In the past week, I have fielded phone calls from exasperated young colleagues in Washington DC. As strategic thinkers, they are flabbergasted that the same cohort of leaders could possibly present a casus belli for Syria that is so risk-blind and mindless, lacking any evidence of a longer term vision. More than once I have heard the phrase, “How can it be that people with such authority could possibly still think this way after the last twelve years?”
Even if you aren’t a young American policy analyst in DC, you might be equally bewildered how the United States could be considering yet another intervention in the Middle East with limited moral justification, flimsy legal cover, and no clear strategic endgame. There is a logic here to the proposals of Kerry, Power, McCain, Graham and company – but that logic is driven by the myths from another age. To understand the mentality of the current crop of US leaders as they claim the right to enter the Syrian civil war on behalf of morality, look to the myths that drive people who grew up in another time.
Three tenacious 20th century myths about American war
The Post-World War II era was a transformative moment for the United States. As America fit into its new role in the global balance of the Cold War, its culture had to evolve to meet the new requirements of the era. Entirely new myths were brought to bear after the events of the early 20th century that had given the United States military, economic and cultural power that has only rivaled the great empires of history. The men and women currently in power in the United States government were inculcated with those powerful new myths that have guided how it handles national power.
As you witness statements and actions from these people, think to the following notions that seem completely normal to Americans of this specific generation.
Myth #1: America has to act.
The Post-War era divided the entire planet into two distinct camps: The Free World and the Communists. World War II completely rewired the global power balance. Whereas Britain, France, Germany, Japan, the US and Russia used to all be great powers, now there stood but two countries able to carry on a global fight – the US and the Soviets.
Both nations had highly defined ideologies: America from an older, liberal tradition, and the Soviet Union from a new and vigorous communist doctrine. The Soviets made clear their plans for this ideology soon after 1945. They told the world that they would bring communism to all people – at the point of a gun, if necessary.
The United States became the only nation-state with the power to counter the immediate Russian strategic onslaught, given the destruction in the rest of Western Europe. Thus was born the phrase “Leader of the Free World,” and the notion that if America doesn’t act, who will?
Myth #2: America’s actions are benevolent.
The United States found itself in a unique position in 1945. Its factories were bashing out destroyers, aircraft carriers, fighters and tanks at a terrific clip. The rest of the world was on its knees, exhausted and with broken infrastructure. If ever the United States dreamed of global conquest, it could have had it within five to ten years, had it pressed its exponential advantage over much of the rest of the world. The nation opted instead to press its soft power across the world, saving its hard power for a Soviet conflict it hoped to avoid entirely.
After seeing the pictures of Abu Ghraib, or of the disfigured children born amidst the depleted uranium dust of Fallujah, it may seem fantastical for non-Americans to think of the US as a country which uses its power uniquely for good. But the culture of mid-20th century America revolves around telling each other – and the world – that we are the good guys. We freed Paris. We stopped Hitler. We went on to become the bulwark of liberty in the face of Soviet totalitarianism.
The things we did along the way to defending liberty – financing death squads in Central America, carpet bombing innocents in Cambodia during our most famous intervention in a civil war – all those things are excused in the 20th century American mind because of the way we characterize our actions in WWII and the Cold War.
Myth #3: America can win wars.
Americans of the 20th century have a peculiar mindset about war because of our history of “winning” armed conflicts. While the rest of the world knows the shifting borders, uneasy truces and horrific bloodshed that is the only outcome of most wars, American history features a number of clear-cut successes.
The Revolutionary War – We beat the world’s biggest empire despite the odds and founded our nation.
The Civil War – As long as you are from north of Virginia, it represents total victory against slavery and the salvation of a house divided. (South Carolinians, of course, have a different narrative.)
World War II – It ended with the Hitler dead, Hirohito capitulated, and global fascism stopped in its tracks. We won.
Those who came of age after World War II thus see war as a winnable thing – and winnable by the “good guys.” This didn’t work out in Vietnam as planned – but many people excuse this failure as all part of defeating the Soviets, which came to fruition in 1989. So even as America enters a new and complicated century, the myth of the winnable war prevails.
Outdated myths have been damanging American war efforts
Every nation has myths. Most are based in truth, albeit with significant omissions that are glaringly evident to people from other countries. A culture’s myths, images and symbols are still useful, even if not completely accurate, because they serve to unite people in a common journey. Thinking back to the America of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the events of World War II demanded new myths. America in 1920, for example, was something of a backwater in most places. Paris dwarfed even New York’s culture and Germany was the place for science. Britain had the largest navy and an impressive empire to its name. Suddenly, America went from a hardscrabble group of immigrants to a world power, and new understandings were required to guide the nation in its new chapter.
Here is where this connects to the absurdities of the paltry debates about firing missiles at Syria – those myths still drive our policymakers, but they no longer accurately describe Americans or the world.
It’s 2013, ten years after the invasion of Iraq and twelve years after America entered Afghanistan. The 20th century myths have been front and center in the last decade-plus of military misadventure, and they are the specter over the current administration push toward military strikes on Syria.
An uncritical acceptance of mid-20th century mythology is what led to such catastrophic strategic errors in America’s wars of adventure. The United States led a cadre of allies into what is historically known as the “Graveyard of Empires,” Afghanistan. While removing the Taliban from the failed state was an imperative, supported by moral justifictions and realpolitik, we should have known that the task of securing the country would require total focus and dedication. After all, President Jimmy Carter and Zbigniew Brzezinski suckered the Soviets into doing the exact same thing as a way to ruin them.
I attribute what came next to America’s aging mythology. In the middle of a global war on terror and regime change in a lawless state, the Bush Administration began its sales job for Iraq. The country is already fighting a two-front war – one against a nation-state and one against a shadowy network of terrorists, but the neoconservatives decided to invade a second, larger nation-state on the other side of Iran, America’s persistent strategic adversary.
All the myths are at work here: we have to act against every adversary that seems plausible. We know we’re doing the right thing, because it’s us, and always do the right thing. And we know that we can achieve success in Iraq while fighting global terror networks and creating a stable nation-state in Afghanistan, because our wars culminate in victory!
Ergo, there is no reason to verify the vague intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s weapons capability, or to create a detailed plan for the post-invasion, or to wait until Afghanistan has been secured – because we’re America. We’re the decisive, competent good guys who win wars.
You all know how this turned out.
It’s time for new realizations to guide American power
We are currently witness to America’s White House and Congress arguing publicly that we need to intervene militarily into a Middle Eastern country’s civil war on humanitarian grounds. Americans and the world are hearing about secret intelligence that proves the use of weapons of mass destruction, and how a dictator must answer for his actions. This rhetoric not only seems identical to the last decade of reckless American adventurism, it seems driven by exactly the same myths, unadulterated by any perspective or skepticism that might have come from the evident failure of our leadership in recent years. Listening to Kerry and McCain, the Syria operation will be about decisive good guys doing the right thing – and winning.
This pitch sounds clueless at best. These antiseptic, antiquated myths about American power must be modified or replaced if the country is to become a positive force for world security – and its own.
Here are some visions that might guide us moving forward:
America is a country full of good people, one that makes mistakes.
Despite our pretense of exceptionalism, America is a country like many others. It is big; it is powerful; it is capable of great things and filled with wonderful people from around the world. But like all peoples of the world, we must remain aware of the corrupting influence of power, which can allow even good people to do foolish things. Bogus intelligence, torture regimes and gargantuan surveillance systems show that we can become unbalanced. We must be aware of this human foible as we act on the world stage.
American military power is a mixed bag.
Military force has its time and place. Indeed, without overwhelming destructive force from the United States, the Third Reich may have held Europe indefinitely and the Soviets would have run roughshod over democracy. That said, while war sometimes results in decisive wins for the cause of justice, it just as often leads to destruction, poverty and an insecure future. America, still the world’s military hegemon by a large measure, needs to be skeptical about the use of military power to cure all ills.
America isn’t the only country in the world, despite its power.
While it is tempting to take leadership of many of the world’s crises, this moment, 2013, seems ripe for the rest of the world to take leadership positions in global security. America needs to be as good at partnership as it seeks to be at leadership. Sometimes, it can sit one out.
The next culture of American power is already being crafted by the next generation of leaders, waiting in the wings. For the time being, the last generation is still in power. Some of them think firing missiles at a country with little to show of a long term vision is the right thing to do, and will lead to victory.
Time will tell which vision of the future holds sway in the world.