Blogs > Cliopatria > Quotidian Realities are Outrageous

Mar 17, 2006 10:55 am

Quotidian Realities are Outrageous

In a recent review of a documentary on the war in Iraq, a popular historian whose name shall not be spoken (because I'm tired of saying it through clenched teeth) attacked the filmmaker for advancing the outrageously false and left-wing notion that American wars have often had to do with economic interests. A shocking claim, I know. Take a moment to catch your breath. He Who Writes Poorly accuses director Eugene Jarecki of giving screen time to scholars who claim that often in our history"our military was blasting away at elected governments in out-of-the-way places to make profits."

But Jarecki's film gets even worse than this."There is not a word about three successful elections in Iraq, or American efforts to depose dictators and leave democracies in Grenada, Panama," -- you're never going to get through this if you keep laughing out loud like that --"and the Balkans, much less the American effort to promote reform in Egypt, Lebanon, and Palestine. The removal of the Taliban and the new democracy in Afghanistan are never mentioned."

The United States wages war only to depose dictators and leave democracies, spreading freedom across the globe with every warm-hearted step. The American military would never stoop so low as to serve national interests, you see. Its egalitarian heart forbids even a whisper of economic questions in the ranks.

I have limited time and energy for He Who Writes Poorly, especially since this"historian" appears to have never heard of Alfred Thayer Mahan (or the little war we fought with Mexico), but I'll offer just this one thing in response. Here is the 2005"posture statement" of the U.S. military commander in Europe, Gen. James Jones, offered as a written statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee a year ago. Let's briefly excerpt the document to show what sort of liberationist agenda guides Gen. Jones as he allocates force throughout his theater of command:

"The Caucasus is increasingly important to our interests. Its air corridor has become a crucial lifeline between coalition forces in Afghanistan and our bases in Europe. Caspian oil, carried through the Caucasus, may constitute as much as 25 percent of the world’s growth in oil production over the next five years, while Caspian hydrocarbons will diversify Europe’s sources of energy."

Nope, no economic interests there. What about Africa? Same deal, pure love of freedom:

"With the discovery of large oil reserves in the Gulf of Guinea there is tremendous economic potential for the region that has heretofore been absent. The energy potential is, in a sense, a double-edged sword: While it provides economic development value for the region, it is also a lightning rod for conflict that simmers below the surface of an ethnically and culturally diverse region. NAVEUR is working to coordinate deployments of primarily Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard assets to support Gulf of Guinea maritime forces as they address crises that can undermine future growth."

Huzzah! Let freedom ring!

Of course the American military uses force to protect and secure economic resources for American use. This very simple reality is all over the discussions that military professionals routinely have about the nature of their work. It is only He Who Writes Poorly, and his co-religionists, who regard this simple fact as a wild-eyed claim of the radical left. Our forces march only for freedom! Burn the unbelievers!

It's not a good sign of your cognitive ability when you regard uncontestable realities as outrageous falsifications.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Chris Bray - 3/18/2006

No serious disagreement here. For me the point is simply that war is the product of multiple needs and agendas, and produces a variety of results. For Hanson, war is the way the West delivers its uncomplicated bounty of beneficence. My value judgement is not, "the American military serves the dirty capitalists"; it's "war is complex in every regard."

Richard Newell - 3/18/2006

Hanson is a scholar of classical warfare, foremost. Like many scholars, his knowledge outside that area has many lacunae. And like many scholars, he doesn't feel the least bit shy about commenting outside his field. That said, I once read some comments by Kagan of Yale on more modern topics of strategy, and I found them useful.

I'll admit the main goal of our adventure in Grenada was to deny a Cuban foothold so close to the entrance to the Caribbean, and so close to the mainland of South America. But I also remember the popular Grenadian joke from Maurice Bishop's era. Why do Grenadians go to Barbados to see the dentist? It's the only place they can open their mouths.

If the point is to wring a concession that we're hardly ever motivated mainly by altruism, well that should be conceded. It just doesn't follow that more often than not the results for others aren't better than the preconditions faced. That flies equally in the face of the facts.

Chris Bray - 3/18/2006

Sigh. Must pay more attention to html. Two things: First, I have now closed the stupid italics tag. Second, here is a link to the command philosophy for the Combined Joint Task Force for the Horn of Africa.

Chris Bray - 3/18/2006

This is all well said, and I would just offer one small point in reply: Even wars that are not explicitly undertaken in the service of economic interests often end up having an economic component. In Panama, the U.S. acted at least in part against a regime that threatened the stable operation of the Panama Canal, and against a center of money laundering for the drug trade. In Afghanistan, the U.S. surely did not invade to serve economic interests; but the ongoing war there centers very closely on that nation's principal cash crop, and on the desire to replace that crop with a substitute.

Finally, it seems to me that a significant part of the American conception of liberty is that freedom is indivisible -- that political and economic liberty go together. In that context, any American project of political liberation is typically going to be coupled with a project in the advancement of free markets. And so we have this recent story from the Christian Science Monitor in which American military leaders in Africa say that they are "trying to dry up the recruiting pool for Al Qaeda by showing people the way ahead." And the way ahead is to combat "rising poverty" with development projects.

For another example, the published command philosophy of the U.S. Central Command's Combined Joint Task Force for the Horn of Africa is to create a "secure environment" in which "education and prosperity are within each person's grasp."

Chris Bray - 3/18/2006

Fascinating. I characterized Hanson's review as saying that Jarecki's film claimed American wars had to do with "economic interests." Aha, you say, I read the review, and he says nothing of the kind! Rather, he says that Jarecki's film claimed American wars have been "about capitalism." Well, you got me.

Now, please show me the place in Hanson's review where he acknowledges that American wars have sometimes been driven by economic interests.

Hank Bower - 3/17/2006

Thank you for providing the link to Victor Davis Hanson's column. I read it and find it not as you represent. It is easy to create a straw person and then demolish it as you did, far more difficult to meet a person's argument actually made.

I have not seen Jarecki's film and speak only to the issues between you and Mr. Hanson.

You contend that Mr. Hanson "attacked the filmmaker for advancing the outrageously false and left-wing notion that American wars have often had to do with economic interests." In fact, Mr. Hanson argues that Jarecki's film says that "American wars have usually been about capitalism and extinguishing democracy - corporate profits abroad to feed the military-industrial complex at home." Jarecki's film apparently shows that conspirators of "legions of capitalists - not an elected Congress, president, or independent judiciary - hold the real power in our political system."

This attacks what Mr. Johnson identified as the second thrust in diplomatic history - that American foreign policy ignored the national interest to advance the interests of individual or various corporations.

Mr. Hanson does not contend that American military have never taken actions that advanced American economic interests in the broader sense of securing access to raw materials trade routes, Mr. Johnson's first thrust of diplomatic history. Mr. Hanson's comment regarding the clear lack of an economic basis for the removal of the Taliban in Afghanistan shows the error of the "second thrust" approach, not the "first thrust."

Also, just a suggestion. Snooty comments about "He Who Writes Poorly" merely detracts from your argument by making the reader look at the quality of your own writing. Glass houses and all that sort of thing.


Robert KC Johnson - 3/17/2006

It seems to me that there are two ways that diplomatic historians have argued for the role of economics in US foreign policy. The first might be along the lines of the Jones policy statements above--ie, securing access to raw materials or trade routes vital to the country's economic and strategic well-being. The second thrust has been to contend that specific examples of US foreign policy have been designed to ignore the national interest but advance the aim of a corporation or a few corporations (ie, UFCO in Guatemala, 1954; ITT in Chile in the 1970s). I haven't seen the Jarecki piece, so I don't know what category he'd fall into. But if he takes the second approach, that seems to me usually, though not always, unpersuasive.

I don't endorse Hanson's comments. But a case can be made that over the last 25 years or so, the US has sent its troops abroad for missions that could not credibly advance even the first definition of economic interests and foreign policy. The invasions of Grenada and Panama in the 1980s and the quasi-intervention in Nicaragua were all, in my opinion, misguided, but they weren't operating from an economic premise. The US interventions in the former Yugoslavia likewise had no discernable economic motive. And I don't see how anyone could fairly describe the US decision to attack Afghanistan as motivated by economic concerns.