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Descent into Chaos

The United States of Confusion and Disorder

by FRANKLIN C. SPINNEY

The US exit strategy from Afghanistan is emerging …. and the picture is not pretty.  Nevertheless, it is a revealing microcosm of what now passes for governance in the United States of Confusion and Disorder.

Consider please, this analysis by Dan Murphy in the Christian Science Monitor.  Murphy explains why “The US war in Afganistan could turn into a pumpkin as soon as the middle of November,” because the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan are now fighting for the favors of Al Qaeda!

Older readers may recall that we went into Afghanistan with the dual strategic aims of Regime Change — i.e., replacing the Taliban regime that had given sanctuary to Al Qaeda with a democratic government, based on human rights, that would never give sanctuary to Islamic Jihadists, as well a destroying Al Qaeda.  Readers may also recall that President Obama’s decision to surge Afghan operations in 2010 was based on a fatally flawed McChrystal Plan, as I explained in the September 22 2009 and January 29-31, 2010 issues of CounterPunch.

Now, predictably, as we are leaving Afghanistan with our tail between our legs, the obscenely corrupt Karzai government that we installed and have propped up is struggling for survival by negotiating friendship agreements with some of the same Jihadis we have been trying to destroy.

While history never repeats itself, the larger story is that a remarkable parallel to the Soviet Afghan debacle and its aftermath is now emerging.

Like the decision cycles of the leaders of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, the Observation – Orientation – Decision – Action (OODA) loops of American political decision makers have not been adapting to the exigencies of changing external conditions.[1]  Like the Soviets, US decisions are flowing from a collective Orientation based on a idealized virtual world that does exist.

In the case of the Soviet Union, a combination of stalemate, spiraling war costs, and a dysfunctional political-economic decision-making system triggered a precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan, an action made easier for the Soviets by Afghanistan’s geographic proximity.  But their withdrawal was a symptom of a larger disintegration that began with the progressive ossification of Soviet Union’s top-down political decision-making apparatus, dating to at least the 1970s, if not earlier.

In the American case, a similar stalemate in Afghanistan has emerged.  Also, like the Soviets, we have experienced a hardening of the political decision-making arteries over the long term — in our case it has been emerging since the Vietnam debacle metastasized in 1967, over 45 years ago.  As with the Soviets, the spiraling wartime costs of our global war on terror have been accompanied the increasing internal dysfunction in the domestic halls of governance.  In our case, this outward symptom of this larger dysfunction has been an increasingly severe series of budget crises caused by (1) a combination of the voracious appetitite of the Pentagon’s cost-plus pathologies (portrayed in attached chart which depicts the Pentagon’s budget between 1948-2013 + the 2014-2018 plan + the Pentagon’s extrapolation to 2023) coupled to (2) the free-lunch safety-net-gutting politics of tax cuts, business subsidies, and (3) a policy to bail out a financial system loaded up with unprecedented amounts of toxic debt (as explained repeatedly by Counterpunchers Mike Whitney and Paul Craig Roberts).

Now let’s look at the chart below.  It will give you a sense of how the Pentagon’s appetite for money metastasized since 9-11 and why anyone who thinks this is not part of the budget problem is living on a different planet.

SCMR in Historical ContextThe solid blue line is the so-called ‘base budget,’ which is the Pentagon’s calculation of what the DoD budget would be without the global war on terror (GWOT).  Unlike Vietnam, Korea, or the lesser military actions since 1948, which were paid for by general DoD appropriations, the GWOT has been funded incrementally, year by year, via so-called supplemental appropriations.  The GWOT Supplementals are depicted by blue line with the bronze coloured balls, which are added to the numbers of the blue line.  Note  there is no long range projection of the GWOT’s costs.  Note also, the effects of inflation have been removed from all budgets using official (read self-serving) DoD deflators. [2]

The short horizontal lines between 2014 and 2023 — i.e., Option #s 1,2, & 3 — are the planning levels purportedly analyzed this summer during Defense Secretary Hagel’s silly incompetently managed and now forgotten Strategic Choices and Management Review (SCMR).  The horizontal solid black line is the median historical “base” budget between 1948 and 2013 — i.e. 50% of the time the base budget was less than this level and 50% of the time it was above this level.

So what does this figure tell us?

Even if the global war on terror were to end abruptly on September 30, 2o14 (i.e., at the end of Fiscal Year 2014 GWOT Supplemental), the silly SCMR was based on the assumption that the Pentagon would have a steady peacetime base budget out 2023.  In the real world, the chart shows budgets oscillate up and down, sharply.  Moreover, the planned base budget  and all the SCMR options would be well above the Median historical budget and planned budgets would be comparable year after year to the peak Vietnam wartime budget of 1969, which, it must be remembered, also included financing for the ongoing Cold War, when the Soviet Union was a real, if greatly exaggerated threat.

Bear in mind, the sizes of the different categories of today’s force structure are all much smaller, and also the fact that current forces are equipped with weapons that are much older than they were in 1969 (for historical data outlining the impact of shrinking aging force, see my reports listed here).  Bear also in mind, the GWOT operational tempos are minuscule compared to the total flying hours, steaming hours, tank-miles, and troop marching days of 1969, etc., when we deployed 550,000 troops to the Vietnam related theater of high-intensity combat operations.

Nevertheless, despite such damning comparisons, the Secretary of Defense and military service chiefs, together with their wholly-owned subsidiaries in the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, are whining (e.g., herehere, and here) that the military is about to collapse into a ‘hollow military’ that will be unready for war, if this base budget plan is cut back at all and would be a catastrophe if the Pentagon had to absorb a full brunt of a budget sequester — i.e., the level portrayed by the horizontal purple line labeled SCMR Option 3.  Despite such doomsday proclamations by the brass hats, a full-blown Defense sequester, depicted by SCMR Option #3, would be substantially higher than the median historical budget — and well above the Eisenhower years which prompted the old general to warn America about dangers posed by the Military-Industrial (Congressional) Complex in his Farewell Address, which is always worth rereading.

So a reasonable citizen might well ask: Were did my tax dollars go in the Pentagon after 9-11?

No one knows, because the Pentagon’s bookkeeping system is corrupted from top to bottom.

Countless DoD Inspector General and GAO reports  over the years have concluded the budget can not be audited as required by law (i.e. the Chief Financial Officer Act of 1990), not to mention the Appropriations and Accountability Clauses of the Constitution, which, by the way, every member of the Federal Government has taken an unconditional sacred oath to uphold and protect.   Even the Secretary of Defense now says his budget will not be auditable until 2017.  But don’t count on it; the Pentagon has been moving that goal post since Pentagon Comptroller John Hamre claimed in the early 1990s that the budget would auditable by 1996 or 1997.

And the Pentagon is only one big part of the metastasizing dysfunction in US governance.

In September, the growing dysfunction seized up the entire Federal Government with the political equivalent of the not-yet-fatal but massive fiscal coronary — aka the massive government shutdown and threat of default on its debts.  The shutdown crisis and the careless threat to turn the  United States into an international deadbeat intent on welching on its debts are more evidence that the US government’s focus of effort, like that of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, is now dissolving into a morass of increasingly incoherent internal contradictions that are the logical consequences its own (albeit very different) ideological obsessions.

In contrast to the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, which at least reflected an explicit decision, our withdrawal is gradually happening, almost unnoticed, by politicians and citizens alike, without any concern about moral obligations flowing from these actions — itself a careless example of deeper confusion and disorder in the U.S. Federal art of governance.

As in the case of the Soviet Union before its collapse, the root cause of the our government’s paralyzing turn inward is similar: Namely, a rigid, non-adaptive ideology — taking the form of a mix of fixed or obsessive Orientations that are shaping its observations, decisions, and actions.  In the Soviet case, the mix of obsessions was grounded in an ossified ideal of universal communism.  In our case, the mix of obsessions takes the form of a triumphal Orientation, grounded in an ideal of universalist neoliberal imperialism.

In both cases the result is the same:  The non-adaptive ideological Orientation hijacks Observations — that is, decision makers see what they want to see, rather than what is — to disconnect political and economic Decisions and Actions from dictates of reality.

It is inevitable that actions flowing from such hijacked OODA loops become increasingly disconnected from external conditions, because these actions feed back on themselves, and are amplified as they are filtered thru the non-adaptive Orientation to increase the disconnect even further.  In so doing, the American strategist Colonel John R. Boyd showed why such OODA loops must inevitably create a pattern of ever-mounting confusion and disorder (interested readers should study the sources detailed in the link of endnote #1).

Left uncorrected, as such internally focused decision-making processes work naturally to amplify themselves (it’s a little like placing a speaker next to a microphone) to hype the confusion and disorder into chaos and disintegration, and if still unchecked, must eventually culminate in death.  That is what happened to the political system of the Soviet Union … and the confusion and disorder of recent events in Versailles on the Potomac serve to warn American citizens that their own government may be well along a similar pathway of descent into chaos and inevitable disintegration — unless something is done soon to check and reverse the incestuous amplification.

Viewed from this perspective, Afghanistan, the pathetic exit strategy, and the government shutdown are symptoms of far deeper problems.  Moreover, they are not the only symptoms.  There are many others; see, for example, The Madness of King George Revisited for a case study illustrating how this deadly process also unfolded during the run up to the war in Iraq.  Or for a more current example, consider the reaction of our politicians to the NSA scandal as described two excellent essays by Connor Friedersdorf here and here.  Without explicitly saying so, Friedersdorf provides the reader with two differing but mutually re-inforcing examples of how inwardly focused OODA loops are disconnecting politicians from the dictates of a dangerous grand strategic environment that is closing in on them. [3]  Consider finally how the political ‘solution’ to the government shut down merely set up the conditions for another budget coronary in January.

Perhaps instead of deluding themselves by emulating the ideology of Atlas Shrugged, Job 1 for American politicians should be to read and think about  The Picture of Dorian Gray. It might provide an incentive to find a better way of orienting their OODA loops to a more relevant picture of the ‘reality’ they are creating.

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He be reached at chuck_spinney@mac.com

Notes

[1] Readers not familiar with the OODA loop and its centrality to any form of conflict, including domestic political conflict, will find sources describing it at this link.  Also, I have described it in several earlier CounterPunch articles which can be found by searching the CP website website.

[2] These deflators are bureaucratically determined and are gamed to make the long term growth in the total budget look less by ascribing higher rates in earlier years.  The effect is to decrease the appearance of long term growth in the DoD budget.  I will not address this issue, interested readers can find a 1985 report of the Military Reform Caucus of Congress which analyses the outrageous and arbitrary games played with inflation factors the Military Reform Caucus in 1985.  The conclusions of this report were subsequently confirmed by the GAO in a special series of reports.