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Pax Americana at Presidents' Day: How Go Our Wars? (And How Many Are There, Anyway?)

02/16/2015 12:53 pm ET | Updated Feb 16, 2015

At the high-water mark of the Victorian Age British Empire, Her Majesty's Poet Laureate Alfred Austin was asked to share his conception of Heaven. It was, Lord Austin declared, to sit in an English garden receiving alternating messengers bearing reports of British victories at sea and British victories on land.

The Pax Americana replaced Pax Britannia nearly 70 years ago, but it's been a very long time, if ever, since anything like Austin's conception applied in the American version. Certainly no one would think anything like that today.

Even before American hegemony emerged after World War II, birthday boy George Washington's Farewell Address admonition to avoid "permanent alliances" and focus on neutrality had long since been ignored.

Now we have a worldwide web of alliances, mostly of our own instigation, and involvement in a whole host of wars.

It isn't easy to say how many we wars we are currently caught up in, given the cult of secrecy which envelops Washington. It is easy to say that the wars, by and large, aren't going all that well.

Some are public, some are very much undercover. We probably shouldn't assume that wars go better in secret than they do in the open, should we?

** AFGHANISTAN

"Saigon. Shit. I'm still only in Saigon." That's Captain Willard's (Martin Sheen) opening line of Apocalypse Now as he wakes up, badly hung over and lying in a cold sweat, in a Saigon hotel room. Yes, we are in the 14th year of the Afghan War, longest in American history.

We were supposed to be out after the, er, success of President Barack Obama's big escalation there. But the country, if you want to call it that, remains very dysfunctional politically and shot through with corruption. (Afghanistan and Iraq are ranked at the top of world lists of corrupt nations.)

Its presidential elections continue to be extraordinarily fraudulent. And, if anything, Afghanistan's world leadership in the production of opium has actually increased during American's ineffectual occupation.

The Taliban? They remain very powerful. When they get bored with waiting us out, they launch spectacular attacks in the capital city Kabul.

Al Qaeda? Long gone, ever since the Bush/Cheney Administration decided against using British special forces and American Marines to block the escape of Osama bin Laden and company over the mountains into Pakistan in late 2001. So there's that. So what have we been doing there?

** PAKISTAN

The government is officially aligned with us, but part of it is really with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. As was obvious when Navy SEALs took out bin Laden in his longtime lair right next to the Pakistan military academy in Abbottabad.

That's especially true of key elements of the military and the ISI intelligence service, which played perhaps the leading role in organizing the Afghan Taliban in the '90s to bring order in place of the chaos and civil war that followed the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan.

It's all extremely tense, disquietingly so, given Pakistan's vulnerable arsenal of nuclear weapons.

We're carrying out a series of drone strikes against jihadists, but under the Obama administration the specifics are very elusive. What is not elusive is that few in Pakistan are not furious with us about the drone program.

Bottom line? The lid could fly off this situation any time.

** ISIS

I wrote just a few days ago about the fight against the outfit Obama derided just a year ago as the "junior varsity" of jihadism that now controls so much of the old Iraq and Syria. Foreign recruits continue to flow into the ranks of the self-styled Islamic State forces, including many from Western nations including the U.S. and UK.

Months of U.S. bombing have done nothing to stop that, and may have spurred it on, though further Isis gains have been mostly abated.

That, however, may be more to do with Iran's heavy role -- the commander of the Quds Force is playing a central role directing Iraqi government defenses -- as with our efforts. Though Obama is now pressing for a largely blank check for global action to defeat a force he was loathe for months to strike in its Syrian strongholds, former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Bob Gates says that containment is the only realistic goal. Obama's aim to defeat the group, he says, is unrealistic.

** LIBYA

What an unmitigated disaster. Libya is a chaotic wild west of Islamists, tribes, and various opportunists. The pro-American government in Tripoli has been driven out of the historic capital to Tobruk, where it sometimes meets on a barge in the harbor. Islamist radicals held a pool party at our embassy in Tripoli, site of one of the proudest early feats of American arms immortalized in the first line of the Marines' Hymn: "From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli ..."

Benghazi, site of the disastrous attack on our diplomats and CIA officers in September 2011, is completely in the hands of jihadists. And we have yet to publicly identify, much less punish, the people who killed our ambassador, another diplomat, and two former Navy SEALs on that fateful 10th anniversary of 9/11.

Now Isis is running around there, and just beheaded 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians.

So much for the vaunted Hillary Clinton-led "Friends of Libya" network of nations to rebuild the country's democracy.

** SYRIA

After nearly careening into direct intervention with U.S. forces in the Syrian civil war in 2013, Obama backed off after finding virtually no public support at home and after Russian President Vladimir Putin presented the successful alternative of removing the Assad regime's chemical weapons.

But Saudi Arabia is persistent and the oil power perpetual, and with oil prices suddenly plummeting in unforeseen fashion got Obama to set up a U.S. training operation in Saudi for Syrian rebels. Nevertheless, and not surprisingly, the Assad regime retains the decided upper hand.

** YEMEN

The pro-American government there, quite amenable to our drone strike program against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, has been overthrown by Shiite rebels. Our plans there, hazy enough already from the outside, appear to be in disarray.

Which brings us back to the question of what we are doing against evolving jihadist terror outfits.

** AL QAEDA AND ITS OFFSHOOTS

How many Al Qaedas are there now?

How many do you want?

There's what is now called Al Qaeda Prime, the outfit which attacked us on 9/11. It's taken heavy losses from us, including of course the brilliant takedown of Osama bin Laden by Navy SEALs working with CIA and other special forces operators. It's apparently based in Pakistan, though can turn up pretty much anywhere.

There's Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, apparently based in Yemen.

There was Al Qaeda in Iraq, which was never there when Saddam Hussein ran the country and, after taking some heavy losses during the U.S. occupation has morphed and melded into something else.

There's Isis, which was an Al Qaeda offshoot until it decided Al Qaeda, prime and otherwise, was just too moderate and staid an operation. Then it became something different and perhaps more alarming, a pseudo-nation called "Islamic State" now encompassing much of the old Iraq and Syria, thus eliminating the Sykes-Picot lines of World War I which secretly divided that part of the Middle East between Britain and France.

Then there's anyone who says they're Al Qaeda, perhaps bored, dissolute youth looking for something exciting and meaningful to do with their pointless lives, turned on by social media and its urgent ennui.

How are we doing countering this broadly defined, transnational milieu?

Well, since it's much bigger now that when we started right after 9/11, obviously not so well.

Perhaps it's time to rethink the entire approach, rather than simply project forward our present posture of reflexively adding on new surveillance and strike programs like so many coral reefs of essentially ad hoc -- and alarmingly secret and unaccountable -- politico-military "action."

We simply have no accounting of our global drone strike program, nor a coherent narrative of what our special forces are trying to achieve. Which brings us to ...

** AFRICA

What precisely are we doing with special forces in Africa? We apparently have trainers and advisors in several African nations helping the locals contend with various maniacs and local jihadists.

Is there a well-defined threat they are there to deal with? Is there a coherent plan to deal with any such threat?

The Obama administration, once famed for its story-telling author and orator president, doesn't say. Does it know?

** OTHER POTENTIAL CONFLICTS

There's Ukraine, of course, with Obama considering arming Ukrainian forcers against Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country. I discussed this bad idea the other day.

North Korea? If you believe that the cyber takedown of Sony Pictures in supposed retaliation for a goofy movie was North Korea's doing, and not just the work of someone out to embarrass the studio and a lot of Hollywood insiders, which was the true effect, then it's another strike against the annoying and troublesome Hermit State. But even though Pyongyang is something of a player with nukes, missiles, and endless bad comic book dialogue threats against South Korea, another big war never quite seems in the offing.

** OUR FAR-FLUNG BATTLE LINE

What's the overall?

On balance, it looks very much like "our far-flung battle line," to borrow Kipling's phrase, more than has its hands full right now.

It's way past time for a much better sense of focus from the National Security Council on down.

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