Ultimately Primacy Is Its Own Justification (Imperial rule #12)

Summary:   A guest post by Bernard Finel provides a deeper explanation for our love of foreign wars, wars often with only tenuous connections to our national interest.

This piece from David Axe at Wired (Why the U.S. Should Send Troops (and Spooks) to the Congo) has gotten a bit of attention:

Problem is, Congo can’t handle the task of taking down the LRA. With just 300 miles of paved roads in the whole country and no air force to speak of, the Congolese military can’t move fast enough to keep up with the LRA. Besides, the Congolese army has been cobbled together from various former rebel groups plus troops inherited from the country’s previous regime. “There is very little discipline,” Marcel Stoessel, Congo director for the aid group Oxfam U.K., said of the Congolese army. To beat the LRA, Congo needs help from an army adept at locating elusive groups in rough terrain, and an air force trained to speed small, lethal teams to the battle zone. Sound like any military we know?

From a response at the Fabius Maximus website:

It requires no rebuttal, as Axe barely bothers to state reasons.  Injustice!  Minerals!  Easy victory!  Perhaps he assumes that the American public has become so well-trained that little more than a dog whistle suffices, leading us to war.  Too bad we no longer have many conservatives, folks advocating small government and only necessary foreign wars.

It also reminds me of recent news coming out of Yemen about our increased military assistance in that country. This story prompted a wonderful outburst from Gulliver at Ink Spots:

A dude tried to get on an airplane in the U.S. with a bomb in his pants, and this is causing confusion about whether to give a country on the other side of the planet ONE POINT TWO BILLION DOLLARS in helos, patrol boats, and small arms.

Let’s just reflect for a second on the stupidity of this.

Yes, let’s. 

The fundamental problem for the United States is that primacy has become its own justification.  Because we are everywhere, threats anywhere engage our interests requiring us… to be everywhere.  Foreign interventions — whether military, political, diplomatic, or economic — require no further justification in terms of national interest.  They are assumed to be justified by virtue of our global presence.  It is the ultimate self-licking ice cream cone.

Because we perceive ourselves as already committed, we then engage in a process of rationalization of our interventionist impulse.  Unfortunately this is an easy task. Since the world is messy, it is pretty easy to construct a geopolitical, economic, humanitarian, or reputational justification for acting everywhere and anywhere.  Something bad (or potentially bad) is happening everywhere, and something bad happening anywhere is assumed to implicate American interests sufficiently to justify intervention.

As a result, we don’t use our power only where such interventions are required, but we use it instead everywhere except when a compelling argument against intervention exists.  American foreign policy begins with the presumption of intervention, and those of us arguing for restraint are required to make an affirmative case for it.  And not only must restraint make an affirmative case, it must make a case that is compelling beyond the shadow of a doubt.  Successfully advocating restrain often requires, in short, proving a negative — that nothing bad will happens if we fail to act.  In Afghanistan, for instance, even the possibility that a terrorist attack might be planned there in the future is justification for an annual expenditure of $100 billion.

What is fascinating about something like Congo is that the case against is so strong that restraint is still likely to hold.  And yet, this is not the first bite at this apple.  Last year, the Washington Post decided to give Mike O’Hanlon space to advocate {here}:

Problems like Congo, Darfur and Somalia tend to get solved only with U.S. leadership. And the United States cannot truly lead on this issue while resisting any role for its own ground forces. It is time to recognize the contradiction of pretending otherwise and get on with a solution.

As the article at the FM website points out:

From the FM career counseling service for aspiring geopolitical experts:  Advocate war.  Always.  Everywhere.  Any war is a good war, no matter how preposterous its justification.

That is surprisingly good advice.  There seems to be no downside.  There are no negative consequences for recommending an endless series of interventions.  Instead, you rapidly develop the reputation as a forward-thinker, a hard-nosed analyst who recognizes how dangerous the world is.  Just like the middle manager buying IBM, no one in Washington has ever been fired to recommending primacy.  Heck, not only do you not get fired, it is one of the best ways to get promoted.

And yet, back in the real world, the costs of these choices are devastating.  5,000 dead American servicemen since 9/11.  Over 30,000 wounded, many permanently maimed.  $1 trillion in additional debt to pass on to future generations.  American involvement in the domestic politics of dozens of nations in ways to breed resentment and will create blowback risks for a generation.

About the author

Bernard Finel currently serves as Associate Professor of National Security Strategy at the National War College. His views are his alone and do not represent the position of the National War College, National Defense University, or the Department of Defense.

Before that he was senior fellow at the American Security Project, a non-partisan think tank located in Washington, DC.  Previously, he was an Associate Professor of Strategy and Policy at the National War College and Executive Director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University.

At his website he writes about politics, national security, crime and justice, and social commentary.  He holds a BA in international relations from Tufts University and an MA and Ph.D. in international relations from Georgetown.

Some posts about the American Empire

For a full list see the FM reference page America’s Empire.

  1. Prof Nouriel Roubini describes “The Decline of the American Empire”, 18 August 2008
  2. The foundation of America’s empire: our chain of bases around the world, 8 September 2008
  3. “A shattering moment in America’s fall from power”, 19 November 2008
  4. “End of Empire” by David Roche, 29 November 2008
  5. Geopolitical implications of the current economic downturn, 24 January 2009 
  6. To understand the Imperial Unconscious, Tom provides the Dictionary of American Empire-Speak, 6 March 2009
  7. Team Obama, guardians of the American Empire (did you expect anything else?), 14 April 2009
  8. New bases in Afghanistan – more outposts of America’s Empire, 21 May 2009
  9. Niall Ferguson, poet-laureate of the American Empire, 27 May 2009
  10. A wonderful discussion about the American Empire, 24 June 2009
  11. “Welcome to 2025 – American Preeminence Is Disappearing Fifteen Years Early” by Michael Klare, 7 March 2010

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