Twelve and a half years after Congress didn’t declare war on an organization of hundreds or, at most, thousands of jihadis scattered mainly across the backlands of the planet, and instead let President George W. Bush and his cohort loose to do whatever they wanted; twelve and a half years after the president, his top officials, his neocon supporters, assembled pundits, and others swore we were nonetheless “at war” and the country in “wartime,” after our media beat the drums for “war” and assured us that “war” was our fate, after followers of the president insisted we were entering a monumental, multigenerational struggle, or even World War IV; twelve and a half years after the war that hadn’t been declared was launched and the bombing of Afghanistan began, after the CIA and Washington targeted up to 80 countries in a “worldwide attack matrix” -- later given the leave-no-location-out name the Global War on Terror -- and after top Washington officials swore we would soon “drain the [global] swamp,” another president has now assured us that someday, in a distant future, in a way that we might not even notice (“Our victory against terrorism won’t be measured in a surrender ceremony at a battleship...”), we might possibly find ourselves approaching the sort-of-end of what will have been a 20- or 30-year conflict.
At the National Defense University (NDU) last Thursday, President Obama, so media reports and editorials assured us, gave a speech in which he promised to dial back the war on terror as a “global” operation, curtail U.S. drone operations abroad, and launch another effort to whittle down, if not close, Guantanamo. But a careful look at the text of his speech indicates that he still accepts the most basic premises of the previous administration: that we are “at war”; that the country, despite visible evidence to the contrary, is in “wartime”; and that, when a president decides it’s necessary, this planet will remain a global free-fire zone for drones, special operations forces, or whatever else he choses to throw at it. He may even, reports Jonathan Landay of McClatchy News, have quietly expanded the categories of human beings that U.S. drones can attack.
In those twelve and a half years between 9/11 and the recent speech, it’s been a bumpy ride through a minefield of unexpected IEDs. Two invasions of the Eurasian mainland have led to two defeats that passed for better here and are bringing U.S. combat troops home with, as this president said, their “heads held high,” but also with massive numbers of PTSD cases, suicides, and other debilitating issues.
In the meantime, America’s global warring has resulted in a significant destabilization of the Greater Middle East. (The present Syrian disaster would have been unimaginable without the U.S. invasion of Iraq.) It’s also resulted in the growth of an ever larger secret military cocooned inside the U.S. military, the special operations forces -- 10,000 of whom are now in Afghanistan alone -- and the launching of a series of drone wars and assassination campaigns across a significant swath of the planet. These, from a White House that has taken on ever more power to do as it pleases in foreign and military policy, the president now claims to be curtailing and bringing under his version of the rule of law, largely because they haven't been working out so terribly well. Finally, there’s the spread of the al-Qaeda franchise into areas Washington has helped unsettle, which, as the president indicated, ensures that our “war” cannot end any time soon. Think of it as a Mobius strip of self-justifying conflict.
And yet, the ability of the U.S. to “project force” everywhere from the Mali-Niger border to the Philippines remains impressive. Even its capacity to engage in a series of disasters over such an expanse of the planet for twelve and a half years and still be talking about “pivoting” militarily to Asia, while maintaining a massive build-up of U.S. forces around Iran, should give anyone pause. It's a reminder that the now-seldom-heard term "sole superpower” continues to mean something.
But what? Somehow, like our empire of bases (and the private contractors that go with it), it’s been hard to absorb the continual use of such power projection and the vast web of military-to-military relationships and weapons sales that go with it, or the increasing ability of the White House alone to determine what makes sense and what doesn’t abroad, even as both the Greater Middle East and what’s left of American democracy and liberties are further destabilized.
Much of this has not yet been taken in here in a meaningful way, though you can feel it lurking, half-expressed, half-grasped, in the president’s NDU speech. To begin to understand what’s actually been going on, it would help to define the “war” that we’ve been fighting all these years from North Africa to China's Central Asian border. In his latest piece, Andrew Bacevich suggests that a good place to begin is by naming that now nameless global “war.”