From around 1970 until 2001, Americans generally considered the Vietnam War a mistake that should be avoided in the future. Now, in 2010, the Vietnam War was become a normal way of conducting US foreign policy, this time in the form of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, the expanding war in Pakistan and various rocket strikes, assassinations and black ops in other countries. The latter being of unknown number, even to Congress, maybe to the Pentagon and the White House, as well.
The notion that the Vietnam War has become what these days is described by the somewhat painful phrase "the new normal" occurred to me after reading the "liberal hawk" Peter Bergen's article, The Generals' VictoryNew Republic 12/16/2010. It's a propaganda puff piece providing Pollyanna projections (sorry, I couldn't resist) based on the Pentagon's latest official strategy, which of course will lead to glorious victory someday somehow, although if it doesn't it's the wimpy politicians' fault and not that of our infallible generals. It displays the same mentality, the same disdain of reality, the same groundless confidence in American ability to achieve unrealistic ends at a manageable cost, as similar puff pieces on the Vietnam War after Tet 1968.
Yet here we are. We're carrying on the war in Afghanistan and Iraq and Pakistan and though Vietnam War never happened. Or, rather, like the Vietnam War happened and we won it.
Which, sadly, is the lesson much of the officer corps and many Republican politicians and once-Democratic neoconservatives took from that war. Our military succeeded brilliantly, the revisionist case goes, but the gutless Democratic politicians in Congress spoiled the whole thing. I've discussed this revisionist theory, elaborate in books like On Strategy (1981) by Col Harry Summers, a number of times here.
The big question is how our political system failed to the point where the political and media elite largely accept something like a perpetual Vietnam War as normal policy now. Despite all the post-9/11 fearmongering and post-Cold War American triumphalism, clear majorities turned against both the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. There was an unprecedented level of active popular opposition - also reflecting majority opinion in the polls - to the invasion of Iraq in the lead-up to that war in 2002-3. And the main propaganda rollout of that war began just a year after the 9/11 attacks.
John Mearsheimer, one of the leading figures of the Realist school in foreign policy, writes in Imperial by DesignThe National Interest 12/16/2010:
The United States has been at war for a startling two out of every three years since 1989, and there is no end in sight. As anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of world events knows, countries that continuously fight wars invariably build powerful national-security bureaucracies that undermine civil liberties and make it difficult to hold leaders accountable for their behavior; and they invariably end up adopting ruthless policies normally associated with brutal dictators. The Founding Fathers understood this problem, as is clear from James Madison’s observation that “no nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” Washington’s pursuit of policies like assassination, rendition and torture over the past decade, not to mention the weakening of the rule of law at home, shows that their fears were justified.
To make matters worse, the United States is now engaged in protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that have so far cost well over a trillion dollars and resulted in around forty-seven thousand American casualties. The pain and suffering inflicted on Iraq has been enormous. Since the war began in March 2003, more than one hundred thousand Iraqi civilians have been killed, roughly 2 million Iraqis have left the country and 1.7 million more have been internally displaced. Moreover, the American military is not going to win either one of these conflicts, despite all the phony talk about how the “surge” has worked in Iraq and how a similar strategy can produce another miracle in Afghanistan. We may well be stuck in both quagmires for years to come, in fruitless pursuit of victory. [my emphasis]
Mearsheimer's list of the four major post-Cold War foreign policy strategies available to the US is inadequate. I don't know what the short label would be for a foreign policy of restrained democratic internationalism combined with a crash domestic project to develop clean energy and dramatically reduce US dependence on oil. But I don't see Mearsheimer really describing that alternative in this article.
But he's right about US foreign policy now being dominated by the strategy of global dominance. And he provides a good description of why it's an extremely problematic one. His article is also a good example of how someone can criticize real practical problems in both Democratic and Republican approaches without pretending that they are the same thing. Clinton's foreign policy, he says, was to have the US act as a "reluctant sheriff" in the world. And the Clinton Administration " at least managed to avoid any major foreign-policy disasters."
Dick Cheney's Administration, on the other hand, was not so lucky. Its approach to a global dominance policy "meant relying primarily on the unilateral use of American military force" and on "threat inflation of the highest order".
From the early days of Afghanistan onward, America was to enter the age of the “Bush Doctrine,” which was all about using the U.S. military to bring about regime change across the Muslim and Arab world. It is easy to forget now, but Iraq was supposed to be a step in the remarkably far-reaching plan to sow democracy in an area of the world where it was largely absent, thereby creating peace. President Bush put the point succinctly in early 2003 when he said, “By the resolve and purpose of America, and of our friends and allies, we will make this an age of progress and liberty. Free people will set the course of history, and free people will keep the peace of the world.”
By pursuing this extraordinary scheme to transform an entire region at the point of a gun, President Bush adopted a radical grand strategy that has no parallel in American history. It was also a dismal failure.
The Bush administration’s quest for global dominance was based on a profound misunderstanding of the threat environment facing the United States after 9/11. And the president and his advisers overestimated what military force could achieve in the modern world, in turn greatly underestimating how difficult it would be to spread democracy in the Middle East. This triumvirate of errors doomed Washington’s effort to dominate the globe, undermined American values and institutions on the home front, and threatened its position in the world. [my emphasis]
One problem with Mearsheim's analysis is that his Realist viewpoint leads him to automatically view the rising influence of China in the world as inherently a threat to American interests. Even in this essay in which he severely criticizes the neoconservatives, he explicitly praises the Cheney-Bush administration and their neoconservative cheerleaders for assuming that "the most serious challenge that the United States is likely to face in the decades ahead is dealing with a rising China."
Practical problems with China are one thing. Using China instead of The Terrorists to justify the massive military and national-security establishment we have, and using fear of China instead of fear of Islamists to justify the corrosion of democracy and human rights under the national security state, are not acceptable options.