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Noam Chomsky: America’s Real Foreign Policy

By: Tom Engelhardt Tuesday July 1, 2014 6:11 am

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Tilt-shifted pentagon

Our foreign policy is only designed to protect the military-industrial complex, not people.

It goes without saying that the honchos of the national security state weren’t exactly happy with Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations.  Still, over the last year, the comments of such figures, politicians associated with them, and retirees from their world clearly channeling their feelings have had a striking quality: over-the-top vituperation.  About the nicest thing anyone in that crew has had to say about Snowden is that he’s a “traitor” or — shades of the Cold War era (and of absurdity, since the State Department trapped him in the transit lounge of a Moscow airport by taking his passport away) — a “Russian spy.”  And that’s the mild stuff.  Such figures have also regularly called for his execution, for quite literally stringing him up from the old oak tree and letting him dangle in the breeze.  Theirs has been a bloodcurdling collective performance that gives the word “visceral” new meaning.

Such a response to the way Snowden released batches of NSA documents to Glenn Greenwald, filmmaker Laura Poitras, and the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman calls for explanation.  Here’s mine: the NSA’s goal in creating a global surveillance state was either utopian or dystopian (depending on your point of view), but in either case, breathtakingly totalistic.  Its top officials meant to sweep up every electronic or online way one human being can communicate with others, and to develop the capability to surveil and track every inhabitant of the planet.  From German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff to peasants with cell phones in the backlands of Afghanistan (not to speak of American citizens anywhere), no one was to be off the hook.  Conceptually, there would be no exceptions.  And the remarkable thing is how close the agency came to achieving this.

Whether consciously or not, however, the officials of the U.S. Intelligence Community did imagine one giant exception: themselves.  No one outside the loop was supposed to know what they were doing.  They alone on the planet were supposed to be unheard, unspied upon, and unsurveilled.  The shock of Snowden’s revelations, I suspect, and the visceral reactions came, in part, from the discovery that such a system really did have no exceptions, not even them.  In releasing the blueprint of their world, Snowden endangered nothing in the normal sense of the term, but that made him no less of a traitor to their exceptional world as they imagined it.  What he ensured was that, as they surveil us, we can now in some sense track them.  His act, in other words, dumped them in with the hoi polloi — with us — which, under the circumstances, was the ultimate insult and they responded accordingly.

An allied explanation lurks in Noam Chomsky’s latest TomDispatch post.  If the “security” in national security means not the security of the American people but, as he suggests, of those who run the national security state, and if secrecy is the attribute of power, then Edward Snowden broke their code of secrecy and exposed power itself to the light in a devastating and deflating way.  No wonder the reaction to him was so bloodthirsty and vitriolic.  Chomsky himself has an unsettling way of exposing various worlds of power, especially American power, to the light with similarly deflating results.  He’s been doing it for half a century and only gets better. Tom

Whose Security? How Washington Protects Itself and the Corporate Sector 
By Noam Chomsky

The question of how foreign policy is determined is a crucial one in world affairs.  In these comments, I can only provide a few hints as to how I think the subject can be productively explored, keeping to the United States for several reasons.  First, the U.S. is unmatched in its global significance and impact.  Second, it is an unusually open society, possibly uniquely so, which means we know more about it.  Finally, it is plainly the most important case for Americans, who are able to influence policy choices in the U.S. — and indeed for others, insofar as their actions can influence such choices.  The general principles, however, extend to the other major powers, and well beyond.

There is a “received standard version,” common to academic scholarship, government pronouncements, and public discourse.  It holds that the prime commitment of governments is to ensure security, and that the primary concern of the U.S. and its allies since 1945 was the Russian threat.

There are a number of ways to evaluate the doctrine.  One obvious question to ask is: What happened when the Russian threat disappeared in 1989?  Answer: everything continued much as before.

 

Juan Cole: Waiting for the Arab Summer

By: Tom Engelhardt Monday June 30, 2014 7:15 am

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

A crowd in Tahrir with a banner: People Demand Removal of The Regime

Arab Spring’s effects are still felt throughout the Middle East.

When it comes to pure ineptness, it’s been quite a performance — and I’m sure you’ve already guessed that I’m referring to our secretary of state’s recent jaunt to the Middle East.  You remember the old quip about jokes and timing.  (It’s all in the…)  In this case, John Kerry turned the first stop on his Middle Eastern tour into a farce, thanks to impeccably poor timing.  He landed in President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s Egypt to put the Obama stamp of approval on the former general’s new government and what he called “a historic election.”  This was a reference to the way Sisi became president, with a mind-boggling 97% of the votes (or so the official story went).  Kerry also promised to release $575 million in military aid frozen by Congress and threw in 10 Apache attack helicopters in what can only be seen as a pathetic attempt to bribe the Egyptian military.  Having delivered the goods, he evidently went into negotiations with Sisi without the leverage they might have offered him.

And then there was the timing.  The day after Kerry’s visit, verdicts were to come down in an already infamous case of media persecution.  Three Al Jazeera reporters were to hear their fate.  Charged with “aiding” the Muslim Brotherhood, they were clearly going to get severe sentences (as indeed they did) in a court system that had already given “hanging judge” a new meaning.  (While Kerry was in Cairo, death sentences were confirmed against 183 members of the Muslim Brotherhood.)  He reportedly discussed the case with Sisi — there wasn’t a shred of evidence against the reporters — and was assumedly convinced that he had wielded American power in an effective way.  Hence, when the verdicts were announced the next day and, as the Guardian put it, “delivered a humiliating, public slap in the face to Kerry,” he reportedly “appeared stunned.”  He must have been even more stunned a day later when Sisi assured the world that he would never think of “interfering” with Egyptian justice.

The strangeness of all this is hard to take in, though Kerry has a record of not delivering big time.  At the moment, allies and client states around the region — from Afghanistan (where President Hamid Karzai still refuses to sign a security pact with the U.S.) to Israel (where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government regularly announces new building plans in the occupied territories) — seem to ignore Washington’s will.  This is by now both fascinating and predictable.  If, having provided an embarrassingly full-throated defense of the Bush administration project in Iraq at a Cairo news conference, the secretary of state promptly flew into Baghdad to put an American stamp on the Iraqi government, he failed.  His mission: to get the country’s politicians to form a “unity government,” essentially deposing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.  Even with his military in a state of near collapse and his own position desperately weakened, however, Maliki swept Kerry’s proposals aside.  If the secretary of state then flew on to Irbil to “implore” the president of the Kurdish autonomous region, Masoud Barzani, not to move toward an independent Kurdistan… well, do I even have to finish that sentence for you?

Here, then, is a mystery highlighted by the crisis in disintegrating Iraq and Syria: What kind of world are we in when the most powerful nation on the planet is incapable of convincing anyone, even allies significantly dependent on it, of anything?

Into this increasingly grim situation steps a TomDispatch favorite, Juan Cole, the man who runs the invaluable Informed Comment website.  Unlike the secretary of state, who, while in Cairo, definitively turned his back on the Arab Spring and the young protesters who made it happen, Cole embraces it and them.  In doing so, he offers us a ray of sunshine, hope amid the gloom.  Today, he considers the fate of the Arab Spring, suggesting that those, Kerry included, who have already consigned it to the trash heap of history don’t understand history at all.  His piece catches the spirit of a remarkable new book he’s written that is just about to come out: The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East.  It’s a must-read from an expert who has a perspective Washington sadly lacks. Tom

The Arab Millennials Will Be Back
Three Ways the Youth Rebellions Are Still Shaping the Middle East
By Juan Cole

Three and a half years ago, the world was riveted by the massive crowds of youths mobilizing in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to demand an end to Egypt’s dreary police state.  We stared in horror as, at one point, the Interior Ministry mobilized camel drivers to attack the demonstrators.  We watched transfixed as the protests spread from one part of Egypt to another and then from country to country across the region.  Before it was over, four presidents-for-life would be toppled and others besieged in their palaces.

Peter Van Buren: What We’ve Lost Since 9/11 (Part 2)

By: Tom Engelhardt Thursday June 26, 2014 6:37 am

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Activist in Guy Fawkes mask: "What Independence Are You Celebrating?"

The loss of our 4th amendment rights goes beyond NSA spying.

When it comes to spying, surveillance, and privacy, a simple rule applies to our world: however bad you think it is, it’s worse.  Thanks to Edward Snowden, we’ve learned an enormous amount about the global surveillance regime that one of America’s 17 intelligence outfits has created to suck into its maw (and its storage facilities) all communications on the planet, no matter their form.  We certainly know a lot more than we did a year ago about what the government is capable of knowing about us.  We’ve also recently learned a good deal about “big data” and what corporations can now know about us, as well as how much more they may know once your house is filled with “smart” technology.

Less is understood about how corporate surveillance is coming to the workplace, but sooner or later — count on it — the company or business you work for will be capable, via intelligent software, of monitoring every move you make, not to speak of everyone you may be in touch with while on the clock.  The truth is, whatever the euphemisms, just about every imaginable way of knowing and surveilling you is here or on its way.  In Oakland, California, for instance, you could mistake the anodyne name of “the Domain Awareness Center” for the latest in New Age spiritualism.  In fact, as CNN recently reported, it’s a “proposed central surveillance facility where authorities can monitor the Port of Oakland and the city’s airport to protect against potential terrorism.”  Someday, it may integrate “live, 24/7 data streams from closed circuit traffic cameras, police license plate readers, gunshot detectors, and other sources from all over the entire city of Oakland.”  This means that, despite theoretically being on the lookout for terrorists (how many of those are there in Oakland?), it will be able to track you anywhere in the area.

It’s no exaggeration to say that in our developing brave new world of surveillance, inside or outside your house, there will be nowhere that you aren’t potentially trackable and surveillable, no space that is just yours and no one else’s.  This also means that, however bad you think it is, government and corporate employees somewhere are already creating the next set of processes, technologies, and facilities to monitor you in yet more vivid detail.

Now, let’s add rule two: however bad you think it is, you don’t know the half of it.  Yes, you’ve been following the Snowden NSA revelations, but no Snowden has stepped forward (yet) to reveal what the CIA or FBI or Defense Intelligence Agency or Department of Homeland Security or National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is doing.  And as far as the national security state is concerned, the less you know, the better.  Take, for example, a recent Associated Press story with this revelation: citing “security reasons” (as always), the Obama administration “has been quietly advising local police not to disclose details about surveillance technology they are using to sweep up basic cellphone data from entire neighborhoods.”

It might even be your neighborhood. In such a situation, it will be easy enough perhaps to forget the value of the sense of privacy in your life, whether you feel you have something to hide or not. Just yesterday, the Supreme Court put a rare brake on the loss of privacy, ruling that the police must have a warrant to search your cell phone after your arrest. In the second of a three-part series on the shredding of the Bill of Rights (amendment by amendment), State Department whistleblower and TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren takes on the destruction of the protections for American privacy in the Fourth Amendment — destruction that, if we’re not careful, could soon seem as American as apple pie. Tom

 

Shredding the Fourth Amendment in Post-Constitutional America

 
Four Ways It No Longer Applies 
By Peter Van Buren

Here’s a bit of history from another America: the Bill of Rights was designed to protect the people from their government. If the First Amendment’s right to speak out publicly was the people’s wall of security, then the Fourth Amendment’s right to privacy was its buttress. It was once thought that the government should neither be able to stop citizens from speaking nor peer into their lives. Think of that as the essence of the Constitutional era that ended when those towers came down on September 11, 2001. Consider how privacy worked before 9/11 and how it works now in Post-Constitutional America.

The Fourth Amendment

A response to British King George’s excessive invasions of privacy in colonial America, the Fourth Amendment pulls no punches: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Michael Schwartz: The New Oil Wars in Iraq

By: Tom Engelhardt Tuesday June 24, 2014 7:07 am

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Poster of a anthropomorphized gas pump holding a bomb: No Blood For Oil, Bring the Troops Home.

It’s always been about the oil.

Imagine the president, speaking on Iraq from the White House Press Briefing Room last Thursday, as the proverbial deer in the headlights — and it’s not difficult to guess just what those headlights were.  Think of them as Benghazi on steroids.  If the killing of an American ambassador, a Foreign Service officer, and two CIA private security contractors could cause almost two years of domestic political uproar, unending Republican criticism, and potential damage to the president’s “legacy,” consider what an Iraq in shambles and a terrorist state stretching across “the Levant” might do.  It’s hardly surprising, then, that a president regularly described as “reluctant” nonetheless stepped before the press corps and began the slow march back into Iraq and toward disaster.

It was a moment of remarkable contradictions.  Obama managed, for example, to warn against “mission creep” even as he was laying out what could only be described as mission creep.  Earlier that week, he had notified Congress that 275 troops would be sent to Iraq, largely to defend the vast U.S. embassy in Baghdad, once an almost three-quarters-of-a-billion-dollar symbol of imperial hubris, now a white elephant of the first order.  A hundred more military personnel were to be moved into the region for backup.

Then on Thursday, the president added 300 “military advisers” drawn from Special Operations forces and evidently meant to staff new “joint operation centers in Baghdad and northern Iraq to share intelligence and coordinate planning to confront the terrorist threat.” (If you are of a certain age, that word “adviser” will ring an eerie Vietnam-ish bell.  You should, in fact, already be hearing a giant sucking sound somewhere in the distance.)  He also spoke vaguely of positioning “additional U.S. military assets in the region” into which the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, accompanied by a guided-missile cruiser and destroyer, had already sailed.  And mind you, this was only the reasonably public part of whatever build-up is underway.  While the president spoke of being “prepared to take targeted and precise military action” in Iraq, at least one unnamed “senior administration official” was already at work opening up the possibility of air strikes in Syria.  “We don’t restrict potential U.S. action to a specific geographic space,” was the ominous way that official put it.

In other words, short of combat troops on the ground in significant numbers, that table on which “all options” are always kept open was visibly moved into Washington’s War Room of the Levant.  It’s quite a development for a president who took special pride in getting us out of Iraq (even though that departure was engineered by the Bush administration, while Obama’s officials tried to negotiate leaving a force behind, only to be thwarted by the Iraqi government).  In tandem with the military moves, the president and his national security team, perhaps reflecting through a glass darkly the “democracy agenda” of the Bush era, also seemed to have dipped their fingers in purple ink.  They were reportedly pressuring Iraqi politicians to dump Prime Minister Maliki and appoint a “unity” government to fight the war they want.  (Adding to the farcical nature of the moment, one name raised for Maliki’s position was Ahmed Chalabi, once the darling of Bush-era officials and their choice for that same post.)

There is, however, no way that an American intervention won’t be viewed as a move to back the Shia side in an incipient set of civil wars, as even retired general and former CIA director David Petraeus warned last week. In fact, in opinion polls Americans overwhelmingly reject military intervention of any sort, just as every experience in the post-9/11 era should signal one simple lesson: Don’t do it!  But Obama and his top officials evidently can’t help themselves.  The rising tide of criticism-to-come is undoubtedly already pre-echoing in their heads — previewed by the endless media appearances of Senator John McCain and a stream of op-eds from former vice president Dick Cheney, former occupation proconsul L. Paul Bremer III, and others from the crowd of “experts” who created the Iraq disaster and for whom being wrong about that country is a badge of honor.

We are clearly in the early stages of the intervention sweepstakes.  The initial moves may even be greeted as auspicious, but watch out for the long-run destabilizing effects in an already chaotic region.  Washington only imagines it can control such combustible situations.  In reality, it hasn’t in the past and it won’t be able to this time either, which means unexpected ugliness will ensue.  (And just wait until, in one of those joint operation centers or elsewhere, the first Iraqi soldier, like his Afghan counterparts, turns his gun on one of those special ops advisers.)

All that’s missing at the moment is the final touch on the Obama version of mission creep.  I’m talking about the signature gesture for this administration in its conflicts across the Greater Middle East (and increasingly Africa).  If you listen carefully, you can already hear the theme music for the era rising in the background and — with apologies to Stephen Sondheim for mangling his beautiful elegy to a lost relationship — it’s clearly “Send in the Drones.”

In the meantime, whatever the president is saying, he never mentioned oil.  No one does.  Nor, generally, did the Bush administration when it invaded and occupied Iraq.  If you paid attention to our media, you would never know that it sits on one of the great, easily accessible fossil-fuel reserves on the planet, though that should never be far from anyone’s mind.  Fortunately, sociologist Michael Schwartz, an old-time TomDispatch regular, is back after a long absence to remind us of The One Fact in Iraq, the one we should never forget. Tom

It’s the Oil, Stupid! Insurgency and War on a Sea of Oil
By Michael Schwartz

Events in Iraq are headline news everywhere, and once again, there is no mention of the issue that underlies much of the violence: control of Iraqi oil. Instead, the media is flooded with debate about, horror over, and extensive analysis of a not-exactly-brand-new terrorist threat, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). There are, in addition, elaborate discussions about the possibility of a civil war that threatens both a new round of ethnic cleansing and the collapse of the embattled government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Laura Gottesdiener: Security vs. Securities

By: Tom Engelhardt Monday June 23, 2014 7:31 am

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

A close up of the Wall Street bull sculpture.

After crashing the housing market, Wall Street is extracting harsh profits from the rental market at the cost of lives.

I live in Washington, D.C.’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. I can more or less roll out of bed into the House of Representatives or the Senate; the majestic Library of Congress doubles as my local branch. (If you visit, spend a sunset on the steps of the library’s Jefferson Building. Trust me.) You can’t miss my place, three stories of brick painted Big Bird yellow. It’s a charming little corner of the city. Each fall, the trees outside my window shake their leaves and carpet the street in gold. Nora Ephron, if she were alive, might’ve shot a scene for her latest movie in one of the lush green parks that bookend my block.

The neighborhood wasn’t always so nice. A few years back, during a reporting trip to China, I met an American consultant who had known Capitol Hill in a darker era. “I was driving up the street one time,” he told me, “and walking in the opposite direction was this huge guy carrying an assault rifle. Broad daylight, no one even noticed. That’s what kind of neighborhood it was.” Nowadays, row houses around me sell for $1 million or more. I rent.

Washington’s a fun place to live if you’re young and employed. But as a recent Washington Post story pointed out, the nation’s capital is slowly pricing out even its yuppies who, in their late-twenties and early-thirties, want to start families but can’t afford it. “I hate to say it, but the facts show that the D.C. market is for people who are single and relatively affluent,” a real estate researcher told the Post. The District’s housing boom just won’t stop; off go those new and expecting parents to the suburbs.

And we’re talking about the lucky ones. Elsewhere in the country, vulnerability in the housing market isn’t a trend story; it’s the norm. The Cedillo family, as Laura Gottesdiener writes today, went looking for their version of the American housing dream and thought they found it in Chandler, Arizona. They didn’t know that the house they chose to rent rested on a shaky foundation — not physically but financially. It had been one of thousands snapped up and rented out by massive investment firms making a killing in the wake of the housing collapse. As Gottesdiener — who has put the new rental empires of private equity firms on the map for TomDispatch — shows, the goal of such companies is to squeeze every dime of profit from their properties, from homes like the Cedillos’, and that can lead to tragedy. Andy Kroll

Drowning in Profits

A Private Equity Firm, a Missing Pool Fence, and the Price of a Child’s Death
By Laura Gottesdiener

Security is a slippery idea these days — especially when it comes to homes and neighborhoods.

Perhaps the most controversial development in America’s housing “recovery” is the role played by large private equity firms. In recent years, they have bought up more than 200,000 mostly foreclosed houses nationwide and turned them into rental empires. In the finance and real estate worlds, this development has won praise for helping to raise home values and creating a new financial product known as a “rental-backed security.” Many economists and housing advocates, however, have blasted this new model as a way for Wall Street to capitalize on an economic crisis by essentially pushing families out of their homes, then turning around and renting those houses back to them.

Caught in the crosshairs are tens of thousands of families now living in these private equity-owned homes. For them, it’s not a question of economic debate, but of daily safety and stability. Among them are the Cedillos of Chandler, Arizona, a tight-knit family in which the men work in construction and the oil fields, while the strong-willed women balance their studies with work and children, and toddlers learn to dance as early as they learn to walk. Their story of a private equity firm, a missing pool fence, and the death of a two-year-old child raises troubling questions about how, as a nation, we define security in housing and why, in the midst of what’s regularly termed a “recovery,” many neighborhoods may actually be growing increasingly vulnerable.

A Buying Frenzy

In early August 2013, the Cedillo family threw a pool party at their house in Chandler. It was the sixth birthday of Brenda Cedillo’s son, Jesus, and the family gave him a Batman-themed celebration, complete with a piñata in the driveway and a rented waterslide for the small pool in the backyard. Brenda, her brother Bryan, and her sister Christine had signed a one-year lease on the two-story structure three weeks earlier, which made the party special. It was the first family celebration that could be held in a house.

The Guns of Folly

By: Tom Engelhardt Thursday June 19, 2014 6:33 am

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Who Won Iraq? Lost Dreams, Lost Armies, Jihadi States, and the Arc of Instability By Tom Engelhardt

Bush walks in a flight suit aboard an aircraft carrier.

As Iraq unravels, a look back at the empire fantasies of the Bush era.

As Iraq was unraveling last week and the possible outlines of the first jihadist state in modern history were coming into view, I remembered this nugget from the summer of 2002.  At the time, journalist Ron Suskind had a meeting with “a senior advisor” to President George W. Bush (later identified as Karl Rove).  Here’s how he described part of their conversation:

The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off.  ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued.  ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

As events unfold increasingly chaotically across the region that officials of the Bush years liked to call the Greater Middle East, consider the eerie accuracy of that statement.  The president, his vice president Dick Cheney, his defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and his national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, among others, were indeed “history’s actors.”  They did create “new realities” and, just as Rove suggested, the rest of us are now left to “study” what they did.

And oh, what they did!  Their geopolitical dreams couldn’t have been grander or more global.  (Let’s avoid the word “megalomaniacal.”)  They expected to pacify the Greater Middle East, garrison Iraq for generations, make Syria and Iran bow down before American power, “drain” the global “swamp” of terrorists, and create a global Pax Americana based on a military so dominant that no other country or bloc of countries would ever challenge it.

It was quite a dream and none of it, not one smidgen, came true.  Just as Rove suggested they would — just as in the summer of 2002, he already knew they would — they acted to create a world in their image, a world they imagined controlling like no imperial power in history.  Using that unchallengeable military, they launched an invasion that blew a hole through the oil heartlands of the Middle East.  They took a major capital, Baghdad, while “decapitating” (as the phrase then went) the regime that was running Iraq and had, in a particularly brutal fashion, kept the lid on internecine tensions.

They lacked nothing when it came to confidence.  Among the first moves of L. Paul Bremer III, the proconsul they appointed to run their occupation, was an order demobilizing Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein’s 350,000-man army and the rest of his military as well.  Their plan: to replace it with a lightly armed border protection force — initially of 12,000 troops and in the end perhaps 40,000 — armed and trained by Washington.  Given their vision of the world, it made total sense.  Why would Iraq need more than that with the U.S. military hanging around for, well, ever, on a series of permanent bases the Pentagon’s contractors were building?  What dangers could there be in the neighborhood with that kind of force on hand?  Soon enough, it became clear that what they had really done was turn the Iraqi officer corps and most of the country’s troops out onto unemployment lines, creating the basis for a militarily skilled Sunni insurgency.  A brilliant start!

Note that these days the news is filled with commentary on the lack of a functional Iraqi air force.  That’s why, in recent months, Prime Minister Maliki has been calling on the Obama administration to send American air power back into the breach.  Saddam Hussein did have an air force.  Once it had been one of the biggest in the Middle East.  The Bush administration, however, came to the conclusion that the new Iraqi military would have no need for fighter planes, helicopters, or much of anything else, not when the U.S. Air Force would be in the neighborhood on bases like Balad in Central Iraq.  Who needed two air forces?

Be Careful What You Wish For

Ariel Dorfman: A Tale of Torture and Forgiveness

By: Tom Engelhardt Tuesday June 17, 2014 6:28 am

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Two anti-torture protestors in front of the white house, one in a cage.

Do you think the President knows it’s Torture Awareness Month?

I’ll bet you didn’t know that June is “torture awareness month” thanks to the fact that, on June 26, 1987, the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment or Punishment went into effect internationally.  In this country, however, as a recent Amnesty International survey indicated, Americans are essentially living in Torture Unawareness Month, or perhaps even Torture Approval Month, and not just in June 2014 but every month of the year.

One simple fact of the post-9/11 era should make this clear and also boggle the mind, but has had almost no impact here.  But for this you need a little background from the early years of what was once called the Global War on Terror.  In addition to a stream of international kidnappings (euphemistically called “renditions”) of terror suspects, including completely innocent people the CIA snatched off the streets of global cities, as well as from the backlands of the planet and “rendered” into the hands of well-known torturing regimes (with the help of 54 other countries) and the setting up of a network of “black sites” or offshore prisons where anything went, the CIA tortured up a storm.  And it did so at the behest of the top officials of the Bush administration, including the president and vice president who were convinced that it was time for Washington to “take the gloves off.”  In those years, torture techniques were reportedly demonstrated in the White House to some of those officials, including the vice president and national security advisor.  At the time, they went by the euphemistic, administration-approved term “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which was quickly picked up and used in the U.S. mainstream media in place of the word “torture” — though only when the enhanced interrogators were American, of course.  The bad guys out there continued to “torture” in the usual fashion.

In the Obama years, torture was (at least officially) tossed out as a useful tactic.  But the torturers themselves were given a pass, every last one of them, by the Justice Department, even two cases in which the CIA’s acts of enhancement had led to death.  No charge was ever brought against anyone, including the Justice Department lawyers who wrote the tortured memos endorsing those techniques and redefining torture as only happening when the torturer meant it to, or the officials who green-lighted them.  Think of the Obama administration then as Amnesty National.  That administration did, however, have the guts to go after one man connected to the torture program, forced a plea deal from him, and sent him to jail for two years.  I’m talking about former CIA agent John Kiriakou, the only person since 9/11 convicted of a torture-related crime.  To be specific, his criminal act was to blow the whistle on his former employer’s torture program to a journalist, revealing in the process the name of a CIA agent.  That was considered such an indefensible act — in effect, an act of torture against the American security state — that justice, American-style, was done.

It’s quite a tortuous record when you think about it, not that anyone here does anymore, which is why we need TomDispatch regular Ariel Dorfman, author most recently of Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile, to remind us of what’s really at stake when one human being tortures another. Tom

How to Forgive Your Torturer 

The River Kwai Passes Through Latin America and Washington 

By Ariel Dorfman

What a way to celebrate Torture Awareness Month!

According to an Amnesty International Poll released in May, 45% of Americans believe that torture is “sometimes necessary and acceptable” in order to “gain information that may protect the public.” Twenty-nine percent of Britons “strongly or somewhat agreed” that torture was justified when asked the same question.

Peter Van Buren: RIP, The Bill of Rights

By: Tom Engelhardt Monday June 16, 2014 6:21 am

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

The Bill of Rights

The Bill of Rights

Here’s what passes for good news when it comes to a free press these days: two weeks ago, the Supreme Court refused without comment to hear a case involving New York Times reporter James Risen. It concerned his unwillingness to testify before a grand jury under subpoena and reveal a confidential source of information in his book State of War on the secret U.S. campaign against the Iranian nuclear program. The case will now go back to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which has already ordered him to testify. He says he will instead go to jail, if necessary.

That’s the bad news, right? Really bad news! The Supremes, the highest court in the land, refused to protect a reporter protecting a source at a moment when the Obama administration is in the midst of a wide-ranging crackdown on leakers and whistleblowers of all sorts (and those in the media considered to be aiding and abetting them). Actually, in a world in which Congress has not yet managed to pass a federal shield law that would protect reporters, it turns out that that’s actually the good news — or so at least various media commentators say. Follow the logic here (and it is logic of a sort). Right now the Richmond, Virginia-based Appeals court decision applies only to courts in states under its jurisdiction. Had the Supremes agreed to take on the case, given their conservative and generally government-friendly bent on matters of executive power and what passes for national security, they would likely have ruled against Risen and that ruling would have applied nationally.

So, phew! Their rejection was a “blessing” (in disguise). The only harm they did, after all, was to confirm the atmospherics of a moment in which the Obama administration has been eager to shut down the leaking of unauthorized government information in a big way — oh yes, and drive another modest nail into the coffin of a free-to-report-what-our-government-actually-does media. That’s the minimal, not the maximal damage claim; so say various relieved commentators. As for Risen, he now has to depend on the kindness of strangers, of in fact Attorney General Eric Holder, who may briefly declare a truce in the administration’s “war on the press” and not jail him.

Best news we’ve had in a while! And should Congress pass that shield law (even if it leaves national security out), uncork the champagne! And we’ll all toast the Supreme Court and the attorney general and the president and his top officials for their grace under pressure. Or rather, hold on just a sec there. Maybe that isn’t quite the classic American way of preserving our freedoms — i.e, allowing our government free rein to preserve them for us, if its officials happen to be in the mood. In fact, as State Department whistleblower and TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren suggests, we may be entering a grim new era when it comes to our Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Tom

What We’ve Lost Since 9/11
Taking Down the First Amendment in Post-Constitutional America

By Peter Van Buren

America has entered its third great era: the post-constitutional one. In the first, in the colonial years, a unitary executive, the King of England, ruled without checks and balances, allowing no freedom of speech, due process, or privacy when it came to protecting his power.

In the second, the principles of the Enlightenment and an armed rebellion were used to push back the king’s abuses. The result was a new country and a new constitution with a Bill of Rights expressly meant to check the government’s power. Now, we are wading into the shallow waters of a third era, a time when that government is abandoning the basic ideas that saw our nation through centuries of challenges far more daunting than terrorism. Those ideas — enshrined in the Bill of Rights — are disarmingly concise. Think of them as the haiku of a genuine people’s government.

Deeper, darker waters lie ahead and we seem drawn down into them. For here there be monsters.