A Foreign Policy of Mission Creep

A radical transformation of U.S. goals abroad has made wars longer and less successful.

In an eye-opening article in these spaces a few weeks ago, James Joyner cited the words of an American general in Afghanistan who, in reciting his troops’ successes in Helmand province, noted that "Roads have been paved and markets secured, allowing commerce to grow in places like Marja, Nad Ali and Lashkar Gah . . ."

Both the general and his troops undoubtedly performed the mission their country gave them professionally and with dedication. But the exchange still begs utterly valid questions: how, when and why did the growth of commerce in Marja, Nad Ali and Lashkar Gah become worth American lives or taxpayer dollars? And what might this portend for our potential involvement in Syria?

Liberal internationalism, so popular in Washington over the past two decades, has transformed the traditional purpose of American foreign policy—historically understood as systematizing relations between sovereign states and attempting to influence the behavior of other countries—into the much more grandiose attempt to remake the political cultures and economic systems of states and societies thousands of miles from our shores.

The result of this transformation of U.S. foreign-policy goals has been what Andrew Bacevich once aptly described as “endless war,” in which the U.S. military is used as an instrument for nation- and state-building in open-ended missions around the world. Consider, as outlined below, the record of some of our recent interventions, and the discrepancy in the time required to achieve their respective military and civilian objectives.

(For simplicity’s sake, in Bosnia military objectives are defined as having been achieved upon the completion of the terms of the Dayton Peace Accords’ military annex; in Afghanistan the fall of Kabul; and in Iraq the proclamation of “mission accomplished.” Civilian objectives are defined as achieved when there is an absence of large-scale violence and a reasonably stable democratic system is in place unencumbered by international administration.)

Needless to say, long-running interventions cost real money. The post-WWII reconstruction of Germany is estimated to have cost some $35 billion in 2011 dollars. Bosnia after 1995 received more money than any country in Europe under the Marshall Plan. As of April 2013, the United States had spent $60 billion on reconstruction in Iraq and $93 billion in Afghanistan (and as of 2005 Kosovo had received twenty-five times the amount provided to Afghanistan in per capita terms). These amounts do not even include these wars’ financial costs, or their costs in human lives.

The enormous discrepancy between achieving the military and civilian objectives of our foreign interventions is intimately connected to the recent Washingtonian vogue for Clausewitz’s conflation of war with politics and diplomacy. Thus, in the 1990s Richard Holbrooke became a proponent of “diplomacy backed by force,” and in a memorable exchange between Madeleine Albright and her UK counterpart in the UN Security Council, Albright claimed that “after all, war is merely an extension of politics by other means.” To which her British colleague replied “Yes, Madeleine, that is exactly what Clausewitz said. But he was a German, and the Germans listened to him. Look what happened to them, twice.”

The obvious problem here is that with the militarization of U.S. foreign policy and our increasingly grandiose ambitions abroad, we have gone down an intellectual slippery slope: if war is the equivalent of diplomacy and diplomacy is equal to nation-building, it therefore follows that war is the same as nation-building. This equation perhaps explains why the U.S. Army now has considerably more civil-affairs personnel than the U.S. State Department has foreign-service officers.

Unfortunately, our grandiose ambition to effect transformative change in far-off countries has not achieved any notable successes. Consider Washington’s pet project in Bosnia, the Muslim-Croat Federation. After Bosnia’s October 2010 elections, it took some six months for the federation to form a government, which Bosnia’s own Central Electoral Commission then ruled had been formed illegally. Bosnia’s international colonial administration, the Office of the High Representative (OHR), however, suspended the ruling. Some twelve months later, political winds in Bosnia shifted, the questionable government fell apart, and a party in the prior ruling coalition went to the federation’s constitutional court to prevent its cadres from being purged from the new government.