The United States is the world’s most militarized and belligerent nation. Stating this reality shocks and outrages Washington policymakers. Yet the facts are incontestable, like the sun’s rise.
Last week the Biden administration ordered airstrikes in Syria against Iranian-backed forces. The attack was retaliation for a rocket assault on a U.S. base in Iraq. That event responded to previous US attacks in Iraq, including one which killed several local officials, along with Iranian leader Qasem Soleimani. Alas, the latest bombing won’t stop threats against Americans but will further entangle Washington in Mideast conflict.
The US military should not be engaged in combat involving any of these nations. Yet last week’s action was not unique. A new study from Brown University’s Watson Institute found that between 2018 and 2020 the US backed surrogate forces in combat in four countries, unleashed air and/or drone strikes in seven, engaged in combat operations in eight, undertook military exercises in 41, and participated in military training in 79. All of these were labeled "counter-terrorism" operations.
Washington’s endless "global war on terrorism" has been a notable failure, with ever-increasing terrorist threats attracting ever-expanding military action. US officials obviously have been much better at creating than eradicating terrorism. Which should surprise no one: al-Qaeda arose in response to Washington’s aggressive, militaristic policies, including America’s support for oppressive Arab regimes and Israel’s occupation over millions of Palestinians, military presence in Saudi Arabia, and attacks on Muslim-majority states. Although Americans typically view themselves as innocent Vestal Virgins circling the globe seeking to uplift the world, those suffering under US bombs often violently disagree.
Some anti-terrorism campaigns have morphed into greater conflicts and failures. Candidate Joe Biden joined his predecessor in criticizing these "endless wars," but appears to be doubling down on America’s role as globocop. Eighteen years after joining his Senate colleagues in voting to back George W. Bush’s misbegotten invasion of Iraq, Biden is strengthening a long-term presence there amid warring Shia and Sunni political factions, Iranian-backed militias, autonomous Kurdish forces, and continuing domestic instability.
Of course, ISIS remains a concern, but it would not exist but for the US invasion, which unleashed sectarian war and spawned al-Qaeda in Iraq, which mutated into the Islamic State. Having helped reverse – ironically, in conjunction with the same irregular forces now blamed for attacking US personnel – the 2014 ISIS conquest of much of the country, Washington should return defense responsibilities to Baghdad. The Islamist group’s ideology and disparate clutches of fighters will remain a problem for several Middle Eastern states, but one that the threatened governments and other regional powers can contain.
In truth, America’s Iraq presence was mostly directed against Iran as part of the Trump administration’s misbegotten "maximum pressure" campaign. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s embarrassing "swagger" could not hide the disastrous impact of Washington’s attempt to force Tehran to abandon its independent foreign policy by starving the Iranian people. Iran’s predictable retaliation further destabilized the Middle East, interrupting Gulf oil traffic, wrecking Saudi oil facilities, spurring Iranian nuclear development, and putting US personnel at risk. Quite an achievement for the Trump administration! Now the Biden administration has expanded unnecessary American military operations to Syria to preserve the unnecessary presence in Iraq.
Worse, Biden appears ready to abandon his predecessor’s agreement with the Taliban providing for an American military withdrawal from Afghanistan by May 1. It took US forces just weeks to oust the Taliban and wreck al-Qaeda after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Unfortunately, Washington spent the next two decades in a forlorn effort to create a friendly, stable, centralized, democratic, and effective government where one never previously existed. It was a foolish effort, impossible to achieve, at least at reasonable cost and in reasonable time.
American officials perhaps could be excused for trying a bit of social engineering in a traditional society long ruled at the village and valley level. However, they cannot be forgiven for squandering lives and money year after year in pursuit of the same fantasy. And for attempting to disguise their manifold failures with propaganda and lies, an effort which continues today.
In fall 2019 the Washington Post published a devastating expose of US policy. Explained Craig Whitlock: "A confidential trove of government documents obtained by the Washington Post reveals that senior US officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable." It appears that the Biden administration will be the fourth administration to follow this path, rather than fulfill its moral obligation to bring home American forces.
Even more substantial and dangerous are multiple alliances protecting virtually every prosperous, populous industrialized state from every threat, known and unknown: NATO, South Korea, and Japan, most importantly, along with the far less advanced Philippines. Then there are seemingly endless informal guarantees and ambiguous commitments – to Arab and Gulf states, Israel, Taiwan, Australia, Ukraine, Georgia, and perhaps others.
These far-ranging ties bring the US up against nuclear-armed powers, most notably China and Russia, which believe that they have substantial, even vital, security interests at stake throughout the same regions. Moreover, it is America’s globe-spanning presence, as well as willingness to bomb, invade, and occupy most any nation at any time for any reason, which encouraged North Korea to develop and both Iran and Iraq to previously pursue nuclear weapons. If Pyongyang ever uses nukes against America, it will be in response to US actions or threats against the North.
America’s global military presence befits praetorian guardians of an empire, not armed forces of a republic. Conducted in the name of defense, most of these activities have little to do with protecting America – population, territory, liberties, or prosperity. Instead, this massive military presence is designed to promote US military hegemony and economic and political influence. Washington hopes to keep potential competitors weak and even friends mostly helpless and forever dependent on America. The US also expects to engage in social engineering anywhere and everywhere on earth.
This activist foreign policy also constantly spurs expansion of the military-industrial complex. Even today’s fractured and selfish Congress could not easily mulct taxpayers for the benefit of such interests without a security pretext. Patrolling the globe and asserting "vital" interests where none exist, such as last week in Iran, Iraq, and Syria, provide convenient excuses. America’s perpetual warfare state also gives members of the infamous Blob – the complex gaggle dominated by factotums, hangers-on, hacks, sycophants, and other policy parasites – power, purpose, position, prosperity, and prestige. Indeed, it is war, and all that results from conflict, that most gives Blobsters their raison d’etre.
In 2016 Donald Trump’s tirades against endless wars led some Americans to hope that he would break with the bipartisan pro-war consensus. Alas, whatever his personal predilections, he surrounded himself with war hawks who preserved, and sometimes expanded, existing military commitments. His reckless "fire and fury" threats against North Korea and disastrous "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran risked triggering major regional conflicts. And his election-minded truculence toward China increased chances of conflict with that nuclear power.
Barely a month after taking the oath of office, Biden has demonstrated that he, too, remains a captive of the nation’s militaristic status quo. After two decades of mostly unnecessary and stupid wars, Americans deserve to live in peace. Unfortunately, they will have to again wait for a candidate to put their interests before that of Washington’s bipartisan War Party.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. He is a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan and the author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.