“Smart Power”

I did not grow up in a war-torn nation, fearful of tanks or planes or soldiers. All of that was–and still is, pretty much exclusively–something I see only in movies and on the news. The closest I’ve ever come to feeling like I live in a war zone was living in New York on Nine Eleven, and even shortly thereafter the apparent suicidal ambition with which those attacks were carried out–with the expressly-stated purpose of drawing the United States into a Soviet-esque empire-bankrupting war in the Middle East–was hard to differentiate thematically from the casualties of U.S. foreign policy throughout the last seventy years. For some, the sense of war on September 11th, 2001 was very real, but for most, it was just another event happening inside the idiot box, distinguishable only by the sense that, this time, you were supposed to put a flag out on the lawn or something. Despite these things–despite my having never truly felt an iota of what it is to live with war–war abroad has become an American staple. When the most war-like places in my country are the products not of warfare but of disregard for the downtrodden, of systemically racist policies, of corrupt police forces, of infrastructural neglect, what is it, exactly, that I’m supposed to see is the benefit of turning foreign nation after foreign nation into war zones for the meager cost of half our total national budget? The September 11th argument is coherent enough for me to understand: they attacked us in a way that managed to yield major destruction on our soil, so we brought the fight to them on their soil. Everything beyond that is an utter fucking wash.

We bomb hospitals, we bomb schools, we bomb weddings, we bomb funerals. There is nothing “smart” about our military policy abroad, only brute force limited by what is politically expeditious domestically. If another ground war in the Middle East so soon after the quagmire of Iraq hadn’t been a public policy polling disaster, do you really think Barack Obama would have disregarded the “red line” he set regarding the use of chemical weapons by Syria? Do you think he would have disregarded the Russian invasion of Crimea? Do you think he would have withheld ground troops from Libya? After all, what is achieved solely with air forces–aside from near-invulnerability to losses among American servicemen and women–that cannot be achieved more effectively with a combination of every available branch of the military? Surely, if anything, when raining down bombs on an area with little-to-no support on the ground, precision is lost, not gained. The argument need not be considered hypothetically; the hospitals, schools, weddings and funerals I alluded to are very real and very routine casualties of a war strategy not particularly far removed from the carpet bombings of Vietnam and the shock and awe policy of both Gulf Wars.

Yet I’m told over and over again that this is a policy of “smart power.” That Obama, like the Democratic Party Christ and savior Kennedy before him (who even died for our sins), has carefully balanced a serving tray of feuding nations that pose potentially-unspeakable threats to the United States atop his greying head. But the world is no longer divided into atomic-faring capitalist and communist superpowers squaring off from across clearly-drawn battle lines like it was in the days of Kennedy, and, you might remember, in the days of Kennedy, the foreign policy was pretty shitty anyway. So what is it, exactly, that compels us into these wars for supposedly only the most just of reasons? What vested interest, purely in service of national self-determination and not rooted in resource manipulation, did we have in the outcome of the Libyan conflict? What existential American crisis is served by our increasing entrance into Syria? I hear a lot of discussion about civilians and the terrible things being done to them in these countries, but why does this argument not apply to Africa? Do Americans have some affinity for Arabs that they don’t for Africans? I think not. Americans couldn’t give less of a shit about either. So what, aside from the presence of oil, the accompanying first-world-level economies, and the also-accompanying top-tier military programs (largely funded by ourselves or our associated superpowers), compels us toward the Middle East? What are the honest intentions that cause us to fix our eyes on the Middle East with such determination? Russia’s footholds there are not really any less tenuous than they were while they were at war in Afghanistan three decades ago. ISIS did not have tangible ambitions against the United States until we re-inserted ourselves into Iraq to stem their advances. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, our most stalwart supposed-ally in the region, is not only one of the most vicious and autocratic regimes in the world, they are increasingly appearing to have had a heavier hand in the attacks of September 11th than anyone else.

For what rhyme or reason? Why do we ally with Saudi Arabia? Why do we fight in Iraq? Why do we enforce no-fly zones in Libya and Syria? If we are pure-hearted in our intentions, why not Nigeria? Why not Chad? Why not Somalia? Why not Sudan? You’ll find no raison d’être for our labyrinthine foreign policy in this final paragraph. After fifteen years of looking, I still can’t find one. By all appearances–and judging from the results, the general lack of progress, and the ill-explained adventurism–there is none. Not if you take the idea of gold-hearted American foreign policy at face value. But, after fifteen years, one thing is clear to me: I can rationalize every bomb dropped, every bullet fired, every life lost, when viewed through the lens of corporatism and an increasingly-oligarchic and disingenuous American state. I must not be loving America hard enough.

6 thoughts on ““Smart Power””

  1. Your writings are excellent and I’m, say a bit jealous because I grew up in certain miss guided family. I want to learn more and I seriously think that I can understand what’s being said and gather as much as possible. This, your writing say’s a lot about you as a American.

  2. Regarding 9/11 we need to remember the hijackers were not related to Iraq in any way. It would be like attacking Cuba because Argentinians killed some Americans.

    I’ve found that understanding these wars is easier after reading National Security Presidential Directive-1 (https://fas.org/irp/offdocs/nspd/nspd-1.htm), where “national security” is designated to encompass “the defense of the United States of America, protection of our constitutional system of government, and the advancement of United States interests around the globe. National security also depends on America’s opportunity to prosper in the world economy.”

    National Security is used handedly and aptly by politicians. It is invoked often. But it is heard by the American to mean “homeland defense” which is another matter entirely.

    Another important thing to understand is that the United States has not been getting into wars willy nilly. Just as battles are composed of skirmishes, and wars composed of battles, wars are an atomic element to larger violent operations called “military campaigns.” The United States is not constantly cycling through an endless series of war. The United States is still engaged in military campaigns around the word. Campaigns are composed of wars. When Americans like yourself and myself ask our representatives to end the war, they do hear us. They turn long strategic advances into drone assassination and torture programmes. They blanket entire regions of the globe in propaganda and surveillance. When we ask representatives to stop the war of the year we’re asking the wrong questions. What we want to do is end the military campaigns.

    Ultimately these wars keep the United States the most powerful country in the world. We are the most powerful because we divide and conquer the world and we divide and conquer the world so we can continue to be the most powerful. This isn’t significantly different than Britain, Rome, the Mongols, or any other superpower from world history.

  3. According to “The Economist” the South China Sea is being claimed by a new Chinese expansionism, which I guess is the same “hegemony” of USA, so of course military “precision” will entail explosive destruction to claim “ownership”, a karmic delusion that, even after forceful comments like yours, Aloysius, will not be recognized. Some people insist that “human power” is real, but are brought up short when “Mother Nature” or a “Wrathful God of Shock and Awe” give us a lesson in Fort MacMurray, Alberta Canada, where oil sands production has been halted by a gigantic wild fire that is/has destroyed a lot of homes and properties. “Control Issues” are a basic human defect.

  4. Here, hear. War (military campaigns) breeds more war, which breeds and expands hatred, not only laterally but vertically, in that subsequent generations are poisoned by their forebears’ hatred. The Middle East is an example of religious wars–between the three most predominant monotheistic religions–that has been transmitted down through time. Yes, the clothes and weapons are different, but the intolerance is just as destructive as ever.

    If we were as evolved as we claim to be, we might have learned something by now about the insanity of war. I do believe that on a gut level, Americans are beginning to wise up. Thus we see the roiling discontent of regular people, who feel betrayed by those who are extorting so much in taxes to fund these megalomaniacal campaigns. I believe that’s why people are dropping out, giving up, and prepared to allow the US to collapse from within, as all empires ultimately do (usually after about 250 years).

  5. An aside: In esoteric terms, violence and power are opposites, despite what the testosterone-poisoned claim. Violence is associated with a deep sense of powerlessness, with knee-jerk fear the result. Our government has reason to be paranoid, considering its bloody history.

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