Disaster on Autopilot: Overwrought Empire, the discrediting of U.S. military power

October 12th, 2012

Published on TomDispatch, by Tom Engelhardt, October 7, 2012.

… Americans lived in a victory culture for much of the twentieth century. You could say that we experienced an almost 75-year stretch of triumphalism – think of it as the real “American Century” – from World War I to the end of the Cold War, with time off for a destructive stalemate in Korea and a defeat in Vietnam too shocking to absorb or shake off … //

… The Planet’s Top Gun:

And yet the more dominant the U.S. military becomes in its ability to destroy and the more its forces are spread across the globe, the more the defeats and semi-defeats pile up, the more the missteps and mistakes grow, the more the strains show, the more the suicides rise, the more the nation’s treasure disappears down a black hole — and in response to all of this, the more moves the Pentagon makes.

A great power without a significant enemy?  You might have to go back to the Roman Empire at its height or some Chinese dynasty in full flower to find anything like it. And yet Osama bin Laden is dead. Al-Qaeda is reportedly a shadow of its former self.  The great regional threats of the moment, North Korea and Iran, are regimes held together by baling wire and the suffering of their populaces. The only incipient great power rival on the planet, China, has just launched its first aircraft carrier, a refurbished Ukrainian throwaway from the 1990s on whose deck the country has no planes capable of landing.

The U.S. has 1,000 or more bases around the world; other countries, a handful. The U.S. spends as much on its military as the next 14 powers (mostly allies) combined. In fact, it’s investing an estimated $1.45 trillion to produce and operate a single future aircraft, the F-35 — more than any country, the U.S. included, now spends on its national defense annually … //

… Washington’s Wars on Autopilot:

After the last decade of military failures, stand-offs, and frustrations, you might think that this would be apparent in Washington.  After all, the U.S. is now visibly an overextended empire, its sway waning from the Greater Middle East to Latin America, the limits of its power increasingly evident. And yet, here’s the curious thing: two administrations in Washington have drawn none of the obvious conclusions, and no matter how the presidential election turns out, it’s already clear that, in this regard, nothing will change.

Even as military power has proven itself a bust again and again, our policymakers have come to rely ever more completely on a military-first response to global problems. In other words, we are not just a classically overextended empire, but also an overwrought one operating on some kind of militarized autopilot. Lacking is a learning curve.  By all evidence, it’s not just that there isn’t one, but that there can’t be one.

Washington, it seems, now has only one mode of thought and action, no matter who is at the helm or what the problem may be, and it always involves, directly or indirectly, openly or clandestinely, the application of militarized force. Nor does it matter that each further application only destabilizes some region yet more or undermines further what once were known as “American interests.”

Take Libya, as an example. It briefly seemed to count as a rare American military success story: a decisive intervention in support of a rebellion against a brutal dictator – so brutal, in fact, that the CIA previously shipped “terrorist suspects,” Islamic rebels fighting against the Gaddafi regime, there for torture. No U.S. casualties resulted, while American and NATO air strikes were decisive in bringing a set of ill-armed, ill-organized rebels to power.

In the world of unintended consequences, however, the fall of Gaddafi sent Tuareg mercenaries from his militias, armed with high-end weaponry, across the border into Mali. There, when the dust settled, the whole northern part of the country had come unhinged and fallen under the sway of Islamic extremists and al-Qaeda wannabes as other parts of North Africa threatened to destabilize. At the same time, of course, the first American casualties of the intervention occurred when Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans died in an attack on the Benghazi consulate and a local “safe house.”

With matters worsening regionally, the response couldn’t have been more predictable. As Greg Miller and Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post recently reported, in ongoing secret meetings, the White House is planning for military operations against al-Qaeda-in-the-Magreb (North Africa), now armed with weaponry pillaged from Gaddafi’s stockpiles.  These plans evidently include the approach used in Yemen (U.S. special forces on the ground and CIA drone strikes), or a Somalia “formula” (drone strikes, special forces operations, CIA operations, and the support of African proxy armies), or even at some point “the possibility of direct U.S. intervention.”

In addition, Eric Schmitt and David Kilpatrick of the New York Times report that the Obama administration is “preparing retaliation” against those it believes killed the U.S. ambassador, possibly including “drone strikes, special operations raids like the one that killed Osama bin Laden, and joint missions with Libyan authorities.”  The near certainty that, like the previous intervention, this next set of military actions will only further destabilize the region with yet more unpleasant surprises and unintended consequences hardly seems to matter.  Nor does the fact that, in crude form, the results of such acts are known to us ahead of time have an effect on the unstoppable urge to plan and order them.

Such situations are increasingly legion across the Greater Middle East and elsewhere. Take one other tiny example: Iraq, from which, after almost a decade-long military disaster, the “last” U.S. units essentially fled in the middle of the night as 2011 ended. Even in those last moments, the Obama administration and the Pentagon were still trying to keep significant numbers of U.S. troops there (and, in fact, did manage to leave behind possibly several hundred as trainers of elite Iraqi units). Meanwhile, Iraq has been supportive of the embattled Syrian regime and drawn ever closer to Iran, even as its own sectarian strife has ratcheted upward. Having watched this unsettling fallout from its last round in the country, according to the New York Times, the U.S. is now negotiating an agreement “that could result in the return of small units of American soldiers to Iraq on training missions. At the request of the Iraqi government, according to General Caslen, a unit of Army Special Operations soldiers was recently deployed to Iraq to advise on counterterrorism and help with intelligence.”

Don’t you just want to speak to those negotiators the way you might to a child: No, don’t do that!  The urge to return to the scene of their previous disaster, however, seems unstaunchable.  You could offer various explanations for why our policymakers, military and civilian, continue in such a repetitive – and even from an imperial point of view – self-destructive vein in situations where unpleasant surprises are essentially guaranteed and lack of success a given.  Yes, there is the military-industrial complex to be fed.  Yes, we are interested in the control of crucial resources, especially energy, and so on.

But it’s probably more reasonable to say that a deeply militarized mindset and the global maneuvers that go with it are by now just part of the way of life of a Washington eternally “at war.”  They are the tics of a great power with the equivalent of Tourette’s Syndrome. They happen because they can’t help but happen, because they are engraved in the policy DNA of our national security complex, and can evidently no longer be altered. In other words, they can’t help themselves.

That’s the only logical conclusion in a world where it has become ever less imaginable to do the obvious, which is far less or nothing at all.  (Northern Chad?  When did it become crucial to our well being?) Downsizing the mission? Inconceivable. Thinking the unthinkable?  Don’t even give it a thought!

What remains is, of course, a self-evident formula for disaster on autopilot. But don’t tell Washington. It won’t matter. Its denizens can’t take it in.
(full long text).

Links:

Book: The End of Victory Culture, Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation (Revised Edition with new preface and afterword, on amazon;

Kids in solitary confinement: State-sponsored child abuse
, on raw story, by Jean Casella, The Guardian, October 10, 2012.

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