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The Endless War Continues: Taking Stock of US Strategy under Obama
Since the election of Barack Obama, mainstream observers have
commented on the turmoil in the backrooms of the White House and the
Pentagon. Apparently, the new President is trying to repair the damages
done by the irresponsible and reckless moves of the Bush era and
refocus the U.S. around a new set of policies. It is going to be very
tough. On a parallel track, many think that the long-term decline of
the U.S. is inevitable, partially because of its own internal fractures
(economic crisis, military overstretch), partially because of the rise
of emerging powers. All of this leaves the impression that U.S. elites
are in disarray. Is it the case?
An ‘inevitable' decline?
For sure, these trends are too obvious to be denied. The ‘reengineering' of the extended Middle East by Bush and Cheney is dead. The setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan cannot be denied. Other crises (Palestine, Somalia) demonstrate the vulnerability of U.S. policies.
At the same time, the demise of the U.S. economy reveals its profound weaknesses while European and Asian competitors are becoming more affirmative. There are however different problems coming out of these projections. The first challenge is of course the reconciliation of ‘temporalities.' For now and the immediate future, the U.S. will retain its capacity to remain as the sole and unique superpower, which gives it considerable advantages. But, one can say, what are 20 or 25 years in real historical time?
Perhaps more problematic is a
simplistic interpretation of the current trends as if the crisis of
U.S. hegemony is leading inevitably to its demise and eventual
replacement (by China or another block of alternative powers). This in
my mind is premature and not only that, a bit dangerous in analytical
and political terms.
Lessons from the past
The recent historical evolution should make us more cautious. In the 1970s, the U.S. was battered in Vietnam and later in different countries like Iran, Nicaragua and Angola. It was also the time where its economic control over the world slumped under the weight of European, Japanese and later East Asian competitors. There were many theories back then about the upcoming fall of the U.S. Empire.
However, what happened during the 1980s and the 1990s? Fist of all, the U.S. absorbed the shock of the Vietnam debacle and reorganized their geopolitical priorities towards defeating their still greatest enemy at that time, the Soviet Union, which they achieved through the Afghan wars. Towards the global south, Washington also restructured its counter-offensive with the new tools of monetarism and structural adjustment policies, redirecting the big financial flows back towards the U.S., thus creating almost two decades of prosperity.
Sure, that ‘bubble' was going to bust at same point (maybe this point has arrived), but nonetheless, the U.S. recuperated a lot of its lost hegemony to the point where a new arrogant posturing could come about in the late 1990s (the ‘New American Century project'). Which is perhaps one of reasons of the present crisis (‘overconfidence' in Washington). My point is relatively simple. Although the U.S. Empire was tested hard 30 years ago, it managed its crisis-exit in a way that kept it on the top of the world, perhaps differently, but still powerfully. Conclusion: we should be very careful in underestimating the capacities of the Empire to steer itself out, again, of the present mess.
I believe that there are many indications of that capacity unfolding now in what Bush was in a way honest to term as the ‘endless war.' Indeed, this ‘endless war,' apart from the lunatic ideological spins that were attached to it by neoconservatives, is necessary for the U.S. to retain the Empire.
The scramble for resources (oil in particular) explains a lot of things, but not everything. To put it simply, it is fundamental for the U.S. to retain its position as the gendarme of the world, remaining the only military power to project its might everywhere anytime. Moreover, it needs to do that in the epicenter of today's world, which can be defined broadly as ‘Eurasia,' with Central Asia and the Middle East as the physical center of that space. Preventing China and Russia and to a second extent the rest of Asia and Europe to integrate is the strategic priority if the U.S. Empire can hold off its competitors and overcome its (profound) internal weaknesses. In the meantime, the U.S. gets from this position a sort of global ‘rent,' forced on or accepted by its competitors and eventually paid by the peoples of the world.
The endless war was not a ‘mistake'
In that sense, the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan was not a mistake. Bush, Cheney and their associates were not ‘just' new Doctor Strangeloves. It was rational and logical. However, the means they had conceived to achieve that were not satisfactory, as it was pointed out early in the process by the Pentagon generals and their mouthpiece Colin Powell.
The tactics were at best approximate (the techno, rapid and cheap war that would eliminate the enemy without much difficulty). In addition, the synchronization of the offensive got mixed up with the blurring of various targets and the incapacity to focus between real and imaginary enemies (Palestinians, Iran, North Korea, Hugo Chavez, etc.). Because of these turns, the Bush project was tactically defeated and this defeat is of course very important, but not the end of the story! Today in Washington, Obama leads a new crusade led by the generals, those very same people who were marginalized during the previous administration. The time now, they say, is to get ‘serious.'
The generals who never believe the myth about the no-cost war know that this is going to be a very prolonged and tough battle. They need to engage on the ground, as the ‘surge' demonstrates (Iraq and Afghanistan). One of the ‘lessons' of Iraq is that there has to be not only physical occupation of the territory, but massive and ground-level ‘eradication' of the enemy, which can only happen through massive displacement of populations, like the French did in Algeria or the British in Malaysia. The main elements of the ‘new' endless war' are:
- Massive killings of civilian population (like in Sri Lanka recently and now in Pakistan). ‘Sorry, there is not other way,' the generals would say: you have to eliminate the water to get the fish, and yes, the water is the people. This is not done by drones, aerial bombings and missiles, but by foot soldiers on the ground, shooting everyone on sight. Geneva conventions or not.
- This kind of ugly war is to be conducted on two levels. First, what is needed the command, control and technical level, led of course by the U.S., using its technological might, but also, highly advanced and deadly ‘special units,' ultra tough and ultra equipped relatively small combat forces capable of destabilizing and killing the enemy 24 hours a day. Second, you also need the physical force on the ground to proceed to the painful process of massive elimination. This preferably is to be contracted out to secondary forces (the ‘new' local armies being set up in Afghanistan, Iraq, even Palestine, or the revamping of some ‘old' armies like Pakistan).
- Once that very physical process is under way, the parallel track is what could be termed as ‘walling,' containment, imprisonment and encirclement. On this, of course, Palestine is the laboratory. The population, after the killing of or the elimination of its leadership is not going to be ‘left alone', slowly recuperating and eventually rebuilding its forces. It has to be put into open air concentration camps. ‘Targeted' killings of leaders, destruction of civic and political structures, dismantling of what remains of the ‘rule of law,' infrastructure and administrative neglect are the continuation of the endless war at the local level.- The political side of that containment is evidently community fragmentation, reinventing or exacerbating social, ethnic, cultural differences, creating two or three or four ethnic, religious or even social enclaves, everyone fighting everyone within a vague framework of meaningless ‘elections' and ‘parliamentary democracy.' The ‘laboratory' of this has been Iraq, but is not being extended in many other places.
The massive and deadly assaults that we have witnessed in the recent past in Lebanon, Gaza, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan are announcing what is to come. However, the test is still ahead for the United States. To a certain extent, these current battles are still relatively small.
The ‘real' confrontations, as they were planed by the previous administrations, are about Iran, Pakistan and perhaps even southern Europe (Caucasus). It will at a later stage come to surrogate and fragile allies like the Philippines, Egypt and to many other countries that are part of this ‘arc of crises' between Asia and Africa.
The U.S. elites, who have mandated Obama to steer the boat, are therefore faced with a gigantic challenge. They have to operate at simultaneous levels. First, they need to use the economic crisis ‘cleverly,' which means a massive restructuring of the society and the economy. In a nutshell, to eliminate the remnants of Keynesianism and to squeeze out the middle and popular classes so as to relaunch accumulation. Of course, this is difficult, so there comes in the ‘battle of ideas.'
Obama has no other choice than to redefine the crude ‘war of civilizations' which was wrongly defined by the neoconservatives as a sort of a ‘Christian crusade.' This new war of civilizations is as Obama explained it his Cairo speech the conflict between liberal modernity and narrow and conservative nationalism. The nations of the world still have to decide, as Bush said it in 2001, if they are ‘with us' (the ‘liberal' empire) or ‘against us.'
At another level, the U.S. needs to ‘discipline' its close allies, meaning the European Union, Canada, Japan, Australia, who have been already and for decades capitulating and accepting to be the junior partners of the ‘triad,' as defined by Samir Amin.
The reorganization of the European right and the ultra right, combined with the self-destruction of social democracy is important in the grand strategy. At the same time, confining the UN to its present hole is another necessity (this is the mandate given to Ban Ki Moon) and imposing NATO as the semi-multilateral agency dealing seriously with political and military challenges, even integrating ‘development' and humanitarian dimensions.
The design will not be completed if the U.S. does not attempt to control and eventually discipline the ‘emerging' powers, which is the drive behind the so-called G-20. The BRIC and other secondary powers are offered a piece of the meal, if they accept to operate as subordinates and ‘workshops' in a new international division of labour where production is delocalized in the global south to the benefit of the local ruling class and more importantly to the benefit of the Northern techno-financial overclass. Of course all of these secondary powers (except China -- see later) are ambiguous, split between their own progress and confidence, and on the other hand the sentiment that they are still small ‘links' in the imperialist chain. This is coupled with the fears of the local ruling classes to be overthrown by their multitudes (remember what the French bourgeoisie used to say in the 1930s, ‘better Hitler than the Popular Front.')
The dilemmas of China
By its size, history and resources, China stands apart. In the long term, the tide is turning in its favour. Every year, predictions announcing China as the economic powerhouse of the world are saying that the pace is accelerating. At the same time, the Chinese state and ruling class seem to be solid, at least in comparison.
There remain the muddy areas of ecological pressures, commercial dependence on export markets, border controls, social and national unrest, etc. Not an easy ride. Nonetheless, China is standing and is starting seriously to project itself as a world power. First to secure markets and resources. Secondly, to defend itself in front of real (not imaginary) threats from the Empire.
For sure, the reinvestment in military might is impressive. However, at least for many decades, the gap between China and the U.S. will remain impressive. Therefore, the ‘game' is pretty straightforward for China: to gain time, to postpone the confrontation and therefore to propose to the U.S. some sort of a compromise.
As part of the deal, China is not directly blocking the attempts of the Empire to consolidate its hegemony even though it is trying to slow it in its militaristic drive, which is demonstrated by its frantic efforts to prevent the assault against Iran or North Korea. On the other hand, it needs to stand up to the U.S. in many areas of the world where its direct economic influence is growing, particularly in Asia, Africa and South America. This contradiction is the biggest challenge of the time.
One of the major analytical weaknesses that we see not only in ruling circles but also within the intellectual world remains the ignoring of the basic class fractures. Contradictions within the elites, either tactical or strategic, are not a ‘world apart': they are part and parcel of a larger confrontation involving all social groups including the dominated. At some point, the structural crises get beyond control and, eventually, leads to the breakdown. This happens not only because the elites cannot rule, but also because the people are refusing their rule (Trotsky). In these (rare) moments of fractures, the possibility of the revolution appears.
Indeed, the present crisis is not only the result of inter-imperialist contradictions and conflicts between the Empire and emerging powers. Insurgent peasants in Vietnam and Angola were able in their time to paralyze imperialist restructuring. Resistance fighters in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq are doing the same today.
But, in itself, resisting is not enough. The Vietnamese won because they had a counter-hegemonic project that led the people not only to oppose the U.S., but to maintain resistance for decades and undertake, while at war, the reconstruction of their society.
Obviously, this capacity is not here at this moment with different anti-U.S. movements. What concerns us, therefore, the democratic left and social movements, is to provide these capacities, which is implicitly the agenda of the World Social Forum.
In other words, we have to propose far-reaching, realistic and hard analysis of the current crisis, seen as a moment of opportunities, both for the elites and for the popular movements and identify, within the camp of the adversaries, the weak links. We have to wage our multiple battles combining immediate, short-term decisive actions with long-term structural changes.