These days, when I check out the latest news on Washington’s global war-making, I regularly find at least one story that fits a new category in my mind that I call: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
Take last Saturday’s Washington Post report by Craig Whitlock on the stationing of less than two dozen U.S. “military advisers” in war-torn Somalia. They’ve been there for months, it turns out, and their job is “to advise and coordinate operations with African troops fighting to wrest control of the country from the al-Shabab militia.” If you leave aside the paramilitarized CIA (which has long had a secret base and prison in that country), those advisers represent the first U.S. military boots on the ground there since the infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident of 1993. As soon as I read the piece, I automatically thought: Given the history of the U.S. in Somalia, including the encouragement of a disastrous 2006 Ethiopian invasion of that country, what could possibly go wrong?
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Some days when I read the news, I can’t help but think of the late Chalmers Johnson; on others, the satirical newspaper the Onion comes to mind. If Washington did it — and by “it,” I mean invade and occupy a country, intervene in a rebellion against an autocrat, intervene in a civil war, launch a drone campaign against a terror outfit, or support and train local forces against some group the U.S. doesn’t like — you already know all you need to know. Any version of the above has repeatedly translated into one debacle or disaster after another. In the classic term of CIA tradecraft that Johnson took for the title of a book — a post-9/11 bestseller — send a drone over Yemen with the intent to kill, kick down doors in Afghanistan or Iraq, put U.S. boots back on the ground in Somalia and you’re going to be guaranteed “unintended consequences” and undoubtedly some form of “blowback” as well. To use a sports analogy, if since 9/11 Washington has been the globe’s cleanup hitter, it not only hasn’t managed to knock a single ball out of the park, it’s struck out enough times to make those watching dizzy, and it’s batting .000.
You would think that someone in the nation’s capital might have drawn a lesson or two from such a record, something simple like: Don’t do it! But — here’s where the Onion should be able to run riot — there clearly is no learning curve in Washington. Tactics change, but the ill-conceived, ill-begotten, ill-fated Global War on Terror (GWOT), which long ago outran its own overblown name, continues without end, and without either successes of any lasting sort or serious reconsideration. In this period, al-Qaeda, a small-scale organization capable of immodest terror acts every couple of years and, despite the fantasies of Homeland and Fox News, without a sleeper cell in the United States, managed, with Washington’s help, to turn itself into a global franchise. The more the Bush and Obama administrations went after it, the more al-Qaeda wannabe organizations sprang up across the Greater Middle East and north Africa like mushrooms after a soaking rain.
The earliest GWOTsters, all Onion-style satirists, believed that the U.S. was destined to rule the world till Hell froze over. Their idea of a snappy quip was “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran,” and they loved to refer to the Greater Middle East as “the arc of instability.” That, mind you, was before they sent in the U.S. military. Today, 12 years later, that long-gone world looks like an arc of stability, while the U.S. has left the Greater Middle East, from North Africa to Syria, from Yemen to Afghanistan, a roiling catastrophe zone of conflict, refugees, death, and destruction. As it happened, the Bush administration’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq proved to be the only genuine weapons of mass destruction around, loosing, among other things, what could prove to be the great religious war of modern times.
And the lessons drawn? As Nick Turse, author of Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, suggests in his latest piece, “The Special Ops Surge,” the Obama administration has overseen the reorganization of the Global War on Terror as a vast secret operation of unrivaled proportions. It now oversees a planetary surveillance network of staggering size and reach (itself leading to historic blowback) and the spread of a secret military spawned inside the U.S. military and now undergoing typically mindless expansion on a gargantuan scale. What could possibly go wrong?