As part of our special investigation “Mission Creep: US Military Presence Worldwide,” we asked a host of military thinkers to contribute their two cents on topics relating to global Pentagon strategy. (You can access the archive here.) The following dispatch comes from Steven K. Metz, a strategic military theorist whose latest book is titled Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.
America’s Global Military Footprint Is the Lesser Evil
Throughout US history, Americans have periodically reassessed their nation’s strategy. We are once again involved in this process, debating tough issues that emerged at the end of the Cold War but remained unresolved. Foremost among these is the militarization of American statecraft. Unfortunately, much of the discussion of the vital topic misleads rather than illuminates. Take the global deployment of US troops:
Chalmers Johnson led the way in suggesting that the US has embarked on some sort of imperial offensive based on the number of nations that currently have an American troop presence. But there is presence and there is presence. Most of the deployments shown on the map in Johnson’s The Sorrows of Empire and other places consist of Marine embassy guards and defense attachés working out of the embassy. By that logic, a hundred or more nations have a military presence in the United States. The map may be technically accurate, but without explanation is misleading. Its intent is to shock readers at the extent of the American “empire” rather than accurately portray the role of the US military.
Much better analysis of the militarization of American statecraft is available in the brilliant work of Andrew Bacevich. But once we accurately understand the contours of this process, we must ask ourselves why it has taken place. The answer is not because of nefarious conspiracies, evil intent, or a desire to control the world’s resources, but because there are things that need to be done to sustain security and stability which neither international organizations nor the nonmilitary component of the US government can do. The US military is the peacemaker, stabilizer, and reconstructer of last resort. The vast majority of the troops would love to be stationed at home and to avoid protracted, frustrating activities like stabilization operations, disaster relief, training, and advising the security forces of other nations. But if they were, these things would not be done.
Where, then, are we? In the broadest sense, the United States has three options. It can accept the militarization of its statecraft and focus on methods to assure that this takes place with rigorous concern for human rights and respect for partner states. It can, as Secretary of Defense Gates advocates, invest in the State Department, the Agency for International Development, and other nonmilitary government organizations so that the US military can concentrate on what it alone can do—prepare for war. Or the United States could simply disengage from stabilization, peacekeeping, disaster relief, and the training and advising of foreign security forces. But would the world then be a better place?
I, for one, think not. That Russia did not simply replace the government of Georgia indicates that America’s partnerships with foreign security forces are playing a positive role in the evolution of global norms. Ultimately, critics of American strategy must provide a better alternative if they want to be taken seriously. Winston Churchill once said that democracy is the worst possible form of government, save all the others. A world order heavily dependent on the global presence of the American military may be a terrible idea. But it is, I believe, less terrible than the alternatives.