All you really need to know is that, at Robert Gates’s Pentagon, they’re still high on the term "the Long War." It’s a phrase that first crept into our official vocabulary back in 2002, but was popularized by CENTCOM commander John Abizaid, in 2004 — already a fairly long(-war-)time ago. Now, Secretary of Defense Gates himself is plugging the term, as he did in April at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, quoting no less an authority than Leon Trotsky:
"What has been called the Long War is likely to be many years of persistent, engaged combat all around the world in differing degrees of size and intensity. This generational campaign cannot be wished away or put on a timetable. There are no exit strategies. To paraphrase the Bolshevik Leon Trotsky, we may not be interested in the Long War, but the Long War is interested in us."
The Long War has also made it front and center in the new "national defense strategy," which is essentially a call to prepare for a future of two, three, many Afghanistans. ("For the foreseeable future, winning the Long War against violent extremist movements will be the central objective of the U.S.") If you thought for a moment that in the next presidency some portion of those many billions of dollars now being sucked into the black holes of Iraq and Afghanistan was about to go into rebuilding American infrastructure or some other frivolous task, think again. Just read between the lines of that new national defense strategy document where funding for future conventional wars against "rising powers" is to be maintained, while funding for "irregular warfare" is to rise. The Pentagonization of the U.S., in other words, shows no sign of slowing down. Here, by the way, is the emphasis in the new Gates Doctrine — from a recent Pentagon briefing by the secretary of defense — that should make us all worry. "The principal challenge, therefore, is how to ensure that the capabilities gained and counterinsurgency lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the lessons re-learned from other places where we have engaged in irregular warfare over the last two decades, are institutionalized within the defense establishment." Back to the future?
And here’s a riddle for our moment: How long is a Long War, when you’ve been there before (as were, in the case of Afghanistan, Alexander the Great, the imperial Brits, and the Soviets)? On the illusions of victory and the many miscalculations of the Bush administration when it came to the nature of American military power, no one in recent years has been more incisive than Andrew Bacevich, who experienced an earlier version of the Long War firsthand in Vietnam. His new book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, has just been published. Short, sharp, to the point, it should be the book of the election season, if only anyone in power, or who might come to power, were listening. In his most recent post at Tomdispatch.com, "Illusions of Victory," he writes:
"If the global war on terror has produced one undeniable conclusion," writes Andrew Bacevich in a striking new post from Tomdispatch, "it is this: Estimates of U.S. military capabilities have turned out to be wildly overstated. The Bush administration’s misplaced confidence in the efficacy of American arms represents a strategic misjudgment that has cost the country dearly. Even in an age of stealth, precision weapons, and instant communications, armed force is not a panacea. Even in a supposedly unipolar era, American military power turns out to be quite limited."
But if you want the measure of our strange, dystopian moment, Barack Obama reportedly has a team of 300 foreign policy advisers — just about everyone ever found, however brain-dead, in a Democratic presidential rolodex — and yet Bacevich’s name isn’t among them. What else do we need to know?