A country perpetually at war.

When in graduate school I was exposed to the writings of dependency and post-colonial theorists, people like Samir Amin, Barrington Moore, Immanuel Wallerstein, Andre Gunder Frank, Cardoso and Faletto, and a host of other neo-Gramscians and Euro Marxists. Following Lenin’s theory of imperialism, these various schools of thought all concurred that there was a structural basis for US imperialism, and that this in turn led to what Dwight Eisenhower (of all people) called a “military-industrial complex” that continually pushed for war in order to develop, test and apply new technologies in pursuit of  profit, with follow-on benefits eventually accrued by the civilian market as well. None of these theorists believed in the rhetoric of freedom and democracy promotion that the US used, and uses, to justify its military activities abroad. 

For Marxists, US imperialism is not about liberation but about exploitation of other people’s natural and human resources for US gain. It is about oil in Iraq and natural gas and mineral rights in Afghanistan and other parts of Central Asia, coupled with the geo-strategic imperative to keep rival powers from encroaching on US economic interests in these areas. It is why the US declared the Monroe Doctrine that until recently made Latin America its exclusive sphere of interest (a status quo now under seige from Chinese investment), and it is why the US continues to spend more money on defense than the next eight countries combined (including Russia, China, the UK, France and Germany). Most importantly, in this view, the structural imperative is why the US is a war-mongering nation that uses–and in fact needs–wars to propel its economy and maintain its preeminence in the global arena.

Being US-born but raised in Latin America, I had, and have, mixed emotions about this perspective. On the one hand I see the validity of the argument, which is elegant in its simplicity of explanantion but also reductionist to a fault. On the other hand I find it hard to believe that a majority of Americans would accept the premise that the US is an imperialist war-mongering nation driven by corporate interest, and that if they were presented with evidence to that effect a majority would vote to end the cycle of war-for-profit that Eisenhower warned about.

The inability of most Americans to see US military activities in the structuralist light may be a tribute to the myth-making propoganda of the US educational and media systems, but the truth is that they simply see what the US does abroad as part of its natural responsibilities as the world’s (yet) superpower and policeman. In other words, if no other country is going to step in and put out fires, then it is up to the US to do so. That is what the US public believes, although it has been shown time and again that they have little patience for staying in protracted conflicts that do not appear to directly impinge on core national values or security.

Over the past few months, as I have contemplated and written about Afghanistan, I have found myself returning to this theme: is the US a war-mongering country? In recent correspondence with journalist Jon Stephenson, whose work as one of the few serious independent NZ-based journalists I admire, he brought up the subject of wars of necessity and discretionary wars. The former are fought in pursuit of core national interests; the latter are fought for reasons of political, diplomatic or economic want, not need.

This does not mean that the latter are always illegitimate. As I mentioned in the earlier post about the “Responsibility to Protect,” sometimes more than national interest has to be considered in committing troops to conflict. But the overall picture should be clear. Some wars are justifiable due to imposed necessity; other wars are not.

This is where the US begins to show its colors. It appears that it has conflated the two types of war, under the banner of promoting “freedom” and “democracy” abroad, in order to satisfy its broad structural needs and the specific demands of the perpetual motion machine known as the military-industrial complex exemplified by the likes of Raytheon, Lockheed, Martin Marietta, Haliberton, McDonald Douglas and other conglomerates.

But even as I pondered the implications of this theoretical overlap between the two types of war in the US mindset, I found myself (perhaps due to some lingering loyalty to my place of brith) still unable to accept the fact that the US is indeed a war-mongering imperialist power. I decided to research the history of US military adventures abroad so as to get a better idea of their scope over time. I was pretty sure that in one way or another the US has been in a state of semi-constant conflict since 1989. I do know that it is the only country on earth that has an array of military bases spanning the world, to include every continent including Antartica, remote island chains and atolls, and non-publicised detachments engaged in covert action. I know that the US has five aircraft carrier battle groups (which include submarines, destoyers, frigates and tenders as well as the air wings on the carrier), of which three are deployed at any one time, and that no other country has a single one such battle group. The point should be clear–the US position in world affairs does in fact ride on the back of an immense military machine (as opposed to moral authority or diplomatic leadership).

My research was an eye-opener. Ahough I am not a fan of Wikipedia being used as a scholarly source (and in fact mark down students who use it as such), I have decided that in this case it summarises the issue pretty concisely. Could it be that the Marxists are right? If so, is this status quo unbreakable in a world in which rising powers may see reason to challenge the US position in global society? What are the implications of these potential challenges given the historical record?

On the other hand, is it plausible that this history of intervention is strictly driven by economic interest and military-corporate collusion? Is it not possible that altruistic motives are sometimes at play when the US uses force abroad? After all, many if not most of the cited interventions involved evacuations of civilians from conflict zones and involvement in foreign conflicts for apparent humanitarian reasons devoid of economic interest.

I wonder what the US public would make of this history if they knew enough about it, and how future justifications for war would square with this track record? Could it be possible that the Obama administration will return to the distinction between wars of necessity and wars of discretion as a benchmark for foreign military intervention, thereby breaking with the military-industrial complex and its need for perpetual war?

Readers are invited to draw their own conclusions.

32 thoughts on “A country perpetually at war.

  1. Pablo, have you seen Taika Waititi’s movie, Boy, yet?

    Taking the plot summary (also from wikipedia):

    Having imagined a heroic version of his father during his absence, Boy comes face to face with the real version – an incompetent hoodlum who has returned to find a bag of money he buried years before.

    I’m not sure whether the connection is as obvious to you as it is to me at 4am, half-way through a night-shift, but:
    I grew up believing Britain and US forces were the ‘worlds saviours’ in the 20th century- the later in particular, as you point out, has progressively destroyed this image over the last 21 years. And, I increasingly see the US as the incompetent hoodlum.

    With the issues raised in, In the US, a return to primordialism, it serves to remind of the cultural disparity between the US and NZ. However, the US certainly is the land of the brave.

  2. I like America, I do not particularly agree with their foreign policy motives in some parts of the global playing field. George W. Bush showed the world a part of American political psyche -self-interest by using human rights as vehicle for developing markets + raw material acquisitions = economic returns. I do believe the other side of the American political psyche-to right wrongs and to help balance inhumane situations- Kosovo comes to mind, as a quite noble undertaking. In the case of Kosovo for example, it was about Human Security.

    However flawed one might think this psyche is, there will perhaps for a long while yet, the underlining ‘evil’ of the military industrial complex. I use that word, evil, because it does not take ‘good’ as a right thing to do unless it’s got an edge to their advantage. America was a frontier country- today it uses the planet as a new frontier for its own purpose. In a lot of ways, I am of two minds about the nature of the ‘imperial America’ too-it does some good here, some dumb and self-centred thing there. Doing things in the name of God and for America makes anyone’s skin crawl. Unfortunately now, the military-industrial complex has got too big to curb, therefore what can America do to balance their over-assertiveness?

  3. Now a fan of wikipedia ;^) I knew you would come around. You should give your students a break too.

    There are hundreds of millions of people in Europe and East Asia who have the US to thank for their freedom and current prosperity. Over the longer time frame there will be mistakes, ill advised interventions and people with perhaps undue influence.

    Don Rumsfeld completely represents the military industrial complex and the influence of a single person like that can be immense.

    The Churchillian reference to democracy being the worst of all systems of governance apart from all of the others aptly describes Pax Americana.

    Over time there will be interventions and actions that were not well understood or supported at the time but that will be shown to be positive turning points in history. Nuclear weapons, Star wars, Iraq 2003 are examples of that.

  4. Over time there will be interventions and actions that were not well understood or supported at the time but that will be shown to be positive turning points in history. Nuclear weapons, Star wars, Iraq 2003 are examples of that.

    Phil S, I may have misunderstood you- pray tell how those 3 examples can be seen as positive turning points in history?

    There are hundreds of millions of people in Europe and East Asia who have the US to thank for their freedom and current prosperity. Over the longer time frame there will be mistakes, ill advised interventions and people with perhaps undue influence.

    No doubt they do, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to balance success and failure with each other in the context of human sacrifice, do you? One could end up with some pretty interesting historical justifications if it were so- quid pro quo: a barrel of oil for a life saved…

  5. Dylan – How many people did the machine gun kill and how many people have nuclear weapons killed. Nuclear weapons made superpower war too costly to wage.

    Star wars made defence too costly for the Soviet Union. The Warsaw bloc failed rather than limping on.

    You don’t understand Iraq in a historical context yet. It was the beginning of the end for dictators and necessary to have a second front against Al Qaeda.

    The US buys oil from Venezuela and bought from Saddam. Why would it need to invade anywhere at great cost when it can simply buy the oil.

    Pablo – How long before the Pakistan military succumb to populist pressure and undertake a coup. I would be interested in your thoughts, particularly against the backdrop of this post and military power serving peaceful long term ends.

  6. Phil, I see what you’re getting at. I haven’t studied political science, and in trying to relate your thoughts to my own worldview (medical) the ethic you seem to be representing to is utilitarianism?

    However, I don’t seem to be able articulate what it is about these perspectives you are portraying which makes me feel so uncomfortable- the hesitation may not even be rational- but, for instance, there seemed to be reasonable alternatives to deal with Saddam, particularly given that he was arguably a monster of their (the US) making. And, the false-justification (?indisputably) for going to war with Saddam at the time, seems hardly to have been justified by any subsequent ‘good’ caused- in the context of the life and liberty lost both during the war, and during the decade prior in which sanctions destroyed the health and prosperity of the people if Iraq. Fairly crucially, the man’s trial and execution was a shambles, and many will never see justice done for the specifics of his crimes against them- a predetermined result, a premature execution.

  7. The problem I have with your entire argument Pablo is that you seem to making as a base assumption that average Americans are capable of actually doing anything about anything even if they decided they wanted to.

    I often wonder if the United States is, at a national level, a functioning democracy at all anymore. If the United States is no longer a democracy at the national level, but rather a sclerotic one party state dominated by corporate lobbyists and incapable of reforming it’s ossified constitutional arrangements then what you say takes on a completely different complexion, don’t you think?

  8. Tom – You are definitely a believer in the John Raulston Saul view of the world. If that was genuinely true how would Obama have been elected?

    Dylan – I have gone far enough down a slippery path of explaining things rationally. The world and US leadership proceeds through a series of human decisions that at the end are made on the basis of instinct and a feel for what is right from the available view and most importantly HARD choices available at the time. Judging them harshly with hindsight and perfect morality required is pretty easy but also pretty pointless. Stalin and Mao never get the approbation they deserve, the US never gets the gratitude it deserves.

  9. Hundred of millions ?????????? At $9 million dollars an hour for the VietNam war, if was given to them, will be the richest country in Asia. What about the thousand of million that China liberated ONLY 60 yrs ago ??????? The u.s.a. is an earth disater in a chain reaction. As Mao said: ” the people of america are blind “

  10. Why start 21 years ago?, that’s not perpetual.

    I’m not sure that the existence of battle groups is negative, they may have useful deterrent capability, but with the new generation of weapons, they may soon be irrelevant.

    A torpedo that generates a huge gas bubble causing capital ships to lose buoyancy is apparently quite cheap and effective. Warfare is changing, and the USA may soon no longer have a commanding position.

    Anyone who has been near Afganistan, Somalia, etc. would realise that their warrior history is far more likely to catalyse war, and suck mis-guided and/or well-intentioned nations into their national tragedies.

    Once embroiled, it takes years to fully escape, and there is always the implication that withdrawal is defeat. Good intentions don’t always win friends, or even wars.

    Perhaps our knowledge of Kiwi experiences in Boer, WWI, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam make us more cynical about the effectiveness of military interventions. We learn at school how few campaigns achieve their strategic goals, and are cautious about building military might, because return on investment has been so poor.

    The USA invests heavily in the military, as force projection is still considered a requirement of being a superpower – but is it?. The USA has recently laid too many paving stones on the path to Hell. Perhaps the USA should reconsider their global role, and whether the same endpoint could be reached by other, less-intrusive, means.

    The USA foreign military adventures have been mis-guided, rather than empire building or even protecting supplies. My perception is that Americans believe their duty, as a superpower, is to lead the free world, and they are bewildered by opposition. Your suggestion that the education system may perpetuate some of the misunderstanding is probably correct.

    The USA doesn’t realise that the little old lady standing on the sidewalk didn’t want help to cross the road, she was still deciding which direction to travel…

  11. Just a couple of points to note:

    Phil: Although there are dozens of articles and books on the US military-industrial complex and foreign military interventions, I just wanted to find a succinct, neutral timeline of said interventions. Wikipedia had that. But just as one would not use the Encycolpaedia Britannica as a source in an academic paper, one would be wise to not use Wikipedia, especially given its often loose editorial scrutiny. It is getting better, to be sure, but still is not a scholarly source. What it does allow is for one to begin a search using it and its citations and references, which can then point the reader to the pertinent literature on the subject in question.

    As for Iraq, you and I will continue to disagree. After the withdrawal of the last US combat brigade, this is the situation there: a government less stable and more fractured than during the Saddam era, with much more Iranian influence in its political life, with the US relying on the very former Baathists and Sunni elites that were Sadam’s main support base for a counter-balance to the rising Shiia political factions led by the Sadarists and their Iranian-trained and equipped militias. Oil production remains a long-term, if not illusionary goal. I would therefore not call the US intervention a strategic success.

    With regard to Pakistan and the possibility of a “righteous” coup. As I said to Mark Graham on his “Explorations” show on GeorgeFM on Sunday August 22, there is a clear winner, a possible winner and an abject loser as a result of the floods. The clear winner are the Pakistani Taleban, who even if limited in their ability to do so, are providing relief and supplies in their areas of influence in a measure that the Pakistani state is incapable of doing. Since political legitimacy is gained by providing goods and services to the population, this helps cement the Taleban as an alternative sovereign that is not simply an irregular armed coaltion. Score 1 for them.

    The possible winner is the US, which is using its military to directly provide relief to affected populations and which may gain some measure of support as a result.

    The abject loser is the Pakistani government, which has shown inself once again to be venal, corrupt and incompetent in addressing the plight of its people.

    The sum total of these factors is the heightened possibility of a “restorative” coup, if nothing else because a rise in Taleban legitimacy is a direct threat to the corporate integrity of the Pakistani armed forces. But even that is just a short-term solution.

    More broadly, I would note again that I am not writing here about just and unjust wars. My purpose was to simply raise the question as to whether the US has a war-mongering propensity and if so, what are the root causes of that. My own view is that there is a mix of motives involved in most cases and that even the most justified military interventions will provide the Cheney’s of the world with an opportunity to plunder and profit.

    But I am not sure that all US military interventions abroad are reducible to greed and profit, which belies Tom’s notion that it is no longer a democracy but instead a corporate authoritarian regime with an electoral facade. It may seem headed that way but as was noted, Obama’s election appears to be a contraindication, and if we think back to Jimmy Carter’s human rights policies and Clinton’s defense of democracy policy (applied in such places as Haiti 1993-94), then it is apparent that not all US foreign military interventions, inclduing those of a discretionary nature, are driven by corporate imperatives.

    Maybe the truth is that it is the GOP that is a war-mongering agent, whereas the Democrats try to dial back on discretionary wars and focus on core national interests when assessing the need to use military force in pursuit of foreign policy objectives. If so, that would be an ironic reversal of the approaches of pre-1980 Democrats and Republicans, where the latter tended to be realists and the former idealists in their approaches to the world (idealism here seen as the pusuit of ideological goals rather than as a morally superior or progressive posture). By that criteria both Reagan and Bush 43 were idealists in their forcible promotion of US ideological primacy abroad, whereas Clinton and Obama, for all of their support for democracy and multilateralism when it comes to armed operations, have shown themselves to be more pragmatic and less ideological in their approaches.

  12. ah well F me, I always thought Kennedy and Johnson were peaceful democrats, obviously they were war mongering GOP republicans. In disguise obviously.

    I was just winding you on the wiki Pablo – It is a great quick source.

  13. Geez Phil.

    Why be difficult when you are obviously smarter than that? JFK and Johnson inherited a pre-existing mindset framed by Cold War anti-communist logics and even then pushed idealistic goals like the Alliance for Progress and Peace Corps (abroad) and Great Society (at home). They also were at the helm at the time when the US pushed hardest during the Cold War to make the UN a viable supranational vehicle for international redress, again, in spite of the Cold War bipolar stand-off. The contrast with Nixon in terms of the people involved in policy-making and the actual decisions undertaken is stark.

    As for Reagan and Bush 43—both chicken hawks willing to sacrifice other people’s lives in ideological wars when they themselves sought deferments from the “good” fights for which they were eligible (WW2 and Vietnam, respectively). Both talked tough and dressed the part, but were cowards at crinch time.

    For all their rhetoric, Clinton and Obama were and are very pragmatic in their approach to foreign affairs. Surely you can see this, which makes your snide remark a silly insult without substantive merit.

    Given that even in my part time university teaching capacity I have to deal with legions of (now Asian) students parroting wikipedia as if it were gospel, and in fact no longer crtically reading real books and articles because they can google blogs and bullsh*t in equal measure, then yes, your approval of wikipedia as a source (again, from a supposedly smart person) does wind me up.

    Which is to say, all of us have our buttons.

  14. Ah Pablo – sometimes your buttons are too easy to press, but it is often fun. wiki is a quick source for a blog comment but I can completely understand why you would struggle with it being a primary source for a supposedly well thought out essay.

    My JFK Johnson comment was just calling bs on that gross generalisation of GOP as warmongers. I note in your follow up you don’t balance your criticism of Reagan and Bush jr with the recognition Clinton was worse. He was not even chicken hawk he was chicken s**t leaving Rwandans to their massacre

  15. in order to satisfy its broad structural needs and the specific demands of the perpetual motion machine known as the military-industrial complex exemplified by the likes of Raytheon, Lockheed, Martin Marietta, Haliberton, McDonald Douglas and other conglomerates.

    Revenue Net Income
    Raytheon $24.9bn $1.9bn
    Martin Marietta $45.1bn $3.0bn
    Halliburton $18.3bn $2.2bn
    Boeing (McD Doug) $60.1bn $2.7bn

    Total $148.0bn $9.8bn
    US Military $685bn

    Wal Mart $408bn $14.0bn
    US GDP $14,569bn

    All figures from Pablo’s favourite research tool. ;)
    Your military industrial complex is not very big really.

    The US citizen intuitively understands that and they recognise that whilst they may make mistakes their military has proven it is a force for good over the last century.

    It is a sign of a healthy democracy that there is vociferous dissent to any course of action. Obama’s election indicates the people still have firm control.

    I do not believe any of us have sufficient strategic context to make any judgements about Iraq just yet. 500,000 dead children from sanctions over the decade preceding vs 150,000 from the mainly AQ and insurgent bombs seems like a pretty reasonable argument in favour of its having been a success so far. Iraq 2003 was an act in a tragedy that started with Saddam invasion of Kuwait in 1990. You cannot hold the US responsible for starting that. Go back to your wiki list and identify how many of those conflicts were started by other countries, how many the US became involved in for geo strategic reasons (eg Korea and Vietnam), how many were undertaken for humanitarian reasons(eg Bosnia) and balance that against the very small number of conflicts started by the US for reasons on its own perceived interest.

    That stacks the balance firmly against the US being a war mongering nation.

  16. As I said Phil, people can draw their own conclusions from that list. You have decided that the US is not war-mongering and a force for good. Others may disagree. As I said in the post, my views are mixed.

    I enjoy seeing you throw figures around but the truth is that I just listed those firms for illustrative purposes and they do not even constitute a tenth of the defense-related industrial complex. Even if they do not match that gargantuan Chinese product-dependent, poor labor standard entity known as Walmart as percentage of US GDP (and I believe that they in fact do, and then some), surely even you recognise the importance of the defense industry to the US economy. Or do you think that Dwight Eisenhower, the last honest elected Republican president IMO (Ford does not count) was wrong in his assessment?

    As for your equating Raygun (sic) and Dubya with Bubba–are you high? Clinton did not start wars to cover up for his cowardice in earlier wars that he should have served in (he opposed Vietnam and got an educational deferment that alowed him to go to Oxford. Reagan avoided WW2 service by claiming he was the sole source of income for his family and Dubya’s story as a pampered daddy’s boy assigned to the Alabama Air National Guard during the Vietnam War is well known). Unlike Reagan and Bush 43, who “supported” the wars that they dodged serving in, Clinton remained consistent in his distaste for mlitary adventurism from Vietnam to the Balkans, with the irony being that by the end of his tenure he was heavily dependent upon it as a means of maintaining US credibility abroad (e.g. Bosnia 1999).

    Even so, you are right that Clinton was weak, but there again you have over simplified. Clinton’s weakeness with regards to Rwanda was that, because he was so committed to multilateralism and UN mandates at the time, and because he was influenced by the Blackhawk Down syndrome that permeated US military politics in the wake of the shoot-down, he waited for UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to ask the US to intervene along with other partners. Annan vacillated for reasons that reflect very poorly on himself, and by the time the UN reacted the genocide was over. A case of too little too late, and Clinton’s folly was that he sincerely believed at the time that the UN would authorise a blue helmet operation to prevent atrocities from occurring. It did not, and the main reason was that the African Union would not condemn one of its own members. Such are the perils of multilateralism in the post-colonial, post-modern world.

    I will say that I do wonder if the strategic landscape will be altered for the better in 20 years time as a result of the Iraq invasion and occupation. My inclination is to believe that it will not and that it will have the perverse effect of increasing Iranian strength in the region, but I concede that there is a glimmer that if Iraq can stabilise and return to self-governance and self-defense within the next five years, then your scenario of long term strategic gains (for the West) may prove true.

    BTW–watch you language. This is a respectable outlet.

  17. Pablo, my apologies in advance for side-tracking this thread.

    Phil, I’m not sure where you’ve gotten your figures from re child mortality in Iraq nor what they are based on- particular whether those are only deaths directly attributable to the sanctions.

    However, I doubt they include the ongoing morbidity and mortality attributable to those same sanctions- a notable cause of which is the epidemic of childhood malignancy and embryopathy, whose persistence owes its origins to the sanctions (the genesis of which arguably lies in the material the US used in its shells during Gulf War I).

    You also expressed the deaths of over half a million children as mere numbers- from whose ratio you seem to suggest a reasonable provisional result. What I find staggering is that, given your previous arguments, you would dare compare deaths attributable to fanatic AQ, with those attributable to internationally sanctioned interventions- the suggestion that these are comparable is telling of the horror which the Iraq sanctions of the 90’s brought, and continue to bring to Iraq. In looking at your sentence again, I can’t help but wonder whether there is a disconnect between what you wrote and what you meant; I am incredulous that you could seek to claim those numbers as evidence of success.

    (And, don’t lay it on me that this is a retrospective analysis, because all of that information was available during the 90’s when sanctions continued to be implemented).

  18. Pablo, you realise that in 1994 the African Union didn’t exist, right?

    I think you’re referring to its predecessor, the OAU.

  19. Indeed Hugh.

    Organisation of African Unity then=African Union now. I was merely contemporising the name as part of a larger point.The irony is that I actually debated in my head about which term to use and opted for the current version because the problems of the African suprnational entity remain the same in any event–witness its paralysis visa vis Zimbabwe and Somalia today.

    Which beings up another question: Other than being (again) pedantic about one of my subsequent comments, did you have a substantive point to make about the post itself?

  20. If anything I’d say the AU is even less disposed to tolerate criticism of its members than the OAU was, although it could be argued the AU is more proactive about regional peacekeeping. Obviously there’s substantial continuity between the organisations but I’d argue the change was more than just a rebranding.

    As for your invitation to contribute to the substance of the debate, no thank you.

  21. Dylan
    I don’t accept the premise of your outrage. I got the baby figure from memory of popular reports some years ago. If you have a more accurate figure I would readily accept that
    The point that you, Pablo and so many others seem to deliberately avoid is that the invasi of Iraq exchanged one poor situation for another it seems that the only acceptable hindsight criterion for going into Iraq would be fining WMD primed to fire and immediately turning the country into a peaceful democracy.
    Reality is not like that. Insurgents fought back. But Iraq is on a much better path now than when facing an insane Hussein dynasty

  22. Saying that again in English rather than hidden text on an iphone from a pub

    The point that you, Pablo? and so many others seem to deliberately avoid is that the invasion of Iraq exchanged one poor situation for another. It seems that the only acceptable hindsight criterion for going into Iraq would be finding WMD primed to fire and then immediately turning the country into a peaceful democracy.
    Reality is not like that. Insurgents fought back. But Iraq is on a much better path now than when facing an insane Hussein dynasty

  23. Hi Pablo, what is it you’re looking for? US leaders act in their own interests, which is to do what they can to win their nations approval, that means acting in some way or other and selling their actions to their electorate. Are you searching for some objective higher morality or immorality in US foreign policy?

    You wont find it, there is no secret ingredient, what you see is what you get.

  24. Andrew W, you seriously think domestic electoral politics is the sole motivator behind US military imperialism/adventurism?


  25. Lew, obviously each US leader is an individual and has personal convictions biases and prejudices that shape their actions and their expectations of the consequences of their actions. They all believe what they do is the right thing and that given time the fruits of their efforts will earn the approval of their public.

  26. Andrew:

    Presumably you are generally refering to democratic regimes as opposed to authoritarian regimes, as the latter do not have to concern themselves with the vagaries of public opinion when it comes to foreign affairs. But even then your point is reductionist and simplisitic. Although it is true that domestic political considerations enter into the strategic calculus of foreign relations at certain points and given certain circumstances in democratic regimes, the “second image” problem (as the IR literature refers to it) is not the predominant feature of foreign policy making in most instances. That is especially true with regards to matters of war because the costs of failure are so high and public passions may distort objective judgement of the strategic realities at play.

    You also must realise that the US president (as well as all other democratic leaders) is inserted in a large institutional framework that has historical legacies, bureaucratic interests and binding agreements, commitments and relationships involved in it. This impedes the president’s (and more so a prime minister’s) ability to play to domestic politics when confronting the international stage. For every supposed “wag the dog” or “October Surprise” moment there are many more instances where leaders had to maintain continuity or act reputationally given the institutional interests and ongoing foreign relationships at play in spite of their preferred interests.

    For example, if your view were correct Obama wold have ordered the unilateral dismantling of the US nuclear arsenal because of his belief in nuclear disarmament. Jimmy Carter would have severed relations with South Korea and Saudi Arabia over human rights concerns. Ronald Reagan would have sought to extend the dissolution of the Soviet bloc into Central Asia by fomenting revolutions. Clinton would have authorised US troops to serve under UN command. Bush 41 would have removed Saddam in Gulf War 1 and Bush 43 would have bombed Iran.

    Although I am being a bit facetious with the examples my point is that what the US president or any other democratic leader may want to do given his/her ideological convictions and domestic political considerations, s/he is inserted in a larger network that constrains his/her freedom of action and range of maneuver. Thus foreign policy-making, and decisions to use force in particular, tend to be more impervious to domestic political considerations that other policy areas such as health and welfare. If anything, strategic decisions are made and then sold to the public at large rather than the other way around, which is exactly what occurred with the decision to invade Iraq (even if the strategic reasons given for the invasion, and the outcome, were flawed and counterproductive respectively).

    That does not mean that strategic decision-making devoid of domestic political considerations never happens or is logically superior to that which does account for the domestic impact of foreign policy actions. What it does mean is that the issue is more complex than you portray it to be.

  27. Pablo, the fact that US Presidents and other non autocratic leaders have to contend with other politicians (and bureaucrats) within the machinery of government who have their own ideologically based goals is so obvious I didn’t think it needed to be spelt out, it’s also irrelevant to my main point, which is the the US is not black or white, of course its leadership pursues goals that that leadership sees as being in their own interests, and a huge consideration in that is paying heed to the saleability to their public of the strategies they choose to use. Failures in foreign policy have caused the downfall and humiliation of more that one President in recent times, and successes have led to the elevation of other Leaders in the hearts of the American people.
    I’m still wondering what you’re after, are you looking for some moral label to apply to US foreign policy? Is US foreign policy selfish or altruistic?
    If that’s the question I see it as simply humans acting as evolution has programed them to their actions often shaped by the environment in which they’re operating, that might sound simplistic to you but human nature is never simple.

  28. Andrew:

    I understand what you are saying but think that we are writing at cross-purposes. My simple reason for writing the post was to wonder out loud whether the US was a war-mongering nation or not, and if so, why. You seem to attribute whatever propensity it has towards war to leadership characteristics or inclinations. My interest, as the opening paragraph suggests, is to ascertain whether a structrual imperative or something else pushes the US towards a war-mongering posture, and if so or not, why does that persist in an age of critical opinion. In that light I do not think that leadership whims or expediency suffice to explain the historical record of US foreign military intervention.

  29. Of course the US is a war mongering nation. Classical liberalism requires that a government limit its activities to protecting private property interests. War is good for increasing private profit but only, of course, if it is waged in other peoples countries. Hence the list of wars in which the US has fought abroad. Obviously there are always “good reasons” and “moral imperatives” found at the time to justify these wars but Y’know they just don’t ring true. WMD anyone??

  30. Maybe theres a sort of understanding that the prosperity of the west depends on this ongoing US military activity. In fact I think Dylan above said that There are hundreds of millions of people in Europe and East Asia who have the US to thank for their freedom and current prosperity.
    Maybe so (though I doubt it) but is freedom and prosperity for some, brought about by illigitemate violence, at the expense of countless millions of others, what we want. Not me. The US should stop talking democracy and freedom and start actually practicing it.

  31. How many examples are there through history of great economic powers that don’t rattle sabers on occasion when dealing with weaker neighbours? If the great power is expansionist, or at least outward looking, the use of military resources as a foreign policy tool is perhaps inevitable.

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