An Unblemished Record of Defeat

The United States, we are told, is the most powerful nation in world history, the sole superpower, winner of the Cold War, the “indispensable nation,” a “hyperpower” that has achieved “full spectrum dominance” and “command of the commons” over all other military forces on Earth. Yet, the United States failed to achieve its objectives in Iraq and Afghanistan, was defeated outright in Vietnam, and since World War II won clear victories only in the first Gulf War of 1991 and in smaller “police actions” in the Dominican Republic in 1965, Grenada in 1983, and Panama in 1989. How can we explain this dichotomy between unparalleled military advantage over all rival powers and a virtually unblemished record of military defeat since the end of the Cold War? And how has the strange mix of great military capacity and inability to utilize that power to attain military victories affected America’s ability to maintain geopolitical hegemony?

Despite all the high-tech weapons, most wars still require that troops be sent into battle at the risk of dying. However, the US public’s willingness to tolerate American casualties declined as opposition to the Vietnam War deepened. Despite both President Bushes’ claims that they had overcome the “Vietnam Syndrome,” the American public has become ever more averse to casualties. In response, the US military has intensified its efforts to minimize American war deaths and to glorify both the dead and soldiers’ bravery in protecting one another. Those efforts have the effect of further undermining public support for military strategies that put American lives at risk.

Americans’ casualty aversion matters because the insurgents the United States fought in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq were willing to endure massive casualties over long periods of time. This is evidenced in the insurgents’ seemingly endless capacities to recruit new soldiers to replace those killed and injured. During the Vietnam War, the US command touted the high enemy body counts as a harbinger of impending victory. In retrospect, the massive imbalance in casualties was a sign of the very different levels of commitment on the part of Americans waging offensive wars of choice that were, at best, tenuously if not totally falsely linked to US security, and Vietnamese who were fighting for what they saw as their class interests as well as for national self-determination. Similarly, Afghan and Iraqi insurgents see victory over the American invaders as the necessary condition for their ability to determine any and every aspect of their life. It is no wonder the insurgents in all three countries were willing to pay such a high price and to do so for as long as was required.

The US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq initially produced relatively low casualties and not much resistance. In both countries, armed opposition to the US occupation developed even though the killing and destruction ended once the old governments had been deposed, and even though in both cases the United States pledged to leave when a new government of its liking had been established.

Perhaps nationalism now is such a powerful force that no peoples will tolerate invasion and occupation by foreign forces, but if that was the case, why didn’t the Iraqis and Afghans wait for the Americans to leave, as the United States initially promised to do, and likely would have if the local populations had acquiesced in the governments the US imposed? Why did Afghans and Iraqis risk their lives to challenge troops that had an overwhelming advantage in firepower?

The Bush administration answered those questions by claiming that ideologically addled dead-enders from the old Ba’athist and Taliban regimes animated the resistance in both countries. At other times, Bush officials argued that the resistance in both countries was supported and directed by foreign powers: mainly Iran in Iraq and Pakistan in Afghanistan. The problem with either of those explanations is that remnants of the old regimes and foreign assistance for insurgencies materialized only well after (months in Iraq and years in Afghanistan) the Taliban and Ba’athist governments had fallen. Resistance in both countries began with local opposition to the American occupation.

Thus, we need to ask why ordinary Iraqis and Afghans were willing to risk their lives confronting the most powerful military force in the world rather than bide their time and wait for the Americans to leave. While elites’ unwillingness to police the mass of people is part of the answer, US-imposed neoliberalism provided the spark of desperation and urgency that fueled the insurgency.

In Iraq, locals were largely frozen out as the Bush administration sought to create an Iraqi economy dominated entirely by US firms. The plan was for American oil firms to extract energy and use the profits from that to pay other US firms to build and manage infrastructure and import American consumer products. Iraqi capitalists and workers would be entirely frozen out of the major sectors of that new Iraqi economy. This form of neoliberalism would have eliminated most opportunities for the United States to offer paths to wealth for elites and destroyed the jobs and small businesses that ordinary people depend upon for their livelihoods, including those of oil workers who were heavily unionized and pushed back. The United States’ ability to force through privatization failed in the face of such resistance.

As US firms built, or imported and installed, electrical generators, sewage treatment plants, hospitals, schools, and more, Iraq became dependent on American workers and firms to run those plants. Iraqis who had worked in those sectors had become expert at repairing and jerry-rigging old facilities that employed Soviet, French, and other older technologies purchased before the embargo that followed the 1991 Gulf War. As those machines were replaced with new American ones, Iraqi employees became obsolete and unemployable. Hence the desperation to end the occupation before the technological and ownership transfers could be effected, or at least to create a level of disorder that would prevent American contractors from installing US facilities.

When neoliberalism is imposed at arms length through trade deals, debt restructuring agreements, or the seemingly implacable workings of markets, it is impossible for affected populations to take revenge on the bankers, business executives, and government officials who orchestrate those policies. However, when the United States moves to eliminate enemy governments and then to quickly restructure economies, as it has done most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, then American troops are present to become targets of insurgents. When neoliberal policies are combined with plunder and corruption on the part of US contractors and the misfocused investments in weapons and training we analyzed above, the price of American occupations in dollars and in the lives of US soldiers becomes unsustainable.

Excerpted from First Class Passengers on a Sinking Ship: Elite Politics and the Decline of Great Powers by Richard Lachmann. Copyright 2020 by Richard Lachmann. Published in January by Verso. All rights reserved.