On April 15, the US, in conjunction with the UK and France, deployed 105 weapons against targets within Syria that the US government claims were part of the Syrian government’s chemical weapons program. The stated objective of these strikes was to impede future Syrian chemical weapons capabilities and send a signal to the Syrian regime that the use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated. Even though this strike is practically ancient history now, thanks to the warp speed of our news cycles, the way in which an act of war has been so quickly replaced in the news reflects on the unserious and frivolous attitude with which Americans approach our wars.
Despite the shock and awe of the missile strikes, the entire premise of the US involvement in the Syrian Civil is rather unclear. The Syrian government is widely recognized as winning the war, and even if it were to somehow be defeated it would be inevitable that the myriad of rebel groups would simply continue the war amongst themselves. This leaves few if any options for constructive US intervention into the conflict, a reality recognized by even hardcore advocates of US intervention abroad. After the airstrikes, Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former Obama State Department official and well-known interventionist tweeted, “I believe that the US, UK, & France did the right thing by striking Syria over chemical weapons. It will not stop the war nor save the Syrian people from many other horrors. It is illegal under international law. But it at least draws a line somewhere & says enough.”
I believe that the US, UK, & France did the right thing by striking Syria over chemical weapons. It will not stop the war nor save the Syrian people from many other horrors. It is illegal under international law. But it at least draws a line somewhere & says enough.— Anne-Marie Slaughter (@SlaughterAM) April 14, 2018
The United States is able to engage in frivolous bombing that its own supporters say is symbolic and meaningless on a practical level because it is so secure and powerful. Our military might and power projection capabilities exceeded by several orders of magnitude any other power on earth. Our neighbors in the Western hemisphere are all weak, and to the east and the west, we are protected by vast moats in the form of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans that no other state has the power projection capability to cross in force. Combined with our large population and productive economy, the United States does not face any external existential threats.
While such security is obviously beneficial, it is both a blessing and a curse as it effectively removes many of the practical effects that check the exercise of American military might. America can go and wreak chaos and destruction in its wake across the Middle East in places like Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria, and not suffer many large immediate consequences in return. There is, of course, the danger of terrorist blowback, but the risk of dying from a terror attack in the US is astronomically low (Cato’s Alex Nawrasteh reports that there is only a .00003 percent chance of being killed by a foreign-born terrorist in the US). Millions of refugees and displaced people fleeing from chaos are not crossing the Atlantic Ocean, they are crossing the Mediterranean and disrupting Europe, not America. Aside from tangling with Russia and China in a serious way, the US is pretty much free to do what it wishes around the world and need not fear much in the way of immediate consequences.
Attempts to remake the rest of the world by force of arms have unfortunately not dampened the enthusiasm for trying again and again.
Unchecked power corrupts, and unfortunately, America has fallen into this trap on numerous occasions due to the moralizing and crusading nature that has taken hold of both our domestic and foreign affairs over the course of the past century. In his 1988 book The Present Age, sociologist Robert Nisbet captures this attitude well, saying that “ever since Wilson, with only the rarest exceptions, American foreign policy has been tuned not to national interest, but to national morality.”
If one starts with the premise that the United States is a “shining city upon a hill,” it is not a huge leap to the idea that the US should sally forth to bring enlightenment to the benighted peoples of the world. What changed around the turn of the 20th century was the realization that, unlike before, America now had the might to undertake such a crusade, the first such foray being the entrance into the First World War --- with the lofty goal of ending war altogether! The abject failure of that goal and all other attempts to remake the rest of the world by force of arms have unfortunately not dampened the enthusiasm for trying again and again.
In The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien gives us a clear exposition of the mind affected by power in the form of Saruman of Many Colors. Saruman began with good intentions, as nearly everyone in the world does, but along the way fell prey to what Eric Voegelin calls the libido dominandi, or the will to power. “We must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see,” Saruman tells Gandalf. The advocates of intervention who favor perpetual US meddling abroad clearly consider themselves to be ordering all things for the good that only we here in the US can see. In the words of Madeline Albright “if we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future.”
Americans must develop internal checks in the form of restraint and self-discipline.
Unfortunately, the exercise of such unchecked power will inevitably lead the US down the path of its own destruction. We may not face any external existential threats, but we face an enormous existential threat in the form of ourselves. Our national debt is through the roof, thanks in no small part to the price tag on our crusading ventures, and even higher than that when factoring in the unfunded liabilities stemming from the welfare state. The Watson Institute at Brown University calculates that America has spent over $5.6 trillion on its wars since 2001. By 2056 they estimate this spending will have accumulated an additional $7.9 trillion in costs via interest on the debt accumulated to fund these wars. Such a fiscal situation is not sustainable forever.
Beyond the bleak monetary situation, America is plagued by a fraying and weak social fabric comprised of atomized individuals and an absolutist strain in our politics which incentivizes more and more heated conflict over control of the federal government --- both conditions which Nisbet considers to be consequences of American militarism. As Nisbet and many others have explained, war leads to a centralization of state power and control that does not decrease when the war is over. Now that our wars are seemingly never-ending, the slightest role back of the surveillance state and other war-time measures seems out of sight. With this wartime centralization comes the decay of the rest of society, as more and more of social life becomes centered around the government, as opposed to the historical situation in which various non-state institutions, most notably family and religion, were separate poles of power within society. In Nisbet’s words “threads are loosened by the tightening of power at the center.” If such centralization does not stop, our social fabric may eventually simply tear asunder.
Facing no external checks, Americans must develop internal checks in the form of restraint and self-discipline, if we are to steward our power wisely and prevent our indiscretions from bringing about our own downfall.