Why the Most Powerful Nation in World History Keeps Losing Wars (and How That Could Affect Biden’s Foreign Policy)

April 18, 2021   •   By Richard Lachmann

PRESIDENT BIDEN PROCLAIMS that “America is back.” That promise could mean a turn away from Trump’s rejection and disruption of existing treaties and alliances, even though Trump, for all his belligerence, did not initiate any new wars, even as he boasted about the power of US weaponry. More likely, Biden will return to the combination of diplomacy and military intervention which has been typical of most post-1945 administrations.


Presidential aggression is encouraged by a chorus of voices from the military, Congress, media figures, and the foreign policy establishment that Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes called “the blob.” The United States, they tell us, is the most powerful nation in world history, the sole superpower, winner of the Cold War, the “indispensable nation,” a “hyperpower,” that has achieved “full spectrum dominance” and “command of the commons” over all other military forces on earth. Yet, despite all that boasting, the United States failed to achieve its objectives in Iraq and Afghanistan and was defeated outright in Vietnam. Since World War II, the US won unambiguous victories only in the first Gulf War of 1991, a war with the strictly limited objective of expelling Iraq from Kuwait, and in various “police actions” against pathetically small and weak opponents in the Dominican Republic in 1965, Grenada in 1983, and Panama in 1989. How can we explain this dichotomy between unparalleled military advantage over all rival powers and a virtually unblemished record of military defeat since the end of the Cold War?


There are three reasons that the US military is unable to use its overwhelming technological and financial edge over rivals to achieve victory in war.


First, the Pentagon directs its ample budget toward purchases of complex high-tech weapons, which are designed to fight fantasy wars against a Soviet Union that hasn’t existed for 30 years, or against present-day Russia and China, rather than on cheaper and simpler weapons and training. These are what troops need for the tactics the sorts of counterinsurgency wars the US in fact fights. The Vietnamese in the 1960s and the Afghans and Iraqis in the 21st century figured out simple and inexpensive methods to circumvent high-tech American weaponry by using old weapons (most notably mines) and by developing cheap new weapons (above all IEDs) that inflicted enough casualties on Americans to turn US public opinion against the wars. They created havoc that made it impossible for the US to win local support by establishing security. While scholars who study the military see Pentagon budgetary choices as the result of an organizational culture that produces commanders who prioritize keeping up with America’s most formidable rivals, weapons purchases are over-determined by military contractors who lobby for high-tech weapons because those realize the highest profit margins, and by officers whose careers and retirement incomes benefit from their attachment to weapons systems that remain in development and production for decades.


The US has a military mismatched for the wars it chooses to fight because its military spending has been determined by the interests and desires of a permanent alliance between generals aiming to enhance their careers and military contractors aiming to enhance profits. Careers both in and out of the military and profits are best built up by developing and commanding weaponry and equipment of the most advanced technology. The major defense contractors of today are even more powerful than in the heyday of the military-industrial complex because they were encouraged to merge, under the neoliberal policies of the George H. W. Bush and Clinton administrations, creating a few semi-monopolistic firms that hold sway over the banks that loaned them money for the mergers. The one or two huge corporations that can bid for and manufacture each type of complex weapon have great leverage over the myriad smaller businesses that serve as subcontractors. The big firms are monopsonies — the only buyers for the products those smaller firms make. This gives those big corporations even more leverage.


Second, opposition by the American public to significant American (but not foreign) casualties, an aversion that developed as part of the growing resistance during Vietnam and after to US aggression abroad, forces the adoption of war strategies that reduce interactions between American soldiers and warzone civilians, and the possibilities of accumulating the intelligence and local goodwill necessary for winning counterinsurgency wars. The sharp decline in the number of US war deaths the American public considers acceptable from Vietnam to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have limited the number of troops that can be sent into combat in the first place and quickened the pace with which they must be withdrawn or confined to rear bases.


Third, local populations are further alienated by the US government’s turn in the 21st century to a form of plunder neoliberalism in the countries it invades. While US contractors make millions building Green Zones, local businesses aren’t allowed to take part, and only a few high-ranking local elites are given opportunities to enrich themselves. This makes it almost impossible for the US to enlist reliable local allies. It also impoverishes the mass of locals, creating enough anger and desperation to power insurgencies. Together those three factors have all but ensured US failure in 21st-century wars and undermined America’s ability to maintain geopolitical hegemony.


Successful invaders are successful because they bring enough force to conquer foreign lands, but they can maintain control in the long term only by enlisting local support. The US in each country it invades depends on local elites to assume most of the administrative work and eventually to constitute an indigenous armed force to take over the tasks originally assumed by the conquering force. Ultimately such arrangements between invaders and locals are far more essential to continued control than the conquering power’s willingness and ability to maintain large numbers of troops or administrators abroad. In the first decades after World War II, the United States was willing to make financial sacrifices, exemplified by the Marshall Plan, to maintain imperial and financial dominance over much of the world. American corporations certainly enriched themselves throughout the world in those years, but the government was able to enforce limits so that local capitalists could also benefit from the US presence.


The neocons, who advocated for a US invasion of Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein years before 9/11, and who hoped for a series of wars that would replace the governments in Iran and Syria, proposed a frankly colonial project. Their plan for the Middle East would not be just an effort to privatize state firms (a process that elsewhere in the world — most notably in the former Soviet bloc — has enriched local as well as American elites), cut social benefits, and ensure the free flow of financial capital. Rather, they saw the series of invasions as a way to enrich Americans, who would gain control of the massive Iraqi and Iranian oil reserves and of other assets.


The redistribution of Iraqi wealth advocated by the neocons, and which the Americans attempted to implement in decrees by the Coalition Provisional Authority, was not designed for, nor did it lead to, economic growth. Rather, it was a zero-sum redistribution from Iraqis to Americans. As a result, the Americans could count on less elite or mass Iraqi support than in earlier wars not guided by such neoliberal aspirations. Correspondingly, the US needed to rely almost exclusively on military force, a force that was less effective and available in fewer numbers and for a shorter period of time than in previous wars.


This reality makes a successful US invasion of Iran, or any country but the smallest and most pathetic, impossible. Iran has more than double Iraq’s population and a far more capable military than that of Saddam Hussein in 2003. In addition, Iran has proxies throughout the Middle East while Iraq was almost totally isolated when the US invaded. Iran would be a significantly more formidable opponent than was Iraq. While the US military claims it has learned lessons from both Iraq and Afghanistan, America’s inability to defeat the Taliban suggests that whatever the US high command thinks it learned from its recent wars it has not been able to use to develop an effective counterinsurgency strategy. After all, the Pentagon budget still goes to expensive weaponry without a plan for using it, rather than to equipment and strategies meant to fight in places like Iraq or Iran. Rational officers still plan careers around high-tech weapons that take decades to build rather than around counterinsurgency forces that wax and wane. In any case, retired officers who specialized in weapons systems can make big money working for defense contractors. Those with experience in effective counterinsurgency don’t have such options.


Casualty aversion has not declined since fighting lessened in Iraq and Afghanistan. President Trump’s extreme reaction to the death of a single American contractor in Iraq in December 2019, and the panic by many young Americans over an imaginary and implausible reinstatement of conscription following the assassination of General Suleimani in January 2020, illustrates the broad opposition to significant American casualties that Trump and the Pentagon would have faced, and that Biden would face, in any attack on Iran that went beyond the use of drones, missiles, and high-altitude bombing.


We don’t know why Trump didn’t start a war with Iran or Venezuela or any of the other countries targeted by many Republicans and not a few Democrats, and we don’t know if President Biden will maintain the slowly simmering hostility toward Iran or if he will try to recreate the detente Obama fostered with the nuclear agreement that Trump shattered. However, any American president — whether they are bellicose like Johnson and Bush or seek to limit US interventionism following failed wars like Carter and Obama — faces the systemic impediments to winning wars I have outlined here. At the same time, presidents can lose sight of those obstacles because they are advised by generals who present war plans guided by the longstanding arrogant and delusional belief that the US can prevail over any opponent in the world because of its overwhelming technological and financial edge. That arrogance was proven wrong in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and it would lead to US defeat and the deaths of huge numbers of civilians in Iran or any other country the US attacks.


American presidents need to remember that military ventures have been restrained by domestic opposition as well as the power of resistance forces in the countries the US invades. Even if antiwar action within the US since Vietnam has been motivated more by concern over US combat deaths than over the civilians the US military kills in those wars, it still is an effective impediment to initiating or sustaining American wars. In the midst of concerns over COVID-19, economic inequality, racism, and global warming, progressive forces in the US shouldn’t lose sight of the need to remain vigilant against militaristic policies by even relatively liberal presidents like Biden. After all, Johnson, the most liberal president of the modern era, sent half a million troops to Vietnam. As Johnson’s presidency demonstrated, wars destroy not only the countries that the US invades but also the opportunities to implement liberal social programs. There are no winners here.


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Portions of this article were previously published in Jacobin.


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Richard Lachmann is professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Albany.