When I was young, the Philadelphia Bulletin ran cartoon ads that usually featured a man in trouble — dangling by his fingers, say, from an outdoor clock. There would always be people all around him, but far too engrossed in the daily paper to notice. The tagline was: “In Philadelphia, nearly everybody reads the Bulletin.”
Those ads came to mind recently when President Obama commented forcefully on war, American-style, in ways that were remarkably radical. Although he was trying to ward off a threatened Israeli preemptive air strike against Iran, his comments should have shocked Americans — but just about nobody noticed.
I don’t mean, of course, that nobody noticed the president’s statements. Quite the contrary: they were headlined, chewed over in the press and by pundits. Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich attacked them. Fox News highlighted their restraint. (“Obama calls for containing Iran, says ‘too much loose talk of war.’”) The Huffington Post highlighted the support for Israel they represented. (“Obama Defends Policies Toward Israel, Fends Off Partisan Critiques.”) Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu pushed back against them in a potentially deadly U.S.-Israeli dance that might bring new chaos to the Middle East. But somehow, amid all the headlines, commentary, and analysis, few seemed to notice just what had really changed in our world.
The president had offered a new definition of “aggression” against this country and a new war doctrine to go with it. He would, he insisted, take the U.S. to war not to stop another nation from attacking us or even threatening to do so, but simply to stop it from building a nuclear weapon — and he would act even if that country were incapable of targeting the United States. That should have been news.
Consider the most startling of his statements: just before the arrival of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington, the president gave a 45-minute Oval Office interview to the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. A prominent pro-Israeli writer, Goldberg had produced an article in the September issue of that magazine headlined “The Point of No Return.” In it, based on interviews with “roughly 40 current and past Israeli decision makers about a military strike,” he had given an Israeli air attack on Iran a 50% chance of happening by this July. From the recent interview, here are Obama’s key lines:
“I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don’t bluff. I also don’t, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are. But I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say.”
Later, he added this chilling note: “I think it’s fair to say that the last three years, I’ve shown myself pretty clearly willing, when I believe it is in the core national interest of the
United States, to direct military actions, even when they entail enormous risks.”The next day, in a speech meant to stop “loose talk about war” in front of a powerful pro-Israeli lobbying outfit, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the president offered an even stronger formula, worth quoting at length. Speaking of seeing the consequences of his decisions to use force “in the eyes of those I meet who’ve come back gravely wounded,” he said:
“And for this reason, as part of my solemn obligation to the American people, I will only use force when the time and circumstances demand it… We all prefer to resolve this issue diplomatically. Having said that, Iran’s leaders should have no doubt about the resolve of the United States — just as they should not doubt Israel’s sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs. I have said that when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say. That includes all elements of American power… and, yes, a military effort to be prepared for any contingency.
“Iran’s leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And as I have made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.”
An American president couldn’t come closer to saying that, should American intelligence conclude the Iranians were building a nuclear weapon, we would attack. The next day, again addressing an AIPAC audience, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta set the president’s commitment in stone: “No greater threat exists to Israel, to the entire region, and indeed to the United States, than a nuclear-armed Iran… Military action is the last alternative if all else fails, but make no mistake: When all else fails, we will act.”
The Power of Precedents
To understand what’s truly new here, it’s necessary to back up a few years. After all, precedent is a powerful thing and these statements do have a single precedent in the atomic age (though not one the president would profess to admire): the Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. After all, one clearly stated reason for the invasion was Saddam Hussein’s supposed nuclear program as well as one to produce biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
In a series of speeches starting in August 2002, President George W. Bush publicly accused the Iraqi dictator of having an active nuclear program. His vice president hit the news and public affairs talk show circuit with a set of similar accusations, and his secretary of state spoke of the danger of mushroom clouds rising over American cities. (“We do know that [Saddam] is actively pursuing a nuclear weapon… [W]e don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”)
At the same time, the Bush administration made an effort — now long forgotten — to convince Congress that the United States was in actual danger of an Iraqi WMD attack, possibly from anthrax, in the immediate future. President Bush suggested publicly that, with unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), Saddam might have the ability to spray East Coast cities with chemical or biological weapons. And Congress was given fear-inducing classified private briefings on this.
Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, for example, claimed that he voted for the administration’s resolution authorizing force in Iraq because “I was told not only that [Saddam had weapons of mass destruction] and that he had the means to deliver them through unmanned aerial vehicles, but that he had the capability of transporting those UAVs outside of Iraq and threatening the homeland here in America, specifically by putting them on ships off the eastern seaboard.”
Driving the need to produce evidence, however fantastic or fabricated, of a possible threat to the U.S. was a radical new twist on war-making 101. In the days after 9/11, Vice President Dick Cheney proposed that even a 1% chance of an attack on the United States, especially involving weapons of mass destruction, must be dealt with as if it were a certainty. Journalist Ron Suskind dubbed it “the one percent doctrine.” It may have been the rashest formula for “preventive” or “aggressive” war offered in the modern era.
Of course, the fact that Saddam’s Iraq had no nuclear program, no biological or chemical weapons, no functioning drones, and no way of reaching the East Coast of the United States proved strike three for critics of the Bush administration. Missed was what was truly new in the invasion: not just the 1% doctrine itself, but the idea — a first on planet Earth — of going to war over the possibility that another country might be in possession of nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction.
Until then, such a concept hadn’t been in the strategic vocabulary. Quite the opposite: in the Cold War years, nuclear weapons were thought of as “deterrence” or, in the case of the two massively nuclear-armed superpowers of that era, “mutually assured destruction” (with its fabulously grim acronym MAD). Those weapons, that is, were considered guarantors, however counterintuitively, against an outbreak of war. Their possession was a kind of grisly assurance that your opponent wouldn’t attack you, lest you both be destroyed.
In that spirit, between the dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 and the Iraqi invasion of March 2003, seven countries — the Soviet Union, England, France, China, Israel (though its large nuclear arsenal remains unacknowledged), India, and Pakistan — all went nuclear without anybody suggesting that they be attacked simply for possessing such weapons. An eighth country — white-ruled South Africa — actually assembled six nuclear weapons, and later became the only country to de-nuclearize itself. South Korea, Taiwan, Argentina, and Brazil all had incipient nuclear programs, though none produced weapons. Japan is today considered to be at a point the Iranians have not yet reached: “breakout capacity,” or the ability to build a nuclear weapon relatively quickly if a decision to do so were made. In 2006, North Korea set off its first nuclear test and, within years, had become the ninth active nuclear power.
In other words, in 2003, the idea that the possession of nuclear weapons or simply of an “active” nuclear program that might one day produce such weapons was a casus bellirepresented something new. And when it became clear that Saddam had no nuclear program, no weapons of mass destruction at all, that explanation for American war-making, for what Jonathan Schell once dubbed “disarmament wars” — so visibly fraudulent — seemed to disappear into the dustbin of history.
War and the Presidential “I”
Until now, that is.
Whether he meant to or not, in his latest version of Iran war policy President Obama has built on the Bush precedent. His represents, however, an even more extreme version, which should perhaps be labeled the 0% Doctrine. In holding off an Israeli strike that may itself be nothing but a bluff, he has defined a future Iranian decision to build a nuclear weapon as a new form of aggression against the United States. We would, as the president explained to Jeffrey Goldberg, be committing our military power against Iran not to prevent an attack on the U.S. itself, but a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
And by the way, note that he didn’t say, “We don’t bluff.” His formulation was: “I don’t bluff.” And that “I” should not be ignored. The Bush administration promoted a cult of presidential power, of (as they called it at the time) a “unitary executive.” No one in the White House uses such a term these days, any more than they use the term “Global War on Terror,” but if both terms have disappeared, the phenomena they named have only intensified.
The Global War on Terror, with its burgeoning secret military, the elite special operations forces, and its growing drone air force, controlled in part by the CIA, should be thought of as the president’s private war. In addition, as legal scholar Jonathan Turley wrote recently, when it comes to drone assassinations (or “targeted killings” as they are now more politely known), Attorney General Eric Holder has just claimed for the president the “authority to kill any American if he unilaterally determines them to be a threat to the nation.” In doing so, added Turley, “Obama has replaced the constitutional protections afforded to citizens with a ‘trust me’ pledge.” With terror in its crosshairs, war, in other words, is increasingly becoming the president’s private preserve and strikes on the enemy, however defined, a matter of his own private judgment.
It is no longer a matter of “we,” but of a presidential “I” when it comes to unleashing attacks in what has become a global free fire zone for those drones and special ops forces. War, in other words, is increasingly lodged in the Oval Office and a commander-in-chief executive. As the Libyan intervention suggested, like the American people, Congress is, at best, an afterthought — even though this Congress would rubber-stamp a presidential act of war against Iran without a second thought.
The irony is that the president has propounded a war-making policy of unprecedented extremity at a moment when there is no evidence that the Iranians are pursuing a bomb — not yet at least. The “supreme leader” of their theocratic state has termed the possession of nuclear weapons “a grave sin” and U.S. national intelligence estimates have repeatedly concluded that the Iranians are not, in fact, moving to build nuclear weapons. If, however — and it’s a giant if — Iran actually got the bomb, if a 10th country joined the nuclear club (with others to follow), it would be bad news, and the world would be a worse place for it, but not necessarily that greatly changed.
What could change the world in a radical way, however, is the 0% doctrine — and the trend more generally to make war the personal prerogative of an American president, while ceding to the U.S. military what was once the province and power of diplomacy.
Here’s the ad for this moment in Washington (as I imagine it):
Militarized superpower adrift and anxious in alien world. Needs advice. Will pay. Pls respond qkly. PO Box 1776-2012, Washington, DC.
Here’s the way it actually went down in Washington last week: a triumphant performance by a commander-in-chief who wants you to know that he’s at the top of his game.
When it came to rolling out a new 10-year plan for the future of the U.S. military, the leaks to the media began early and the message was clear. One man is in charge of your future safety and security. His name is Barack Obama. And — not to worry — he has things in hand.
Unlike the typical president, so the reports went, he held six (count ’em: six!) meetings with top Pentagon officials, the Joint Chiefs, the service heads, and his military commanders to plan out the next decade of American war making. And he was no civilian bystander at those meetings either. On a planet where no other power has more than two aircraft carriers in service, hepersonally nixed a Pentagon suggestion that the country’s aircraft carrier battle groups be reduced from 11 to 10, lest China think our power-projection capabilities were weakening in Asia.
His secretary of defense, Leon Panetta, spared no words when it came to the president’s role, praising his “vision and guidance and leadership” (as would Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin E. Dempsey). Panetta described Obama’s involvement thusly: “[T]his has been an unprecedented process, to have the president of the United States participate in discussions involving the development of a defense strategy, and to spend time with our service chiefs and spend time with our combatant commanders to get their views.”
In other words, Obama taking ownership of the rollout of “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” a 16-page document summarizing a review of America’s strategic interests, defense priorities, and military spending. Its public unveiling was to reflect the steady hand of a commander-in-chief destined to be in charge of American security for years to come.
The president even made a “rare visit” to the Pentagon. There, he was hailed as the first occupant of the Oval Office ever to make comments, no less present a new “more realistic”strategic guidance document, from its press office. All of this, in turn, was billed as introducing “major change” into the country’s military stance, leading to (shades of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld) a “leaner, meaner” force, slimmed down and recalibrated for economic tough times and a global “moment of transition.”
As political theater, it couldn’t have been smarter. For a president, vulnerable like all Democrats to charges of national security weakness in an election year, it was a chance for great photo ops and headlines. And it left his Republican opponents (Ron Paul, of course, excepted) in the dust, sputtering, fuming, and complaining that he was “leading from behind” and “imperiling” the nation.
Even better, in an election season which has mesmerized the media, not a single reporter or pundit seemed to notice that, whatever the new Pentagon plan might mean for the U.S. military globally, it was great domestic politics for a president whose second term was in peril.
Another “Mission Accomplished” Moment?
The actual Pentagon planning document, released the day of the president’s Pentagon appearance, might as well have been written in cuneiform script or hieroglyphics. Just about any military future might have been read into or out of its purposely foggy, not to say impenetrable, pages. That, too, seemed politically canny, offering the president a militarized version of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too-ism.
While the document only referred to the Pentagon budget-cutting process that had been making headlines for weeks in the most oblique manner, the briefings offered by the president, the secretary of defense, and other top officials highlighted those “cuts”: $487 billion over the next decade. It was the sort of thing that should have made any deficit hawk’s heart flutter. Yet somehow — a bow to defense hawks? — the same budget, already humongous from an unprecedented 12 straight years of expansion, was, Obama assured his audience, actually slated to keep on growing.
Like a magician pulling the proverbial rabbit from the hat, the president described the situation this way: “Over the next 10 years, the growth in the defense budget will slow, but the fact of the matter is this: It will still grow, because we have global responsibilities that demand our leadership. In fact, the defense budget will still be larger than it was toward the end of the Bush administration.”
This magic trick was only possible because those headlined cuts were to come largely from the Pentagon’s “projected defense spending.” You’ll get the idea if you imagine an obese foodie announcing that he’s going to “diet” by cutting back on his dreams of future feasts, even as he modestly increases his actual caloric intake.
Surrounded by Panetta, Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs, and the service secretaries, the president had so much more to offer. Those nasty, unwinnable, nation-building-style counterinsurgency wars “with large military footprints” were now a thing of the past. On them, the tide was, as he so poetically put it, receding. Yes, there would be losers — Army and Marine Corps troop strength was slated to drop by perhaps 80,000 to 100,000 in the coming decade — but weren’t they already the losers of wars no one wanted?
Listening to his presentation and those to follow, you could have been pardoned for imagining that we were already practically out of Afghanistan and looking to a time when everything military would be just cool as hell. In that future, there would be nothing but neat, high-tech military operations (and war toys) to the horizon.
These would include our latest perfect weapon, the pilotless drone; nifty cyberwar-style online combat; plenty of new spy and advanced surveillance gear; and sexy shadow wars, just the thing for “environments where adversaries try to deny us access.” Elite special operations forces — the secret military, cocooned inside the regular military, that took down Osama bin Laden — would be further expanded; and finally, there would be a “pivot to Asia” to confront the planet’s rising superpower, China, by sea and air, leaving all those nasty Arabs and Pashtuns and their messy, ugly guerrilla insurgencies, IEDs, and suicide bombers behind.
It couldn’t have sounded cheerier once the media speculation began and it offered something for just about anyone who mattered in imperial Washington. In fact, as sober as Obama looked and as business-like as his surroundings were, if you closed your eyes, you could almost imagine a flight suit and an aircraft carrier deck, for this felt eerily like his “mission accomplished” moment.
Hostilities of the old nasty sort were practically at an end and a new era of high-tech, super-secret, elite warfare was upon us. The future would be so death-of-bin-Laden-ish all the way. It would be safe, secure, and glorious in the hands of our reconfigured military and its efficiently reconfigured budget.
Military-First Imperial Realism
This particular reconfiguration also allowed the globe’s last great imperial power to put a smiley face on a decade of military disasters in the Greater Middle East and — for all the clever politics of the moment — to cry uncle in its own fashion. More miraculous yet, it was doing so without giving up its global military dreams.
It was a way of saying that, if the U.S. ever gets itself out of Afghanistan, when it comes to invading and occupying another Muslim land, building hundreds of bases and an embassy the size of the Ritz, and running riot in the name of “nation-building” and democracy: never again — or not for a few decades anyway.
Consider this a form of begrudging imperial realism that managed never to leave behind that essential American stance of garrisoning the planet. In fact, in order to fly all those drones and land all those special operations units, Washington may need more, not less bases globally. And of course, those 11 carrier battle groups are themselves floating bases, massively armed American small towns at sea.
As it happens, though, we already know how this story ends and it’s nothing to write home about. Yes, they’re going with what’s hot, especially those drones. But keep in mind that, only a few years ago, the hottest thing in town was counterinsurgency warfare and its main proponent, General David Petraeus, was being hailed as a new Alexander the Great, Napoleon, or U.S. Grant. And you know what happened there.
Now, counterinsurgency is history. The new hot ticket of the moment, that “revolutionary weapon” of our time — the drone or robotic airplane — is to fit the bill instead. Drones are, without a doubt, technologically remarkable and growing more sophisticated by the year. But air power has historically proved a poor choice if you want to accomplish anything political on the ground. It hardly matters whether those planes in the distant heavens have pilots or not, or whether they can see ants crawl from 20,000 feet and blast them away with precision.
Despite hosannas about the air war in Libya, count on one thing: air power will prove predictably inept when it comes to an American version of “revolutionary” counterterror warfare in the twenty-first century. So much for the limits of realism.
Washington-style realism assumes that we made a few mistakes, which can be rectified with the help of advanced technology and without endangering the military-industrial-crony-capitalist way of life. That’s about as radical as Obama’s Washington is likely to get.
When compared to the Republicans (Ron Paul aside again) storming the rhetorical barricadesdaily, threatening war with Iran nightly, promising to reinvade Iraq, or swearing that a military budget larger than those of the next 10 countries combined is wussiness itself, the Obama administration’s approach does look like shining realism. Up against this planet as it actually is today, its military-first policies look like wishful thinking.
What Drones Can’t Do
Climate-change advocates sometimes say that we’re on a new planet. (Bill McKibben calls it “Eaarth,” with that ungainly extra “a” to signify an ungainly place that used to be comfy enough for humanity.) It is, they say, a planet under pressure and destabilizing in all sorts of barely imagined ways.
Here’s the strange thing, though. Set aside climate change, and to the passing, modestly apocalyptic eye, this planet still looks as if it were destabilizing. Your three economic powerhouses — the European Union, China, and the United States — are all teetering at the edge of interrelated financial crises. The EU seems to be literally destabilizing. It’s now perfectly reasonable to suggest that the present Eurozone may, within years, be Eurozones (or worse). Who knows when European banks, up to their elbows in bad debt, will start to tumble or whole countries like Greece go down (whatever that may mean)?
At the same time, the Chinese, with the hottest economy on the planet, have a housing bubble, which may already be bursting. (Americans should have at least a few passing memories of just what kinds of troubles a popped housing bubble can bring.) And for all we know, the U.S. economy, despite recent headlines about growing consumer confidence and an unemployment rate dropping to 8.5%, may be on life support.
As for the rest of the world, it looks questionable as well. The powerhouse Indian economy, like the Brazilian one, is slowing down. Whatever the glories of the Arab Spring, the Middle East is now in tumult and shows no signs of righting itself economically or politically any time soon. And don’t forget the Obama administration’s attempt to ratchet up sanctions on Iranian oil. If things go wrong, that might end up sending energy prices right through the roof and blowing back on the global economy in painful ways. With the major economies of the globe balancing on a pin, the possibility of a spike in those prices thanks to any future U.S./Iran/Israeli crisis should be terrifying.
The globalization types of the 1990s used to sing hymns to the way this planet was morphing into a single economic creature. It’s worth keeping in mind that it remains so in bad times. This year could, of course, be another bumble-through year of protest and tumult, or it could be something much worse. And don’t think that I — a non-economist of the first order — am alone in such fears. The new head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, has been traveling the planet recently making Jeremiah sound like an optimist, suggesting that we could, in fact, be at the edge of another global Great Depression.
But know this: you can buy drones till they’re coming out your ears and they won’t help keep Greece afloat for an extra second. Expand special operations forces to your heart’s content and you still can’t send them into those failing European banks. Take over cyberspace or outer space and you won’t prevent a Chinese housing bubble from bursting. None of the crucial problems on this planet are, in fact, amenable to military solutions, not even by a country willing to pour its treasure into previously unheard of military and national security expenditures.
Over the years, “the perfect storm” came to be a perfectly overused cliché, which is why you don’t see it much any more. But it might be worth dusting off and keeping in reserve this year and next — just in case. After all, when any situation destabilizes, all bets are off, including for a president having his mission accomplished moment. (Just ask John McCain what happenedto his 2008 presidential bid when the economy suddenly began to melt down.)
In such a situation, the sort of military-first policy the president has made his own couldn’t be more useless. Maybe it’s time to take out a little insurance. Just not with AIG.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com, where this article originally appeared. His latest book is The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books).