing director of the Norwegian Peacebuilding Centre (Noref) in Oslo. He is a fellow of the Transnational Institute, Amsterdam.]

There are remarkable continuities in the United States’s wartime policies since the 1960s. The context of the conflicts in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq have been very different, but successive leaders in Washington seem to operate on similar ideological assumptions and to repeat their mistakes. The costly wars of the post-9/11 decade have exposed both the United States’s loss of legitimacy as a superpower and the limits of its military might and economic prosperity.

Some lessons of this history are revealed in a reading of four recent books They provide an opportunity to reflect on the state of American power in 2011 - when it is engaged in another military campaign in the Arab world, in Libya, albeit with far less complete exertion than before.

The consensus

The research in three of these works includes access to declassified information, notes from decision-makers and personal testimonies. The exception is Andrew J Bacevich’s Washington Rules: The Path to Permanent War (Metropolitan Books, 2010), which is a historical interpretation. Yet the subtitle of this book is a good starting-point for a larger survey, for it reveals a core theme of the history of these four decades: that the United States’s pursuit of global military domination has led it to wage disastrous wars that have accelerated the decline of the United States as a global power.

A primary focus of these books is on the domestic civilian and military elite, an approach that reveals much about the role of inner-circle decision-makers in several administrations: from the the Ivy League technocrats (such as McGeorge Bundy) and cold-war generals who advised the John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson administrations, to the neo-conservatives that influenced George W Bush and the new military figures (such as David H Petraeus) pressing Barack Obama to continue the war in Afghanistan.

But Bacevich extends the range by arguing that a group of interlocking institutions drives the United States's imperial impulse. “Military-industrial complex”, he writes, “no longer suffices to describe the congeries of interests profiting from and committed to preserving the national security status.” This wider group consists of government agencies, think-tanks, the media and corporations. There is a continuity here between actors and their interests; corporations have a profit motive in selling weapons, for example, but also have to persuade Congress to free funds for that purpose. The period of Ronald Reagan’s administrations was notable for the formation of private foundations that funded rightwing research and media, part of a domestic contest in which the conservative side has been increasingly dominant.

These institutions too are actors and instruments in the ideology of “permanent war”, which generates a political economy of war (the “Washington consensus”, as Bacevich calls it). The author also criticises American society for kowtowing to its government's war policies. “The citizens of the United States”, he says, “have essentially forfeited any capacity to ask first-order questions about the fundamentals of national security policy.”

This Washington consensus, according to Bacevich (himself a former US army colonel), is not going to recede any time soon - even though the United States “no longer possesses sufficient wherewithal to sustain a national security strategy that relies on global military presence and global power projection.” Americans, he says, “can ill afford to indulge any longer in dreams of saving the world, much less remaking it in our own image.”..

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