Military-First Imperial Realism
This particular reconfiguration also allowed the globe's last great imperial power to put a smiley face on a decade of military disasters in the Greater Middle East and—for all the clever politics of the moment—to cry uncle in its own fashion. More miraculous yet, it was doing so without giving up its global military dreams.
It was a way of saying that, if the US ever gets itself out of Afghanistan, when it comes to invading and occupying another Muslim land, building hundreds of bases and an embassy the size of the Ritz, and running riot in the name of "nation-building" and democracy: never again—or not for a few decades anyway.
Consider this a form of begrudging imperial realism that managed never to leave behind that essential American stance of garrisoning the planet. In fact, in order to fly all those drones and land all those special operations units, Washington may need more, not less bases globally. And of course, those 11 carrier battle groups are themselves floating bases, massively armed American small towns at sea.
As it happens, though, we already know how this story ends and it's nothing to write home about. Yes, they're going with what's hot, especially those drones. But keep in mind that, only a few years ago, the hottest thing in town was counterinsurgency warfare and its main proponent, General David Petraeus, was being hailed as a new Alexander the Great, Napoleon, or US Grant. And you know what happened there.
Now, counterinsurgency is history. The new hot ticket of the moment, that "revolutionary weapon" of our time—the drone or robotic airplane—is to fit the bill instead. Drones are, without a doubt, technologically remarkable and growing more sophisticated by the year. But air power has historically proved a poor choice if you want to accomplish anything political on the ground. It hardly matters whether those planes in the distant heavens have pilots or not, or whether they can see ants crawl from 20,000 feet and blast them away with precision.
Despite hosannas about the air war in Libya, count on one thing: air power will prove predictably inept when it comes to an American version of "revolutionary" counterterror warfare in the twenty-first century. So much for the limits of realism.
Washington-style realism assumes that we made a few mistakes, which can be rectified with the help of advanced technology and without endangering the military-industrial-crony-capitalist way of life. That's about as radical as Obama's Washington is likely to get.
When compared to the Republicans (Ron Paul aside again) storming the rhetorical barricades daily, threatening war with Iran nightly, promising to reinvade Iraq, or swearing that a military budget larger than those of the next 10 countries combined is wussiness itself, the Obama administration's approach does look like shining realism. Up against this planet as it actually is today, its military-first policies look like wishful thinking.
What Drones Can't Do
Climate-change advocates sometimes say that we're on a new planet. (Bill McKibben calls it "Eaarth," with that ungainly extra "a" to signify an ungainly place that used to be comfy enough for humanity.) It is, they say, a planet under pressure and destabilizing in all sorts of barely imagined ways.
Here's the strange thing, though. Set aside climate change, and to the passing, modestly apocalyptic eye, this planet still looks as if it were destabilizing. Your three economic powerhouses—the European Union, China, and the United States—are all teetering at the edge of interrelated financial crises. The EU seems to be literally destabilizing. It's now perfectly reasonable to suggest that the present Eurozone may, within years, be Eurozones (or worse). Who knows when European banks, up to their elbows in bad debt, will start to tumble or whole countries like Greece go down (whatever that may mean)?
At the same time, the Chinese, with the hottest economy on the planet, have a housing bubble, which may already be bursting. (Americans should have at least a few passing memories of just what kinds of troubles a popped housing bubble can bring.) And for all we know, the US economy, despite recent headlines about growing consumer confidence and an unemployment rate dropping to 8.5 percent, may be on life support.
As for the rest of the world, it looks questionable as well. The powerhouse Indian economy, like the Brazilian one, is slowing down. Whatever the glories of the Arab Spring, the Middle East is now in tumult and shows no signs of righting itself economically or politically any time soon. And don't forget the Obama administration's attempt to ratchet up sanctions on Iranian oil. If things go wrong, that might end up sending energy prices right through the roof and blowing back on the global economy in painful ways. With the major economies of the globe balancing on a pin, the possibility of a spike in those prices thanks to any future US/Iran/Israeli crisis should be terrifying.
The globalization types of the 1990s used to sing hymns to the way this planet was morphing into a single economic creature. It's worth keeping in mind that it remains so in bad times. This year could, of course, be another bumble-through year of protest and tumult, or it could be something much worse. And don't think that I—a non-economist of the first order—am alone in such fears. The new head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, has been traveling the planet recently making Jeremiah sound like an optimist, suggesting that we could, in fact, be at the edge of another global Great Depression.
But know this: you can buy drones till they're coming out your ears and they won't help keep Greece afloat for an extra second. Expand special operations forces to your heart's content and you still can't send them into those failing European banks. Take over cyberspace or outer space and you won't prevent a Chinese housing bubble from bursting. None of the crucial problems on this planet are, in fact, amenable to military solutions, not even by a country willing to pour its treasure into previously unheard of military and national security expenditures.
Over the years, "the perfect storm" came to be a perfectly overused cliché, which is why you don't see it much any more. But it might be worth dusting off and keeping in reserve this year and next—just in case. After all, when any situation destabilizes, all bets are off, including for a president having his mission accomplished moment. (Just ask John McCain what happened to his 2008 presidential bid when the economy suddenly began to melt down.)
In such a situation, the sort of military-first policy the president has made his own couldn't be more useless. Maybe it's time to take out a little insurance. Just not with AIG.
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.