- The American Conservative - https://www.theamericanconservative.com -

No, the “Long War” Didn’t Fail Because of American Democracy

I recently received a query from several mid-career national security professionals—a mix of military and civilians—currently enrolled in a graduate level program at a prominent American university. As part of their course of study, they are engaged in a collaborative research project that aims to answer this question: “Is America capable of constructing and executing a national security strategy for the Long War that is durable, coherent, affordable, multi-generational and achievable?”  

In national security circles, as I understand it, the phrase “Long War” has supplanted “Global War on Terrorism” as the umbrella term encompassing U.S. military activities everywhere from West Africa to the Southern Philippines. It is shorthand for “war against violent Islamists wherever they happen to be.”

The students define their research problem this way: “American democracy [emphasis added] is not suited to support the current Long War strategy that demands consistent goals, ways, and means to achieve success.”

I was taken aback by their formulation. Is that how it looks to those on the inside? The chief obstacle to formulating an effective strategy is American democracy?

Here is how I responded:

I’ve read your paper. My sense is that you are proposing to solve a problem that does not exist. The national security apparatus has already devised a way of waging an open-ended “Long War.” Note the absence of any antiwar party and the lack of any large-scale public protest to the war’s perpetuation. The war has continued for more than 16 years (longer if you include Clinton’s anti-terrorism efforts) and there is nothing to prevent it from continuing for years to come. The American public is almost entirely compliant.  

What accounts for this compliance?

Policymakers have learned to keep U.S. casualties low and avoid substantive discussions of the war’s fiscal implications. Every once in a while, the president appoints a new field commander in Afghanistan or elsewhere who claims to have a new idea—with the military clock thereby starting over. Similarly, every four or eight years, we elect a new commander-in-chief who claims to have a new idea—Trump’s was to “win or get out”—so the political clock also starts over.  


You write that “American democracy is not suited to support the current Long War.” The facts say otherwise.

From my perspective the actual problem is this: the national security apparatus is incapable of devising a way to conclude the Long War successfully. “American democracy” has not failed. The people charged with formulating and implementing policy have.

We live in strange times. Not least among the factors contributing to that strangeness is that the Long War gets longer by the day, even as both policy elites and the general public take its continuation for granted. Perhaps it’s time to rechristen it as the Everlasting War.

There is a profound need to inquire how we got into this mess. Blaming American democracy does not offer a promising place to start.

Andrew Bacevich is TAC’s writer-at-large.

30 Comments (Open | Close)

30 Comments To "No, the “Long War” Didn’t Fail Because of American Democracy"

#1 Comment By Fran Macadam On December 3, 2017 @ 11:45 pm

The other reality is that “Islamic Terrorism” is simply a fig leaf, a convenient excuse to put up a bogeyman everyone can get behind hating.

But we find, even as the disgraced Gen. Flynn pointed in the past, that our government has been complicit in funding and arming “Islamic Terrorists” in pursuit of policy aims for regime change or undermining rival powers.

The “Forever War” is a necessary component of expansion of Empire and maintenance of hegemony. It has nothing to do with democratic accountability either for those abroad ruled through satrapy or for those of us at home who aren’t ensconced within the Deep State and its elite sponsors.

It is also of outsized financial importance in a domestic economy outsourced and offshored, both for the enormous profits that have become an unstoppable object, sheer inertia of a gigantic war system. Moreover, its stability is maintained by the full faith and military support of the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency – it’s notable that the non-Islamic enemies – Russia, China – must continue to be corralled to this fiat currency, by force or threat of force if necessary.

It’s an increasingly desperate gambit, however, and unsustainable. At some point, financial realities threaten, when the mass of ordinary folks rebel when the illusion that the wars are in their interest can no longer be maintained. Hence, their rebellion of voting for Trump, which sorts of Black Swan events it is hoped by elites to eliminate by some sort of Deep State coup with the excuse of Russian villains having hijacked democracy – instead of themselves.

#2 Comment By LouisM On December 4, 2017 @ 2:23 am

The long war seems to have completely missed the target. Infact, I don’t even think the long war hits the dart board.

The long war assumes a military threat for which America must lead and defend itself and its allies. An expensive task for a nation whose infrastructure is falling apart but who has military bases in nearly every country on earth. The long war coalesced with 911 when Bush II took us into Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan then Obama/Clinton took us into Libya.

Forget about the outside world for a minute. As we know from many examples in history, nations fall from the rot within. War or economic crash is merely the total failure of that rot. Rot that we are hiding by focusing on foreign threats.

Take the rose colored glasses off and take an objective look at domestic rot.

-We have had a war by feminists on men, marriage and the family for 50 years, enshrined it in laws then biased it in education, in the workplace and the judicial system.

-Our entertainment media glamorizes nihilism, self destructive and anti-social behavior, political correctness, identarianism and victimization. To quote Yul Brenner Women can win by acting like and competing with a man or if that fails then women can win by being the traditional weak hair twirling passive woman dependent on the kindness of strangers.

-Our educational system and even our sports teams are anti-American and unpatriotic. In education children are taught there are over 50 genders and that its ok for men to follow girls into the bathroom, locker room, pool, Jacuzzi, hot tub, etc. If that man identifies as a woman. I look back on my youth and I would have been traumatized if I saw a man without his genitalia. I could imagine young girls. School prayer and the pledge of allegiance are gone. America is reduced from a brilliant light emerging from the age of reason to a slave holding nation built on genocide, racism, bigotry and prejudice.

-Antifa and BAMN claim to be non-violent and fight fascism but they themselves are violent fascists. They are, if unconstrained, the modern day equivalents of the genocidal utopian ideologues of Russian Bolshevism and Maoist Cultural Revolution. These groups would not hesitate to murder millions if it created their utopian version.

-Unrestrained immigration is another which never made the public consciousness under any other presidential administration. Everyone covered up the fact that our country had violent drug cartels from South America (Columbia), Central America (El Salvador) and now our nation has Islamic terrorist training camps (not just in 1 state but in 10-20 states).

Foreign nations understand 1 things: What can they get for free from the US (foreign aid, military aid, job transfers, access to US market, what wars can they get the US to fight on their behalf, etc). If our nation truly felt threatened by China or some other export dependent nation then put a tariff or VAT tax on imports. Same for Canada and Europe who also have export driven economies. Canada would collapse like a soufflé particularly with a unic like Trudeau. Germany’s leadership of the EU could be ended in weeks if their export market to the US were restricted.

North Korea and Iran are the exceptions to the rule but even then there are allies that are far more threatened than the US and rather than sitting back and criticizing…these nations need to recognize their self interest to survive and take the lead. Japan doesn’t want to be a victim of another nuclear holocaust so they have an existential reason to take a more pronounced role with the US and South Korea and China. Israel and Saudi Arabia to name a few are far more threatened by Iran than the US and they also need to take a leadership role. Personal note: The saddest thing about Iran is that Iranians are not arabs and will tell you so. They are Persians who were conquered and forcefully converted to Islam by Arabs. The govt in Iran may be radical Shiite Islam but many will tell you Arabic is not their language or their ethnicity, Islam is not their religion. We are in essence fighting a govt and the religio/political ideology of a conquered people many of whom don’t want anything to do with those who conquered them centuries ago.

#3 Comment By GregR On December 4, 2017 @ 2:49 am

I am not sure that I agree with you. Though I don’t think in the long run the differences really matters.

The real problem is that you can never win a war against an idiology with bombs. At least not short of genocide. Ever single bomb we drop and person we kill creates new fighter, who morph over time from being islamic extremists to just wanting to get back at the US for blowing up their father/son/daughter/whoever.

This makes military engagement ultimately self defeating, or at least highly inefficient. You simply cannot kill people enough to make them not want to kill you.

The only way to actually fight an ideology is long term, try and shift the culture. But to do that means real investment, an honest assessment of our past bad acts, and making apologies where and when they are necessary. I do not think that our political institutions are capable of doing this, nor the people of hearing it as anything other than defeatist.

America is a warlike country that really does see the solution to almost every problem as a bigger bomb. Without recognizing that the last bombs are what caused this mess in the first place.

#4 Comment By Grumpy Old Man On December 4, 2017 @ 7:31 am

“American democracy” has become a ritualized farce. Throw the rascals out and elect new rascals, even as the Deep State just chugs along.

#5 Comment By J Harlan On December 4, 2017 @ 8:00 am

A small part of the problem is the fact that “mid level national security professionals” are paid to attend such programs. “Solving the problem” is not in the interest of anyone involved with the possible exception of the POTUS (which party he represents so far has been irrelevant)who can really do nothing given the bureaucratic forces arrayed against him.

#6 Comment By Donald On December 4, 2017 @ 8:36 am

I agree with your criticism of the paper, but there is a non sequitur at the end. The fact that the public can be persuaded to tolerate the Forever War is a failure of American Democracy. It is a fundamental problem. If voters aren’t hurt or don’t perceive any hurt, they don’t care. Some people benefit from these wars, so there is every incentive to continue and no incentive to stop. And this applies to some degree to militarist politicians in both parties.

#7 Comment By Fred Bowman On December 4, 2017 @ 8:48 am

As long as war is profitable for quite a number of businesses associated with the MIC it will continue without any thoughts to ending it. Of course the big problem is, the amount of money necessary to rebuilt America’s infrastructure is substantially reduce as it has become subservient to the wants and needs of the warmongers.

#8 Comment By JoeM_SausalitoCA On December 4, 2017 @ 8:55 am

One is tempted to say that the war was never meant to be won. It was meant to be forever.

#9 Comment By SteveM On December 4, 2017 @ 10:19 am

“American democracy [emphasis added] is not suited to support the current Long War strategy that demands consistent goals, ways, and means to achieve success”…There is a profound need to inquire how we got into this mess. Blaming American democracy does not offer a promising place to start.

Professor Bacevich, consider the demographic profile of those students. Either uniformed military and/or members of the National Security Nomenklatura, they are steeped in the now normative philosophy/theology of military exceptionalism. Democracy is something that gets in the way, keeping the Übermenschen of the Security State from doing their jobs of rescuing the planet in perpetuity.

Moreover, they prosaically subscribe to the myth because it pays.

And re: “Democracy”. If the U.S. is a genuine representative democracy, does flushing TRILLIONS down the toilet in Global Cop shenanigans while the country rots at home actually represent the preferences of the voters/taxpayers?

#10 Comment By Johann On December 4, 2017 @ 10:31 am

The long war will eventually fail due to economics. Unfortunately, it will probably be heads in the sand until the empire experiences a catastrophic economic collapse.

#11 Comment By Joe the Plutocrat On December 4, 2017 @ 10:42 am

“American democracy [emphasis added] is not suited to support the current Long War strategy that demands consistent goals, ways, and means to achieve success.” Perhaps, but American Oligarchy/Plutocracy most certainly is. In fact, “war” (long/short, overt/covert) is not a strategy, it is a tactic employed as strategy/policy. “Success” on the battlefield is not the same as success on the balance sheet/Wall Street. Look no further than the recent Tax Reform debacle. More debt fueled spending, with programs cut across the board. Ironically, if the DoD truly wants to “defend” the US against all enemies foreign and domestic, it would do well to wean itself from pork and waste, and target corruption at home.

#12 Comment By john On December 4, 2017 @ 10:44 am

Is the implication that in order to win this war, first we have to “deal” with the Democracy problem?

#13 Comment By Dan Green On December 4, 2017 @ 11:45 am

I am a realist. Realism teaches world powers need 3 components. Large Population, a very powerful military and as big a GDP as one can muster. Enter the US, China and Russia. Each has a model allowing each to start wars when it serves their interest.

#14 Comment By Kent On December 4, 2017 @ 12:16 pm

“The American public is almost entirely compliant.”

In the last election, my Republican congressional representative ran unopposed by either a fellow Republican or Democrat. He was decidedly pro-Long War.

I am not compliant. I just have no choice about representation in Congress. America is not a democracy to begin with.

#15 Comment By bacon On December 4, 2017 @ 12:48 pm

Colonel Bacevich, you and I fought in the last war in which battlefield information, casualty figures, and political decisions were freely available to the public. The government and particularly the Department of Defense learned a lesson from that experience. Classify everything, keep quiet about what is being done and where, and when possible only embed friendly journalists. Better yet, keep all journalists at a distance. You know all that much better than I. And in the Viet Nam era there was no public internet where one can get an interpretation of any event tailored to one’s preferred view. No wonder we’re in such a mess.

#16 Comment By b. On December 4, 2017 @ 12:53 pm

‘It is shorthand for “war against violent Islamists wherever they happen to be.”’

No, it is shorthand for “war anywhere where violent Islamists could serve as a pretext.”

Yemen, intervention in Syria before IS ever emergend, certainly Iraq are good examples.

It is also shorthand for a policy that accepts or even facilitates the emergence of violent Islamists where few exist.

Libya is a good example, as are Syria and Iraq.

It should also be noted that “Islamist” is a bit of a convenience here, given that the policy is shorthand for a focus on Shi’ite “violent extremists”, such as the democratically elected, internationally recognized government of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

“The chief obstacle to formulating an effective strategy is American democracy?”

No, but it be a chief obstacle against prosecuting undeclared, unconstitutional, illegal aggressive wars of choice “at all cost”. Democracy in the US has not proven to be much of an impediment to profits and careers, and neither have the checks and balances of the US Constitution, but in a military that cannot tell preventive and preemptive war apart, even if their oath depended on it, and that is steeped in authoritarian impudence abroad, cannot help but see even the possibility of domestic “opposition-related program activities” as a threat to be extinguished with extreme prejudice – force protection uber alles.

#17 Comment By March Upcountry On December 4, 2017 @ 1:52 pm

I’d like to send your “national security professionals” back to the countries of their birth.

How do I know (sight unseen) that they’re all first or second generation immigrants? Because no real American would write a paper based on such disgusting assumptions in order to accomplish such a disgusting purpose. We’ve got too many immigrants and foreigners running around loose in our national security apparatus. It’s past time they were kicked out.

#18 Comment By Brant On December 4, 2017 @ 2:16 pm

We don’t have an articulated end-state that we’re trying to achieve, so how they hell are we supposed to succeed at something when we’ve never defined success?

“Hey let’s have a race!”
“OK, how far?”
“Just start running, and we’ll let you know when you get there. And for good measure, every couple of miles, we’re going to have you change your stride so it feels like you’re getting closer to the end.”

#19 Comment By FreeOregon On December 4, 2017 @ 3:08 pm

Why do we tolerate incompetent leadership? If they are no smarter than we are do we need them?

#20 Comment By sherparick On December 4, 2017 @ 3:08 pm

If America was still a democracy, rather than a Kakistocracy, this would be a problem. But as it is a Government that now “rewards the man who saves and invests wisely” rather than spend his or her money or whiskey, women, and movies” (Senator Grassely), most people in the working class are only fit to be cannon fodder. This “Long War” is very lucrative to the corporations. [1]

Also interesting reading the comments section and instinct to blame “foreigners” and immigrants for the fault that is “in ourselves.”

#21 Comment By Dave Skerry On December 4, 2017 @ 3:54 pm

What democracy ? You mean plutocracy.Can never have democracy if it’s for sale. We need government (taxpayers) funding of elections if we want to be a real democracy.

#22 Comment By Buzz Baldrin On December 4, 2017 @ 4:17 pm

The long war is evidence (not conclusive) that our government, schools, churches, news providers and, perhaps, our culture stink.

#23 Comment By Anne Mendoza On December 5, 2017 @ 2:29 am

I wonder to what degree these forever wars are the result of a complete incapacity by the U.S. to admit that it has ever lost a war. We have lost the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. But if these wars never end, has the U.S. really lost them even if the U.S. is not winning them? Crazy.

#24 Comment By Dieter Heymann On December 5, 2017 @ 8:47 am

‘Forever Wars’ are not new in history. A textbook example is Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries. An 80-year lasting war against the United Provinces of the Netherlands. Repeated wars against the Ottoman empire. Messing in Italy. The Armada against England. Wars against the indigenous people of the Americas. Spain emerged from this as a second-rate, impoverished European power. The United Provinces had become an independent state in 1648. The Ottoman empire was back at Vienna in 1683 even though it had lost the sea battle at Lepanto. The Dutch and Brits were swiftly becoming the masters of the oceans and colonists in North America, Africa, and Asia.
Sic transit Gloria Espana!

#25 Comment By Steve On December 5, 2017 @ 2:13 pm

So, I’m riding in a taxi from the airport in Asuncion, Paraguay to my hotel and the taxi driver asked my where I was from.
“United States”, I told him.
He asked why I was in Paraguay.
“To apply for Permanent Residency.”
He asked why an american would want to live in Paraguay.
“In America, we drink the blood and tears of the whole world”, I replied.
He looked surprised, then he clapped me on the shoulder and called me his brother.
That’s when I KNEW that I was doing the right thing. That really happened.
Don’t be in the empire when the petrodollar is replaced.

#26 Comment By GEDDES On December 5, 2017 @ 7:00 pm

Please bring Phil Giraldi back

#27 Comment By Dave Sullivan On December 5, 2017 @ 7:26 pm

Seems to me that the US military is simply destroying any Middle Eastern country which has a chance to develop to modernity. Organized crime calls it kneecapping. In this perspective, the long war is not failing at all. The ones still standing are just further down the list. Without paper ballots, democracy is toast.

#28 Comment By Consider the Following On December 7, 2017 @ 9:45 am

Sam Francis in his book “Beautiful Losers” covered this exact point. Democratic societies can’t effectively do foreign policy because they can change their minds, and often do, periodically. In order to have an effective foreign policy you need to have a grand strategy that lasts for a long time.

#29 Comment By JonF On December 7, 2017 @ 4:57 pm

Re: As we know from many examples in history, nations fall from the rot within.

Really? What would those examples be? Please don’t say Rome, unless you think, along with some pagan advocates in late antiquity, and of course Gibbon, that the transition of Pagan Rome to Christian Rome is an example of internal rot.
In actual fact nations fall because they overpowered by some external force or in some cases because they succumb to apocalyptic natural disasters.

Re: Unfortunately, it will probably be heads in the sand until the empire experiences a catastrophic economic collapse.

Why “catastrophic”? More likely (from historical precedents) a long slow stagnation that leaves the nation gradually impoverished and enervated.

#30 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 13, 2017 @ 10:00 am

“In actual fact nations fall because they overpowered by some external force or in some cases because they succumb to apocalyptic natural disasters.”

Caveat —

but the internal choices they made ill prepared them from those outside threats and one could even say, those internal choices farrowed the soil making way for the inevitable weeds fertile soil.