The Endless Fantasy of American PowerRoundup
tags: foreign policy, military history
ANDREW BACEVICH is President of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and the author of After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed (forthcoming).
In this year’s presidential election campaign, candidates have largely sidestepped the role of armed force as an instrument of U.S. policy. The United States remains the world’s preeminent and most active military power, but Republicans and Democrats find other things to talk about.
Ever since the end of the Cold War, successive administrations have enthusiastically put U.S. military might to work. In the last three decades, the flag of the United States Army has accumulated 34 additional streamers—each for a discrete campaign conducted by U.S. troops. The air force and navy have also done their share, conducting more than 100,000 airstrikes in just the past two decades.
Unfortunately, this frenetic pace of military activity has seldom produced positive outcomes. As measured against their stated aims, the “long wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq have clearly failed, as have the lesser campaigns intended to impart some approximation of peace and stability to Libya, Somalia, and Syria. An equally unfavorable judgment applies to the nebulous enterprise once grandly referred to as the “global war on terrorism,” which continues with no end in sight.
And yet there seems to be little curiosity in U.S. politics today about why recent military exertions, undertaken at great cost in blood and treasure, have yielded so little in the way of durable success. It is widely conceded that “mistakes were made”—preeminent among them the Iraq war initiated in 2003. Yet within establishment circles, the larger implications of such catastrophic missteps remain unexplored. Indeed, the country’s interventionist foreign policy is largely taken for granted and the public pays scant attention. The police killing of Black people provokes outrage—and rightly so. Unsuccessful wars induce only shrugs.
With something approaching unanimity, Americans “support the troops.” Yet they refrain from inquiring too deeply into what putting the troops in harm’s way has achieved in recent decades. Deference to the military has become a rote piety of American life. In accepting the Democratic Party’s nomination for the presidency, for example, Joe Biden closed his remarks with an appeal to the Divine on behalf of the nation’s soldiers: “And may God protect our troops.” Yet nowhere in his 24-minute address did Biden make any reference to what U.S. troops were currently doing or why in particular they needed God’s protection. Nor did he offer any thoughts on how a Biden administration might do things differently.
Americans don’t particularly want to hear about war or the possibility of war in the present season of overlapping and mutually reinforcing crises. And Biden obliged them in the most important speech of his career. The famously garrulous politician mentioned recent U.S. wars only in passing, briefly referring to his late son, who served in Iraq, and excoriating U.S. President Donald Trump for not responding more aggressively to revelations that Russia put bounties on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
This aversion to taking stock of recent U.S. wars is by no means unique to Biden or confined to the Democratic Party. It is a bipartisan tendency. It also inhibits a long overdue reexamination of basic national security policy.
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