On this post I would like to introduce Bacevich's new book as well as point out two other articles one from November 2011 and the other published this month. The book provides necessary context while the two articles provide an analysis of our current situation. I'll start with the older article, then proceed to the newer article and finish with an extract from the book which ties the two together.
The first article, from 2011, entitled Big Change Whether We Like It or Not provides a thoughtful analysis of America going into the current year. Perhaps the worst aspect of the situation is not the overwhelming change we are facing, but the attitude of the current political/economic elite:
In Washington, meanwhile, a hidebound governing class pretends that none of this is happening, stubbornly insisting that it’s still 1945 with the so-called American Century destined to continue for several centuries more (reflecting, of course, God’s express intentions).
Here lies the most disturbing aspect of contemporary American politics, worse even than rampant dysfunction borne of petty partisanship or corruption expressed in the buying and selling of influence. Confronted with evidence of a radically changing environment, those holding (or aspiring to) positions of influence simply turn a blind eye, refusing even to begin to adjust to a new reality.
With the onrush of political, economic, environmental, even military changes happening now, our national leadership prefers to pass off bromides, sound bits of past glories and worn-out boilerplate from chicken dinner speeches to the people as if they offered some sort of proper response.
Bacevich lists "four converging vectors involved" although he admits there may be more. They are:
First the Collapse of the Freedom Agenda which was Washington's response to 9/11 in the form of Bush's invasion of Iraq:
Intent on accomplishing across the Islamic world what he believed the United States had accomplished in Europe and the Pacific between 1941 and 1945, Bush sought to erect a new order conducive to U.S. interests -- one that would permit unhindered access to oil and other resources, dry up the sources of violent Islamic radicalism, and (not incidentally) allow Israel a free hand in the region. Key to the success of this effort would be the U.S. military, which President Bush (and many ordinary Americans) believed to be unstoppable and invincible -- able to beat anyone anywhere under any conditions.
Alas, once implemented, the Freedom Agenda almost immediately foundered in Iraq. The Bush administration had expected Operation Iraqi Freedom to be a short, tidy war with a decisively triumphant outcome. In the event, it turned out to be a long, dirty (and very costly) war yielding, at best, exceedingly ambiguous results.
In retrospect it seems amazing that there was so little resistance to this "policy" which was more the nature of corruption mixed with systemic failure at a whole variety of levels. None of the elite come out looking even halfway competent or even trustworthy here which is why they would just a soon sweep it all under the rug. "Next war please!" As it is "history's actors" got bitch slapped by reality, as if it could have turned out any other way . . .
Second, the Great Recession:
Instead of being a transitory phenomenon, it seemingly signifies something transformational. The Great Recession may well have inaugurated a new era -- its length indeterminate but likely to stretch for many years -- of low growth, high unemployment, and shrinking opportunity. As incomes stagnate and more and more youngsters complete their education only to find no jobs waiting, members of the middle class are beginning to realize that the myth of America as a classless society is just that. In truth, the game is rigged to benefit the few at the expense of the many -- and in recent years, the fixing has become ever more shamelessly blatant.
This realization is rattling American politics. In just a handful of years, confidence in the Washington establishment has declined precipitously. Congress has become a laughingstock. The high hopes raised by President Obama’s election have long since dissipated, leaving disappointment and cynicism in their wake.
This vector is probably the most difficult to deal with since it affects our every day existence. An economic system and money itself rests on trust, trust that bills will be paid and that the money used as payment will be accepted as payment. So if more and more people think they are being scammed and that there are powerful interests who are making fortunes off this crisis/their misfortune, then what do you do?
The American view of history up to now (with a short hiatus during the Great Depression) was that if you work hard you can get ahead and that if you provide for your family, getting them for instance a good education, they will be better off economically than you were. That used to work in enough cases where it was believable, but now? Tell a young family that now and see their reaction. This type of social economy has been on the way out for a long time, but the current crisis has lifted the veil for a lot of people which explains the current Populist response. Today we have the economy as casino and our political "representatives" have stood back or actively supported this change before our very eyes. To get an idea of the change I'm talking about we have to think of the economy not as money but as a value system. Consider the closing scene from Executive Suite of 1954 which adequately describes the clash between two perspectives. I would add to this the thought of the novelist Ayn Rand who remains widely (or "wildly") popular today.
In effect a new faith has taken over, "the Market" (portrayed as a synthesis of accounting principles/financial management and Ayn Rand), but that faith is breaking apart against the rocks of an ever more brutal reality. While those in power profit from the current situation, how much longer will it be taken as fact by the American public?
Third is the Arab Spring:
Although Washington abjured the overt colonialism once practiced in London, its policies did not differ materially from those that Europeans had pursued. The idea was to keep a lid on, exclude mischief-makers, and at the same time extract from the Middle East whatever it had on offer. The preferred American MO was to align with authoritarian regimes, offering arms, security guarantees, and other blandishments in return for promises of behavior consistent with Washington’s preferences. Concern for the wellbeing of peoples living in the region (Israelis excepted) never figured as more than an afterthought.
What events of the past year have made evident is this: that lid is now off and there is little the United States (or anyone else) can do to reinstall it. A great exercise in Arab self-determination has begun. Arabs (and, arguably, non-Arabs in the broader Muslim world as well) will decide their own future in their own way. What they decide may be wise or foolish. Regardless, the United States and other Western nations will have little alternative but to accept the outcome and deal with the consequences, whatever they happen to be.
This is only the most recent manifestation of what Zbigniew Brzezinski calls the Global Political Awakening. This is a "worldwide yearning for human dignity" that has been ongoing since at least the French Revolution. What it triggers is populist activism which can be channeled in different ways to quite different effects. Dictators can rise by popular acclaim, even be voted into office . . . What we have here is not the decline of the state, but the overthrow of the last vestiges of Western imperialism in the Arab world, which will usher in new political forms and thus new state apparatuses. The state is simply the apparatus of political control, how the leadership in fact rules, is not something that can simply disappear. Our influence in regards the Arab Spring is limited, even negligible, or counter-productive to our interests, and for that reason our responses have to be considered in that light.
But then what are the chances of that? We see that our attitudes in regards to the first two vectors actually preclude it, and along with our still intact assumptions as to the infinite application of military force actually determine our seemingly self-defeating response.
The Fourth and last Vector that Bacevich lists is Europe:
Today, Europe has once again screwed up, although fortunately this time there is no need for foreign armies to sort out the mess. The crisis of the moment is an economic one, due entirely to European recklessness and irresponsibility (not qualitatively different from the behavior underlying the American economic crisis).
Will Uncle Sam once again ride to the rescue? Not a chance. Beset with the problems that come with old age, Uncle Sam can’t even mount up. To whom, then, can Europe turn for assistance? Recent headlines tell the story:
“Cash-Strapped Europe Looks to China For Help”
“Europe Begs China for Bailout”
“EU takes begging bowl to Beijing”
“Is China the Bailout Saviour in the European Debt Crisis?”
The crucial issue here isn’t whether Beijing will actually pull Europe’s bacon out of the fire. Rather it’s the shifting expectations underlying the moment. After all, hasn’t the role of European savior already been assigned? Isn’t it supposed to be Washington’s in perpetuity? Apparently not.
Shifting expectations is again the point here. Since all these assumptions are based on US dominance, we see that this dominance in fact no longer exists, as if we needed yet another example to prove that.
I think Bacevich overstates the case and misses the real turnaround. How much of the current crisis was the result of Europe "screwing up" and how much was a direct result of the economic "heresy"/scams coming out of the US? Would this current crisis have happened at this time without the Wall Street implosion? The view I see as gaining ground in Portugal is that the Wall Street "vandals" sucked what they could out of the US and then came to Europe to do the same . . . this accepting that plenty of mistakes had been made on this side of the Atlantic. It was the gaming of the crisis which has destroyed a lot of European faith in US business methods and economics. Add to this, the profound disappointment in Barack Obama and how he utterly failed to deal with the financial crisis, essentially co-opting to the banks. The "US", although few will say this openly, is now seen by many Europeans as akin to a highway robber, operating outside the "rule of law".
The second and more recent article, From Liberation to Assassination, Scoring the Global War on Terror describes how the Global War on Terror has evolved. From the Shock and Awe of the Rumsfeld Era we proceeded to the COIN of the Petraeus Era and are now in what Bacevich calls the turn to assassination by RPA/Special Operations Forces. Instead of a high-profile official like Rumsfeld or Petraeus, the "emblematic figure of the war formerly known as the Global War on Terror (WFKATGWOT)" is a relatively unknown figure by the name of Michael Vickers.
Bacevich concludes this article:
How round three will end is difficult to forecast. The best we can say is that it’s unlikely to end anytime soon or particularly well. As Israel has discovered, once targeted assassination becomes your policy, the list of targets has a way of growing ever longer.-
So what tentative judgments can we offer regarding the ongoing WFKATGWOT? Operationally, a war launched by the conventionally minded has progressively fallen under the purview of those who inhabit what Dick Cheney once called “the dark side,” with implications that few seem willing to explore. Strategically, a war informed at the outset by utopian expectations continues today with no concretely stated expectations whatsoever, the forward momentum of events displacing serious consideration of purpose. Politically, a war that once occupied center stage in national politics has now slipped to the periphery, the American people moving on to other concerns and entertainments, with legal and moral questions raised by the war left dangling in midair.
In other words chronic strategic confusion as a result of possibly terminal political dysfunction. At least that is how I would read it.
The glowing Washington Post piece I linked above had this to say:
Today, as the top Pentagon adviser on counterterrorism strategy, Vickers exudes the same assurance about defeating terrorist groups as he did as a 31-year-old CIA paramilitary officer assigned to Afghanistan, where he convinced superiors that with the right strategy and weapons, the ragtag Afghan insurgents could win. "I am just as confident or more confident we can prevail in the war on terror," Vickers, 54, said in a recent interview, looking cerebral behind thick glasses but with an energy and build reminiscent of the high school quarterback he once was. "Not a lot of people thought we could drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan."
Vickers joined the Pentagon in July to oversee the 54,000-strong Special Operations Command (Socom), based in Tampa, which is growing faster than any other part of the U.S. military. Socom's budget has doubled in recent years, to $6 billion for 2008, and the command is to add 13,000 troops to its ranks by 2011.
Senior Pentagon and military officials regard Vickers as a rarity -- a skilled strategist who is both creative and pragmatic. "He tends to think like a gangster," said Jim Thomas, a former senior defense planner who worked with Vickers. "He can understand trends then change the rules of the game so they are advantageous for your side."
Emphasis mine. The first highlighted item could as well be said of us, but I doubt if the irony was as potentially obvious in 2007 when the article was written. Also notice the term "strategist" linked with "gangster".
Have we ever really had a coherent strategy at all? That is if we consider strategy as using military means to achieve a military aim in support of a political purpose. Our goal all along has seemingly been simply to impose and maintain dominance. The secondary goal of achieving permanent and complete security (essentially the 1% Doctrine) is not really an achievable goal since total security is never possible.
So why does the GWOT go on? Is it because it has gained a constituency with a personal interest in its further continuance no matter how much it costs or how many foreigners it kills or lives it destroys? Especially under the new version it could go on for some time irregardless of the backlash it is building against us . . . Perhaps the answer is in the four vectors discussed in the first article.
The last Bacevich piece I will include here is a short essay from the new book, The American Century Is Over - Good Riddance. In it besides proclaiming the obvious end of American dominance we also see the end of the American claim to global leadership, what Henry Luce referred to in 1941 as the great mission of the US. That mission has now come to an end.
For me the money paragraphs were these two:
But I suspect that's not going to happen. The would-be masters of the universe orbiting around the likes of Romney and Obama won't be content to play such a modest role. With the likes of Robert Kagan as their guide—"It's a wonderful world order," he writes in his new book, The World America Made (Knopf)—they will continue to peddle the fiction that with the right cast of characters running Washington, history will once again march to America's drumbeat. Evidence to support such expectations is exceedingly scarce—taken a look at Iraq lately?—but no matter. Insiders and would-be insiders will insist that, right in their hip pocket, they've got the necessary strategy.
Strategy is a quintessential American Century word, ostensibly connoting knowingness and sophistication. Whether working in the White House, the State Department, or the Pentagon, strategists promote the notion that they can anticipate the future and manage its course. Yet the actual events of the American Century belie any such claim. Remember when Afghanistan signified victory over the Soviet empire? Today, the genius of empowering the mujahedin seems less than self-evident.
Strategy is actually a fraud perpetrated by those who covet power and are intent on concealing from the plain folk the fact that the people in charge are flying blind. With only occasional exceptions, the craft of strategy was a blight on the American Century.
So "strategy" as scam, con game for the suckers who are only expected to foot the bill.
Strategy as marketing. But the marketing of dominance through domestic propaganda. Next new product out . . . war with Iran . . .
"Gloomy". That's what this perspective is called: not by those here, us barkeeps or the readers, not imo. The ones who refer to us as "gloomy" post on their own Neocon or Robbish doctrinal speculation blogs. They then comfort themselves with the self-serving notion that we don't really understand how tough it could get . . . the "warriors" know far better than we lesser mortals could ever . . .
The "warriors" don't listen to Bacevich either, which puts us in good company. It also indicates what we all have in common . . . the simple understanding that any reform/change will require acknowledgment of the problems and suitable solutions. Avoiding the painfully obvious with faith in "balance" or Randian "objectivity" is a decedent even nihilistic response.
We, the opposition to the "warriors", simply keep chipping away, like Andrew Bacevich does . . .
Like Publius does, like Al does, like FDChief does, like jim does, and everyone else reading who understands and agrees with my words.