War Without End

That’s what Jack Shafer fears Obama has launched:

A war with a conclusion that its participants can’t see or can’t imagine is a war without end. None of the dig-in parties in Syria and Iraq look like pushovers, but neither do any of them look like sure bets. Without American intervention, the current war will likely rage on. With regard to American intervention, not even the Pentagon dares to predict an end.

For Americans, at least so far, this war is rumbling on like background noise. The usual markers of military victory—body-counts tabulated, territories seized and banked, no-fly zones established, governments-in-waiting imposed, and elections supervised—don’t apply to the Syria war. The borders, combatants, allegiances, and military objectives in the Syrian war are too fluid to conform to our usual expectations. Nor do the usual markers of peace seem to exist. There are no peace talks taking shape, no shuttle diplomacy, no evidence of a dominant power about to exert its might to create a lasting peace by flattening everybody.

One way of looking at this is to ask: what should we call this war? Is it, as the Obama administration ludicrously argues, merely an extension of the war against al Qaeda, begin in 2001? Is it a new war on Syria – a sovereign state we have now bombed with no UN authorization? Is it a continuation of the 2003 Iraq War? Or was the 2003 war effectively a continuation of the Gulf War in 1991? I cannot decide. When you have so many over-lapping wars, most without any understanding of “victory”, and when the CIA launches covert wars all over the world all the time anyway, and when a conservative Republican president and his liberal Democratic successor both agree on the necessity of an endless war that creates the terrorism that justifies more war, it’s bewildering. One is reduced to quoting the Onion:

Declaring that the terrorist organization’s actions can no longer be ignored, President Obama vowed Wednesday that the United States would use precision airstrikes for as long as needed to ensure that ISIS is divided into dozens of extremist splinter groups. “ISIS poses a significant threat to U.S. interests both overseas and at home, and that is why we are committed to a limited military engagement that will fracture the terrorist network’s leadership and consequently create a myriad of smaller cells, each with its own violent, radical agenda,” said Obama during a primetime address to the nation.

Gitmo remains open; we are still at war in Afghanistan; we are still at war in Iraq; and all this is true despite a president elected explicitly and clearly to end the failed wars he inherited. This comes perilously close to proving that our democracy doesn’t really have much of a say in whether this perpetual war should continue or not. The public just wants “something to be done” in response to videos of beheadings, and seems to have little interest in carefully processing the pros and cons or unintended consequences – even after the catastrophe of the Iraq War under Bush! And here’s what happened when the Senate “debated” the authorization for military force against ISIS … and it’s not from the Onion:

The Senate debate did not fill up the allotted time, so at one point a senator devoted time to praising the Baltimore Orioles for their successful baseball season.

Those who argue that the US is in terminal decline, its democracy attenuated, its leaders interchangeable in a perpetual war based on no threats to the United States, have some more evidence on their side from the last couple of months. We are told, in response, that we live in a new world, in which these amorphous threats really do require a forever war to pre-empt and forestall them. But we can never know exactly what those threats really are – because it’s all classified.

I feel, I have to confess, helpless in the face of this – and my job requires me to understand these issues as well as anyone. What of other Americans, going on with their lives, struggling to make ends meet much of the time, barely able to digest what’s left of the news? It’s a recipe for passivity and acceptance, as the CIA and the Pentagon and their myriad lobbyists and fear-mongers do what they want – with no accountability even for war crimes, let alone policy mistakes.

I listened to the president yesterday – unrecognizable from the past. His embrace of the forever war paradigm is a real moment in American history. It is the moment when we must come to the realization that there really is no going back now. This is for ever.