The Republic of War
Of all the potential Problems with our Republic that Desperately Need Solving—you know the list; Debt, Deficit, Runaway Entitlements, Runaway Inequality, Economic Crisis Hangover, Infrastructure Collapse, Energy Transition, Education, the God-awful state of popular music—very few analyses focus on the dismal reality that we have become a Push-Button Warmaking State.
The Conventional Wisdomites sigh and roll their eyes every time the likes of Andrew Bacevich give another talk about America’s global ambitions and the wrecking of Constitutional restraints in presidential war powers. Respectable foreign policy journals and magazines hardly publish such irresponsible dreck. But the fact is, we’re now “at war” hither and yon, with no end in sight; and what it means for the Nation, few care to investigate in serious ways. And the issue now is that the problem looks ready to run utterly out of control.
“It’s time to think seriously about intervening in Syria,” writes Steven Cook in a piece at the Atlantic. Which, regardless of the substance of this terrifying article, is a useful title, anyway, because you can shave off the last word, insert a blank, and get a pretty good sense of where we’re at as a nation.
“It’s time to think seriously about intervening in ______.” Shop around at your favorite magazines, op-ed pages, think tank web sites, and blogs, and I dare you to find too many troubled or troublesome states that don’t get nominated to be shoved in there. Cross off Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya; those are our most recently done deals (for now, but perhaps not forever; as Exhibit A in Recurrent Interventionism, I give you Our Good Friend Mr. Haiti). You’ll easily discover Syria, Iran, Yemen, and Somalia, for starters, as long as you are willing to take the term “intervening” in a broad sense (but then, when we start bombing people, engaging in targeted killings in their finer neighborhoods, and helicoptering teams of elite troops to wreak havoc on their society, I would tend to consider that intervention—and, more to the Constitutional and Republican point, “war”).
Other, more radical possibilities, but surely a gleam in some adventurist’s eye: Nigeria, Egypt (chaos demands a response!), Pakistan (lay off, conspiracists, it’s only a provocation); Mexico; and the list goes on. Endless lists, in fact; endless wars, all on one man’s say-so. Not to blame the current occupant, mind you, more than any other—at least for the origins of the trend, though its persistence, and indeed its perfection, is another matter. In a world of persistent war, it’s the state of our Republic.
Peter Munson has a very thoughtful post at Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, in which he focuses a useful lens on the whole dilemma-strewn landscape between democracy and humanitarianism on the one hand and warfare on the other. End-of-history-ism has become a justification for wars to usher the process along, as Munson recognizes. And the great problem is that the barrier to entry for small wars is catastrophically low—even though their price, in lives (especially those of the people in the countries concerned), can be very high indeed. “The most logical way to deal with this conundrum,” Munson argues, “is to raise the bar for entry into conflict. If American leadership is forced to make a more honest accounting of the costs, it will enter fewer conflicts.”
True, but that won’t happen as long as the other part of his analysis keeps its thickly-muscled hands gripped around the throat of American strategy: The dominance of the conventional wisdom about what is at stake in these wars. Without anyone planning (or really desiring) it, the course of debate, thinking, and policy in the US national security community has delivered us to a point at which “vital American and world interests” are at stake in every corner of the globe: Terrorists will reach out to us from here; the credibility of an alliance is on the chopping block there. This has become the socially constructed wisdom among the security cognoscenti, both right- and left-wing; the reasoning differs (accumulating hordes of Islamist terrorists vs. the international order-strafing campaigns of genocidal maniacs), but they arrive at the same place. The world is our vital interest; it is under threat; and we must act to protect it.
It is worth re-reading James C. Thomson’s brilliant autopsy, “How Could Vietnam Happen.” His focus is a particular war, but much of the analysis travels—reasons why the US government finds itself drawn into conflicts and then wonders what the hell it’s doing there. One example, in the context of the rule of our conventional wisdoms, is his concept of “the effectiveness trap,” which “keeps men from speaking out” as much as they might within government. “The most important asset that a man brings to bureaucratic life,” Thomson writes,
is his “effectiveness,” a mysterious combination of training, style, and connections. The most ominous complaint that can be whispered of a bureaucrat is: “I’m afraid Charlie’s beginning to lose his effectiveness.” To preserve your effectiveness, you must decide where and when to fight the mainstream of policy; the opportunities range from pillow talk with your wife, to private drinks with your friends, to meetings with the Secretary of State or the President. The inclination to remain silent or to acquiesce in the presence of the great men—to live to fight another day, to give on this issue so that you can be “effective” on later issues—is overwhelming. Nor is it the tendency of youth alone; some of our most senior officials, men of wealth and fame, whose place in history is secure, have remained silent lest their connection with power be terminated.
In the face of such incentives, who is going to run head-on into the buzz-saw of heavily-articulated beliefs in the necessity of worldwide interventionism?
If anyone were in the market, there is an alternative interpretation, which ironically also springs out of end-of-history thinking. The fact is, the process of global end-of-history needs no shoving. Our values are winning—slowly, surely, reversibly to be sure, but winning nonetheless. In the late 1940s, the sensible among the US strategists peered over the Iron Curtain at the USSR, glimpsed a system we would outlast, rejected preemptive war, and settled in to “manage the confrontation.” We need a parallel approach today: Globalization-cum-modernization-cum-value change is creating a world largely amenable to our interests and values. Once again our challenge is to manage, not force.
So what the hell, exactly, are we doing rushing around the world, acting as if we were under siege from an alien race living at the Earth’s core, popping up in a new hot spot every 15 months? Why have we seen the need to remake our national character and Constitutional principles to bring democracy to Libya? The issue is not “withdrawing from the world”—a solid, reliable, credible, alliance-defending America could still stiffen the global community’s spine at key points without making every new chaotic outbreak its business, and without allowing presidents to claim the right to parachute into any war that struck their fancy.
We wait, calmly and without much expectation, for a political leader who might begin to see all of this as an authentic Danger to the American Republic.