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The costs of militarism

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In the second half of my American Foreign Policy class every year, I try to get the students to talk about the risks of militarism. By then, they’ve read Walter Russell Mead’s Special Providence and understand what Jefferson thought about consolidation of power and standing armies.

We also talk about US military doctrine (Powell/Weinberger versus Bush/Rumsfeld) and the regularity of US military intervention as well as iron triangles and Ike’s warning about the “military-industrial complex.” This year, my graduate assistant led a discussion about “securitization” of various issue areas, including the war on drugs and war on terror.

Among scholars, historian Andrew Bacevich of Boston University probably worries about militarism as much as anyone does. I saw him talk about his recent book, The New American Militarism back in 2005 when I was living in Somerville while on sabbatical (note: it was similar to this). His earlier book, American Empire was also a good read on a related topic.

Bacevich’s thesis is provocative. He argues that American militarism, combined with its crusading liberalism, is very dangerous for the US and the world:

This mindset invites endless war and the ever-deepening militarization of US policy. It promises not to perfect but to pervert American ideals and to accelerate the hollowing out of American democracy. As it alienates others, it will leave the United States increasingly isolated. It will end in bankruptcy, moral as well as economic, and in abject failure.

Day-by-day, unfortunately, the Iraq project is helping to make Bacevich’s case.

In March, Bacevich published a scathing critique of the Bush Doctrine in The Boston Globe. After rehearsing many of the well-known problems with the application of the policy to Iraq, he called on the new Congress to renounce the President’s folly:

Our reckless flirtation with preventive war qualifies as not only wrong, but also stupid. Indeed, the Bush Doctrine poses a greater danger to the United States than do the perils it supposedly guards against.

We urgently need to abrogate that doctrine in favor of principles that reflect our true interests and our professed moral values….

Democratic leaders should offer a binding resolution that makes the following three points: First, the United States categorically renounces preventive war. Second, the United States will henceforth consider armed force to be an instrument of last resort. Third, except in response to a direct attack on the United States, any future use of force will require prior Congressional authorization, as required by the Constitution.

The legislation should state plainly our determination to defend ourselves and our allies. But it should indicate no less plainly that the United States no longer claims the prerogative of using “preemptive, unilateral military force when and where it chooses.”

My own views are similar, though colleagues and I have argued for a multilateral version of preemption that would require advance consensual decision-making about significant threats. Thanks to Iraq, the current version of the Bush Doctrine is probably dead already.

Finally, I am quite saddened to report that Bacevich’s son has been killed in Iraq. I express my deepest sympathy and condolences to Professor Bacevich.

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