When President Bush named Robert Gates Secretary of Defense to replace Donald Rumsfeld, I was pleased. Gates had been one of the most influential members of the Iraq Study Group, and had served in the past for President Bush’s father. He had strong credentials as a realist and a multi-lateralist, the perfect man to bring some sanity to a foreign policy defined by neo-conservative militarism.
On Tuesday Secretary Gates warned of a ‘creeping militarization’ of American foreign policy, based on the large role the US military now plays in trying to rebuild countries like Iraq. Gates cited Afghanistan as an example of failure; the US has been unable to coordinate things such as road building and reconstruction with military security. The result is that US foreign policy seems focused less on traditional diplomacy and more on the military undertaking roles it isn’t designed for. And, while some might wonder why the Secretary of Defense would make this kind of criticism of the Administration, it’s actually unsurprising.
The Pentagon is probably unhappy with American foreign policy in recent years. They have been asked not only to fight and win wars (they’ve won two since 2001), but then to try to win the peace, doing things that they are not trained to do. In Iraq, they had to stick around and support reconstruction, even as the instability unleashed by the invasion pushed Iraq slowly and surely into all out civil war in 2006. A “surge” of troops has helped create some modicum of stability — though that was bought largely by shifting the policy from trying to defeat Sunni militants to coopting them and redefining the enemy as just al qaeda. This wasn’t done before 2007 because the price was seen as too high — this allows Sunni militia to remain armed, and Sunni regions outside central government control. But by 2007 with American support for the war plummeting and Iraq increasingly out of control, the price was suddenly worth paying.
In Afghanistan the military was kept again to help reconstruction, but with attention shifted to Iraq they were left undermanned and unable to do much while the Taliban regrouped. Washington thought that NATO’s control of the mission would be enough to offset the loss of US forces heading to Iraq, but that was based on two false premises. First, it was thought that Iraq would be quick, and most of the forces used to defeat Saddam could leave Iraq within a year. Second, the Taliban and al qaeda were considered defeated, and it was believed the Pakistanis would handle them should they try to cross the border. Both assumptions were proven false. On top of that, the NATO allies, wary of the US war in Iraq, chose not to agree to dangerous Afghan missions. The governments may have been willing, but the European public did not want to be part of that conflict, especially not in terms of actively military involvement.
The result is that the military has had to send people to Iraq for three or four tours of duty, and has been too overstretched to do much about Afghanistan. This has devastated military families, lead to a sharp increase in mental illness, suicide and divorce amongst active military, and hurt recruitment. Most frustrating is that it hasn’t seemed to accomplish much. The military knows that Iraq’s gains are tenuous and mostly illusionary. Iran still has massive influence on the government and the militias, the central government doesn’t control much outside of Baghdad, and it looks like Sunni and Kurdish areas are going to remain rather autonomous. With the Taliban and al qaeda on the rise — and talk now of an Afghan surge — the military continues to be used in missions that are beyond what the military supposedly is there for — protection of the United States and US interests. Increasingly it’s used as a social engineering tool, and military power is a very poor tool to try to engineer other societies and nation build.
So Gates was giving a military assessment of the problem. Militarization of American foreign policy is bad not because the military is bad, but because it is an ineffective use of the military. If you want to build, construct and help societies develop, you need a massive influx of civilians able to work cooperatively with the people living there, convincing them of our good will. When Iraqi and Afghan civilians suffering at check points and bombing raids, good will dissipates rapidly.
But, of course, without security the civilians don’t want to go to very dangerous places. They did not sign up to go into extreme danger, they rationally don’t want to risk having their family lose a parent or move the whole family to a place of intense violence. Moreover, they often have options outside of government, and cannot be forced to serve in the same way people in the military can. Is there a solution conundrum?
Yes. The government has to learn that it is misusing, even abusing, the military. The military is there primarily for defense, not offense. We’ve being trying to spread influence and shape other parts of the world, areas very different than our own. Often, our leaders haven’t understood the cultural context they’ve gotten involved in, and base their ideas on ideology — all want to be free, so therefore all will embrace a pro-western democracy if given the chance. That ideology has failed.
The only way to shift to an effective foreign policy not defined by militarism and not sapping the military of its strength is to move back towards use of military power only in extreme circumstances, when there is an act of aggression directly against the US, and only in a way proportionate to that act. The US must give up efforts to think our power can reshape the nature of politics in places like the Mideast; the neo-conservative dream of power being used to spread democracy was a delusion, driven by ideology not reality. Thus the military should be used only to defeat direct enemies, with care given to put as few civilians as possible in danger. We should return to a time when a soldier is unlikely to see duty in a combat zone, even if he or she serves for two decades.
Since Desert Storm in 1991 the list of wars the US has been involved in is long. Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and since 2003, Iraq again. We seem to constantly be involved in a war, and when it ends there hasn’t been peace. NATO is still needed in Bosnia, Kosovo is still tense, Afghanistan and Iraq unresolved. The lesson is clear: the move to thinking that ‘what good is a big army unless you use it’ (Madeline Albright) was dangerous, wrong headed and has harmed our country and killed countless civilians. It also represents an abuse of the men, women and families of American military personnel by political leaders who should be dedicated to use them only as a means of last resort. George W. Bush and Bill Clinton will rest easy, coming up with ways to rationalize their policies. Many men and women will be tortured by PTSD and other long term consequences of being in war, and they will by and large be ignored and forgotten by society.
In other words, this creeping militarization has to stop, and it can only stop if we make a fundamental move away from seeing the military as a tool to use often, and in ways far beyond the purpose for which it was designed. Otherwise, the US may be on a path of self-destruction.