America begins the new year embroiled in two of the longest wars in our history. But so far, the public has not directly borne their costs, which have been deferred to the future or limited to the members of the all-volunteer military. The illusion that our wars are cost-free has reduced the political risks of engaging in military action overseas. But as Princeton professor Julian Zelizer argues in his new history of national security politics, Arsenal of Democracy, it has also made the maintenance of U.S. primacy unsustainable.

The last 60 years of national security policy have been subject to fierce competition between (and within) the parties, as well as between Congress and the executive, as partisan advantage on national security has been gained, lost, and then contested anew. As Zelizer demonstrates, domestic political battles have never been separate from national security debates, and U.S. political history since the end of WW II has been shaped to an extraordinary degree by the national security state—the "arsenal"—that grew up during and after the Cold War.

Today, we are at the end of an era defined by conservative internationalism, a creed both exceedingly ambitious in its goals and extremely parsimonious in the resources provided to reach them. For the past 30 years, conservative internationalists have largely dominated national security debates; even internationalist Democrats have been influenced by them or been forced to mimic their arguments. During and after Vietnam, conservative internationalists wished to preserve an active, "forward" foreign policy while avoiding the political costs such a policy entails.  Consequently, they turned to air power, missile defenses, covert operations, and short wars to minimize both American casualties and public backlash. In short, conservative internationalists found a way to insulate an activist national security state from the people it was supposed to serve. 

The debacle of Iraq finally exposed the central flaw of conservative internationalism, which was essentially that its reach exceeded its grasp. But its legacy is on display still in Afghanistan, specifically, and in the "Global War On Terror," generally, where the gap between grand objectives and scant resources is even more pronounced. Zelizer’s analysis helps to account for much conservative hostility to Obama’s foreign policy in the first year, particularly regarding Afghanistan.  The administration is not interested in continuing the Afghanistan mission with insufficient forces and resources, and it is moving away from over-reliance on air power, both of which run counter to the minimal, "counter-terrorist" approach the previous administration pursued and the one that many conservatives prefer.

In recent years, it was common for liberals to ask why President Bush never asked for collective sacrifice in support of a war effort that his administration routinely described as vital, even  "existential."  As Zelizer explains, Bush couldn’t have done so without undermining a pillar of conservative internationalism—the "promise of minimal sacrifice."  In reality, the sacrifice is not so small, but it is made to seem small by pushing the fiscal costs of war into the future and carefully hiding the human costs from public scrutiny. The pain is buried in abstract projections of future deficits and in the quiet stoicism of the professional military.

This spirit of legerdemain lives on. The absolute resistance to even contemplating a war tax to pay for these military campaigns, such as the one proposed by Democratic Rep. David Obey, is a telling sign of how influential conservative internationalist ideas remain. Similarly, one of the most prominent voices counseling an end to our military presence in Afghanistan is George Will.  As early as September, Will was urging that "America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes, and small, potent Special Forces units...."  Following the president’s announcement ordering an additional 30,000 soldiers to Afghanistan, Will reiterated his opposition to the troop escalation.

Will’s view is often mistaken for that of a war skeptic, or even of a war opponent. It is in fact the opposite. He simply represents the conservative internationalist preference for air power (and the unavoidable civilian casualties that go with it), along with a lack of patience for the long grind of stabilizing and securing a country once the initial combat phase is completed.

According to this view, Afghanistan and Pakistan should remain shooting galleries indefinitely, but our ground forces should be freed up and—it goes without saying—made available for the next intervention.  This is not a recognition of the limits of American power, but an effort to delay the reckoning of what carelessly projecting that power costs the American people.  Unless America’s global ambitions are scaled back, the military will not be able to endure the excessive demands being placed on its limited, volunteer force.  If Americans are unwilling to pay the price for global primacy, which conservative internationalists take for granted, that primacy will have to end sooner or later.