Threats? What Threats?

The Stupidity of War: American Foreign Policy and the Case for Complacency
by John Mueller
Cambridge University Press
342 pp., $27.95

American leaders have consistently overestimated military threats and underestimated the costs of military adventures; the world would have been at least as peaceful and perhaps even better off if Washington had pursued a more modest international course.

Such is the verdict of John Mueller in this lively and provocative reinterpretation of American foreign policy since 1945. Attributing postwar international stability to a general decline in the impulse to wage war rather than to any American strategic wisdom, Mueller argues that the U.S. should contribute to future peace by pivoting away from large forces in overseas bases toward a policy of strategic complacency, so that “a sense of humility may come to crowd out arrogance.”

The current course, Mueller says, has been disastrous:

In its most dynamic … aspects, American military policy during the current century has been an abject, and highly destructive, failure. Misguided and unnecessary (that is, stupid) wars of aggression and occupation have been launched in which trillions of dollars have been squandered and well over 200,000 people have perished, including more than twice as many Americans as were killed on 9/11.

There is much to enjoy in this book, especially for those of a noninterventionist bent, though that joy is tempered when one reads it while war rages in Ukraine. Mueller is relentless in his criticism of those whom he considers fools or knaves, and the list of both extends back well before the tragic follies of the post-Cold War world. In pungent, declamatory, yet well-informed prose, Mueller leaves no doubt where he stands on any issue, claiming at one point that, with the benefit of hindsight, “every foreign policy threat of the last several decades that has come to be accepted as significant has then eventually been unwisely exaggerated.”

Whether due to ideological blinders or simply the intellectual tendency of focusing on worst-case scenarios, exaggeration is endemic in the foreign policy community, Mueller asserts. Critical of both soi-disant realists and liberals, he offers an analysis of American foreign policy that relentlessly points out where and how everyone else went wrong.

Nor is this a new position for Mueller. His entire career has been devoted to the proposition that most policy makers and analysts misunderstand the world, as indicated by the titles of his earlier books: Retreat from Doomsday: The Obsolescence of Major War (1989); Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them (2006); and Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda (2009).

Mueller’s work never fails to provoke critics, but his aims are not merely historical or even polemical, though there is much history and even more polemic in these pages. His ambitious goal is to argue for a complete rethinking of the military-industrial complex. Too much American security policy has been built on habitual threat inflation, he asserts, whereas a proper realization that the United States has yet to be exposed to a truly serious security threat “leads to the conclusion that there is not now, nor has there ever been, a good reason to maintain a huge military force-in-being.”

A more relaxed approach to world affairs and a reduced defense establishment would go hand in hand. Citing legendary defense intellectual Bernard Brodie, Mueller notes, “One way of keeping people out of trouble is to deny them the means of making it.”

Regarding diplomacy, as his subtitle suggests, Mueller argues that challengers such as Russia and China “both seem to be entirely appeasable.” Unconcerned about the rise of autocrats, he is also unmoved by fears of nuclear proliferation, arguing that concerns about it “may be justified, but the experience of three quarters of a century suggests that any danger is far from overwhelming.” Ultimately, in Mueller’s view, the dangers of nuclear weapons in the hands of North Korea or Pakistan or anyone

… should be topped with a somewhat higher one: avoiding militarily aggressive actions under the obsessive sway of worst-case scenario fantasies, actions that might lead to the deaths of tens—or hundreds—of thousands of people. If that sounds complacent, so be it.

It is this tendency to brook no disagreement that gives Mueller’s book its punch but can also make a reader pause, such as when he announces, “al-Qaeda, the group responsible [for the 9/11 attacks] has proven to resemble President John Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald—a fundamentally trivial entity that got horribly lucky once.” It also leads him to give the slippery word “seems” and the subjunctive mood quite a workout, such as in his mischievously titled chapter, “The Rise of China, the Assertiveness of Russia, and the Antics of Iran,” in which he derides a “bipartisan group of alarmists” who seek to play up conflicts with all three.

In a few short pages, he admits that “China’s massive effort to deal with Muslim identity and possible secession in its western provinces has been particularly graceless,” but argues that it is ultimately no business of anyone else. He also asserts that China’s much-hyped Belt and Road Initiative “is increasingly showing signs of being not only a case of overreach but one of ‘strategic dysfunction.’”

Having dispensed with the specter of war with China, Mueller still has energy left over to dismiss Iran’s antics in the Middle East as barely worth consideration, based as they are on the decision of the Islamic Republic to put a few dozen American diplomats under “house arrest” before releasing them “unharmed.”

Will Rogers never met a man he didn’t like; John Mueller apparently never met a foreign threat he couldn’t underplay.

Mueller’s handling of Russia is of a piece with his overall approach but takes on a different cast when read in early 2022. The notion that Russian behavior in the 2014 Ukraine crisis, including both its support for separatists and its seizure of Crimea, foretold Russia’s further plans for the region “seems to have little substance,” he wrote. He showed no concern about broader Russian imperial designs for its “near abroad” or the reality of long-term frozen conflict in Donetsk and Lugansk. Rather, he blithely announces that the “(rather bizarre) Ukraine episode of 2014 seems, like the Korean invasion of 1950, to be a one-off.” Residents of Mariupol or Kyiv would likely see things differently.

Questionable as Mueller’s assertions about Russia’s limited aims were when he published them last year, they now appear downright ridiculous considering the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. He is, however, undeterred, writing in a March 2022 article in Skeptic that the Russian invasion could have been prevented had the United States and its allies offered Vladimir Putin better assurances about Ukraine’s international position. Such assurances could end the war today, he believes, and in any case,

[W]hile it provides a severe test, the war is unlikely to halt or shatter the remarkable post-World War II trend in which international war has greatly declined. Putin’s war seems almost entirely to have inspired outraged condemnation, not desires for imitation.

Even when Mueller is proven wrong, he is never in doubt.

In noting these various pieces of rhetorical sleight of hand, we reach a paradox at the heart of a work that itself revels in paradoxes. Although he denounces foreign policy elites for arrogance and blindness to uncomfortable realities, there are few poses more arrogant than asserting that everyone else is stupid. So, too, it can be problematic to claim that cautious preparation for a perceived threat was unnecessary based on the fact that the threat did not materialize.

Mueller’s tendency to interpret every historical and contemporary development in the way most favorable to his conclusions is shared across the intellectual spectrum, though such a tendency should make any judicious reader pause. There is much to criticize about American policy over the past 75 years, but is it necessary to combat one extreme by embracing the other? Should we go from claiming to be surrounded by enemies to announcing that we never had, nor will we ever have, any enemies at all?

Thankfully, it is not necessary to agree with Mueller’s every conclusion to find stimulation and value in reading him. His work offers provocative arguments in favor of a security policy based on calm reflection and humility; this reviewer suggests that readers approach his conclusions with that same combination of virtues.

Top image: an anti-war protest sign prior to U.S. entry into World War II, circa 1941, from the Frank Capra-directed U.S. propaganda film Prelude to War (1942) (public domain)

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