War as the Politics of Failure

War as the Politics of Failure

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Barry launches a missile against Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s military on March 29, 2011. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jonathan Sunderman/U.S. Navy via the NYT)

The recent decision by the Obama administration to spearhead the NATO effort to oust Muammar Qaddafi from power in Libya reflects the oft-evident American penchant for war as a substitute for intelligent diplomacy. It was this mindset during the George W. Bush administration which led the US into pursuing two expensive and indecisive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Barack Obama has now opted to pursue a third. The hubris evident in both the recent Republican and current Democratic administrations illustrates the power of war’s appeal to American political leaders, especially as an index of “effective” leadership when such leadership has been missing on matters of domestic policy. A sycophantic mainstream press has also promoted the culture of war and its imputation of “manliness/courage” for testing the mettle of American leaders. In effect, the recourse to war has acquired its own compelling, if not quite rational, logic within contemporary American political culture. For those who were influenced favorably by Barack Obama’s pre-presidential critique of the decision to go to war in Iraq and the Nobel Peace Prize that he received, it has become evident that Obama has been transformed into simply another president held captive by the American culture of war. As he prepares for the 2012 presidential election campaign, the symbolic importance of war and “victory” in the various military campaigns which he has overseen or undertaken will be integral to the debates about the merits of his campaign for re-election. It will be interesting to observe whether these wars of choice pursued by an American president – gifted with a Nobel Peace Prize – will lead to serious examination of a society which has adopted a policy of preparedness for permanent war.

This use of war as a substitute for American diplomacy was one consequence of the post-1945 establishment of a large standing military establishment that sought to expand American influence across the entire international system. During the cold war, the disintegration of the European and Japanese empires paved the way for the United States, the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China to engage in wars by proxy in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. While the deployment of nuclear weapons stabilized Europe’s internal conflict, the lack of such deployments in the non-European world created conditions for conventional wars to test and reshape the balance of power among regional states and their superpower patrons. The Korean and Vietnam Wars, the Israeli-Arab Wars in the Middle East and the Ogaden War in the Horn of Africa emerged out of this process, as did the later wars triggered by the decolonization of Angola and Mozambique in Southern Africa.

These “proxy” wars also served as useful laboratories for the testing of weapons and other technologies of war in the ever more desperate efforts to ensure that the major arms producers and military powers could maintain or secure an advantage for their arms producers and militaries. Large standing military establishments, the increasing sophistication of technologies that could be deployed for purposes of war and the use of military “Keynesianism” – government expenditure on military requirements – as a mechanism of macro-economic policy management, have made war preparation among the major powers, rather than war itself, a central component of contemporary international life. In effect, the culture and preparedness for war seems to have become part of the business cycle among the major powers even as the cost and duration of direct war has made large scale armed conflict increasingly unlikely among them. The advent and spread of nuclear weapons and the increasing sophistication of missile delivery systems has placed a high premium on the development of strategies of mutual deterrence among the major powers even as they refine offensive strategies for war as a last resort. One indicator of these shifts in strategic planning is the development and testing of anti-satellite weapons that can be used to disrupt command, control and communications systems of adversaries.

However, war remains a vital instrument of statecraft in the relations between the major powers and lesser powers, while the international arms trade is an important component of inter-state relations among all states. The trade in weapons also has an impact upon the restructuring of the hierarchies of power within the international system and as a trigger of armed conflict at various levels. One vivid example of this complex interplay of conflict across various levels has been the multi-decade conflicts in the Horn of Africa. The Ethiopian revolution of the 1970s was a catalyst for a widening crisis across the region including the Somali-Ethiopian War over the Ogaden region. The war accompanied Ethiopia’s switch from its alliance with the United States to seeking the support of the Soviet Union, while Somalia did the reverse – switching from Soviet to American support. Later, Eritrea won its long-running struggle for independence from Ethiopia, while Somalia has disintegrated as a viable state over the past two decades. The latter’s fragmentation led to a failed American-inspired “peace-keeping” intervention by the United Nations, the rise of radical Islamic militancy and the country’s emergence as a haven for pirates, who pose an ongoing threat to international shipping in the region. The decades of regional instability have generated civil war, interstate war, international intervention by way of the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Nations and the creation of a zone of perennial armed conflict.

The Horn of Africa stands today as a failure of cold war military competition and the legacies of that failure have yet to be understood fully by American policymakers even after the end of the cold war. The ambitions of American policymakers during the cold war to secure strategic dominance over the world outside of the Soviet Union and its allies were constantly contested by the Warsaw Pact members and other actors, such as the Ethiopian revolutionary regime, which did not subscribe to the idea of an American-dominated international system. Since the end of the cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the challenges to American plans to secure a position of long-term dominance over the planet have multiplied with the rise of China and India, the restructuring of the politics of Europe under German leadership and its adoption of a strategic entente with Russia and France and the increasingly fraught politics of Islamic resurgence in the Middle East, the Mediterranean littoral and among the states of South and Central Asia. The rise of China as the industrial workshop of the world and its search for raw materials and markets, has transformed the global political economy and has opened the opportunities for greater Chinese involvement in South America and Africa – areas historically dominated by America and its European allies. The American search for global pre-eminence is widely recognized as unrealistic in light of the transformation of the international system since the end of the cold war, and the Obama administration is now engaged in an effort to forge an alternative vision and role for the United States in this changed international environment.

The events in the Horn of Africa occurred in the wake of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and the use by the Arab states of an oil embargo to pressure the United States and its allies to moderate Israeli behavior in the Middle East. The oil embargo was effective because of the end of American self-sufficiency in the production of petroleum from 1970 onward. The 1973 oil crisis signaled American dependence upon oil exports from the region and the recycling of petro-dollars by way of arms purchases and investment in the American economy. The American dependence has grown over the decades as American domestic oil production has been unable to meet domestic demand. The 1973 crisis also heightened the strategic significance of the Middle East and Persian Gulf in American foreign policy given the dependence of its European allies and Japan upon the oil resources of the. In effect, the 1970s marked the increasing vulnerability of the United States to reverses in the international system. The 1973 oil crisis, the Ethiopian Revolution of 1974 and the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 accompanied by the collapse of the Portuguese imperial rule in Africa, were all harbingers of a changing international context in which the United States found itself in a moment of profound crisis. The American strategic crisis of the mid-1970s redounded to the benefit of the Soviet Union, which reaped the windfall of increased prices of oil as a major exporter. Further, the Soviets had acquired strategic parity in nuclear weapons with the US and its support for North Vietnam in the quest to reunite Vietnam, its military and security assistance for the maintenance of Ethiopia’s territoriality against Somalia’s effort to annex the Ogaden and the support for Cuban intervention in Angola against South African efforts to occupy the country, all enhanced the Soviet reputation on the global stage.

One consequence of that increasing sense of American vulnerability in the 1970s was the failure of many American policymakers to recognize that the US was confronting a world in which its culture of war had proven, as in Vietnam, strategically counterproductive and fiscally irresponsible. The Vietnam War had forced the Nixon administration to abandon the gold standard to relieve increasing pressure on the international role and value of the dollar. By the end of the decade, the United States found itself confronting the rise of radical Islamic and anti-Western movements in both Iran and Saudi Arabia – the pillars of American policy in the Middle East, a second oil crisis in 1979 triggered by the growing sense of panic about political instability in the Middle East after the ouster of the shah of Iran and the establishment of the Islamic Republic in Iran and the subsequent Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The confluence of radical Islam and instability in the international oil markets had transformed the strategic context of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, a region within which the United States had been the dominant power. The seizure of the American embassy in Iran by radicals became an iconic representation of the American dilemma in the region in 1979-1980. The failure of the Carter administration to secure the release of the American hostages in the embassy led to the election of Ronald Reagan, who promised a more muscular foreign policy to “redeem” American influence in the international system.

The recent protests that swept the long-serving Tunisian and Egyptian leaders from power and the ongoing challenges to regimes in Libya, Bahrain and Yemen, accompanied by a rapid increase in international oil prices, have reawakened fears of the events that shook the region in the 1970s. After the disastrous American occupation of Iraq under the Bush administration and the American failure to exert the required leverage to forge an Israel-Palestinian peace accord with the creation of a viable Palestinian state under the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, American influence in the Middle East and the wider region is again under pressure. The decision to mount an aerial assault on the Qaddafi regime should be seen within the context of the Obama administration’s determination to pursue a “muscular” policy to maintain its strategic influence in this key oil-producing region. Further, its tacit support for the Saudi intervention to bolster the minority Sunni ruling dynasty in the face of protests in the Shia majority Persian Gulf state of Bahrain and its not so subtle encouragement of street protests in both Yemen and Syria are aimed at reminding Iran and other groups that the US-Saudi alliance still has the capacity to disrupt the growth of Iranian and other anti-American influences across the Middle East. In effect, the Obama administration, as it looks to the 2012 election campaign, is determined to avoid the fate of the Carter administration in 1979-1980 of appearing indecisive in the Middle East and Persian Gulf.

Notwithstanding this “muscular” approach to recent events in the region, it is unclear whether the seductions of intervention in Afghanistan will allow the United States to escape the dilemma that has been evident since the 1970s – can the US dependence upon oil imports be overcome by expanding the American military presence in key energy producing regions of the world? Further, in what ways, will American dependence continue to erode the country’s economic competitiveness and its influence as a global power? These were the questions that emerged during the events that rocked the international system of the 1970s. If the assumption of the Obama administration is that war and military interventions in the region will solve those fundamental challenges, that approach is an indication that war continues to trump intelligent diplomacy in American grand strategy.