This story originally appeared in UCLA Today, a discontinued publication.

What drives America's wars — and are they effective?

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Soldier.IraqWith the Iraq war in its seventh year and no end in sight to the eight-year war in Afghanistan, the United States could be in the midst of the longest continuous period of warfare in its history.

Are we permanently at war? That question sparked a lively, insightful discussion by Sociology Professor Michael Mann and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, a senior fellow at the Burkle Center for International Relations who was supreme allied commander of NATO during the 1999 Kosovo conflict. Titled “Perpetual War,” the Feb. 9 event was attended by a packed audience at Bunche Hall and co-sponsored by the Burkle Center and the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History.

From the perspective of political realism, which places a nation’s desire for military and economic security above ideals and ethics, Mann described the U.S. as a “rather militaristic power, prone to resort to war as the default mode of foreign policy.” The author of the acclaimed 2005 book, “Incoherent Empire,” Mann suggested that U.S. military interventions had failed to make the nation securer.

Professor Michael Mann
Professor Michael Mann
Clark, who authored the 2001 book, “Waging Modern War: Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Future of Combat,” broadly defended the military’s role in U.S. foreign policy, calling the world a “big and dangerous place” in which the U.S. has global interests requiring “worldwide military capabilities.”

The size, posture and budget of the U.S. military (48 percent of world military spending in 2008), said Mann, are at odds with the fact that the U.S. “has never been safer from attack from another nation.” And while it’s understandable that the U.S. wishes to protect its allies, “only South Korea and Taiwan — and Israel, if you count it — themselves face any threat today.”

Although U.S. foreign policy is also driven by efforts to secure better access to overseas oil, while denying the same to rival powers, “the problem with oil is that it is in the Middle East, where the U.S. has had the most difficulty in finding stable, reliable, useful client states,” Mann said. Besides, “its attempts to find them also eventually produced terrorist blowback,” he added.

In contrast, China, Japan and much of Europe have forged long-term market contracts to receive oil from the Middle East “without any military default mode,” Mann pointed out, underlying a key lesson for U.S. foreign policy: “Militarism does not get you more oil; markets do.”

On other fronts, the U.S. is installing anti-ballistic missile sites that Russia finds threatening, even though they are ostensibly meant to deter Iran. “These are claimed to be defensive," Mann said, "and in a sense anti-ballistic missiles are defensive, but to the Russians, if the American missiles can really intercept theirs, then Russia lacks deterrence against an American first-strike nuclear war for the first time since the 1940s.”

General Clark
Gen. Wesley Clark
Clark outlined three components that dominate U.S. foreign policy in its use of military force and have come to be all but institutionalized: Logic, congressional politics and bureaucratic politics. “The logic of deterrence carried us till the end of the Cold War,” he said, after which “it was the logic of ‘What do you have these forces for?’” Defending allies, protecting access to oil and other vital economic interests are logical strategies for the U.S. “because we’re a global power, and the world’s economic interests are our economic interests,” Clark said.

Politics and bureaucratic gamesmanship also ensure the nation’s military might, Clark said. Just as Republicans used the so-called “Committee on Present Danger” to push for larger defense budgets to counter the Soviet threat and undermine President Carter’s arms control policies in the late 1970s, they pressured President Clinton in the late 1990s “to sign on for an invasion of Iraq,” Clark said. The three wings of the armed forces also routinely compete with each other for greater budget resources, Clark explained, echoing President Eisenhower’s famous catchphrase about the “military industrial complex.”

Although all great powers are strategically concerned about their vulnerability, not to mention possible future decline, for the U.S. “this fear has recently escalated due to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, which are now potentially available to lesser powers like North Korea and Iran and, in principle, to terrorist non-state organizations,” Mann said.

The Bush administration tried to “fight a war against terror, eradicate threatening weapons of mass destruction, protect Israel, secure oil, intimidate future rivals like Russia and China, bring democracy — or perhaps order — to a notably disorderly and authoritarian region of the world, the Middle East,” Mann said. “But we should consider whether these goals have been achieved,” he asked. “And the answer is: hardly at all.”

President Obama is likely to steer the nation slowly and steadily “away from the Bush administration’s method of operation —  but it’s going to be punctuated by the pressure of events at the time,” Clark said, adding: “As much as you would like a complete renunciation of the Bush years, it’s unlikely to happen exactly like that.”

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