Given the lack of enemies—a few thousand jihadis, a small set of minority insurgencies, a couple of feeble regional powers—why this is so, what exactly the force is that prevents Washington's success, remains mysterious. Certainly, it's in some way related to the more than half-century of decolonization movements, rebellions, and insurgencies that were a feature of the previous century.
It also has something to do with the way economic heft has spread beyond the US, Europe, and Japan—with the rise of the "tigers" in Asia, the explosion of the Chinese and Indian economies, the advances of Brazil and Turkey, and the movement of the planet toward some kind of genuine economic multipolarity. It may also have something to do with the end of the Cold War, which put an end as well to several centuries of imperial or great power competition and left the sole "victor," it now seems clear, heading toward the exits wreathed in self-congratulation.
Explain it as you will, it's as if the planet itself, or humanity, had somehow been inoculated against the imposition of imperial power, as if it now rejected it whenever and wherever applied. In the previous century, it took a half-nation, North Korea, backed by Russian supplies and Chinese troops to fight the US to a draw, or a popular insurgent movement backed by a local power, North Vietnam, backed in turn by the Soviet Union and China to defeat American power. Now, small-scale minority insurgencies, largely using roadside bombs and suicide bombers, are fighting American power to a draw (or worse) with no great power behind them at all.
Think of the growing force that resists such military might as the equivalent of the "dark matter" in the universe. The evidence is in. We now know (or should know) that it's there, even if we can't see it.
Washington's Wars on Autopilot
After the last decade of military failures, stand-offs, and frustrations, you might think that this would be apparent in Washington. After all, the US is now visibly an overextended empire, its sway waning from the Greater Middle East to Latin America, the limits of its power increasingly evident. And yet, here's the curious thing: two administrations in Washington have drawn none of the obvious conclusions, and no matter how the presidential election turns out, it's already clear that, in this regard, nothing will change.
Even as military power has proven itself a bust again and again, our policymakers have come to rely ever more completely on a military-first response to global problems. In other words, we are not just a classically overextended empire, but also an overwrought one operating on some kind of militarized autopilot. Lacking is a learning curve. By all evidence, it's not just that there isn't one, but that there can't be one.
Washington, it seems, now has only one mode of thought and action, no matter who is at the helm or what the problem may be, and it always involves, directly or indirectly, openly or clandestinely, the application of militarized force. Nor does it matter that each further application only destabilizes some region yet more or undermines further what once were known as "American interests."
Take Libya, as an example. It briefly seemed to count as a rare American military success story: a decisive intervention in support of a rebellion against a brutal dictator—so brutal, in fact, that the CIA previously shipped "terrorist suspects," Islamic rebels fighting against the Gaddafi regime, there for torture. No US casualties resulted, while American and NATO air strikes were decisive in bringing a set of ill-armed, ill-organized rebels to power.
In the world of unintended consequences, however, the fall of Gaddafi sent Tuareg mercenaries from his militias, armed with high-end weaponry, across the border into Mali. There, when the dust settled, the whole northern part of the country had come unhinged and fallen under the sway of Islamic extremists and al-Qaeda wannabes as other parts of North Africa threatened to destabilize. At the same time, of course, the first American casualties of the intervention occurred when Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans died in an attack on the Benghazi consulate and a local "safe house."
With matters worsening regionally, the response couldn't have been more predictable. As Greg Miller and Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post recently reported, in ongoing secret meetings, the White House is planning for military operations against al-Qaeda-in-the-Magreb (North Africa), now armed with weaponry pillaged from Gaddafi's stockpiles. These plans evidently include the approach used in Yemen (US special forces on the ground and CIA drone strikes), or a Somalia "formula" (drone strikes, special forces operations, CIA operations, and the support of African proxy armies), or even at some point "the possibility of direct US intervention."
In addition, Eric Schmitt and David Kilpatrick of the New York Times report that the Obama administration is "preparing retaliation" against those it believes killed the US ambassador, possibly including "drone strikes, special operations raids like the one that killed Osama bin Laden, and joint missions with Libyan authorities." The near certainty that, like the previous intervention, this next set of military actions will only further destabilize the region with yet more unpleasant surprises and unintended consequences hardly seems to matter. Nor does the fact that, in crude form, the results of such acts are known to us ahead of time have an effect on the unstoppable urge to plan and order them.
Such situations are increasingly legion across the Greater Middle East and elsewhere. Take one other tiny example: Iraq, from which, after almost a decade-long military disaster, the "last" US units essentially fled in the middle of the night as 2011 ended. Even in those last moments, the Obama administration and the Pentagon were still trying to keep significant numbers of US troops there (and, in fact, did manage to leave behind possibly several hundred as trainers of elite Iraqi units). Meanwhile, Iraq has been supportive of the embattled Syrian regime and drawn ever closer to Iran, even as its own sectarian strife has ratcheted upward. Having watched this unsettling fallout from its last round in the country, according to the New York Times, the US is now negotiating an agreement "that could result in the return of small units of American soldiers to Iraq on training missions. At the request of the Iraqi government, according to General Caslen, a unit of Army Special Operations soldiers was recently deployed to Iraq to advise on counterterrorism and help with intelligence."
Don't you just want to speak to those negotiators the way you might to a child: No, don't do that! The urge to return to the scene of their previous disaster, however, seems unstaunchable. You could offer various explanations for why our policymakers, military and civilian, continue in such a repetitive—and even from an imperial point of view—self-destructive vein in situations where unpleasant surprises are essentially guaranteed and lack of success a given. Yes, there is the military-industrial complex to be fed. Yes, we are interested in the control of crucial resources, especially energy, and so on.
But it's probably more reasonable to say that a deeply militarized mindset and the global maneuvers that go with it are by now just part of the way of life of a Washington eternally "at war." They are the tics of a great power with the equivalent of Tourette's Syndrome. They happen because they can't help but happen, because they are engraved in the policy DNA of our national security complex, and can evidently no longer be altered. In other words, they can't help themselves.
That's the only logical conclusion in a world where it has become ever less imaginable to do the obvious, which is far less or nothing at all. (Northern Chad? When did it become crucial to our well being?) Downsizing the mission? Inconceivable. Thinking the unthinkable? Don't even give it a thought!
What remains is, of course, a self-evident formula for disaster on autopilot. But don't tell Washington. It won't matter. Its denizens can't take it in.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as The End of Victory Culture, his history of the Cold War, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.