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

Now, we know. According to Todd Harrison, an expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the replacement cost for the 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles recently dumped on an air base in Syria: $89 million. That not-exactly-decisive strike in Washington's 15 years of war in the ever more chaotic Greater Middle East against... well, you tell me what or whom... was but a drop in the bucket. After all, the cost of those never-ending wars has already reached into the trillions of dollars. And keep in mind that these are wars in which, as U.S. Army major and TomDispatch regular Danny Sjursen suggests today, the most all-American military word around may be "more" -- as in more troops for Syria, more troops for Iraq, more troops for Afghanistan, and of course more missiles, planes, ships, advanced arms, you name it.

In that context, $89 million is a laughably small sum. Still, just for the hell of it, let's think about what a figure like that might mean if spent domestically rather than on a strike of more or less no significance in Syria. That sum is, for instance, well more than half of the $149 million budget for the National Endowment for the Arts and also of the $149 million budget for the National Endowment for the Humanities, both of which the Trump administration would like to wipe out. It represents one-fifth of the $445 million the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, also on Trump's chopping block, gets from the federal government. That single strike also represents about a thirtieth of the $2.6 billion his administration wants to cut from the Environmental Protection Agency's budget and about a sixtieth of the $5.8 billion that it plans to excise from the budget of the National Institutes of Health.

So each time those Tomahawks are launched, or American planes or drones take off on their latest missions over Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, or Somalia, or the next batch of U.S. troops heads for Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, or elsewhere in the Greater Middle East and those millions of dollars start to add up to billions and finally trillions, just think to yourself: that's the arts, the sciences, public health, and environmental safety that we're knocking off. Think of that as part of the "collateral damage" produced by our never-ending wars, or take a moment with Major Sjursen and imagine just how Washington might continue to lose those wars in the future with even greater flare and at even greater cost. Tom

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How to Lose the Next War in the Middle East
The Short Answer: Fight it!
By Danny Sjursen

Make no mistake: after 15 years of losing wars, spreading terror movements, and multiplying failed states across the Greater Middle East, America will fight the next versions of our ongoing wars. Not that we ever really stopped. Sure, Washington traded in George W. Bush's expansive, almost messianic attitude toward his Global War on Terror for Barack Obama's more precise, deliberate, even cautious approach to an unnamed version of the same war for hegemony in the Greater Middle East. Sure, in the process kitted-up 19 year-olds from Iowa became less ubiquitous features on Baghdad's and Kabul's busy boulevards, even if that distinction was lost on the real-life targets of America's wars -- and the bystanders (call them "collateral damage") scurrying across digital drone display screens.

It's hardly a brilliant observation to point out that, more than 15 years later, the entire region is a remarkable mess. So much worse off than Washington found it, even if all of that mess can't simply be blamed on the United States -- at least not directly. It's too late now, as the Trump administration is discovering, to retreat behind two oceans and cover our collective eyes. And yet, acts that might still do some modest amount of good (resettling refugees, sending aid, brokering truces, anything within reason to limit suffering) don't seem to be on any American agenda.

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So, after 16 years of inconclusive or catastrophic regional campaigns, maybe it's time to stop dreaming about how to make things better in the Greater Middle East and try instead to imagine how to make things worse (since that's the path we often seem to take anyway). Here, then, is a little thought experiment for you: what if Washington actually wanted to lose? How might the U.S. government go about accomplishing that? Let me offer a quick (and inevitably incomplete) to-do list on the subject:

As a start, you would drop an enlarged, conventional army into Iraq and/or Syria. This would offer a giant red, white, and blue target for all those angry, young radicalized men just dying (pardon the pun) to extinguish some new "crusader" force. It would serve as an effective religious-nationalist rallying cry (and target) throughout the region.

Then you would create a news-magnet of a ban (or at least the appearance of one) on immigrants and visitors of every sort from predominantly Muslim countries coming to the United States. It's hardly an accident that ISIS has taken to calling the president's proposed executive order to do just that "the blessed ban" and praising Donald Trump as the "best caller to Islam." Such actions only confirm the extremist narrative: that Muslims are unwelcome in and incompatible with the West, that liberal plurality is a neo-imperial scam.

Finally, you would feed the common perception in the region that Washington's support for Israel and assorted Arab autocrats is unconditional. To do so, you would go out of your way to hold fawning public meetings with military strongmen like Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and suggest that, when it came to Israel, you were considering changing American policy when it comes to a two-state solution and the illegal Israeli settlements in Palestine. Such policies would feed another ISIS narrative: U.S. support for illiberal despots and the failure of the Arab Spring is proof that practicing Muslims and peaceful Islamists will never successfully gain power through the democratic process.

Key to such a losing strategy would be doing anything you could to reinforce ISIS's twisted narrative of an end-of-days battle between Islam and Christendom, a virtuous East versus a depraved West, an authentic Caliphate against hypocritical democracies. In what amounts to a war of ideas, pursuing such policies would all but hand victory to ISIS and other jihadi extremist groups. And so you would have successfully created a strategy for losing eternally in the Greater Middle East. And if that was the desired outcome in Washington, well, congratulations all around, but of course we all know that it wasn't.

Let's take these three points in such a losing strategy one by one. (Of course "losing" is itself a contested term, but for our purposes, consider the U.S. to have lost as long as its military spins its wheels in a never-ending quagmire, while gradually empowering various local "adversaries.")

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Just a Few Thousand More Troops Will Get It Done...

There are already thousands of American soldiers and Marines in Iraq and Syria, to say nothing of the even more numerous troops and sailors stationed on bases in Kuwait, Bahrain, Turkey, and other states ringing America's Middle Eastern battlefields. Still, if you want to mainline into the fastest way to lose the next phase of the war on terror, just blindly acquiesce in the inevitable requests of your commanders for yet more troops and planes needed to finish the job in Syria ( and Iraq, and Afghanistan, and Yemen, and so on).

Let's play this out. First, the worst (and most plausible) case: U.S. ground forces get sucked into an ever more complex, multi-faceted civil war -- deeper and deeper still, until one day they wake up in a world that looks like Baghdad, 2007, all over again.

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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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