From Ground War to Long War to Hell
Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Syria, Mali, Somalia and Algeria, drone strikes, indefinite detention and torture, secret operations – all of these controversies and more are connected by a “shadow war” and cannot be resolved without a departure from or change in its guiding doctrine; nor can the Central and Latin American drug wars, which derive from that same poisoned root.
The Long War doctrine, developed by Pentagon advisors, is the underlying thread to the road to peace in a period wrought with international chaos. Challenging that doctrine will have to be among if not the foremost peace movement responsibility, as challenging the Cold War doctrine was similarly tasked during the Sixties.
This is no easy task, considering the Doctrine was designed with neutralizing American public opinion in mind. Yet the American public is tired of distant unwinnable wars, and supports a transfer of resources to “nation-building at home.”
Both neo-conservative and militarist in definition, the Doctrine is based on defining Al Qaeda, and more generally Islamic fundamentalism, as an incorrigible threat and enemy to American national security and values; a threat which must be suppressed primarily by military means: counterterrorism, assistance to despotic regimes and paramilitaries, global spy networks and so forth.
David Kilcullen, former top counterinsurgency adviser to Gen. David Petraeus and a leading military scholar, projects the Long War as lasting between 50 and 80 years at unknown costs in casualties, taxpayer funding and restrictions on civil liberties.
Just as the Soviet Union – and, for a time, “Red China” – was defined as a centralized conspiratorial force behind a world communist insurgency, so is Al Qaeda, though AQ is recognized as a “non-state actor” fighting “asymmetrical warfare.” According to neo-conservative military thinking, just as the Soviet Union imploded after 80 years, so will the jihadist conspiracy over the course of the next 20 presidential terms.
Long War strategists fall into two major camps: dominant and straightforward counterterrorism, and the more political strategy of counterinsurgency, which attempts to win “hearts and minds” among local populations. Counterterrorism, advocated by Vice President Joe Biden, is prevailing over the arguments previously advanced by Petraeus in the Army-Marine Counter-Insurgency Field Manual.
Counterterrorism has the advantages of minimizing American casualties, limiting budgetary costs, diminished opportunities for mass media coverage and the ease of keeping secrets from the American people. While counterinsurgency is sometimes compatible with counterterrorism, it carries the burden of long-term nation-building, co-opting and pacifying huge foreign local populations, working through corrupt and authoritarian governments, and open-ended taxpayer costs. The dispatch of American ground troops, usually justified as a “brief” intervention, brings the added danger of being bogged down in quagmires at great political costs.
What is President Barack Obama’s policy on these questions? He is “winding down” the ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but shifting to global drone wars and counterterrorism against any sign of Al Qaeda, its “allies,” “affiliates” and/or “sympathizers.” At stake is whether he can sustain the Long War while committing new resources to the goal of “nation-building at home.” Bob Woodward has quoted Obama saying, “I want an exit strategy,” “I can’t lose the Democratic Party,” and we are “on borrowed time.” In White House meetings, Obama accused his own military of “cooking the books” in order to sustain a forever war.
The Long War at Home
While an impressive anti-drone movement has arisen in the US and around the world, a majority of Americans still support the drone attacks, or at least as they understand them. No known US casualties thus far and lower costs; out of sight, out of mind. And then there is a deeper reason; most Americans are gripped with a fear of the Other, which is best understood by analogy to our “law and order” politics of recent decades. In fact, US domestic policy in many ways mirrors national security policy abroad.
Thirty years ago a coalition of neo-conservatives, Republicans and law enforcement advocates invented the War on Crime as a policy and political paradigm. Street gangs and revolutionaries were defined as the shadowy threat. Social scientists like James Q. Wilson and Reagan adviser William Bennett manufactured the concept of the “super-predator” to describe an incorrigible caste of teenage murderers who had to be contained by growing numbers of police, paramilitary tactical units and incarceration. Doors were kicked down in dawn raids in Los Angeles long before the special units left for Iraq. Anyone questioning the sanity of this approach was dismissed as “soft on crime” and defeated in elections by frightened middle class voters. The buildup of police budgets was used to justify cuts in education, healthcare and social programs. Any attempt at conversations to address the “root causes” of crime were dismissed by neo-conservatives as wimpy liberalism.
This dramatic expansion of militarized policing and mass incarceration, usually typical of dictatorships, was an experiment conducted by the American government more than any other country in the democratic world. By sheer size or relative numbers, the US leaped toward the top in jailing its citizens, passing de facto racial profiling laws, justifying wiretaps, planting informants, and launching the War on Drugs. Police budgets mushroomed accordingly. In California alone, during the time I served in the Legislature (1982-2000), the prison population rose from 28,000 to over 150,000. The prison-industrial complex thrived.
In recent years, these neo-conservative policies have reached points of exhaustion in both foreign and domestic policy. But how to fashion a viable alternative that addresses the fears that still bind people to policing the world?
The key is to strengthen the organized power of domestic movements demanding new priorities. Coalitions like “Healthcare, Not Warfare” and the newly formed “Jobs Not War” attempt to do so explicitly. In most cases, the only links are implicit. Many progressives, including liberal economists, disconnect domestic economic policy from national security, and seem to believe our country can afford both. Other progressives prefer to fight on single-issues without adding foreign policy demands. Organized labor will battle for tax and economic justice, and eventually opposed the Iraq War, but is unlikely to quarrel with the military budget or the use of special forces.
This suggests a complex multi-level strategy, unified in concept but a mosaic in practice.
First, the movement against drones is gaining ground and momentum, growing out of public concerns about torture with echoes from solidarity movements of the past. Contrary to cynical thinking, a substantial cross-section of Americans – journalists, clergy, intellectuals, social activists - is capable of inflicting moral embarrassment on the state, and forcing consideration of reform.
Second, Democrats in Congress have to be pressured to hold hearings and craft enforceable reforms and restrictions on the White House, Pentagon and spy agencies lest an Imperial Presidency be further entrenched.
Third, and most difficult, the folly of the Long War must be exposed and debated if a majority will ever turn away from its expansion. To be more effective, the moral objections must be linked to the question of whether the drone strikes and secret operations actually make Americans safer, or whether blowback becomes inevitable.
A Window of Opportunity
Mali is today’s focal point. The Western war on Libya led straight to Mali as battle-hardened militias returned from Libyan fighting fields with heavy weapons. When France, the colonial power, intervened militarily in Mali and the Sahel, the fight spread to Algeria, a US ally in the War on Terror with a history of brutal suppression of the country’s Islamists after they won democratic elections a decade ago.
The more the Long War on Terror is pursued, the more it spreads. Since Obama – and other Western leaders – must be perceived politically by their publics as “tough on terror,” they will persist until they “win,” or more likely, suffer catastrophic blowback, at which point a new cycle of war and Patriot Act-restrictions will commence.
There is a window of opportunity to avoid this catastrophe during the next four years when Obama has pledged “nation-building at home.” But the peace movement and progressive Democrats will have to oppose every threat of US military intervention, from Mali to Iran, continue to blame Bush for starting the cycle, intertwine the demand for peace into the demands of domestic movements, advocate participate in congressional hearings, support litigation on whistleblower and detention issues, and contribute intellectually to the framing of politically effective alternatives to the Long War model.
The coming nomination hearings on John Brennan and Charles Hagel are only the opening act. Most Republicans, led by the neo-conservatives, have their battle stations at the ready, hoping to vindicate torture and beat back Hagel in the same way they succeeded in sabotaging Obama’s appointment of Chas Freeman four years ago as director of the National Intelligence Council. Liberal Democrats are wary of re-opening the torture debate around Brennan and are pushing Hagel to retract his views on Iran and the Israel Lobby. But Obama on his own cannot expect Brennan to recant his views on torture or his early fabrications about the killing of Osama bin Laden. Obama will need the Congressional peace bloc, backed by public opinion, to push Brennan. And Obama will need Congressional progressives, supported by groups like J Street, to welcome Hagel’s skepticism about going to war with Iran.
After the confirmation battles, someone in Congress might lead the questioning of the Long War, as for example Senator James Fulbright’s hearings opened the questioning of the Vietnam War. Or perhaps the questioning will begin in the mainstream media. In either case, the message might be something like this:
We are in danger of restoring the Imperial Presidency, which began under Johnson, and Nixon, was revived under Bush, and has grown in response to 9/11 over a decade ago. The War Powers Resolution is in shreds. Congress has lost its constitutional voice in decisions about going to war.
Secret drones, secret armies, secret operations, secret prisons rule the day, all made possible by secret decision-making. And what has been gained? Bin Laden is dead. But the war against terrorism only spreads, with all its bloodshed, its hidden costs, and the cycle of violent revenge it incites. A decade is enough. We cannot afford a blank check for unwinnable wars we cannot afford, fought in our name but without our informed consent. Sooner or later innocent Americans will pay the price of another massive terrorist attack. It is time to rethink our security policy. It is time for Congress to re-assert its role in war making as Congress did when the War Powers Resolution was passed in 1973. It is time to break the silence before it is too late.