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A Parable of Imperial Self-Confidence and Mastery Gone to Hell

The frustration has long been growing. Now, it’s been put into words. On his recent trip to Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who has earned a reputation for saying whatever comes into his head, insisted that Washington had just about had it with Pakistan. "Reaching the limits of our patience" was the way he put it (not once but twice). Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey spoke only slightly more mildly of being “extraordinarily dissatisfied.” The Obama administration, so went the message, was essentially losing it in South Asia. It was mad and wasn’t about to take it any more!

How far Washington has come from the days (back in 2001) when an American official could reportedly march self-confidently into the office of Pakistan’s intelligence chief, and tell him that his country had better decide whether it was for us or against us. Otherwise, he reportedly added, Pakistan should expect to be bombed “back to the Stone Age.”

In the ensuing years, the great imperial power of our age repeatedly recalibrated its Pakistan policy in growing frustration, only to see it run ever more definitively off the rails. The Obama administration, in particular, has sent its high officials, like so many caroming pinballs, flying in and out of Pakistan in droves for years now to demand, order, chide, plead, wheedle, cajole, intimidate, threaten, twist arms, and bluster, as it repeatedly flipped from good-guy ally to fierce, missile-wielding frenemy, and back again.

Recently, in the wake of U.S. air strikes that killed 24 Pakistani border guards (without a U.S. apology), it has faced a more-than-six-month closure of its crucial Pakistani war supply lines into Afghanistan. Its response: to negotiate ever more frenetically, and pull the trigger in its drone war in the Pakistani borderlands ever more often. Recently, it even announced a multimillion dollar cut-off of funds for Pakistan’s version of Sesame Street, while reaching a highly touted agreement with some former Central Asian SSRs of the former Soviet Union to transport American equipment out of Afghanistan (as our forces draw down there), at up to six times the cost of the blockaded routes through Pakistan.

If you want a living, panting, post-9/11 parable of imperial self-confidence and mastery gone to hell, Pakistan is the first (but not the last) place to look. Behind the visible failure of U.S. policy in that country lies a devastating self-deception: the thought that, in the twenty-first century, even the greatest of powers, playing its cards perfectly, can control this planet, or simply significant regions of it.

If you want a prospectively breathtaking version of the same disastrous principle, check out the latest piece by Nick Turse, co-author of the new book Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050. A new American global way of war is emerging to replace the double disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan. Turse puts its sinews together strikingly in his “The New Obama Doctrine, A Six-Point Plan for Global War,” suggesting that Washington is once again bedazzled by the possibility of mastering the planet -- in a new, cheaper, less profligate way. Once again, the top officials of our ever-expanding national security state are evidently convinced of their own prospective brilliance in organizing the next version of the global Great Game. As with Pakistan in late 2001, so -- from Central Africa to the Philippines -- this, too, looks like a winner in their eyes. Much on this planet is unpredictable and yet the crash-and-burn fate of what Turse calls the Obama doctrine is painfully predictable. Unfortunately, as it goes down in flames, it may help send the world up in flames, too.