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Tomgram: Michael Klare, Fighting the Next War, Not the Last

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

We're plunged into a world in which yesterday's strangeness is instantly overwhelmed by today's, which, in turn, is guaranteed to be overshadowed by tomorrow's. Our president regularly regales his infamous base while mocking his enemies in ways that, not long ago, would have been presidentially inconceivable. It's a world in which he recently flew to Japan and presented a sumo wrestling champion with a made-up "President's cup" trophy the size of Mount Everest, in which he and the North Korean autocrat he's having a bromance with ("we fell in love") both mocked a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate and former vice president (fondly known to you-know-who as "Swampman Joe Bidan" -- yes, extremelystable geniuses aren't always the world's best spellers) as a "low IQ individual," aka "a fool of low IQ." It's the world in which that same president dismissed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for having mentally "lost it" and then retweeted a doctored video of her seeming to slur her words ("Pelosi stammers through news conference") -- all of which barely begins to scratch the surface of this El Niño political moment. No wonder few here even seem to notice a strangeness that preceded The Donald into the world and seems to defy him in a Pelosi-like fashion.

I'm thinking about Washington's never-ending wars still spreading across the Greater Middle East and Africa all these years after 9/11, the ones that began in Afghanistan and nearly 18 years later are threatening to add Iran to the mix. (Remind me, for instance, how many U.S. troops remain in Syria since the president tweeted last December that he was about to withdraw all 2,000 of them.) The Afghan war alone is already by far the longest in our history. It just got its 17th U.S. commander and yet somehow the situation there only grows worse as the Taliban gains ground, refugees flee the region, terror groups spread, and endless versions of American war-making -- from troop surges to counterinsurgency, blow-'em-away air power to the use of the largest nonnuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal -- are fruitlessly brought to bear on the situation. If all of this isn't evidence of the brain-dead nature of the U.S. political and military leadership in these years, a crew that has seemed incapable of learning a single lesson from its own acts or of altering its behavior in any significant way, what is? And so many years (and taxpayer dollars) later, except for eternally thanking U.S. soldiers for their service, most Americans hardly seem to notice that those wars are ongoing, which, to my mind, should qualify as another form of brain-deadism.

I can't help but remember the line from George Bernard Shaw's play St. Joan: "How long, O Lord, how long?" Which is why today's piece by TomDispatch regular Michael Klare should be considered genuine news. It took almost two decades of plodding, destructive, victory-less effort, but parts of the U.S. military (the Navy and Air Force) have evidently finally begun thinking about how to ditch the war on terror -- even if only to focus on the possibility of getting into a potentially more devastating kind of conflict. Tom

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The Navy's War vs. Bolton's War The Pentagon's Spoiling for a Fight -- But With China, Not Iran
By Michael T. Klare

The recent White House decision to speed the deployment of an aircraft carrier battle group and other military assets to the Persian Gulf has led many in Washington and elsewhere to assume that the U.S. is gearing up for war with Iran. As in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, U.S. officials have cited suspect intelligence data to justify elaborate war preparations. On May 13th, acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan even presented top White House officials with plans to send as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East for possible future combat with Iran and its proxies. Later reports indicated that the Pentagon might be making plans to send even more soldiers than that.

Hawks in the White House, led by National Security Advisor John Bolton, see a war aimed at eliminating Iran's clerical leadership as a potentially big win for Washington. Many top officials in the U.S. military, however, see the matter quite differently -- as potentially a giant step backward into exactly the kind of low-tech ground war they've been unsuccessfully enmeshed in across the Greater Middle East and northern Africa for years and would prefer to leave behind.

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Make no mistake: if President Trump ordered the U.S. military to attack Iran, it would do so and, were that to happen, there can be little doubt about the ultimate negative outcome for Iran. Its moth-eaten military machine is simply no match for the American one. Almost 18 years after Washington's war on terror was launched, however, there can be little doubt that any U.S. assault on Iran would also stir up yet more chaos across the region, displace more people, create more refugees, and leave behind more dead civilians, more ruined cities and infrastructure, and more angry souls ready to join the next terror group to pop up. It would surely lead to another quagmire set of ongoing conflicts for American soldiers. Think: Iraq and Afghanistan, exactly the type of no-win scenarios that many top Pentagon officials now seek to flee. But don't chalk such feelings up only to a reluctance to get bogged down in yet one more war-on-terror quagmire. These days, the Pentagon is also increasingly obsessed with preparations for another type of war in another locale entirely: a high-intensity conflict with China, possibly in the South China Sea.

After years of slogging it out with guerrillas and jihadists across the Greater Middle East, the U.S. military is increasingly keen on preparing to combat "peer" competitors China and Russia, countries that pose what's called a "multi-domain" challenge to the United States. This new outlook is only bolstered by a belief that America's never-ending war on terror has severely depleted its military, something obvious to both Chinese and Russian leaders who have taken advantage of Washington's extended preoccupation with counterterrorism to modernize their forces and equip them with advanced weaponry.

For the United States to remain a paramount power -- so Pentagon thinking now goes -- it must turn away from counterterrorism and focus instead on developing the wherewithal to decisively defeat its great-power rivals. This outlook was made crystal clear by then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in April 2018. "The negative impact on military readiness resulting from the longest continuous period of combat in our nation's history [has] created an overstretched and under-resourced military," he insisted. Our rivals, he added, used those same years to invest in military capabilities meant to significantly erode America's advantage in advanced technology. China, he assured the senators, is "modernizing its conventional military forces to a degree that will challenge U.S. military superiority." In response, the United States had but one choice: to reorient its own forces for great-power competition. "Long-term strategic competition -- not terrorism -- is now the primary focus of U.S. national security."

This outlook was, in fact, already enshrined in the National Defense Strategy of the United States of America, the Pentagon's overarching blueprint governing all aspects of military planning. Its $750 billion budget proposal for fiscal year 2020, unveiled on March 12th, was said to be fully aligned with this approach. "The operations and capabilities supported by this budget will strongly position the U.S. military for great-power competition for decades to come," acting Secretary of Defense Shanahan said at the time.

In fact, in that budget proposal, the Pentagon made sharp distinctions between the types of wars it sought to leave behind and those it sees in its future. "Deterring or defeating great-power aggression is a fundamentally different challenge than the regional conflicts involving rogue states and violent extremist organizations we faced over the last 25 years," it noted. "The FY 2020 Budget is a major milestone in meeting this challenge," by financing the more capable force America needs "to compete, deter, and win in any high-end potential fight of the future."

Girding for "High-End" Combat

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If such a high-intensity war were to break out, Pentagon leaders suggest, it would be likely to take place simultaneously in every domain of combat -- air, sea, ground, space, and cyberspace -- and would feature the widespread utilization of emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and cyberwarfare. To prepare for such multi-domain engagements, the 2020 budget includes $58 billion for advanced aircraft, $35 billion for new warships -- the biggest shipbuilding request in more than 20 years -- along with $14 billion for space systems, $10 billion for cyberwar, $4.6 billion for AI and autonomous systems, and $2.6 billion for hypersonic weapons. You can safely assume, moreover, that each of those amounts will be increased in the years to come.

Planning for such a future, Pentagon officials envision clashes first erupting on the peripheries of China and/or Russia, only to later extend to their heartland expanses (but not, of course, America's). As those countries already possess robust defensive capabilities, any conflict would undoubtedly quickly involve the use of front-line air and naval forces to breach their defensive systems -- which means the acquisition and deployment of advanced stealth aircraft, autonomous weapons, hypersonic cruise missiles, and other sophisticated weaponry. In Pentagon-speak, these are called anti-access/area-defense (A2/AD) systems.

As it proceeds down this path, the Department of Defense is already considering future war scenarios. A clash with Russian forces in the Baltic region of the former Soviet Union is, for instance, considered a distinct possibility. So the U.S. and allied NATO countries have been bolstering their forces in that very region and seeking weaponry suitable for attacks on Russian defenses along that country's western border.

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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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