Standing Armies and the ‘Specter of Looming Dangers’

Via, a very revealing interview with Colin Powell:

These are remarkable statements for a number of reasons. Let’s take them one at a time.

“Our force has never existed just to be ready to fight wars,” but “to deter wars.”

Well, not never. As James Madison said, “A standing army is one of the greatest mischief that can possibly happen.” But Powell later indicates he is really referring to the post-WWII US military postures. Powell is correct: US defense has nothing to do with defense but rather with offense. Building up a military to overwhelm the capacity of the rest of the world is necessary to deter and rule over other states. Of course, this expansionism does not deter US aggression; only that of others, and this is what Powell left out.

“Our presence in Europe in the days of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, our presence in the Pacific, [are] there to reassure our allies and let anybody know ‘you really don’t want to mess with us.'” 

Indeed, this reiterates how important it is to the foreign policy establishment to rule the world by force and coercion. “Don’t mess with us” means, “if you don’t do as we say, your people will die and your power will be jeopardized.” By “reassure our allies” Powell is referring to the vast number of security arrangements Washington has around the world, guaranteeing we will make their security threats our own. This isn’t out of any concern for our fellow man, of course. It’s nothing less than what a mafia don does: I’ll protect you from bad guys, so long as you agree that your territory is my turf. I will get privileged access to the economy here and you’ll respectfully host the occupation/presence of my militias on your territory.

Of course it wasn’t just Europe and the Pacific. Expanding the empire in Middle East was important too.  As a Top Secret National Security Council briefing put it in 1954, “the Near East is of great strategic, political, and economic importance,” as it “contains the greatest petroleum resources in the world” as well as “essential locations for strategic military bases in any world conflict.” And this holds to today, as a Senate Foreign Relations Committee report said just last week, the region is vital because it is “home to more than half of the world’s oil reserves and over a third of its natural gas.” It added that “the United States should preserve the model of ‘lily pad’ bases throughout the Gulf, which permits the rapid escalation of military force in case of emergency.”

“The whole structure,” Powell said, “depended on there being a Soviet Union that might attack us.”

What has to be the most revealing portion of Powell’s statement is when he describes the fall of the Soviet Union and how apparently remorseful he and others in Washington were that they “lost our best enemy.” He says it was “one of the biggest challenges” he “ever faced” when the Cold War ended. That is, when we became much safer as opposed to when we might have faced a new enemy. 

Absent the pretext of the Soviet threat, the thinking goes, how will we justify the expanding military and national security state? Powell says of the trumped up Soviet “threat” in no uncertain terms, “we’ve got a good thing going here.” The system – the “whole structure,” as he calls it, far from aiming to eliminate threats, depends upon them.

Washington did scramble to come up with a replacement boogie man and the drug war did a sufficient job for a while. Notably, in 1992, the Defense Department circulated what came to be known as the Wolfowitz Doctrine, after then-Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Paul Wolfowitz. “America’s political and military mission in the post-cold-war era,” the New York Times reported, “will be to ensure that no rival superpower is allowed to emerge in Western Europe, Asia or the territories of the former Soviet Union.” America’s mission, read the DoD document, would be “convincing potential competitors that they need not aspire to a greater role or pursue a more aggressive posture to protect their legitimate interests.”

Then 9/11 happened and they got their new “best enemy.” But al-Qaeda is comparably so weak to any nation state that Powell is moved to explain, “We have no peer enemy. There is nobody out there with either the capacity, the economic potential, the potential of population, or an intention of any kind to go to war against the United States.”

There you have it. No peer enemy. No nation in the world with “an intention of any kind” to threaten the US. Yet Washington has refused to even slow the rate of growth in “defense” spending. Fears of unstoppable global terrorism and the ever-present “Iranian threat” continue to fuel a nationalist, pro-war fever.

In the March/April 2012 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, Micah Zenko and Michael A. Cohen argue that we have a system that fuels unnecessary alarm and paranoia. “Warnings about a dangerous world also benefit powerful bureaucratic interests,” they write. “The specter of looming dangers sustains and justifies the massive budgets of the military and the intelligence agencies, along with the national security infrastructure that exists outside government — defense contractors, lobbying groups, think tanks, and academic departments.”

If the American people understood that the overwhelming size and scope of our military sector and our expanding garrison state was simply to increase the wealth and power and control of those in Washington, surely standing armies would once again be publicly derided.

Two additional quotes from James Madison are illustrative here:

A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defence agst. foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war, whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people.

Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people…. [There is also an] inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and … degeneracy of manners and of morals…. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

Also, see here for a brilliant take on Powell by Medea Benjamin and Charles Davis.

6 thoughts on “Standing Armies and the ‘Specter of Looming Dangers’”

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