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Why America's Empire Never Achieves Its Goals

The U.S. military reigns supreme. Yet nowhere can it achieve its goals, however modest.

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Given the lack of enemies -- a few thousand jihadis, a small set of minority insurgencies, a couple of feeble regional powers -- why this is so, what exactly the force is that prevents Washington’s success, remains mysterious.  Certainly, it’s in some way related to the more than half-century of decolonization movements, rebellions, and insurgencies that were a feature of the previous century.

It also has something to do with the way economic heft has spread beyond the U.S., Europe, and Japan -- with the rise of the “tigers” in Asia, the explosion of the Chinese and Indian economies, the advances of Brazil and Turkey, and the movement of the planet toward some kind of genuine economic multipolarity.  It may also have something to do with the end of the Cold War, which put an end as well to several centuries of imperial or great power competition and left the sole “victor,” it now seems clear, heading toward the exits wreathed in self-congratulation.

Explain it as you will, it’s as if the planet itself, or humanity, had somehow been inoculated against the imposition of imperial power, as if it now rejected it whenever and wherever applied.  In the previous century, it took a half-nation, North Korea, backed by Russian supplies and Chinese troops to fight the U.S. to a draw, or a popular insurgent movement backed by a local power, North Vietnam, backed in turn by the Soviet Union and China to defeat American power.  Now, small-scale minority insurgencies, largely using roadside bombs and suicide bombers, are fighting American power to a draw (or worse) with no great power behind them at all.

Think of the growing force that resists such military might as the equivalent of the “dark matter” in the universe.  The evidence is in.  We now know (or should know) that it’s there, even if we can’t see it.

Washington's Wars on Autopilot

After the last decade of military failures, stand-offs, and frustrations, you might think that this would be apparent in Washington.  After all, the U.S. is now visibly an overextended empire, its sway waning from the Greater Middle East to Latin America, the limits of its power increasingly evident.  And yet, here’s the curious thing: two administrations in Washington have drawn none of the obvious conclusions, and no matter how the presidential election turns out, it’s already clear that, in this regard, nothing will change.

Even as military power has proven itself a bust again and again, our policymakers have come to rely ever more completely on a military-first response to global problems.  In other words, we are not just a classically overextended empire, but also an overwrought one operating on some kind of militarized autopilot.  Lacking is a learning curve.  By all evidence, it’s not just that there isn’t one, but that there can’t be one.

Washington, it seems, now has only one mode of thought and action, no matter who is at the helm or what the problem may be, and it always involves, directly or indirectly, openly or clandestinely, the application of militarized force.  Nor does it matter that each further application only destabilizes some region yet more or undermines further what once were known as “American interests.”

Take Libya, as an example.  It briefly seemed to count as a rare American military success story: a decisive intervention in support of a rebellion against a brutal dictator -- so brutal, in fact, that the CIA previously shipped “terrorist suspects,” Islamic rebels fighting against the Gaddafi regime, there for torture.  No U.S. casualties resulted, while American and NATO air strikes were decisive in bringing a set of ill-armed, ill-organized rebels to power.