Our wars: using the military to do Social Work with Guns
Summary: A wonder of the age is our continued confidence on people whose decisions proved wrong in the crucible of war, while those whose advice proved correct remain on the sidelines. It’s easy to distinguish the two groups by looking at their past work. Four years later this essay by Andrew Bacevich looks prophetic. That we continue to make the same mistakes shows that we are slow to learn. That Bacevich and his peers remain on the sidelines of US policy-making shows that we are stupid. Slow and stupid are two sins always punished, eventually.
- “Social Work with Guns”
- About the author
- For more information
“Social Work with Guns“, Andrew Bacevich
London Review of Books, 17 December 2009
Reposted with the generous permission of the LRB and Andrew Bacevich
By escalating the war in Afghanistan – sending an additional 34,000 US reinforcements in order to ‘finish the job’ that President Bush began but left undone – Barack Obama has implicitly endorsed Bush’s conviction that war provides an antidote to violent anti-Western jihadism.
By extension, Obama is perpetuating the effort begun in 1980 to establish American dominion over the Middle East, hoping through the vigorous exercise of hard power to prolong the postwar Pax Americana. In ways that Obama himself may only dimly appreciate, his decision on Afghanistan affirms the pre-existing character of US foreign policy. But by advocating ‘counter-insurgency’, the McChrystal report also represents a tacit acknowledgment that a decades-long military reform project has definitively failed.
Understanding the contradiction at the heart of McChrystal’s report requires a quick survey of the way the United States managed to mire itself in its current predicament. It’s a tale of recurring miscalculation and disappointment followed by intensified military exertions yielding disappointment on a larger scale.
It began in 1979, when Jimmy Carter formulated his response to the twin shocks of the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Carter Doctrine, promulgated just weeks after the Red Army entered Afghanistan, declared the Persian Gulf a vital US national security interest and committed the United States to using ‘any means necessary, including military force’ to secure that interest. To make the commitment credible, the Pentagon created the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (RDJTF), an embryonic instrument of military intervention.
At the urging of his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter also initiated a programme of covert assistance to the Afghan mujahedin resisting the Soviet occupation. Oblivious (or indifferent) to the potential consequences of destabilising Afghanistan, Brzezinski hoped to turn it into Russia’s Vietnam.
Under Ronald Reagan, the RDJTF matured into United States Central Command. Reagan increased the flow of weapons and support to the mujahedin, whom he hailed as ‘freedom fighters’ and compared to the Founding Fathers. He also experimented with recruiting other proxies, such as Israel and Iraq, though with little success. Giving Israel the green light to destroy the PLO led to the Lebanon debacle in 1982. Cynically supporting Saddam Hussein in his war of aggression against the mullahs in Tehran led to pointless slaughter.
Each of these episodes opened a door through which US forces entered the region. In the hope of checking Lebanon’s slide towards disintegration, Reagan dispatched a contingent of Marines to Beirut; the mission ended in failure when a Shia suicide bomber killed 241 Americans on 23 October 1983. When in 1987 the Iran-Iraq War reached stalemate, threatening to disrupt the flow of Persian Gulf oil, US naval forces assumed responsibility for escorting tankers across the Gulf, managing among other things to shoot down an Iranian commercial airliner, killing all 290 people on board.
… By 1989, when George H.W. Bush became president, the United States had developed robust capabilities for projecting power into the wider Middle East. Yet Central Command’s mission had become fuzzy. External threats to the Persian Gulf – symbolised by the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan – had vanished. Since the Soviets had acknowledged the failure of their Afghan adventure, Bush showed no interest in filling the vacuum left behind. As far as Washington was concerned, the struggle for Afghanistan was over. ‘We won,’ the CIA station chief in Islamabad cabled headquarters.
In this interval of confusion, Saddam Hussein rode to Washington’s rescue, giving new focus to Central Command’s mandate. Violating the terms of his tacit alliance with the United States, he seized Kuwait in August 1990. Bush opted for force on a massive scale. Assisted by a motley assemblage of allies, US forces handily ejected the Iraqi army from Kuwait. The Bush administration congratulated itself on a historic victory. Wide-ranging political benefits seemed certain to ensue, the president speaking of the emergence of a ‘new world order’. Operation Desert Storm had removed any remaining constraints on the use of American power – ‘We’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome,’ Bush proclaimed – and the United States had ascended to a position of unquestioned pre-eminence, ready and able to enforce its will against any adversary misguided enough to defy it.
The Persian Gulf, it seemed, had become an American lake.
Yet once again this proved illusory. Saddam survived and retained his hold on power, crushing the Shia uprising that Bush had encouraged and then betrayed. To enforce a policy of ‘dual containment’ of both Iran and Iraq, Central Command established permanent garrisons throughout the region. During the Clinton era, US forces rotated in and out of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other nearby countries. US combat aircraft patrolled Iraqi air space. Periodically, in response to provocations, real or perceived, they attacked, typically targeting installations in Iraq, but also directing bombs and missiles as far afield as Sudan and Afghanistan.
The signature of the Clinton years was force employed promiscuously, but without any pretence of expecting decisive results. Yet Clinton’s critics on the right assailed him for being timid. Among those critics was Paul Wolfowitz who, writing in 2000, lamented ‘the Clinton administration’s tendency to temporise rather than go for the jugular’.
After 9/11, the Bush administration went for the jugular. Rather than prompting George W. Bush to re-examine the sorry record of US policy over the previous 20 years, the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon inspired him to expand American ambitions and to redouble his expectations of what military power could achieve. In declaring a global war against terrorism, Bush went after not only the jihadists who had plotted to destroy the towers, but anyone else – Saddam Hussein in the forefront – who obstructed America’s vision for the Islamic world. This was the Pax Americana on steroids.
… In remarks made to US military personnel in October 2001, Donald Rumsfeld bluntly explained the administration’s logic. ‘We have two choices,’ the defence secretary said. ‘Either we change the way we live, or we must change the way they live. We choose the latter. And you are the ones who will help achieve that goal.’
… The new American way of war did not require the participation or even the active support of Americans, merely their acquiescence. This was by design: excluding the people increased the latitude exercised by officials like Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, confident in their ability to wield force effectively if allowed a free hand.
… Cui bono? For defence contractors, ‘counter-insurgency experts’ and the various institutions that make up the national security state, GCOIN – justified as necessary to prevent another 9/11, enforce the Carter Doctrine and uphold the Pax Americana – promises to be the gift that never stops giving. Perpetual war now looms as a real prospect, carrying with it abundant opportunities for exercising power, reaping profit and satisfying personal ambition.
Lost along the way is the promise of ‘change’ that vaulted Barack Obama to the White House in the first place.
(2) About the author
Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. A TomDispatch regular, he is the author most recently of Washington Rules: The American Path to Permanent War and the editor of the new book The Short American Century: A Postmortem, just out from Harvard University Press.
Bacevich graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1969 and served in the United States Army during the Vietnam War, serving in Vietnam from the summer of 1970 to the summer of 1971. Later he held posts in Germany, including the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, the United States, and the Persian Gulf up to his retirement from the service with the rank of Colonel in the early 1990s. He holds a Ph.D. in American Diplomatic History from Princeton University, and taught at West Point and Johns Hopkins University prior to joining the faculty at Boston University in 1998.
Read his new book: Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country.
For a links to some of his works see:
- The Andrew Bacevich Page of the Modern Warfare’s Top Experts series.
- His articles at TomDispatch
- His articles at the Huffington Post
Recent articles by Bacevich:
- “Are Manning and Snowden patriots? That depends on what we do next.“, op-ed in the Washington Post, 16 August 2013
- “Egypt in the rearview mirror“, op-ed in Los Angeles Times, 20 August 2013 — “Whatever the problems roiling Cairo, more weapons sales won’t solve them.”
- “The Ugly American Telegram“, op-ed in New York Times, 23 August 2013
(3) For More Information
Other posts by Andrew Bacevich:
- Stop & reflect on this key moment in US history, October 2009
- Expanding War, Contracting Meaning, 12 November 2009
- COIN as future generations will see it (and as we should see it today), 1 July 2010
- Scoring the Global War on Terror – From Liberation to Assassination in Three Quick Rounds, 22 February 2012