These days, the always noxious air of the Beltway is astir with the machinations of the military junta that now dominates the gutted and looted ruins of the American republic. Two recent articles provide excellent guides to the brazen Pentagon squeeze play to ensure that the civilian government does not stray from the militarist agenda of more war, all the time, everywhere, always -- a condition best captured in the marvelous title of the latest volume of Christopher Logue's serial reworking of The Illiad: All-Day Permanent Red.
First up, Tom Englehardt focuses on the powerful proconsul who is directing the squeeze play from the shadows. Yes, we speak of General David Petraeus, an ambitious little beaver with an eye on the White House. Curiously, Petraeus seems to think that – unlike victorious generals-turned-presidents like Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower -- he can win the Oval Office after directing not one but two failed wars. Even more curiously, he just might be right, especially given the slavishly kowtowing treatment he has always unaccountably received from the political establishment and the corporate media. Good PR, not battlefield prowess, is the only thing that counts these days, in our vastly altered state of permanent war. As Englehardt notes:
Over the nearly six decades that separate us from Truman’s great moment [firing the overreaching General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War], the Pentagon has become a far more overwhelming institution. In Afghanistan, as in Washington, it has swallowed up much of what once was intelligence, as it is swallowing up much of what once was diplomacy. It is linked to one of the two businesses, the Pentagon-subsidized weapons industry, which has proven an American success story even in the worst of economic times (the other remains Hollywood). It now holds a far different position in a society that seems to feed on war.
It’s one thing for the leaders of a country to say that war should be left to the generals when suddenly embroiled in conflict, quite another when that country is eternally in a state of war. In such a case, if you turn crucial war decisions over to the military, you functionally turn foreign policy over to them as well. All of this is made more complicated, because the cast of "civilians" theoretically pitted against the military right now includes Karl W. Eikenberry, a retired lieutenant general who is the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Douglas Lute, a lieutenant general who is the president’s special advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan (dubbed the "war czar" when he held the same position in the Bush administration), and James Jones, a retired Marine Corps general, who is national security advisor, not to speak of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
The question is: will an already heavily militarized foreign policy geared to endless global war be surrendered to the generals?
I would say that it already has. Obama may or may not have "buyer's remorse," but as Englehardt notes, he has long wanted to "own" this war -- it was a centerpiece of his presidential campaign, the means by which he sought to prove his "national security" cajones -- and now he's got it. I doubt very much if he really is being "forced" into escalating the war -- and I would be astonished if he does not give in and send more troops into Afghanistan, while continuing to expand his deadly, destabilizing forays into Pakistan.
In any case, Harry Truman got away with sacking MacArthur not only because the Pentagon was less overwhelming in those days -- but also because the Joint Chiefs and the rest of the top military brass were themselves sick of the ageing prima donna and his high-handed ways, which had unraveled an imminent victory in Korea and led to the slaughter of thousands of American troops at the hands of the Chinese whom MacArthur had deliberately baited into the war. (This tale is well told in David Halberstam's last book, The Coldest Winter.)
Now the Pentagon is far more powerful. And our modern, cut-rate MacArthur (at least MacArthur had several genuine military triumphs to his credit, unlike Petraeus) is fully backed by the top brass (many of whom are his creatures, as he now controls promotions in the Army). And they are all acting in brazen concert to hogtie the civilian government into doing their bidding, as Jeff Huber, our second good guide, reports:
The long war mafia made clear its opposition to candidate Obama’s campaign promise to establish a timeline to draw down the Iraq war. Even after Obama had assumed office, Odierno, commander in Iraq, stated publicly (through Petraeus’s hagiographer Tom Ricks) that he expected to keep 30,000 more troops in Iraq through 2014 or 2015, well after the December 2011 exit deadline called for in the Status of Forces Agreement.
Mullen, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, has been a leading chanter of the mantra that says we must stay committed in Afghanistan. In a recent Joint Force Quarterly article, Mullen wrote, "The most common questions that I get in Pakistan and Afghanistan are: ‘Will you really stay with us this time?’ ‘Can we really count on you?’ I tell them that we will and that they can."
In a recent appearance on Al Jazeera, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, "both Afghanistan and Pakistan can count on us for the long term."
Every American should be stunned that our top military leadership made these kinds of foreign policy commitments without so much as a by-your-leave from the president or Congress. This is a velvet-fisted version of the kind of military junta we’d expect to see in a banana republic.
And of course, as both Huber and Englehardt note, the power structure's mouthpiece par excellence, former military intelligence officer Bob Woodward has played a key role in what Huber calls the Pentagon's "unrestricted information warfare campaign." Woodward passed along a carefully edited "leak" of the "strategy review" by General Stanley "Dirty War is My Business" McChrystal, who is Obama's new commander of the "Af-Pak" front. The heavily redacted document virtually screamed its warning that if the sissy civilians in Washington didn't keep Afghanistan burning at white heat -- by throwing more cannon fodder into the furnace, along with giant bales of cash -- then they, not the Pentagon, will be to blame for the FUBAR that follows.
Then again, any rational, sentient being knows that an escalation of the war will be a FUBAR of monstrous proportions, further destabilizing the most volatile region on earth, killing more and more civilians, driving more Afghans into the insurgency, propping up an utterly corrupt puppet government, wasting billions upon billions of dollars and thousands of American lives, and exacerbating extremism around the world. This is glaringly obvious, but our militarists simply don't care. As Huber notes, McChrystal and Petraeus scarcely bother to put together a coherent strategy for the war:
McChrystal’s report is incoherent on the subject of strategy. It says, "We must conduct classic counterinsurgency operations" and states that success depends not on "seizing terrain or destroying insurgent forces" but on "gaining the support of the people." That’s laughable in light of the fact that classic clear-hold-build counterinsurgency operations involve seizing terrain and destroying the insurgent forces that occupy it.
The notion that we can separate the Afghan people from the insurgents is as ludicrous as the idea of invading Mexico to separate the Hispanics from the Latinos. Nor can we pretend to be the good guys when the Karzai government we prop up is as bad or worse than the insurgents. McChrystal admits that Afghans have "little reason to support their government."
McChrystal says he sees no sign of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. So, his argument goes, in order to disrupt al-Qaeda terror network, we need 45,000 more troops to occupy a country al-Qaeda is not in to make sure it doesn’t come back. And what exactly is this al-Qaeda juggernaut we’ve come to quake in fear of? As former CIA officer Philip Giraldi recently noted, "An assessment by France’s highly regarded Paris Institute of Political Studies [suggests that] Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda has likely been reduced to a core group of eight to ten terrorists who are on the run more often than not."
If McChrystal and his allies get their way, we’ll have deployed over 135,000 troops to Afghanistan — on top of the roughly 130,000 troops still in Iraq — for the purpose of rounding up fewer than a dozen bad guys. Daffy Duck and Wiley Coyote could come up with a better strategy than that. Our military leadership and its supporters are a thundering herd of buffoons whose only real objective is to keep the cash caissons rolling and the gravy ships afloat and the wild blue budget sky high.
And to keep the power, privilege and dominance they have come to exercise over our society -- a position of rulership to which they now feel entitled, and which whole generations of Americans are now growing up to believe is the natural order of things. Gary Wills limns the corrupt and corrosive reality of the National Security State in a recent New York Review piece:
The monopoly on use of nuclear weaponry, the cult of the commander in chief, the worldwide network of military bases to maintain nuclear alert and supremacy, the secret intelligence agencies, the entire national security state, the classification and clearance systems, the expansion of state secrets, the withholding of evidence and information, the permanent emergency that has melded World War II with the cold war and the cold war with the "war on terror"—all these make a vast and intricate structure that may not yield to effort at dismantling it. Sixty-eight straight years of war emergency powers (1941–2009) have made the abnormal normal, and constitutional diminishment the settled order....
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that turning around the huge secret empire built by the National Security State is a hard, perhaps impossible, task. After most of the wars in US history there was a return to the constitutional condition of the pre-war world. But after those wars there was no lasting institutional security apparatus of the sort that was laboriously assembled in the 1940s and 1950s. After World War I, for instance, there was no CIA, no NSA, no mountain of secret documents to be guarded from unauthorized readers, no atomic bomb to guard, develop, deploy, and maintain in readiness on land, in the air, and on (or in) the sea.
Now a new president quickly becomes aware of the vast empire that is largely invisible to the citizenry. The United States maintains an estimated one thousand military bases in other countries. I say "estimated" because the exact number, location, and size of the bases are either partly or entirely cloaked in secrecy, among other things to protect nuclear installations. The secrecy involved is such that during the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy did not even know, at first, that we had nuclear missiles stationed in Turkey.
Huber holds out a no doubt wan hope that Obama will emulate Eisenhower, "stand up to America’s militaristic madness," and negotiate an end to the Afghan War, as Eisenhower did in Korea. However, the ever-astute Huber certainly knows this is highly unlikely. Obama has never given the slightest indication that he objects in any serious way to the militaristic madness of our globe-striding empire of bases and our permanent war machine. He accepts it in principle, and most assuredly in practice.
And while it is true that we may be seeing the first faint inklings of a distant glimmer of a vague, dim realization by the White House that the present course in Afghanistan -- surge, bomb, kill, repeat -- is, perhaps, not the most productive approach, the only alternative that the administration seems to be considering is "scaling back" the military footprint in Afghanistan (to some unspecified level), while escalating the on-going campaign of attacks on Pakistan -- including the introduction of Special Forces ground troops.
This "alternative" is said to be the course being pushed by Vice President Joe Biden. And one can well believe it: the plan's destructive boneheadedness is certainly redolent of Biden's statecraft, which has included such splendors as supporting the aggressive war in Iraq, calling for the bloody dismemberment of the conquered land, and, of course, successfully spearheading a draconian "Bankruptcy Bill" that has devastated the lives of millions of people while protecting the profits of Biden's paymasters in the credit card industry. This is the man that Obama hand-picked to stand by his side and help devise strategy and policy at the highest levels.
Escalating the war in Pakistan -- with ground troops, no less -- is, to put it bluntly, insane. The efforts already undertaken there have been greatly destabilizing -- in a nuclear-armed nation riven by ethnic and regional conflicts. One thing that does unite the Pakistanis, however, is their vociferous opposition to American attacks on their soil. But the fact that Pakistan is a sovereign nation -- and an American ally -- cuts absolutely no ice at all with the war councils in Washington -- or with their faithful media scribes. Witness the astonishing passage from a Washington Post story about Pakistan's increasing pushback against the heavy imperial hand. Trying to somehow explain this strange reaction, the Post comes up with this:
Pakistanis, who are extremely sensitive about national sovereignty, oppose allowing foreign troops on their soil and have protested U.S. missile attacks launched from unmanned aircraft against suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda targets inside Pakistan.
Can you imagine that! The Pakistanis are "extremely sensitive about national sovereignty." Obviously, this is some kind of strange, barbaric trait of those dark, primitive tribes; for everyone knows that most countries love to have foreign armies carrying out combat operations in their homeland. Certainly, Americans are intensely relaxed about allowing foreign troops on their soil. And good gracious, the Pakistanis even get all het up about foreign governments launching missile attacks into their territory! Again, you would never see this kind of tetchiness in the sophisticated, civilized West.
But American leaders just can't understand why they are unpopular in Pakistan. Here's Obama's super-special envoy to the "Af-Pak" front, Richard Holbrooke, scratching his head about the grubby little Asian ingrates:
"We recognize that Pakistani public opinion on the United States is still surprisingly low, given the tremendous effort by the United States to lead an international coalition in support of Pakistan," Richard C. Holbrooke.
We throw good money at these gooks, and they still don't like us to invade their country and kill their people! Really! What does an empire have to do to get a little love around here?
No, I don't think we will see Obama emulating Ike in ending a pointless, unpopular war, or channeling Truman in resisting the political agenda of an ambitious general. If Obama is as intelligent as he is reputed to be, he already knew the score when he threw himself body and soul into the pursuit of the presidency; he went into it with eyes wide open, and made his deal with the devil.
And in the unlikely event that he is actually clueless enough to believe that he can now back out of the deal, and tries to cut down -- or even seriously curtail -- the militarist machine....then he will very likely find himself stretched out in a pine box beneath the Capitol rotunda, a much-mourned victim of the usual "lone nut" gunman.
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This story was published in the Baltimore Chronicle on September 25, 2009.