Waging War Only When Necessary

Washington is filled with politicians, policy analysts, journalists, pundits, and other know-it-alls. Why did it take seven and a half years after the Bush administration took office for one insider to make the simple observation: wars “should only be waged when necessary.”

That’s true, of course. Indeed, it should be self-evidently true. Yet the president, vice president, secretary of state, secretary of defense, national security adviser, and a host of hanger-ons and members of the chattering class apparently don’t get it. Only former press secretary Scott McClellan, and he only after he was unceremoniously fired.

For most policymakers, wars apparently remain a matter of choice, just another tool to employ whenever convenient. You can send a diplomatic note, cut diplomatic relations, impose economic sanctions, or bomb a country into the Stone Age. They are all the same, just different options for achieving the same end.

Yet there are reasons military action should be a last resort rather than a first response. To start, it’s expensive. President George W. Bush is proposing total military spending in excess of $700 billion (including money for Afghanistan and Iraq) next year because intervention is costly.

Most of those outlays have nothing to do with defending America. There are no land or sea threats to the U.S. – no country is in a position to deploy army units in a Blitzkrieg attack to conquer America or land an amphibious force to occupy the U.S. coasts. Planes could bomb America, but what country has an air force capable of doing so?

The only serious danger is nuclear, but against states large and small deterrence has worked for more than 50 years. Terrorism is the most active threat, but cannot be stopped by America’s abundant military capabilities. The war in Iraq has worsened the problem of terrorism; our greatest successes have come in cooperating with friendly states to kill and capture operatives and dry up financing.

Most of America’s so-called defense budget goes to offense, the capability to attack other nations. And that’s expensive. The U.S. wants forces modern and powerful enough to overwhelm a defensive force, which requires a multiple of firepower over the opponent, as well as a means of getting there. For instance, despite all of the recent chatter about China’s military build-up, that nation has no aircraft carriers, while America has 11. The purpose of those powerful weapons is not to defend the U.S. from China but to attack China if the U.S. decides doing so is somehow in America’s interest.

So when the “war is an option” crowd decries today’s allegedly inadequate level of military spending, what it means is that current outlays aren’t high enough to guarantee Washington superiority on every continent, including along the borders of such nations as China, India, and Russia. Only by spending more, much more, can the U.S. keep war as an option to “resolve” most every issue with most every country.

The second reason for restraining the war lust of otherwise meek and mild policymakers is the cost in blood. True, some hawks don’t let this bother them. They say the four or so thousand dead Americans in Iraq are but a small proportion of those who died in Vietnam. Relatively small the number might be, but it doesn’t make the loss any less tragic. Especially since one must also count the large number of wounded and especially maimed.

Moreover, not just Americans die. The toll of Iraqis has been variously estimated in the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and over one million. Whatever the number, for Iraqis the conflict has been anything but a “splendid little war,” as the Spanish-American War was once called.

Another reason is the fact that wars almost always turn out differently, and far worse, than originally predicted. There have been times when the initiator of a war found the conflict to go as expected, or better, but not many times. Far more often, the aggressor, as, ahem, in Iraq, has found the predicted cakewalk to be spoiled by reality.

Indeed, wars aren’t just messier than expected. They almost always result in unintended consequences. Today’s “war as a choice” activists might believe that the U.S. can bomb and invade nations around the world without limit, but terrorism, for instance, is a consequence of intervention. That doesn’t make it right, but individuals and groups who believe that family members, friends, and members of their community died at the hand of Uncle Sam are likely to strike out.

Fourth, conflicts rarely end as easily as projected. Iraq, again, is an obvious example: get rid of Saddam Hussein, put corrupt exile Ahmed Chalabi in charge, and Iraq will become a dutiful puppet state. Oops. Five years out, we’re told that we still can’t leave, even though we are winning, because the Iraqis might fall upon each other in a blood fury. So America has to aid one group of Shia militants linked to Iran against another group of Shia militants linked to Iran. When will it end? Not for a century or more, according to Sen. John McCain.

Thankfully, even some analysts whom might have expected to be sympathetic to proposals to invade Burma to forcibly aid the Burmese people after the recent cyclone held back. They pointed to the many political and ethnic fractures in that nation and asked: then what? The U.S. would have acquired yet another failed state to reconstitute and divided society to remake. How long would that occupation have to last?

The fifth reason to reject war as just another policy is that it inevitably deforms the American republic. Presumably the U.S. government goes to war to advance the interests of the nation. Integral to America is its republican values – protection of individual liberty and insistence on limited government. But as Randolph Bourne famously said, “war is the health of the state.” Militarization of civilian society, centralization of power in Washington, socialization of the economy, and creation of a national security state are all consequences of a war “all the time, whenever is convenient” mentality. Indeed, the merest dissent to an undeclared, unnecessary, and mishandled conflict is attacked as treason and defeatism by the acolytes of war. For some advocates of the Iraq war, allegiance to President George W. Bush apparently is considered a precondition to allegiance to America.

Finally, the belief that Washington should “give war a chance” to advance the most modest of ends represents the worst sort of hubris, the belief that Americans have been anointed to engage in global social engineering, to coercively remake the world in their own image. It presumes a perfectibility of people and societies not evident in America, let alone the diverse communities that circle the globe. And it assumes a level of knowledge and understanding of foreign traditions, histories, cultures, and places rarely present among American leaders. The U.S., and the U.S. alone, has a right to declare “what we say goes,” backed by the threat to unleash death and destruction, constrained by no other nation, people, or institution on earth.

Scott McClellan might not have realized it, but he spoke a truth equally commonplace and profound when he declared that war “should only be waged when necessary.” There is much more in his portrait of the Bush administration to disturb, though not surprise. But the most important lesson for the American people is to choose only leaders, of whatever party or philosophy, who have internalized what might be called “McClellan’s Law.”

Read more by Doug Bandow