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Ebb Tide

American troops are on the move.  An ebb tide is carrying them home even as Washington pushes its war on ‘terror’ to new frontiers. Most of those left in Iraq and a trickle of the much larger force still in Afghanistan are coming back.  Smaller elements will be redeployed in fresh war zones or potential war zones: drones and Special Forces to new African bases in Ethiopia and Kenya with Somali rebels in their sights; combat trainers and advisers to Uganda, even an array of CIA para-militaries and mercenary auxiliaries to Mexico to try its hand at suppressing the mayhem of merchants ready to kill for the commercial chance to meet the American people’s unquenchable craving for drugs. A robust mix of assets to be spotted around the United Arab Emirates also is in the works – purportedly to back up Iraq in the improbable event of its being attacked by Iran; in fact, to keep in place the encirclement of Iran.

Still, in the public mind, the principal image will be the women and men returning from the eight-plus year violent occupation of Mesopotamia and progressively from the harsh counter insurgency in Afghanistan along with the shadow war across the Durand Line in Pakistan. That image will be reinforced as Barack Obama grasps for whatever shreds of credibility he holds as a president who keeps his promises and actually accomplishes something worthwhile.  So, the ‘war on terror’ will go on in its many, geographically dispersed theatres but American voters will be encouraged to accentuate the positive by welcoming our returning warriors and to congratulate them on a job well done. With luck, the White House hopes, the good feelings will extend to their nominal Commander-in-Chief.

The kind of reception they get will be revealing of what kind of country we have become over the 9/11 decade.  A few things are obvious.  They will not suffer the indignities heaped upon the ill-used veterans of Vietnam. After all, they did not humiliate America by supposedly losing a war. They did not puncture the myth of American invincibility. In fact, they are honored as heroic sons and daughters of the Republic who fought nobly.  The enormous resources expended in whitewashing the Iraq tragic farce as somehow a success conforms to the inclinations of nearly all Americans.  As to Afghanistan, the killing of the man who brought us 9/11 adds a bold exclamation point to an otherwise pointless and costly escapade.  As for all those other places, they hardly figure in the collective consciousness, meaningful only for those with some monetary, doctrinal or professional stake in perpetuating them.

The second confident prediction is that the troops’ return will be totally disengaged from any serious public discussion of the strategic thinking that sent them to such remote places at the expense of a couple of trillion dollars, thousands of American casualties, and a deflating of our standing in the world – not speak of the natives’ casualties.  How can there be such a discussion? No one is able to offer an explanation of our purpose in Iraq that has even a hint of plausibility.  On Afghanistan, neither the president nor his out-of-their-depth senior advisers are able to offer a coherent explanation of what we are doing in AfPak. As for Somalia, Sudan, et al, the disconnection from serious national interests is so complete that even the sound bite references to those places don’t register. Strategically, the United States is completely adrift despite a diplomacy of perpetual motion and military enterprises at every point on the horizon. Indeed, the latter is confirmation of the former.

So as our soldiers filter back into the United States, they will be met with respectful ceremonies – and little more.  The scandalous lapses and failings of the medical care that awaits them will degenerate further from current low standards as new burdens are placed on a disjointed galaxy of facilities that lack organization, management and money. (General Eric Ken Shinseki, Obama’s artful choice as Secretary of Veterans Affairs, has vehemently defended this record of callous irresponsibility before Congress).  On this front, things will worsen as the budget ax wielded by Washington’s born-again mimics of American Gothic frugality gut the federal budget and thereby perpetuate the economy’s stagnation.  Already, the heralds call for a retroactive reduction in medical benefits and pensions for members of the volunteer army whom they laud in every public declaration so as to lend a modicum of authenticity to their lapel button Stars & Stripes.  The ethics of this conduct are little noted; so too the implications for the volunteer army’s future.

The Missing Link

The casual histories of the current era in American foreign policy err in drawing a clear trajectory from Cold War triumphalism to George W. Bush’s grand scheme to reshape the world in the United States’ image under Washington’s benign aegis.  This story line is a distorted reading of the recent past and based on a profoundly mistaken interpretation of our collective psychology.  First, the celebration of victory over Soviet Communism was surprisingly muted.  There were no festivities or even solemn ceremonies.  Only a small number of defense ‘experts’ and foreign policy wonks saw the fall of the USSR as signaling a confirmation of our Providential Destiny – the same who perceived an historic chance to secure for America permanent global mastery.  As for the Gulf War, it exorcised ghosts rather than provided a springboard for a great global enterprise.

It is all too easy to overlook the extreme reluctance with which the United States went to war.  It was not ready to take up again the cloak of global policeman.  Aversion to arms in a remote, alien part of the world ran deep.  These feelings were in part the legacy of Vietnam.  American had tasted the bitter fruit of defeat.  Its supreme self confidence of being Destiny’s child was shaken.  For the first time in our history, we were afraid – of war’s injuries and, above all, of how it could turn out.  The paper thin margin in the Senate to support the war evinced this mood.  So too did the testimony before Congressional committees by the ranks of former Defense Secretaries and Secretaries of State who advised with near unanimity that the time for military action had not (yet) come.  Henry Kissinger was the outstanding exception.

For the first time in its history, the United States fought a stoic war – to do a job that national interest and self-respect dictated had to be done.  The American people had kept their nerve; they had met the test.  However, they were not looking ahead to further tests for proving their mettle.  Part of us was prepared to close the era of American global supremacy on the winning stroke of the Gulf War.  If the American Century in the literal sense had lasted half that time, so be it. The accomplishments of American leadership would long outlive it.

That line of thinking was rudely and abruptly cut off by 9/11.  That launched us into a spasm of military actions. But for how much longer will the momentum of the “war on terror” mute our fears and spur us on to more audacious ventures abroad?

Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

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Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

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