Patriotism requires skepticism about military action, not blanket enthusiasm
The U.S military is the most powerful in the world but its cost and usefulness are worth debating.
Christopher Preble is the vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. He is the author of The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous, and Less Free (Cornell University Press, 2009) and John F. Kennedy and the Missile Gap (Northern Illinois University Press, 2004). He co-edited, with John Mueller, A Dangerous World? Threat Perception and U.S. National Security (Cato Institute, 2014); and, with Jim Harper and Benjamin Friedman, Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy Is Failing and How to Fix It (Cato Institute, 2010).
Preble has also published articles in major publications, including the New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, the Financial Times, National Review, The National Interest, and Foreign Policy, and is a frequent guest on television and radio.
In addition to his work at Cato, Preble teaches the U.S. foreign policy elective at the University of California, Washington Center. Before joining Cato in February 2003, he taught history at St. Cloud State University and Temple University. Preble was a commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy, and served aboard the USS Ticonderoga (CG-47) from 1990 to 1993.
Preble holds a PhD in history from Temple University.
It’s true the U.S. military is a costly enterprise. It cost us more as a share of our total output during the Cold War, but in absolute dollar terms we’re spending about as much now as we spent during the Cold War, so the cost to maintain primacy has remained relatively high.
And the question is, could we spend much more on the military to cover some of the gaps between what we ask our military to do and the resources they have to carry out those missions? I think the answer is: we could spend more, but it’s not in our interest to do so, just spending more on the military won’t ensure that the military, for example, will be able to succeed, and some of the conflicts that it hasn’t yet achieved decisive victory.
I think it actually speaks to the limits of military power, that you can spend a lot and you can have the most exquisite military in the world, which we absolutely do, and yet that same military struggles to defeat determined adversaries wielding crude weapons in places like Iraq or Syria or Afghanistan. And I think that really does speak that just spending more money on the problem is not likely to solve the problem, it is likely to encourage us to get more deeply involved in some conflicts that might genuinely be intractable and that ultimately aren’t vital to U.S. national security.
I think that for a country as powerful as the United States, and especially a country with global interests and with a large and capable military, it’s really important to define ahead of time when that military will be used. I use some basic criteria that are consistent with things like the Weinberger Powell Doctrine from the Cold War and early post-Cold War period. Things like: what’s the national security interest at stake? What are we asking our military to do? Will the public support the mission even if the mission gets difficult and costly? Related, how are we going to pay for it? Will the war be paid for by, for example, a war tax or will we pay for it through debt like we did in World War II?
Those sorts of questions are important to ask before we send our military into harms way.
And I think that’s, again, the nature of the U.S. military, because it exists and it is so large and strong and in many places simultaneously, it’s fairly easy for that military to become involved in conflicts before we ask any of those questions. And so I think it’s really important for the American people and for American policymakers to keep in mind some basic criteria for when we use force. The last point I’d make is that war is a perilous enterprise. It involves the threat of violence and the destruction of property and therefore we shouldn't enter into it lightly.
And so I think when I think of restraint and an instinct of non-intervention, it's more about just a sort of skeptical eye, it's a sort of hesitance to use force. That doesn't mean never using force, it means thinking through it very, very carefully before we do.
I think that one of the great disservices we do to the military is to expect the American people to support it at all costs for any reason, and not expecting the American people to actually scrutinize the missions that we ask of the military to do.
In other words the greatest service that we can do to our veterans is to make sure that there are relatively few of them. That those who do go to war in defense of vital U.S. national security interests are doing so for the right set of reasons and I think it would almost be unpatriotic it seems to me for Americans to not think carefully about the wars that we ask our military to fight.
Most of us, the vast majority of us will have never served in the military, and the few of us who have I think I understand just what an important undertaking it is. And this country is quite accustomed to going to war without much debate and I think that really is a disservice to the military and to those who serve.
So a key component of primacy is to reassure our allies, and we do that for the most part to discourage them from taking measures to defend themselves. This might sound a little strange, but it actually made some sense after World War II when these countries were badly broken by World War II and endangered by the Soviet Union and Europe. These countries were in no position to defend themselves; they had to focus on rebuilding themselves, rebuilding themselves physically and also rebuilding themselves politically.
So the motion of reassurance as a means to discourage countries from doing more to defend themselves made certain sense at that time. The challenge however is that these countries have become quite stable and secure, and yet we never really revisited the bargain. And so we continue to have freeriding behavior or cheap riding behavior, countries not paying what they might need to pay in order to defend themselves.
The other problem with having too much reassurance is it can lead to moral hazard, it can lead to reckless driving. That is if allies believe that the United States has their back no matter what they might be inclined to behave in reckless ways, they might be inclined to take actions that they wouldn't if they were carrying the full burden and the risks. They might simply be discouraged from undertaking reasonable compromises on behalf of maintaining peace with their neighbors or in their region. And so the danger is that primacy encourages a kind of reckless behavior that ultimately is not conducive to long-term peace.
When the United States became the first nuclear weapons state there was some fear that many other countries would follow. The Soviet Union did, a few other countries did, Britain and France, but by the late 1950s early 1960s there was a pretty concerted effort to discourage other countries from going that route. The fear was that if many countries had nuclear weapons then the chances of their use would dramatically increase.
And a key part of reassurance is to discourage, particularly U.S. allies like Germany and Japan, from ever being tempted to develop nuclear weapons.
In fact I think in many respects that is one of the key arguments that defenders of primacy make, is that were it not for primacy there would be much, much more nuclear proliferation then there has been.
I think it’s also true however that primacy has encouraged some countries that are left out of the system, the so-called rogue states who want to develop nuclear weapons of their own to deter the United States from attacking them. We’ve seen that in places like North Korea, which is one of the poorest countries on the planet, but it nonetheless managed to develop a nuclear weapon, or the fear that places like Iran might want a nuclear weapon for precisely that same reason.
And so I think it’s fair to say that while U.S. primacy probably has discouraged some of our friends from developing nuclear weapons, it has sort of a mixed track record of discouraging our adversaries or potential adversaries from wanting nuclear weapons.
With the United States so heavily dependent upon military power as its main instrument of engagement with the rest of the world, it’s somewhat inevitable that the State Department and traditional diplomacy is sort of relegated to the back seat or to no seat at all.
And I think we’ve certainly seen that happen over the course of the last 15 or 20 years where the military receives the lion’s share of resources that go to engagement, and when the United States is asked or expected to interact with others it usually comes from people who are at least, if not carrying a weapon themselves, at least backed by people who are.
Of course that’s not the way the United States has always interacted with the rest of the world, traditional diplomacy has come both from the State Department and our actual official diplomats, but it’s also been carried by business people and NGOs and private actors who interact with the rest of the world.
And so I think one of the great dangers of primacy is that because it is defined as so much in military terms it means inevitably that diplomacy is sort of given short trip.
Does the U.S. need such a large and expensive military? There are some limits we should have about the extent of our military power and how much our allies should depend on us, argues Christopher Preble, the Vice President for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute. U.S. military might is to be used sparingly and its costs are worth considering against its usefulness.
"They" has taken on a not-so-new meaning lately. This earned it the scrutiny it needed to win.
- Merriam-Webster has announced "they" as the word of the year.
- The selection was based on a marked increase in traffic to the online dictionary page.
- Runners up included "quid pro quo" and "crawdad."
A review of the global "wall" that divides rich from poor.
- Trump's border wall is only one puzzle piece of a global picture.
- Similar anxieties are raising similar border defenses elsewhere.
- This map shows how, as a result, "the West" is in fact one large gated community.
Facebook's misinformation isn't just a threat to democracy. It's endangering lives.
- Facebook and Instagram users have been inundated with misleading ads about medication that prevents the transmission of HIV (PrEP), such as Truvada.
- Over the years, Facebook's hands-off ad policy has faced scrutiny when it comes to false or ambiguous information in its political ads.
- Unregulated "surveillance capitalism" commodifies people's personal information and makes them vulnerable to sometimes misleading ads.
LGBT groups are saying that Facebook is endangering lives by advertising misleading medical information pertaining to HIV patients.
The tech giant's laissez-faire ad policy has already been accused of threatening democracy by providing a platform for false political ads, and now policy could be fostering a major public-health concern.
LGBT groups take on Facebook’s ad policy
According to LGBT advocates, for the past six months Facebook and Instagram users have been inundated with misleading ads about medication that prevents the transmission of HIV (PrEP), such as Truvada. The ads, which The Washington Post reports appear to have been purchased by personal-injury lawyers, claim that these medications threaten patients with serious side effects. According to LGBT organizations led by GLAAD, the ads have left some patients who are potentially at risk of contracting HIV scared to take preventative drugs, even though health officials and federal regulators say the drugs are safe.
LGBT groups like GLAAD, which regularly advises Facebook on LGBT issues, reached out to the company to have the ads taken down, saying they are false. Yet, the tech titan has refused to remove the content claiming that the ads fall within the parameters of its policy. Facebook spokeswoman Devon Kearns told The Post that the ads had not been rated false by independent fact-checkers, which include the Associated Press. But others are saying that Facebook's controversial approach to ads is creating a public-health crisis.
In an open letter to Facebook sent on Monday, GLAAD joined over 50 well-known LGBTQ groups including the Human Rights Campaign, the American Academy of HIV Medicine and the National Coalition for LGBT Health to publicly condemn the company for putting "real people's lives in imminent danger" by "convincing at-risk individuals to avoid PrEP, invariably leading to avoidable HIV infections."
What Facebook’s policy risks
Of course, this is not the first time Facebook's policy has faced scrutiny when it comes to false or ambiguous information in its ads. Social media has been both a catalyst and conduit for the rapid-fire spread of misinformation to the world wide web. As lawmakers struggle to enforce order to cyberspace and its creations, Facebook has become a symbol of the threat the internet poses to our institutions and to public safety. For example, the company has refused to take down 2020 election ads, largely funded by the Trump campaign, that spew false information. For this reason, Facebook and other social media platforms present a serious risk to a fundamental necessity of American democracy, public access to truth.
But this latest scandal underlines how the misconstrued information that plagues the web can infect other, more intimate aspects of American lives. Facebook's handling of paid-for claims about the potential health risks of taking Truvada and other HIV medications threatens lives.
"Almost immediately we started hearing reports from front-line PrEP prescribers, clinics and public health officials around the country, saying we're beginning to hear from potential clients that they're scared of trying Truvada because they're seeing all these ads on their Facebook and Instagram feeds," said Peter Staley, a long-time AIDS activist who works with the PrEP4All Collaboration, to The Post.
Unregulated Surveillance Capitalism
To be fair, the distinction between true and false information can be muddy territory. Personal injury lawyers who represent HIV patients claim that the numbers show that the potential risks of medications such as Turvada and others that contain the ingredient antiretroviral tenofovir may exist. This is particularly of note when the medication is used as a treatment for those that already have HIV rather than prevention for those that do not. But the life-saving potential of the HIV medications are unequivocally real. The problem, as some LGBT advocates are claiming, is that the ads lacked vital nuance.
It also should be pointed out that Facebook has taken action against anti-vaccine content and other ads that pose threats to users. Still, the company's dubious policies clearly pose a big problem, and it has shown no signs of adjusting. But perhaps the underlying issue is the failure to regulate what social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff calls "surveillance capitalism" by which people's experiences, personal information, and characteristics become commodities. In this case, paid-for personal-injury legal ads that target users with certain, undisclosed characteristics. It's been said that you should be wary of what you get for free, because it means you've become the product. Facebook, after all, is a business with an end goal to maximize profits.
But why does a company have this kind of power over our lives? Americans and their legislators are ensnared in an existential predicament. Figure out how to regulate Facebook and be accused with endangering free speech, or leave the cyber business alone and risk the public's health going up for sale along with its government.