If President Trump is to put America first, he must end its offensive wars.
For most of human history, the costs of waging offensive war have been roughly equivalent to the costs of defending against it. Since World War II, costs have shifted dramatically in favor of defense. Ironically, during this time the US has waged more offensive wars than any other nation. Although members of the military recognize the shift, it is seldom acknowledged by the civilian command structure. Even those who understand generally assume that greater US resources and wealth make up for the cost disparity.
In football or basketball, if your team has the ball, you are the offense. In warfare, if you are in another country, you are the offense. An invasion, difficult as it may be, is invariably the easy part. Anyone who knew military history winced when President George W. Bush gave his 2003 Iraq victory speech, Mission Accomplished banner stretched behind him on an upper deck of an aircraft carrier. If, to give the neoconservatives their stated case, the mission was to convert Iraq to a thriving, peaceful, multicultural democracy, fourteen years later that mission remains unaccomplished, the prospect just as remote as it was before the US invaded Iraq and deposed Saddam Hussein.
THE FOLLY OF WAR
The US “victory” in Iraq created winners and losers. Previously marginalized Shiites who formed the new government were the winners. Ousted Sunni Ba’athists who had stocked Hussein’s government and military were the losers, and set about upending the new order. In their war against the US and its newly installed Iraqi government, they had every advantage defenders have playing on their home territory. They knew the territory and the language, drew on local Sunni support, blended in with the “civilian” population, and used women and children operationally, pages straight from the Viet Cong playbook.
Which brings up “asymmetric warfare,” modern code for the perpetual invader lament that the other side doesn’t play by the rules. (Dating back to at least the American revolution, when British formations were decimated by “terrorist” revolutionaries hiding behind trees.) In the Middle East there are no enemy tank brigades, regular combat units, air forces, or navies in which the US can engage decisive battles a la World War II. It’s guerrilla warfare: the enemy plants IEDs or land mines; shoots down expensive tanks and helicopters with shoulder-fired missiles; inflicts random terror and mayhem; petrifies opponents with beheadings and torture; amasses for battles in which they fiercely fight and often inflict costly losses, and if they ultimately lose, a month or two later return to contest the same territory with the same ferocity.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the home field defenders have staying power; it’s their country and they aren’t going anywhere. As Vietnam and the Middle East demonstrate, invaders get tired of wasting blood and treasure. Their populations reject the government’s tired assurances of just-around-the-corner victory and political support evaporates. A substantial portion of the population the invaders are supposedly liberating doesn’t support them. The governments that host the invaders are invariably corrupt puppets. The guerrillas may never win a straight-up battle (the US has batted a thousand in straight-up battles in Vietnam and the Middle East), but if they inflict enough pain, the invaders eventually leave.
It is a mistake to assume the outcomes of US interventions are different from the real, as opposed to the stated, intentions of their proponents. The military and intelligence sector has become the biggest annex of the welfare state, enjoying the advantage that most people don’t even realize it feeds from that trough. US military and intelligence budgets are huge in comparison to other nations’, far in excess of what would be necessary if the “defense” function was limited to defense of our country, and President Trump has vowed to increase them. Long-lasting offensive wars are the ultimate crony socialist boondoggle and jobs program.
Then there are the lucrative opportunities interventions present for corruption, extortion, theft, and other criminal enterprises (US drug dealing was rife during the Vietnam war). That the military-industrial-intelligence complex is willing to sacrifice the lives of US soldiers and innocent civilian populations to line their own pockets tells you all you need to know about its morality. That’s an ethic compatible with residence on Death Row, not a free, peaceful, and just society.
In his first few days in office, President Trump has perhaps avoided one interventionist pitfall, but not another.
First, as I wrote about in my last column, the initial draft of the executive order entitled “Protecting the Nation From Attacks From Foreign Nationals” contained a section raising the possibility of creating “safe zones” in Syria. The final version omits this dangerous plan. This is significant: what it means is that the Trump administration is going to resist calls by the interventionist media to “do something” about the Syrian civil war and is opting instead to keep its footprint in the region lighter than the War Party would prefer. “Safe zones” are off the table, at least for now.
Justin Raimondo, “Spare Us the Theatrics,” (1/30/17, antiwar.com
This is encouraging, but if Trump does disengage from the Middle East, it’s likely to be two steps forward, one step back. The administration has still not entirely renounced the Syrian safe zone idea. And the first US soldier killed on Trump’s watch was with a special forces commando team in Yemen, on an operation Trump authorized. What are special forces doing in Yemen? It’s a country of no strategic importance to the US embroiled in essentially a Shiite-Sunni sectarian war, the local factions serving as proxies for Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia (to which the US has supplied billions worth of armaments). The US is grabbing the same tar baby on which it’s stuck in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, and Somalia
Those last five countries (and Yemen and Iran), are on Trump’s executive order banning travel by their citizens to the US. In the weird world of John McCain and his neoconservative cohorts, the ban will stoke terrorism against the US, but commando raids, bombs, and drone strikes are met with no-blowback equanimity by the raided, bombed, and droned. The thousands protesting the ban have shown a similar unconcern for all the non-immigrating victims, alive or dead, of US offensive wars. These wars were perhaps questioned by some of the protestors when they were Bush’s, but endorsed or silently acquiesced to when they were Obama’s. They have left the US caught in the riptide of a historic shift in the relative costs of offensive and defensive warfare.
The only way to avoid being carried further out to sea is to quit waging offensive wars. The marker of his foreign policy success will be the extent to which President Trump frees the US from its many tar babies and avoids getting stuck on new ones. If he fails and adds to the blood and treasure the US has already lost, he will have failed to put America first.
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