U.S. Marines are, for the first time, deploying to Syria (with more to come). There's talk of an "enduring" U.S. military presence in Iraq, while additional U.S. troops are being dispatched to neighboring Kuwait with an eye to the wars in both Iraq and Syria. Yemen has been battered by a veritable blitz of drone strikes and other air attacks. Afghanistan seems to be in line for an increase in American forces. The new president has just restored to the CIA the power to use drones to strike more or less anywhere on the "world battlefield," recently a Pentagon prerogative, and is evidently easing restrictions on the Pentagon's use of drones as well. U.S. military commanders are slated to get more leeway to make decisions locally and the very definition of what qualifies as a "battlefield" looks like it's about to change (which will mean even less attention to "collateral damage" or civilian casualties). President Trump may soon designate various areas outside more or less official American war zones -- since the U.S. Congress no longer declares war, they can't truly be official -- as "temporary areas of active hostility." That will grant U.S. commanders greater leeway in launching attacks on terror groups in places like Somalia. In fact, this already seems to have happened in Yemen, according to the New York Times, opening the way for a disastrous Special Operations Forces raid there that caused the death of a Navy SEAL and possibly nine Yemeni children (the youngest three months old), while evidently accomplishing next to nothing.
In other words, in the early months of the Trump era, U.S. wars and conflicts across the Greater Middle East are being expanded and escalated. This isn't exactly a new process, and isn't yet at the level of either the failed Iraqi Surge of 2007 or the failed Afghan one of 2010. Still, you might think that the almost instant failure of that Yemen raid would have rung a few familiar warning bells in Washington when it comes to escalating America's wars in the region. If so, you would evidently be oh-so-wrong. The history of the last 15 years tells us that in Washington such setbacks couldn't matter less. At the moment, the generals who have headed down these very paths before are evidently recommending to an eager new president that it's the height of wisdom to head down them again.
As TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich, author of America's War for the Greater Middle East, points out today, this is now business as usual in militarized Washington in the twenty-first century. It's so much the law of the land that the Pentagon has developed the perfect language for masking, perhaps to itself as much as others, just how dismally familiar this process actually is. Tom
Prepare, Pursue, Prevail!
Onward and Upward with U.S. Central Command
By Andrew J. Bacevich
By way of explaining his eight failed marriages, the American bandleader Artie Shaw once remarked, "I am an incurable optimist." In reality, Artie was an incurable narcissist. Utterly devoid of self-awareness, he never looked back, only forward.
So, too, with the incurable optimists who manage present-day American wars. What matters is not past mistakes but future opportunities. This describes the view of General Joseph Votel, current head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). Since its creation in 1983, CENTCOM has emerged as the ne plus ultra of the Pentagon's several regional commands, the place where the action is always hot and heavy. Votel is the latest in a long train of four-star generals to preside over that action.
The title of this essay (exclamation point included) captures in a single phrase the "strategic approach" that Votel has devised for CENTCOM. That approach, according to the command's website, is "proactive in nature and endeavors to set in motion tangible actions in a purposeful, consistent, and continuous manner."
This strategic approach forms but one element in General Votel's multifaceted (if murky) "command narrative," which he promulgated last year upon taking the helm at CENTCOM headquarters in Tampa, Florida. Other components include a "culture," a "vision," a "mission," and "priorities." CENTCOM's culture emphasizes "persistent excellence," as the command "strives to understand and help others to comprehend, with granularity and clarity, the complexities of our region." The vision, indistinguishable from the mission except perhaps for those possessing advanced degrees in hermeneutics, seeks to provide "a more stable and prosperous region with increasingly effective governance, improved security, and trans-regional cooperation." Toward that estimable end, CENTCOM's priorities include forging partnerships with other nations "based upon shared values," "actively counter[ing] the malign influence" of hostile regimes, and "degrading and defeating violent extremist organizations and their networks."
At present, CENTCOM is busily implementing the several components of Votel's command narrative across an "area of responsibility" (AOR) consisting of 20 nations, among them Iran, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. As the CENTCOM website puts it, without batting a digital eyelash, that AOR "spans more than 4 million square miles and is populated by more than 550 million people from 22 ethnic groups, speaking 18 languages with hundreds of dialects and confessing multiple religions which transect national borders."
According to the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, an AOR is the "geographical area associated with a combatant command within which a geographic combatant commander has authority to plan and conduct operations." Yet this anodyne definition fails to capture the spirit of the enterprise in which General Votel is engaged.
One imagines that there must be another Department of Defense Dictionary, kept under lock-and-key in the Pentagon, that dispenses with the bland language and penchant for deceptive euphemisms. That dictionary would define an AOR as "a vast expanse within which the United States seeks to impose order without exercising sovereignty." An AOR combines aspects of colony, protectorate, and contested imperial frontier. In that sense, the term represents the latest incarnation of the informal empire that American elites have pursued in various forms ever since U.S. forces "liberated" Cuba in 1898.
To say that a military officer presiding over an AOR plans and conducts operations is a bit like saying that Jeff Bezos sells books. It's a small truth that evades a larger one. To command CENTCOM is to function as a proconsul, to inhabit as a co-equal the rarified realm of kings, presidents, and prime ministers. CENTCOM commanders shape the future of their AOR -- or at least fancy that they do.
Sustaining expectations of shaping the future requires a suitably accommodating version of the past. For CENTCOM, history is a record of events selected and arranged to demonstrate progress. By testifying to the achievements of previous CENTCOM commanders, history thereby validates Votel's own efforts to carry on their work. Not for nothing, therefore, does the command's website include this highly sanitized account of its recent past:
"In the wake of 9-11, the international community found Saddam Hussein's continued lack of cooperation with United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolutions regarding weapons of mass destruction unacceptable. Hussein's continued recalcitrance led the UNSC to authorize the use of force by a U.S.-led coalition. Operation Iraqi Freedom began 19 March 2003.
"Following the defeat of both the Taliban regime in Afghanistan (9 November 2001) and Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq (8 April 2003), CENTCOM has continued to provide security to the new freely-elected governments in those countries, conducting counterinsurgency operations and assisting host nation security forces to provide for their own defense."
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