Global war without end: How can we hold presidents accountable if they can wage wars anywhere at anytime in secret?
June 3, 2012 12:08 am
By Andrew J. Bacevich
As he campaigns for reelection, President Barack Obama periodically reminds audiences of his success in terminating the deeply unpopular Iraq War. With fingers crossed for luck, he vows to do the same with the equally unpopular war in Afghanistan. If not exactly a peacemaker, our Nobel Peace Prize-winning president can (with some justification) at least claim credit for being a war-ender.
Yet when it comes to military policy, the Obama administration's success in shutting down wars conducted in plain sight tells only half the story. More significant has been this president's enthusiasm for instigating or expanding secret wars, those conducted out of sight and by commandos.
President Franklin Roosevelt may not have invented the airplane, but during World War II he transformed strategic bombing into one of the principal emblems of the reigning American way of war. General Dwight D. Eisenhower had nothing to do with the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb. Yet, as president, Ike's strategy of massive retaliation made nukes the centerpiece of U.S. national security policy.
So, too, with Barack Obama and special operations forces. The U.S. Special Operations Command with its constituent operating forces -- Green Berets, Army Rangers, Navy SEALs and the like -- predated his presidency by decades. Yet it is only on Mr. Obama's watch that these secret warriors have reached the pinnacle of the U.S. military's hierarchy of prestige.
John F. Kennedy famously gave the Green Berets their distinctive headgear. Mr. Obama has endowed the whole special operations "community" with something less decorative but far more important: privileged status that provides special operators with maximum autonomy while insulating them from the vagaries of politics, budgetary or otherwise.
Congress may yet require the Pentagon to undertake some modest belt-tightening, but no one is going to tell special operations to go on a diet. What the special ops types want, they will get, with few questions asked -- and virtually none of those questions will be posed in public.
Since 9/11, the special operations budget has quadrupled and its order of battle has expanded accordingly. At present, there are an estimated 66,000 uniformed and civilian personnel on the rolls, a doubling in size since 2001. This expansion began under Mr. Obama's predecessor, but his essential contribution has been to broaden the special ops mandate. As one observer put it, the Obama White House let the special operations command "off the leash."
As a consequence, special operations assets today go more places and undertake more missions while enjoying greater freedom of action than ever before.
After a decade in which Iraq and Afghanistan absorbed the lion's share of the U.S. military's attention, hitherto neglected swaths of Africa, Asia and Latin America are receiving greater scrutiny. Already operating in dozens of countries around the world -- as many as 120 by the end of this year -- special operations forces engage in activities that range from reconnaissance and counterterrorism to humanitarian assistance and "direct action."
The traditional motto of the Army special forces is "De Oppresso Liber" ("To Free the Oppressed"). A more apt slogan for today's special operations command might be "Coming Soon to a Third World Country Near You!"
The displacement of conventional forces by special operations forces as the preferred U.S. military instrument marks the completion of a decades-long cultural repositioning of the American soldier. The G.I., once represented by the likes of cartoonist Bill Mauldin's iconic Willie and Joe, is no more, his place taken by today's elite warrior professional.
Mauldin's creations were heroes, but not superheroes. The nameless, lionized SEALs who killed Osama bin Laden are flesh-and-blood Avengers. Willie and Joe were "us." SEALs are anything but "us." They occupy a pedestal well above mere mortals. Couch potato America stands in awe of their skill and bravery.
This cultural transformation has important political implications. It represents the ultimate manifestation of the abyss now separating the military and society.
Nominally bemoaned by some, including former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and former Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, this civilian-military gap has only grown over the course of decades and is now widely accepted as the norm. As one consequence, the American people have forfeited owner's rights over their army, having as little control over the employment of U.S. forces as New Yorkers have over the management of the Knicks or Yankees.
As admiring spectators, we may take at face value the testimony of experts (even if it is seldom disinterested) who assure us that the SEALs, Rangers, Green Berets, etc. are the best of the best and that they stand ready to deploy at a moment's notice so that Americans can sleep soundly in their beds. If the United States is indeed engaged, as special ops commander Adm. William McRaven has said, in "a generational struggle," we will surely want these guys in our corner.
Even so, allowing war in the shadows to become the new American way of war is not without a downside. Here are three reasons why we should think twice before turning global security over to the special operations command.
Autonomy and accountability exist in inverse proportion to one another. Indulge the former and kiss the latter goodbye. In practice, the only thing the public knows about special ops activities is what the national security apparatus chooses to reveal.
Can you rely on those who speak for that apparatus in Washington to tell the truth? No more than you can rely on JPMorgan Chase to manage your money prudently.
Granted, out there in the field, most troops will do the right thing most of the time. On occasion, however, even members of an elite force will stray off the straight-and-narrow. (Until just a few weeks ago, most Americans considered White House Secret Service agents rather elite.)
Americans have a strong inclination to trust the military. Yet as a famous Republican president once said: Trust but verify. There's no verifying things that remain secret. Unleashing special ops is a recipe for mischief.
Hello imperial presidency
From a president's point of view, one of the appealing things about special forces is that he can send them wherever he wants, to do whatever he directs. There's no need to ask permission or to explain.
When President Bill Clinton intervened in Bosnia and Kosovo, and when President George W. Bush invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, they at least went on television to clue the rest of us in. However perfunctory the consultations may have been, the White House at least talked things over with the leaders on Capitol Hill. Once in a while, members of Congress even cast votes to indicate approval or disapproval.
With special ops, almost no notification or consultation is necessary. The president and his minions have a free hand. Building on the precedents set by Mr. Obama, stupid and reckless presidents will enjoy this prerogative no less than shrewd and well-intentioned ones.
To what end?
As U.S. special forces roam the world slaying evildoers, the famous question posed by David Petraeus as the invasion of Iraq began -- "Tell me how this ends" -- rises to the level of Talmudic conundrum.
There are certainly plenty of evildoers who wish us ill (primarily but not necessarily in the Greater Middle East). How many will special operatives have to liquidate before the job is done? Answering that question becomes all the more difficult given that some of the killing has the effect of adding new recruits to the ranks of the non-well-wishers.
In short, handing war to the special operations command severs an already too tenuous link between war and politics; it becomes war for its own sake.
Remember George W. Bush's "Global War on Terror"? Actually, his war was never truly global. War waged in a special-operations-first world just might become truly global -- and never-ending. In that case, Adm. McRaven's "generational struggle" is likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University and a regular contributor to TomDispatch.com -- where this article first appeared. Distributed by Agence Global.
First Published June 3, 2012 12:00 am
Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/opinio.../#ixzz1wiUC2nUa