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The Golden Age of Special Operations

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Posted on May 29, 2012
Hans J E (CC BY-ND 2.0)

A member of a commando unit unfurls an American flag after parachuting from a plane at a military show in Georgia.

By Andrew J. Bacevich, TomDispatch

(Page 2)

As admiring spectators, we may take at face value the testimony of experts (even if such testimony is seldom disinterested) who assure us that the SEALs, Rangers, Green Berets, etc. are the best of the best, and that they stand ready to deploy at a moment’s notice so that Americans can sleep soundly in their beds.  If the United States is indeed engaged, as Admiral McRaven has said, in “a generational struggle,” we will surely want these guys in our corner.

Even so, allowing war in the shadows to become the new American way of war is not without a downside.  Here are three reasons why we should think twice before turning global security over to Admiral McRaven and his associates.

Goodbye accountability.  Autonomy and accountability exist in inverse proportion to one another.  Indulge the former and kiss the latter goodbye.  In practice, the only thing the public knows about special ops activities is what the national security apparatus chooses to reveal.  Can you rely on those who speak for that apparatus in Washington to tell the truth?  No more than you can rely on JPMorgan Chase to manage your money prudently.  Granted, out there in the field, most troops will do the right thing most of the time.  On occasion, however, even members of an elite force will stray off the straight-and-narrow.  (Until just a few weeks ago, most Americans considered White House Secret Service agents part of an elite force.)  Americans have a strong inclination to trust the military.  Yet as a famous Republican once said: trust but verify.  There’s no verifying things that remain secret.  Unleashing USSOCOM is a recipe for mischief.

Hello imperial presidency.  From a president’s point of view, one of the appealing things about special forces is that he can send them wherever he wants to do whatever he directs.  There’s no need to ask permission or to explain.  Employing USSOCOM as your own private military means never having to say you’re sorry.  When President Clinton intervened in Bosnia or Kosovo, when President Bush invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, they at least went on television to clue the rest of us in.  However perfunctory the consultations may have been, the White House at least talked things over with the leaders on Capitol Hill.  Once in a while, members of Congress even cast votes to indicate approval or disapproval of some military action.  With special ops, no such notification or consultation is necessary.  The president and his minions have a free hand.  Building on the precedents set by Obama, stupid and reckless presidents will enjoy this prerogative no less than shrewd and well-intentioned ones.

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And then what…?  As U.S. special ops forces roam the world slaying evildoers, the famous question posed by David Petraeus as the invasion of Iraq began—“Tell me how this ends”—rises to the level of Talmudic conundrum.  There are certainly plenty of evildoers who wish us ill (primarily but not necessarily in the Greater Middle East).  How many will USSOCOM have to liquidate before the job is done?  Answering that question becomes all the more difficult given that some of the killing has the effect of adding new recruits to the ranks of the non-well-wishers.

In short, handing war to the special operators severs an already too tenuous link between war and politics; it becomes war for its own sake.  Remember George W. Bush’s “Global War on Terror”?  Actually, his war was never truly global.  War waged in a special-operations-first world just might become truly global—and never-ending.  In that case, Admiral McRaven’s “generational struggle” is likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University and a TomDispatch regular.  He is editor of the book “The Short American Century,” just published by Harvard University Press. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Bacevich discusses what we don’t know about special operations forces,  click here or download it to your iPod here.

To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.

Copyright 2012 Andrew J. Bacevich

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