WASHINGTON -- This was the week that we Americans came to a stunning realization: We are deep into a new war!
No, not in Afghanistan and Iraq -- we have more or less known that -- but all over the world. Dare we call it a new kind of world war, or perhaps something far more ominous?
This week, much was revealed as a little-known country in central Africa named Niger, an arid desert land of majority Hausa people still so poor that slavery was banned only in 2003, became world famous. Niger was all over the American news cycles because of the deaths there of four American Green Berets -- and particularly because of the strange death of Sgt. La David Johnson.
And suddenly, senators like New York's Chuck Schumer were appearing on television, saying, Oh my, we had no idea there were 800 troops in Niger! Former U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson warned publicly that it might well be time to re-engage Congress in approving America's wars.
But if the presence of American troops in Africa was supposed to be some kind of secret, the propagators of such a farce should surely be put out to pasture. I recall, for instance, when on a visit to NATO in Belgium in 2003, Supreme Allied Commander James Jones told me, "I'm going to Africa next week to organize our forces there." By 2007 these very open efforts had become the Pentagon's Africa Command, or AFRICOM.
Despite this transparency, on Monday The New York Times broke the "secret" open, when it published nearly an entire editorial page on "America's Forever Wars." "The United States has been at war continuously since the attacks of 9/11 and now has just over 240,000 active-duty and reserve troops in at least 172 countries and territories," the editorial stated.
Plus, it noted, "an additional 37,813 troops serve on presumably secret assignments in places listed simply as 'unknown'" (a statement surely designed to bring out the Mata Hari in all of us).
But the questions raised here seem to be not so much HOW MANY or even WHERE we have troops in American bases scattered across the globe. Instead, two questions conscientious Americans should be asking themselves:
1. What do we hope to gain from this extraordinary reach of supposed military preparedness against the expansion of such groups as ISIS?
2. Do the American people really want such "forever wars"?
To gain some perspective -- and, God forbid, perhaps even some wisdom -- let us look at two recent, infinitely revealing military stories from foreign shores:
First, Niger. How could nobody know there were American soldiers in that "ungoverned space" so desired by terrorists? For this, one has to blame much of the press, which is giving us so painfully little foreign news these days. Also to blame are American citizens, who prefer the entertainment of cable news to buying newspapers, and educational institutions, which have promiscuously cut back on teaching geography and civics.
Second, the fall of Raqqa. When that northern Syrian city that had been ISIS' capital fell to American-backed Syrian and Iraqi troops last week, it was indeed a great victory. Iraqi and Kurdish troops waved flags and danced in the streets, while American advisers smiled -- after all, we had trained and armed both sides! But then our two "allies," as the Pentagon, not without whimsy, calls them, turned violently against each other, especially in the oil-rich Iraqi city of Kirkuk.
You see, Saddam Hussein had long ago deliberately seeded Kirkuk with Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen, figuring rightly that they historically hated one another more than they hated him. So the liberation of Raqqa and the consequent breakdown in Kirkuk, with the Kurds again being viciously driven out by their Iraqi allies, was actually inevitable -- and quite foreseeable.
Only now the real victors were the Shiite militias in the Iraqi military and their great inspiration, Iran -- the very country the U.S. is so deeply involved in the region to counteract. And so, in the end, we can only return to the two questions:
-- Is it possible to gain anything in such situations? Only at such a terrible cost that few sensible people would countenance the sacrifice. (For this we can blame our political and military leaders for an inability to understand other cultures, to act according to what motivates other societies and to judge righteously where we can make a difference and where we cannot.)
-- Do the American people want "forever wars"? If they do, they should sit down calmly and start writing out some large personal checks. But if they do not, then it is high time they said so.