Onward and Upward with U.S. Central Command
by Andrew Bacevich
By way of explaining his eight failed marriages, the American bandleader Artie Shaw once remarked, “I am an incurable optimist.” In reality, Artie was an incurable narcissist. Utterly devoid of self-awareness, he never looked back, only forward.
So, too, with the incurable optimists who manage present-day American wars. What matters is not past mistakes but future opportunities. This describes the view of General Joseph Votel, current head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). Since its creation in 1983, CENTCOM has emerged as the ne plus ultra of the Pentagon’s several regional commands, the place where the action is always hot and heavy. Votel is the latest in a long train of four-star generals to preside over that action.
The title of this essay (exclamation point included) captures in a single phrase the “strategic approach” that Votel has devised for CENTCOM. That approach, according to the command’s website, is “proactive in nature and endeavors to set in motion tangible actions in a purposeful, consistent, and continuous manner.”
This strategic approach forms but one element in General Votel’s multifaceted (if murky) “command narrative,” which he promulgated last year upon taking the helm at CENTCOM headquarters in Tampa, Florida. Other components include a “culture,” a “vision,” a “mission,” and “priorities.” CENTCOM’s culture emphasizes “persistent excellence,” as the command “strives to understand and help others to comprehend, with granularity and clarity, the complexities of our region.” The vision, indistinguishable from the mission except perhaps for those possessing advanced degrees in hermeneutics, seeks to provide “a more stable and prosperous region with increasingly effective governance, improved security, and trans-regional cooperation.” Toward that estimable end, CENTCOM’s priorities include forging partnerships with other nations “based upon shared values,” “actively counter[ing] the malign influence” of hostile regimes, and “degrading and defeating violent extremist organizations and their networks.”
At present, CENTCOM is busily implementing the several components of Votel’s command narrative across an “area of responsibility” (AOR) consisting of 20 nations, among them Iran, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. As the CENTCOM website puts it, without batting a digital eyelash, that AOR “spans more than 4 million square miles and is populated by more than 550 million people from 22 ethnic groups, speaking 18 languages with hundreds of dialects and confessing multiple religions which transect national borders.”
According to the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, an AOR is the “geographical area associated with a combatant command within which a geographic combatant commander has authority to plan and conduct operations.” Yet this anodyne definition fails to capture the spirit of the enterprise in which General Votel is engaged.
One imagines that there must be another Department of Defense Dictionary, kept under lock-and-key in the Pentagon, that dispenses with the bland language and penchant for deceptive euphemisms. That dictionary would define an AOR as “a vast expanse within which the United States seeks to impose order without exercising sovereignty.” An AOR combines aspects of colony, protectorate, and contested imperial frontier. In that sense, the term represents the latest incarnation of the informal empire that American elites have pursued in various forms ever since U.S. forces “liberated” Cuba in 1898.
To say that a military officer presiding over an AOR plans and conducts operations is a bit like saying that Jeff Bezos sells books. It’s a small truth that evades a larger one. To command CENTCOM is to function as a proconsul, to inhabit as a co-equal the rarified realm of kings, presidents, and prime ministers. CENTCOM commanders shape the future of their AOR — or at least fancy that they do.
Sustaining expectations of shaping the future requires a suitably accommodating version of the past. For CENTCOM, history is a record of events selected and arranged to demonstrate progress. By testifying to the achievements of previous CENTCOM commanders, history thereby validates Votel’s own efforts to carry on their work. Not for nothing, therefore, does the command’s website include this highly sanitized account of its recent past:
“In the wake of 9-11, the international community found Saddam Hussein’s continued lack of cooperation with United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolutions regarding weapons of mass destruction unacceptable. Hussein’s continued recalcitrance led the UNSC to authorize the use of force by a U.S.-led coalition. Operation Iraqi Freedom began 19 March 2003.
“Following the defeat of both the Taliban regime in Afghanistan (9 November 2001) and Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq (8 April 2003), CENTCOM has continued to provide security to the new freely-elected governments in those countries, conducting counterinsurgency operations and assisting host nation security forces to provide for their own defense.”
Setbacks, disappointments, miscalculations, humiliations: you won’t hear about them from CENTCOM. Like Broadway’s Annie, down at headquarters in Tampa they’re “just thinkin’ about tomorrow,” which “clears away the cobwebs, and the sorrow, till there’s none!”
(Give the Vietnam War the CENTCOM treatment and you would end up with something like this: “Responding to unprovoked North Vietnamese attacks and acting at the behest of the international community, a U.S.-led coalition arrived to provide security to the freely-elected South Vietnamese government, conducting counterinsurgency operations and assisting host nation security forces to provide for their own defense.”)
In fact, the U.N. Security Council did not authorize the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Indeed, efforts by George W. Bush’s administration to secure such an authorization failed abysmally, collapsing in a welter of half-truths and outright falsehoods. What much of the international community found unacceptable, more so even than Saddam’s obstreperousness, was Bush’s insistence that he was going to have his war regardless of what others might think. As for celebrating the “defeat” of the Taliban and of Saddam, that’s the equivalent of declaring “game over” when the whistle sounds ending the first quarter of a football game.
More to the point, to claim that, in the years since, CENTCOM “has continued to provide security to the new freely-elected governments” of Afghanistan and Iraq whitewashes history in ways that would cause the most shameless purveyor of alt-facts on Fox News to blush. The incontestable truth is that Afghans and Iraqis have not known security since U.S. forces, under the direction of General Votel’s various predecessors, arrived on the scene. Rather than providing security, CENTCOM has undermined it.
CENTCOM Headquarters (Where It’s Always Groundhog Day)
Even so, as the current steward of CENTCOM’s culture, vision, mission, strategic approach, and priorities, General Votel remains undaunted. In his view, everything that happened prior to his assuming ownership of the CENTCOM AOR is irrelevant. What matters is what will happen from now on — in Washington-speak, “going forward.” As with Artie Shaw, serial disappointments leave intact the conviction that persistence will ultimately produce a happy ending.
Earlier this month, Votel provided a progress report to the Senate Armed Services Committee and outlined his expectations for future success. In a city that now competes for the title of Comedy Central, few paid serious attention to what the CENTCOM commander had to say. Yet his presentation was, in its own way, emblematic of how, in the Age of Trump, U.S. national security policy has become fully divorced from reality.
General Votel began by inventorying the various “drivers of instability” afflicting his AOR. That list, unsurprisingly enough, turned out to be a long one, including ethnic and sectarian divisions, economic underdevelopment, an absence of opportunity for young people “susceptible to unrest [and] radical ideologies,” civil wars, humanitarian crises, large refugee populations, and “competition among outside actors, including Russia and China, seeking to promote their interests and supplant U.S. influence in the region.” Not qualifying for mention as destabilizing factors, however, were the presence and activities of U.S. military forces, their footprint dwarfing that of Russia and China.
Indeed, the balance of Votel’s 64-page written statement argued, in effect, that U.S. military activities are the key to fixing all that ails the CENTCOM AOR. After making a brief but obligatory bow to the fact that “a solely military response is not sufficient” to address the region’s problems, he proceeded to describe at length the military response (and only the military response) that will do just that.
Unfortunately for General Votel, length does not necessarily correlate with substance. Once upon a time, American military professionals prized brevity and directness in their writing. Not so the present generation of generals who are given to logorrhea. Consider just this bit of cliché-ridden drivel — I could quote vast passages of it — that Votel inflicted on members of the United States Senate. “In a region beset by myriad challenges,” he reported,
“we must always be on the look-out for opportunities to seize the initiative to support our objectives and goals. Pursuing opportunities means that we are proactive — we don’t wait for problems to be presented; we look for ways to get ahead of them. It also means that we have to become comfortable with transparency and flat communications — our ability to understand our AOR better than anyone else gives us the advantage of knowing where opportunities exist. Pursuing opportunities also means we have to take risk — by delegating authority and responsibility to the right level, by trusting our partners, and being willing to trust our best instincts in order to move faster than our adversaries.”
In third-tier business schools, bromides of this sort might pass for “best practices.” But my guess is that George C. Marshall or Dwight D. Eisenhower would award the author of that paragraph an F and return him to staff college for further instruction.
Frothy verbiage aside, what exactly does General Votel propose? The answer — for those with sufficient patience to wade through the entire 64 pages — reduces to this: persist. In concrete terms, that means keeping on killing and enabling our “allies” to do the same until the other side is finally exhausted and gives up. In other words, it’s the movie Groundhog Day transposed from Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to Tampa and then to Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries where the bodies continue to pile up.
True, the document Votel presented to Congress is superficially comprehensive, with sections touting everything from “Building Partner Capacity” (“we must be forward-leaning and empower our partners to meet internal security challenges”) to creating a “Global Engagement Center” (“The best way to defeat an idea is to present a better, more appealing idea”). Strip away the fluff, however, and what’s left is nothing more than a call to keep doing what CENTCOM has been doing for years now.
To see what all this really means, practically speaking, just check out CENTCOM press releases for the week of March 5th through 10th. The titles alone suffice to describe a situation where every day is like the one that preceded it:
As the good nuns used to tell me back in parochial school, actions speak louder than words. What the CENTCOM commander says matters less than what CENTCOM forces do. What they are doing is waging an endless war of attrition.
Ludendorff Would Have Approved
“Punch a hole and let the rest follow.”
During the First World War, that aphorism, attributed to General Erich Ludendorff, captured the essence of the German army’s understanding of strategy, rooted in the conviction that violence perpetrated on a sufficient scale over a sufficient period of time will ultimately render a politically purposeless war purposeful. The formula didn’t work for Germany in Ludendorff’s day and yielded even more disastrous results when Hitler revived it two decades later.
Of course, U.S. military commanders today don’t make crude references to punching holes. They employ language that suggests discrimination, deliberation, precision, and control as the qualities that define the American way of war. They steer clear of using terms like attrition. Yet differences in vocabulary notwithstanding, the U.S. military’s present-day MO bears a considerable resemblance to the approach that Ludendorff took fully a century ago. And for the last decade and a half, U.S. forces operating in the CENTCOM AOR have been no more successful than were German forces on the Western Front in achieving the purposes that ostensibly made war necessary.
To divert attention from this disturbing fact, General Votel offers Congress and by extension the American people a 64-page piece of propaganda. Whether he himself is deluded or dishonest is difficult to say, just as it remains difficult to say whether General William Westmoreland was deluded or dishonest when he assured Congress in November 1967 that victory in Vietnam was in sight. “With 1968,” Westmoreland promised, “a new phase is now starting. We have reached an important point when the end begins now to come into view.”
Westmoreland was dead wrong, as the enemy’s 1968 Tet Offensive soon demonstrated. That a comparable disaster, no doubt different in form, will expose Votel’s own light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel assessment as equally fraudulent is a possibility, even if one to which American political and military leaders appear to be oblivious. This much is certain: in the CENTCOM AOR the end is not even remotely in view.
What are we to make of this charade of proconsuls parading through Washington to render false or misleading reports on the status of the American empire’s outer precincts?
Perhaps the time has come to look elsewhere for advice and counsel. Whether generals like Votel are deluded or dishonest is ultimately beside the point. More relevant is the fact that the views they express — and that inexplicably continue to carry weight in Washington — are essentially of no value. So many years later, no reason exists to believe that they know what they are doing.
To reground U.S. national security policy in something that approximates reality would require listening to new voices, offering views long deemed heretical.
Let me nonetheless offer you an example:
“Fifteen years after launching a worldwide effort to defeat and destroy terrorist organizations, the United States finds itself locked in a pathologically recursive loop; we fight to prevent attacks and defend our values, only to incite further violence against ourselves and allies while destabilizing already chaotic regions…”
That is not the judgment of some lefty from Cambridge or San Francisco, but of Major John Q. Bolton, a veteran of both the Iraq and Afghan Wars. Within that brief passage is more wisdom than in all of General Votel’s 64 pages of blather.
I submit that Bolton’s grasp of our predicament is infinitely superior to Votel’s. The contrast between the two is striking. The officer who wears no stars dares to say what is true; the officer wearing four stars obfuscates. If the four-stars abandon obfuscation for truth, then and only then will they deserve our respectful attention. In the meantime, it’s like looking to Artie Shaw for marriage counseling.