President Barack Obama noted last week after accepting the Nobel Peace Prize that the United States “has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades.”
While this was certainly true in Germany and Japan during World War II as well as in Korea, there have been too many occasions in the past four decades when presidents – usually in their first or second year in office – have used force in situations that have not served the interests of the United States, let alone the global community.
Unfortunately, the commitment to another costly buildup of military forces in Afghanistan, where US interests are not threatened, has added another episode to this unfortunate trend. Although the president was right to note that “my country was attacked from Afghanistan,” there is no reason to believe that Afghanistan itself (like Vietnam in the 1960s and Iraq in the current decade) represented or represents a threat to the United States.
Like many presidents before him, Obama has resorted to the use of force in his first year in office, when presidents know little about either the constraints of force or the performance and predilections of the key people they have selected in the fields of foreign policy and national security.
In his first few months in office, President John F. Kennedy made a huge mistake in failing to challenge Pentagon and CIA briefings, which were filled with inadequate and incorrect information, and thus launched the ignominious invasion at the Bay of Pigs.
In his first few months in office, President Lyndon B. Johnson also failed to challenge Kennedy’s advisers, the “best and brightest,” and launched the escalation of a war that led to more than 55,000 US fatalities and countless innocent Vietnamese deaths. President Richard M. Nixon began the drawdown of the 550,000 forces that Johnson ordered to Vietnam, but Nixon did so with a brutal and immoral bombing campaign that merely prolonged the war and had no impact on the outcome.
Upon leaving office, President Dwight D. Eisenhower expressed the hope that his successors would not be naïve about the use of force and would understand the need to challenge the views of their military and civilian advisers. Most of his successors, however, were almost ignorant of the uses of military power and far too willing to use military force to enhance their own stature or to protect their credibility as commander in chief.
Secretary of State Henry Kissinger convinced President Gerald Ford that it was necessary to cover the retreat from Vietnam by using military force to rescue the crew of the Mayaguez. As a result, 18 Marines were killed in trying to rescue a crew that had already been released by Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge. The CIA had informed the White House of the release, but the operation was conducted anyway.
Secretary of State and Gen. Alexander Haig and National Security Adviser Col. Robert McFarlane convinced President Ronald Reagan that the Marines should be sent to Lebanon in 1982 to bail out the Israelis who had unwisely invaded their neighbor. This deployment led to the deaths of more than 240 Marines.
President Reagan covered his retreat from Lebanon by invading Grenada, the first actual combat for US forces since Vietnam and the first such operation in this region since President Johnson unnecessarily ordered the Marines to the Dominican Republic. There was no real enemy in the Dominican Republic, and US forces in Grenada ended up in a confrontation with several hundred Cuban combat engineers who were building a landing strip.
President George H.W. Bush was considered a wise steward of American power, but he invaded Panama in 1989 to capture Manuel Noriega, who had received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Central Intelligence Agency despite his involvement in drug trafficking and money laundering.
President Bill Clinton squandered the lives of US Army Rangers in Somalia and spent nearly $2 billion doing so in 1993; the following year, he sent 22,000 troops to Haiti and spent more than $1 billion in an operation that accomplished nothing. When modest amounts of military power could have been used in Rwanda to stop one of the worst genocidal crimes in history, President Clinton did nothing; he was intimidated by a Pentagon that did not want to get involved.
President George W. Bush used military power in the worst possible way, endorsing pre-emptive attack and then fabricating and corrupting intelligence to justify the unnecessary invasion and occupation of Iraq. President Bush’s militarization of national security policy included the politicization of the Defense Department, the CIA and even the Justice Department.
The decisions involving the use of force – from Vietnam in the 1960s to the present – have had unintended consequences that have damaged US interests, and President Obama’s decision to escalate US presence in Afghanistan will be no exception to this pattern. As retired Col. Andrew Bacevich has warned, the US military presence in the region will do “more to inflame than to extinguish the resentments giving rise to violent anti-Western Jihadism.”
Many editorials today noted that President Obama is a realist, and expressed surprise that he did not cite theologian and activist Reinhold Niebuhr in his speech. Actually, President Obama was in no position to cite Niebuhr, whose words would not have helped the president. The excesses of US military power in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 40 years point to military supremacy and coercion.
Niebuhr criticized the excessive use of force by the United States, stating that we frantically avoid recognition of the imperialism which we in fact exercise.” In his “Irony of American History,” Niebuhr warned that “our dreams of managing history” – born of a combination of arrogance and narcissism, according to Bacevich – posed a potentially mortal threat to the United States.
There were no American national interests, let alone vital national interests, that were at stake in these places, and President Obama erred in his Nobel Peace Prize address in describing the myths of American innocence and exceptionalism, and in not acknowledging the political, strategic and moral problems that US military force has created.
He was eloquent in his call for a renewed moral compass and an expansion of our moral imagination, but he should have acknowledged that there are now greater chances for a wider war in a region that is inhospitable and mostly inaccessible for US forces and technology. Unfortunately, he has surrounded himself with national security officials who lack the ability to execute an expansion of “our moral imagination” in today’s perilous times.