Waning influence, hidden benefit explain why US is trapped in endless wars
Published: Jun 24, 2024 03:25 PM

A view of the Pentagon Photo: VCG

A view of the Pentagon Photo: VCG

Editor's Note:

The one thing the US is most familiar with could be war. In his recently published book, A World of Enemies: America's Wars at Home and Abroad from Kennedy to Biden, Osamah F. Khalil (Khalil), a professor of history at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, detailed how the US trapped itself in endless wars - abroad and at home - and what it might do to break free. Global Times (GT) reporter Wang Wenwen interviewed Khalil about why wars are embedded in US genes and what prevents the US from exercising traditional politics and diplomacy.

GT: Your book, A World of Enemies, tells the story of how an America plagued by fears of waning power and influence embraced foreign and domestic wars. You argued that the US' militarized policy and its failure have only served to reinforce fears of weakness. How do you see this paradox? 

Khalil: There has been an overemphasis on military force and what military force can achieve. It's because the US has the strongest military on earth, that there is a belief that it can achieve amazing things that diplomacy cannot achieve or that it can force a diplomatic solution. In effect, what they're talking about is forcing surrender. So when its military doesn't achieve many of the political goals the US has set out, for example, bringing democracy to Iraq or the broader Middle East, or claiming overwhelming victory in the war on terror, it reinforces this idea that the US is weak, that it can't win anymore, that it can't dictate terms to the rest of the world. 

But that actually leads the US to lash out even more. Rather than sitting back and looking at these missed lessons - what did we get wrong? Even when that question is asked, as I demonstrate in the book, the lessons are rarely applied. For example, immediately after October 7, some commentators argued, "This is like 9/11, so we have to do what we did in response to 9/11." Instead of saying, "Let's sit back and not respond as we did after 9/11; let's understand what's happening here and let's not apply the wrong lessons." 

As you point out, it is a paradox. Unfortunately, it's a paradox that American policymakers and national security experts find themselves locked in again and again, because all they can think about is using the military for political means, rather than relying on diplomacy or recognizing that the military can only achieve very specific things, not everything. 

We've also seen a very similar logic applied to increasingly militarized policing in the US. The social safety net in the US has been so enervated, much like the military has overseas, and therefore the police are relied on for an increasing number of attempts to resolve societal ills, such as crime, drugs and mental health issues. Time and time again, the police become the default. But they're not trained for this. And they have received an enormous amount of surplus military equipment over the past three decades. The overreliance on military force and the logic of military force have both domestic and foreign consequences. 

GT: You believe that the US needs to reinvest in the tools of traditional politics and diplomacy. What prevents the US from exercising traditional politics and diplomacy?

Khalil: Take the Vietnam War for example. In my book, I talk about what the US attempted to do, which was dictate terms of surrender to North Vietnam. It's not interested in diplomacy. It didn't believe that North Vietnam was an independent actor. It refused to acknowledge that there was a civil war in South Vietnam and an insurgency that was increasingly popular. Quite simply, the US planned to use military power and air supremacy to dictate terms, and "make the North beg for peace" and that peace would be on American terms. 

In the post-Cold War era, there was this belief in what some have called liberal hegemony. Democrats and Republicans believed the US could dictate terms to the rest of the world through military force. Meanwhile, it tends to avoid thorny diplomatic issues. For example, the US has sought to use military power, directly or indirectly, to impose a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict and peace process, rather than deal with a complicated or difficult negotiation. That may require concessions, which the US and Israel are not prepared to give. The belief is that military force will help resolve this conflict, however, quite the opposite is true.

GT: Why is war embedded in the genes of the US?

Khalil: One way to think about it is that the US has not really suffered in major conflicts. It is protected by two oceans. It hasn't had the major devastation that you saw in either World War I World War II, or even in Vietnam. The Vietnam War in which over 50,000 Americans died was a very traumatic war for the US at home, but paled in comparison to the millions who were killed in North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

In the post-Vietnam era, the fact is that the US had a volunteer army which means the footprint of war is very small in terms of the number of individuals and families directly involved or impacted by the conflicts. If you asked most Americans today, "Is the US at war?" They would say no, even though the US is very actively involved in a number of conflicts that include US forces in Iraq, Syria, Gaza and Yemen. Those are just four conflict zones, not to mention Ukraine, Somalia, and US forces still stationed in South Korea and US Special Forces active throughout the world. Americans are engaged in wars that they don't even recognize or don't even realize that they are in, even though the US has almost perpetually been at war for 20 to 30 years. 

At the same time, the US wars are deeply embedded into US culture. From a social and cultural perspective, you can't turn on a video game that's not somehow related to military conflict. The military and the war on terror are all over American television shows and embedded in everything from superhero movies to your regular spy fare. 

The economic impacts of war are also deeply embedded in the US system. There's a moment after October 7 that I think is really telling. When Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen was asked by a reporter, "Can the US afford to support two wars, Ukraine and Israel?" Her reply without hesitation was, "Absolutely." What's striking about that is for most Americans, what they've heard under successive administrations is we can't afford to deal with climate change, we can't afford to deal with universal health care, we can't afford to deal with retirement, daycare and higher education. There's no money for those, but there's always money for war.

One point that US media like the conservative Wall Street Journal and many US officials made was when the US sends military aid overseas, much of it comes back home in the form of jobs. This was often repeated. How do you justify military foreign assistance? Jobs back home. This explains why war is so hidden from most Americans, because, in effect, they benefit from it on a daily basis and they don't even realize it.

GT: US wars were waged under the guise of civilization and democracy over the last half-century. What do you think of such rhetoric?

Khalil: This is not the real rationale for these conflicts. "A war for civilization" is, in effect, another form of propaganda. What the US does is othering its enemies and demonizing its enemies. "We are civilized. They are uncivilized." This is a way of justifying these endless wars because you claim that you are fighting for civilization. This is also part of the imperial violence at home and abroad. 

This idea that the US was waging war for democracy or civilization is to help sell this idea at home to a public that, quite frankly, is not really paying attention. It also helps to justify many of these conflicts. 

GT: Do you think your book will enlighten the minds of war-addicted US politicians and elites?

Khalil: I would love to say that it will, but we've already seen the opposite. As the book was being finished, you had Republican presidential candidates talking about taking the war on terror and applying it to the war on drugs, using Special Forces and drone attacks on Mexican drug cartels. 

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken also stated that Washington would not engage in negotiations until the fighting stops in Ukraine and a similar approach in Gaza immediately after October 7. But how is the fighting going to stop without diplomacy? And look at some of the rhetoric toward China or in and around the island of Taiwan by major think tanks in the US and the Biden administration taking the tough rhetoric of the Trump administration and the Obama administration and making it even tougher. It tells us the US is not rethinking this kind of the war for civilization approach, or this deep reliance on forever wars. If anything, it is embracing them.

Unfortunately, I don't think Washington is ready for this kind of lesson. We talk about the militarization of foreign policy. The US military built a pier in Gaza for humanitarian assistance. The pier delivered very little humanitarian assistance. Instead, it provided cover for an American-Israeli Special Forces group to launch a hostage rescue operation in which some hostages were killed, four were rescued and more than 270 Palestinians in and around this camp were killed. Meanwhile, these actions undermine the role of humanitarian assistance in a conflict and those hostages could have been released as part of a negotiation. But this was done for political reasons in the US and Israel, and not because it was the only available option. 

I hope my book will make a difference. Unfortunately, that may be too much to hope for. 

GT: Now, the US is involved in the Ukraine crisis in Europe and the Israel-Palestine conflict in the Middle East. Nonetheless, there are still voices within the US advocating for a conflict in the Asia-Pacific. Do you think the chaos in Ukraine and the Middle East could ever occur in Asia?

Khalil: If we go back to the Obama administration, there was the grand pronouncement that Obama had wanted to de-escalate or wind down wars in the Middle East for the pivot to Asia and the pivot to Asia was all about containing China and Chinese military power. 

From the Obama administration to the Trump administration, with the heightened rhetoric around China and the trade war it initiated with China, to now the Biden administration, there is no real change. It's telling that there are key think tanks in the US, for example, the Atlantic Council with ties to NATO, which say things like we must confront China, or that we can have a dual cold war against China and Russia. 

The US is looking at the war in Ukraine and looking for examples of how to protect Taiwan. It knows that China is also looking at the war in Ukraine and looking at what lessons can be learned, both to protect itself, for example, in the event of some kind of conflict over Taiwan or the South China Sea. 

Whether Trump comes back into office or if Biden is reelected, I think we will see further tensions with China, particularly in and around Taiwan.