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Tomgram: Bob Dreyfuss, American Death Spiral in the Middle East

8:39 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.

When Barack Obama took office, the sky was the limit in the Greater Middle East.  After all, it seemed the U.S. had hit rock bottom.  President Bush had set the region aflame with a raging debacle in Iraq, a sputtering conflict in Afghanistan, and a low-level drone war in Pakistan.  The outgoing president was wildly unpopular in the region and it was hard to imagine just what the new administration could do to make the situation worse.

For all his foreign policy faults, Bush had even left his successor with an ace in the hole.  Obama had campaigned on ending the Iraq War and Bush was kind enough to negotiate the terms for him before he left office.  All the new president had to do was sit back and reap the rewards.

Almost five years later, the administration surely wishes it had a time machine to take America back to the Bush days when Iraq was convulsed by a civil war, the war in Afghanistan was largely forgotten, Egypt and Tunisia were under the thumbs of American-backed tyrants, and Syria and Libya were controlled by detested but stable dictators.

What seemed at the time to be a blood-soaked hell must look more like the halcyon days to the Obama administration, whose national security team now seems content to limp through the remainder of the president’s second term with fingers crossed, hoping desperately that they won’t stumble, bumble, stagger, slide, or inadvertently leap into yet another foreign policy fiasco in the region.  Today, as Bob Dreyfuss indicates, the administration finds itself adrift in the Greater Middle East, chastened by a series of its own foreign policy flubs, stumbles, and mini-disasters, as well as by governments that seem increasingly beyond its power or ability to control, coerce, or cajole.  The only country in the region that seems to bear much resemblance to its pre-Obama self is Iraq, where violence has reached its highest level in half a decade and suicide and car bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, and death threats are creeping ever closer to Bush-era levels.

Today, TomDispatch regular and Nation magazine stalwart Bob Dreyfuss wades knee deep in the Big Muddy in the Middle East to offer a vivid portrait of an Obama administration in remarkable disarray. Nick Turse

A Field Guide to Losing Friends, Influencing No One, and Alienating the Middle East 
Obama’s Washington Is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Region
By Bob Dreyfuss

Put in context, the simultaneous raids in Libya and Somalia last month, targeting an alleged al-Qaeda fugitive and an alleged kingpin of the al-Shabab Islamist movement, were less a sign of America’s awesome might than two minor exceptions that proved an emerging rule: namely, that the power, prestige, and influence of the United States in the broader Middle East and its ability to shape events there is in a death spiral.

Twelve years after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban and a decade after the misguided invasion of Iraq — both designed to consolidate and expand America’s regional clout by removing adversaries — Washington’s actual standing in country after country, including its chief allies in the region, has never been weaker. Though President Obama can order raids virtually anywhere using Special Operations forces, and though he can strike willy-nilly in targeted killing actions by calling in the Predator and Reaper drones, he has become the Rodney Dangerfield of the Middle East. Not only does no one there respect the United States, but no one really fears it, either — and increasingly, no one pays it any mind at all.

There are plenty of reasons why America’s previously unchallenged hegemony in the Middle East is in free fall. The disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq generated anti-American fervor in the streets and in the elites. America’s economic crisis since 2008 has convinced many that the United States no longer has the wherewithal to sustain an imperial presence. The Arab Spring, for all its ups and downs, has challenged the status quo everywhere, leading to enormous uncertainty while empowering political forces unwilling to march in lockstep with Washington. In addition, oil-consuming nations like China and India have become more engaged with their suppliers, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq. The result: throughout the region, things are fast becoming unglued for the United States.

Its two closest allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, are sullenly hostile, routinely ignore Obama’s advice, and openly oppose American policies. Iraq and Afghanistan, one formerly occupied and one about to be evacuated, are led, respectively, by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, an inflexible sectarian Shiite closely tied to Iran, and President Hamid Karzai, a corrupt, mercurial leader who periodically threatens to join the Taliban. In Egypt, three successive regimes — those of President Hosni Mubarak, Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the chieftains of the July 2013 military coup — have insouciantly flouted U.S. wishes.

Turkey, ostensibly a NATO ally but led by a quirky Islamist, is miffed over Obama’s back-and-forth policy in Syria and has shocked the U.S. by deciding to buy a non-NATO-compatible missile defense system from China. Libya, Somalia, and Yemen have little or no government at all. They have essentially devolved into a mosaic of armed gangs, many implacably opposed to the United States.

This downward spiral has hardly escaped attention. In a recent address to the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, Chas Freeman, the former American ambassador to Saudi Arabia, described it in some detail. “We have lost intellectual command and practical control of the many situations unfolding there,” said Freeman, whose nomination by Obama in 2009 to serve as head of the National Intelligence Council was shot down by the Israel Lobby. “We must acknowledge the reality that we no longer have or can expect to have the clout we once did in the region.”

In an editorial on October 29th, the New York Times ruefully concluded: “It is not every day that America finds itself facing open rebellion from its allies, yet that is what is happening with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel.” And in a front-page story on the administration’s internal deliberations, the Times’s Mark Landler reported that, over the summer, the White House had decided to scale back its role in the Middle East because many objectives “lie outside [its] reach,” and henceforth would adopt a “more modest strategy” in the region.

Perhaps the most profound irony embedded in Washington’s current predicament is this: Iran, for decades the supposed epicenter of anti-Americanism in the region, is the country where the United States has perhaps its last opportunity to salvage its position. If Washington and Tehran can negotiate a détente — and it’s a big if, given the domestic political power of hawks in both countries — that accord might go a long way toward stabilizing Washington’s regional credibility.

Debacle in Syria

Let’s begin our survey of America’s Greater Middle Eastern fecklessness with Exhibit A: Syria. It is there, where a movement to oust President Bashar al-Assad devolved into a civil war, that the United States has demonstrated its utter inability to guide events. Back in the summer of 2011 — at the very dawn of the conflict — Obama demanded that Assad step down.  There was only one problem: short of an Iraq-style invasion of Syria, he had no power to make that happen. Assad promptly called his bluff, escalated the conflict, and rallied support from Russia and Iran. Obama’s clarion call for his resignation only made things worse by convincing Syrian rebels that the United States would come to their aid.

A year later, Obama drew a “red line” in the sand, suggesting that any use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces would precipitate a U.S. military response. Again Assad ignored him, and many hundreds of civilians were gassed to death in multiple uses of the dreaded weapons.

The crowning catastrophe of Obama’s Syria policy came when he threatened a devastating strike on Assad’s military facilities using Tomahawk cruise missiles and other weaponry. Instead of finding himself leading a George W. Bush-style “coalition of the willing” with domestic support, Obama watched as allies scattered, including the usually reliable British and the Arab League. At home, political support was nearly nil and evaporated from there. Polls showed Americans overwhelmingly opposed to a war with or attack on Syria.

When, in desperation, the president appealed to Congress for a resolution to authorize the use of military force against that country, the White House found (to its surprise) that Congress, which normally rubber-stamps such proposals, would have none of it. Paralyzed, reluctant to choose between backing down and striking Syria by presidential fiat, Obama was rescued in humiliating fashion by a proposal from Syria’s chief ally, Russia, to dismantle and destroy that country’s chemical weapons arsenal.

Adding insult to injury, as Secretary of State John Kerry scrambles to organize a long-postponed peace conference in Geneva aimed at reaching a political settlement of the civil war, he is faced with a sad paradox: while the Syrian government has agreed to attend the Geneva meeting, also sponsored by Russia, America’s allies, the anti-Assad rebels, have flatly refused to go.

Laughingstock in Egypt

Don’t think for a second that Washington’s ineffectiveness stops with the ongoing Syrian fiasco.

Next door, in a country whose government was installed by the United States after the 2003 invasion, the Obama administration notoriously failed to convince the Iraqis to allow even a small contingent of American troops to remain there past 2011. Since then, that country has moved ever more firmly into Iran’s orbit and has virtually broken with Washington over Syria.

Since the start of the civil war in Syria, Shiite-led Iraq has joined Shiite Iran in supporting Assad, whose ruling minority Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiism. There have been widespread reports that pro-Assad Iraqi Shiite militias are traveling to Syria, presumably with the support or at least acquiescence of the government. Ignoring Washington’s entreaties, it has also allowed Iran to conduct a virtual Berlin Airlift-style aerial resupply effort for Syria’s armed forces through Iraqi air space. Last month, in an appearance before the Council on Foreign Relations in New York during the United Nations General Assembly session, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari undiplomatically warned Obama that his government stands against the U.S. decision — taken in a secret presidential finding in April and only made public last summer — to provide arms to Syria’s rebels. (“We oppose providing military assistance to any [Syrian] rebel groups.”)

Meanwhile, Washington is also flailing in its policy toward Egypt, where the Obama administration has been singularly hapless.  In a rare feat, it has managed to anger and alienate every conceivable faction in that politically divided country. In July, when Egypt’s military ousted President Mohammad Morsi and violently clamped down on the Muslim Brotherhood, the Obama administration made itself look ridiculous to Egyptians (and to the rest of the Middle East) by refusing to call what happened a coup d’état, since under U.S. law that would have meant suspending aid to the Egyptian military.

As it happened, however, American aid figured little in the calculations of Egypt’s new military leaders. The reason was simple enough: Saudi Arabia and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, bitter opponents of the Morsi government, applauded the coup and poured at least $12 billion in cash into the country’s near-empty coffers.  In the end, making no one happy, the administration tried to split the difference: Obama declared that he would suspend the delivery of some big-ticket military items like Apache attack helicopters, Harpoon missiles, M1-A1 tank parts, and F-16 fighter planes, but let other aid to the military continue, including counterterrorism assistance and the sale of border security items. Such a split decision only served to underscore the administration’s lack of leverage in Cairo. Meanwhile, there are reports that Egypt’s new rulers may turn to Russia for arms in open defiance of a horrified Washington’s wishes.

Saudi and Israeli Punching Bag

The most surprising defection from the pro-American coalition in the Middle East is, however, Saudi Arabia. In part, that kingdom’s erratic behavior may result from a growing awareness among its ultraconservative, kleptocratic princelings that they face an increasingly uncertain future. Christopher Davidson’s new book, After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies, outlines the many pressures building on the country.

One significant cause of instability, claims Davidson, is the “existence of substantial Western military bases on the Arabian Peninsula, [which are considered] an affront to Islam and to national sovereignty.” For decades, such an American military presence in the region provided a security blanket for the Saudi royals, making the country a virtual U.S. protectorate. Now, amid the turmoil that has followed the war in Iraq, the Arab Spring, and the rise of an assertive Iran, Saudi Arabia isn’t sure which way to turn, or whether the United States is friend or foe.

Since 2003, the Saudi rulers have found themselves increasingly unhappy with American policy. Riyadh, the area’s chief Sunni power, was apoplectic when the United States toppled Iraq’s Sunni leader Saddam Hussein and allowed Iran to vastly increase its influence in Baghdad. In 2011, the Saudi royal family blamed Washington for not doing more to prevent the collapse of the conservative and pro-Saudi Mubarak government in Egypt.

Now, the Saudis are on the verge of a complete break over Washington’s policies toward Syria and Iran. As the chief backers of the rebels in Syria, they were dismayed when Obama chose not to bomb military sites around Damascus. Because it views Iran through the lens of a regional Sunni-Shiite struggle for dominance, it is no less dismayed by the possible emergence of a U.S.-Iran accord from renewed negotiations over that country’s nuclear program.

To express its pique, its foreign minister abruptly canceled his address to the United Nations General Assembly in September, shocking U.N. members. Then, adding insult to injury, Saudi Arabia turned down a prestigious seat on the Security Council, a post for which it had long campaigned. “Upset at President Barack Obama’s policies on Iran and Syria,” reported Reuters, “members of Saudi Arabia’s ruling family are threatening a rift with the United States that could take the alliance between Washington and the kingdom to its lowest point in years.”

That news service quoted Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, as saying that his country was on the verge of a “major shift” in its relations with the U.S. Former head of Saudi intelligence Prince Turki al-Faisal lambasted America’s Syria policy this way: “The current charade of international control over Bashar’s chemical arsenal would be funny if it were not so blatantly perfidious. [It is] designed not only to give Mr. Obama an opportunity to back down [from military strikes], but also to help Assad to butcher his people.”

This is shocking stuff from America’s second most reliable ally in the region. As for reliable ally number one, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has visibly decided to be anything but a cooperative partner in the region, making Obama’s job more difficult at every turn. Since 2009, he has gleefully defied the American president, starting with his refusal to impose a freeze on illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank when specifically asked to do so by the president at the start of his first term. Meanwhile, most of the world has spent the past half-decade on tenterhooks over the possibility that his country might actually launch a much-threatened military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Since Hassan Rouhani was elected president of Iran and indicated his interest in reorienting policy to make a deal with the Western powers over its nuclear program, Israeli statements have become ever more shrill. In a September speech to the U.N. General Assembly, for instance, Netanyahu rolled out extreme rhetoric, claiming that Israel is “challenged by a nuclear-armed Iran that seeks our destruction.” This despite the fact that Iran possesses no nuclear weapons, has enriched not an ounce of uranium to weapons-grade level, and has probably not mastered the technology to manufacture a bomb. According to American intelligence reports, it has not yet even militarized its nuclear research.

Netanyahu’s speech was so full of hyperbole that observers concluded Israel was isolating itself from the rest of the world. “He was so anxious to make everything look as negative as possible he actually pushed the limits of credibility,” said Gary Sick, a former senior official in the Carter administration and an Iran expert. “He did himself harm by his exaggerations.”

Iran: Obama’s Ironic Beacon of Hope

Both Israel and Saudi Arabia are fearful that the Middle Eastern balance of power could be tipped against them if the United States and Iran are able to strike a deal. Seeking to throw the proverbial monkey wrench into the talks between Iran, the U.S., and the P5+1 powers (the permanent members of the U.N. security Council plus Germany), Israel has put forward a series of demands that go far beyond anything Iran would accept, or that the other countries would go along with. Before supporting the removal of international economic sanctions against Iran, Israel wants that country to suspend all enrichment of uranium, shut down its nuclear facilities, not be allowed any centrifuges to enrich uranium, abandon the heavy-water plant it is constructing to produce plutonium, permanently close its fortified underground installation at Fordo, and ship its stockpile of enriched uranium out of the country.

In contrast, it’s widely believed that the United States is ready to allow Iran to continue to enrich uranium, maintain some of its existing facilities, and retain a partial stockpile of enriched uranium for fuel under stricter and more intrusive inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Ironically, a U.S.-Iran détente is the one thing that could slow down or reverse the death spiral of American influence in the region. Iran, for instance, could be helpful in convincing President Assad of Syria to leave office in 2014, in advance of elections there, if radical Sunni Islamic organizations, including allies of al-Qaeda, are suppressed. Enormously influential in Afghanistan, Iran could also help stabilize that country after the departure of U.S. combat forces in 2014. And it could be enlisted to work alongside the United States and regional powers to stabilize Iraq.

More broadly, a U.S.-Iran entente might lead to a gradual de-escalation of the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf, including its huge naval forces, bases, and other facilities in Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait. It’s even conceivable that Iran could be persuaded to join other regional and global powers in seeking a just and lasting negotiated deal between Israel and the Palestinians. The United States and Iran have a number of common interests, including opposing al-Qaeda-style terrorism and cracking down on drug smuggling.

Of course, such a deal will be exceedingly difficult to nail down, if for no other reason than that the hardliners in both countries are determined to prevent it.

Right now, imagine the Obama administration as one of those vaudeville acts that keep a dozen plates spinning atop vibrating poles.  At just this moment in the Middle East, those “plates” are tipping in every direction. There’s still time to prevent them all from crashing to the ground, but it would take a masterful effort from the White House — and it’s far from clear that anyone there is up to the task.

Bob Dreyfuss is an independent investigative journalist based in Cape May, New Jersey, specializing in politics and national security. He is a contributing editor at the Nation, and his blog appears daily at TheNation.com. In the past, he has written extensively for Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, the American Prospect, the New Republic, and many other magazines. He is the author of Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.

Copyright 2013 Bob Dreyfuss

Dilip Hiro: The Mystery of Washington’s Waning Global Power

6:43 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 pentagon rendered to look like a toy.

Washington’s power is waning.

Among the curious spectacles of our moment, the strangeness of the Obama presidency hasn’t gotten its full due. After decades in which “the imperial presidency” was increasingly in the spotlight, after two terms of George W. Bush in which a literal cult of executive power – or to use the term of that moment, “the unitary executive” — took hold in the White House, and without any obvious diminution in the literal powers of the presidency, Barack Obama has managed to look like a bystander at his own funeral.

If I had to summarize these years, I would say that he entered the phone booth dressed as Superman and came out as Clark Kent. Today, TomDispatch regular Dilip Hiro, author most recently of the invaluable A Comprehensive Dictionary of the Middle East, points out that, as far as Obama’s foreign (and war) policy, it’s almost as if, when the American president speaks, no one in the Greater Middle East — not even our closest allies or client states — is listening. And true as it may be for that region, it seems, bizarrely enough, no less true in Washington where the president’s recent attempts to intervene in the Syrian civil war were rejected both by Congress (though without a final vote on the subject) and by the American people via opinion polls.

It should be puzzling just how little power the present executive is actually capable of wielding. He can go to the U.N. or Kansas City and make speeches (that themselves often enough implicitly cast him as a kind of interested observer of his own presidency), but nothing much that he says in Washington seems any longer to be seriously attended to. In the foreign policy arena, he is surrounded by a secretary of defense who ducks for cover, a secretary of state who wanders the world blowing off steam, and a national security advisor and U.N. ambassador who seem like blundering neophytes and whose basic ideological stance (in favor of American — aka “humanitarian” — interventions globally) has been rejected in this country by almost any constituency imaginable. Unlike previous presidents, he evidently has no one — no Brent Scowcroft, Jim Baker, or even Henry Kissinger — capable of working the corridors of power skillfully or bringing a policy home.

Domestically, who ever heard of a presidency already into its second term that, according to just about all observers, has only one significant achievement — Obamacare (whatever you think of it) — and clearly hasn’t a hope in hell of getting a second one? Just as he’s done in Syria, Obama will now be watching relatively helplessly as Republicans in Congress threaten to shut the government down and not raise the debt ceiling — and whatever happens, who expects him to be the key player in that onrushing spectacle? America’s waning power in the Greater Middle East is more than matched by Obama’s waned power in this country. In our lifetime, we’ve never seen a president — not even the impeached Clinton — so drained of power or influence. It’s a puzzle wrapped in an enigma swaddled by a pretzel. Go figure. Tom

A World in Which No One Is Listening to the Planet’s Sole Superpower

The Greater Middle East’s Greatest Rebuff to Uncle Sam

By Dilip Hiro

What if the sole superpower on the planet makes its will known — repeatedly — and finds that no one is listening? Barely a decade ago, that would have seemed like a conundrum from some fantasy Earth in an alternate dimension. Now, it is increasingly a plain description of political life on our globe, especially in the Greater Middle East.

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Andrew Bacevich: Drama from Obama

5:43 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

Here is the strangeness of our moment: the U.S. has no rival on the planet. Its global military stance is historically unparalleled and largely uncontested. And yet somehow, in crucial areas of the world, Washington’s power to do anything is significantly, visibly lessening. Consider this: In 1990, in the very last days of the Cold War, our former ally in the Persian Gulf, Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein (whom we supported in major ways when he was using chemical weapons against Iranian troops in the mid-1980s), invaded Kuwait. He may even have thought that he had gotten a green light from Washington to do so.

Bacevich cover

Andrew Bacevich’s latest.

President George H.W. Bush then formed what he called a “grand coalition” of 30 nations (his son, when president, would use the phrase “coalition of the willing”), got the backing of Congress, drove Saddam’s troops out of Kuwait, and invaded Iraq. Other countries, including the Gulf States, Japan, and Germany, were even willing to shoulder a significant part of the financial burden of the build-up to war and the actual campaign. Twenty-two years later, preparing to launch a far more limited missile and possibly air assault on Syrian military facilities, President Obama tried to do the same. His officials even resurrected the term “coalition of the willing.” He instead found himself in a coalition of one — and a half, if you count French President Hollande, two-and-a-half, if you count the Saudis. Much of the rest of the world proved to be a “coalition of the unwilling.“ This could certainly be taken as a measure of waning American power in the Greater Middle East and, for that matter, Europe over the last two decades.

Think of this Obama moment as one in which the chickens have literally come home to roost — and by chickens I mean everything from the manipulations that led us into a “slam dunk” war in Iraq to the recent NSA revelations of Edward Snowden, which have left enough of the planet ticked off to make the formation of an American-sponsored coalition of anything that much harder. Today, Andrew Bacevich catches the strangeness of how all this is playing out domestically in the onrushing Syrian congressional debate (or perhaps “debate”). For the last 12 years, it has also played out in a military-first set of global initiatives that have turned what used to be called “foreign policy” into a kind of permanent war policy run by an ever more engorged national security state. The pressures on the actual military have been striking. In Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country, his new book published this Tuesday, Bacevich lays out the ways in which that military has essentially been abandoned by a public that heaps endless praise on “the troops,” but leaves them to fend for themselves as something ever less like a citizen’s army and ever more like a foreign legion. Tom

The Hill to the Rescue on Syria?
Don’t Hold Your Breath
By Andrew J. Bacevich

Sometimes history happens at the moment when no one is looking. On weekends in late August, the president of the United States ought to be playing golf or loafing at Camp David, not making headlines. Yet Barack Obama chose Labor Day weekend to unveil arguably the most consequential foreign policy shift of his presidency.

In an announcement that surprised virtually everyone, the president told his countrymen and the world that he was putting on hold the much anticipated U.S. attack against Syria. Obama hadn’t, he assured us, changed his mind about the need and justification for punishing the Syrian government for its probable use of chemical weapons against its own citizens. In fact, only days before administration officials had been claiming that, if necessary, the U.S. would “go it alone” in punishing Bashar al-Assad’s regime for its bad behavior. Now, however, Obama announced that, as the chief executive of “the world’s oldest constitutional democracy,” he had decided to seek Congressional authorization before proceeding.

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Tom Engelhardt, Can Edward Snowden Be Deterred?

6:48 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

Portrait of Snowden

Edward Snowden: An unstoppable whistleblower?

It’s hard even to know how to take it in.  I mean, what’s really happening?  An employee of a private contractor working for the National Security Agency makes off with unknown numbers of files about America’s developing global security state on a thumb drive and four laptop computers, and jumps the nearest plane to Hong Kong.  His goal: to expose a vast surveillance structure built in the shadows in the post-9/11 years and significantly aimed at Americans.  He leaks some of the documents to a columnist at the British Guardian and to the Washington Post.  The response is unprecedented: an “international manhunt” (or more politely but less accurately, “a diplomatic full court press”) conducted not by Interpol or the United Nations but by the planet’s sole superpower, the very government whose practices the leaker was so intent on exposing.

And that’s just for starters.  Let’s add another factor.  The leaker, a young man with great techno-savvy, lets the world know that he’s picked and chosen among the NSA files in his possession.  He’s releasing only those he thinks the American public needs in order to start a full-scale debate about the unprecedented secret world of surveillance that their taxpayer dollars have created.  In other words, this is no “document dump.”  He wants to spark change without doing harm.

But here’s the kicker: he couldn’t be more aware of previous whistleblower cases, the punitive reaction of his government to them, and the fate that might be his.  As a result, we now know, he has encrypted the full set of files in his possession and left them in one or more safe places for unknown individuals — that is, we don’t know who they are — to access, should he be taken by the U.S.

In other words, from the time Edward Snowden’s first leaked documents came out, it was obvious that he was in control of how much of the NSA’s secret world would be seen.  It would be hard then not to conclude that capturing him, imprisoning him, trying him, and throwing away the key is likely to increase, not decrease, the flow of those documents.  Knowing that, the Obama administration and the representatives of our secret world went after him anyway — after one man on a global scale and in a way that may not have a precedent.  No thought of future embarrassment stopped them, nor, it seems, did they hesitate because of possible resentments engendered by their heavy-handed pressure on numerous foreign governments.

The result has been a global spectacle, as well as a worldwide debate about the spying practices of the U.S. (and its allies).  In these weeks, Washington has proven determined, vengeful, implacable.  It has strong-armed, threatened, and elbowed powers large and small.  It has essentially pledged that the leaker, former Booz Allen employee Edward Snowden, will never be safe on this planet in his lifetime. And yet, to mention the obvious, the greatest power on Earth has, as yet, failed to get its man and is losing the public opinion battle globally.

An Asylum-less World

Highlighted in all this has been a curious fact of our twenty-first-century world.  In the Cold War years, asylum was always potentially available.  If you opposed one of the two superpowers or its allies, the other was usually ready to open its arms to you, as the U.S. famously did for what were once called “Soviet dissidents” in great numbers.  The Soviets did the same for Americans, Brits, and others, often secret communists, sometimes actual spies, who opposed the leading capitalist power and its global order.

Today, if you are a twenty-first-century “dissident” and need asylum/protection from the only superpower left, there is essentially none to be had.  Even after three Latin American countries, enraged at Washington’s actions, extended offers of protection to Snowden, these should be treated as a new category of limited asylum.  After all, the greatest power on the planet has, since 9/11, shown itself perfectly willing to do almost anything in pursuit of its definition of “security” or the security of its security system.  Torture, abuse, the setting up of secret prisons or “black sites,” the kidnapping of terrorist suspects (including perfectly innocent people) off the streets of global cities and in the backlands of the planet, as well as their “rendition” to the torture chambers of complicit allied regimes, and the secret surveillance of anyone anywhere would only start a far longer list.

Nothing about the “international manhunt” for Snowden indicates that the Obama administration would be unwilling to send in the CIA or special operations types to “render” him from Venezuela, Bolivia, or Nicaragua, no matter the cost to hemispheric relations.  Snowden himself brought up this possibility in his first interview with Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald.  “I could,” he said bluntly, “be rendered by the CIA.” This assumes that he can even make it to a land of exile from somewhere in the bowels of the international terminal of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport without being intercepted by Washington.

It’s true that there remain some modest limits on the actions even of a rogue superpower.  It’s hard to imagine Washington dropping its kidnappers into Russia or China to take Snowden, which is perhaps why it has put such pressure on both countries to turn him in or hustle him along.  With smaller, weaker lands, however, non-nuclear allies or enemies or frenemies, don’t doubt the possibility for a second.

If Edward Snowden is proving one thing, it’s this: in 2013, Planet Earth isn’t big enough to protect the American version of dissidents.”  Instead, it looks ever more like a giant prison with a single implacable policeman, judge, jury, and jailer.

Deterrence Theory the Second Time Around

In the Cold War years, the two nuclear-armed superpowers practiced what was called “deterrence theory,” or more aptly MAD, short for “mutually assured destruction.”  Think of it as the particularly grim underside of what might have been but wasn’t called MAA (mutually assured asylum).  The knowledge that no nuclear first strike by one superpower could succeed in preventing the other from striking back with overwhelming force, destroying them both (and possibly the planet) seemed, however barely, to hold their enmity and weaponry at bay.  It forced them to fight their wars, often by proxy, on the global frontiers of empire.

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Alfred W. McCoy, Obama’s Expanding Surveillance Universe

6:59 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.

Nixon's resignation speech

A true history of the surveillance state would stretch back far beyond even Nixon’s spying on domestic “enemies.”

On the website of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services there is a list of rights belonging to all Americans. Chief among them: Freedom to express yourself. Abdiwali Warsame must have taken them literally. Two days after he became a U.S. citizen, he created a rollicking news and opinion website covering his native Somalia.  It became popular with many Somalis and Somali-Americans, but also attracted attention from other quarters.  As Craig Whitlock recently revealed in the Washington Post, Warsame was, according to public records and interviews, soon “caught up in a shadowy Defense Department counterpropaganda operation.”

Warsame’s website became a clearinghouse for articles from various points of view (including his own fundamentalist Muslim beliefs), but with emphasis on strong opposition to U.S.-backed military interventions in Somalia, and the contention that al-Shabab militants are freedom fighters, not terrorists. This, in turn, attracted the attention of the U.S.-based Navanti Group, which was “working as a subcontractor for the Special Operations Command to help conduct ‘information operations to engage local populations and counter nefarious influences’ in Africa and Europe.”  As part of a sophisticated military effort aimed at manipulating news stories and social media around the world, Navanti compiled a dossier on Warsame, even though the military is legally barred from carrying out psychological operations at home.  (Navanti claimed it believed Warsame was based overseas; Whitlock’s reporting indicates otherwise.)  The military contractor eventually sent a copy of its files to the FBI, whose agents soon showed up on Warsame’s doorstep.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website says Americans are bound by “the shared values of freedom [and] liberty” and that “naturalized citizens are… an important part of our democracy.”  Today, this rings about as true as a thump on the side of an empty dumpster.  Abdiwali Warsame is just one of millions of people — Americans and foreigners — who have found themselves monitored in some way by the U.S. military over the years.

No one knows this long history of shadowy military surveillance better than TomDispatch regular Alfred McCoy, author of Policing America’s Empire, among other works.  For decades, McCoy has been shedding light on some of the darkest aspects of government malfeasance from drug trafficking to spying to torture.  Today, he offers a chilling tour of military surveillance efforts from the turn of the twentieth century to a near future even more dystopian than our present — a world in which we’re all liable to end up like Abdiwali Warsame. Nick Turse

Surveillance Blowback
The Making of the U.S. Surveillance State, 1898-2020
By Alfred W. McCoy

The American surveillance state is now an omnipresent reality, but its deep history is little known and its future little grasped.  Edward Snowden’s leaked documents reveal that, in a post-9/11 state of war, the National Security Agency (NSA) was able to create a surveillance system that could secretly monitor the private communications of almost every American in the name of fighting foreign terrorists. The technology used is state of the art; the impulse, it turns out, is nothing new. For well over a century, what might be called “surveillance blowback” from America’s wars has ensured the creation of an ever more massive and omnipresent internal security and surveillance apparatus.  Its future (though not ours) looks bright indeed.

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Dilip Hiro: Washington’s Pakistan Meltdown

6:35 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.

National Flag of Pakistan

Photo: Imtiaz Ahmed / Flickr

In 1948, George Orwell published his classic dystopian novel 1984, flipping the numbers in the publication year to speed us into a future that is now, of course, 28 years in our past.  In that book, he imagined a three-superpower world of regularly shifting alliances in which war was a constant but its specific nature eternally forgotten.  As he wrote, “To trace out the history of the whole period, to say who was fighting whom at any given moment, would have been utterly impossible, since no written record, and no spoken word, ever made mention of any other alignment than the existing one.”

Of course, predicting the future is a perilous thing.  Instead of three squabbling superpowers ruling the globe, we have one (in visible decline), and yet there are some eerie real-world parallels to Orwell’s fiction.  By 1984, for instance, the U.S. and the Saudis were funneling huge sums of money and vast quantities of weaponry through Pakistan’s intelligence outfit, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorat, to support the most fundamentalist and extreme of the Afghan mujahedeen who were then fighting that other superpower, the Soviet Union, in their country.  These included Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (about as extreme as they came) and, as Anand Gopal has pointed out at TomDispatch, Jalaluddin Haqqani who received “millions of dollars, anti-aircraft missiles, and even tanks.”  He was, at the time, so beloved by Washington officials “that former congressman Charlie Wilson once called him ‘goodness personified.’”  Hekmatyar and Haqqani were among those President Ronald Reagan — shades of Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth” — dubbed “freedom fighters.”

Jump forward nearly two decades, and the Haqqani network is perhaps Washington’s greatest bugaboo in the present Afghan War, a group regularly denounced by the Obama administration for its attacks on U.S. troops; while Hekmatyar and his group Hizb-i-Islami, like the Haqqani’s, are allied with the Taliban.  And let’s not forget one more “freedom fighter,” a rich young Saudi named Osama bin Laden, who, in 1984, founded the “Services Office” in Peshawar, Pakistan, to recruit, support, and fund those “freedom fighters,” and in 1988, formed a group called al-Qaeda (“The Base”) to further his vision.

The Soviets, of course, left Afghanistan in 1989 in defeat.  For Washington, the freedom fighters, soon to be at each others’ throats in a horrific civil war that left yet more dead Afghans in its wake, became the forgettables.  And in a sense, they are still forgotten.  These days, how often does anyone remember that a number of our present foes, the evil terrorists who must be destroyed, were our former pals and heroes.  (Or that some of the warlords in or allied with the present Afghan government of Hamid Karzai were both mujahedeen and monsters of that civil war era.)  Week in, week out, you can read the latest reports from the Afghan War filled with what should be a remarkably familiar cast of characters, and never find a single word about this past.  All of this has gone down the memory hole no less easily than did the history of Eastasia, Oceania, and Eurasia in Winston Smith’s Airstrip One (formerly known as Great Britain).

If this is commonplace history, isn’t it Orwellian, 11 years into our second Afghan War in three decades, how seldom it’s ever mentioned?  And given today’s post, toss this into the hopper: there’s an even stranger part of the story that Orwell didn’t imagine, and it concerns neighboring Pakistan, a country that seems eternally to be both ally and enemy (frenemy?), so much so that it’s almost impossible to sort out Washington’s two Pakistans.  That’s why TomDispatch called on Dilip Hiro, South Asia expert and author most recently of Apocalyptic Realm: Jihadists in South Asia, to do the job for us and make some sense of one of the stranger relationships on the face of the Earth.  (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Hiro discusses the embattled Pakistan-U.S. relationship, click here or download it to your iPod here.)  Tom

The Alliance from Hell
How the U.S. and Pakistan Became the Dysfunctional Nuclear Family of International Relations
By Dilip Hiro

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