Even as the Bush presidency wears down, the Global
War on Terror only expands. Perhaps the word should be "metastasizes." Just
this week, the US military, using SOFA-less Iraq as its launching pad, sent
four helicopters with US special forces soldiers across the Syrian border
in an operation in which a number of people were killed. (The Syrians claim
the assault was on a farm and that "a father and his three children, the farm's
guard and his wife, and a fisherman" all died; the US claims that its forces
took out a key
al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia operative.) After a several day delay, American officials
the Washington Post that the raid was "intended to send a warning to
the Syrian government. 'You have to clean up the global threat that is in your
backyard, and if you won't do that, we are left with no choice but to take these
matters into our hands,' said a senior US official, who spoke on the condition
of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the cross-border strike."
It was also an operation, according to Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker of the
New York Times, that may have been meant as a warning
to Iran. Perhaps the most important party being signaled, however, was the next
administration. They were undoubtedly being reminded that Bush Rules should
rule the future, that no
sovereignty but American sovereignty is ever worth a hill of beans, and
that a newly enunciated Bush Doctrine "principle" "you can only claim
sovereignty if you enforce it" should not be abandoned. A gaggle of unnamed
"senior American officials," whispering to Schmitt and Shanker, "expressed hope"
that such a doctrine "would be embraced by the next president as well."
At the very least, they are ensuring that, when that next president enters
the Oval Office, he will be embroiled in a wider war across an inflamed Middle
East. As the ground war in Afghanistan has grown worse, for example, another
border-crossing set of actions, a CIA-operated air war in the Pakistani borderlands,
only increases in intensity. The Times recently offered the following
figures on its front page: "at least 18 Predator [missile-armed drone] strikes
since the beginning of August, some deep inside Pakistan's tribal areas, compared
with 5 strikes during the first seven months of 2008."
In Afghanistan itself, an increasingly unpopular US air war, with all its
"collateral damage," continues. Only last week, in a "friendly fire" incident,
American planes leveled an Afghan Army checkpoint, killing
nine Afghan soldiers and wounding three. (After its usual initial reluctance,
the Pentagon magnanimously blamed
those casualties on "a case of mistaken identity on both sides.") And southwest
of Kabul, reports came in that another American air strike had killed
at least 20 private security guards for a road construction project.
You can say one thing: To the bitter end the Bush administration clings to
a fundamentalist belief that military power offers the royal path to all solutions.
It's a conclusion that has already left an area from Somalia to Central Asia
unsettled and increasingly
aflame, and that seems only to draw more nations into the President's "global
war" with, as Andrew Bacevich makes vividly clear, ever less of a rationale.
You can listen to a podcast interview with Bacevich, whose bestselling book
Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism is a must for your
post-election bookshelf, by clicking here.
Expanding War, Contracting Meaning
The Next President and the Global War on Terror
By Andrew J. Bacevich
A week ago, I had a long conversation with a
four-star US military officer who, until his recent retirement, had played
a central role in directing the global war on terror. I asked him: what exactly
is the strategy that guides the Bush administration's conduct of this war? His
dismaying, if not exactly surprising, answer: there is none.
President Bush will bequeath to his successor the ultimate self-licking ice
cream cone. To defense contractors, lobbyists, think-tankers, ambitious military
officers, the hosts of Sunday morning talk shows, and the Douglas Feith-like
creatures who maneuver to become players in the ultimate power game, the Global
War on Terror is a boon, an enterprise redolent with opportunity and promising
to extend decades into the future.
Yet, to a considerable extent, that very enterprise has become a fiction,
a gimmicky phrase employed to lend an appearance of cohesion to a panoply of
activities that, in reality, are contradictory, counterproductive, or at the
very least beside the point. In this sense, the global war on terror relates
to terrorism precisely as the war on drugs relates to drug abuse and dependence:
declaring a state of permanent "war" sustains the pretense of actually dealing
with a serious problem, even as policymakers pay lip-service to the problem's
actual sources. The war on drugs is a very expensive fraud. So, too, is the
Global War on Terror.
Anyone intent on identifying some unifying idea that explains US actions,
military and otherwise, across the Greater Middle East is in for a disappointment.
During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt laid down "Germany first"
and then "unconditional surrender" as core principles. Early in the Cold War,
the Truman administration devised the concept of containment, which for decades
thereafter provided a conceptual framework to which policymakers adhered. Yet
seven years into its Global War on Terror, the Bush administration is without
a compass, wandering in the arid wilderness. To the extent that any inkling
of a strategy once existed the preposterous neoconservative vision of
employing American power to "transform" the Islamic world events have
long since demolished the assumptions on which it was based.
Rather than one single war, the United States is presently engaged in several.
first in importance is the war for Bush's legacy, better known as Iraq. The
President himself will never back away from his insistence that here lies the
"central front" of the conflict he initiated after 9/11. Hunkered down in their
bunker, Bush and his few remaining supporters would have us believe that the
"surge" has, at long last, brought victory in sight and with it some prospect
of redeeming this otherwise misbegotten and mismanaged endeavor. If the President
can leave office spouting assurances that light is finally visible somewhere
at the far end of a very long, very dark Mesopotamian tunnel, he will claim
at least partial vindication. And if actual developments subsequent to January
20 don't turn out well, he can always blame the outcome on his successor.
Next comes the orphan war. This is Afghanistan, a conflict now in its eighth
year with no signs of ending anytime soon. Given the attention lavished on Iraq,
developments in Afghanistan have until recently attracted only intermittent
notice. Lately, however, US officials have awakened to the fact that things
are going poorly, both politically and militarily. Al Qaeda persists. The Taliban
is reasserting itself. Expectations that NATO might ride to the rescue have
proven illusory. Apart from enabling Afghanistan to reclaim its status as the
world's number one producer of opium, US efforts to pacify that nation and
nudge it toward modernity have produced little.
The Pentagon calls its intervention in Afghanistan Operation Enduring Freedom.
The emphasis was supposed to be on the noun. Unfortunately, the adjective conveys
the campaign's defining characteristic: enduring as in endless. Barring a radical
redefinition of purpose, this is an enterprise which promises to continue, consuming
lives and treasure, for a long, long time.
In neighboring Pakistan, meanwhile, there is the war-hidden-in-plain-sight.
Reports of US military action in Pakistan have now become everyday fare. Air
strikes, typically launched from missile-carrying drones, are commonplace, and
US ground forces have also conducted at least one cross-border raid from inside
Afghanistan. Although the White House doesn't call this a war, it is
a gradually escalating war of attrition in which we are killing both terrorists
and noncombatants. Unfortunately, we are killing too few of the former to make
a difference and more than enough of the latter to facilitate the recruitment
of new terrorists to replace those we eliminate.
Finally skipping past the wars-in-waiting, which are Syria and Iran
there is Condi's war. This clash, which does not directly involve US
forces, may actually be the most important of all. The war that Secretary of
State Condoleezza Rice has made her own is the ongoing conflict between Israel
and the Palestinians. Having for years dismissed the insistence of Muslims,
Arabs and non-Arabs alike, that the plight of the Palestinians constitutes a
problem of paramount importance, Rice now embraces that view. With the fervor
of a convert, she has vowed to broker an end to that conflict prior to leaving
office in January 2009.
Given that Rice brings little perhaps nothing to the effort
in the way of fresh ideas, her prospects of making good as a peacemaker appear
slight. Yet, as with Bush and Iraq, so too with Rice and the Palestinian problem:
she has a lot riding on the effort. If she flops, history will remember her
as America's least effective secretary of state since Cordell Hull spent World
War II being ignored, bypassed, and humiliated by Franklin Roosevelt. She will
depart Foggy Bottom having accomplished nothing.
There's nothing inherently wrong in fighting simultaneously on several fronts,
as long as actions on front A are compatible with those on front B, and together
contribute to overall success. Unfortunately, that is not the case with the
Global War on Terror. We have instead an illustration of what Winston Churchill
once referred to as a pudding without a theme: a war devoid of strategic purpose.
This absence of cohesion by now a hallmark of the Bush administration
is both a disaster and an opportunity. It is a disaster in the sense
that we have, over the past seven years, expended enormous resources, while
gaining precious little in return.
Bush's supporters beg to differ, of course. They credit the president with
having averted a recurrence of 9/11, doubtless a commendable achievement but
one primarily attributable to the fact that the United States no longer neglects
airport security. To argue that, say, the invasion and occupation of Iraq have
prevented terrorist attacks against the United States is the equivalent of contending
that Israel's occupation of the West Bank since in 1967 has prevented terrorist
attacks against the state of Israel.
Yet the existing strategic vacuum is also an opportunity. When it comes to
national security at least, the agenda of the next administration all but sets
itself. There is no need to waste time arguing about which issues demand priority
First-order questions are begging for attention. How should we gauge the threat?
What are the principles that should inform our response? What forms of power
are most relevant to implementing that response? Are the means at hand adequate
to the task? If not, how should national priorities be adjusted to provide the
means required? Given the challenges ahead, how should the government organize
itself? Who both agencies and individuals will lead?
To each and every one of these questions, the Bush administration devised
answers that turned out to be dead wrong. The next administration needs to do
better. The place to begin is with the candid recognition that the Global War
on Terror has effectively ceased to exist. When it comes to national security
strategy, we need to start over from scratch.
Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations
at Boston University. His bestselling new book is The
Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (The American Empire
Project, Metropolitan Books). To listen to a podcast in which he discusses issues
relevant to this article, click here.
Copyright 2008 Andrew Bacevich