Stephen M. Walt
April 4, 2011
The United States started out as 13 small and vulnerable colonies clinging to the east coast of North America. Over the next century, those original 13 states expanded all the way across the continent, subjugating or exterminating the native population and wresting Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California from Mexico. It fought a bitter civil war, acquired a modest set of overseas colonies, and came late to both world wars. But since becoming a great power around 1900, it has fought nearly a dozen genuine wars and engaged in countless military interventions.
Yet Americans think of themselves as a peace-loving people, and we certainly don't regard our country as a "warrior nation" or "garrison state." Teddy Roosevelt was probably the last U.S. president who seemed to view war as an activity to be welcomed (he once remarked that "A just war is in the long run far better for a man's soul than the most prosperous peace"), and subsequent presidents always portray themselves as going to war with great reluctance, and only as a last resort.
In 2008, Americans elected Barack Obama in part because they thought he would be different from his predecessor on a host of issues, but especially in his approach to the use of armed force. It was clear to nearly everyone that George W. Bush had launched a foolish and unnecessary war in Iraq, and then compounded the error by mismanaging it (and the war in Afghanistan too). So Americans chose a candidate who had opposed Bush's war in Iraq and could bring U.S. commitments back in line with our resources. Above all, Americans thought Obama would be a lot more thoughtful about where and how to use force, and that he understood the limits of this crudest of policy tools. The Norwegian Nobel Committee seems to have thought so too, when they awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize not for anything he had done, but for what it hoped he might do henceforth.
Yet a mere two years later, we find ourselves back in the fray once again. Since taking office, Obama has escalated U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and launched a new war against Libya. As in Iraq, the real purpose of our intervention is regime change at the point of a gun. At first we hoped that most of the guns would be in the hands of the Europeans, or the hands of the rebel forces arrayed against Muammar al-Qaddafi, but it's increasingly clear that U.S. military forces, CIA operatives and foreign weapons supplies are going to be necessary to finish the job.
Moreover, as Alan Kuperman of the University of Texas and Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribune have now shown, the claim that the United States had to act to prevent Libyan tyrant Muammar al-Qaddafi from slaughtering tens of thousands of innocent civilians in Benghazi does not stand up to even casual scrutiny. Although everyone recognizes that Qaddafi is a brutal ruler, his forces did not conduct deliberate, large-scale massacres in any of the cities he has recaptured, and his violent threats to wreak vengeance on Benghazi were directed at those who continued to resist his rule, not at innocent bystanders. There is no question that Qaddafi is a tyrant with few (if any) redemptive qualities, but the threat of a bloodbath that would "[stain] the conscience of the world" (as Obama put it ) was slight.
It remains to be seen whether this latest lurch into war will pay off or not, and whether the United States and its allies will have saved lives or squandered them. But the real question we should be asking is: Why does this keep happening? Why do such different presidents keep doing such similar things? How can an electorate that seemed sick of war in 2008 watch passively while one war escalates in 2009 and another one gets launched in 2011? How can two political parties that are locked in a nasty partisan fight over every nickel in the government budget sit blithely by and watch a president start running up a $100 million per day tab in this latest adventure ? What is going on here?
Here are my Top 5 Reasons Why America Keeps Fighting Foolish Wars :
1. Because We Can.
The most obvious reason that the United States keeps doing these things is the fact that it has a remarkably powerful military, especially when facing a minor power like Libya. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, when you've got hundreds of planes, smart bombs, and cruise missiles, the whole world looks like a target set. So when some thorny problem arises somewhere in the world, it's hard to resist the temptation to "do something!"
It is as if the president has big red button on his desk, and then his aides come in and say, "There's something really nasty happening to some unfortunate people, Mr. President, but if you push that button, you can stop it. It might cost a few hundred million dollars, maybe even a few billion by the time we are done, but we can always float a bit more debt. As long as you don't send in ground troops, the public will probably go along, at least for awhile and there's no danger that anybody will retaliate against us -- at least not anytime soon -- because the bad guys (who are really nasty, by the way) are also very weak. Our vital interests aren't at stake, sir, so you don't have to do anything. But if you don't push the button lots of innocent people will die. The choice is yours, Mr. President."
It would take a very tough and resolute president -- or one with a clear set of national priorities and a deep understanding of the uncertainties of warfare -- to resist that siren song.
Of course, like his predecessors, Obama justifies his resort to force by invoking America's special place in the world. In the usual rhetoric of "American exceptionalism," he couched it in terms of U.S. values, its commitment to freedom, etc. But the truly exceptional thing about America today is not our values (and certainly not our dazzling infrastructure, high educational standards, rising middle-class prosperity, etc.); it is the concentration of military power in the hands of the president and the eroding political constraints on its employment. (For an elegant skewering of the "American exceptionalism" argument, see Andrew Sullivan here ).
2. The U.S. Has No Serious Enemies.
A second factor that permits the United States to keep waging these optional wars is the fact that the end of the Cold War left the United States in a remarkably safe position. There are no great powers in the Western hemisphere; we have no "peer competitors" anywhere (though China may become one sooner if we keep squandering our power foolishly); and there is no country anywhere that could entertain the idea of attacking America without inviting its own destruction. We do face a vexing terrorism problem, but that danger is probably exaggerated, is partly a reaction to our tendency to meddle in other countries, and is best managed in other ways. It's really quite ironic: Because the American homeland is safe from serious external dangers (which is a good thing), Americans have the luxury of going abroad "in search of monsters to destroy" (which is not). If Americans were really worried about having to defend our own soil against a powerful adversary, we wouldn't be wasting time and money on feel-good projects like the Libyan crusade. But our exceptionally favorable geopolitical position allows us to do these things, even when they don't make a lot of strategic sense.
3. The All-Volunteer Force.
A third enabling factor behind our addiction to adventurism is the all-volunteer force. By limiting military service only to those individuals who volunteer to do it, public opposition to wars of choice is more easily contained. Could Bush or Obama have kept the Iraq and Afghanistan wars going if most young Americans had to register for a draft, and if the sons and daughters of Wall Street bankers were being sent in harm's way because they got an unlucky number in the draft? I very much doubt it.
By the way, I am not saying that the AVF is a bad idea that should be chucked, as there are a number of good arguments in its favor. Nonetheless, the AVF is one of those features of the contemporary U.S. national security order that makes the frequent resort to force politically feasible.
4. It's the Establishment, Stupid .
A fourth reason we keep meddling all over the world is the fact that the foreign-policy establishment is hard-wired in favor of "doing something." Foreign-policy thinking in Washington is dominated either by neoconservatives (who openly proclaim the need to export "liberty" and never met a war they didn't like) or by "liberal interventionists" who are just as enthusiastic about using military power to solve problems, provided they can engineer some sort of multilateral cover for it. Liberal interventionists sometimes concede that the United States can't solve every problem (at least not at the same time), but they still think that the United States is the "indispensable" nation and they want us to solve as many of the world's problems as we possibly can.
These worldviews are developed, promulgated, and defended by a network of think tanks, committees, public policy schools, and government agencies that don't always agree on what should be done (or which problems deserve most priority) but that are all committed to using U.S. power a lot. In short, our foreign policy is shaped by a bipartisan class of foreign policy do-gooders who spend years out of power maneuvering to get in, and spend their time in office trying to advance whatever their own pet project(s) might be. Having scratched and clawed to get themselves on the inside, the people who run our foreign policy are not likely to counsel restraint, or to suggest that the United States and the rest of the world might be better off if Washington did a bit less. After all, what's the point of being a big shot in Washington if you can't use all that power to try to mold the world to your liking?
Compared with most Americans, this is a wealthy, privileged, highly educated group of people and most of them are personally insulated from the consequences of the policies they advocate (i.e., with a few exceptions, their kids don't serve in the military -- see No. 3 ). Advocates of intervention are unlikely to suffer severe financial reverses or face long-term career penalties if some foreign war goes badly; they'll just go back to the same think-tank sinecures when their term of service is over.
By the way, lurking underneath the Establishment consensus on foreign-policy activism is the most successful Jedi mind trick that the American right ever pulled. Since the mid-1960s, American conservatism has waged a relentless and successful campaign to convince U.S. voters that it is wasteful, foolish, and stupid to pay taxes to support domestic programs here at home, but it is our patriotic duty to pay taxes to support a military establishment that costs more than all other militaries put together and that is used not to defend American soil but to fight wars mostly on behalf of other people. In other words, Americans became convinced that it was wrong to spend tax revenues on things that would help their fellow citizens (like good schools, health care, roads, and bridges, high-speed rail, etc.), but it was perfectly OK to tax Americans (though of course not the richest Americans ) and spend the money on foreign wars. And we bought it. Moreover, there doesn't seem to be an effective mechanism to force the president to actually face and confront the trade-offs between the money he spends on optional wars and the domestic programs that eventually have to be cut back home. Which brings me to No. 5.
5. Congress Has Checked Out.
The authority to declare war is given to Congress, not the president, but that authority has been steadily usurped ever since World War II. Although the Constitution could not be clearer on this point, modern presidents clearly feel no constraints about ordering U.S. forces to attack other countries, or even to fully inform Congress as to what we might be doing in secret. In practice, therefore, the vaunted system of "checks and balances" supposedly enshrined in our Constitution simply doesn't operate anymore, which means that the use of America's military power has been left solely to the presidents and a handful of ambitious advisors (see No. 4 above). This is not to say that public opinion doesn't figure into their calculations (i.e., they've got pollsters and political advisors too), but it is hardly a binding constraint.
I've no doubt that one could add more items to this list (e.g., the passive press, the military-industrial complex, etc.), but the items already noted go a long way to explaining why the supposedly peace-loving United States keeps finding itself in all these small but draining wars.
Back in the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama said that his favorite movie was The Godfather . And if I recall correctly, he said his second favorite movie was The Godfather, Part II . But his presidency is starting to play out like Part III of that famed trilogy, where Michael Corleone rails against the fates that have foiled his attempt to make the Corleone family legit.
I can just hear Obama saying it: "Just when I thought I was out … they pull me back in." Precisely.