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Andrew Bacevich: The Eternal War?

8:07 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

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

A battleship flying a US flag

Will we really dial back the Global War on Terror?

Twelve and a half years after Congress didn’t declare war on an organization of hundreds or, at most, thousands of jihadis scattered mainly across the backlands of the planet, and instead let President George W. Bush and his cohort loose to do whatever they wanted; twelve and a half years after the president, his top officials, his neocon supporters, assembled pundits, and others swore we were nonetheless “at war” and the country in “wartime,” after our media beat the drums for “war” and assured us that “war” was our fate, after followers of the president insisted we were entering a monumental, multigenerational struggle, or even World War IV; twelve and a half years after the war that hadn’t been declared was launched and the bombing of Afghanistan began, after the CIA and Washington targeted up to 80 countries in a “worldwide attack matrix” — later given the leave-no-location-out name the Global War on Terror — and after top Washington officials swore we would soon “drain the [global] swamp,” another president has now assured us that someday, in a distant future, in a way that we might not even notice (“Our victory against terrorism won’t be measured in a surrender ceremony at a battleship…”), we might possibly find ourselves approaching the sort-of-end of what will have been a 20- or 30-year conflict.

At the National Defense University (NDU) last Thursday, President Obama, so media reports and editorials assured us, gave a speech in which he promised to dial back the war on terror as a “global” operation, curtail U.S. drone operations abroad, and launch another effort to whittle down, if not close, Guantanamo.  But a careful look at the text of his speech indicates that he still accepts the most basic premises of the previous administration: that we are “at war”; that the country, despite visible evidence to the contrary, is in “wartime”; and that, when a president decides it’s necessary, this planet will remain a global free-fire zone for drones, special operations forces, or whatever else he choses to throw at it.  He may even, reports Jonathan Landay of McClatchy News, have quietly expanded the categories of human beings that U.S. drones can attack.

In those twelve and a half years between 9/11 and the recent speech, it’s been a bumpy ride through a minefield of unexpected IEDs.  Two invasions of the Eurasian mainland have led to two defeats that passed for better here and are bringing U.S. combat troops home with, as this president said, their “heads held high,” but also with massive numbers of PTSD casessuicides, and other debilitating issues.  In the meantime, America’s global warring has resulted in a significant destabilization of the Greater Middle East.  (The present Syrian disaster would have been unimaginable without the U.S. invasion of Iraq.)  It’s also resulted in the growth of an ever larger secret military cocooned inside the U.S. military, the special operations forces – 10,000 of whom are now in Afghanistan alone — and the launching of a series of drone wars and assassination campaigns across a significant swath of the planet.  These, from a White House that has taken on ever more power to do as it pleases in foreign and military policy, the president now claims to be curtailing and bringing under his version of the rule of law, largely because they haven’t been working out so terribly well.  Finally, there’s the spread of the al-Qaeda franchise into areas Washington has helped unsettle, which, as the president indicated, ensures that our “war” cannot end any time soon.  Think of it as a Mobius strip of self-justifying conflict.

And yet, the ability of the U.S. to “project force” everywhere from the Mali-Niger border to the Philippines remains impressive.  Even its capacity to engage in a series of disasters over such an expanse of the planet for twelve and a half years and still be talking about “pivoting” militarily to Asia, while maintaining a massive build-up of U.S. forces around Iran, should give anyone pause.  It’s a reminder that the now-seldom-heard term “sole superpower” continues to mean something.

But what? Somehow, like our empire of bases (and the private contractors that go with it), it’s been hard to absorb the continual use of such power projection and the vast web of military-to-military relationships and weapons sales that go with it, or the increasing ability of the White House alone to determine what makes sense and what doesn’t abroad, even as both the Greater Middle East and what’s left of American democracy and liberties are further destabilized.

Much of this has not yet been taken in here in a meaningful way, though you can feel it lurking, half-expressed, half-grasped, in the president’s NDU speech.  To begin to understand what’s actually been going on, it would help to define the “war” that we’ve been fighting all these years from North Africa to China’s Central Asian border.  TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich, whose latest book Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country will be published in September, suggests that a good place to begin is by naming that now nameless “war.” (In fact, if, having checked out his piece, TomDispatch readers want to send in their own naming suggestions, along with their explanations for them, we might highlight a few of them above a future post.) Tom 

Naming Our Nameless War
How Many Years Will It Be?
By Andrew J. Bacevich

For well over a decade now the United States has been “a nation at war.” Does that war have a name?

It did at the outset.  After 9/11, George W. Bush’s administration wasted no time in announcing that the U.S. was engaged in a Global War on Terrorism, or GWOT.  With few dissenters, the media quickly embraced the term. The GWOT promised to be a gargantuan, transformative enterprise. The conflict begun on 9/11 would define the age. In neoconservative circles, it was known as World War IV.

Upon succeeding to the presidency in 2009, however, Barack Obama without fanfare junked Bush’s formulation (as he did again in a speech at the National Defense University last week).  Yet if the appellation went away, the conflict itself, shorn of identifying marks, continued.

Does it matter that ours has become and remains a nameless war? Very much so.

Tom Engelhardt: Disaster on Autpilot

6:56 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

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

Army Security at a Meeting in Afghanistan

(Photo: The US Army / Flickr)


Overwrought Empire
The Discrediting of U.S. Military Power
By Tom Engelhardt

Americans lived in a “victory culture” for much of the twentieth century.  You could say that we experienced an almost 75-year stretch of triumphalism — think of it as the real “American Century” — from World War I to the end of the Cold War, with time off for a destructive stalemate in Korea and a defeat in Vietnam too shocking to absorb or shake off.

When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, it all seemed so obvious.  Fate had clearly dealt Washington a royal flush.  It was victory with a capital V.  The United States was, after all, the last standing superpower, after centuries of unceasing great power rivalries on the planet.  It had a military beyond compare and no enemy, hardly a “rogue state,” on the horizon.  It was almost unnerving, such clear sailing into a dominant future, but a moment for the ages nonetheless.  Within a decade, pundits in Washington were hailing us as “the dominant power in the world, more dominant than any since Rome.”

And here’s the odd thing: in a sense, little has changed since then and yet everything seems different.  Think of it as the American imperial paradox: everywhere there are now “threats” against our well-being which seem to demand action and yet nowhere are there commensurate enemies to go with them.  Everywhere the U.S. military still reigns supreme by almost any measure you might care to apply; and yet — in case the paradox has escaped you — nowhere can it achieve its goals, however modest.

At one level, the American situation should simply take your breath away.  Never before in modern history had there been an arms race of only one or a great power confrontation of only one.  And at least in military terms, just as the neoconservatives imagined in those early years of the twenty-first century, the United States remains the “sole superpower” or even “hyperpower” of planet Earth.

The Planet’s Top Gun

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Peter Van Buren: Imperial Reconstruction and Its Discontents

7:11 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

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

Three US soldiers in Iraq stand against a stone wall with guns drawn.

Photo: U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Stacy L. Pearsall / Flickr

A war and occupation thousands of miles away that lasted seven years and involved more than 1.5 million Americans, military and civilian, has passed into the history books and yet we still know remarkably little about so much of it.  Take American military bases in Iraq.  There were, of course, none in March 2003 when the Bush administration launched its regime-change invasion with dreams of garrisoning that particular stretch of the planet’s oil heartlands for generations to come.

At the height of the American occupation, in the face of Sunni and Shiite insurgencies and a bloody civil war, the Pentagon built 505 bases there, ranging from micro-outposts to mega-bases the size of small American towns — in one case, with an airport that was at least as busy as Chicago’s O’Hare International.  As it happened, during all but the last days of those long, disastrous years of war, Americans could have had no idea how many bases had been built, using taxpayer dollars, in Iraq.  Estimates in the press ranged, on rare occasions, up to about 300.  Only as U.S. troops prepared to leave was that 505 figure released by the military, without any fanfare whatsoever.  Startlingly large, it was simply accepted by reporters who evidently found it too unimpressive to highlight.

And here’s an allied figure that we still don’t have: to this day, no one outside the Pentagon has the faintest idea what it cost to build those bases, no less maintain them, or in the end abandon them to the Iraqi military, to the fate of ghost towns, or simply to be looted and stripped.  We have no figures, not even ballpark ones, about what the Pentagon paid crony corporations like KBR to construct and maintain them.  The only vague approximation I ever saw was offered in an engineering magazine in October 2003 by Lt. Col. David Holt, the Army officer “tasked with facilities development” in Iraq.  At a moment when U.S. base building was barely underway, he was already speaking of the program being in the “several billion dollar range,” adding proudly that “the numbers are staggering.”  So for the full seven-year figure, let your imagination run wild.

The same is obviously true, by the way, of the more than 400 bases the Pentagon built in Afghanistan, as well as another 300 or so meant for local forces.  Think of it this way: America’s “stimulus package” these last years has significantly been in Baghdad and Kabul.  All of this would be considered an extraordinary, not to say profligate, feat for any country — to be able to construct what I once called American-style “ziggurats” in a land thousands of miles distant: garrisons with 20-mile or more perimeters, barracks, fire stations, bus lines, PXes, Internet cafes, brand-name fast-food restaurants, electricity and water supplies, and so much else.  It is, in fact, the kind of over-the-top, can-do feat that the world once associated with the United States and that Americans expected — not abroad, but at home.

Nowadays, however, as State Department officer and whistleblower Peter Van Buren makes clear, at home at least the can-do nation is a can’t-do nation.  Of course, as anyone who follows the news will know, a caveat has to be put next to the “can do” abroad label as well, and no one has done that better than Van Buren in his book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, just now being published in paperback.  It should be cautionary bedtime reading for America’s children.  After all, what we built profligately but successfully — those bases — has now been abandoned to the elements; while what we were supposed to be “reconstructing” for others ended up mired in corruption, incompetence, and the sort of pure idiocy that would be amusing (and that Van Buren makes grimly hilarious in his book) if it weren’t so sad. Tom

How Not to Reconstruct Iraq, Afghanistan — or America:
A Guide to Disaster at Home and Abroad
By Peter Van Buren

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Nick Turse: The Changing Face of Empire

8:18 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

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

The frustration has long been growing.  Now, it’s been put into words.  On his recent trip to Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who has earned a reputation for saying whatever comes into his head, insisted that Washington had just about had it with Pakistan.  “Reaching the limits of our patience” was the way he put it (not once but twice).  Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey spoke only slightly more mildly of being “extraordinarily dissatisfied.”  The Obama administration, so went the message, was essentially losing it in South Asia.  It was mad and wasn’t about to take it any more!

Soldiers in combat gear & night vision equipment move though tall grass.

Photo: U.S. Army Sgt. Jeffrey Alexander / Flickr

How far Washington has come from the days (back in 2001) when an American official could reportedly march self-confidently into the office of Pakistan’s intelligence chief, and tell him that his country had better decide whether it was for us or against us.  Otherwise, he reportedly added, Pakistan should expect to be bombed “back to the Stone Age.”

In the ensuing years, the great imperial power of our age repeatedly recalibrated its Pakistan policy in growing frustration, only to see it run ever more definitively off the rails.  The Obama administration, in particular, has sent its high officials, like so many caroming pinballs, flying in and out of Pakistan in droves for years now to demand, order, chide, plead, wheedle, cajole, intimidate, threaten, twist arms, and bluster, as it repeatedly flipped from good-guy ally to fierce, missile-wielding frenemy, and back again.

Recently, in the wake of U.S. air strikes that killed 24 Pakistani border guards (without a U.S. apology), it has faced a more-than-six-month closure of its crucial Pakistani war supply lines into Afghanistan.  Its response: to negotiate ever more frenetically, and pull the trigger in its drone war in the Pakistani borderlands ever more often.  Recently, it even announced a multimillion dollar cut-off of funds for Pakistan’s version of Sesame Street, while reaching a highly touted agreement with some former Central Asian SSRs of the former Soviet Union to transport American equipment out of Afghanistan (as our forces draw down there), at up to six times the cost of the blockaded routes through Pakistan.

If you want a living, panting, post-9/11 parable of imperial self-confidence and mastery gone to hell, Pakistan is the first (but not the last) place to look.  Behind the visible failure of U.S. policy in that country lies a devastating self-deception: the thought that, in the twenty-first century, even the greatest of powers, playing its cards perfectly, can control this planet, or simply significant regions of it.

If you want a prospectively breathtaking version of the same disastrous principle check out the latest piece by TomDispatch Associate Editor Nick Turse, co-author of the new book Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.  A new American global way of war is emerging to replace the double disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan. Turse puts its sinews together strikingly, suggesting that Washington is once again bedazzled by the possibility of mastering the planet — in a new, cheaper, less profligate way.  Once again, the top officials of our ever-expanding national security state are evidently convinced of their own prospective brilliance in organizing the next version of the global Great Game.  As with Pakistan in late 2001, so — from Central Africa to the Philippines — this, too, looks like a winner in their eyes. Much on this planet is unpredictable and yet the crash-and-burn fate of what Turse calls the Obama doctrine is painfully predictable. Unfortunately, as it goes down in flames, it may help send the world up in flames, too. Tom

The New Obama Doctrine, A Six-Point Plan for Global WarSpecial Ops, Drones, Spy Games, Civilian Soldiers, Proxy Fighters, and Cyber Warfare
By Nick Turse

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Noam Chomsky: Imperial Hegemony and Its Discontents

7:27 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

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

On Tuesday, Part 1 of Noam Chomsky’s piece on American decline, “‘Losing’ the World” was posted at this site. It can be read by clicking here. Now, Part 2 begins. When you’re done, you might check out Chomsky’s earlier TomDispatch piece, “Who Owns the World?” which could be considered a companion to this one. (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Chomsky offers an anatomy of American defeat in the Greater Middle East, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

The Imperial Way
American Decline in Perspective, Part 2

By Noam Chomsky

In the years of conscious, self-inflicted decline at home, “losses” continued to mount elsewhere. In the past decade, for the first time in 500 years, South America has taken successful steps to free itself from western domination, another serious loss. The region has moved towards integration, and has begun to address some of the terrible internal problems of societies ruled by mostly Europeanized elites, tiny islands of extreme wealth in a sea of misery. They have also rid themselves of all U.S. military bases and of IMF controls. A newly formed organization, CELAC, includes all countries of the hemisphere apart from the U.S. and Canada. If it actually functions, that would be another step in American decline, in this case in what has always been regarded as “the backyard.”

Even more serious would be the loss of the MENA countries — Middle East/North Africa — which have been regarded by planners since the 1940s as “a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.” Control of MENA energy reserves would yield “substantial control of the world,” in the words of the influential Roosevelt advisor A.A. Berle.

To be sure, if the projections of a century of U.S. energy independence based on North American energy resources turn out to be realistic, the significance of controlling MENA would decline somewhat, though probably not by much: the main concern has always been control more than access. However, the likely consequences to the planet’s equilibrium are so ominous that discussion may be largely an academic exercise.

The Arab Spring, another development of historic importance, might portend at least a partial “loss” of MENA. The US and its allies have tried hard to prevent that outcome — so far, with considerable success. Their policy towards the popular uprisings has kept closely to the standard guidelines: support the forces most amenable to U.S. influence and control. Read the rest of this entry →

Noam Chomsky: Hegemony and Its Dilemmas

7:19 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

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

Back in May 2007, I stumbled across online sketches at the website of a Kansas architectural firm hired to build a monster U.S. embassy-cum-citadel-cum-Greater-Middle-Eastern command center on 104 acres in the middle of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.  They offered an artist’s impressions of what the place would look like — a giant self-sufficient compound both prosaic (think malls or housing projects) and opulent (a giant pool, tennis courts, a recreation center).

Struck by the fact that the U.S. government was intent on building the largest embassy ever in the planet’s oil heartlands, I wrote a piece, “The Mother Ship Lands in Iraq” about those plans and offered a little tour of the project via those crude drawings.  From TomDispatch, they then began to run around the Internet and soon a panicky State Department had declared a “security breach” and forced the firm to pull the sketches off its website.

Now, more than five years later, we have the first public photos of the embassy — a pool, basketball court, tennis courts, and food court to die for — just as the news has arrived that the vast boondoggle of a place, built for three-quarters of a billion of your tax dollars, with a $6 billion State Department budget this year and its own mercenary air force, is about to get its staff of 16,000 slashed.  In a Washington Post piece on the subject, Senator Patrick Leahy is quoted as saying: “I’ve been in embassies all over the world, and you come to this place and you’re like: ‘Whoa. Wow.’ All of a sudden you’ve got something so completely out of scale to anything, you have to wonder, what were they thinking when they first built it?”

The answer is: in 2004, when planning for this white elephant of embassies first began, the Bush administration was still dreaming of a Washington-enforced Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East and saw it as its western command post.  Now, of course, the vast American mega-bases in Iraq with their multiple bus routes, giant PXes, Pizza Huts, Cinnabons, and Burger Kings, where American troops were to be garrisoned on the “Korean model” for decades to come, are so many ghost towns, fading American ziggurats in Mesopotamia.  Similarly, those embassy photos seem like snapshots from Pompeii just as the ash was beginning to fall.  Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the news is similarly dismal with drawdowns and withdrawals suddenly the order of the day.  Something’s changing.  It feels tectonic.  Certainly, we’re receiving another set of signs that American imperial plans on the Eurasian mainland have crashed and burned and that the U.S. is now regrouping and heading “offshore.”

What a moment then for Noam Chomsky to weigh in on the subject of American decline.  (His earlier TomDispatch post “Who Owns the World?” might be considered a companion piece to this one.)  For him, a TomDispatch first: a two-day, back-to-back two-parter on imperial hegemony and its discontents. (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Chomsky offers an anatomy of American defeats in the Greater Middle East, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

“Losing” the World
American Decline in Perspective, Part 1

By Noam Chomsky

Significant anniversaries are solemnly commemorated — Japan’s attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, for example.  Others are ignored, and we can often learn valuable lessons from them about what is likely to lie ahead.  Right now, in fact.

At the moment, we are failing to commemorate the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s decision to launch the most destructive and murderous act of aggression of the post-World War II period: the invasion of South Vietnam, later all of Indochina, leaving millions dead and four countries devastated, with casualties still mounting from the long-term effects of drenching South Vietnam with some of the most lethal carcinogens known, undertaken to destroy ground cover and food crops.

The prime target was South Vietnam.  The aggression later spread to the North, then to the remote peasant society of northern Laos, and finally to rural Cambodia, which was bombed at the stunning level of all allied air operations in the Pacific region during World War II, including the two atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  In this, Henry Kissinger’s orders were being carried out — “anything that flies on anything that moves” — a call for genocide that is rare in the historical record.  Little of this is remembered.  Most was scarcely known beyond narrow circles of activists.

hen the invasion was launched 50 years ago, concern was so slight that there were few efforts at justification, hardly more than the president’s impassioned plea that “we are opposed around the world by a monolithic and ruthless conspiracy that relies primarily on covert means for expanding its sphere of influence” and if the conspiracy achieves its ends in Laos and Vietnam, “the gates will be opened wide.”

Elsewhere, he warned further that “the complacent, the self-indulgent, the soft societies are about to be swept away with the debris of history [and] only the strong… can possibly survive,” in this case reflecting on the failure of U.S. aggression and terror to crush Cuban independence.

By the time protest began to mount half a dozen years later, the respected Vietnam specialist and military historian Bernard Fall, no dove, forecast that “Vietnam as a cultural and historic entity… is threatened with extinction…[as]…the countryside literally dies under the blows of the largest military machine ever unleashed on an area of this size.” He was again referring to South Vietnam.

When the war ended eight horrendous years later, mainstream opinion was divided between those who described the war as a “noble cause” that could have been won with more dedication, and at the opposite extreme, the critics, to whom it was “a mistake” that proved too costly.  By 1977, President Carter aroused little notice when he explained that we owe Vietnam “no debt” because “the destruction was mutual.”

There are important lessons in all this for today, even apart from another reminder that only the weak and defeated are called to account for their crimes.  One lesson is that to understand what is happening we should attend not only to critical events of the real world, often dismissed from history, but also to what leaders and elite opinion believe, however tinged with fantasy.  Another lesson is that alongside the flights of fancy concocted to terrify and mobilize the public (and perhaps believed by some who are trapped in their own rhetoric), there is also geostrategic planning based on principles that are rational and stable over long periods because they are rooted in stable institutions and their concerns.  That is true in the case of Vietnam as well.  I will return to that, only stressing here that the persistent factors in state action are generally well concealed.

The Iraq war is an instructive case.  It was marketed to a terrified public on the usual grounds of self-defense against an awesome threat to survival: the “single question,” George W. Bush and Tony Blair declared, was whether Saddam Hussein would end his programs of developing weapons of mass destruction.   When the single question received the wrong answer, government rhetoric shifted effortlessly to our “yearning for democracy,” and educated opinion duly followed course; all routine.

Later, as the scale of the U.S. defeat in Iraq was becoming difficult to suppress, the government quietly conceded what had been clear all along.  In 2007-2008, the administration officially announced that a final settlement must grant the U.S. military bases and the right of combat operations, and must privilege U.S. investors in the rich energy system — demands later reluctantly abandoned in the face of Iraqi resistance.  And all well kept from the general population.

Gauging American Decline

With such lessons in mind, it is useful to look at what is highlighted in the major journals of policy and opinion today.  Let us keep to the most prestigious of the establishment journals, Foreign Affairs.  The headline blaring on the cover of the December 2011 issue reads in bold face: “Is America Over?”

The title article calls for “retrenchment” in the “humanitarian missions” abroad that are consuming the country’s wealth, so as to arrest the American decline that is a major theme of international affairs discourse, usually accompanied by the corollary that power is shifting to the East, to China and (maybe) India.

The lead articles are on Israel-Palestine.  The first, by two high Israeli officials, is entitled “The Problem is Palestinian Rejection”: the conflict cannot be resolved because Palestinians refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state — thereby conforming to standard diplomatic practice: states are recognized, but not privileged sectors within them.  The demand is hardly more than a new device to deter the threat of political settlement that would undermine Israel’s expansionist goals.

The opposing position, defended by an American professor, is entitled “The Problem Is the Occupation.” The subtitle reads “How the Occupation is Destroying the Nation.” Which nation?  Israel, of course.  The paired articles appear under the heading “Israel under Siege.”

The January 2012 issue features yet another call to bomb Iran now, before it is too late.  Warning of “the dangers of deterrence,” the author suggests that “skeptics of military action fail to appreciate the true danger that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to U.S. interests in the Middle East and beyond. And their grim forecasts assume that the cure would be worse than the disease — that is, that the consequences of a U.S. assault on Iran would be as bad as or worse than those of Iran achieving its nuclear ambitions. But that is a faulty assumption. The truth is that a military strike intended to destroy Iran’s nuclear program, if managed carefully, could spare the region and the world a very real threat and dramatically improve the long-term national security of the United States.”

Others argue that the costs would be too high, and at the extremes some even point out that an attack would violate international law — as does the stand of the moderates, who regularly deliver threats of violence, in violation of the U.N. Charter.

Let us review these dominant concerns in turn.

American decline is real, though the apocalyptic vision reflects the familiar ruling class perception that anything short of total control amounts to total disaster.  Despite the piteous laments, the U.S. remains the world dominant power by a large margin, and no competitor is in sight, not only in the military dimension, in which of course the U.S. reigns supreme.

China and India have recorded rapid (though highly inegalitarian) growth, but remain very poor countries, with enormous internal problems not faced by the West.  China is the world’s major manufacturing center, but largely as an assembly plant for the advanced industrial powers on its periphery and for western multinationals.  That is likely to change over time.  Manufacturing regularly provides the basis for innovation, often breakthroughs, as is now sometimes happening in China.  One example that has impressed western specialists is China’s takeover of the growing global solar panel market, not on the basis of cheap labor but by coordinated planning and, increasingly, innovation.

But the problems China faces are serious. Some are demographic, reviewed in Science, the leading U.S. science weekly. The study shows that mortality sharply decreased in China during the Maoist years, “mainly a result of economic development and improvements in education and health services, especially the public hygiene movement that resulted in a sharp drop in mortality from infectious diseases.” This progress ended with the initiation of the capitalist reforms 30 years ago, and the death rate has since increased.

Furthermore, China’s recent economic growth has relied substantially on a “demographic bonus,” a very large working-age population. “But the window for harvesting this bonus may close soon,” with a “profound impact on development”:  “Excess cheap labor supply, which is one of the major factors driving China’s economic miracle, will no longer be available.”

Demography is only one of many serious problems ahead.  For India, the problems are far more severe.

Not all prominent voices foresee American decline.  Among international media, there is none more serious and responsible than the London Financial Times.  It recently devoted a full page to the optimistic expectation that new technology for extracting North American fossil fuels might allow the U.S. to become energy independent, hence to retain its global hegemony for a century.  There is no mention of the kind of world the U.S. would rule in this happy event, but not for lack of evidence.

At about the same time, the International Energy Agency reported that, with rapidly increasing carbon emissions from fossil fuel use, the limit of safety will be reached by 2017 if the world continues on its present course. “The door is closing,” the IEA chief economist said, and very soon it “will be closed forever.”

Shortly before the U.S. Department of Energy reported the most recent carbon dioxide emissions figures, which “jumped by the biggest amount on record” to a level higher than the worst-case scenario anticipated by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  That came as no surprise to many scientists, including the MIT program on climate change, which for years has warned that the IPCC predictions are too conservative.

Such critics of the IPCC predictions receive virtually no public attention, unlike the fringe of denialists who are supported by the corporate sector, along with huge propaganda campaigns that have driven Americans off the international spectrum in dismissal of the threats.  Business support also translates directly to political power.  Denialism is part of the catechism that must be intoned by Republican candidates in the farcical election campaign now in progress, and in Congress they are powerful enough to abort even efforts to inquire into the effects of global warming, let alone do anything serious about it.

In brief, American decline can perhaps be stemmed if we abandon hope for decent survival, prospects that are all too real given the balance of forces in the world.

“Losing” China and Vietnam

Putting such unpleasant thoughts aside, a close look at American decline shows that China indeed plays a large role, as it has for 60 years.  The decline that now elicits such concern is not a recent phenomenon.  It traces back to the end of World War II, when the U.S. had half the world’s wealth and incomparable security and global reach.  Planners were naturally well aware of the enormous disparity of power, and intended to keep it that way.

The basic viewpoint was outlined with admirable frankness in a major state paper of 1948 (PPS 23).  The author was one of the architects of the New World Order of the day, the chair of the State Department Policy Planning Staff, the respected statesman and scholar George Kennan, a moderate dove within the planning spectrum.  He observed that the central policy goal was to maintain the “position of disparity” that separated our enormous wealth from the poverty of others.  To achieve that goal, he advised, “We should cease to talk about vague and… unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization,” and must “deal in straight power concepts,” not “hampered by idealistic slogans” about “altruism and world-benefaction.”

Kennan was referring specifically to Asia, but the observations generalize, with exceptions, for participants in the U.S.-run global system.  It was well understood that the “idealistic slogans” were to be displayed prominently when addressing others, including the intellectual classes, who were expected to promulgate them.

The plans that Kennan helped formulate and implement took for granted that the U.S. would control the Western Hemisphere, the Far East, the former British empire (including the incomparable energy resources of the Middle East), and as much of Eurasia as possible, crucially its commercial and industrial centers.  These were not unrealistic objectives, given the distribution of power.  But decline set in at once.

In 1949, China declared independence, an event known in Western discourse as “the loss of China” — in the U.S., with bitter recriminations and conflict over who was responsible for that loss.  The terminology is revealing.  It is only possible to lose something that one owns.  The tacit assumption was that the U.S. owned China, by right, along with most of the rest of the world, much as postwar planners assumed.

The “loss of China” was the first major step in “America’s decline.” It had major policy consequences.  One was the immediate decision to support France’s effort to reconquer its former colony of Indochina, so that it, too, would not be “lost.”

Indochina itself was not a major concern, despite claims about its rich resources by President Eisenhower and others.  Rather, the concern was the “domino theory,” which is often ridiculed when dominoes don’t fall, but remains a leading principle of policy because it is quite rational.  To adopt Henry Kissinger’s version, a region that falls out of control can become a “virus” that will “spread contagion,” inducing others to follow the same path.

In the case of Vietnam, the concern was that the virus of independent development might infect Indonesia, which really does have rich resources.  And that might lead Japan — the “superdomino” as it was called by the prominent Asia historian John Dower — to “accommodate” to an independent Asia as its technological and industrial center in a system that would escape the reach of U.S. power.  That would mean, in effect, that the U.S. had lost the Pacific phase of World War II, fought to prevent Japan’s attempt to establish such a New Order in Asia.

The way to deal with such a problem is clear: destroy the virus and “inoculate” those who might be infected.  In the Vietnam case, the rational choice was to destroy any hope of successful independent development and to impose brutal dictatorships in the surrounding regions.  Those tasks were successfully carried out — though history has its own cunning, and something similar to what was feared has since been developing in East Asia, much to Washington’s dismay.

The most important victory of the Indochina wars was in 1965, when a U.S.-backed military coup in Indonesia led by General Suharto carried out massive crimes that were compared by the CIA to those of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.  The “staggering mass slaughter,” as the New York Times described it, was reported accurately across the mainstream, and with unrestrained euphoria.

It was “a gleam of light in Asia,” as the noted liberal commentator James Reston wrote in the Times. The coup ended the threat of democracy by demolishing the mass-based political party of the poor, established a dictatorship that went on to compile one of the worst human rights records in the world, and threw the riches of the country open to western investors.  Small wonder that, after many other horrors, including the near-genocidal invasion of East Timor, Suharto was welcomed by the Clinton administration in 1995 as “our kind of guy.”

Years after the great events of 1965, Kennedy-Johnson National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy reflected that it would have been wise to end the Vietnam war at that time, with the “virus” virtually destroyed and the primary domino solidly in place, buttressed by other U.S.-backed dictatorships throughout the region.

Similar procedures have been routinely followed elsewhere.  Kissinger was referring specifically to the threat of socialist democracy in Chile.  That threat was ended on another forgotten date, what Latin Americans call “the first 9/11,” which in violence and bitter effects far exceeded the 9/11 commemorated in the West.  A vicious dictatorship was imposed in Chile, one part of a plague of brutal repression that spread through Latin America, reaching Central America under Reagan.  Viruses have aroused deep concern elsewhere as well, including the Middle East, where the threat of secular nationalism has often concerned British and U.S. planners, inducing them to support radical Islamic fundamentalism to counter it.

The Concentration of Wealth and American Decline

Despite such victories, American decline continued.  By 1970, U.S. share of world wealth had dropped to about 25%, roughly where it remains, still colossal but far below the end of World War II.  By then, the industrial world was “tripolar”: US-based North America, German-based Europe, and East Asia, already the most dynamic industrial region, at the time Japan-based, but by now including the former Japanese colonies Taiwan and South Korea, and more recently China.

At about that time, American decline entered a new phase: conscious self-inflicted decline.  From the 1970s, there has been a significant change in the U.S. economy, as planners, private and state, shifted it toward financialization and the offshoring of production, driven in part by the declining rate of profit in domestic manufacturing.  These decisions initiated a vicious cycle in which wealth became highly concentrated (dramatically so in the top 0.1% of the population), yielding concentration of political power, hence legislation to carry the cycle further: taxation and other fiscal policies, deregulation, changes in the rules of corporate governance allowing huge gains for executives, and so on.

Meanwhile, for the majority, real wages largely stagnated, and people were able to get by only by sharply increased workloads (far beyond Europe), unsustainable debt, and repeated bubbles since the Reagan years, creating paper wealth that inevitably disappeared when they burst (and the perpetrators were bailed out by the taxpayer).  In parallel, the political system has been increasingly shredded as both parties are driven deeper into corporate pockets with the escalating cost of elections, the Republicans to the level of farce, the Democrats (now largely the former “moderate Republicans”) not far behind.

A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute, which has been the major source of reputable data on these developments for years, is entitled Failure by Design.  The phrase “by design” is accurate.  Other choices were certainly possible.  And as the study points out, the “failure” is class-based.  There is no failure for the designers.  Far from it.  Rather, the policies are a failure for the large majority, the 99% in the imagery of the Occupy movements — and for the country, which has declined and will continue to do so under these policies.

One factor is the offshoring of manufacturing.  As the solar panel example mentioned earlier illustrates, manufacturing capacity provides the basis and stimulus for innovation leading to higher stages of sophistication in production, design, and invention.  That, too, is being outsourced, not a problem for the “money mandarins” who increasingly design policy, but a serious problem for working people and the middle classes, and a real disaster for the most oppressed, African Americans, who have never escaped the legacy of slavery and its ugly aftermath, and whose meager wealth virtually disappeared after the collapse of the housing bubble in 2008, setting off the most recent financial crisis, the worst so far.

Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor emeritus in the MIT Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. He is the author of numerous best-selling political works. His latest books are Making the Future: Occupations, Intervention, Empire, and Resistance, The Essential Chomsky (edited by Anthony Arnove), a collection of his writings on politics and on language from the 1950s to the present, Gaza in Crisis, with Ilan Pappé, and Hopes and Prospects, also available as an audiobook. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Chomsky offers an anatomy of American defeats in the Greater Middle East, click here, or download it to your iPod here.

[Note: Part 2 of Noam Chomsky’s discussion of American decline, “The Imperial Way,” will be posted at TomDispatch tomorrow.]

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Copyright 2012 Noam Chomsky

Tom Engelhardt: Lessons from Lost Wars in 2012

7:09 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

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It was to be the war that would establish empire as an American fact.  It would result in a thousand-year Pax Americana.  It was to be “mission accomplished” all the way.  And then, of course, it wasn’t.  And then, almost nine dismal years later, it was over (sorta).

It was the Iraq War, and we were the uninvited guests who didn’t want to go home.  To the last second, despite President Obama’s repeated promise that all American troops were leaving, despite an agreement the Iraqi government had signed with George W. Bush’s administration in 2008, America’s military commanders continued to lobby and Washington continued to negotiate for 10,000 to 20,000 U.S. troops to remain in-country as advisors and trainers.

Only when the Iraqis simply refused to guarantee those troops immunity from local law did the last Americans begin to cross the border into Kuwait.  It was only then that our top officials began to hail the thing they had never wanted, the end of the American military presence in Iraq, as marking an era of “accomplishment.”  They also began praising their own “decision” to leave as a triumph, and proclaimed that the troops were departing with — as the president put it — “their heads held high.”

In a final flag-lowering ceremony in Baghdad, clearly meant for U.S. domestic consumption and well attended by the American press corps but not by Iraqi officials or the local media, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta spoke glowingly of having achieved “ultimate success.”  He assured the departing troops that they had been a “driving force for remarkable progress” and that they could proudly leave the country “secure in knowing that your sacrifice has helped the Iraqi people begin a new chapter in history, free from tyranny and full of hope for prosperity and peace.”  Later on his trip to the Middle East, speaking of the human cost of the war, he added, “I think the price has been worth it.”

And then the last of those troops really did “come home” — if you define “home” broadly enough to include not just bases in the U.S. but also garrisons in Kuwait, elsewhere in the Persian Gulf, and sooner or later in Afghanistan.

On December 14th at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the president and his wife gave returning war veterans from the 82nd Airborne Division and other units a rousing welcome.  With some in picturesque maroon berets, they picturesquely hooahed the man who had once called their war “dumb.” Undoubtedly looking toward his 2012 campaign, President Obama, too, now spoke stirringly of “success” in Iraq, of “gains,” of his pride in the troops, of the country’s “gratitude” to them, of the spectacular accomplishments achieved as well as the hard times endured by “the finest fighting force in the history of the world,” and of the sacrifices made by our “wounded warriors” and “fallen heroes.”

He praised “an extraordinary achievement nine years in the making,” framing their departure this way: “Indeed, everything that American troops have done in Iraq — all the fighting and all the dying, the bleeding and the building, and the training and the partnering — all of it has led to this moment of success… [W]e’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.”

And these themes — including the “gains” and the “successes,” as well as the pride and gratitude, which Americans were assumed to feel for the troops — were picked up by the media and various pundits.  At the same time, other news reports were highlighting the possibility that Iraq was descending into a new sectarian hell, fueled by an American-built but largely Shiite military, in a land in which oil revenues barely exceeded the levels of the Saddam Hussein era, in a capital city which still had only a few hours of electricity a day, and that was promptly hit by a string of bombings and suicide attacks from an al-Qaeda affiliated group (nonexistent before the invasion of 2003), even as the influence of Iran grew and Washington quietly fretted.

A Consumer Society at War

It’s true that, if you were looking for low-rent victories in a near trillion-dollar war, this time, as various reporters and pundits pointed out, U.S. diplomats weren’t rushing for the last helicopter off an embassy roof amid chaos and burning barrels of dollars.  In other words, it wasn’t Vietnam and, as everyone knew, that was a defeat.  In fact, as other articles pointed out, our — as no fitting word has been found for it, let’s go with — withdrawal was a magnificent feat of reverse engineering, worthy of a force that was a nonpareil on the planet.

Even the president mentioned it.  After all, having seemingly moved much of the U.S. to Iraq, leaving was no small thing.  When the U.S. military began stripping the 505 bases it had built there at the cost of unknown multibillions of taxpayer dollars, it sloughed off $580 million worth of no-longer-wanted equipment on the Iraqis.  And yet it still managed to ship to Kuwait, other Persian Gulf garrisons, Afghanistan, and even small towns in the U.S. more than two million items ranging from Kevlar armored vests to port-a-potties.  We’re talking about the equivalent of 20,000 truckloads of materiel.

Not surprisingly, given the society it comes from, the U.S. military fights a consumer-intensive style of war and so, in purely commercial terms, the leaving of Iraq was a withdrawal for the ages.  Nor should we overlook the trophies the military took home with it, including a vast Pentagon database of thumbprints and retinal scans from approximately 10% of the Iraqi population.  (A similar program is still underway in Afghanistan.) 

When it came to “success,” Washington had a good deal more than that going for it.  After all, it plans to maintain a Baghdad embassy so gigantic it puts the Saigon embassy of 1973 to shame.  With a contingent of 16,000 to 18,000 people, including a force of perhaps 5,000 armed mercenaries (provided by private security contractors like Triple Canopy with its $1.5 billion State Department contract), the “mission” leaves any normal definition of “embassy” or “diplomacy” in the dust.

In 2012 alone, it is slated to spend $3.8 billion, a billion of that on a much criticized police-training program, only 12% of whose funds actually go to the Iraqi police.  To be left behind in the “postwar era,” in other words, will be something new under the sun.

Still, set aside the euphemisms and the soaring rhetoric, and if you want a simple gauge of the depths of America’s debacle in the oil heartlands of the planet, consider just how the final unit of American troops left Iraq. According to Tim Arango and Michael Schmidt of the New York Times, they pulled out at 2:30 a.m. in the dead of night.  No helicopters off rooftops, but 110 vehicles setting out in the dark from Contingency Operating Base Adder.  The day before they left, according to the Times reporters, the unit’s interpreters were ordered to call local Iraqi officials and sheiks with whom the Americans had close relations and make future plans, as if everything would continue in the usual way in the week to come.

In other words, the Iraqis were meant to wake up the morning after to find their foreign comrades gone, without so much as a goodbye.  This is how much the last American unit trusted its closest local allies.  After shock and awe, the taking of Baghdad, the mission-accomplished moment, and the capture, trial, and execution of Saddam Hussein, after Abu Ghraib and the bloodletting of the civil war, after the surge and the Sunni Awakening movement, after the purple fingers and the reconstruction funds gone awry, after all the killing and the dying, the U.S. military slipped into the night without a word.

If, however, you did happen to be looking for a word or two to capture the whole affair, something less polite than those presently circulating, “debacle” and “defeat” might fit the bill.  The military of the self-proclaimed single greatest power of planet Earth, whose leaders once considered the occupation of the Middle East the key to future global policy and planned for a multi-generational garrisoning of Iraq, had been sent packing.  That should have been considered little short of stunning.

Face what happened in Iraq directly and you know that you’re on a new planet.

Doubling Down on Debacle

Of course, Iraq was just one of our invasions-turned-counterinsurgencies-turned-disasters.  The other, which started first and is still ongoing, may prove the greater debacle.  Though less costly so far in both American lives and national treasure, it threatens to become the more decisive of the two defeats, even though the forces opposing the U.S. military in Afghanistan remain an ill-armed, relatively weak set of minority insurgencies.

As great as was the feat of building the infrastructure for a military occupation and war in Iraq, and then equipping and supplying a massive military force there year after year, it was nothing compared to what the U.S had to do in Afghanistan.  Someday, the decision to invade that country, occupy it, build more than 400 bases there, surge in an extra 60,000 or more troops, masses of contractors, CIA agents, diplomats, and other civilian officials, and then push a weak local government to grant Washington the right to remain more or less in perpetuity will be seen as the delusional actions of a Washington incapable of gauging the limits of its power in the world.

Talk about learning curves: having watched their country fail disastrously in a major war on the Asian mainland three decades earlier, America’s leaders somehow convinced themselves that nothing was beyond the military prowess of the “sole superpower.”  So they sent more than 250,000 American troops (along with all those Burger Kings, Subways, and Cinnabons) into two land wars in Eurasia.  The result has been another chapter in a history of American defeat — this time of a power that, despite its pretensions, was not only weaker than in the Vietnam era, but also far weaker than its leaders were capable of imagining.

You would think that, after a decade of watching this double debacle unfold, there might be a full-scale rush for the exits.  And yet the drawdown of U.S. “combat” troops in Afghanistan is not scheduled to be completed until December 31, 2014 (with thousands of advisors, trainers, and special operations forces slated to remain behind); the Obama administration is still negotiating feverishly with the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai on an agreement that — whatever the euphemisms chosen — would leave Americans garrisoned there for years to come; and, as in Iraq in 2010 and 2011, American commanders are openly lobbying for an even slower withdrawal schedule.

Again as in Iraq, in the face of the obvious, the official word couldn’t be peachier.  In mid-December, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta actually told frontline American troops there that they were “winning” the war.  Our commanders there similarly continue to tout “progress” and “gains,” as well as a weakening of the Taliban grip on the Pashtun heartland of southern Afghanistan, thanks to the flooding of the region with U.S. surge troops and continual, devastating night raids by U.S. special operations forces.

Nonetheless, the real story in Afghanistan remains grim for a squirming former superpower — as it has been ever since its occupation resuscitated the Taliban, the least popular popular movement imaginable. Typically, the U.N. has recently calculated that “security-related events” in the first 11 months of 2011 rose 21% over the same period in 2010 (something denied by NATO).  Similarly, yet more resources are being poured into an endless effort to build and train Afghan security forces.  Almost $12 billion went into the project in 2011 and a similar sum is slated for 2012, and yet those forces still can’t operate on their own, nor do they fight particularly effectively (though their Taliban opposites have few such problems).

Afghan police and soldiers continue to desert in droves and the U.S. general in charge of the training operation suggested last year that, to have the slightest chance of success, it would need to be extended through at least 2016 or 2017.  (Forget for a moment that an impoverished Afghan government will be utterly incapable of supporting or financing the forces being created for it.)

The Pashtun-based Taliban, like any classic guerrilla force, has faded away before the overwhelming military of a major power, yet it still clearly has significant control over the southern countryside, and in the last year its acts of violence have spread ever more deeply into the non-Pashtun north.  And if U.S. forces in Iraq didn’t trust their local partners at the moment of departure, Americans in Afghanistan have every reason to be far more nervous.  Afghans in police or army uniforms — some trained by the Americans or NATO, some possibly Taliban guerrillas dressed in outfits bought on the black market — have regularly turned their guns on their putative allies in what’s referred to as “green-on-blue violence.”  As 2012 ended, for instance, an Afghan army soldier shot and killed two French soldiers.  Not long before, several NATO troops were wounded when a man in an Afghan army uniform opened fire on them. 

In the meantime, U.S. troop strength is starting to drop; NATO allies look unsteady indeed; and the Taliban, whatever its trials and tribulations, undoubtedly senses that time is on its side.

Depending on the Kindness of Strangers

Weak as the several outfits that make up the Taliban may be, there can be no question that they are preparing to successfully outlast the greatest military power of our time.  And mind you, none of this does more than touch on the debacle that the Afghan War could become.  If you want to judge the full folly of the American war (and gauge the waning of U.S. power globally), don’t even bother to look at Afghanistan.  Instead, check out the supply lines leading to it.

After all, Afghanistan is a landlocked country in Central Asia.  The U.S. is thousands of miles away.  No giant ports-cum-bases as at Cam Ranh Bay in South Vietnam in the 1960s are available to bring in supplies.  For Washington, if the guerrillas it opposes go to war with little more than the clothes on their backs, its military is another matter.  From meals to body armor, building supplies to ammunition, it needs a massive — and massively expensive — supply system.  It also guzzles fuel the way a drunk downs liquor and has spent more than $20 billion in Afghanistan and Iraq annually just on air conditioning.

To keep itself in good shape, it must rely on tortuous supply lines thousands of miles long.  Because of this, it is not the arbiter of its own fate in Afghanistan, though this seems to have gone almost unnoticed for years.

Of all the impractical wars a declining empire could fight, the Afghan one may be the most impractical of all.  Hand it to the Soviet Union, at least its “bleeding wound” — the phrase Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev gave to its Afghan debacle of the 1980s — was conveniently next door.  For the nearly 91,000 American troops now in that country, their 40,000 NATO counterparts, and thousands of private contractors, the supplies that make the war possible can only enter Afghanistan three ways: perhaps 20% come in by air at staggering expense; more than a third arrive by the shortest and cheapest route — through the Pakistani port of Karachi, by truck or train north, and then by truck across narrow mountain defiles; and perhaps 40% (only “non-lethal” supplies allowed) via the Northern Distribution Network (NDN).

The NDN was fully developed only beginning in 2009, when it belatedly became clear to Washington that Pakistan had a potential stranglehold on the American war effort.  Involving at least 16 countries and just about every form of transport imaginable, the NDN is actually three routes, two of them via Russia, that funnel just about everything through the bottleneck of corrupt, autocratic Uzbekistan.

In other words, simply to fight its war, Washington has made itself dependent on the kindness of strangers — in this case, Pakistan and Russia.  It’s one thing when a superpower or great power on the rise casts its lot with countries that may not be natural allies; it’s quite a different story when a declining power does so.  Russian leaders are already making noises about the viability of the northern route if the U.S. continues to displease it on the placement of its prospective European missile defense system.

But the more immediate psychodrama of the Afghan War is in Pakistan.  There, the massive resupply operation is already a major scandal.  It was estimated, for instance, that, in 2008, 12% of all U.S. supplies heading from Karachi to Bagram Air Base went missing somewhere en route.  In what Karachi’s police chief has called “the mother of all scams,” 29,000 cargo loads of U.S. supplies have disappeared after being unloaded at that port.

In fact, the whole supply system — together with the local security and protection agreements and bribes to various groups that are part and parcel of it along the way — has evidently helped fund and supply the Taliban, as well as stocking every bazaar en route and supporting local warlords and crooks of every sort.

Recently, in response to American air strikes that killed 24 of their border troops, the Pakistani leadership forced the Americans to leave Shamsi air base, where the CIA ran some of its drone operations, successfully pressured Washington into at least temporarily halting its drone air campaign in Pakistan’s borderlands, and closed the border crossings through which the whole American supply system must pass.  They remain closed almost two months later.  Without those routes, in the long run, the American war simply cannot be fought.

Though those crossings are likely to be reopened after a significant renegotiation of U.S.-Pakistani relations, the message couldn’t be clearer.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in those Pakistani borderlands, have not only drained American treasure, but exposed the relative helplessness of the “sole superpower.”  Ten (or even five) years ago, the Pakistanis would simply never have dared to take actions like these.

As it turned out, the power of the U.S. military was threateningly impressive, but only until George W. Bush pulled the trigger twice.  In doing so, he revealed to the world that the U.S. could not win distant land wars against minimalist enemies or impose its will on two weak countries in the Greater Middle East.  Another reality was exposed as well, even if it has taken time to sink in: we no longer live on a planet where it’s obvious how to leverage staggering advantages in military technology into any other kind of power.

In the process, all the world could see what the United States was: the other declining power of the Cold War era.  Washington’s state of dependence on the Eurasian mainland is now clear enough, which means that, whatever “agreements” are reached with the Afghan government, the future in that country is not American.

Over the last decade, the U.S. has been taught a repetitive lesson when it comes to ground wars on the Eurasian mainland: don’t launch them.  The debacle of the impending double defeat this time around couldn’t be more obvious.  The only question that remains is just how humiliating the coming retreat from Afghanistan will turn out to be. The longer the U.S. stays, the more devastating the blow to its power.

All of this should hardly need to be said and yet, as 2012 begins, with the next political season already upon us, it is no less painfully clear that Washington will be incapable of ending the Afghan War any time soon.

At the height of what looked like success in Iraq and Afghanistan, American officials fretted endlessly about how, in the condescending phrase of the moment, to put an “Afghan face” or “Iraqi face” on America’s wars.  Now, at a nadir moment in the Greater Middle East, perhaps it’s finally time to put an American face on America’s wars, to see them clearly for the imperial debacles they have been — and act accordingly.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books), has just been published.

Copyright 2012 Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt: How the Movies Changed My Life

7:36 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Every childhood has its own geography and every child is an explorer, as daring as any Peary or Amundsen or Scott. I was the mildest of children, such a picky eater that my parents called me a “quince” (a fruit sour enough, they insisted, to make your face pucker, as mine did when challenged by any food out of the ordinary). I was neither a daredevil nor a chance-taker, and by my teens scorned myself for being so boringly on the straight and narrow. I never raced a car, or mocked a cop, or lit out for the territories.

Still, by the luck of the draw, as a child of the 1950s, I was plunged into a landscape more exotic than most American kids could then have imagined. It was still devastated by war, populated to a startling extent by present and former enemies, and most amazingly, the Germans, Japanese, Italians, and Russians (not to speak of the French and English) I encountered there were thrillingly alive in a way everything in my life told me we Americans weren’t.

Let me explain, geographically speaking and as personally as I can. I grew up at 40 East 58th Street, just off Madison Avenue, in the heart of Manhattan, two blocks from the Plaza Hotel, where Eloise got her hair cut. Apartment 6D — “as in David,” we always said.

My parents moved there in 1946, just after World War II. It was two doors down from the Plaza movie theater, and getting to 6D was an exotic affair. You exited a small, gated elevator into a modest-sized corridor, apartments on either side, only to find yourself on a catwalk in the open air looking down on what might have been the low roofs of Paris. A stroll along that catwalk and a right turn into another corridor got you to our rent-controlled duplex with its living-room skylight under which my mother — “New York’s girl caricaturist,” as she was known in the gossip columns of the war years — regularly set up her easel. My room was upstairs.

The fifties are now recalled as a golden age when Americans, white ones anyway, burst into the suburbs, while all the consumerist gratifications deferred by the Great Depression and World War II were sated. It was the age of the television set (“Bigger screen… Brighter picture… Better reception”) and pop-up toasters, of Frigidaires and freezers big enough “for the whole family” (“holds 525 pounds!”), of “extension” phones, wonder of wonders, (“I just couldn’t get along without my kitchen telephone”), and cigarettes so “soothing to the nerves” that doctors and baseball players alike were proud to endorse them.

With good jobs and rising wages in a still war-battered world, the United States stood so much taller than the rest of the planet, manufacturing the large items of the peaceable life (cars, above all) and the advanced weaponry of war, often in the same dominant corporations. It was a world in which Bell Telephone, that purveyor of extension phones, could also run upbeat ads aimed at boys extolling its weapons work. (As one began: “Chip Martin, college reporter, sees a ‘talking brain’ for guided missiles… ‘Glad to see you, Chip. Understand you want to find out how our Air Force can guide a warhead a quarter of the way around the world. Well, look here…’”)

Inexpensive gas, cheap well-marbled steaks, and reliable warheads that might end life as we knew it — that seems like a reasonable summary of the obvious in American life in those years. And if you were a kid and wanted more, Hollywood was there to deliver: it was a time when, on screen, the Marines always advanced before the movie ended, and the sound of a bugle meant the bluecoats were coming to save the day. It was the moment when, for the first time in history, teenagers had money in their pockets and could begin to spend it on clothes, records, and other entertainment, propelling the country into a new age in which the Mad Men of that era would begin advertising directly to them.

Bad Times in an American Golden Age

I knew that world, of course, even if our little “icebox,” which iced over easily, was no Frigidaire. Living in the middle of Manhattan, I could catch the all-American-ness of life by taking a three-block walk to the RKO 58th Street movie theater at the corner of Third Avenue where, popcorn in hand, I’d settle in for a double-feature version of the world as it was supposed to be.

There, too, I could regularly see my father’s war. Like so many of those we now call “the greatest generation,” he was silent on the subject of his war experience (except for rare rants about “war profiteers” and “the Japs”), but that mattered little. After all, what did he have to say when the movies taught me everything I needed to know about what he had done in his war?

Because the then-liberal rag the New York Post assigned my mother to draw the Army-McCarthy hearings (being broadcast live on ABC), we got a TV for the first time in April 1954. Of course, the sitcoms I was allowed to watch, like Hollywood’s war films, Westerns, and comedies, had a remarkable tendency to end tidily and on an upbeat note. Unlike movies about my father’s war, however, I had something to compare those sitcoms to and, much as I loved Father Knows Best, it bore not the slightest resemblance to anything my hard-pressed mother, angry father, and I were living out. In it, I could find no hint of the messy psychic geography of my own childhood.

For my nuclear family in those first years of the nuclear age, it was bad times all the way. In the middle years of the decade, my father, a salesman, was out of work and drinking heavily; my mother brought home “the bacon” (really, that’s the way they spoke about it then), which — I have her account book from those years — was excessively lean. They were struggling to keep up the appearance of a middle-class life while falling ever more deeply into debt. The fights about “Tommy’s doctor bill” or “Tommy’s school bill” began as soon as they thought I was asleep.

Among my most vivid memories was creeping out into the light of the hall, propping myself up by the stairs and listening, mesmerized, as my parents went at it below with startling verbal violence. Think of that as my first perch as a future writer.

Like most kids in most places, I assumed then that my life, including such eternally angry nights, was the way it was for everyone. My problems, as I saw it, didn’t actually begin until I stepped out onto 58th Street, where, as far as I could tell, a landscape strangely empty of interest stretched as far as the eye could see.

If America then sat atop the world, triumphant and alone, the blandness that aloneness bred, a kind of unnaturally fearful uniformity of everything, is difficult today to conjure up or even describe. At the time, though, I hardly understood why the world I was being promised struck me as so dull. I thought it was me. And above all, I didn’t have a clue when or how this would end and life, whatever that was, would begin.

Feeling “Foreign” in Fifties America

Fortunately for me, geography came to my rescue. My street, was — no hyperbole here — unique at that moment. You could have traveled a fair distance in 1950s America, hundreds or possibly thousands of miles, without stumbling upon a movie house dedicated to “foreign films,” and yet between Sixth Avenue and Lexington Avenue, in fewer than three and a half city blocks, I had three of them — the Paris just west of Fifth Avenue, the Plaza by my house, and between Park and Lexington, the Fine Arts.

You would no more have wondered about why they were clustered there than why your parents duked it out each night. And yet how strange that was in a still remarkably white bread and parochial American world. Immigration, remember, had largely been shut down by act of Congress in 1924 (see, for example, the Asian Exclusion Act) and America’s doors didn’t begin to open again until the early 1950s. In a time when you can get bagels in El Paso and Thai, Japanese, or Mexican food in Anytown, USA, it’s hard to remember just how rare the “foreign” in “foreign films” once was. In that earlier era of American fear and hysteria, that word and the dreaded phrase “Communist influence” were linked.

And so, to enter the darkness of one of those theaters and be suddenly transported elsewhere on Earth, to consort with the enemy and immerse yourself in lives that couldn’t have seemed more alien (or attractive), under more empathetic circumstances — well, that was not a common experience. Think of those movie houses not simply as one confused and unhappy teenage boy’s escape hatch from the world, but as Star Trekian-style wormholes into previously unsuspected parallel universes that happened to exist on planet Earth.

By the time I was thirteen, the manager of the Plaza had taken a shine to me and was letting me into any movie I cared to see. A Taste of Honey (a coming-of-age story about a working-class English girl — Rita Tushingham with her soulful eyes — impregnated by a black sailor and cared for by a gay man), Alan Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (a film of unparalleled murkiness, notable for a matchstick game the unnamed characters play that caused a minor cocktail party craze in its day), Billy Liar (a chance to fall in love with the young Julie Christie as a free spirit), Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (a medieval tale of rape and revenge) — it didn’t matter. I seldom had the slightest idea what I was walking into, and in that Internet-less world there was no obvious place to find out, nor was there anyone to guide me through those films or tell me what I should think, which couldn’t have been more disorienting or glorious.

On any afternoon I might suddenly be French or Russian or — weirdest of all for a Jewish kid living in New York City — German. Each film was a shock all its own, a deep dive into some previously unimagined world. If I needed confirmation that these movies were from another universe, it was enough that, in an era of glorious Technicolor, they were still obdurately and inexplicably black and white, every one of them. What more evidence did I need that foreigners inhabited another planet?

The actors in those films, unlike Hollywood’s, existed on a remarkably human scale. Sometimes, they even fought as fiercely and messily as my parents and they had genuinely bad times, worse than anything I had yet imagined. Above all — a particularly un-American trait in the movies then — everything did not always end for the best.

In fact, however puzzlingly, sometimes those films didn’t seem to end at all, at least not in the way I then understood endings. As in the last frozen, agonizing, ecstatic image of a boy’s face in Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (which I didn’t see until college), it was easy to imagine that almost anything might happen within moments of such “endings,” that life would go on — which was, for me, completely unexpected at the movies.

And don’t forget that these films made you work. Except for the British movies, there were always subtitles, exotic in themselves, which made them seem like so many illustrated novels. And here was the strangest thing: that black-and-white world you had to read to decipher had an uncanny ability to suck the color out of Manhattan.

And those films offered history lessons capable of turning what I thought I knew upside down. In my American world, for instance, the atomic bomb was everywhere, just not in clearly recognizable form. If you went to the RKO to catch Them! or This Island Earth, for instance, you could see the bomb and its effects, after a fashion, via fantasies about radioactive mutant monsters and alien superweapons. Still, you could grow up in 1950s America, as I did, without ever learning much or seeing a thing about what two actual atomic bombs had done to Hiroshima and Nagasaki — unless, that is, your local movie theater happened to show Alain Resnais’s 1959 film Hiroshima Mon Amour (scripted by the novelist Marguerite Duras).

Under the Mushroom Cloud

But before I go on, a caveat. Perhaps the reason memoirs are so often written by the young these days is that, once you reach a certain age, only fiction might allow you to truly make your way back to childhood. I have not the slightest doubt that those hours in the dark profoundly affected my life, and yet I find it difficult indeed to conjure the boy who first slipped into those movie houses on his own.  Much of the time, it seems to me, he belongs to someone else’s novel, someone else’s life.

Trying to make my way back to whatever he thought when he first saw those films, I feel like an archeologist digging in the ruins of my own life. When I view the same films today, I sometimes get a chill of recognition and I’m still won over, but often I wonder just what he saw in them. What in the world could my teenage self have thought while watching Hiroshima Mon Amour, parts of which — apologies to Duras and Resnais — are unbearably pretentious? (“You saw nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing… Hiroshima, that’s your name…”)

A film about a one-night stand between a French actress making a “peace” movie in the rebuilt city of Hiroshima (who had once loved a German soldier in wartime France and paid the price), and a married Japanese architect who had been in the army in World War II while his family lived (and perhaps died) in that city — what did I make of that? What did I know? There was flesh to be seen, however obliquely, in bed, in the shower — and back then that was something. But there were also those dismally incantatory lines from Duras.

Here’s what I don’t doubt, though: that film gave me a gut-level primer in nuclear politics and nuclear destruction available nowhere else in my world. No mutant monsters, spaceships, or alien superweapons, just grainy, graphic glimpses of the victims from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and of other “victims” being made up — burn patterns and keloids being painted on bodies — for the actress’s antinuclear “peace” movie, the film within the film.

It was there that I watched my first antinuclear demonstration — again for that other movie — as protesters marched by with signs that offered a little lesson in atomic politics and some basic information about nuclear weapons. Above all, I was, however briefly, taken under the mushroom cloud to see something then essentially taboo in this country: the real results of our “victory weapon,” of what we had done to them, of my father’s war as I would never otherwise have seen it.

If the scenes of the two lovers titillated me, those brief glimpses under that cloud haunted me. Certainly, the dreams I had in those years, in which the bomb went off over a distant city while a blast of heat seared my body, or I found myself wandering through some bleak, atomically blasted landscape, owed something to that film.

Like all of us, I wonder what made me the way I am. What left me, as a book editor, able to slip inside the skin of someone else’s words? What gave me, as a critic, the distance to see our world askew? What made me, never having been in the military, create a website that focuses a critical eye on the American way of war?

There are, of course, no answers to such questions, just guesses. But I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t believe that those hours in the dark had something to do with it. I wouldn’t be focused on a movie I can now barely watch if I wasn’t convinced that it had a hand in sending me, as a book editor, on my own Hiroshima journey. (In 1979, I would publish in translation a Japanese book, Unforgettable Fire: Pictures Drawn by Atomic Bomb Survivors, which, I believe, was the first time any sizable number of images of the experience under Hiroshima’s mushroom cloud made it into mainstream American culture.)

Consorting With the Enemy

Compare all this to the war I saw at my local RKO, the one John Wayne led, the one in which the highly decorated Audie Murphy played himself on-screen mowing down Germans by the score. And then, right down the block, there was the other war I sat in on, the one our enemies fought, the one that lacked my father. As a boy, I was undoubtedly typical in imagining the defeat of Hitler as essentially an American triumph in Europe — until, that is, I walked into the Fine Arts and saw Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying.

Part of a post-Stalinist cinematic breakout moment, its heroine and hero, Veronica and Boris, are young, in love, filmed at arty angles, and in the movie’s early scenes might as well be frolicking on the banks of the Seine. But that mood only lasts until the Nazis invade. Boris volunteers for the army and, finding himself and his unit in a swamp surrounded by Germans, dies heroically but miserably in the mud. The news of his death never reaches the waiting Veronica in Moscow, who goes into shock on finding her apartment destroyed and her parents dead from a German air raid, is raped (so the film implies) in that state during another air raid by Boris’s cousin, a pianist and draft evader, and grimly marries him… and that’s hardly halfway into the film.

There is also the child Veronica saves from being run over just as she’s about to commit suicide, who also turns out to be named Boris. Yes, call it an absurd war melodrama, but it was also passionately filled to the brim with mud, fire, overcrowded living quarters, rooms full of wounded soldiers, slackers, and high-livers in a panorama of wartime Russia.

Grim, shocking, and above all youthful, it was the Russian film that not only took Europe by storm and won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1958, but took me by storm as well. The Russians — the Reds, the Commies — were then our mortal enemies. So imagine my surprise on discovering, up close and personal, that they had fought a monumental, terrible war against the Nazis, and that they couldn’t have been more human — or winning.

A year or two later, I would watch Ballad of a Soldier, another Russian war film, this time about a kid hardly older than I was then who gets a six-day pass from the front for wiping out a couple of German tanks (in a paroxysm of fear). In an odyssey through a devastated landscape — city buildings blasted, trains blown up, bridges down, amputees visible — he makes his way home just in time to greet his mother, kiss her goodbye, and head back to the front (where, you’ve learned as the film begins, he dies). You simply could not see such films and hate the Russians.

Then, on the theme of teenagers at war, there was The Bridge, a fierce 1959 antiwar film directed by Bernhard Wicki that genuinely shocked me, perhaps as much because I found myself identifying with those German boy soldiers as by the brutality of the fighting into which they were plunged. In the last days of World War II, a group of small-town, high-spirited high school classmates, no older than I was then, are ushered hurriedly into the army, given the briefest training, and (while Nazi officials flee) rushed to a bridge of absolutely no significance to stop advancing American tanks.

They are patriotic and absurdly eager to defend their town and country. All but one of them die for nothing, as does an American trying to convince them to stop fighting. (“We don’t fight kids!” he yells before one of them shoots him.) The film ends on these words, which then chilled me to the bone: “This happened on April 27, 1945. It was so unimportant that it was not mentioned in any war communiqué.”

To see that war through German eyes, even briefly, was to enter forbidden territory. Nonetheless, those boys were, to me, as unnervingly human as the French pilot in Serge Bourguignon’s 1962 film Sundays and Cybele, suffering from what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder after killing a child in the French version of the Vietnam War. Back in Paris, he strikes up an “innocent” relationship with a 12-year-old girl (which, I can now see, had surprisingly sexual overtones), is mistaken for someone out to kill her, and shot dead by the police, the sight of which passes his trauma on to her.

These films and others like them gave me a space apart where I was privileged to absorb secrets no one in my world knew (which, to a lost teen, was nothing less than life preserving). They confirmed in me a sense that the world was not as we were told, nor was ours the single most exceptional way of living on Earth.

Like that perch by the stairs above my parents’ fights, those films helped turn me into a critic — of Hollywood certainly, of our American world more generally, and of my own world more specifically. And the space they opened for a child who despaired of himself (and the triumphalist American future everyone assured him was rightfully his) would prove useful decades later.

After all, I now write about our American wars without ever having visited a war zone — except, of course, in the movies. There, in the 1950s and early 1960s, I advanced with the marines and the Russians, bombed Tokyo but also experienced (however briefly) Hiroshima after it was atomized. I took out Panzers, but for two hours one afternoon was a German boy waiting to die at a bridge of no significance as American tanks bore down on him.

So let me now, for the first time, offer a small bow of gratitude to Alain Resnais, Mikhail Kalatozov, Serge Bourguignon, Bernhard Wicki, François Truffaut, and all the others I met at the movies so long ago who turned my world inside out. You saved my life.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books), will be published momentarily.  This piece first appeared in slightly different form in the October issue of Harper’s Magazine. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Engelhardt discusses American exceptionalism in his childhood and now click here, or download it to your iPod here

Copyright 2011 Tom Engelhardt

Andrew Bacevich: The End of the Postwar Era

7:34 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This Post War Era is Definitely Over (Photo: sludgeulper, flickr)

This Post War Era is Definitely Over (Photo: sludgeulper, flickr)

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

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Sometimes, just when you least expect it, symbolism steps right up and coldcocks you.  So how about this headline for — in the spirit of our last president — ushering America’s withdrawal from Iraq right over the nearest symbolic cliff: “U.S. empties biggest Iraq base, takes Saddam’s toilet.”  They’re talking about Victory Base, formerly — again in the spirit of thoroughly malevolent symbolism — Camp Victory, the enormous American military base that sits at the edge of Baghdad International Airport and that we were never going to leave.

If you want to measure the size of American pretensions in Iraq once upon a time, just consider this: that base, once meant — as its name implied — to be Washington’s triumphalist and eternal military command post in the oil heartlands of the planet, is encircled by 27 miles of blast walls and razor wire.  (By comparison, the island I live on, Manhattan Island to be exact, is just 13.4 miles long.)  So that’s big.  It was, in fact, the biggest of the 505 bases the U.S. built in Iraq.

By the way, it does seem just a tad ironic that only at the moment of departure are Americans given an accurate count of just how many bases “we” built in that country to the tune of billions of dollars.  Previous published figures were in the “more than 300” range.  In recent months, Victory Base has been stripped of much and locked down.  You can almost hear taps playing for the closing of its Burger King, Subway, Taco Bell, and Cinnabon franchises, its bottled water plant, its electric grid (which delivered power with an effectiveness the occupation was otherwise incapable of providing for the people of Baghdad), its “mother of all PXs,” its hospital, and so many of the other “improvements” now valued at $100 million or more.

Anyway, I was talking about toilets, wasn’t I?  Not to belabor the point, but back in 2003 George W. Bush was given Saddam Hussein’s pistol as a trophy after the Iraqi dictator was captured by U.S. forces in his “spider hole.”   Now, it seems, Americans get the ultimate trophy: the stainless steel toilet Saddam used during his imprisonment in one of his old palaces at Camp Victory for the three years before he was hanged.  On the theory that we installed it, so it’s ours to keep, it was removed in August and shipped back to the United States, destined for the Military Police Museum at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.  So, close enough to a trillion dollars later (with so much more to come in, among other things, bills for the care of the American war-wounded and traumatized), don’t let anyone say that the United States got nothing out of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Read the rest of this entry →

America’s Secret Empire of Drone Bases, by Nick Turse

2:40 pm in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

Predator Drone (Photo: rg33, flickr)

Predator Drone (Photo: rg33, flickr)

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

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These last weeks, there have been two “occupations” in lower Manhattan, one of which has been getting almost all the coverage — that of the demonstrators camping out in Zuccotti Park.  The other, in the shadows, has been hardly less massive, sustained, or in its own way impressive — the police occupation of the Wall Street area.

On a recent visit to the park, I found the streets around the Stock Exchange barricaded and blocked off to traffic, and police everywhere in every form (in and out of uniform) — on foot, on scooters, on motorcycles, in squad cars with lights flashing, on horses, in paddy wagons or minivans, you name it.  At the park’s edge, there is a police observation tower capable of being raised and lowered hydraulically and literally hundreds of police are stationed in the vicinity.  I counted more than 50 of them on just one of its sides at a moment when next to nothing was going on — and many more can be seen almost anywhere in the Wall Street area, lolling in doorways, idling in the subway, ambling on the plazas of banks, and chatting in the middle of traffic-less streets.

This might be seen as massive overkill.  After all, the New York police have already shelled out an extra $1.9 million, largely in overtime pay at a budget-cutting moment in the city.  When, as on Thursday, 100 to 150 marchers suddenly headed out from Zuccotti Park to circle Chase Bank several blocks away, close to the same number of police — some with ominous clumps of flexi-cuffs dangling from their belts — calved off with them.  It’s as if the Occupy Wall Street movement has an eternal dark shadow that follows it everywhere. Read the rest of this entry →