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On Avoiding Future Military Interventions

Michael Gerson assumes [1] that a hyperactive foreign policy is unavoidable for the U.S.:

Elements on the right and left apparently believe that reducing military resources will constrain future interventions. This is perhaps true of a European country. For America, with a set of unavoidable global interests, it doesn’t work this way. Constrained resources generally mean that interventions, when necessary, come at a later time, under less favorable conditions, from a weaker position [bold mine-DL].

In fact, I doubt that reduced resources will constrain future interventions. The decision to intervene in other countries’ conflicts and internal affairs is not necessarily prevented by a relative lack of resources. Prior to the hyperactive 1990s, the U.S. significantly reduced military spending at the end of the Cold War. That didn’t prevent numerous foreign interventions. There was not much meaningful political opposition to interventions in the ’90s. U.S. military spending is far higher than it was in real terms than at any time during the ’90s, so it would be wishful thinking to assume that minimal reductions in current excessive levels of spending would significantly curb foreign policy activism. What Gerson doesn’t address here is that the military interventions of the last twenty years have been almost entirely optional. The “unavoidable global interests” that supposedly compel U.S. intervention are not unavoidable at all, because in many cases U.S. interests have never been at stake in the first place. Military interventions in the post-Cold War period have rarely if ever been necessary, and there is no reason to expect future interventions to be any less optional than they are now. The question is whether Americans will listen to fear-mongering from the likes of Gerson or choose to ignore it instead.

If there are more constraints on military intervention now than there used to be, Gerson and like-minded ideologues have helped bring this about by agitating for one unnecessary war after another. The only constraints on future interventions that have any chance of enduring over time are political ones that are enforced by deep public skepticism about the desirability of new wars. The military budget should continue to be reduced because there is no justification for an annual base budget of more than $500 billion, but there should be no illusions that this is what will force the U.S. to mind its own business more often. The U.S. will intervene less often and for shorter periods of time so long as there are stronger political incentives to avoid new wars. If those incentives don’t exist, it almost doesn’t matter how large or small the military budget is.

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7 Comments To "On Avoiding Future Military Interventions"

#1 Comment By Fran Macadam On March 19, 2013 @ 1:58 am

This is Gerson’s Dr. Strangelove argument for pre-emptive war:

“Constrained resources generally mean that interventions, when necessary, come at a later time, under less favorable conditions, from a weaker position…”

I would love to believe public skepticism would put the brakes on future military adventurism, but public opinion, as we have seen time and again, can be manufactured, with the media bandwagon acting as propaganda conduit for whatever an administration wants the mainstream to be.

The political incentives dovetail with financial incentives – those that donors and lobbyists consider to their advantage. The public purse is damaged by war, but private banker-military coffers are filled, and donorism has made those interests paramount.

When the disadvantages outweigh the advantages for that class, that is when the political incentives to end the wars will be strong.

#2 Comment By Dakarian On March 19, 2013 @ 5:24 am

Very correct here. In the end, you can’t starve a beast of this nature If it isn’t given food, it will borrow it. If it can’t borrow, it will steal. It will eat so long as it desires to eat.

The one advantage of a government such as the US is that, despite the hidden agendas and back room deals, it’s still a nation that follows the whims of its people. Iraq would never have happened if the public firmly rejected it.

Of course that is also the challenge, figuring out how to move a mass of people in a particular direction. You also have to do so without establishing a system that makes such movement easy or, worse, allows you to act despite popular opinion. To fail that would be to kill the one advantage you have left and, trust me, those who are working against you will appreciate the new powers you bestowed upon them.

#3 Comment By Mike On March 19, 2013 @ 9:50 am

I agree that reducing the military budget won’t reduce our countries’ proclivity to enter into unnecessary conflicts. In fact, it’s likely that our overworked and over-stressed military members will just have less resources to accomplish their task. And, programs available to support them will be dumped decreasing their quality of life (see the tuition assistance decision).

I think that bringing back the draft would help reduce the national appetite for war by giving everyone an equal opportunity to have “skin in the game”. Currently, many Americans who clamor for more war have never served in the military themselves and would never encourage a family member to join. They might think twice about advocating for more war if their family member is drafted and sent to Iraq/Aghanistan (Iran next?) for a year.

In fact, it’s not too late for Gerson to do his share. Any chance that we might see Michael help-out in these war zones? Doing a several six month tours wold give him a good taste of the life of our soldiers. There are opportunities:

Or maybe he considers that type of “boots on the ground” service for the “little” Americans—below the dignity of someone like himself.

#4 Comment By md On March 19, 2013 @ 10:18 am

Setting up former presidential scribes and political operatives with cushy jobs at major newsprint publications and electronic media outlets has not been one of the virtues of American journalism and has arguably led to degradation of standards of political discourse. (The practice was also widespread in the Soviet Union.) These people have never been objective, disinterested observers and they continue to promulgate the same old ideological arguments. Gerson’s piece has the sound of someone living in parallel, time-displaced unverse (cue Star Trek).

Munich, 1938?!? Come on, enough already.

#5 Comment By Daniel Larison On March 19, 2013 @ 10:33 am

I enjoyed the random reference to the Berlin blockade. I’m not sure why Gerson mentioned it, but I’m fairly sure that he has no better memory of the events surrounding it than the rest of us do. I should say something about the part where he said that “domestic and economic issues seem primary.” They don’t *seem* to be of primary importance to people. They are, and it would be very weird if it were not so.

#6 Comment By William Dalton On March 19, 2013 @ 11:20 am

The reason that slowdowns in military spending have not resulted in fewer, nor even smarter, foreign interventions is that, even with reduced spending, the United States still spends more on military hardware and foreign bases than the rest of the world combined. The idea of the United States having “unavoidable global interests” is what got us into trouble going back to the first Bush and Clinton Administrations. Yes, it would be nice for the world’s oil supply to remain in the hands of America’s old corrupt allies in the Middle East. The U.S. never imported Arabian oil as much Europe and the other growing oil consumers. Restraints on oil supply only affected us by driving up the price of oil on the world market. But the primary effect of higher oil prices was to make development of U.S. oil resources more lucrative and more feasible. And even with the likes of Saddam Hussein and the mullahs of Iran in charge of Middle East oil, they would always put their oil on the world market or be starving themselves.

The reason we went to war over the security of Middle East oil supplies was not to protect our country’s need for oil. It was to protect the investments of the world’s oil cartels who have bought and paid for every American President and Congress since Ronald Reagan. If Americans woke up to this fact it might effect a sea change in public opinion about the value of foreign wars.

The only way to alter defense spending to save the American people from more foreign misadventures is to disband the standing U.S. Army. It was never contemplated by the nation’s founders, who provided only for a permanent Navy, and knew the danger to any republic of having a standing Army. The United States should have only a Navy and an Air Force to guard against foreign attack and to safeguard commerce on the high seas and in the air, with Marines who can be deployed to rescue Americans in danger abroad, never to displace foreign governments, much less take up the task of foreign occupation. The only ground troops we should have are those consisting of our Army Reserves and National Guard, both of whom should be prohibited by law from foreign deployment except under a declaration of war passed by a super majority of both houses of Congress.

#7 Comment By TJ On March 19, 2013 @ 11:50 am

As long as the US Leadership determines that vital national interests are at stake, we will continue to see Military interventions.