[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Thought I might recommend a new little book series from the Nation magazine (everyone’s publishing these days!) -- classic essays by some of that mag’s best writers and among my own favorites, including Gore Vidal’s State of the Union, [Kurt] Vonnegut by the Dozen, and an upcoming volume by E.L. Doctorow. Each is a guarantee of pleasure. And here’s a small reminder: if you are an Amazon customer, travel to that site via any TomDispatch book link (or cover image link), and buy books we recommend or anything else whatsoever, book or not, we get a small cut of your purchase at no cost to you. It’s a fine, no-pain-all-gain way to contribute to the site. Tom]
Why Washington Can’t Stop
The Coming Era of Tiny Wars and Micro-Conflicts
By Tom Engelhardt
In terms of pure projectable power, there’s never been anything like
it. Its military has divided the world -- the whole planet -- into six
“commands.” Its fleet, with 11
aircraft carrier battle groups, rules the seas and has done so largely
unchallenged for almost seven decades. Its Air Force has ruled the
global skies, and despite being almost continuously in action for years,
an enemy plane since 1991 or been seriously challenged anywhere since
the early 1970s. Its fleet of drone aircraft has proven itself capable
and killing suspected enemies in the backlands of the planet from
Afghanistan and Pakistan to Yemen and Somalia with little regard for
national boundaries, and none at all for the possibility of being shot
down. It funds and trains proxy armies
on several continents and has complex aid and training relationships
with militaries across the planet. On hundreds of bases, some tiny and
others the size of American towns, its soldiers garrison the globe from Italy
to Australia, Honduras to Afghanistan, and on islands from Okinawa in
the Pacific Ocean to Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. Its weapons
makers are the most advanced on Earth and dominate
the global arms market. Its nuclear weaponry in silos, on bombers, and
on its fleet of submarines would be capable of destroying several
planets the size of Earth. Its system of spy satellites is unsurpassed
and unchallenged. Its intelligence services can listen in on the phone calls or read the emails of almost anyone in the world from top foreign leaders to obscure insurgents. The CIA and its expanding paramilitary forces are capable of kidnapping people of interest just about anywhere from rural Macedonia to the streets of Rome and Tripoli. For its many prisoners, it has set up (and dismantled) secret jails across the planet and on its naval vessels. It spends more on its military than the next most powerful 13 states combined. Add in the spending for its full national security state and it towers over any conceivable group of other nations.
In terms of advanced and unchallenged military power, there has been
nothing like the U.S. armed forces since the Mongols swept across
Eurasia. No wonder American presidents now regularly use
phrases like “the finest fighting force the world has ever known” to
describe it. By the logic of the situation, the planet should be a
pushover for it. Lesser nations with far lesser forces have, in the
past, controlled vast territories. And despite much discussion of
American decline and the waning of its power in a “multi-polar” world,
its ability to pulverize and destroy, kill and maim, blow up and kick
down has only grown in this new century.
No other nation's military comes within a country mile of it. None has more than a handful of foreign bases. None has more than two aircraft carrier battle groups. No potential enemy has such a fleet of robotic planes. None has more than 60,000
special operations forces. Country by country, it’s a hands-down
no-contest. The Russian (once “Red”) army is a shadow of its former
self. The Europeans have not rearmed significantly. Japan’s
“self-defense” forces are powerful and slowly growing, but under the
U.S. nuclear “umbrella.” Although China, regularly identified as the
next rising imperial state, is involved in a much-ballyhooed military
build-up, with its one aircraft carrier (a retread from the days of the
Soviet Union), it still remains only a regional power.
Despite this stunning global power equation, for more than a decade
we have been given a lesson in what a military, no matter how
overwhelming, can and (mostly) can’t do in the twenty-first century, in
what a military, no matter how staggeringly advanced, does and (mostly)
does not translate into on the current version of planet Earth.
A Destabilization Machine
Let’s start with what the U.S. can do. On this, the recent record is
clear: it can destroy and destabilize. In fact, wherever U.S. military
power has been applied in recent years, if there has been any lasting
effect at all, it has been to destabilize whole regions.
Back in 2004, almost a year and a half after American troops had
rolled into a Baghdad looted and in flames, Amr Mussa, the head of the
Arab League, commented
ominously, “The gates of hell are open in Iraq.” Although for the Bush
administration, the situation in that country was already devolving, to
the extent that anyone paid attention to Mussa’s description, it seemed
over the top, even outrageous, as applied to American-occupied Iraq.
Today, with the latest scientific estimate of invasion- and war-caused
Iraqi deaths at a staggering 461,000, thousands more a year still dying there, and with Syria in flames, it seems something of an understatement.
It’s now clear that George W. Bush and his top officials, fervent fundamentalists
when it came to the power of U.S. military to alter, control, and
dominate the Greater Middle East (and possibly the planet), did launch
the radical transformation of the region. Their invasion of Iraq
punched a hole through the heart of the Middle East, sparking a
Sunni-Shiite civil war that has now spread catastrophically to Syria,
taking more than 100,000 lives there. They helped turn the region into a churning sea of refugees,
gave life and meaning to a previously nonexistent al-Qaeda in Iraq (and
now a Syrian version of the same), and left the country drifting in a sea of roadside bombs and suicide bombers, and threatened, like other countries in the region, with the possibility of splitting apart.
And that’s just a thumbnail sketch. It doesn’t matter whether you’re
talking about destabilization in Afghanistan, where U.S. troops have
been on the ground for almost 12 years and counting; Pakistan, where a
CIA-run drone air campaign in its tribal borderlands has gone on for
years as the country grew ever shakier and more violent; Yemen (ditto),
as an outfit called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula grew ever
stronger; or Somalia, where Washington repeatedly backed proxy armies it
had trained and financed, and supported
outside incursions as an already destabilized country came apart at the
seams and the influence of al-Shabab, an increasingly radical and
violent insurgent Islamic group, began to seep across regional borders.
The results have always been the same: destabilization.
Libya where, no longer enamored with boots-on-the-ground interventions,
President Obama sent in the Air Force and the drones in 2011 in a
bloodless intervention (unless, of course, you were on the
ground) that helped topple Muammar Qaddafi, the local autocrat and his
secret-police-and-prisons regime, and launched a vigorous young
democracy... oh, wait a moment, not quite. In fact, the result, which,
unbelievably enough, came as a surprise to Washington, was an
increasingly damaged country with a desperately weak central government,
a territory controlled by a range of militias -- some Islamic extremist
in nature -- an insurgency and war across the border in neighboring
Mali (thanks to an influx of weaponry looted from Qaddafi’s vast
arsenals), a dead American ambassador, a country almost incapable of
exporting its oil, and so on.
Libya was, in fact, so thoroughly destabilized, so lacking in central authority that Washington recently felt free to dispatch
U.S. Special Operations forces onto the streets of its capital in broad
daylight in an operation to snatch up a long-sought terrorist suspect,
an act which was as “successful” as the toppling of the Qaddafi regime
and, in a similar manner, further destabilized a government that Washington still theoretically backed. (Almost immediately afterward, the prime minister found himself briefly kidnapped by a militia unit as part of what might have been a coup attempt.)
Wonders of the Modern World
If the overwhelming military power at the command of Washington can
destabilize whole regions of the planet, what, then, can’t such military
power do? On this, the record is no less clear and just as decisive.
As every significant U.S. military action of this new century has
indicated, the application of military force, no matter in what form,
has proven incapable of achieving even Washington’s most minimal goals
of the moment.
Consider this one of the wonders of the modern world: pile up the
military technology, pour money into your armed forces, outpace the rest
of the world, and none of it adds up to a pile of beans when it comes
to making that world act as you wish. Yes, in Iraq, to take an example,
Saddam Hussein’s regime was quickly “decapitated,” thanks to an
overwhelming display of power and muscle by the invading Americans. His
state bureaucracy was dismantled, his army dismissed, an occupying
authority established backed by foreign troops, soon ensconced on huge
multibillion-dollar military bases meant to be garrisoned for generations, and a suitably “friendly” local government installed.
And that’s where the Bush administration’s dreams ended in the rubble
created by a set of poorly armed minority insurgencies, terrorism, and a
brutal ethnic/religious civil war. In the end, almost nine years after
the invasion and despite the fact that the Obama administration and the
Pentagon were eager
to keep U.S. troops stationed there in some capacity, a relatively weak
central government refused, and they departed, the last representatives
of the greatest power on the planet slipping away in the dead of night. Left behind among the ruins of historic ziggurats were the “ghost towns” and stripped or looted U.S. bases that were to be our monuments in Iraq.
Today, under even more extraordinary circumstances, a similar process
seems to be playing itself out in Afghanistan -- another spectacle of
our moment that should amaze us. After almost 12 years there, finding
itself incapable of suppressing a minority insurgency, Washington is
slowly withdrawing its combat troops, but wants to leave behind on the
giant bases we’ve built perhaps 10,000 “trainers” for the Afghan
military and some Special Operations forces to continue the hunt for
al-Qaeda and other terror types.
For the planet’s sole superpower, this, of all things, should be a
slam dunk. At least the Iraqi government had a certain strength of its
own (and the country’s oil wealth to back it up). If there is a
government on Earth that qualifies for the term “puppet,” it should be
the Afghan one of President Hamid Karzai. After all, at least 80% (and
possibly 90%) of that government’s expenses are covered by the U.S. and its allies, and its security forces are considered incapable
of carrying on the fight against the Taliban and other insurgent
outfits without U.S. support and aid. If Washington were to withdraw
totally (including its financial support), it’s hard to imagine that any
successor to the Karzai government would last long.
How, then, to explain the fact that Karzai has refused to sign a
future bilateral security pact long in the process of being hammered
out? Instead, he recently denounced
U.S. actions in Afghanistan, as he had repeatedly done in the past,
claimed that he simply would not ink the agreement, and began bargaining
with U.S. officials as if he were the leader of the planet’s other
A frustrated Washington
had to dispatch Secretary of State John Kerry on a sudden mission to
Kabul for some top-level face-to-face negotiations. The result, a
reported 24-hour marathon
of talks and meetings, was hailed as a success: problem(s) solved.
Oops, all but one. As it turned out, it was the very same one on which
the continued U.S. military presence in Iraq stumbled -- Washington’s demand for legal immunity from local law for its troops. In the end, Kerry flew out without an assured agreement.
Making Sense of War in the Twenty-First Century
Whether the U.S. military does or doesn’t last a few more years in
Afghanistan, the blunt fact is this: the president of one of the poorest
and weakest countries on the planet, himself relatively powerless, is
essentially dictating terms to Washington -- and who’s to say that, in
the end, as in Iraq, U.S. troops won’t be forced to leave there as well?
Once again, military strength has not carried the day. Yet military
power, advanced weaponry, force, and destruction as tools of policy, as
ways to create a world in your own image or to your own taste, have
worked plenty well in the past. Ask those Mongols, or the European
imperial powers from Spain in the sixteenth century to Britain in the
nineteenth century, which took their empires by force and successfully
maintained them over long periods.
What planet are we now on? Why is it that military power, the
mightiest imaginable, can’t overcome, pacify, or simply destroy weak
powers, less than impressive insurgency movements, or the ragged groups
of (often tribal) peoples we label as “terrorists”? Why is such military
power no longer transformative or even reasonably effective? Is it, to
reach for an analogy, like antibiotics? If used for too long in too
many situations, does a kind of immunity build up against it?
Let’s be clear here: such a military remains a powerful potential
instrument of destruction, death, and destabilization. For all we know
-- it’s not something we’ve seen anything of in these years -- it might
also be a powerful instrument for genuine defense. But if recent
history is any guide, what it clearly cannot be in the twenty-first
century is a policymaking instrument, a means of altering the world to
fit a scheme developed in Washington. The planet itself and people just
about anywhere on it seem increasingly resistant in ways that take the
military off the table as an effective superpower instrument of state.
Washington’s military plans and tactics since 9/11 have been a
spectacular train wreck. When you look back, counterinsurgency
doctrine, resuscitated from the ashes of America’s defeat in Vietnam, is
once again on the scrap heap of history. (Who today even remembers its
key organizing phrase -- “clear, hold, and build” -- which now looks
like the punch line for some malign joke?) “Surges,” once hailed as
brilliant military strategy, have already disappeared
into the mists. “Nation-building,” once a term of tradecraft in
Washington, is in the doghouse. “Boots on the ground,” of which the
U.S. had enormous numbers and still has 51,000
in Afghanistan, are now a no-no. The American public is, everyone
universally agrees, “exhausted” with war. Major American armies
arriving to fight anywhere on the Eurasian continent in the foreseeable
future? Don’t count on it.
But lessons learned from the collapse of war policy? Don’t count on
that, either. It’s clear enough that Washington still can’t fully
absorb what’s happened. Its faith in war remains remarkably unbroken in
a century in which military power has become the American political
equivalent of a state religion. Our leaders are still high on the
counterterrorism wars of the future, even as they drown in their
military efforts of the present. Their urge is still to rejigger and
reimagine what a deliverable military solution would be.
Now the message is: skip those boots en masse -- in fact, cut down
on their numbers in the age of the sequester -- and go for the
counterterrorism package. No more spilling of (American) blood. Get
the “bad guys,” one or a few at a time, using the president’s private army, the Special Operations forces, or his private air force,
the CIA’s drones. Build new barebones micro-bases globally. Move those
aircraft carrier battle groups off the coast of whatever country you
want to intimidate.
It’s clear we’re entering a new period in terms of American war
making. Call it the era of tiny wars, or micro-conflicts, especially in
the tribal backlands of the planet.
So something is indeed changing in response to military failure, but
what’s not changing is Washington's preference for war as the option of
choice, often of first resort. What’s not changing is the thought that,
if you can just get your strategy and tactics readjusted correctly,
force will work. (Recently, Washington was only saved from plunging
into another predictable military disaster in Syria by an offhand
comment of Secretary of State John Kerry and the timely intervention of
Russian President Vladimir Putin.)
What our leaders don’t get is the most basic, practical fact of our
moment: war simply doesn’t work, not big, not micro -- not for
Washington. A superpower at war in the distant reaches of this planet
is no longer a superpower ascendant but one with problems.
The U.S. military may be a destabilization machine. It may be a blowback machine. What it’s not is a policymaking or enforcement machine.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture (now also in a Kindle edition), runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.
[Note: A deep bow of thanks to Nick Turse for his continuing help and, above all, inspiration.]
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.
Copyright 2013 Tom Engelhardt