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Pro-War Dead-enders and Our Unending Wars

Andrew Bacevich has written an excellent article [1] on the need to end our ongoing “war for the Greater Middle East.” This part jumped out at me in connection with the debate over the Libyan war [2]:

A particular campaign that goes awry [bold mine-DL] like Somalia or Iraq or Libya may attract passing attention, but never the context in which that campaign was undertaken [bold mine-DL]. We can be certain that the election of 2016 will be no different.

It is almost never mentioned now, so it is easy to forget that many Libyan war supporters initially argued for intervention in order to save the “Arab Spring.” Their idea was that the U.S. and its allies could discourage other regimes from forcibly putting down protests by siding with the opposition in Libya, and that if the U.S. didn’t do this it would “signal” dictators that they could crush protests with impunity. This never made sense at the time. Other regimes would have to believe that the U.S. would consistently side with their opponents, and there was never any chance of that happening. If it sent any message to them, the intervention in Libya sent other regimes a very different message: don’t let yourself be internationally isolated like Gaddafi, and you won’t suffer his fate. Another argument for the intervention was that it would change the way the U.S. was perceived in the region for the better. That didn’t make sense, either, since Western intervention in Libya wasn’t popular in most countries there, and even if it had been it wouldn’t change the fact that the U.S. was pursuing many other policies hated by people throughout the region. It was on the foundation of shoddy arguments such as these that the case for war in Libya was built.

Bacevich is right that many critics fault specific interventions for their failings without questioning the larger assumptions about the U.S. role in the region that led to those wars. Liberal hawks will complain that the Iraq war was run incompetently (and it was), but they don’t give up on the idea of preventive war or the belief that the U.S. is entitled to attack other states more or less at will in the name of “leadership.” Neoconservatives will fault Obama for not doing more in Libya after the regime was overthrown, but it would never occur to them that toppling foreign governments by force is wrong or undesirable. There remains a broad consensus that the U.S. “leads” the world and in order to exercise that “leadership” it is free to destabilize and attack other states as it sees fit. The justifications change from country to country, but the assumptions behind them are always the same: we have the right to interfere in the affairs of other nations, our interference is benevolent and beneficial (and any bad results cannot be tied to our interference), and “failure” to interfere constitutes abdication of “leadership.”

To make matters worse, every intervention always has a die-hard group of dead-enders that will defend the rightness and success of their war no matter what results it produces. They don’t think the war they supported every really went “awry” except when it was ended “too soon.” Everyone is familiar with Iraq war dead-enders, who continue to claim to this day that the war had been “won” by the end of Bush’s second term and that it was only by withdrawing that the U.S. frittered away its “victory.” The defense of the Libyan war is somewhat different, but at its core it shares the same ideological refusal to own up to failure. In Libya, the mistake was not in taking sides in a civil war in which the U.S. had nothing at stake, but in failing to commit to an open-ended mission to stabilize the country after the regime was overthrown. Libyan war supporters don’t accept that their preferred policy backfired and harmed the country it was supposedly trying to help. That would not only require them to acknowledge that they got one of the more important foreign policy questions of the last decade badly wrong, but it would contradict one of their core assumptions about the U.S. role in the world. As far as they’re concerned, Libya is still the “model” and “good” intervention that they claimed it was five years ago, and nothing that has happened in Libya can ever prove otherwise.

That might not matter too much, but unfortunately pro-war dead-enders continue to have considerable influence in shaping our foreign policy debates on other issues. They bring the same bankrupt assumptions to debates over what the U.S. should be doing in Syria, Ukraine, Iran, and elsewhere, and they apply the same faulty judgment that led them to think regime change and taking sides in foreign civil wars was smart. They still haven’t learned anything from the failures of previous interventions (because they don’t accept that they were failures), and so keep making many of the same mistakes of analysis and prescription that they made in the past.

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17 Comments To "Pro-War Dead-enders and Our Unending Wars"

#1 Comment By Uncle Billy On April 7, 2016 @ 11:22 am

Yes, how did that regime change and “nation building” go in Libya? We we get some Arab James Madison to take over the country and install “democracy?” Did some Libyan Thomas Jefferson install all sorts of civil rights for the citizens?

Basically, in the middle east, you have a choice between thuggish generals or Islamic fanatics. There are no Thomas Jeffersons.

#2 Comment By rayray On April 7, 2016 @ 11:55 am

@Uncle Billy
I hear you on that…but for me the point is that there may be an Arab James Madison or Thomas Jefferson in the Middle East, but the US has proven to be be massively unqualified to recognize such a figure, and our meddling will likely make it more difficult, not less difficult, for such a person to rise up and get noticed.

#3 Comment By Fran Macadam On April 7, 2016 @ 12:54 pm

They’ve learned that prosperity for the military-industrial complex depends upon continuous warmaking. Those swords will never be beaten into ploughshares.

The other reasoning is simply world conquest imperial mindset.

#4 Comment By SaintRhon On April 7, 2016 @ 1:13 pm

Its not like we haven’t done nation building before. We know full well that simply killing an autocrat without anyone to maintain order or set up a government isn’t going to lead to a prosperous democracy/republic. It takes time, money, and effort and if we aren’t willing to spend any of the three then we shouldn’t start these adventures.

Also, we have to realize that we don’t exist in a vaccuum and other populations can receive news. An American intervention would be the last one I would support if I were a citizen of these nations. How could I be sure the US would allow us to have democracy. We’ve proven willing to stomp representative governments we didn’t like before. And replace them with the kind of tyrants we claim to hate.

Saddam used to be our friend (Hell the whole west loved him even when he was gassing Iranians and his own people). Mubarak was our friend. I guess the “global force for good” was on vacation when the Saudis brutally intervened in an uprising against a repressive monarchy right in front of them. Everyone can plainly see that despicable people are our best friends so long as they do what we want. Yet we somehow expect people to come out to us with open arms when we swap positions for obviously self-serving reasons.

#5 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 7, 2016 @ 1:51 pm

I was unclear how to consider the Mr. Bacevic’s article. While it may be tiresome, the strategic scenario’s under which the interventions take place matter.

I think the underlying assumption by Arab Spring protesters that the US would intervene if the governments responded with force is correct. I think the other assumption by protestors is that democracy is a cure all and easy to come by. It is niether. Instead of intelligence ops making claims about US support, they shuld point to the protestors in China and others in which change may come at a price. All over the world, including our neigbors. We have people who think the answer is to siphon US resources because the fight for change is just to hard in their own countries. Real change only occurs in when the internal shift are made by the people involved.

What seems always lurking underneath the surface of Irish Spring have been forces intent on using force against existing governments they cannot possibly overcome. And thereby justifying the forceful response by government. And lo and behold, we discover our hands deep in supporting the use of force.

When we should be using what credibility we had left after Iraq to diplomatically shift goernments at risk, we instead have used the most unpredictable means to the ends we desire — violence and violence by multiple competing groups.

I am baffled that educated individuals pushes for more chaos in a region teetering on chaos. Unless this is some strategic move to accomplish something else, it is hard to comprehend the contend.
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I do understand the argument that more would be better. The problem is that there is no justification for any of the last interventions in the first place. Th assumption here is that we could and should have invaded the states and thereby have made quick work of the matter. On the durface, Iraq, went quickly. But it’s the occupation ruired afterword, that is the trouble. Because to accomplish the overhaul they claim they want would reuire total control of the state invaded fo a considerable time. It seems that obnly Pres. Bush understood what that meant when he said occupation in Iraq would be 100 years if neccessary. Allow me to be clear — that is the voice of a realist. So I get the contend, we left too soon, but the truth is none of them have made the hnest assessment made the previous Pres. – 100 years of neccessary. politically incorrect, but to the point. My assumption is that none of these regime change adocates are willing to be as clear, for lack of public support. Further, our economy could not sustain such an intervention fettered by persistent insurgencies.
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Tax dollars for military spending is not in the end profitable, though I think you are aware of that.

#6 Comment By Kurt Gayle On April 7, 2016 @ 2:09 pm

Daniel, you wrote of the first part of the Bacevich article:

“[The] die-hard group of dead-enders…don’t think the war they supported every really went ‘awry’ except when it was ended ‘too soon.’ Everyone is familiar with Iraq war dead-enders, who continue to claim to this day that the war had been ‘won’ by the end of Bush’s second term and that it was only by withdrawing that the U.S. frittered away its ‘victory.’ The defense of the Libyan war is…failing to commit to an open-ended mission to stabilize the country after the regime was overthrown.”

Good stuff!

But you didn’t write about the second part of the Bacevich article – the part that I find deeply troubling. Bacevich writes:

“In circumstances such as this [the Greater Middle East], there are two broad ways of employing military power. The first is to wait things out… the approach the United States took during the Cold War. The second approach…aims to eliminate the problem through sustained, relentless military action…this head-on approach that the Union adopted during the Civil War.

“In the War for the Greater Middle East, the United States chose neither to contain nor to crush, instead charting a course midway in between. In effect, it chose aggravation. With politicians and generals too quick to declare victory and with the American public too quick to throw their hands up when faced with adversity, U.S. forces rarely stayed long enough to finish the job. Instead of intimidating, U.S. military efforts have annoyed, incited and generally communicated a lack of both competence and determination.”

I’m boggled on two levels: (1) With his “[the] American public [was] too quick to throw their hands up when faced with adversity, [and] U.S. forces rarely stayed long enough to finish the job” Bacevich seems to lean to the neocon explanation that we could have had victory but we not left Iraq and Libya too soon.

But then (2) Bacevich goes much further and raises this ominous specter: “To eliminate the problem through sustained, relentless military action…this head-on approach that the Union adopted during the Civil War.”

In other words, Bacevich presents the option of some version of “total war” and then leaves that option just hanging there is the air. He doesn’t critique it in any way – not at all!

Yes, I’m deeply troubled – completely boggled – by Bacevich’s article!

#7 Comment By Kurt Gayle On April 7, 2016 @ 2:13 pm

A CORRECTION IN FIRST POST:

Daniel, you wrote of the first part of the Bacevich article:

“[The] die-hard group of dead-enders…don’t think the war they supported every really went ‘awry’ except when it was ended ‘too soon.’ Everyone is familiar with Iraq war dead-enders, who continue to claim to this day that the war had been ‘won’ by the end of Bush’s second term and that it was only by withdrawing that the U.S. frittered away its ‘victory.’ The defense of the Libyan war is…failing to commit to an open-ended mission to stabilize the country after the regime was overthrown.”

Good stuff!

But you didn’t write about the second part of the Bacevich article – the part that I find deeply troubling. Bacevich writes:

“In circumstances such as this [the Greater Middle East], there are two broad ways of employing military power. The first is to wait things out… the approach the United States took during the Cold War. The second approach…aims to eliminate the problem through sustained, relentless military action…this head-on approach that the Union adopted during the Civil War.

“In the War for the Greater Middle East, the United States chose neither to contain nor to crush, instead charting a course midway in between. In effect, it chose aggravation. With politicians and generals too quick to declare victory and with the American public too quick to throw their hands up when faced with adversity, U.S. forces rarely stayed long enough to finish the job. Instead of intimidating, U.S. military efforts have annoyed, incited and generally communicated a lack of both competence and determination.”

I’m boggled on two levels: (1) With his “[the] American public [was] too quick to throw their hands up when faced with adversity, [and] U.S. forces rarely stayed long enough to finish the job” Bacevich seems to lean to the neocon explanation that we could have had victory but we left Iraq and Libya too soon.

But then (2) Bacevich goes much further and raises this ominous specter: “To eliminate the problem through sustained, relentless military action…this head-on approach that the Union adopted during the Civil War.”

In other words, Bacevich presents the option of some version of “total war” and then leaves that option just hanging there is the air. He doesn’t critique it in any way – not at all!

Yes, I’m deeply troubled – completely boggled – by Bacevich’s article!

#8 Comment By bt On April 7, 2016 @ 3:14 pm

“Tax dollars for military spending is not in the end profitable”

Profitable for whom?

#9 Comment By james On April 7, 2016 @ 3:55 pm

It seems that both the GOP and Democratic leadership have come under the spell of those who Eisenhower warned against.

Those who caution against more war are called names and ridiculed. The purpose and goals of our wars are never clearly defined—-victory is impossible since it was never even the point. The efforts are encouraged on the basis of fear and fear alone, which is supposed to calm those who wonder what we could possibly be doing without a clearly defined strategic goal.

The only consistent beneficiaries of any war efforts during the past 30 years have been the war profiteers, at the expense of everybody else. Even if we forget about the immorality of tens of thousands of innocents who were killed for no good reason—-which I for one cannot forget, the burden we have foisted upon our grandchildren should give any thinking person pause.

The only good news is that these policies have become so transparently obvious that the voters are awakening. Neither party will survive the current turmoil without major restructuring—-and with any luck, we will see new political leadership that actually serves the interests of all working men and women in America, rather than the war profiteers. Keep fingers crossed.

#10 Comment By Lee On April 7, 2016 @ 4:49 pm

Reading that last paragraph I couldn’t help but to consider the term insanity.

#11 Comment By Ken Zaretzke On April 7, 2016 @ 5:10 pm

“It seems that both the GOP and Democratic leadership have come under the spell of those who Eisenhower warned against.”

In terms of the 2016 presidential campaign, that’s one reason to say (apropos of the conservative saying that “the problem with capitalism is capitalists; the problem with socialism is socialism”): The problem with Trumpism is Trump; the problem with Cruzism–that is, Ted Cruz’s conservatism–is Cruzism.

#12 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 7, 2016 @ 6:04 pm

“Profitable for whom?”

the amount of money in the economy fro tax dollars should be measured separate from the those of private monies. Because it is government and government is people’s money that generates no real growth save that it enables some private growth financially. While huge government contracts are inevitable we would do well to remember that it tax dollars. as part of the economy it should be cushioned in the not for profit category. Sure, it’s possible for those paid to get a nice slice, but over time that slice will become increasingly smaller for the country as a whole as increase the taxes to pay for it.

If a government standown causes the market to fall or fail, that is a very negative sign about the country’ economic health.

in my view and it is not very popular. Still I do get your point. excuse my long winded whine.
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“The problem with Trumpism is Trump; the problem with Cruzism–that is, Ted Cruz’s conservatism–is Cruzism.”

No for me. The dustup surrounding both of these gentlemen has been so messy, it can be hard to get a handle on who they are in relation to what they believe or hold as policy. But if you just mean ego, well, seems running for the executive office requires an ego of self incomprehensible outside the circles of conglomerate/corporate elites. It’s concentration is a reflection of the dust meant to damage them professionally and personally. If i have to spend everyday defending myself, then chances are what one will get is a lot of self.

#13 Comment By jk On April 7, 2016 @ 6:33 pm

It’s been a hell of a year for the manufacturers of the Hellfire missile. They can’t keep up with demand!

#14 Comment By TJs of the ME On April 7, 2016 @ 9:02 pm

“Basically, in the middle east, you have a choice between thuggish generals or Islamic fanatics. There are no Thomas Jeffersons.”

Hang on there a sec. How in hell could we possibly know if there were any Thomas Jeffersons?

Instead of applying the lesson of our own revolution, standing back and “allowing” people to fight their own fights, argue their own political arguments, and make their own governing arrangements, we’re picking sides and then sending in some fat-arsed Quisling who’s been living in Falls Church the last 20 years to lead a “coalition government”.

The Quisling spends a few years ripping off his own people – and us of course – and vamooses. At which point the process starts all over again, this time with arsenals chock full of American weapons to make things more interesting.

After a few decades of that kind of existence, most of the local Thomas Jeffersons have moved to Germany or the US, gotten PhDs and settled down.

#15 Comment By sglover On April 7, 2016 @ 11:04 pm

@Kurt Gayle:

I’m boggled on two levels: (1) With his “[the] American public [was] too quick to throw their hands up when faced with adversity, [and] U.S. forces rarely stayed long enough to finish the job” Bacevich seems to lean to the neocon explanation that we could have had victory but we not left Iraq and Libya too soon.

I think that’s too literal a reading. I believe Bacevich is merely giving a nod to the notion that we probably could transform Iraq and/or Afghanistan into suburbia if we really set our minds to it. Here, “set our minds to it” means something like, Maintain garrisons of several million American infantrymen for a generation, maybe two.

If we did that, it really is plausible that we could transform those societies. Of course, the crackpot part of this crackpot realism is the notion that we would actually do that. I believe Bacevich takes it as a given that this is pure fantasy.

#16 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 8, 2016 @ 1:02 pm

I will of course stay the course here. It is possible to transform societies. I think anyone who thinks otherwise is ignoring history.

The issue that is clear in the referenced article is that the US does not have either the will or the justification for engaging such an undertaking.

But that is a separate question than whether such transformations are possible or desireable.

Which is why in my view intentional or not, the concept of total war as referenced makes sense. Whther ir was intentionally left hanging or just fell into place in that manner doesn’t really matter.

To transform as is contended by advocates of democratic regime change would take a force of will that we simply do not have — probably because the cases for war have been largely ineffectual.

#17 Comment By bacon On April 9, 2016 @ 11:30 am

In re the statement alledging a broad consensus that the US “leads” the world, I assume that means a broad consensus of American politicians and hawkish voters. I lived in Europe for years and still spend a few months a year there and in my experience Europeans think the US is important (in both positive and negative ways) and they pay attention to our politics, but they don’t consider us a “leader”. They will accept our predominance in ares like NATO as long as we keep paying the bills, which we should stop doing, but in general they go their own way.