A pithy historical exploration of why it’s so easy for American presidents to make war.
Today’s neoconservatives who assert that America is a force for good in the world and should use its armies to spread this goodness insist they follow a hallowed American tradition. They are only partly wrong, concedes international-affairs scholar and documentary filmmaker Jarecki. Isolation was never a U.S. policy. From the beginning, America took an interest in European affairs and went to war whenever it seemed advantageous. Yet despite attacks on Canada in 1814, Mexico in 1845 and 1914 and Spain in 1898, pugnacious presidents were inhibited by a minuscule standing army and a citizenry that never felt threatened. This changed after 1945, when most Americans accepted that the Soviet Union was a deadly menace. For the first time, Congress approved a massive peacetime military force and allowed the president to retain vastly expanded executive powers. Today the Defense Department spends 93 percent of America’s money devoted to foreign affairs; the State Department gets the other seven. Jarecki makes a convincing case that immense peacetime military procurement has corrupted Congress. All legislators, however liberal, fight fiercely to bring contracts into their districts and oppose cuts. The collapse of communism threatened this system, but 9/11 reopened the floodgates to another avalanche of defense appropriations, almost all irrelevant to fighting terrorists. When President Bush discusses military action against another country (e.g., Iran), editorials debate the pros and cons but take for granted that the decision is his alone. Jarecki points out that the president enjoyed almost universal support when he invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. He lost it when they turned into quagmires, but few voices advocate restricting his powers.
Disturbing and depressing.