US presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden appear to be pulling America out of military interventions. However, it is only a matter of time until the war machine restarts.
There are billions of dollars to be made from conflicts, and the political system enables military lobbyists to steer the US government toward war. The only way out is deep political reforms.
Two features stand out from the Congressional Research Service paper titled: “Instances of Use of US Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2020.” First, the staggering number of interventions, with over 25 pages of single-spaced descriptions from 2001 onward. Second, the consistency of the interventions regardless of the president or party controlling the White House.
This latter observation is compelling evidence that the US has a systemic tendency to engage in armed conflict that goes far beyond the personal traits of any Commander in Chief, or the party manifestos of the Democrats or Republicans. Despite the deep polarization in US society, the political system is consistently able to get Americans to intervene militarily beyond their shores.
Part of the problem lies in how lobbying works. American politicians are required to make decisions on a very large and extremely complex range of issues. For this, they are given teams of staffers who compile and analyze the information relating to an issue before presenting advice to their overseer. Therefore, in principle, politicians have the capacity to make a balanced and considered assessment of the pros and cons of an important decision such as “should we invade country X” before taking it.
However, there are limits to the size of these teams, both due to political rules regarding the number of aides a congressperson has, but also due to the politician’s own budgetary constraints.
Consequently, for many important issues, American politicians lack the manpower to make an informed decision.
For example, the documents relating to the Dodd-Frank that affects financial federal regulation were over 2,000 pages of extremely technical jargon that were well beyond the capacity of the typical twenty-something legislative aide holding no more than a law degree.This creates an opportunity for lobbyists to furnish politicians with compelling syntheses of complex issues that nudge them in the lobbyists’ favored direction, such as a two-page policy brief arguing that on the balance of the evidence, imposing a tariff or deregulating an industry is the right call.
Theoretically, since anyone can lobby, politicians should still receive a balanced picture, right?
Wrong, because money talks. Those with more means – or with more riding on the decision – they can buy more facetime with the politicians and their staffers. Mega-corporations create sexy PowerPoint presentations delivered by articulate Ivy league graduates, with a tacit promise of a lucrative board seat for the politician once they retire.
Unfortunately, war results in a small number of well-organized people making billions of dollars, whereas the benefits of peace are distributed very widely across the population and are barely perceptible for most.
As the Nobel laureate economist George Stigler noted in his theory of “regulatory capture,” this tilts the lobbying playing field heavily in favor of the warmongers.
The result is an American population that is frequently left scratching its head as to why its armed forces are getting involved in military conflicts that the public doesn’t care about or even actively despises. Moreover, by ensuring that the media get their seat on the gravy train, the big war machine can help convince the ordinary man and woman on the street too.
The only solution lies in deep political reforms. These include addressing the ironclad duopoly that the Democrats and Republicans have over US politics. Making it easier for new political parties to enter the fray, such as one that is ideologically against war, will help, but that requires Republicans and Democrats to willingly surrender some of their influence. This is an unlikely prospect.
Centralizing the process of lobbying and making it more transparent, as political scientists Lee Drutman argued in a Brookings Institute paper, will help voters reverse the distortive influence of money, but big business will surely lobby against such proposals.
The good news for Americans is that armed conflict is increasingly being fought remotely through drones, meaning the next conflict will likely feature fewer US soldiers on the ground.
That is scant consolation for the innocent victims of such interventions, and it still means billions of dollars of US taxpayers’ money going on military hardware rather than education or health.
Whether or not Biden as an individual can provide good leadership is irrelevant; the time has come for Americans to reshape their political system from the ground up.