By William Pfaff
Editor’s note: This column has been revised since it was originally posted.
The WikiLeaks thus far published are less interesting for their content, which reveals very little that was not already obvious or predictable to anyone who follows American foreign policy and international relations, as for the motivation for collecting all this information (and gossip). Its reporting must have burdened the State Department’s communications system and clogged its analytic capacities ever since the system was established by the Bush administration to centralize information.
Why is all this necessary? It obviously originated in the American government belief that for the nation to be saved from terrorist enemies it was necessary that Washington D.C. have extensive intelligence about, and with that, the possibility of control or potential control, over all possible American enemies: the hostile big nations, but especially the minor Islamic states seen as vulnerable to religious extremism, and therefore to infiltration and exploitation by terrorist movements. U.S. officials took seriously Harvard professor Samuel Huntington’s theory about a forthcoming war between civilizations, irresponsible and biased as the theory was.
The elaborated information-gathering system, based on traditional diplomatic note-taking and analytic reporting, provided material for intimidation or blackmail as well as the general and background information necessary to policy-making in Washington. But what policy was all this meant to serve? Initially, it was President Bush’s dramatic but intellectually puerile “Global War on Terror.” It was the war in Iraq that dominated policy between 2003 and last year (and may dominate it again).
Beyond that war, and the parallel Israeli-inspired preoccupation with the supposed nuclear threat from Iran, what did American policy become? The WikiLeaks reveal the irrelevance in much of what was being reported by American diplomats. There was no recognizable pattern or purpose. To make use of Churchill’s famous comment on a dessert (as the American language has it) set before him to close a dinner: “This pudding has no theme.” Churchill sent it back. Today, American foreign policy can’t be sent back to be given a coherent theme. That is what the 2008 election was supposed to do—but it didn’t, as last November’s election confirmed.
The same problem has been apparent in the regularly issued U.S. Department of Defense National Defense Strategy (NDS).
During the Cold War, these described clear military issues. Since, they have become compendiums of things to be done, not to achieve a positive goal, but to prevent other countries from interfering with unfocused American military actions anywhere and for whatever reason.
The three principal listed missions in the last Bush-era Defense Strategy statement were first to conduct “a global struggle against a violent extremist ideology.” Next was to deal with “the rogue nation quest for nuclear weapons” (specific enough: except that there are rogue nations and rogue nations; under both Bush and Obama presidencies, India and Pakistan have possessed secretly and illegally constructed nuclear forces. But they are America’s good friends. Pakistan has posed a trickier question). The third strategy statement mission was to confront “the rising military power of other states.” Well, yes.
When it got to specifics, the last-named category ordered the military services to develop “creative approaches to deny extremists the opportunity to gain footholds” in “ungoverned, under-governed, misgoverned and contested areas” that affect local stability and regional security.
With respect to powerful states, America’s forces were told that they confronted “the possibility of challenges ... to the United States in some or all domains of traditional warfare [and foreign efforts] to gain an advantage by developing capabilities that offset our own [as well as by choosing] niche areas of military capability and competition in which [such states] might find a strategic or operational advantage,” even though some of these competitors may also be “diplomatic, commercial or security partners of the United States.” So, watch out, Europe!
The above quotations are from the 2008 NDS, replaced in May 2010 by the Obama administration with a document that easily surpasses the earlier one in platitudinous mission statements. It orders the Pentagon to invest in “a strong, agile, well-trained, and well-equipped U.S. military that can fight and win the nation’s wars.” Which wars? American generals, and the international public, need to know this military’s missions in Afghanistan, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, the Western Sahara—to name just a few of the countries reported upon in the WikiLeaks.
President Barack Obama said last week that the most important task in Afghanistan is to “defeat” al-Qaida. What does this mean? Osama bin Laden or the Mullah Omar under a white flag at the gate of the presidential residence in Kabul? Or the Iraq-style American mega-embassy scheduled to be built? In a country with a population of over 31 million people, 38 percent of them ethnic Pashtuns, the latter all theoretically susceptible to the appeal of their Taliban kinsmen to join the fight against the infidel American invaders and occupiers, how are they expected to surrender to Gen. Petraeus? Get in a line? Or will Petraeus find a new assignment?
The WikiLeaks have done Americans and others the service of revealing the global, and yet ultimately futile, surveillance and power ambitions of the American government. It disguises these to itself, as well as to the public, as a mission to install global democracy. The actual result is the installation of a version of mounting anarchy in the Middle East and Central and South Asia, from which all will tragically suffer. Eventually, the U.S. is likely to suffer the most. Morally and politically, it already has.
Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy,” at www.williampfaff.com.
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