For nearly two decades now, the United States has been waging a war to preserve American primacy. That’s not the official name, of course, but that describes the war’s actual, if unacknowledged, purpose. Much depends on how the incoming Biden administration appraises the war’s prospects. The fate of his presidency may well turn on Biden’s willingness to expedite the war’s long overdue termination.
During the heady days following the collapse of communism, American political elites had delighted in preening about the singular status of the United States as sole superpower and indispensable nation. That the United States was history’s locomotive, with the rest of humankind dutifully trailing behind in the caboose, was taken as given. During the 1990s, the way ahead appeared clear.
When the terrorist attacks of 9/11 blew a hole in claims of American primacy, President George W. Bush immediately opted for war as the means to revive them. Pursued ever since in various venues and employing varied approaches, the subsequent military effort has met with little success.
As early as 2009, when President Barack Obama inherited the war to preserve American primacy, it had become apparent that the United States lacked the wherewithal to fulfill Bush’s ambitious Freedom Agenda, which he described as “the spread of freedom as the great alternative to the terrorists’ ideology of hatred.” But calling off the war and thereby abandoning the conceit of America as sole superpower required more political courage than Obama was able to muster. So the war dragged on.
In 2016, denouncing the entire effort as misguided helped Donald Trump win the presidency. Yet far from terminating the war once in office, Trump merely rendered it inexplicable. Trump had promised to put “America First.” Instead, his erratic behavior gave the world “America the Capricious.” All but rudderless, the war proceeded of its own accord.
Just weeks from now, President-elect Joe Biden will become the fourth engineer to put his hand on the throttle with expectations of getting history back on track. From the day he takes office, Biden will confront a host of pressing challenges. Let me suggest that ending the war to preserve American primacy should figure as a priority.
Reduced to its essentials, the choice at hand is stark: Either restore some overarching sense of purpose to continuing US military efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other active theaters of war throughout the Middle East and Africa; or admit failure and bring the troops home.
To put it another way: Either persuade Americans that the war to preserve American primacy is enhancing the nation’s standing on the global stage and should continue; or cut our losses and concede that the United States is no longer the engine of history.
Initial signs suggest that Biden will finesse the issue. While promising to “end the forever wars, which have cost the United States untold blood and treasure,” he will instead redefine the mission. Relying on air strikes, special operations troops, and American advisers working with local forces, he will continue the fight against Al Qaeda and ISIS, with strategy thereby taking a back seat to political expediency.
In effect, Biden will probably pursue a policy of evasion, unwilling to reckon with what two decades’ worth of military failures, frustrations, and apparent successes that turn out to be illusory actually signify. Yet while evasion may delay, it cannot avert such a reckoning. In the end, the truth will out. The only question is how much more Americans will be obliged to pay.
The truth is that far from shoring up American primacy, the war to preserve American primacy has accelerated American decline. Unable to achieve victory abroad, despite the prodigious expenditure of resources, the United States has been battered by an accumulation of crises at home. The two are related.
As the war has dragged on, preexisting divisions within American society have deepened. Endemic racism, economic inequality, political dysfunction, the alienation that has emerged as a signature of late modernity: None of these qualify as recent phenomena. Yet as long as fantasies of the United States serving as history’s designated agent persist, so too do illusions that the muscular assertion of American global leadership will ultimately put things rights.
There is today no chance that the war to preserve American primacy will achieve any of the myriad objectives offered up since 2001 to justify its perpetuation. Acknowledging that fact is a prerequisite to repairing all that is broken in our country. The sooner the work of repair begins the better.
When it comes to initiating wars, post-Cold War American leaders have displayed remarkable audacity, throwing prudence out the window. When it comes to ending wars, however, caution kicks in. Ending them “responsibly” becomes a rationale for inaction.
Yet ours is a moment that calls for audacity in terminating wars that are both needless and futile, and for boldness in repairing the damage that the United States has endured in recent years. Whether Joe Biden possesses the requisite audacity and boldness to chart a new course remains to be seen.
Andrew Bacevich is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.