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10 June 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 2:53pm

Revenge of the forever wars

The US can't reform its domestic policing without first liberating itself from its own foreign policy.   

By Jeanne Morefield

Whatever US statecraft was supposed to create, it was not this. In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd on 25 May, barricades have gone up around the White House, unidentified paramilitary forces patrol the nation’s capital, police run amok in neighbourhoods and attack journalists, while Donald Trump threatens military force, branding peaceful protesters “terrorists”. Across the country, cities that were already facing Covid-19 and the subsequent economic distress are now aflame. To the Minnesota governor Tim Walz, they resemble “Baghdad or Mogadishu”.

Walz’s comment is more accurate than he imagines. The US arrived at this point in part due to the extravagant foreign policy that put its troops in Baghdad and Mogadishu. The nation’s current situation should therefore end one conceit that has lain at the heart of its public life for decades: that a constitutional republic can survive while continuously fighting wars abroad. Years of conflict have spawned an American style of militarism, an excessive reverence for force and anti-insurgent policing, which leans towards absolutism and racialised violence.

Consider how Trump and his officials responded to the protests. US defence secretary Mark Esper stressed the need to “dominate the battle space”. Though he later renounced this terminology, he has previously described US air strikes as “continuing to mow the lawn” and urged the US Congress not to debate the war-making powers of the executive. Senator Tom Cotton, who recently sanctioned military action against the American people in a New York Times op-ed, tweeted insisting that “no quarter” be given to the insurrection, and demanding federal military action over the will of governors and mayors. Suggesting armoured vehicles be put on the streets, Trump spoke of the need for the military’s “unlimited power”. The chair of the joint chiefs of staff, General Mark Milley, toured Washington, DC, in combat fatigues to “review efforts to quell the protests”.

In principle, the case for federal intervention to protect lives and property should be at least sombre and reasoned. But it has taken on a bellicose enthusiasm, suggesting attraction to violence as a display of power untamed.

This is precisely why the US’s founding fathers feared war and the belligerent authority that it generates. Frequent recourse to armed conflict erodes the formal and informal checks on government. War demands an empowered executive, a deferential Congress and a docile populace. For George Washington, overgrown military establishments were “inauspicious” to “republican liberty”. For James Madison, war creates the instruments of rule by a few, as well as increased inequality and corruption: “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” Later, Dwight Eisenhower warned that a self-justifying, self-generating “military-industrial complex” threatens US democracy.

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It will not do, therefore, to confine our diagnosis to the recklessness of Trump and his cohort. If officials regard American cities as battle spaces, that is a consequence of treating the globe as a battle space, which Washington does with increased frequency and abandon. Recent criticism of Trump’s militarism by respected US elders, General Jim Mattis and Barack Obama, suggests a flawed desire for the two worlds – bloody frontiers and domestic tranquillity – to remain separate and sealed.

After the Second World War an era of mutually reinforcing foreign and domestic policy escalated when the US intervened to ensure that newly independent, formerly colonised peoples did not fall under Soviet influence. Throughout the Cold War, US security experts channelled their experience of domestic policing into shaping counter-insurgency strategies in post-colonial nations. They then introduced what they learnt abroad back into policing in US cities. This to and fro between domestic policing and foreign counter-insurgency influenced both a distinct form of militarised and racialised policing in the US and what the sociologist Stuart Schrader called “imperialism without imperialists” abroad.

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Obama continued this tradition by overseeing a drone assassination programme on an industrial scale and increasing the war-making prerogatives of the imperial presidency. His policies intensified the “feedback” between power projection abroad and at home, sanctioning warrantless mass surveillance and the Pentagon’s “1033 programme”, which transferred excess military armature to police departments.

Thus techniques, technologies and mindsets geared to suppressing resistance overseas flowed homeward. The Minneapolis Department of Public Safety now speaks of “a sophisticated network of urban warfare”.

This was tolerated by the bipartisan political consensus. Sharing a New York Times article titled “With Green Beret Tactics, Combating Gang Warfare” on Twitter, Pete Buttigieg, a candidate for the 2020 Democratic nomination, wrote: “Interesting use of counter-insurgency tactics to address gang violence.” More diffusely, since the 9/11 attacks militarised culture has seeped into political language. The enduring war on terror continues to propagate a heightened sense of racialised enemies – a hazard of any war, but especially a permanent one.

The underlying logic of the war on terror is that by suppressing forces of chaos and enlarging the sphere of democratic capitalism, the republic would be secure. When these wars proved more protracted and difficult than their architects imagined, their advocates updated the rationale, supposing that somehow liberty can thrive even while a “generational struggle” or open-ended deployments grind on.

Instead, these military adventures created a global battle space that – as critics from Edmund Burke to Hannah Arendt to Aimé Césaire observed – “boomeranged” back on the US, loosening restraint on the use of military violence at home. To break that cycle and reform domestic policing, the US must also reform its foreign policy. 

Jeanne Morefield and Patrick Porter are fellows at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

This article appears in the 10 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, A world in revolt