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America’s Accidental Militarism

The United States finds wars difficult to avoid and even harder to end.
Soldiers Afghanistan

We now know why President Donald Trump authorized the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. It was not a pre-emptive measure, prompted by a specific warning of an imminent threat from Iran or its proxies. Officials have abandoned that claim, and shifted the rationale to restoring “deterrence” via overwhelming force. Contrary to explanations that focus on flawed procedure or Trump’s dysfunctional personality, we know that this was not a solo impulse. The killing was “long in the making,” authorized perhaps seven months beforehand, with the support of the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretaries of state and defense. In a nutshell, Trump ordered the killing to project toughness.

Decades of war led here accidentally. After 9/11, Washington began wars confident they would swiftly and decisively transform the greater Middle East. President George W. Bush’s crusade would not only counter the threat of rogue states, terrorists, and WMD. It would defeat an abstraction (“terrorism”), restore general deterrence, and fix the “malignancy” of the Gulf with a wave of democratic capitalism. The allure of decisive force and missionary idealism inspired the “Bush Doctrine” and its sense of triumphant finality.

These daydream beliefs underestimated the costs and resistance involved. Yet once started, the wars became hard to end. When victory proved unrealistic, the war party found other purposes for deployed forces. A set of pathologies took over. There is anxiety about reputation. There is a belief that no disorder is tolerable, making it safer to stay. And America’s “way of war” looks sustainable. Operations are funded by borrowing rather than taxation, fought by a professional military rather than the bulk of citizens, and standoff drone strikes confer the ability to bomb without suffering casualties. This mode of fighting seemingly insulates citizens, though it has real consequences.

In Afghanistan, suppressing the Taliban proved impossible. The dream of democracy was thwarted by corruption, geography, international spoilers, and a determined enemy. Though they realized victory was impossible, decision makers felt pressure to keep going. Hawks framed Afghanistan as a test of Obama’s manly honor. Unnerved by belligerent opinion in the press, he complained that the issue had been “framed around whether I have any balls.” The illogic outlined by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton prevailed, that “putting in troops wouldn’t work but you still need to put in troops.”

As the Afghanistan Papers reveal, participants who realized the difficulties met pressure to self-censor and report success. Politicians and generals kept promising “decisive” campaigns. The “War on Terror” proved strategically illiterate, but its replacement phrase—the “Long War”—was also extravagant. A decade later, hawks demand war aims that are effectively permanent: preventing a resurgence of Islamist militancy, protecting women from oppression, and an imperial notion of taming the frontier. 

In Iraq, the costs of regime change proved unacceptable. Amidst bloody chaos and unanticipated losses, the political calendar and pressure not to admit failure drove Bush to postpone withdrawal and insert more troops and money. At least there, the consensus that the war was unnecessary and unsustainable, Iraq’s demand for a departure timetable, and the temporary gains of the “surge” made a face-saving drawdown possible. Yet even Iraq’s example did not defeat militarism. Hawks still frame Obama’s withdrawal, not Bush’s invasion, as the major error. GOP enthusiasts for bombing caricature the region as only understanding force, a view Trump shares

President Obama, trying to limit America’s liability, also failed to halt conflicts. In March 2011, he claimed airstrikes in Libya would prevent a massacre, prevent a wider migration crisis, deter atrocities by other regimes, and safeguard “democratic impulses” in the region. Yet war’s tendency to enlarge resulted in regime change, the collapse of governance and the economy, mass flight, Islamist militias running amok, and ISIS gaining a foothold.

Regarding ISIS, once Washington designated it a noteworthy threat, Obama pledged to counter it to protect Americans, then enlarged the mission to a preventive war to “destroy” it. Once it was rolled back, his successor enlarged the aim again, to ensure “enduring defeat.” Given that sectarian conflict was what spawned ISIS, and that America cannot extinguish sectarianism, for hawks it will always be too soon to leave. 

As the U.S. strafed ISIS fighters in Libya, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper claimed, “We continue…to mow the lawn” to ensure the threat “doesn’t regrow, doesn’t resurge.” This terminology, with its provenance in the Israeli Defense Force, suggests a casual acceptance of regular campaigns without a concept of victory or termination, with the routine of a gardener.

Even small, temporary garrisons become commitments in search of a rationale. Installed to complete the rout of ISIS, the small force in Syria attracted a shifting set of open-ended missions: to keep ISIS defeated, counter Iranian influence, protect the Kurds from Turkey’s predations, and manage the Syrian civil war. Disproportionate complaints, that withdrawal from Syria signals a “post-American” Middle East, suggest a narrow marketplace of ideas, hostile even to limited retrenchment.

Militarist attitudes are seducing influential hawks. The growing appetite for extended military missions is widely evident. General David Petraeus, who once asked “tell me how this ends,” later called for multiple generational struggles. The notion of ending “endless war” even angered a retired senior U.S. diplomat, for whom a desire to limit conflict presages a return to the 1930s. Vice President Mike Pence, echoing a resurgent neoconservatism, even told West Point’s graduating class that it was a “virtual certainty” they would fight on a battlefield, with future wars preordained. This is the environment in which policy is made.

Trump is receptive to this wider culture. The United States bombs with increased frequency, unaccountability, and abandon. There are more troops in the region and more arms sales. Trump has not wound down the wars he inherited. He has made American power projection nakedly imperial, threatening to assault Iran’s ancient cultural sites. He came out against honoring Iraq’s request for withdrawal. He pardons war criminals. He excoriates generals who argue back, but lavishes spending on the military and reveres MacArthur and Patton. He even covets military parades. 

Trump’s centrist Democratic critics reflect the same pathologies. After Soleimani was assassinated, they limited their criticism first by ritually affirming that the Iranian general had “blood on his hands,” thereby conflating the issue of morality with the issue of prudence, and reinforced the mindset that foreign policy is an instrument for punishing the wicked. And they eagerly shifted debate towards a technocratic focus on planning, not whether to pursue the strategy that led here, but how.

This worldview comes home. Permanent war demands an empowered executive, a deferential Congress, and a docile populace. As the Senate voted in June 2019 on prohibiting funds for an unauthorized war with Iran, Senator Tom Cotton denounced colleagues for “tying the hands” of the president. To give the commander a free hand, in other words, Congress should acquiesce and obey. Similarly, Esper urges Congress, the institution that is supposed to declare war under Article I of the Constitution, to not even debate the subject, lest it “embolden” Iran. This assumes that the duty of elected representatives is to serve the military, not the other way around, leaving the commander-in-chief to launch hostilities unchecked. Implicit is a state organized, and self-censored, primarily for war, the condition U.S. statecraft is supposed to prevent.

Having arisen by accident, without the classic features of the militarism of the old world, such as conscription, heavy taxes, or garrison towns, this militarism hardly knows itself. Trump’s speech after the Soleimani assassination reflected older tropes: boasting of America’s vast military, yet claiming reluctance to use it; assuming American force always serves peace and that the belligerent spirit lies elsewhere; and asserting that killing a state official as a major act of war was to “stop a war” rather than start one. Two decades of this orthodoxy have coarsened U.S. policy. This will endure until the U.S. ceases to start wars that are hard to stop.

Patrick Porter is chair in International Security and Strategy at the University of Birmingham. All views expressed are his alone.