Someday, it may seem like history's classic example of imperial overstretch. There was, after all, only one superpower left on this planet after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. It was challenged by... well, next to no one. Or rather by a single jihadist, his modest set of followers, and an investment of perhaps $400,000-$500,000. Add in four hijacked commercial jet planes and some box cutters and you have the essence of 9/11, the "Pearl Harbor of the twenty-first century." Thanks to those air strikes, President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and the top officials of their administration launched a "Global War on Terror," a disaster now almost 17 years old and still spreading, which would have given Osama bin Laden the deepest satisfaction.
In response to that horrific but strangely modest attack on two American building complexes -- the fourth hijacked plane, undoubtedly heading for the White House or the Capitol, went down in a field in Pennsylvania thanks to the resistance of its passengers -- Bush and his officials tried to... well, not quite conquer the world, but control significant parts of it, largely by force of arms. It was a decision that gave imperial overreach new meaning. At the time, they bragged that they would focus on terror groups in no less than 60 countries. Today, it seems increasingly obvious that the response to 9/11 started the "sole superpower" on a path to decline. Though it has taken them a remarkably long time, even the top brass of the U.S. military finally seem to grasp in their own fashion just how disastrous it's all been. As TomDispatch regular Michael Klare makes strikingly clear today, that military now has an abiding urge to turn away from its war on terror and return to a far more comfortable and familiar world of success: the Cold War and the "containment" of Russia and China. In the end, with the wars of the last decade and a half still going on, this urge may prove to be imperial overstretch of a new kind, highlighting the remarkable inability of that military to learn anything from history, its own or anyone else's. Tom
Could the Cold War Return With a Vengeance?
The Pentagon Plans for a Perpetual Three-Front "Long War" Against China and Russia
By Michael T. Klare- Advertisement -
Think of it as the most momentous military planning on Earth right now. Who's even paying attention, given the eternal changing of the guard at the White House, as well as the latest in tweets, sexual revelations, and investigations of every sort? And yet it increasingly looks as if, thanks to current Pentagon planning, a twenty-first-century version of the Cold War (with dangerous new twists) has begun and hardly anyone has even noticed.
In 2006, when the Department of Defense spelled out its future security role, it saw only one overriding mission: its "Long War" against international terrorism. "With its allies and partners, the United States must be prepared to wage this war in many locations simultaneously and for some years to come," the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review explained that year. Twelve years later, the Pentagon has officially announced that that long war is drawing to a close -- even though at least seven counterinsurgency conflicts still rage across the Greater Middle East and Africa -- and a new long war has begun, a permanent campaign to contain China and Russia in Eurasia.
"Great power competition, not terrorism, has emerged as the central challenge to U.S. security and prosperity," claimed Pentagon Comptroller David Norquist while releasing the Pentagon's $686 billion budget request in January. "It is increasingly apparent that China and Russia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian values and, in the process, replace the free and open order that has enabled global security and prosperity since World War II."- Advertisement -
Of course, just how committed President Trump is to the preservation of that "free and open order" remains questionable given his determination to scuttle international treaties and ignite a global trade war. Similarly, whether China and Russia truly seek to undermine the existing world order or simply make it less American-centric is a question that deserves close attention, just not today. The reason is simple enough. The screaming headline you should have seen in any paper (but haven't) is this: the U.S. military has made up its mind about the future. It has committed itself and the nation to a three-front geopolitical struggle to resist Chinese and Russian advances in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.
Important as this strategic shift may be, you won't hear about it from the president, a man lacking the attention span necessary for such long-range strategic thinking and one who views Russia's Vladimir Putin and China's Xi Jinping as "frenemies" rather than die-hard adversaries. To fully appreciate the momentous changes occurring in U.S. military planning, it's necessary to take a deep dive into the world of Pentagon scripture: budget documents and the annual "posture statements" of regional commanders already overseeing the implementation of that just-born three-front strategy.
The New Geopolitical Chessboard
This renewed emphasis on China and Russia in U.S. military planning reflects the way top military officials are now reassessing the global strategic equation, a process that began long before Donald Trump entered the White House. Although after 9/11, senior commanders fully embraced the "long war against terror" approach to the world, their enthusiasm for endless counterterror operations leading essentially nowhere in remote and sometimes strategically unimportant places began to wane in recent years as they watched China and Russia modernizing their military forces and using them to intimidate neighbors.
While the long war against terror did fuel a vast, ongoing expansion of the Pentagon's Special Operations Forces (SOF) -- now a secretive army of 70,000 nestled inside the larger military establishment -- it provided surprisingly little purpose or real work for the military's "heavy metal" units: the Army's tank brigades, the Navy's carrier battle groups, the Air Force's bomber squadrons, and so forth. Yes, the Air Force in particular has played a major supporting role in recent operations in Iraq and Syria, but the regular military has largely been sidelined there and elsewhere by lightly equipped SOF forces and drones. Planning for a "real war" against a "peer competitor" (one with forces and weaponry resembling our own) was until recently given far lower priority than the country's never-ending conflicts across the Greater Middle East and Africa. This alarmed and even angered those in the regular military whose moment, it seems, has now finally arrived.
"Today, we are emerging from a period of strategic atrophy, aware that our competitive military advantage has been eroding," the Pentagon's new National Defense Strategy declares. "We are facing increased global disorder, characterized by decline in the long-standing rules-based international order" -- a decline officially attributed for the first time not to al-Qaeda and ISIS, but to the aggressive behavior of China and Russia. Iran and North Korea are also identified as major threats, but of a distinctly secondary nature compared to the menace posed by the two great-power competitors.- Advertisement -
Unsurprisingly enough, this shift will require not only greater spending on costly, high-tech military hardware but also a redrawing of the global strategic map to favor the regular military. During the long war on terror, geography and boundaries appeared less important, given that terrorist cells seemed capable of operating anyplace where order was breaking down. The U.S. military, convinced that it had to be equally agile, readied itself to deploy (often Special Operations forces) to remote battlefields across the planet, borders be damned.
On the new geopolitical map, however, America faces well-armed adversaries with every intention of protecting their borders, so U.S. forces are now being arrayed along an updated version of an older, more familiar three-front line of confrontation. In Asia, the U.S. and its key allies (South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and Australia) are to face China across a line extending from the Korean peninsula to the waters of the East and South China Seas and the Indian Ocean. In Europe, the U.S. and its NATO allies will do the same for Russia on a front extending from Scandinavia and the Baltic Republics south to Romania and then east across the Black Sea to the Caucasus. Between these two theaters of contention lies the ever-turbulent Greater Middle East, with the United States and its two crucial allies there, Israel and Saudi Arabia, facing a Russian foothold in Syria and an increasingly assertive Iran, itself drawing closer to China and Russia. From the Pentagon's perspective, this is to be the defining strategic global map for the foreseeable future. Expect most upcoming major military investments and initiatives to focus on bolstering U.S. naval, air, and ground strength on its side of these lines, as well as on targeting Sino-Russian vulnerabilities across them.
There's no better way to appreciate the dynamics of this altered strategic outlook than to dip into the annual "posture statements" of the heads of the Pentagon's "unified combatant commands," or combined Army/Navy/Air Force/Marine Corps headquarters, covering the territories surrounding China and Russia: Pacific Command (PACOM), with responsibility for all U.S. forces in Asia; European Command (EUCOM), covering U.S. forces from Scandinavia to the Caucasus; and Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees the Middle East and Central Asia where so many of the country's counterterror wars are still underway.