None of this should have surprised anyone. Perhaps at least marginally more surprising was the inability of the US military to wield its destructive power to win anything whatsoever. Since the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, there have been so many proclamations of "success," of "mission accomplished," of corners turned and tipping points reached, of "progress" made, and so very, very little to show.
Amid the destruction, destabilization, and disaster, the high hopes quietly evaporated. Now, of course, "shock and awe" is long gone. Those triumphant "surges" are history. Counterinsurgency, or COIN—for a while the hottest thing around—has been swept back into the dustbin of history from which General (now CIA Director) David Petraeus rescued it not so many years ago.
After a decade in Afghanistan in which the US military has battled a minority insurgency, perhaps as unpopular as any "popular" movement could be, the war there is now almost universally considered "unwinnable" or a "stalemate." Of course, what a stalemate means when the planet's most powerful military takes on a bunch of backcountry guerrillas, some armed with weapons that deserve to be in museums, is at best an open question.
Meanwhile, after almost nine years of war and occupation, the US military is shutting down its multi-billion-dollar mega-bases in Iraq and withdrawing its troops. Though it leaves behind a monster State Department mission guarded by a 5,000-man army of mercenaries, a militarized budget of $6.5 billion for 2012, and more than 700 mostly hire-a-gun trainers, Iraq is visibly a loss for Washington. In Pakistan, the American drone war combined with the latest "incident" on the Pakistani border, evidently involving US special forces operatives, has further destabilized that country and the US alliance there. A major Pakistani presidential candidate is already calling for the end of that alliance, while anti-Americanism grows by leaps and bounds.
None of this should startle either. After all, what exactly could an obdurately military-first foreign policy bring with it but the whirlwind (and not just to foreign lands either)? As the Occupy Wall Street protests and their repression remind us, American police forces, too, were heavily militarized. Meanwhile, our wars and national security spending have drained the US of trillions of dollars in national treasure, leaving behind a country in political gridlock, its economy in something close to a shock-and-awe state, its infrastructure crumbling, and vast majorities of its angry citizens convinced that their land is not only "on the wrong track," but "in decline."
Into the Whirlwind
A decade later, perhaps the only thing that should truly cause surprise is how little has been learned in Washington. The military-first policy of choice that rang in the century—there were, of course, other options available—has become the only option left in Washington's impoverished arsenal. After all, the country's economic power is in tatters (which is why the Europeans are looking to China for help in the Euro crisis), its "soft power" has gone down the tubes, and its diplomatic corps has either been militarized or was long ago relegated to the back of the bus of state.
What couldn't be stranger, though, is that from the whirlwind of policy disaster, the Obama administration has drawn the least likely conclusion: that more of what has so visibly failed us is in order—from Pakistan to Uganda, Afghanistan to Somalia, the Persian Gulf to China. Yes, COIN is out and drones as well as special operations forces are in, but the essential policy remains the same.
The evidence of the last decade clearly indicates that nothing of significance is likely to be built from the rubble of such a global policy—most obviously in relations with China, America's greatest creditor. However, there, too, as President Obama signaled (however feebly) with his recent announcement of a symbolic permanent deployment of US Marines to Darwin, Australia, the military path remains the path of least resistance. As Michael Klare put it recently in the Nation magazine, "It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the White House has decided to counter China's spectacular economic growth with a military riposte."
As Barry Lando, former 60 Minutes producer, points out, China, not the US, is already "one of the largest oil beneficiaries of the Iraq War." In fact, our military build-up throughout the Persian Gulf region is, in essence, guarding Chinese commerce. "Just as American troops and bases have spread along the Gulf," Lando writes, "so have China's businessmen, eager to exploit the vital resources that the US military is thoughtfully protecting... A strange symbiosis: American bases and Chinese markets."
In other words, the single most monstrous mistake of the Bush years—the confusion of military with economic power—has been set in stone. Washington continues to lead with its drones and ask questions or offer condolences or launch investigations later. This is, of course, a path guaranteed to bring destruction and blowback in its wake. None of it is likely to benefit us in the long run, least of all in relation to China.
When history, that most unpredictable of subjects, becomes predictable, watch out.
In what should be a think-outside-the-box moment, the sole lesson Washington seems capable of absorbing is that its failed policy is the only possible policy. Among other things, this means more "incidents," more "mistakes," more "accidents," more dead, more embittered people vowing vengeance, more investigations, more pleas of self-defense, more condolences, more money draining out of the US treasury, and more destabilization.
As it has been since September 12, 2001, Washington remains engaged in a fierce and costly losing battle with ghosts in which, unfortunately, perfectly real people die, and perfectly real women are widowed.
He was 22 years old...
She was 12...
Those are lines you will read again and again in our no-learning-curve world and no condolences will be enough.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books), has just been published. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.