Calling the Shots: Should Politicians or Generals Run Our Wars?
The fact of American empire is hardly debated these days. Even those who fear and oppose it (in this country, the libertarian right and the remnants of the new left; abroad, a variety of voices from Paris to Baghdad to Beijing) define international politics almost entirely in relation to U.S. power -- and especially U.S. military power. The "unipolar moment" has become a unipolar decade and, with a little effort and a little wisdom, could last much longer. Even Yale historian Paul Kennedy, who in the mid-1980s predicted U.S. "imperial overstretch," has become a believer. Stunned by the initial success of the war in Afghanistan, he wrote in February,
Nothing has ever existed like this disparity of power; nothing. The Pax Britannica was run on the cheap. Britain's army was much smaller than European armies and even the Royal Navy was equal only to the next two navies -- right now all the other navies in the world combined could not dent American maritime supremacy. Napoleon's France and Philip II's Spain had powerful foes and were part of a multipolar system. Charlemagne's Empire was merely western European in its stretch. The Roman Empire stretched further afield, but there was another great empire in Persia and a larger one in China. There is no comparison.
To be sure, it is still inflammatory to speak openly of empire -- hence the prevalence of euphemisms such as hegemony, preeminence, primacy, sole superpower, or, a la the French, hyperpuissance. But many of the nation's founders would not be so shocked: Alexander Hamilton, writing the first paragraph of the first Federalist Paper, described America as "an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world." Thomas Jefferson's term was "empire of liberty."
Since September 11, President George W. Bush, too, has learned that it is hard to be a humble hegemon. During the 2000 election campaign, Bush's advisers spoke contemptuously of the Clinton administration's promiscuous "engagement" in "nation building" and other "international social work," and they derided Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's claim that the United States was "the indispensable nation." But now that he is fighting a war on terrorism, the president asserts that "no nation is exempt" from the "true and unchanging" American principles of liberty and justice. He sees adherence to these principles
as a "non-negotiable demand" that forms the "greater objective" of the war. The Bush Doctrine is thus an expression of the president's decision to preserve and extend Pax Americana throughout the Middle East and beyond.
But a doctrine does not a strategy make. Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. foreign policy has been driven by short-term tactics and politics (both international and domestic). Even in the war on terrorism, the Bush administration has been reluctant to accept any link between one problem and another. Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iraq, radical Islamism -- all have been dealt with discretely rather than as part of a larger regional approach.
The Pentagon, too, has resisted the realities of constant constabulary missions. The defense community has preferred to hang on to the traditional war-fighting concepts of the past or leap 20 years into the future to "transform" U.S. military forces and exploit the high-tech "revolution in military affairs." The tasks of patrolling the imperial frontier -- policing the skies over Iraq, pacifying the Balkans, keeping the lid on conflicts in the Caribbean or Colombia -- have been trivialized as hovering somehow beneath the dignity of serious strategists and military planners.
Small wars and constabulary missions, however, are as American as apple pie and have been a large part of U.S. security strategy for centuries. Max Boot's The Savage Wars of Peace makes it possible to revisit that past "imperial" tradition and mine it for lessons that might improve the management of today's global order. Thanks to Boot's journalistic sense -- he is the editorial features editor at The Wall Street Journal -- those lessons make for a great story and a compelling read. Boot combines a wide-angle perspective with an eye for detail: his tale begins at precisely 7:00 pm on February 16, 1804, when "the African night was turning blue-gray beneath the faint light of a crescent moon" in the harbor of Tripoli, and it concludes with a penetrating analysis and argument "in defense of the Pax Americana." Seeing no better alternative, Boot contends that "America should not be afraid to fight 'the savage wars of peace' if necessary to enlarge 'the empire of liberty.' It has been done before."
THE FREE MAN'S BURDEN
Beyond the pleasures of Boot's narrative and the bracing military and diplomatic history stands a larger contribution to America's understanding of itself as an expansive power. Boot sees links in strategy and small-war-making across what he describes as the three periods of U.S. history. From the late 1700s to the 1890s, the United States acted primarily as a commercial power, increasingly wealthy but relatively weak militarily. From 1898 until 1941, the nation claimed a role as a global great power in both the military and the economic spheres, but only as one of several such states. But the U.S. entrance into World War II set the country on a march toward its current status as sole superpower; the United States went about defeating first Nazi Germany and imperial Japan and then the Soviet Union, even as British and French colonialism faded and disappeared.
Where Boot rightly sees continuity, however, others have argued that the United States' current exercise of global power represents a break from past policy. They would do well to read Boot's chapter on the Philippine war (1899-1902). Although the difficulties of battling the insurrectos did much to cure the United States and even Theodore Roosevelt of any taste for a formally colonial empire, the war was also, as Boot concludes, "one of the most successful counterinsurgencies waged by a Western army in modern times." Yes, the United States has done it before, and done it well.
Near the turn of the twentieth century, Spain was weak and reviled by Americans as part of what might have been termed a monarchical "axis of evil." The Spanish-American War of 1898 was to be, as Secretary of State John Hay famously said, a "splendid little war," with the prime purpose being the freedom of Cuba. But when the Treaty of Paris was concluded in December of that year, President William McKinley was stuck with the question of what to do with the Philippines, a fractious group of islands on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. After searching his conscience for several sleepless nights, McKinley reported, "I went down on my knees and prayed to Almighty God for light and guidance. ... And one night late it came to me ... that there was nothing left for us to do but take them all, and educate the Filipinos and uplift them and civilize and Christianize them and by God's grace do the best we could by them, as our fellow men for whom Christ died."
The United States had important strategic interests in the Philippines, primarily the opportunity to add to its network of coaling stations for the growing Pacific fleet. But this goal alone could not account for the energetic U.S. commitment to shape Filipino internal politics then and for decades after. Rather, it was America's sense of its own historical mission and international role that underpinned this engagement. Local independence leader Emilio Aguinaldo, no democrat himself, was not popular among non-Tagalog Filipinos; once he returned to Manila after the Treaty of Paris was signed, he began eliminating rivals and trying to consolidate his power. "McKinley concluded," writes Boot, "that absent outside rule, the archipelago would sink into chaos and conflict between competing ethnic groups." The president therefore issued a proclamation announcing his policy of "benevolent assimilation" of the Philippines.
This announcement satisfied Roosevelt and the other progressive imperialists of the day, but McKinley's decision was politically risky. Indeed, his goal was not much less ambitious than Bush's current desire to encourage democracy in the Islamic world. The "arrogance" of this bold policy sparked the creation of the Anti-Imperialist League, a diverse coalition not unlike the one that opposes the Bush Doctrine today. Its membership roster read like "a who's who of prominent Americans," including Mark Twain, Samuel Gompers, and Andrew Carnegie -- the latter, in a Ted Turneresque gesture, even offered to buy the islands himself for $20 million in order to keep America out.
Pacifying the turbulent Philippines was physically hazardous as well. Securing Manila and its environs was the easy part; the rest of Luzon was more trouble. McKinley rushed in as many U.S. soldiers as possible, but the rainy season slowed their progress. Boot quotes one officer's lament, in June 1899: "We are no nearer a conclusion of hostilities than we were three months ago." The campaign continued during the winter of 1899-1900, culminating in the battle of Tila Pass, the "Filipino Thermopylae," which destroyed Aguinaldo's Army of Liberation. Even this triumph did not end the war, as Boot observes, because victory in the conventional campaign was met with continued resistance by guerrillas.
It was a complicated war indeed, and Boot does a fine job of highlighting the complexities without slowing his narrative. Americans fought Filipinos, especially the majority Tagalogs, but were aided by other tribes. The insurrectos waged a terror campaign that put immense strain on U.S. soldiers; Aguinaldo increased this violence in the months leading up to the U.S. presidential election of 1900, in the hopes that anti-imperialist and populist Democrat William Jennings Bryan would unseat McKinley. "Some of the more outspoken American anti-imperialists even openly wished for Aguinaldo's victory 'against our army of subjugation, tyranny and oppression,'" writes Boot. But McKinley's reelection -- and perhaps even more important, his death and replacement by Roosevelt -- ensured that the United States was in the Philippines to stay and to win.
NOT YOUR FATHER'S EMPIRE
That victory would require another two years and the improbable good cop, bad cop pair of William Howard Taft as genial proconsul in the Philippines and General Arthur MacArthur (father of Douglas) as military commander. Taft's job was to supervise the transition to civilian administration in pacified areas. He regarded the Filipinos as America's "little brown brothers," but this view arose from more than simple racism -- it also reflected a belief that Filipinos were well on the road to self-government.
Although MacArthur did not remain in the Philippines through the entire course of the war, it was he who established a punitive military strategy to complement Taft's political goal. MacArthur declared martial law and invoked General Orders 100, which had been drafted by the legal pioneer Francis Lieber during the U.S. Civil War and issued by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. This seminal code of the laws of war set important limits on the conduct of regular military operations but also permitted harsh measures during unconventional campaigns, such as General William Tecumseh Sherman's "march to the sea" that helped to end the Civil War. The orders, as Boot writes, "envisioned war as a social contract":
An occupying army had a duty to be humane in its dealings with civilians; to do otherwise would be stupid as well as immoral, for it would turn potential friends into foes. But likewise civilians had a duty not to resist; if they violated this duty, they would be dealt with harshly. [General Orders 100] envisioned that combatants not in uniform would be treated like "highway robbers or pirates" and, along with civilians who aided them, they could be subject to the death penalty.
This approach opened the door to some atrocities by U.S. soldiers -- Senate hearings in 1902 provoked such a scandal that Twain suggested that the American flag be redesigned with "the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and crossbones." But it also provided a sound strategy, not simply for defeating Aguinaldo and the insurrectos but for the slow transformation of Philippine politics and society. As Boot is at pains to make clear, Filipinos fared much better under American imperialism than others did under the European variety. In 1907, the Philippines became the first Asian state to establish a national legislature; in 1935, it won recognition as a "domestically autonomous commonwealth"; and in 1946, after fighting as an American ally against Japan, it became a free country. Indeed, the Philippines' first president, Manuel Quezon, had been an officer in Aguinaldo's army who had complained of the difficulty of inspiring Filipino nationalism against the United States. "Damn the Americans!" he said. "Why don't they tyrannize us more?"
This lack of tyranny remains a problem for foes of Pax Americana today: the American global order is too benevolent, particularly when compared to alternatives such as Islamic theocracy or Chinese communism. American imperialism can bring with it new hopes of liberty, security, and prosperity; its attractions can soften the fear of overweening U.S. military power. As in Afghanistan and perhaps (once again) in Iraq, repressed minorities ruled by despots tend to regard American soldiers as liberators rather than conquerors.
THE ACCIDENTAL IMPERIALIST
In sum, The Savage Wars of Peace presents a useful collection of case studies chronicling the expansion of American power and the "empire of liberty" across the globe. If the book has a shortcoming, it lies in Boot's exclusive concern with the operations of U.S. forces abroad. After all, the first object of American "imperial" desire was the North American continent, and it was in fighting native tribes that the U.S. military became proficient in the many arts of winning small wars. As Boot notes, fully 26 of the 30 American generals who served in the Philippines from 1898 to 1902 had learned their trade in the Indian wars.
The focus on overseas missions also leads Boot to a slight overemphasis on the virtues of the Marine Corps and its famous Small Wars Manual of 1940. There is indeed great wisdom in the manual and great virtue in the Marine Corps, but each warrants a host of caveats. The Small Wars Manual includes a mix of tactical advice on the number of mules needed to keep units in the field supplied and rather cryptic strategic aphorisms such as "small wars are operations undertaken under executive authority." This is generally true, but only up to a point. Congress tends to start meddling in the commander-in-chief's business, even in small wars, when victory is not forthcoming and costs escalate. And the Marine Corps is not well suited to long-term pacification missions; the Army has been trying hard and unsuccessfully, for example, to get the Marine Corps to take on a slice of Balkans duties, and the marines have already been withdrawn from Afghanistan. As the Philippine war shows, greater strategic goals require more than punitive military means and demand a long-term commitment on the ground.
Another flaw is the slighting, in Boot's review of post-Cold War constabulary operations, of the 1989 invasion of Panama, dubbed Operation Just Cause. Conducted only weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the successful Panama operation suggested that the same armed forces just completing their Reagan-era buildup could serve as a reasonably efficient and effective tool for missions other than defending central Germany. In other words, heavy ground forces, large-deck aircraft carriers, and sophisticated aircraft have proven themselves in small wars as well as large ones.
But these are small quibbles set against the important and timely contribution Boot makes to American strategic self-awareness. By reviewing the nation's past, he shows its future. For whether or not the United States intended to acquire an empire, it has somehow done so and cannot easily escape the consequences. Even if it were desired, retreating from the imperial frontier now would be difficult. In the end, therefore, the United States may find itself with little alternative to waging "the savage wars of peace."