You are browsing the archive for International.

Rebecca Solnit, Emerging From Darkness, the Edward Snowden Story

8:21 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.

Snowden graffiti portrait

“Modern heroes endeavor to save us from ourselves, from our own governments and systems of power.”

It’s true that, as Glenn Greenwald and others have written, the American media has focused attention on the supposed peccadillos of Edward Snowden so as not to have to spend too much time on the sweeping system of government surveillance he revealed. At least for now, the Obama administration has cornered the document-less whistleblower at Moscow’s international airport, leaving him nowhere on the planet to go, or at least no way to get there. As a result, the media can have a field day writing negative pieces about his relationship to Putin’s Russia.

So Greenwald certainly has a point, and yet it would be a mistake to ignore Snowden’s personal story.  After all, the unending spectacle of a superpower implacably tracking down a single man across the planet has its own educational value.  It’s been a little like watching one of those Transformers movies in which Megatron, the leader of the evil Decepticons, stomps around the globe smashing things, but somehow, time and again, misses his tiny human target.  In this strange drama, in a world in which few eyeball-gluing stories outlast the week in which they were born, almost alone and by a kind of miracle Snowden has managed to keep his story andthe story of the building of the first full-scale global surveillance state going and going.  He seems a little like the Energizer Bunny of whistleblowers.

No matter what’s written about him here in the mainstream, the spectacle of a single remarkably articulate and self-confident individual outwitting the last superpower has been, in its own way, uplifting.  Although the first global polls haven’t come in, I think it’s safe to assume that from Bolivia to Hong Kong, Germany to Japan, Washington is taking a remarkable licking in the global opinion wars.  Even at home, we know that, among the young in particular, opinion seems to be shifting on both Snowden’s acts and the surveillance state whose architecture he revealed.

Given its utter tone-deafness and its flurry of threats against various foreign governments, the downing of Bolivian President Evo Morales’s plane, and ever more ham-handed moves against Snowden himself, Washington is clearly building up a store of global anger and resentment, including over the way it’s scooping up private communications worldwide.  In the end, this twenty-first-century spectacle may truly make a difference. As Rebecca Solnit, TomDispatch regular and author of the new book The Faraway Nearby, writes today, it’s been a moving show so far. One man against the machine: if you’ve ever been to the local multiplex, given such a scenario you can’t for a second doubt where global sympathies lie. Tom

Prometheus Among the Cannibals 
A Letter to Edward Snowden
By Rebecca Solnit

Dear Edward Snowden,

Billions of us, from prime ministers to hackers, are watching a live espionage movie in which you are the protagonist and perhaps the sacrifice. Your way forward is clear to no one, least of all, I’m sure, you.

I fear for you; I think of you with a heavy heart. I imagine hiding you like Anne Frank. I imagine Hollywood movie magic in which a young lookalike would swap places with you and let you flee to safety — if there is any safety in this world of extreme rendition and extrajudicial execution by the government that you and I were born under and that you, until recently, served. I fear you may pay, if not with your death, with your life — with a life that can have no conventional outcome anytime soon, if ever. “Truth is coming, and it cannot be stopped,” you told us, and they are trying to stop you instead.

I am moved by your choice of our future over yours, the world over yourself.  You know what few do nowadays: that the self is not the same as self-interest. You are someone who is smart enough, idealistic enough, bold enough to know that living with yourself in a system of utter corruption would destroy that self as an ideal, as something worth being.  Doing what you’ve done, on the other hand, would give you a self you could live with, even if it gave you nowhere to live or no life. Which is to say, you have become a hero.

Noam Chomsky: Why It’s “Legal” When the U.S. Does It

7:23 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.

Power Systems Cover

An excerpt from Power Systems, a new collected book-length interview with Noam Chomsky.

Credit the Arab Spring and what’s followed in the Greater Middle East to many things, but don’t overlook American “unilateralism.” After all, if you want to see destabilization at work, there’s nothing like having a heavily armed crew dreaming about eternal global empires stomp through your neighborhood, and it’s clear enough now that whatever was let loose early in the twenty-first century won’t end soon.

If, from Tunisia and Egypt to Syria and Libya, the Arab Spring was a series of popular uprisings, it was also a series of unravelings.  Two decades late, the Cold War system of great power control in the Middle East, in which the U.S. was the dominant partner and the Soviet Union the lesser one, is finally disintegrating. The abattoir that is now Syria could be considered the Russian contribution to the present chaos; Egypt, with its besieged fundamentalist president, its irate soccer fans in the streets of its Suez-Canal-bordering cities, and its army chief talking about a possible “collapse” of the state, should be considered part of the far greater and more devastating American contribution. (Along with Israel, Egypt was one of the three pillars of the American system in the region; the other, still standing in all its fundamentalist glory, its vast oil reserves pumping away, remains Saudi Arabia.)

In any case, when you see what’s happening these days, first thank the American unilateralists of the 1990s, our own financial jihadis. They dreamed of organizing a planet subservient to American financial power and ended up, in 2008, blowing a hole in it instead. A decade later came George W. Bush and his neocon followers, dreaming of doing the same thing in military terms, with similarly disastrous results.  If the neoliberals helped create the 1% world of Middle Eastern oppression that a young Tunisian with a lighter set afire, Bush’s visionary militarists, with their catastrophic invasion and occupation of Iraq, did even greater damage.  They punched a hole directly in the oil heartlands of the planet and set what they already liked to call “the arc of instability” — little did they know — aflame. Between them, they drove us through what, in 2004, Amr Moussa, then head of the Arab League, called “the gates of hell,” imagining they were the gates to an imperial paradise.

Now, from Pakistan and Yemen to Mali and Niger, Washington’s drones, special ops, and cyber warriors are now blindly pushing that process of destabilization forward, even as they further undermine American power in the region. This post-Arab Spring world and the state of U.S. power are the subjects that TomDispatch regular Noam Chomsky takes up in the following excerpt adapted from his wide-ranging new interview book with David Barsamian, Power Systems: Conversations on Global Democratic Uprisings and the New Challenges to U.S. Empire. (It’s another Chomsky must-read.) Tom

The Paranoia of the Superrich and Superpowerful
Washington’s Dilemma on a “Lost” Planet
By Noam Chomsky

[This piece is adapted from “Uprisings,” a chapter in Power Systems: Conversations on Global Democratic Uprisings and the New Challenges to U.S. Empire, Noam Chomsky’s new interview book with David Barsamian (with thanks to the publisher, Metropolitan Books).  The questions are Barsamian’s, the answers Chomsky’s.]

Does the United States still have the same level of control over the energy resources of the Middle East as it once had?

Read the rest of this entry →

Ann Jones, The Afghan End Game?

7:30 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 soldier in Afghanistan

All outcomes for the US 'drawdown' in Afghanistan seem bleak.

The euphemisms will come fast and furious.  Our soldiers will be greeted as “heroes” who, as in Iraq, left with their “heads held high,” and if in 2014 or 2015 or even 2019, the last of them, as also in Iraq, slip away in the dark of night after lying to their Afghan “allies” about their plans, few here will notice.

This will be the nature of the great Afghan drawdown. The words “retreat,” “loss,” “defeat,” “disaster,” and their siblings and cousins won’t be allowed on the premises.  But make no mistake, the country that, only years ago, liked to call itself the globe’s “sole superpower” or even “hyperpower,” whose leaders dreamed of a Pax Americana across the Greater Middle East, if not the rest of the globe is… not to put too fine a point on it, packing its bags, throwing in the towel, quietly admitting — in actions, if not in words — to mission unaccomplished, and heading if not exactly home, at least boot by boot off the Eurasian landmass.

Washington has, in a word, had enough. Too much, in fact.  It’s lost its appetite for invasions and occupations of Eurasia, though special operations raids, drone wars, and cyberwars still look deceptively cheap and easy as a means to control… well, whatever.  As a result, the Afghan drawdown of 2013-2014, that implicit acknowledgement of yet another lost war, should set the curtain falling on the American Century as we’ve known it.  It should be recognized as a landmark, the moment in history when the sun truly began to set on a great empire.  Here in the United States, though, one thing is just about guaranteed: not many are going to be paying the slightest attention.

No one even thinks to ask the question: In the mighty battle lost, who exactly beat us?  Where exactly is the triumphant enemy?  Perhaps we should be relieved that the question is not being raised, because it’s a hard one to answer.  Could it really have been the scattered jihadis of al-Qaeda and its wannabes?  Or the various modestly armed Sunni and Shiite minority insurgencies in Iraq, or their Pashtun equivalents in Afghanistan with their suicide bombers and low-tech roadside bombs?  Or was it something more basic, something having to do with a planet no longer amenable to imperial expeditions?  Did the local and global body politic simply and mysteriously spit us out as the distasteful thing we had become?  Or is it even possible, as Pogo once suggested, that in those distant, unwelcoming lands, we met the enemy and he was us?  Did we in some bizarre fashion fight ourselves and lose?  After all, last year, more American servicemen died from suicide than on the battlefield in Afghanistan; and a startling number of Americans were killed in “green on blue” or “insider” attacks by Afghan “allies” rather than by that fragmented movement we still call the Taliban.

Whoever or whatever was responsible, our Afghan disaster was remarkably foreseeable.  In fact, anyone who, from 2006 on, read Ann Jones’s Afghan reports at TomDispatch wouldn’t have had a doubt about the outcome of the war. Her first piece, after all, was prophetically entitled “Why It’s Not Working in Afghanistan.” (“The answer is a threefold failure: no peace, no democracy, and no reconstruction.”)  From Western private-contractors-cum-looters making a figurative killing off the “reconstruction” of the country to an Afghan army that was largely a figment of the American imagination to up-armored U.S. soldiers on well-guarded bases whose high-tech equipment and comforts of home blinded them to the nature of the enemy, hers has long been a tale of impending failure.  Now, that war seems headed for its predictable end, not for the Afghans who, as Jones indicates in her latest sweeping report from Kabul, may face terrible years ahead, but for the U.S.  After more than 11 years, the war that is often labeled the longest in American history is slowly winding down and that’s no small thing.

So leave the mystery of who beat us to the historians, but mark the moment. It’s historic. Tom

Counting Down to 2014 in Afghanistan 
Three Lousy Options: Pick One 
By Ann Jones

Kabul, Afghanistan — Compromise, conflict, or collapse: ask an Afghan what to expect in 2014 and you’re likely to get a scenario that falls under one of those three headings. 2014, of course, is the year of the double whammy in Afghanistan: the next presidential election coupled with the departure of most American and other foreign forces. Many Afghans fear a turn for the worse, while others are no less afraid that everything will stay the same.  Some even think things will get better when the occupying forces leave.  Most predict a more conservative climate, but everyone is quick to say that it’s anybody’s guess.

Read the rest of this entry →

Michael Klare: Energy Wars 2012

7:35 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.

Last week, the president made a rare appearance at the Pentagon to unveil a new strategic plan for U.S. military policy (and so spending) over the next decade.  Let’s leave the specifics to a future TomDispatch post and focus instead on a historical footnote: Obama was evidently the first president to offer remarks from a podium in the Pentagon press room.  He made the point himself — “I understand this is the first time a president has done this.  It’s a pretty nice room.  (Laughter)” — and it was duly noted in the media.  Yet no one thought to make anything of it, even though it tells us so much about our American world.

After all, when was the last time the president appeared at a podium at the Environmental Protection Agency to announce a 10-year plan for a “leaner, meaner” approach to the environment, or at the Education Department to outline the next decade of blue-skies thinking (and spending) for giving our children a leg-up in a competitive world?  Or how about at a State Department podium to describe future planning for a more peaceable planet more peaceably attained?  Unfortunately, you can’t remember such moments and neither can America’s reporters, because they just aren’t part of Washington life.  And strangest of all, no one finds this the tiniest bit odd or worth commenting on. 

Over the last decade, this country has been so strikingly militarized that no one can imagine 10 years of serious government planning or investment not connected to the military or the national security state.  It’s a dangerous world out there — so we’re regularly told by officials who don’t mention that no military is built to handle the scariest things around.  War and the sinews of war are now our business and the U.S. military is our go-to outfit of choice for anything from humanitarian action to diplomacy (even though that same military can’t do the one thing it’s theoretically built to do: win a modern war). And if you don’t believe me that the militarization of this country is a process far gone, check out the last pages of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent piece, “America’s Pacific Century,” in Foreign Policy magazine.  Then close your eyes and tell me that it wasn’t written by a secretary of defense, rather than a secretary of state — right down to the details about the “littoral combat ships” we’re planning to deploy to Singapore and the “greater American military presence” in Australia.

Of course, the irony of this American moment is that the Republicans, those supposed advocates of “small government,” are the greatest fans we have of the ever increasing oppressive powers of the biggest of governments.  In recent years, have they seen a single enhanced power they didn’t put their stamp of approval on or enhance further? Predictably, no sooner did the president’s Pentagon press briefing end than assorted Republicans began attacking Obama and his relatively modest Pentagon plan for reshuffling military funds — from House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (“a lead from behind strategy for a left-behind America”) and Senator John McCain (“greatest peril”) to presidential candidate Mitt Romney (“inexcusable, unthinkable”) — as if it were a program for unilateral disarmament.

So when the U.S. faces a problem in the world — say, keeping the energy flowing on this planet — the first thing that’s done is to militarize the problem.  It’s the only way Washington now knows how to think.  As Michael Klare — whose upcoming book The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources will certainly be a must-read of the season — makes clear, a further militarization of oil and gas policy is underway with an eye to the Pacific, and we have another anxious year on the horizon. (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Klare discusses the crisis in the Strait of Hormuz, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

Danger Waters
The Three Top Hot Spots of Potential Conflict in the Geo-Energy Era

By Michael T. Klare

Welcome to an edgy world where a single incident at an energy “chokepoint” could set a region aflame, provoking bloody encounters, boosting oil prices, and putting the global economy at risk.  With energy demand on the rise and sources of supply dwindling, we are, in fact, entering a new epoch — the Geo-Energy Era — in which disputes over vital resources will dominate world affairs.  In 2012 and beyond, energy and conflict will be bound ever more tightly together, lending increasing importance to the key geographical flashpoints in our resource-constrained world.

Take the Strait of Hormuz, already making headlines and shaking energy markets as 2012 begins.  Connecting the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, it lacks imposing geographical features like the Rock of Gibraltar or the Golden Gate Bridge.  In an energy-conscious world, however, it may possess greater strategic significance than any passageway on the planet.  Every day, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, tankers carrying some 17 million barrels of oil — representing 20% of the world’s daily supply — pass through this vital artery. 

So last month, when a senior Iranian official threatened to block the strait in response to Washington’s tough new economic sanctions, oil prices instantly soared. While the U.S. military has vowed to keep the strait open, doubts about the safety of future oil shipments and worries about a potentially unending, nerve-jangling crisis involving Washington, Tehran, and Tel Aviv have energy experts predicting high oil prices for months to come, meaning further woes for a slowing global economy.

The Strait of Hormuz is, however, only one of several hot spots where energy, politics, and geography are likely to mix in dangerous ways in 2012 and beyond.  Keep your eye as well on the East and South China Seas, the Caspian Sea basin, and an energy-rich Arctic that is losing its sea ice.  In all of these places, countries are disputing control over the production and transportation of energy, and arguing about national boundaries and/or rights of passage.

In the years to come, the location of energy supplies and of energy supply routes — pipelines, oil ports, and tanker routes — will be pivotal landmarks on the global strategic map.  Key producing areas, like the Persian Gulf, will remain critically important, but so will oil chokepoints like the Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Malacca (between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea) and the “sea lines of communication,” or SLOCs (as naval strategists like to call them) connecting producing areas to overseas markets.  More and more, the major powers led by the United States, Russia, and China will restructure their militaries to fight in such locales.

You can already see this in the elaborate Defense Strategic Guidance document, “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership,” unveiled at the Pentagon on January 5th by President Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.  While envisioning a smaller Army and Marine Corps, it calls for increased emphasis on air and naval capabilities, especially those geared to the protection or control of international energy and trade networks.  Though it tepidly reaffirmed historic American ties to Europe and the Middle East, overwhelming emphasis was placed on bolstering U.S. power in “the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean and South Asia.”

In the new Geo-Energy Era, the control of energy and of its transport to market will lie at the heart of recurring global crises.  This year, keep your eyes on three energy hot spots in particular: the Strait of Hormuz, the South China Sea, and the Caspian Sea basin. 

The Strait of Hormuz

A narrow stretch of water separating Iran from Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the strait is the sole maritime link between the oil-rich Persian Gulf region and the rest of the world.  A striking percentage of the oil produced by Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE is carried by tanker through this passageway on a daily basis, making it (in the words of the Department of Energy) “the world’s most important oil chokepoint.”  Some analysts believe that any sustained blockage in the strait could trigger a 50% increase in the price of oil and trigger a full-scale global recession or depression.

American leaders have long viewed the Strait as a strategic fixture in their global plans that must be defended at any cost.  It was an outlook first voiced by President Jimmy Carter in January 1980, on the heels of the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan which had, he told Congress, “brought Soviet military forces to within 300 miles of the Indian Ocean and close to the Strait of Hormuz, a waterway through which most of the world’s oil must flow.”  The American response, he insisted, must be unequivocal: any attempt by a hostile power to block the waterway would henceforth be viewed as “an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America,” and “repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”

Much has changed in the Gulf region since Carter issued his famous decree, known since as the Carter Doctrine, and established the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) to guard the Strait — but not Washington’s determination to ensure the unhindered flow of oil there.  Indeed, President Obama has made it clear that, even if CENTCOM ground forces were to leave Afghanistan, as they have Iraq, there would be no reduction in the command’s air and naval presence in the greater Gulf area. 

It is conceivable that the Iranians will put Washington’s capabilities to the test.  On December 27th, Iran’s first vice president Mohammad-Reza Rahimi said, “If [the Americans] impose sanctions on Iran’s oil exports, then even one drop of oil cannot flow from the Strait of Hormuz.”  Similar statements have since been made by other senior officials (and contradicted as well by yet others).  In addition, the Iranians recently conducted elaborate naval exercises in the Arabian Sea near the eastern mouth of the strait, and more such maneuvers are said to be forthcoming.  At the same time, the commanding general of Iran’s army suggested that the USS John C. Stennis, an American aircraft carrier just leaving the Gulf, should not return.  “The Islamic Republic of Iran,” he added ominously, “will not repeat its warning.”

Might the Iranians actually block the strait?  Many analysts believe that the statements by Rahimi and his colleagues are bluster and bluff meant to rattle Western leaders, send oil prices higher, and win future concessions if negotiations ever recommence over their country’s nuclear program.  Economic conditions in Iran are, however, becoming more desperate, and it is always possible that the country’s hard-pressed hardline leaders may feel the urge to take some dramatic action, even if it invites a powerful U.S. counterstrike.  Whatever the case, the Strait of Hormuz will remain a focus of international attention in 2012, with global oil prices closely following the rise and fall of tensions there.

The South China Sea

The South China Sea is a semi-enclosed portion of the western Pacific bounded by China to the north, Vietnam to the west, the Philippines to the east, and the island of Borneo (shared by Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia) to the south.  The sea also incorporates two largely uninhabited island chains, the Paracels and the Spratlys.  Long an important fishing ground, it has also been a major avenue for commercial shipping between East Asia and Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.  More recently, it acquired significance as a potential source of oil and natural gas, large reserves of which are now believed to lie in subsea areas surrounding the Paracels and Spratlys.

With the discovery of oil and gas deposits, the South China Sea has been transformed into a cockpit of international friction.  At least some islands in this energy-rich area are claimed by every one of the surrounding countries, including China — which claims them all, and has demonstrated a willingness to use military force to assert dominance in the region.  Not surprisingly, this has put it in conflict with the other claimants, including several with close military ties to the United States.  As a result, what started out as a regional matter, involving China and various members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), has become a prospective tussle between the world’s two leading powers.

To press their claims, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines have all sought to work collectively through ASEAN, believing a multilateral approach will give them greater negotiating clout than one-on-one dealings with China. For their part, the Chinese have insisted that all disputes must be resolved bilaterally, a situation in which they can more easily bring their economic and military power to bear.  Previously preoccupied with Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has now entered the fray, offering full-throated support to the ASEAN countries in their efforts to negotiate en masse with Beijing.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi promptly warned the United States not to interfere.  Any such move “will only make matters worse and the resolution more difficult,” he declared.  The result was an instant war of words between Beijing and Washington.  During a visit to the Chinese capital in July 2011, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen delivered a barely concealed threat when it came to possible future military action.  “The worry, among others that I have,” he commented, “is that the ongoing incidents could spark a miscalculation, and an outbreak that no one anticipated.”  To drive the point home, the United States has conducted a series of conspicuous military exercises in the South China Sea, including some joint maneuvers with ships from Vietnam and the Philippines.  Not to be outdone, China responded with naval maneuvers of its own.  It’s a perfect formula for future “incidents” at sea.

The South China Sea has long been on the radar screens of those who follow Asian affairs, but it only attracted global attention when, in November, President Obama traveled to Australia and announced, with remarkable bluntness, a new U.S. strategy aimed at confronting Chinese power in Asia and the Pacific.  “As we plan and budget for the future,” he told members of the Australian Parliament in Canberra, “we will allocate the resources necessary to maintain our strong military presence in this region.”  A key feature of this effort would be to ensure “maritime security” in the South China Sea. 

While in Australia, President Obama also announced the establishment of a new U.S. base at Darwin on that country’s northern coast, as well as expanded military ties with Indonesia and the Philippines.  In January, the president similarly placed special emphasis on projecting U.S. power in the region when he went to the Pentagon to discuss changes in the American military posture in the world.

Beijing will undoubtedly take its own set of steps, no less belligerent, to protect its growing interests in the South China Sea.  Where this will lead remains, of course, unknown.  After the Strait of Hormuz, however, the South China Sea may be the global energy chokepoint where small mistakes or provocations could lead to bigger confrontations in 2012 and beyond. 

The Caspian Sea Basin

The Caspian Sea is an inland body of water bordered by Russia, Iran, and three former republics of the USSR: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan.  In the immediate area as well are the former Soviet lands of Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.  All of these old SSRs are, to one degree or another, attempting to assert their autonomy from Moscow and establish independent ties with the United States, the European Union, Iran, Turkey, and, increasingly, China.  All are wracked by internal schisms and/or involved in border disputes with their neighbors.  The region would be a hotbed of potential conflict even if the Caspian basin did not harbor some of the world’s largest undeveloped reserves of oil and natural gas, which could easily bring it to a boil.

This is not the first time that the Caspian has been viewed as a major source of oil, and so potential conflict.  In the late nineteenth century, the region around the city of Baku — then part of the Russian empire, now in Azerbaijan — was a prolific source of petroleum and so a major strategic prize.  Future Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin first gained notoriety there as a leader of militant oil workers, and Hitler sought to capture it during his ill-fated 1941 invasion of the USSR.  After World War II, however, the region lost its importance as an oil producer when Baku’s onshore fields dried up.  Now, fresh discoveries are being made in offshore areas of the Caspian itself and in previously undeveloped areas of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

According to energy giant BP, the Caspian area harbors as much as 48 billion barrels of oil (mostly buried in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan) and 449 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (with the largest supply in Turkmenistan).  This puts the region ahead of North and South America in total gas reserves and Asia in oil reserves.  But producing all this energy and delivering it to foreign markets will be a monumental task.  The region’s energy infrastructure is woefully inadequate and the Caspian itself provides no maritime outlet to other seas, so all that oil and gas must travel by pipeline or rail.

Russia, long the dominant power in the region, is pursuing control over the transportation routes by which Caspian oil and gas will reach markets.  It is upgrading Soviet-era pipelines that link the former SSRs to Russia or building new ones and, to achieve a near monopoly over the marketing of all this energy, bringing traditional diplomacy, strong-arm tactics, and outright bribery to bear on regional leaders (many of whom once served in the Soviet bureaucracy) to ship their energy via Russia.  As recounted in my book Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet, Washington sought to thwart these efforts by sponsoring the construction of alternative pipelines that avoid Russian territory, crossing Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey to the Mediterranean (notably the BTC, or Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline), while Beijing is building its own pipelines linking the Caspian area to western China.

All of these pipelines cross through areas of ethnic unrest and pass near various contested regions like rebellious Chechnya and breakaway South Ossetia.  As a result, both China and the U.S. have wedded their pipeline operations to military assistance for countries along the routes.  Fearful of an American presence, military or otherwise, in the former territories of the Soviet Union, Russia has responded with military moves of its own, including its brief August 2008 war with Georgia, which took place along the BTC route. 

Given the magnitude of the Caspian’s oil and gas reserves, many energy firms are planning new production operations in the region, along with the pipelines needed to bring the oil and gas to market.  The European Union, for example, hopes to build a new natural gas pipeline called Nabucco from Azerbaijan through Turkey to Austria.  Russia has proposed a competing conduit called South Stream.  All of these efforts involve the geopolitical interests of major powers, ensuring that the Caspian region will remain a potential source of international crisis and conflict.

In the new Geo-Energy Era, the Strait of Hormuz, the South China Sea, and the Caspian Basin hardly stand alone as potential energy flashpoints. The East China Sea, where China and Japan are contending for a contested undersea natural gas field, is another, as are the waters surrounding the Falkland Islands, where both Britain and Argentina hold claims to undersea oil reserves, as will be the globally warming Arctic whose resources are claimed by many countries.  One thing is certain: wherever the sparks may fly, there’s oil in the water and danger at hand in 2012.

Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet. His newest book, The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources, will be published in March.  To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Klare discusses the crisis in the Strait of Hormuz, click here, or download it to your iPod here.

Copyright 2012 Michael T. Klare

Rebecca Solnit: Occupy Your Heart

7:21 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.

The other evening, I took the subway to the very bottom of Broadway, reputedly the longest street in the world, for a rally of New York’s transit workers.  Their contract expires in mid-January and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is reportedly calling on them for draconian givebacks the next time around.  It’s a tough moment for unions in negotiations everywhere.  (Only executives never seem to be asked to give back anything of significance.)  Still, it was a vigorous rally of perhaps 500 members of Local 100 of the Transit Workers Union, other supporters, and some Occupy Wall Street types.  A string of union officials and local politicians addressed the crowd, penned in as usual by the police, before a representative of the Occupy movement, a young Verizon worker, rose to speak energetically about direct democracy and the union movement to shouts, cheers, and the shrill treble of whistles blown by the assembled transit workers who had offered early support to Occupy Wall Street. 

That a labor rally even wanted the imprimatur of the Occupy movement was evidence that our world is in the process of rapid change, but what came next was more striking.  As the last speaker put down the mic, the crowd, whistles blowing, signs bobbing, headed for Zuccotti Park, the former campground of the OWS movement, where, having filed into the now fenced in, well guarded “park”-cum-prison, they conducted another, more spontaneous rally.  And this was just one night in New York.

Four months ago, when it came to rallies, protests, demonstrations, in any given week next to nothing was happening.  Today, in my hometown, you would have to devote your life to nothing else simply to keep up with what’s going on just about every day.  And New York is hardly unique.  Something has distinctly come to life across the country, around the world.  In mid-December, Muscovites took to the streets of the Russian capital, and now in southern China, thousands of villagers have been occupying their own village in the face of police and troops to protest a land grab by local officials. 

Those villagers may or may not have heard of Occupy Wall Street or the Arab Spring or the European summer, but face it, something is in the air and it’s spreading.  It’s the zeitgeist of this moment.  If you want to avoid it, try the moon.  Chinese villagers can feel it, and so can rattled Chinese officials, who gave in to key demands of those angry villagers. So, too, has TomDispatch regular Rebecca Solnit, author of A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster.  Long before the rest of us, she sensed that something was indeed coming and, in that spirit, has been the voice of hope at this website.  Now, she ends TomDispatch’s 2011 by considering what may be arising on this disaster planet.  Tom

Compassion Is Our New Currency
Notes on 2011’s Preoccupied Hearts and Minds
By Rebecca Solnit

Usually at year’s end, we’re supposed to look back at events just passed — and forward, in prediction mode, to the year to come. But just look around you! This moment is so extraordinary that it has hardly registered. People in thousands of communities across the United States and elsewhere are living in public, experimenting with direct democracy, calling things by their true names, and obliging the media and politicians to do the same.

The breadth of this movement is one thing, its depth another. It has rejected not just the particulars of our economic system, but the whole set of moral and emotional assumptions on which it’s based. Take the pair shown in a photograph from Occupy Austin in Texas.  The amiable-looking elderly woman is holding a sign whose computer-printed words say, “Money has stolen our vote.” The older man next to her with the baseball cap is holding a sign handwritten on cardboard that states, “We are our brothers’ keeper.”

The photo of the two of them offers just a peek into a single moment in the remarkable period we’re living through and the astonishing movement that’s drawn in… well, if not 99% of us, then a striking enough percentage: everyone from teen pop superstar Miley Cyrus with her Occupy-homage video to Alaska Yup’ik elder Esther Green ice-fishing and holding a sign that says “Yirqa Kuik” in big letters, with the translation — “occupy the river” — in little ones below.

The woman with the stolen-votes sign is referring to them. Her companion is talking about us, all of us, and our fundamental principles. His sign comes straight out of Genesis, a denial of what that competitive entrepreneur Cain said to God after foreclosing on his brother Abel’s life. He was not, he claimed, his brother’s keeper; we are not, he insisted, beholden to each other, but separate, isolated, each of us for ourselves.

Think of Cain as the first Social Darwinist and this Occupier in Austin as his opposite, claiming, no, our operating system should be love; we are all connected; we must take care of each other. And this movement, he’s saying, is about what the Argentinian uprising that began a decade ago, on December 19, 2001, called politica afectiva, the politics of affection.

If it’s a movement about love, it’s also about the money they so unjustly took, and continue to take, from us — and about the fact that, right now, money and love are at war with each other. After all, in the American heartland, people are beginning to be imprisoned for debt, while the Occupy movement is arguing for debt forgiveness, renegotiation, and debt jubilees.

Sometimes love, or at least decency, wins.  One morning late last month, 75-year-old Josephine Tolbert, who ran a daycare center from her modest San Francisco home, returned after dropping a child off at school only to find that she and the other children were locked out because she was behind in her mortgage payments. True Compass LLC, who bought her place in a short sale while she thought she was still negotiating with Bank of America, would not allow her back into her home of almost four decades, even to get her medicines or diapers for the children.

We demonstrated at her home and at True Compass’s shabby offices while they hid within, and students from Occupy San Francisco State University demonstrated outside a True Compass-owned restaurant on behalf of this African-American grandmother. Thanks to this solidarity and the media attention it garnered, Tolbert has collected her keys, moved back in, and is renegotiating the terms of her mortgage.

Hundreds of other foreclosure victims are now being defended by local branches of the Occupy movement, from West Oakland to North Minneapolis. As New York writer, filmmaker, and Occupier Astra Taylor puts it,

Not only does the occupation of abandoned foreclosed homes connect the dots between Wall Street and Main Street, it can also lead to swift and tangible victories, something movements desperately need for momentum to be maintained. The banks, it seems, are softer targets than one might expect because so many cases are rife with legal irregularities and outright criminality. With one in five homes facing foreclosure and filings showing no sign of slowing down in the next few years, the number of people touched by the mortgage crisis — whether because they have lost their homes or because their homes are now underwater — truly boggles the mind.”

If what’s been happening locally and globally has some of the characteristics of an uprising, then there has never been one quite so pervasive — from the scientists holding an Occupy sign in Antarctica to Occupy presences in places as far-flung as New Zealand and Australia, São Paulo, Frankfurt, London, Toronto, Los Angeles, and Reykjavik. And don’t forget the tiniest places, either. The other morning at the Oakland docks for the West Coast port shutdown demonstrations, I met three members of Occupy Amador County, a small rural area in California’s Sierra Nevada.  Its largest town, Jackson, has a little over 4,000 inhabitants, which hasn’t stopped it from having regular outdoor Friday evening Occupy meetings.

A little girl in a red parka at the Oakland docks was carrying a sign with a quote from blind-deaf-and-articulate early twentieth-century role model Helen Keller that said, “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt within the heart.” Why quote Keller at a demonstration focused on labor and economics? The answer is clear enough: because Occupy has some of the emotional resonance of a spiritual, as well as a political, movement.  Like those other upheavals it’s aligned with in Spain, Greece, Iceland (where they’re actually jailing bankers), Britain, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Libya, Chile, and most recently Russia, it wants to ask basic questions: What matters? Who matters? Who decides? On what principles?   

Stop for a moment and consider just how unforeseen and unforeseeable all of this was when, on December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian vegetable vendor in Sidi Bouzid, an out-of-the-way, impoverished city, immolated himself. He was protesting the dead-end life that the 1% economy run by Tunisia’s autocratic ruler Zine Ben Ali and his corrupt family allotted him, and the police brutality that went with it, two things that have remained front and center ever since. Above all, as his mother has since testified, he was for human dignity, for a world, that is, where the primary system of value is not money.

“Compassion is our new currency,” was the message scrawled on a pizza-box lid at Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan — held by a pensive-looking young man in Jeremy Ayers’s great photo portrait.  But what can you buy with compassion?

Quite a lot, it turns out, including a global movement, and even pizza, which can arrive at that movement’s campground as a gift of solidarity.  A few days into Occupy Wall Street’s surprise success, a call for pizza went out and $2,600 in pizzas came in within an hour, just as earlier this year the occupiers of Wisconsin’s state house had been copiously supplied with pizza — including pies paid for and dispatched by Egyptian revolutionaries.

The Return of the Disappeared

During the 1970s and 1980s dictatorship and death-squad era in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and Central America, the term “the disappeared” came to cover those who were kidnapped, held in secret, tortured, and then often executed in secret. So many decades later, their fates are often still being deciphered.

In the United States, the disappeared also exist, not thanks to a brutal army or paramilitaries, but to a brutal economy.  When you lose your job, you vanish from the workplace and sooner or later arrive at emptiness in your day, your identity, your wallet, your ability to participate in a commercial society. When you lose your home, you disappear from familiar spaces: the block, the neighborhood, the rolls of homeowners.   Often, you vanish in shame, leaving behind friends and acquaintances.  

At the actions to support some of the 1,500 mostly African-American homeowners being foreclosed upon in southeastern San Francisco, several of them described how they had to overcome a powerful sense of shame simply to speak up, no less defend themselves or join this movement. In the U.S., failure is always supposed to be individual, not systemic, and so it tends to produce a sense of personal devastation that leaves its victims feeling alone and lying low, even though they are among legions of others.  

The people who destroyed our economy through their bottomless greed are, on the other hand, shameless — as shameless as the CEOs whose compensation shot up 36% in 2010, during this deep and grinding recession. Compassion is definitely not their currency.

The word “occupy” itself speaks powerfully to the American disappeared and the very idea of disappearance.  It speaks to those who have lost their occupation or the home they occupied. In its many meanings, it’s a big tent. It means to fill a space, take possession of it, employ oneself, busy oneself, fill time.  (In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the verb had a meaning so sexual it fell out of common use.)  It describes the state of being present that the Occupy movement’s General Assemblies and tent camps have lived out, a space in which — as Mohamed Bouazizi might have dreamed it — the disappeared can reappear with dignity.

Occupy has also created a space in which people of all kinds can coexist, from the homeless to the tenured, from the inner city to the agrarian. Coexisting in public with likeminded strangers and acquaintances is one of the great foundations and experiences of democracy, which is why dictatorships ban gatherings and groups — and why our First Amendment guarantee of the right of the people peaceably to assemble is being tested more strongly today than in any recent moment in American history. Nearly every Occupy has at its center regular meetings of a General Assembly. These are experiments in direct democracy that have been messy, exasperating and miraculous: arenas in which everyone is invited to be heard, to have a voice, to be a member, to shape the future. Occupy is first of all a conversation among ourselves.

To occupy also means to show up, to be present — a radically unplugged experience for a digital generation. Today, the term is being applied to any place where one plans to be present, geographically or metaphorically: Occupy Wall Street, occupy the food system, occupy your heart. The ad hoc invention of the people’s mic by the occupiers of Zuccotti Park, which requires everyone to listen, repeat, and amplify what’s being said, has only strengthened this sense of presence. You can’t text or half-listen if your task is to repeat everything, so that everyone hears and understands. You become the keeper of your brother’s or sister’s voice as you repeat their words.

It’s a triumph of the here and now — and it’s everywhere: the Regents of the University of California are mic-checked, politicians are mic-checked, the Durban Climate Conference in South Africa had occupiers and mic-check moments. Activism had long been in dire need of new modes of doing things, and this year it got them.

A Mouthful of Truth

Before the Occupy movement arrived on the scene, political dialogue and media chatter in this country seemed to be arriving from a warped parallel universe. Tiny government expenditures were denounced, while the vortex sucking our economy dry was rarely addressed; hard-working immigrants were portrayed as deadbeats; people who did nothing were anointed as “job creators”; the trashed economy and massive suffering were overlooked, while politicians jousted over (and pundits pontificated about) the deficit; class war was only called class war when someone other than the ruling class waged it. It’s as though we were trying to navigate Las Vegas with a tattered map of medieval Byzantium — via, that is, a broken language in which everything and everyone got lost.

Then Occupy arrived and, as if swept by some strange pandemic, a contagious virus of truth-telling, everyone was suddenly obliged to call things by their real names and talk about actual problems. The blather about the deficit was replaced by acknowledgments of grotesque economic inequality. Greed was called greed, and once it had its true name, it became intolerable, as had racism when the Civil Rights Movement named it and made it evident to those who weren’t suffering from it directly. The vast scale of suffering around student debt and tuition hikes, foreclosures, unemployment, wage stagnation, medical costs, and the other afflictions of the normal American suddenly moved to the top of the news, and once exposed to the light, these, too, became intolerable.

If the solutions to the nightmares being named are neither near nor easy, naming things, describing reality with some accuracy, is at least a crucial first step.  Informing ourselves as citizens is another.  Aspects of our not-quite-democracy that were once almost invisible are now on the table for discussion — and for opposition, notably corporate personhood, the legal status that gives corporations the rights, but not the obligations and vulnerabilities, of citizens. (One oft-repeated Occupier sign says, “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas puts one to death.”)

The Los Angeles City Council passed a measure calling for an end to corporate personhood, the first big city to join the Move to Amend campaign against corporate personhood and against the 2009 Supreme Court Citizens United ruling that gave corporations unlimited ability to insert their cash in our political campaigns. Occupy actions across the country are planned for January 20th, the second anniversary of Citizens United. Vermont’s independent Senator Bernie Sanders, who’s been speaking the truth alone for a long time, introduced a constitutional amendment to repeal Citizens United and limit corporate power in the Senate, while Congressman Ted Deutch (D-FL) introduced a similar measure in the House.

Only a few years ago, hardly anyone knew what corporate personhood was.  Now, signs denouncing it are common.  Similarly, at Occupy events, people make it clear that they know about the New Deal-era financial reform measure known as the Glass-Steagall Act, which was partially repealed in 1999, removing the wall between commercial and investment banks; that they know about the proposed financial transfer tax, nicknamed the Robin Hood Tax, that would raise billions with a tiny levy on every financial transaction; that they understand many of the means by which the 1% were enriched and the rest of us robbed.

This represents a striking learning curve. A new language of truth, debate about what actually matters, an informed citizenry: that’s no small thing. But we need more.

We Are the 99.999%

I was myself so caught up in the Occupy movement that I stopped paying my usual attention to the war over the climate — until I was brought up short by the catastrophic failure of the climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa. There, earlier this month, the most powerful and carbon-polluting countries managed to avoid taking any timely and substantial measures to keep the climate from heating up and the Earth from slipping into unstoppable chaotic change.   

It’s our nature to be more compelled by immediate human suffering than by remote systemic problems. Only this problem isn’t anywhere near as remote as many Americans imagine.  It’s already creating human suffering on a large scale and will create far more. Many of the food crises of the past decade are tied to climate change, and in Africa thousands are dying of climate-related chaos. The floods, fires, storms, and heat waves of the past few years are climate change coming to call earlier than expected in the U.S.  

In the most immediate sense, Occupy may have weakened the climate movement by focusing many of us on the urgent suffering of our brothers, our neighbors, our democracy. In the end, however, it could strengthen that movement with its new tactics, alliances, spirit, and language of truth. After all, why have we been unable to make the major changes required to limit greenhouse gases in the atmosphere? The answer is a word suddenly in wide circulation: greed. Responding adequately to this crisis would benefit every living thing. When it comes to climate change, after all, we are the 99.999%.

But the international .001% who profit immeasurably from the carbon economy — the oil and coal tycoons, industrialists, and politicians whose strings they pull — are against this change. For decades, they’ve managed to propagandize many Americans, in and out of government, into climate denial, spreading lies about the science and economics of climate change, and undermining any possible legislation and international negotiations to ameliorate it. And if you think the eviction of elderly homeowners is brutal, think of it as a tiny foreshadowing of the displacement and disappearance of people, communities, nations, species, habitats. Climate change threatens to foreclose on all of us.

The groups working on climate change now, notably 350.org and Tar Sands Action, have done astonishing things already. Most recently, with the help of native Canadians, local activists, and alternative media, they very nearly managed to kill the single scariest and biggest North American threat to the climate: the tar sands pipeline that would go from Canada to Texas. It’s been a remarkable show of organizing power and popular will. Occupy the Climate may need to come next.

Maybe Occupy Wall Street and its thousands of spin-offs have built the foundation for it. But perhaps the greatest gift that it and the other movements of 2011 have given us is a sharpening of our perceptions — and our conflicts. So much more is out in the open now, including the greed, the brutality with which entities from the Egyptian army to the Oakland police impose the will of rulers, and most of all the deep generosity of spirit that is behind, within, and around these insurgencies and their activists. None of these movements is perfect, and individuals within them are not always the greatest keepers of their brothers and sisters.  But one thing couldn’t be clearer: compassion is our new currency.

Nothing has been more moving to me than this desire, realized imperfectly but repeatedly, to connect across differences, to be a community, to make a better world, to embrace each other. This desire is what lies behind those messy camps, those raucous demonstrations, those cardboard signs and long conversations. Young activists have spoken to me about the extraordinary richness of their experiences at Occupy, and they call it love.

In the spirit of calling things by their true names, let me summon up the description that Ella Baker and Martin Luther King used for the great communities of activists who stood up for civil rights half a century ago: the beloved community. Many who were active then never forgot the deep bonds and deep meaning they found in that struggle. We — and the word “we” encompasses more of us than ever before — have found those things, too, and this year we have come close to something unprecedented, a beloved community that circles the globe.

Rebecca Solnit, a TomDispatch regular, continues occupying the public library, the sidewalks, her deepest hopes, and the armchair in which she writes, supports 350.org, and joins Occupy San Francisco and Occupy Oakland in their general assemblies and actions.   

Copyright 2011 Rebecca Solnit

Nick Turse: The Life and Death of American Drones

7:32 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

(photo: illetirres/flickr)

(photo: illetirres/flickr)

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

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

It’s 10 pm.  Do you know where your drone is?

Oh, the confusion of it all!  The U.S. military now insists it was deeply befuddled when it claimed that a super-secret advanced RQ-170 Sentinel drone (aka “the beast of Kandahar“) which fell into Iranian hands on December 4th — evidently while surveying suspected nuclear sites — was lost patrolling the Afghan border.  The military, said a spokesman, “did not have a good understanding of what was going on because it was a CIA mission.”

Whatever happened, that lost drone story hit the headlines in a way that allowed everyone their Warholian 15 minutes of fame.  Dick Cheney went on the air to insist that President Obama should have sent Air Force planes into Iran to blow the grounded Sentinel to bits.  (Who cares about sparking off hostilities or sending global oil prices skyrocketing?)  President Obama formally asked for the plane’s return, but somehow didn’t have high hopes that the Iranians would comply.  (Check out Gary Powers and the downing of his U-2 spy plane over Russia in 1960 for a precedent.)  Defense Secretary Leon Panetta swore we would never stop our Afghan-based drone surveillance of Iran. Afghan President Hamid Karzai asked that his country be kept out of any “adversarial relations between Iran and the United States.”  (Fat chance!) The Iranians, who displayed the plane, insisted proudly that they had hacked into it, “spoofed” its navigational controls, and brought it in for a relatively soft landing.  And Kim Kardashian… oops, wrong story.

All in all, it was a little robotic circus.  All three rings’ worth.  Meanwhile, drones weren’t having such a good time of it elsewhere either, even if no one was paying much attention.  The half-hidden drone story of the week wasn’t on the Iranian side of the Afghan border, but on the Pakistani side.  There, in that country’s tribal borderlands, the CIA had for years been conducting an escalating drone air campaign, hundreds of strikes, often several a week, against suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban militants.  In the wake of an “incident” in which U.S. air strikes killed 24 Pakistani troops at two border posts, however, the Pakistanis closed the border to U.S. supplies for the Afghan war (significantly increasing the cost of that conflict), kicked the U.S. out of Shamsi air base, the CIA’s main drone facility in the country, and threatened to shoot down any U.S. drones over its territory.  In the process, they seem to have forced the Obama administration to shut down its covert drone air campaign.  At this point, there have been no drone attacks for almost a month.

When he was still CIA Director, Leon Panetta termed the Agency’s drone campaign the “only game in town.” Now it’s “on hold.”  (“There is concern that another hit [by the drones] will push US-Pakistan relations past the point of no return,” one official told The Long War Journal. “We don’t know how far we can push them [Pakistan], how much more they are willing to tolerate.”)  After those hundreds of strikes and significant civilian casualties, which have helped turn the Pakistani public against the U.S. — according to a recent poll, a staggering 97% of Pakistanis oppose the attacks — it’s a stunning reversal, however temporary and little noted. Read the rest of this entry →

William Astore: The Remoteness of 1% Wars

7:40 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.

This year, 155,754 recruits joined the active-duty U.S. military with the Army leading the way to the tune of more than 64,000 soldiers.  Many more Americans, however, went to war. 

Virtual war, that is.  On a single day last month, to be exact, 3.3 million citizens responded to the call of duty or, more accurately, played Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 — simultaneously, together — via Microsoft Xbox LIVE.  Millions more played that combat-packed, first-person shooter video game on the Xbox 360, Sony Playstation 3, or personal computers.

While relatively few young Americans smell cordite on the battlefield, increasing numbers of them experience war through ever more screens: televisions, computers, smart phones, and tablets.  Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is only the most successful of these digital draft calls, and if you’re wondering what success means, consider that this virtual portal into World War III “shattered theatrical box office, book, and video game sales records for five-day worldwide sell-through in dollars,” according to its producer, Activision Publishing, Inc.  That is, over five days it generated $775 million in sales, beating the previous record, set by last year’s Call of Duty: Black Ops (which raked in a mere $650 million), and trouncing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (just $550 million in 2009).

Fighting their way through virtual world capitals — from New York to Paris, London to Berlin — Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 gamers are immersed in a virtual world of war.  Then there are those mainlining combat through this year’s other popular first-person shooters like Battlefield 3 (which boasts that it provides “unrivaled destruction”) or forays into fantasy fighting like Resistance 3 (in which a human resistance movement battles alien invaders in the ruins of 1950s America).

With so much virtual war to worry about, who has time to keep up with other conflicts, like America’s real wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya, or even the one just now winding down in Iraq?  Who among us can spare a moment to ponder the fact that those wars, too, are increasingly being waged by men and women staring at screens, disconnected from the homes they turn into rubble, cars they turn into flaming heaps, and blood they spill thousands of miles from their climate-controlled trailers in the Las Vegas desert?  Thankfully, TomDispatch regular Bill Astore has been thinking long and hard about the remote nature of America’s wars, while so many of the rest of us are racking up hours liberating Lower Manhattan from the Russians. (Yep, they’re the new Occupy Wall Street crowd in Call of Duty!)  Nick Turse

Fighting 1% Wars
Why Our Wars of Choice May Prove Fatal
By William J. Astore

America’s wars are remote.  They’re remote from us geographically, remote from us emotionally (unless you’re serving in the military or have a close relative or friend who serves), and remote from our major media outlets, which have given us no compelling narrative about them, except that they’re being fought by “America’s heroes” against foreign terrorists and evil-doers.  They’re even being fought, in significant part, by remote control — by robotic drones “piloted” by ground-based operators from a secret network of bases located hundreds, if not thousands, of miles from the danger of the battlefield.

Their remoteness, which breeds detachment if not complacency at home, is no accident.  Indeed, it’s a product of the fact that Afghanistan and Iraq were wars of choice, not wars of necessity.  It’s a product of the fact that we’ve chosen to create a “warrior” or “war fighter” caste in this country, which we send with few concerns and fewer qualms to prosecute Washington’s foreign wars of choice.

The results have been predictable, as in predictably bad.  The troops suffer.  Iraqi and Afghan innocents suffer even more.  And yet we don’t suffer, at least not in ways that are easily noticeable, because of that very remoteness.  We’ve chosen — or let others do the choosing — to remove ourselves from all the pain and horror of the wars being waged in our name.  And that’s a choice we’ve made at our peril, since a state of permanent remote war has weakened our military, drained our treasury, and eroded our rights and freedoms.

Wars of Necessity vs. Wars of Choice

World War II was a war of necessity. In such a war, all Americans had a stake.  Adolf Hitler and Nazism had to be defeated; so too did Japanese militarism.  Indeed, war goals were that clear, that simple, to state.  For that war, we relied uncontroversially on an equitable draft of citizen-soldiers to share the burdens of defense.

Contrast this with our current 1% wars.  In them, 99% of Americans have no stake.  The 1% who do are largely ID-card-carrying members of what President Dwight D. Eisenhower so memorably called the “military-industrial complex” in 1961.  In the half-century since, that web of crony corporations, lobbyists, politicians, and retired military types who have passed through Washington’s revolving door has grown ever more gargantuan and tangled, engorged by untold trillions devoted to a national security and intelligence complex that seemingly dominates Washington.  They are the ones who, in turn, have dispatched another 1% — the lone percent of Americans in our All-Volunteer Military — to repetitive tours of duty fighting endless wars abroad.

Unlike previous wars of necessity, the mission behind our wars of choice is nebulous, confusing, and seems in constant flux.  Is it a fight against terror (which, as so many have pointed out, is in any case a method, not an enemy)?  A fight for oil and other strategic resources?  A fight to spread freedom and democracy?  A fight to build nations?  A fight to show American resolve or make the world safe from al-Qaeda?  Who really knows anymore, now that Washington seldom bothers to bring up the “why” question at all, preferring simply to fight on without surcease?

In wars of choice, of course, the mission is whatever our leaders choose it to be, which gives the citizenry (assuming we’re watching closely, which we’re not) no criteria with which to measure success, let alone determine an endpoint.

How do we know these are wars of choice?  It’s simple: because we could elect to leave whenever we wanted or whenever the heat got too high, as is currently the case in Iraq (even if we are leaving behind a fortress embassy the size of the Vatican with a private army of 5,000 rent-a-guns to defend it), and as we are likely to do in Afghanistan sometime in the years after the 2012 presidential election.  The choice is ours.  The people without a choice are of course the Iraqis and Afghans whom we’ll leave to pick up the pieces.

Even our vaunted Global War on Terror is a war of choice.  Think about it: Who has control over our own terror: us or our enemies?  We can only be terrorized in the first place if we choose to give in to fear.

Think here of the “shoe bomber” in 2001 and the “underwear bomber” in 2009.  Why did the criminally inept actions of these two losers garner so much attention (and fear-mongering) in the American media?  As the self-confessed greatest and most powerful nation on Earth, shouldn’t we have shared a collective belly laugh at the absurdity and incompetence of those “attacks” and gone about our business?

Instead of laughing, of course, we allowed yet more American treasure to be poured into technology and screening systems that may never even have caught a terrorist.  We consented to be surveilled ever more and consulted ever less.  We chose to reaffirm our terrors every time we doffed our shoes or submitted supinely to being scoped or groped at our nation’s airports.

Our distant permanent wars, our 1% wars of choice, will remain remote from our emotions and our thinking, requiring few sacrifices except from our troops, who grow ever more remote from our polity.  This is especially true of America’s young adults, between 18 and 29 years of age, who are the least likely to have family members in the military, according to a recent Pew Research Center study.

The result?  An already emergent warrior-caste might grow ever more estranged from the 99%, creating tensions and encouraging grievances that quite possibly could be manipulated by that other 1%: the powerbrokers, money-makers, and string-pullers, already so eager to call out the police to bully and arrest occupy movements in numerous cities across this once-great land.

Our Military or Their Military?

As we fight wars of choice in distant lands for ever-shifting goals, what if “our troops” simply continue to grow ever more remote from us?  What if they become “their” troops?  Is this not the true terror we should be mobilizing as a nation to prevent?  The terror of separating our military almost totally from our nation — and ourselves.

As Admiral Mike Mullen, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put it recently to Time: “Long term, if the military drifts away from its people in this country, that is a catastrophic outcome we as a country can’t tolerate.”

Behold a horrifying fate: a people that allows its wars of choice to compromise the very core of its self-image as a freedom-loving society, while letting itself be estranged from the young men and women who served in the frontlines of these wars.

Here’s an American fact: the 99% are far too remote from our wars of choice and those who fight them.  To reclaim the latter, we must end the former.  And that’s a war of necessity that has to be fought — and won.

William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and TomDispatch regular.  He welcomes reader comments at wjastore@gmail.com.

Copyright 2011 William J. Astore

Michael Klare, A New Cold War in Asia?

7:29 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

Playing With Fire (Photo: iko, flickr)

Playing With Fire (Photo: iko, flickr)

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

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

Last Friday, the U.S. military formally handed over its largest base in Iraq, the ill-named “Camp Victory,” to the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.  The next morning, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius officially declared counterinsurgency wars in the Middle East dead in — if you don’t mind an inapt word — the water.  (He is personally in mourning.)  He quoted one unnamed official describing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s planning for the new Pentagon budget in this fashion: “It’s not going to be likely that we will deploy 150,000 troops to an area the way we did in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

No indeed.  As a result, in the inter-service scramble for the biggest slice of the Defense Department’s budgetary pie, the winners, Ignatius tells us, are going to be the Air Force and the Navy.  Translated geopolitically, this means that the focus of future military planning will switch to the Pacific — with this country’s largest foreign creditor, China (not al-Qaeda), as the new enemy.

In the what’s-old-is-new category, this is priceless.  In the spring of 2001, the Bush administration was focused on a strategic review of global military policy, led by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, which “concluded that the Pacific Ocean should now become the most important focus of U.S. military deployments, with China now perceived as the principal threat to American global dominance” and its number one enemy.  In response, the Chinese were already issuing their own threats.  (Terrorism, the Bush administration then felt, was for wusses and Democrats, which is why they paid next to no attention to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, despite warnings from officials of the outgoing Clinton administration, the CIA, and others.)

September 11, 2001, of course, sent them in quite another direction that — we can only assume — left China’s leaders thanking their lucky stars, while the U.S. military bogged itself down in two disastrous wars in the Greater Middle East.  A decade later, the U.S. is economically weaker, a battered former “sole superpower” still in need of an enemy, still thinking about global energy supplies, and, if anything, more reliant than ever on a military-first policy in the world.  As always, TomDispatch regular Michael Klare, author of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet, is ahead of the curve in grasping just what’s at stake and why we should be worried as the Obama administration pivots, readying itself for its return to the pre-9/11 Bush moment.  Sigh. (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Klare discusses the American military build-up in the Pacific, click here or download it to your iPod here.) Tom Read the rest of this entry →

Lessons From the Dead in a No-Learning-Curve World, by Tom Engelhardt

7:51 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

Arlington National Cemetery (Photo: theunquietlibrarian, flickr)

Arlington National Cemetery (Photo: theunquietlibrarian, flickr)

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

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

He was 22, a corporal in the Marines from Preston, Iowa, a “city” incorporated in 1890 with a present population of 949.  He died in a hospital in Germany of “wounds received from an explosive device while on patrol in Helmand province [Afghanistan].”  Of him, his high school principal said, “He was a good kid.” He is survived by his parents.

He was 20, a private in the 10th Mountain Division from Boyne City, population 3,735 souls, which bills itself as “the fastest growing city in Northern Michigan.”  He died of “wounds suffered when insurgents attacked his unit with small-arms fire” and is survived by his parents.

These were the last two of the 10 Americans whose deaths in Afghanistan were announced by the Pentagon Thanksgiving week.  The other eight came from Apache Junction, Arizona; Fayetteville, North Carolina; Greensboro, North Carolina; Navarre, Florida; Witchita, Kansas; San Jose, California; Moline, Illinois; and Danville, California.  Six of them died from improvised explosive devices (roadside bombs), assumedly without ever seeing the Afghan enemies who killed them.  One died of “indirect fire” and another “while conducting combat operations.”  On such things, Defense Department press releases are relatively tight-lipped, as was the Army, for instance, when it released news that same week of 17 “potential suicides” among active-duty soldiers in October.

These days, the names of the dead dribble directly onto the inside pages of newspapers, or simply into the ether, in a war now opposed by 63% of Americans, according to the latest CNN/ORC opinion poll, but in truth barely remembered by anyone in this country.  It’s a reality made easier by the fact that the dead of America’s All-Volunteer Army tend to come from forgettable places — small towns, obscure suburbs, third or fourth-rank cities — and a military that ever fewer Americans have any connection with.

Aside from those who love them, who pays much attention anymore to the deaths of American troops in distant lands? These deaths are, after all, largely dwarfed by local fatality counts like the 16 Americans who died in accidents on Ohio’s highways over the long Thanksgiving weekend of 2010 or the 32,788 Americans who died in road fatalities that same year? Read the rest of this entry →

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.

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

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 →