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Is America a War State?

We seem to be in conflict everywhere, with no end in sight. Do we need a fundamental re-think of our foreign policy priorities?

By Matt Taibbi


August 17/18, 2023 - Information Clearing House - " On June 1, Harpers put out a cover story titled, “Why are we in Ukraine?” The authors were professor Christopher Layne, the Robert Gates chair of National Security at Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government, and Benjamin Schwarz, a onetime national and literary editor of The Atlantic and former analyst for the RAND Corporation. Both at times have been critical of the projection of American power, but both also have strong bona fides from within the world of American national security policy.

The authors didn’t excuse Vladimir Putin or his invasion of Ukraine, writing that “even if Moscow’s avowals are taken at face value,” the country’s actions could be “condemned as those of an aggressive and illegitimate state.”

Much of the rest of the article, however, is a blistering history of how the United States constructed a radical new foreign policy posture after communism’s fall, obliterating “normal diplomacy among great powers” and replacing it with rapid NATO expansion in all directions, in service of something like a global Monroe Doctrine. The justification for this new unipolar ideal, which was characterized by a cascading series of diplomatic ultimatums and “regime change” invasions for resisters, was best articulated in 1994 by former Senator Richard Lugar, who said, “there can be no lasting security at the center without security at the periphery.”

The Harpers piece doesn’t blame the United States for war in Ukraine, but does tell a story about a foreign policy establishment that wriggled free of our more conflict-averse late seventies and eighties, and created a new expansionism that eschews diplomacy and generates military confrontation almost by design. “Far from making the world safer by setting it in order,” the authors write, “we have made it all the more dangerous.”

There was a time when avoiding war was a chief priority of American liberalism, which would have taken a story like the Harpers piece as a rallying cry. The issue containing the Layne-Schwarz story reportedly did brisk sales, but generated little discussion in media, beyond a tweet from Ann Coulter:

No offense to Coulter, but where are the antiwar liberals? They were numerous once. Recent polls about war and military spending show the same bizarre pattern of neatly reversed partisan attitudes we’ve seen with civil liberties and support of spy agencies.

A just-released CNN survey shows 55% of Americans opposed to more funding for Ukraine, including 71% of Republicans — but 61% of Democrats say we should “do more.” This comes as Joe Biden asked for another $24 billion in spending for Ukraine, and the White House has seemed peeved at questions about declining support.

“We have we have seen throughout this war solid support from the American people,” said National Security spokesperson John Kirby, adding: “We’re going to stay focused on that.”

It’s likely many who opposed the Iraq War would say Ukraine is very different, with the United States supplying arms to the innocent victim of a war of aggression, as opposed to being the country doing the senseless attacking. That’s a true statement. But the Harpers story persuasively argues Ukraine is part of a larger pattern of predictable disasters, caused by a policy change putting us on course for almost certain collision with Russia, China, and any other country disinclined to bend the knee.

Schwarz was at RAND during a key period in the nineties when plans for NATO expansion were being conceived. As he explains it, he was there when the old Sovietologists, whom he described as basically “pro-détente liberals,” were replaced with a younger new crew of “liberal interventionists,” some of whom would go on to have important positions in Bill Clinton’s administration, people like future Deputy National Security Director James Steinberg.

The old pragmatists were averse to re-provoking the Eastern foe, but the newer group seemed more worried about voices questioning NATO’s existence after the end of the Cold War, and RAND became the “intellectual heart of NATO expansion.” Schwarz watched with alarm as the idea gained traction.

“When they started talking about this,” he says, “I thought, Are you crazy? I couldn't believe it.”

Schwarz put his thoughts on paper, publishing “NATO at the Crossroads: Reexamining America’s Role in Europe” in 1994. The text has a not-insignificant Nostradamus factor:

How, for instance, would an alliance with obligations to Ukraine respond if the discontented Russian minority declared its independence and sought annexation by Russia, and this was in turn followed by Ukraine’s forceful efforts to reassert control over its Russian minority? Who would be the aggressor? What borders should be defended? Moreover, in such situations, members may have divergent interests… expansion could well lead to situations that would so exacerbate tensions and suspicions within NATO that the alliance would, in fact, crumble.

This wasn’t an exact prediction, but Schwarz did anticipate the innumerable complications that would arise from any effort to bring Ukraine into the American security umbrella. Assuming responsibility for Western Europe alone already amounted to what Schwarz in 1994 called “taking the wolf by the ears: When could America let go?” Expanding that arrangement throughout the rest of Europe, he said, would require an “an expensive — and eternal — commitment.”

America’s new view of foreign policy ushered in a new take-it-or-leave-it script for any country resisting American influence. Instead of relations between “great powers,” we’d construct a series of feudal arrangements that would be like the Hindu myth of infinite regression, i.e. “turtles all the way down,” except in our case it was “vassal states all the way out.” The plan was to push NATO out so far to eliminate potential resistance that Lugar couldn’t see the nearest threat with a spyglass.

The problem was this plan of continually pacifying and expanding the “periphery” would inevitably run into nuclear-armed Russia and “restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations,” as diplomat and historian George Kennan put it. This, Kennan said, was “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era.” The U.S. wasn’t provoking Russia specifically, but every country generally, broadcasting through its embrace of its “unipolar moment” that it would “no longer be bound by the norms implicit in great power politics,” as Harpers put it.

In the early eighties, the idea of the United States engaging in military action was so exotic and remote that Hollywood was forced to make Clint Eastwood movies about the invasion of Grenada, which probably could have been conquered in an hour by a couple of Crip sets from Compton. The notion that presidents needed congressional (read: the population’s) permission to go to war was so unquestioned that the major Washington scandal of the decade involved an attempt to secretly divert funds from arms sales to “freedom fighters” in Nicaragua.

Contrast that with our current experience. The average American has no idea where America is sending arms or troops. As Schwarz and Layne point out, “NATO started training roughly ten thousand Ukrainian troops annually” in 2014. Did you know? I didn’t. Many Americans don’t know where we have troops in battle these days.

Remember the La David Johnson fiasco, when a huge fuss was made over Donald Trump reportedly calling a slain soldier’s family and telling a grieving widow, “He knew what he was signing up for, but I guess it hurts anyway”? An amazing part of that story was multiple U.S. Senators admitting unawareness that American troops were fighting in Niger, where Johnson was killed. “I didn’t know there was [sic] 1000 troops in Niger,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, with John McCain and Democratic counterpart Chuck Schumer also expressing surprise.

Since the collapse of communism, the U.S. has pursued engagements all over the world, often following the same script. The public is told at least a half-lie to justify the commencement of hostilities, and only later do we find out the target country was effectively told to surrender in advance.

There were serious human rights abuses in Serbia ahead of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999. However, the Rambouillet “peace” agreement — presented to American audiences as a friendly arrangement belligerently rebuffed, as in the Washington Post headline, “Milosevic Says No to Peace Force” — was a deal no leader could accept, forcing Belgrade to “relinquish sovereignty over the province of Kosovo and allow free reign to NATO forces throughout Yugoslavia,” as Harpers puts it.

From there we’ve had one lie-spun war after another. The real reason the United States under Bush wanted to invade Iraq was to effect regime change, but the public was told tall tales about WMDs. The British Chilcot report revealed Tony Blair saying later that “obviously,” if the U.S. and U.K. hadn’t come with WMDs, “you would have had to use and deploy different arguments.” Ahead of NATO bombings in Libya that led to the deposing of Muammar al-Qaddafi, we spread porkies about Qaddafi forces being given Viagra to aid in using rape as a weapon.

In Syria, we even used the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which was supposed to be limited to permitting war operations against those responsible for 9/11, as legal justification for military actions against groups that didn’t even exist when the towers fell. We changed the excuses for our presence in Afghanistan and adjusted supposed goals there so many times that by the time we left in 2021, most Americans weren’t even sure why were there, if they remembered we were there at all.

There’s been much eye-rolling in media of late about Republicans complaining about Ukraine aid after wildfires in Maui or the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, and maybe those complaints are just partisan potshots. But there’s a real conversation about distribution of resources that’s been dropped ever since Bill Clinton abandoned the idea of spending a “Peace Dividend” at home, as institutional Washington pressed for more funding for Pax Americana instead.

Schwarz, who’s written about this subject numerous times, talks about how keeping national security spending high was a crucial policy goal after the collapse of communism. “Although there was some hopeful talk among the few remaining ‘Come home, America’-type progressives,” he says, “it was soon very clear that, even without a Soviet enemy, the bipartisan foreign policy establishment thought the main contours of US national security strategy had to remain intact.”

As a result, we have vast new Departments like Homeland Security and annual monster defense expenditures, but still no Department of Just Got Foreclosed On, or a Central Still Living With Your Parents at 40 Agency, or even a National You Can Clearly See I Can’t Afford a Dentist Service. But we’re securing the hell out of the “periphery.”

A week ago, snippy Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said America has “a lot of talented journalists,” but “since they unleashed this war against us, they absolutely live in a state of military censorship.” This prompted an immediate fact check from Voice of America over which country really is living under military censorship (I would have fact-checked the “lot of talented journalists” part). Of course it isn’t true that we’re living under literal military rule, in a state built for permanent war.

Still, look at our public conversation and our position around the world, and ask yourself: what would be different if we were?


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