You’d think the problems created by recent military interventions would have figured at least a little bit in this election. We have an occupation in Iraq limping to a conclusion, with the political system devised by American proconsuls in paralysis and Wikileaks providing a jarring reminder that pacification is not clean and neat. It leads to civilian deaths, it opens a field to sectarian hatred, and it brutalizes all concerned.
The war in Afghanistan is a witches’ brew bubbling harder despite more troops and a new strategy. U.S.-led forces suffer steady losses against a determined Taliban. These forces are not only proving unpopular in Afghanistan; their mission is not popular with their own publics. The Karzai regime is playing elaborate but unhelpful survival games, while regional powers push their own–often divergent–agendas. U.S. objectives are fuzzy to the point of incoherence. A lot to worry about here.
Such a budget of bad news should get at least someone in this election campaign sounding off. What we have gotten instead is a silence, which is all the more striking when considered in long-term historical perspective. The public and political leaders have until recent decades responded energetically to American forces in overseas messes. The pacification of the Philippines proved highly controversial and figured in the 1900 presidential election. The stalemate in Korea stirred up a groundswell of anger that helped defeat the Democrats in 1952. Vietnam roiled the wars of American politics, with Nixon’s secret plan to end that war helping in his 1968 presidential victory.
So what is going on in 2010? The obvious answer is that a struggling economy today (unlike 1900, 1952, and 1968) has pushed our problematic interventions to the political sidelines. Voters have matters closer to home to worry and grumble about, and the politicians have taken note.
But there is something deeper at work. The public has become inured to interventions of the sort that Americans in 1900 would have found shocking or in 1952 deeply worrisome or in 1968 a challenge to fundamental principle. The Vietnam War gave rise to a lot of talk about the dangers of military intervention (“no more Vietnams”) and attempts at formulating rules to prevent troops going off on perilous overseas errands. Reagan’s secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger, advanced a much-discussed prudential doctrine in 1984, and Colin Powell tried his hand in 1992. But even as these lessons and doctrines gained currency, presidents were enthusiastically exercising the military big stick. Reagan targeted Grenada, Lebanon, and Libya. Bush senior put Panama and Iraq in his cross hairs. Clinton practiced gunboat diplomacy against Serbia, Sudan, Somalia, and Haiti. The younger Bush was merely keeping up the tempo by striking into Afghanistan and Iraq.
Counting just these instances and excluding covert operations, an armed intervention has come along on average every third year over the last three decades. Congress has repeatedly acquiesced, setting its war powers in ever deeper doubt. The media has dutifully followed whatever line was coming out of Washington. Little wonder the public has learned to go blissfully along. Foreign adventures have become an accustomed part of the American way.
This public somnolence is a result of another post-Vietnam trend. Proponents of military force learned from that unpopular conflict that their freedom of action depended on insulating the public from the effects of war. And insulate they did. They got rid of the draft to keep young men out of harm’s way and parents and wives pacified. They created the all-volunteer army accompanied by a mercenary force of contractors. Contractors, who now incredibly outnumber U.S. troops in Afghanistan, were an especially ingenuous solution to the problem of a public squeamish about fighting and killing. For-hire fighters demonstrated the efficacy of free-market orthodoxy even if in practice they proved costly, ineffective, disruptive, and controversial. If the media reporting freely on the nastiness inherent in war was a problem, then implicate the reporters in military operations. Make them part of the units on the premise that an embedded reporter is a compromised reporter. At the same time do a better job of spin on the domestic front and control the message. Keep photographers away from the caskets coming home. No repeating Lyndon Johnson’s mistake of giving the media too much freedom of action.
With the public so inured to foreign wars and so insulated from their consequences, this election has become almost exclusively in one way or another about the dimming of the American middle class dream. An Afghanistan war in its ninth year and an Iraq imbroglio in its seventh have become background noise. But ignoring them suggests more than irresponsibility. It suggests a country suffering from a split personality. While the military and policy elites wield their cudgels abroad, most Americans focus on a distinct set of personal, domestic concerns. These two notions of what America is about seem for the moment to coexist. But they have divergent long-term implications for the country and the world.
When might the public confront these two visions of what the country is about? Or has the public become irrelevant to such a discussion? Does the future depend on shifting attitudes within the small percentage of the public influential in foreign affairs? Will it take a further deterioration in U.S. material circumstances to precipitate a discussion of priorities at home and abroad? These questions are as important as they are hard to answer — and they will still be hanging around well after the last vote is counted next week.
Michael H. Hunt is Everett H. Emerson Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His ten books include The American Ascendancy: How the United States Gained and Wielded Global Dominance and A Vietnam War Reader: A Documentary History from American and Vietnamese Perspectives. His comments “on Washington and the world” appear here regularly and can also be found on his website.