Creeping Militarization

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.

  1. #1 by Jeff Lees on July 19, 2008 - 16:34

    For the most part, I agree. The US military shouldn’t be used as a “tool” to solve other countries problems. Yet there is one commonality I see in all of the situations we have been involved in over the last 20 years (Iraq x2, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo). That commonality is that each of those conflicts if defined by two local groups fighting, and the West coming in and intervening. For some reason, the West feels this obligation not only to throw trillions of dollars in “relief” to other countries (congress is trying to pass a bill that would send 50 billion dollars over to Africa to “fight AIDS,” I wonder how many Kalashnikovs that will buy?) we feel that we need to intervene every time someone cries genocide. We use this to justify attacking countries like the former Yugoslavia.

    But this point of view begs the question, what do we do? I don’t think we should of gone into Bosnia or Kosovo, but I wouldn’t mind seeing some military presence (whether US, UN, or otherwise) in Darfur to protect those who are victims of and actual genocide.

    Another thought, what will happen when we go to war with Iran? I am convinced that it will happen. Iran is totally unwilling to cooperate with the international community over their nuclear program. There numerous, direct threats to Israel has done nothing to ease the situation either. I am convinced that Israel will attack Iran. For one, Israel sees a real threat from Iran, and rightly so. Ahmadinejad only rivals Hilter in his genocidal rhetoric against Jews and the Jewish state. Secondly, Israel knows that if they wait until after the US elections, and Obama is elected President, then they may not have support for a strike against Iran. So I can see them aattacking Iran soon, before Bush leaves. Will we have more military success in Iran because is isn’t at the brink of civil war like Iraq and Afghanistan were.

    So when is using the military as a tool justified? It is sad: in the news today the World Food Programme has said it may have to hire private security companies to protect their food shipments to Somalia. That’s pathetic, Europe/ the UN is to incompetent to help, and America is tied in in the Middle East.

    The debate on whether military intervention is justified is always on a case by case basis. Yes we may overuse your military, and in my opinion we don’t even use it effectively at that. We should have sent in many more troops into Iraq initially. We should have eradicated every poppy field in Afghanistan in the first week we were there. But overconfidence and naivety got the bets of us.

  2. #2 by Scott Erb on July 20, 2008 - 03:38

    I admit I have a strong anti-interventionist approach; I had a letter to the editor published in Time harshly critical of Clinton in Kosovo. To me military intervention can only be legit if there is international consensus and real burden sharing. Iran 1991 saw consensus, but no real burden sharing. Even then, I’d say it should be rare, other peoples and cultures have to work issues out.

    I hope you’re wrong about Iran, Jeff. I don’t see any way that could mean anything but trouble for the US. I’m pretty sure Iran can be contained and I’m not overly concerned about their nuclear program as far as being useful to Iran as a weapon to launch themselves. I do worry more about Hezbollah and covert Iranian operations which could destabilize Israel. I am, given the problems between Iran and Hezbollah in the past, reasonably sure they wouldn’t give Hezbollah a nuclear weapon (Israel would probably be able to trace it as well). However, I suspect Israel is concerned that if Iran, a corrupt state, has nukes, someone in Iran will find a way to sell it to Hezbollah, either for profit, or out of an extremist agenda. I think Israel is less afraid of official Iranian policy than of the possibility that sub groups or individuals could do things that might severely threaten Israel. I’m not sure how to deal with that — and I think there is a huge debate in Israel about that too.

  3. #3 by Jeff Lees on July 20, 2008 - 16:09

    I definetely agree, I don’t think anyone ever thought Iran would use its nuclear weapons, at least not initially. The real fear, especially in Israels eyes is the threat of the technology being sold to someone who would be willing to use it, like Hezbollah. Iran knows that if they openly used a nuclear weapons that they would be blown off the map.

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