Nothing Succeeds Like Failure

Finally an image that captures U.S. foreign policy

Finally an image that captures U.S. foreign policy

The Crash, Burn, Repeat of America’s Militarized Foreign Policy

Tom Engelhardt (courtesy of

Let’s take a moment to consider failure and its options in Washington. The U.S. has been warring with the Islamic State (IS) for more than a year now. The centerpiece of that war has been an ongoing campaign of bombings and air strikes in Syria and Iraq, thousands upon thousands of them. The military claims that these have resulted in death tolls high enough to stagger any movement. In Iraq, the Obama administration has also launched a major effort, involving at least 3,400 military personnel, to retrain the American-created Iraqi army that essentially collapsed in June 2014. Impending offensives to retake key IS-held cities are regularly announced. In addition, in Syria there is an ongoing $500 million Pentagon effort to find and train a force of “moderate” Syrian rebels to battle IS militants. Despite such efforts, reports now suggest that the Islamic State is at least as strong now as it was when the U.S. intervened in August 2014. If anything, from Turkish border areas to al-Anbar Province in Iraq, it has expanded its holdings. Only recently, its fighters even began to move into the suburbs of Damascus, the Syrian capital.

In an era when there has been failure aplenty for the U.S. military, disappointing results like these have become the new norm across the Greater Middle East and Africa, which undoubtedly breeds frustration in Washington. There have been at least four types of responses to such failures. The first — a more-of-the-same approach — has involved simply stumbling along in Washington’s fog of ignorance when it comes to strange peoples in far off lands. In recent weeks, for instance, an agreement was reached with Turkey to allow U.S. planes access to two key Turkish air bases to attack the Islamic State, while the government of President Recep Erdogan pledged to join the struggle as well. In reality, however, what the Obama administration evidently green-lighted were Turkish air strikes not against IS militants but their own Kurdish rebels with whom they had a fragile truce and who are linked to just about the only effective force the U.S. has found to fight IS, Syrian Kurds. In other words, an additional element of chaos was introduced to the region.

As one wag put it, by attacking the Kurds, the Turks provided the Islamic State with something it previously lacked: an air force. To add insult to injury: according to McClatchy, Turkish intelligence tipped off the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front that the U.S. was about to insert in Syria a tiny group of 54 “moderate” Syrians the Pentagon had vetted from 7,000 applicants and spent a fortune training. Al-Nusra’s fighters essentially wiped the unit out on the spot. Talk about a cornucopia of failure!

The Obama administration’s frustration over its inability to even dent the Islamic State has led to another version of more-of-the-same. It has now loosed drones from the CIA and U.S. special operations command in an assassination campaign against the IS leadership, the latest version of what Andrew Cockburn has dubbed “the kingpin strategy.” Elsewhere this approach has tended to strengthen, not weaken, extremist movements and make them even more brutal.

As for the second response to failure, call it the “more-plus” approach or finding something spectacularly dumb to do. The most recent example: former surge general, CIA director, and state secrets sharer David Petraeus, a man with a certain following in Washington, has been privately urging the administration that vetted 7,000 Syrians and could hardly find a “moderate” among them to cleave off and arm supposedly “moderate” elements in the al-Nusra Front to fight IS. This proposal instantly joins the ranks of Washington’s what-could-possibly-go-wrong schemes.

And here’s a third response to failure, reported just a couple of weeks ago: military officials moved to staunch the bad news from Syria in the simplest way possible. They evidently altered their intelligence assessments or pressured “terror analysts” under them to do the same in order to provide “a more optimistic account of progress” in the war against IS. The Pentagon’s inspector general is now investigating this possible good-news scam by officials of U.S. Central Command, which oversees the air campaign against the Islamic State. Consider this the equivalent of Senator George Aiken’s supposed suggestion during the Vietnam War that the U.S. should simply declare victory and go home. In this case, however, you establish success in the easiest way possible and then stick around to pursue responses one and two.

A fourth response, as Nick Turse suggests today in his remarkable continuing coverage of the U.S. military’s “pivot” to Africa, is simply to embrace failure wholeheartedly. Counterintuitive as it might seem, this approach couldn’t be more sensible from the Pentagon’s point of view. After all, in our present American world, military failures only ensure that, as things worsen eternally, the U.S. military will be called on ever more, not less, which means more, not less, of everything for you-know-who.

[Be sure to check out the article by Nick Turse that documents more crashing and burning in Africa: “Problem Partners, Ugly Outcomes: U.S. Special Ops Missions in Africa Fail to Stem Rising Tide of Terror Groups, Coups, and Human Rights Abuses”]

Tom Engelhardt is the founder of and the author of several notable books, most recently Shadow Government, on America’s increasingly militarized world. His writing, Studs Terkel once noted, hits with the power of “a Joe Louis jab to the solar plexus.” 

10 thoughts on “Nothing Succeeds Like Failure

  1. I was torn between laughing out loud and shrieking with rage reading this! But, come to think of it, that’s become my standard response to US policies abroad AND at home. Notably, this thought popped into my head: pick any of the GOP presidential wannabes at random and you can bet they’ll promise to kick “The Islamic State”‘s butt from Day One of their administration. And the more failures Obama & Co. succeed in racking up the greater the possibility of GOP success on Election Day 2016. For eventually the anti-immigrant noise, and the cheerleading for bigoted county clerks in Kentucky, and the Crusade to Recognize the Sanctity of Every Sperm (hat tip to Monty Python on that, of course!) will fade. As the contenders are winnowed down to a serious handful someone’s going to wake up to the presence on their campaign plate of this delicious gift from the current administration and shine a spotlight on it. And speaking of US foreign policy blundering, I heard Mr. Kerry mentioned as a possible Dem candidate (talk about deja vu all over again!) on “Democracy Now” today. Nothing succeeds like failure, indeed. Also, for whatever reason, France rose up in my consciousness today. After their defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, France admitted defeat and withdrew from Vietnam. Not that many years later they had to admit defeat and withdraw from Algeria. They did not declare an eternal war against the Viet Minh or the Algerian liberation forces, continuing to waste their resources. The French have been accused of being a very arrogant people over the centuries, notably by none other than Mark Twain. But what nation can match the hubris of the US colossus?!? Admit defeat (or even major blunders)?? Over your dead body…and yours, and yours, and yours, and yours…

  2. Sounds to me like just more of those same old:

    Boobie Self-Constructed Conundrums
    (from Fernando Po, U.S.A., America’s post-literate retreat to Plato’s Cave)

    The Boobies of the U.S.A.
    Enjoyed a crazy game
    Where those they placed in power could
    Ignite a global flame
    Yet never have to shoulder one
    Iota of the blame.

    The game had “rules” that often changed
    And “goals” that no one knew,
    Except that those who “won” would be
    Restricted to the few
    Who got to feather their own nests
    While others ate shit stew.

    The Boobies made up slogans that
    No mind could penetrate:
    Those silly syllogisms they
    Constructed to conflate
    Their fabricated fantasies
    Of fiction, fraud, and fate.

    Confusing their abstractions from
    The high down to the low
    And every level in between
    Gave thought no room to grow,
    So “trivial” means just the same
    As “vital,” don’t you know?

    The fallacy of “is” and “ought”
    Did yeoman work, as well,
    Convincing Boobies that the bad
    Would always work out swell;
    Because it should; because we say;
    Because … Oh, what the hell!

    We cannot leave because we can’t.
    We stay because we can.
    We’ve formed the perfect problem that
    Confounds the brain of Man:
    The very definition of
    A fool’s Afghanistan.

    We’ve set up the “conditions” such
    That all we’ll ever see
    Are “questions” undetermined by
    Our terminology.
    We’ve “no good choices,” so we say,
    Which means we’ve no Plan-B.

    We stay to make up stories that
    The voters will consume
    Each time the last fake story dies,
    Which leads us to assume
    That next we’ll hear a “brand new” lie
    Which signals only doom.

    We stay because of profits that
    Some stockholders require
    Who claim they need more tax-cuts or
    They won’t “work” and retire.
    We stay because of nothing more
    Than that we so desire.

    We stay for wounded egos that
    Cannot admit mistake:
    Not while there still remains one chance
    To offer “reasons” fake
    For what the frauds will sell to us
    Or else just simply take.

    We will not leave because the ones
    Who launched this dreadful fling
    Demand more time to demonstrate
    Their next great stupid thing:
    One more excuse to start again
    Instead of finishing.

    Since time and blood and money comes
    From those who can’t refuse,
    This dead-beat free-lunch “warfare” stuff
    Has proven great to use
    As cover for the long-sought goal
    Of “winning” while we lose.

    Each year we have a “final” plan,
    Unlike the plans before,
    Which only – looking back – now seem
    Like such a crushing bore:
    Stupidity predicting some
    Stupidity in store.

    We stay because we stay because
    We stay because we stay.
    We stay because we won’t confront
    What made us act this way;
    So we can’t leave because we won’t,
    And that’s our “final” say.

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2009

  3. For those interested…search “Defense Intelligence Agency document on ISIS”. The document is from 2012. This search should lead to a PDF of the document, plus many articles pertaining to the document. Essentially ISIS is a tool, a cultivated one at that, and the endgame is Assad’s removal (among other geopolitical motivations); plus, the Pentagon gets to scare the folks back home & keep the terror mill churning.

    • There was a time I would have dismissed this, but not anymore. Of course, it’s nothing news. Let’s just go back to 1898 and “Remember the Maine! To Hell with Spain!” Or back even further to “Remember the Alamo!”

      Now, it’s remember 9/11, re-christened as “Patriot Day.” Patriot Day? Can you imagine FDR re-christening December 7, 1941 as “Patriot Day” instead of what he did call it — a date that shall live in infamy?

      There was a time when the U.S. government — and presidents — tacked fairly closely to the truth. Or, more closely than most governments. Those days are gone. Long gone.

  4. Excuse me for living, but wasn’t a thing called “Patriots Day” for the Battle of Lexington & Concord!? If I had a say 9-11 would be a National day of Mourning not unlike the Wampanoag’s Tribes National Day of Mourning, on Thanksgiving where I reside in Plymouth, Massachusetts!.Too bad also that the only part of Gov’t that still seems to work these days is our Firefighters, and their being sacrificed at every turn it seems. I always like that Cell Phone I believe Commercial “If Firefighter’s Ruled the world” If you haven’t seen it I invite you to check it out!. No B.S… Just results!!

  5. Nothing succeeds like failure. The link below was in Honolulu Star Adv today. This fighter pilot centric view of the AF mission is so far outside probable reality it can only be believed by Air Force fighter pilots and defense contractors. To believe this you have think that the organizations that brought you the B-1, B-2 and F-35 programs will deliver the B-21 on schedule and within budget, just like the aforementioned aircraft. No mention here of unmanned air vehicles in the 2020-2025 era, by the way, or of close air support or reconnaissance or the new aerial refueling plane. And no mention of where all the money for these new planes will be found or how it impacts the AF programs for Minuteman replacement, cyber warfare, or the Navy SSBN replacement program. And an f-35 with problems can magically divert to Australia for repair? But, given the positions of the authors it is pretty understandable. I wonder if this paper would draw critical reviews in an Air Force professional journal.

    • Ahh, where will the money come from, indeed? Well, since soon to be President Donald Trump (anyone who thinks he doesn’t stand a chance is living in a world of delusion, I’m afraid) plans to slash taxes for “the 1%,” the funds will have to come from spending on social welfare programs, unimportant things like infrastructure upkeep, etc. Oh, yeah, America will be “great again” in no time!!

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