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wars, overseas expeditions, and punitive raiding are endemic throughout U.S.
history. From the outset of the republic, America began grappling with
conflicts of tenuous definition and purpose. The constitution, despite vesting
Congress with the power to declare war, was never particularly clear on what
constituted adequate legislative justification, nor did it seek to deny the
executive leeway over military initiative.
The power to make war, in the event of hostile aggression, remained with the executive. Additionally, far from being a vaunted tradition, the power to declare war has never required an official declaration of war to authorize military action. Indeed, this is the exception rather than the norm. Beyond the many naval actions conducted without any substantial Congressional writ, there is, beginning with the Quasi-War and the Barbary Wars, a long tradition of Congressional authorizations for war that are not formal declarations. From the Quasi-War to the Iraq War, the courts have upheld these distinction.
Yet there is clearly a large distinction between landing bluejackets against ports hosting pirates and privateers and today’s prolonged, massive targeted killing campaigns, at least in scale and scope. In logic, they are not so dissimilar. In the case of naval landings and punitive expeditions to defend American citizens and commerce abroad, the executive invoked unilateral prerogatives of national self-defense, or else the implicit (through Congressional maintenance of the standing navy) or explicit (Congressional authorizations of force) concurrence of the legislature. Acting against irregular actors, with varying levels of hostile state complicity, the executive used a large standing military force to engage in intermittent warfare.
There was a somewhat similar pattern of irregular and relatively small-scale hostilities during the many Indian Wars, but many of the Congressional authorizations lack meaningful modern analogues. More relevant, they were land wars, utilizing militias or federal troops mustered with direct Congressional approval. Despite occasional flirtations with a Napoleonic style land army from Federalists and nationalist politicians, the legislative constraints dovetailed with difficulties in central government resource extraction to limit a standing federal force that would grant the President leeway to engage in long land wars. Not only that, but given the relative weakness of the U.S. and the ubiquity of stronger European rivals, prolonged forays outside the American frontier were incredibly risky. So concerned was the early U.S. with interventions opening up broader conflicts that the Neutrality Act specifically circumscribed private citizens’ ability to follow their conscience or coin purse into combat.
I mention all of this because, as Micah Zenko and others have pointed it out, the possibility of a peacetime President seems increasingly distant. Zenko outlines a security policy where drones, SOF, and cyber capabilities all play a role in poorly-defined and vaguely-legitimated conflicts. I’m tempted, though, to frame things in a different light. Drones, SOF, and cyber certainly stand out as instruments with much more prominence, but they are also symptomatic of wider changes. Frequent military intervention, as I’ve explained above, is not unusual. What is unusual is that these ostensibly limited interventions and brushfire wars are now not simply prolonged, but massive in comparison to any historical antecedent.
Some, such as Andrew Bacevich here, suggest this is symptomatic of a “new American way of war,” in which inexpensive and small forces allow for perpetual warfare. But in a long-term perspective, we are not seeing traditional wars becoming wars in the shadows, but instead a strategic context where brushfire wars take on gargantuan proportions.
One major constraint on the duration, scale, and scope of small wars in American history has been the overall geopolitical context and great power rivalry. The potential consequences early of American actions against privateers or irregular threats becoming a conflict with a great power were vast - compare the Quasi-War to the War of 1812. Not only were there practical existential dangers in expanding a small war too far, there were compounding dangers to dragging it on too long, because a smaller, and less logistically-able force was simply incapable of bearing the strain. France’s relatively “light footprint” intervention in support of American independence - involving a mix of proxy support, naval forces, and limited land troops that might seem familiar today - helped bankrupt the country.
Today, the U.S., as Zenko and Michael Cohen argue elsewhere, is incredibly secure. That is a major part of why perpetual warfare is so appealing. China and Russia may occasionally grumble about U.S. violations of, say, Pakistani sovereignty but it takes essentially no action to back it up. In the case of Somalia, China and Russia are occasionally hawkish on questions of amphibious assault! Rival great powers know U.S. drones and SOF, while lethal for AQAP or Al Shabaab, are not particularly frightening to state actors on their own, nor do U.S. employments of them gravely threaten their allies’ key capabilities, and even where cyber capabilities pose a threat, other great powers are not new to that game. In essence, the U.S. faces little pushback from abroad over these actions, and maintains enough conventional strength to cover its bases that the “pivot to Asia” can coincide with ongoing military and covert operations in CENTCOM and expanding US presence in AFRICOM.
A second major constraint that now gone are internal constraints. Legislatively, Congress is willing to write blank checks to avoid being blame for the potentially large political costs of an attack, because there is no popular reward to oversight in the electorate and potential political costs for poor management. Fiscally, though, the transformation of the U.S. military, mostly under the crucible of large-scale, conventional wars, have left a military which had to fight its small wars on shoestring budgets with a military powerful enough to take on any force on the planet. While drones and SOF are undoubtedly present, the backing resources range from nuclear subs and carriers to huge numbers of conventional aviation platforms in both strike and support roles, as well as ISR aircraft that might otherwise be needed for conventional foes.
Rather than classic conventional wars moving into the shadows, if we are in an era of “perpetual war,” it is because we are waging small wars on steroids. Where before the United States would not have had the time or resources to do much more than send a few ships and land some Marines, it now has the resources to build massive air bases for everything from remotely piloted vehicles to F-15Es to U-28s to SOF teams to find, fix, and finish enemies which rarely muster more in the way of air defense than RPGs and large-bore machineguns. It may not be as excessive or reckless as a hundred thousand U.S. servicemen for the task, but what makes these wars shadowy is less the tools involved than the rest of the government and public’s relative indifference to strongly examining their use.
The final removal of constraint I’ll highlight here is ideological. The punitive raids and small wars of the past were small in part because they did not seek sweeping aims. The goal was very often to punish offenders, deter potential aggressors by example, and, if possible, establish the bare minimum of control or safeguard that might prevent the incident from occurring again. In the 19th century, there was little conceit the U.S. could build state capacity to stop piracy, nor interest in reforming the societies of the Barbary polities to bring them into a circle of friendly nations. Jefferson’s armed emissaries in the Barbary Wars were no liberal crusaders. They would plot a coup or familial betrayal one day and simply cut a deal with an offending sovereign the next. Gradually as U.S. interests came to include deterring third-party dominance or expanding U.S. economic activity in a country’s territory, it conducted interventions, such as those in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, which required a degree of state capacity, albeit one comparably limited by today’s sweeping standards, and if, say, naval officers had to function as warlords in the interim, then they did.
Today, partly by sets of ideological goals and partly by a changing vision of what state capacity and stability actually look like, the U.S.’s objectives in small wars are far too broad for the 19th century’s short-lived expeditions to endure. Since the 20th century, perceptions of a shrinking world have made it harder for the U.S. to mentally separate instability or threats for allies or partners from its own interests and security. So too have changing moral and political standards made it harder to allow a Phase IV with a nasty dictator or endless civil war that might end without a pro-American faction on top. Addressing these concerns has massively increased the intensity and duration of conflicts against amorphous or irregular actors.
Sadly, even with additional Congressional oversight, it’s hard to see that procedural fix on its own providing a return to presidencies where peace appears the norm. The still comparably untrammeled geopolitical position of the U.S. removes much of the disincentives for potentially reckless adventurism and spending that checked it in the past. Even a military hit by sequestration will have vastly more leeway to bring its devastating power to bear in small wars than its predecing incarnations did. As for the normative and ideological changes, there horizons of alternative, ore limited visions of U.S. security policy are sadly limited in mainstream discourse, while the mantras of the new, deeply interconnected world, the desire to engage in capacity-building and regional stabilization, and other fixtures of modern U.S. foreign and security policy remain well embedded among policymaking elites, militating against self-restraint and even resource constraints. If these constraints remain eroded, and the incentives for U.S. self-discipline so low, achieving accountability will be a very daunting challenge.