Ask the Author: Alasdair Roberts

In Foreign Policy’s November/December cover story, “The War We Deserve,” Alasdair Roberts confronts the popular myth that Americans were led blindly into a bumbling war on terror and occupation of Iraq by a small group of neocons. Now, he answers your questions about just how much blame Americans really deserve for the wars they find themselves fighting today.

1. Professor Roberts, What event, in your estimation, would energize American citizens to reject their comfort level with neoliberalism?

1. Professor Roberts, What event, in your estimation, would energize American citizens to reject their comfort level with neoliberalism?

It would probably require a prolonged economic or security crisis. One of the adverse consequences of the Bush administrations policies is that public attitudes about the competence and trustworthiness of the federal government has corroded even further. Meanwhile, the structure of the economy has changed profoundly. It is much more difficult to contemplate restrictions on trade, for security or other reasons, than it was 30 years ago. Similarly it is more difficult to consider more aggressive regulation, partly because the actors we might want to regulate operate outside U.S. jurisdiction. In short, we are too far down this path to shift policies easily.

On the other hand, it is possible to develop a better understanding of the risks associated with life in this sort of market state. One of the risks, I would suggest, is the temptation to militarize responses to domestic security crises. There are several reasons why this was a tempting path in 2001. For example: While other policy instrumentssuch as spending or regulationwere weak and discreditedthe military had the virtues of robust capacity (or so it seemed) and broad public trust.

A question for the current presidential campaign: Will American voters take this lesson from 9/11or will they distinguish the war on terrorism from the war in Iraq, condemning the latter but remaining broadly in favor of the former? And if so, does that imply the response to a future crisis of domestic security will be equally militaristic?

2. Professor Roberts,

[In the wake of 9/11], President Bush missed a terrific window of opportunity to ask Americans to make sacrifices and build unity. In a time of crisis, they wanted leadership. Instead, they got the message that they should go shopping and stick a removable Support the Troops magnet on their car. Without such a demand from the presidents bully pulpit, what would you have Americans do to sacrifice for a war on terror?

Its often said that President Bush charted a radical course after 9/11. But in key respects his policy was utterly conventional. Most Americans thought their taxes were too high, and most supported tax cuts, even after 9/11. Bush and his advisors also understood that economic slowdowns cause voters to withdraw support from incumbent presidents, so they did what they could to bolster private consumption.

As I say in my forthcoming book, The Collapse of Fortress Bush: The Crisis of Authority in American Government, President Bush should be criticized for failing to challenge the conventional wisdom about taxes and consumption. Nowhere do I suggest that he should be absolved for failing to do that. But we need to recognize that the political environment that shaped those decisions evolved over three decades, and was encouraged by presidents of both parties, who between them received more than 350 million votes.

One of the difficulties with my argument is that we don’t know exactly how events might have progressed with a different president. We have to speculate (and I do below). But its reasonable to ask: Is the neoliberal credo now so deeply entrenched that a president feels unable to challenge it even in a moment of crisis?

3. Professor Roberts,

Looking back at the polls around the time of Bushs reelection in 2004, we can see that public opinion over the war in Iraq was evenly divided. The reasons for Bushs win are quixotic, but they form the only shred of evidence that, in my opinion, Americans share any blame in the Iraq war, a position they reversed with the Democratic sweep two years later.

You dont mention the responsibility Americans played at the ballot box during these two important elections. But couldnt you argue that even if some Americans realized they shared culpability for the war in Iraq by reelecting Bush, their blame was significantly diminished with the 2006 mid-terms?

Many Americans were for war before they were against it. In an April 1991 Gallup Poll, 50 percent of respondents favored using aircraft and ground forces to remove Saddam Hussein. In a June 1993 Gallup Poll, 70 percent of respondents supported using all military action necessary to remove Saddam. In October 1994, 72 percent favored using U.S. forces for that purpose; in February 1998, 61 percent. A February 1999 Gallup Poll found that 74 percent would support taking all-out military action against Iraq. In February 2001, support had slipped, but 52 percent still endorsed sending troops to remove Saddam. A succession of Pew Polls in the summer and fall of 2002 found solid majoritiesbetween 55 and 64 percentin favor of military action to end Saddams rule.

Once again, the Bush administration was not writing on a blank slate. Its post-9/11 policy was shaped by political and bureaucratic realities. That is, policy choices were bounded by what government was capable of doing, and what the public was primed to support.

An interesting question is why Americans were generally so hawkish about engagement with Iraq over the preceding decade. Part of the answer may lie with the profound restructuring of the U.S. military after Vietnam. The military gave up conscription, reduced its dependence on manpower, and invested in powerful new technologies. It also expanded military advertisingspending $1.6 billion in the last four years of the Clinton administration alone. Trust in the military soared. By 2001, a much larger proportion of Americans trusted the military than they did the executive branch in general.

Why was the response to 9/11 militarized so quickly? Perhaps because of generally held perceptions about the relative competence of the U.S. military and its ability to exert force without substantial casualties or a heavy drain on the U.S. economy. The Bush administration exploited these perceptions, but the perceptions themselves were the product of a quarter century of collective decision-making.

4. Professor Roberts,

You complain about the small size of our military force in Iraq, our small military expenditure, and our inadequate limitations on civil liberties. Setting aside that America spends almost half of the worlds entire yearly military budget (and has done so for the past 60 years), do you think that a different strategy in Iraq could have had a successful outcome? What would a larger force and expenditure accomplish?

I didnt say that limitations on civil liberties were inadequate. I would say that complaints about intrusions on civil liberties were often exaggerated or misdirected. For example, former Sen. Gary Hart said in December 2005 that revelations about NSA spying proved that the first victim of American war is the liberty of Americans. Now, NSA spying is a very serious problem. But at the time of that statement, there were tens of thousands dead in Iraq, and hundreds of thousands displaced; hundreds of aliens detained indefinitely at Guantnamo; and an indefinite number being held for coercive interrogation in CIA black sites.

The question of what a larger force might accomplish in Iraq is a good one that ought to be broadly discussed. My point is that it has not been and will not be. Nor will any non-military effort of comparable scale. That is not because we have satisfied ourselves that there are no good options. It is because there is no domestic support for the increased investment that these options would require.

5. Professor Roberts,

You say the United States spends less on the military than it did in World War II, and that the U.S. pays fewer taxes now than under Clinton. These facts are misleading. The U.S. spent more during World War II as a percent of GDP because our economy was so much smaller as a whole. Why dont you adjust the military spending for inflation and tell me we spend less today?

I didnt make a comparison to military spending during World War II. I said that the U.S. spent 6.8 percent of GDP on defense in the 50 years before 2001–that is, between 1950 and 2000–and roughly 4 percent of GDP in the years afterward.

If the point is to examine the overall burden that national security (or any other sector) puts on American society, it is reasonable to look at shares of GDP. Suppose we were talking about another policy fieldenvironmental protection or education, for exampleand I complained about the runaway growth of inflation-adjusted spending since 1970. You would protest, quite rightly, that the United States is much richer as a society than it was in 1970.

For clarity, I dont actually think there has been runaway growth in spending on the environment or education, precisely for this reason. Nor do I think that the United States should spend 6.8 percent of its GDP on defense just because that is what it did between 1950 and 2000. I would argue, however, that is it misleading to say that the war in Iraq, or homeland security spending, is the main cause of the federal governments growing fiscal crisis; or to say that the United States should leave Iraq because it has done all that it can do to repair the damage done by its actions in 2003, either through military or other efforts.

6. Professor Roberts,

Your article seems to imply that the United States will not be able to win a war on terror unless it has a much bigger military, one capable of invading and occupying large countries (like Iraq and Afghanistan).

Didnt the experience of Vietnam prove that using taxpayer monies to fuel an enormous military campaign does not and will not guarantee success on the battlefield? What good will higher taxes and a larger share of GDP going to the military do in a war of hearts and minds?

It is 2007, not 2003. Put aside the question of whether the invasion should have been undertaken, and ask what should be done now. Even though the human cost of continued failure in Iraq could be enormous, nobody is even considering an intensification of effort in Iraq, either through military or other means. The option is not on the table. We do not contemplate what might be done, and we do not tally how many lives might be lost or ruined otherwise.

This is because there is no public support for such an effort. On the contrary, there is pervasive skepticism of large governmental projects, and disdain for the people who run the country. This was also true in 2001. It is one of the hallmarks of the public philosophy known as neoliberalism. It is one of the reasons why the Bush administration crafted a war on terrorism that avoided grand projects at home, and launched ill-conceived little wars abroad.

7. Professor Roberts,

You argue that the American people have not sufficiently sacrificed in this war on terror, as we have in previous wars. Yet, what has happened since the September 11 attacks? Weve seen our economy surge back, and we havent been attacked again on American soil. Why should Americans sacrifice more than they already havein the form of increased airport security, frayed nerves, and the loss of lives and treasure in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhereif things arent all that bad?

Let me respond by making a smaller point, and then a large point. First, the smaller point. The experience that the overwhelming majority of American air travelers have when dealing with airport security is not a sacrifice. It is an inconvenience, which is aggravated by underinvestment in better methods for screening passengers and baggage. To call this a sacrifice is to diminish the real sacrifices that Americans have made in earlier security crises.

The larger point: The statement that things aren’t all that bad actually makes my case. In fact, things have been pretty bad for large numbers of people, many of them not in the United States (and some of them non-citizens in the United States). The Bush administrations aim was to craft a response to a security crisis that avoided the imposition of heavy costs on influential constituencies at home, because it did not believe it had the ability to impose those costs and survive politically.

Things are actually pretty bad for Americans, too, although in ways that are not immediately felt–such as the sharp decline in respect for the United States among voters in allied nations. As a commentator on my article has noted elsewhere, there is a disjunction between the nations economic and national security policies. Economic liberalization has increased our interdependence with other nations, while national security policies of the past six years have antagonized the electorates of those countries.

8. Professor Roberts,

Do you think the United States must reinstate the draft to share the burdens of war equally?

The United States will not reinstate the draft, because an overwhelming majority of Americans are opposed to it, as they have been for the past quarter century. To put it another way, Americans now agree with the argument made by Alan Greenspan and Milton Friedman in 1970, that conscription is an unconscionable interference with the freedom of the individual.

Similarly, the United States probably wont increase expenditure on Iraq substantially, because all of the methods of financing such expenditure–increased taxes, cuts elsewhere, or increased borrowing–are politically untenable. Any prescription for Iraq that challenges these domestic political constraints is a nonstarter, whatever its merits.

9. Professor Roberts,

One of the things that you dont delve into, but which seems entirely along the same lines as your argument, is that Americans are far too trusting of the media they consume. So few news outlets questioned the administration in the run-up to the war in Iraq. And if more people had been skeptical of both the politicians and the media during that time, perhaps we would not be in this situation. Do you agree that some news outlets share responsibility?

Yes, news outlets also share responsibility. But bear in mind the data I showed earlier about support for war during the preceding decade. We are focusing excessively on the 18 months between September 2001 and March 2003. It is important to remember that engagement with Iraq had been escalating throughout the preceding decade. This escalation was done openly, with the broad support of the American public. It took years for the United States to get to where it was in March 2003, and many different actorsincluding the American electorate–shaped that path.

10. Professor Roberts,

You seem to let Bush and the neocons off the hook for bumbling the war on terror. But do you think the countrys long-term response to the 9/11 attacks would have been the same if Al Gore had been president in 2001?

Actually, I dont let Bush and neocons off the hook. Nowhere in my article do I say that all of the blame, or even most of the blame, for the response to 9/11 should be borne by the American public. Readers who take issue with the cover, or the title, should address that concern to the editors.

There are two critical points to be made here. First, the important thing about Bush and his advisors is not that they were neocons. It is that they were neoliberals, fully committed to the policy consensus that has dominated American politics for the past 30 years. They were practical men, as John Maynard Keynes once said, and they crafted a response to 9/11 that sought to avoid challenges to the core elements of that policy consensus.

Second, we should not overestimate the extent to which the country would have charted a different course under a President Gore. The Clinton administration was also committed to fiscal discipline, less onerous regulation, and free trade. It also expanded military engagement in Iraq, even when allies refused to provide support. (A 1999 report by the U.S. Institute of Peace observed that the Clinton administration had transformed a multilateral conflict into a bilateral conflict.) And if you were troubled by the PATRIOT Act, you should remember that the Clinton administration also proposed antiterrorism legislation in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombings that was condemned by civil libertarians as one of the worst assaults on civil liberties in decades.

I expand on these points in my forthcoming book. The aim is neither to absolve the Bush administration nor to damn the Clinton administration. Rather, the aim is to show that there are broader institutional, economic, and political forces that continue to shape U.S. policies even when administrations change. In the heat of political struggle, we tend to forget these continuities.

Alasdair Roberts is professor of public administration at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University and author of the forthcoming book The Collapse of Fortress Bush: The Crisis of Authority in American Government (New York: New York University Press, 2008).

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