The Amazing Plasticity of American Statecraft

Think of Washington as a poker player that gets dealt a hand consisting of half the deck: no matter how sloppily and stupidly it plays its cards, it is hard for it to lose.

Chase Madar

(Lance Cpl. James J. Vooris / Wikimedia Commons)

Perry Anderson is a Marxist of structuralist bent, and deeply engaged with foreign policy realism.” One might think this would leave Anderson’s recently published account of postwar U.S. foreign policy with very little room for maneuver, the task limited to diagramming the vectors set by a few iron laws and constellations of power.

One would be wrong. Anderson’s American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers shows American statecraft to be amazingly plastic: malleable, discretionary, vertiginously unconstrained both in its fashioning of national interest and the obverse, the invention of threats. In Anderson’s account, U.S. foreign policy is subject less to rigorous laws and systemic pressures than in thrall to domestic whims, pathologies and electoral cycles.

The irrationality of the Vietnam War

Consider Anderson’s treatment of Washington’s war in Southeast Asia. The Vietnam War should be the center of gravity for any history of postwar American statecraft: as measured in corpses, money, domestic American turmoil and geopolitical import, it remains the most significant use of Washington’s military force since World War II.

The Vietnam War was also, writes Anderson in a surprisingly brisk treatment of the conflict that is almost parenthetical, unnecessary. Washington’s invasion of South Vietnam and carpet bombing of Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam — 3.4 million deaths according to Robert McNamara’s estimate — were not necessary to prevent Communist hegemony of the region nor to safeguard the prerogatives of capital. After the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Indonesian communists guaranteed Jakarta would stay in Washington’s orbit, the Vietnam War was gratuitous.

Well isn’t that a bit of a letdown! What about all the systemic forces and deep-structure explanations that sophisticated Marxists and IR theorists alike have fashioned for this conflict? Washington’s Southeast Asian bloodbath has many suspects of intellectual distinction: inter-imperial rivalry, the systemic requirement of cheap raw materials, the need to wreck North Vietnam’s socialist path to economic development, the tragic necessity of signaling commitment” to Moscow and Beijing?

Anderson does not provide an explicit explanation for the Vietnam War but his critical handling of elite policy thinkers answers this question (and others like it) indirectly. The postwar Washingtonian consensus was and remains in favor of maximal use of U.S. military force. Even George Kennan, as Anderson points out, was calling for a long-term commitment to defeat Red imperialism” in Indochina as early as 1949. (Throughout the book, the repeated leitmotif of Kennan’s unhinged policy ideas provides a valuable deflationary countermeasure to this figure’s undeserved reputation for wisdom and restraint.)

Regarding Vietnam, Anderson’s thinking is congruent with Gareth Porter’s Perils of Dominance and Stephen Krasner’s study of the relationship between U.S. raw material needs and interventions in the global periphery. A state as powerful as the U.S. can afford to not be constrained by cost-benefit rationality or strategic calculus and is free to indulge in all sorts of costly violent adventures, like the invasion of South Vietnam. The freedom to engage in such homicidal follies is the privilege, and the hazard, of unipolar supremacy.

Israel Lobby

What about the special relationship with Israel? From a sophisticated Marxist one hopes for a structural” elucidation of Washington’s ever more lavish sponsorship of the Israel. Faced with the apparent irrationality of American deference to its expensive client state, several radical thinkers have reverse-engineered systemic explanations to show that the dog is, in fact, wagging the tail. David Mizner recently articulated the best possible case for this position in Jacobin magazine and the argument has also been made by Noam Chomsky. The enormous subsidy to Israel (and its byproduct, the subsidy to the Egyptian junta) is, according to this point of view, a structural expression of American national interest.

But just because an analysis is structural doesn’t make it right, and Anderson will have none of this. Now, Anderson does note that the imperial sponsorship of Israel springs from Cold War logic and the advantages from besting Soviet proxies in the Middle East. Washington’s current policy of $3.1 billion a year in military aid (more than to any other nation) and unlimited diplomatic cover are in some way, even a quarter century after the collapse of Soviet power, path dependent even if similar military assistance packages to other client states (say, Indonesia) have declined.

For Anderson however, the leading cause of this special relationship is not any systemic pressure or strategic calculus but rather domestic politics and the strength of the Israel Lobby, amid praise for Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer’s groundbreaking book on the subject. Noting the great costs to Washington’s prestige and standing throughout the Middle East by its sponsorship of a settler-colonial state, Anderson debunks the notion that the Israel subsidy somehow enhances American power. (Anderson’s analysis also shows that the question of why the U.S. so lavishly backs Israel divides Marxists as much as it does other schools of thought.) Even though this subsidy is a net liability for American power, systemic pressures against it are slack and no match for a focused and well-funded interest group in the U.S. political system — another example of the plasticity of American statecraft.

A winning hand in Iraq?

What about the latest Iraq War — is there a good, rational-systemic explanation for the invasion of Iraq? I remember vividly hearing Patrick Cockburn on the radio in early 2002 arguing, correctly, that it was wholly irrational for the United States to overthrow Saddam Hussein as this would only increase the regional power of Iran, and that therefore (here the great journalist was less correct) the Bush-Cheney administration would never do such a thing. Patrick Cockburn’s judgment was sound and sober, but good judgment turns out to be of limited value in predicting imperial Washington’s next imperial lurch or full-scale invasion.

In Anderson’s account, the Iraq debacle was not a systemic requirement of either the international relations nor the capitalist economy. Catastrophic as it was, Anderson points out the alarming fact its price in American blood and money was easily carried at home. American warfare no longer entails shared sacrifice: Nixon’s elimination of the draft in 1973 stymies antiwar movements, and the expenditure on both Iraq and Afghanistan was washed down with massive tax cuts. As for the horrific loss of Iraqi life, it was orders of magnitude higher than the American death toll, but the lives of foreigners are of little importance to the U.S. political class or media. The deaths attributed to Clinton’s sanctions were arguably higher than those from Bush’s invasion and neither has come at any political costs domestically or tainted these political dynasties’ family names.

The war did not democratize Iraq, let alone the Middle East. Instead of stifling Islamist militancy, it engendered ISIL and created new havens for al Qaeda. But Anderson argues, a bit perversely but quite accurately, that the war did strengthen Washington’s regional prerogatives: by destroying the unpredictable regional actor that was Saddam Hussein, the war removed an obstacle to U.S. domination of the region. Think of Washington as a poker player that gets dealt a hand consisting of half the deck: no matter how sloppily and stupidly it plays its cards, it is hard for it to lose.

Unipolarity and its discontents

Across the American political spectrum, for different reasons at each station stop, Washington’s unipolarity is hard to digest. For the mainstream of the American right (paleocons and libertarians honorably excepted), though they bask in the glory of American supremacy, requires a steady supply of existential threats, as a rationale for military expenditure, as a domestic binding agent for a disparate coalition of interest groups, as a psychological salve to followers. That is why center-right U.S. senator like New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand (with an Ivy League degree in Asian Studies no less), can describe Iran as an existential threat” to the United States without any pushback; that is why a hard-right U. S. senator like Marco Rubio can discuss, earnestly and ludicrously, Iran’s global power status” and still be taken seriously. Besides, self-righteous victimhood is the drug of choice of the American right, and this pleasant sensation cannot be enjoyed if reality of uncontested American dominance fully registers. This is why constant threat inflation is one of the defining features of the U.S. foreign policy discourse.

As for liberals, they like symmetry. For liberalism and its fraternal twin, legalism, formal equality is the solution to all things; this is liberalism’s great virtue and selling point. But is also liberalism’s great flaw to mask enormous power differentials with formal equivalence, legal and otherwise, whether in an American criminal court or at the United Nations. Internationalist liberals have much invested in multilateralism as a creed and as institutional career culture; the goal is to transcend nationalism with enlightened global institutions and legal bodies. It is a bit untoward to describe client states like Bahrain, Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia as such; better to call them allies.” The lopsided reality of American global dominance is better not discussed.

For radicals and left-liberals, American unipolarity is hard to swallow for other reasons. This political tribe is weary, for good reason, of American bullying abroad and so are susceptible to wishful thinking about the rise of the BRICS and the return of a multipolar world that would teach arrogant Washington a lesson or at least discipline its spasmodic uses of military force. Besides, sophisticated minds want sophisticated explanations with world-historical heft and there’s something disappointingly grubby about U.S. foreign policy being shaped by domestic political culture, its folkways and interest groups.

Now, it’s not the case that the United States exists immune to all international-systemic logic or pressures. Rather, the global imbalance of overwhelming American unipolarity structurally protects, if not guarantees, the irrationality of U.S. power. And an uncontested superpower expends power less like a bourgeois rational actor than a fabulously rich eccentric — think Howard Hughes or Michael Jackson indulging in expensive whims, no matter how destructive to others or bafflingly masochistic.

This post first appeared at the Society for US Intellectual History.

Chase Madar writes widely for The Nation, TomDispatch, The American Conservative, and other such venues, and is the author of The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story Behind the Wikileaks Whistleblower.
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