The Middlebury Campus

SHARP LEFT: The Familiar Sound of Rattling Sabers

By TEVAN GOLDBERG

Here’s some unrequested food for thought: How would you feel if the United States and China decided in, say, 2021, to just go at it in a 20th-century style total war over some latter-day Franz Ferdinand incident? Or how about the scenario of joining Saudi Arabia and Israel in blowing Iran to bits? Sound fun? Or perhaps it’s soon time to patriotically defend American homeland security by turning Latvia into an open pit while doing battle with Vladimir Putin? This probably sounds ridiculous to you — sheer juvenile alarmism from someone without nearly enough degrees or Oscar nominations to permit such idle geopolitical speculation in public. And while that is an accurate indictment, I think that versions of these hypotheticals are more possible than is generally discussed today in our hyper-distractible, reality TV show of a country.

This is especially relevant now after the recent nominations of avowed warmongers Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State and former UN Ambassador John “There is no UN” Bolton as national security advisor, two men who have dedicated their public careers to wholeheartedly advocating for bloodshed over diplomacy. Undisguised military aggression, almost for its own sake, could soon come back into vogue in a way not seen since the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003. What is particularly worrisome is that all this is occurring simultaneously with the outward military expansion of China, and to a lesser extent Russia, raising the possibility of confrontation in one of the many far-flung places that the US has stationed its military.

Thus the quiet yet strategically monumental proclamation from the Pentagon earlier this year that “great power competition — not terrorism — is now the primary focus of U.S. national security,” as reported in the New York Times’ story “America First Bears a New Threat: Military Force” by David Sanger and Gardiner Harris last month. Why we would ever want to go back to great power competition is truly beyond me, given that it’s hardly been a century since the great powers of Europe obliterated each other for the sake of such manly “competition.” As security scholar Michael Klare pointed out in his piece “The New Long War” for Tomdispatch last week, if the world is to be split along three spheres of influence, as the Pentagon would now have it, we would be looking at a militarized zone thousands of miles long through some of the world’s most volatile regions. Under our new über-aggressive “leadership,” the potential for local conflicts to escalate in any of these border zones, like Syria or the South China Sea, could easily drag us into an unnecessary war, much as inter-Balkan squabbling nearly destroyed Europe a century ago. Great power competition is not great; it is what gave us the Cuban missile crisis, the Battle of the Somme, and the countless deadly proxy wars of the 20th century. It is a dangerous, idiotic and unproductive idea totally ill-suited to a world with nuclear weapons, a globalized economy and borderless ecological problems.

It is so ill-suited to our present moment that one cannot but think that its resurgence, with the accompanying jingoism, nostalgia and xenophobia, is somehow a psychological reaction to an increasingly unrecognizable and complicated world. Within the stunted emotional headspace of our president and his similarly minded circle, American exceptionalism cannot be dead when our military is still the exception in size. Without being too reductively Freudian, I might suggest that such a fixation on projecting power and “security” betrays the presence of a certain… insecurity. Pointing missiles at things and blowing up the occasional Syrian town will not solve unemployment, resource scarcity, institutional racism, climate change or any other of our real “wicked problems,” but it can give for some the illusion of control over chaos, that our “way of life” can and shall be protected from the enemy. I imagine a similar line of thought occurs among the Russian ruling class.

On another note, I find this strategic realignment pretty incredible given that the U.S. military is still currently engaged in numerous regional conflicts under the now tired pretense of fighting “terrorism,” squandering untold billions of resources and further disintegrating the Middle East and Africa. Are they actually saying that after almost 20 years of NSA surveillance, regime changes and drone strikes, shoddily justified as protecting Americans and the world from transparently evil terrorists and rogue states on the brink of success, our “War on Terror” is so easily reclassified as a secondary issue?

This just shows that “national security” is and always has been a thinly veiled euphemism for “excuse to keep a planetary military 70 years after WWII.” Mike Pompeo knows this well, having made his fortune selling aerospace parts to defense contractors like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon before a Koch-funded run for Congress in 2010. Far too many people have profited off of this state of affairs for too many years to agree to the proposition that international war should be relegated to the historical trash heap. John Bolton has as few friends and relatives in Damascus as he does in the Army rank and file; Beltway security professionals have as much to gain from this continued belligerence as those actually present for the conflicts have to lose.

Friends, the best time to oppose a war is before it is allowed to start. I have few illusions that people in the Pentagon actually care what you and I think about this stuff, but it is important that we not bury our heads in the sand and pretend that superpowers can’t fight wars anymore.

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