A Neocon Re-write of American History
July 31, 2010
On Friday, the Washington Post offered up its typical balance on the “Washington FORUM” page – two articles by former Bush administration officials (Hank Paulson and Michael Gerson) and two articles by prominent neocons (Robert Kagan and Max Boot). But Boot’s opinion piece – advocating never-ending largesse for the U.S. military – was perhaps the most insidious.
Boot constructed what purported to be a historical narrative demonstrating why it was always a mistake for the U.S. government to trim back its standing army, arguing that such cutbacks caused troubles from the Whiskey Rebellion after the Revolutionary War to George W. Bush’s botched occupation of Iraq.
The lesson, according to Boot, is to maintain a very large military even after a major conflict ends and to view the current defense budget – which is approaching nearly half of what the entire world spends on military costs – as “a bargain considering the historic consequences of letting our guard down.”
And Boot is not just some obscure neocon hawk. He is Gen. David Petraeus’s BFF. In one recently publicized e-mail exchange between them, they discussed how the general could back away from his congressional testimony which mildly criticized Israel. At the end of one e-mail, Petraeus thanked Boot with a sideways happy face made from a colon, a hyphen and a closed parenthesis, :-) .
Boot also is employed by the powerful Council on Foreign Relations, so his writings are treated with great respect in Washington opinion circles.
However, Boot’s excursion into alternative history was intellectually dishonest. After all, the problem with imagining a different history – i.e. assuming that an altered course of action would have averted some later crisis – is that no one can tell whether that’s true or whether some other negative consequence might have resulted from the alternative scenario.
For instance, the American Founders were profoundly suspicious of large standing armies and the powerful executives (usually a king) who directed them. They knew European history and the devastation that these armies could inflict on both targeted “enemy” populations and their own people, given the taxation and conscripts needed for war.
So, when the Founders opted for a Republic, they placed most of the power in the hands of the legislators in Congress, not with the chief executive, the President. The accompanying decision – to maintain a relatively modest professional army and navy – was deliberate, out of concern that otherwise the President might be tempted to use the military to assert dictatorial powers.
And even if a dictatorship didn’t result, a large military would surely be a temptation for generals, admirals and an ambitious “war president” to entangle the United States in unnecessary conflicts.
Consequences from such rash military actions – and the unavoidable trampling of civil liberties that comes with war – could have been far more destructive to the Republic than the challenges that Boot blames on a smaller military, such as having to fight the Barbary pirates and the War of 1812 in the nation’s early years or the failure to stop the “anti-American revolutions in Nicaragua and Iran” in the 1970s.
Indeed, the fact that Boot suggests that the post-Vietnam drawdown of the U.S. military was partly responsible for the defeat of corrupt pro-U.S. dictators in Nicaragua and Iran reveals the underlying danger of his argument. Is he suggesting that a larger imperial American military would have intervened in those civil wars to prop up client dictators?
Apparently, in Boot’s view, the answer is yes. After the failed war in Vietnam – with 58,000 Americans and millions of Indochinese dead – he seems to think that the United States should have been ready to send expeditionary forces to Nicaragua and to Iran to suppress popular uprisings.
What Boot and other neocons envision for American citizens is endlessly footing the bill for a global police force, one that would wage war anytime and anywhere to defend some vaguely defined U.S. interest, essentially what President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney set off to do after the 9/11 attacks with catastrophic results.
Yet that is not a lesson the neocons have learned.
Appreciating the Founders
Considering the interminable wars that the neocons favor – and the painful side effects on the American people – one has a deeper appreciation for the wisdom of the Founders in their effort to balance the need for an adequate defense against the negatives that accompany a bloated war machine.
And, if we’re going to engage in alternative history, let’s assume for a moment that today’s neocons were around in the early days of the Republic and wielded the kind of influence they do now. It’s more than likely that the fledgling United States would have gotten itself into lots of destructive scrapes with the major powers of Europe and arguably might not have survived its infancy.
But what if the United States did survive in that form? If the new nation had cast itself as a Spartan militaristic society – rather than a civilian-led democracy – it might never have become the appealing model of a relatively free and prosperous society that attracted immigrants from all over the world.
Instead of "the shining city on a hill," the United States might have been known as an ugly wart upon the civilized world, picking unnecessary fights and oppressing everyone within reach. Instead of a country striving for liberty and justice for all, it would have been known as the place where might makes right.
The threat to the Republic that President Dwight Eisenhower identified in 1961 as “the military-industrial complex” would have come to dominate the nation much earlier with all the attendant sacrifices of freedom and diversion of capital. Guns would have always won out over butter.
Indeed, it’s possible that the hatred that many people around the world feel toward the United States today for its violent interventions around the globe would have been how the nation would have been viewed since its founding, assuming the neocons were in charge from the start.
But Boot’s pseudo-historical frame – attributing every bad thing that has happened in the world for the past two centuries to the supposedly inadequate size of the U.S. military – is dishonest in another way. It ignores the fact that the United States has been far from a pacifist nation.
Beyond engaging in genocide against the Native Americans and wresting much of the West from Mexico, the United States has intervened militarily scores of times, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean, but also in far-flung places from the Philippines to Africa and the Middle East.
Yet, for Boot, like many neocons, only more military spending and more military interventions will do. He tells us there should be no “peace dividend” from finally extricating the nation from the Iraq quagmire or from eventually ending the Afghan War.
Only more weapons and more warfare, whatever the cost to the nation’s depleted treasury and its tattered principles.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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