Engelhardt, Superpower Adrift in an Alien World

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Obama’s Mission Accomplished Moment?
And a Military-First Policy on a Destabilizing Planet

By Tom Engelhardt

Here’s the ad for this moment in Washington (as I imagine it): Militarized superpower adrift and anxious in alien world.  Needs advice.  Will pay.  Pls respond qkly.  PO Box 1776-2012, Washington, DC.

Here’s the way it actually went down in Washington last week: a triumphant performance by a commander-in-chief who wants you to know that he’s at the top of his game.

When it came to rolling out a new 10-year plan for the future of the U.S. military, the leaks to the media began early and the message was clear.  One man is in charge of your future safety and security.  His name is Barack Obama.  And — not to worry — he has things in hand.

Unlike the typical president, so the reports went, he held six (count ’em: six!) meetings with top Pentagon officials, the Joint Chiefs, the service heads, and his military commanders to plan out the next decade of American war making.  And he was no civilian bystander at those meetings either.  On a planet where no other power has more than two aircraft carriers in service, he personally nixed a Pentagon suggestion that the country’s aircraft carrier battle groups be reduced from 11 to 10, lest China think our power-projection capabilities were weakening in Asia. 

His secretary of defense, Leon Panetta, spared no words when it came to the president’s role, praising his “vision and guidance and leadership” (as would Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin E. Dempsey).  Panetta described Obama’s involvement thusly: “[T]his has been an unprecedented process, to have the president of the United States participate in discussions involving the development of a defense strategy, and to spend time with our service chiefs and spend time with our combatant commanders to get their views.”

In other words, Obama taking ownership of the rollout of “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” a 16-page document summarizing a review of America’s strategic interests, defense priorities, and military spending.  Its public unveiling was to reflect the steady hand of a commander-in-chief destined to be in charge of American security for years to come.

The president even made a “rare visit” to the Pentagon.  There, he was hailed as the first occupant of the Oval Office ever to make comments, no less present a new “more realistic” strategic guidance document, from its press office.  All of this, in turn, was billed as introducing “major change” into the country’s military stance, leading to (shades of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld) a “leaner, meaner” force, slimmed down and recalibrated for economic tough times and a global “moment of transition.”

As political theater, it couldn’t have been smarter.  For a president, vulnerable like all Democrats to charges of national security weakness in an election year, it was a chance for great photo ops and headlines.  And it left his Republican opponents (Ron Paul, of course, excepted) in the dust, sputtering, fuming, and complaining that he was “leading from behind” and “imperiling” the nation.

Even better, in an election season which has mesmerized the media, not a single reporter or pundit seemed to notice that, whatever the new Pentagon plan might mean for the U.S. military globally, it was great domestic politics for a president whose second term was in peril.

Another “Mission Accomplished” Moment?

The actual Pentagon planning document, released the day of the president’s Pentagon appearance, might as well have been written in cuneiform script or hieroglyphics.  Just about any military future might have been read into or out of its purposely foggy, not to say impenetrable, pages.  That, too, seemed politically canny, offering the president a militarized version of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too-ism.

While the document only referred to the Pentagon budget-cutting process that had been making headlines for weeks in the most oblique manner, the briefings offered by the president, the secretary of defense, and other top officials highlighted those “cuts”: $487 billion over the next decade. It was the sort of thing that should have made any deficit hawk’s heart flutter.  Yet somehow — a bow to defense hawks? — the same budget, already humongous from an unprecedented 12 straight years of expansion, was, Obama assured his audience, actually slated to keep on growing.

Like a magician pulling the proverbial rabbit from the hat, the president described the situation this way: “Over the next 10 years, the growth in the defense budget will slow, but the fact of the matter is this: It will still grow, because we have global responsibilities that demand our leadership.  In fact, the defense budget will still be larger than it was toward the end of the Bush administration.”

This magic trick was only possible because those headlined cuts were to come largely from the Pentagon’s “projected defense spending.”  You’ll get the idea if you imagine an obese foodie announcing that he’s going to “diet” by cutting back on his dreams of future feasts, even as he modestly increases his actual caloric intake.

Surrounded by Panetta, Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs, and the service secretaries, the president had so much more to offer.  Those nasty, unwinnable, nation-building-style counterinsurgency wars “with large military footprints” were now a thing of the past.  On them, the tide was, as he so poetically put it, receding.  Yes, there would be losers — Army and Marine Corps troop strength was slated to drop by perhaps 80,000 to 100,000 in the coming decade — but weren’t they already the losers of wars no one wanted?

Listening to his presentation and those to follow, you could have been pardoned for imagining that we were already practically out of Afghanistan and looking to a time when everything military would be just cool as hell.  In that future, there would be nothing but neat, high-tech military operations (and war toys) to the horizon.

These would include our latest perfect weapon, the pilotless drone; nifty cyberwar-style online combat; plenty of new spy and advanced surveillance gear; and sexy shadow wars, just the thing for “environments where adversaries try to deny us access.”   Elite special operations forces — the secret military, cocooned inside the regular military, that took down Osama bin Laden — would be further expanded; and finally, there would be a “pivot to Asia” to confront the planet’s rising superpower, China, by sea and air, leaving all those nasty Arabs and Pashtuns and their messy, ugly guerrilla insurgencies, IEDs, and suicide bombers behind.

It couldn’t have sounded cheerier once the media speculation began and it offered something for just about anyone who mattered in imperial Washington. In fact, as sober as Obama looked and as business-like as his surroundings were, if you closed your eyes, you could almost imagine a flight suit and an aircraft carrier deck, for this felt eerily like his “mission accomplished” moment.

Hostilities of the old nasty sort were practically at an end and a new era of high-tech, super-secret, elite warfare was upon us.  The future would be so death-of-bin-Laden-ish all the way.  It would be safe, secure, and glorious in the hands of our reconfigured military and its efficiently reconfigured budget.

Military-First Imperial Realism

This particular reconfiguration also allowed the globe’s last great imperial power to put a smiley face on a decade of military disasters in the Greater Middle East and — for all the clever politics of the moment — to cry uncle in its own fashion.  More miraculous yet, it was doing so without giving up its global military dreams.

It was a way of saying that, if the U.S. ever gets itself out of Afghanistan, when it comes to invading and occupying another Muslim land, building hundreds of bases and an embassy the size of the Ritz, and running riot in the name of “nation-building” and democracy: never again — or not for a few decades anyway.

Consider this a form of begrudging imperial realism that managed never to leave behind that essential American stance of garrisoning the planet.  In fact, in order to fly all those drones and land all those special operations units, Washington may need more, not less bases globally.  And of course, those 11 carrier battle groups are themselves floating bases, massively armed American small towns at sea.

As it happens, though, we already know how this story ends and it’s nothing to write home about.  Yes, they’re going with what’s hot, especially those drones.  But keep in mind that, only a few years ago, the hottest thing in town was counterinsurgency warfare and its main proponent, General David Petraeus, was being hailed as a new Alexander the Great, Napoleon, or U.S. Grant.  And you know what happened there.

Now, counterinsurgency is history.  The new hot ticket of the moment, that “revolutionary weapon” of our time — the drone or robotic airplane — is to fit the bill instead.  Drones are, without a doubt, technologically remarkable and growing more sophisticated by the year.  But air power has historically proved a poor choice if you want to accomplish anything political on the ground.  It hardly matters whether those planes in the distant heavens have pilots or not, or whether they can see ants crawl from 20,000 feet and blast them away with precision.

Despite hosannas about the air war in Libya, count on one thing: air power will prove predictably inept when it comes to an American version of “revolutionary” counterterror warfare in the twenty-first century.  So much for the limits of realism. 

Washington-style realism assumes that we made a few mistakes, which can be rectified with the help of advanced technology and without endangering the military-industrial-crony-capitalist way of life.  That’s about as radical as Obama’s Washington is likely to get.

When compared to the Republicans (Ron Paul aside again) storming the rhetorical barricades daily, threatening war with Iran nightly, promising to reinvade Iraq, or swearing that a military budget larger than those of the next 10 countries combined is wussiness itself, the Obama administration’s approach does look like shining realism.  Up against this planet as it actually is today, its military-first policies look like wishful thinking.

What Drones Can’t Do

Climate-change advocates sometimes say that we’re on a new planet. (Bill McKibben calls it “Eaarth,” with that ungainly extra “a” to signify an ungainly place that used to be comfy enough for humanity.)  It is, they say, a planet under pressure and destabilizing in all sorts of barely imagined ways.

Here’s the strange thing, though.  Set aside climate change, and to the passing, modestly apocalyptic eye, this planet still looks as if it were destabilizing.  Your three economic powerhouses — the European Union, China, and the United States — are all teetering at the edge of interrelated financial crises.  The EU seems to be literally destabilizing.  It’s now perfectly reasonable to suggest that the present Eurozone may, within years, be Eurozones (or worse).  Who knows when European banks, up to their elbows in bad debt, will start to tumble or whole countries like Greece go down (whatever that may mean)?

At the same time, the Chinese, with the hottest economy on the planet, have a housing bubble, which may already be bursting.  (Americans should have at least a few passing memories of just what kinds of troubles a popped housing bubble can bring.)  And for all we know, the U.S. economy, despite recent headlines about growing consumer confidence and an unemployment rate dropping to 8.5%, may be on life support.

As for the rest of the world, it looks questionable as well.  The powerhouse Indian economy, like the Brazilian one, is slowing down.  Whatever the glories of the Arab Spring, the Middle East is now in tumult and shows no signs of righting itself economically or politically any time soon.  And don’t forget the Obama administration’s attempt to ratchet up sanctions on Iranian oil.  If things go wrong, that might end up sending energy prices right through the roof and blowing back on the global economy in painful ways.  With the major economies of the globe balancing on a pin, the possibility of a spike in those prices thanks to any future U.S./Iran/Israeli crisis should be terrifying.

The globalization types of the 1990s used to sing hymns to the way this planet was morphing into a single economic creature.  It’s worth keeping in mind that it remains so in bad times.  This year could, of course, be another bumble-through year of protest and tumult, or it could be something much worse.   And don’t think that I — a non-economist of the first order — am alone in such fears.  The new head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, has been traveling the planet recently making Jeremiah sound like an optimist, suggesting that we could, in fact, be at the edge of another global Great Depression.

But know this: you can buy drones till they’re coming out your ears and they won’t help keep Greece afloat for an extra second.  Expand special operations forces to your heart’s content and you still can’t send them into those failing European banks.  Take over cyberspace or outer space and you won’t prevent a Chinese housing bubble from bursting.  None of the crucial problems on this planet are, in fact, amenable to military solutions, not even by a country willing to pour its treasure into previously unheard of military and national security expenditures.

Over the years, “the perfect storm” came to be a perfectly overused cliché, which is why you don’t see it much any more.  But it might be worth dusting off and keeping in reserve this year and next — just in case.  After all, when any situation destabilizes, all bets are off, including for a president having his mission accomplished moment.  (Just ask John McCain what happened to his 2008 presidential bid when the economy suddenly began to melt down.)

In such a situation, the sort of military-first policy the president has made his own couldn’t be more useless.  Maybe it’s time to take out a little insurance.  Just not with AIG. 

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s His latest book, The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books), has just been published. 

[Note:  A deep bow to Nick Turse, as ever, for all his help.  And another to the indispensable, Juan Cole’s invaluable Informed Comment website, and Paul Woodward’s always intriguing website The War in Context for being there and up to the second when I need them most.]

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Copyright 2012 Tom Engelhardt