Notes From the Margins…

The Pentagon gets real

  • January 07, 2012
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Has the global financial crisis finally begun to impact America’s ability to sustain its global military presence and the megalomaniac dreams of ‘Full Spectrum Dominance’ that have intoxicated US military strategists and national security managers for more than a decade?

At first sight, Barack Obama announcement of the Pentagon’s new ‘realistic’ proposals for a ’21st century defence that sustains US leadership’ at a press conference on Thursday suggests that the answer is yes.   Flanked by medal-festooned generals, the Peace Laureate announced  a 14 percent reduction in the numbers of ground troops in favour of a new projection of ‘smart, strategic’ military power based on technological supremacy rather than boots on the ground.

Obama also announced $487 billion in cuts over the next decade, with the additional prospect of a further $500 billion in cuts to follow if approved by the US Congress.  The US currently spends more than $650 a year on ‘defence’ – meaning war – more than six times its nearest rival China.   Of the $20 billion dollar increase in global military spending recorded the Stockholm Peace Research Institute  in 2010, $19.6 billion was due to the United States.

So the Pentagon is not exactly preparing to convert swords into ploughshares.   After more than a decade of soaring military budgets however, these proposals are to some extent a product of the new economic constraints imposed by the global financial crisis.

Obama’s new realism  also represents a shift away from the protracted occupations/counterinsurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the ‘nation-building’ aspirations that have accompanied them,  towards new ‘light touch’ interventions of the type that took place in Libya, with their combination of aerial bombing campaigns, and the deployment of Special Forces and US allies in support of local proxies.

For all the Obama administration’s attempts to spin the wars of the last decade as successes, it is clear that as far as the American political and military elite is concerned,  their costs have so far outweighed their benefits, but the Pentagon’s ‘new’ commitment to high-tech weaponry, bombs and fighter planes does not mean that the US has relinquished its  claims to global military ‘leadership.’

On the contrary, a closer reading of the Pentagon’s Priorities for 21st Century Defense  paper make it clear that these aspirations are undiminished and that behind Obama’s plans for a  ‘ joint force for the future that will be smaller and leaner, but will be agile, flexible, ready and technologically advanced’, America continues to pursue the dream of military omnipotence in the global ‘battlespace’.

The  paper exudes the usual messianic assumption that a global US military presence is an indispensable guarantor of global ‘security’ and stability – an assumption that is matched by a sublime and lofty indifference to the swathe of chaos and violent mayhem that the various ‘interventions’ of the last decade have left in their wake.

For all its media-trumpeted rejection of the ‘two simultaneous wars’ policy of the post-Cold War period, the paper recycles most of the strategic priorities of the last two decades, in its objective of ‘ deterring and defeating aggression by an opportunistic adversary in one region even when our forces are committed to a large-scale operation elsewhere.’

Though its authors celebrate what they discreetly call the ‘demise’ of Osama bin Laden (don’t you love that word ‘demise’?), as a major blow to al-Qaeda, they nevertheless continues to define US ‘core national interests’ as ‘defeating al-Qaeda and its affiliates and succeeding in current conflicts; deterring and defeating aggression by adversaries, including those seeking to deny our power projection‘ (my emphasis) – a potentially limitless category that in the eyes of the Pentagon at least, grants the US the right to project military power anywhere in the world.

In the short-term, the most immediate ‘aggressor’ is Iran.  But the shift to the Pacific suggests that the Pentagon is already preparing to ‘counter’ China – a development justified by the laughable assertion that ‘  the growth of China’s military power must be accompanied by greater clarity of its strategic intentions in order to avoid causing friction in the region.’

‘Deterring’ these adversaries may well involve less boots on the ground, but the new emphasis on UAVs, bombers, missiles, cyberwar and ‘critical space-based capabilities’ does not exactly point towards a less militarist future – in the short or the long term.

At present the West is lurching towards war with Iran like a drunkard barroom brawler clutching a broken bottle, the US is pouring weapons into the Gulf States and carrying out military exercises in Israel in preparation for the coming conflict, even as Iraq teeters once again on the brink of civil war,  and Libya is threatening to unravel into violent factionalism before the bodies have even been counted.

Against this background,  the Pentagon continues to pursue its dreams of global dominance and military omnipotence and seek new enemies in a world that desperately needs cooperative and non-military solutions to the problems and conflicts that it faces in the 21st century.

These solutions are not likely to emerge from Obama’s new realism,  which ultimately reflects the same assumptions behind General ‘Buck’ Turgidson’s ‘big board’ in Doctor Strangelove:  that war is permanent, enemies are everywhere, and the whole world is America’s battlefield.


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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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