The United States, we are told, is the most powerful nation in world history, the sole superpower, winner of the Cold War, the “indispensable nation,”
a “hyperpower” that has achieved “full spectrum dominance” and “command of the commons” over all other military forces on Earth. Yet the US failed to achieve its objectives in Iraq and Afghanistan, was defeated outright in Vietnam, and since World War II won unambiguous victories only in the first Gulf War of 1991, a war with the strictly limited objective of expelling Iraq from Kuwait, and in various “police actions” against pathetically small and weak opponents.
How can we explain this dichotomy between unparalleled military advantage over all rival powers and a virtually unblemished record of military defeat since the end of the Cold War? And how has the strange mix of great military capacity and inability to utilize that power to attain military victories affected America’s ability to maintain geopolitical hegemony?
American military defeats in fact are the result of three factors.
First, the Pentagon directs its ample budget toward purchases of complex high-tech weapons, which are designed to fight wars against the Soviet Union/Russia and China, rather than on cheaper and simpler weapons and training for troops in the tactics needed for the sorts of counter-insurgency wars the US in fact fights. The Vietnamese in the 1960s and the Afghans and Iraqis in the twenty-first century figured out simple and inexpensive methods to circumvent high-tech American weaponry by utilizing old weapons (most notably mines) and developed cheap new weapons (above all IEDs) that inflicted enough casualties on Americans to turn US public opinion against the wars and created havoc that made it impossible for the US to win local support by establishing security.
While military analysts see Pentagon budgetary choices as the result of an organizational culture that produces commanders who prioritize keeping up with America’s most formidable rivals, weapons purchases are overdetermined by military contractors who lobby for high-tech weapons because those realize the highest profit margins and by officers whose careers and retirement incomes benefit from their attachment to weapons systems that remain in development and production for decades.
The US is unique among nations in that all its weaponry is produced by capitalist firms rather than in government-owned facilities. As a result, military spending is directed above all by those firms’ imperative to generate immediate profits even though those decisions undermine capitalists’ longer-term interest in sustaining the geopolitical hegemony of the country in which they are located.
Second, opposition by the American public to significant American (but not foreign) casualties, an aversion that developed as part of the growing resistance during Vietnam and after to US aggression abroad, forces the adoption of war strategies that limit interactions between American soldiers and warzone civilians, reducing the possibilities of accumulating the intelligence and local goodwill necessary for winning counterinsurgency wars. The sharp decline in the number of US war deaths the American public considers acceptable from Vietnam to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has limited the number of troops that can be sent into combat in the first place and quickened the pace with which they must be withdrawn or confined to rear bases.
American military failures make casualties seem pointless, deepening opposition to future wars. Unfortunately, efforts to minimize American casualties have produced strategies that still kill many people in the countries the US targets. High altitude bombing, the use of proxies (like Saudi Arabia in Yemen), and sanctions can be as deadly as American invasions. We need to remember that as many Iraqis died as a result of the Clinton administration’s sanctions as did from the war Bush launched.
Third, local populations are further alienated by the US government’s turn in the twenty-first century to a form of plunder neoliberalism in the countries it invades. For example, the US-directed Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq refused to allow government-owned enterprises to reopen after the invasion unless they were privatized. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the US demanded the governments open natural resources to exploitation by American corporations.
Such measures reduce opportunities for local elites to enrich themselves and therefore make it almost impossible for the US to enlist reliable local allies. It also impoverishes the mass of locals when the US forces the privatization of state firms and demands brutal cuts in government budgets, creating enough anger and desperation to power insurgencies.
Together, those three factors have ensured US failure in twenty-first century wars and undermined America’s ability to maintain geopolitical hegemony.
In sum, while the US still is well-prepared to engage in old-fashioned head-to-head combat with Iraqis in Kuwait, Russia over Ukraine, or China on the Asian continent, a legacy of the very real military advantages it has built up during repeated programs of military modernization, these three factors combine to leave the US stunningly weak militarily in the wars it has actually fought since 2000 against opponents who pursue varieties of “asymmetric warfare,” supported by the local population.
The US has a military mismatched for the wars it chooses to fight because its military spending has been determined by the interests and desires of a permanent alliance between generals aiming to enhance their careers and military contractors aiming to enhance profits, when both careers and profits can be best built up by developing and commanding weaponry and equipment of the very highest technology. In addition, American military strategies must be designed to meet both civilian and military demands to keep US soldiers’ deaths to a minimum and to end intense combat quickly, even as its insurgent opponents are able to accept outsized casualties and fight “for as long as it takes” because they are defending their homeland against imperialist invaders.
Finally, the Middle East campaigns, begun by the Bush administration, have put a new emphasis on the goals of expropriation and plunder of the local societies for the benefit of its own occupying forces — instead of any commitment to national development it may have had previously — thereby insuring that it cannot build support among the local population.