Immanuel Wallerstein, Commentary No. 265, Sept. 15, 2009
In the last few weeks, there has been a marked increase of calls, coming from both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, for some kind of early “exit strategy” from Afghanistan. This is coming at the very moment that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates are about to recommend formally to President Obama an increase in U.S. troop commitments there.
Nothing is certain, but the general expectation is that Obama will agree to this. After all, during the elections, Obama had said that he considered U.S. intervention in Iraq a mistake and wanted an early withdrawal. One of the reasons he gave was that it had prevented sending enough troops into Afghanistan. This was a version of the “bad war, good war” concept. Iraq was a “bad” war, Afghanistan a “good” one.
There has apparently been much debate in the inner circle of President Obama about the wisdom of escalating U.S. military commitments in Afghanistan. It is reported that the leading opponent of troop escalation in Afghanistan is none other than Vice-President Biden. Biden has always been considered somewhat of a Democratic hawk. So how come he is now opposing troop escalation? The reported reason is that he now considers Afghanistan a hopeless quagmire, and that investing troops there will prevent the United States from concentrating on the really important zone, Pakistan. So we have a new version of the “bad war, good war” doctrine. Afghanistan has become a “bad” war; Pakistan is the “good” one.
Why is it so difficult for the United States to extricate itself from military interventions it is so patently losing? Some left analysts, in the United States and elsewhere, say it is because the United States is an imperialist power and therefore engages in such military interventions in order to maintain its political and economic power in the world. This explanation is quite insufficient, for the simple reason that the United States has not won a single major military confrontation since 1945. As an imperialist power, it has shown great incompetence in achieving its goals.
Consider the five wars in which the United States has committed large numbers of troops since 1945. The biggest – in terms of numbers of troops, economic costs, and political impact – was Vietnam. The United States lost the war. The other four were the Korean War, the first Gulf War, the invasion of Afghanistan, and the second invasion of Iraq. The Korean War and the first Gulf War were politically draws. The wars ended at the exact point that they began. The United States is clearly losing the war in Afghanistan. I believe that history will judge the second invasion of Iraq a draw as well. When the U.S. finally pulls out, it will be no stronger politically than when it went in – probably indeed the opposite.
So what drives the United States to engage in such politically self-defeating actions, especially if we think of the United States as a hegemonic power trying to control the entire world to its advantage? To answer that, we have to look at the internal politics of the United States.
All great powers, and especially hegemonic powers, are intensely nationalist. They believe in themselves and in their moral and political right to assert their so-called national interests. The overwhelming majority of their citizens consider themselves patriotic, and take this to mean that their government ought indeed to assert itself vigorously, and if necessary militarily, in the world arena. In the United States, since 1945, the percentage of the population who are principled anti-imperialists is politically insignificant.
U.S. politics is not divided between supporters and opponents of imperialism. It has been divided between those who are strongly interventionist and those who believe in “fortress America.” The latter used to be called isolationists. Isolationists are not anti-military. Indeed, they tend to be strong supporters of financial investment in military forces. But they are skeptical about using these forces in far-off places.
Of course, there is a whole gamut of intermediate positions between the extremes in this cleavage. The crucial thing to see is that almost no politician is ready to call for a serious reduction in U.S. military expenditures. This is why so many of them engage in the “bad war, good war” distinction. They justify reducing the use of military in the “bad” wars by suggesting that there are other, better uses for the military.
At this point, we have to analyze the differences between the Republican and Democratic Parties on these questions. The isolationist wing of the Republican Party was very strong before the Second World War, but since 1945 it has become rather small. The Republicans since 1945 have regularly tended to call for increased investment in the military, and have usually argued that the Democrats have been too “soft” on military questions.
The fact that the Republicans have been very inconsistent in this matter hasn’t seemed to affect their public image. For example, when President Clinton wanted to send troops to the Balkans, the Republicans opposed it. It didn’t matter. The U.S. public seems to take the Republicans at their word as patriotic hawks, no matter what they do.
The Democrats have had the opposite problem. There have been large numbers of books arguing, credibly, that Democratic administrations have been readier than Republican administrations to engage in military interventions abroad (for example, in both Korea and Vietnam). Nonetheless, the Republicans have constantly denounced the Democrats for being “doves” in their military views. It is true that a large minority of Democratic voters have in fact been “doves,” but not a large number of Democratic politicians. Democratic politicians have always worried that the voters will consider them to be “doves” and turn against them for that reason.
The Democrats have therefore almost always used the “bad war, good war” line. It hasn’t done them all that much good. The Democrats seem to be stuck with the label of being less macho than the Republicans. So it’s very simple. When Obama makes his decisions on these matters, it’s not enough for him to analyze whether or not troop escalation in Afghanistan makes any military or political sense. He worries above all that he himself, and more broadly the Democratic Party, may be labeled once again as the “sell-outs,” the “doves,” the ones who “lost” countries to the enemies – to the Soviet Union in the old days, to the “terrorists” today.
Obama will probably therefore send in more troops. And the Afghanistan War will go the way of the Vietnam War. Only the outcome for the United States will be worse, because there is no cohesive, rational opposing group to whom to lose the war – one that will allow U.S. helicopters to withdraw the troops without shooting at them. When Bertold Brecht got cynical or angry at Communist regimes, he told them that, if the people were rebelling against their wisdom, they should “change the people.” Perhaps that’s what Obama needs to do – change the people, his people. Or maybe, in time, the people will change themselves. If the United States loses too many more wars, its citizens may wake up to the realization that U.S. military interventions abroad and incredibly large military expenditures at home are not the solution to their problems, but the greatest impediment to U.S. national survival and well-being.
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