This article, based on Andrew Bacevich’s new book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, originally appeared on TomDispatch.
“War is the great auditor of institutions,” the historian Corelli Barnett once observed. Since 9/11, the United States has undergone such an audit and been found wanting. That adverse judgment applies in full to America’s armed forces.
Valor does not offer the measure of an army’s greatness, nor does fortitude, nor durability, nor technological sophistication. A great army is one that accomplishes its assigned mission. Since George W. Bush inaugurated his global war on terror, the armed forces of the United States have failed to meet that standard.
In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, Bush conceived of a bold, offensive strategy, vowing to “take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge.” The military offered the principal means for undertaking this offensive, and US forces soon found themselves engaged on several fronts.
Two of those fronts–Afghanistan and Iraq–commanded priority attention. In each case, the assigned task was to deliver a knockout blow, leading to a quick, decisive, economical, politically meaningful victory. In each case, despite impressive displays of valor, fortitude, durability and technological sophistication, America’s military came up short. The problem lay not with the level of exertion but with the results achieved.
In Afghanistan, US forces failed to eliminate the leadership of Al Qaeda. Although they toppled the Taliban regime that had ruled most of that country, they failed to eliminate the Taliban movement, which soon began to claw its way back. Intended as a brief campaign, the Afghan war became a protracted one. Nearly seven years after it began, there is no end in sight. If anything, America’s adversaries are gaining strength. The outcome remains much in doubt.
In Iraq, events followed a similar pattern, with the appearance of easy success belied by subsequent developments. The US invasion began on March 19, 2003. Six weeks later, against the backdrop of a White House-produced banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished,” President Bush declared that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.” This claim proved illusory.
Writing shortly after the fall of Baghdad, the influential neoconservatives David Frum and Richard Perle declared Operation Iraqi Freedom “a vivid and compelling demonstration of America’s ability to win swift and total victory.” General Tommy Franks, commanding the force that invaded Iraq, modestly characterized the results of his handiwork as “unequaled in its excellence by anything in the annals of war.” In retrospect, such judgments–and they were legion–can only be considered risible. A war thought to have ended on April 9, 2003, in Baghdad’s al-Firdos Square was only just beginning. Fighting dragged on for years, exacting a cruel toll. Iraq became a reprise of Vietnam, although in some respects, at least, on a blessedly smaller scale.
A New American Way of War?
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Just a few short years ago, observers were proclaiming that the United States possessed military power such as the world had never seen. Here was the nation’s strong suit. “The troops” appeared unbeatable. Writing in 2002, for example, Max Boot, a well-known commentator on military matters, attributed to the United States a level of martial excellence “that far surpasses the capabilities of such previous would-be hegemons as Rome, Britain, and Napoleonic France.” With US forces enjoying “unparalleled strength in every facet of warfare,” allies, he wrote, had become an encumbrance: “We just don’t need anyone else’s help very much.”
Boot dubbed this the Doctrine of the Big Enchilada. Within a year, after US troops had occupied Baghdad, he went further: America’s army even outclassed Germany’s Wehrmacht. The mastery displayed in knocking off Saddam, Boot gushed, made “fabled generals such as Erwin Rommel and Heinz Guderian seem positively incompetent by comparison.”
All of this turned out to be hot air. If the global war on terror has produced one undeniable conclusion, it is this: estimates of US military capabilities have turned out to be wildly overstated. The Bush Administration’s misplaced confidence in the efficacy of American arms represents a strategic misjudgment that has cost the country dearly. Even in an age of stealth, precision weapons, and instant communications, armed force is not a panacea. Even in a supposedly unipolar era, American military power turns out to be quite limited.
How did it happen that Americans so utterly overappraised the utility of military power? The answer to that question lies at the intersection of three great illusions.
According to the first illusion, the United States during the 1980s and 1990s had succeeded in reinventing armed conflict. The result was to make force more precise, more discriminating and potentially more humane. The Pentagon had devised a new American Way of War, investing its forces with capabilities unlike any the world had ever seen. As President Bush exuberantly declared shortly after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, “We’ve applied the new powers of technology…to strike an enemy force with speed and incredible precision. By a combination of creative strategies and advanced technologies, we are redefining war on our terms. In this new era of warfare, we can target a regime, not a nation.”
The distinction between regime and nation was a crucial one. By employing these new military techniques, the United States could eliminate an obstreperous foreign leader and his cronies, while sparing the population over which that leader ruled. Putting a missile through the roof of a presidential palace made it unnecessary to incinerate an entire capital city, endowing force with hitherto undreamed-of political utility and easing ancient moral inhibitions on the use of force. Force had been a club; it now became a scalpel. By the time the President spoke, such sentiments had already become commonplace among many (although by no means all) military officers and national security experts.
Here lay a formula for certain victory. Confidence in military prowess both reflected and reinforced a post-cold war confidence in the universality of American values. Harnessed together, they made a seemingly unstoppable one-two punch.
With that combination came expanded ambitions. In the 1990s, the very purpose of the Department of Defense changed. Sustaining American global pre-eminence, rather than mere national security, became its explicit function. In the most comprehensive articulation of this new American Way of War, the Joint Chiefs of Staff committed the armed services to achieving what they called “full-spectrum dominance”–unambiguous supremacy in all forms of warfare, to be achieved by tapping the potential of two “enablers”–“technological innovation and information superiority.”
Full-spectrum dominance stood in relation to military affairs as the political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s well-known proclamation of “the end of history” stood in relation to ideology: each claimed to have unlocked ultimate truths. According to Fukuyama, democratic capitalism represented the final stage in political economic evolution. According to the proponents of full-spectrum dominance, that concept represented the final stage in the evolution of modern warfare. In their first days and weeks, the successive invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq both seemed to affirm such claims.
How Not to “Support the Troops”
According to the second illusion, American civilian and military leaders subscribed to a common set of principles for employing their now-dominant forces. Adherence to these principles promised to prevent any recurrence of the sort of disaster that had befallen the nation in Vietnam. If politicians went off half-cocked, as President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had back in the 1960s, generals who had correctly discerned and assimilated the lessons of modern war could be counted on to rein them in.
These principles found authoritative expression in the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine, which specified criteria for deciding when and how to use force. Caspar Weinberger, secretary of defense during most of the Reagan era, first articulated these principles in 1984. General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the early 1990s, expanded on them. Yet the doctrine’s real authors were the members of the post-Vietnam officer corps. The Weinberger-Powell principles expressed the military’s own lessons taken from that war. Those principles also expressed the determination of senior officers to prevent any recurrence of Vietnam.
Henceforth, according to Weinberger and Powell, the United States would fight only when genuinely vital interests were at stake. It would do so in pursuit of concrete and attainable objectives. It would mobilize the necessary resources–political and moral as well as material–to win promptly and decisively. It would end conflicts expeditiously and then get out, leaving no loose ends. The spirit of the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine was not permissive; its purpose was to curb the reckless or imprudent inclinations of bellicose civilians.
According to the third illusion, the military and American society had successfully patched up the differences that produced something akin to divorce during the divisive Vietnam years. By the 1990s, a reconciliation of sorts was under way. In the wake of Operation Desert Storm, “the American people fell in love again with their armed forces.” So, at least, General Colin Powell, one of that war’s great heroes, believed. Out of this love affair a new civil-military compact had evolved, one based on the confidence that, in times of duress, Americans could be counted on to “support the troops.” Never again would the nation abandon its soldiers.
The All-Volunteer Force (AVF)–despite its name, a professional military establishment–represented the chief manifestation of this new compact. By the 1990s, Americans were celebrating the AVF as the one component of the federal government that actually worked as advertised. The AVF embodied the nation’s claim to the status of sole superpower; it was “America’s Team.” In the wake of the cold war, the AVF sustained the global Pax Americana without interfering with the average American’s life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. What was not to like?
Events since 9/11 have exposed these three illusions for what they were. When tested, the new American Way of War yielded more glitter than gold. The generals and admirals who touted the wonders of full spectrum dominance were guilty of flagrant professional malpractice, if not outright fraud. To judge by the record of the past twenty years, US forces win decisively only when the enemy obligingly fights on American terms–and Saddam Hussein’s demise has drastically reduced the likelihood of finding such accommodating adversaries in the future. As for loose ends, from Somalia to the Balkans, from Central Asia to the Persian Gulf, they have been endemic.
When it came to the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine, civilian willingness to conform to its provisions proved to be highly contingent. Confronting Powell in 1993, Madeleine Albright famously demanded to know, “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about, if we can’t use it?” Mesmerized by the prospects of putting American soldiers to work to alleviate the world’s ills, Albright soon enough got her way. An odd alliance that combined left-leaning do-gooders with jingoistic politicians and pundits succeeded in chipping away at constraints on the use of force. “Humanitarian intervention” became all the rage. Whatever restraining influence the generals exercised during the 1990s did not survive that decade. Lessons of Vietnam that had once seemed indelible were forgotten.
Meanwhile, the reconciliation of the people and the army turned out to be a chimera. When the chips were down, “supporting the troops” elicited plenty of posturing but little by way of binding commitments. Far from producing a stampede of eager recruits keen to don a uniform, the events of 9/11 reaffirmed a widespread popular preference for hiring someone else’s kid to chase terrorists, spread democracy and ensure access to the world’s energy reserves.
In the midst of a global war of ostensibly earthshaking importance, Americans demonstrated a greater affinity for their hometown sports heroes than for the soldiers defending the distant precincts of the American imperium. Tom Brady makes millions playing quarterback in the NFL and rakes in millions more from endorsements. Pat Tillman quit professional football to become an army ranger and was killed in Afghanistan. Yet, of the two, Brady more fully embodies the contemporary understanding of the term “patriot.”
Demolishing the Doctrine of the Big Enchilada
While they persisted, however, these three illusions fostered gaudy expectations about the efficacy of American military might. Every President since Ronald Reagan has endorsed these expectations. Every President since Reagan has exploited his role as Commander in Chief to expand on the imperial prerogatives of his office. Each has also relied on military power to conceal or manage problems that stemmed from the nation’s habits of profligacy.
In the wake of 9/11, these puerile expectations–that armed force wielded by a strong-willed chief executive could do just about anything–reached an apotheosis of sorts. Having manifestly failed to anticipate or prevent a devastating attack on American soil, President Bush proceeded to use his ensuing global war on terror as a pretext for advancing grandiose new military ambitions married to claims of unbounded executive authority–all under the guise of keeping Americans “safe.”
With the President denying any connection between the events of September 11 and past US policies, his declaration of a global war nipped in the bud whatever inclination the public might have entertained to reconsider those policies. In essence, Bush counted on war both to concentrate greater power in his own hands and to divert attention from the political, economic and cultural bind in which the United States found itself as a result of its own past behavior.
As long as US forces sustained their reputation for invincibility, it remained possible to pretend that the constitutional order and the American way of life were in good health. The concept of waging an open-ended global campaign to eliminate terrorism retained a modicum of plausibility. After all, how could anyone or anything stop the unstoppable American soldier?
Call that reputation into question, however, and everything else unravels. This is what occurred when the Iraq war went sour. The ills afflicting our political system, including a deeply irresponsible Congress, broken national security institutions, and above all an imperial Commander in Chief not up to the job, became all but impossible to ignore. So, too, did the self-destructive elements inherent in the American way of life–especially an increasingly costly addiction to foreign oil, universally deplored and almost as universally indulged. More noteworthy still, the prospect of waging war on a global scale for decades, if not generations, became preposterous.
To anyone with eyes to see, the events of the past seven years have demolished the Doctrine of the Big Enchilada. A gung-ho journalist like Robert Kaplan might still believe that with the dawn of the twenty-first century, the Pentagon had “appropriated the entire earth, and was ready to flood the most obscure areas of it with troops at a moment’s notice,” that planet Earth in its entirety had become “battle space for the American military.” Yet any buck sergeant of even middling intelligence knew better than to buy such claptrap.
With the Afghanistan war well into its seventh year and the Iraq war marking its fifth anniversary, a commentator like Michael Barone might express absolute certainty that “just about no mission is impossible for the United States military.” But Barone was not facing the prospect of being ordered back to the war zone for his second or third combat tour.
Between what President Bush called upon America’s soldiers to do and what they were capable of doing loomed a huge gap that defines the military crisis besetting the United States today. For a nation accustomed to seeing military power as its trump card, the implications of that gap are monumental.