Whatever Congress decides to do about bombing Syria, the United States is still trapped by a historic contradiction of its own invention. Our open-ended commitment to deter or punish bad guys anywhere around the world has not led to the peaceful vision of military planners and humanitarian hawks. It leads instead to more war—longer and more ambiguous conflicts in which there will be no victory, only abstract claims about teaching lessons to wayward nations.
The American Goliath, armed with awesomely superior weaponry and described as “indispensable” by admiring scholars, seems to have forgotten an ancient truth the Greeks and Romans understood. War is about purposeful violence, not diplomacy by other means.
In history, the fundamental objective of war has always been brutally obvious: the conquest of real estate and resources, the subjugation of other peoples. For two generations, the US has gone to war claiming nobler purposes, the protection and liberation of helpless others. But, our statesmen add, the defense of world peace requires us occasionally to go to war pre-emptively. Shoot the bad guys before they can shoot us.
The American people evidently understand this now and want no part of it. They are overwhelmingly fed up with intervening in other people’s wars. Iraq and Afghanistan taught bitter lessons. The experiences told Americans to disregard whatever presidents and intelligence officials claim to see as an imminent threat. The patriotic exhortations from governing elites in Washington now disparage “isolationist” sentiments, but constituents back home simply want a more rational definition of “national self-interest.”
Goliath may be having some sort of nervous breakdown. He sounds confused and conflicted, muscle-bound and unsure of himself. The American arsenal can destroy targets and people 1,000 miles away but it now promises it won’t deploy any American soldiers to the battlefields where people are being killed. US war plans keep changing—hotter, colder, then limited or maybe not. Our moral justifications get muddied when we learn that the supposed good guys in Syria—our rebel allies—commit war crimes too (executing prisoners with a bullet to the back of the head).
Nobody knows, of course, but it is conceivable this war of confusion could evolve into a stunning historical shift—the moment when militarism and the military-industrial complex begin to lose their iron grip on US politics. The arms industry still dominates the domestic economy and will remain influential when good jobs are still scarce. In past wars, whenever Americans were sent to fight abroad, the people quickly rallied ’round the flag. Popular patriotism soars in wartime. Only after bitter losses accumulate do people begin to turn against the war and want out.
This time feels different. People generally are already antiwar. The high-minded Goliath devoted to defending global peace is now preoccupied with crippling domestic weaknesses. This is new ground for the world’s only superpower—unlike anything that has faced Washington since its triumphant role in World War II. Governing authorities, if they are wise, ought to recognize the longstanding political order is now highly vulnerable and back away before there are explosive reactions. Yet it is not easy for either the president or Congress to accept strategic retreat from the nation’s bloated ambition to run the world. Ultimately, these adjustments cannot be avoided but they can also not be achieved without producing humiliation and recrimination for the country.
Oddly enough, Americans will probably feel safer once they are liberated from the all-purpose myth of an all-powerful Goliath who is always ready to fight another war. But here is the hard part: digging out of decades of myth-making and propaganda, asking honest questions about how the country got into its peculiar dilemma and how it might get out. I tried to explain the core problem with our military strategy in a book I wrote four years ago, Come Home, America:
“The US military, despite its massive firepower and technological brilliance, has itself become the gravest threat to our peace and security. Americans may find this accusation disturbing, but I hope they will consider it seriously. Our risks and vulnerabilities around the world are magnified and multiplied because the American military has shifted from providing national defense to taking the offensive worldwide, from being a vigilant defender to being an adventurous aggressor in search of enemies.”
Go looking for enemies in the world, you are likely to find some. How did this happen? Officials still talk about “national defense” as though Americans only want to protect their homeland—to be left alone in Fortress America. But that hasn’t been US strategy for more than sixty years. After the triumphant US role in World War II, America and allies agreed they should not dismantle peace-keeping military power and allow rabid dictators to arise unchallenged. Never again. The United Nations and NATO and the Marshall Plan were intended remedies.
Rearmament seemed reasonable until it swiftly became the Cold War rivalry and nuclear arms race. Starting in Korea, both super powers underwrote or clandestinely fought scores of shadowy proxy wars for hegemony in developing countries. It was ugly business with staggering bloodshed. Millions died in the name of competing ideology.
The basic problem was this: given the nuclear threat, neither side could really afford to win. They could injure the opposition, decapitate its leadership, cause economic havoc and foment social rebellions. But the one thing neither side dared was to fight a full-out war and win total victory.
This practical legacy of stalemate led to bitter frustrations, at least on the American side, first in Korea, then Vietnam. The United States bombed the stuffings out of North Vietnam but always rejected hawkish fervor for using nukes. American conservatives like Senator Strom Thurmond sounded a bristling campaign declaration: “Why not victory?”
For many Americans, it sounded like a fair question, maybe still does for some. But the battle cry also revealed the essential trap that still binds the hands of America and other major powers. Yes, the US could totally obliterate any minor country that gives us a hard time. But, no, that would not bring peace to the world nor stability. More likely, it would produce horrendous bloodshed and perhaps a twenty-first-century version of world war.
So the United States plays peacemaker and pleads for cooperation from friendly allies and on occasion drops a few explosives here and there to demonstrate its sincerity. But, no, it doesn’t want to do a war. Or at least it doesn’t want to win the war. The US only wants to send to a message: behave or we will rough you up. If you listen to Barack Obama’s rhetoric, you can hear the contradictions. He is simultaneously asking to enforce world order and uphold moral principle, but not by conquering Syria or Iran or any other uncooperative nations. He proposes to bomb a little here and there, win their respect by degrading their capabilities, then talk. These are the new euphemisms for humanitarian war-making, and they are not very convincing.
Killing is still killing. The political debate dumps blame on Obama or Congress or the Pentagon, but the dilemma really belongs to the nation and to other nations trying to uphold principles. My notion of progress would be a rule that says no country can go to war for diplomatic purposes or to demonstrate a bargaining position. If victory is unimaginable, then maybe the war should be unlawful. Killing people to influence negotiations seems about as immoral as spraying innocent bystanders with poison gas.