By Andrew J. Bacevich, the author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, which Random House will publish in April. Originally published at TomDispatch
To judge by the early returns, the presidential race of 2016 is shaping up as the most disheartening in recent memory. Other than as a form of low entertainment, the speeches, debates, campaign events, and slick TV ads already inundating the public sphere offer little of value. Rather than exhibiting the vitality of American democracy, they testify to its hollowness.
Present-day Iranian politics may actually possess considerably more substance than our own. There, the parties involved, whether favoring change or opposing it, understand that the issues at stake have momentous implications. Here, what passes for national politics is a form of exhibitionism about as genuine as pro wrestling.
A presidential election campaign ought to involve more than competing coalitions of interest groups or bevies of investment banks and billionaires vying to install their preferred candidate in the White House. It should engage and educate citizens, illuminating issues and subjecting alternative solutions to careful scrutiny.
That this one won’t even come close we can ascribe as much to the media as to those running for office, something the recent set of “debates” and the accompanying commentary have made painfully clear. With certain honorable exceptions such as NBC’s estimable Lester Holt, representatives of the press are less interested in fulfilling their civic duty than promoting themselves as active participants in the spectacle. They bait, tease, and strut. Then they subject the candidates’ statements and misstatements to minute deconstruction. The effect is to inflate their own importance while trivializing the proceedings they are purportedly covering.
Above all in the realm of national security, election 2016 promises to be not just a missed opportunity but a complete bust. Recent efforts to exercise what people in Washington like to call “global leadership” have met with many more failures and disappointments than clearcut successes. So you might imagine that reviewing the scorecard would give the current raft of candidates, Republican and Democratic alike, plenty to talk about.
But if you thought that, you’d be mistaken. Instead of considered discussion of first-order security concerns, the candidates have regularly opted for bluff and bluster, their chief aim being to remove all doubts regarding their hawkish bona fides.
In that regard, nothing tops rhetorically beating up on the so-called Islamic State. So, for example, Hillary Clinton promises to “smash the would-be caliphate,” Jeb Bush to “defeat ISIS for good,” Ted Cruz to “carpet bomb them into oblivion,” and Donald Trump to “bomb the shit out of them.” For his part, having recently acquired a gun as the “last line of defense between ISIS and my family,” Marco Rubio insists that when he becomes president, “The most powerful intelligence agency in the world is going to tell us where [ISIS militants] are; the most powerful military in the world is going to destroy them; and if we capture any of them alive, they are getting a one-way ticket to Guantanamo Bay.”
These carefully scripted lines perform their intended twofold function. First, they elicit applause and certify the candidate as plenty tough. Second, they spare the candidate from having to address matters far more deserving of presidential attention than managing the fight against the Islamic State.
In the hierarchy of challenges facing the United States today, ISIS ranks about on a par with Sicily back in 1943. While liberating that island was a necessary prelude to liberating Europe more generally, the German occupation of Sicily did not pose a direct threat to the Allied cause. So with far weightier matters to attend to — handling Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, for example — President Franklin Roosevelt wisely left the problem of Sicily to subordinates. FDR thereby demonstrated an aptitude for distinguishing between the genuinely essential and the merely important.
By comparison, today’s crop of presidential candidates either are unable to grasp, cannot articulate, or choose to ignore those matters that should rightfully fall under a commander-in-chief’s purview. Instead, they compete with one another in vowing to liberate the twenty-first-century equivalent of Sicily, as if doing so demonstrates their qualifications for the office.
What sort of national security concerns should be front and center in the current election cycle? While conceding that a reasoned discussion of heavily politicized matters like climate change, immigration, or anything to do with Israel is probably impossible, other issues of demonstrable significance deserve attention. What follows are six of them — by no means an exhaustive list — that I’ve framed as questions a debate moderator might ask of anyone seeking the presidency, along with brief commentaries explaining why neither the posing nor the answering of such questions is likely to happen anytime soon.
1. The War on Terror: Nearly 15 years after this “war” was launched by George W. Bush, why hasn’t “the most powerful military in the world,” “the finest fighting force in the history of the world” won it? Why isn’t victory anywhere in sight?
As if by informal agreement, the candidates and the journalists covering the race have chosen to ignore the military enterprise inaugurated in 2001, initially called the Global War on Terrorism and continuing today without an agreed-upon name. Since 9/11, the United States has invaded, occupied, bombed, raided, or otherwise established a military presence in numerous countries across much of the Islamic world. How are we doing?
Given the resources expended and the lives lost or ruined, not particularly well it would seem. Intending to promote stability, reduce the incidence of jihadism, and reverse the tide of anti-Americanism among many Muslims, that “war” has done just the opposite. Advance the cause of democracy and human rights? Make that zero-for-four.
Amazingly, this disappointing record has been almost entirely overlooked in the campaign. The reasons why are not difficult to discern. First and foremost, both parties share in the serial failures of U.S. policy in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and elsewhere in the region. Pinning the entire mess on George W. Bush is no more persuasive than pinning it all on Barack Obama. An intellectually honest accounting would require explanations that look beyond reflexive partisanship. Among the matters deserving critical scrutiny is Washington’s persistent bipartisan belief in military might as an all-purpose problem solver. Not far behind should come questions about simple military competence that no American political figure of note or mainstream media outlet has the gumption to address.
The politically expedient position indulged by the media is to sidestep such concerns in favor of offering endless testimonials to the bravery and virtue of the troops, while calling for yet more of the same or even further escalation. Making a show of supporting the troops takes precedence over serious consideration of what they are continually being asked to do.
2. Nuclear Weapons: Today, more than 70 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, what purpose do nukes serve? How many nuclear weapons and delivery systems does the United States actually need?
In an initiative that has attracted remarkably little public attention, the Obama administration has announced plans to modernize and upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Estimated costs of this program reach as high as $1 trillion over the next three decades. Once finished — probably just in time for the 100th anniversary of Hiroshima — the United States will possess more flexible, precise, survivable, and therefore usable nuclear capabilities than anything hitherto imagined. In effect, the country will have acquired a first-strike capability — even as U.S. officials continue to affirm their earnest hope of removing the scourge of nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth (other powers being the first to disarm, of course).
Whether, in the process, the United States will become more secure or whether there might be far wiser ways to spend that kind of money — shoring up cyber defenses, for example — would seem like questions those who could soon have their finger on the nuclear button might want to consider.
Yet we all know that isn’t going to happen. Having departed from the sphere of politics or strategy, nuclear policy has long since moved into the realm of theology. Much as the Christian faith derives from a belief in a Trinity consisting of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, so nuclear theology has its own Triad, comprised of manned bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and submarine-launched missiles. To question the existence of such a holy threesome constitutes rank heresy. It’s just not done — especially when there’s all that money about to be dropped into the collection plate.
3. Energy Security: Given the availability of abundant oil and natural gas reserves in the Western Hemisphere and the potential future abundance of alternative energy systems, why should the Persian Gulf continue to qualify as a vital U.S. national security interest?
Back in 1980, two factors prompted President Jimmy Carter to announce that the United States viewed the Persian Gulf as worth fighting for. The first was a growing U.S. dependence on foreign oil and a belief that American consumers were guzzling gas at a rate that would rapidly deplete domestic reserves. The second was a concern that, having just invaded Afghanistan, the Soviet Union might next have an appetite for going after those giant gas stations in the Gulf, Iran, or even Saudi Arabia.
Today we know that the Western Hemisphere contains more than ample supplies of oil and natural gas to sustain the American way of life (while also heating up the planet). As for the Soviet Union, it no longer exists — a decade spent chewing on Afghanistan having produced a fatal case of indigestion.
No doubt ensuring U.S. energy security should remain a major priority. Yet in that regard, protecting Canada, Mexico, and Venezuela is far more relevant to the nation’s well-being than protecting Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq, while being far easier and cheaper to accomplish. So who will be the first presidential candidate to call for abrogating the Carter Doctrine? Show of hands, please?
4. Assassination: Now that the United States has normalized assassination as an instrument of policy, how well is it working? What are its benefits and costs?
George W. Bush’s administration pioneered the practice of using missile-armed drones as a method of extrajudicial killing. Barack Obama’s administration greatly expanded and routinized the practice.
The technique is clearly “effective” in the narrow sense of liquidating leaders and “lieutenants” of terror groups that policymakers want done away with. What’s less clear is whether the benefits of state-sponsored assassination outweigh the costs, which are considerable. The incidental killing of noncombatants provokes ire directed against the United States and provides terror groups with an excellent recruiting tool. The removal of Mr. Bad Actor from the field adversely affects the organization he leads for no longer than it takes for a successor to emerge. As often as not, the successor turns out to be nastier than Mr. Bad Actor himself.
It would be naïve to expect presidential candidates to interest themselves in the moral implications of assassination as now practiced on a regular basis from the White House. Still, shouldn’t they at least wonder whether it actually works as advertised? And as drone technology proliferates, shouldn’t they also contemplate the prospect of others — say, Russians, Chinese, and Iranians — following America’s lead and turning assassination into a global practice?
5. Europe: Seventy years after World War II and a quarter-century after the Cold War ended, why does European security remain an American responsibility? Given that Europeans are rich enough to defend themselves, why shouldn’t they?
Americans love Europe: old castles, excellent cuisine, and cultural attractions galore. Once upon a time, the parts of Europe that Americans love best needed protection. Devastated by World War II, Western Europe faced in the Soviet Union a threat that it could not handle alone. In a singular act of generosity laced with self-interest, Washington came to the rescue. By forming NATO, the United States committed itself to defend its impoverished and vulnerable European allies. Over time this commitment enabled France, Great Britain, West Germany, and other nearby countries to recover from the global war and become strong, prosperous, and democratic countries.
Today Europe is “whole and free,” incorporating not only most of the former Soviet empire, but even parts of the old Soviet Union itself. In place of the former Soviet threat, there is Vladimir Putin, a bully governing a rickety energy state that, media hype notwithstanding, poses no more than a modest danger to Europe itself. Collectively, the European Union’s economy, at $18 trillion, equals that of the United States and exceeds Russia’s, even in sunnier times, by a factor of nine. Its total population, easily outnumbering our own, is more than triple Russia’s. What these numbers tell us is that Europe is entirely capable of funding and organizing its own defense if it chooses to do so.
It chooses otherwise, in effect opting for something approximating disarmament. As a percentage of the gross domestic product, European nations spend a fraction of what the United States does on defense. When it comes to armaments, they prefer to be free riders and Washington indulges that choice. So even today, seven decades after World War II ended, U.S. forces continue to garrison Europe and America’s obligation to defend 26 countries on the far side of the Atlantic remains intact.
The persistence of this anomalous situation deserves election-year attention for one very important reason. It gets to the question of whether the United States can ever declare mission accomplished. Since the end of World War II, Washington has extended its security umbrella to cover not only Europe, but also virtually all of Latin America and large parts of East Asia. More recently, the Middle East, Central Asia, and now Africa have come in for increased attention. Today, U.S. forces alone maintain an active presence in 147 countries.
Do our troops ever really get to “come home”? The question is more than theoretical in nature. To answer it is to expose the real purpose of American globalism, which means, of course, that none of the candidates will touch it with a 10-foot pole.
6. Debt: Does the national debt constitute a threat to national security? If so, what are some politically plausible ways of reining it in?
Together, the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama can take credit for tripling the national debt since 2000. Well before Election Day this coming November, the total debt, now exceeding the entire gross domestic product, will breach the $19 trillion mark.
In 2010, Admiral Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described that debt as “the most significant threat to our national security.” Although in doing so he wandered a bit out of his lane, he performed a rare and useful service by drawing a link between long-term security and fiscal responsibility. Ever so briefly, a senior military officer allowed consideration of the national interest to take precedence over the care and feeding of the military-industrial complex. It didn’t last long.
Mullen’s comment garnered a bit of attention, but failed to spur any serious congressional action. Again, we can see why, since Congress functions as an unindicted co-conspirator in the workings of that lucrative collaboration. Returning to anything like a balanced budget would require legislators to make precisely the sorts of choices that they are especially loathe to make — cutting military programs that line the pockets of donors and provide jobs for constituents. (Although the F-35 fighter may be one of the most bloated and expensive weapons programs in history, even Democratic Socialist Senator Bernie Sanders has left no stone unturned in lobbying to get those planes stationed in his hometown of Burlington.)
Recently, the role of Congress in authorizing an increase in the debt ceiling has provided Republicans with an excuse for political posturing, laying responsibility for all that red ink entirely at the feet of President Obama — this despite the fact that he has reduced the annual deficit by two-thirds, from $1.3 trillion the year he took office to $439 billion last year.
This much is certain: regardless of who takes the prize in November, the United States will continue to accumulate debt at a non-trivial rate. If a Democrat occupies the White House, Republicans will pretend to care. If our next president is a Republican, they will keep mum. In either case, the approach to national security that does so much to keep the books out of balance will remain intact.
Come to think of it, averting real change might just be the one point on which the candidates generally agree.