This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
As October ended, White House spokesperson Josh Earnest announced that the U.S. would be sending "less than 50" boots-on-the-ground Special Operations forces into northern Syria in an "advise-and-assist" program for Kurdish rebels and their (essentially nonexistent) Arab allies. Only days before, in yet another example of twenty-first-century mission creep, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter had told Congress that the intensity of U.S. air attacks in Syria would rise "with additional U.S. and coalition aircraft and heavier airstrikes." For this, A-10 and F-15 aircraft were to be deployed to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey.
It was the sort of military promise from Washington -- more of the same -- that has grown increasingly familiar in these years and could be summed up by adapting that old DuPont ad line, "better living through chemistry": a better world through bombing. Unfortunately for such plans, the verdict has long been in: air power as a decisive factor in American war in this century has proven a dismal failure. Even in skies that, with the rarest of exceptions, offer no dangers whatsoever (other than mechanical failure) to fighter jets, bombers, and drones, even in situations in which munitions can be delivered to any chosen spot with alacrity and without opposition by aircraft freely patrolling the skies overhead, air power has proven a weapon from hell in every sense of the world. Complete "air superiority" has been a significant factor, as in Libya, in the creation of a string of failed states (and so breeding grounds for terror outfits) across the Greater Middle East. In its post-modern "manhunting" form, grimly named Predator and Reaper drones have managed to kill thousands of leaders, lieutenants, sub-lieutenants, and rank-and-file militants in various terrorist organizations, as well as significant numbers of civilians, including children. Recently leaked documents on Washington's drone assassination campaigns indicate that, in at least one period in Afghanistan, only 10% of those killed were actually targeted for death. And yet the president's drone assassination campaign in several countries (based in part on a White House "kill list" and "terror Tuesday" meetings to decide whom to target) seems only to have helped foster the exponential growth of terror outfits across the Greater Middle East and Africa.
In these years, air power has, in fact, been closely associated with one fiasco or policy disappointment after another. To take a single recent example: President Obama began his "no boots on the ground" air campaign against the Islamic State (IS) and its "caliphate" in Syria and Iraq in September 2014. Now, more than a year and thousands of air strikes later, though large numbers of IS militants and some of its leaders have died, the movement continues to more than hold its own in Iraq, while expanding into new areas of Syria. There is no evidence that Washington's air war in support of well... it's a little unclear who -- now being emulated by the Russians in support of Syria's brutal autocrat Bashar al-Assad -- has met any of its goals.
And yet from all of this, the only conclusion repeatedly drawn in Washington is to do it again. That air power in its various forms has added up to both a war of terror (that is, on civilian populations below) and a war for terror, that it has become a recruitment poster for terror outfits evidently matters not at all. In Washington, no conclusions are seemingly drawn from the actual record of these last 14 years, nor from a far longer historical record of air power disappointments, of repeated times in which much was destroyed and countless people, especially civilians, killed to no decisive effect whatsoever. As Greg Grandin points out today, that phenomenon stretches back at least to Vietnam (if not Korea). In his second piece at TomDispatch on the eternal Henry Kissinger (92 and still writing op-eds for the Wall Street Journal), based on his remarkable new book, Kissinger's Shadow: The Long Reach of America's Most Controversial Statesman, Grandin reminds us of what a pioneer in the horrors of modernity the good "doctor" really was. Tom
Kissinger, the Bombardier
How Diplomacy by Air Power Became an All-American Tradition
By Greg Grandin
In April 2014, ESPN published a photograph of an unlikely duo: Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and former national security adviser and secretary of state Henry Kissinger at the Yankees-Red Sox season opener. In fleece jackets on a crisp spring day, they were visibly enjoying each other's company, looking for all the world like a twenty-first-century geopolitical version of Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. The subtext of their banter, however, wasn't about sex, but death.
As a journalist, Power had made her name as a defender of human rights, winning a Pulitzer Prize for her book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. Having served on the National Security Council before moving on to the U.N., she was considered an influential "liberal hawk" of the Obama era. She was also a leading light among a set of policymakers and intellectuals who believe that American diplomacy should be driven not just by national security and economic concerns but by humanitarian ideals, especially the advancement of democracy and the defense of human rights.
The United States, Power long held, has a responsibility to protect the world's most vulnerable people. In 2011 she played a crucial role in convincing President Obama to send in American air power to prevent troops loyal to Libyan autocrat Muammar Gaddafi from massacring civilians. That campaign led to his death, the violent overthrow of his regime, and in the end, a failed state and growing stronghold for ISIS and other terror groups. In contrast, Kissinger is identified with a school of "political realism," which holds that American power should service American interests, even if that means sacrificing the human rights of others.
According to ESPN, Power teasingly asked Kissinger if his allegiance to the Yankees was "in keeping with a realist's perspective on the world." Power, an avid Red Sox fan, had only recently failed to convince the United Nations to endorse a U.S. bombing campaign in Syria, so Kissinger couldn't resist responding with a gibe of his own. "You might," he said, "end up doing more realistic things." It was his way of suggesting that she drop the Red Sox for the Yankees. "The human rights advocate," Power retorted, referring to herself in the third person, "falls in love with the Red Sox, the downtrodden, the people who can't win the World Series."
"Now," replied Kissinger, "we are the downtrodden" -- a reference to the Yankees' poor performance the previous season. During his time in office, Kissinger had been involved in three of the genocides Power mentions in her book: Pol Pot's "killing fields" in Cambodia, which would never have occurred had he not infamously ordered an illegal four-and-a-half-year bombing campaign in that country; Indonesia's massacre in East Timor; and Pakistan's in Bangladesh, both of which he expedited.
You might think that mutual knowledge of his policies under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and the horrors that arose from them would have cast a pall over their conversation, but their banter was lively. "If a Yankee fan and a Red Sox fan can head into the heart of darkness for the first game of the season," Power commented, "all things are possible."
All things except, it seems, extricating the country from its endless wars.
Only recently, Barack Obama announced that U.S. troops wouldn't be leaving Afghanistan any time soon and also made a deeper commitment to fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, including deploying the first U.S. ground personnel into that country. Indeed, a new book by New York Times reporter Charlie Savage, Power Wars, suggests that there has been little substantive difference between George W. Bush's administration and Obama's when it comes to national security policies or the legal justifications used to pursue regime change in the Greater Middle East.
Henry Kissinger is, of course, not singularly responsible for the evolution of the U.S. national security state into a monstrosity. That state has had many administrators. But his example -- especially his steadfast support for bombing as an instrument of "diplomacy" and his militarization of the Persian Gulf -- has coursed through the decades, shedding a spectral light on the road that has brought us to a state of eternal war.
Within days of Richard Nixon's inauguration in January 1969, national security adviser Kissinger asked the Pentagon to lay out his bombing options in Indochina. The previous president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, had suspended his own bombing campaign against North Vietnam in hopes of negotiating a broader ceasefire. Kissinger and Nixon were eager to re-launch it, a tough task given domestic political support for the bombing halt.