War doesn’t pay, nor does imperial ambition. That should be self-evident to anyone who has paid attention to the successful trajectory of the American experience, both politically and commercially, since the Republic’s founding. It is a statement neither liberal nor conservative in orientation, and until recently it would have been accepted as a commonsense proposition by leading politicians of both political parties.
Although some leaders took us to war, they always claimed to do so reluctantly, as is reflected in the doubts expressed in their memoirs and those of their closest confidants. Lyndon Johnson, musing about the indefensibility of sacrificing even a single young American to die in Vietnam but sacrificing 59,000 of them in order to emerge victorious in his forthcoming election battle with Barry Goldwater, is all too typical. What that evidence reveals is just how intense is the political pressure to reject common sense when the specter of an enemy is raised. Those pressures have always been with us, and to the extent that they derive from national insecurities, political demagogues, economic avarice, overzealous patriotism, and religious or ideological fervor, they are a constant of the human experience in just about any given society.
The amazing thing about the American political experiment is that our system is the one most consciously designed to limit those risks of foreign military adventure, and for most of our history, it has worked out quite well. I don’t intend to minimize the expansionist, indeed rapacious conquest of our own continent, or the occasional colonial adventures abroad, as in the Philippines and other outposts from Hawaii to Alaska, but in the main, with few lapses, the public remained properly suspicious of its leaders’ intentions. The dominant assumption was the importance of avoiding foreign “entanglements,” to use Thomas Jefferson’s words of warning about the risks of intervening in the affairs of others. Indeed, that policy of nonintervention was thought by our nation’s founders to be a basic demarcation between the politics of the old and new worlds.
By nonintervention, they did not intend indifference to events in the outside world or a narrow protectionist view of trade accompanied by a fortress American military posture. Such a stance, often described as isolationism, obviously is not only out of joint with our current, highly interconnected world, but it didn’t make sense at the time of the nation’s founding, even when the distance of oceans afforded far more secure borders than today. What nonintervention meant, as was commonly understood even on the tavern bar level, was don’t go sticking your nose into other people’s business, and certainly don’t pick fights that you can’t finish. That is a posture that has nothing to do with limiting charitable concern for others beyond your borders, missionary work abroad, humanitarian aid, and everything to do with avoiding the military expeditions that bankrupted the most pretentious and at times successful of empires. Not being like those empires was a driving force in the thinking of the nation’s founders, who were in wide agreement on extreme caution as to military intervention.
That guiding idea of nonintervention — developed by the colonists in rebellion, espoused to great effect by the brilliant pamphleteer Thomas Paine, and crystallized as a national treasure in the final speech to the nation of George Washington — is as fresh and viable a construct as any of the great ideas that have guided our governance. Washington’s Farewell Address, actually a carefully considered letter to the American people crafted in close consultation with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, is one of our great treasures, but although read each year in the U.S. Senate to mark Washington’s legacy, it contains a caution largely ignored by those same senators as they gleefully approve massive spending to enable international meddling of every sort. Their failed responsibility to limit the president’s declaration of war has become a farce that as much as anything mocks Congress’ obligations as laid out in the Constitution.
Explaining why he, as our first president, followed “our true policy to steer clear of permanent Alliances, with any portion of the foreign World … Taking care always to keep ourselves, by suitable establishments, on a respectably defensive posture,” Washington shunned isolation, and instead held out a vision of peaceful international relations: “Harmony, liberal intercourse with all Nations, are recommended by policy, humanity and interest. But even our Commercial policy should hold an equal and impartial hand; neither seeking nor granting exclusive favors or preferences; consulting the natural course of things; diffusing and diversifying by gentle means the streams of commerce but forcing nothing.”
What more powerful though gentle warning could be offered against the instincts to the imperial adventures that have destroyed all great empires? Washington knew this record of imperial folly well, and he was well aware that his countrymen could fall as had others for that siren song of military power coupled with economic greed that had humbled the powers of Europe: “In offering you, my Countrymen, these counsels of an old and affectionate friend … to moderate the fury of party spirit, to warn against the mischiefs of foreign Intrigue, to guard against the Impostures of pretended patriotism …”
What happened to us as a people that those modest yet profound sentiments now seem so foreign to the tongues of our politicians and the ears of their constituents? Who, be they Democrat or Republican, among our top leaders, particularly in the aftermath of the tragedy of 9/11, dares rise to warn against the “Impostures of pretended patriotism”? Are any of them as truly devoted as was Washington to “the benign influence of good Laws under a free Government,” or indeed to the nurturing of what the founders well understood to be an ever fragile experiment in representative democracy?
For democracy to work, the scale must be kept small, and that is why the founders of the American version of that bold experiment stressed the local over the grand, leaving the majority of power to the individual and severely restricting the role of the state. To the degree that the state itself was tolerable, its power was severely curtailed, with the individual states of these United States reluctantly ceding the bare minimum of decision-making power necessary for the maintenance of public order to the new federal entity, one always to be regarded with the greatest of suspicion so widely shared and so obviously referenced in the original document that a Bill of Rights was not considered a necessity until the final draft of the Constitution.
If there is one thing that can be stated with absolute certainty as to their intentions, it is that the founders believed that the concepts of Republic and Empire represented an inevitable contradiction in terms. It is an essential caution that in the Cold War era came to be largely ignored. One reason is that our ambitions were never presented with the honesty of other imperial powers proclaiming their right to dominate others.
Our intrusions were always framed as defensive in nature, even when it meant dropping more explosives on the small country of Vietnam than had been dropped in all of World War II and leaving, according to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who initiated a good portion of the carnage, 3.4 million innocent dead in its wake. The policies were not conducted by a War Department, as had been the case during World War II, but rather a Department of Defense. So it has been with every U.S. military expedition of the past half century, efforts all conducted in the name of liberating others rather than feeding our delusions of grandeur, insecurities, and greed.
Of course, all empires have had their pretenses justifying the expansion of one nation’s influence over others in the name of religion, freedom, combating aggression, or exporting the standards of higher civilization. There are elements of all that in what we do as a nation, but the compelling rubric that protects our adventures from internal criticism, though not necessarily from abroad, is that we seek no advantage for ourselves but only what is obviously good for others. Sometimes that may be the case, but it hardly works as an explanation of our enormously contradictory and often exploitative foreign policies.
However, it does work, at least in terms of creating a base of domestic political support for policies that in many instances contravene logic and fact. As Washington warned, it is extremely difficult to unmask the “Impostures of pretended patriotism” when the nation is frightened by enemies both real and imagined. Nor could Washington have anticipated the sort of mass media society in which government propaganda becomes compelling and inconvenient truths are easily concealed behind the veil of national security requirements. What he certainly did not anticipate is the modern militarized state, in which, ever since the onset of the Cold War, a permanent war footing has been the norm. …
For these reasons, the concerns of Washington expressed in his farewell speech needed the updating provided by the parting statement of our other great general turned president, Dwight David Eisenhower. Ike’s Farewell Address provides a perfect bookend to that of Washington, for it marks a modern president’s recognition that the fears of our first president had been realized. The empire had come to replace the republic. The “military-industrial complex” that Eisenhower warned against was merely the logical extension of an imperial reach of forward military bases throughout the world and a stark American intervention into the affairs of nations on every continent.
What alarmed him most is that while the enemy communism was in his mind all too real, the system that had grown up to counter it was self-perpetuating and disconnected from the defensive tasks at hand. Eisenhower predicted exactly what has come to pass. Despite the end of the Soviet Union, and with it the rationale for the Cold War, the military-industrial complex soon found another enemy, called terrorism.
The proof that Eisenhower’s warnings were all too prescient is provided by the 2008 federal budget in which defense spending consumes $217 billion more than the total discretionary funding for all other divisions of the federal government. As Eisenhower warned:
Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peace time, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea. Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of ploughshares could, with time as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. …
The disconnect between the arsenal of the terrorist enemy and that which has been arrayed against it in the post-9/11 years more than affirms Eisenhower’s warning about the “unwarranted influence” of the military-industrial complex. The good news, however, is that it derives from a power base fraught with contradictions. As we have seen in this book, much of what is demanded by the military machine is absurdly disproportionate to the task at hand. One wonders how the lobbyists and politicians even maintain a straight face as they argue, as did Senator Lieberman, for $2.5 billion submarines to fight terrorists without even a dinghy. I don’t doubt that they will continue to make their case and that the money spent toward that end will secure political and pundit support, but it is wearing thin. So, too, the effort to manufacture crises with “rogue nations” and to continuously exaggerate the cohesion and power of the “terrorist” enemy. Nor will the Chinese- or the Russians-are-coming gambit work as both of those countries move deeper into the fray of the commercial markets rather than serving as props in the theater of war games.
The U.S. military budget is roughly equal to that of all of the rest of the world’s nations, and it is inconceivable that any hostile state could emerge in the next twenty years with the ability to match the United States in a combat zone, even if no new weapons are added to the American arsenal. It is also true that we can likely go on building unneeded weapons systems without destroying our overall economy. While the budget is almost twice as large as it was in Eisenhower’s last year in constant dollars, it is half of what it was as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product. The good news in that statistic is that it should be easier to eliminate defense-related jobs without having as much negative impact on the economy as in Eisenhower’s time.
The benefits of such a cut would be more dramatic in freeing up government funds for other purposes, including programs in health and education that would make the nation stronger. The reality is that there is no will in the United States in either party to raise taxes, and as a result, existing and new programs must compete for a fixed pool of tax dollars. The dollars that can be allocated are further limited because of mandatory expenditures, including the two largest — Social Security and Medicare — which will not be cut because of the voter resentment that would ensue. For these reasons, the full range of nonmandated programs, all those items that are wrangled over by Congress, from farm subsidies to children’s health insurance and medical research, are competing with the defense dollar, which is almost totally discretionary.
The problem is that the public will not support the military unless it feels that its activities are connected with a real threat, and as a result the military and its suppliers and other allies have a built-in need to exaggerate the threat. That is the risk of “the total influence — economic, political, even spiritual” that Eisenhower warned is “felt in every city, every state house, every office of the federal government.” It is a built-in and well-financed constituency for stressing the military option over the diplomatic one, for exaggerating the strength of the enemy rather than realistically appraising it, and for finding new wars to be fought with a sense of desperation. While it is certainly true that there are those in the military hierarchy resistant to military engagements that cannot be won — Colin Powell is an example — it is also true that warriors need wars in order to establish their relevance. So, too, the national security experts in the think tanks who do much to shape the national agenda.
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