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Federal

Nov 29, 2016

The US has been at war for 93% of its existence. Is it too dangerous an ally?

Former PM&C head John Menadue warns that Australia should not be blindly following the United States into a series of pointless, costly wars.

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In his book Dangerous Allies, Malcolm Fraser warned us how we can be drawn into US conflicts that are of no immediate concern to us. He warned of “dangerous strategic dependence” on the US.

The US has a long history of involvement in wars. In May 2014 Washingtonblog.com detailed the number of wars that the US had been involved in since its independence in 1776. The data was well documented. According to this report, the US has been at war 93% of the time since 1776. It added:

  • The US has never had a decade without war;
  • The only time the US went five years without war (1935-40) was during the isolationist period of the Great Depression;
  • The US has launched 201 out of 248 armed conflicts since the end of WWII;
  • The US is responsible for 41% of the world’s total military spending. The next largest spenders as a proportion of GDP are China 8.2%, Russia 4.1% and the UK and France 3.6%; and
  • The US maintains more than 700 military bases or sites around the world in more than 100 countries.

In an article in The Boston Globe on October 30, 2016, Nobel Prize winner Jeffrey Sachs also highlighted the continual involvement of the US in war.

“The US has a long history of using covert and overt means to overthrow governments deemed to be unfriendly to US interests, following the classic imperial strategy of rule through locally imposed friendly regimes. In a powerful study of Latin America between 1898 and 1994, for example, historian John Coatsworth counts 41 cases of ‘successful’ US led regime change, for an average rate of one government overthrow by the US every 28 months for a century. And note: Coatsworth’s count does not include the failed attempts, such as the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. The tradition of US led regime change has been part and parcel of US foreign policy in other parts of the world, including Europe, Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia. Wars of regime change are costly to the US and often devastating to the countries involved.”

In 1961 President Dwight Eisenhower warned the US about the threat to democratic government posed by the powerful military-industrial complex, a union of defence contractors and armed forces. He said:

“In the councils of government we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

In 2010, speaking at the Eisenhower Library, former secretary of defence Robert Gates, a Republican, said:

“Does the number of warships we have and are building, really put America at risk when the US battle fleet is larger than the next 13 navies combined — 11 of which are our partners and allies? Is it a dire threat that by 2020 the US will have only twenty times more advanced stealth fighters than China? What it takes is the political will and willingness, as Eisenhower possessed, to make hard choices — choices that will displease powerful people both inside the Pentagon and out.”

Add the powerful domestic gun lobby to the powerful military-industrial complex spread across the country, and it is not surprising that the US, even with its many admirable qualities, is geared to almost perpetual war and violence. We should stop pretending otherwise.

It is even more worrying that American actions in the world are often represented as God’s will in pursuit of America’s “manifest destiny”.

This powerful complex that Eisenhower warned about is difficult to curb, as Barrack Obama has found. That complex includes the Pentagon, members of Congress dependent on defence spending in their states or constituencies, arms manufacturers across the country, the intelligence community and the so-called independent think tanks that depend on defence and military suppliers for funding. In turn these think tanks supply a never-ending stream of opinion pieces for the mainstream media.

Barack Obama attempted to curb warrantless wire-taping, close Guantanamo Bay and wind back the Patriot Act.  He failed on all counts. The US is still mired in war in the Middle East. The “peace dividend” we were told to expect after the end of the Cold War has not been realised. The military complex in all its hydra-headed forms largely continues unchecked. There is a systemic problem.

Michael Glennon, former legal counsel to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee and consultant to various congressional committees and the State Department, described the problem of  “the double government”. In The Boston Globe of October 19, 2014, he explained how policymakers have in effect handed policymaking to others:

“It hasn’t been a conscious decision … Members of Congress are generalists and need to defer to experts within the national security realm … They are particularly concerned about being caught out on a limb having made a wrong judgement about national security and tend, therefore, to defer to experts, who tend to exaggerate threats. The courts similarly tend to defer to the expertise of the network that defines national security policy. The presidency itself is not a top-down institution, as many people in the public believe, headed by a president who gives orders and causes the bureaucracy to click its heels and salute. National security policy actually bubbles up from within the bureaucracy. Many of the more controversial policies, from mining of Nicaragua’s harbours to the NSA surveillance program originated within the bureaucracy. John Kerry was not exaggerating when he said that some of these programs are on ‘autopilot’.  … There is something else going on when policy after policy after policy continue virtually the same way that they were in the George W. Bush administration. … Policy by and large in the national security realm is made by the concealed institutions.”

These powerful influences keep the US on “autopilot” and almost always at war. That makes the US a dangerous ally.

In our “strategic dependence”, as Malcolm put it, we follow along. And it is not just our politicians, but the Department of Defence and advisers like the Australian Strategic Policy Institute that are enthusiastic members of the US cheer squad. They loll comfortably in the US slipstream and allow Australia to be drawn into US folly from Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan and now with China.

As Paul Keating put it, we need to grow up. Or as Malcolm Turnbull told us five years ago, an Australian government needs to be careful not to allow a doe-eyed fascination with the leader of the free world. But the clarion call in recent years has come from Malcolm Fraser, who warned us about a dangerous ally and the risks of strategic dependence.

*This article was originally published on John Menadue‘s blog, Pearls and Irritations, and is part of a series about US-Australian relations

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8 comments

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8 thoughts on “The US has been at war for 93% of its existence. Is it too dangerous an ally?

  1. graybul

    John’s comment should be posted on every secondary and tertiary educational noticeboard throughout the country. Clearly we adults have failed to take note.

  2. zut alors

    Australia was moving away from the USA stranglehold under Gough Whitlam – but then Fraser pulled the carpet from under him. It’s a bitter pill to swallow that, decades later, he agreed with Whitlam but by then we were in too deep. No doubt Fraser regretted not being as sagacious as his predecessor.

    During WWII Australia aligned itself with what has now become the pugnacious school bully. But why we continue to do so is nothing short of a mystery. As Keating said, what are we afraid of?

  3. Petra Raptor

    “Policy by and large in the national security realm is made by the concealed institutions”
    One of the means of concealing black projects is to have one or more semi-secret projects with the same name. Does this apply to concealing institutions that control US policy?

  4. AR

    Imagine if amerika just declared peace and went home, withdrew from all foreign entanglements and bases, built the Drupf’s wall but extended across the west, north & east so that the whole benighted bunch could just bother each other.
    How often have the paid pundits moaned of isolationist amerika? Please, let it happen.

    1. Dog's Breakfast

      +1 AR!

  5. shea mcduff

    I can’t remember any time in my life when US military forces weren’t killing people somewhere in the world – often with the help of Australian forces.
    And I’m 70 years old.

  6. Paddy Forsayeth

    Shea Mcduff, I am in the same boat…USA has a long record of violence both externally and internally. The armaments industry is a nasty cancer which promotes violence for profit. Were it not for this scourge millions of people would be alive and well in stable environments. The violence attributable to the arms manufacturers has defaced societies around the globe, forced the movement of millions from their lands and brought misery to themselves and to many societies into which they seek succour and relief.
    There is no politician who has the courage to vilify these arseholes and the rich parasites who breed off them and to bring the political will to curtail their reckless violence and to bring them to heel.

  7. Abdullah WIlliams

    The following graph demonstrates why US military “dominance” (Can anyone even remember a war that the US actually won outright since WWII?) would seem to be unsustainable:
    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/53/Federal_Debt_Total_Public_Debt_as_Percent_of_Gross_Domestic_Product.pdf

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