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Dreams Of A Peacetime U.S. Presidency

Nov 11, 2012
Originally published on November 11, 2012 3:39 pm
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This weekend, we've been taking stock of the post-election landscape - what could happen in the immediate future and what might happen beyond. Our cover story today: the next four years. In a moment, we'll hear from our own Nina Totenberg about potential changes to the Supreme Court. But first, let's go to Micah Zenko.

He's a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an expert on modern warfare. He says that even though the Iraq War is now officially over, that the war in Afghanistan will soon follow, President Obama will never be a peacetime president. In fact, he says, the last peacetime president: Warren G. Harding. And he worries that nobody seems to think that's a problem.

MICAH ZENKO: It's been a pretty steady assumption that the U.S. will use military force abroad as everyone has certainly done throughout the Cold War. The difference is that the capabilities and the authority and the sort of normalization - the institutionalization of offensive military operations - has never been more widely bipartisan agreed-upon in Washington and sort of generally accepted by the American public.

RAZ: OK. A couple months ago at a hearing on Capitol Hill, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, said that he believes that we are now living in the most dangerous time - that's in his lifetime, at least. That would seem to justify, you know, military readiness and the ability to use military force if that's true. Wouldn't it?

ZENKO: Well, Dempsey says the world is more dangerous today than at any point since at least 1952 when he was born. And if you think back at the actual threats that the United States faced during the Cuban missile crisis, the threat that unsecured fissile material and nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union posed in the early 1990s, which was a far more significant direct threat to the United States' people and to deployed forces and diplomatic outposts abroad, it just doesn't quite hold.

I would also add that, yes, we should have a significant military at high levels of readiness that can be deployed all around the world. The question is whether or not intervening intermittently and at escalating levels - at least with the use of unmanned drones as President Obama has done - actually makes these threats any less significant. Or what is the long-term strategic objective by which the United States would not see the military as the primary face of U.S. foreign policy for dealing with these issues?

RAZ: I guess my question is, I mean, you could be a peacetime chancellor of Germany or of Austria, but the interests that the United States has around the world are much, much greater, and the expectations are bigger. So it would seem to me that it would be almost unavoidable for a U.S. president not to at least be involved in some way in some kind of military operation.

ZENKO: I agree. And you asked the right question. What is U.S. grand strategy? What specifically should be United States' national interests? And you see the question playing out right now in places like Syria, as was played out in 2011 in Libya. What role specifically also does the U.S. military have to defend those interests?

RAZ: Talk about the consequences of the end of a peacetime American president.

ZENKO: Well, you see it in many areas. I mean, you see it in the media, this unquestioning recognition that military solutions are sufficient means for U.S. conduct of foreign policy.

RAZ: We're enablers, essentially.

ZENKO: We're - I mean, the media is totally enablers, as is the general public. I mean, there are 10 movies currently in production or in theaters about the Navy SEALs. Nothing is more impressive and responsive than U.S. military capabilities - drones, Navy SEALs, cyberoperations. And so when we acknowledge their impressiveness and this sort of gee-whiz factor specifically of drones, you know, people are willing to let this happen.

And I would just say that before 9/11, the U.S. did not do targeted killings, and, in fact, they opposed other countries who did them. And if you would have told people on September 12, 2001 that the U.S. would have conducted 400 targeted killings outside of the battlefield settings, killing something like 3,000-plus people, they would have never believed you. And there seems to be no public debate about whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.

RAZ: That's Micah Zenko. He's a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations speaking to us from New York. Micah, thank you.

ZENKO: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.