The Politics of American Militarism

The military's evolving role in U.S. foreign policy decision-making

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Most Americans would be shocked to learn that something like 95 percent of the foreign affairs budget of the federal government is devoted to the military. National security accounts for about twenty percent of the entire federal budget, but the public seems to have an altogether different perspective: According to a CNN/Opinion Research poll conducted in March of this year, Americans think foreign affairs make up forty percent of the budget, with thirty percent of the budget devoted to the military and the remaining ten percent devoted to foreign aid. Despite the high numbers given the military, the militarism built into the federal budget seems to spark very little concern.

It's no surprise that the average Americans doesn't realize how little we really spend on foreign assistance, or even how much we spent on the military. Foreign aid is a little under one percent of the federal budget, but the public discourse focuses on it so much it's easy to assume it takes up far more of our resources than it does. Similarly, the stupendous cost of the military--with its millions of employees and soldiers, 761 foreign bases, and thousands of U.S.-based facilities--simply doesn't compute with the public. Further, the military has a built-in constituency: supporting the soldiers is a patriotic duty; advocating on behalf civilians in foreign policy, like the State Department's Foreign Service Officers, is at best enabling limp-wristed decadence.

9-11 Ten Years LaterIt is precisely that imbalance between the military and civilian parts of America's foreign policy that is the subject of Stephen Glain's new book State vs. Defense: The Battle to Define America's Empire. "American militarism," he writes, "is unique for its civilian provenance." It didn't come at the point of a gun, or with the military formally declaring its control of the government. This militarism is no conspiracy, but is rather a natural consequence of "a uniquely American impulse to choose force over statesmanship."

Glain certainly makes for a compelling argument. The history he charts, which begins in 1947 and ends with the George W. Bush presidency, is extensive and well sourced. The popular perception that Bush was uniquely wrong to abdicate his foreign policy decisions to the military is simply not borne out by our own history. From almost the moment World War II ended, the military has exercised an outsized influence on foreign policy.

At the same time, the State Department is no hapless victim. While I understand Glain's desire to explain American militarism, he does not emphasize enough that the State Department's terrible leadership is as much to blame for the controlling prominence of the Defense Department as anything else. This happened almost regardless of the party in the White House. In the early 1960s, for example, Secretary of State Dean Rusk deliberately sought to remove Foreign Service Officers who rejected the Domino Theory, the idea that a wave of monolithic communism was sweeping across Southeast Asia. Rusk held on to provably false ideas of Maoist China as "a colonial Russian government" (which he proclaimed in 1951 and never rejected), and steadily removed the State Department officials and employees who used their deep knowledge of Asian politics to reject the anti-communist hyperventilation that had gripped Washington.

In many ways, the process Glain describes reminds me of how, post-2001, the Bush administration deliberately ignored its own regional experts when crafting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While Glain is certainly correct to note that this is a systemic problem, the State Department isn't exactly a good alternative to the military's overpowering presence in foreign policy. Even so, the military's gradual assumption of normally civilian roles in foreign policy has had disastrous consequences, and Glain deserves tremendous credit for arguing it so forcefully.

During the long run-up in 2002 to the invasion of Iraq, the State Department assembled the Future of Iraq Project, which assembled hundreds of experts and expatriates to plan how to handle the collapse of Iraq's government and society. The militarists in the Bush Whitehouse chose instead to hand responsibility for Iraqi reconstruction to the Department of Defense. When Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, who ran the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, requested members of the Future of Iraq Project help him plan, Secretary Rumsfeld rejected it. The Iraqis would greet American might with roses, Dick Cheney famously said. There was no need for civilians to plan for much.

In Afghanistan, too, it was remarkable to see the government's long rejection of expertise in favor of militarism. Even today, the think tanks with the most access and media presence get that way through a blind advocacy of militarism, and in many cases an explicit rejection of knowledge. Advocating for a less intrusive or proactive military presence is simply not part of the discourse.

In 2003, the Pentagon looked at Afghanistan and decided it needed to be developed. Rather than reaching out to the civilians who are good at such things--not just NGOs but USAID and the State Department--they instead chose to create unique militarized reconstruction teams called Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs).

PRTs inspired a wave of opposition from traditional relief groups. Since they were originally created, relief agencies have reacted strongly against the use of the military to perform non-military tasks.  Soon after, the Taliban did too: In 2004, the relief group Doctors Without Borders dramatically halted all its operations after five of its workers were slaughtered. In a statement, the group blamed not only intransigence on the part of the government in Kabul, but also the deliberate blurring of lines between military and relief work. They're not alone: Oxfam have become outspoken critics of the militarization of aid, as have scholars who focus on the topic. Even today, when they have re-established their presence in Afghanistan, Doctors Without Borders goes to elaborate lengths to highlight their refusal to participate in any military-funded activity.

The shift in military policy that fomented this militarization is remarkable, and is the consequence of the militarization of foreign policy Glain charts.

State vs. Defense is part of a growing body of literature on the military's evolving role in foreign policy decision-making. One of the best explorations about this is Washington Post reporter Dana Priest's 2004 book, The Mission. While well conceived and written (I loved it, in fact), Priest really only covers the 1990s and the first year or two of the Bush administration. Earlier this year, Wall Street Journal reporter Nathan Hodge wrote another book about the militarization of foreign policy, Armed Humanitarians. While I also liked that book, he too focused on very recent history.

Glain, in contrast, is much more comprehensive. By examining the impulse to default to the military as an artifact of American politics, rather than a recent evolution driven by confusion in the post-Cold War world, Glain brings much-needed insight into how, for the rest of the world, we really are a nation of soldiers (even if very few of us ever wear a uniform). It is only by understanding that history that we will have any hope of ever changing it.