Friday, January 17, 2014

John Mearsheimer's "America Unhinged" and Obama's negotiations with Iran, part 1

John Mearsheimer sent me a .pdf of his latest forceful article in the National Interest here.


Mearsheimer rightly questions Obama's policies in Egypt and Syria; they reflect a national security establishment which believes there are important American national interests in these places without either showing or even attempting to show the common good for most citizens involved in military interventions and aid (this last formulation is mine rather than John's). The establishment also has the illusion that it can determine leadership in other countries through belligerence (consider America's long support for Osama Bin Laden against the Soviet Union and arming of Saddam Hussein - "he may be a bastard but he's our bastard," as Robert Gates put it...). It thinks - "unhingedly," Mearsheimer suggests - that it can and must influence policy everywhere and hysterically, that this is the "most dangerous situation" for the United States (not the conflict with Nazism or the Soviet Union). Nothing like this is true; remove or even scale down US violence abroad and nothing like this would be remotely true...

"Anyone paying even cursory attention to U.S. foreign policy in recent decades will recognize that Washington’s response to Egypt and Syria is part of a much bigger story. The story is this: America’s national-security elites act on the assumption that every nook and cranny of the globe is of great strategic significance and that there are threats to U.S. interests everywhere. Not surprisingly, they live in a constant state of fear. This fearful outlook is reflected in the comments of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, before Congress in February 2012: 'I can’t impress upon you that in my personal military judgment, formed over thirty-eight years, we are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime, right now.' In February 2013, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that Americans 'live in very complex and dangerous times,' and the following month Senator James Inhofe said, 'I don’t remember a time in my life where the world has been more dangerous and the threats more diverse.'"


Beyond Mearsheimer, I would emphasize that the US has divided the world into 6 military zones and has some 1280 bases abroad (the estimate is Nick Turse's; see also Chalmers Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire, ch. 6), kept secret from the American people and producing, as John underlines, blowback. America has a President with a private army (the JSOC or SOCCAM) doing murky operations - without any democratic or even military review - in 134 countries, reporting only to the President. Change the President's name to George III and the tyrannical aspects of this will be clear. See Turse here.

No other country has more than 5 bases abroad (the French in former French colonial Africa, the Russians, 4 in the former Soviet Union and 1 in Syria, Britain a couple, for instance in Goa in former British India). Such bases - for instance, Guantanamo - often have some plainly neocolonial aspect and are widely hated among the people on whom the troops are quartered as the Crown once was in America - recall the story of Crispus Attucks as well as Chalmers Johnson, Blowback, chs.1-3. They are part of American militarism or the war complex - the military-industrial-Congressional-media-foreign armies dependent on American support, i.e. Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, arms sales, arms research, and the like complex as I spell it out. See here. The US governmnt spends over a trillion dollars per year in producing militarism (on the official defense budget and other nuclear research as well as the shadowy intelligence and secret military expenditures) and with Republican, throwing aside their supposed concern to trim the budget, as well as Democratic support. Militarism is a great, often strangling danger to the health of the American economy. For American productivity is directed primarily at death...

The war complex has usually pressed aggression as the "best solution" to (almost) any problem, though John suggests that some officers are now having trouble with the futility and the waste of American lives.


Contrary to establishment faith in military omnipotence spurred by fear, Mearsheimer points out amusingly that the US is surrounded by oceans and so powerful that it can get away with dumb and in fact, terror-inducing policies:

"Interfering in countries like Egypt and Syria and turning the world into one big battlefield has significant costs for the United States. The strategic costs areactually not great precisely because the United States is such an extraordinarily secure country. It can pursue foolish policies and still remain the most powerful state on the planet. (This is not to deny that America’s interventionist policies are the main cause of its terrorism problem. Nevertheless, terrorism is a minor threat, which is why Washington is free to continue pursuing the policies that helped cause the problem in the first place.)

The pursuit of global domination, however, has other costs that are far more daunting. The economic costs are huge—especially the wars—and there are significant human costs as well. After all, thousands of Americans have died in Afghanistan and Iraq, and many more have suffered egregious injuries that will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Probably the most serious cost of Washington’s interventionist policies is the growth of a national-security state that threatens to undermine the liberal-democratic values that lie at the heart of the American political system.

Given these significant costs, and given that the United States has no vital interests at stake in Egypt and Syria, let alone the capacity for fixing the problems afflicting those countries, it should adopt a hands- off policy toward them. American leaders would do well to honor the principle of self-determination when dealing with Cairo and Damascus, and with many other countries around the world as well."


Extending his analysis in 2011 - see here, here, here, here and here - John again emphasizes the many harmful effects of militarism on democracy. There, he cited Madison; here he spells out spying on Americans, the sacrifice of the rule of law, and the replacement of incarcerating prisoners Guantanamo with murder, often of civilians including children, with drones.

"Another consequence of America’s policy of global dominance is that the government inevitably violates the individual rights that are at the core of a liberal society and tramples the rule of law as well. The taproot of the problem is that a democracy constantly preparing for and fighting wars, as well as extolling the virtues of using force, will eventually transform itself into a national-security state. Specifically, the executive will become especially powerful at the expense of the legislative and judicial branches of government. [this is "commander-in-chief power, rooted in the thought of Carl Schmitt, the leading Weimar and then Nazi lawyer: "he is sovereign who makes the decision in the state of the exception," - the opening sentence of Political Theology, 1923 - and echoed by Leo Strauss which shapes the neocons and, now, the national security establishment...] Traditional checks and balances will matter little, resulting in an imperial presidency.

An unchecked executive, however, does not simply accumulate great power. It also engages in behavior that involves breaking the law or operating in secrecy, largely to avoid public scrutiny and judicial or congressional review. In this regard, the checks and balances built into the U.S. system encourage executives to act in secret, because that may be the only way to get things done quickly. Leaders do not act this way because they are evil, but because they believe the country’s security demands it. In the tradeoff between security and civil liberties, they almost always come down on the side of security. After all, a country’s highest goal has to be its survival, because if it does not continue it cannot pursue its other goals. Given the exaggerated fear of foreign threats that permeates the American national-security establishment, it is unsurprising that Presidents Bush and Obama have pursued policies that endanger liberal democracy at home.

This tendency toward law breaking and the violation of individual rights explains in part why the executive has a deep affection for secrecy. Both the Bush and Obama administrations engaged in illegal or at least questionable [sic - this "at least questionable" is academese] surveillance of American citizens, which they wanted to hide from the public, Congress and the judiciary. This is one reason Obama has seemed so determined to severely punish Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning and Edward Snowden, and more generally why he has gone to war against reporters and whistle-blowers with unprecedented fervor. The president boasts that he leads 'the most transparent administration in history.' If true, it is because of the reporters and whistle-blowers, not Obama, who is deeply committed to government secrecy."


Mearsheimer goes on to elaborate three dimensions of the connection, the first involving rampant illegal spying on Americans (the citizens do not control the government as in a democracy; instead, with no transparency (except,as John underlines, for Edward Snowden), the government surveils the citizens...):

"Let us consider in more detail how the national-security state threatens America’s liberal political order. Three stories are in order, the first of which involves the right to privacy as it relates to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirements. Generally speaking, the government cannot gather information on American citizens without a warrant or other judicial authorization. Normally, there must be probable cause to think an individual is engaging in illegal activity before obtaining a search warrant. Thus, even in cases where the government thinks someone is dangerous or behaving unlawfully, it typically cannot act without judicial approval.

There is no question the Bush administration was engaged in warrantless surveillance of American citizens from shortly after September 11 until January 2007. But that is not the end of the story. We now know, thanks to Edward Snowden, that the government—mainly the nsa—also searches and stores vast amounts of emails and text-based messages. While limited by law to international communications for foreign intelligence purposes, the nsa nevertheless collected the communications of American citizens that were entirely domestic. The government also regularly collects telephone records of millions of Americans, and keeps track of 'telephony metadata' that includes the phone numbers of parties to a call, its duration, location and time. It is hard to disagree with Senator Ron Wyden’s comment that 'the government’s authority to collect information on law-abiding American citizens is essentially limitless.'

The government oftentimes gets a warrant from a secret court known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, or the fisa court. But there are significant transparency and credibility problems with this process. First, this court is a virtual rubber stamp for the government and its intelligence agencies. Since 1979, the fisa court has received about thirty-four thousand requests to conduct electronic surveillance within the United States. It has denied the government’s request in only eleven of those cases. Second, it is virtually impossible to challenge fisa court rulings, not only because they are secret, but also because there is no party to the proceedings besides the government. Third, as the recent declassification of certain fisa court opinions reveals, the government often pays little heed to the court’s warnings unless forced to do so.

The Obama administration, not surprisingly, initially claimed that the nsa’s spying played a key role in thwarting fifty-four terrorist plots against the United States, implying it violated the Fourth Amendment for good reason. This was a lie, however. General Keith Alexander, the nsa director, eventually admitted to Congress that he could claim only one success, and that involved catching a Somali immigrant and three cohorts living in San Diego who had sent $8,500 to a terrorist group in Somalia."


John then speaks directly to the rule of law, though he uses the misguided neo-realist or academic qualification for "what is considered..." and the misleading "traditional American," Habaes corpus or the right to a day in court and not to be tortured is what distinguishes, since the Magna Carta in 1218 in England, a system of law from a tyranny. There is no more basic principle to law or public morality than this. It is no small thing that Bush, disgraceful and cowardly, tossed aside and that Obama has not had the courage - a constitutional lawyer yet - to restore (Obama, of course, might have been assassinated for trying...).

Max Weber distinguished legal-bureaucratic arrangements from traditional ones. Though in inventing a social science jargon, Weber did not spell out the moral importance of the rule of law, he makes clear that it is the opposite of what is traditional. Now, slavery, Jim Crow, and mass imprisonment of blacks as well as genocide against indigenous people are also "traditional" in America. That the rule of law names, morally speaking, what is decent in government is the issue that John is striving for, however, even though he undercuts this insight with this rhetoric:

"The second story concerns due process, which lies at the very core of America’s constitutional protections and is the backbone of what is considered the rule of law. It is no exaggeration to say the traditional notion of due process has become laughable as it applies to so-called enemy combatants in the war on terror. When the United States began sweeping up suspected terrorists in Afghanistan and elsewhere after September 11, the Bush administration created a legal black hole at Guantánamo Bay, and strongly resisted the detainees’ efforts to obtain due process.

Notwithstanding President Obama’s efforts to close Guantánamo, it remains open and continues to be a due-process quagmire. For example, of the 164 individuals still imprisoned at Guantánamo, eighty-four were cleared for release in 2009 but remain imprisoned. There are another forty-six prisoners the government cannot prosecute because of insufficient evidence, but it refuses to release them because they are considered to be security threats to the United States. This arbitrary and unprecedented policy of indefinite detention is a blatant violation of traditional American notions of due process.

Worse yet, the Bush administration devised the infamous policy of extraordinary rendition, where high-value prisoners were sent to countries with terrible human-rights records to be tortured and interrogated. And it appears that the cia itself tortured prisoners at its so-called black sites in Europe, as well as at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and Abu Ghraib in Iraq. This behavior clearly violates American and international law, which both forbid torture."


That law - American and international - bars torture is the main point. The American establishment is, in this respect, an outlaw or criminal establishment as in wantonly waging aggression (i.e. in Iraq as well as with drones in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and other countries on which the US has not "declared war," and the like).


Mearsheimer also rightly stresses the kill-list and the horrific Tuesday afternoon "disposition meetings" in which Obama chooses personally who will be killed. Obama does this to limit killing civilians - he becomes a master of terror and a murderer to do this - of whom Mearsheimer supposes a lower number than is appropriate (National Security Advisor\CIA chief John Brennan counts any teenage boy near a suspected "terrorist," even a male child, as himself a "terrorist." Obama had the better alternative, as Mearsheimer recommends, not to use drones. John speaks of these killings, unsurprisingly, with greater force and without the previous qualifications:

"This disgraceful situation brings us to the third story. Because it has been impossible for the Obama administration either to prosecute or release the detainees, it appears to have little interest in capturing new prisoners and bringing them to Guantánamo, where they would be subjected to indefinite detention. So instead, Obama apparently decided to assassinate suspected enemy combatants, virtually anywhere they are found. While it may be easier to kill them rather than hold them forever and be criticized for adding to the mess at Guantánamo, the ramifications of this new policy may be even more poisonous.

Drones, of course, play a central role in this assassination strategy. Obama has akill list known as the “disposition matrix,” and there is a meeting every Tuesday in the White House—it is called “Terror Tuesday”—where the next round of victims is selected. The extent to which the Obama administration has bought into this strategy is reflected in the increased frequency of drone strikes since November 2002, when they first began. Micah Zenko wrote in the Financial Times in May 2013 that there have been 'approximately 425 non- battlefield targeted killings (more than 95 per cent by drones). Roughly 50 took place during Mr. Bush’s tenure, and 375 (and counting) under Mr. Obama’s.' [these figures are probably way low...]

This assassination strategy leaves hardly any room for due process. Indeed, the cia is authorized to kill young males who are not known to be terrorists, but are merely exhibiting suspicious behavior, whatever that might be. It is also difficult to identify targets clearly from a platform thousands of feet above the ground. Not surprisingly, there are numerous cases where drones have hit innocent civilians. It is difficult to get firm numbers, but it seems clear that at least 10–15 percent of the victims have been civilians [this is much more cautious than John's previous estimates and goes to speaking to those in power about whom one must pretend that their utterances - recall, I like Obama and wish it were otherwise - are dignified, important and certainly not the Emperor's new clothes...]. Finally, Obama has used drones to purposely kill an American citizen in Yemen when there was no evidence he was an imminent threat to the United States. This unprecedented act raises fundamental questions about due process, and shows how dangerous a militarist foreign policy is for core civil liberties.

A comment by former cia director Michael Hayden in 2012 captures just how misguided Obama’s assassination strategy is: 'Right now, there isn’t a government on the planet that agrees with our legal rationale for these operations, except for Afghanistan and maybe Israel.'

What makes these policies even more alarming is that the national-security elites who execute and support them fervently believe in 'American exceptionalism.' They are convinced that the United States is morally superior to every other country on earth. It is, so the story goes, the 'light of the world,' a shining city on a hill. Americans stand tall and see further than other peoples, as Madeleine Albright put it. These elites obviously do not look in the mirror. But, if they did, they would understand why people all around the world think hypocrites of the first order run American foreign policy."


John then cites the hope of democracy from below, that there is revulsion among citizens against imperial adventures, one which stopped Obama's "humanitarian" firing of missiles into Syria. John underestimates the significance of the huge movement against the aggression in Iraq, the largest movement against a war, here and internationally, before a war, as Chomsky named it, and one which isolated and hampered Bush (prevented "shock and awe," making of Baghdad a "Nagasaki" as Wade and Ullman had threatened on the Pentagon website) and eventually, elected, as a mass uprising, the first black President in the United States 40 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King. These were no small accomplishments:

"The American public, however, has become less enthusiastic about acting as the world’s policeman, especially when it means using military force and possibly getting involved in more wars. But this disconnect between the foreign-policy elites and the citizenry had not hindered the pursuit of global domination in any meaningful way until this past summer, when President Obama threatened to bomb Syria. It quickly became apparent that a large majority of Americans were strongly opposed to using military force there. Indeed, the opposition was so apparent that Obama seemed unlikely to get congressional backing for an attack, even though he promised it would be limited and the United States would not be drawn into another war. It was, as columnist Peggy Noonan put it, 'a fight between the country and Washington, between the broad American public and Washington’s central governing assumptions.'

In effect, the public is saying it is fed up with America’s interventionist policies and it is time to focus greater attention on fixing problems at home. According to a poll done for the Wall Street Journal and nbc News in September 2013, 74 percent of Americans believe their country is 'doing too much in other countries, and it is timeto do less around the world and focus more on problems here at home.' Hopefully, the backlash over Syria is a harbinger of things to come, and the public will increasingly put limits on the elites’ penchant for pursuing imperial missions.

The U.S. commitment to global domination since the Cold War ended has had huge costs and brought few benefits. That is especially true in the years since September 11. Nevertheless, there has been remarkably little change in how the foreign-policy establishment thinks about America’s role in the world. From neoconservatives on the right to liberal imperialists on the left, there has been no meaningful diminishment in their commitment to intervening in countries all across the globe."


Now John's emphases are, in fact, rooted in the old insights in political theory, stemming from Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Montesquieu and Marx as I stress in Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy? (1999). There I argue that global rivalry of the sort realists like John emphasize inevitably gives rise to harms to democracy at home, what I name anti-democratic feedback. The wars in which Presidents commonly engage near elections are a leading example. In inegalitarian societies like ours, leaders can often appeal to intervention and "patriotism" to crush movements for reform.


Note that John's recent articles also break with his own Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001) where there is no explicit consideration of the negative effects of foreign policy on a common good or democracy at home. A common, neo-realist error, that weakness echoes a mistake of Kenneth Waltz. Waltz opposed US wars in his lifetime, including in Korea - h/t Paul Viotti - so he could have become aware of this consequence of constant war-making; that he didn't is occasioned by his attempt to fashion an empiricist pseudoscience. "A theory cannot explain everything" he said to me in response to my pressing the question of the domestic impact of great power-rivalry when he spoke at the Korbel School of International Studies. This is a pretty big thing - implausibly - to leave out.

Given the increasing failures and nakedness of US imperial policy and the vicious attack on Mearsheimer and Walt for daring to question the Israel lobby (AIPAC is today extraordinarily obvious and disgraceful in lobbying ignorant, war-mongering Senators for aggression against Iran), Mearsheimer has sharply articulated this connection over the last few years.


Mearsheimer also thinks that Obama is as bad as Bush (substitutes murder by drone - "even more poisonous" - for torture at secret sites, including Guantanamo). But here, his account, right in many ways otherwise, surprisingly misses the mark. For John does not mention Iran. In fact, however, Obama withstood the Romney/Netanyahu/Sheldon Adelson (the casino magnate who bankrolled both) campaign, cheered on by the ignorant Democratic-Republcian alliance for war on Iran in a Presidential campaign. This alliance of belligerents is also glaringly visible today against the progress on negotiations concerning Iran's possible nuclear program. That Obama refused to out-belligerent them and bomb Iran was a very unusual thing, as I stress in Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy. It prevented, so far, a larger, unpredictable war in the Middle East, one in which the US has no troops willing to fight and no support at home, and in which, after the initial bombing, the ball would be in Iran's court. Over 10 years, such a war could threaten the reactionary state of Israel which does have nuclear weapons...


The argument that Israel wouldn't use such weapons has not learned from the Cuban Missile Crisis where the US had bad intelligence - thought there were no missiles, aimed at the East Coast, in Cuba and that Cuba might be bombed (General Curtis Lemay urged this), and only Kennedy's and Khrushchev's sanity in the end avoided a nuclear exchange (see the film on McNamara, "The Fog of War).


So this may be the most striking effort by an American President to move toward peace during and after an election or at least to deescalate in recent memory (one for which Obama has arguably earned his Nobel Peace Prize). See, for example, Peter Beinart's "The Moral Case For Ending America's Cold War with Iran here. A decline in American enmity is likely also to help the Green movement, the democratic dissidence from below, over time.


John also misses Obama's speech at the National Defense University which stressed the same connection he does between militarism and authoritarianism down to the same citation from Madison. As Barack eloquently put it:

"Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike. Is that who we are? Is that something that our Founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave to our children?"

Obama continues:

"For over the last decade, our nation has spent well over a trillion dollars on war, helping to explode our deficits and constraining our ability to nation-build here at home. Our servicemembers and their families have sacrificed far more on our behalf. Nearly 7,000 Americans have made the ultimate sacrifice. Many more have left a part of themselves on the battlefield, or brought the shadows of battle back home. From our use of drones to the detention of terrorist suspects, the decisions that we are making now will define the type of nation — and world — that we leave to our children.

So America is at a crossroads. We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us. We have to be mindful of James Madison’s warning that 'No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.'"

See "Obama's Turning Point" here.


The speech has weaknesses about drones, but was also, for an American President, a break with the past. Unfortunately, Obama has lost track of these insights, failed to speak further about this, since.


Worse yet, as John emphasizs, he tried to launch a "humanitarian intervention" against chemical weapons in Syria - one that overlooked the larger killing of some 100,000 people by Assad, failed to grapple with the presence of Al-Qaida-like forces among the opponents of Assad, and was resisted fiercely by the American people. He did this because of a hope in barring chemical weapons, as at the moment Mubarak fell, he spoke rightly of the power of nonviolence, of King and Gandhi, in Egypt (that every tear gas canister used against the people in Tahrir Square was made by the dishonestly named American company Consolidated Systems Inc., "USA" written on the empty canister, unfortunately belied his words). In Syria, however, had he not been saved by Putin, Obama was headed for a foreign policy disaster, as John underlines.

But there is no gainsaying that John's omission of Obama's policy on Iran is a glaring anomaly for his otherwise highly plausible thesis.


Revising John's point to include Obama's decency on Iran, one might say that Obama has steered away from the large scale wars characteristic of Bush and under large-scale bipartisan, AIPAC-sponsored, reactionary and self-destructive Israeli government pressure to do so. Now he has also, as Mearsheimer rightly underlines, done many harmful things, and abridged liberty, despite his own warnings, at home. There is now forming, as John's article and others in the National Interest show, a conservative anti-aggression movement (conservatives are those who value habeas corpus, shun torture, and criticize foreign crusades, not the imperial authoritarians misnamed conservatives by the American corporate press). Such conservatives join with a wide radical/liberal movement against American aggressions and the Imperial Presidency. John's last sentence puts this eloquently

"But Washington should stop intervening in the politics of countries like Egypt and Syria and more generally abandon its interventionist strategy of global domination, which has led to unending trouble. We might then begin to restore the tarnished liberal-democratic principles that once made America truly exceptional and widely admired."


As Mearsheimer's article implies, however, one should not look too much for leadership or decency to those in high places; only such a movement as in the case of Syria, perhaps enhanced by mass civil disobedience over time, can halt anti-democratic wars (again, even the election of Obama and its decent consequences are a sign of this possibility), rein in spying on Americans, restore the rule of law, and move American policy in a less dangerous and harmful direction.


Here is Nick Turse's recent article on the President's secret army i.e. one that reports only to the President and is outside the regular line of military command (see also Jeremy Scahill, Dirty Wars):

"America’s Black-Ops Blackout
Unraveling the Secrets of the Military’s Secret Military
By Nick Turse

“Dude, I don’t need to play these stupid games. I know what you’re trying to do.” With that, Major Matthew Robert Bockholt hung up on me.

More than a month before, I had called U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) with a series of basic questions: In how many countries were U.S. Special Operations Forces deployed in 2013? Are manpower levels set to expand to 72,000 in 2014? Is SOCOM still aiming for growth rates of 3%-5% per year? How many training exercises did the command carry out in 2013? Basic stuff.

And for more than a month, I waited for answers. I called. I left messages. I emailed. I waited some more. I started to get the feeling that Special Operations Command didn’t want me to know what its Green Berets and Rangers, Navy SEALs and Delta Force commandos -- the men who operate in the hottest of hotspots and most remote locales around the world -- were doing.

Then, at the last moment, just before my filing deadline, Special Operations Command got back to me with an answer so incongruous, confusing, and contradictory that I was glad I had given up on SOCOM and tried to figure things out for myself.

I started with a blank map that quickly turned into a global pincushion. It didn’t take long before every continent but Antarctica was bristling with markers indicating special operations forces’ missions, deployments, and interactions with foreign military forces in 2012-2013. With that, the true size and scope of the U.S. military’s secret military began to come into focus. It was, to say the least, vast.

A review of open source information reveals that in 2012 and 2013, U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) were likely deployed to -- or training, advising, or operating with the personnel of -- more than 100 foreign countries. And that’s probably an undercount. In 2011, then-SOCOM spokesman Colonel Tim Nye told TomDispatch that Special Operations personnel were annually sent to 120 countries around the world. They were in, that is, about 60% of the nations on the planet. “We’re deployed in a number of locations,” was as specific as Bockholt would ever get when I talked to him in the waning days of 2013. And when SOCOM did finally get back to me with an eleventh hour answer, the number offered made almost no sense.

Despite the lack of official cooperation, an analysis by TomDispatch reveals SOCOM to be a command on the make with an already sprawling reach. As Special Operations Command chief Admiral William McRaven put it in SOCOM 2020, his blueprint for the future, it has ambitious aspirations to create “a Global SOF network of like-minded interagency allies and partners.” In other words, in that future now only six years off, it wants to be everywhere.

The Rise of the Military’s Secret Military

Born of a failed 1980 raid to rescue American hostages in Iran (in which eight U.S. service members died), U.S. Special Operations Command was established in 1987. Made up of units from all the service branches, SOCOM is tasked with carrying out Washington’s most specialized and secret missions, including assassinations, counterterrorist raids, special reconnaissance, unconventional warfare, psychological operations, foreign troop training, and weapons of mass destruction counter-proliferation operations.

In the post-9/11 era, the command has grown steadily. With about 33,000 personnel in 2001, it is reportedly on track to reach 72,000 in 2014. (About half this number are called, in the jargon of the trade, “badged operators” -- SEALs, Rangers, Special Operations Aviators, Green Berets -- while the rest are support personnel.) Funding for the command has also jumped exponentially as SOCOM’s baseline budget tripled from $2.3 billion to $6.9 billion between 2001 and 2013. If you add in supplemental funding, it had actually more than quadrupled to $10.4 billion.

Not surprisingly, personnel deployments abroad skyrocketed from 4,900 “man-years” -- as the command puts it -- in 2001 to 11,500 in 2013. About 11,000 special operators are now working abroad at any one time and on any given day they are in 70 to 80 countries, though the New York Times reported that, according to statistics provided to them by SOCOM, during one week in March 2013 that number reached 92.

The Global SOF Network

Last year, Admiral McRaven, who previously headed the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC -- a clandestine sub-command that specializes in tracking and killing suspected terrorists -- touted his vision for special ops globalization. In a statement to the House Armed Services Committee, he said:

“USSOCOM is enhancing its global network of SOF to support our interagency and international partners in order to gain expanded situational awareness of emerging threats and opportunities. The network enables small, persistent presence in critical locations, and facilitates engagement where necessary or appropriate...”

In translation this means that SOCOM is weaving a complex web of alliances with government agencies at home and militaries abroad to ensure that it’s at the center of every conceivable global hotspot and power center. In fact, Special Operations Command has turned the planet into a giant battlefield, divided into many discrete fronts: the self-explanatory SOCAFRICA; the sub-unified command of U.S. Central Command in the Middle East SOCCENT; the European contingent SOCEUR; SOCKOR, which is devoted strictly to Korea; SOCPAC, which covers the rest of the Asia-Pacific region; and SOCSOUTH, which conducts special ops missions in Central and South America and the Caribbean, as well as the globe-trotting JSOC.

Since 2002, SOCOM has also been authorized to create its own Joint Task Forces, a prerogative normally limited to larger combatant commands like CENTCOM. These include Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines, 500-600 personnel dedicated to supporting counterterrorist operations by Filipino allies against insurgent groups like Abu Sayyaf.

A similar mouthful of an entity is the NATO Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan/Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan, which conducts operations, according to SOCOM, “to enable the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF), and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) to provide the Afghan people a secure and stable environment and to prevent insurgent activities from threatening the authority and sovereignty of GIRoA.” Last year, U.S.-allied Afghan President Ha­mid Karzai had a different assessment of the “U.S. special force stationed in Wardak province,” which he accused of “harassing, annoying, torturing, and even murdering innocent people.”

According to the latest statistics made available by ISAF, from October 2012 through March 2013, U.S. and allied forces were involved in 1,464 special operations in Afghanistan, including 167 with U.S. or coalition forces in the lead and 85 that were unilateral ISAF operations. U.S. Special Operations forces are also involved in everything from mentoring lightly armed local security forces under the Village Stability Operations initiative to the training of heavily armed and well-equipped elite Afghan forces -- one of whose U.S.-trained officers defected to the insurgency in the fall.

In addition to task forces, there are also Special Operations Command Forward (SOC FWD) elements which, according to the military, “shape and coordinate special operations forces security cooperation and engagement in support of theater special operations command, geographic combatant command, and country team goals and objectives.” These light footprint teams -- including SOC FWD Pakistan, SOC FWD Yemen, and SOC FWD Lebanon -- offer training and support to local elite troops in foreign hotspots. In Lebanon, for instance, this has meant counterterrorism training for Lebanese Special Ops forces, as well as assistance to the Lebanese Special Forces School to develop indigenous trainers to mentor other Lebanese military personnel.

Special Operations Command Central (SOCCENT) briefing slide by Col. Joe Osborne, showing SOC FWD elements

SOCOM’s reach and global ambitions go further still. TomDispatch’s analysis of McRaven’s first two full years in command reveals a tremendous number of overseas operations. In places like Somalia and Libya, elite troops have carried out clandestine commando raids. In others, they have used airpower to hunt, target, and kill suspected militants. Elsewhere, they have waged an information war using online propaganda. And almost everywhere they have been at work building up and forging ever-tighter ties with foreign militaries through training missions and exercises.

“A lot of what we will do as we go forward in this force is build partner capacity,” McRaven said at the Ronald Reagan Library in November, noting that NATO partners as well as allies in the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America “are absolutely essential to how we’re doing business.”

In March 2013, for example, Navy SEALs conducted joint training exercises with Indonesian frogmen. In April and May, U.S. Special Operations personnel joined members of the Malawi Defense Forces for Exercise Epic Guardian. Over three weeks, 1,000 troops engaged in marksmanship, small unit tactics, close quarters combat training, and other activities across three countries -- Djibouti, Malawi, and the Seychelles.

In May, American special operators took part in Spring Storm, the Estonian military’s largest annual training exercise. That same month, members of the Peruvian and U.S. special operations forces engaged in joint training missions aimed at trading tactics and improving their ability to conduct joint operations. In July, Green Berets from the Army’s 20th Special Forces Group spent several weeks in Trinidad and Tobago working with members of that tiny nation’s Special Naval Unit and Special Forces Operation Detachment. That Joint Combined Exchange Training exercise, conducted as part of SOCSOUTH’s Theater Security Cooperation program, saw the Americans and their local counterparts take part in pistol and rifle instruction and small unit tactical exercises.

In September, according to media reports, U.S. Special Operations forces joined elite troops from the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations member countries -- Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), and Cambodia -- as well as their counterparts from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, China, India, and Russia for a US-Indonesian joint-funded coun­terterrorism exercise held at a training center in Sentul, West Java.

Tactical training was, however, just part of the story. In March 2013, for example, experts from the Army’s John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School hosted a week-long working group with top planners from the Centro de Adiestramiento de las Fuerzas Especiales -- Mexico’s Special Warfare Center -- to aid them in developing their own special forces doctrine.

In October, members of the Norwegian Special Operations Forces traveled to SOCOM's state-of-the-art Wargame Center at its headquarters on MacDill Air Force Base in Florida to refine crisis response procedures for hostage rescue operations. “NORSOF and Norwegian civilian leadership regularly participate in national field training exercises focused on a scenario like this,” said Norwegian Lieutenant Colonel Petter Hellesen. “What was unique about this exercise was that we were able to gather so many of the Norwegian senior leadership and action officers, civilian and military, in one room with their U.S counterparts.”

MacDill is, in fact, fast becoming a worldwide special ops hub, according to a report by the Tampa Tribune. This past fall, SOCOM quietly started up an International Special Operations Forces Coordination Center that provides long-term residencies for senior-level black ops liaisons from around the world. Already, representatives from 10 nations had joined the command with around 24 more slated to come on board in the next 12-18 months, per McRaven’s global vision.

In the coming years, more and more interactions between U.S. elite forces and their foreign counterparts will undoubtedly take place in Florida, but most will likely still occur -- as they do today -- overseas. TomDispatch’s analysis of official government documents and news releases as well as press reports indicates that U.S. Special Operations forces were reportedly deployed to or involved with the militaries of 106 nations around the world during 2012-2013.

For years, the command has claimed that divulging the names of these countries would upset foreign allies and endanger U.S. personnel. SOCOM’s Bockholt insisted to me that merely offering the total number would do the same. “You understand that there is information about our military… that is contradictory to reporting,” he told me. “There’s certain things we can’t release to the public for the safety of our service members both at home and abroad. I’m not sure why you’d be interested in reporting that.”

In response, I asked how a mere number could jeopardize the lives of Special Ops personnel, and he responded, “When you work with the partners we work with in the different countries, each country is very particular.” He refused to elaborate further on what this meant or how it pertained to a simple count of countries. Why SOCOM eventually offered me a number, given these supposed dangers, was never explained.

Bringing the War Home

This year, Special Operations Command has plans to make major inroads into yet another country -- the United States. The establishment of SOCNORTH in 2014, according to the command, is intended to help “defend North America by outpacing all threats, maintaining faith with our people, and supporting them in their times of greatest need.” Under the auspices of U.S. Northern Command, SOCNORTH will have responsibility for the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and portions of the Caribbean.

While Congressional pushback has thus far thwarted Admiral McRaven’s efforts to create a SOCOM satellite headquarters for the more than 300 special operators working in Washington, D.C. (at the cost of $10 million annually), the command has nonetheless stationed support teams and liaisons all over the capital in a bid to embed itself ever more deeply inside the Beltway. “I have folks in every agency here in Washington, D.C. -- from the CIA, to the FBI, to the National Security Agency, to the National Geospatial Agency, to the Defense Intelligence Agency,” McRaven said during a panel discussion at Washington’s Wilson Center in 2013. Referring to the acronyms of the many agencies with which SOCOM has forged ties, McRaven continued: “If there are three letters, and in some cases four, I have a person there. And they have had a reciprocal agreement with us. I have somebody in my headquarters at Tampa.” Speaking at Ronald Reagan Library in November, he put the number of agencies where SOCOM is currently embedded at 38.

“Given the importance of interagency collaboration, USSOCOM is placing greater emphasis on its presence in the National Capital Region to better support coordination and decision making with interagency partners. Thus, USSOCOM began to consolidate its presence in the NCR [National Capitol Region] in early 2012,” McRaven told the House Armed Services Committee last year.

One unsung SOCOM partner is U.S. AID, the government agency devoted to providing civilian foreign aid to countries around the world whose mandate includes the protection of human rights, the prevention of armed conflicts, the provision of humanitarian assistance, and the fostering of “good will abroad.” At a July 2013 conference, Beth Cole, the director of the Office of Civilian-Military Cooperation at U.S. AID, explained just how her agency was now quietly aiding the military’s secret military.

“In Yemen, for example, our mission director has SVTCs [secure video teleconferences] with SOCOM personnel on a regular basis now. That didn’t occur two years ago, three years ago, four years ago, five years ago,” Cole said, according to a transcript of the event. But that was only the start. “My office at U.S. AID supports SOF pre-deployment training in preparation for missions throughout the globe... I’m proud that my office and U.S. AID have been providing training support to several hundred Army, Navy, and Marine Special Operations personnel who have been regularly deploying to Afghanistan, and we will continue to do that.”

Cole noted that, in Afghanistan, U.S. AID personnel were sometimes working hand-in-hand on the Village Stability Operation initiative with Special Ops forces. In certain areas, she said, “we can dual-hat some of our field program officers as LNOs [liaison officers] in those Joint Special Operations task forces and be able to execute the development work that we need to do alongside of the Special Operations Forces.” She even suggested taking a close look at whether this melding of her civilian agency and special ops might prove to be a model for operations elsewhere in the world.

Cole also mentioned that her office would be training “a senior person” working for McRaven, the man about to “head the SOF element Lebanon” -- possibly a reference to the shadowy SOC FWD Lebanon. U.S. AID would, she said, serve as a facilitator in that country, making “sure that he has those relationships that he needs to be able to deal with what is a very, very, very serious problem for our government and for the people of that region.”

U.S. AID is also serving as a facilitator closer to home. Cole noted that her agency was sending advisors to SOCOM headquarters in Florida and had “arranged meetings for [special operators] with experts, done roundtables for them, immersed them in the environment that we understand before they go out to the mission area and connect them with people on the ground.” All of this points to another emerging trend: SOCOM’s invasion of the civilian sphere.

In remarks before the House Armed Services Committee, Admiral McRaven noted that his Washington operation, the SOCOM NCR, “conducts outreach to academia, non-governmental organizations, industry, and other private sector organizations to get their perspective on complex issues affecting SOF.” Speaking at the Wilson Center, he was even more blunt: “[W]e also have liaison officers with industry and with academia... We put some of our best and brightest in some of the academic institutions so we can understand what academia is thinking about.”

SOCOM’s Information Warfare

Not content with a global presence in the physical world, SOCOM has also taken to cyberspace where it operates the Trans Regional Web Initiative, a network of 10 propaganda websites that are run by various combatant commands and made to look like legitimate news outlets. These shadowy sites -- including, Magharebia which targets North Africa, an effort aimed at the Middle East known as, and another targeting Latin America called -- state only in fine print that they are “sponsored by” the U.S. military.

Last June, the Senate Armed Services Committee called out the Trans Regional Web Initiative for “excessive” costs while stating that the “effectiveness of the websites is questionable and the performance metrics do not justify the expense.” In November, SOCOM announced that it was nonetheless seeking to identify industry partners who, under the Initiative, could potentially “develop new websites tailored to foreign audiences.”

Just as SOCOM is working to influence audiences abroad, it is also engaged in stringent information control at home -- at least when it comes to me. Major Bockholt made it clear that SOCOM objected to a 2011 article of mine about U.S. Special Operations forces. “Some of that stuff was inconsistent with actual facts,” he told me. I asked what exactly was inconsistent. “Some of the stuff you wrote about JSOC… I think I read some information about indiscriminate killing or things like that.”

I knew right away just the quote he was undoubtedly referring to -- a mention of the Joint Special Operations Command’s overseas kill/capture campaign as “an almost industrial-scale counterterrorism killing machine.” Bockholt said that it was indeed “one quote of concern.” The only trouble: I didn’t say it. It was, as I stated very plainly in the piece, the assessment given by John Nagl, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and former counterinsurgency adviser to now-retired general and former CIA director David Petraeus.

Bockholt offered no further examples of inconsistencies. I asked if he challenged my characterization of any information from an interview I conducted with then-SOCOM spokesman Colonel Tim Nye. He did not. Instead, he explained that SOCOM had issues with my work in general. “As we look at the characterization of your writing, overall, and I know you’ve had some stuff on Vietnam [an apparent reference to my bestselling book, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam] and things like that -- because of your style, we have to be very particular on how we answer your questions because of how you tend to use that information.” Bockholt then asked if I was anti-military. I responded that I hold all subjects that I cover to a high standard.

Bockholt next took a verbal swipe at the website where I’m managing editor, Given Special Operations Command’s penchant for dabbling in dubious news sites, I was struck when he said that TomDispatch -- which has published original news, analysis, and commentary for more than a decade and won the 2013 Utne Media Award for “best political coverage” -- was not a “real outlet.” It was, to me, a daring position to take when SOCOM’s shadowy Middle Eastern news site actually carries a disclaimer that it “cannot guarantee the accuracy of the information provided.”

With my deadline looming, I was putting the finishing touches on this article when an email arrived from Mike Janssen of SOCOM Public Affairs. It was -- finally -- a seemingly simple answer to what seemed like an astonishingly straightforward question asked more than a month before: What was the total number of countries in which Special Operations forces were deployed in 2013? Janssen was concise. His answer: 80.

How, I wondered, could that be? In the midst of McRaven’s Global SOF network initiative, could SOCOM have scaled back their deployments from 120 in 2011 to just 80 last year? And if Special Operations forces were deployed in 92 nations during just one week in 2013, according to official statistics provided to the New York Times, how could they have been present in 12 fewer countries for the entire year? And why, in his March 2013 posture statement to the House Armed Services Committee, would Admiral McRaven mention "annual deployments to over 100 countries?" With minutes to spare, I called Mike Janssen for a clarification. “I don’t have any information on that,” he told me and asked me to submit my question in writing -- precisely what I had done more than a month before in an effort to get a timely response to this straightforward and essential question.

Today, Special Operations Command finds itself at a crossroads. It is attempting to influence populations overseas, while at home trying to keep Americans in the dark about its activities; expanding its reach, impact, and influence, while working to remain deep in the shadows; conducting operations all over the globe, while professing only to be operating in “a number of locations”; claiming worldwide deployments have markedly dropped in the last year, when evidence suggests otherwise.

“I know what you’re trying to do,” Bockholt said cryptically before he hung up on me -- as if the continuing questions of a reporter trying to get answers to basic information after a month of waiting were beyond the pale. In the meantime, whatever Special Operations Command is trying to do globally and at home, Bockholt and others at SOCOM are working to keep it as secret as possible.

Nick Turse is the managing editor of and a fellow at the Nation Institute. An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, the Nation, on the BBC, and regularly at TomDispatch. He is the author most recently of the New York Times bestseller Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (just out in paperback). You can catch his conversation with Bill Moyers about that book by clicking here."

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