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The Military as a Security Risk

by William Pfaff Tuesday, May. 31, 2011 at 11:44 AM

You cannot have both democracy and concentration of wealth, Justice Brandeis warned. 20% of military spending is for defense; the rest is for empire. Endless war is not a future but the denial of a future. To Hitler, the soldier was the only model of courage.


In the US the power of the Pentagon has become independent.

By William Pfaff

[This article published in: Le Monde diplomatique 2/11/2011 is translated from the German on the Internet, http://www.monde-diplomatique.de/pm/2011/02/11.mondeText.artikel,a0079.idx,19.

William Pfaff is a journalist in Paris and writes regularly for the “International Herald Tribune” and the “New York Review of Books.” His latest book is “The Irony of Manifest Destiny. The Tragedy of American Foreign Policy,” NY 2010.]

It is time to raise a fundamental question: Is the United States committing a momentous error in building a world-spanning net of military bases? This system was created to guarantee the national security of the US. It actually brought about the exact opposite. It provoked conflicts and produced the threats to national security that people wanted to prevent. [1]

The most compelling objections against such a system of worldwide military presence are political and practical. US bases have led to the United States being feared and hostile. This makes possible senseless, unnecessary and counter-productive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and in the near future could seduce to more extensive interventions in Pakistan, Yemen and the horn of Africa.

In part the worldwide military presence is the result of an uncontrolled bureaucracy. After 1945 public opinion in the US urged a rapid reduction of the military capacities beyond its borders that were developed in the Second World War. This development did not happen since the Cold War soon began. Rather many US military bases were maintained and more were added in Southeast Asia with the incursion in Vietnam. After the Vietnam disaster, the Pentagon had nothing more to do with fighting rebel movements and concentrated on what was always regarded as a main military task, the organizational preparation for a classical frontal war in Europe in the case of a Soviet invasion.

This potential also made possible the successful “blitzkrieg war” against Iraq 1990/1991. This was waged according to the “Powell doctrine” based on four principles: support for the indigenous people, overwhelming superior force, precisely defined goals and quick withdrawal. The victory in Iraq led to a new worldwide expansion of US military power and its intellectual rationalization that reflected the new self-confidence of the military leadership. The Clinton administration first avoided further military interventions – until the war in former Yugoslavia. This benefited the Pentagon in strengthening its own role and extending its influence in the bureaucracy. The result was an important new military base in the Balkan region in Kosovo.

At that time the press and the public hardly noticed this development of the network of military bases. [2] The president could always fall back on the financially-equipped military while the under-financed diplomatic service and the CIA only proposed stupid or unsuitable strategies for the alleged international crises. In contrast the military offered fast and resolute solutions that could be carried out unilaterally without the approval of others. The armed forces were ready to follow orders without discussions. To their public and to the world public, they communicated the picture of strength and the global leadership of the US.

The logical consequence was the strengthened influence of the military in US foreign policy. The military competence for the restless Middle East passed over to the central command in Tampa, Florida subject to the ambitious General Anthony Zinni. Since then a system of regional headquarters was formed for other parts of the world with their own command structures, planning offices and operative capacities. The result was the establishment of military “proconsuls” and “supreme commanders” outfitted with much money and independent power. This structure could negotiate directly with the military and political authorities of their region and soon had more influence than the respective US ambassadors.

At the beginning of George W. Bush’s presidency, Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld questioned the new military structure. He was determined to defend the “civilian control over the military” against the inflated and ineffective Pentagon bureaucracy. Rumsfeld saw other enemies of his own regime: “internal” enemies in Congress and the Justice Department who carried out their constitutional role as controllers of the executive.

The 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan that relied on the technologically-supplied special forces, a far superior air force and the ground troops of the Northern Alliance dominated by the Tajiks. This showed how Rumsfeld envisaged the wars of the future. In his office, the Pentagon chief had the famous photograph of a single officer of the US Special Forces who rode a horse at full speed over the Afghan plateau presumably to guide a B52 bomber to a hostile target and thus lead his auxiliary troops to victory over the Taliban.

In Iraq after the chaos following the invasion, the fate of the country and of the reconstruction lay in the hands of the US Defense Department alone. At the end General David Petraeus created the conditions for the national elections in March 2010 with his version of fighting the insurgents. The money that flowed to the tribal leaders as pay for their battle against the rebels and the troop upgrading (the “surge”) contributed to that. Up to today Bagdad has not had a stable government. Nevertheless Petreaus could test his strategy in Afghanistan for a long time without great success.

The global net of US military bases should serve the alleged interests of the US abroad. On one hand, this system aimed at preventing war through deterrence. On the other hand, it offered the instruments, possibilities and incentives for military intervention in other countries.


In 1993 the political scientist Samuel Huntington who recently died caused an international sensation with his thesis that the “next world war” would be a battle between cultures, not between states. His thesis was published in the journal “Foreign Affairs.” A war between the “western” and the “Islamic” countries involving global hegemony would be a spectacular example. This prophesy proved to be false like Bush’s argument in 2001 that the main drive of radical Islamists was their hatred of freedom in the western sense. The rise of radical Islam and the growing support for a return to the Scharia with a strict interpretation of the teachings of the Koran were the consequences of a grave inner crisis of the Islamic movement. The goal of the Islamists is to “purify” Islam and the daily conduct of Muslims and drive back the influence of the West to avoid being conquered by the West.

After 1945 the US made Saudi Arabia and Iraq into client-states and assumed Islam was outdated as a way of life and would inevitably be replaced by the type of modernization prevailing in the West. This conviction was based on the assumption that all cultures aim at one and the same goal and that the US and its allies come nearest that goal. The assumption is that cultures and political systems develop just as inexorably as scientific-technical progress.

However this is an error. The Bible invented the idea of history as a progressive process that steers toward a kind of redemption that first gives the whole preceding development its “historical meaning.” The western salvation expectation developed with and after the Enlightenment – up to the modern totalitarian movements of Marxism-Leninism and National Socialism. The political utopianism that prevailed in US foreign policy since the presidency of Woodrow Wilson (1913 to 1921) ultimately originated from very secular sources: the Puritanism of the American pilgrim fathers of “God’s own country” which still has many followers in political and religious circles. The belief that one rises from the dead to bring democracy to the world is reflected in the 2008 sentence of former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that it was the task of the US to control the increasing influence of the army and the whole political culture according to its image. The political culture of the country rests in part on this belief.

The historian Andrew Bacevich argues that this hubris went along with the formation of a new militarism. During the Cold War, the political ideology of the US developed into a simplified imitation of the Leninist version of Marxism against which people fought at that time. It started from the notion of Washington’s well-intentioned purposes and democratic ideals… In the course of the Vietnam War, Americans were talked into believing that their own security was best guaranteed “with the sword,” Bacevich writes. Correspondingly the idea of enforcing its military power worldwide became a completely “conventional praxis, a normal state, to which there seems to be no plausible alternative.”

Today the US shows the classical characteristics of a military state, a society that awards the highest priority to military and domestic security needs and is ruled by the political obsession of a powerful future threat.

More and more frequently Washington exercises its international leadership role today so dubious political figures are supported who ultimately develop “other priorities” as the former US vice-president Dick Cheney formulated. Iraq is a good example of this. With rather inappropriate optimism, the country was declared a democracy from which the last US combat troops should be withdrawn in 2010.


In Afghanistan the Obama administration seems occupied with withdrawal plans while the Pentagon builds a system of military bases obviously designed for the long term that could serve as a future strategic power center for the whole region. At the same time the Taliban has made clear that the complete withdrawal of US and NATO troops is a precondition for any peace solution. However the Pentagon (because it would amount to a military defeat), republicans and populist Obama opponents presumably would oppose such a withdrawal. The present system of military bases proves to be a principled obstacle for any peace arrangement in the region.

At the beginning of its history, the country with by far the most powerful army today rejected the idea of a standing army. In Article 1 Paragraph 8 of the US Constitution, the power “to raise and deploy armies was given to Congress while money should not be issued for more than two years.” Up to the middle of the 20th century, public opinion in the US was decidedly against a standing army. At the outbreak of the Second World War, the US army numbered 175,000 men. After the end of the war, a speedy demobilization was delayed by the developing Cold War. Afterwards the military remained a conscription army for the first time in peace times – up to the end of the Vietnam War in 1973. In this time the US armed forces were a civilian army. In the officer corps, there was an influential group of conscripted reserve officers and new non-commissioned officers taken over from the conscripted army.

The greatest distinction between the civilian army at that time and today’s professional army is that the latter was a national power instrument that no longer owed any direct accounting to the public. Today’s armed forces consists of professional soldiers – supplemented by a nearly equally great number of private enterprise mercenaries who are directly responsible to the Pentagon. This again serves that “military-industrial complex” about whose growing influence Dwight Eisenhower warned in his last speech in January 1961.

Today’s armaments corporations and the so-called security industry are the most important branches of the whole US economy. Their business interests are so strong they can force their will on both the Congress and an inexper5ienced government. What Mirabeau once said about Prussians could be said about the United States. “This is not a state with an army but an army that has a state.” Between the beginning of the Cold War in Europe and the current intervention in Afghanistan, the US waged the following wars: the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the invasion in Cambodia, the interventions in Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, the Dominican Republic, the (indirect) invasion in El Salvador, the intervention in Somalia (in the scope of a UN intervention), the later invasion by Ethiopian troops supported by the US as well as two invasions in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. Except for the 1990/91 Gulf War, none of these military operations can be described as a victory.

A non-interventionist foreign policy with two essential points is much better suited to guarantee the security of the US: firstly, a negotiated military withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq without leaving behind military bases and secondly a general renunciation on military intervention in the internal affairs of other countries so they can seek their own solutions for their own problems.

Such a radical reversal of US foreign policy is inevitably bound with high costs in domestic and foreign policy. Still the moment has come to bring the political class and the current leadership of the United States to a new course.


(1) Das gilt sogar für die Anschläge vom 11. September 2001, die Ussama Bin Laden als Antwort auf die "Blasphemie" bezeichnet hat, die für ihn die Existenz von US-Militärbasen in Saudi-Arabien, also im Land der muslimischen heiligen Stätten, darstellt.

(2) Siehe Dana Priest, "The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace with Americas's Military", New York (W. W. Norton) 2003.

(3) Condoleezza Rice, "Rethinking the National Interest: American Realism for a New World", in "Foreign Affairs, Juli/August 2008.


Crome, Erhard, “The End of History is Not Ended”




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