America, like every other nation, speaks peace and makes war. In its role as policeman for the world – a role performed spottily, with many arbitrary choices about when to fight – this country cherishes a reputation for peace-keeping. It hurts and baffles Americans to discover, as it did in the Bush era, how hated and disliked we are internationally. Countries that we think we are protecting turn out to view us with fear and suspicion. Since the end of World War II, America has been on a constant war footing, labeled as defense, and we have entered dozens of conflicts.
It would be a major step if the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan created a significant change in this. As the world’s largest arms dealer, with a war expenditure higher than the next sixteen countries combined, America has found new rationales in every generation for not reducing weapons expenditure. At this point, most of the pressure is political. The right wing is more or less a permanent war-friendly party. Hugely expensive weapons projects that the military doesn’t need, and often doesn’t think will work (e.g., much of the “star wars” missile defense system) are kept alive because they bring jobs and money into a congressman’s district. The right pumped up terrorism into a war on terror instead of dealing with it sensibly, as a police action, the way counterinsurgency experts recommend and the way that Britain dealt with the I.R.A.
Now Afghanistan has turned the Democrats into a war party, mostly against their will and certainly against the inclinations of President Obama, who is obviously of a new generation that has no taste for continuous conflict. The pain of personally waging war has been diverted to a very small percentage of the population, by some estimates around 1%. Without a universal draft of the sort that created a vocal antiwar faction in the Vietnam era, it’s up to the center-left to pronounce the truth: America should scale down its military on all fronts. We should become more peaceful in deed rather than just in speech.
In their budget-balancing zeal, the Republicans’ proposed plans leave the defense budget untouched, which is the same old thinking inherited form the Cold War. Such thinking was outmoded over ten years ago when the 9/11 attacks incited a flagrant and disastrous return to military adventurism. It is even more outmoded today when the only real threat to America is non-state terrorism against which battleships and nuclear weapons are worse than useless.
One can have no illusions in this area. Change will be gradual and generational. Fewer people under forty have any interest in strategic missiles, massive arms buildups, and foreign wars. Studies show that war on the global level has been declining for twenty years, and if it weren’t for America’s unilateral wars in the Middle East, deaths from major conflicts keep diminishing, not to mention the sharp decline in dictators (almost ninety have been deposed since 1970).
The right trumpets traditional values, but one value it would be good to exterminate is this country’s wartime stance. We have maintained a huge standing army since the attack on Pearl Harbor, which means seventy years of an economy tilted far too much toward the military-industrial complex. If the pain of failure in Afghanistan and Iraq is to having any lasting benefit, let it be a reluctant move in the direction of peace.