The warning signs have been flashing for some time. Waging two wars in distant parts of the world simultaneously is unsustainable. Yet American leaders seem to have no clear-cut plan for winding down military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, from Baltimore to Detroit to New Orleans to many other cities and towns, once vibrant neighborhoods and business districts are ghost towns or pockmarked with derelict buildings and destitute people. A spreading blight of unemployment is impoverishing millions more families. A fixation on military maneuvers as national security priorities has blinded national leaders to the hollowed-out state of so much of the nation the U.S. government was designed to protect.
A big problem is that the United States has a checkered record at winding down wars and fostering a sustainable peacetime. After World War I, the U.S. Senate famously balked at supporting international efforts to create a climate of peaceful cooperation in Europe. Barely 20 years later, fueled by the economic chaos of the Great Depression, World War II broke out among the same militaristic nations that battered each other in World War I. More than 60 years after the bitter end of World War II, Europe is at peace thanks to U.S. policies such as the Marshall Plan. But the U.S. military is still stationed in the long-ago defeated nations—Germany, Japan and Italy, which are doing very well as peaceful societies—plus at scores of far-flung bases around the world.
In the name of national security, the U.S. is waging its second war in Iraq in the space of a few years. It’s waging war in Afghanistan against hostile Islamic groups not long after paying many of these same groups to chase the Soviets out of Afghanistan. At the same time, the U.S. is perennially engaged in belligerent disputes with North Korea—where we previously fought a stalemated war—and with Iran, which not long ago fought a war with the U.S.-backed Iraq regime that the U.S. subsequently invaded.
Yet despite America’s bristling array of military forces around the world, 19 young men from the Middle East slipped through these defenses in hijacked airliners and destroyed the World Trade Center in New York and blew up part of U.S. military headquarters at the Pentagon. The instigator of the 9/11 attacks was trained by U.S. agencies to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, according to investigators. Apparently, Osama bin Laden’s aim was to provoke the U.S. to chase him around Afghanistan, which has a history of mauling invading armies. His motive was anger at U.S. military bases near Muslim religious centers in his homeland of Saudi Arabia. The collapse of the Soviet Union shortly after its army was battered in Afghanistan played into this calculation that the U.S. could be up-ended by being sucked into a drawn-out war. This devious ploy got a boost when the U.S. also invaded Iraq, another part of the world that has bedeviled invaders.
While Washington power-brokers and presidential candidates debated fine-tuning troop levels in two multi-billion-dollar warfronts that have dragged on longer than World War II, the U.S. economy nearly collapsed. Yet even as it rushed to bail out Wall Street banks and bankrupt automakers with billions in borrowed money, Obama’s new administration appears intent on pursuing essentially the same war policies as were conducted by past administrations.
“American policy seems to be wed to a perpetual state of war. Why?” cultural critic Camille Paglia noted in a recent Salon.com column. “History shows that the world will always be in flux or turmoil, with different peoples competing for visibility and power. The U.S. cannot fix the fate of every nation. In many long-embattled regions, there are internal processes at work that simply must play themselves out. We are overextended abroad and committing financial suicide at home. The escalating national debt is our enemy within. Fanatical jihadism will continue to be a tactical problem, but its attacks, however devastating, will always be sporadic and local. Jihadism cannot destroy the U.S. But our own reckless politicians, spending us into oblivion and servitude to China, can.”
Before the bottom fell out of the economy, historian Andrew Bacevich warned that the U.S. faced an impending economic crisis while wasting precious time and money fighting ill-conceived wars.
In a comparison that may unsettle many conservatives and liberals, Bacevich argues in a recent issue of The American Conservative magazine that the U.S. is in danger of repeating the mistakes of the Soviet Union. After the Soviet empire abruptly dissolved “the best minds in Washington proceeded to devise policies incorporating all the worst features of the Soviet policies that had hurtled the Soviet Union toward self-destruction. The Bush administration committed U.S. troops to what quickly became a costly, open-ended war, beginning in Afghanistan, then shifting to Iraq, then reverting in the Obama era back to Afghanistan. Like the Politburo of olden days, our political elites remain oblivious to the possibility that the real threats to the American empire might be internal: an economy in shambles and basic institutions wallowing in dysfunction.”
In a recent article in Commonweal magazine, Bacevich further warned that “If the United States today has a saving mission, it is to save itself. Speaking in the midst of another unnecessary war back in 1967, Martin Luther King got it exactly right: ‘Come home, America.’ The prophet of that era urged his countrymen to take on ‘the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism.’ Dr. King’s list of evils may need a bit of tweaking—in our own day, the sins requiring expiation number more than three. Yet in his insistence that we first heal ourselves, King remains today the prophet we ignore at our peril.”
Bacevich, a retired Army colonel who served in Vietnam, teaches international relations and history at Boston University. His son was killed on an Army mission in Iraq in 2007. He argues that few if any officials in Washington learned the real lessons of 9/11.
“The events of September 11, 2001, ostensibly occurred because we ignored Afghanistan. Preventing the recurrence of those events, therefore, requires that we fix the place,” Bacevich wrote. “Yet this widely accepted line of reasoning overlooks the primary reason why the 9/11 conspiracy succeeded: federal, state, and local agencies responsible for basic security fell down on the job, failing to install even minimally adequate security measures in the nation’s airports. The national-security apparatus wasn’t paying attention—indeed, it ignored or downplayed all sorts of warning signs, not least of all Osama bin Laden’s declaration of war against the United States. ... Averting a recurrence of that awful day does not require the semipermanent occupation and pacification of distant countries like Afghanistan. Rather, it requires that the United States erect and maintain robust defenses.”
Maintaining robust defenses at home, vital as that is, will provide little comfort however to tens of millions of Americans under assault by economic shock waves. National security needs to be expanded from a military mantra to encompass building a sustainable economy to support a robust nation. So what can we do about it? For starters, check out Bacevich’s book, The Limits of Power (Metropolitan Books, 2008).
“Bacevich describes an America beset by three crises: a crisis of profligacy, a crisis in politics and a crisis in the military,” wrote Washington Post reviewer Robert Kaiser. “The profligacy is easily described: What was, even in the author's youth several decades ago, a thrifty society whose exports far outdistanced its imports has become a nation of debtors by every measure. Consumption has become the great American preoccupation, and consumption of imported oil the great chink in our national armor.”
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