Strategic blowback

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
13 November 2002

Three events in the past few weeks combine to give us an unusually clear indication of US security policy in the coming years. Two occurred last week and are obvious; the third happened on 1 October and is far less well known.

The first event was that the Republican party made small but highly significant gains in the mid-term Congressional elections on 5 November. Against the usual trends, it took seats from the Democrats, gaining a majority in the Senate and giving George W. Bush the veritable command of the US political system. By concentrating on international issues, not least the US war on terror and the impending attack on Iraq, Bush successfully sidelined questions of the economy and financial probity.

This certainly makes war with Iraq much more likely, but also gives George W. Bush a considerable boost for the 2004 Presidential election. With Jeb Bush triumphant in Florida, we might yet see sixteen years of a Bush White House. Quite a thought…

The second event last week was the use of an armed drone in Yemen to execute a suspected al-Qaida leader together with five of his companions. This was a CIA operation, probably conducted with Yemeni government cooperation, but it was still an attack that carried the war against al-Qaida and its associates to a new level – summary execution of a suspect and his associates, one of them a US citizen, without trial and in a third country.

This was no more than an example of the US strategy of pre-emption, itself not that new – bearing in mind previous conflicts in Vietnam, Central America and elsewhere – but certainly an escalation in the current war.

The third event goes back to the beginning of October and went unnoticed outside the specialist defence press. This was the amalgamation of two US military commands into a single US Strategic Command (Stratcom). The old Stratcom, with its long-standing nuclear-orientated posture, swallowed up the seventeen-year-old US Space Command, concerned with joint military operations in space.

This might seem a small move, perhaps just a matter of bureaucratic re-organisation, but what lies behind it is the deeply-held belief that the United States must have full command of space, and that this is best done by a single command that combines offensive and defensive operations. In particular, the new Stratcom is likely to maintain prime responsibility for global strike, together with missile defence and diverse military operations in space.

The significance of this development becomes clear when it is put together with the recently published US National Security Strategy, which emphasised the absolute need to maintain control of a potentially unstable international system.

The US objective: total security

At the core of the thinking behind the new strategy of the US are four key claims.

The first claim is that it should be seen as a mission for the United States in the 21st century to ensure that the world is shaped in its political and economic image.

The second claim is that states or movements that resist this mission are a threat both to the United States and its allies and to the world as a whole.

The third claim is that it may be necessary to pre-empt the rise to power of such states or movements.

The fourth claim is that this requires, among other things, the need for the United States to maintain the world’s strongest military forces and that they must be technologically superior to those of any possible enemy, either now or in the years to come.

Beyond all this is another aspect of the US security posture – its complete transparency. President Bush has been absolutely clear and to the point, especially since 9/11. There is no disguising that there is an axis of evil, in relation to which ‘you are either for us or against us’. Moreover, actions back up these statements as US forces continue to operate in Afghanistan, build new bases in Central Asia, kill suspects in Yemen, support counter-insurgency forces in many countries and continue with the military build-up in the Gulf.

President Bush himself put it clearly in his speech to West Point graduates last June:

‘Our security will require transforming the military you will lead – a military that must be ready to strike at a moment’s notice in any dark corner of the world.’

Put bluntly, Bush’s security advisers believe implicitly that the best way they can make their putative opponents refrain from challenging the United States, whether these be states or paramilitary groups, is to be unequivocally open in their intentions. Opposition will not be tolerated.

This approach goes well beyond current military dispositions and operations. The formation of the new Stratcom means a commitment to missile defence alongside very strong offensive capabilities. US air-launched cruise missiles can now span the Earth and, in a few years time, space-based lasers and other new systems will be even more effective. Nowhere on Earth will be secure from actions needed to ensure US safety.

The global consequence: insecurity and resistance

From the US side, all this is clear-cut and repeated with loud insistence. Yet what it fails completely to appreciate is the view from the other side.

Take Iran as an example. This is a state in the midst of a prolonged tussle between conservative clerics and modernisers. It is quietly and persistently being courted by many European governments. For the Bush administration, though, Iran is a rogue state, clearly part of the ‘axis of evil’.

In the face of this attitude, the Iranians look at the United States in the knowledge that the latter’s forces could target any barracks, air base, factory or even house anywhere in Iran, and destroy it with air-launched cruise missiles – and do so with impunity. Using stealth bombers, the country’s electricity supply system could be destroyed, its bridges, main roads and railways rendered useless, and there is nothing the Iranians could do about it. The Iranians, after all, will have seen such targeting in use repeatedly, not least in Iraq and Serbia.

Similarly, paramilitary groups and radical social movements know that US forces will act anywhere they think necessary, with or without the support of local governments. It is all clear, obvious and out in the open.

But there is, of course, a catch in all of this: namely, that the policy itself is likely to prove deeply and persistently counter-productive. For a state such as Iran, and for at least half a dozen others, a US state policy of this kind, with its parallel military power, makes it far more necessary to acquire deterrent forces, whether these be missiles or biological, chemical or nuclear weapons. True, they will have to be produced in conditions of great secrecy, but in the face of US military power they will be seen as essential – they will become the weapons of the underdog.

We therefore end up in the extraordinary position that US attempts to control opposition by military means will simply encourage opponents to redouble their efforts to protect themselves and deter such attacks. They will be aided by many states that may not be implicitly opposed to the US but are more than happy to aid those who see themselves as threatened. Serbia may aid Iraq with upgraded radar systems, China may help Iraq with military communications and Pakistan with its nuclear programme. Pakistan, in turn, may help North Korea with nuclear facilities, and North Korea is meanwhile in the business of selling missiles to Syria and Iran.

Nor will such processes be curbed by various arms control agreements, not least because the United States itself now regards such agreements as almost entirely redundant.

Furthermore, states facing the United States and its allies will do everything they can in order not to have to face the direct use of military power. Every asymmetric warfare method available, whether it be sabotage, paramilitary attacks, support for radical movements or any other tactic – all will be seen as essential for their own security.

On 11 September 2001, al-Qaida found one weak point, exploited it with remarkable ability and executed it with terrible consequences. Since then, al-Qaida has dispersed, it has resisted every attempt to destroy it, it is emerging with most, if not all, of its capabilities intact, and it seems to have as much support as ever.

The end result of the Bush security posture is to establish a broadly-based ‘us versus them’ polarisation, in the belief that this is the only way to ensure the New American Century. In practice it encourages exactly the opposite – a widespread and growing opposition in which every means will be found to counter US power. In such a situation, the United States itself will actually end up less secure, although it may take years for this to be recognised.

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