America Unhinged

January 2, 2014 Topic: Grand StrategySecurity Regions: United States

America Unhinged

Mini Teaser: The "most secure great power in world history" continues to engage in costly interventions to defend merely peripheral interests.

by Author(s): John J. Mearsheimer

Then there are the human costs of these imperial policies, and here the main concern is the casualties from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Unlike the economic costs, which affect virtually every American, the human costs are borne by a narrow slice of American society. Because the United States has an all-volunteer force, only about 0.5 percent of the population serves in the military. Contrast that figure with World War II, where more than 12 percent of the population was in uniform. That means the overwhelming majority of Americans who have been eligible to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq have never put on a uniform, much less served in combat.

The fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq has exacted a huge price from the U.S. military—especially the army and the Marines. More than 6,700 soldiers have been killed so far in those two conflicts, and over fifty thousand have been wounded in action, about 22 percent with traumatic brain injuries. Furthermore, as always happens in war, many of the combatants are psychological casualties, as they return home with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression. The Department of Veterans Affairs reported in the fall of 2012 that more than 247,000 veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars have been diagnosed with PTSD. Many of those soldiers have served multiple combat tours.

It is hardly surprising that the suicide rate in the U.S. military increased by 80 percent from 2002 to 2009, while the civilian rate increased only 15 percent. And in 2009, veterans of Iraq were twice as likely to be unemployed as the typical American. On top of all that, returning war veterans are roughly four times more likely to face family-related problems like divorce, domestic violence and child abuse than those who stayed out of harm’s way. In short, the small segment of U.S. society that has fought in these recent wars has paid a huge price for its service, while the vast majority of Americans have stayed out of uniform and paid no price at all.

Proponents of the Iraq War like to claim that these human costs are deeply regrettable, but that it is a price that the United States had to pay in the wake of September 11. But Iraq was an unnecessary war: Saddam did not have weapons of mass destruction, and even if he did, he could have been contained, just as the United States contained the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It was necessary to topple the Taliban in the fall of 2001. But once that goal was achieved—which happened quickly and with few American deaths—the United States should have left Afghanistan and stayed out. Instead, both the Bush and Obama administrations upped the ante in Afghanistan, in what soon became another unnecessary war.

Second, both of these wars are lost causes. The Iraq that the U.S. military left behind after a decade of occupation is teetering on the brink of civil war, and anger at the United States runs deep among its people as well as its leaders. In Afghanistan, a corrupt and incompetent leader has consistently undermined American efforts to pacify and stabilize that country. There is little doubt that when U.S. troops finally leave, there will be fighting across Afghanistan and the Taliban will emerge as the most powerful force in the land. The herculean efforts of the American military in both Afghanistan and Iraq have been in vain.

The final reason to think these wars were not worth fighting is that most Americans felt that way. Consider Iraq. According to polling by ABC News and the Washington Post, “By February 2004, just short of a year after it started, 50 percent of Americans said the war was not worth fighting; it reached a majority that June and stayed there, with just three exceptions, in 52 ABC/Post polls across the ensuing nine years.” When the fighting in Iraq was at its worst in April 2007, 66 percent said the war was not worth fighting. Likewise, in December 2009, as Obama ordered his troop surge into Afghanistan, a Pew poll found that only 32 percent of Americans supported this decision. Moreover, only 56 percent of the public thought the initial decision to invade Afghanistan in 2001 had been correct.

PERHAPS THE GREATEST cost of a strategy that calls for intervening in countries like Egypt and Syria is the damage it does to the political fabric of American society. In particular, individual rights and the rule of law will not fare well in a country that maintains a large and powerful military and is addicted to fighting wars. It is unsurprising, given the United States has been at war for two out of every three years since the Cold War ended, that a recent Gallup poll found that 71 percent of Americans think the signers of the Declaration of Independence would be disappointed in how the United States has turned out. The number was 42 percent in 2001.

One harmful consequence of America’s interventionist foreign policy is that it creates numerous situations where presidents and their lieutenants have a powerful incentive to lie, or at least distort the truth, when talking to the public. This is due in part to the fact that the United States is an unusually secure country and thus it is difficult to get Americans to support unnecessary wars. This is why the Bush administration had to wage a deception campaign in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War. It also accounts for why U.S. policy makers frequently equate adversaries like Assad and Saddam with Hitler, even though there is no basis for doing so.

Lying is driven in some cases by the government’s need to hide illegal or constitutionally suspect activities from its citizenry. For example, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, was asked in congressional testimony on March 12, 2013: “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” He answered, “No.” It quickly became apparent that he was lying, which he admitted when he wrote to Congress several months later: “My response was clearly erroneous—for which I apologize.” Later, he said that he responded to that question in the “least untruthful” manner possible. Although lying to Congress is a felony, Clapper has not been charged and remains in his position today.

One could easily point to other cases where policy makers—including President Obama—have been less than honest with the American people. Pervasive obfuscating and lying, however, inevitably creates a poisonous culture of dishonesty, which can gravely damage any body politic, but especially a democracy. Not only does lying make it difficult for citizens to make informed choices when they vote on candidates and issues, but it also undermines the policy-making process, because government officials cannot trust each other, and that greatly increases the transaction costs of doing business. Furthermore, the rule of law is undermined in a world where distorting the truth is commonplace. There has to be a substantial amount of honesty and trust in public life for any legal system to work effectively. Finally, if lying is pervasive in a democracy, it might alienate the public to the point where it loses faith in democratic government.

Another consequence of America’s policy of global dominance is that the government inevitably violates the individual rights that are at the core of a liberal society and tramples the rule of law as well. The taproot of the problem is that a democracy constantly preparing for and fighting wars, as well as extolling the virtues of using force, will eventually transform itself into a national-security state. Specifically, the executive will become especially powerful at the expense of the legislative and judicial branches of government. Traditional checks and balances will matter little, resulting in an imperial presidency.

An unchecked executive, however, does not simply accumulate great power. It also engages in behavior that involves breaking the law or operating in secrecy, largely to avoid public scrutiny and judicial or congressional review. In this regard, the checks and balances built into the U.S. system encourage executives to act in secret, because that may be the only way to get things done quickly. Leaders do not act this way because they are evil, but because they believe the country’s security demands it. In the tradeoff between security and civil liberties, they almost always come down on the side of security. After all, a country’s highest goal has to be its survival, because if it does not continue it cannot pursue its other goals. Given the exaggerated fear of foreign threats that permeates the American national-security establishment, it is unsurprising that Presidents Bush and Obama have pursued policies that endanger liberal democracy at home.

This tendency toward law breaking and the violation of individual rights explains in part why the executive has a deep affection for secrecy. Both the Bush and Obama administrations engaged in illegal or at least questionable surveillance of American citizens, which they wanted to hide from the public, Congress and the judiciary. This is one reason Obama has seemed so determined to severely punish Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning and Edward Snowden, and more generally why he has gone to war against reporters and whistle-blowers with unprecedented fervor. The president boasts that he leads “the most transparent administration in history.” If true, it is because of the reporters and whistle-blowers, not Obama, who is deeply committed to government secrecy.

Image: Pullquote: The United States, which is the most secure great power in world history, has been safer over the past twenty-five years than at any other time in its history.Essay Types: Essay