Contenders posture, but America is weary of war

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL October 29, 2015

Across America’s great political divide, there is an even greater consensus. Almost every candidate seeking the Republican or Democratic party’s nomination to run for president is clear about the need for America to brandish its weapons as well as its warlike intentions. By threatening the unflinching use of force, America’s power will be felt by the world, they say.

Even the Obama administration, run by a Nobel Peace Prize winner who once described war as an “expression of human folly”, has not been immune. The US defence secretary Ash Carter said on Tuesday that America will step up operations against ISIL through “direct action on the ground”.

But it is in campaign politics that American bellicosity is particularly loud. On the Republican side, there is Donald Trump’s boast that he is “a very militaristic person”; Ben Carson would not rule out military force against Russia; Carly Fiorina wants the “strongest military on the face of the planet”; and Lindsay Graham would wage war in four different countries immediately on getting to the White House. The Republican field is crowded and that is only a snapshot.

Meanwhile, the Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton said just last month that she would unhesitatingly use military force against Iran. She has also previously indicated dissatisfaction with president Barack Obama’s caution about the deployment of soldiers, or at the very least, threats to do so. It is striking that Mrs Clinton’s nearest rival, the unfashionably socialist Bernie Sanders, is the only one in this race to steadfastly oppose the use of almost any force in the current conflicts in the Middle East. He cites just one case in which he supported it: Kosovo.

Generally speaking, the firing up of militaristic rhetoric is hardly unusual in an America that has fought more than a dozen wars since it withdrew from Vietnam in 1973. As political scientist John Mearsheimer, who has written copiously on international aggression, puts it, America has been at war for a startling two out of every three years since 1989 and there is no end in sight. The professor controversially cobbled together the theory of offensive realism to explain why international aggression continued, particularly on the part of the US, even after the fall of the Soviet Union and the supposed “end of history”.

The perceived triumph of western liberal democracy over communism and fascism should have stayed some of the more overblown rhetorsic and the military adventurism. It did not and it is noteworthy that the next US president will be the third commander-in-chief to oversee the war in Afghanistan.

There are good reasons for American troops to stay on in Afghanistan, mainly related to its perilous state. But it is telling that America’s presidential hopefuls are largely unfazed that Afghanistan has become their longest war. Mr Obama recently described the drumbeat from Washington, saying that if he’d listened to his critics “who holler all the time, we’d be in like seven wars right now”.

This might be no more than a sad commentary on America’s martial reflexes when it comes to foreign policy, except for a basic truth: the American people themselves are decidedly war-weary. There is no longer the appetite, the money or the men and women to fight distant wars.

The indications are clear. In the American fiscal year that ended in September, the four armed services planned to recruit 177,000 people, but found it hard going. This led Maj Gen Jeffrey Snow, head of army recruitment, to tell The Economist it was “remarkable (that) with an American public that thinks very highly of the military … less than 1 per cent of Americans are willing and able to serve”. The Afghan and Iraq wars have taken their toll and even the director of army marketing acknowledges that most young Americans associate the army with “coming home broken, physically, mentally and emotionally”.

There also appears to be a new mood of reflectiveness within the military establishment. Learning from the Long War, a book produced and published last month by the National Defence University, offers tentative lessons based on an analysis of the costs and consequences of a decade-and-a-half of war. It compares the invasion and occupation of Iraq with the faulty “decision-making pathologies associated with Athens’ Sicilian expedition in the Peloponnesian Wars [and] the introduction of US combat troops into Vietnam in 1965”. At the strategic level, it says, “there are no cookie-cutter lessons that can be pressed on to every batch of future situational dough”, but it notes the inadequate intelligence that marked the Iraq and Afghan operations. The book also discusses the “painful process of trial and error” that guided US attempts to build indigenous police and military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan as the centrepiece of its exit strategy.

So meditative and honest a book would be remarkable at any time, let alone now, as a self-confessed “assessment of two unfinished campaigns”. It is worth noting, too, that it emerged as the result of two questions posed by Gen Martin Dempsey, who retired late last month as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff: “What were the costs and benefits of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and what were the strategic lessons of these campaigns?”

For all the combativeness of most of America’s politicians, its people seem to know the answers in their bones. Iraq and Afghanistan have graphically reminded them of Gen Sherman’s observation after the American Civil War: “Its glory is all moonshine … war is hell.”