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Home > English > Website archives > Rainbow of Crisis > Militarism & Global Tensions Rise Together


Militarism & Global Tensions Rise Together

Friday 19 September 2008, by Phyllis Bennis

This past weekend’s latest economic crisis, in which powerful investment banks and some of the wealthiest stock brokerages faced bankruptcy or dissolution by buy-out, has again made clear the rapidly declining power of the U.S. economy ? though it remains, for the moment, the largest (and one of the most unequal) in the world. But declining economic power does not mean collapse of the empire. It means, in this case, a dangerous turn towards even greater unilateral militarism ? since Washington’s military power remains strategically unchallengeable, even while its economic base declines, and its military remains incapable of defeating the actual challengers Washington has chosen to fight.

As the U.S. flounders, Russia is rising. Its newly sky-high oil wealth, driven by the exorbitant price of crude, has fueled a level of political, economic and at least partly military assertiveness quite new for post-Soviet Russia. Moscow is reclaiming its role in the world ? as Ronald Steel described it in the New York Times, "A Superpower is Reborn." In Georgia, the U.S.-supported Georgian president appeared to believe he could act as the Israel of the Caucuses, and that the U.S. would back his every move, however provocative. So far, he appears to have been wrong. Instead, the crisis showed both the capacity and the willingness of Moscow to stand up to U.S. efforts (backed only tepidly by most of Europe) to encircle Russia with new NATO members, block Russian oil and gas sales, and challenge the growing Russia-Iran oil alliance. New U.S. pressures on Latin American countries ? especially Bolivia and Venezuela ? trying to challenge U.S. models of economic development are pushing those countries towards closer ties with Iran, and potentially Russia, further setting the stage for global bi-polarity. Whether the Georgia crisis itself segues into a renewed long-term cold war-style conflict between Russia and the U.S. is unclear, but certainly possible. For example, diplomatic sources at the UN indicate that what happens between the U.S. and Russia in the next three months will likely determine how Russia voted on extending the UN mandate for the occupation of Iraq, if that should come to the Security Council. If that vote were held today, they say, there is no question Russia would cast its veto.

This is an issue on which there is a potentially wide gap between the two candidates’ positions. While Obama has taken a generally pro-Georgian, anti-Russian position, he has called for negotiations, and specifically for a major role for the UN rather than unilateral U.S. decision-making. McCain, on the other hand, relies on his top foreign policy adviser Randy Schoeneman, a long-time neo-con and former lobbyist (to the tune of $800,000) for the Georgian president. Schoeneman, one of the drafters of the Project for a New American Century paper in the 1990s, remains one of the leading voices for uncritical and unlimited support ? including military support and backing of NATO membership for Georgia. McCain’s harsh anti-Russian rhetoric seems to mean an end to his earlier calls for new negotiations with Russia on nuclear disarmament issues.

In the meantime, the Bush administration is escalating its own end-of-term arm-the-world campaign. The Pentagon this year will give or sell $32 billion in U.S. weapons and other military goods this year ? up from the already staggering $12 billion of 2005. And the weapons now are not only basic conventional arms and equipment, but rather some of the most sophisticated new parts of the Pentagon’s arsenal ?things like remotely-piloted drone aircraft, high-tech missiles, warships, and more. A top Air Force official said the weapons surge is "not about being gun-runners. This is about building a more secure world."

For the Pentagon, maybe. For Iraqis the world is far from secure. Their country remains violent, unstable, impoverished, divided and occupied. The reduction in violence is more and more shaky. The Pentagon’s "surge" troops in some areas are being redeployed out of major city centers, but not pulled out entirely ? like in Anbar province, where a high-profile U.S. "hand-over" of the city to Iraqi forces gave the appearance of a troop withdrawal, despite the reality that the 28,000 U.S. troops are remaining in the province. The difference will be fewer U.S. casualties, but not fewer Iraqi dead. The "Awakening" movement, largely Sunni militants disenchanted with extremist violence against Iraqi civilians and bought off by $300/month from the U.S. now face being turned over to the Iraqi government. They’re not happy; some are already turning against the Iraqi army, some will likely turn against the U.S. troops as well. One U.S. officer admitted the Anbar "hand-over" does not mean the situation is any more secure. The decline in violence is not permanent.

The U.S.-Iraqi negotiations over legalizing the occupation remain stalled. Neither Bush nor Maliki want to end the unpopular U.S. occupation but both face coming elections and political opposition. So both sides agree on seeking a "time horizon" to withdraw troops. Their dodge is rooted in the very definition of a "horizon" ? it may be very beautiful, but you can never get there. The more serious disagreement is over immunity for U.S. troops and mercenaries; Washington may give in on the contractors, but is demanding full and complete immunity for U.S. soldiers regardless of what they do to Iraqi civilians. So far, Baghdad has rebuffed the demand; we’ll see if that lasts.

In Afghanistan more and more civilians are being killed, mostly by U.S. air strikes. With insufficient troops for the huge counter-insurgency challenge, air strikes are becoming more and more central to U.S. strategy. NATO forces are fewer than ever, and many are restricted by their governments and not allowed to fight except immediate self-defense. As a result, the 35,000 or so U.S. troops are stretched thinner than ever, and have no better hope of "defeating" this classic Afghan insurgency than the British almost a century ago, or the Soviets a quarter century back.

The escalating war in Afghanistan will almost certainly vie with Iraq as the major challenge facing the anti-war movement after the election. Both candidates call for sending more troops to Afghanistan. While McCain cheered Bush’s announced plan to send 4,500 more troops to Afghanistan in coming months, Obama criticized the troop increase as insufficient. McCain appears to be planning to escalate all troop levels in all U.S. military arenas ? not clear where he thinks the troops will come from. Obama, perhaps recognizing the likely failure of his Berlin call for Germany and the rest of Europe to send more troops, has staked out the position of withdrawing U.S. "combat troops" from Iraq, only to send some, most or all of them to a newly expanded war in Afghanistan. There is a particular danger with this escalation because of the still-widespread view among Americans, including many progressive and anti-war people and opinion-makers, that Afghanistan remains the "good" war, the war that should have remained central but was undermined by the "bad" war in Iraq. In fact Afghanistan was never a "good" war ? it was not a war of self-defense, or a war for justice ? it was a war for retribution and retaliation. It never had a chance of "winning hearts and minds" away from the Taliban, and it should surprise no one that support for the Taliban is already growing, in parallel with the Pentagon’s civilian casualties. The recent horrific U.S. airstrike, in which UN investigators confirm 90 civilians were killed, perhaps 60 of them children, is not an anomaly. And there will be more.

As to other potential hot spots, Iran has been slightly out of the crosshairs in recent weeks, but the pressure continues. A group of five former secretaries of state (Kissinger, Baker, Christopher, Albright, and Powell) recently agreed on the need to talk to Iran ? with Christopher noting that "the military options are very poor, and we have to tell the Israelis that." But the danger of a U.S. attack remains serious. One of the biggest anti-war triumphs this year has been the reduction of congressional support for House Resolution 362, which would require essentially a U.S. naval blockade against Iran to carry out "inspections" of ships, planes, trains, heading to or from Iran to search for materials prohibited by U.S. or Security Council sanctions. House leaders may try to keep it from a vote. That victory should be celebrated ? but the resolution is still pending.

U.S. government and media voices continue to claim that Iran is responsible for the deaths of American soldiers in Iraq, and have recently broadened their propaganda to claim that Iran is providing weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan ?ignoring the long and bitter animosity between Iran and the Taliban. There are key differences here between the candidates; McCain’s "bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran" lyrics were chillingly clear; Obama’s call for direct negotiations a relative relief, but Obama too says the "military option" should remain on the table.

Israel also continues to threaten an attack on Iran, although there are indications the U.S. is not guaranteeing Tel Aviv a green light. One sign may be the U.S. offer to provide a defensive missile shield to Israel, ostensibly to protect it from a possible Iranian attack. One consequence would be the anti-missile complex, to be run largely by private contractors but including two uniformed U.S. soldiers as well as a U.S. flag, would mark the first actual U.S. military base on Israeli territory. It would mean that any attack on Israel would almost certainly amount to a physical attack directly on the U.S. (It would also limit somewhat Israel’s freedom of military action, which may lead to an Israeli political rejection of the U.S. offer.)

And in Pakistan, the second front of the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. is continuing to escalate its direct attacks ? now including ground invasions as well as air assaults ? despite opposition from the Pakistani government. Despite claiming to support the new more or less pro-U.S. government in Islamabad, Bush has authorized ground invasions regardless of Pakistani government approval. So far, the new U.S. government has only hesitantly stated its opposition to the U.S. strikes, but the military, which remains a key institution in Pakistani society, has been far tronger in condemning the U.S. attacks. Again both candidates have supported unilateral U.S. strikes into Pakistani territory, regardless of the views of Pakistan’s government.

We have a lot of work to do. In Holly’s words again, "In these coming weeks, the ones I’m concerned about are those who are deeply tied to a single issue, are clinging to some old notion of political purity or are sunk in cynicism. How do we reach them and say, ’You don’t have to vote naively, but I beg you to vote strategically.’ I’m guessing people in Chile would have preferred a centralist to Pinochet!"

Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington and the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. You can see more of her work at and