[Read a counter-argument here.]
Former Defense Department officials Michèle Flournoy and Janine Davidson’s new article, “A Plea for Smart, Forward U.S. Military Engagement,” may contain some surprises for followers of contemporary history. The piece begins:
“The recent global economic downturn has generated doubts about American resilience and our ability to lead in the world. Far from being a nation in decline, however, the United States’ global standing remains unmatched and the imperative for it to lead in today’s tumultuous environment is clear. Those who assume that in order to recover economically the United States must close its overseas bases and bring its military forces home misunderstand the role the U.S. military plays in promoting global prosperity.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
This argument is problematic for a number of reasons. First of all, the global economic downturn was itself linked in no small way to U.S. global leadership. Second of all, the economic profligacy of U.S. military endeavors—such as the one that created the tumultuous environment in Iraq—has been abundantly documented. In 2007, the Washington Post reported the American Friends Service Committee’s finding that the war was costing $720 million a day, a sum that “could buy homes for almost 6,500 families or health care for 423,529 children, or could outfit 1.27 million homes with renewable electricity.”
Considering economist Robert Higgs’s estimate in 2006 according to which over 90 percent of U.S. public debt resulted from past military spending, it would seem that closing overseas bases and repatriating personnel would certainly not hinder economic recovery.
As for the global prosperity that Flournoy and Davidson have tasked the U.S. military with promoting, it is useful to recall New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s—perhaps unwittingly perceptive—observation in The Lexus and the Olive Tree:
“Indeed, McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the U.S. Air Force F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. And these fighting forces and institutions are paid for by American taxpayer dollars.”
Flournoy and Davidson offer a less explicit analysis, which nonetheless suggests that “global prosperity” might indeed be a democratic euphemism for U.S. corporate profit:
“The United States has benefited enormously from a highly interdependent and globalized economy – one that has relied on the security and stability underwritten by our armed forces and our alliances for over 70 years.”
The erroneous use of the terms “security” and “stability” in the context of the hidden fist’s maneuverings is, however, especially clear in the case of Iraq, where—as Robert Pape noted in The American Conservative—not a single suicide bombing ever took place prior to the invasion. And it is doubtful that civilians on the receiving end of drone strikes would argue that such operations contribute to personal security. Hints that our allies might not be on the same page as we are with regard to world stability are meanwhile found in Guardian headlines from 2006 like: “British believe Bush is more dangerous than Kim Jong-il.”
Flournoy and Davidson posit:
“The United States has an opportunity and a responsibility to shape the global environment through its leadership, global reach, and ability to catalyze positive multilateral activity that enables and encourages others to share the burden of global stability and security. This means being present in key regions of the world where threats are likely to emerge and focusing our military activities on prevention and preparedness.”
The authors mention “partnership and multilateral activities” in regions like South America. Of course, prospects for effective threat prevention appear to dwindle when we examine various manifestations of multilateral activity there, such as U.S. collaboration with the armed forces of Colombia, an institution whose claims to fame include slaughtering civilians and dressing the corpses in guerrilla attire in order to accrue extra holiday time and bonus pay. As scholars Oliver Villar and Drew Cottle masterfully demonstrate in a new book entitled Cocaine, death squads, and the war on terror: U.S. imperialism and class struggle in Colombia, the U.S. war on drugs and terror in the South American nation is in fact “a war for the control of the cocaine trade,” which has historically functioned “as a source of profit for U.S. capital via banks that were established to launder and invest drug money in legitimate U.S. corporations.” Obviously, none of this translates into security, stability, or prosperity for the average human being. Nor does it support Flournoy and Davidson’s claim that “high-priority activities” of the U.S. military include “halting illicit trafficking.”
According to the authors, the Asia-Pacific region is the next important host for the idea that "we simply cannot divorce ‘American’ interests from ‘global’ interests.” Of course, this region is no stranger to U.S.-led global stabilization programs, including ones that involved unleashing the equivalent of five Hiroshimas on neutral Cambodia in the 1970s.
Flournoy and Davidson conclude their piece with a response to persons concerned that a robust U.S. military presence spanning the globe is not a financially sound policy at the moment:
“Continued U.S. leadership in the world, underpinned by smart forward military engagement, is imperative to our domestic economic prosperity and to shaping the future security environment.”
There is no doubt that the scenario proposed by Flournoy, Davidson, and their ex-employers in the defense establishment ensures the prosperity of highly exclusive sectors of the domestic population. However, advocates for a reinforced military empire might do well to take note of former Financial Times journalist Matt Kennard’s forthcoming book detailing the present composition of the U.S. armed forces as a result of diminishing enlistment levels: Irregular Army: How the US Military Recruited Neo-Nazis, Gang Members, and Criminals to Fight the War on Terror.
Of course, when these and other elements notoriously disrespectful of human rights are deployed throughout the world to combat purported threats, what they more often succeed in doing is creating or reinforcing those threats. Case in point: the global war on terror, which has vastly eased the job of terrorist recruiters. As the New York Times reported in the thick of the Iraq war:
“A stark assessment of terrorism trends by American intelligence agencies has found that the American invasion and occupation of Iraq has helped spawn a new generation of Islamic radicalism and that the overall terrorist threat has grown since the Sept. 11 attacks.”
An empire cannot be sustained with grandiose turns of phrase, jingoistic cliché, or policies of worldwide military entrenchment that are ultimately self-destructive. In other words, advocates for imperial expansion might ask whether their proposed policies do not in fact hasten imperial decline.
Belén Fernández is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a member of the Jacobin Magazine editorial board, and her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books blog, Al Jazeera, and various other publications.