Saturday, September 20, 2008

America's limits and the long war to deny them (2)

The conflicts with Iraq from 1990 until today illustrate the dynamic that Andrew Bacevich and his collaborators describe in The Long War.

There is nothing original or scandalous about recognizing that oil is a major policy concern for the United States in the Middle East. But American policy there, both in protecting Israel and in maintaining Western access to Saudi oil, had previously been framed in terms of conflict with the Soviet Union. The Carter Doctrine made it explicit that the US considered it a vital national interest to prevent any other outside power, i.e., the USSR, from achieving military-political dominance in the Middle East.

But the policy fixation on maintaining American predominance there continued unabated after the USSR ceased to exist. Even if we accept that the Gulf War was necessary, very different policy conclusions were possible and discussed at the time. Once it was obvious that American dependence on oil required us to go to war in defense of dubious causes like preserving the Wahhabist Saud dynasty from threats external or internal, a more responsible leadership than that provided by the Bush family would have devoted policy and resources to developing sustainable energy sources to replace oil. Instead, the Bush administration embraced Hummers and SUVs, rejecting the need for higher fuel efficiency or sustainable alternatives to oil.


It was a major lost opportunity. The Soviet menace had disappeared. The Gulf War had produced an outburst of patriotic sentiment which, as shown in the Congressional debate over the Gulf War, was far more serious and thoughtful than anything we've seen since. The national leadership could have used the moment to go in a very different, more constructive, more peaceful direction. But our national leadership at the time included Old Man Bush as President and Dick Cheney as Secretary of Defense.

The Gulf War also led to an enduring commitment to fighting Iraq that was to a large extent carried for years by inertia. As we now know clearly, UN sanctions and weapons inspections had effectively ended the Iraqi WMD programs by 1995. But the US continued periodic bomb and missile attacks on Iraq through the Clinton administration, not least in the bizarrely named Operation Desert Fox of 1998. And, of course, we will consider ourselves lucky if the 20th anniversary in 2010 of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 finds American troops extracted from Iraq. Which has been devastated as few countries ever have been devastated by nearly two decades of conflict with the USA.

The illusions about air power that Tami Davis Biddle describes so well in The Long War played a huge part in the post-Cold War inertia. American general persuaded themselves that the technical wonders of US airpower could achieve such miracles as the removal of a regime by "shock-and-awe", cleanly decapitating a government and allowing it to be quickly and easily replaced.

It was this belief in the air war miracles of their dreams that led aggressive nationalists like Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, as well as their allied neoconservative daydreamers, to imagine they could blast their way into Baghdad in early 2003, set up a pliable client state, and reduce the American presence to around 30,000 troops by the end of 2003. The idea was that those troops would garrison Iraq while permanent bases there could be used for additional miracle blitzkrieg wars against Iran, Syria and any other "rogue states" without nuclear weapons whose regime Washington found it convenient to change.

Biddle summarizes the basic flaw in that hope when she writes:

But if ongoing improvement in precision, intelligence, target acquisition, and strike capability continue to refine and empower the strategic air mission, they cannot - of themselves - force warfare to become a less complex and confusing business, immune to human emotion and calculations that fall entirely outside the realm of rationality.
The extremely excessive faith of American generals and politicians in the magical powers of air war is one of the deepest flaws in American foreign and military policy.

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