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Archive for October, 2010

[Originally published in the Randolph Herald.]

Merriam Webster defines “imperialism” as: “the policy, practice, or advocacy of extending the power and dominion of a nation especially by direct territorial acquisitions or by gaining indirect control over the political or economic life of other areas; broadly: the extension or imposition of power, authority, or influence.”

We Americans don’t like to think of ourselves as imperialists, but given the foregoing definition, it would seem that we are.  Of course, we do not seek territorial acquisition.  We do what we do “for the good of the world.”  And therein lies the rub.

When we think of imperialism, we think of the classic empires—British, Roman, Ottoman, Persian, Russian. Such empires went out and militarily conquered other areas of the world.

No one can say that America did that. On the contrary, it is generally conceded that the American form of imperialism has been quite different, at least until Iraq.

American Imperialism began in the 1890s in the aftermath of the Spanish-American war. It brought us the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, all former Spanish possessions. Despite those territorial acquisitions, America added another page to the book begun by Christianity and Islam.  Just like those great religions, in the 20th century we based our imperialism on American exceptionalism—political, economic, and cultural power and influence, not on our military.

That has been the nature of American Imperialism. We are not like the conquering imperial armies and navies of the 19th century and before. As a nation driven by American exceptionalism, we are convinced that since our system is the best, we are bound to share it, by force if necessary, with the rest of the world.

Our motivation is not so different from that which drove our predecessor imperialists. We need markets and we are concerned with challengers. We are convinced that If we were able to install our system in Iraq, for example, then liberal democracy would spread like wildfire in Islam and we would have nothing to fear from fundamentalist terrorists. Since Iraq is essentially immune to our unique economic, political and cultural form of imperialism, we had to go at them militarily, but the result is the same. Our plan was that, after having demolished the existing government and installed one of our choosing, we would get out.

However, the ideal scenario for us involves pure economic, political and cultural penetration, resulting in a slow metamorphosis to liberal democracy.

Either way, military or nonmilitary, the world, particularly the Islamic world where our dreamers thought they would succeed, has not show much willingness to bend to our will.

Even if that were not the case, there is another critical issue. Does America have the goods to be successful imperialist power?

Liberal democracies don’t make good imperialists. In America today, we have the built-in possibility of extreme, electoral political change every two years. Radical policies, like the invasion of Iraq, can and do result in the architects of the policy getting booted out.

We have been sold counterterrorism as a long-term issue. The Bush Administration began the “War on Terror” and consistently referred to it as the “Long War”. They, as well as the Obama administration, saw this struggle in military terms, not realizing that military engagement with fundamentalist terrorism would lead inexorably to the unintended result of seeing counterterrorism morph into counterinsurgency and on into the export of democracy and nation building, all very long term issues.

We are an attention-deficit nation, unable or unwilling to follow one issue for any reasonable amount of time. Imperialism demands a level of patience, focus and persistence that is alien to us. Even under the most perfect circumstances, we change our leadership every eight years or less, far too short a time to be successful imperialists who must see their world in centuries rather than decades.

Just about every nation with a terrorism problem has found that the best counterterrorism programs are police- and intelligence-driven and that a military response is self-defeating.

In our military response, we have repudiated John Winthrop’s message, later echoed by Presidents Kennedy and Reagan: “For we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.”

Instead of setting ourselves as a model for others to emulate, we decided to militarily export our economic, political and cultural models abroad. It began over a century ago with America trying to find new markets for investment and ended up with Iraq and Afghanistan.

American politicians need to read and learn from history.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in East and West Europe and the Middle East and as chief of the Counterterrorism Staff.

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[Originally published in the Barre Times-Argus and Rutland Herald.]

During the endless deliberations that took place on U.S. policy toward Afghanistan during the summer and fall 2009, it became clear that the U.S. military establishment — as personified by Adm. Mullin and Gen. Petraeus — was vitally interested in proving that it could reach a successful conclusion in Afghanistan. The military seemed disinclined to consider any of the other factors involved in our Afghan commitment.

This entire episode is laid out in minute detail in Bob Woodward’s new book, “Obama’s Wars,” which is a fascinating read on the way the Obama administration builds military policy and the interplay between the White House and the Pentagon.

What is clear is that our military establishment was concerned primarily with its own goals and operations and far less concerned with the many other issues facing the administration and the nation.

In effect, the military leadership told the president that the only viable policy for Afghanistan would involve our commitment to six to eight additional years and almost $1 trillion.

Today’s military is probably correctly described as far more politically aware and attuned to the needs of the nation that it ever has been. After all, many of the military’s general officers have advanced degrees from some of our most prestigious universities.

It is not the purpose here to decide whether our efforts in Afghanistan are in our own national interest or not, good or bad, viable or hopeless. This is designed simply to enumerate some of the more difficult issues facing America right now and whether or not we can afford the costs of our military engagements in the Middle East and Asia.

It is generally conceded that one gallon of gas delivered to our troops in Afghanistan in 2009 cost $400. More recently, that has been revised upward to $800 because of the Pakistani closing of one of our routes to Afghanistan and the blowing up of fuel trucks.

In February 2010, the cost of the Afghan war was running $6.7 billion a month and the cost of Iraq was $5.5 billion. At those rates, the current cost of our military involvement in those theaters is verging on $150 billion per year. In fiscal year 2011, Afghanistan is projected to cost $117 billion, Iraq $46 billion. These figures will ultimately be revised upward by the costs we will be incurring in dealing with the long-term effects of the wars on hardware and, more important, on personnel.

As long as these wars are placing such a burden on our economy, it will be difficult for us to deal with the critical issues that face us at home. Quite simply, our national infrastructure, our public education system and our issues with energy demand a level of investment that will be impossible as long as these wars drag on.

Without major changes, those critical structural elements of our country will not support the kind of economic and political clout that will be required for us to maintain any sort of meaningful influence in the world. In short, our needs at home far outweigh our needs in the Middle East and Asia.

Finally, there seems to be a growing sub rosa debate in our military establishment concerning the appropriate role of the military in the formulation of military policy. A close read of Woodward’s book shows strong evidence of the military attempting to end-run the president on the timing and extent of the commitment of increased troop numbers to Afghanistan.

The role of our military establishment is to carry out the policies of our civilian leadership. It is not to determine policy from the cocoon of the Pentagon, but to do what any administration tells it to do. Such military decisions will and must be affected by other national realities of which the Pentagon should be aware, but should not be concerned. The role of those realities has always been considered by the White House.

The legal pre-eminence of our civilian leadership over and control of the military is completely established. The ongoing argument (http://www.ndu.edu/press/breaking-ranks.html) that an officer is obliged to refuse to carry out orders he finds morally objectionable cannot be supported in our democracy (http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/2010/09/breaking-ranks/), yet it apparently persists at all levels of the officer corps.

We are clearly approaching some sort of critical juncture where insubordination may play a role. The behavior of some of our military leadership around the two critical issues of Afghanistan and our well-being at home has no place in this liberal democracy.

There should be no question about the role of the military or the identity of the commander in chief.

Haviland Smith of Williston is a retired CIA station chief who served in Eastern and Western Europe and the Middle East and as chief of the counterterrorism staff.

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