Recently, the Washington Post's Walter Pincus dug up some of the construction and transportation costs associated with the war in Afghanistan and found that, as an employer, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers comes in second only to the Afghan government in that job-desperate country. The Corps is spending about $4 billion this year alone on road-building activities, and has slated another $4-$6 billion for more of the same in 2010; it has, according to Pincus, already spent $2 billion constructing facilities for the expanding Afghan army and police forces, and has another $1.2 billion set aside for more such facilities this year. It is also likely to spend between $400 million and $1.4 billion on as many as six new bases, assorted outposts, and associated air fields American troops will be sent to in the south.
Throw in hardship pay, supplies, housing, and whatever else for the hundreds of diplomats and advisors in that promised "civilian surge"; add in the $1.5 billion a year the president promised in economic aid to Pakistan over the next five years, a tripling of such aid (as urged by Vice President Biden when he was still a senator); add in unknown amounts of aid to the Pakistani and Afghan militaries. Tote it up and you've just scratched the surface of Washington's coming investment in the Af-Pak War. (And lest you imagine that these costs might, at least, be offset by savings from Obama's plan to draw down American forces in Iraq, think again. A recent study by the Government Accountability Office suggests that "Iraq-related expenditures" will actually increase "during the withdrawal and for several years after its completion.")
Put all this together and you can see why the tactical word "surge" hardly covers what's about to happen. The administration's "new" strategy and its "new" thinking—including its urge to peel off less committed Taliban supporters and reach out for help to regional powers—should really be re-imagined as but another massive attempted bailout, this time of an Afghan project, now almost 40 years old, that in foreign policy terms is indeed our A.I.G.
As Obama's economic team overseeing the various financial bailouts is made up of figures long cozy with Wall Street, so his foreign policy team is made up of figures deeply entrenched in Washington's national security state—former Clintonistas (including the penultimate Clinton herself), military figures like National Security Adviser General James Jones, and that refugee from the H.W. Bush era, Defense Secretary Robert Gates. They are classic custodians of empire. Like the economic team, they represent the ancien régime.
They've now done their "stress tests," which, in the world of foreign policy, are called "strategic reviews." They recognize that unexpected forces are pressing in on them. They grasp that the American global system, as it existed since the truncated American century began, is in danger. They're ready to bite the bullet and bail it out. Their goal is to save what they care about in ways that they know.
Unfortunately, the end result is likely to be that, as with A.I.G., we, the American people, could end up "owning" 80% of the Af-Pak project without ever "nationalizing" it—without ever, that is, being in actual control. In fact, if things go as badly as they could in the Af-Pak War, A.I.G. might end up looking like a good deal by comparison.
The foreign policy team is no more likely to exhibit genuinely outside-the-box thinking than the team of Tim Geithner and Larry Summers has been. Their clear and desperate urge is to operate in the known zone, the one in which the U.S. is always imagined to be part of the solution to any problem on the planet, never part of the problem itself.
In foreign policy (as in economic policy), it took the Bush team less than eight years to steer the ship of state into the shallows where it ran disastrously aground. And yet, in response, after months of "strategic review," this team of inside-the-Beltway realists has come up with a combination of Af-Pak War moves that are almost blindingly expectable.
In the end, this sort of thinking is likely to leave the Obama administration hostage to its own projects as well as unprepared for the onrush of the unexpected and unknown, whose arrival may be the only thing that can be predicted with assurance right now. Whether as custodians of the imperial economy or the imperial frontier, Obama's people are lashed to the past, to Wall Street and the national security state. They are ill-prepared to take the necessary full measure of our world.
If you really want a "benchmark" for measuring how our world has been shifting on its axis, consider that we have all lived to see a Chinese premier appear at what was, in essence, an international news conference and seriously upbraid Washington for its handling of the global economy. That might have been surprising in itself. Far more startling was the response of Washington. A year ago, the place would have been up in arms. This time around, from White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs ("There's no safer investment in the world than in the United States...") to the president himself ("Not just the Chinese government, but every investor can have absolute confidence in the soundness of investments in the United States..."), Washington's response was to mollify and reassure.
Face it, we've entered a new universe. The "homeland" is in turmoil, the planetary frontiers are aboil. Change—even change we don't want to believe in—is in the air.
In the end, as with the Obama economic team, so the foreign policy team may be pushed in new directions sooner than anyone imagines and, willy-nilly, into some genuinely new thinking about a collapsing world. But not now. Not yet. Like our present financial bailouts, like that extra $30 billion that went into A.I.G. recently, the new Obama plan is superannuated on arrival. It represents graveyard thinking.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War and beyond. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), an alternative history of the mad Bush years.
Copyright 2009 Tom Engelhardt