Whack-A-Mole: Our Strategy for Permanent War

After Barack Obama announced his high-risk military campaign in the Middle East, some commentators raised the question of why -- given the decade of quagmire in Afghanistan and Iraq -- was there no exit strategy? The answer by now is obvious: There will be no exit.

The president says that we will defeat Islam in Iraq and Syria in three years. Active military people are less specific: "long time... extended conflict... as long as it takes..." Retired military are freer to say what they think. "We're not going to see an end to this in our lifetime," former Air Force General Charles F. Wald told the Washington Post.

"This" is not really just a fight against a vicious terrorist group. ISIS was the excuse, not the cause. There was no evidence that ISIS was plotting against the US. It is not only not associated with 9-11, it is an enemy of al Qaeda. Certainly, as gruesome as it was, the videotaped killing of two Americans who voluntarily went into a violent combat zone is not enough to justify war. Indeed, eight of the first 22 airstrikes were against an entirely different group, the hitherto unknown Khorasan.

Now we are told that Khorasan is even more dangerous than ISIS, which supplanted Syria's Bashar al-Assad as the biggest threat to civilization, who in turn had replaced al Qaeda as US Enemy Number One. Not to mention that the chaos out of which ISIS emerged was catalyzed by our own invasion of Iraq.

Politicians, pundits and a majority of the public have dutifully nodded their heads in assent to this rapidly morphing Most-Wanted list. There are arguments about tactics, but the question of why we are at war seems settled: "We had to do something!" End of discussion.

With enough time, enough pulverizing of hideouts, homes and hospitals, and enough money to buy the temporary loyalty of local militias and what remains of the Iraq army to do the dirty work on the ground, we may well chase ISIS and Khorasan back into the desert. But the war will not cease. Others will certainly pop up on our targeting screens out of the caldron of religious fanaticism, tribal hatreds and widespread anger against the West. And that anger will grow as the inevitable images of dead civilians and children screaming in pain are beamed throughout the Islamic world.

The President has acknowledged the open-endedness of his war. "I think it's important for us to recognize that ISIS is just one of a number of organizations that we have to stay focused on," Mr. Obama told CBS News on June 22. But, he added:

"what we can't do is think that we're just going to play whack-a-mole and send U.S. troops occupying various countries wherever these organizations pop up. We're going to have to have a more focused, more targeted strategy and we're going to have to partner and train local law enforcement and military to do their jobs as well."

But we have been "partnering" with local military and law enforcement for decades. In 2012, the Pentagon gave military assistance and training to 134 different countries. Additional aid to police departments goes to at least to at least 100 countries.

We have poured billions into training the Iraq and Afghanistan armies and police. Yet they can hardly defend themselves, much less their countries. Given that experience, the notion that the US can create a world in which other nations' are willing and able to stamp out every organization that the US State Department puts on its terrorist list defies history and common sense.

So, whack-a-mole is exactly what we are left with. Without US troops on the ground if we can avoid it, of course, but if we cannot avoid it, they will be sent.

It is becoming easier to send them. Congress long ago abandoned its constitutional duty to determine whether or not the country goes to war. George W. Bush showed how to whip up public hysteria by hyping false threats, such as "weapons of mass destruction," to the homeland And now Barack Obama -- whatever his initial hesitations -- has demonstrated to the bi-partisan Washington War Party how easily it is to roll their presumed natural opposition. The Washington Post-ABC poll reported that self-identified Liberal Democrats favor the re-bombing of Iraq 68-29. In effect, the military and national security apparatus now has a mandate to attack anyone anywhere it asserts might in some way in some time maybe do some damage to undefined US "interests.

The definition of insanity attributed to Albert Einstein is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. But Obama and the War Party are not insane. There is actually a logic to all of this. But it has nothing to do with protecting America, or Shias from the Sunnis or Sunnis from the Shias. Certainly it has nothing to do with building democracy or defending human rights. Or punishing violent thugs, a category that includes members of Obama's Middle East Coalition. The only explanation that makes sense for this policy is that it serves the US governing class in its determination to maintain its dominant influence in the world -- also known as Imperialism.

Whether you think it is benign or malevolent, the United States is the world's imperial power by any reasonable definition. Unlike older empires, it has not had to occupy nations in order to control them. The US political elite dominates through the reach of its vast store of technologically advanced weaponry and spy systems, through the world's dependence on the dollar, and through the international institutions that previous generations of American political leaders created to secure their interests -- NATO, the IMF, the World Bank, etc.

As with all empires, our heavy-handed presence around the world -- especially in the Middle East -- is creating an exhaustible supply of people who hate us (as well as a less inexhaustible supply of local elites who profit by our presence). Al Qaeda did not attack us on 9/11 because they didn't like our values, our culture or our democracy. They attacked us because we were there, taking sides in their religious and political conflicts.

Permanent empire means permanent war. But empires do not have to "win" wars nor destroy all their enemies. There are too many of them. The strategy is to keep them at bay in order to demonstrate the empire's capacity to inflict murderous punishment on those on its periphery who challenge it, i.e., whack-a-mole.

There was a time when you could argue that the empire was good for Americans. It still is for those in the armament and spying businesses, and for the US political and financial elites who get to be top-dogs in the global kennel of movers and shakers. But in our de-industrialized, indebted and deteriorating American economy, the cost-benefit calculus of war has shifted heavily to the cost side. The price is not just paid in tax dollars and forgone domestic investments. As the list of enemies inevitably grows, so will the potential threats to Americans. And in the name of protecting us from these threats, we will see a further curtailment of civil rights, suppression of dissent and pervasive government surveillance.

So far, our political discourse saves us from having to confront the fundamental motivation behind the policy of continuous armed intervention. Words like "empire" and "imperialism" do not appear in the mainstream media. We opt instead for the comforting euphemisms -- "exceptional," "unique," "indispensable." Neither will our leaders admit the obvious -- that we have volunteered to sacrifice our youth and our treasure to keep our right to be the world's policeman, judge, jury and executioner.

This allows both those who govern and those who are governed to avoid responsibility, and thus dishonors our democracy. At the very least, we owe that democracy an honest acknowledgement that we are now a society permanently at war, and a clear-eyed look at the costs of trying to maintain our global empire -- forever.