Blood For Oil,

Common Defense

excerpted from the book

The New American Militarism

How Americans Are Seduced By War

by Andrew J. Bacevich

Oxford University Press, 2005, paper


For Cold War-era U.S. policymakers, preoccupied with Europe and East Asia as the main theaters of action, the Gulf prior to 1980 had figured as something of a sideshow. Jimmy Carter now changed all that, thrusting the Gulf into the uppermost tier of U.S. geopolitical priorities.

... U.S. strategy in the Middle East from the 1940s through the 1970s adhered to the principle known as economy of force. Rather than establishing a large presence in the region, Roosevelt's successors sought to achieve their objectives in ways that entailed a minimal expenditure of American resources and especially of U.S. military power. From time to time, when absolutely necessary, Washington might organize a brief show of force-for example, in 1946 when Harry Truman ordered the USS Missouri to the eastern Mediterranean to warn the Soviets to cease meddling in Turkey, or in 1958 when Dwight D. Eisenhower sent U.S. Marines into Lebanon for a brief, bloodless occupation-but these modest gestures proved to be the exception rather than the rule.

The clear preference was for a low profile and a hidden hand. Although by no means averse to engineering "regime change" when necessary, preferred covert action to the direct use of force; the CIA coup that in 1953 overthrew Mohammed Mossadegh in Tehran offers the best-known example. To police the region, Washington looked to surrogates-through the 1960s British imperial forces and, once Britain withdrew from "East of Suez," the shah of Iran.' To build up indigenous self-defense (or regime defense) capabilities of select nations, it arranged for private contractors to provide weapons, training, and advice-an indirect way of employing U.S. military expertise. The Vinnell Corporation's ongoing "modernization" of the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG), a project now well over a quarter century old, remains a prime example.

By the end of 1979, however, two events had left this approach in a shambles. The first was the Iranian Revolution, which sent the shah into exile and installed in Tehran an Islamist regime adamantly hostile to the United States. The second was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which put the Red Army in a position where it appeared to pose a direct threat to the entire Persian Gulf and hence to the West's oil supply.

Faced with these twin crises, Jimmy Carter concluded that treating the Middle East as a secondary theater, ancillary to the Cold War, no longer made sense. A great contest for control of that region had been joined, one that Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini had made unmistakably clear was not simply an offshoot of the already existing East-West competition. This was something quite different.

Rejecting out of hand any possibility that the United States might come to terms with or accommodate itself to the changes afoot in the Persian Gulf, Carter claimed for the United States a central role in determining exactly what those changes would be. In January 1980, to forestall any further deterioration of the U.S. position in the Gulf, he threw the weight of American military power into the balance.

In his State of the Union Address of that year, the president enunciated what became known as the Carter Doctrine. "An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region," he declared, "will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force."'

From Carter's time down to the present day, the doctrine bearing his name has remained sacrosanct. As a consequence, each of President Carter's successors has expanded the level of U.S. military involvement and operations in the region. Even today, American political leaders cling to their belief that the skillful application of military power will enable the United States to decide the fate not simply of the Persian Gulf proper but-to use the more expansive terminology of the present day-of the entire Greater Middle East. This gigantic project is the true World War IV, begun in 1980 an now well into its third decade.

What was true of the three other presidents who had committed the United States to world wars-Wilson, FDR, and Truman-remained true in the case of President Carter and World War IV as well. The overarching motive for action was the preservation of the American way of life.

By the beginning of 1980-facing the prospect of a very tough fight for reelection later that year-a chastened jimmy Carter had learned a hard lesson: it was not the prospect of making do with less that sustained American-style liberal democracy but the promise of more. By the time that he enunciated the Carter Doctrine, the president had come to realize that the themes of his "Crisis of Confidence" speech six months before-sacrifice, conservation, lowered expectations, personal inconvenience endured on behalf of the common good-were political nonstarters. What Americans wanted for themselves and demanded from their government was freedom, defined as more choice, more opportunity, and above all greater abundance, measured in material terms. That meant that they (along with other developed nations whose own prosperity helped sustain that of the United States) needed assured access to cheap oil and lots of it.

In promulgating the Carter Doctrine, the president was effectively renouncing his vision of a less materialistic, more self-reliant democracy. His about-face did not achieve its intended political purpose of enabling him to preserve his hold on the White House-Ronald Reagan had already tagged Carter as a pessimist whose temperament was at odds with the rest of the country-but it did put in motion a huge shift in U.S. military policy, the implications of which gradually appeared over the course of the next two decades.

Critics might cavil that the resulting militarization of U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf amounted to a devil's bargain, trading blood for oil. Carter saw things differently. The contract had a third element. On the surface the exchange might entail blood-for-oil, but beneath the surface the aim was to guarantee the ever-increasing affluence that underwrites the modern American conception of liberty. Without exception, every one of President Carter's successors has tacitly endorsed this formula. It is in this sense that World War IV and the new American militarism manifest the American will to be free.

"Even if there were no Soviet Union," wrote the authors of NSC-68 in the spring of 1950, "we would face the great problem of the free society, accentuated many fold in this industrial age, of reconciling order, security, the need for participation, with the requirement of freedom. We would face the fact that in a shrinking world the absence of order among nations is becoming less and less tolerable."

Drafted during some of the most challenging days of the Cold War, NSC-68 remained the definitive statement of U.S. grand strategy during World War III. Some three decades later, with the Soviet Union headed toward oblivion, the great problem of the free society to which NSC-68 alluded had become if anything more acute. As far as the United States was concerned, the world had continued to shrink, and the absence of order had become less tolerable still, especially if disorder erupted in a region critical to America's own economic well-being.

The combination of interests and disorder that gave rise to World War IV did not soon yield a statement of U.S. grand strategy comparable to NSC-68. Conceiving the principles to guide U.S. policy in World War IV turned out to be a more daunting proposition than it had been during any of the three previous world wars. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, U.S. policymakers grappled with this challenge, reacting to crises as they occurred and then insisting after the fact that their actions conformed to some larger design. In fact, only after 9/11 did a fully articulated grand strategy emerge, with George W. Bush seeing the antidote to intolerable disorder as the transformation of the Greater Middle East through the sustained use of military power.

Further complicating this challenge of devising a strategy for World War IV was the fundamental incompatibility of two competing U.S. interests in the region. During the last quarter of the twentieth century, the importance that the United States attached to each of these interests grew. At the same time, so too did the difficulty of reconciling one with the other.

On the one hand was a dependence on oil from the Middle East that steadily increased over time. Dependence meant vulnerability, as the crippling oil shocks of the 1970s, administered by the Organization of Oil Exporting Countries (OPEC), amply demonstrated. During the latter half of the twentieth century, that vulnerability inexorably grew as the United States depleted its once fabulous domestic sources of petroleum. As late as World War II, the United States itself had been the world's Saudi Arabia, producing enough oil to meet its own needs and that of its friends and allies." By the end of the twentieth century, with Americans consuming one out of every four barrels of oil produced worldwide, remaining U.S. reserves accounted for less than 2 percent of the world's total. The United Arab Emirates and tiny Kuwait alone each had reserves four times larger than the United States', Iraq almost six times greater, and Saudi Arabia twelve times greater. Projections showed the leverage of Persian Gulf producers mushrooming in the years to come, with oil exports from the region expected to account for between 54 percent and 67 percent of world totals by 2020.

Juxtaposed against Arab oil was Israel. America's commitment to the security and well-being of the Jewish state complicated U.S. efforts to maintain cordial relations with oil-exporting states in the Gulf. Prior to the Six Day War, the United States had tried to manage this problem by maintaining a certain equidistance in matters relating to the Arab-Israeli dispute, supporting Israel's right to exist but resisting Israeli entreaties to forge a strategic partnership. After 1967, that changed dramatically. The United States became Israel's preeminent international supporter and a generous supplier of economic and military assistance.

Donald Kagan, September 2002
"We we'll probably need a major concentration of forces in the Middle East over a long period of time... "If we have a force in Iraq, there will be no disruption in oil supplies."

The progressive militarization of U.S. policy since Vietnam-especially U.S. policy as it related to the Middle East-had acquired a momentum to which the events of September 11 only added. Furthermore, the aura that by 2001 had come to suffuse American attitudes toward war, soldiers, and military institutions had dulled the capacity of the American people to think critically about the actual limits of military power.

Nowhere had those attitudes gained a deeper lodgment than in the upper echelons of the younger Bush's administration. The experiences of the previous thirty years had thoroughly militarized the self-described Vulcans to whom the president turned in shaping his global war on terror both in formulating grand statements like his National Security Strategy and in planning campaigns like the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Theirs was a vision, writes James Mann, of "a United States whose military power was so awesome that it no longer needed to make compromises or accommodations (unless it chose to do so) with any other nation or groups of countries." Their confidence in the competence and bravery of the American soldier and in the effectiveness of American arms was without limit. So too was their confidence in their own ability to make war do their bidding. They had drunk deeply of the waters that sustained the new American militarism.

As the epigraph to his book on Vietnam, Norman Podhoretz chose a quotation from Bismarck. "Woe to the statesman whose reasons for entering a war do not appear so plausible at its end as at its beginning."" For the architects of the global war on terror-not only President Bush himself, but also Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, and Paul Wolfowitz-it's too late to heed the Iron Chancellor's warning. Their reputations have suffered near irreparable damage. But the outsized conflict that is their principal handiwork continues.

As this is written, the outcome of World War IV hangs very much in the balance. American shortsightedness played a large role in creating this war. American hubris has complicated it unnecessarily, emboldening the enemy, alienating old allies, and bringing U.S. forces close to exhaustion. Yet like it or not, Americans are now stuck with their misbegotten crusade.

God forbid that the United States should fail, allowing the likes of Osama bin Laden and his henchmen to decide the future of the Islamic world.

Still, even if the United States ultimately prevails-thereby reinvigorating the several conceits informing the new American militarism-the prospects for the future will be hardly less discouraging. On the far side of World War IV, a time which we are not presently given to see, there await others who will not readily concede to the United States the prerogatives and the dominion that Americans have come to expect as their due. The ensuing collision between American requirements and a noncompliant world will provide the impetus for more crusades. Each in turn will be justified in terms of ideals rather than interests, but together they may well doom the United States to fight perpetual wars in a vain effort to satisfy our craving for freedom without limit and without end.



... the Preamble of the Constitution expressly situates military power at the center of the brief litany of purpose enumerating the collective aspirations of "we the people." It was "to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity" that they acted in promulgating what remains the fundamental law of the land.

Whether considering George H. W. Bush's 1992 incursion into Somalia, Bill Clinton's 1999 war for Kosovo, or George W. Bush's 2003 crusade to overthrow Saddam Hussein, the growing U.S. predilection for military intervention in recent years has so mangled the concept of common defense as to make it all but unrecognizable.

The beginning of wisdom-and a major first step in repealing the new American militarism-lies in making the foundational statement of intent contained in the Preamble once again the basis of actual policy. Only if citizens remind themselves and remind those exercising political authority why this nation exists will it be possible to restore the proper relationship between military power and that purpose, which centers not on global dominance but on enabling Americans to enjoy the blessings of liberty.

In practice, presidents in consultation with a small circle of advisers decide on the use of force; the legislative branch then either meekly bows to the wishes of the executive or provides the sort of broad authorization (such as the Tonkin Gulf Resolution of 1964) that amounts in effect to an abrogation of direct responsibility. The result, especially in evidence since the end of World War II, has been to eviscerate Article I, Section 8, Clause II of the Constitution, which in the plainest of language confers on the Congress the power "To declare War."

The problem is not that the presidency has become too strong. Rather, the problem is that the Congress has failed-indeed, failed egregiously-to fulfill its constitutional responsibility for deciding when and if the United States should undertake military interventions abroad. Hiding behind an ostensible obligation to "support our commander-in-chief" or to "support the troops," the Congress has time and again shirked its duty.

An essential step toward curbing the new American militarism is to redress this imbalance in war powers and to call upon the Congress to reclaim its constitutionally mandated prerogatives. Indeed, legislators should insist upon a strict constructionist definition of war such that any use of force other than in direct and immediate defense of the United States should require prior congressional approval.

An imperial America will have need for military officers with just the right touch when it comes to meting out fear, violence, and money to pacify those classified in former days as wogs. But those citizens who prefer an American republic to an American empire ought to view the changes under way in the U.S. armed forces as worrisome.

One way that a republic safeguards itself against militarism is to ensure that the army has deep roots among the people. "Standing armies threaten government by the people," the soldier-historian John McAuley Palmer observed between the world wars, "not because they consciously seek to pervert liberty, but because they relieve the people themselves of the duty of self-defense." A people placing responsibility for national defense in the hands of "a special class" render themselves "unfit for liberty." Therefore, concluded General Palmer, "an enduring government by the people must include an army of the people among its vital institutions." Indeed, the ideal relationship between the armed forces and democratic society is a symbiotic one, in which each draws nourishment from the other. Symbiosis implies intimacy. In a civil-military context, it entails a continuous process of rotation in which the ongoing incorporation of citizens into the ranks renews the army, while the return to civilian life of discharged veterans, understanding at first hand the meaning of service, renews civic life.

Whatever its other merits, the present-day professionalized force is not conducive to this civil-military intimacy. Indeed, to the extent that the members of the AVF see themselves as professionals-members of a warrior caste adhering to their own distinctive code-they have little interest in nurturing a close relationship with civilian society. In an off-the-cuff remark just prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld dismissed the citizen-soldiers of the pre-AVF era as "adding no value, no advantage, really, to the United States armed services." The "churning that took place," he said, "took [an] enormous amount of effort in terms of training, and then they were gone." According to Rumsfeld, rotating large numbers of citizens through the military had been more trouble than it was worth. Present-day military leaders, imbued with a narrowly utilitarian view of recruitment and retention, tend to share that conviction. As a consequence, they are untroubled by the extent to which the armed services have become anything but representative of that society. It is not something on which they place any particular value.

But the rest of us ought to: the issue is an important one. In terms of race, region, religion, and ethnicity, but above all in terms of class, America's armed services should-as they once did, at least in a rough way-mirror society. This does not mean that all must serve, but it does mean that the burdens (and benefits) of service to the commonweal should fall evenly across all sectors of society.

What does this mean in practical terms? It does not mean a return to conscription, for which little or no discernible political support exists. It does mean creating mechanisms that will reawaken in privileged America a willingness to serve as those who are less privileged already do. Other writers have outlined in detail what some of those mechanisms might be. They include shorter enlistments, more generous signing bonuses, greater flexibility in retirement options, the forgiveness of college loans upon completion of a term of service, and passage of a new GI Bill that on principle ties federal education grants to citizen service. Put bluntly, citizens who defend the country should get a free college education; those who choose not to do so ought to pay their own way.

How will having a military that reflects society affect prevailing attitudes regarding war and the use of force? Persuading at least some among the sons and daughters of the elite to serve will elevate the risk of domestic blowback if interventions go awry, inducing presidents to exercise greater caution in making decisions that put Americans at risk in the first place. Moreover, as military veterans who are members of that elite eventually take their places in Congress, as editors of newspapers and journals of opinion, and at the head of major national institutions, their voices will help to counter unrealistic expectations about what wars can accomplish and what they cost.

The final principle, disregarded for far too long, is to reconcile the American military profession to American society. If the army of a republic ought to be rooted in society, so too should the officer corps. In the United States, however, this is not the case.

... As the U.S. military profession reached full maturity during the course of the twentieth century, the officer corps remained aloof from the rest of America. Officers lived and played in special communities called "forts" that served no military purpose as such-Fort Bliss, Texas, does not defend El Paso, nor does Fort Lewis, Washington, defend Tacoma-apart from clearly delineating a largely self-contained existence.

All of these efforts to carefully distinguish between "us" and "them" soldiers vs. civilians, warriors vs. politicians-once made a certain amount of sense. But much like the nineteenth-century uniforms in which twentyfirst-century West Point cadets continue to parade about, they no longer do.

In the contemporary marketplace, lawyers and doctors have discovered that the traditional model of a self-governing and autonomous profession is no longer viable. The same applies to the officer corps in relation to the contemporary international order.

The idea that war and politics constitute two distinct and separate spheres has always been a fiction. In the present day, with interstate conventional armed conflict becoming increasingly rare even as the use of violence wielded by nonstate actors employing unconventional methods is seemingly on the rise, that fiction has become altogether pernicious.

The dangers facing the United States as it attempts to navigate through that world are formidable. So too are the challenges confronting the American military profession. As Washington's appetite for armed intervention has grown, the burdens imposed on the members of that profession have increased, becoming heavier with each passing year. The military's institutional memory, manifesting itself in an abiding suspicion of civilians and a preoccupation with obsolete prerogatives, makes those burdens heavier still. The danger that they may become unbearable-as in Vietnam they did, leading to both defeat and disgrace-is real.

In short, soldiers must recognize that to save their profession they must change it, either taking the initiative to do so on their own or submitting to change imposed from without." Specifically, soldiers must embrace without reservation two fundamental truths to which the officer corps has heretofore paid the barest lip service. The first truth is that war is the handmaiden of politics, not its co-equal and certainly not its arbiter. The second is that harmonizing war with politics, whether American politics or international politics, requires efforts to bind the military profession to the "outside world" rather than vainly struggling to keep that world at bay. The times call not for isolation but for integration, not for propping up old barriers but for tearing them down or at least making them permeable. Relevant to the purpose of this account, binding the officer corps more closely to society will have the ancillary benefit of reducing the likelihood of the armed services running amok or engaging in politically irresponsible behavior.

In a valedictory marking his withdrawal from public life, George Washington pointly advised his fellow citizens to be wary of "those overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.

Himself a soldier of surpassing greatness, Washington was hardly a naïf in matters related to war and peace. He did not see military power as inherently evil. He considered the maintenance of a respectable army to be essential to a nation's well-being. Those citizens who rallied to their country's defense in its time of need he held in highest esteem.

But of this Washington was certain: to cultivate military power for its own sake and to indulge in the ambitions to which large armies gave rise was alien to the entire conception of the New World. To seek safety in an overgrown military establishment was to replicate the errors of the Old World, home to kings and sepulchres and empires but not to freedom and republican virtue.

In 1796, Washington's warning verged on being superfluous; antipathy toward war and a skepticism of armies were at that juncture hardwired into the American self-identity. Two hundred years later, with Europe and the United States having in so many respects reversed roles, his warning has acquired considerable salience.

The twentieth century was a shipwreck. For the Old World, horrendous slaughter once and for all washed away any lingering misapprehensions about war. Not so for the rising power of the New World, which chose to see "the American Century" as a story of triumph, not tragedy, and which drew from the military record of that century radically different conclusions. Misremembering both bad wars and good, Americans fostered a fresh set of illusions. These illusions-not only or even in particular our outsized martial pretensions-constitute the heart of the problem that is present-day American militarism. For from these illusions come expectations that George Washington for one would find astonishing: that through the determined exercise of its unquestioned military dominance the United States can perpetuate American global primacy and impress its values on the world at large.

If it persists in these expectations, then America will surely share the fate of all those who in ages past have looked to war and military power to fulfill their destiny. We will rob future generations of their rightful inheritance. We will wreak havoc abroad. We will endanger our security at home. We will risk the forfeiture of all that we prize.

The new American militarism materialized as a reaction to profound disorientation and collective distress. In the wake of a humiliating defeat and a closely related cultural upheaval, restoring the sinews of U.S. military might, celebrating soldierly virtue, and contriving ways to restore the utility of force seemed in some quarters to offer an antidote. The ailments were real, but the remedy turned out to be toxic. Over the course of three decades, increasingly frequent recurrence to that remedy has produced an addiction at least as harmful as the condition it was intended to cure.

There can be no recovery without first acknowledging the disease. As with any addiction, denial merely postpones the inevitable day of reckoning.

The New American Militarism

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