One might assume that such grim tidings would be an occasion for remorse and self-reflection nation-wide. After all, the US military is not the architect of the war in Afghanistan but merely the implement of civilian leaders duly elected by the people. Constitutionally, it is still the US legislature that funds the military and the President still serves as its Commander-In-Chief.
But for death notices in a handful of local newspapers, however, there is little to remind Americans that war is being waged in their name, either in Afghanistan or more stealthily elsewhere. In campaign speeches, neither President Barack Obama nor his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, talk much about the war, which as a national priority is outranked in polls by such issues as unemployment, health care, immigration, and the morality of gay marriage. Americans tire easily of armed conflict and the one in Afghanistan, now entering its second decade, is shaping up to be its longest yet.
It is a peculiarity of American empire that its wars are waged by a fraction of the US population and funded by future generations, as federal expenditures are covered largely by foreign investment in government debt. The best way to sustain an empire in the absence of an existential threat is to relieve its subjects of its human and financial costs. In that way responsibility can be rolled over to the next generation of political leaders, just as the Treasury rolls over tranche after tranche of sovereign bills.
Or can it? Though domestic affairs traditionally dominate as election-year issues, it is the bungling of foreign policy that has undone most American presidents since the end of World War II. Harry Truman limped through the twilight of his presidency for failing to end an unpopular war in Korea. His successor, Dwight Eisenhower, was rewarded politically for ending the war and for keeping the peace, though the blowback from his decision to overthrow a freely elected head of state in Iran would destroy the Carter presidency two decades later. In his few years in office, John F. Kennedy capitulated to red-baiters in Congress by ramping up the US military role in Vietnam, which obliged Lyndon Johnson to destroy himself personally as well as politically by doing the same. The ill-fated Richard Nixon was felled in part by the publication of the Pentagon Papers, which revealed the scandal of America’s involvement in Indochina. Ronald Reagan was almost thwarted early in his second term by the Iran-Contra scandal. George W. Bush would squander the political capital heaped upon him after the 9/11 terrorist attacks by waging a ruinous war on Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator that Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, opted to leave in power after the 1991 Gulf War.
The political costs of mismanaged foreign policy, however, are obscured by the long-term damage they do to American interests abroad. Long before the ill-advised invasion and occupation of Iraq, Washington’s ability to influence events in the Middle East, Asia and Latin America had been badly degraded by its misadventures there. The next US president should remember well Thucydides’ admonishment that of all manifestations of power, the most profound is restraint. He should then deploy it as a tonic against Americans’ unnaturally high tolerance for war.