Monday, October 19, 2009

Who's Next?


Lessons from the Long War and a Blowback World
By Tom Engelhardt

Is it too early -- or already too late -- to begin drawing lessons from "the Long War"? That phrase, coined in 2002 and, by 2005, being championed by Centcom Commander General John Abizaid, was meant to be a catchier name for George W. Bush's "Global War on Terror." That was back in the days when inside-the-Beltway types were still dreaming about a global Pax Americana and its domestic partner, a Pax Republicana, and imagining that both, once firmly established, might last forever.

"The Long War" merely exchanged the shock-'n'-awe geographical breadth of the President Bush's chosen moniker ("global") for a shock-'n'-awe time span. Our all-out, no-holds-barred struggle against evil-doers would be nothing short of generational as well as planetary. From Abizaid's point of view, perhaps a little in-office surgical operation on the nomenclature of Bush's war was, in any case, in order at a time when the Iraq War was going disastrously badly and the Afghan one was starting to look more than a little peaked as well. It was like saying: Forget that "mission accomplished" sprint to victory in 2003 and keep your eyes on the prize. We're in it for the long slog.

When Bush officials and Pentagon brass used "the long war" -- a phrase that never gained much traction outside administration circles and admiring think tanks -- they were (being Americans) predicting the future, not commenting on the past. In their view, the fight against the Islamist terrorists and assorted bad guys who wanted to get their hands on weapons of mass destruction and truly bloody the American nose would be decades long.

And of that past? In the American tradition, they were Fordian (as in Henry) in their contempt for most history. If it didn't involve Winston Churchill, or the U.S. occupying Germany or Japan successfully after World War II, or thrashing the Soviet Union in the Cold War, it was largely discardable bunk. And who cared, since we had arrived at a moment of destiny when the greatest country in the world had at its beck and call the greatest, most technologically advanced military of all time. That was what mattered, and the future -- momentary pratfalls aside -- would surely be ours, as long as we Americans were willing to buckle down and fund an eternal fight for it.

Arm and Regret

With the arrival of the Obama administration, "the Long War," like "the Global War on Terror," has largely fallen into disuse (even as the wars that went with it continue). Like all administrations, Obama's, too, prefers to think of itself as beginning at Year Zero and, as the new president emphasized more than once, looking forward, not backwards, at least when it came to the CIA, the Bush Justice Department, and torture practices.

Perhaps, however, the Long War shouldn't be consigned to the dust bin of history just yet. It might still have its uses, if we were to do the un-American thing and look backward, not forward.

As we call a contentious era in European history the Hundred Years' War, so our war in "the Greater Middle East" has already gone on for 30 years, give or take a few. If you wanted to date its exact beginning you might consider choosing President Ronald Reagan's brief, disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 1983, the occasion for the first suicide truck bombings of the modern American era. (As Mike Davis has written, "Indeed, the suicide truck bombs that devastated the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 prevailed -- at least in a geopolitical sense -- over the combined firepower of the fighter-bombers and battleships of the U.S. Sixth Fleet and forced the Reagan administration to retreat from Lebanon.")

An even more reasonable date, however, might be July 3, 1979, when, at the behest of national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter signed "the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul." In other words, six months before the actual Soviet invasion of Afghanistan began, the U.S. threw its support to the mujahideen, the Afghan anti-Soviet fundamentalist jihadists.

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