Can the US Get Out of Its Endless Wars?

Photograph Source: The U.S. Army – CC BY 2.0

Donald Trump in 2016 ran in opposition to the Iraq war and more generally to massive US commitments around the world. His denunciations of “endless wars” resonated enough that many voters ignored his documented early support for the Afghan and Iraq wars. Indeed, areas where casualties in those wars were highest voted more heavily for Trump than other demographic and economic factors would have predicted. Voters, with plenty of justification from her record as Secretary of State, thus pegged Hillary Clinton as a warmonger.

Trump, at least so far, is a militarist too. He has yet to withdraw the remaining troops from Afghanistan or Iraq. In Syria, he ended up merely redeploying soldiers from the border with Turkey to further within the country, if anything deepening American involvement. In the rest of the world, Trump has yet to close a single base or return home any troops stationed abroad.

Democrats, except for a few principled anti-interventionists like Bernie Sanders, are not clearly committed to reducing, let alone eliminating, the more than 800 bases the US maintains around the world and that cost over $100 billion a year to staff and maintain. For the past year, Democrats, when they bother to mention foreign policy, have largely focused on Russia. In hopes of using Trump’s Russian ties to push impeachment or weaken his reelection prospects, Democrats have ended up painting Russia as a strategic threat to the US on par with the former Soviet Union or present-day China. This dubious electoral strategy has the effect of bolstering military spending and justifying US intervention in countries around the world to counter supposed Russian subversion.

It seems clear that unless and until the Democratic Party is fundamentally transformed we will not find our way out of endless wars through the electoral process. Just as both political parties supported the Vietnam War half a century ago, so today there is mainstream consensus behind the belief that the US is the indispensable nation, and therefore from a mix of self-interest and idealism should spend whatever is needed to maintain full spectrum dominance and command of the commons. However, just as the Vietnam War finally was ended through a combination of non-electoral mobilization in the US and defeat on battlefields in Vietnam, so too can America’s twenty-first century wars be ended through our efforts within the US and by America’s ever more obvious economic and geopolitical weakness. To understand what can make our opposition most effective we need to understand the forces that support the US’s massive presence around the world and the deepening divisions among US elites.

Who Benefits From US Military Power

American capitalists, like those of previous great powers such as nineteenth century Britain and France and the Netherlands of the seventeenth century, rely on their government to control foreign territories and peoples that those capitalists can exploit. Of course, how capitalists make money abroad has changed. Today formal colonies no longer exist. Instead, American capitalists look to their government to negotiate and enforce so-called free trade agreements that give American companies access to foreign markets. At the same time, the U.S. has used military and non-military means to remove governments that tried to restrict capitalists’ ability to exploit resources and workers in other countries or to create social protections for their citizens. Obviously, the U.S. is less able to intervene in other wealthy countries, like those of Western Europe, even as America’s ability to mold other nations to its will increased after the end of the Soviet Union.

U.S. goals in trade treaties have changed over time. Up to the 1960s, the government pushed to open foreign markets to American manufactured goods. But as America’s industrial edge disappeared, the U.S. instead has sought to win access above all for financial firms and also to protect American pharmaceutical, software and entertainment firms’ patents and copyrights. In essence, American trade negotiators since the 1970s have sacrificed industrial workers to protect the profits of Wall Street, Big Pharma, Silicon Valley and Hollywood.

What the Military Elite Wants and Gets

US global power is enormously expensive to build and maintain and requires a vast, permanent military establishment. Any organization, like the Pentagon, which commands millions of soldiers and other employees and controls a budget approaching $1 trillion a year, amasses great political power and autonomy as well.

The U.S. is unusual among nations in that from its beginning it relied upon private companies to develop and build weaponry. Weapons contracts generate greater profit margins than most other businesses, creating a unity of interest between military officers and capitalists, who otherwise oppose expensive government programs that ultimately must be funded through taxes.

Generals’ views of how to fight wars and what weaponry they need are shaped, indeed determined, by the ways in which their careers, and those of lesser officers, are structured. Officers spend their careers assigned to units that man and deploy specific weapons systems. They advance by commanding expensive and technically complex weapons. Success in winning appropriations for those weapons systems ensures long careers for the ever-expanding corps of generals. Budget cuts or more drastically a decision to cancel a weapons system would stymie or end the careers of officers in that division of the military. Weapons systems also reward officers in their retirement. Defense firms often hire military officers after their retirement, and the promise of high corporate salaries to supplement their pensions gives officers a powerful incentive not to question the worth of expensive weapons systems, or to dispute contractors’ bills and pricing decisions.

These career and organizational imperatives mesh perfectly with defense firms’ interests in selling advanced weapons systems, which consistently yield the largest profits. Thus, advanced weapons continue to absorb the lion’s share of the Pentagon budget even though those weapons are fundamentally ill suited for the actual wars the U.S. fights in the twenty-first century.

The U.S.’s overwhelming military power is complemented by a system of alliances spanning much of the globe. However, relations with other countries increasingly are managed by the military rather than the State Department, a process that has drastically accelerated under Trump as he and his Secretaries of State have reduced and undermined civilian diplomats. The Defense Department since World War II has cultivated direct ties with their military counterparts elsewhere in the world, as has the Central Intelligence Agency. In addition, the military and CIA sustain independent relations with civilian officials of many foreign governments. The Pentagon has created “commands” for each region of the world, headed by senior generals or admirals, who negotiate directly with both military and civilian officials in the countries of those regions about policy matters that extend far beyond military cooperation. These commands endure across presidential administrations and thus provide more continuity in US strategic policies and in relations with foreign governments than do the civilian side of the U.S. government.

Ties between the U.S. and foreign militaries are further cemented through arms sales since purchasers remain dependent on the U.S. for training and intelligence. Arms sales abroad also bolster manufacturers’ profits, providing a powerful incentive for American capitalists to support their government’s ties to even the most brutal regimes in the world, as we see now with Saudi Arabia. In addition, a third of America’s measly foreign aid budget, which comes to less than 1% of the total Federal budget, is devoted to subsidizing weapons purchases by other countries.

Elite Conflicts and Autarky

The Pentagon’s common interests with capitalists and their increasingly independent links to other governments makes it difficult for civilian officials, including presidents, to challenge the military’s war plans. The Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq wars continued for years after it became clear the commanding generals were delusional about the prospects for victory, and as the death toll of both U.S. soldiers and civilians in the countries the U.S. had invaded mounted. The ongoing Afghan and Iraq wars have been limited, and most US troops withdrawn, only because insurgents in those countries have inflicted US casualties that the American public finds too high.

The military and civilian elites disagree with each other, and among themselves, on how to deal with the growing intensity of insurgent resistance to American domination and invasions. Following the historical example of the British empire, US military officers and civilian officials offer support to indigenous militaries, hoping they can take on the dirty work of suppressing insurgencies and enforcing acquiesce in countries dominated by the US. However, as we have seen in Iraq, local allies make increasing demands on the US. The Status of Forces agreement, signed by the Bush Administration and the Iraqi government right after Obama’s election as president in November 2008, was in substance a document of unconditional surrender by the U.S. to Iraqi nationalist demands. It set a hard date of December 31, 2011 for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops. More significantly, it stated that the bases the U.S. had built in Iraq at a cost of many billions of dollars, and which the Bush Administration planned to use to station planes and troops at the center of the Middle East and thereby intimidate neighboring countries, could not be used to attack any other country without permission of the Iraqi parliament, permission that in light of domestic Iraqi and regional political realities would never be granted.

Elsewhere in the world, once supine governments are able to play off the US against China and Russia. As the US becomes ever less willing to risk its soldiers’ lives or to spend the money needed to sustain extended occupations, and as anti-immigrant fervor stocked by Trump blocks the lure of eventual exile in America to foreign collaborators, it will become ever harder for the US to find foreign allies to fight for it.

We see in the disagreements between Trump and the military high command backed by career diplomats lines of conflict that will continue even after Trump and his particular and extreme sort of corruption and self-dealing have left Washington. At the same time, conflicts among capitalists and with the 99% that have been harmed by neoliberal trade agreements and financialization will further paralyze the American government’s ability to pursue a coherent economic and military policy.

U.S. choices in trade treaties and decisions to overthrow or isolate governments elsewhere in the world reflect the power of American capitalists as a class, and how a shifting set of the most privileged corporations exert that power over the U.S. government. However, financial firms’ interests are increasingly at odds with those of other American corporations that actually need to sell real goods and services if they want to make profits and if their employees hope to keep their jobs. While finance capital has set policy for the last thirty years, opposition led both Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016 to denounce the Trans Pacific Partnership. Intra- capitalist conflicts, combined with mass opposition, mean that it is unlikely that the main method the US has used to dominate other countries— new trade deals—will be enacted in the future.

Some elites, through campaign contributions, lobbying, and corrupt ties to elected officials, still are able to win special protections for their foreign investments. Similarly, even if the US has to abandon intervention in the most resistant and contested parts of the globe, Pentagon generals and admirals still can establish alliances and station troops and weapons in much of the world, locking the US into commitments that could (as they have in the past) lead to war. Elite privilege and command over the resources and lives of the rest of us continues even as its scope narrows when elites challenge one another and where other nations and their elites are able to pursue their own interests against the US.

A Way Forward

What can we in the US do? Do we need to wait passively as the US weakens in relation to other countries and as elites battle one another over a shrinking pie? We need to look at past successes and be strategic in identifying the points at which opposition can be most successful. Support for trade agreements has already disappeared as more and more Americans find their incomes declining, and as their jobs disappear or become ever more precarious. Americans’ ability to see trade agreements and expanding freedoms for banks and financial firms as destructive to their interests can become a template for talking about domestic economic policies.

While the Afghan and Iraq wars have been going on for eighteen and sixteen years respectively, opposition in those countries and within the US made them less bloody than the Vietnam War. A majority in the US turned against the Vietnam War only after 20,000 Americans died. In Iraq the turning point came after 2000 deaths. Unfortunately, in none of those wars have civilian casualties in the countries the US invaded been decisive in building American antiwar sentiment.

While drawing attention to American deaths is chauvinistic and morally compromised, it remains the best way to undermine support for continuing and new wars, and ultimately will save the lives of non-Americans the US would otherwise bomb or invade. Military and economic defeats, and the ever more brazen self-dealing by increasingly small elites, is undermining support for endless and new wars, and for the economic war capitalists are waging against workers in the US and the rest of the world. We need to combine repeated efforts to show the 99% how these elite projects cost them, and also to be alert to divisions among elites so that we can target the most brazen and vulnerable elites for denunciations, boycotts, demonstrations, and strikes.

Dr. Richard Lachmann is professor of sociology at the University of Albany-SUNY. Dr. Lachman is the author of First-Class Passengers on a Sinking Ship: Elite Politics and the Decline of Great Powers.