Unending Military Engagement: The Price of American Hegemony

Americans have long cultivated an idealized view that robust foreign military operations should be a rarity between conflicts. As explained by historians Allan Millett and Peter Maslowski in their foundational study on U.S. history, For the Common Defense, “a preoccupation with private gain, a reluctance to pay taxes, a distaste for military service, and fear of large standing forces” have “imposed severe limitations” on peacetime mobilization even throughout the republic’s relatively recent rise to global hegemony.[1] This cultural inclination repeatedly manifested in the United States’ dramatic reductions of its national army, perhaps the purest expression of the body politic’s investment in foreign affairs, following the Civil War, both World Wars, and the Cold War. Even now, in the wake of America’s counterinsurgency campaigns in the Middle East, the U.S. Army has become smaller than at anytime since 1940.[2]

Despite the American public’s historical aversion to societal and structural militarism, history reveals unequivocally that geopolitical dominance requires constant influence—often empowered by substantial force projection—to preserve status quo interests across distant regions. From Rome’s imperium to the Mongol’s khanates to Britain’s colonial empire, the cost of hegemony has always been enduring intervention to safeguard political and economic interests abroad. Though fraught will the perils of overreach and and unintended consequences, preservation of these conditions has likewise occasionally required decisive, though ideally judicious, expeditionary military engagement to ensure strategic stability. As attested by Pericles, the statesman who led imperial Athens at the peak of its power in the 5th century B.C.E., “You cannot decline the burdens of empire and still expect to share its honors.” [3]

Pericles of Athens: "You cannot decline the burdens of empire and still expect to share its honors."

The 1991 Persian Gulf War offers a recent, and often misunderstood, example of how a decisive victory resulted not in peaceful disengagement, but rather an ongoing commitment of manageable intensity. The optimized military engagement that stemmed from the conflict—won by a much larger American-led coalition than those that initiated follow-on wars in the Middle East in 2001 and 2003—both catalyzed and preserved the United States’ continued primacy in the area. Similar to British maintenance of maritime commercial lanes at the height of its imperial influence, America’s subsequent projection of modest ground, naval, and aerial forces throughout the region, and in northern and southern Iraq in particular, throughout the 1990s represent an underappreciated, but largely cost-effective, application of national resources to preserve acceptable levels of economic and political stability.

Despite these generally palatable outcomes, some have criticized the 1991 Persian Gulf War  as an incomplete campaign that failed to achieve favorable strategic conditions. While a sub-section of hubristic American foreign policy elites remained absolutely unreconciled throughout the 1990s and early 2000s to the continuance of Saddam Hussein’s regime as a violent rogue state, the broader American public nurtured historical unease with long-term military operations, even at relatively low intensities, in places beyond Germany, Japan, and Korea. If overvaluing the Iraqi threat represented a convenient ideological and political foil, the citizenry’s naïve outlook reflected a hesitancy to fully embrace the realities of their Republic's singular global position in the wake of the Cold War. More recently, others have claimed that the 1991 victory ultimately led to further, and disastrous, U.S. entanglements in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and Syria.[4]

Misinterpretation of the strategic achievements of the Persian Gulf War has flourished across academia, in particular. In 2011, for example, U.S. Naval War College professor Thomas Mahnken assessed—with narrow appreciation of the demands of ensuring global economic security—that by “ending the war unilaterally before Saddam had been chastened, the Bush administration condemned the United States to a long-term presence in the Gulf.”[5] In light of intensifying turmoil in the Middle East in recent years, this line of criticism has continued. Retired army officer and professor Andrew Bacevich more recently adopted an even more critical tone in his otherwise insightful book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East, when he asserted,  “Operation Desert Storm accomplished next to nothing” and the “result was a complete failure.”[6]

Any cursory study of hegemonic dominance in history contradicts such episodic analysis. The allied triumph in 1991 was actually a strategic masterpiece that stabilized American interests in the Middle East. It resulted in a manageable regional balance of power that favored the United States’ controlling position with minimal force projection costs—mostly in maintaining no-fly zones over Iraq and minimal ground force rotations to Kuwait—to preserve desired economic relationships. Daniel Bolger, a retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General who commanded a cavalry division in Operation Iraqi Freedom, agreed in his 2014 book, Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars:  “[I]n retrospect, Saddam’s Iraq appears to have been contained and could conceivably have been boxed in more tightly rather than destroyed outright.”[7] With low operating costs and tactical risks, the world’s sole remaining superpower was favorably postured after the war to shape events in the region.

When assessed through the lens of historical international norms, the true success of the Persian Gulf War was not blissful peace across the region through benevolent and cost-free American oversight, but the creation of a strategic landscape in which the United States stood empowered to influence and stabilize Middle Eastern affairs through a series of coalition and bilateral relationships. Iraq remained a limited, but viable, power to counter-balance Iranian ambitions. The Gulf States and Saudi Arabia owed their enduring security to American guarantees. Egypt and Israel, the leading military powers who could potentially ignite another regional war, each maintained robust economic and military dependence on bilateral partnerships with the United States. And most importantly, conditions for uninterrupted hydro-carbon trade—the primary Western interest in the troubled region and rationale for the 1991 intervention according to scholars as diverse as Millett and Bacevich—were ensured for a generation.[8]

Islamic State fighters on the border between Syria and Iraq (Corbis/Medyan Dairieh)

With the benefit of hindsight, it seems the true strategic mistake was not the limited nature of the Persian Gulf War, but rather American choices in 2003 and 2011 to upset this hard-won balance and then visibly withdraw from a destabilized Middle East.[9] Rather than cultivating obvious gains and negotiating manageable challenges created by the 1991 triumph, successive administrations recklessly empowered Iran’s regional designs by emasculating its historic opponent during Operation Iraqi Freedom and then precipitously removed the preponderance of its conventional forces from the region. These mistakes ultimately catalyzed the chaos of the Syrian Civil War and unleashed the rapacious Islamic State. The degradation of secular nation-state control across the Middle East also removed a long-standing, though admittedly distasteful, check on religious terrorism by self-serving despots. The American-sponsored balance of power in the Middle East, so brilliantly engineered by a nuanced combination of military power and statecraft, was shattered by hubris and near-sighted politics.

Looking to the 21st century, American joint forces, along with equally important facets of national power, will remain globally engaged with varying degrees of operational intensity so long as the United States seeks to retain its dominant position as the guarantor of international equilibrium. Just as Roman legions were nearly always on campaign—as signified by a tradition where the sacred Temple of Janus left its doors open to signify a state of war for hundreds of years at a time—the commitment of enduring, though usually limited, military engagement is the unavoidable price of hegemonic influence.[10]

"...to take it was perhaps wrong, but to let it go is dangerous."

Pericles of Athens, when encouraging his democracy to shoulder the burdens of empire, warned that “to take it was perhaps wrong, but to let it go is dangerous.”[11] Over two millennia later, the world’s current hegemon will similarly remain involved in strategic maintenance operations in critical theaters ranging from Mesopotamia to the Caucuses to the Far East as it seeks to prevent, or at least negotiate, the perils of relative decline. Any idea that the American leviathan can maintain global primacy, even as regional powers like China, Russia, and Iran increasingly challenge the existing international order, without continuously projecting power is a seductive fiction. While it has no Temple of Janus, the republic’s doors will remain open to degrees of intervention as it safeguards both traditional and emerging national interests. Like the Romans, Mongols, and British before, America’s imperative to exercise unending foreign military engagement will not change until its primacy is eclipsed.

Nathan Jennings is a U.S. Army officer who served in Baghdad and Kirkuk during Operation Iraqi Freedom and has taught history at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He holds an M.A. in history from the University of Texas at Austin and is the author of the recently published book, Riding for the Lone Star: Frontier Cavalry and the Texas Way of War, 1822-1865. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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[1] Allan Millett and Peter Maslowski, For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America (New York: Free Press, 1994), xii.

[2] Jim Tice, “Army shrinks to smallest level since before World War II,” Army Times, May 7, 2016.

[3] Robert Strassler, editor, The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War (New York: Free Press, 1996), 125.

[4] Geoffrey Wawro, “The Sins of the First Gulf War,” The Daily Beast, January 22, 2011.

[5] Thomas Mahnken, “The Gulf War in Retrospect,” Foreign Policy, January 20, 2011.

[6] Andrew Bacevich, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History (New York: Random House, 2016), 134.

[7] Daniel Bolger, Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2014), 422.

[8] Millett, For the Common Defense, 631; Bacevich, America’s War for the Greater Middle East, 133.

[9] Bolger, Why We Lost, 422, 427.

[10] David Shotter, Rome and Her Empire (New York: Pearson Education, 2003), 227.

[11] Strassler, Landmark Thucydides, 126.