By Taylor Marvin
This item was originally posted at the Prospect Blog.
Glenn Greenwald has a typically unpopular position on the death of Bin Laden:
“Whenever America uses violence in a way that makes its citizens cheer, beam with nationalistic pride, and rally around their leader, more violence is typically guaranteed. Futile decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may temporarily dampen the nationalistic enthusiasm for war, but two shots to the head of Osama bin Laden — and the We are Great and Good proclamations it engenders — can easily rejuvenate that war love. One can already detect the stench of that in how Pakistan is being talked about: did they harbor bin Laden as it seems and, if so, what price should they pay? We’re feeling good and strong about ourselves again — and righteous — and that’s often the fertile ground for more, not less, aggression.”
There is a valid point here. Citizens must consent to war in democracies, and they are much likely to condone strictly unnecessary military actions if they have reason to believe that conflicts will be cheap and easy. This dynamic is visible in Clinton’s 1993 intervention in Somalia. The internal power struggle in Somalia had no immediate effect on the security of the United States, yet the decision to dispatch troops to Somalia was largely uncontroversial. While most US voters likely held unrealistic expectations about the probable costs of this mission, it’s more likely that the victory in the Gulf War had unrealistically convinced Americans that all future interventions would be as quick and victory so total. This view is dangerous because the Gulf War and the killing of Bin Laden are so far from the actual reality of most of the foreign conflicts the US has chosen to involve itself in. Elements of the US military- notably JSOC- are extremely good at the very practical task of finding and killing individuals. However, this capability has little relevance to what’s required to actually succeed in low intensity conflicts like Somalia, Afghanistan or Libya. That’s something American’s should remember when forming their expectations of success in future wars.
This logic extends to other aspect of warmaking as well. While the costs of actually fighting wars have risen constantly in the last thousand years, the US government has spent the last four decades inventing ways to lower the costs of war the average voter is asked to pay. During Vietnam, the draft was a huge forced mobilization of American society that strained it to the breaking point, and ruined the political careers of the politicians who orchestrated it. A war that requires such huge public sacrifices, even a justified one like Afghanistan, isn’t possible in contemporary America. The US military is increasingly drawn from a shrinking portion of the population, and the debt financing of war means that voters aren’t asked to pay for the wars fought in their name and ostensibly for their benefit. The risk of this trend is that it makes strictly unnecessary wars, like Libya, more likely by lowering their domestic costs. Wars are fought if their expected benefits exceed their expected costs. Lowering the costs of war mean that rich technological countries with volunteer armies and powerful militaries are more likely to choose to fight even in pursuit of shrinking benefits. David Rothkopf recently phrased this idea well when discussing the emergence of armed aerial drone warfare:
“The first hazard is that if war can be waged without apparent human cost to the attacker, it is clearly more likely to be undertaken. That such a strategy is really one that is primarily available to rich nations attacking poor ones only compounds the problem. But another moral hazard is that such attacks could easily become the first option of indecisive leaders, exactly as cruise missiles have also been in the recent past. It allows such leaders to appear strong, to flex their muscles but to have very limited downside. That such approaches are really only good for limited purposes — assassinations, destroying specific targets, adding a pyrotechnic flourish to a rhetorical argument — is likely to be ignored or downplayed, as is already the case in Libya. The risk is that unlike nuclear weapons which actually are less likely to be used because the costs of unleashing them are so high, unmanned, over-the-horizon weapons are far more likely to be used because the costs are so low — even when they are not likely to be terribly effective.”
Even if the US and NATO are completely successful in Libya the actual benefits to the victors will be small, even if the benefits to oppressed Libyans and humanity overall are much greater. However, even if these prospective benefits are insignificant the immediate costs of the war are smaller still, giving policymakers and incentive to fight. I, like the vast majority of Americans and Europeans, don’t know anyone actually asked to fight over Libya. If the costs are so small, then why not fight for ill-defined humanitarian goals? As Somalia and Iraq showed, this is a dangerous line of thinking, though a very attractive one.
However, even if inexpensive successful military actions create the potential for subsequent public moral hazard this really doesn’t change anything. Even if the death of Bin Laden is insignificant compared to the Arab revolts, it is a cathartic and just achievement, and makes Americans safer. It sends a clear and valuable message: if you order an attack on the United States, you will die. It’s not wrong to celebrate this success. The death of Bin Laden is a type of closure, even if an incomplete one, and is as close to VE Day as my generation is going to get. The competence and lethality of US special forces are something to be proud of.