The cost of misusing American might

Andrew J. Bacevich writes: The U.S. military is like the highly skilled, gadget-toting contractor who promises to give your kitchen a nifty makeover in no time whatsoever. Here’s the guy you can count on to get the job done. Just look at those references! Yet by the time he drives off months later, the kitchen’s a shambles and you’re stuck with a bill several times larger than the initial estimate. Turns out the job was more complicated than it seemed. But what say we take a crack at remodeling the master bath?

That pretty much summarizes the American experience with war since the end of the Cold War. By common consent, when it comes to skills and gadgets, U.S. forces are in a league of their own. Yet when it comes to finishing the job on schedule and on budget, their performance has been woeful.

Indeed, these days the United States absolves itself of any responsibility to finish wars that it starts. When we’ve had enough, we simply leave, pretending that when U.S. forces exit the scene, the conflict is officially over. In 2011, when the last American troops crossed from Iraq into Kuwait, President Obama proudly declared that he had made good on his campaign promise to end the Iraq war. Sometime late this year, when the U.S. terminates its combat role in Afghanistan, he will waste no time consigning that war to the past as well. [Continue reading…]

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1 thought on “The cost of misusing American might

  1. hquain

    To my ear, Bacevich almost always manages to sound both sensible and off-kilter, forward-looking and retro, in the same piece.

    “That pretty much summarizes the American experience with war since the end of the Cold War. By common consent, when it comes to skills and gadgets, U.S. forces are in a league of their own. Yet when it comes to finishing the job on schedule and on budget, their performance has been woeful.”

    Two points stick out. (1) The emphasis on “since the end of the Cold War.” Bizarre. US military forays have been constant since the end of WWII, and have tended to stumble from disaster to disaster, except if you count ever-greater funding as success. (2) Finish the job? This is a gob-smacker. In what sense can recent wars initiated by the US be said to be ‘jobs’? Much less jobs that support a notion of being ‘finished’?

    He strikes another curious, clashing note when he writes later in the article:

    “In a world divided between haves and have-nots, between postmodern and pre-modern, and between those for whom God is dead and those for whom God remains omnipresent, expecting coercion to produce reconciliation, acceptance or submission represents the height of folly.”

    In the first 1/2 of the sentence he seems, most oddly, to characterize US policy as being driven by atheists who fail to understand the delicate psychologies of believers; in the second he nicely summarizes the folly of that policy, which is based on expectations completely independent of belief in the supernatural — coercion doesn’t produce reconciliation in human beings, period.

    The conclusion has the same character, in chiasmatic reverse. First, he delivers the sensible familiar recommendations, as if novel: “…that means lowering expectations regarding the political effectiveness of war, which is demonstrably limited. Take force off the metaphorical table to which policymakers regularly refer.” Then, the turn to the ultimate punchline: “…get serious about evaluating the potential for employing alternative forms of power, chiefly economic and cultural, to advance American interests.” (Let’s gloss over the strange implication that the US doesn’t use its economic power.) In short: the job of controlling subject populations, taking their resources, or whatever “American interests” are, can be more efficiently accomplished! So that we can finish on-schedule and under budget!

    Nicely packaged, but some fundamental grasp of things is just missing here.

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