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Andrew Bacevich: Uncle Sam, Global Gangster

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three days a week, click here .

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 off 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 movies.  In Washington's global battle zones, what's called 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

Scoring 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 plans 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 raids or minesweeping operations 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.

The 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.

The 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. 

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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