How Perpetual War Became U.S. Ideology
Why the United States has found itself in a seemingly endless series of wars over the past two decades.
My first piece for The Atlantic, “How Perpetual War Became U.S. Ideology,” is posted.Some excerpts:
The United States has found itself in a seemingly endless series of wars over the past two decades. Despite frequent opposition by the party not controlling the presidency and often that of the American public, the foreign policy elite operates on a consensus that routinely leads to the use of military power to solve international crises.
Neoconservatives of both parties urge war to spread American ideals, seeing it as the duty of a great nation. Liberal interventionists see individuals, not states, as the key global actor and have deemed a Responsibility to Protect those in danger from their own governments, particularly when an international consensus to intervene can be forged. Traditional Realists, meanwhile, initially reject most interventions but are frequently drawn in by arguments that the national interest will be put at risk if the situation spirals out of control.
While neoconservatives and liberal interventionists have led post-Cold War U.S. foreign policymaking, traditional realists continue to dominate the academic study of security policy and even the rank-and-file military and intelligence communities. But their more ideological brethren are better positioned to win the day politically.
The Cold War not only provided a neat national grand strategy, the prospect that superpower competition could lead to global nuclear annihilation greatly restrained the inclination for adventurism. That may be why, for example, no one seriously suggested a Responsibility to Protect Ugandan innocents from the atrocities of military dictator Idi Amin; Uganda was a Soviet client state. Similarly, a U.S. invasion of Libya to affect regime change after Muammar Gaddafi’s 1980s terrorist strikes against our citizens would have been unthinkable. There was simply too much risk of escalating U.S.-Soviet tension.
Those days are gone. Bush senior proclaimed a “new world order” after the quick and decisive victory in the 1991 Gulf War, thinking that a permanent international consensus to enforce norms of decency had been forged. Though that grand vision never came to pass, the notion that the United States and its allies were now free to project power to “do good” has remained intact.
This has coincided with a still-ongoing revolution in global communications technology. With the rise of network news channels that can broadcast far-away violence into American living rooms, and more recently of social media technologies that give voice to oppressed peoples in all corners of the globe, this environment has made it much easier for advocates of humanitarian intervention to make their case.
Realist arguments about national interests, unknown risks, and post-conflict reconstruction have proven far less able to sway Americans than are television images of humans being slaughtered. Whereas the victims of Idi Amin were statistics, those dying in the Arab Spring have faces, names, and Facebook accounts.
The passionate zeal of the liberal interventionists and neoconservatives satisfies an emotional hunger that has been a part of our political system since the emotion-laden days of the Cold War, when the public first came to view U.S. foreign policy as a tool of good to be deployed against evil. Both ideologies use the language of morality and appeal to our shared humanity. People want to do something about tragedy and it’s easy to persuade them that doing the right thing will be worthwhile. Realists may often be right, but they are rarely convincing.
The heart of the argument is between those. I invite you to read it at the link.