Uncle Sam, Global Gangster

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by Tom Engelhardt: Kicking
Down the World’s Door

If all goes
as planned, it will be the happiest of wartimes in the U.S.A. Only
the best of news, the killing of the baddest of the evildoers, will
ever filter back to our world.

After all,
American war is heading
for the "shadows"
in a big way. As news articles have recently
made clear
, the tip of the Obama administration’s global spear
will increasingly be shaped from the ever-growing
ranks of U.S. special operations forces. They are so secretive that
they don’t like their operatives to be named, so covert that they
instruct their members, as Spencer Ackerman of Wired’s Danger
Room blog notes,
"not to write down important information, lest it be vulnerable
to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act." By now,
they are also a force that, in any meaningful sense, is unaccountable
for its actions.

Although the
special ops crew (66,000 people in all) exist on our tax dollars,
we’re really not supposed to know anything about what they’re doing
– unless, of course, they choose the publicity venue themselves,
whether in Pakistan knocking
Osama bin Laden or parachuting
onto Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard to promote Act
of Valor
. In case you somehow missed the ads,
that’s the new film about "real terrorist threats based on
true stories starring actual Navy SEALs." (No names in the
credits please!)

Of course,
those elite SEAL teams are johnnies-come-lately when compared to
their no less secretive "teammates" in places like Afghanistan,
Pakistan, and Somalia – our ever increasing armada of drones.
Those robotic warriors of the air (or at least their fantasy doppelgangers)
were, of course, pre-celebrated – after a fashion – in
the Terminator
. In Washington’s global battle zones, what’s
our "traditional combat role" – think
big invasions, occupations, counterinsurgency – is going, going,
gone with the wind, even evidently in Afghanistan by 2013. War American-style
is instead being inherited by secretive teams of men and machines,
both hunter-killers who specialize in assassination operations,
and both of whom, as presented to Americans, just couldn’t be sexier.

And we’ll all
be just so happy – as a recent poll indicates
we are
– with our robotic warriors and their shadowy special ops teammates,
if with nothing else in our fraying world. They present such an
alluring image of the no-pain, all-gain battlefield and are undoubtedly
a relief for many Americans, distinctly tired – so the polls
also tell us – of wars that aren’t covert and don’t work. So
who even notices that, as Andrew Bacevich, bestselling author and
(most recently) editor of The
Short American Century: A Postmortem
, points out, we’re
being plunged into a real-life war novel that has no plot and no
end. How post-modern! How disastrous, if only we have the patience
to wait! (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview
in which Bacevich discusses the changing face of the Gobal War on
Terror, click here,
or download it to your iPod here.)
~ Tom

the Global War on Terror
From Liberation to Assassination in Three Quick Rounds

By Andrew Bacevich

With the United
States now well into the second decade of what the Pentagon has
styled an "era of persistent conflict," the war
formerly known as the global war on terrorism (unofficial acronym
WFKATGWOT) appears increasingly fragmented and diffuse. Without
achieving victory, yet unwilling to acknowledge failure, the United
States military has withdrawn from Iraq. It is trying to leave Afghanistan,
where events seem equally unlikely to yield a happy outcome.

Elsewhere –
in Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia, for example – U.S.
forces are busily opening up new fronts. Published reports that
the United States is establishing
"a constellation of secret drone bases" in or near the
Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula suggest that the scope
of operations will only widen further. In a front-page story, the
New York Times described
for "thickening" the global presence of U.S.
special operations forces. Rushed Navy plans to convert an aging
amphibious landing ship into an "afloat forward staging base"
– a mobile launch platform for either commando
or minesweeping
in the Persian Gulf – only reinforces the point.
Yet as some fronts close down and others open up, the war’s narrative
has become increasingly difficult to discern. How much farther until
we reach the WFKATGWOT’s equivalent of Berlin? What exactly is
the WFKATGWOT’s equivalent of Berlin? In fact, is there a storyline
here at all?

Viewed close-up,
the "war" appears to have lost form and shape. Yet by
taking a couple of steps back, important patterns begin to appear.
What follows is a preliminary attempt to score the WFKATGWOT, dividing
the conflict into a bout of three rounds. Although there may be
several additional rounds still to come, here’s what we’ve suffered
through thus far.

Rumsfeld Era

Round 1:
Liberation. More than any other figure – more than any
general, even more than the president himself – Secretary of
Defense Donald Rumsfeld dominated the war’s early stages. Appearing
for a time to be a larger-than-life figure – the "Secretary
at War" in the eyes of an adoring (if fickle) neocon fan club
– Rumsfeld dedicated himself to the proposition that, in battle,
speed holds the key to victory. He threw his considerable weight
behind a high-tech American version of blitzkrieg. U.S.
forces, he regularly insisted, were smarter and more agile than
any adversary. To employ them in ways that took advantage of those
qualities was to guarantee victory. The journalistic term adopted
to describe this concept was "shock and awe."

No one believed
more passionately in "shock and awe" than Rumsfeld himself.
The design of Operation Enduring Freedom, launched in October 2001,
and of Operation Iraqi Freedom, begun in March 2003, reflected this
belief. In each instance, the campaign got off to a promising start,
with U.S. troops landing some swift and impressive blows. In neither
case, however, were they able to finish off their opponent or even,
in reality, sort out just who their opponent might be. Unfortunately
for Rumsfeld, the "terrorists" refused to play by his
rulebook and U.S. forces proved to be less smart and agile than
their technological edge – and their public relations machine
– suggested would be the case. Indeed, when harassed by minor
insurgencies and scattered bands of jihadis, they proved
surprisingly slow to figure out what hit them.

In Afghanistan,
Rumsfeld let victory slip through his grasp. In Iraq, his mismanagement
of the campaign brought the United States face-to-face with outright
defeat. Rumsfeld’s boss had hoped to liberate (and, of course, dominate)
the Islamic world through a series of short, quick thrusts. What
Bush got instead were two different versions of a long, hard slog.
By the end of 2006, "shock and awe" was kaput. Trailing
well behind the rest of the country and its armed forces, the president
eventually lost confidence in his defense secretary’s approach.
As a result, Rumsfeld lost his job. Round one came to an end, the
Americans, rather embarrassingly, having lost it on points.

Petraeus Era

Round 2:
Pacification. Enter General David Petraeus. More than any other
figure, in or out of uniform, Petraeus dominated the WFKATGWOT’s
second phase. Round two opened with lowered expectations. Gone was
the heady talk of liberation. Gone, too, were predictions of lightning
victories. The United States was now willing to settle for much
less while still claiming success.

Petraeus offered
a formula for restoring a semblance of order to countries reduced
to chaos as a result of round one. Order might permit the United
States to extricate itself while maintaining some semblance of having
met its policy objectives. This became the operative definition
of victory.

The formal
name for the formula that Petraeus devised was counterinsurgency,
or COIN. Rather than trying to defeat the enemy, COIN sought to
facilitate the emergence of a viable and stable nation-state. This
was the stated aim of the "surge" in Iraq ordered by President
George W. Bush at the end of 2006.

With Petraeus
presiding, violence in that country did decline precipitously. Whether
the relationship was causal
or coincidental
remains the subject of controversy. Still, Petraeus’s
apparent success persuaded some observers that counterinsurgency
on a global scale – GCOIN, they called it – should now
form the basis for U.S. national security strategy. Here, they argued,
was an approach that could definitively extract the United States
from the WFKATGWOT, while offering victory of a sort. Rather than
employing "shock and awe" to liberate the Islamic world,
U.S. forces would apply counterinsurgency doctrine to pacify it.

The task of
demonstrating the validity of COIN beyond Iraq fell to General
Stanley McChrystal
, appointed with much fanfare in 2009 to command
U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Press reports celebrated
McChrystal as another Petraeus, the ideal candidate to
replicate the achievements already credited to "King David."

ascendency came at a moment when a cult of generalship gripped Washington.
Rather than technology being the determinant of success as Rumsfeld
had believed, the key was to put the right guy in charge and then
let him run with things. Political figures on both sides of the
aisle fell all over themselves declaring McChrystal the right guy
for Afghanistan. Pundits of all stripes joined
the chorus

Once installed
in Kabul, the general surveyed the situation and, to no one’s surprise,
that "success demands a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign."
Implementing that campaign would necessitate an Afghan "surge"
mirroring the one that had seemingly turned Iraq around. In December
2009, albeit with little evident enthusiasm, President Barack Obama
to his commander’s request (or ultimatum). The U.S. troop
commitment to Afghanistan rapidly increased.

Here things
began to come undone. Progress toward reducing the insurgency or
improving the capacity of Afghan security forces was – by even
the most generous evaluation – negligible. McChrystal made
– like meeting basic Afghan needs with "government in
a box, ready to roll in" – that he proved utterly incapable
of keeping. Relations with the government of President Hamid Karzai
remained strained. Those with neighboring Pakistan, not good to
begin with, only worsened. Both governments expressed deep
at what they viewed as high-handed American behavior
that killed or maimed noncombatants with disturbing frequency.

To make matters
worse, despite all the hype, McChrystal turned out to be miscast
– manifestly the wrong guy for the job. Notably, he
proved unable to grasp the need for projecting even some
pretence of respect
for the principle of civilian control back
in Washington. By the summer of 2010, he was out – and Petraeus
was back in.

In Washington
(if not in Kabul), Petraeus’s oversized reputation quelled the sense
that with McChrystal’s flame-out Afghanistan might be a lost cause.
Surely, the most celebrated soldier of his generation would repeat
his Iraq magic, affirming his own greatness and the continued viability
of COIN.

Alas, this
was not to be. Conditions in Afghanistan during Petraeus’s tenure
in command improved – if that’s even the word – only modestly.
The ongoing war met just about anyone’s definition of a quagmire.
With considerable understatement, a 2011 National Intelligence Estimate
a "stalemate." Soon, talk of a "comprehensive
counterinsurgency" faded. With the bar defining success slipping
ever lower, passing off the fight to Afghan security forces and
hightailing it for home became the publicly announced war aim.

That job remained
unfinished when Petraeus himself headed for home, leaving the army
to become CIA director. Although Petraeus was still held in high
esteem, his departure from active duty left the cult of generalship
looking more than a little the worse for wear. By the time General
John Allen succeeded Petraeus – thereby became the eighth U.S.
officer appointed to preside over the ongoing Afghan War –
no one believed that simply putting the right guy in charge was
going to produce magic. On that inclusive note, round two of the

Vickers Era

Round 3:
Assassination. Unlike Donald Rumsfeld or David Petraeus, Michael
has not achieved celebrity status. Yet more than anyone
else in or out of uniform, Vickers, who carries the title Under
Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, deserves recognition as the
emblematic figure of the WFKATGWOT’s round three. His low-key, low-profile
persona meshes perfectly with this latest evolution in the war’s
character. Few people outside of Washington know who he is, which
is fitting indeed since he presides over a war that few people outside
of Washington are paying much attention to any longer.

With the retirement
of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Vickers is the senior remaining
holdover from George W. Bush’s Pentagon. His background is nothing
if not eclectic. He previously served in U.S. Army Special Forces
and as a CIA operative. In that guise, he played a leading role
in supporting the Afghan mujahedeen in their war against Soviet
occupiers in the 1980s. Subsequently, he worked in a Washington
think tank and earned a PhD in strategic studies at Johns Hopkins
University (dissertation title: "The Structure of Military

Even during
the Bush era, Vickers never subscribed to expectations that the
United States could liberate or pacify the Islamic world. His preferred
approach to the WFKATGWOT has been simplicity itself. "I just
want to kill those guys," he says
– "those guys" referring to members of al-Qaeda.
Kill the people who want to kill Americans and don’t stop until
they are all dead: this defines the Vickers strategy, which over
the course of the Obama presidency has supplanted COIN as the latest
variant of U.S. strategy.

The Vickers
approach means acting aggressively to eliminate would-be killers
wherever they might be found, employing whatever means are necessary.
Vickers "tends to think like a gangster," one admirer
"He can understand trends then change the rules of the game
so they are advantageous for your side."

Round three
of the WFKATGWOT is all about bending, breaking, and reinventing
rules in ways thought to be advantageous to the United States. Much
as COIN supplanted "shock and awe," a broad-gauged program
of targeted assassination has now displaced COIN as the prevailing
expression of the American way of war.

The United
States is finished with the business of sending large land armies
to invade and occupy countries on the Eurasian mainland. Robert
Gates, when still Secretary of Defense, made the definitive
on that subject. The United States is now in the business
of using missile-armed
and special
operations forces
to eliminate anyone (not excluding U.S. citizens)
the president of the United States decides has become an intolerable
annoyance. Under President Obama, such attacks have proliferated.

This is America’s
new MO. Paraphrasing a warning issued by Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton, a Washington Post dispatch succinctly
what it implied: "The United States reserved
the right to attack anyone who it determined posed a direct threat
to U.S. national security, anywhere in the world."

acting on behalf of the United States, the president exercises this
supposed right without warning, without regard to claims
of national sovereignty
, without Congressional authorization,
and without consulting anyone other than Michael Vickers and a few
other members of the national security apparatus. The role allotted
to the American people is to applaud, if and when notified that
a successful assassination has occurred. And applaud
we do
, for example, when a daring raid by members in SEAL Team
Six secretly enter Pakistan to dispatch Osama bin Laden with two
neatly placed kill shots. Vengeance long deferred making it unnecessary
to consider what second-order political complications might ensue.

round three will end is difficult to forecast. The best we can say
is that it’s unlikely to end anytime soon or particularly well.
As Israel has discovered, once targeted assassination becomes your
policy, the list of targets has a way of growing ever longer.

So what tentative
judgments can we offer regarding the ongoing WFKATGWOT? Operationally,
a war launched by the conventionally minded has progressively
fallen under the purview of those who inhabit what Dick Cheney once
"the dark side," with implications that few
seem willing to explore. Strategically, a war informed
at the outset by utopian expectations continues
today with no concretely stated expectations whatsoever, the forward
momentum of events displacing serious consideration of purpose.
Politically, a war that once occupied center stage in national
politics has now slipped to the periphery, the American people moving
on to other concerns and entertainments, with legal and moral questions
raised by the war left dangling in midair.

Is this progress?

28, 2012

Engelhardt [send him mail]
of the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com, is the co-founder of
the American Empire
. 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. He is also
the author of The
American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's
. His
latest book is The United States of Fear. Andrew
J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations
at Boston University. A TomDispatch
, he is the author most recently of Washington
Rules: The American Path to Permanent War
and the editor
of the new book The
Short American Century: A Postmortem
, just out from Harvard
University Press. To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio
interview in which Bacevich discusses the changing face of the Gobal
War on Terror, click here,
or download it to your iPod here.

Best of Tom Engelhardt

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