Friday, February 3, 2006

War without end, amen

The Pentagon, never an institution to be short-sighted about its own reason for being, is laying the groundwork for existence justification on a massive scale. We've had the Cold War; now ... get ready for the Long War. As the agency makes the case in the 2007 U.S. budget, and in a soon-to-be-released defense posture review document, the Pentagon envisions a more or less endless state of war for the United States. War, they seem to say, will largely be a permanent state of affairs, with few pauses in the disaster; global conflict will soon become a fact of American life from beginning to end.


“The United States is a nation engaged in what will be a long war,” the defense review document says. “Currently the struggle is centered in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we will need to be prepared and arranged to successfully defend our nation and its interests around the globe for years to come.”

Two inevitable issues arise, though, matters that undercut the Pentagon's faith in prevailing in such a conflict.

First, if the United States needs to be on a permanent war footing, how is it possible to maintain a military to defend against enemies that cannot be conventionally defined – enemies with no uniform, no flag, no unifying geographic nexus – on an indefinite basis?

Fighting a war like that is fundamentally more expensive in terms of human and financial cost, and complicates the process of finding ready allies by the conflict’s basically ephemeral nature. If the enemy is said to be literally everywhere, who can be counted on -- from now until the end of time, apparently -- to be an ally? And how might that alliance be altered or corrupted by the unpredictability of a country’s own internal politics? (Don't think it can happen? Look at the change in leadership in Spain less than two years ago, or the seismic shift in Iran about two months ago.)

The second factor is even more basic: When your nation is fighting a war whose progress is based not on the capture of tangible territory but the sway of ephemeral religious ideologies ... how do you know if you’ve won? The willingness of America’s military leadership to even entertain the possibility of winning a nearly-interminable conflict -- something like an American Thirty Years War – suggests that they believe “Victory” is something that can be achieved with no literal objective. As such, the very notion of “Victory” becomes a modern chimera, an anachronism impossible to articulate in militarily definable terms.

In his State of the Union address last week, George Bush laid out the stakes for the nation, calling for nothing less than “the end of tyranny in this world.”

Such a lofty mission statement coming from FDR or Churchill three generations ago would have made perfect sense, given the clear, definable nature and mission of the global enemy at that time. In today’s world, however, the enemy of terrorism is more diffuse, and nearly impossible to confine to distant national borders – as this nation experienced firsthand on Sept. 11, 2001.

For that reason, the whole notion of “Victory” becomes more a matter of perception than fact. With no concrete metric by which to determine winning and losing, the door is open to an open-ended conflict stretching for generations. Bush’s call to end “tyranny in this world” requires a deep-pocketed, conscripted, rapid-response army capable of quelling tyranny anywhere on the planet. That is not the military of the United States, as critics of the defense plan are saying, and it's not likely to be the U.S. military of the future.

“They’re not asking for a bigger military and a lot of us are surprised by that,” said Michele Flournoy, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We see the strains on the current forces — we need to grow the force to reduce the strain,” Flournoy told The Associated Press.

The cost of such a conflict goes way beyond the dollars and lives expended, bad as they’re likely to be. At this point the Iraq war costs the country more than $4 billion a month and has left more than 2,245 service members dead and another 16,000 wounded. That cost is horrific enough. But there’s the additional cost to American peace of mind at home.
We’re witnessing a growing concern over the domestic surveillance program President Bush authorized to be undertaken by the National Security Agency – a practice articulated and defended by Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez. If such a war lasts two, three, five, ten more years, what new intrusions on civil liberties will surface? How many other new ways to monitor the movements and associations of Americans will take place?

What’s the potential for a pyrrhic win, for America’s life and culture to undergo such radical change in the name of liberty that liberty as a practical matter ceases to exist? From the standpoint of the impact on personal freedoms and on the credos of self-discovery and self-actualization that are the existential trademarks of this nation, would America even be America anymore?

Some scholars have come to see this trend toward the imperialization of the American presidency for what it is: the most dangerous and democratically problematic drive-by on our collective culture and the rule of law since Watergate -- and maybe worse, as a corruption of our values, than Watergate ever was.

Bush’s developing propensity to tinker with Article 2 of the United States Constitution, hasn’t, for example, caught Ellen Fitzpatrick of the University of New Hampshire unawares.

In a Jan. 2 segment of “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” Fitzpatrick, Carpenter Professor of History at the university, notes how current events have, like always, a definable precedent.


“Originally the notion of being commander-in-chief was explicitly divided from the notion that the president would decide when it was appropriate to wage war. That power very explicitly went to the Congress. So the Constitution is very clear on this point," she said.

She continues: “What has happened historically, however, in times of war, is that the Congress has ceded authority – enormous authority in many cases – to the president to take on powers during times of war because of this unusual situation and the importance of protecting the security of the nation.”

“I think the historical context for what’s going on now is the expansion in the post-World War II period of the national security state. It is the idea of national security, the doctrine of national security, that is being invoked now to justify a range of actions on the part of the Bush administration in the context of a proclaimed ‘war on terror’ that has no endpoint. ... [italics are entirely mine]

And the way it’s being done? By manipulation of the language, seizure of the attention span, amplification of threat and action – and a willingness to tweak and morph the very meaning of national security to whatever suits the exigencies of the moment.

Fitzpatrick puts it best: “Increasingly in the post-World War II period, what the idea of national security does is to put the United States in a state of permanent military readiness. It redefines foreign policy problems as threats to the security of the nation, and it turns foreign policy goals or aspirations into necessities for the nation’s survival. And once that happens, what we’ve seen in the last fifty-plus years is that repeatedly, the president invokes that idea, that doctrine, to take unilateral action – and to consult the Congress belatedly, if at all.”

The prospect of war without end deserves to be an unsettling one, for everybody. Regardless of your party persuasion, liberal or conservative, it raises a chilling prospect for all of us: a world bristling with weapons, a place of relentless animosities exacerbated by increasingly dire Chicken Little scenarios, a world inhabited by children with no childhood, forced to contend with a life during wartime from cradle to grave.

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