How Perpetual War Became U.S. Ideology

Since the last realist president, George H.W. Bush, left office, two groups— neoconservatives and liberal interventionists—have overtaken American foreign policy

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The United States has found itself in a seemingly endless series of wars over the past two decades. Despite frequent opposition by the party not controlling the presidency and often that of the American public, the foreign policy elite operates on a consensus that routinely leads to the use of military power to solve international crises.

Ideological Domination

Neoconservatives of both parties urge war to spread American ideals, seeing it as the duty of a great nation. Liberal interventionists see individuals, not states, as the key global actor and have deemed a Responsibility to Protect those in danger from their own governments, particularly when an international consensus to intervene can be forged. Traditional Realists, meanwhile, initially reject most interventions but are frequently drawn in by arguments that the national interest will be put at risk if the situation spirals out of control.

In a widely discussed March essay, Harvard international relations professor Stephen Walt wrote of a "neocon-liberal alliance" in support of war, contending, "The only important intellectual difference between neoconservatives and liberal interventionists is that the former have disdain for international institutions (which they see as constraints on U.S. power), and the latter see them as a useful way to legitimate American dominance."

The Progressive Policy Institute's Jim Arkedis, who describes himself as a "progressive internationalist," calls this notion of a neocon-liberal alliance "bunk." Neocons, according to Arkedis, "disdain multilateral diplomacy and overestimate the efficacy of military force" in a way that "saps the economic, political, and moral sources of American influence." He adds, "Though our ends are similar, our thresholds for intervention, our military methodology, and our justifications for action could not be more different."

But are neoconservatives and liberal interventionists really so different? Neoconservative bastions like the Weekly Standard, Commentary, and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies are passionate advocates of spreading American values. In Iraq, the toppling of Saddam Hussein and discovery that there was no WMD program to speak of were both accomplished in the first weeks of the war and with a relative handful of American casualties. If these had been our chief concerns we would have left immediately; the apparent U.S. goals in staying on so many years were democracy promotion and nation-building, both ideals the neoconservative White House leadership shared with liberal interventionists.

Further, while neocons are doubtless less patient than liberal interventionists when it comes to exhausting diplomatic options and achieving international consensus, what does it really matter if the end result is the same either way: military action.

Neocons and liberal interventionists may have dominated American foreign policymaking since 1993, but what about the realists? During the Cold War, there was a bipartisan elite consensus against the U.S. involving itself in wars not believed to be directly tied to protecting vital American interests. This included two major hot wars in Korea and Vietnam and more than a dozen quick strikes and proxy conflicts aimed at stopping the spread of Soviet Communism, ranging from Cuba to Afghanistan to El Salvador. And there were a handful of interventions in the Middle East to protect Israel and retaliate for terrorist attacks.

Starting with the 1991 Gulf War, however, despite the end of the Cold War, we've had two decades of non-stop fighting: Somalia in 1992, Haiti in 1994, Bosnia in 1995, Serbia-Kosovo in 1999, Afghanistan starting in 2001, and Iraq again from 2003. With Libya, we've added another U.S. war.

Ideologically, the George H.W. Bush administration should not have been inclined toward military intervention. Bush senior was a reluctant intervener, the National Security Council was guided by eminent realist Brent Scowcroft, and Colin Powell, the author of an eponymous doctrine that urges extreme caution in going to war, headed up the Joint Chiefs. And yet the administration launched three major military operations in its four-year term: the Panama invasion (derided by many as Operation Just 'Cause), the first Gulf War, and the Somalia intervention.

But all three of those missions were at least ostensibly tied to U.S. national interests. As odd as the Panama invasion seems in hindsight, earning the derisive nickname "Operation Just 'Cause," at the time, it was justified within the realist goals of safeguarding U.S. personnel in country, combating drug trafficking, and protecting the Panama Canal. The first Gulf War was, at its heart, about preventing Saddam Hussein from gaining control of more than half the world's oil supply. And Bush envisioned Somalia as a purely humanitarian relief mission; it morphed into warlord hunting and nation building under his successor.

Clinton may well have been the first full-throated liberal interventionist since the days of Woodrow Wilson. During the 1992 campaign, he declared, "The continuing attacks by Serbian elements in Bosnia threaten the delivery of urgently needed humanitarian aid, jeopardize the safety of U.N. personnel and put at risk the lives of thousands of citizens." He added, in what could have been a textbook definition of liberal interventionism, "The United States should take the lead in seeking U.N. Security Council authorization for air strikes against those who are attacking the relief effort. The United States should be prepared to lend appropriate military support to that operation. Air and naval forces adequate to carry out these operations should be visibly in position."

Presented by

James Joyner is an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.

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