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Washington’s Pattern of Military Overreach

June 23rd, 2012

That’s the headline for my latest piece in The National Interest. Opening paras:

On October 1, 1950, the forces of a U.S.-led coalition, acting under the authority of a UN resolution, drove the forces of the Korean People’s Army across the 38th parallel and back into North Korea. It was the culmination of a string of stunning military victories.

From the surprise North Korean invasion in June, U.S.-led forces had taken just four months to mount an amphibious landing at Inchon, break out from defensive lines around Pusan and drive the KPA into headlong retreat.

With the North Korean forces routed, the United States was in a position to dictate the terms of peace. Instead (with Russia absent) the United States secured a UN resolution demanding the reunification of Korea. By October 19, U.S. forces had occupied Pyongyang (the first and almost certainly the only time the United States captured a communist capital). Not satisfied with this, General Douglas Macarthur pushed on rapidly. By the end of October, his forces were close to the Yalu River, marking the border with China.

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  1. Robert (not from UK)
    June 23rd, 2012 at 20:03 | #1

    A very interesting piece.

    My only regret is its failure to cite the words which Truman, in retirement, is said to have uttered about MacArthur’s downfall: “I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the President. I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a b**h, although he was, but that’s not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.”

    Does “adjunct professor at the University of Maryland, College Park” mean something like “they give me extra borrowing rights at the library and let me do the occasional lecture but they don’t pay me”? Because that’s the only meaning which “adjunct” seems to have in an academic context within Australia. I’d be interested to know if the U.S. situation is any different in that respect (it seems to be very different in many other respects).

  2. John Quiggin
    June 23rd, 2012 at 20:18 | #2

    “adjunct professor at the University of Maryland, College Park” in this context means “I have an appointment at a US university, which I can cite in my byline”

  3. Peter
    June 23rd, 2012 at 21:56 | #3

    “With the exception of the deluded Saddam Hussein, no opposing army has been willing to take on the United States in a conventional war since Korea.”

    Many would argue that the North Vietnamese Army (the People’s Army) did engage the U.S. in conventional warfare; one instance is the famous seige of Khe Sahn, and another is their occupation of Hue after the Tet Offensive.

    As I’m sure you know, a central reason for the excessive military spending in the U.S. is that it is the most politically palatable kind of welfare. We see this by all the research that gets funded via the military rather than directly; for instance, Chomsky’s early linguistics work. Similarly it reduces unemployment (statistically, at least). An unfortunate side-effect is that the pointy end of the enterprise needs to be exercised periodically, which implies more wars-of-choice in the future.

  4. Ikonoclast
    June 24th, 2012 at 07:25 | #4

    It is interesting to contrast the USA’s consistent pattern of military and strategic overstretch with China’s Sun Tzu style strategy. China will eventually defeat the USA without ever leaving its borders or fighting an offensive conventional war on foreign soil. This is other than Tibet which China appears to subdued and absorbed with little real trouble to it but with much suffering and injustice to Tibetans.

    “Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate.” – Sun Tzu.

    To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”

    The Chinese strategy is to (among other things);

    (1) concentrate global manufacturing in China and hollow out the rest of the globe;
    (2) manipulate its currency to gain advantages in terms of trade;
    (3) use travelling cadres and cyber theft to steal the knowledge of the rest of the globe;
    (4) wage cyber war rather than open war;
    (5) encourage and fund proxies to fight the US in regional wars in Asia and the M.E.;
    (6) avoid costly and strategically pointless regional wars itself;
    (7) build up a conventional and nuclear force to acheive strategic stalemate with the US;
    (8) maintain the stalemate until US systemic collapse changes the strategic equation in favour of China.

  5. Bring back Birdy at Catallaxy
    June 24th, 2012 at 08:13 | #5

    “By October 19, U.S. forces had occupied Pyongyang (the first and almost certainly the only time the United States captured a communist capital).”

    There’s also the capture of St George, the capital of Grenada, in 1983, if one counts Grenada under the New Jewel Movement as communist.

  6. June 24th, 2012 at 10:36 | #6

    When I was a little kid the decision making of adults was very mysterious and I thought they must have good reasons for what they did. But now that I’m a big kid I see that adults are idiots just like everyone else. And it used to be the case the that many intelligent people would swear blind that the Soviet Union was being run to a master plan rather than suffering from the same sort of idiotic decision making that went on in the West, but it turned out the Soviets were just as dumb as everyone else, and unfortunately for them, working in a system with fewer corrective mechanisms than our own. To me, China definitely appears to be making its plans and decisions in the same idiotic human way as everyone else. Or, they are incredible geniuses that are masters at making it appear that way. Either one, but I seriously doubt it’s the latter.

  7. Freelander
    June 24th, 2012 at 10:47 | #7

    If GHW Bush had pushed on to Bagdad he probably would have gotten his second term. The rabble love a good wr against weak opposition. At least at the start. Of course he was right not too, as junior demonstrated.

  8. Freelander
    June 24th, 2012 at 10:59 | #8

    That China is idiotic is wishful thinking. Unencumbered by western style democracy, which lately has been idiotic in the extreme, they seem to be doing pretty well.

    Don’t hold your breath for them to fall over. Let’s face it they haven’t been Communist for several years now..

  9. Bring back Birdy at Catallaxy
    June 24th, 2012 at 11:27 | #9

    I’m till in the early stages of reading up on China and for that reason I’m not going yet going to endorse all that Martin Jacques says in “When Chine Rules The World”, but one thing he says that seems to me to be intuitively reasonable is that Western observers have trouble seeing past the fact that China is a communist polity to the continuities between the present regime and the way things were done in the Chinese state under successive imperial dynasties over many centuries. One example I’d cite is that both the achievements and the crimes of Mao bear quite a strong resemblance to the achievements of the Qin dynasty in creating a unified Chinese state and that dynasty’s extreme repression of opponents, and purge of intellectuals and destruction of a wealth of ancient manuscripts in an obscurantist crusade against “subversive” ideas.

    Bear in mind, too, that China is a continent size country with great internal diversity, and a population which is still roughly half rural-dwelling, both of which have consequences for the possibility of the emergence of anything resembling Western liberal democracy in a short space of time.

  10. June 24th, 2012 at 11:46 | #10

    Let me be clear on this. Anyone who hopes a state of 1.35 billion people “falls over” either hasn’t thought things through or holds human life, or at least certain human lives, in low regard. A collapse of the Chinese state is not likely to turn out well for those living in China’s periphery and certainly wouldn’t be good for people in its centrephery. So why on earth would anyone want China to fall over? I want China to get betterer.

    And I’d want China to get betterer even if they hadn’t tied up 10 million Imperial Japanese soldiers in world war II and even if we hadn’t had decades of mutually profitable trade, tourism, personal friendships, and relations. And also shooting each other in the face with freaking plasma guns.

  11. Jim Rose
    June 24th, 2012 at 11:55 | #11

    John, you might want to look at Tom Schelling’s Arms and Influence.

    Schelling spent a lot of time on going to war as an emergent process. To quote Schelling:

    “A government never knows just how committed it is to action until the occasion when its commitment is challenged.

    Nations, like people, are continually engaged in demonstrations of resolve, tests of nerve, and explorations for understandings and misunderstandings….

    This is why there is a genuine risk of major war not from ‘accidents’ in the military machine but through a diplomatic process of commitment that is itself unpredictable”

    Getting out of a war is a process too that rests on negotiating a settlement that requires a credible chance that the peace will last, rather than just allow the other side time to regroup. That was why World War 1 was as long as it was – and had so few peace feelers.

    one state in the war would think that the opposing state’s promise not to start another war is credible only if the other state in the current war would be better off by keeping its promise not to start another war than by breaking its promise.

    A state can be tempted to start a war now in order to avoid having to deal with a stronger opponent in the future. That is why Britain and France declared war on Germany in 1939.

    Civil wars are harder to end because the power to start the fighting again is so diffuse.

    Robert Aumann made sense when he said making peace is like bargaining in a medieval bazaar. It is a slow, patient process.

  12. Bring back Birdy at Catallaxy
    June 24th, 2012 at 12:37 | #12

    In the words of a 1980s folk song:

    He knew that I
    Was about to attack him
    So he had to attack me first in self-defence
    And that’s why I knew that he
    Was about to attack me
    So I had to attack him first in self-defence.

  13. Freelander
    June 24th, 2012 at 13:36 | #13

    Self defense is becoming increasingly belligerent in the twilight of the American empire. If the US was being ruled by non idiots not beholden to their even dumber public they would wake up and recognize their time in the sun is over, and they would start treating others ad they would like to be treated. Without much better standards of international behaviour and respect for other nations, we can’t expect decent behaviour in the new order.

    Like the Soviet empire before it, the US faces the real threat of collapse and disintergration under the weight of its military economy,and failure to adjust to the realities unfolding.

    But then there may be no need to wait for that.

    Who knows how Benake will get them out of the QE death spiral he’s created.

    At least Ben has achieved one thing. He has demonstrated that a liquidity trap is not just a theory, and that, in that case monetary policy, standard or non standard or just plain crazy dangerous is ineffective.

    Maybe they will give him a bank of Sweden prize before they tar and feather him?

  14. June 24th, 2012 at 15:17 | #14

    As shown in “Korea, the Unknown War – an Illustrated History” of 1988 by Jon Halliday and Bruce Cummings, the Korean War was a continuation of a civil war which began in 1945 as a result of the American ‘liberators’ of South Korea imposing a government largely made up of former Japanese collaborators. Similar dictatorships were imposed in Greece (http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/rearvision/greek-tragedy/2921864) and Vietnam by the British and the French.

    Thanks for reminding us of the American capture of St George in 1983, “Bring back Birdy …”. The foreign minister of Grenada, who was killed on 19 October 1983 visited Australia once. I attended a meeting at which he spoke.

  15. Freelander
    June 24th, 2012 at 18:41 | #15

    Yes. The Americans are still at it. Currently they are being accused by Egyptian liberals of trying to engineer an outcome there and are being told to butt out.

    No longer so good being an American puppet. The Yanks disown them whenever convenient, as most of the middle east, central and south America have found in recent times. The shah of Iran and Marcos were the last two to experience any measure of receprocity for years of loyal service. Indeed Saddam and Ossama both got awful severence packages.

  16. rog
    June 25th, 2012 at 08:52 | #16

    At the risk of being overly simplistic Americans tend to see life as a game to be played hard and to win. War is like sport, it is a game between two sides and at the end of the game a winner is declared, both sides shake hands and plans are made for the next competition or series of matches.

    The reality is that for many war never ends it just alters from the physical combat stage to less obvious but just as damaging forms and continues for generations.

  17. Freelander
    June 25th, 2012 at 12:34 | #17

    Mission accomplished!
    USA! USA! USA!

    WHO HA…

  18. June 25th, 2012 at 13:14 | #18

    In fact war was made illegal by the Kellogg-Briand
    Pact of 1928, to which Australia is a signatory. Other signatories to
    the pact are Belgium, Canada, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, British India,
    the Irish Free State, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Poland, South Africa,
    Afghanistan, Albania, Austria, Bulgaria, China, Cuba, Denmark, Dominican
    Republic, Egypt, Estonia, Ethiopia, Finland, Guatemala, Hungary, Iceland,
    Latvia, Liberia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Peru,
    Portugal, Romania, the Soviet Union, the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and
    Slovenes (i.e Yugoslavia), Siam, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, Persia, Greece, Honduras, Chile,
    Luxembourg, Danzig, Costa Rica and Venezuela.

    Under the Kellogg-Briand pact, which is law in all of the countries listed
    above, the invasions of Libya last year, in which at least 30,000 died, the
    current NATO-sponsored terrorism against Syria, the invasions of Iraq and
    Afghanistan are all illegal and those who started those wars, including
    politicians from both of the major political parties in Australia are criminal.

    For a good overview of the Kellogg-Briand Pact, watch this Global
    Research broadcast
    by David Swanson, author of “When the World Outlawed War”
    of 2011.

  19. Freelander
    June 25th, 2012 at 13:31 | #19

    The invasion of Afghanistan was not a success and was not justified. That country didn’t attack the US anyway. If reports are to be believed the US was attacked by Al Qeada which they created in the first place as a piece of mischief. Not one of their brightest moves.

  20. June 26th, 2012 at 00:34 | #20

    Freelander wrote: “The invasion of Afghanistan … was not justified.”

    You clearly have not kept yourself informed of world events prior to the
    invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 nor have read the 9/11 Commission Report.

    Perhaps you could begin to rectify the deficit in your knowledge by looking at
    the video summary of the 9/11 Commission report at
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MmbPh3u7_q0 .

  21. PeterM
    June 26th, 2012 at 13:19 | #21

    About a year ago I read a very interesting book that attempts to explain many of the US military’s recent issues as resulting from an unhealthy fascination with the writings on a 19th century military academic. It is “The Clausewitz Delusion: How the American Army Screwed Up the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (a Way Forward)” by Steven L. Melton. He makes the point that the cause of much of the recent overstretch are attempts to strike decisive blows at the enemy’s “Centre of Gravity”. This “Centre of Gravity” does not really exist in most 2nd and 3rd world countries. Apparently, Clausewitz has only come into fashion in the US military in the last 30 years so it does not explain MacArthur’s adventures in Korea. But it give a good background into way fads seem to hijack the military planning process in the US.

  22. Freelander
    June 26th, 2012 at 14:28 | #22

    Keeping yourself informed ~ reading dubious self-serving American reports. I could spend my time better looking for WMDs in Iraq.

  23. June 26th, 2012 at 14:43 | #23

    And just to be even clearerer, just because I wish people in China all the luck in the world, or rather, a population weighted total portion of world luck, this does not mean I heart kleptocracy. Kleptocracy bad. Not being kleptocratic good.

  24. Katz
    June 27th, 2012 at 15:13 | #24

    Many nations have military “hammers” that can be used on “nails” of different sizes. The US has demonstrated its propensity to use its “hammer” with scarcely diminishing enthusiasm and with scarcely increasing competency.

    I think JQ is very insightful here:

    Another contributing factor, paradoxically, is that Americans, like most citizens of prosperous and democratic countries, are generally not enthusiastic about war as a policy. The use of military force needs a strong justification to overcome this instinctive opposition, and this typically means statements of lofty goals. When it turns out that these goals are unachievable, they can’t be abandoned without an admission that the original decision to go to war was based on mistaken premises. So ending a failed war typically requires the departure of the administration that started it.

    This is the essence of overreach — the setting of unachievable goals. The question is why US elites believe that US voters will not accept grubby, but achievable, goals. Is this mostly aproblem of perception of the elites, or is it mostly a more or less fixed feature of American popular political culture which also infects American decision makers?

    I have heard many Americans claim that Americans like to be on the side of the “good guys”. The dark history of US meddling in Latin America might contradict this claim. But on the other hand, Americans tend to regard Latinos as troublesome children and therefore unworthy of the rights and responsibilities of freedom. Whatever, US militarists have got away with numerous grubby, but achievable, operations in Latin America, without provoking protest from Americans.

    Americans have complex attitudes to different world regions. It is therefore counterproductive to formulate a simple answer to the causes of US overreach.

  25. Freelander
    June 27th, 2012 at 16:36 | #25

    The Americans are always on the side of the good guys. The guys are good simply by virtue of the Americans being on their side. When the Americans are on both sides, called hedging your bets,as they have been in Egypt, then presumably they’re all good guys.

  26. July 1st, 2012 at 13:22 | #26

    Freelander wrote:
    Keeping yourself informed ~ reading dubious self-serving American reports. I could spend my time better looking for WMDs in Iraq.

    Had it not occurred to you that, perhaps, as a consequence of the discussion of the claimed reason for the current 10 year old Afghan war has been banned on a number of web sites, my post was somewhat tongue-in-cheek?

    Have you looked to the broadcast I linked to?

  27. Freelander
    July 1st, 2012 at 17:40 | #27

    Yes. Suppression of the truth seems to be a much more successful endeavour in our ‘free’ societies than it ever has been in ”closed ‘ societies.

  28. Freelander
    July 1st, 2012 at 17:42 | #28

    Maybe that’s because we’re the good guys!

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