Just Say ‘No’ to Nation Building
Jim Henley, responding to a Brian Doherty piece commemorating the 100th anniversary of Robert Heinlein’s birth and the “rough-hewn anti-government but pro-defense message” of his work, observes that, “The problem with the H-G fusion of militarism and limited government is that the former always ends up eating the latter.”
That’s likely right, in that even the most noble wars are incredibly expensive and require secrecy and a collective consciousness. I’m sure Jim would agree that wars are occasionally worth that sacrifice. An attack on the homeland is the most obvious case but there are others, such as World War II, when most are willing to make that trade-off.
The problem, then, is with a permanent war footing. Unfortunately, that has more-or-less been the norm the last several decades. World War II’s postwar division of Europe into zones quickly led to the Cold War with its numerous standoffs, proxy wars, and spin-offs large and small, including Vietnam and Korea. The post-Cold War peace dividend largely failed to emerge, as a dozen or more peacekeeping, humanitarian intervention, warlord chasing, endeavors with optimistic code names like Uphold Democracy and Restore Hope followed.
A president who campaigned on the premise of No More Nation Building quickly became the second incarnation of Woodrow Wilson, wanting to bring terrorists to justice while simultaneously spreading democracy throughout the Middle East, thus bringing to fruition his father’s vision of a New World Order.
In the back-and-forth in the comments section of a recent post, I noted that,
[P]residents from both parties routinely see the use of force as being in the U.S. national interest despite the situation at hand often not being amenable to military solution. At some point, either the public is going to have to insist that not happen or the military is going to have to adapt to that reality.
Jim, naturally, prefers the former.
The other path leads to national ruin. It may take a long time; it may take a short time; but hubris always precedes a fall, and the assumption that the US should properly be involved in some war some where “routinely” is hubris straight up. It is immoral, imprudent and financially calamitous.
I’m inclined to agree. Indeed, with the notable exceptions of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, that’s been my position on all of our post-Desert Storm endeavors big and small. Afghanistan was never controversial, given that it was the classic case of responding to an attack on the homeland. It took months of convincing to get me on board the Iraq bandwagon, and then only for reasons unrelated to nation-building.
Unfortunately, as the rest of Jim’s post makes clear, there is a longstanding, bipartisan consensus that will seemingly lead to us continuing to get into these messes. Despite the overwhelming public disapproval of the ongoing war in Iraq and the seeming movement of a large part of the Democratic base back into a position of reflexive anti-militarism, I suspect that we’ll continue to insert ourselves on a routine basis into messes halfway around the world.
My grad school mentor, Don Snow, attributed this tendency to what he termed the “Do Something Syndrome.” Bad things are happening right there on our television screens and, by golly, we’re the richest, most powerful, most decent country in all creation. We put a man on the moon! Surely, we have to do something!
Given that we have a large standing military that can quickly be deployed by the mere command of the president, that something almost always involves troops. That militaries in general and our military in particular is not the best tool for building a nation is both not widely understood by policy makers and rendered moot by the fact that there’s nobody else to send, really.
So, while I agree that we need to change our political culture so that we aren’t sending the troops off on a routine basis, it seems to me that we have to recognize that this is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Thus, adapting the military to best deal with that reality strikes me as the best likely option.