November 08, 2012

(Un)limiting War: "Perpetual War" in Historical Perspective

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.

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.

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.