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The Pentagon's Urge to Surge | The Nation

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The Pentagon's Urge to Surge

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Fever Dreams of Military Might
 
Of course, with the Soviet Union gone, there was no military on the planet that could come close to challenging the American one, nor was there a nascent rival great power on the horizon. Still, a question remained: After centuries of great power rivalry, what did it mean to have a "sole superpower" on planet Earth, and what path should that triumphant power head down? It took a few years, including passing talk about a possible "peace dividend"—that is, the investment of monies that would have gone into the cold war, the Pentagon, and the military in infrastructural and other domestic projects—for this question to be settled, but settled it was, definitively, on September 12, 2001.

About the Author

Tom Engelhardt
Tom Engelhardt created and runs the Tomdispatch.com website, a project of The Nation Institute of which he is a Fellow...

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Now, across a vast and growing swath of the planet, the main force at work seems not to be the concentration of power, but its fragmentation.

The calls for escalating military action against Islamic State (IS) ignore thirteen years of evidence that US intervention usually accomplishes the opposite of what Washington intends.

And for all the unknown paths that might have been taken in this unique situation, the one chosen was familiar. It was, of course, the very one that had helped lead the Soviet Union to implosion, the investment of national treasure in military power above all else. However, to those high on the urge to surge and now eager to surge globally, when it came to an American future, the fate of the Soviet Union seemed no more relevant than what the Afghans had done to the Red Army. In those glory years, analogies between the greatest power the planet had ever seen and a defeated foe seemed absurd to those who believed themselves the smartest, clearest-headed guys in the room.

Previously, the "arms race," like any race, had involved at least two, and sometimes more, great powers. Now, it seemed, there would be something new under the sun, an arms race of one, as the United States prepared itself for utter dominance into a distant, highly militarized future. The military-industrial complex would, in these years, be further embedded in the warp and woof of American life; the military expanded and privatized (which meant being firmly embraced by crony corporations and hire-a-gun outfits of every sort); and the American "global presence"—from military bases to aircraft-carrier task forces—enhanced until, however briefly, the United States became a military presence unique in the annals of history.

Thanks to the destructive acts of nineteen jihadis, the urge to surge would with finality overwhelm all other urges in the fall of 2001—and there would be a group ready for just such a moment, for (as the newspaper headlines screamed) a "Pearl Harbor of the twenty-first century."

To take full stock of that group, however, we would first have to pilot our time machine back to June 3, 1997, the day a confident crew of Washington think-tank, academic, and political types calling themselves the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) posted a fin de siècle "statement of principles." In it, they called for "a military that is strong and ready to meet both present and future challenges; a foreign policy that boldly and purposefully promotes American principles abroad; and national leadership that accepts the United States' global responsibilities." Crucially, they were demanding that the Clinton administration, or assumedly some future administration with a better sense of American priorities, "increase defense spending significantly."

The twenty-three men and two women who signed the initial PNAC statement urging the United States to go for the military option in the twenty-first century would, however, prove something more than your typical crew of think-tank types. After all, not so many years later, after a disputed presidential election settled by the Supreme Court, Dick Cheney would be vice president; I. Lewis ("Scooter") Libby would be his right-hand man; Donald Rumsfeld would be secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense; Zalmay Khalilzad, head of the Bush-Cheney transition team at the Department of Defense and then the first post-invasion US ambassador to Afghanistan, as well as ambassador to Iraq and UN ambassador; Elliot Abrams, special assistant to the president with a post on the National Security Council; Paula Dobriansky, under secretary of state for democracy and global affairs; Aaron Friedberg, deputy assistant for national security affairs and director of policy planning in the office of the vice president; and Jeb Bush, governor of Florida. (Others like John Bolton, who signed on to PNAC later, would be no less well employed.)

This may, in fact, be the first example in history of a think tank coming to power and actually putting its blue-sky suggestions into operation as government policy, or perhaps it's the only example so far of a government-in-waiting masquerading as an online think tank. In either case, more than thirteen years later, the success of that group can still take your breath away, as can both the narrowness—and scope—of their thinking, and of their seminal document, "Rebuilding America's Defenses," published in September 2000, two months before George W. Bush took the presidency.

This crew of surgers extraordinaires was considering a global situation that, as they saw it, offered Americans an "unprecedented strategic opportunity." Facing a new century, their ambitions were caught by James Peck in his startling upcoming book, Ideal Illusions: How the US Government Co-opted Human Rights, in this way: "In the [Reagan] era, Washington organized half the planet; in the [Bush era] it sought to organize the whole."

"Rebuilding America's Defenses," if remembered at all today, is recalled mainly for a throwaway sentence that looked ominous indeed in retrospect: "Further, the process of transformation [of the military], even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event—like a new Pearl Harbor." It remains, however, a remarkable document for other reasons. In many ways canny about the direction war would take in the near future, ranging from the role of drones in air war to the onrushing possibility that cyberwar (or "Net-War," as they called it) would be the style of future conflict, it was a clarion call to ensure this country's "unchallenged supremacy" into the distant future by military means alone.

In 1983, in an address to the National Association of Evangelicals, President Ronald Reagan famously called the Soviet Union an "evil empire." It wanted, as he saw it, what all dark empires (and every evildoer in any James Bond film) desires: unchallenged dominion over the planet—and it pursued that dominion in the name of a glorious "world revolution." Now, in the name of American safety and the glories of global democracy, we were—so the PNAC people both pleaded and demanded—to do what only evil empires did and achieve global dominion beyond compare over planet Earth.

We could, they insisted in a phrase they liked, enforce an American peace, a Pax Americana, for decades to come, if only we poured our resources, untold billions—they refused to estimate what the real price might be—into war preparations and, if necessary, war itself, from the seven seas to the heavens, from manifold new "forward operating bases on land" to space and cyberspace. Pushing "the American security perimeter" ever farther into the distant reaches of the planet (and "patrolling" it via "constabulary missions") was, they claimed, the only way that "US military supremacy" could be translated into "American geopolitical preeminence." It was also the only that the "homeland"—yes, unlike 99.9 percent of Americans before 9/11, they were already using that term—could be effectively "defended."

In making their pitch, they were perfectly willing to acknowledge that the United States was already a military giant among midgets, but they were also eager to suggest as well that our military situation was "deteriorating" fast, that we were "increasingly ill-prepared" or even (gasp!) in "retreat" on a planet without obvious enemies. They couldn't have thought more globally. (They were, after all, visionaries, as druggies tend to be.) Nor could they have thought longer term. (They were twenty-first century mavens.) And on military matters, they couldn't have been more up to date.

Yet on the most crucial issues, they—and so their documents—couldn't have been dumber or more misguided. They were fundamentalists when it came to the use of force and idolaters on the subject of the US military. They believed it capable of doing just about anything. As a result, they made a massive miscalculation, mistaking military destructiveness for global power. Nor could they have been less interested in the sinews of global economic power (though they did imagine our future enemy to be China). Nor were they capable of imagining that the greatest military power on the planet might be stopped in its tracks—in the Greater Middle East, no less—by a ragtag crew of Iraqis and Afghans. To read "Rebuilding America's Defenses" today is to see the rabbit hole down which, as if in a fever dream, we would soon disappear.

It was a genuine American tragedy that they came to power and proceeded to put their military-first policies in place; that, on September 12 of the year that "changed everything," the PNAC people seized the reins of defense and foreign policy, mobilized for war, began channeling American treasure into the military solution they had long desired, and surged. Oh, how they surged!

That urge to surge was infamously caught in notes on Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's comments taken on September 11, 2001. "Barely five hours after American Airlines Flight 77 plowed into the Pentagon...Rumsfeld was telling his aides to come up with plans for striking Iraq," even though he was already certain that Al Qaeda had launched the attack. ("'Go massive,' the notes quote him as saying. 'Sweep it all up. Things related and not.' ")

And so they did. They swept up everything and then watched as their dreams and geopolitical calculations were themselves swept into the dustbin of history. And yet the urge to surge, twisted and ever more desperate, did not abate.

The Soviet Path

To one degree or another, we have been on the Soviet path for years and yet, ever more desperately, we continue to plan more surges. Our military, like the Soviet one, has not lost a battle and has occupied whatever ground it chose to take. Yet, in the process, it has won less than nothing at all. Our country, still far more wealthy than the Soviet Union ever was, has nonetheless entered its Soviet phase. At home, in the increasing emphasis on surveillance of every sort, there is even a hint of what made "soviet" and "totalitarian" synonymous.

The US economy looks increasingly sclerotic; moneys for an aging and rotting infrastructure are long gone; state and city governments are laying off teachers, police, even firefighters; Americans are unemployed in near record numbers; global oil prices (for a country that has in no way begun to wean itself from its dependence on foreign oil) are ominously on the rise; and yet taxpayer money continues to pour into the military and into our foreign wars. It has recently been estimated, for instance, that after spending $11.6 billion in 2011 on the training, supply, and support of the Afghan army and police, the United States will continue to spend an average of $6.2 billion a year at least through 2015 (and undoubtedly into an unknown future)—and that's but one expense in the estimated $120 billion to $160 billion a year being spent at present on the Afghan War, what can only be described as part of America's war stimulus package abroad.

And, of course, the talk for 2011 is how to expand the American ground war—the air version of the same has already been on a sharp escalatory trajectory—in Pakistan. History and common sense assure us that this can only lead to further disaster. Clear-eyed leaders, military or civilian, would never consider such plans. But Washington's thirty-year high in the region, that urge to surge still coursing through its veins, says otherwise, and it's not likely to be denied.

Sooner than later, Washington, the Pentagon, and the US military will have to enter rehab. They desperately need a twelve-step program for recovery. Until then, the delusions and the madness that go with surge addiction are not likely to end.

[Note on sources: The National Security Archive, filled to bursting with documents from our imperial and cold war past, is an online treasure. I have relied on it for both the Soviet documents quoted on the Afghan war of the 1980s and an analysis of the American version of that war. For those who are interested in reading PNAC's "Rebuilding America's Defenses," click here and then on the link to the PDF file of the document.]

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