Notes From the Margins…

If You All Love Special Forces Clap Your Hands

  • February 14, 2012
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The New York Times had  an interesting piece yesterday  which reveals a great deal about how the world works, or rather how the U.S. military believes the world should work.  The subject of the article was a proposal from Admiral William H. McRaven ( Joseph Heller eat your heart out for that name), the head of the U.S.  Special Operations Command and a member of the Navy Seals team which whacked Osama bin Laden, for an expanded deployment of U.S. Special Forces  across the world.

According to the NYT, McRaven

is pushing for a larger role for his elite units who have traditionally operated in the dark corners of American foreign policy. The plan would give him more autonomy to position his forces and their war-fighting equipment where intelligence and global events indicate they are most needed.  It would also allow the Special Operations forces to expand their presence in regions where they have not operated in large numbers for the past decade, especially in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

As the NYT observes, these proposals reflect a more general reliance by the U.S. government on Special Forces in an era of shrinking military budgets in order to confront “developing threats scattered across the world”.   In the past however, these  deployments have been constrained by “regional military commanders and the State Department”, some of whose officials  “have voiced concerns that commandos may carry out missions that are perceived to tread on a host country”s sovereignty”.

McRaven is now lobbying for a wider role of Special Forces in parts of the world where their presence has been “thinned out” by the 9/11 wars, without  the usual oversight process that would require  the approval of the military”s Joint Staff and the defense secretary.  According to the NYT:

Senior Special Operations commanders pledged that their efforts would be coordinated with the senior diplomatic representative in each country. These officers also describe how the new authorities would stress working with local security forces whenever possible. The exception would be when a local government was unable or unwilling to cooperate with an authorized American mission, or if there was no responsible government in power with whom to work.

I love this.   If a local government is “unable or unwilling to cooperate with an authorised American mission”, this would suggest that these hypothetical missions have not in fact been “authorised” by the governments concerned, and would therefore constitute a violation of their sovereignty, but to McRaven there is clearly only form of authorisation that matters.

According to the NYT, some members of the ‘Special Operations community’ have expressed concerns that their forces may be ‘stretched too thin’ by McRaven’s proposals, but there does not appear to be any concern at the suggestion that Special Forces should be given carte blanche to operate within the ‘dark corners of American foreign policy’ without even the most cursory democratic oversight.

Neither the Times nor any of the officials interviewed by its reporter question the U.S.  right to deploy its Special Forces anywhere it likes.   It’s difficult to imagine why any of the left-of-centre governments in Latin America should be enthusiastic about such deployments, in a continent where Special Forces training missions in Cold War counterinsurgency campaigns routinely worked alongside some of the worst human rights abusers in the hemisphere.

From the point of view of the U.S. military and government however, the whole world is divided into American  military ‘regions’, whose needs and priorities clearly override those of the governments that inhabit them.  It is therefore perfectly natural and reasonable that McRaven should ask for his special forces to be allowed to act with complete impunity in any part of the world, as in effect, they already do.

The new global deployment of Special Forces began under George Bush, but it has been dramatically expanded by Barack Obama.   In 2010, the Washington Post reported that U.S. Special Operations teams are already active in at least 75 countries, in a range of activities that include assassinations and “preemptive or retaliatory strikes”.   As the Post authors noted:

One advantage of using “secret” forces for such missions is that they rarely discuss their operations in public. For a Democratic president such as Obama, who is criticized from either side of the political spectrum for too much or too little aggression, the unacknowledged CIA drone attacks in Pakistan, along with unilateral U.S. raids in Somalia and joint operations in Yemen, provide politically useful tools.

To understand the essential assumptions behind these “politically useful tools”,  imagine what the reaction would be if a military commander from another state, like Russia say, or maybe Iran, publicly announced that he was seeking greater autonomy for the Revolutionary Guard to operate globally without the constraints of ‘regional’ Iranian military commanders or Iranian ambassadors in Africa, Asia or Latin America, in order to respond to ‘developing threats scattered across the world’.

Let’s imagine that this response included targeted assassinations, kill teams, unregulated training missions, and other forms of global violence carried out within the “dark corners of Iranian foreign policy”.   Then imagine that the same officer was seeking to dispense with official restrictions on such activities, so that his forces could act with complete autonomy even in countries whose governments were ‘unable or unwilling to cooperate’ with missions that the Iranian government – or perhaps the Revolutionary Guard – had “authorised”.

Lastly,  imagine that these proposals aroused no criticism or protest, and were portrayed by one of Iran’s leading media outlets as perfectly natural.

Of course if Iran did any of those things it would be regarded as a ‘rogue state’ or a ‘terror-exporting’ state, whose violent and militaristic instincts had fatally corrupted its political institutions and violated the norms of the ‘international community.’

But McRaven’s proposals reflect a very different perspective on global violence in which,  from the point of view of the American military and the Obama administration at least, the whole world is just one big covert battlefield where U.S. Special Forces can have all the ‘autonomy’ that they require.





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  1. Susan Dirgham

    14th Feb 2012 - 9:55 pm

    Hi Matt,

    It’s great to see you continue to tackle this.

    Have you come across the 13/2/12 article “Road to Damascus ..and on to Armageddon” by Diana Johnstone in ‘Counterpunch’? Like your articles, it is a must read. It places the war against Syria in the bigger arena; what happens there will most likely impact on all of us. Of course it relates to the US and Iran, and beyond. It is critical that there is an intelligent, honest and courageous response from politicians and journalists/commentators to the story of Syria.

    Another article published this week which might interest you and readers of your blog is one by Fiona Hill, an Aussie who recently returned from one week in Syria. It presents an alternative to what is the usual line of the media.

    Have I drawn your attention to the Australians for Syria blog? It has reference lists which can point people to articles and videos etc which help present and sort out the bigger picture.




    • Matt

      15th Feb 2012 - 9:10 am

      Thanks for these references Susan, I shall definitely check them out.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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