Ending Endless War: A Pragmatic Military Strategy

By Bacevich, Andrew J. | Foreign Affairs, September/October 2016 | Go to article overview

Ending Endless War: A Pragmatic Military Strategy


Bacevich, Andrew J., Foreign Affairs


During the Cold War, the United States preferred to husband, rather than expend, its military power. The idea was not to fight but to defend, deter, and contain, a cold peace infinitely preferable to nuclear cataclysm. When U.S. policymakers strayed from this principle, attempting to unify the Korean Peninsula in 1950 or deploying combat troops to Vietnam in the 1960s, the results proved unhappy in the extreme.

Husbanding did not imply timidity. To impart credibility to its strategy of containment, the United States stationed substantial forces in Western Europe and Northeast Asia. For allies unable to defend themselves, U.S. garrisons offered reassurance, fostering an environment that facilitated recovery and development. Over time, regions deemed vulnerable stabilized and prospered.

Beginning in the 1990s, however, official thinking regarding the utility of force changed radically. The draft "Defense Planning Guidance" prepared in 1991 under the aegis of Paul Wolfowitz, then U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, hinted at the emerging mood. The mere avoidance of war no longer sufficed. Describing an international order "shaped by the victory of the United States" over communism and in the just-concluded war against Iraq, the document identified opportunities to "shape the future security environment in ways favorable to [the United States]."

Shaping the future-here was an enterprise worthy of a superpower charged with fulfilling history's purpose. Lending such expectations a semblance of plausibility was an exalted appreciation of American military might.

By the early 1990s, concepts such as "defend and deter" seemed faint-hearted, if not altogether cowardly. One army field manual from that era credited U.S. forces with the ability to achieve "quick, decisive victory on and off the battlefield anywhere in the world and under virtually any conditions." Once considered a blunt instrument, force was now to serve as an all-purpose chisel.

Rarely has a benign-sounding proposition yielded greater mischief. Pursuant to the imperative of shaping the future, military activism became the order of the day. Rather than adhere to a principled strategy, successive administrations succumbed to opportunism, cultivating a to-do list of problems that the United States was called on to solve. More often than not, the preferred solution involved the threat or actual use of force.

Putting the chisel to work gave rise to a pattern of promiscuous intervention. After 9/11, confidence in the efficacy of American military might reached its apotheosis. With his "freedom agenda" providing ideological camouflage, President George W. Bush embraced preventive war, initially targeting "an axis of evil." U.S. military policy became utterly unhinged.

So it remains today, with U.S. forces more or less permanently engaged in ongoing hostilities. In one theater after another, fighting erupts, ebbs, flows, and eventually meanders toward some ambiguous conclusion, only to erupt anew or be eclipsed by a new round of fighting elsewhere. Nothing really ends. Meanwhile, as if on autopilot, the Pentagon accrues new obligations and expands its global footprint, oblivious to the possibility that in some parts of the world, U.S. forces may no longer be needed, whereas in others, their presence may be detrimental. During the Cold War, peace never seemed anything but a distant prospect. Even so, presidents from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan cited peace as the ultimate objective of U.S. policy. Today, the term "peace" itself has all but vanished from political discourse. War has become a normal condition.

The next U.S. president will inherit a host of pressing national security challenges, from Russian provocations, Chinese muscle-flexing, and North Korean bad behavior to the disorder afflicting much of the Islamic world. Americans will expect Washington to respond to each of these problems, along with others as yet unforeseen. …

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