Home > World Events > Bacevich on the American faith in force (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

Bacevich on the American faith in force (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

February 10th, 2010

The American Conservative is a mixed bag, to put it mildly, but this piece by Andrew Bacevich (h/t Jack Strocchi) is well worth reading. Bacevich points out how rarely the faith of the American policy elite in military force has actually been rewarded with success. The key quote:

An alternative reading of our recent military past might suggest the following: first, that the political utility of force—the range of political problems where force possesses real relevance—is actually quite narrow; second, that definitive victory of the sort that yields a formal surrender ceremony at Appomattox or on the deck of an American warship tends to be a rarity; third, that ambiguous outcomes are much more probable, with those achieved at a cost far greater than even the most conscientious war planner is likely to anticipate; and fourth, that the prudent statesman therefore turns to force only as a last resort and only when the most vital national interests are at stake. Contra Kristol, force is an “instrument” in the same sense that a slot machine or a roulette wheel qualifies as an instrument.

To consider the long bloody chronicle of modern history, big wars and small ones alike, is to affirm the validity of these conclusions.

A couple of qualifications/quibbles.

First, it’s important to remember that, for a very long time, America’s standard experience of war was that of near-continuous advance towards victory. For everyone else involved, the Great War involved years of pointless slaughter, with thousands dying for every yard of mud gained or lost. The US entered late and its forces immediately turned the tide of battle. World War II was similar – by mid-1942, a few months after Pearl Harbor the Allies were advancing on every front.

Paradoxically, as these two cases indicate, the US faith in force reflects a long history of aversion to foreign wars, going back to the Founders. The US had its share of bellicose nationalists, but compared to nearly all previous states, where success in war with other states was taken as the primary measure of greatness, the US in the 19th century (at least up to about 1890) stands out for its pacific nature. But on the relatively rare occasions when the US went to war, it usually did so under (perceived and sometimes actual) conditions of necessity and with the unqualified commitment that entailed.[1]

In the second half of the 20th century, as Europe finally tired and sickened of war, the US went in the opposite direction, taking military power to be a standard instrument of national policy. Sixty years of failure have not shaken this new faith in force.

Bacevich points to a series of losses, or draws where the losses on all sides outweighed the gains – Korea, Vietnam, and both Iraq wars being the biggest.

Adopting criteria put forward by Max Boot, Bacevich counts only three unambiguous military victories for the US in the past 60 years, all over absurdly weak opponents: Johnson’s long forgotten invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965, and Reagan in Grenada and Panama.

However, he wrongly dismisses Clinton’s interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, which (if you disregard long term implications) were clear successes. No significant cost in blood or treasure to the US, desirable political outcomes and humanitarian benefits sufficient that the inevitable civilian casualties were largely disregarded, as was the breach of international law involved in bypassing the Security Council on Kosovo.

These successful interventions (mostly opposed by neocons at the time) revived faith in military intervention that had been lost in Vietnam, and whose revival had been delayed by the disasters in Beirut and Mogadishu. Oddly enough, though, the lessons drawn by Colin Powell (use military power as a last resort, with overwhelming odds, well-defined objectives and clear conditions for a rapid exit) were ignored. Instead the lessons drawn were to ignore or circumvent international law, to count on easy victories and to work out the objectives once the victories had been won.

The results have been seen in Afghanistan, Iraq and through covert action and proxies, throughout the Middle East and beyond. Yet none of this has done much to dent the faith of the Foreign Policy Community, or the American elite in general, in the efficacy of military force. The public seems less enthusiastic, but there are few places were public opinion counts for less than in US foreign policy.

fn1. Some qualifications on this are obviously needed. First, the claim is not absolute but relative. The comparison is with attitudes in the US post-WWII, and with the European powers which waged imperial wars of conquest all around the world at the same time as fighting regular wars with each other, and Second, this relatively pacific attitude didn’t extend to the Native American population. Third, from around 1890 onwards, the US became more imperialist, particularly in South America.

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  1. jquiggin
    February 15th, 2010 at 05:35 | #1

    I’m calling a halt to this thread. Please stop this, everyone.

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