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Nick Turse: The Changing Face of Empire

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

 

The frustration has long been growing.  Now, it's been put into words.  On his recent trip to Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who has earned a reputation for saying whatever comes into his head, insisted that Washington had just about had it with Pakistan.  "Reaching the limits of our patience" was the way he put it (not once but twice).  Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey spoke only slightly more mildly of being "extraordinarily dissatisfied."  The Obama administration, so went the message, was essentially losing it in South Asia.  It was mad and wasn't about to take it any more!

How far Washington has come from the days (back in 2001) when an American official could reportedly march self-confidently into the office of Pakistan's intelligence chief, and tell him that his country had better decide whether it was for us or against us.  Otherwise, he reportedly added, Pakistan should expect to be bombed "back to the Stone Age."

In the ensuing years, the great imperial power of our age repeatedly recalibrated its Pakistan policy in growing frustration, only to see it run ever more definitively off the rails.  The Obama administration, in particular, has sent its high officials, like so many caroming pinballs, flying in and out of Pakistan in droves for years now to demand, order, chide, plead, wheedle, cajole, intimidate, threaten, twist arms, and bluster, as it repeatedly flipped from good-guy ally to fierce, missile-wielding frenemy, and back again.

Recently, in the wake of U.S. air strikes that killed 24 Pakistani border guards (without a U.S. apology), it has faced a more-than-six-month closure of its crucial Pakistani war supply lines into Afghanistan.  Its response: to negotiate ever more frenetically, and pull the trigger in its drone war in the Pakistani borderlands ever more often.  Recently, it even announced a multimillion dollar cut-off of funds for Pakistan's version of Sesame Street, while reaching a highly touted agreement with some former Central Asian SSRs of the former Soviet Union to transport American equipment out of Afghanistan (as our forces draw down there), at up to six times the cost of the blockaded routes through Pakistan.

If you want a living, panting, post-9/11 parable of imperial self-confidence and mastery gone to hell, Pakistan is the first (but not the last) place to look.  Behind the visible failure of U.S. policy in that country lies a devastating self-deception: the thought that, in the twenty-first century, even the greatest of powers, playing its cards perfectly, can control this planet, or simply significant regions of it.

If you want a prospectively breathtaking version of the same disastrous principle check out the latest piece by TomDispatch Associate Editor Nick Turse, co-author of the new book Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.  A new American global way of war is emerging to replace the double disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan. Turse puts its sinews together strikingly, suggesting that Washington is once again bedazzled by the possibility of mastering the planet -- in a new, cheaper, less profligate way.  Once again, the top officials of our ever-expanding national security state are evidently convinced of their own prospective brilliance in organizing the next version of the global Great Game.  As with Pakistan in late 2001, so -- from Central Africa to the Philippines -- this, too, looks like a winner in their eyes. Much on this planet is unpredictable and yet the crash-and-burn fate of what Turse calls the Obama doctrine is painfully predictable. Unfortunately, as it goes down in flames, it may help send the world up in flames, too. Tom

The New Obama Doctrine, A Six-Point Plan for Global WarSpecial Ops, Drones, Spy Games, Civilian Soldiers, Proxy Fighters, and Cyber Warfare
By Nick Turse

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It looked like a scene out of a Hollywood movie.  In the inky darkness, men in full combat gear, armed with automatic weapons and wearing night-vision goggles, grabbed hold of a thick, woven cable hanging from a MH-47 Chinook helicopter.  Then, in a flash, each "fast-roped" down onto a ship below.  Afterward, "Mike," a Navy SEAL who would not give his last name, bragged to an Army public affairs sergeant that, when they were on their game, the SEALs could put 15 men on a ship this way in 30 seconds or less.

Once on the aft deck, the special ops troops broke into squads and methodically searched the ship as it bobbed in Jinhae Harbor, South Korea.  Below deck and on the bridge, the commandos located several men and trained their weapons on them, but nobody fired a shot.  It was, after all, a training exercise.

All of those ship-searchers were SEALs, but not all of them were American.  Some were from Naval Special Warfare Group 1 out of Coronado, California; others hailed from South Korea's Naval Special Brigade.  The drill was part of Foal Eagle 2012, a multinational, joint-service exercise.  It was also a model for -- and one small part of -- a much publicized U.S. military "pivot" from the Greater Middle East to Asia, a move that includes sending an initial contingent of 250 Marines to Darwin, Australia, basing littoral combat ships in Singapore, strengthening military ties with Vietnam and India, staging war games in the Philippines (as well as a drone strike there), and shifting the majority of the Navy's ships to the Pacific by the end of the decade.

That modest training exercise also reflected another kind of pivot.  The face of American-style war-fighting is once again changing.  Forget full-scale invasions and large-footprint occupations on the Eurasian mainland; instead, think: special operations forces working on their own but also training or fighting beside allied militaries (if not outright proxy armies) in hot spots around the world.  And along with those special ops advisors, trainers, and commandos expect ever more funds and efforts to flow into the militarization of spying and intelligence, the use of drone aircraft, the launching of cyber-attacks, and joint Pentagon operations with increasingly militarized "civilian" government agencies. 

Much of this has been noted in the media, but how it all fits together into what could be called the new global face of empire has escaped attention.  And yet this represents nothing short of a new Obama doctrine, a six-point program for twenty-first-century war, American-style, that the administration is now carefully developing and honing.  Its global scope is already breathtaking, if little recognized, and like Donald Rumsfeld's military lite and David Petraeus's counterinsurgency operations, it is evidently going to have its day in the sun -- and like them, it will undoubtedly disappoint in ways that will surprise its creators.

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The Blur-ness

For many years, the U.S. military has been talking up and promoting the concept of "jointness."  An Army helicopter landing Navy SEALs on a Korean ship catches some of this ethos at the tactical level.  But the future, it seems, has something else in store.  Think of it as "blur-ness," a kind of organizational version of war-fighting in which a dominant Pentagon fuses its forces with other government agencies -- especially the CIA, the State Department, and the Drug Enforcement Administration -- in complex, overlapping missions around the globe. 

In 2001, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld began his "revolution in military affairs," steering the Pentagon toward a military-lite model of high-tech, agile forces.  The concept came to a grim end in Iraq's embattled cities.  A decade later, the last vestiges of its many failures continue to play out in a stalemated war in Afghanistan against a rag-tag minority insurgency that can't be beaten.  In the years since, two secretaries of defense and a new president have presided over another transformation -- this one geared toward avoiding ruinous, large-scale land wars which the U.S. has consistently proven unable to win.

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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 (more...)
 

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