The Limits Of The Military Machine

In the fooferaw over Obama’s allegedly chaotic foreign policy over the last few weeks, it seems important to me to note that what is now on the table is what Obama has long explicitly said he wanted on the table. He isn’t being presented with a defeat; he is being offered the thing he said he was looking for all along. Read the presser after the G20 – before yesterday’s transformation. Here’s the money quote:

My goal is to maintain the international norm on banning chemical weapons.  I want that enforcement to be real.  I want it to be serious.  I want people to understand that gassing innocent people, delivering chemical weapons against children is not something we do.  It’s prohibited in active wars between countries.  We certainly don’t do it against kids.  And we’ve got to stand up for that principle.

If there are tools that we can use to ensure that, obviously my preference would be, again, to act internationally in a serious way and to make sure that Mr. Assad gets the message.

Hasn’t this now been accomplished? And this time, the means and the end are better matched than if America’s use of military force had somehow smacked Assad into compliance (an unlikely outcome in any case). What we’ve learned most acutely this past decade is that overwhelming military force is not the sole criterion for power or for achieving international goals. It is even becoming anachronistic and self-defeating in some respects. Charles Kenny gets it:

[L]ong gone are the days when being the top nation militarily meant you could invade half-continents, get countries to adopt your national sports, and set up global economic institutions to your preferred design.

There’s an irony that a U.S. military system that has the power to wipe civilization off the face of the planet through thermonuclear Armageddon is considerably less capable of actually imposing its political leaders’ will on the world than were the British armed forces of 150 years ago that gave pride of place to a cavalry using lances.

Our world has changed. And the old neo-imperial model – categorically proved wanting in Iraq – has to cede to a new form of global interaction. A mixture of great power maneuvering and effective use of the norms of the United Nations system is what will likely be the result, if we are lucky. It’s always better to use the institutions you’ve got. And the core point is that it would be the best means of advancing our interests. Will Assad be more likely to surrender his chemical weapons if the US attacks or if Russia insists on their destruction? Please. It isn’t close.

And if “power” is to mean anything, it must surely mean the ability successfully to advance and defend our national interests. By surrendering some obvious power, we gain much more beneath the surface. Of course, the underlying capacity for massive force makes this work – and there is no obvious or preferable alternative to the US providing that. I’m not arguing for some kind of peacenik abandonment of military strength. I’m simply arguing that the military machine itself is not power. It is, in some frustrating ways, a constraint upon it.