In Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, there are indications that things are coming apart. In Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal has been casually insubordinate; the U.S.-sponsored Afghan president talks of making peace with the Taliban and ordering the United States and NATO to leave the country (just when billion-dollar lodes of lithium, gold, and the other minerals have been discovered).
There are disputes among Kurds, Turks, Iranians, and Iraqis in Iraq, which the United States had considered more or less pacified, if still without government. There is trouble in Somalia, Yemen, the Sahara. It’s enough to make one wonder whether the United States really is the most powerful nation on earth.
In May, Defense Secretary Robert Gates delivered a number of largely unpublicized talks on defense spending, which has been at flood tide for many years now—and not just since 9/11—although those events “opened a gusher in defense spending that nearly doubled the base budget over the last decade,” according to Gates. American arms spending is supposed to make Americans safe from its problems, but that is not working.
“The gusher has been turned off, and will stay off for a good period of time,” Gates explained. Congressional attempts to reduce military spending over the years have consistently failed because military spending is a politically irresistible cause, even when the results are irrational. Gates supplied examples of that irrationality when he spoke to the Navy League's annual convention last month. He said that nearly all of the Navy’s major weapons programs under development or in production are over budget and behind schedule. No one seems to ask why the United States purchases these weapons in the first place?
It is buying the Littoral Combat Ship for shallow-water and coastal operations to put the Navy into the “war on terror,” where the Navy has been absent—terrorists rarely being seaborne, although pirates are (on inflatable boats). The vessel is likely to be completed (if it is completed) at that foreseeable point in time when the United States gives up the war on terror out of frustration and failure--and the Navy decides that it doesn’t need such ships.
At his Navy League lecture, Gates noted what the Navy already has: Eleven large nuclear-carrier groups patrolling the seas to confront enemy fleets. No other nation possesses even one such carrier group; so there are no fleets to confront. France (forever France!) has built one modern nuclear aircraft carrier and is thinking about whether it can afford another. The United States has fifty-seven nuclear-missile-carrying or attack submarines (more than the rest of the world combined), plus seventy-nine Aegis defensive missile ships carrying eight thousand vertically launched missiles. In all, U.S. naval forces are equivalent to the combined next thirteen navies in the world.
The Marine Corps, with its own air and armored forces, has no foreign counterpart, and itself is larger than most foreign national armies.
Gates could have recited similar figures on the huge disproportion between U.S. military forces and those of all the rest of the world put together (China and India excepted; both having ground forces twice or more as large as the American regular army—American mercenary auxiliaries excluded—but those are ground armies not configured to fight the United States, and their governments are unlikely to wish to do so).
And yet, out of all that power, the United States is producing no peace.
During the sixty-five years since World War II, Americans have been spending more on defense than the rest of the world combined, with the avowed intention of spreading peace and democracy. They have fought wars or carried out military interventions in Korea, China (via Kuomintang mercenary forces and Tibetan tribesmen), Cuba (via exiles), Laos (via tribesmen), Vietnam, Cambodia, Lebanon, Libya, Iraq (twice), Iran, Somalia, Afghanistan (twice), Pakistan (drones and special forces), Nicaragua (via “Contras”), Grenada, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Sudan, Kosovo (with NATO). The United States has also been involved with coups in Guatemala, Chile, Greece and elsewhere.
Of course, some of those interventions were justified; most were not. Some must be judged in the context of the times. The point of the list is something few understand: battles were won, but not a single one of those interventions was successful in terms of its objectives. The sole clear-cut military victories were in Grenada over a Cuban construction crew, and in Panama, where five hundred civilians (according to the UN) were killed in order to seize President Manuel Noriega and put him into a Miami jail cell.
William Pfaff, a former editor of Commonweal, is political columnist for the International Herald Tribune in Paris. His most recent book is The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America's Foreign Policy (Walker & Company).