Lessons From the Long War and a Blowback World | The Nation


Lessons From the Long War and a Blowback World

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This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.

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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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From Vietnam to Pakistan, the business of counting deaths by American hands has never been simple math.

Is it too early--or already too late--to begin drawing lessons from "the Long War"? That phrase, coined in 2002 and, by 2005, being championed by Centcom Commander General John Abizaid, was meant to be a catchier name for George W. Bush's "Global War on Terror." That was back in the days when inside-the-Beltway types were still dreaming about a global Pax Americana and its domestic partner, a Pax Republicana, and imagining that both, once firmly established, might last forever.

"The Long War" merely exchanged the shock-'n'-awe geographical breadth of the President Bush's chosen moniker ("global") for a shock-'n'-awe time span. Our all-out, no-holds-barred struggle against evildoers would be nothing short of generational as well as planetary. From Abizaid's point of view, perhaps a little in-office surgical operation on the nomenclature of Bush's war was, in any case, in order at a time when the Iraq War was going disastrously badly and the Afghan one was starting to look more than a little peaked as well. It was like saying: Forget that "mission accomplished" sprint to victory in 2003 and keep your eyes on the prize. We're in it for the long slog.

When Bush officials and Pentagon brass used "the long war"--a phrase that never gained much traction outside administration circles and admiring think tanks--they were (being Americans) predicting the future, not commenting on the past. In their view, the fight against the Islamist terrorists and assorted bad guys who wanted to get their hands on weapons of mass destruction and truly bloody the American nose would be decades long.

And of that past? In the American tradition, they were Fordian (as in Henry) in their contempt for most history. If it didn't involve Winston Churchill, or the US occupying Germany or Japan successfully after World War II, or thrashing the Soviet Union in the cold war, it was largely discardable bunk. And who cared, since we had arrived at a moment of destiny when the greatest country in the world had at its beck and call the greatest, most technologically advanced military of all time. That was what mattered, and the future--momentary pratfalls aside--would surely be ours, as long as we Americans were willing to buckle down and fund an eternal fight for it.

Arm and Regret

With the arrival of the Obama administration, "the Long War," like "the Global War on Terror," has largely fallen into disuse (even as the wars that went with it continue). Like all administrations, Obama's, too, prefers to think of itself as beginning at Year Zero and, as the new president emphasized more than once, looking forward, not backwards, at least when it came to the CIA, the Bush Justice Department, and torture practices.

Perhaps, however, the Long War shouldn't be consigned to the dust bin of history just yet. It might still have its uses, if we were to do the un-American thing and look backward, not forward.

As we call a contentious era in European history the Hundred Years' War, so our war in "the Greater Middle East" has already gone on for thirty years, give or take a few. If you wanted to date its exact beginning, you might consider choosing President Ronald Reagan's brief, disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 1983, the occasion for the first suicide truck bombings of the modern American era. (As Mike Davis has written, "Indeed, the suicide truck bombs that devastated the US embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 prevailed--at least in a geopolitical sense--over the combined firepower of the fighter-bombers and battleships of the US Sixth Fleet and forced the Reagan administration to retreat from Lebanon.")

An even more reasonable date, however, might be July 3, 1979, when, at the behest of national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter signed "the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul." In other words, six months before the actual Soviet invasion of Afghanistan began, the US threw its support to the mujahedeen, the Afghan anti-Soviet fundamentalist jihadists.

As Brzezinski later described it, "On the same day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained that in my opinion this aid would lead to a Soviet military intervention." Asked whether he regretted his actions, given the results so many years after, he replied: "Regret what? The secret operation was an excellent idea. It drew the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? On the day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, saying, in essence: 'We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War.' "

Another inviting date for the start of our thirty-years' war might be January 23, 1980, when Carter, in a speech officially billed as a response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, outlined what came to be known as the Carter Doctrine, which would put an armed American presence in the middle of the globe's oil heartlands. Having described the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf as a "vital interest" of the United States, Carter went on to state in the speech's key passage: "An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force."

What followed was the creation of a Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force, meant in a crisis to get thousands of US troops to the Gulf region quickly. In the Reagan years, that force was transformed into the Central Command (Centcom, of which General David Petraeus is now commander), while its area of responsibility grew as the US built up a massive military infrastructure of bases, weaponry, ships and airfields in the region.

Since then, war, however labeled, has been the name of the game: in Afghanistan, our war began in 1979 and, in start-and-stop fashion, still continues; in Iran, it's gone on largely in a proxy fashion, from 1979 to the present moment; in Iraq, from the First Gulf War in 1990 to now; briefly and disastrously in Somalia in 1993 and intermittently in this new century; and more recently in Pakistan.

The future is, of course, unknown, but as our president and his foreign policy team prepare to make crucial decisions in the coming months about Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq, shouldn't our thirty-years' war across the oil heartlands of the planet, essentially one disaster-hailed-as-a-victory after another, offer some cautionary lessons for us? Shouldn't it raise the odd red flag of warning?

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