Revision — From the August 2014 issue

Armed and Dangerous

The inexorable rise of American militarism

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On May 28 of this year, Barack Obama delivered an important speech to the graduating class of cadets at West Point. It included oblique attacks on Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad, and other geopolitical opponents, as well as denials of American decline, with invocations of Osama bin Laden’s demise and a weakened Al Qaeda. Obama did cite George Washington’s celebrated warning against foreign entanglements, and he decried “our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences.” But he also rejected neo-isolationism. Should democracy be threatened, he said, the United States will always respond. Military action will not be our first choice, but, if required, will be “proportional and effective and just.”

The speech reflected two problems that have dogged Obama’s presidency, both stemming from his earlier career as an academic, community organizer, civil rights lawyer, and state legislator. To begin with, he is the first American president since the Second World War who has never done military service.

This left him in a tenuous position to fulfill one of his primary campaign promises: victory in Afghanistan, followed by a rapid exit. When General Stanley McChrystal, commander of NATO forces in the country, publicly proposed in 2009 that a “surge” of 40,000 more American troops would be required, the new president had no choice but to acquiesce. Had he refused, he would have been torn to shreds by his Republican rivals and the hawkish press, most of whom believed that a similar surge had turned the tide in Iraq. Two years later, there were 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and the war was costing $122 billion annually. More than three years later still, it has yet to be won.

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is the author of ten books, including, most recently, The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of American Foreign Policy. His article “What We’ve Lost” appeared in the November 2005 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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  • Charlie

    I’m afraid this begins with an unfortunate error. Besides Obama, I don’t think Bill Clinton any did any military service and in fact avoided it.

    • alwaysthink

      Bingo! You are completely correct. And if you’ve read some history LBJ was already a Congressman by the time WWII started and while he had a commission as an Officer he served as a special envoy for FDR in an administrative position. He did get a Silver Star but the circumstances are a bit iffy. His experience was very different from most.

      Also Reagan was in the service during WWII but he was making movies and entertaining the troops. He was a bit older and the Hollywood Unit was also not like most of the service.

    • Stephanie

      Quite an error, huh?

      • Charlie

        Quite an error indeed.I wonder where the editors are sometimes, let alone this writer who claims military expertise

  • Parabanger

    Great article otherwise.

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