The “dirty war” is over. From now on, Washington will intervene from the shadows. Will this be more effective? Caroline Galactéros doubts it, and sheds light on what is at stake with this strategy.
America is no longer what it once was. Its president has decided to withdraw from aggressive intervention in world affairs. The imperial flame, which is both destabilizing and protective, although not for the same people, has been extinguished. Europe has been abandoned to its troubles, the Middle East to fire and blood, and Africa to the mercy of the highest bidder. From now on, Washington will concentrate its residual strategic energy on the containment of Chinese power, which is strengthening more and more each day and is a concern.
These conclusions do not take into account the complexity of American policy, which has been forced to reinvent itself. The use of terms such as “light footprint,” “leadership from behind” or even the “pivot toward Asia” marks a change in American foreign policy which, since the election of Barack Obama in 2008, has signaled a desire to break with the past.
New Forms of Warfare
This is a mutation, not a revolution. Washington’s innovative semantics, created to force its strategic readjustment onto its allies, are not what they seem. Certainly, America has drawn some lessons from the global war on terror undertaken by George W. Bush after the humiliation of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, but America’s political legitimacy and moral credibility have been destroyed in the quicksand of Iraq and Afghanistan. All wars are “dirty,” but these “dirty wars” have exhausted the American spirit and economy without liberating very much, and the massive deployment of troops on the ground has not achieved the expected results.
So, out with the “boots on the ground” and long live the almost gracious “light footprint.” This is made possible by the use of collected special forces that are almost invisible but make a big impression. From now on, this will be Washington’s favored tactic, along with the widespread use of drones and cyber warfare. It is too late to put on a display of force; it is now time to demonstrate power through the use of the shortest possible shock tactics. Here the aim is to strike the enemy intensively and with the greatest possible precision before withdrawing with the belief that the problem has been solved. This is a bit like the “fire and forget” system which defined the third generation of tactical missiles.
So, a “light footprint on the ground,” but not in the air. The technical utopia which is at full play here illustrates the huge technological advantage American forces still enjoy. This is used to justify defense budgets that are still colossal, and to feed the greedy military industrial complex and its massive knock-on effect on the civilian economy.
These preferred new tools for intervention do not, however, date from Obama’s presidency. They were conceived under George W. Bush and even under Bill Clinton. The current president has accepted this inheritance and added “Obama’s touch,” which in no way consists of wiping out or returning to some sort of isolationism. As chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times David Sanger has summarized, it is above all a question of quietly installing a secret “hard power” policy. Conventional wars — which are militarily uncertain, swamp the media and are politically costly — are substituted for shadow wars. Here, only a few spectacular military engagements are made public, for good or bad, such as the raid against bin Laden or Operation Olympic Games, a covert campaign against the Iranian nuclear program.
No Congressional Control
Keeping American and world populations in the dark about military confrontations has the advantage of gradually leading to indifference. This means that the atrocities and limitations of such confrontations no longer prick people’s consciences. It is the new American way of war. President Obama has thus become the all-powerful master of the kill list. Currently, he has the power to order targeted assassinations without any congressional control, which are carried out by the CIA’s armed drones in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen. According to South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who in 2013 inconveniently broke the wall of silence, this course of action may have created nearly 5,000 victims since 2004. In any case, it provokes strong political controversy. There is a lack of transparency and of any legal framework, and it sets a dangerous precedent. If Vladimir Putin did the same thing, would America legitimately be able to argue against this practice? This policy certainly casts a menacing shadow over the sanctuaries of Islamic terror, but should we really rejoice in that? Nothing is less certain, because although the war may have disappeared from our daily lives here, it has erupted over there to affect many innocent families. The symbolism of an armed drone as a weapon of counter-insurrection — which by sleight of hand transforms ground combat and deprives the enemy of the enemy of life — is in effect a powerful and harmful fuel that feeds the radicalization of terrified populations and does not always save lives. There is talk of more than 1,000 civilian victims.
Regarding the pivot toward Asia, or the Asia rebalancing strategy, there again, the strategy reinforces the siege mentality of a China freed from its position as a restrained power, determined to obstruct American projects, notably the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This is outclassed by the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific, President Xi Jingping’s project to create a Chinese-style Marshall Plan, destined to change political affiliations and structured around an investment fund of $40 billion for infrastructure to create a new Pacific “silk route.”
Beyond that, the Xingjiang region in China, but also Hong Kong, Vietnam, Japan, Myanmar and the Philippines are the new theaters of this regional rivalry, with global repercussions for Beijing and Washington. Moreover, the Asiatic region is undergoing a massive rearmament program, possessing 47 percent of global armaments since 2008 compared to 40 percent between 2004 and 2008.
Because everything is related, big risks are being taken in Washington and in Paris, for that matter — by artificially separating the squares in this “great game” for convenience or dogmatic reasons, [a game] that is playing out simultaneously on the European, Pacific, Middle-Eastern and African fronts.
The Moscow-Tehran-Damascus Axis
More than ever, negotiations today are global. Economic affairs and international politics have never been so connected. The Moscow-Tehran-Damascus axis, a pragmatic coalition of interests opposed to Westernization, controls the advancement of certain agendas. For example, there can be no nuclear deal on Iran without the West renouncing the destabilization of Syria or without further trying the patience of Russia in the Ukraine. Moscow is also unenthusiastically making a pivot toward Asia, and is seeking out the welcoming arms of Beijing as comfort from the insults and provocations they are subject to in Europe. Russia is entering into gigantic multiple agreements with the Chinese on gas, oil, and high-speed railroads, but also with Africa, such as in the recent agreement between Pretoria and Moscow for the construction of nuclear power stations.
As for Iran, it, too, is taking advantage of Russia’s isolation to strengthen its hand in the deceitful poker game it is playing with Washington on nuclear power. An example is the agreement made in November to build eight reactors in Iran. Iran is maneuvering to establish its emerging regional importance and to finance its capacity to intervene in the Iraqi, Syrian and Turkish theaters. As for Turkey and Saudi Arabia, rivals for influence over the Sunni camp, they swing between support for the Islamic State group and fear of the Kurds gaining too much autonomy. Israel asks itself which is the lesser of two evils, and Riyadh counts on Egypt to stop its vertiginous loss of global influence and the fear of a “rear alliance” between America and Iran.
The Faint Glimmer of the West
So, in the face of a West that still believes it is able to tell the whole world what is good and what is evil, each player looks for strategic allies or allies of convenience. They are all looking to avoid taking orders, to escape the whiff of the Cold War or to prevent a delay in their plans. Economic sanctions and embargoes no longer bring anyone to repentance. Democratic reprimands are simply ignored, and as a supreme insult, Vladimir Putin allows himself the luxury of unceremoniously leaving the G-20 before the closing dinner.
The beam from the “lighthouse of the West” has become a faint glimmer that shines timidly and ineffectively in the face of radical Islam. It refuses to see that the conflict which drives all others is increasingly a clash of civilizations. Whether we like it or not, it requires pragmatic and non-dogmatic alliances. Because we princes of a former age are divided, we unwittingly play into the hands of the new “power-hungry Rastignacs.”* These people are ready to do anything to push their own agenda by installing individual franchises of their own Islamic State group today, and other ultra-violent phalanxes tomorrow.
Caroline Galactéros has a doctorate in political science and directs the strategic intelligence consultancy firm Planeting.
* Editor's Note: Eugène de Rastingac is a character in the novels of Honoré de Balzac (1799 – 1850) who is courageous and idealistic, but attracted by power and glory.