The Sources of “Perpetual War”
In President Obama’s second inauguration, one section ignited a great deal of debate and derision from those following his security policies: “We the people still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.” The notion of perpetual war is now almost synonymous with the vast expanse of the global war on terrorism, and it is not likely to disappear soon. The concept has Orwellian connotations, evoking among other things 1984‘s deliberately machinated permanent world war to ensure the boot remains firmly planted on humanity’s face.
While Orwell wasn’t writing 1984 as a scholar of international relations, the three superpowers clashing in the novel recalls Randall Schweller’s writings on tripolarity and its role sparking World War II. The modes of government Orwell identifies in 1984 germinated and blossomed in that war, forged in a context of global instability and conflict that engorged the scope and scale of the state and military even in the world’s most robust democracy. What we call “perpetual war” is indeed choice, as basically all decisions about how force is used are, but structure, and the types of security institutions and capabilities structure shapes, determine no small part the boundaries of our likely choices. In the case of today’s seemingly perpetual war, the policies we follow and the strategies following from them are not merely a nefarious clique’s choices or a broader worldview or establishment’s ideological malady, but arguably over-determined by the broader context of U.S. hegemony.
Take for example, the new symbols of the targeted killing campaign – the drone, or more specifically, the MQ-1 and MQ-9. Like all weapons, they are most useful within a specific context. Neither of these aircraft fare well in contested airspace, which works out fine for targeted killings in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, where there are no air defenses to speak of or the government is deliberately permitting operations. They cannot launch from carriers, so they require basing on foreign soil. They can track their targets but require help from scouts and spies to do so most effectively, and, if they are a specifically-targeted personality, help identify them in the first place.
What allows the U.S. to convince or coerce states into letting it conduct airstrikes on their soil? What gives the U.S. the ability to, with relative quiet, put spies and JSOC spotters on the ground, to secure the compliance of local forces and proxies in the ground portion of the counterterrorism efforts, and to create bases near or in some cases inside the countries where strikes occur? Beyond the drone strikes, what gives the U.S. the ability to do all the same with Special Operations Forces, cruise missiles, manned fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, and naval gunfire?
There’s no simple direct answer to this question, of course, as each is the result of a complex interplay of U.S. unilateral action and careful negotiation with local allies, clients, and partners. At a wider level, though, there are conditions essential to enabling these sorts of arrangements, and especially their longevity and the difficulty of escaping the situation of persistent conflict itself. It’s also a consideration missed by arguments warning about the consequences of mimesis, as if technical proliferation and karma could present a nightmare so vivid the U.S. might stop sleepwalking through years of targeted killings.
The first thing to recognize is that at every iteration since 9/11, the U.S. approach to counterterrorism has been enormously costly. Compared to the just but mismanaged invasion of Afghanistan and the morally and strategically disastrous blunder of Iraq, sure, the new approach is cheap. But it is also one essentially no other country is capable of implementing. It is not simply a matter of discretionary military and intelligence expenditure. Former third world forces have enough trouble conducting precision airstrikes within or just beyond their own borders. Even major peer competitors would face trouble putting comparable military detachments thousands of miles outside its own borders. Often, when U.S. allies strike even with manned aircraft, they often need U.S. ISR and refueling. They may need foreign resupply when they burn through their precision-guided munitions. Their unmanned strike aircraft operate with U.S. facilities and aid.
While the basic technology for precision-guided munitions, over-the-horizon fire, and remotely-piloted vehicles is falling in price, economies of scale and logistics still apply. States will still enjoy comparative advantage in these technologies and tactics. Smaller ones, many already struggling to maintain the forces they already possess, will find it difficult to reap benefits from such tactics without the U.S. or a comparable great power’s aid. Power projection will remain prohibitively expensive for many states.
This owes in part to some relatively hard geopolitical realities. U.S. hegemony in its own backyard is undisputed. It will, barring some truly epochal shifts in American power balances, enjoy freedom of action that China, Russia, and India can only envy. U.S. rivals have crowded neighborhoods and land borders to worry about. Though the U.S. ability to simultaneously maintain dominance in every theater will wane, and gaps in technology will likely narrow, the U.S. will retain options for refocusing and redirecting power others will not.
The U.S. inhabits an international system largely of its own making. It and the USSR demolished two hegemonic competitors by 1945, and then the USSR crumbled into a great power rather than staying a truly global one. U.S. advantages in technology and power projection and the massive margin of power the U.S. enjoys remove the first and most obvious obstacle to perpetual warfare – the chance of truly, existentially catastrophic defeat. From Vietnam to Iraq, American errors have been grave in their cost in lives and money but never apocalyptic for the republic or its military capacity. While America would face a regional peer competitor in Eastern Europe or the Straits of Taiwan, even as Americans leave the poorly-named “graveyard of empires,” its own empire will be not only essentially intact but, in Western Europe and East Asia, arguably welcoming it back.
Just as the U.S. worried about Chinese escalation in Korea and Vietnam, or entanglement in European wars through straying from neutrality, the prospect of a peer or superior power waging a massive and costly war is a strong incentive to keep small wars small or non-existent in contested or sensitive areas. For the U.S. before WWII, this was basically just its own hemisphere. Even after the halcyon 1990s, there are few places where great power rivalry prohibits direct or indirect intervention. While managing great power politics frequently recommends forgoing intervention, rival great powers lack the capability or willpower to go to war over most of the domain of American overt and covert operations. Not only that, but in many cases the U.S. maintains sufficient escalation dominance to limit foes to proxy warfare. Even then, current conditions vastly circumscribe their options. While Iran certainly wrought mayhem for the U.S. in Iraq, the efficacy of Chinese and Soviet aid to Southeast Asian communists dealt blows to U.S. forces the Quds Force could never replicate against the U.S. in Iraq.
In the case of the targeted killing campaigns, no great power and very few regional powers find al Qaeda or its affiliates to be useful or viable proxies. Despite financing from radicals and sympathizers in the Islamic world, al Qaeda’s strategy still relies on goading the U.S. into unnecessary expenditures and foolish policies. It is a strategy with malign consequences to the U.S., absolutely, but al Qaeda’s limited ability to unilaterally escalate significantly diminishes incentives for the U.S. to stay the sword.
The same U.S. dominance that limits options for direct hostile opposition also provides assistance or tacit compliance necessary for the U.S. to conduct its range of covert and overt operations. Coercion and cooperation both play roles. America’s initial ability to operate general purpose forces in Afghanistan, as well as the more sensitive missions by CIA and JSOC assets operating on both sides of the Durand Line, depends on a great deal of complicity from Pakistan. Both “with us or against us” pressure and a massive deal of sweetening from U.S. coffers and coveted arms helped the Pakistani military and intelligence reach a manageable equilibrium, albeit one that still permits Pakistan to engage in a great deal of support for anti-U.S. proxy groups.
Having the world’s strongest military and the professional and technical capacity to keep it running means U.S. arms are choice commodities and U.S.-trained units are potentially valuable assets for regimes (though, in the latter case, potential threats without coup-proofing). That same security dominance also makes U.S. supported security accommodations possible, and gives local partners the ability to shift regional balances towards their favor. Fostering U.S. reliance on your regime is a generally reliable way to ensure its complicity in your survival, particularly if you are an officer or bureaucrat with little to lose and possibly much to gain from a cosmetic changing of figureheads. The chance to buy into the U.S. security umbrella is enticing, and even if it comes at a loss of popular support, regimes will go to great lengths to conceal their cooperation enough for it to survive popular disapproval.
U.S. military superiority and willingness to spend, in this case, make the prospect of manipulation and double-dealing all the more appealing for local power-brokers. Too much resistance and the U.S. has the option of isolating a regime as a pariah, or, as the attributed saying goes, bombing it into the stone age. Better to cash in on U.S. efforts, perhaps goad them into supporting suppression of local or common threats, and start converting your demands and preferences into American national security concerns. In such models, local security forces, militias, and U.S. proxies, not to forget the civilians caught in the crossfire, bear the brunt of the blood price.
These sorts of efforts are particularly amenable to the U.S. because the very foundations of its geopolitical primacy and power projection provide it with the capabilities it needs to implement such a supporting or indirect approach. U.S. “command of the commons” requires aerial and naval dominance along with massive logistical efforts to support the rapid deployment of ground forces when necessary. Targeted killings using strike aircraft, SOF, and naval support are one possible output for such forces, as would be raiding operations and regime change. Essentially, the U.S. model of hegemony is an exercise in comparative advantage. U.S. financial-technical-industrial superiority provides capital-intensive military and intelligence capabilities, which also give the U.S. the logistical ability to outsource labor-intensive capabilities to foreign states and private actors.
Even in cases where the U.S. manages large ground deployments, U.S. counterinsurgency theory and policy terminates foreign involvement in wars with a large outsourcing of the labor-intensive task of suppressing these insurgencies to local forces, the logic of which Jonathan Caverly more thoroughly outlines in his research. To overemphasize new technologies vis-a-vis insurgents and terrorists as a driver in perpetual war, though, misses the overall systemic logic.
Without the U.S. ability to compel or compensate foreigners and private entities to take part in the labor intensive aspects of these dirty wars, the U.S. ability to wage them indefinitely falls apart. The archipelago of bases and diplomatic compounds the U.S. conducts these operations from are extremely vulnerable without host nation security. Now, as my co-blogger Adam Elkus pointed out, the U.S. is shifting resources into the private sector, but the overall logic remains the same. The U.S. military can get anywhere, but it cannot stay everywhere. The inadequacy, though, of local or private forces to complete U.S. objectives on their own, and the comparative advantage the U.S. military possesses in certain kinds of enabling and supporting operations, will continue to enmesh the U.S. in small, dirty wars where the U.S. offloads the vast majority of risk to non-U.S. government personnel.
Stepping back from the specific instruments and tactics, we can note some of the most persistent aspects of U.S. hegemony will continue to make “perpetual war” likely. Partnership and burden-sharing will not cure the perpetual war issue, as the U.S. will continue to enjoy a comparative and absolute advantage in a wide range of military and intelligence operations, whether measured against private proxies or NATO allies. While perhaps legally and ethically desirable, moving towards a capture and law enforcement-centric counterterrorism policy would still involve, at the very least, extensive U.S. support for local clients and partners to access safe havens and denied terrain, and quite possibly direct U.S. military intervention and raids. Somalia, for example, saw perhaps the widest range of strategies and tools in its counterterrorism campaign, ranging from reliance on foreign armies, local proxies to hunt down high-value targets, and eventually direct U.S. involvement in kill or capture operations, with a wide range of U.S. supporting and enabling operations occurring throughout the conflict.
Examinations of changes in technology, U.S. law, and domestic politics are important, but must not be taken out of this larger structural and systemic context. Where the U.S. has had the geopolitical freedom of action and logistical capability to project requisite military strength, it has engaged in regime change operations, manhunts, punitive raids, and a variety of other actions against weaker polities and non-state actors in the past. As Charles Tilly and Otto Hintze before him would argue, the external conditions shaping statecraft and warmaking play a significant role in the evolution of a wide variety of domestic institutions, technical capability, and force structure. Though policy remedies must be domestically political in nature, we can still recognize that the context of U.S. power has changed far more vastly than the actual U.S. government itself, and that the inherent prudential constraints on state action which limited U.S. warmaking in the past no longer exist. American war powers came into existence at a time where any war could easily result in a genuine existential threat. We can see the reflection of that in the Constitutional texts and debates, but we cannot inherit the mental context they were born of.