Volume 2 Issue 2 Summer 2018

The Making of US Military Defeats

One difficulty in writing about American decline is getting the tone right. A danger is that one can come across as regretful of the United States’ loss of ability to control other countries. That unfortunately is the way Jason Brownlee read my article, as offering ammunition, albeit inadvertent, for imperialists looking to build support for the next American war by arguing that the US military has learned the “lessons” of Afghanistan or Iraq and therefore will be more effective in a future war in Iran or wherever. Brownlee accurately identifies the three factors that I see as most important in explaining America’s failure, over the past fifty years, to win any sustained war: misallocation of generous Pentagon budgets, aversion to American casualties, and neoliberal plunder policies that undermine the bases for enlisting sufficient local allies of an American occupation. Brownlee describes these three factors as “glitches in [the US] counterinsurgency apparatus,” and suggests that my article implies that if these factors were overcome, the United States could win such wars. In fact, my analysis finds that the three factors are not mere glitches, or even changeable policy preferences. The United States lost wars, not because civilian or military leaders failed to learn “lessons” from past wars, but because structural constraints make it impossible for the United States to fight wars any differently from the way in which it did in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. For that reason, the United States will never be able to win counterinsurgency wars, or indeed any sort of war except perhaps for large-scale conventional wars of the sort that US weapons are designed to fight.

Brownlee also asserts that US victories in counterinsurgency (or as he labels them, counterrevolutionary) wars are unattainable. However, instead of focusing as I do on structural impediments to adopting different military or foreign policies, Brownlee argues that counterinsurgencies are inherently unwinnable (presumably by other present-day imperial powers as well as the United States) because such wars are “normatively and politically bankrupt.” Drawing on Hannah Arendt’s distinction between “violence [which] is the application of force to inflict physical damage; [and] power [which] mobilizes human bodies to accomplish shared goals,” Brownlee believes that only when “US administrations deferred to indigenous ideas about independence and self-determination (in the Philippines and Japan), were they able to follow military victory with varying levels of political success.” In contrast, the United States in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq sought to remake those countries’ social relations and political economies while bypassing the wishes and interests of indigenous peoples.

Brownlee is clear in describing the consequences of those two different sorts of post-conquest policies but he doesn’t offer an explanation for why US officials adopted one approach after World War II and belatedly in the Philippines while pursuing policies doomed to failure in more recent wars. He suggests that mass opposition in the United States or worldwide is the only force today that could block future US counterrevolutionary wars. However, Brownlee never identifies the factors that pushed the United States to be more deferential at the end of World War II toward enemies who had been utterly vanquished. Nor does he explain why the United States shifted strategy in the Philippines towards conciliation decades after the insurgency had been militarily defeated.1 In neither of those historical moments was there enough mass opposition to US foreign intervention to account for those milder American policies.

Brownlee and I thus offer different answers to three key questions: why does the United States fight wars and conduct occupations as it does, why do those wars end in failure for the United States, and what forces are most likely to prevent future American-initiated wars. For Brownlee, US war policy is and will be determined by a clash of self-interested American militarists and mass opposition. He sees the ambitions and methods of American militarists as unchanging and doomed to failure (except in rare, unexplained cases where the United States conducted conciliatory occupations). The key variable in his analysis is the extent of American and international opposition to US wars. I think if we want to explain America’s varying approaches to, and success in, foreign occupations we need to look more closely at the structural forces that shape US military capacities and meld that with a deeper understanding of other countries’ geopolitical interests and capacities (a factor neglected both in my original article and in Brownlee’s response, and which I address here).

I begin by reviewing the evidence for, and Brownlee’s critique of, my argument that misspent money, growing aversion to American casualties, and neoliberal policies doomed recent US invasions and occupations. I then look at the role of geopolitics in shaping both US war policies and the effectiveness of mass opposition to American wars. I then return to Brownlee’s use of Arendt’s distinction between military and political power and argue that he and Arendt are wrong to assert that military success is inherently untranslatable into political rule. Finally, my analysis will provide the basis to evaluate the role that public opinion and mass movements, which get pride of place in Brownlee’s critique, might play in deflecting or weakening future US interventions.

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