Hawks such as Sen. John McCain and commentators such as former New York Times columnist Bill Keller and Wall Street Journal editor Bret Stephens fret about America’s growing isolationism and the potential for a de-Americanized world, in which the absence of our stabilizing presence leads to chaos.
If you share their fears, rest assured: The U.S. military isn’t retreating to our shores. It’s already deeply entrenched in a global archipelago of virtually countless bases in at least 38 countries (PDF) around the world. And that’s just troops and bases, to say nothing of the tertiary influence of arms sales.
One of the more interesting recent encroachments of our military, which has received only intermittent attention, is the growth of our troop presence in Africa. Nominally, the United States has just one active military base in Africa. Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti serves as the headquarters of Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa and acts as the launch pad for drone strikes in the region.
Despite the 4,000 troops stationed there, Lemonnier alone doesn’t begin to illustrate the full scope of our presence in the continent. As Nick Turse reported in Tom Dispatch, the U.S. military is involved in the affairs of more than 90 percent of African countries. A discreet mission creep in Africa has led to our government’s quietly building military infrastructure, expanding an intelligence network and training local militias.
Without much fanfare or input from the public, U.S. military activity in Africa increased a whopping 217 percent from 2008 to 2013. This happened during a period supposedly defined by American isolationism and cuts to the military required by federal budget sequestration.
What’s going on here? Why do elected officials give credence to the myth that U.S. military power is somehow fettered, when our troop presence looms large, even to the point of appearing overextended? Why does there seem to be a consensus in Washington that assumes a broad, expensive and invasive U.S. military presence to be a panacea?
The answer lies in distinguishing the superficial differences in foreign policy debates from the actual policies favored by both parties. The reality is that U.S. foreign policy isn’t nearly as democratic as it should be and the elites forming it tend to pretty much agree on everything. This elite consensus then gets further constrained by the insatiable budget appetites of defense bureaucracy. These are the reasons intervention is so often presented by the defense and foreign policy establishment as entirely obvious and completely inevitable.
It begins with a total disregard for public opinion when defense strategy is formulated. Exempting extreme situations, what the American people want just doesn’t matter all that much. A hawkish consensus in Washington between Democrats and Republicans, both championing shockingly similar interventionist ambitions, sets the terms of debate. The inertia of a bloated defense bureaucracy that protects its budget at all costs then sustains interventions. And so we find ourselves in places like Africa, which only an elite few ever want us to be in to begin with.
Peter Beinart argued in The Atlantic in August that U.S. foreign policy has traditionally been a blue-blooded affair, well insulated from the vulgarities of public opinion. The gap between the opinions of the elites creating foreign policy and those of average Americans is historically large. Beinart used Hillary Clinton’s hawkishness as an example. Her key advisers are all “good poll readers,” according to Politico, keeping her tethered to the middle of the road when it comes to domestic issues. And yet she remains significantly more hawkish than the public on key hot-button issues such as Iran and Syria.
But it’s not just Clinton, and it’s not just a recent occurrence. Political blogger Matthew Yglesias pointed out the divide between mass and elite opinion on foreign policy issues in 2009. He cited a Pew study that year that compares public opinions and those of the foreign policy elite, in this case represented by the positions of the Council on Foreign Relations. The divergence is striking. The American public was resolutely less eager to engage in foreign adventurism than the elites.
Yglesias summed it up by writing that “it’s the very eliteness of the elite views that makes them influential out of proportion to the actual number of people who hold them.” It’s a pat solipsism that doesn’t address the quandary of asking working-class Americans to pay and die for policies they don’t have a say in creating. And it doesn’t address the fundamental unfairness of your opinions’ not mattering unless you belong to a prestigious think tank.
A point that Beinart emphasized is that the larger gap in foreign policy opinion exists between the mass and the elite, not between Democrats and Republicans. So not only are the people at the top not listening to you; they pretty much already agree with one another. The bipartisan cheer that rose up around the nomination of Ashton Carter for secretary of defense was disturbing evidence of this. It is what MIT professor Barry Posen calls the “liberal hegemony” that exists among America’s foreign policy elite.
Simply put, nearly everyone in Washington agrees on a default policy of internationalist military activism. It’s why Carter, who served as secretary of defense for international security policy under Bill Clinton, was lauded by notorious neoconservative Donald Rumsfeld. Glenn Greenwald responded to a New York Times article describing Carter as “someone who may advocate a stronger use of American power” by asking, “For a country at war for 13 straight years with no end in sight, and which more or less continuously bombs multiple countries simultaneously, what would a ‘stronger use of American power’ look like?” But the point is that Carter was the safe choice for President Barack Obama precisely because he favors stronger use of American power. It’s at least one position that everyone in Washington can get behind.
Having a liberal hegemony in Washington is great for the Pentagon budget. The recent bellyaching about a shrinking military after the defense budget sequestration took hold in 2013, a Pentagon official admitted, was nothing more than crying wolf. The defense budget is still stupendous. It perpetually remains obscenely high, larger then the defense budgets of the next eight countries combined. Even more important, as Winslow Wheeler pointed out in The American Conservative, the defense budget is currently larger than its Cold War average in adjusted dollars — $200 billion larger, in fact. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) might be one of the wealthiest terrorist groups in the world, but the Pentagon still spends more in a single day than ISIL will make all year.
But what does having a bloated defense budget have to do with secretive mission creep in Africa? We’re there because we can afford to be. If the defense budget were actually cut to a level that leaders were forced to make tough prioritizing decisions, we might be forced to think more creatively about how to confront global issues. For now, our strategy seems to be unmitigated martial voraciousness.
One is reminded of the old saying that when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Unfortunately, we’ve made ourselves into the world’s military hammer, so no place is off limits — the Arctic, space, cyberspace, inner space. This gargantuan military sprawl isn’t just provocative; it also dulls our sense of what actually constitutes a security threat, and it lends itself to misinterpreting what our national priorities are. It’s a policy that has been instituted by elites without much outside input, with little internal dissent and funded by an almost unlimited budget.
Should the situation seem hopeless, though, remember that we live in something resembling a democracy. If politicians are made to suffer at the ballot box because of their adventurism, they would be forced to listen to the voices of others. In fact, the public would be doing foreign policy elites a favor. We don’t need them to protect us from boogeymen. They need us to save them from themselves.