"We’re within an inch of war almost every day," said Leon Panetta at a recent congressional hearing: he was talking about war with North Korea, but then went on to speak about other regions where the threat of conflict keeps him up at night, naming Iran, Syria, and indeed the entire Middle East as the source of his insomnia.
Which raises the question: what are we gaining from all this? What benefits do we derive from our troop presence in South Korea, and our interference in its internal affairs? What are we getting out of provoking Iran beyond the limits of human endurance? Why are we even thinking about intervening in Syria, when we can see the horrendous results of our support for the Libyan rebels – and the Iraqi exile groups who tricked us into supporting a disastrous invasion and occupation?
Even if we weren’t bankrupt, it is hard to see how a cost-benefit analysis can justify this level of US intervention abroad. We spend more on the military than all other nations on earth combined, and the only thing it’s gotten us has been some pretty consequential blowback and a mountain of unsustainable debt. So what’s the upside?
Well, there isn’t any – unless you’re a military contractor, or a politician on the take from the military-industrial complex. If you’re an "analyst" who works for one of the pro-militarist Washington thinktanks, you have a lot [.pdf] to gain from this "forward stance" foreign policy: however, if you’re an ordinary American – not so much.
Let’s look at the North Korean example, which provoked Panetta’s revealing comment in the first place. Here is a country that is still technically at war with the US and its South Korean neighbor, after more than sixty years, and can hardly feed its own people. The food aid we regularly ship to them has been cut off, in part due to the recent missile launch. Sure, the launch was a failure, but that doesn’t matter: the point being that only the US and its allies have the right to needlessly provoke the rest of the world by saber-rattling as loudly as possible. We still have to punish them – even though they have no capacity to attack the US mainland, and are unlikely to acquire the technology to do so. Sure, they can always attack South Korea, where we – still! – have some 20,000 troops stationed. Yet what is the real purpose of our troop presence there? These soldiers are for all intents and purposes being held hostage by the North Koreans, whose periodic antics cause Panetta so much heartburn. So why keep them there?