by Tom Engelhardt: The
United States of Fear
If, as 2011
begins, you want to peer into the future, enter my time machine,
strap yourself in, and head for the past, that laboratory for all
developments of our moment and beyond.
Just as 2010
ended, the American military’s urge to surge resurfaced in a significant
way. It seems that "leaders" in the Obama administration
and "senior American military commanders" in Afghanistan
were acting as a veritable WikiLeaks
machine. They slipped information to New York Times
reporters Mark Mazzetti and Dexter Filkins about secret planning
to increase pressure in the Pakistani tribal borderlands, possibly
on the tinderbox
province of Baluchistan,
and undoubtedly on the Pakistani government and military via cross-border
raids by U.S. Special Operations forces in the new year.
In the front-page
story those two reporters produced, you could practically slice
with a dull knife American military frustration over a war going
terribly wrong, over an enemy (shades of Vietnam!) with "sanctuaries"
for rest, recuperation, and rearming just over an ill-marked, half-existent
border. You could practically taste the chagrin of the military
that their war against… well you name it: terrorists, guerrillas,
Islamic fundamentalist allies, Afghan and Pakistani nationalists,
and god knows who else… wasn’t proceeding exactly swimmingly.
You could practically reach out and be seared by their anger at
the Pakistanis for continuing to take
American bucks by the billions
while playing their own game, rather than an American one,
in the region.
If you were
of a certain age, you could practically feel (shades of Vietnam
again!) that eerily hopeful sense that the next step in spreading
the war, the next escalation, could be the decisive one. Admittedly,
these days no one talks (as they did in the Vietnam and Iraq
years) about turning "corners" or reaching "tipping
points," but you can practically hear those phrases anyway,
or at least the mingled hope and desperation that always lurked
Take this sentence,
for instance: "Even with the risks, military commanders say
that using American Special Operations troops could bring an intelligence
windfall, if militants were captured, brought back across the border
into Afghanistan and interrogated." Can’t you catch the familiar
conviction that, when things are going badly, the answer is never
"less," always "more," that just another decisive
step or two and you’ll be around that fateful corner?
In this single
New York Times piece (and other hints
about cross-border operations), you can sense just how addictive
war is for the war planners. Once you begin down the path of invasion
and occupation, turning back is as difficult as an addict going
cold turkey. With all the sober talk about year-end
reviews in Afghanistan, about planning and "progress"
(a word used nine times in the relatively brief, vetted "overview"
of that review recently released
by the White House), about future dates for drawdowns and present
tactics, it’s easy to forget that war is a drug. When you’re high
on it, your decisions undoubtedly look as rational, even practical,
as the public language you tend to use to describe them. But don’t
believe it for a second.
shot up this drug, your thinking is impaired. Through its dream-haze,
unpleasant history becomes bunk; what others couldn’t do, you fantasize
that you can. Forget the fact that crossing similar borders to get
similar information and wipe out similar sanctuaries in Cambodia
and Laos in the Vietnam War years led to catastrophe for American
planners and the peoples of the region. It only widened that war
into what in Cambodia would become auto-genocide.
Forget the fact that, no matter whom American raiders might capture,
they have no hope of capturing the feeling of nationalism (or the
tribal equivalent) that, in the face of foreign invaders or a foreign
occupation, keeps the under-armed resilient
against the mightiest of forces.
Think of the
American urge to surge as a manifestation of the war drug’s effect
in the world. In what the Bush administration used to call "the
Greater Middle East," Washington is now in its third and grimmest
surge iteration. The first took place in the 1980s during the Reagan
administration’s anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan and proved
the highest of highs; the second got rolling as the last century
was ending and culminated in the first years of the twenty-first
century amid what can only be described as delusions of grandeur,
or even imperial megalomania. It focused on a global Pax Americana
and the wars that extend it into the distant future. The third started
in 2006 in Iraq and is still playing itself out in Afghanistan as
and South Asia, we could now be heading for the end of the age of
American surges, which in practical terms have manifested themselves
as the urge to destabilize. Geopolitically, little could be uglier
or riskier on our planet at the moment than destabilizing Pakistan
– or the United States. Three decades after the American urge
to surge in Afghanistan helped destabilize one imperial superpower,
the Soviet Union, the present plans, whatever they may turn out
to be, could belatedly destabilize the other superpower of the Cold
War era. And what our preeminent group of surgers welcomed as an
"unprecedented strategic opportunity" as this century
dawned may, in its later stages, be seen as an unprecedented act
of strategic desperation.
That, of course,
is what drugs, taken over decades, do to you: they give you delusions
of grandeur and then leave you on the street, strung out, and without
much to call your own. Perhaps it’s fitting that Afghanistan, the
country we helped turn into the planet’s leading
narco-state, has given us a 30-year high from hell.
So, as the
New Year begins, strap yourself into that time machine and travel
with me back into the 1980s, so that we can peer into a future we
know and see the pattern that lies both behind and ahead of us.
High in Afghanistan
As 2011 begins,
what could be eerier than reading
secret Soviet documents from the USSR’s Afghan debacle of the
1980s? It gives you chills to run across Communist Party General
Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev at a Politburo meeting in October 1985,
almost six years after Soviet troops first flooded into Afghanistan,
reading letters aloud to his colleagues from embittered Soviet citizens
("The Politburo had made a mistake and must correct it as soon
as possible – every day precious lives are lost."); or,
in November 1986, insisting to those same colleagues that the Afghan
war must be ended in a year, "at maximum, two."
Yet, with the gut-wrenching sureness history offers, you can’t help
but know that, even two years later, even with a strong desire to
leave (which has yet to surface among the Washington elite a decade
into our own Afghan adventure), imperial pride and fear of loss
of "credibility" would keep the Soviets fighting on to
Or what about
Marshal Sergei Akhromeev offering that same Politburo meeting an
assessment that any honest American military commander might
offer a quarter century later about our own
Afghan adventure: "There is no single piece of land in
this country that has not been occupied by a Soviet soldier. Nevertheless,
the majority of the territory remains in the hands of the rebels."
Or General Boris Gromov, the last commander of the Soviet 40th Army
in Afghanistan, boasting "on his last day in the country that
‘[n]o Soviet garrison or major outpost was ever overrun.’"
Or Andrei Gromyko,
Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, emphasizing in
1986 the strategic pleasure of their not-so-secret foe, that other
great imperial power of the moment: "Concerning the Americans,
they are not interested in the settlement of the situation in Afghanistan.
On the contrary, it is to their advantage for the war to drag out."
(The same might today be said of a far less impressive foe, al-Qaeda.)
Or in 1988,
with the war still dragging on, to read a "closed" letter
the Communist Party distributed to its members explaining how the
Afghan fiasco happened (again, the sort of thing that any honest
American leader could say of our Afghan war): "In addition,
[we] completely disregarded the most important national and historical
factors, above all the fact that the appearance of armed foreigners
in Afghanistan was always met with arms in the hands [of the population]…
One should not disregard the economic factor either. If the enemy
in Afghanistan received weapons and ammunition for hundreds of millions
and later even billions of dollars, the Soviet-Afghan side also
had to shoulder adequate expenditures. The war in Afghanistan costs
us 5 billion rubles a year."
the pathetic letter the Soviet Military Command delivered to the
head of the UN mission in Afghanistan on February 14, 1989, arguing
(just as the American military high command would do of our war
effort) that it was "not only unfair but even absurd to draw…
parallels" between the Soviet Afghan disaster and the American
war in Vietnam. That was, of course, the day the last of 100,000
Soviet soldiers – just
about the number of American soldiers there
today – left Afghan soil heading home to a sclerotic country
bled dry by war, its infrastructure aging, its economy crumbling.
Riddled by drugs and thoroughly demoralized, the Red Army limped
home to a society riddled by drugs and thoroughly demoralized led
by a Communist Party significantly delegitimized by its disastrous
Afghan adventure, its Islamic territories from Chechnya to Central
Asia in increasing turmoil. In November of that same year, the Berlin
Wall would be torn down and not long after the Soviet Union would
disappear from the face of the Earth.
documents, you can almost imagine CIA director William Webster and
"his euphoric ‘Afghan Team’" toasting
the success of the Agency’s 10-year effort, its largest paramilitary
operation since the Vietnam War. The Reagan administration surge
in Pakistan and Afghanistan had been profligate, involving billions
of dollars and a massive propaganda campaign, as well as alliances
with the Saudis and a Pakistani dictator and his intelligence service
to fund and arm the most extreme of the anti-Soviet jihadists
of that moment – "freedom
fighters" as they were then commonly called in Washington.
It’s easy to
imagine the triumphalist mood of celebration in Washington among
those who had intended to give the Soviet Union a full blast of
the Vietnam effect. They had used the "war" part of the
Cold War to purposely bleed the less powerful, less wealthy of the
two superpowers dry. As President Reagan would later write in his
memoirs: "The great dynamic of capitalism had given us a powerful
weapon in our battle against Communism – money. The Russians
could never win the arms race; we could outspend them forever."
By 1990, the
urge to surge seemed a success beyond imagining. Forget that it
had left more than a million Afghans dead (and more dying), that
one-third of that impoverished country’s population had been turned
into refugees, or that the most extreme of jihadists, including
a group that called itself al-Qaeda, had been brought together,
funded, and empowered through the Afghan War. More important, the
urge to surge in the region was now in the American bloodstream.
And who could ever imagine that, in a new century, "our"
freedom fighters would become our sworn enemies, or that the Afghans,
that backward people in a poor land, could ever be the sort of impediment
to American power that they had been to the Soviets?
The Cold War
was over. The surge had it. We were supreme. And what better high
could there be than that?
Dreams of Military Might
with the Soviet Union gone, there was no military on the planet
that could come close to challenging the American one, nor was there
a nascent rival great power on the horizon. Still, a question remained:
After centuries of great power rivalry, what did it mean to have
a "sole superpower" on planet Earth, and what path should
that triumphant power head down? It took a few years, including
passing talk about a possible "peace dividend" –
that is, the investment of monies that would have gone into the
Cold War, the Pentagon, and the military in infrastructural and
other domestic projects – for this question to be settled,
but settled it was, definitively, on September 12, 2001.
And for all
the unknown paths that might have been taken in this unique situation,
the one chosen was familiar. It was, of course, the
very one that had helped lead the Soviet Union to implosion,
the investment of national treasure in military power above all
else. However, to those high on the urge to surge and now eager
to surge globally, when it came to an American future, the fate
of the Soviet Union seemed no more relevant than what the Afghans
had done to the Red Army. In those glory years, analogies between
the greatest power the planet had ever seen and a defeated foe seemed
absurd to those who believed themselves the smartest, clearest-headed
guys in the room.
the "arms race," like any race, had involved at least
two, and sometimes more, great powers. Now, it seemed, there would
be something new under the sun, an arms race of one, as the U.S.
prepared itself for utter dominance into a distant, highly militarized
future. The military-industrial complex would, in these years, be
further embedded in the warp and woof of American life; the military
expanded and privatized (which meant being firmly embraced by crony
corporations and hire-a-gun
outfits of every sort); and the American "global presence"
– from military bases to aircraft-carrier task forces –
enhanced until, however briefly, the United States became a military
presence unique in the annals of history.
Thanks to the
destructive acts of 19 jihadis, the urge to surge would
with finality overwhelm all other urges in the fall of 2001 –
and there would be a group ready for just such a moment, for (as
the newspaper headlines screamed) a "Pearl
Harbor of the twenty-first century."
To take full
stock of that group, however, we would first have to pilot our time
machine back to June 3, 1997, the day a confident crew of Washington
think-tank, academic, and political types calling themselves the
Project for the New American Century (PNAC) posted a fin de
of principles." In it, they called for "a military
that is strong and ready to meet both present and future challenges;
a foreign policy that boldly and purposefully promotes American
principles abroad; and national leadership that accepts the United
States’ global responsibilities." Crucially, they were demanding
that the Clinton administration, or assumedly some future administration
with a better sense of American priorities, "increase defense
The 23 men
and two women who signed the initial PNAC statement urging the United
States to go for the military option in the twenty-first century
would, however, prove something more than your typical crew of think-tank
types. After all, not so many years later, after a disputed presidential
election settled by the Supreme Court, Dick Cheney would be vice
president; I. Lewis ("Scooter") Libby would be his right-hand
man; Donald Rumsfeld would be Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz,
Deputy Secretary of Defense; Zalmay Khalilzad, head of the Bush-Cheney
transition team at the Department of Defense and then the first
post- invasion U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, as well as ambassador
to Iraq and UN ambassador; Elliot Abrams, special assistant to the
president with a post on the National Security Council; Paula Dobriansky,
Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs; Aaron
Friedberg, Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs and Director
of Policy Planning in the office of the vice president; and Jeb
Bush, governor of Florida. (Others like John Bolton, who signed
on to PNAC later, would be no less well employed.)
This may, in
fact, be the first example in history of a think tank coming to
power and actually putting its blue-sky suggestions into operation
as government policy, or perhaps it’s the only example so far of
a government-in-waiting masquerading as an online think tank. In
either case, more than 13 years later, the success of that group
can still take your breath away, as can both the narrowness –
and scope – of their thinking, and of their seminal document,
America’s Defenses," published in September 2000, two months
before George W. Bush took the presidency.
This crew of
surgers extraordinaires was considering a global situation
that, as they saw it, offered Americans an "unprecedented strategic
opportunity." Facing a new century, their ambitions were caught
by James Peck in his startling upcoming book, Ideal
Illusions: How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights,
in this way: "In the [Reagan] era, Washington organized half
the planet; in the [Bush era] it sought to organize the whole.”
America’s Defenses," if remembered at all today, is recalled
mainly for a throwaway sentence that looked ominous indeed in retrospect:
"Further, the process of transformation [of the military],
even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one,
absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new
Pearl Harbor." It remains, however, a remarkable
document for other reasons. In many ways canny about the direction
war would take in the near future, ranging from the role of drones
in air war to the onrushing possibility that cyberwar (or "Net-War,"
as they called it) would be the style of future conflict, it was
a clarion call to ensure this country’s "unchallenged supremacy"
into the distant future by military means alone.
In 1983, in
to the National Association of Evangelicals, President Ronald Reagan
famously called the Soviet Union an "evil empire." It
wanted, as he saw it, what all dark empires (and every evildoer
in any James Bond film) desires: unchallenged dominion over the
planet – and it pursued that dominion in the name of a glorious
"world revolution." Now, in the name of American safety
and the glories of global democracy, we were – so the PNAC
people both pleaded and demanded – to do what only evil empires
did and achieve global dominion beyond compare over planet Earth.
We could, they
insisted in a phrase they liked, enforce an American peace, a Pax
Americana, for decades to come, if only we poured our resources,
untold billions – they refused to estimate what the real price
might be – into war preparations and, if necessary, war itself,
from the seven seas to the heavens, from manifold new "forward
operating bases on land" to space and cyberspace. Pushing "the
American security perimeter" ever farther into the distant
reaches of the planet (and "patrolling" it via "constabulary
missions") was, they claimed, the only way that "U.S.
military supremacy" could be translated into "American
geopolitical preeminence." It was also the only that the "homeland"
– yes, unlike 99.9% of Americans before 9/11, they were already
using that term – could be effectively "defended."
In making their
pitch, they were perfectly willing to acknowledge that the United
States was already a military giant among midgets, but they were
also eager to suggest as well that our military situation was "deteriorating"
fast, that we were "increasingly ill-prepared" or even
(gasp!) in "retreat" on a planet without obvious enemies.
They couldn’t have thought more globally. (They were, after all,
visionaries, as druggies tend to be.) Nor could they have thought
longer term. (They were twenty-first century mavens.) And on military
matters, they couldn’t have been more up to date.
Yet on the
most crucial issues, they – and so their documents – couldn’t
have been dumber or more misguided. They were fundamentalists
when it came to the use of force and idolaters on the subject of
the U.S. military. They believed it capable of doing just about
anything. As a result, they made a massive miscalculation, mistaking
military destructiveness for global power. Nor could they have been
less interested in the sinews of global economic power (though they
did imagine our future enemy to be China). Nor were they capable
of imagining that the greatest military power on the planet might
be stopped in its tracks – in the Greater Middle East, no less
– by a ragtag crew of Iraqis and Afghans. To read "Rebuilding
America’s Defenses" today is to see the rabbit hole down which,
as if in a fever dream, we would soon disappear.
It was a genuine
American tragedy that they came to power and proceeded to put their
military-first policies in place; that, on September 12th of the
year that "changed everything," the PNAC people seized
the reins of defense and foreign policy, mobilized for war, began
channeling American treasure into the military solution they had
long desired, and surged. Oh, how they surged!
That urge to
surge was infamously caught in notes
on Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s comments taken on September
11, 2001. “[B]arely five hours after American Airlines Flight 77
plowed into the Pentagon… Rumsfeld was telling his aides to come
up with plans for striking Iraq,” even though he was already certain
that al-Qaeda had launched the attack. (“‘Go massive,’ the notes
quote him as saying. ‘Sweep it all up. Things related and not.’”)
And so they
did. They swept up everything and then watched as their dreams and
geopolitical calculations were themselves swept into the dustbin
of history. And yet the urge to surge, twisted and ever more desperate,
did not abate.
To one degree
or another, we have been on the Soviet path for years and yet, ever
more desperately, we continue to plan more surges. Our military,
like the Soviet one, has not lost a battle and has occupied whatever
ground it chose to take. Yet, in the process, it has won less than
nothing at all. Our country, still far more wealthy than the Soviet
Union ever was, has nonetheless entered its Soviet phase. At home,
in the increasing
emphasis on surveillance of every sort, there is even a hint
of what made "soviet" and "totalitarian" synonymous.
The U.S. economy
sclerotic; moneys for an aging
and rotting infrastructure are long gone; state and city governments
are laying off teachers, police,
Americans are unemployed in near record numbers; global oil
prices (for a country that has in no way begun to wean itself
from its dependence on foreign oil) are ominously
on the rise; and yet taxpayer money continues
to pour into the military and into our foreign wars. It has
recently been estimated, for instance, that after spending $11.6
billion in 2011 on the training, supply, and support of the Afghan
army and police, the U.S. will continue
to spend an average of $6.2 billion a year at least through
2015 (and undoubtedly into an unknown
future) – and that’s but one expense in the estimated $120
billion to $160
billion a year being spent at present on the Afghan War, what
can only be described as part of America’s war stimulus package
of course, the talk for 2011 is how to expand the American ground
war – the air
version of the same has already been on a sharp
escalatory trajectory – in Pakistan. History and common
sense assure us that this can only lead to further disaster.
Clear-eyed leaders, military or civilian, would never consider such
plans. But Washington’s 30-year high in the region, that urge to
surge still coursing through its veins, says otherwise, and it’s
not likely to be denied.
later, Washington, the Pentagon, and the U.S. military will have
to enter rehab. They desperately need a 12-step program for recovery.
Until then, the delusions and the madness that go with surge addiction
are not likely to end.
on sources: The National
Security Archive, filled to bursting with documents from our
imperial and Cold War past, is an online treasure. I have relied
on it for both the Soviet
documents quoted on the Afghan war of the 1980s and an
analysis of the American version of that war. For those who
are interested in reading PNAC’s "Rebuilding America’s Defenses,"
here and then on the link to the pdf file of the document.
Engelhardt [send him mail]
of the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com, is the co-founder of
the American Empire
Project. His book, The
End of Victory Culture, has recently been updated in a newly
issued edition. He edited, and his work appears in, the first best
of TomDispatch book, The
World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire
(Verso), an alternative history of the mad Bush years. His new book
American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's.