Revision — From the August 2014 issue

Armed and Dangerous

The inexorable rise of American militarism

William Pfaff, a longtime contributor and friend of the magazine, died in Paris on Thursday, at the age of 86. The advancing years had hardly slowed him at all—his most recent piece for Harper’s Magazine, “Armed and Dangerous,” appeared in our August 2014 issue, and the author was already batting around ideas for his next one. Born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in 1928, Pfaff was educated at Notre Dame. He spent time in the military, including a stint in an Army Special Forces unit (a decision he later attributed to a “bad case of Lawrence-of-Arabia fever.”) By the late Fifties, however, he had established himself as a notably trenchant critic of U.S. foreign policy. Early and late, he urged Americans to see the world as it was, to remove their ideological blinders. In 1961, when he and Edmund Stillman published “A New Start in Foreign Policy” in Harper’s, that meant moving beyond the bipolar fixations of the Cold War. “This new decade,” they argued, “will see the beginnings of a many-centered world not unlike the pre-industrial seventeenth century, when Europe still shared power with the Osmanlis, the Moguls, and the empire of the Ch’ings, and its embryonic technology provided advantages of degree only and not yet of kind.” In subsequent decades, this prescient realist explored the toxic resurgence of nationalism, ridiculed the hypocrisies of the so-called War on Terror, and warned Americans to resist the interventionist itch—most recently, in Iraq and Libya. Yet Pfaff’s opposition was never reflexive. In his eloquent and informed prose, you could hear him thinking through the argument, testing it, sometimes wryly bumping up against its contradictions. He was an internationalist, a patriot, and a marvelously distinctive voice, who will be sorely missed.

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.

Obama’s second problem was that he had no professional experience of international politics and foreign relations. For his secretary of state he chose Hillary Clinton — equally lacking in such experience, but a global celebrity thoroughly acquainted with the political elite and herself a past and future presidential candidate. Obama named two other prominent women to high posts, both of them noted for their background in international affairs and their commitment to humanitarian issues: Susan Rice and Samantha Power. And to balance the ideological books, he appointed Victoria Nuland, wife of the neo-conservative publicist Robert Kagan, to the State Department, in charge of European and Eurasian affairs.

Apart from winning in Afghanistan, Obama’s most urgent commitment was to pursue the so-called global war on terror (under another name), using methods set out by the Bush Administration while promising reform of those very same methods (rarely achieved). Next was reinforcement of the American position vis-à-vis Russia — and, more recently, China. Finally, there was the matter of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, part of an automatic commitment to support Israeli policies in the Middle East, requiring unwelcome interference in Arab affairs.

Five years later, the results are under critical fire. In his West Point address, Obama dwelled on his new strategy of projecting power at a distance. He promised to redouble foreign aid as an antiterrorism tool. He quoted John F. Kennedy on “the gradual evolution of human institutions” but also insisted that “America must always lead.”

His critics have not been placated. They want Syria bombed, and if possible Iran, and are disposed toward armed intervention in Ukraine — and if it should come to that, against China. Obama did not confront the question of whether such intervention is still embraced by the American public. Nor did he deal with the effect on American society of what now has been constant war since 2001, with more to come, nor its effect on the military services, and particularly the U.S. Army, to which I have had a certain personal attachment for seven decades.

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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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October 2019