America, Kissinger, and the Overexpansion Trap
“We will fight them over there so we do not have to face them in the United States of America,” George W. Bush said in a 2007 speech to the American Legion, in a labored defense of his disastrous foreign policy record.
This is one of the better-known and more ridiculous rationalizations for both the endless “war on terror” and for the Iraq war. The Bush administration conflated these two very different conflicts and pretended that an aggressive, illegal invasion of Iraq had something to do with defending the United States. There is absolutely no reason to think that having U.S. forces fighting in Iraq in 2003 or 2007 or 2020 has made Americans the least bit more secure, but this is the official line that we are still being fed today. Many of us could see long ago that this was false, but the toxic legacy of the myth that aggression brings security remains with us even now.
This myth that aggression brings security is certainly not unique to the U.S., but over the last several decades our government has been one of its most prominent promoters. It is the myth that has distorted our counterterrorism and counterproliferation policies for most of my lifetime, and it continues to provide fodder to advocates of preventive war against Iran, North Korea, and any other adversary that they think might possibly pose a threat in the distant future.
The practical consequences of believing this myth are overexpansion and overreach. Once you accept that your security is contingent on going on the offensive against potential threats, you begin to lose the ability to calculate costs and benefits rationally. Instead, you begin to see every nuisance as an intolerable menace. That encourages increasingly reckless and destructive policies as you lash out against anything and everything that you think might be a danger to you. As a result, you exhaust yourself, alienate your allies, and drive other states to band together to protect themselves from you. The U.S. has not quite reached that last stage, but it is heading in that direction.
Great powers fall into the trap of overexpansion again and again. These states make this costly error because they embrace myths that encourage them to fight in places that don’t matter and to make commitments that they don’t have to make. Even though expansion inflicts significant damage on the state that engages in it, advocates of aggressive policies never stop insisting that expansion brings security. The U.S. has been going through a period of overexpansion for almost twenty years, and the costs of continue to mount. At the same time, there is tremendous resistance in Washington to anything even resembling retrenchment.
Jack Snyder wrote the classic study of the myths behind great power overexpansion, Myths of Empire: Domestic Politics and International Ambition, thirty years ago. When he concluded his book, the Soviet Union still existed and he had some reason to believe that the United States had learned from its disastrous intervention in Vietnam. Snyder’s work is arguably more relevant now than it was then. However, the last thirty years of U.S. foreign policy show that he was far too optimistic about the U.S. government’s ability to learn from its past excesses and failures.
Snyder argued that “American intervention in the Vietnam War was a clear case of strategic overextension.” He added that it is “difficult to explain in terms of any Realist criteria, judging either from hindsight or from information available at the time.”
U.S. intervention in Vietnam was fueled by ideology and the misguided belief that U.S. “credibility” elsewhere would be jeopardized if the U.S. did not keep fighting there. This argument made no sense when it was made, and our allies at the time rejected it. As Snyder puts it, “American allies denied that American credibility was at stake in Vietnam, but American decision makers insisted that it was.” As usual, the people invoking “credibility” then were just looking for an excuse to legitimize their reckless policy. It is a common claim put forward by promoters of empire, and it usually doesn’t have the slightest connection to the real world.
That is why it is discouraging but also very revealing that a new study of Henry Kissinger by Barry Gewen essentially endorses Kissinger’s preposterous rationalizations for continued U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the escalation of the war into neighboring Cambodia. According to John Farrell’s review of The Inevitability of Tragedy, Gewen accepts the standard Cold War-era arguments for some of the worst policies of the Nixon administration:
He takes on the “war crimes” arraignments in chapters on Chile and Southeast Asia, concluding that the threat posed by Chilean socialism to hemispheric tranquillity generally absolved the United States for helping to foster a bloody coup, and that the Cold War necessity of preserving U.S. “credibility” and “prestige” justified Nixon’s callous choice of four more years of war in Southeast Asia.
As a general rule, the more that hawks harp on the “need” to preserve “credibility,” the weaker the argument for U.S. involvement in a conflict is. It is only when there are no obvious vital interests at stake that hawks are reduced to summoning the mystical spirits of reputation and resolve in a séance, and they do this because they have no other arguments left. The sad thing is that this mumbo-jumbo continues to hold sway in our foreign policy debates. It is used to override correct assessments of costs and benefits by pretending that the U.S. risks suffering an enormous loss if it “fails” to intervene in some strategic backwater. Yesterday, it was Vietnam, and today we hear much the same thing about Afghanistan.
There is no worse reason to fight a war than the preservation of supposed “credibility.” For one thing, fighting an unnecessary war always does more damage to a nation’s reputation and strength than avoiding it. Even if the U.S. managed to “win” such a war in a limited fashion, it would not be worth the losses incurred. There is virtually nothing more debilitating to a great power than an inability to extricate itself from a mistaken commitment. There is nothing more foolish than persisting in such a commitment when there is an opportunity to get out.
One of the themes of the new study of Kissinger is that tragedy is unavoidable in this world. That may be true as a general observation, but the terrible thing about continued U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was that it was entirely avoidable. Unfortunately, because of the ideological blinders of our leaders and the flaws of our political culture the war continued and expanded even further for many more years under Nixon. The U.S. was merely prolonging the inevitable by refusing to leave a war that it had no business fighting, and there was nothing realistic or wise about this.
When Snyder wrote Myths of Empire, he could plausibly argue that “America’s ‘imperial overstretch’ has been moderate and self-correcting,” but after almost two decades of continuous desultory warfare in Afghanistan and almost three decades of being engaged in hostilities in Iraq that verdict is no longer credible. Snyder was interested to explain both “America’s Cold War penchant for limited overexpansion and also its ability to learn from its mistakes,” but thirty years on there is no need to explain America’s ability to learn from mistakes because it has almost completely atrophied.
If we were to update Myths of Empire today, we would have to say that the elements of democratic government that were supposed to protect the United States against the failings of other systems have been waning. The “more open debate on foreign policy issues” that Snyder found in the post-Vietnam era turned out to be narrower and more closed than he supposed. He concluded that “the use of myths of empire to justify the Gulf War shows that democratic scrutiny of strategic assertions is still needed.”
What we have learned over the last thirty years is that Congress has mostly functioned as a willing rubber stamp for whatever the executive wants to do, and its scrutiny of presidential assertions about foreign threats is woefully lacking. It turns out that Snyder’s judgment that “there was no overexpansion, no disproportion between strategic costs and benefits” after the Gulf War was premature. It was not evident in 1991, but we can see now that the costs of that intervention were much higher than they seemed at the time. The U.S. embarked then on what would prove to be a three-decade entanglement in the affairs of Iraq, and each time that there was a chance of extricating ourselves from it one president after another used the myths of empire to keep our forces there indefinitely.