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Messaging, Not Cost

By Taylor Marvin

At the American Conservative, Daniel Larison refutes the notion — argued by the Washington Post’s Michael Gerson* — that cuts in US military spending will significantly restrain American leaders’ interventionist tendencies. ” The decision to intervene in other countries’ conflicts and internal affairs is not necessarily prevented by a relative lack of resources,” Larison writes, noting that “the [US] military interventions of the last twenty years have been almost entirely optional.”

I agree with Larison, and think the entire question is largely irrelevant. US military resources will never be a constraint on potential military interventions, because the advocates of strategically-unnecessary wars have every incentive to downplay their expected force requirements and costs. Interventions are inevitably framed by their proponents as low-cost ventures and wars’ expected costs, when they are offered at all, are equally inevitably reliant on optimistic best-case assumptions. The invasion and initial occupation of Iraq was benchmarked around Donald Rumsfeld and Tommy Franks belief, passed on to the wider Bush administration, that small numbers of highly-mobile troops were sufficient to occupy the country and nation-building would be unnecessary; a fantastic assumption. In turn this expected light-footprint informed — or, for the cynical, was mandated by — Dick Cheney’s assertion that Iraq’s oil wealth would pay for the war. Even if the United States spent significantly less on defense war advocates still would have been capable of justifying the invasion on their best-case assumptions.

The same is true for other potential US interventions. Advocates for military interventions will never offer reasonable and measured assessments of conflicts’ likely costs and benefits. This isn’t necessarily a deliberate bias: while advocates of intervention are obviously informed by the need for good public relations, Iraq hawks seemed to genuinely believed that a lengthy occupation was unlikely. Drawing the wrong conclusions from the Gulf War and 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, and their own post-Vietnam distaste for counterinsurgency, these advocates refused to consider the possibility that the coming war wouldn’t conform to their neatly drawn assumptions.

This remains true today. When Senator Lindsey Graham claims he “doesn’t care what it takes” to contain Syrian chemical weapons, he likely isn’t referencing the assessment that it would take over 75,000 troops to secure Syrian chemical sites. Instead, he’s simply following the Iraq playbook, offering a worst-case take on the costs of inaction and nebulous-at-best consideration for potential costs. Of course Graham’s enthusiasm for intervention in Syria has little practical effect on US policy, which remains unlikely to turn towards entry into the conflict. But Graham’s attitude does illustrate this dynamic. The practical constraints that govern US entry into overseas conflicts isn’t practical resource or cost concerns. Instead, it’s simply the ability of war advocates to message their cause in the most urgent and least objectionable terms possible.

*Gerson uses the phrase “Shiite bomb” as a self-evident explanation for why the Iranian nuclear program is unacceptable, which is pretty damn unconvincing.

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