America’s Mutant Military

An Ohio-Class Submarine, armed with Trident nuclear missiles
An Ohio-Class Submarine, armed with Trident nuclear missiles

W.J. Astore

I’ve been writing for TomDispatch.com and the amazing Tom Engelhardt since 2007.  When I wrote my first article, “Saving the Military from Itself: Why Medals and Metrics Mislead,” I never imagined I would come to write 37 more for Tom and his site over the next eight years.  TomDispatch has given me an opportunity to write about topics like the elimination of nuclear weapons, the rise of American militarism, the perils of calling all troops in the military “heroes,” the over-hyping of American military prowess by our leaders, and many others.  In all my articles, I hope I’ve offered a contrary perspective on the U.S. military as well as American culture, among other subjects.

My latest article, America’s mutant military, is a personal odyssey of sorts.  I reflect on how the military has changed since I entered it in 1985.  Today’s post-Cold War U.S. military is, to put it bluntly, not as I envisioned it would be as the Berlin Wall was falling and the Soviet Union was collapsing.  Today’s military still has its Cold War weaponry and mindset largely intact, even as a new “mutant” military has emerged, based on special ops and connected to corporations and intelligence agencies, a military hybrid that is often shrouded in secrecy even as it’s celebrated openly in Hollywood action films.

My essay runs 2300 words, so I encourage you to read all of it at TomDispatch.  What follows are a few excerpts from it:

It’s 1990. I’m a young captain in the U.S. Air Force.  I’ve just witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, something I never thought I’d see, short of a third world war.  Right now I’m witnessing the slow death of the Soviet Union, without the accompanying nuclear Armageddon so many feared.  Still, I’m slightly nervous as my military gears up for an unexpected new campaign, Operation Desert Shield/Storm, to expel Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein’s military from Kuwait.  It’s a confusing moment.  After all, the Soviet Union was forever (until it wasn’t) and Saddam had been a stalwart U.S. friend, his country a bulwark against the Iran of the Ayatollahs.  (For anyone who doubts that history, just check out the now-infamous 1983 photo of Donald Rumsfeld, then special envoy for President Reagan, all smiles and shaking hands with Saddam in Baghdad.)  Still, whatever my anxieties, the Soviet Union collapsed without a whimper and the campaign against Saddam’s battle-tested forces proved to be a “cakewalk,” with ground combat over in a mere 100 hours.

Think of it as the trifecta moment: Vietnam syndrome vanquished forever, Saddam’s army destroyed, and the U.S. left standing as the planet’s “sole superpower.”

Post-Desert Storm, the military of which I was a part stood triumphant on a planet that was visibly ours and ours alone.  Washington had won the Cold War.  It had won everything, in fact.  End of story.  Saddam admittedly was still in power in Baghdad, but he had been soundly spanked.  Not a single peer enemy loomed on the horizon.  It seemed as if, in the words of former U.N. ambassador and uber-conservative Jeane Kirkpatrick, the U.S. could return to being a normal country in normal times.

[But it didn’t happen.  With the Soviets gone, the U.S. military itself was now uncontained, and many hankered to use its power to achieve America’s goal of global power.]

Yet even as civilian leaders hankered to flex America’s military muscle in unpromising places like Bosnia and Somalia in the 1990s, and Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, and Yemen in this century, the military itself has remained remarkably mired in Cold War thinking.  If I could transport the 1990 version of me to 2015, here’s one thing that would stun him a quarter-century after the collapse of the Soviet Union: the force structure of the U.S. military has changed remarkably little.  Its nuclear triad of land-based ICBMs, submarine-launched SLBMs, and nuclear-capable bombers remains thoroughly intact.  Indeed, it’s being updated and enhanced at mind-boggling expense (perhaps as high as a trillion dollars over the next three decades).  The U.S. Navy?  Still built around large, super-expensive, and vulnerableaircraft carrier task forces.  The U.S. Air Force?  Still pursuing new, ultra-high-tech strategic bombers and new, wildly expensive fighters and attack aircraft — first the F-22, now the F-35, both supremely disappointing.  The U.S. Army?  Still configured to fight large-scale, conventional battles, a surplus of M-1 Abrams tanks sitting in mothballs just in case they’re needed to plug the Fulda Gap in Germany against a raging Red Army.  Except it’s 2015, not 1990, and no mass of Soviet T-72 tanks remains poised to surge through that gap.

[Along with the persistence of America’s “Cold War” military, a new military emerged, especially in the aftermath of 9-11.]

In 2015, so many of America’s “trigger-pullers” overseas are no longer, strictly speaking, professional military.  They’re mercenaries, guns for hire, or CIA drone pilots (some on loan from the Air Force), or warrior corporations and intelligence contractors looking to get in on a piece of the action in a war on terror where progress is defined — official denials to the contrary — by body count, by the number of “enemy combatants” killed in drone or other strikes.

Indeed, the very persistence of traditional Cold War structures and postures within the “big” military has helped hide the full-scale emergence of a new and dangerous mutant version of our armed forces.  A bewildering mish-mash of special ops, civilian contractors (both armed and unarmed), and CIA and other intelligence operatives, all plunged into a penumbra of secrecy, all largely hidden from view (even as they’re openly celebrated in various Hollywood action movies), this mutant military is forever clamoring for a greater piece of the action.

While the old-fashioned, uniformed military guards its Cold War turf, preserved like some set of monstrous museum exhibits, the mutant military strives with great success to expand its power across the globe.  Since 9/11, it’s the mutant military that has gotten the lion’s share of the action and much of the adulation — here’s looking at you, SEAL Team 6 — along with its ultimate enabler, the civilian commander-in-chief, now acting in essence as America’s assassin-in-chief.

Think of it this way: a quarter-century after the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military is completely uncontained.

[And an uncontained military, in a country that celebrates its troops as heroes, that boasts of itself as having the best military in all of recorded history, does not bode well for America’s democratic future.]

Go to TomDispatch.com to read the entire article.  Thank you!

Our Foreign Policy Mantra: Troops, Weapons, Influence

Sorry, world: America prefers the sword
Sorry, world: America loves the sword

W.J. Astore

There was a time when American democracy, however imperfectly practiced, and American ideals served to inspire peoples and independence movements around the world.  Heck, even Ho Chi Minh in the 1940s confessed his admiration for Thomas Jefferson and the U.S. Declaration of Independence.  But now it seems all that really matters in our foreign policy is troops and weapons.  If we’re not basing troops or at least deploying them to a country, or if we’re not exporting arms to a country, we believe we have no influence.

Take this headline from FP: Foreign Policy.

The United States is in danger of losing its clout in Baghdad. Courage on the battlefield is how respect is won in the Middle East. The lack of U.S. presence in the fight for Tikrit is allowing Iran, whose forces are leading the charge, to gain leverage in Baghdad. FP’s Lara Jakes and Kate Brannen: “It is clear that the top U.S. priority in Iraq is to defeat the Islamic State — and deal later with Iran’s ever-growing influence in Baghdad. Yet that trade-off carries long-term consequences, and it’s not clear Washington has thought them through.”

So: Unless we’re fighting wars in Iraq (or Syria, or maybe even Iran?), the United States has no leverage.  Indeed, in Iraq the U.S. risks being emasculated by the Iranians, who are swinging their big dicks in the form of tanks, rockets, and so on.

And those primitive Iraqis: All they respect is military force, right?  If that’s so, why don’t they love America?  After all, no country has “courageously” bombed them more over the last 25 years.

Talk about projection!  Maybe it’s not the Iraqis or other unnamed Middle Easterners who are enthralled by “courage on the battlefield.”  Maybe it’s all those “American sniper” wannabees, especially in Congress.

Consistent with Members of Congress clamoring for more war, America’s real ambassadors today are special forces and the special ops “community.”  As Nick Turse noted for TomDispatch.com:

During the fiscal year that [started on October 1, 2013 and] ended on September 30, 2014, U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) deployed to 133 countries — roughly 70% of the nations on the planet — according to Lieutenant Colonel Robert Bockholt, a public affairs officer with U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM).  This capped a three-year span in which the country’s most elite forces were active in more than 150 different countries around the world, conducting missions ranging from kill/capture night raids to training exercises.  And this year could be a record-breaker.  Only a day before the failed raid that ended Luke Somers life — just 66 days into fiscal 2015 — America’s most elite troops had already set foot in 105 nations, approximately 80% of 2014’s total.”

As the U.S. deploys its special ops forces around the planet, part of their mission, stated or unstated, is to encourage foreign military sales (FMS in the trade).  Naturally, in selling weapons to various “allies” around the world, the United States continues to dominate the world’s arms trade, a lead that we’re supposed to keep until the year 2021.  Think about it.  What other sector of industrial manufacturing will the U.S. dominate for the next seven years?

Here’s an excerpt from the Grimmett Report (2012) that tracks weapons sales around the globe.  Note that U.S. dominance of the global arms trade has come under a Democratic president who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize:

Recently, from 2008 to 2011, the United States and Russia have dominated the arms market in the developing world, with both nations either ranking first or second for each of these four years in the value of arms transfer agreements. From 2008 to 2011, the United States made nearly $113 billion in such agreements, 54.5% of all these agreements (expressed in current dollars). Russia made $31.1 billion, 15% of these agreements. During this same period, collectively, the United States and Russia made 69.5% of all arms transfer agreements with developing nations, ($207.3 billion in current dollars) during this four-year period. In 2011, the United States ranked first in arms transfer agreements with developing nations with over $56.3 billion or 78.7% of these agreements, an extraordinary increase in market share from 2010, when the United States held a 43.6% market share. In second place was Russia with $4.1 billion or 5.7% of such agreements. In 2011, the United States ranked first in the value of arms deliveries to developing nations at $10.5 billion, or 37.6% of all such deliveries. Russia ranked second in these deliveries at $7.5 billion or 26.8%.”

When it comes to deploying troops to foreign countries or to selling weapons overseas, the U.S. is indeed Number One. And that is precisely the problem.  Troops and weapons do not spread freedom.  Troops are trained to fight wars; they are trained to kill. Weapons are designed to kill.  It’s a foreign policy based on a readiness — a willingness — perhaps even an eagerness — to kill.

For U.S. foreign policy, our national security state has reached one clear conclusion: the sword is mightier (and far more profitable) than the pen. Sorry, Thomas Jefferson.

Update (3/19/15): Greg Laxer makes an excellent point in the comments about how many weapons the U.S. gives away to foreign countries, i.e. bought and paid for by the American taxpayer.  Incredibly, much of this weaponry gets “lost” and is often diverted to American enemies.  The latest story out of Yemen speaks to half a billion dollars worth of weaponry getting “lost.”  Here’s the story, written by Craig Whitlock and courtesy of the Washington Post:

The Pentagon is unable to account for more than $500 million in U.S. military aid given to Yemen, amid fears that the weaponry, aircraft and equipment is at risk of being seized by Iranian-backed rebels or al-Qaeda, according to U.S. officials.With Yemen in turmoil and its government splintering, the Defense Department has lost its ability to monitor the whereabouts of small arms, ammunition, night-vision goggles, patrol boats, vehicles and other supplies donated by the United States. The situation has grown worse since the United States closed its embassy in Sanaa, the capital, last month and withdrew many of its military advisers.

In recent weeks, members of Congress have held closed-door meetings with U.S. military officials to press for an accounting of the arms and equipment. Pentagon officials have said that they have little information to go on and that there is little they can do at this point to prevent the weapons and gear from falling into the wrong hands.

“We have to assume it’s completely compromised and gone,” said a legislative aide on Capitol Hill who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

U.S. military officials declined to comment for the record. A defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon, said there was no hard evidence that U.S. arms or equipment had been looted or confiscated. But the official acknowledged that the Pentagon had lost track of the items.

“Even in the best-case scenario in an unstable country, we never have 100 percent accountability,” the defense official said.

Yemen’s government was toppled in January by Shiite Houthi rebels who receive support from Iran and have strongly criticized U.S. drone strikes in Yemen. The Houthis have taken over many Yemeni military bases in the northern part of the country, including some in Sanaa that were home to U.S.-trained counterterrorism units. Other bases have been overrun by fighters from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

As a result, the Defense Department has halted shipments to Yemen of about $125 million in military hardware that were scheduled for delivery this year, including unarmed ScanEagle drones, other types of aircraft and Jeeps. That equipment will be donated instead to other countries in the Middle East and Africa, the defense official said.

Although the loss of weapons and equipment already delivered to Yemen would be embarrassing, U.S. officials said it would be unlikely to alter the military balance of power there. Yemen is estimated to have the second-highest gun ownership rate in the world, ranking behind only the United States, and its bazaars are well stocked with heavy weaponry. Moreover, the U.S. government restricted its lethal aid to small firearms and ammunition, brushing aside Yemeni requests for fighter jets and tanks.

In Yemen and elsewhere, the Obama administration has pursued a strategy of training and equipping foreign militaries to quell insurgencies and defeat networks affiliated with al-Qaeda. That strategy has helped to avert the deployment of large numbers of U.S. forces, but it has also met with repeated challenges.

Washington spent $25 billion to re-create and arm Iraq’s security forces after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, only to see the Iraqi army easily defeated last year by a ragtag collection of Islamic State fighters who took control of large parts of the country. Just last year, President Obama touted Yemen as a successful example of his approach to combating terrorism.

“The administration really wanted to stick with this narrative that Yemen was different from Iraq, that we were going to do it with fewer people, that we were going to do it on the cheap,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “They were trying to do with a minimalist approach because it needed to fit with this narrative . . .that we’re not going to have a repeat of Iraq.”

Washington has supplied more than $500 million in military aid to Yemen since 2007 under an array of Defense Department and State Department programs. The Pentagon and CIA have provided additional assistance through classified programs, making it difficult to know exactly how much Yemen has received in total.

U.S. government officials say al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen poses a more direct threat to the U.S. homeland than any other terrorist group. To counter it, the Obama administration has relied on a combination of proxy forces and drone strikes launched from bases outside the country.

As part of that strategy, the U.S. military has concentrated on building an elite Yemeni special-operations force within the Republican Guard, training counterterrorism units in the Interior Ministry and upgrading Yemen’s rudimentary air force.

Making progress has been difficult. In 2011, the Obama administration suspended counterterrorism aid and withdrew its military advisers after then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh cracked down against Arab Spring demonstrators. The program resumed the next year when Saleh was replaced by his vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, in a deal brokered by Washington.

In a 2013 report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that the primary unclassified counterterrorism program in Yemen lacked oversight and that the Pentagon had been unable to assess whether it was doing any good.

Among other problems, GAO auditors found that Humvees donated to the Yemeni Interior Ministry sat idle or broken because the Defense Ministry refused to share spare parts. The two ministries also squabbled over the use of Huey II helicopters supplied by Washington, according to the report.

A senior U.S. military official who has served extensively in Yemen said that local forces embraced their training and were proficient at using U.S. firearms and gear but that their commanders, for political reasons, were reluctant to order raids against al-Qaeda.

“They could fight with it and were fairly competent, but we couldn’t get them engaged” in combat, the military official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with a reporter.

All the U.S.-trained Yemeni units were commanded or overseen by close relatives of Saleh, the former president. Most were gradually removed or reassigned after Saleh was forced out in 2012. But U.S. officials acknowledged that some of the units have maintained their allegiance to Saleh and his family.

According to an investigative report released by a U.N. panel last month, the former president’s son, Ahmed Ali Saleh, looted an arsenal of weapons from the Republican Guard after he was dismissed as commander of the elite unit two years ago. The weapons were transferred to a private military base outside Sanaa that is controlled by the Saleh family, the U.N. panel found.

It is unclear whether items donated by the U.S. government were stolen, although Yemeni documents cited by the U.N. investigators alleged that the stash included thousands of M-16 rifles, which are manufactured in the United States.

The list of pilfered equipment also included dozens of Humvees, Ford vehicles and Glock pistols, all of which have been supplied in the past to Yemen by the U.S. government. Ahmed Saleh denied the looting allegations during an August 2014 meeting with the U.N. panel, according to the report.

Many U.S. and Yemeni officials have accused the Salehs of conspiring with the Houthis to bring down the government in Sanaa. At Washington’s urging, the United Nations imposed financial and travel sanctions in November against the former president, along with two Houthi leaders, as punishment for destabilizing Yemen.

Ali Abdullah Saleh has dismissed the accusations; last month, he told The Washington Post that he spends most of his time these days reading and recovering from wounds he suffered during a bombing attack on the presidential palace in 2011.

There are clear signals that Saleh and his family are angling for a formal return to power. On Friday, hundreds of people staged a rally in Sanaa to call for presidential elections and for Ahmed Saleh to run.

Although the U.S. Embassy in the capital closed last month, a handful of U.S. military advisers have remained in the southern part of the country at Yemeni bases controlled by commanders that are friendly to the United States.

 Craig Whitlock covers the Pentagon and national security. He has reported for The Washington Post since 1998.

 

A Lame Duck Nation on Steroids

Lame duck, indeed.
It’s not just the Tea Party that’s lame (Toby Toons)

W.J. Astore

The more the United States has come to talk about dominance, the less dominant we’ve become.

To compensate, we’ve become a steroidal nation, to include the violent side effects associated with steroid use (just look at the latest stories out of the NFL about spousal and child abuse, or our steroidal police forces, including MRAPs and M-16s for school police).  If the story of the last fifty years is the gradual decline of the U.S., most notably in the economic and political realms, the story of today is how we’ve compensated with militarized Viagra.  We’ve reached “the age of knowing” that we’ve lost much of our potency as our country.  To compensate, we’re forever popping pills and flexing our muscles.  (Just look at John McCain’s enthusiasm for bombing.)

It’s precisely those steroids that are weakening us as a country.  As we’ve overcompensated with military weapons and bases, we’ve allowed our economy to slide.  As we’ve sought domination overseas, we’ve weakened our country right here at home.  We feverishly build and repair roads in Afghanistan but not here in the USA.  Same with schools — we’d rather build prisons, to include Gitmo, than colleges (since 1984, California has built 21 prisons but only one university).

Consider our binary debates on foreign policy.  It’s the hawks versus the doves, militarized “engagement” versus isolationist “appeasers,” the implication being that the latter is wrong — that minding one’s own business is not an option in a globalized world.  But the world is not some “global village”: it’s a conglomeration of fragments.  And U.S. efforts to dominate those fragments by military means are only accelerating that fragmentation.  Just look at what our government did and is doing to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Fragmentation facilitates dominance by multinational corporations even as the U.S. military is misused and overextended.  The result is more global instability and a retreat (or a return) to ideologies that promise coherence and order.  Witness the rise of militant Islam and ISIS.  By attacking it, the U.S. is acting as an accelerant to it.

As the U.S. weakens itself as a country, as it accumulates debt by constantly fighting wars while passing the costs along to future generations, large multinational corporations grow in power.  They are today’s equivalent to the British East India Company, the Dutch East India Company, and similar entities of the past.  Combine powerful multinationals with privatized mercenary outfits and you see echoes of the seventeenth century, to include wars over religion and resources.  Three centuries ago, it was Catholics versus Protestants and wars over spices like pepper and nutmeg.  Now it’s divisions within Islam and wars over oil.

We’re witnessing the decline of Enlightenment ideals and community-based Democracy, as seen by the way in which the U.S. government routinely betrays those ideals.  Any sense of shared, community-based, obligation is tainted by “socialism,” meaning that a Darwinian capitalism based on selfish individualism is promoted instead, which only feeds the growth of multinationals competing to sell “product” to the masses.

Everything is becoming a consumable, including the most vital parts of life.  As a consumable, it can be marketed, sold, and controlled by those same multinationals.  Even education is now an ephemeral product, marketed and sold as a commodity.

Corporations think and act for short-term profit.  But democracies are supposed to think strategically, over the long term.  Now the quarterly business cycle controls all.  Look at politics: A congressman is elected and instantly starts fund raising to win his next campaign.  Obama wins a second term and is almost instantly branded a lame duck.

But it’s not Obama who is the lame duck – it’s America.  And all the militarized steroids in the world won’t cure that lameness.  Indeed, they just aggravate it.

One Word Defines U.S. Foreign Policy: Hubris

Like Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard," Our Hubristic Leaders Are Always Ready for their Close-up
Like Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard,” Our Hubristic Leaders Are Always Ready for their Close-up

W.J. Astore

When Hannah Arendt, the famous German-American political philosopher, criticized American involvement in the Vietnam War, she said that our foreign policy “experts” fell prey to using excessive means to achieve minor aims in a region of marginal interest to the United States.  You could say the same of most of America’s foreign interventions since 1945.  We are a superpower with a boundless propensity for meddling in world affairs.  We waste enormous amounts of money and resources intervening in areas that are of marginal importance to our national security.

There are many reasons for these wasteful interventions, of course.  The military-industrial-Congressional complex plays its role. Presidents love to intervene as a sign of “strength.” Natural resources, especially oil, are usually in play.  The usual motives, in short: profit, power, greed.

But perhaps the root cause of our mistakes can be traced to hubris, our prideful belief that we can remake other societies and peoples in our image.  Our hubris leads us to undervalue legitimate cultural differences, and to underestimate the difficulties involved in bridging those distances.  Because we underestimate the difficulties, we rush in with money and troops, only to find that the problems we encounter — and often exacerbate — are not amenable to being solved with money and troops.  Nevertheless, once we’ve committed our prestige, we believe that we can’t withdraw without losing face.  So we commit even more money and troops and prestige, until our folly can no longer be denied, even to ourselves.  After which, sadly, we usually search for scapegoats.

Rarely do we stop to think that some problems simply can’t be solved with massive infusions of money and troops.  Indeed, infusions of the same often exacerbate the very problems we claim we’re trying to solve.

The way out, to paraphrase Arendt, is to commit only those means necessary to secure our major aims in regions of vital interest to the U.S.

Such an approach requires humility as well as moderation. Our foreign policy types will need to stop strutting the world stage as if they own it.  Our leaders will need to stop vamping like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, declaiming “I am big.  It’s the pictures that got small.” (If only they had her style.)

“Look at them in the front offices.  The masterminds!”  Yes, Gloria Swanson had it right. Our foreign policy “masterminds” need to learn some humility.  Either that, or America will be among the smashed idols of history.

Iraq and Afghanistan Are Not Rubik’s Cubes

A Rubik's Cube
A Rubik’s Cube

W.J. Astore

A few years ago I was talking to an experienced U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, a battalion commander in Iraq.  He compared the Iraqi situation to a Rubik’s Cube – a puzzling array of shifting loyalties, interconnected tribes, and religious sects.  At the time, I thought it was a telling metaphor.

But the metaphor was misleading.  A Rubik’s Cube can be solved.  Iraq couldn’t.  Not by the U.S.  Why?  Because Iraq was and is an Iraqi problem, not an American puzzle.  The more we twisted and turned the Iraqi cube, the more we avoided the reality that the heavily militarized U.S. presence in Iraq was a large part of the problem.

Similarly, Afghanistan is an Afghan problem.  Our long-term, heavily militarized, presence there is ultimately not in the best interests of the vast majority of Afghan people.  Nor for that matter is it ultimately in the best interests of America.

This conclusion may seem deceptively simple, even simple-minded.  But it isn’t.  It requires us to be humble.  It requires us to recognize that other countries and people are not problems for us to solve.  And American officials are loath to do that.  They are loath to admit any limits either to their power or insight.

This ham-fisted puzzle-solving mentality was endemic to the American presence in Vietnam.  In a probing book review of Carl Oglesby’s Ravens in the Storm, Dan White cites Oglesby’s experiences talking with the Vietnamese journalist Cao Giao.  One passage in particular caught my attention:

“You Americans [Cao Giao said] like to say the Vietnam problem is complex.  But this is only an excuse to not face the truth.  The truth is that the Vietnam problem is not complex at all.  It is only impossible.  Do you see?  If it was complex, you could try to solve it.  But it is simple because it is impossible.  Because it is simple it cannot be solved.”

Iraq and Afghanistan (or Yemen or Somalia or Syria) are not complex puzzles.  They’re not Rubik’s Cubes to be flipped and turned and massaged until we get all the colors to line up for us.  They’re impossible.  They’re impossible for us, that is.  We can’t “solve” them, no matter how many billions of dollars we spend, no matter how many troop brigades we send, no matter how many weapons we sell to them.

The simple truth (that U.S. officialdom seeks to deny) is that we consume our own myths of global reach, global power, and global goodness.  In the process we reduce other peoples and nations to puzzles.  We play with them until we “solve” them to our satisfaction.  Or we grow bored and tired and throw them away like yesterday’s toys.

Other nations and peoples are not toys.  Nor are they complex puzzles.  Nor should it be puzzling when the peoples we’ve flipped and spun like so many Rubik’s Cubes seek redress – and revenge.

The Need for Fresh Thinking in National Security Policy

It's impossible for Washington to think outside of the Pentagonal Box
It’s impossible for Washington to think outside of the Pentagonal Box

Andrew Bacevich, a retired U.S. Army colonel and professor of international relations, writing in January 2009 as Barack Obama took office as president, made the following cogent observation about the need for true “change” in Washington:

When it comes to national security, the standard navigational charts used to guide the ship of state are obsolete.  The assumptions, doctrines, habits, and routines falling under the rubric of “national security policy” have outlived their usefulness.  The antidote to the disappointments and failures of the Bush years, illustrated most vividly in the never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is not to try harder, but to think differently.  Only then will it become possible to avoid the patently self-destructive behavior that today finds Americans facing the prospect of perpetual conflict that neither our army nor our economy can sustain.

Of course, Obama promised “change,” but with respect to national security policy, the sum total of the last five years of his watch has simply been more of the same.

Admittedly, the war in Iraq finally ended (for U.S. troops, not for the Iraqi people), but that was only because the Iraqis themselves refused to countenance the eternal presence of our troops there (of course, our boondoggle of an embassy in Baghdad survives).  Obama didn’t get us out of Iraq; he acquiesced to a deal Bush had already struck with the Iraqis.

Meanwhile, the U.S. remains ensnared in Afghanistan, squandering lives and resources to the tune of $100 billion a year.  Vague promises are made of an American withdrawal in 2014, but with an “enduring presence” (God help us) for another ten years after that.  Under Obama, drone strikes have expanded and continue; the national security state remains fat as it ever was, garrisoning the globe and spying on the world (including, as we recently learned, American citizens); and various tough-talking “experts” in Congress continue to call for new military interventions in places like Iran and Syria.

Why has this happened?  One reason is that Obama and his team wanted to be reelected in 2012, so they embraced the Bush neo-conservative approach of a hyper-kinetic, interventionist, foreign policy.  Fresh thinking was nowhere to be found, since any downsizing of American military commitments or its national security apparatus would have exposed Obama to charges of being “soft” on (Muslim) terror.

With respect to a bloated national security apparatus and wasteful military interventions, change didn’t come in 2008.  It was a case, as The Who song says, of “Meet the new boss.  Same as the old boss.”  Nor is change coming, seemingly, in the future.  Americans remain wedded to a colossal national security state that neither the president nor the Congress appears willing to challenge, let alone change.

Fresh thinking is the one thing you can’t buy in Washington because it’s priceless.  And for the lack of it, we’re paying a very high price indeed.

Next Article: Some fresh thinking on where we should be headed.

W.J. Astore