Global reach, global power

This has been bugging me since I gave Erick’s show script a pre-read before shooting yesterday. So I thought I’d share it so it might bug you too.

When I joined the USAF, I spent the next six weeks letting TIs get my mind right for military service. They would march us around a big asphault square, singing morbid chants about getting limbs blown off, losing loved ones, and spending the rest of our lives bedridden with grievous war injuries. It was chipper and cheery stuff, but it did the work of driving home the nature of the thing we’d all volunteered for. It was a good way to get the doubters to find their own way out of the military before their weakness might get people killed.

When we weren’t marching around or getting yelled at or folding our underwear into impossibly small squares, we were in class learning how the Air Force thinks. They taught us a mantra: Global reach, global power. It was the Air Force’s view of itself and its role in national security.

What it means is much less sinister than lefties will make out. It basically means that wherever there’s a need, the Air Force wants the ability to reach and act. If there’s a terrorist camp somewhere and we find out about it, the Air Force wants to be able to hit it. If there’s a need to make a little noise over an enemy capital, the Air Force wants the job. If there’s a need to airlift food and clothing to people in need, as was the case in Berlin a few decades ago or in Pakistan a few years ago, the Air Force wants that job too. Wherever America or the downtrodden need a hand, or wherever there’s a bad guy who needs a little persuasion, or wherever there’s a threat that must be removed, the Air Force wants to play its part. Global reach, global power.

That’s pretty much been the reason the US military has stayed on for decades in places like Japan and Europe. It’s to give the AF and the rest of the military a global reach, even as the mere presence of the US military keeps the peace between people who might not want to fight us but sure don’t like each other (Japan and China, for instance) and might fight if we weren’t there keeping them apart. The ability of a responsible state to project power on a global scale reassures allies and frightens enemies, both of which are to the good.

But what happens when a rogue state achieves global reach and global power? And what happens when that reach and power aren’t of the up front conventional military and treaty kind, but of the proxy terrorist army kind?

Iran has achieved such reach and power, and its goals and purposes for that power aren’t the same as ours. As Erick reported, Iran’s Hezbollah proxy force operates on six continents, and very often in defiance of the states it operates in. Its purpose is, evidently, to spread the Islamic revolution and to strike out against what it perceives to be enemies of that revolution. Our military, by contrast, stays everywhere but Cuba at the request and with the support of the host nation. Hezbollah is in Europe, all over South America and even here in the US. While Hezbollah’s power is on nothing like the scale of our military, it doesn’t really have to be. They don’t have sprawling bases or gigantic aircraft carriers, but that’s not the model they have pursued in building their force. Enemies mostly see our military coming, such as now, when we’re sending the USS Nimitz over to the Persian Gulf. The Iranians, the intended recipient of the message the Nimitz sends, have weeks to prep for its arrival. We have other carriers there now, but we openly rotate them in and out of the AO. Iran’s proxy army doesn’t work that way.

Hezbollah is here, now. I’m not talking paranoid, hide-under-your-bed stuff, just the facts. They’re here. They’ve been here for years. No serious person argues that they aren’t here. They can’t do a tenth or even a thousandth of what our military can do, but they can do an awful lot. The psychology of terrorism scales their power up beyond its actual capabilities. And their ability to do anything here is, in and of itself, a deterrent to us and our alllies doing anything about Iran’s various acts of piracy and other crimes. We have to factor in the possibility that Hezbollah will carry out some kind of attacks against civilians here if we strike Iran’s nuclear facilities over there. We have to factor in the political reaction to any strikes on our own soil, which will include some measure of blaming our own leaders for acting against Iran instead of blaming the Iranian leadership itself.

This is, as far as I know, an unprecedented situation. We’ve dealt with rogue states before, but not one that has built its own terrorist version of global reach, global power and has projected that reach and power right into our territory. And if anything, Iran’s global force can strike us more quickly, albeit on a smaller scale, than we can attack Iran. They see ours coming their way; theirs is already here in our cities. And the proxy nature of Hezbollah gives Iran plausible deniability, just enough to keep us from uniting against the threat. We’ve seen as much in the current debate over Iran’s role in instigating violence in Iraq. TIME magazine more or less argued that such action had to be the work of a few fringe actors, not the actual mullahcracy that runs Iran. They’ll probably argue the same if Hezbollah were to strike here. Iran threatened to kidnap Western troops in retaliation for our arresting Iranian officers in Iraq. Then Iran carried out the threat a few days later, and many in the West blame it all on Bush or on ourselves or on the sailors and Marines who are now hostages. Or Rosie O’Donnell says “Gulf of Tonkin–Google it,” which absolves the mullahs of any responsibility. That the British sailors and Marines are hostages of a regime whose birth pangs included a massive hostage-taking just never enters the discussion. That Hezbollah has kidnapped numerous Westerners over the years, and murdered many of them, has just about gone down the memory hole.

I’m not going to make grandiose predictions about What This All Means. Frankly, I don’t know. I suspect that our military strengths have been countered by Hezbollah, and that its continued existence as a threat will change the nature of the world in ways we can’t yet imagine. If the Hezbollah strategy is successful, expect imitations of it. And expect defensive reactions to it, too.

Iran learned the lesson of the Cold War — that it couldn’t out spend us — and it understood that it can’t out-tech us, but discovered that it can out-terror us. If I were a betting man, I’d lay odds that the Hezbollah model is the way of the future unless the West makes an example of Iran and Hezbollah soon. We can build a fleet of B2s, stealth ships, spy satellites, enough Global Hawks to black the sky, and shape the infantry into a light, lethal force of always connected super soldiers, but none of that will stop an attack on our own soil if we use those weapons in faraway places to defend ourselves or our allies. A ruthless state would respond to the Hezbollah class of threat in the way states always have–by building its own, better, version of the same thing. But we’re not about to do that. We’re not going to out-terror them. We can’t even agree on a legal standard for dealing with captured terrorists without hearing cries that we’re becoming just like the terrorists.

We may be seeing a re-primitivizing of war away from the organized, structured state-based model to something more feudal and harder to control. Hezbollah is a creature of Iran and Syria, but what’s to stop another Osama bin Laden from using his wealth to build another private terror army? What’s to stop 10 or 20 bin Ladens from doing that, and what’s to stop rogue states from helping them out? Nothing that I can see, and with the West divided over how even to deal with bin Laden, there isn’t likely to be a solution to the problem any time soon. The combination of that and the march of technology will make the non-state armies more lethal than their predecessors, and their lack of hard connections to nations and states will make them more apt to kill, not less, because their masters can wash their own hands of the blood. And because they can freelance without fearing that they’ll be keelhauled before the ICC. Civilians lose in this scenario, as the proxy army model destroys the wall between citizens and soldiers. Everyone’s a target, because no one’s held accountable.

In some ways, it’s all a reversion back to the days of pirates on the open seas. In Iran’s case, literally. But in the bad old days, pirates operates at the periphery of civilization, and for the most part civlization eradicated them (when civilized countries weren’t using pirates against each other). Iran’s shadow pirates operate all over the world, even in our own capitals, and their purpose isn’t primarily financial, but ideological.

We may also be entering a new period of MAD, or mutually assured destruction. We can hit them with Tomahawks or carrier-launched aircraft if we need to; they can hit us with conventional shopping mall bombs and, sooner than we’d like, nuclear weapons planted by terrorists in our own cities if they decide to. But this MAD isn’t your father’s MAD. That Iran’s president is an apocalyptic pirate doesn’t help matters. I don’t want to bank on his acting rationally in a crisis to defuse it. He’s more likely to egg it on as it spins out of control.

I don’t know where all this is going, or how it all works out. But I don’t like the trend lines that we’re on. Our global reach and global power has been used to create a stable world that was marching toward greater freedom. Iran’s global reach and power is designed to destabilized countries, destroy cities and deny freedom. The question now is, which side’s global reach and power is the most effective?