Militarism: Loose It or Use It

Gareth Porter wrote a closely argued book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, a few years ago (2005) making the contrarian argument that it wasn’t insecurity over some domino effect imperiling the United States that got us into the Vietnam war, so much as overconfidence based on known superiority of the U.S. over the Soviet Union and China.

Mr. Porter’s point was that U.S. hegemony today continues to tempt us to further foreign adventures, namely Iraq. Ezra Klein makes the same point in reference to U.S. military spending (“Your World in Charts: ‘We’re #1’ Edition,” The American Prospect, 31 January 2008):

There may, to be sure, be an argument for reducing our expenditures on hardware and increasing them on manpower, but there’s no real argument for increasing our total expenditures. This is particularly true in light of the last few years, where the size and power of our military fueled a vast overconfidence in its capabilities, which in turn helped ease our decision to invade Iraq, thus contributing to a venture that most all security experts agree has dramatically reduced our safety.

Where your money is, there your heart will be too. Or perhaps it’s not just money that burns a hole in your pocket: military power does as well.

Actually, I really doubt these are causal factors. If there was a military buildup during the 1980s that mysteriously persisted past the end of the Cold War, it was in large part owing to the work of people like then Wyoming Representative and Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, then Director of Policy Planning Staff Paul Wolfowitz, then Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy, Richard Pearle, then head of the Ballistic Missile Threat Assessment Commission Donald Rumsfeld, as well as the rest of the usual cast of characters — the American Enterprise Institute, the Project for a New American Century, et cetera. As James Mann said in Rise of the Vulcans, one of the narratives that unites this disparate group, it is that of rebuilding the U.S. military and the country’s willingness to use it after the end of the Vietnam War — which brings us back to Mr. Porter’s point. These were people for whom no disaster could induce a measure of caution.

For this ideological coalition, the military buildup was a necessary step in a long-standing plan whereby U.S. hegemony would be preserved and extended through a series of small wars. This project was temporarily blocked by the presidency of Bill Clinton, but resumed once the actors were all brought back into office by George Bush, Jr., promotions all around.

The problem was selling the agenda to the rest of the U.S. electorate. In that regard Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf, Colin Powell (“First we are going to cut it off and then we’re going to kill it”) and CNN night vision footage of Patriot Missiles rising from Tel Aviv to meet incoming Scuds during the first Gulf War all went a long way toward reinstilling the invincibility and the righteousness of U.S. foreign interventions into the minds of your average voter. People say that everything changed after 11 September 2001, but in this regard, 11 September is the catalyst added to an ideological concoction that had been brewing for ten years.

The perfect juxtaposition of this point is when, in reference to Bosnia, Secretary of State Madeline Albright asked then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” For a minimalist like Secretary Powell the point of having “this superb military” is so that you don’t have to use it. But it’s a self-defeating proposition because its existence eventually becomes the very argument for its use. And even liberals end up getting over-excited by too much cool military hardware.