Friday, September 19, 2008

America's limits and the long war to deny them (1)

Andrew Bacevich's new book is called The Limits of Power (2008). It is published as part of the American Empire Project directed by Tom Englehardt. I see this book as in significant part a summary and condensation of a 2007 collection of essays edited by Bacevich, The Long War: A New History of U.S. National Security Policy Since World War II.

The Long War deals in some historic detail with a variety of strategic political and military issues in United States policy since the Second World War, from air war to intelligence failures, from lessons of the Vietnam and Korean wars to humanitarian intervention, and from interservice rivalries to preventive war.

Three of the essays in The Long War are particularly valuable in understanding the chronic problems of US military and foreign policies: Tami Davis Biddle on "U.S. Strategic Forces and Doctrine Since 1945", which provides a critical history of the US experience with air war; Alex Roland on "The Military-Industrial Complex: Lobby and Trope"; and, Benjamin Fordham on "Paying for Global Power: Costs and Benefits of Postwar U.S. Military Spending".

The Limits of Power focuses more on the developments of the last decade or so. But The Long War presents those more recent years in the framework of the continuity of US policy since the Second World War.


The notion has become deeply ingrained in American political culture that the US faces a world essentially full of an unending series of deadly menaces pressing upon us from many sides. This view is widely shared among: both political parties; the officer corps; the relatively small band of intellectual, political professionals and business people who are legitimate called the foreign policy elite (or "establishment"); academics and think-tankers; and, our broken-down national press corps.

Thus, we have experience int he last two decades the demise of the Soviet Union, which was the principal focus of US foreign policy antagonism during the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet union and the relatively successful immediate transition to a less threatening nuclear situation was in many respects a pacifist's dream come true.

But it was 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell. When the one-year anniversary of that historic event arrived, Old Man Bush was President and mobilizing for a new war in the Persian Gulf. He and his Defense Secretary Dick Cheney had already invaded Panama, removing Manuel Noriega from power, a former close ally now become inconvenient.

Saddam Hussein was also such a figure. When Islamic extremism intruded for the first time in a major way into the American political consciousness in 1979 with the Iranian Revolution, the Reagan administration eagerly encouraged Saddam's secular Baath government in the war it initiated against Iran in 1980. The assistance was substantial, including satellite intelligence, weapons, and even help in developing his biological weapons program. But Saddam's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 made him suddenly an enemy, leading to 1991's Gulf War to push Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.

Anna Kasten Nelson in The Long War describes this framework for those events:

Old Cold War habits were hard to break. Military intervention, covert operations, secrecy, and presidential control of foreign policy persisted. ...

These wars [Panama and the Gulf War] illustrate that the tents and attributes of the Cold War were still at hand. The tools of the national security state were not allowed to disintegrate with disuse. As the world's sole military power [sic], the United States could use new wars to extend its reach. These tools reaffirmed the ability of the president to conduct wars, overt and covert, without congressional permission. But with the monolithic enemy gone, policymakers failed to adjust their thinking. It was a new age of nationalism and ethnic struggle, a new era for the CIA.
This is not a Chomskyian picture of a relentless American imperialism driven inevitably by impersonal forces of an expansionist capitalism. Capitalism is alive and well in the European Union. But the EU shows little enthusiasm for the kind of military expansionism, threat inflation and a fear-based foreign policy that the US continued to embrace, though with far more intensity after 9/11. As Nelson writes in the quotation above, policymakers failed to adjust their thinking to post-Cold War realities.

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