Stealth Empire

11/22/2010 11:57 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Feckless is not a term normally used to describe a strategy that involves wars spanning decades that cost trillions of dollars accompanied by the creation of a worldwide network of bases and outposts. Yet it is appropriately applied to the mindless exercise in stealth empire building that the United States is pursuing. Careless, irresponsible, lacking in clear purpose, no logical links between supposed ends and actual means. That fits what we are doing to a tee. The "we" refers to the nation at large, the Obama administration and its Bush predecessor in particular, and the community of foreign policy thinkers that orbit it. It embraces our follow-the-leader European allies as well.

The events in and around last week's NATO summit in Lisbon are emblematic of the backhanded way that America's historic project habitually is treated. We learn of a firm commitment to be militarily engaged in Afghanistan at least through 2014 via a public announcement by Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Washington's latest man in Brussels. Suddenly the touted pledges about a 2011 drawdown are eclipsed. The explanation, such as it is, is conveyed to the American people, and the world, via a short Obama op ed in the International Herald Tribune. It goes unremarked -- as doubtless the White House intended. For the basic questions of what we are doing there and elsewhere in the region never have been addressed -- or even publicly recognized.

What exactly is the magnitude of threat to the United States from the Taliban -- in absolute and relative terms? Relative to that from proliferating terrorist mini cells elsewhere around the world. How do we weigh the implicit goal of zero danger emanating from AfPak against the heavy price being paid in spreading political instability throughout the region, undermining the government in Islamabad that is custodian of a small nuclear stockpile, yielding al Qaeda a propaganda and recruiting windfall, draining American moral authority in the world, bleeding the nation of financial resources desperately needed to prop up a faltering society, and -- by the way -- killing and wounding tens of thousands? What precisely is the connection between escalation, promised force reduction next June, and our open-ended commitment to a "success" in Afghanistan that no one can define?

A mature country with operative political institutions poses these questions, insists on plausible answers, and critically appraises them. The United States does none of this.

American strategy -- or, more accurately strategies -- will show little if any deviation from the current flight plan anytime soon. Mental inertia of an extraordinary kind is the reason why. For the greater part of a decade, the United States has been pursuing two audacious projects that intersect and mutually reinforce each other. The one is a global campaign to destroy or neutralize anyone who may seek to attack the United States and its citizens by unconventional means and methods. The conjectured persons and groups are broadly defined as all those with an inferred intent to execute a terrorist act, to organize one, to plan one or even to imagine one. This constitutes the "War on Terror." It engages the US military in its various formations, the CIA and assorted mercenary outfits. The State Department is a bemused sideline supporter -- for the most part.

The other project is to establish a network of tangible American assets in every part of the globe, thereby permitting and favoring the application of Washington's force/influence on a constant basis. It has no termination point or time horizon. This grand enterprise encompasses a number of components. One is airbases, e.g. the Middle East network embracing Iraq, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey (until now), and Pakistan (hopefully). A second is Special Forces units operating with the overt or tacit backing of local governments in dozens of places ranging from Mauritania and Niger to Yemen, Pakistan, Thailand and the Philippines. A third is comprised of CIA paramilitaries reinforced by contract specialists. These last two coordinate at times, compete at times, and ignore each other often. Finally, at the less kinetic end of the scale are more or less conventional Pentagon missions that train local military units, bond with the native security forces generally, and collect diverse intelligence on all manner of political matters.

What is the rationale for creating this stealth empire that has been conceived, directed and monitored by the Pentagon or Intelligence services with little outside oversight? Or public debate? The publicly-stated purpose is to eliminate all those forces that can be associated directly or indirectly, tangibly or intangibly, with terrorist threats against American assets: the homeland, facilities abroad, or citizens. Within that loose conception of the threat, there is no way to gauge definitive success and, therefore, to set time limits. Indeed, this is viewed as a never-ending project. The tents we have staked around the world will not be folded. For the nation's political leaders are preoccupied with only two things: being seen as doing more to root our terrorism than their predecessor or possible electoral rival; and avoiding incidents -- however amateurish -- that suggest otherwise. This is the thinking that has motivated Barack Obama to give the green light to expanded black ops in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and several other places.

At this moment, the White House is discussing whether to press harder in Yemen in the light of the recent Fed Ex episode. That would mean squeezing the precariously positioned President Ali Abdullah Saleh to give wider latitude to Special Forces already in the country, to the deployment of drones and to dealing directly with the local tribes and political formations elbowing one another in Yemen's crowded political space. The logic of a deepening commitment there is less than persuasive. But the cardinal truth is that we are not talking about strategic logic in a cool-headed fashion. Psychological, organizational and political momentum are so strong as to deny any place to logic except at the tactical level. The arguments against wading into Yemen are these. One, the action could be counterproductive insofar as it could well generate sympathies for the factions we're after, weaken sympathies for the current leadership that is holding on by its improvisation wits and the skin of its oil revenues, and lend further credibility to the al Qaeda narrative that Islam is under assault by the West. Two, the potential gains are uncertain and slight. Eradicating the bad guys will be no easier than elsewhere. These amorphous groups are hard to kill, especially when you do things that give them a big recruiting boost.

Finally, how much security against terrorism would the United States actually gain? Yes, there is the American-born cleric, Imam Anwar al-Awlaki, a middle-tier personality in Yemen's radical Islamist community who records inflammatory CDs and YouTube clips. His supposed confederates have some small skill at building simple explosive devices and access to enough pocket change to buy some confused young soul with a martyrdom streak a one-way ticket to Detroit or to register a package with Fed Ex in Sana'a. A moment's reflection should tell us that these conditions could be replicated almost anywhere in the Islamic world, in European cities or -- for that matter -- in the United States. Moreover, the graver threat posed by a few willful people with brains, technical skill and experience is always out there; it will not be affected one iota by a repeat performance in Yemen of our futile efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Following this line of policy, should we begin to visualize Mr. Obama cajoling Chancellor Merkel to accede to Special Forces operations in Hamburg? Or, enticing President Sarkozy to allow Xe, Inc gunslingers to secure the cargo zone of Charles de Gaulle airport? Fed Ex ships to the U.S. from 209 countries, by the way.

Beyond terrorism, there are more obscure security motivations that explain our enormous, growing investment in a global network of bases, missions and influence buying. Terrorists of any stripe, after all, will be unaffected one way or another by the Air Force's huge, state-of-the-art airbases in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor will they be subdued by whatever goes on in our billion dollar viceregal embassies in Baghdad and Kabul. In truth, there seems no enemy on the horizon, apart from Iran, against whom we could launch a massive assault requiring those bases. Even an air campaign against Iran could manage without them. One is left with the queasy feeling that we are extending our military reach into realms known before only as the subject of photo features in National Geographic because the opportunity exists and we have the means to do so. Little short of pioneering the conquest of Everest because it is there. Viewed through a darker lens, we may have created an uncontrollable juggernaut that is just lumbering forward impelled by its own momentum and the absence of an effective braking mechanism.

There is yet another aspect to postmodern imperial expansion that deserves comment. It is the substitution of the military for diplomats and related civilian agencies for promoting American interests. Africa Command was added to the galaxy of regional commands a few years ago. They are at once the planning cells, intelligence units and operational support arms (staffed by thousands) of the Pentagon. We face no security threat from Africa (Somalia included, although it falls under Central Command). The only violent Islamic groups are offshoots of the Algerian outfits that fought a protracted civil war in the 1990s. Scattered among the Sahara wastes, they have little evident interest in the United States as a target or means for reaching us. American Special Forces have been advising Malian, Niger and Mauritanian security units for some time without much success -- or failure. The integrity of the United States is unaffected in any case. Yet, the Pentagon managed to sell the idea that Africa was the next potential source of mayhem. Better to get in there sooner rather than later. Build ties with the local security elites, get the lay of the land -- literally and figuratively, i.e. better safe than sorry. Two questions: Shouldn't civilian agencies be doing almost all of this as a matter of course? And as for the military-to-military-bonding element, couldn't a modest number of attaches and a few invitations to Fort Leavenworth serve the purpose at less than 1 percent of the cost?

The answers are obvious. But that is not the way the postmodern imperial mind thinks -- or, more accurately, feels. A heady brew of anxiety, ambition and a vacuum at the top of the United States government pushes our national security professionals to plunge ahead. That impulse, and those noted above, will not be affected by the histrionics in the new Congress, prattle on the talk-show circuit or wordy exchanges in the echo chambers frequented by the Washington political class.