Policy of permanent war is now US norm
Barack Obama's Washington is more measured than the city George W. Bush ran. This President is all professorial, to the point of over-analysis, even in the view of some of his more ardent supporters. Bush, on the other hand, was the anti-intellectual - a gut-reactor who lashed out, had to go after Saddam Hussein because he "is the guy who tried to kill my dad".
For all that, the jury is still out on whether the US has learnt, or is learning still, from the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which these days is reduced to a clever, 14-word lesson on hubris by the Financial Times - the US won the war, Iran won the peace and Turkey won the contracts.
This 10th anniversary week has been introspective, mostly on the part of a subdued media. But there's a degree of uncertainty in some of the conclusions, underpinning all of which is a surprising question - has the White House really changed policy, or did Obama simply change the window dressing?
Here we divert to Damascus. Compared with their rowdy, meat-eating colleagues of a decade ago, Republicans this week were like demure vegans as the House foreign affairs committee wondered what they might do about Syria. Republican Ed Royce: "It's been said that the US has no good options ... and that's probably true." Republican Adam Kinzinger: "I'll be honest - I don't know what the answer is ... this is a difficult quandary." And most tellingly, Republican Doug Collins: "I'm afraid we're going down the same path again [and] that will reap the same problems. This is not something we can afford to be playing with for the next 10 or 20 years."
Implicit here was that even though American troops are out of Iraq and are packing up in Afghanistan, the US will likely be playing with those two cot-case nations for decades to come - and one of the lessons it has reluctantly learnt in the post-9/11 world is that neither likes to be a plaything of Washington.
A quandary indeed. As a direct result of the installation of a Shiite majority regime in Baghdad in the wake of the US-led invasion, Iraq's newly oppressed Sunni minority is concentrated in two provinces that border Syria, where the inevitable prospect of a new Sunni regime has prompted Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki to warn against any bid by the next rulers in Damascus to take back power in Baghdad.
And then there is Iran. The collapse of Saddam Hussein's Baghdad regime meant an end to the most effective regional counterweight to Tehran, making it more ambitious in the region. "Great powers rarely make national decisions that explode so quickly and [so] completely in their faces," says US Naval Academy professor John Nagl.
The cost of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld response to the attacks on New York and Washington has been enormous - 300,000 lives and $4 trillion, according to a new study by Brown University in Rhode Island.
Neither the invasion of Iraq nor the occupation of Afghanistan have been a "cakewalk", as then deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz suggested Iraq would be. He also claimed the invasion would not go on Washington's credit card because the oil-rich Iraqis would pay for their own liberation. They didn't, or certainly not in dollars.
In both Baghdad and Kabul, the new regime is a bit like the old - savvy enough not to be as brutal and bloody as their deposed predecessors, but adept at using the democracy that Washington said they had to have as cover for their corrupt and autocratic tendencies.
This takes me to words I'm sure I heard from the mouth of former US president Bill Clinton: "The US needs to lead by the power of its force, not the force of its power." I called his office, but a staffer said these were not Clinton's words and that she was disappointed, because she wished he had said them.
Whoever said it was on to something sensible. Former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer is not quite so elegant in identifying Washington's "critical" mistakes in Iraq: "America was powerful enough to destabilise the existing regional order, but not powerful enough to establish a new one."
But what Clinton didn't and what Fischer does say come together in the notion by Boston University's Andrew Bacevich that far from demonstrating the extent of American power, the Iraq venture had revealed its limits.
In an update of his 2006 book The New American Militarism, Bacevich picks apart policy and the Pentagon to throw out surprising thoughts on the conduct of war in the era of Obama - not Bush.
He wants to know why war has become interminable. If American greatness and exceptionalism is all about US forces "that can win any conflict, anywhere", why with the exception of tiddlers such as Grenada (1983) and Panama (1989), has it consistently lost wars since 1945?
Pentagon bosses now talk of "an era of persistent conflict" and of war as "the new normal", prompting this observation by Bacevich: "When it comes to translating military might into desired political outcomes - the nominal rationale for war - they have floundered."
In this Bacevich discerns an inversion of what historians call the Melian dialogue, a theory espoused as far back as the fifth century BC by the Greek Thucydides: "The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must."
Bacevich scratches his head. "The US military of the 21st century is ostensibly the world's strongest, yet senior officers ... believe that it has become the nation's fate to suffer permanent war - the US apparently has no choice in the matter."
A seeming inability to see an alternative to war, which I suppose would be called peace, suggests a very tightly focused strategic imagination. This is the context in which Bacevich, a retired US military officer whose son died while serving in Iraq in 2007, poses profound questions about Obama the warrior president. Detecting Obama's inner Rumsfeld, he takes apart the current President's language ("leaner, agile, flexible and ready") and then this: "We've built the best-trained, best-led, best-equipped military in history and as Commander-in-Chief, I'm going to keep it that way."
The professor acknowledges stylistic differences between Obama and his predecessor's role as "policeman of the world", but says: "Substantively, the two [share] the same DNA. To a far greater extent than either his defenders or his critics [are] wont to admit, Obama [is] taking the country further down the path towards permanent war that his predecessor blazed."
Troops might move to and from the US, but the military is not coming home. It is simply reorienting its attention on new threats - such as the Chinese challenge in the Pacific. Despite the best efforts of the administration to suggest otherwise, the Iraq war continues - it is merely the American chapter that is over.
And it'll be the same in Afghanistan, where Obama had escalated the war, mirroring the Bush surge in Iraq, and "had sought through the use of violence to determine Afghanistan's fate - with similarly inconclusive results".
Almost 40 years after Richard Nixon had secretly widened the theatre of the Vietnam War to include Laos, Obama did likewise with Pakistan in the Afghanistan war - "in comparable fashion, without congressional authorisation and with only the most cursory public notification".
Contrasting the hugely greater strategic importance of nuclear-armed Pakistan in 2013 with the relative insignificance of 1970s Laos, Bacevich writes: "Obama's single-mindedness - his confidence in the efficacy of force to address proximate problems while disregarding secondary consequences - rivals Richard Nixon's."
Taking in the recently retired Pentagon chief Robert Gates' claim that any future defence secretary who advised the president to again send a big land army into Asia or into the Middle East "should have his head read", Bacevich still has Obama and Bush on the same wavelength.
No land armies, sure, but soaring budget allocations and Obama's campaign of targeted assassinations in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, from a "constellation of secret drone bases" in and around the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa, and his air-power contribution to the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in Libya reveal a ready resort to force. "As under Bush so under Obama: the US claims the exclusive prerogative of striking wherever [and] whenever it chooses to do so."
Marking the Iraq war anniversary, The New York Times editorialised: "None of the Bush administration's war architects have been called to account for their mistakes and even now, many are invited to speak on policy issues as if they were not responsible for one of the worst strategic blunders in American foreign policy."
True, but at least their fingers have been peeled away from the levers of power. And from time to time they are excoriated for having ignored prescient intelligence assessments - that if Saddam had weapons of mass destruction he was not likely to share them with terrorists; that de-Baathification would trigger sectarian slaughter; that political Islam and anti-American sentiment would run rampant in the region.
One of their fellow travellers deserves greater attention today, because of his eagerness for another war and his threats to start it - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On the eve of this week's visit to Israel by Obama, the Israeli daily Haaretz thoughtfully ran screeds from Netanyahu's September 2002 testimony to a congressional committee. "There is no question whatsoever that Saddam is seeking and is working and is advancing towards the development of nuclear weapons - no question whatsoever. And there is no question that once he acquires it, history shifts immediately ... every indication we have is that he is pursuing, pursuing with abandon, pursuing with every ounce of effort, the establishment of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons."