Enter the Engelhardt Gap, which really ought to replace the Lippmann Gap as the touchstone of strategic analysis. It consists of the yawning chasm opened up over the past decade featuring, on the one side, an American military giant that far outclasses the rest of the world in overall expenditures and destructive power and, on the other, a state whose actual uses of military power produce no benefits and lead to pernicious consequences. The theory behind building such an awesome destructive force is that force retains great utility; experience shows that its utility is, as it were, subzero, operating with utmost effectiveness as a machine for destabilization and blowback but invariably incapable of achieving its announced objects.
The Engelhardt Gap derives its name from Tom Engelhardt, editor of the website TomDispatch, which features some of the best writing on the web. One of his contributors, Andrew Bacevich, has described The Gap in great detail, really given chapter and verse of the thing, but has not named it. Nor has Engelhardt. It needs a name. The phenomenon it discloses is of the utmost consequence.
The following extracts come from a recent Engelhardt essay asking "What Planet Are We On?"--or "Why Washington Can’t Stop: The Coming Era of Tiny Wars and Micro-Conflicts.” You would do best to read the whole thing, but these extracts give the gist:
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In terms of pure projectable power, there’s never been anything like it. Its military has divided the world -- the whole planet -- into six “commands.” Its fleet, with 11 aircraft carrier battle groups, rules the seas and has done so largely unchallenged for almost seven decades. Its Air Force has ruled the global skies, and despite being almost continuously in action for years, hasn’t faced an enemy plane since 1991 or been seriously challenged anywhere since the early 1970s. Its fleet of drone aircraft has proven itself capable of targeting and killing suspected enemies in the backlands of the planet from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Yemen and Somalia with little regard for national boundaries, and none at all for the possibility of being shot down. It funds and trains proxy armies on several continents and has complex aid and training relationships with militaries across the planet. On hundreds of bases, some tiny and others the size of American towns, its soldiers garrison the globe from Italy to Australia, Honduras to Afghanistan, and on islands from Okinawa in the Pacific Ocean to Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. Its weapons makers are the most advanced on Earth and dominate the global arms market. Its nuclear weaponry in silos, on bombers, and on its fleet of submarines would be capable of destroying several planets the size of Earth. Its system of spy satellites is unsurpassed and unchallenged. Its intelligence services can listen in on the phone calls or read the emails of almost anyone in the world from top foreign leaders to obscure insurgents. The CIA and its expanding paramilitary forces are capable of kidnapping people of interest just about anywhere from rural Macedonia to the streets of Rome and Tripoli. For its many prisoners, it has set up (and dismantled) secret jails across the planet and on its naval vessels. It spends more on its military than the next most powerful 13 states combined. Add in the spending for its full national security state and it towers over any conceivable group of other nations. . . .
Despite this stunning global power equation, for more than a decade we have been given a lesson in what a military, no matter how overwhelming, can and (mostly) can’t do in the twenty-first century, in what a military, no matter how staggeringly advanced, does and (mostly) does not translate into on the current version of planet Earth.
Let’s start with what the U.S. can do. On this, the recent record is clear: it can destroy and destabilize. In fact, wherever U.S. military power has been applied in recent years, if there has been any lasting effect at all, it has been to destabilize whole regions. . . .
It’s now clear that George W. Bush and his top officials, fervent fundamentalists when it came to the power of U.S. military to alter, control, and dominate the Greater Middle East (and possibly the planet), did launch the radical transformation of the region. Their invasion of Iraq punched a hole through the heart of the Middle East, sparking a Sunni-Shiite civil war that has now spread catastrophically to Syria, taking more than 100,000 lives there. They helped turn the region into a churning sea of refugees, gave life and meaning to a previously nonexistent al-Qaeda in Iraq (and now a Syrian version of the same), and left the country drifting in a sea of roadside bombs and suicide bombers, and threatened, like other countries in the region, with the possibility of splitting apart.
And that’s just a thumbnail sketch. It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about destabilization in Afghanistan, where U.S. troops have been on the ground for almost 12 years and counting; Pakistan, where a CIA-run drone air campaign in its tribal borderlands has gone on for years as the country grew ever shakier and more violent; Yemen (ditto), as an outfit called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula grew ever stronger; or Somalia, where Washington repeatedly backed proxy armies it had trained and financed, and supported outside incursions as an already destabilized country came apart at the seams and the influence of al-Shabab, an increasingly radical and violent insurgent Islamic group, began to seep across regional borders. The results have always been the same: destabilization. . . .
Consider this one of the wonders of the modern world: pile up the military technology, pour money into your armed forces, outpace the rest of the world, and none of it adds up to a pile of beans when it comes to making that world act as you wish. Yes, in Iraq, to take an example, Saddam Hussein’s regime was quickly “decapitated,” thanks to an overwhelming display of power and muscle by the invading Americans. His state bureaucracy was dismantled, his army dismissed, an occupying authority established backed by foreign troops, soon ensconced on huge multibillion-dollar military bases meant to be garrisoned for generations, and a suitably “friendly” local government installed.
And that’s where the Bush administration’s dreams ended in the rubble created by a set of poorly armed minority insurgencies, terrorism, and a brutal ethnic/religious civil war. In the end, almost nine years after the invasion and despite the fact that the Obama administration and the Pentagon were eager to keep U.S. troops stationed there in some capacity, a relatively weak central government refused, and they departed, the last representatives of the greatest power on the planet slipping away in the dead of night. Left behind among the ruins of historic ziggurats were the “ghost towns” and stripped or looted U.S. bases that were to be our monuments in Iraq. . . .
What planet are we now on? Why is it that military power, the mightiest imaginable, can’t overcome, pacify, or simply destroy weak powers, less than impressive insurgency movements, or the ragged groups of (often tribal) peoples we label as “terrorists”? Why is such military power no longer transformative or even reasonably effective? . . .
It’s clear enough that Washington still can’t fully absorb what’s happened. Its faith in war remains remarkably unbroken in a century in which military power has become the American political equivalent of a state religion. Our leaders are still high on the counterterrorism wars of the future, even as they drown in their military efforts of the present. Their urge is still to rejigger and reimagine what a deliverable military solution would be.
Now the message is: skip those boots en masse -- in fact, cut down on their numbers in the age of the sequester -- and go for the counterterrorism package. No more spilling of (American) blood. Get the “bad guys,” one or a few at a time, using the president’s private army, the Special Operations forces, or his private air force, the CIA’s drones. Build new barebones micro-bases globally. Move those aircraft carrier battle groups off the coast of whatever country you want to intimidate.
It’s clear we’re entering a new period in terms of American war making. Call it the era of tiny wars, or micro-conflicts, especially in the tribal backlands of the planet.
So something is indeed changing in response to military failure, but what’s not changing is Washington's preference for war as the option of choice, often of first resort. What’s not changing is the thought that, if you can just get your strategy and tactics readjusted correctly, force will work. (Recently, Washington was only saved from plunging into another predictable military disaster in Syria by an offhand comment of Secretary of State John Kerry and the timely intervention of Russian President Vladimir Putin.)
What our leaders don’t get is the most basic, practical fact of our moment: war simply doesn’t work, not big, not micro -- not for Washington. A superpower at war in the distant reaches of this planet is no longer a superpower ascendant but one with problems.
The U.S. military may be a destabilization machine. It may be a blowback machine. What it’s not is a policymaking or enforcement machine.* * *