James Carroll

Our misguided faith in strength

By James Carroll
March 28, 2011

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‘WHAT’S THE point of having this superb military you’re always talking about,’’ Madeleine Albright famously asked Colin Powell, “if we can’t use it?’’ That was almost the right question. What if the issue is not how we use the military, but how the military uses us? What, in other words, are the real consequences — for policy, economy, culture, and peace — of the bloated American over-investment in war readiness and its sure corollary, war making?

Put the question another way. What if US military force were proportionately more like that of other nations? Take the Pentagon budget. Instead of spending more than the rest of the world combined on weapons and warriors, what if we simply spent, say, twice what our nearest competitor nation spends? (In fact, we outspend that competitor, China, roughly by a factor of 10.) Our military would still be strong enough not only to defend the United States from attack, but also to deter attacks in the first place. But such a military would not be so world-transcendent as to make us think that brute force, exerted by America alone with token support of other nations, is the solution to every international problem — including the contemporary obligation to protect civilian populations from mass attacks.

The wildly disproportionate US investment in military force, in relation to other nations, shows up in the way the burden of the initial coalition campaign against Moammar Khadafy overwhelmingly fell to American warplanes and cruise missiles. President Obama imagined that, after first assaults, US forces could hand off war-dominance to others, but that has proven easier said than done. The Pentagon counts its missiles by thousands, not by tens like other forces. The Navy has 11 carrier strike groups, while no other nation has more than one. Such surpassing excess means ongoing US dominance is inevitable.

But those carrier groups make another point, one about the disproportion of Washington’s military in relation to its own investment in other kinds of American power, especially diplomacy. More personnel serve on just one carrier task force than the total of US foreign service officers. The familiar fact bears emphasizing: the State Department spends less than $50 billion annually, compared to the nearly trillion-dollar Pentagon — and Republicans want to cut the State Department even more.

In discussions of the current Libya crisis, the Balkans wars of the 1990s are cited as relevant precedent. But American leaders and pundits have drawn wrong lessons from the inhuman slaughters that occurred during the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. As that unraveling happened, Washington’s failure was even more diplomatic than military.

Early on, there was the inability to head off fatal European mistakes (Germany’s quick recognition of Slovenian and Croatian independence, for example, the spark that ignited the ethnic conflagration). Later, there were the fateful exclusion of Kosovo from the Dayton process, the ignoring of nonviolent Albanian leaders like Ibrahim Rugova, and the effective empowering of the gangster Kosovar Liberation Army, which took delight in inviting Slobodan Milosevic’s thugs to do their worst. When, in desperation, NATO warplanes finally attacked Serbia, Kosovar civilians were not, in fact, protected, while an until-then alienated Serb population felt forced to rally to Milosevic, delaying his collapse.

The Balkans narrative is still disputed, but one note of America’s response is clear: what Albright referred to as “this superb military’’ has been using us all these years since, especially through its futile wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet, across the same period, little or nothing has been done to strengthen other structures of US influence in the world. Our illusions of martial supremacy have ruled us. Now those illusions are again being punctured —in America’s latest accidental war. However high-minded Obama’s Libya intentions were, and whatever faults are to be found in his decisions, the single largest factor in the shaping of current US war policy, as previously, is the institutionalized myopia of American militarism.

Once more, our long mistake shows itself —as does the much-needed correction. The United States must urgently invest in nascent and wholly new structures of international law, with internationally governed methods for its enforcement. Law is the alternative to war, period. History has been groaning forth this lesson for nearly a century. Superb Washington remains, alas, willfully deaf.

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.