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Will Our Generals Ever Shut Up? The Military's Media Megaphone and the U.S. Global Military Presence

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The fall issue of Foreign Policy magazine features Fred Kaplan's "The Transformer," an article-cum-interview with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. It received a flurry of attention because Gates indicated he might leave his post "sometime in 2011." The most significant two lines in the piece, however, were so ordinary that the usual pundits thought them not worth pondering. Part of a Kaplan summary of Gates' views, they read: "He favors substantial increases in the military budget... He opposes any slacking off in America's global military presence."

Now, if Kaplan had done a similar interview with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, such lines might have been throwaways, since a secretary of state is today little more than a fancy facilitator, ever less central to what that magazine, with its outmoded name, might still call "foreign policy." Remind me: When was the last time you heard anyone use that phrase -- part of a superannuated world in which "diplomats" and "diplomacy" were considered important -- in a meaningful way? These days "foreign policy" and "global policy" are increasingly a single fused, militarized entity, at least across what used to be called "the Greater Middle East," where what's at stake is neither war nor peace, but that "military presence."

As a result, Gates's message couldn't be clearer: despite two disastrous wars and a global war on terror now considered "multigenerational" by those in the know, trillions of lost dollars, and staggering numbers of deaths (if you happen to include Iraqi and Afghan ones), the U.S. military mustn't in any way slack off. The option of reducing the global mission -- the one that's never on the table when "all options are on the table" -- should remain nowhere in sight. That's Gates' bedrock conviction. And when he opposes any diminution of the global mission, it matters.

Slicing Up the World Like a Pie

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As we know from a Peter Baker front-page New York Times profile of Barack Obama as commander-in-chief, the 49-year-old president "with no experience in uniform" has "bonded" with Gates, the 66-year-old former spymaster, all-around-apparatchik, and holdover from the last years of the Bush era. Baker describes Gates as the president's "most important tutor," and on matters military like the Afghan War, the president has reportedly "deferred to him repeatedly."

Let's face it, though: deference has become the norm for the Pentagon and U.S. military commanders, which is not so surprising. After all, in terms of where our money goes, the Pentagon is the 800-pound gorilla in just about any room. It has, for instance, left the State Department in the proverbial dust. By now, it gets at least $12 dollars for every dollar of funding that goes to the State Department, which in critical areas of the world has become an adjunct of the military.

In addition, the Pentagon has taken under its pilotless predatory wing such previously civilian tasks as delivering humanitarian aid and "nation-building." As Secretary of Defense Gates has pointed out, there are more Americans in U.S. military bands than there are foreign service officers.

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If it's true that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then you can gauge the power of the Pentagon by the fact that, at least in Iraq after 2011, the State Department is planning to become a mini-military -- an armed outfit using equipment borrowed from the Pentagon and an "army" of mercenary guards formed into "quick reaction forces," all housed in a series of new billion-dollar "fortified compounds," no longer called "consulates" but "enduring presence posts" (as the Pentagon once called its giant bases in Iraq "enduring camps"). This level of militarization of what might once have been considered the Department of Peaceful Solutions to Difficult Problems is without precedent and an indicator of the degree to which the government is being militarized.

Similarly, according to the Washington Post, the Pentagon has managed to take control of more than two-thirds of the "intelligence programs" in the vast world of the U.S. Intelligence Community, with its 17 major agencies and organizations. Ever since the mid-1980s, it has also divided much of the globe like a pie into slices called "commands." (Our own continent joined the crew as the U.S. Northern Command, or Northcom, in 2002, and Africa, as Africom in 2007.)

Before stepping down a notch to become Afghan war commander, General David Petraeus was U.S. Central Command (Centcom) commander, which meant military viceroy for an especially heavily garrisoned expanse of the planet stretching from Egypt to the Chinese border. Increasingly, in fact, there is no space, including outer space and virtual space, where our military is uninterested in maintaining or establishing a "presence."

On October 1st, for instance, a new Cyber Command headed by a four-star general and staffed by 1,000 "elite military hackers and spies" is to hit the keyboards typing. And there will be nothing shy about its particular version of "presence" either. The Bush-era concept of "preventive war" (that is, a war of aggression) may have been discarded by the Obama administration, but the wizards of the new Cyber Command are boldly trying to go where the Bush administration once went. They are reportedly eager to establish a virtual war-fighting principle (labeled "active defense") under which they could preemptively attack and knock out the computer networks of adversaries.

And the White House and environs haven't been immune to creeping militarization either. As presidents are now obliged to praise American troops to the skies in any "foreign policy" speech -- "Our troops are the steel in our ship of state" -- they also turn ever more regularly to military figures in civilian life and for civilian posts. President Obama's National Security Adviser, James Jones, is a retired Marine four-star general, and from the Bush years the president kept on Army Lieutenant General Douglas Lute as "war czar," just as he appointed retired Army Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry as our ambassador to Afghanistan, and recently replaced retired admiral Dennis Blair with retired Air Force Lieutenant General James Clapper as the Director of National Intelligence. (He also kept on David Petraeus, George W. Bush's favorite general, and hiked the already staggering Pentagon budget in Bushian fashion.)

And this merely skims the surface of the nonstop growth of the Pentagon and its influence. One irony of that process: even as the U.S. military has failed repeatedly to win wars, its budgets have grown ever more gargantuan, its sway in Washington ever greater, and its power at home ever more obvious.

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Generals and Admirals Mouthing Off

To grasp the changing nature of military influence domestically, consider the military's relationship to the media. Its media megaphone offers a measure of the reach and influence of that behemoth, what kinds of pressures it can apply in support of its own version of foreign policy, and just how, under its weight, the relationship between the civilian and military high commands is changing.

It's true that, in June, the president relieved Afghan War commander General Stanley McChrystal of duty after his war-frustrated associates drank and mouthed off about administration officials in an inanely derogatory manner in his presence -- and the presence of a Rolling Stone magazine reporter. ("Biden?... Did you say: Bite Me?") But think of that as the exception that proves the rule.

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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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