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America’s Unimportant, Unserious Wars
For America, brewing risk in its financial system, economy, and the wellsprings of national strength was far greater than anything that terrorists or other global rivals could muster.
-- David Rothkopf
American soldiers spent another holiday season fighting what Foreign Affairs recently called “America’s Forgotten Wars.” Having spent my career serving in an Army at war, I would add unimportant and unserious. Though their last real peacetime holiday was 17 years ago, most Americans regard their seemingly perennial wars as an abstraction at best. The nation has ignored these wars beyond the most superficial attention and supercilious “Support the Troops” platitudes. America lacks both serious consideration about the ends America seeks in deploying its sons and daughters across the globe and the way it is achieving our stated ends.
America must make a choice between pursuing interests full or redefining national priorities. Failing do so since 9/11 has created perpetual wars that are exhausting national will, money, and prestige while eroding freedoms and domestic consensus. If America does not quickly right the ship of state, putting away a dangerous inward-looking nationalism, we will wake to find that our heritage, solvency, and capacity to shape the world gone, leaving behind a nation of debtors beholden to powers we beyond our influence.
America’s endless wars in the greater Middle East are emblematic of a failure to link policy and national interests. In Afghanistan, the decisive year still looms. Though President Ghani is a capable partner, systemic problems plague the Afghan government and much of the population remains beyond government control, while anti-Afghan forces retain safe havens in Pakistan, which remains a fickle partner at best, despite decades of American protestations (and billions in aid). The larger problem is that our stated goals in the Middle East—preventing terrorist strikes on the homeland and fostering a stable Afghanistan—overstate the capabilities of both our enemies and ourselves.
Reflecting a preference for action over effect, America seeks easy wins (kills) against terrorists while ignoring growing threats in more important regions. No matter the threat, our solution is nearly always military firepower; changing presidents has only changed means, not our way of pursuing ends. The solution remains the same: perpetual war waged from South Asia to West Africa, based on a pernicious, can-do belief that what persistently failed in the past can succeed if given sufficient (more) money and firepower. This stubbornness illustrates the dissonance inherent in how America sees itself compared to the rest of the world.
While expecting to dictate our will, culture, and prerogatives around the globe, Americans largely do not understand the wider world. As a result, the public magnifies threats, playing into the hands of our adversaries. We focus less on defining our goals and values than defeating enemy tactics. The result is unbalanced military policy and national strategy. If our wars are just limited engagements seeking limited ends, then their costs are grossly disproportionate to their gains. If, in fact, we are in a long-term, generational struggle, then our means are likewise inadequate to our ends. Either way, the nation’s policies are discordant with its wars—the result of 20 years of strategic drift. The biggest danger to America’s military is not a foreign opponent, but a fractured domestic consensus consumed by culture wars while waging a war on credit.
Gentlemen, we have run out of money. It is time to start thinking.
-- Ernest Rutherford
Ignoring this choice—making our wars small and permanent rather than serious and short—has generated a stalemate machine. We fight not so much as to win, but to avoid losing. Our actions would make sense if the cost of inaction versus. action balanced out, but they are orders of magnitude apart. Sending $100,000 missiles against $2,500 pickup trucks is not a sustainable strategy, but we remain, somehow, afraid of what President Obama called “guys in pickup trucks.” After saying ISIS was “not an existential threat,” Obama received a media drubbing for his supposed dalliance, but events have shown him prescient. ISIS was not an existential threat; the group’s extremism was its undoing. The threat to the American homeland is best approached through policing, not military action. Meanwhile America’s debt grows unchecked, accrued in one-sided wars of attrition against an enemy that has more young men willing to die than we have dollars to spend.
Like an aging lion on the savannah—still powerful and deadly but outclassed by more nimble foes—America has thrown its might around the world haphazardly since the mid-1990s. Our national leadership, no matter the party, universally failed to adapt the nation to post-Cold War realities. The results are not pretty; even acknowledging post-Cold War disorder, American engagement has generally made situations worse. From Mogadishu and Kosovo to Iraq and Yemen, American bombs seldom reaped gains exceeding costs. Now-permanent crises overshadow our initial successes because of the humanitarian and political catastrophes left in our wake.
However, amid these challenges (and failures) America cannot afford to turn inward. Revisionist powers like Russia and China seek to counter American influence, specifically limiting our trade partnerships and power projection. Now we are turning against free trade, a self-inflicted wound that will limit our economic power and global reach.
The emerging global paradigm is less Cold War great power standoff than it is 19th Century Rush for Africa. As new markets open thanks to Globalization, we must take advantage. China’s One Belt/One Road initiative exemplifies this new paradigm. Likewise, while China embraces technology and rapid development, particularly mass transit, we look backward. Rather than grasping the future however, many Americans yearn for the past, espousing a specious nationalism which, ironically, serves our adversaries’ narratives. China and Russia utilize and encourage nationalism to justify violations of international law abroad. Domestically, they use nationalism to support a spurious deal to their people, forcing them to trade human rights for economic progress. America embracing outsider roles only helps this agenda. American ethno-nationalism is facile, ignoring American history and demographics. It inhibits our strongest virtues abroad and it underwrites poor choices at home.
Now lacking any enemy to frame ourselves against we are seeing the harsh edges of a morbid civil culture that has lost faith in mainstream institutions (except the military), norms, and practices. Older, multi-cultural, unifying American norms lie trampled under the feet of a fractured individualism that serves small, selfish needs and breeds distrust. Ironically, our adversaries trust their own despotic regimes more than we trust our own. As trust collapses at home, our strength abroad flounders.
Russian interference is the 2016 election is not surprising; what is shocking however is that a foreign power could have had such impact with such a shoddy, haphazard influence campaign. The Russian success shows the underlying mistrust and cracks in the previously strong American electorate.
In many cases men have been able to see the dangers ahead. But they have surrendered to an idea that seduced them into an irrevocable disaster…by their own folly rather than misfortune.
Concurrent with a failure to develop sound policy is a Civil-Military chasm between the nation and the instruments of its militarized foreign policy. A nation that fails to take its military seriously cannot hope to take seriously the hard business of national security. An undeniable result of our Chicken Hawk military policies—whereby the public supports the military but lacks a connection to it—is the substitution of talking points and slogans for realistic policy. Americans love their military, but the public is AWOL on many critical issues. This partly reflects an increasingly political military that is, likewise, increasingly a family affair. A political and parochial military increases the likelihood of it becoming a political football.
Just two generations ago, Americans understood their military, beyond the platitudes and stereotypes seen today. In an earlier time, military service was something closer, tangible—respected surely, but not beyond a sly barb or joke. In other words, it was familiar. A familiar military is gone; most Americans today will spend their lives never knowing a service member, let alone have one in the family. Due to a combination of military parochialism, declining civic virtue, and the All-Volunteer Force, the American Military is more abstraction than reality.
Failing to address this situation generated a perpetual war with the attendant costs of a war state. Our budget exploded, our domestic strife increased, our military civil-divide is larger than ever, and we willing curtain civil rights in service of security. Wars so long should be intolerable to the national psyche, especially ones so detached from real threats.
So what should we do to alleviate this national malaise? According to National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, winning “requires a rational determination to achieve sustainable outcomes…consistent with vital interests.” American can achieve its ends through domestic tranquility, financial solvency, and increasing economic power. That Americans are turning their back on free trade and the internal institutions that secured and sustained the peace for three generations—NATO, the UN, and the World Bank —should give us pause.
Consumed with internal faction and fighting culture wars, America needs to get serious—and quickly. Difficult choices lie ahead. We cannot continue doing what we have, excusing failure because we did not drop enough bombs or spend enough money. After a pause for reflection, we must strike a balance between the poles of isolating nationalism and neo-liberal nation building. We must disabuse ourselves of a nationalism that serves our adversaries’ agenda at the expense of our own. Americans have hyperbolic expectations of permanent primacy and world leadership as their birthright. Nothing is guaranteed, particularly world power. Our founders were wiser, reminding us “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”