This article appeared at The Nation on January 13, 2012.
With this week’s issuance of the Pentagon’s new defense strategy, President Obama is ending the “Long War” envisioned by many neo-conservatives, counterinsurgency advocates and Pentagon hawks.
While there is much for progressives to criticize in the report—beefing up a cold war in Asia, increased cyberwarfare and secret operations—the striking new departure is the squelching of the Long War concept, projected by theorists like David Kilcullen to last another fifty years following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at a cost of trillions in tax dollars and thousands of lives.
The Long War has been opposed by some circles of the peace movement for several years, and I have written about it in The Nation and in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. However, virtually no attention was paid to the debate in the rest of the mainstream media, public debate or even in much of the alternative media. Instead, the Long War doctrine was advocated in obscure defense think tanks and among intellectual hawks in forums like the Long War Journal, a project of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
The FDD is a hotbed of contemporary neocon militarism, founded immediately after the 9/11 attacks and chaired by former CIA director James Woolsey, a leading figure in the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), which lobbied for the Iraq War and a militarized war against terrorism. Like many military neocons, Woolsey is a former liberal, once active in the Eugene McCarthy presidential campaign. Joseph Lieberman, the former civil rights volunteer turned hawk, is an active FDD leader, as is Richard Perle. They are linked to hardline conservative leaders including William Kristol, Steve Forbes, Max Kampelman, Robert McFarlane, Paula Dobriansky, Gary Bauer, Representative Eric Cantor and Charles Krauthammer.
Kilcullen, the leading architect of the Long War theory, was the top counterinsurgency adviser to Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq. One of the key tenets of the Long War theorists, now incorporated in the official US Marine and Army war-fighting manual, is that the Phoenix Project, a Vietnam counterinsurgency program featuring torture and assassinations, was wrongly discredited by the “liberal media” and deserves of revival as a model for wars like Iraq and Afghanistan. According to Kilcullen’s The Accidental Guerrilla, Iraq and Aghanistan are merely “small wars” in the context of “a big one,” otherwise known as the long war on terrorism.
The Long War may be over, but the neoconservatives are far from finished, with Iran their next target. In an election year, they will try to overwhelm rational objections to, and Obama’s attempts to avoid, a US-backed Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Their core agenda, after all, is not simply a war on terrorism in general but on Islamic fundamentalism.
Critics of Obama will miss the significance of his decision to terminate the Long War amid their valid concerns about military spending, Guantánamo, drone assassinations, cyberwarfare, the buildups in Asia, special forces in Africa and the continuing US wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The mainstream media have no excuse for ignoring the story, however. It was Michael Lind, author of a defense of the United States war in Vietnam titled The Necessary War, who was the first to notice the implications of Obama’s strategy. “So much for the Long War,” wrote Lind astutely at Salon.
In Lind’s analysis, Obama has woven a military strategy that carefully avoids the apocalyptic views of the neoconservatives (who speak not only of a Long War but of World War III) as well as the so-called humanitarian hawks, who favor military intervention in the name of human rights wherever possible. Aware especially of the trillions of dollars in deficits caused by spending for Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama is more calculating of the cost-benefit ratios than the humanitarian interventionists.
Lind claims that Obama has wrought “the greatest revolution in American foreign policy in a generation,” an estimate that is surely exaggerated. But it is true that Obama’s position “reflects the classic logic of realpolitik, not neoconservative hegemonism or neoliberal Wilsonianism,” as Lind writes. A crucial factor in the change, Lind believes, is that American public opinion is opposed to the burdens of empire. “The relative swiftness with which the public turned against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he argues, proves that “those of us who criticized the hegemony strategy from the late 1980s argued that, while in theory the U.S. might be able to create something like a global empire, the American people would not be willing to pay the required price in blood and treasure.”