Not long ago, Greg Jaffe, the Washington Post’s military correspondent, wrote that ‘this is the American era of endless war.’ Endless war manifestly does not suggest any eagerness to use military power with an eye towards liberating or pacifying countries governed by regimes that Washington happens to dislike. Post-9/11 experiments along those lines in Iraq and Afghanistan yielded little but disappointment. The American people have lost their stomach for invasions that lead to long-term military occupations, with all that implies in terms of casualties suffered and money poured down the drain. When Robert Gates said that anyone advising a future president ‘to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined’, he was codifying sentiments that had long since found favour with the American public.
For a democracy, waging endless war poses a challenge. There are essentially two ways to do it. The first is for the state to persuade the people that the country faces an existential threat. This is what the Bush administration attempted to do after 9/11, for a time with notable success. Scaremongering made possible the invasion of Iraq. Had Operation Iraqi Freedom produced the victory expected by its architects, scaremongering would probably have led in due course to Operation Iranian Freedom and Operation Syrian Freedom. But Iraq led to an outcome that Americans proved unwilling to underwrite.
The second way is for the state to insulate the people from war’s effects, thereby freeing itself from constraints. A people untouched (or seemingly untouched) by war are far less likely to care about it. Persuaded that they have no skin in the game, they will permit the state to do whatever it wishes to do. This is the approach the Obama administration is now pursuing: first through the expanded use of aerial drones for both intelligence gathering and ‘targeted’ assassination; and, second, through the expanded deployment of covert special operations forces around the world, such as the team that killed Osama bin Laden. The New York Times reported today that the head of the Special Operations Command ‘is seeking new authority to move his forces faster and outside of normal Pentagon deployment channels’.
Drones and special forces are the essential elements of a new American way of war, conducted largely in secret with minimal oversight or accountability and disregarding established concepts of sovereignty and international law. Bush’s critics charge him with being a warmonger. But Obama has surpassed his predecessor in shedding any remaining restraints on waging war.
How exactly the new American way of war will promote the longterm well-being of the United States is unclear. Indeed, the question goes almost unasked. All we know is that there are a lot of people out there who qualify as bad guys. And we aim to kill them all.