Peace Through Weakness

One of the agreed-on truths of the U.S. political establishment is that peace results from adequate strength, which will provide us with “national security” as well as other benefits. This was a favorite Reaganite slogan, repeated recently by Paul Ryan, who said that “Peace through strength is not just a slogan. It’s not just something we say, it’s what we do. It’s our doctrine.” (Mitchell Landsberg, ” Paul Ryan Fires up Colorado Crowd with Focus on Military,” Los Angeles Times, October 21, 2012.) As Ryan indicates peace-through-strength is “what we [i.e., the leaders of the United States] do,” with  this doctrine internalized and kept operational by Democratic as well as Republican politicians. This doctrine and policy thrust is obviously very convenient, even essential, to the military-industrial-complex (MIC), which stands ready, willing and able to increase national strength in the interest of  peace, as well as  for bonanzas of profits, higher salaries, jobs, honor, and the security and operational freedom of Israel and other friends and clients.

One major difficulty with this peace-through-strength doctrine, however, is that the underlying set of vested interests that supposedly implement it may find actual war serving their interests better than peace. War means even more business, prestige and power for the MIC, so that while its leaders and publicists may stress the peace aim for public relations purposes they may really work to subvert peace. Threats of demonized enemies and contrived fears of terrorists in themselves will help enlarge budgets, but actually engaging in wars and attacks on these enemies increase budgets further. The wars may also enlarge spheres of control of  the state supposedly only seeking peace and security, which may greatly increase the privileged access of  U.S. transnationals to energy resources and growing markets. Thus, if strength brings war rather than peace this may be seen as good,  at least for some and at least in the short-run.

A related point stressed by Gareth Porter in his Perils of Dominance (University of California: 2005), with the book subtitled “Imbalance of Power  and the Road to War in Vietnam,” is that a great excess of military power leads to more aggressive behavior, effectively refusing to negotiate (with insistence on de facto surrender), and ending up more frequently in wars, often Orwellianized into wars for peace.  And this structural and vested interest bias makes for a preference for escalation during wars rather than any negotiated settlement.

The “perils of dominance” emphasized by Porter adds to the war-making proclivities of  a system where an MIC and/or military-fighting-oriented elite needs and wants wars. What they prefer is a nice series of small wars like the ones on Serbia in 1999, Panama in 1989-1990 , or the first Persian Gulf war on Iraq in 1990-1991, where the demonized enemy can be beaten quickly and with relatively  moderate financial cost and a low attacker body count (zero in the bombing war on Serbia). But there is always the risk that what seemed like potential cakewalks drag on for a long time and with large financial and casualty costs to the aggressor (those suffered by the target, classically “mere gooks,” are ignorable for the leaders of the aggressor).

The ongoing Iran crisis has been an object lesson  in these perils. Both Israel and the United States have threatened Iran with military attack and regime change, and Israel has clearly been trying to coax or pressure the United States into going to war with Iran on its behalf. Iran does not have a single nuclear weapon, and is subject to almost continuous IAEA inspections on its nuclear program, whereas Israel has been able with Western assistance to build up a  sizable nuclear arsenal and remain outside of IAEA jurisdiction and free from inspections. Iran is, however, an independent power in an area that the United States wants to dominate as thoroughly as possible and where Israel wants freedom of action to attack any neighbor or group (i.e., “terrorists”) that challenge its “Greater Israel”  dispossession process.

The alleged Iran nuclear “threat” is in large measure an excuse for hostile U.S.-Israeli actions toward Iran that are based on the threat of an independent power source, with the IAEA and EU following  in lockstep as the servile instruments they are. (See Herman and Peterson, “The Iran ‘Threat’ in a Kafkaesque World,” Journal Of  Palestine Studies, Autumn, 2012.) But it is true that an Iranian nuclear weapons capability would threaten the United States and Israel—not of  any Iranian offensive attack, which would be suicidal, but of an Iranian defense capability that might constrain U.S. and especially Israeli aggression rights in the area. Serious self-defense would be the Iranian threat. Israeli analyst Martin van Creveld  stated in a much quoted statement (but not in the NYT) that the Iranians “would be crazy” if they didn’t try to acquire nuclear weapons. He was clearly not referring  to any enhanced ability to attack, but  rather to an ability to defend. In other words, a reduction in the imbalance of nuclear weapons capability in the Middle East might well reduce the probability of war.

The policy conclusion from all this, and implicit advice to activists and democrats, is that it is urgently important to fight very hard against the quest for military superiority and dominance, which means fighting against the permanent war system, the vast base network, and the high budgets of the MIC.  Peace is by no means assured by “weakness” (which as used here includes military preparedness limited to genuine defense needs), but weakness means a diminished seeming ease of knocking over weak targets,  reduced  plausibility in pushes for wars by powerful vested interests, and a loss in the credibility of phony PR diplomacy and “peace processes” designed to evade peace.

In his empire-friendly book. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking: 2011), Steven Pinker makes his empirical case for the existence of a unique  “Democratic Peace” in our time by defining that peace as one between the great democracies, completely ignoring in this definition their continuous attacks on the lesser countries that are more or less easily bullied.  He also starts his analysis of  this Democratic Peace in 1946, right after a gigantic war that took over 50 million lives. But most interesting, perhaps, is his focus on our individual natures as the root of the new peacefulness, allegedly steadily improving in the Civilized West, except for the savages in the ghettos who are fortunately (in his view) increasingly pulled off the streets and put in prisons; this is part of what he calls “The Civilizing Process” (see his chapter 3), and in a 2007 Technology Entertainment Design (TED) lecture, Pinker publicly thanked Bill Clinton for his pioneering effort in large-scale imprisonment: “President Clinton, if you’re here, thank you.” (As archived at YouTube, beginning around the 9:25 mark.

But Pinker completely ignores institutional factors making for  war, such as the  growth of the MIC and the perils of dominance.  You may be sure that he never cites Gareth Porter, Andrew Bacevich or Chalmers Johnson in his book featuring the decline in violence. And the  role of slavery and the subsequent institutionalized racism in producing the ghettos and crime in the streets  is  also essentially ignored by Pinker.  This is social science at its  ideological pit.

 Gay and Women’s Rights to Kill

We may be living in a period when civil liberties are under attack, a global war on terror has been institutionalized, drone bombings increase and drone bases proliferate, and the entire globe has been declared a U.S.  “free fire zone,” but pieces of social progress continue to take place, even if some are problematic. Gay rights have steadily advanced, and perhaps women’s rights as well. President Obama has pushed for gay rights in the military, and now we have the Joint Chiefs eliminating the 1994 official ban on women’s combat role in U.S. wars. These are a strange form of progress, a new right to participate in killing people abroad, and they are accompanied by Katherine Bigelow’s putting a positive spin not only on torture, but on a woman’s heroic role in the torture machinery (see Susie Day’s “Zero Dark Thirty: the Woman’s Guide to Success Through Torture,” MRZine, January 28, 2013).

My tentative interpretation of  this form of progress is  that granting these social advances is easier than stopping the war machine, and that they may be advanced at least in part by the desire to placate political constituencies that do not like or are clearly harmed by war, buying their acquiescence or at least keeping them a bit more quiet. I interpret Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights and war on poverty energy  in the same fashion: at least in part buying support for or toleration of  his steady escalation of the war in Vietnam.  Obviously the social advances of the gay minority and still discriminated-against  female (possible) majority are forms of progress, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if they weren’t engineered  in any way to protect the outward explosion of  “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” (Martin Luther King)?

• First published in Z Magazine, March 2013

Edward S. Herman is an economist and media analyst with a specialty in corporate and regulatory issues as well as political economy and the media. Read other articles by Edward.