Small Wars Journal 2011-8-24
Building on the earlier works of Andrew Bacevich’s Washington Rules and Robert Kaplan’s Imperial Grunts, Stephen Glain’s State vs. Defense provides a thought provoking, compelling historical revision to United States Foreign Policy. Well researched, his findings demand consideration as we try to understand who we are, where we have been, and where we want to go in the future. His initial interviews sparked controversy at Foreign Policy and Salon, and we asked him to join the conversation at Small Wars Journal in order to talk through his specific thoughts and recommendations for our nation. Regardless of your individual views on the subject, I would ask that you consider Steve’s voice and critique. This book is high on my recommendation list. – Mike Few, SWJ editor.
Your book, State versus Defense, builds upon the concept that the United States, as the world’s only superpower, is an empire with a militarized foreign policy securing the periphery. What life experiences led you to this conclusion?
It’s hard to live in Asia and the Middle East, as I have as a journalist, and not be struck by the scope of the U.S. military’s presence overseas and the depth of its influence on American foreign policy. While in Asia, to cite just one example, I saw how the Pentagon worked behind the scenes during the 1997-1998 currency crisis to ensure a generous response by international institutions for the sake of its strategic allies. In the Arab world, U.S. embassies have become more fortress-like listening posts and flag billets than sources of diplomatic and cultural outreach. Now that the Pentagon has its own funding authority, it can sidestep the State Department in establishing close relations with foreign governments. Whether or not that is a good thing, there’s no denying that it further marginalizes the diplomatic side of the profile America projects abroad.
I might add that the notion of American empire and militarization is hardly notional for foreigners like the Okinawans, who for generations have dwelled alongside a sprawling Marine base, or among residents of South Korea’s Jeju island, who are challenging plans to build a major naval installation there ostensibly on America’s behalf. At the same time, the indulgence by Washington of autocrats who accommodate U.S. bases even as they bully their citizens at home – most recently in Bahrain, for example – fuels the assumption that American empire is not only real but malign.
In 1932, George Kennan, tasked with providing an analysis on the Soviet Union’s future, concluded that “the system falls to pieces.” You offer that Kennan hypothesized long before World War Two that the ideology of communism was not a real long-term threat to the United States. Moreover, your central argument involves the misinterpretation of George Kennan’s “The Long Telegram” as a spark for increased American involvement in other’s internal affairs. Was the threat of communism and the Cold War manufactured, and is it more accurate to state that in the 1950’s, this containment morphed from a realist, physical containment of Sovietism into Europe and the Middle East to a much more ideological containment of “Communism?”
James Forrestal, Truman’s Secretary of the Navy and a tragically deranged man, used to speak of communism as a cult. One could say the same thing about the obsession among U.S. security planners with the Soviet threat, which for the purpose of the U.S. and its allies was confined largely to Eastern Europe. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, Washington embarked on a massive buildup of strategic weaponry at a time when it was clear from U-2 surveillance data that the Soviets had no corresponding capability. Its nuclear stockpiles were negligible and it’s intercontinental bombers either lacked the range needed for a returned mission against the continental U.S. or were too slow to evade its air defenses. Despite this, Air Force General Curtis LeMay quietly promoted the idea of a pre-emptive first strike against Soviet targets even as he indulged in alarmist warnings about American vulnerability, famously expressed as bomber and missile “gaps” between the two Cold War combatants. The discrepancies indeed existed but in America’s favor, as LeMay knew.
So the question becomes: did LeMay, a very smart man and one of America’s most effective field marshals, “manufacture” Cold War fears to enrich his service branch or because he sincerely believed it was in America’s interest to strangle the Soviet Union in its crib? Certainly LeMay rung generous outlays from Congress for his Strategic Air Command when the other services were bled white by Eisenhower’s New Look. He also pioneered the Pentagon tactic of wooing lawmakers from multiple states and districts with assembly contracts in pursuit of favored weapons programs. But the single-minded LeMay, the polar opposite of the nuanced, worldly Kennan, also believed passionately that what the Soviets lacked in strategic capability today they may develop tomorrow. And unlike Kennan, LeMay believed Moscow was more likely than Washington to use such power preemptively. As I argue in State vs. Defense, largely based on the Pentagon’s own declassified studies, just the opposite was true.
During the Cold War, United States intervened in varying degrees and mixed results throughout the world to include unconventional warfare to remove leaders in Guatemala, Cuba, and Iran, small wars in Vietnam and Korea, and advise and assist missions in El Salvador and the Philippines. The conventional notion is that these missions were necessary to promote democracy and capitalism abroad, and the neo-conservatives believe that these actions were a natural expansion of Manifest Destiny. You take a contrarian view suggesting that “imperial America was itself a needless extravagance.” What do you think our Founding Fathers would say of the Cold War, and how are our actions during this time period different than the initial American expansion through French, Spanish, Mexican, and Native American lands to the Pacific Ocean?
The Federalist Papers and George Washington’s farewell address are replete with cautions against the corrupting elements of a standing army, to say nothing of foreign expeditions and intrigues. Even twentieth-century American statesmen like George Marshall and Henry Stimson were opposed in principal to the maintenance of a peacetime army. (Marshall would grudgingly concede to conscription and the need for forward bases as the burden of containment.) Geostrategically, America is among the most blessed of nations, with two peaceful borders to its north and south and the world’s two largest oceans to its east and west. It enjoys an abundance of natural resources and a large domestic market. Nearly alone in the history of great power politics, it can strike anywhere in the world from its homeland with only minimal risk of a proportionate response. As Abraham Lincoln put it, an existential threat, were it to emerge, would most likely do so at home and not from “some transatlantic military giant [able] to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow.”
Nevertheless, our imperial jurisdiction was indeed extended well beyond America’s shores owing to a paranoiac-messianic complex that is equal parts James Forrestal and Paul Wolfowitz. There is an uninterrupted trajectory from the Truman Doctrine to the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance, which makes it a core U.S. interest to pre-empt the emergence of a “peer-competitor”, and in State vs. Defense I try to illuminate the inflection points between them.
The title of your book immediately suggests a false choice between the State Department and the Defense Department, the pen or the sword. However, the history leading to increased military intervention is much more complicated and nuanced by many interdependent choices including dismantling State, USIA, and USAID at the fall of the Cold War. Is it more accurate to state that our current dilemma of using military power as the main arm of foreign policy is due to a lack of preparedness, forethought, and corresponding policy and strategy in the last twenty years?
Absolutely. Of the many personalities cast in State vs. Defense as militarists, only two of them – Douglas MacArthur and Curtis LeMay – were of the military. Conversely, many of the flag officers who appear in the book, men like Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, Colin Powell and Anthony Zinni, distinguished themselves as great statesmen as well as field marshals. In many ways, the culprit behind American militarization is domestic politics and those who would use foreign policy as a means of settling parochial scores. Thus McCarthyism, having emasculated and demoralized the nation’s diplomatic core, left the country with no one to debunk the canard of a Sino-Soviet bloc, the irrational fear of which consumed security planners and red-baiters alike until as late as 1968, when Russian and Chinese troops were skirmishing along the Ussuri River.
Another enabler of militarization is the habitual failure among American leaders to listen to their area experts – diplomats, military attaches and spies – about the nature of threats perceived or concocted by political tribes in Washington. While researching the book I was struck at how often the White House, having neglected its eyes and ears on the ground, not only reached for the military option but in doing so foreclosed on opportunities for a lasting peace. This was certainly the case in the run-up to the Korean War, when the Truman administration rebuffed reconciliation efforts by Communist China for fear of arousing the powerful, pro-Nationalist China Lobby.
Nearly ten years ago, the United States was attacked by a handful of religious extremists representing a fringe terrorist group, Al Qaeda. Subsequently, we engaged in the punitive action of regime change in both Iraq and Afghanistan morphing into what Gian Gentile refers to as “armed nation-building” and others term modern counterinsurgency. How do you feel that the United States should have responded after 9/11, and what are the consequences of our most recent interventions?
For starters, President Bush should have explained the motivation behind the attack as laid out by Osama bin Laden himself in his 1996 fatwa against what he called the “Zionist-Crusader Alliance.” In it, Bin Laden clearly states that his war on United States is in response to its support of Israel, its deployment of some 5,000 U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, its decade-long embargo on Iraq and its support of what he regarded as apostate Arab regimes. A statesmanlike response to the events of 9/11 would have been a candid admission that, yes, we were attacked for our policies, but they are the policies of this nation and no attack or threat of attack will make us waver in support of them.
Instead, the President disingenuously told Americans they had been struck as part of a global war to destroy their way of life. He also bizarrely associated Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “axis of evil” and greatly overstated both their capacities and their intentions. By defining the 9/11 assault as the first shot in a third world war, rather than the opening of a new front in an old one, Bush created the culture of fear that would allow him to greatly enlarge our national security bureaucracy and wage war on several fronts at once, including his misadventure in Iraq. I fear that the needless invasion of that country and its disastrous aftermath created a new generation of anti-American jihadis just as Washington’s uninspired policies in the Middle East provoked Bin Laden.
Looking forward to China, our closest near-term security threat, Fareed Zakaria recently suggested that we are in the equivalent of economic Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) that may deter future military conflicts. Do you agree with his analysis, and is the threat of China one that is overblown and could become a self-fulfilling prophesy?
China was not our largest creditor ten years ago and, most significantly, it is unlikely to be our largest creditor in ten years’ time. The Chinese know the U.S. dollar is a diminishing asset and it is likely to continue depreciating along with the credibility of our lawmakers in Washington. No doubt Beijing, like Wall Street, is gaming out ways of reducing its exposure to the dollar without destabilizing the world’s $4 trillion foreign exchange market. If there are only so many Swiss francs China can buy for dollars it can convert its reserves into tangible assets like real estate. Either way, we console ourselves with the MAD theory of Sino-U.S. economic relations at our peril.
Strategically, there is nothing in three thousand years of recorded history to suggest China will assert itself militarily worldwide, particularly given how successful it has been wooing resource-rich developing states through commercial means. China clearly regards itself as the once-and-future overlord of Asia, however, which puts it on a collision course with the Pentagon. Here, Washington and Beijing are talking past each other in a rather ominous way. The Americans say they welcome China’s peaceful ascent while refusing to concede its authority over the Asian littoral, to say nothing of its deep-water seaways. The Chinese, meanwhile, claim dominion over the South China Seas and other disputed waters while implying they expect nothing less than the kind of regional hegemony Washington carved out for itself in the Americas throughout the nineteenth century. Absent a vigorous diplomatic effort to reconcile these discordant positions, I fear some kind of Sino-American conflict is inevitable.
In the future, in lieu of a return to isolationism, what foreign policy would you recommend to the President? Should the United States continue to promote and foster democracy and capitalism abroad, and what is the appropriate mixture of soft and hard power should we apply? Furthermore, what organizational changes must State and USAID make in order to become efficient and effective?
The conceit that developed nations should graft their governing cultures and values onto developing ones went out with France’s mission civilisatrice and even that did not succeed much beyond cuisine. In allowing our political and economic systems to become corrupt and dissolute, our soft power has gone flabby and our hard power has become omnipresent, the source of a geopolitical welfare state. Washington should devolve the responsibilities of its security commitments in Europe and East Asia to its allies there. That means withdrawing combat divisions from abroad and reintegrating them with their units back home. It should invest heavily in its stateside training facilities such as the Marines’ Air Ground Combat Center at Twenty-Nine Palms (with accommodations for accompanied tours), and it should engage in regular transpacific exercises in support of its allies in Asia.
Washington must also know that China, as the world’s second-largest economy with three millennia of history as a regional power, will seek to impose its own Monroe Doctrine in Asia and it must acknowledge its limits in opposing this. Attempts to “contain” China would result in a decidedly asymmetrical contest that would exhaust America’s already depleted accounts but which Beijing could sustain at relatively low cost to itself. To preempt such a conflict, the White House should appoint a multi-agency negotiating team to resolve the thicket of competing maritime claims in the West Pacific and East Asia that make the region a tinderbox for conflict.
Domestically, the White House should accommodate the State Department’s request for several thousand new Foreign Service Officers in relief of a diplomatic core that is under-funded and overwhelmed. The number of its diplomats and support staff is only ten percent greater than what it was a quarter century ago, when there were twenty-four fewer countries in the world and U.S. interests were concentrated in Europe and Northeast Asia. At any one time, a third of U.S.-based Foreign Service jobs are vacant, twelve percent of its overseas positions are unmanned, and its ratio of unaccompanied tours has risen to a fifth of the total. Foreign language proficiency, a core competency of the service, has languished due to funding gaps. Salaries have been slashed, and stingy retirement benefits have undercut retentions rates.
At the same time, the State Department and USAID should undergo its own Goldwater-Nichols-like reformation, the touchstone of which would be the creation of diplomatic fiefs symmetrical with the Pentagon’s overseas combatant commands. Until the State Department’s senior-most officials have regional representation and authority on par with their four-star counterparts, interagency cooperation will remain illusory and the State Department will continue to be marginalized in the foreign policy-making process.
Finally, as it considers the geopolitical shift from a unipolar to multipolar world, the White House should solicit and respect the analyses of its area experts unimpeded by political pressures from Capitol Hill. When the opinions of veteran diplomats and seasoned intelligence officers must compete with those in the petty echo-chambers of Washington, it creates space for the kind of ruinous expeditions that have all but replaced statesmanship at the mantle of American leadership.