Secretary of State John Kerry, flanked by Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin E. Dempsey and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, September 3, 2013, during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Syria. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Whatever Congress decides to do about bombing Syria, the United States is still trapped by a historic contradiction of its own invention. Our open-ended commitment to deter or punish bad guys anywhere around the world has not led to the peaceful vision of military planners and humanitarian hawks. It leads instead to more war—longer and more ambiguous conflicts in which there will be no victory, only abstract claims about teaching lessons to wayward nations.
The American Goliath, armed with awesomely superior weaponry and described as “indispensable” by admiring scholars, seems to have forgotten an ancient truth the Greeks and Romans understood. War is about purposeful violence, not diplomacy by other means.
In history, the fundamental objective of war has always been brutally obvious: the conquest of real estate and resources, the subjugation of other peoples. For two generations, the US has gone to war claiming nobler purposes, the protection and liberation of helpless others. But, our statesmen add, the defense of world peace requires us occasionally to go to war pre-emptively. Shoot the bad guys before they can shoot us.
The American people evidently understand this now and want no part of it. They are overwhelmingly fed up with intervening in other people’s wars. Iraq and Afghanistan taught bitter lessons. The experiences told Americans to disregard whatever presidents and intelligence officials claim to see as an imminent threat. The patriotic exhortations from governing elites in Washington now disparage “isolationist” sentiments, but constituents back home simply want a more rational definition of “national self-interest.”
Goliath may be having some sort of nervous breakdown. He sounds confused and conflicted, muscle-bound and unsure of himself. The American arsenal can destroy targets and people 1,000 miles away but it now promises it won’t deploy any American soldiers to the battlefields where people are being killed. US war plans keep changing—hotter, colder, then limited or maybe not. Our moral justifications get muddied when we learn that the supposed good guys in Syria—our rebel allies—commit war crimes too (executing prisoners with a bullet to the back of the head).
Nobody knows, of course, but it is conceivable this war of confusion could evolve into a stunning historical shift—the moment when militarism and the military-industrial complex begin to lose their iron grip on US politics. The arms industry still dominates the domestic economy and will remain influential when good jobs are still scarce. In past wars, whenever Americans were sent to fight abroad, the people quickly rallied ’round the flag. Popular patriotism soars in wartime. Only after bitter losses accumulate do people begin to turn against the war and want out.
This time feels different. People generally are already antiwar. The high-minded Goliath devoted to defending global peace is now preoccupied with crippling domestic weaknesses. This is new ground for the world’s only superpower—unlike anything that has faced Washington since its triumphant role in World War II. Governing authorities, if they are wise, ought to recognize the longstanding political order is now highly vulnerable and back away before there are explosive reactions. Yet it is not easy for either the president or Congress to accept strategic retreat from the nation’s bloated ambition to run the world. Ultimately, these adjustments cannot be avoided but they can also not be achieved without producing humiliation and recrimination for the country.