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Reflections on 'Containment' | The Nation

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Reflections on 'Containment'

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Afghanistan: Victory for Smart Weapons,
or for Containment?

About the Author

Bruce Cumings
Bruce Cumings, chair of the history department at the University of Chicago, is the author, most recently, of North...

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Pyongyang's bellicose posturing conforms to an old pattern, but the dangers may be greater now because tensions are rising throughout the region.

South Koreans won't be buffaloed by US beef or the Bush Administration's erratic policies.

Rumsfeld and the Pentagon believe that a novel combination of high-tech or smart weapons and mobile special forces combined to energize local allies (the Northern Alliance) and quickly dispatch a Taliban army that nearly all observers had thought to be formidable and resilient. But the primary long-term effect of the war in Afghanistan is likely to be a permanent US commitment to stabilize the most unstable region in the world: the belt of populous and mostly Muslim countries stretching westward from Indonesia all the way to Algeria, and northward to Central Asia, into the former Soviet republics and the Muslim populations of China's western reaches.

Clearly Taliban and Al Qaeda military prowess was vastly exaggerated; American special forces with every high-tech accoutrement confronted threadbare teenagers challenged by a flat tire on their Toyotas, and even Al Qaeda's fight-to-the-death bravado often gave way to a pragmatic decision to live (and fight?) another day. But the mainstream media's verdict on the great success of this war will only bolster claims of an insurmountable American advantage in the effective use of military force--the world's policeman as Robocop. I'll put my money on a different metaphor: the Pentagon making its own Procrustean bed.

Last month the Pentagon announced a new commitment to lay down a long-term footprint in Central Asia, as reporters put it: an air base near Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, that would hold up to 3,000 troops; massive upgrading of existing military bases and facilities in Uzbekistan (like the former Soviet base at Khanabad) and Pakistan (where several bases now house US forces, with next to no media access or scrutiny); creation and expansion of remnant military bases in Afghanistan; and the replacement of Marine expeditionary forces sent into Afghanistan during the war with Army regulars settling in for the long haul (Army units tend to establish more permanent bases, reporters said, with considerable understatement). The spokesman for the US Central Command told reporters that in the future the United States "will find great value in continuing to build airfields in locations on the perimeter of Afghanistan" that will be able to carry out "a variety of functions, like combat operations, medical evacuation and delivery of humanitarian assistance."

Most analysts will see in this permanent footprint a desire to enter a strategic area long ceded to Russia or China, or to siphon off a large American share of the new oil wealth coming on stream in Central Asia. No doubt this is part of it, but a different picture emerges when we direct attention to the politically shaped containment compromises that have characterized America's wars since 1941. World War II was the clearest kind of military victory, but it still didn't bring the troops home. They remain on the territory of their defeated enemies, Japan and Germany, and exercise a lingering constraint on their autonomy. However many justifications come and go for that remarkable and unprecedented situation (in that the leading global power stations its forces on the territory of the second- and third-largest economies), the fact remains that it has persisted for fifty-seven years and shows no signs of ending.

American combat troops first landed in Korea not in 1950, but on a pristine September day five years earlier. On another beautiful September day in 2001, the eleventh day, 37,000 of them were still in South Korea. Korea is the best example in modern history of how easy it is to get into a war, and how hard it is to get out. Vietnam would have been the same--and indeed was essentially the same from the mid-1950s, when Washington committed its prestige to the Saigon government, to the mid-1970s, when the war concluded with a US defeat because the United States could sustain neither a stable Saigon regime nor a divided Vietnam. If it could have done so we would still be there, stuck in the aspic of another Korea. The Gulf War came to an end when Bush the Elder and his advisers, pre-eminently Brent Scowcroft, kicked on the brakes well short of Baghdad and thus spawned the newest containment system, leaving upwards of 5,000 US troops in Saudi Arabia a decade later and several new military bases there and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Bush is sending some 600 troops to help combat Islamic guerrillas in the Philippines, exactly a century after the United States created its colony there by fighting a dirty and bloody three-year war against guerrillas. American advisers will also work with the Indonesian military (which ruled the country for thirty years until Suharto was overthrown in 1998) in antiterrorism operations, which could easily embroil the United States in trying to maintain the precarious integrity of that far-flung island nation. The only places Bush wants to leave are Kosovo and Bosnia, because he and his aides derogate peacekeeping as using our troops for social work. Otherwise it is (containment) business as usual.

An administration that began with talk about bringing troops home from Clinton's ill-advised adventures now asks taxpayers to underwrite "an aleatory expedition in the management of the world's affairs," in the prescient words of historian Charles Beard's original critique of containment. Vital interests are proclaimed where none existed before, temporary expedients become institutional commitments and a thick web of military and bureaucratic interests comes to dominate strategy. Then the Pentagon bean counters take over, with every new appropriations season in Congress an occasion for defending this or that outpost (new or old, vital or marginal), and American power is mired in works of its own doing.

Among the services, the US Army finds its permanent mission in garrisoning various elaborately developed bases around the world; there officers confront real enemies (as in Korea) or command important posts (as in Japan or Germany), and thus gain experience essential to promotion. The massive US encampment in and near Yongsan in Seoul (a base first built by the Japanese in 1894) has for decades offered a virtual country-club environment for Army folks (golf course, swimming pools, movie theaters, suburban-style homes for the officers). In December 2000 I visited Panmunjom once again, this time courtesy of the US Army. Our hosts gave us the Army's construction of the history of the Korean War (a version that could not have changed since 1953) and a menu of rib-eye steak and french fries of similar vintage, offered in a cafe that had a country music poster on the wall advertising Hank Williams's 1952 tour of Atlanta. The Marines join with the Army in loving Okinawa, the only place in the world where the Marines permanently station a large expeditionary force. And in both places, established institutional practice assures a steady supply of thousands of poor young women to sate the sexual appetites of the troops, as a new book by Northwestern University scholar Ji-Yeon Yuh demonstrates.

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