And The Ruins Still to Come
By Tom Engelhardt
There are the news stories that genuinely surprise you, and then there are the ones that you could write in your sleep before they happen. Let me concoct an example for you:
“Top American and European military leaders are weighing options to step up the fight against the Islamic State in the Mideast, including possibly sending more U.S. forces into Iraq, Syria, and Libya, just as Washington confirmed the second American combat casualty in Iraq in as many months.”
Oh wait, that was actually the lead sentence in a May 3rd Washington Times piece by Carlo Muñoz. Honestly, though, it could have been written anytime in the last few months by just about anyone paying any attention whatsoever, and it surely will prove reusable in the months to come (with casualty figures altered, of course). The sad truth is that across the Greater Middle East and expanding parts of Africa, a similar set of lines could be written ahead of time about the use of Special Operations forces, drones, advisers, whatever, as could the sorry results of making such moves in [add the name of your country of choice here].
Put another way, in a Washington that seems incapable of doing anything but worshiping at the temple of the U.S. military, global policymaking has become a remarkably mindless military-first process of repetition. It’s as if, as problems built up in your life, you looked in the closet marked “solutions” and the only thing you could ever see was one hulking, over-armed soldier, whom you obsessively let loose, causing yet more damage.
How Much, How Many, How Often, and How Destructively
In Iraq and Syria, it’s been mission creep all the way. The B-52s barely made it to the battle zone for the first time and were almost instantaneously in the air, attacking Islamic State militants. U.S. firebases are built ever closer to the front lines. The number of special ops forces continues to edge up. American weapons flow in (ending up in god knows whose hands). American trainers and advisers follow in ever increasing numbers, and those numbers are repeatedly fiddled with to deemphasize how many of them are actually there. The private contractors begin to arrive in numbers never to be counted. The local forces being trained or retrained have their usual problems in battle. American troops and advisers who were never, never going to be “in combat” or “boots on the ground” themselves now have their boots distinctly on the ground in combat situations. The first American casualties are dribbling in. Meanwhile, conditions in tottering Iraq and the former nation of Syria grow ever murkier, more chaotic, and less amenable by the week to any solution American officials might care for.
And the response to all this in present-day Washington?
You know perfectly well what the sole imaginable response can be: sending in yet more weapons, boots, air power, special ops types, trainers, advisers, private contractors, drones, and funds to increasingly chaotic conflict zones across significant swaths of the planet. Above all, there can be no serious thought, discussion, or debate about how such a militarized approach to our world might have contributed to, and continues to contribute to, the very problems it was meant to solve. Not in our nation’s capital, anyway.
The only questions to be argued about are how much, how many, how often, and how destructively. In other words, the only “antiwar” position imaginable in Washington, where accusations of weakness or wimpishness are a dime a dozen and considered lethal to a political career, is how much less of more we can afford, militarily speaking, or how much more of somewhat less we can settle for when it comes to militarized death and destruction. Never, of course, is a genuine version of less or a none-at-all option really on that “table” where, it’s said, all policy options are kept.
Think of this as Washington’s military addiction in action. We’ve been watching it for almost 15 years without drawing any of the obvious conclusions. And lest you imagine that “addiction” is just a figure of speech, it isn’t. Washington’s attachment — financial, tactical, and strategic — to the U.S. military and its supposed solutions to more or less all problems in what used to be called “foreign policy” should by now be categorized as addictive. Otherwise, how can you explain the last decade and a half in which no military action from Afghanistan to Iraq, Yemen to Libya worked out half-well in the long run (or even, often enough, in the short run), and yet the U.S. military remains the option of first, not last, resort in just about any imaginable situation? All this in a vast region in which failed states are piling up, nations are disintegrating, terror insurgencies are spreading, humongous population upheavals are becoming the norm, and there are refugee flows of a sort not seen since significant parts of the planet were destroyed during World War II.
Either we’re talking addictive behavior or failure is the new success.
Keep in mind, for instance, that the president who came into office swearing he would end a disastrous war and occupation in Iraq is now overseeing a new war in an even wider region that includes Iraq, a country that is no longer quite a country, and Syria, a country that is now officially kaput. Meanwhile, in the other war he inherited, Barack Obama almost immediately launched a military-backed “surge” of U.S. forces, the only real argument being over whether 40,000 (or even as many as 80,000) new U.S. troops would be sent into Afghanistan or, as the “antiwar” president finally decided, a mere 30,000 (which made him an absolute wimp to his opponents). That was 2009. Part of that surge involved an announcement that the withdrawal of American combat forces would begin in 2011. Seven years later, that withdrawal has once again been halted in favor of what the military has taken to privately calling a “generational approach” — that is, U.S. forces remaining in Afghanistan into at least the 2020s.
The military term “withdrawal” may, however, still be appropriate even if the troops are staying in place. After all, as with addicts of any sort, the military ones in Washington can’t go cold turkey without experiencing painful symptoms of withdrawal. In American political culture, these manifest themselves in charges of “weakness” when it comes to “national security” that could prove devastating in the next election. That’s why those running for office compete with one another in over-the-top descriptions of what they will do to enemies and terrorists (from acts of torture to carpet-bombing) and in even more over-the-top promises of “rebuilding” or “strengthening” what’s already the largest, most expensive military on the planet, a force better funded at present than those of at least the next seven nations combined.
Such promises, the bigger the better, are now a necessity if you happen to be a Republican candidate for president. The Democrats have a lesser but similar set of options available, which is why even Bernie Sanders only calls for holding the Pentagon budget at its present staggering level or for the most modest of cuts, not for reducing it significantly. And even when, for instance, the urge to rein in military expenses did sweep Washington as part of an overall urge to cut back government expenses, it only resulted in a half-secret slush fund or “war budget” that kept the goodies flowing in.
These should all be taken as symptoms of Washington’s military addiction and of what happens when the slightest signs of withdrawal set in. The U.S. military is visibly the drug of choice in the American political arena and, as is only appropriate for the force that has, since 2002, funded, armed, and propped up the planet’s largest supplier of opium, once you’re hooked, there’s no shaking it.
Recently, in the New York Times Magazine, journalist Mark Landler offered a political portrait entitled “How Hillary Clinton Became a Hawk.” He laid out just how the senator and later secretary of state remade herself as, essentially, a military groupie, fawning over commanders or former commanders ranging from then-General David Petraeus to Fox analyst and retired general Jack Keane; how, that is, she became a figure, even on the present political landscape, notable for her “appetite for military engagement abroad” (and as a consequence, well-defended against Republican charges of “weakness”).
There’s no reason, however, to pin the war-lover or “last true hawk” label on her alone, not in present-day Washington. After all, just about everyone there wants a piece of the action. During their primary season debates, for instance, a number of the Republican candidates spoke repeatedly about building up the U.S. Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, while making that already growing force sound like a set of decrepit barges.
To offer another example, no presidential candidate these days could afford to reject the White House-run drone assassination program. To be assassin-in-chief is now considered as much a part of the presidential job description as commander-in-chief, even though the drone program, like so many other militarized foreign policy operations these days, shows little sign of reining in terrorism despite the number of “bad guys” and terror “leaders” it kills (along with significant numbers of civilian bystanders). To take Bernie Sanders as an example — because he’s as close to an antiwar candidate as you’ll find in the present election season — he recently put something like his stamp of approval on the White House drone assassination project and the “kill list” that goes with it.
Mind you, there is simply no compelling evidence that the usual military solutions have worked or are likely to work in any imaginable sense in the present conflicts across the Greater Middle East and Africa. They have clearly, in fact, played a major role in the creation of the present disaster, and yet there is no place at all in our political system for genuinely antiwar figures (as there was in the Vietnam era, when a massive antiwar movement created space for such politics). Antiwar opinions and activities have now been driven to the peripheries of the political system along with a word like, say, “peace,” which you will be hard-pressed to find, even rhetorically, in the language of “wartime” Washington.
The Look of “Victory”
If a history were to be written of how the U.S. military became Washington’s drug of choice, it would undoubtedly have to begin in the Cold War era. It was, however, in the prolonged moment of triumphalism that followed the Soviet Union’s implosion in 1991 that the military gained its present position of unquestioned dominance.
In those days, people were still speculating about whether the country would reap a “peace dividend” from the end of the Cold War. If there was ever a moment when the diversion of money from the U.S. military and the national security state to domestic concerns might have seemed like a no-brainer, that was it. After all, except for a couple of rickety “rogue states” like North Korea or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, where exactly were this country’s enemies to be found? And why should such a muscle-bound military continue to gobble up tax dollars at such a staggering rate in a reasonably peaceable world?
In the decade or so that followed, however, Washington’s dreams turned out to run in a very different direction — toward a “war dividend” at a moment when the U.S. had, by more or less universal agreement, become the planet’s “sole superpower.” The crew who entered the White House with George W. Bush in a deeply contested election in 2000 had already been mainlining the military drug for years. To them, this seemed a planet ripe for the taking. When 9/11 hit, it loosed their dreams of conquest and control, and their faith in a military that they believed to be unstoppable. Of course, given the previous century of successful anti-imperial and national independence movements, anyone should have known that, no matter the armaments at hand, resistance was an inescapable reality on Planet Earth.
Thanks to such predictable resistance, the drug-induced imperial dreamscape of the Busheviks would prove a fantasy of the first order, even if, in that post-9/11 moment, it passed for bedrock (neo)realism. If you remember, the U.S. was to “take the gloves off” and release a military machine so beyond compare that nothing would be capable of standing in its path. So the dream went, so the drug spoke. Don’t forget that the greatest military blunder (and crime) of this century, the invasion of Iraq, wasn’t supposed to be the end of something, but merely its beginning. With Iraq in hand and garrisoned, Washington was to take down Iran and sweep up what Russian property from the Cold War era still remained in the Middle East. (Think: Syria.)
A decade and a half later, those dreams have been shattered, and yet the drug still courses through the bloodstream, the military bands play on, and the march to… well, who knows where… continues. In a way, of course, we do know where (to the extent that we humans, with our limited sense of the future, can know anything). In a way, we’ve already been shown a spectacle of what “victory” might look like once the Greater Middle East is finally “liberated” from the Islamic State.
The descriptions of one widely hailed victory over that brutal crew in Iraq — the liberation of the city of Ramadi by a U.S.-trained elite Iraqi counterterrorism force backed by artillery and American air power — are devastating. Aided and abetted by Islamic State militants igniting or demolishing whole neighborhoods of that city, the look of Ramadi retaken should give us a grim sense of where the region is heading. Here’s how the Associated Press recently described the scene, four months after the city fell:
“This is what victory looks like…: in the once thriving Haji Ziad Square, not a single structure still stands. Turning in every direction yields a picture of devastation. A building that housed a pool hall and ice cream shops — reduced to rubble. A row of money changers and motorcycle repair garages — obliterated, a giant bomb crater in its place. The square’s Haji Ziad Restaurant, beloved for years by Ramadi residents for its grilled meats — flattened. The restaurant was so popular its owner built a larger, fancier branch across the street three years ago. That, too, is now a pile of concrete and twisted iron rods.
“The destruction extends to nearly every part of Ramadi, once home to 1 million people and now virtually empty.”
Keep in mind that, with oil prices still deeply depressed, Iraq essentially has no money to rebuild Ramadi or anyplace else. Now imagine, as such “victories” multiply, versions of similar devastation spreading across the region.
In other words, one likely end result of the thoroughly militarized process that began with the invasion of Iraq (if not of Afghanistan) is already visible: a region shattered and in ruins, filled with uprooted and impoverished people. In such circumstances, it may not even matter if the Islamic State is defeated. Just imagine what Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and still in the Islamic State’s hands, will be like if, someday, the long-promised offensive to liberate it is ever truly launched. Now, try to imagine that movement itself destroyed, with its “capital,” Raqqa, turned into another set of ruins, and remind me: What exactly is likely to emerge from such a future nightmare? Nothing, I suspect, that is likely to cheer up anyone in Washington.
And what should be done about all this? You already know Washington’s solution — more of the same — and breaking such a cycle of addiction is difficult even under the best of circumstances. Unfortunately, at the moment there is no force, no movement on the American scene that could open up space for such a possibility. No matter who is elected president, you already know more or less what American “policy” is going to be.
But don’t bother to blame the politicians and national security nabobs in Washington for this. They’re addicts. They can’t help themselves. What they need is rehab. Instead, they continue to run our world. Be suitably scared for the ruins still to come.
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.