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The myth of American militarism

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AMERICA IS addicted to war – so goes the increasingly bipartisan accusation of US politics in the post-Cold War era. Critics from left and right, in the academy and in Washington, argue that policymakers have reflexively resorted to force to solve international problems that could be best addressed with non-military tools or simply not addressed at all. . America, in this narrative, has been the proverbial toddler with a hammer that sees every international crisis, every foreign challenge, as a potential nail. This militarist approach, it is alleged, produced a disastrous record of strategic failure in US interventions; it has exhausted the nation’s resources and corrupted its democracy; it has drawn America into costly and counterproductive “eternal wars” in the Middle East.

This criticism is not a marginal position. Pillars of the DC establishment, such as Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates, have lamented the “over-militarization” of US foreign policy. The last three presidents have lamented America’s propensity to intervene in the Middle East and declared that “eternal wars” must end.

The United States needs a serious debate on how, where, and whether to use force at a time when its resources are depleted. It requires a very disciplined approach to utilize military might in an era of great power rivalry. Yet the myth of American militarism is a bad analysis that leads to bad prescriptions.

This myth is a bad analysis in that it exaggerates America’s eagerness to pick up the gun, its failure rate in post-Cold War military conflicts, and the domestic backlash that the country has known. It is a bad prescription in discouraging policymakers from doing the hard intellectual work of strategy – carefully weighing the risks of action versus inaction, determining which dangers deserve a military response, weighing the costs. that America should pay to defend its interests – in favor of a simplistic approach. mantra “bring the troops home”. It’s time to seriously think about the role of force in an unruly world, which means it’s time to let go of the misconceptions and clichés that are currently distorting public debate.

The ARGUMENT that America is addicted to war basically goes as follows. During the Cold War, the reality of Soviet power exercised strategic discipline over American foreign policy, discouraging Washington from using force in promiscuity. At the end of the Cold War, however, the handcuffs were withdrawn. American policymakers were intoxicated with American military domination and the dream of democratizing the world. Pentagon planners have mistakenly convinced themselves that a high-tech “revolution in military affairs” could allow Washington to dominate the battlefield without risking many American lives. The rise of the All-Volunteer Force isolated politicians and most citizens from the costs of war, further encouraging military adventurism.

The United States thus began to view force as a weapon of first resort rather than a weapon of last resort. It found itself, in particular after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, engaged in an ever increasing number of military conflicts with an ever lower success rate. In doing so, America has attracted a whole host of evils, from strategic exhaustion to the militarization of its domestic politics. The only solution, then, is to put an end to American participation in the “eternal wars” in the Middle East and Afghanistan, to re-emphasize diplomacy and soft power and to show good greatest restraint in the world. The era of “endless wars and foreign intervention” must end, Gates wrote in 2020.

This review has become so important because the evidence supporting it seems, at first glance, so abundant. From 1960 to 1990, the United States waged a major war (in Vietnam) and a handful of smaller, shorter conflicts in the Third World. From 1991 to 2021, America waged several relatively large wars (the Persian Gulf War of 1991, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11) and a multitude of smaller conflicts in Somalia, Balkans, Iraq and Syria, and elsewhere in the greater region. Middle East. In 2011, a political scientist noted that America “has been at war for thirteen of the twenty-two years since the end of the Cold War.” Since then the United States has been waging a war somewhere.

Many of these interventions have, moreover, taken on an apparently perpetual character. The American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have turned into generational struggles. As of early 2021, US special operations forces were still active in Somalia, nearly thirty years after US troops arrived to deal with a humanitarian crisis. And there are many canonical quotes one can quote to show a seemingly militaristic mindset. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s infamous question to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell in 1993— “What’s the point of having this great army you always talk about if we can’t use ? – at the top of the list. Dig a little deeper, however, and the post-Cold War militarism thesis is much weaker than it initially appears.

FIRST CONSIDER the claim that the post-Cold War era saw unprecedented hyperactive interventionism. Yes, America has fought more frequently since the Cold War than during it. But the question is not as simple as rampant militarism.

To begin with, rational cost-benefit analysis alone could have led Washington to resort to force more often after the Cold War was over. A more globalized and interconnected world was also a world that required more active policing. The suppression of Soviet power and the collapse of communism in areas such as Eastern Europe unleashed violent demons that ultimately fell to the only remaining superpower to suppress. The decline in Cold War tensions, meanwhile, dramatically reduced the chances that any use of force could provoke a confrontation between the superpowers. And changes in military technology, as well as in medical technology, have made it possible to use force at a much lower cost in human lives: US forces have suffered fewer deaths in all of the country’s wars after 1990 than they did in the worst year of the Vietnam War.

The use of force is one of the methods used by countries to defend their interests in a competitive world. If the costs of the use of force decrease, as the international system’s sensitivity to instability increases, then even relatively cautious hegemony might find military action more attractive.

Moreover, the differences between the Cold War and the post-Cold War era are ultimately not so glaring. The United States, after all, waged many conflicts during the Cold War: the Korean and Vietnam wars, the invasions of Panama (twice) and Grenada, the occupation of the Dominican Republic, two interventions in Lebanon. , an undeclared naval war against Iran, and air strikes against Gaddafi’s Libya. The great wars of the time, in Korea and Vietnam, eclipsed post-Cold War American conflicts in terms of the sustained intensity of the fighting and the number of American lives lost. Notably, during the Cold War, the United States carried out dozens of secret, semi-secret, or limited interventions that don’t always show up in the statistics: CIA-backed coups in third world countries , proxy wars in places from central America and Laos to Angola and Afghanistan, counterinsurgencies in El Salvador and the Philippines, etc. (The United States still engages in some types of these hybrid conflicts, but often more overtly, such as in the fight against the Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa.) An honest history of the Cold War makes that the post-Cold War era seems much less of an aberration.

It is also not clear that the current era really represents a major departure from earlier eras in American history. During the thirty years between 1898 and 1928, the United States fought two great wars, the Spanish-American War and the First World War. They intervened in China during the Boxer Rebellion and in Russia during its civil war. He fought a brutal counterinsurgency in the Philippines, intervened twice in the Mexican revolution, and occupied several countries in Central America and the Caribbean. The truth may not be that America somehow escaped the shackles of post-Cold War restraint, but that it, like many great powers, has long viewed the use of force as an essential, albeit often regrettable, part of its efforts to shape a world in accordance with its interests and values.

A SECOND principle in the myth of militarism is that America has amassed a terrible failure record over the past decades because it has fought so many wars so promiscously. In fact, the performance of the United States has not been as bad as its critics claim.

The key here is to understand that America has always has had a turbulent history waging limited wars because those are the wars in which he finds it hardest to translate his massive might into decisive results. US interventions in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Mexico at the turn of the 20th century rarely left behind lasting stability. The American intervention in Russia after World War I was a confused mess. During the Cold War, America reached a bloody and disappointing dead end in Korea. The first American intervention in Lebanon, in 1958, was a comedy of errors; his second, from 1982 to 1984, was a bloody tragedy. Vietnam was the costliest and most counterproductive limited war of all, in human and strategic terms.


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