The United States has adopted a foreign policy of permanent low-level warfare against the wishes of its people. The use of U.S. military power has become so pervasive that nobody seems to know how many wars America is fighting.
The Odyssey Online blog claimed American forces were waging war in seven countries last year, but other estimates are as low as five. Common sense indicates the number of conflicts America is involved in is probably much higher; because most of the deployment consists of limited actions like drone strikes, “training missions,” and commando raids.
No nation has been involved in as many military operations in as many places since the heyday of the British Empire in the late 19th Century. The irony is that the United States is not an imperialistic nation, yet its military commitments may exceed those of Queen Victoria’s empire.
Uncle Sam the Reluctant Imperialist
Late 19th Century Britain was a highly imperialistic nation where most people were very proud of their Empire. Many of them followed the exploits of Her Majesty’s Forces in the newspapers, and most educated Britons believed in white superiority and Britain’s mission to spread Christian civilization.
Most Americans, in contrast, are ashamed of their empire. Many of them go out of their way to ignore news about U.S. military actions. Neoconservatives that voice opinions about the superiority of Western Civilization; or America’s mission to the world are viewed as dangerous cranks and ignored by voters.
Despite those differences making war seems to get easier and easier in America. The peace movement seems to be dead and noninterventionism is rapidly becoming a bad joke. The more America fights, the less the public seems to oppose the wars.
Voters don’t want Interventionism yet it is America’s Foreign Policy
The most curious aspect of American interventionism is that voters do not want it. U.S. voters have elected four presidents in a row that promised a noninterventionist foreign policy.
Bill Clinton (D-Arkansas), George W. Bush (R-Texas), (Barrack Obama D-Illinois) and Donald J. Trump (R-New York) all ran on the promise of a smaller American footprint in the world. Three of them explicitly promised noninterventionism to voters. Bush offered a “humble foreign policy,” Obama promised a civilized dialogue with the rest of the world, and Trump revived the World War II-era America First ideology.
Tellingly, only one of them Clinton attempted to deliver on such promises by trying to ignore the situations in nations like Iraq, Rwanda, and Afghanistan. Obama reduced troop deployments but kept up the actual fighting. Bush waged all-out war after September 11, and Trump is expanding military operations.
An obvious inference here is that voters simply do not care about interventionism. The major reason for that is today’s wars are fought by a tiny, elite professional military recruited from a small segment of society. No male voter lives in fear of the draft, and every parent and grandparent understands that there is no possibility of conscription of his or her child or grandchild.
The modern American military is highly reminiscent of the armed forces of Victorian Britain. That is small, proud, professional, and thoroughly rural and working class. Like Queen Victoria’s army, the U.S. Armed Forces are widely admired but treated like cannon fodder.
The Cold War and the Hot 21st Century
Another interesting development is that the US has become far more warlike in the supposedly peaceful 21st Century than it was during the Cold War.
During the Cold War years (1945-1989) the United States was involved in two major conflicts; Korea and Vietnam, a score of lesser conflicts, Grenada, Dominican Republic, Lebanon, etc. Outside of Vietnam, Cold War military actions tended to be short and sweet; the Marines went in and came out fast.
In the Post-Cold War era (1990-?), the U.S. has been involved in three major conflicts the Persian Gulf War, Afghanistan, and the Second Iraq War. There have been dozens of lesser campaigns including; Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Niger, Liberia, to name a few.
Post-Cold War interventions seem to drag on forever – much like Victorian colonial wars. U.S. troops have been fighting in Afghanistan since 2001, Iraq since 2003, various parts of Africa for well over a decade, and Syria for several years.
Why can’t Modern Wars End?
This raises a troubling question, why did Cold War interventions usually end swiftly while modern deployments seem endless. The interesting answer might be the Cold War itself.
During the Cold War, the United States had to maintain a specific level of forces in Europe and Japan in case the Russians did something. Military planners simply could not afford to divert large amounts of forces elsewhere. A large reserve of forces was also needed at home in case of Russian moves elsewhere in the world.
The fear of an accidental conflict with Russian or Chinese forces that might lead to World War III and nuclear conflict also limited interventions. Examples of this limitation abound in our history books.
The U.S. refused to invade North Vietnam out of fear of a conflict with China. President Jimmy Carter (D-Georgia) ended U.S. operations in Angola out of fear of conflict with Russian and Cuban troops there, and the U.S. tolerated a substantial Soviet military presence in Cuba; in direct defiance of the Monroe Doctrine, for nearly 30 years.
Facing similar constraints, the Soviets stayed out of many conflicts they might have benefited from participating in, such as the South American “Dirty Wars” of the 1970s. The Red Army needed to keep most of its troops in Europe to counter American moves, which limited the Soviet Union’s strategic reach. Adding to the restraint was the fact that the leaders in the Kremlin were just as afraid of accidental war as those in the Oval Office were.
There are no such limitations in today’s world; there is no threat of invasion of Europe or Japan. Nor is there a serious threat of war between the major powers, despite the occasional hysterical headline.
That means no large reserve of forces to counter an aggressive enemy is needed. There is no military reason not to send extra troops to the trouble spot of the week.
There were sound and logical military and strategic reasons to oppose interventionism during the Cold War. Today, there are no valid military or strategic arguments against interventionism.
Welcome to the Era of Permanent Low-Level Warfare
The ability of U.S., Russian, and Iranian forces to operate simultaneously in Syria without conflict makes more interventions likely.
There is no fear that the presence of American and Russian and Chinese troops in the same area will lead to shooting war. The fear that some incompetent second lieutenant will start World War III by misreading the map no longer exists.
All this means that the current state of permanent low-level war is likely to continue for at least another decade or longer. It also means that the next President will run on the same non-interventionist pledges as the last four and promptly break them.
War it seems has become the new normal. Perhaps we should welcome it, Britain’s massive colonial deployment in the 19th Century only ended in the buildup to World War I.