Why can’t America withdraw from the Middle East? President Obama wanted to “pivot to Asia” but so far this doesn’t seem to have happenedi quite the way he imagined. President Trump claims to find Middle Eastern conflicts distasteful, but launched military operations in Syria and came very close to hitting Iran after the downing of a spy drone. If you talk to self-proclaimed realists, they’ll blame ideology (liberalism), interest group lobbies for particular states and factions, and other explanations that all seem to avoid the actual structural system causes they claim as primary elements of their worldview. If the international system best rewards powers that act, well, realistically, why does the United States persist in its Middle Eastern entanglements and other similar follies? Another popular hypothesis is that America is trapped in “forever wars” due to our feckless politicians, high technology, and a public that lacks “skin in the game.” But is it really so?
Claims that changes in American politics, economy, society, and technology make forever wars easier to prosecute are equally problematic. American participation in constant low level peripheral warfare goes back prior to American independence, and the most serious change seems to be American power itself – which allows the peripheral warfare to be sustained worldwide as opposed to primarily occurring within the Western hemisphere. The most accurate explanation is that political-military interventions become self-justifying. Once the United States formally committed itself to the defense of the Persian Gulf in the 1970s, it created a collection of foreign and domestic interests and structures surrounding intervention that would be complicated, painful, and difficult to uproot. But this is still nonetheless just a proximate rather than ultimate explanation. It is unfortunate but also nonetheless somewhat predictable that analysts would ignore a structural explanation that does not lend itself very well to the kinds of inner-directed analyses popular in national security and foreign policy circles and the political media outlets that orbit around them.
America is an empire, some say. But what does being imperial mean? In 2007, Daniel Nexon and Thomas Wright authored an article summarizing a debate occurring at the time over whether or not the United States could be called an “empire” and what it would mean for international relations theory. Nexon and Wright astutely noticed that an empire is distinguished by networks of imperial relations. Empires primarily rule via intermediaries, and each particular regional set of subject audiences may have unique rights and privileges under the imperial system. However, there is a catch. Precisely because imperial systems depend on indirect rule, the imperial power is dependent on the ability of local proxies to handle the challenge of managing culturally alien and often unruly territories. And said proxies have their own interests to pursue, and will often prioritize these interests over the needs of distant hegemons.
Hence a frequent cliche is the peripheral intervention triggered when a proxy is caught between local political imperatives and what his external client wants. The conflict of interest cannot be resolved and military intervention follows. For example, fearing that Afghan President – and Soviet client – Hafizullah Amin’s misrule would lead to internal rebellion and open the door to American subversion, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and promptly got bogged down in a military quagmire. The classic book Queen Victoria’s Little Wars contains numerous examples of similar incidents, although many of them are far less severe. And in the American case Marine veteran Smedley Butler infamously declared that he could have “given Al Capone a few hints” due to his participation in numerous Latin American interventions for the benefit of now forgotten sugar and oil companies.
National security professionals within the imperial system often are acutely aware of the perverse incentives the system creates and wary of the costs of deepening political-military interventions. Edward Luttwak’s book The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire is less of an objective history of Roman strategy than it is – perhaps in the best court traditions of an ancient empire – a polemic about American defense politics in the guise of an imperial history. Luttwak inveighs against permanent occupations and praises indirect rule by client states that could be augmented by mobile and professional military units. The empire falls into disrepair, Luttwak observes, when it becomes weighed down in static frontier defense that depletes its treasury and dilutes its military effectiveness. This is not really new. It was what Basil-Liddell Hart advocated for British imperial defense in the interwar period, for better or worse.
It would be a great idea. That is, if it worked as advertised. Fast, powerful, and professional military forces that can zip from conflict zone to conflict zone are useful if one assumes that imperial management can take care of itself, and the historical record going back to antiquity does not provide much hope for optimism. The Persian Gulf security fiasco is a case in point. The Carter Doctrine commits America to the military defense of the Persian Gulf against Soviet aggression using precisely the high-tech mobile forces that Luttwak, LiddellHart, and others advocated. But it also makes America more invested in the overarching regional balance of power as well as the state of the societies within the region. By the 1990s America is now carrying out “dual containment” of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the Islamic State of Iran while simultaneously mitigating threats from terrorist groups against the American homeland. Seeking to establish dominance once and for all, hawks formulate a military strategy to destroy Hussein in the hope it would cow other regional threats. And the rest is history.
The bigger you get, the more responsibilities you take on. The sheer size and complexity of the global relationships America must manage is arguably beyond the abilities of its decaying governance and administration structure. Which makes many of the supposedly unique pathologies of American forever wars banal – even if they are still nonetheless troubling and consequential. History has no shortage of large and small imperial powers whose behavior becomes weighed down by internal battles between foreign and domestic lobbies committed to particular regions and policy concerns. In some cases, such as Imperial Japan and its Army faction (which favored intervention in China), they can drag the power into ruinous interventions that benefit a particular military interest over another (the Japanese Navy understandably was less enthusiastic about land wars). The disconnection of the public in turn is not explainable by advanced technology, but rather because the costs of warfare are mostly borne by local factions and their military and security forces. And because imperial management often involves cross-cutting concerns, it is difficult to simply decide to shift all of one’s forces to a particular region and ignore the other.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of this predicament is that in some cases it continues long after the actual imperial entity in question has been severely cut down to size. France is no longer what it was during its 19th century peak as a force in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Yet French political-military involvement in many of its former colonial domains remains robust and persistent. Is peripheral conflict and intrigue inevitable? Or is it a choice? And why would a nation (America) that purports to despise foreign imperialism end up becoming imperial? Be skeptical of deterministic explanations, such as Vladimir Lenin’s theory that imperialism is just the natural outgrowth of capitalism. But also be wary of moralistic polemics that blame imperial behavior on some kind of mass popular defect (such as warfare at a distance) or the perfidy of political elites (this is more of a mathematical constant than a variable). What seems to be most appropriate at this juncture is just to put the issue of imperial management and its contradictions front and center in discussions of national security policy in the hope that maybe defense thinkers will take it seriously instead of treating it as stage backdrop.
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