Why War Will Take No Holidays in 2010
In the Biggest Dreams, the Largest Miscalculations
Well, yes, as it turned out, someone did have the "belly" for just that--and far more. One thing you can still say about the various characters who made up the Bush administration, including George's one-percent-doctrine vice president, all those neocons ominously stashed away in the Pentagon, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (who, within five hours of the attack on the Pentagon, was already urging aides to come up with plans for striking Iraq): they were thinking geostrategically. They had the globe, the whole damn thing, in their sights. They were also desperately in love with the US military and complete romantics about what it could do. They believed that the mightiest, most advanced military force on the planet could shock-and-awe anyone into submission, and quite unilaterally at that.
As still unrepentant cold warriors, even with the Soviet Union a decade gone, they were still eager to roll back Russia's borders and influence, especially in oil-rich Central Asia, and so turn that rump empire into a second- or third-rate state of no future importance to the United States. They were eager to encircle Iran with bases and take down the mullahs. (As the infamous neocon quip of that moment went: "Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.") With a president and vice president who were former energy company execs and a national security adviser for whom Chevron had named a double-hulled oil tanker, they tended to be riveted by energy flows and how to control them.
They had their minds, that is, on a very big picture--nothing less than the creation of a future Pax Americana abroad and Pax Republicana at home. And they truly believed that Pax could be established at the tip of a cruise missile. Having been shocked-and-awed themselves on 9/11, they were more than ready to return the favor, to use that "Pearl Harbor of the twenty-first century" as an excuse to do their damnedest, including, as they bragged at the time, targeting up to sixty countries, mostly in what they liked to call "the arc of instability" (essentially the oil heartlands of the planet) where terrorists were supposed to operate at will. Nothing, that is, was too grandiose for them.
They clearly saw the chance of a lifetime and grabbed it like the opportunists they were, and at first, it looked like they were right on the mark. Two "victories" were the result, each accomplished in a matter of weeks within less than a year-and-a-half of each other. The Taliban were gone in nanoseconds; bin Laden almost in their grasp and driven underground; Saddam Hussein swept into the dustbin of history. It seemed--to them above all--like a miracle of modern military power. Who could now withstand them? The answer was obvious: no one.
The ragtag oppositional forces left in Afghanistan and Iraq were like so many flies to be swatted away. So they sent their viceroys into Kabul and Baghdad to clean things up, which, especially in the case of Iraq, meant disbanding that country's military, privatizing its economy and opening up the oil industry of one of the most energy-rich regions on the planet to the mighty transnational (and significantly American) oil giants. In the meantime, the Pentagon would build massive military bases and prepare to garrison both countries till hell froze over. The official documents they wrote for, and sometimes in the name of, the newly "liberated" Iraqis read like fever-dream versions of nineteenth-century imperial fantasies.
When reality up and bit them hard, they were already looking to the future. They were going to crush Syria, drive Iran to its knees, make OPEC and the Saudis grovel (with the help of increased Iraqi oil output), bring China to heel and, oh yes, get the terrorists, too.
What a dream! What a miscalculation! What a nightmare for the rest of us! Hundreds of thousands (or more) now dead, millions of refugees, ongoing war, a region--those very oil heartlands--destabilized, and of course the massive draining of American resources in two major wars (and various minor conflicts) on which almost a trillion dollars has already been spent and another trillion could easily go down the drain.
And where are we eight years later? The Chinese, the Russians, the Malaysians, and others have picked up those energy dreams and, in Iraq and elsewhere, translated them into success without spending a cent on war. The Russians are back in Central Asia. The Chinese are now sending Central Asian natural gas China-wards through a newly opened pipeline. Meanwhile, the American oil giants have ended up with few of the spoils. The American Army is a wreck and two minority insurgencies with but tens of thousands of relatively lightly armed guerrillas have made a mockery of that military's supposed power to shock and awe anybody. The latest laugh-fest being that insurgents have, according to the Wall Street Journal, hacked into the most advanced weaponry the Pentagon has, the video feeds from its latest drone aircraft, with a $26 piece of off-the-shelf Russian software. In other words, while, at the cost of multimillions, Americans were capable of looking at battlefield scenes fit for destruction from distant Langley, Virginia, Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, or various secret sites in the Greater Middle East, so were Iraqi, and possibly Afghan, guerrillas and terrorists on their laptops for nada.
Eight years later, the Bush administration's dreams of a Pax Americana and its domestic twin are in that dustbin of history along with Saddam Hussein. And all the big ideas that went with our two disastrous wars seem to have been sluiced down the drain as well. And yet, in both countries, the giant bases remain like permanent scars on the land, as do the wars. No dust heap of history for them. Not yet, anyway. Our wars are instead to proceed without rhyme or reason. And among those deciding US policy, military and civilian, none (I have no doubt) have placed a call to Tamim Ansary, wherever he may be. It doesn't pay to be right in our world.
I don't want to claim, of course, that no reasons are offered any more in explanation of our wars: There's Osama bin Laden, for starters, as President Obama reminded us recently. No one in our world knows where he is, or even, at this point, if he is. But if he still exists, he must be dancing a jig. With possibly fewer than 100 operatives in Afghanistan and another few hundred in Pakistan (according to the best calculations of the Obama administration), he's somehow managed to bog imperial America down in the tribal backlands of Central (and increasingly South) Asia.
Beyond the damage inflicted on 9/11, he's already helped drain the United States of nearly a trillion dollars in war costs and counting. His "presence" seems to insure that, sometime in the near future, the Obama administration will further compound the folly of the last eight years by attempting to completely destabilize nuclear-armed Pakistan with air attacks on its restive province of Baluchistan, where the Taliban leadership is supposedly hiding.
If back in 2002 or 2003 you had presented such a scenario--a few hundred terrorists tying us up in a trillion-dollar war--you would have been laughed out of the country; yet it's safe to say that what's happening now represents, for bin Laden, triumph on a level that the attacks of 9/11, no matter how televisually spectacular, could never come close to. And here's the worst of it in this holiday season, peering into the murk of 2010, all I can see is signs of endless war. As for peacemaking or de-escalation next year, fuggedaboutit.