Why This War?

Glenn Greenwald has a fascinating piece in The Intercept making the case that the "war on terrorism" is going to be "endless," as he puts it. From a decade to twenty years to Leon Panetta’s recent pronouncement that "I think we’re looking at kind of a thirty years war," Greenwald painstakingly documents statements by Obama administration officials essentially showing that they see the war as having no geographic or temporal limit. And that’s not the worst of it: he goes on to show that not only Panetta but also the person "likely to be the next American president" is projecting our current Middle East intervention into the indefinite future.

Whether Hillary Clinton is "likely" to occupy the White House is debatable, but it’s hard to argue with Greenwald’s conclusion. "At this point," he writes,

"It is literally inconceivable to imagine the U.S. not at war. It would be shocking if that happened in our lifetime. US officials are now all but openly saying this. ‘Endless War’ is not dramatic rhetorical license but a precise description of America’s foreign policy."

Indeed, all of this is indisputable, and yet it leads us to ask: Why? What are we getting out of this Sisyphean slaughter? Greenwald thinks he has the answer;

"It’s not hard to see why. A state of endless war justifies ever-increasing state power and secrecy and a further erosion of rights. It also entails a massive transfer of public wealth to the "homeland security" and weapons industry (which the US media deceptively calls the ‘defense sector’)."

He then takes us through the details of how much the military-industrial complex has profited – and will continue to profit – from America’s wars. The piece is helpfully illustrated with graphs showing the skyrocketing gains enjoyed by stockholders in such companies as Lockheed-Martin, Northrup-Grumman, Raytheon, and General Dynamics. Greenwald concludes with the observation that the War on Terror "was designed to be endless." Power and profit will flow to the Usual Suspects, in spite of election outcomes, because the conflict "has no discernible enemy and no identifiable limits."

And the motive? Material and psychological profit: not only will the politically-connected war profiteers make out like bandits, but:

"This war – in all its ever-changing permutations – thus enables an endless supply of power and profit to flow to those political and economic factions that control the government regardless of election outcomes. And that’s all independent of the vicarious sense of joy, purpose and fulfillment which the sociopathic Washington class derives from waging risk-free wars, as Adam Smith so perfectly described in Wealth of Nations 235 years ago:

"’In great empires the people who live in the capital, and in the provinces remote from the scene of action, feel, many of them, scarce any inconveniency from the war; but enjoy, at their ease, the amusement of reading in the newspapers the exploits of their own fleets and armies. To them this amusement compensates the small difference between the taxes which they pay on account of the war, and those which they had been accustomed to pay in time of peace. They are commonly dissatisfied with the return of peace, which puts an end to their amusement, and to a thousand visionary hopes of conquest and national glory from a longer continuance of the war.’" [emphasis in original]

All this is true: the political class gets its kicks, as well as its stock dividends, out of America’s hegemonic position in world affairs. How else do we explain the existence of an entire community of foreign policy wonks, mostly resident in the Washington, D.C. area, who spend all their time drawing up plans for US meddling in every far corner of the globe? That hardly a single one of these ladies and gentlemen is raising so much as a mild objection to our latest incursion is entirely unsurprising: these people are like a swarm of deadly midges, moving in a cloud to descend on whatever target our leaders point to.

Yet this hardly explains enough: after all, there are limits to what the United States – or any single nation – can do to determine the course of world events. Our resources are finite. So why are they being stretched to the breaking point? Why are we flirting with economic disaster as more and more of our tax dollars are shipped overseas to prop up a constantly-threatened empire while our economy is suffering from the "vampire effect" – the draining of productive resources (capital) into the sinkhole of imperialism? Is it to feed the profit margins of Raytheon? Is it to make Eli Lake feel better?

The answer is: neither. While the economic and psychological benefits to the political class are reasons why the Washington crowd continues to support our foreign policy of endless war, this doesn’t tell us what they are supporting. That is, it doesn’t tell us what the reigning ideology of empire is all about.

American imperialism, born amid the ashes of World War II, isn’t about profits for the "defense" industry: it isn’t even about the thrill the neocons get whenever we bomb yet another defenseless Muslim country. It’s about what that thrill tells us about the dominant ideas of America’s political class.

America’s ruling elite has been "progressive" since the dawn of modernity, right before the first world war. Anticipating the social and economic changes war would bring, the editors of The New Republic exulted in the prospect of a major conflict, as Murray Rothbard pointed out in his classic essay, "World War I as Fulfillment: Power and the Intellectuals":

"In his editorial in the magazine’s first issue in November 1914, Herbert Croly cheerily prophesied that the war would stimulate America’s spirit of nationalism and therefore bring it closer to democracy. At first hesitant about the collectivist war economies in Europe, The New Republic soon began to cheer and urged the United States to follow the lead of the warring European nations and socialize its economy and expand the powers of the State. 

"As America prepared to enter the war, The New Republic, examining war collectivism in Europe, rejoiced that ‘on its administrative side socialism [had] won a victory that [was] superb and compelling.’ True, European war collectivism was a bit grim and autocratic, but never fear, America could use the selfsame means for ‘democratic’ goals. 

"The New Republic intellectuals also delighted in the ‘war spirit’ in America, for that spirit meant ‘the substitution of national and social and organic forces for the more or less mechanical private forces operative in peace.’ The purposes of war and social reform might be a bit different, but, after all, ‘they are both purposes, and luckily for mankind a social organization which is efficient is as useful for the one as for the other.’ Lucky indeed.

As America prepared to enter the war, the New Republic eagerly looked forward to imminent collectivization, sure that it would bring “immense gains in national efficiency and happiness.” After war was declared, the magazine urged that the war be used as “an aggressive tool of democracy.”

“’Why should not the war serve,’ the magazine asked, ‘as a pretext to be used to foist innovations upon the country?’ In that way, progressive intellectuals could lead the way in abolishing ‘the typical evils of the sprawling half-educated competitive capitalism.’"

It’s interesting that the central theme of Greenwald’s piece – and a major theme of his activities as a public intellectual – has been to underscore the warmongering of ostensible liberals, whom, one would presume, would take a default position against war. Yet this expectation is a vestige of the cold war era, when some liberals stood up against the constant state of "crisis" the global struggle against Communism provoked – or, at least, they stood up against its domestic manifestations, i.e. McCarthyism and the witch-hunting it inspired.

Yet the cold war was inaugurated by the liberal Democratic administration of Harry Truman, who presided over the creation of NATO, the Marshall Plan, and the Korean war – the first war in which the President unilaterally committed US troops to combat without a vote in Congress. And it was the so-called cold war liberals, such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., later to become official hagiographer to the Kennedys, who attacked their fellow liberals – and right-wing "isolationists" – for not being hard-line enough in opposing the Kremlin’s alleged plan for world domination.

In a piece for The Atlantic Monthly, Schlesinger savaged Sen. Robert A. Taft and former President Herbert Hoover for suggesting that the real threat to American liberties came not from the Kremlin but from our own political class, which was all too eager to impose crippling taxes and draconian regulations on free enterprise in the name of "national security." This "New Isolationism," Schlesinger averred, was just as dangerous and misguided as the older pre-World War II variety, a doctrine that, "without McCarthyism," is simply "appeasement."

By the way, the impetus for Schlesinger’s piece was the alleged threat of a communist takeover of Indochina – the site of what was to shortly become the graveyard of tens of thousands of American soldiers. And that war was brought to us not by conservatives – who by that time had ditched their "isolationist" coloration and taken on more belligerent hues – but by dyed-in-the-wool liberals of Schlesinger’s sort: the Kennedy administration, which upped our commitment to the Saigon regime, and the Johnson regime, which escalated the conflict until it brought down Johnson’s presidency, which ended in disaster and humiliation.

The massive effort we call the cold war wasn’t driven by the profit margins of the "defense" industry, although that was a contributing factor: nor was it made possible by the personal proclivities and psychological tics of our leading politicians, although that, too, contributed to the mix. Yes, the thrill experienced by the policy nomenklatura in knowing that their opinions can move – and blast to smithereens – mountains is palpable, but that response is elicited by a cohered ideology of domination that animates our empire-builders.

This ideology has a name: we call it "progressivism." It has a long history, starting with Teddy Roosevelt and his intellectual publicists, continuing through the Great War and the run-up to World War II – when it was the left that was screaming for US intervention in the European conflict – and its aftermath.

Based on ignorance not only of economics but of human nature itself, and imbued with religious elements that date all the way back to the post-millennial pietism of the great fundamentalist revival of the early nineteenth century, American progressivism has evolved until it has taken on all the elements of an expansionist, supremely militaristic ideology. It is a creed based on the assumption that government power must be utilized to lift up the ignorant masses: to not only feed, clothe, and educate them, but also to ensure their perfect safety.

Thus, it becomes imperative to make sure that only the State has access to guns – otherwise, someone might hurt either themselves or someone else. It becomes a requirement that we wear safety belts when driving – because the ultimate purpose of government is to wrap us all in its all-embracing cocoon. And if a band of savages bellows that they hate the United States, and are determined to destroy it – from their base in the wilds of Afghanistan – well, then, it’s fairly obvious that we have to send our armies out there to make sure they don’t have a "safe haven" in which to carry out their insidious plots.

Once our progressives had transformed the old America into an experimental laboratory for their social engineering projects, it was only natural that these crusading "idealists" would turn their sights on the rest of the world. Not content to thrust the paw of government power into every aspect of our lives here in America, the nation’s do-gooders are intent on exporting their do-goodism to the four corners of the globe.

This is why our foreign policy consists of "endless war," as Greenwald puts it: because if your goal is world domination, then the war to establish a global authority – with Washington as its capital – must be necessarily open-ended. That’s because there will always be resistance to such a project: once a rebellion is put down in the Middle East, for example, another one is more than likely to pop up in Africa, or eastern Europe, or someplace else.

Greenwald traces the policy of perpetual war only as far back as the beginning of the so-called War on Terror – roughly, September 11, 2001 – but if we look at the actual timeline of America’s wars we can see that the current series of US interventions really started with the fall of the Soviet Union. After that signal event, which left the US as the world’s sole superpower, Washington launched the Kosovo war, the first Iraq war, and the long prelude to the second Iraq war anticipated by Bill Clinton’s almost continuous bombing campaign.

With the Soviets out of the way, the United States and its allies undertook a campaign to seize as much territory as possible – and establish the hegemony of the West on a global scale. The 9/11 attacks merely gave them the domestic support they needed to carry this project through to the end.

Well-meaning liberals of Greenwald’s sort are invaluable allies in the day-to-day struggle against the Empire, and yet we should not imagine that – as long as they maintain their allegiance to this or that aspect of progressivism – they are capable of understanding the real nature of the enemy. The task of libertarians in the present epoch is to make them understand.


You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.

I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).

You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].