One big advantage the war party has is the public’s ignorance about the activities of the far-flung American empire. Although frustrating, that ignorance is easy to understand and has been explained countless times by writers in the public choice tradition. Most people are too busy with their lives, families, and communities to pay the close attention required to know that the empire exists and what it is up to. The opportunity cost of paying attention is huge, considering that the payoff is so small: even a well-informed individual could not take decisive action to rein in the out-of-control national security state. One vote means nothing, and being knowledgeable about the U.S. government’s nefarious foreign policy is more likely to alienate friends and other people than influence them. Why give up time with family and friends just so one can be accused of “hating America”?
In light of this systemic rational ignorance, we must be grateful when a prominent institution acknowledges how much the government intervenes around the world. Such an acknowledgment came from the New York Times editorial board this week. The editorial drips with irony since the Times has done so much to gin up public support for America’s imperial wars. (See, for example, its 2001-02 coverage of Iraq and its phantom WMD.) Still, the piece is noteworthy.
The Oct. 22 editorial, “America’s Forever Wars,” began:
The United States has been at war continuously since the attacks of 9/11 and now has just over 240,000 active-duty and reserve troops in at least 172 countries and territories.
That alone ought to come as a shock to nearly all Americans. The UN has 193 member states — and the US government has a military presence in at least 89 percent of them! The Times does not mention that the government also maintains at least 800 military bases and installations around the world. That’s a big government we’re talking about. And empires are bloody expensive.
The Times went on:
While the number of men and women deployed overseas has shrunk considerably over the past 60 years, the military’s reach has not. American forces are actively engaged not only in the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen that have dominated the news, but also in Niger and Somalia, both recently the scene of deadly attacks, as well as Jordan, Thailand and elsewhere.
The editorial writer might have mentioned that the US government has been bombing seven Muslim countries for years when you count Pakistan and Libya. Civilian casualties were high under Barack Obama and are growing under Donald Trump. Having an alleged isolationist in the White House hasn’t done much for the long-suffering Muslims in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa.
The Times then provided this useful tidbit: “An additional 37,813 troops serve on presumably secret assignment in places listed simply as ‘unknown.’ The Pentagon provided no further explanation.”
Unknown, that is, to the people whom in theory the government is of, by, and for. Under the government’s actual operating principle, no explanation is required. Who the hell do the people think they are anyway?
To its credit, the Times reminded us “there are traditional deployments in Japan (39,980 troops) and South Korea (23,591) … along with 36,034 troops in Germany, 8,286 in Britain and 1,364 in Turkey – all NATO allies. There are 6,524 troops in Bahrain and 3,055 in Qatar, where the United States has naval bases.”
The writer suggested these are defensive deployments. I guess it’s too much to expect the Times to acknowledge that the US government has a knack for creating the threats it then claims it must defend against.
The editorial writer pointed out that
America’s operations in conflict zones like those in Africa are expanding: 400 American Special Forces personnel in Somalia train local troops fighting the Shabab Islamist group, providing intelligence and sometimes going into battle with them. One member of the Navy SEALs was killed there in a mission in May. On Oct. 14, a massive attack widely attributed to the Shabab on a Mogadishu street killed more than 270 people, which would show the group’s increased reach. About 800 troops are based in Niger, where four Green Berets died on Oct. 4.
The US presence in Niger was surely news to most people — it certainly was to senior members of the US Senate. One of them, warhawk Lindsey Graham, anticipates that Africa will be America’s next major battlefield. A few members of Congress object that the post-9/11 authorization for military force has become a blank check for US operations anywhere and everywhere, but rather than passing a new AUMF, Congress should stop all overseas operations. They endanger Americans, not to mention the people who live in the targeted societies (For the US role in the horrors wracking in Somalia, see this. Regarding Niger, see this and the links therein.)
Many of these forces are engaged in counterterrorism operations – against the Taliban in Afghanistan, for instance….
Hold on there, New York Times editorial writer. The Taliban is a terrorist organization? They ruled Afghanistan when Osama bin Laden and his then-small al-Qaeda organization operated there, but that does not make the Taliban a terrorist organization, no matter what other bad things you may justly say about them. Resistance to an invading army (America’s) falls outside the definition of terrorism. When the same people resisted the Soviets, Americans labeled them “freedom fighters.”
…against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria; against an affiliate of Al Qaeda in Yemen.
Here the writer fails his readers miserably. The US bombing of al-Qaeda in Yemen is mentioned, but not America’s complicity in Saudi Arabia’s genocidal bombing and blockade of Yemen — a war (against alleged by not actual Iranian proxies) that helps al-Qaeda by creating violent chaos like that in Libya. (Some members of Congress are trying to stop Trump from waging this war. Let’s help them succeed.)
Summing up, the Times is right: “it’s time to take stock of how broadly American forces are already committed to far-flung regions and to begin thinking hard about how much of that investment is necessary, how long it should continue and whether there is a strategy beyond just killing terrorists.” Or, I’d add, whether the strategy is really about killing terrorists at all when even top military people acknowledge that US actions in the Muslim world create terrorists.
Yet we have little cause for optimism:
The Pentagon … thrives. After some belt-tightening during the financial crisis, it has a receptive audience in Congress and the White House as it pushes for more money to improve readiness and modernize weapons. Senators … approved a $700 billion defense budget for 2017-18, far more than Mr. Trump even requested.
Whether this largess will continue is unclear. But the larger question involves the American public and how many new military adventures, if any, it is prepared to tolerate.
We can hope against hope that the Times and other high-profile media outlets will finally begin to put the US empire under a microscope.
Sheldon Richman is the executive editor of The Libertarian Institute, senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society, and a contributing editor at Antiwar.com. He is the former senior editor at the Cato Institute and Institute for Humane Studies, former editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education, and former vice president at the Future of Freedom Foundation. His latest book is America’s Counter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited.