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Nick Turse: Big Maps, Big Dreams, and the Failure of the Obama Doctrine

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It wasn't an everyday event, the arrival in TomDispatch's email inbox of a letter of complaint from Colonel Tom Davis, director of public affairs at USAFRICOM.  It began, "Greetings from U.S. Africa Command, we read the recent [Nick Turse] article "Secret Wars, Secret Bases, and the Pentagon's "New Spice Route' in Africa' with great interest." Colonel Davis suggested that his team had, in fact, found "inaccuracies and misrepresentations that we would like to address" in the piece (now part of Turse's latest book, The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare).  Col. Davis indicated as well that he expected us to make the necessary changes and so "correct the record," and that Andy Breslau, the head of the Nation Institute, which supports TomDispatch, would certainly want to know about this as well!  (And indeed, Col. Davis wrote him directly.) 

What followed was a copious 3,000-word document, clearly researched by committee at AFRICOM.  For some, such a letter and enclosure might have seemed like a polite attempt at intimidation.  ("I would venture that the Nation Institute, with Andy Breslau as its president, would have those same ideals on professional reporting and would want the inaccuracies and misrepresentations addressed as well.") 

Me, I was thrilled.  Hey, the folks at AFRICOM read TomDispatch!  Better yet, our reporting had gotten under their skin -- enough for them to feel compelled to reply, and even better yet, those "inaccuracies and misrepresentations" were nothing of the sort, as Nick Turse indicated in his several-thousand-word, point-by-point response, published alongside Col. Davis's critique at this site.  It was a remarkably civil exchange about the changing world of American war-making, now laid out in full in Dispatch Books's The Changing Face of Empire, just published today.  And it was a great hit for TomDispatch.

Think of it as just one more small, unintended consequence of the acts of the U.S. national security community.  Take, on a far larger scale, the Obama administration's decision that the CIA should facilitate the arming of Syria's rebels through our Arab "allies."  Ever since, arms have been flowing from Saudi Arabia and Qatar to Syrian rebel fighters.  Only recently, however, the New York Times reported that Washington is increasingly disturbed -- again those unintended consequences -- that the weapons "are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists, and not the more secular opposition groups that the West wants to bolster."

Of course, anyone faintly familiar with the way, three decades ago, the Saudi fundamentalist monarchy funneled weaponry to the most extreme of the Afghan mujahedeen commanders fighting the Soviets (as did the U.S. at Saudi and Pakistani request) and so armed our future enemies, will hardly be shocked by this supposedly surprising turn of events.  You would think that, every now and then, a few of history's lessons would penetrate the minds of our top national security officials and that they would actually think before acting.  But generally speaking, no such luck. 

Instead of correcting Nick Turse's "inaccuracies and misrepresentations," they would do well to buy piles of his new book and hand them out to every ranking officer.  They might learn something not just about follies past, but follies to come.  Today's Turse post, an adaptation of the book's conclusion, will give you a feel for what it has to say.  Tom

A Failed Formula for Worldwide War
How the Empire Changed Its Face, But Not Its Nature
By Nick Turse

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They looked like a gang of geriatric giants. Clad in smart casual attire -- dress shirts, sweaters, and jeans -- and incongruous blue hospital booties, they strode around "the world," stopping to stroke their chins and ponder this or that potential crisis. Among them was General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a button-down shirt and jeans, without a medal or a ribbon in sight, his arms crossed, his gaze fixed. He had one foot planted firmly in Russia, the other partly in Kazakhstan, and yet the general hadn't left the friendly confines of Virginia.

Several times this year, Dempsey, the other joint chiefs, and regional war-fighting commanders have assembled at the Marine Corps Base in Quantico to conduct a futuristic war-game-meets-academic-seminar about the needs of the military in 2017. There, a giant map of the world, larger than a basketball court, was laid out so the Pentagon's top brass could shuffle around the planet -- provided they wore those scuff-preventing shoe covers -- as they thought about "potential U.S. national military vulnerabilities in future conflicts" (so one participant told the New York Times). The sight of those generals with the world underfoot was a fitting image for Washington's military ambitions, its penchant for foreign interventions, and its contempt for (non-U.S.) borders and national sovereignty.

A World So Much Larger Than a Basketball Court

In recent weeks, some of the possible fruits of Dempsey's "strategic seminars," military missions far from the confines of Quantico, have repeatedly popped up in the news.  Sometimes buried in a story, sometimes as the headline, the reports attest to the Pentagon's penchant for globetrotting.   

In September, for example, Lieutenant General Robert L. Caslen, Jr., revealed that, just months after the U.S. military withdrew from Iraq, a unit of Special Operations Forces had already been redeployed there in an advisory role and that negotiations were underway to arrange for larger numbers of troops to train Iraqi forces in the future.  That same month, the Obama administration won congressional approval to divert funds earmarked for counterterrorism aid for Pakistan to a new proxy project in Libya.  According to the New York Times, U.S. Special Operations Forces will likely be deployed to create and train a 500-man Libyan commando unit to battle Islamic militant groups which have become increasingly powerful as a result of the 2011 U.S.-aided revolution there. 

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Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that the U.S. military had secretly sent a new task force to Jordan to assist local troops in responding to the civil war in neighboring Syria.  Only days later, that paper revealed that recent U.S. efforts to train and assist surrogate forces for Honduras's drug war were already crumbling amid a spiral of questions about the deaths of innocents, violations of international law, and suspected human rights abuses by Honduran allies. 

Shortly after that, the Times reported the bleak, if hardly surprising, news that the proxy army the U.S. has spent more than a decade building in Afghanistan is, according to officials, "so plagued with desertions and low re-enlistment rates that it has to replace a third of its entire force every year."  Rumors now regularly bubble up about a possible U.S.-funded proxy war on the horizon in Northern Mali where al-Qaeda-linked Islamists have taken over vast stretches of territory -- yet another direct result of last year's intervention in Libya.

And these were just the offshore efforts that made it into the news.  Many other U.S. military actions abroad remain largely below the radar.  Several weeks ago, for instance, U.S. personnel were quietly deployed to Burundi to carry out training efforts in that small, landlocked, desperately poor East African nation.  Another contingent of U.S. Army and Air Force trainers headed to the similarly landlocked and poor West African nation of Burkina Faso to instruct indigenous forces. 

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("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 (more...)

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