Well into the second decade of what the Pentagon calls an “era of persistent conflict,” many Americans have lost the thread of a war that appears increasingly fragmented and diffuse.
On the one hand, the U.S. militaryhas withdrawn from Iraq without achieving victory, and it’s trying to leave Afghanistan, where events seem equally unlikely to yield a happy outcome. On the other hand — in Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere — U.S. forces have been busily opening new fronts. A widely noted New York Times story recently described plans for “thickening” the global presence of U.S. special operations troops. Navy plans to convert an aging amphibious landing ship into an “afloat forward staging base” — a mobile launch platform for commando raids — reinforce the point, as does the “constellation of secret drone bases” reportedly being built in the Horn of Africa and on the Arabian Peninsula.
Yet even as the troops continue marching hither and yon, the conflict’s narrative has become increasingly difficult to discern.
Today’s war on terror looks nothing like it did in Round 1. Back then, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, the war’s primary architect and cheerleader, counted on speed and technology to carry the day, operating on the assumption that America’s agile, high-tech fighting force would make victory a foregone conclusion. Yet in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Round 1 ended in disappointment.
Today’s war likewise bears scant resemblance to Round 2, when ArmyGen. David H. Petraeuspromoted counterinsurgency as a way to bring order out of the anarchy that was Rumsfeld’s legacy. The hope was that successive “surges” in Iraq and Afghanistan would restore some semblance of order, allowing the United States to claim victory of a sort. Yet now Petraeus, as the Round 2 leader, is gone, and so too is any lingering enthusiasm for his favorite tactic.
Round 3 inaugurates yet another approach and brings with it another emblematic figure.
This time it’s Michael Vickers. Unlike Rumsfeld or Petraeus, Vickers — who carries the title undersecretary of Defense for intelligence — has not achieved celebrity status. Nor is he likely to do so. Yet more than anyone else in or out of uniform, Vickers embodies the war on terror’s latest phase.
With former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gatesgone, Vickers is the senior remaining holdover from George W. Bush’s Pentagon. His background is nothing if not eclectic. He previously served in the Army Special Forces and as a CIA operative. In the 1980s he played a leading role in supporting the Afghan mujahedin in their war against Soviet occupiers. Subsequently, he worked in a Washington think tank and earned a doctorate in strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University.
Even during the Bush era, Vickers never subscribed to expectations that the United States could liberate or pacify the Islamic world. His preferred approach to combating terrorism is simplicity itself. “I just want to kill those guys,” he likes to say, “those guys” referring to members of Al Qaeda. Kill the people who want to kill Americans and don’t stop until they are all dead: This defines the Vickers strategy, which has now become U.S. strategy.
For Vickers, this means acting aggressively to eliminate would-be killers wherever they might be found, employing whatever means necessary. Vickers “tends to think like a gangster,” one admiring former colleague comments. “He can understand trends, then change the rules of the game so they are advantageous for your side.”
Round 3 is all about bending, breaking and reinventing rules in ways thought to be advantageous to the United States. Much as counterinsurgency supplanted “shock and awe,” a broad-gauged program of targeted assassination has now displaced counterinsurgency as the prevailing expression of the American way of war. The United States is finished with the business of sending large land armies to invade and occupy countries. Instead, it uses missile-firing drones along with hit-and-run attacks to eliminate anyone the president of the United States decides to eliminate (including the occasional U.S. citizen).
This is America’s new M.O. Paraphrasing a threat issued by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, a Washington Post dispatch succinctly summarized what this implies: “The United States reserved the right to attack anyone who it determined posed a direct threat to U.S. national security, anywhere in the world.”
Furthermore, the president exercises this supposed right without warning, without regard to claims of national sovereignty, without congressional authorization and without consulting anyone other than Vickers and a few other members of the national security apparatus.
The role allotted to the American people is to applaud, if and when notified that a successful assassination has occurred. And applaud we do; for example, when members of SEAL Team Six secretly enter Pakistan to dispatch Osama bin Laden with two neatly placed kill shots. Vengeance long deferred renders it unnecessary to consider what second-order political complications might ensue.
How Round 3 will end is difficult to forecast. The best we can say is that it’s unlikely to end soon or well. As Israel has discovered, once targeted assassination becomes your game, the list of targets has a way of getting longer and longer.
So what tentative judgments can we offer regarding the ongoing “era of persistent conflict”? Operationally, a war launched by the conventionally minded has progressively fallen under the purview of those who inhabit what Dick Cheney once called “the dark side,” with implications that few seem willing to explore.
Strategically, a war informed at the outset by utopian expectations continues today with no concretely stated expectations whatsoever, the forward momentum of events displacing serious consideration of purpose. Politically, a war that once occupied center stage in national politics has slipped to the periphery, the American people moving on to other concerns and entertainments, with legal and moral questions raised by the war left dangling in midair.
Is this progress?
Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He is the author, most recently, of “Washington Rules: The American Path to Permanent War,” and is the editor of the new book “The Short American Century: A Postmortem.” A longer version of this piece appears at Tomdispatch.com