Morality and US Grand Strategy


In recent months, a number of essays have been written by some of the most prominent scholars in international relations, all on the same topic: US grand strategy. The question that these scholars have sought to address is whether the US should adopt a more restrained strategy, avoiding intervention and counterinsurgency programs, and downsizing its military, or whether the US should continue to assert itself in every region of the globe, maintaining its huge military and sprawling network of bases, and its chronic habit of intervention.

Two essays appear on this topic in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs. The first piece, written by MIT professor Barry Posen, is called “Pull Back: The Case for a Less Activist Foreign Policy.” The second piece, written by Stephen Brooks, John Ikenberry, and William Wohlforth, is called “Lean Forward: In Defense of American Engagement.”

These two pieces are very important, as they define the parameters of acceptable opinion within the US political establishment. Therefore, these two essays expose much of what is wrong with established political thought and its underlying assumptions. These flaws can be uncovered just by examining Posen’s piece, which represents the dovish end of the spectrum.

Posen’s main argument is that the US’ post-Cold War strategy, which he calls “liberal hegemony,” has become counterproductive and unsustainable. Posen writes:

It makes enemies almost as fast as it slays them, discourages allies from paying for their own defense, and convinces powerful states to band together and oppose Washington’s plans, further raising the costs of carrying out its foreign policy…. the Pentagon has come to depend on continuous infusions of cash simply to retain its current force structure – levels of spending that the Great Recession and the United States’ ballooning debt have rendered unsustainable.

Instead, Posen proposes the US adopt a more restrained strategy: “Washington should not retreat into isolationism but refocus its efforts on its three biggest security challenges: preventing a powerful rival from upending the global balance of power, fighting terrorists, and limiting nuclear proliferation.”

So what would a “restrained,” strategy that still seeks to prevent a “powerful rival from upending the global balance of power” look like? Unfortunately, it would look very similar to the strategy we have now. Posen makes it clear that the difference in a restrained strategy would be primarily quantitative, not qualitative.

The US would still have a military presence that extends around the globe:

Because the Pentagon would, under this new strategy, swear off counterinsurgency, it could cut the number of ground forces in half. The navy and the air force, meanwhile, should be cut by only a quarter to a third, since their assets take a long time to produce and would still be needed for any effort to maintain the global balance of power. Naval and air forces are also well suited to solving the security problems of Asia and the Persian Gulf.

China would still need some level of containment:

Given concerns about China’s rising power, not all U.S. forces should leave the region…The U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force should keep the bulk of their forces stationed in and around Japan in place, but with appropriate reductions. Elsewhere in Asia, the U.S. military can cooperate with other states to ensure access to the region should future crisis arise, but it should not seek new permanent bases.

Also, the US would still need to keep order in the Middle East: “Washington still needs to reassure those governments that fear that a regional power such as Iran will attack them and hijack their oil wealth, since a single oil-rich hegemon in the region would no doubt be a source of mischief.” Posen goes on to cite the first Gulf War as an example of a military venture that the US would undertake under his restrained strategy.

The problem with Posen’s thinking is shared with the entire US political establishment: morality is not a factor in his arguments. Posen doesn’t have any moral problem with “liberal hegemony” – wars, proxy wars, and authoritarian allies that leave millions of people dead and maimed. Posen’s problem with liberal hegemony is that right now, its too costly, or that it encourages free riding, or that it gives the US a bad reputation. These critiques aren’t principled, as Posen himself points out at the end of his piece: “Perhaps current economic and geopolitical trends will reverse themselves, and the existing strategy will leave Washington comfortably in the driver’s seat, with others eager to live according to its rules.” Posen is living in the world of strategy. He is playing a game of battle ship and he’s decided that his ship’s current strategy is becoming counterproductive. Maybe later on this strategy will be viable, but not now. Ultimately, he still seeks power for his ship.

The problem with Posen’s approach is that, in reality, morals exist. We have to make strategic and moral decisions. Take Posen’s words on the Iraq war, for example:

Officials in the Bush administration convinced themselves that a quick application of overwhelming military power would bring democracy to Iraq, produce a subsequent wave of democratization across the Arab world, marginalize al Qaeda, and secure U.S. influence in the region. Instead, Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds stoked the violence that the United States labored to suppress, and Shiite and Sunni factions fought not only each other but also the U.S. military.

To Posen, the Iraq war was merely a strategic blunder. Good intentions gone awry. The only thing that can be learned from this mistake is in the realm of strategy. Posen fails to consider how many Iraqis were killed, maimed, and poisoned as a result of the war.

Author Barry Sanders summarized death toll figures in his book The Green Zone:

Epidemiologists at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, along with a team of Iraqi physicians conducted a national cross-sectional cluster sample survey of mortality in Iraq in 2006. Their study concluded that the number of ‘excess Iraqi deaths as a consequence of war’ had reached 655,000. They published their results in the British Medical Journal ‘The Lancet’ in October 2006. According to the study’s authors, between May 2003 and June 2008, 50 percent of Iraqi children under fifteen years of age were killed by coalition air strikes… And the well-respected British group, Opinion Research Business Survey, calculated the number of civilian deaths, as of October 2006, at a low of 733,158 to a high of 1,446,063.

This was not just a strategic blunder, rather a moral catastrophe of genocidal proportions. To Posen, it was not worth mentioning. Those who take morals seriously would work to eliminate institutions like the Pentagon that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis over the last decade, not just restrain it.

However, it wouldn’t be completely accurate to accuse Posen and the US political establishment of being without morals. Certainly some sort of value judgment is required to advocate for one state over another. What values does the US political establishment have? As demonstrated by Posen’s arguments, these values are assumed, and not stated (and certainly shared by the “Lean Forward” camp): the US should work to maintain the “global balance of power” by policing the world; the US has the right to police the world because it is benevolent; if the US makes a mistake in its police work and kills a million people, it is because it got caught up in its good intentions or made strategic mistake. It is establishment doctrine that prevents establishment thinkers from being morally intelligent.

For those of us who aren’t deluded with establishment doctrine, and value human lives, non-interventionism is the obvious course.

12 thoughts on “Morality and US Grand Strategy”

  1. Bravo.

    My blood pressure climbs, face reddens, and pulse quickens every time I discuss foreign policy with voters for either party. I just can’t see it, how can anyone support anyone who approves of these atrocious military actions?

    I don’t care about domestic policy. Domestic policy can get lost. To value single issue, special interest domestic policy above ongoing, bipartisan foreign policy measures of military growth and intervention amounts to willful disregard of innocent lives.

    An exercise: who’s worse? A isolationist, oppressive, fascistic regime like N. Korea that bludgeons its citizens with police state tactics, or a interventionist State like the U.S. That maintains the largest nuclear arsenal, drops the most bombs, and invades the most countries? I honestly don’t know. I can’t decide. The U.S. Has one hell of a PR team. Lots of soft power to make up for its tentative aversion to martial law. What the U.S. doesn’t control with armed soldiers, it controls with media domination.

  2. "According to the study’s authors, between May 2003 and June 2008, 50 percent of Iraqi children under fifteen years of age were killed by coalition air strikes… And the well-respected British group, Opinion Research Business Survey, calculated the number of civilian deaths, as of October 2006, at a low of 733,158 to a high of 1,446,063."

    If the above is actually true……….. Those who lied and employed forgeries to KILL HALF THE CHILDREN IN IRAQ….. leave a legacy of wanton DEATH of OTHER PEOPLES CHILDREN.. We, US… I have met societies WORST MONSTERS…. and they are US… According to the religion of those who worked hardest to arrange the slaughter………… beg for their children to die, or am I mistaken? An eye for an eye…….Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. Too many of the war plotters considered these children WE murdered to be sub-human. But it is the murderers who are sub-human compared to their youthful and largely innocent victims. These people need to be arrested and tried for warcrimes…. They have gotten away with this monstrosity too long already,

  3. And Al-Qaida disagrees totally with those essays; they only show weakness in American. After all these years, your government, the most powerful on earth, isn´t going to get soft on terrorists or raise the white flag in dishonor? No way, keep up the fight, right to the end, you know full well that there were never more than 300 of us, so don´t quit now that you have us on the run and we´re obviously running out of terrorists! Find the money to continue the fight, to give up now would be a disgrace. Take away food from your needy children, but keep up the fight. Never mind your citizens freedom and life style, do what you know is right. Come and get us.

    It seems that between al-Qaida and the Zionists there aren´t many decisions that Americans actually make on their own, and both those organizations completely agree that we should continue and expand our war on terrorism, even if we have to commit more terrorist acts than our enemies.

  4. If It Wasn’t For Bad Luck

    we wouldn’t have no luck at all

    If It Wasn’t For Bad morals

    they wouldn’t have morals at all

    If It Wasn’t For Bad propaganda

    we wouldn’t have news at all

    If It Wasn’t For Bad politicians

    we wouldn’t have trouble at all

    Of course, it’s not only politicians.

    Consider the M/I/C/$4a†-plex = military, industrial, Congress (US-speak for parliament); $ = banksters, 4 = 4th estate = MSM + PFBCs, ‘a’ = academia incl. think-tanks, † = the churches.

    MSM + PFBCs = mainstream media + publicly financed broadcasters, like the AusBC.

    No Church is properly ‘pro-active;’ along with all other killing, they should forbid military killing, (except in true self-defence = *not* Vietnam through Iraq to Syria, on to Iran etc.), and should excommunicate all who violate the do-not-kill commandment.

    Add the I/J/Z-plex; illegitimate IL squats on genocidally ethnically-cleansed = improperly alienated, mainly Palestinian erstwhile legal owner/occupiers = ELO/Os’ land/property = IL is an un-remedied “supreme international” crime-scene and *all* in the I/J/Z-plex (except any actively opposing) are guilty (some more = actual perpetrators, some less = accessories & apologists – even silence = complicity).

    The above extends Eisenhower’s MI-complex and describes the two worst rogue regimes = US & Zs; it encompasses the full ‘leadership’ of many countries and the world; where regimes cooperate with the two rogue regimes they make themselves SQSHsO = snivelling quisling sycophantic hangers-on.

    Democracy is disabled by 1) a two-party lock; bipartisan = un- & anti-democratic, 2) deceived voters may not make fully informed voting choices, and 3) after being elected, representatives sell-out to $s and lobbies, including 5th columns. These disabled democracies have become tyrannies.

    No dissent is tolerated from the tyrants’ dictates, this fully explains the aggressive wars, with the benefit of seizing resources to ‘harvest’ the economic rent, plus denying competitors.

    To ‘stray’ from the truth is to lie, to murder for spoil is psychopathic. The ‘bad morality’ the perpetrators embrace is that the self-designated ‘strong’ = most of the current <1%, *must* rip-off and kill all they can, since to *allow* themselves to be ripped-off and killed, means that the hapless victims are weak when compared to the psychopaths.

    The proof is all around us; from Thatcher's TINA and Reagan's voodoo economics, neoliberalism and globalisation are strangling the '1st world' as the banksters suck it dry with their vile $-creation, loaned at %, latest manifestation = the so-called 'forced' descent into austerity. Anything for profit prioritises profit over performance; vis-à-vis for profit medicine can be and in growing cases is fatal.

    Last words: There's nothing élite about criminals, there can never be peace without justice.

  5. The United States and it's citizens self-describe the country and its people as Christian. As such they should be following the teachings of Jesus. War and wanton slaughter of innocents or even enemies for that matter, were not part of His teachings.

    As one that tries to follow The Prince of Peace I would say the entire military structure of the United States needs to return to within its borders and stop killing for the Statist Quo. If not, rename the Department of Defense the Department of War(as it was). It is not my role to declare ultimate judgment on those that kill for the state or those that support that killing. However, I do not support those actions because I believe that were I to do so would bring eternal damnation upon MY soul for rejecting His teachings; I would stand before Him and He would declare I never knew Him.

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