U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter told the Harvard Kennedy School Tuesday that Americans will be grappling with violent extremism for generations to come. If that feels like déjà vu, you're not imagining things. Air Force Brig. Gen. Mark O. Schissler said the same thing - in 2006.
Schissler was expressing concern at the time over wavering public support for a war that had already lasted longer than WWII. His concern was warranted. The Republican Party had just suffered a shellacking in the mid-term elections, largely due to public dissatisfaction with "neoconservative" foreign policy. They would lose the White House two years later for largely the same reasons.
American voters may have believed they "threw the bums out," as Carroll Quigley might put it, but the foreign policy never changed. The Obama administration may have used different tactics, but it's been even more interventionist than Bush's. It's certainly intervened in more countries.
Bush and the 2000s Republicans were called neoconservatives, but they weren't. Their way of seeing the world is classic conservatism, straight out of Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes not only saw all individuals, but all nations, in a de facto state of war with each other, in the absence of some overwhelming external force "keeping them in awe."
This was the inspiration for the British Empire, which sought to "civilize" the world by force of arms. It eventually bled itself dry, its biggest failures occurring on precisely the same ground the United States is bleeding on now.
From the first days of the republic, conservatives like Alexander Hamilton have dreamed of supplanting the British Empire with an American one. They were overwhelmingly defeated in one election after another until the Civil War. The conservatives were on the right side of the slavery question and used a coalition with abolitionists to finally obtain the power denied them for the previous sixty years.
Americans are largely ignorant of the libertarian baby that went out with the bathwater of slavery.
Beginning with Lincoln and continuing through half a century of Republican dominance, the Hobbesian conservative worldview became the dominating force in American politics. Only one, centralized and absolute power over the whole world could keep us safe from the inherent danger every man's dark nature poses to everyone else.
Foreign adventures did not begin immediately. First, all independence of the states had to be crushed. Next, all Native American independence within U.S. borders had to be eradicated.
When the states were subdued and the Native Americans largely annihilated, the international U.S. Empire began almost immediately, starting with the war with Spain Hamilton had wanted a century before. The conservatives have never looked back, expanding U.S. foreign involvement through two world wars and dozens of engagements afterwards. When the fascists were defeated, the communists replaced them. Now, it's the Islamist terrorists.
Yes, it was "liberal" presidents Woodrow Wilson, FDR and LBJ who led the nation into the biggest wars in the 20th century. But however progressive-liberal their domestic policies might have been, their foreign policy was as conservative as Hamilton's. "Making the world safe for democracy" is just Hobbesian conservatism repackaged with liberal rhetoric. The idea that America is not safe unless it dominates the whole world is straight out of Leviathan and both Democrats and Republicans have based their foreign policy on it for over a century.
There are two bizarre fallacies that have emerged in American politics today. The first is that Obama has "withdrawn" from the Middle East. He hasn't. He's been as interventionist as Bush and caused at least as much chaos with his support for the "Arab Spring" as Bush did with the Iraq War.
The second is that Obama has "gutted the military." The military budget has not been cut in any year during the Obama presidency. Giving the DoD a smaller raise than it arbitrarily demands is not a cut. In reality, Obama has just continued the conservative foreign policy in place since McKinley.
Ironically, Obama's fiercest opponents, the Tea Party, invoke founding father Thomas Jefferson while making the spurious gutted-the-military claim. I have news for them: Jefferson really gutted the military, cutting its budget by 90% in his first term. He couldn't disband the army, because his predecessor John Adams had already done so the minute the Quasi-War with France ended. So, Jefferson largely dismantled the navy, reducing it to what he believed was a force adequate for defense, but incapable of foreign interventions.
Jefferson was still able to crush the Barbary pirates in little more than a day. Like the jihadists today, they posed no threat whatsoever in a conventional warfare setting.
James Madison said that no nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare. He was right. Our freedom and prosperity have faded significantly in the past fifteen years and will vanish completely if the war goes on "for generations." The British Empire eventually impaled itself trying to civilize the world by force of arms. Its American successor is doing precisely the same thing, in precisely the same place.
Pick your cliché. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Repeating the same procedure and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. It's time for a different approach.
We need to really gut the military, just as Adams and Jefferson did. If we cut the DoD budget in half, it would still be three times as large as its closest competitor. The United States would be just as capable of crushing ISIS in a conventional battle, which is the only kind of warfare our WWII-style military is built for.
What we would not be able to do is go on occupying the entire planet. Contrary to Hobbesian conservative rhetoric, this would not make us less safe and certainly not less free. We'd be just as capable of nuking North Korea into the Stone Age without 25,000 troops on its border, draining our resources and rallying North Koreans around their besieged dictator.
We'd also rob the jihadists of their number one recruiting tool: U.S. military intervention in their homelands. Contrary to what pundits say ad nauseum, the jihadists don't hate us for our freedom. How do we know? They've said so, over and over. Every single captured terrorist, foreign or domestic, has cited U.S. military intervention as their motivation. Every. Single. One.
Obama promised "hope and change" in 2008. He hasn't delivered. The foreign interventions and militarization of our culture have continued, even accelerated. We need to elect a president and Congress who will really change our Hobbesian conservative foreign policy. It's that or join the British Empire in the dustbin of history.