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Tom Engelhardt: Washington's Militarized Mindset

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

 

Americans may feel more distant from war than at any time since World War II began.  Certainly, a smaller percentage of us -- less than 1% -- serves in the military in this all-volunteer era of ours and, on the face of it, Washington's constant warring in distant lands seems barely to touch the lives of most Americans. 

And yet the militarization of the United States and the strengthening of the National Security Complex continues to accelerate.  The Pentagon is, by now, a world unto itself, with a staggering budget at a moment when no other power or combination of powers comes near to challenging this country's might. 

In the post-9/11 era, the military-industrial complex has been thoroughly mobilized under the rubric of "privatization" and now goes to war with the Pentagon.  With its $80 billion-plus budget, the intelligence bureaucracy has simply exploded.  There are so many competing agencies and outfits, surrounded by a universe of private intelligence contractors, all enswathed in a penumbra of secrecy, and they have grown so large, mainly under the Pentagon's aegis, that you could say intelligence is now a ruling way of life in Washington -- and it, too, is being thoroughly militarized.  Even the once-civilian CIA has undergone a process of para-militarization and now runs its own "covert" drone wars in Pakistan and elsewhere.  Its director, a widely hailed retired four-star general, was previously the U.S. war commander in Iraq and then Afghanistan, just as the National Intelligence Director who oversees the whole intelligence labyrinth is a retired Air Force lieutenant general.   

In a sense, even the military has been "militarized." In these last years, a secret army of special operations forces, 60,000 or more strong and still expanding, has grown like an incubus inside the regular armed forces. As the CIA's drones have become the president's private air force, so the special ops troops are his private army, and are now given free rein to go about the business of war in their own cocoon of secrecy in areas far removed from what are normally considered America's war zones.

Diplomacy, too, has been militarized.  Diplomats work ever more closely with the military, while the State Department is transforming itself into an unofficial arm of the Pentagon -- as the secretary of state is happy to admit -- as well as of the weapons industry

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And keep in mind that we now have two Pentagons, thanks to the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which is focused, among other things, on militarizing our southern border.  Meanwhile, with the help of the DHS, local police forces nationwide have, over the last decade, been significantly up-armored and have, in the name of fighting terrorism, gained a distinctly military patina.  They have ever more access to elaborate weaponry and gadgets, including billions of dollars of surplus military equipment of every sort, often being funneled to once peaceable small town police departments.

The Military Solution in the Greater Middle East  

Militarization in this country is hardly a new phenomenon.  It can be traced back decades, but the process hit warp speed in the post-9/11 years, even if the U.S. still lacks the classic look of a militarized society.  Almost unnoticed has been an accompanying transformation of the mindset of Washington -- what might be called the militarization of solutions. 

If the institutions of American life and governance are increasingly militarized, then it shouldn't be surprising that the problems facing the country are ever more often framed in militarized terms and that the only solutions considered are similarly militarized.  This paucity of imagination, this constraining of what might be possible, seems especially evident in the Greater Middle East. 

In fact, Washington's record there, seldom if ever collected in one place, should be eye-opening.  Start with a dose of irony: before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it was a commonplace among neoconservatives to label the region extending across the oil heartlands of the planet, from North Africa to the Chinese border in Central Asia, "the arc of instability."  After a decade in which Washington has applied its military might and thoroughly militarized solutions to the region, that decade-old world now looks remarkably "stable."  

Here, in shorthand, is a little regional scorecard of what American militarization has meant in the Greater Middle East, 2001-2012:

Pakistan:  The U.S. has faced a multitude of complex problems in this nuclear nation beset with insurgent movements, its tribal areas providing sanctuary to both Afghan and Pakistani rebels and jihadis, and its intelligence service entangled in a complicated relationship with the Taliban leadership as well as other rebel groups fighting in Afghanistan.  Washington's response has been -- as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta recently labeled it -- war.  In 2004, the Bush administration launched a drone assassination campaign in the country's tribal borderlands largely focused on al-Qaeda leaders (combined with a few cross-border special forces raids).  Those rare robotic air strikes have since expanded into something like a full-scale covert drone war that is killing civilians, is intensely unpopular throughout Pakistan, and by now is clearly meant to punish the Pakistani leadership for its transgressions as well. 

Frustrated by what they consider Pakistani intransigence, elements in the U.S. military and intelligence community are reportedly pressing to add a new set of cross-border joint special operations/Afghan commando raids to the present incendiary mix.  American air strikes from Afghanistan that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last November, with no apologies offered for seven months, brought to a boil a crisis in relations between Washington and Islamabad, with the Pakistani government closing off the country to American war supplies headed for Afghanistan. (That added a couple of billion dollars to the Pentagon's expenses there before the crisis was ended with a grudging apology this week).  The whole process has clearly contributed to the destabilization of nuclear Pakistan.

Afghanistan: Following a November 2001 invasion (light on invading U.S. troops), the U.S. opted for a full-scale occupation and reconstruction of the country.  In the process, it managed to spur the reconstruction and reconstitution of the previously deeply unpopular and defeated Taliban movement.  An insurgent war followed.  Despite a massive surge of U.S. forces, CIA agents, special operations troops, and private contractors into the country, the calling in of air power in a major way, and the expansion of a program of "night raids" by special ops types and the CIA, success has not followed.  By the end of 2014, the U.S. is scheduled to withdraw its main combat forces from what is likely to be a thoroughly destabilized country.

Iran: In a program long aimed at regime change (but officially focused on the country's nuclear program), the U.S. has clamped energy sanctions -- often seen as an act of war -- on Iran, supported a special operations campaign of unknown proportions (including cross-border actions), run a massive CIA drone surveillance program in the country's skies, and (with the Israelis) loosed at least two major malware "worms" against the computer systems and centrifuges of its nuclear facilities, which even the Pentagon defines as acts of war.  It has also backed a massive build-up of U.S. naval and air power in the Persian Gulf and of military bases in countries on Iran's peripheries, along with "comprehensive multi-option war-planning" for a possible 2013 strike at Iran's nuclear facilities.  (Though little is known about it, an assassination campaign against Iranian nuclear scientists has usually been blamed on the Israelis.  Now that the joint U.S.-Israeli authorship of acts of cyberwar against Iran has been confirmed, however, it is at least reasonable to wonder whether the U.S. might also have had a hand in these killings.)  All of this has embroiled the region and brought it to the edge of yet more war, while in no obvious way shaking the Iranian regime.

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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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