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Ann Jones: War Wounds

10:16 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

Editor’s Note: Ann Jones will be here next Saturday for FDL’s Book Salon.

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

They Were Soldiers cover

A new book explains how we mistreat America’s veterans.

In 2010, I arrived at Harvard University with a mess of a manuscript — 10 years’ worth of research on American war crimes in Vietnam patchworked together in such a way that it was comprehensible to only one person on the planet: me.  But I was lucky.  I had a year to do something about it, and by something, I mean write the book again. From scratch. It was a daunting task, but the alternative was to declare the project a lost cause — and I wasn’t ready to do that.

At the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, I was given an office, financial support, access to one of the world’s great libraries, and everything else that comes with a fellowship at an elite institution like Harvard.  I couldn’t have asked for more, but as it happened, I needed more. I needed help, direction, advice. I needed a sounding board. I needed the counsel of someone with an intimate knowledge of war, of violence, of atrocity.  Presumably, there was someone at Harvard with such credentials.  But where among the brick and ivy, could I find such a person?

It turned out that she was indeed at Harvard — and conveniently located in an office about three feet distant from mine. Radcliffe, in its infinite wisdom, had made Ann Jones my neighbor for the year and her guidance helped transform that mess of a manuscript into my book Kill Anything That MovesThe Real American War in Vietnam.

Day after day, I would flop into a chair in her office and we would talk through various quandaries I faced: how to write up a particular incident, where to locate a key chapter, how to convey the horror I’d uncovered without traumatizing the reader.  In the midst of this, she began to share snippets of her latest interviews with damaged war veterans, their family members, and the American military personnel tasked with mitigating their physical injuries and psychological issues. In the midst of our mutual fellowship stays, Ann borrowed some body armor and jetted off to Afghanistan to bear witness to the wounded and the work of the men and women who attempted to save them. From there, she flew to Germany with the grievously injured and finally back to the U.S. where she began to keep tabs on their recovery and what has become of them.

As I listened to Ann, as I watched her office fill up with articles on combat, killing, and post-traumatic stress, as I saw her bookshelves strain under the weight of innumerable volumes on war, military training, and veterans’ issues, as I began to grasp just where her interviews and research were taking her, as we talked about all of this in detail, I became ever more certain that hers would be a special, even unprecedented volume, an “untold story” in the recent annals of American war. I knew that, as she was helping me, she was also writing a book which anyone interested in understanding the cost of war for soldiers and veterans, as well as their families and those who treat them, would need to read. I knew that her book would change the way we understand America’s recent wars.

I had no idea, at the time, however, that I would eventually have the opportunity to play a role in bringing They Were SoldiersHow the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — The Untold Story into being.  It’s a beautifully written, devastatingly poignant piece of reportage, and an instant classic on the hidden reverberations of our distant wars — from triage that goes on unseen behind hospital doors to the long, private struggles that occur anonymously in suburban neighborhoods and rehabilitation centers across the U.S.  As with so many works that are ahead of their time, They Were Soldiers had difficulty finding a home.  I was delighted then that Tom Engelhardt and I had a fledgling imprint, with Haymarket Books behind us, that last week made Ann’s book a reality.

My role in They Were Soldiers has been modest.  Ann did the heavy lifting and it was, indeed, heavy.  At 73, she strapped on body armor and headed to war so you didn’t have to.  She watched the sort of “meatball surgery” that would have left you doubled over and retching.  She asked the hard questions of soldiers, veterans, and their family members that you never could.  And she wrote it all up with passion, eloquence, and unsparing clarity.

I spent the last 10 years interviewing veterans and intensely studying war and I still find They Were Soldiers to be revelatory.  Just as our conversations did at Harvard, now her book has altered my outlook on American war and its aftermath.  Today, she’s offering to do the same for you.  If you haven’t already done so, I urge you to pick up a copy of They Were Soldiers.  It’s the next best thing to having Ann as your neighbor. Nick Turse

A Trail of Tears 
How Veterans Return From America’s Wars 
By Ann Jones

[The text of this piece is an excerpt, slightly adapted, from Ann Jones's new book They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America's Wars -- The Untold Story, just published by Dispatch Books/Haymarket Books]

In 2010, I began to follow U.S. soldiers down a long trail of waste and sorrow that led from the battle spaces of Afghanistan to the emergency room of the trauma hospital at Bagram Air Base, where their catastrophic wounds were surgically treated and their condition stabilized.  Then I accompanied some of them by cargo plane to Ramstein Air Base in Germany for more surgeries at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, or LRMC (pronounced Larm-See), the largest American hospital outside the United States.

Read the rest of this entry →

Tomgram: Ann Jones, Silent Soldiers, The Losers From Our Lost Wars

7:28 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

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

Tomgram: Peter Van Buren, America’s Top Diplomat is Lost in Space

7:22 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.

If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium — the title of a 1969 romantic comedy — could now fit two intertwined phenomena: the madcap global travels of Secretary of State John Kerry and the nonstop journey of the latest revelations from National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.  In mid-August, there was Kerry in Brazil, lamely defending the NSA’s surveillance program, even as he tried to pacify local ire over reports that the agency was monitoring phone calls and emails on a mass scale there.  (And this was before the news even broke that the NSA had hacked into President Dilma Rousseff’s emails and spied on Brazil’s major oil company.) “We’re not surprised and we’re not upset that Brazil would ask questions. Absolutely understandable,” Kerry said at the time. “Brazil is owed answers with respect to those questions and they will get them. And we will work together very positively to make certain that this question — these issues — do not get in the way of all the other things that we talked about.” As it happened, no answers were forthcoming.  A month later, Rousseff would cancel a long-planned visit to Washington and denounce the NSA’s spying at the U.N.

Skip two months to late October, and there Kerry was again, this time in France trying to pacify an angry ally over another revelation of a massive NSA eavesdropping operation.  (“We will have ongoing bilateral consultations, including with our French partners, to address this question of any reports by the U.S. government gathering information from some of the agencies and those consultations are going to continue.”)  Meanwhile, he was still trying to defend that agency’s basic program in similarly foggy language.  (“Protecting the security of our citizens in today’s world is a very complicated, very challenging task… because there are lots of people out there seeking to do harm to other people.”)  And then, in a no-rest-for-the-weary world, on he went to Italy, whose population had just been outed as the latest victim of NSA spying, and whose foreign minister was demanding “clarity” on the issue.  With much of Europe up in arms over America’s expanding global security state, he once again resorted to his rope-a-dope technique, taking the local punches while offering public pabulum about our dearest allies and how much the Obama administration cares for them and how Americans nonetheless have to be protected from the evil doers, etc., etc.  Only as October ended, two and a half months after his Brazilian trip, did the secretary of state become the first Obama administration official to admit that “in some cases, some of these actions have reached too far.”

By now, Kerry’s act had all the charm of a clown fireman putting out a blaze at a circus only to set himself on fire.  If this repetitive scene, in which the Snowden revelations stay just ahead of the eternally globetrotting secretary of state, doesn’t quite add up to a real life version of Batman and Robin, the dynamic duo, it still has to be the spectacle of 2013.  Given the recent Guardian report that the NSA has listened in on at least 35 heads of state (and that’s only phone calls, not emails), Kerry could be an even busier man in the months to come.  As TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren, former State Department whistleblower and author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, points out, Kerry’s already legendary global travels are matched by a legendary cluelessness that reflects a particularly twenty-first-century Washington state of mind. Tom

Ramblin’ Man
John Kerry is a Figure of His Times (and That’s Not a Good Thing)
By Peter Van Buren

In the 1960s, John Kerry was distinctly a man of his times. Kennedy-esque, he went from Yale to Vietnam to fight in a lost war. When popular sentiments on that war shifted, he became one of the more poignant voices raised in protest by antiwar veterans. Now, skip past his time as a congressman, lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, senator, and presidential candidate (Swift Boated out of the race by the Republican right). Four decades after his Vietnam experience, he has achieved what will undoubtedly be the highest post of his lifetime: secretary of state. And he’s looked like a bumbler first class.  Has he also been — once again — a true man of his time, of a moment in which American foreign policy, as well as its claim to global moral and diplomatic leadership, is in remarkable disarray?

In his nine months in office, Kerry’s State Department has one striking accomplishment to its name. It has achieved a new level of media savvy in promoting itself and plugging its highest official as a rock star, a world leader in his own right (complete with photo-ops and sophisticated image-making). In the meantime, the secretary of state has been stumbling and bloviating from one crisis to the next, one debacle to another, surrounded by the well-crafted imagery of diplomatic effectiveness. He and his errant statements have become global punch lines, but is he truly to blame for his performance?

If statistics were diplomacy, Kerry would already be a raging success. At the State Department, his global travels are now proudly tracked by the mile, by minutes flown, and by countries visited. State even has a near-real-time ticker page set up at its website with his ever-changing data. In only nine months in office, Kerry has racked up 222,512 miles and a staggering 482.39 hours in the air (or nearly three weeks total). The numbers will be going up as Kerry is currently taking a 10-day trip to deal with another NSA crisis, in Poland this time, as well as the usual hijinks in the Middle East.  His predecessor, Hillary Clinton, set a number of diplomatic travel records. In fact, she spent literally a full year, one quarter of her four years in office, hopscotching the globe. By comparison, Cold War Secretary of State George Schultz managed less than a year of travel time in his six years in office.

Kerry’s quick start in racking up travel miles is the most impressive aspect of his tenure so far, given that it’s been accompanied by record foreign policy stumbles and bumbles. With the thought that frenetic activity is being passed off as diplomacy and accomplishment, let’s do a little continent hopping ourselves, surveying the diplomatic and foreign policy terrain the secretary’s visited. So, fasten your seatbelt, we’re on our way!

We’ll Be Landing in Just a Few Minutes… in Asia

Despite Asia’s economic importance, its myriad potential flashpoints, and the crucial question of how the Sino-American relationship will evolve, Kerry has managed to visit the region just once on a largely ceremonial basis.

Diplomatically speaking, the Obama administration’s much ballyhooed “pivot to Asia” seems to have run out of gas almost before it began and with little to show except some odd photos of the secretary of state looking like Fred Munster in Balinese dress at the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference. With President Obama then trapped in Washington by the shutdown/debt-ceiling crisis, Kerry seemed like a bystander at APEC, with China the dominant presence. He was even forced to suffer through a Happy Birthday sing-along for Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the meantime, the economy of Washington’s major ally, Japan, remains sleepy, even as opposition to the U.S.-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade pact grows and North Korea continues to expand its nuclear program seemingly unaffected by threats from Washington.

All in all, it’s not exactly an impressive picture, but rest assured that it’ll look as fetching as a bright spring day, once we hit our next stop. In fact, ladies and gentlemen, the pilot now asks that you all return to your seats, because we will soon be landing…

… in the Middle East

If any area of the world lacks a single bright spot for the U.S., it’s the Middle East. The problems, of course, extend back many years and many administrations. Kerry is a relative newcomer. Still, he’s made seven of his 15 overseas trips there, with zero signs of progress on the American agenda in the region, and much that has only worsened.

The sole pluses came from diplomatic activity initiated by powers not exactly considered Washington’s closest buddies: Russian President Putin’s moves in relation to Syria (on which more later) and new Iranian President Rouhani’s “charm offensive” in New York, which seems to have altered for the better the relationship between the two countries. In fact, both Putin’s and Rouhani’s moves are classic, well-played diplomacy, and only serve to highlight the amateurish quality of Kerry’s performance. On the other hand, the Obama administration’s major Middle East commitment — to peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians — seems destined for a graveyard already piled high with past versions of the same.

Meanwhile, whatever spark remained of the Arab Spring in Egypt was snuffed out by a military coup, while the U.S. lamely took forever just to begin to cut off some symbolic military aid to the new government. American credibility in the region suffered further damage after State, in a seeming panic, closed embassies across the Middle East in response to a reputed major terror threat that failed to materialize anywhere but inside Washington’s Beltway.

Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia was once nicknamed “Bandar Bush” for his strong support of the U.S. during the 1991 Desert Storm campaign and the Bush dynasty.  He recently told European diplomats, however, that the Kingdom will launch a “major shift” in relations with the United States to protest Washington’s perceived inaction over the Syria war and its overtures to Iran. The Saudis were once considered, next to Israel, America’s strongest ally in the region. Kerry’s response? Fly to Paris for some “urgent talks.”

Meanwhile, the secretary of state has made no effort to draw down his fortress embassy in Baghdad, despite its “world’s largest” personnel count in a country where an American invasion and nine-year occupation resulted in a pro-Iranian government. Memories in the region aren’t as short as at the State Department, however, and Iraqis are unlikely to forget that sanctions, the U.S. invasion, and its aftermath resulted in the deaths of an estimated 4% of their country’s population. Kerry would be quick to condemn such a figure as genocidal had the Iranians or North Koreans been involved, but he remains silent now.

State doesn’t include Turkey in Kerry’s impressive Middle Eastern trip count, though he’s traveled there three times, with (again) little to show for his efforts. That NATO ally, which refused to help the Bush administration with its invasion of Iraq, continues to fight a border war with Iraqi Kurds. (Both sides do utilize mainly American-made weapons.) The Turks are active in Syria as well, supporting the rebels, fearing the Islamic extremists, lobbing mortar shells across the border, and suffering under the weight of that devastated country’s refugees. Meanwhile — a small regional disaster from a U.S. perspective — Turkish-Israeli relations, once close, continue to slide. Recently, the Turks even outed a Mossad spy ring to the Iranians, and no one, Israelis, Turks, or otherwise, seems to be listening to Washington.

Now, please return your tray tables to their upright and locked position, as we make our final approach to…

… Everywhere Else

Following more than 12 years of war with thousands of lives lost, Kerry was recently reduced to begging Afghanistan’s corrupt president, Hamid Karzai, to allow a mini-occupation’s worth of American troops to remain in-country past a scheduled 2014 tail-tucked departure by U.S. combat troops. (Kerry’s trip to Afghanistan had to be of the unannounced variety, given the security situation there.) Pakistan, sporting only a single Kerry visit, flaunts its ties to the Taliban while collecting U.S. aid. As they say, if you don’t know who the patsy is at a poker game, it’s you.

Relations with the next generation of developing nations, especially Brazil and India, are either stagnant or increasingly hostile, thanks in part to revelations of massive NSA spying. Brazil is even hosting an international summit to brainstorm ways to combat that agency’s Internet surveillance. Even stalwart Mexico is now lashing out at Washington over NSA surveillance.

After a flurry of empty threats, a spiteful passport revocation by Kerry’s State Department, a bungled extradition attempt in Hong Kong, and a diplomatic fiasco in which Washington forced the Bolivian president’s airplane to land in Austria for a search, Public Enemy Number One Edward Snowden is settling into life in Moscow. He’s even receiving fellow American whistleblowers as guests. Public Enemy Number Two, Julian Assange, continues to run WikiLeaks out of the Ecuadoran embassy in London. One could argue that either of the two men have had more direct influence on America’s status abroad than Kerry.

Now, please return to your seats, fasten your seat belts, and consider ordering a stiff drink. We’ve got some bumpy air up ahead as we’re…

… Entering Syrian Airspace

The final leg of this flight is Syria, which might be thought of as Kerry’s single, inadvertent diplomatic accomplishment (even if he never actually traveled there.)

Not long before the U.S. government half-shuttered itself for lack of funds, John Kerry was point man for the administration’s all-out efforts to attack Syria. It was, he insisted, “not the time to be silent spectators to slaughter.” That statement came as he was announcing the recruitment of France to join an impending U.S. assault on military facilities in and around the Syrian capital, Damascus. Kerry also vociferously beat the drums for war at a hearing held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

His war diplomacy, however, quickly hit some major turbulence, as the British parliament, not eager to repeat its Iraq and Afghan misadventures, voted the once inconceivable — a straightforward, resounding no to joining yet another misguided American battle plan. France was soon backing out as well, even as Kerry clumsily tried to soften resistance to the administration’s urge to launch strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime with the bizarre claim that such an attack would be “unbelievably small.” (Kerry’s boss, President Obama, forcefully contradicted him the next day, insisting, “The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.”)

Kerry had his moment of triumph, however, on a quick stop in London, where he famously and offhandedly said at a news conference that war could be avoided if the Syrians turned in their chemical weapons. Kerry’s own State Department issued an instant rejoinder, claiming the statement had been “rhetorical.” In practically the same heartbeat, the Russians stepped into the diplomatic breach. Unable to walk his statement back, Kerry was humiliatingly forced to explain that his once-rhetorical remark was not rhetorical after all. Vladimir Putin then arose as an unlikely peacemaker and yes, Kerry took another trip, this time to “negotiate” the details with the Russians, which seems largely to have consisted of jotting down Russian terms of surrender to cable back to Washington.

His “triumph” in hand, Kerry still wasn’t done. On September 19th, on a rare stopover in Washington, he claimed a U.N. report on Syria’s chemical weapons stated that the Assad regime was behind the chemical attack that had set the whole process in motion. (The report actually said that there was not enough evidence to assign guilt to any party.) Then, on October 7th, he effusively praised the Syrian president (from Bali) for his cooperation, only on October 14th to demand (from London) that a “transition government, a new governing entity” be put in place in Syria “in order to permit the possibility of peace.”

But, But…

As for Kerry’s nine-month performance review, here goes: he often seems unsure and distracted, projecting a sense that he might prefer to be anywhere else than wherever he is. In addition, he’s displayed a policy-crippling lack of information, remarkably little poise, and strikingly bad word choice, while regularly voicing surprising new positions on old issues. The logical conclusion might be to call for his instant resignation before more damage is done. (God help us, some Democratic voters may actually find themselves secretly wondering whether the country dodged a bullet in 2004 when George W. Bush won his dismal second term in office.)

In his nine months as secretary of state, Kerry, the man, has shown a genuine capacity for mediocrity and an almost tragicomic haplessness. But blaming him would be like shouting at the waiter because your steak is undercooked.

Whatever his failings, John Kerry is only a symptom of Washington’s lack of a coherent foreign policy or sense of mission. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has been adrift, as big and dangerous as an iceberg but something closer to the Titanic. President Bush, the father, and President Clinton, the husband, had at least some sense of when not to overdo it. They kept their foreign interventions to relatively neat packages, perhaps recognizing that they had ever less idea what the script was anymore.

Waking up on that clear morning of September 12, 2001, the administration of Bush, the son, substituted a crude lashing out and an urge for total domination of the Greater Middle East, and ultimately the planet, for foreign policy. Without hesitation, it claimed the world as its battlefield and then deployed the Army, the Marines, the Navy, the Air Force, growing Special Operations forces, paramilitarized intelligence outfits, and drone technology to make it so. They proved to be good killers, but someone seemed to forget that war is politics by other means. Without a thought-out political strategy behind it, war is simply violent chaos unleashed.

Diplomacy had little role in such a black-and-white world. No time was to be wasted talking to other countries: you were either with us or against us. Even our few remaining friends and allies had a hard time keeping up, as Washington promoted torture, sent the CIA out to kidnap people off the streets of global cities, and set up its own gulag with Guantanamo as its crown jewel. And of course, none of it worked.

Then, the hope and change Americans thought they’d voted into power in 2008 only made the situation worse. The Obama administration substituted directionless-ness for idiotic decisiveness, and visionless-ness for the global planning of mad visionaries, albeit with much the same result: spasmodic violence. The United States, after all, remains the biggest kid on the block, and still gets a modicum of respect from the tiny tots and the teens who remember better days, as well as a shrinking crew of aid-bought pals.

The days of the United States being able to treat the world as its chessboard are over. It’s now closer to a Rubik’s Cube that Washington can’t figure out how to manipulate. Across the globe, people noted how the World’s Mightiest Army was fought to a draw (or worse) in Iraq and Afghanistan by insurgents with only small arms, roadside bombs, and suicide bombers.

Increasingly, the world is acknowledging America’s Kerry-style clunkiness and just bypassing the U.S. Britain said no to war in Syria. Russia took over big-box diplomacy. China assumed the pivot role in Asia in every way except militarily. (They’re working on it.) The Brazilian president simply snubbed Obama, canceling a state visit over Snowden’s NSA revelations. Tiny Ecuador continues to raise a middle finger to Washington over the Assange case. These days, one can almost imagine John Kerry as the wallflower of some near-future international conference, hoping someone – anyone — will invite him to dance.

The American Century might be said to have lasted from August 1945 until September 2001, a relatively short span of 56 years. (R.I.P.) John Kerry’s frantic bumbling did not create the present situation; it merely added mirth to the funeral preparations.

Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. A TomDispatch regular, he writes about current events at his blog, We Meant Well. Van Buren’s next book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, will be available in April 2014.

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 Peter Van Buren

Tomgram: Andrew Bacevich, Bashing “Isolationists” While at War in the World

6:31 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.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: In early September, we first offered TomDispatch readers personalized, signed copies of Andrew Bacevich’s new book, Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country, in return for a $100 contribution to the site. Many of you took us up on that and we couldn’t be more appreciative. From Rachel Maddow in the New York Times Book Review to Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post, Moyers & Company to the Colbert Report, Bacevich’s book has since been hailed as a powerful, groundbreaking look at this country and its military. For any of you who meant to get an autographed copy via TomDispatch, the offer is still open -- check out our donation page for the details -- but only for one more week. Tom]

Hey, Private First Class Dorothy: when that next tornado hits Kansas, it’s slated to transport you not to Oz, but to somewhere in Africa, maybe Chad or Niger or Mauritania.  And that’s war, American-style, for you, or so reports the New York Times’s Eric Schmitt from Fort Riley, Kansas, where an Army brigade is gearing up for a series of complex future deployments to Africa. Here is the money paragraph of his report, if you want to understand Washington’s present orientation toward perpetual war: “But with the United States military out of Iraq and pulling out of Afghanistan, the Army is looking for new missions around the world. ‘As we reduce the rotational requirement to combat areas, we can use these forces to great effect in Africa,’ Gen. David M. Rodriguez, the head of the Africa Command, told Congress this year.”

In the view of our leaders these days, having extra troops on hand and keeping them in cold storage in this country is like having extra money around and stuffing it under your mattress or parking it in a local bank at next to no interest. Why would you do that when you could go out and play the market — or, in the case of the U.S. military, pivot toward Africa? So many “partnerships” to forge as you lend a helping hand to the counterterrorism struggle on — and the destabilization of — that continent using that brigade in Kansas, Special Operations forces like the ones recently sent on raids into Libya and Somalia, and the drones whose bases are spreading in the region.

In Washington, war and preparations for war remain the options of choice, no matter the traffic jam of U.S. military disasters in this century.  Despite all the recent talk about pivoting to Asia, preparations of every sort, not just at Ft. Riley, suggest that Africa may prove the actual pivot point for this country’s endless war policies in the coming decade, as TomDispatch has been reporting now for the last year or more.  In the meantime, Andrew Bacevich, author most recently of Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country, offers a little primer on just how to cut any critics of the relentless American global mission impossible off at the knees. Just call them “isolationists” and go right on with your next operation.  It works like a dream. Tom

Always and Everywhere
The New York Times and the Enduring “Threat” of Isolationism
By Andrew J. Bacevich

The abiding defect of U.S. foreign policy? It’s isolationism, my friend. Purporting to steer clear of war, isolationism fosters it. Isolationism impedes the spread of democracy. It inhibits trade and therefore prosperity. It allows evildoers to get away with murder. Isolationists prevent the United States from accomplishing its providentially assigned global mission. Wean the American people from their persistent inclination to look inward and who knows what wonders our leaders will accomplish.

The United States has been at war for well over a decade now, with U.S. attacks and excursions in distant lands having become as commonplace as floods and forest fires. Yet during the recent debate over Syria, the absence of popular enthusiasm for opening up another active front evoked expressions of concern in Washington that Americans were once more turning their backs on the world.

As he was proclaiming the imperative of punishing the government of Bashar al-Assad, Secretary of State John Kerry also chided skeptical members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “this is not the time for armchair isolationism.”  Commentators keen to have a go at the Syrian autocrat wasted little time in expanding on Kerry’s theme.

Reflecting on “where isolationism leads,” Jennifer Rubin, the reliably bellicose Washington Post columnist, was quick to chime in, denouncing those hesitant to initiate another war as “infantile.” American isolationists, she insisted, were giving a green light to aggression. Any nation that counted on the United States for protection had now become a “sitting duck,” with “Eastern Europe [and] neighbors of Venezuela and Israel” among those left exposed and vulnerable.  News reports of Venezuelan troop movements threatening Brazil, Colombia, or Guyana were notably absent from the Post or any other media outlet, but no matter — you get the idea.

Military analyst Frederick Kagan was equally troubled.  Also writing in the Post, he worried that “the isolationist narrative is rapidly becoming dominant.”  His preferred narrative emphasized the need for ever greater military exertions, with Syria just the place to launch a new campaign.  For Bret Stephens, a columnist with the Wall Street Journal, the problem was the Republican Party.  Where had the hawks gone?  The Syria debate, he lamented, was “exposing the isolationist worm eating its way through the GOP apple.”

The Journal’s op-ed page also gave the redoubtable Norman Podhoretz, not only still alive but vigorously kicking, a chance to vent.  Unmasking President Obama as “a left-wing radical” intent on “reduc[ing] the country’s power and influence,” the unrepentant neoconservative accused the president of exploiting the “war-weariness of the American people and the rise of isolationist sentiment… on the left and right” to bring about “a greater diminution of American power than he probably envisaged even in his wildest radical dreams.”

Obama escalated the war in Afghanistan, “got” Osama bin Laden, toppled one Arab dictator in Libya, and bashed and bombed targets in Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, and elsewhere.  Even so, it turns out he is actually part of the isolationist conspiracy to destroy America!

Over at the New York Times, similar concerns, even if less hysterically expressed, prevailed.  According to Times columnist Roger Cohen, President Obama’s reluctance to pull the trigger showed that he had “deferred to a growing isolationism.”  Bill Keller concurred.  “America is again in a deep isolationist mood.”  In a column entitled, “Our New Isolationism,” he decried “the fears and defeatist slogans of knee-jerk isolationism” that were impeding military action.  (For Keller, the proper antidote to isolationism is amnesia.  As he put it, “Getting Syria right starts with getting over Iraq.”)

For his part, Times staff writer Sam Tanenhaus contributed a bizarre two-minute exercise in video agitprop — complete with faked scenes of the Japanese attacking Pearl Harbor — that slapped the isolationist label on anyone opposing entry into any war whatsoever, or tiring of a war gone awry, or proposing that America go it alone.

When the “New Isolationism” Was New 

Most of this, of course, qualifies as overheated malarkey.  As a characterization of U.S. policy at any time in memory, isolationism is a fiction.  Never really a tendency, it qualifies at most as a moment, referring to that period in the 1930s when large numbers of Americans balked at the prospect of entering another European war, the previous one having fallen well short of its “War To End All Wars” advance billing.

In fact, from the day of its founding down to the present, the United States has never turned its back on the world.  Isolationism owes its storied history to its value as a rhetorical device, deployed to discredit anyone opposing an action or commitment (usually involving military forces) that others happen to favor.  If I, a grandson of Lithuanian immigrants, favor deploying U.S. forces to Lithuania to keep that NATO ally out of Vladimir Putin’s clutches and you oppose that proposition, then you, sir or madam, are an “isolationist.”  Presumably, Jennifer Rubin will see things my way and lend her support to shoring up Lithuania’s vulnerable frontiers.

For this very reason, the term isolationism is not likely to disappear from American political discourse anytime soon.  It’s too useful.  Indeed, employ this verbal cudgel to castigate your opponents and your chances of gaining entrée to the nation’s most prestigious publications improve appreciably.  Warn about the revival of isolationism and your prospects of making the grade as a pundit or candidate for high office suddenly brighten.  This is the great thing about using isolationists as punching bags: it makes actual thought unnecessary.  All that’s required to posture as a font of wisdom is the brainless recycling of clichés, half-truths, and bromides.

No publication is more likely to welcome those clichés, half-truths, and bromides than the New York Times.  There, isolationism always looms remarkably large and is just around the corner.

In July 1942, the New York Times Magazine opened its pages to Vice President Henry A. Wallace, who sounded the alarm about the looming threat of what he styled a “new isolationism.”  This was in the midst of World War II, mind you.

After the previous world war, the vice president wrote, the United States had turned inward.  As summer follows spring, “the choice led up to this present war.”  Repeat the error, Wallace warned, and “the price will be more terrible and will be paid much sooner.”  The world was changing and it was long past time for Americans to get with the program.  “The airplane, the radio, and modern technology have bound the planet so closely together that what happens anywhere on the planet has a direct effect everywhere else.”  In a world that had “suddenly become so small,” he continued, “we cannot afford to resume the role of hermit.”

The implications for policy were self-evident:

“This time, then, we have only one real choice.  We must play a responsible part in the world — leading the way in world progress, fostering a healthy world trade, helping to protect the world’s peace.”

One month later, it was Archibald MacLeish’s turn.  On August 16, 1942, the Times magazine published a long essay of his under the title of — wouldn’t you know it — “The New Isolationism.”  For readers in need of coaching, Times editors inserted this seal of approval before the text: “There is great pertinence in the following article.”

A well-known poet, playwright, and literary gadfly, MacLeish was at the time serving as Librarian of Congress.  From this bully pulpit, he offered the reassuring news that “isolationism in America is dead.”  Unfortunately, like zombies, “old isolationists never really die: they merely dig in their toes in a new position.  And the new position, whatever name is given it, is isolation still.”

Fortunately, the American people were having none of it.  They had “recaptured the current of history and they propose to move with it; they don’t mean to be denied.” MacLeish’s fellow citizens knew what he knew: “that there is a stirring in our world…, a forward thrusting and overflowing human hope of the human will which must be given a channel or it will dig a channel itself.”  In effect, MacLeish was daring the isolationists, in whatever guise, to stand in the way of this forward thrusting and overflowing hopefulness.  Presumably, they would either drown or be crushed.

The end of World War II found the United States donning the mantle of global leadership, much as Wallace, MacLeish, and the Times had counseled.  World peace did not ensue.  Instead, a host of problems continued to afflict the planet, with isolationists time and again fingered as the culprits impeding their solution.

The Gift That Never Stops Giving

In June 1948, with a notable absence of creativity in drafting headlines, the Times once again found evidence of “the new isolationism.”  In an unsigned editorial, the paper charged that an American penchant for hermit-like behavior was “asserting itself again in a manner that is both distressing and baffling.”  With the Cold War fully joined and U.S. forces occupying Germany, Japan, and other countries, the Times worried that some Republicans in Congress appeared reluctant to fund the Marshall Plan.

From their offices in Manhattan, members of the Times editorial board detected in some quarters “a homesickness for the old days.”  It was incumbent upon Americans to understand that “the time is past when we could protect ourselves easily behind our barriers behind the seas.”  History was summoning the United States to lead the world: “The very success of our democracy has now imposed duties upon us which we must fulfill if that democracy is to survive.”  Those entertaining contrary views, the Times huffed, “do not speak for the American people.”

That very month, Josef Stalin announced that the Soviet Union was blockading Berlin.  The U.S. responded not by heading for the exits but by initiating a dramatic airlift.  Oh, and Congress fully funded the Marshall Plan.

Barely a year later, in August 1949, with Stalin having just lifted the Berlin Blockade, Times columnist Arthur Krock discerned another urge to disengage.  In a piece called “Chickens Usually Come Home,” he cited congressional reservations about the recently promulgated Truman Doctrine as evidence of, yes, a “new isolationism.”  As it happened, Congress duly appropriated the money President Truman was requesting to support Greece and Turkey against the threat of communism — as it would support similar requests to throw arms and money at other trouble spots like French Indochina.

Even so, in November of that year, the Times magazine published yet another warning about “the challenge of a new isolationism.”  The author was Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, then positioning himself for a White House run.  Like many another would-be candidate before and since, Stevenson took the preliminary step of signaling his opposition to the I-word.

World War II, he wrote, had “not only destroyed fascism abroad, but a lot of isolationist notions here at home.”  War and technological advance had “buried the whole ostrich of isolation.”  At least it should have.  Unfortunately, some Republicans hadn’t gotten the word.  They were “internationally minded in principle but not in practice.”  Stevenson feared that when the chips were down such head-in-the-sand inclinations might come roaring back.  This he was determined to resist.  “The eagle, not the ostrich,” he proclaimed, “is our national emblem.”

In August 1957, the Times magazine was at it once again, opening its pages to another Illinois Democrat, Senator Paul Douglas, for an essay familiarly entitled “A New Isolationism — Ripples or Tide?” Douglas claimed that “a new tide of isolationism is rising in the country.”  U.S. forces remained in Germany and Japan, along with Korea, where they had recently fought a major war.  Even so, the senator worried that “the internationalists are tiring rapidly now.”

Americans needed to fortify themselves by heeding the message of the Gospels: “Let the spirit of the Galilean enter our worldly and power-obsessed hearts.”  In other words, the senator’s prescription for American statecraft was an early version of What Would Jesus Do?  Was Jesus Christ an advocate of American global leadership?  Senator Douglas apparently thought so.

Then came Vietnam.  By May 1970, even Times-men were showing a little of that fatigue.  That month, star columnist James Reston pointed (yet again) to the “new isolationism.”  Yet in contrast to the paper’s scribblings on the subject over the previous three decades, Reston didn’t decry it as entirely irrational.  The war had proven to be a bummer and “the longer it goes on,” he wrote, “the harder it will be to get public support for American intervention.”  Washington, in other words, needed to end its misguided war if it had any hopes of repositioning itself to start the next one.

A Concept Growing Long in the Tooth

By 1980, the Times showed signs of recovering from its brief Vietnam funk.  In a review of Norman Podhoretz’s The Present Danger, for example, the noted critic Anatole Broyard extolled the author’s argument as “dispassionate,” “temperate,” and “almost commonsensical.”

The actual text was none of those things.  What the pugnacious Podhoretz called — get ready for it — “the new isolationism” was, in his words, “hard to distinguish from simple anti-Americanism.”  Isolationists — anyone who had opposed the Vietnam War on whatever grounds — believed that the United States was “a force for evil, a menace, a terror.”  Podhoretz detected a “psychological connection” between “anti-Americanism, isolationism, and the tendency to explain away or even apologize for anything the Soviet Union does, no matter how menacing.”  It wasn’t bad enough that isolationists hated their country, they were, it seems, commie symps to boot.

Fast forward a decade, and — less than three months after U.S. troops invaded Panama — Times columnist Flora Lewis sensed a resurgence of you-know-what.  In a February 1990 column, she described “a convergence of right and left” with both sides “arguing with increasing intensity that it’s time for the U.S. to get off the world.”  Right-wingers saw that world as too nasty to save; left-wingers, the United States as too nasty to save it.  “Both,” she concluded (of course), were “moving toward a new isolationism.”

Five months later, Saddam Hussein sent his troops into Kuwait.  Instead of getting off the world, President George H.W. Bush deployed U.S. combat forces to defend Saudi Arabia.  For Joshua Muravchik, however, merely defending that oil-rich kingdom wasn’t nearly good enough.  Indeed, here was a prime example of the “New Isolationism, Same Old Mistake,” as his Times op-ed was entitled.

The mistake was to flinch from instantly ejecting Saddam’s forces.  Although opponents of a war against Iraq did not “see themselves as isolationists, but as realists,” he considered this a distinction without a difference.  Muravchik, who made his living churning out foreign policy analysis for various Washington think tanks, favored “the principle of investing America’s power in the effort to fashion an environment congenial to our long-term safety.”  War, he firmly believed, offered the means to fashion that congenial environment.  Should America fail to act, he warned, “our abdication will encourage such threats to grow.”

Of course, the United States did act and the threats grew anyway.  In and around the Middle East, the environment continued to be thoroughly uncongenial.  Still, in Times-world, the American penchant for doing too little rather than too much remained the eternal problem, eternally “new.”  An op-ed by up-and-coming journalist James Traub appearing in the Times in December 1991, just months after a half-million U.S. troops had liberated Kuwait, was typical.  Assessing the contemporary political scene, Traub detected “a new wave of isolationism gathering force.”  Traub was undoubtedly establishing his bona fides.  (Soon after, he landed a job working for the paper.)

This time, according to Traub, the problem was the Democrats.  No longer “the party of Wilson or of John F. Kennedy,” Democrats, he lamented, “aspire[d] to be the party of middle-class frustrations — and if that entails turning your back on the world, so be it.”  The following year Democrats nominated as their presidential candidate Bill Clinton, who insisted that he would never under any circumstances turn his back on the world.  Even so, no sooner did Clinton win than Times columnist Leslie Gelb was predicting that the new president would “fall into the trap of isolationism and policy passivity.”

Get Me Rewrite!

Arthur Schlesinger defined the problem in broader terms.  The famous historian and Democratic Party insider had weighed in early on the matter with a much-noted essay that appeared in The Atlantic Monthly back in 1952.  He called it – you guessed it — “The New Isolationism.”

In June 1994, more than 40 years later, with the Cold War now finally won, Schlesinger was back for more with a Times op-ed that sounded the usual alarm.  “The Cold War produced the illusion that traditional isolationism was dead and buried,” he wrote, but of course — this is, after all, the Times — it was actually alive and kicking.  The passing of the Cold War had “weakened the incentives to internationalism” and was giving isolationists a new opening, even though in “a world of law requiring enforcement,” it was incumbent upon the United States to be the lead enforcer.

The warning resonated.  Although the Times does not normally give commencement addresses much attention, it made an exception for Madeleine Albright’s remarks to graduating seniors at Barnard College in May 1995.  The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations had detected what she called “a trend toward isolationism that is running stronger in America than at any time since the period between the two world wars,” and the American people were giving in to the temptation “to pull the covers up over our heads and pretend we do not notice, do not care, and are unaffected by events overseas.”  In other circumstances in another place, it might have seemed an odd claim, given that the United States had just wrapped up armed interventions in Somalia and Haiti and was on the verge of initiating a bombing campaign in the Balkans.

Still, Schlesinger had Albright’s back.  The July/August 1995 issue of Foreign Affairs prominently featured an article of his entitled “Back to the Womb?  Isolationism’s Renewed Threat,” with Times editors publishing a CliffsNotes version on the op-ed page a month earlier.  “The isolationist impulse has risen from the grave,” Schlesinger announced, “and it has taken the new form of unilateralism.” 

His complaint was no longer that the United States hesitated to act, but that it did not act in concert with others.  This “neo-isolationism,” he warned, introducing a new note into the tradition of isolationism-bashing for the first time in decades, “promises to prevent the most powerful nation on the planet from playing any role in enforcing the peace system.”  The isolationists were winning — this time through pure international belligerence.  Yet “as we return to the womb,” Schlesinger warned his fellow citizens, “we are surrendering a magnificent dream.”

Other Times contributors shared Schlesinger’s concern.  On January 30, 1996, the columnist Russell Baker chipped in with a piece called “The New Isolationism.”  For those slow on the uptake, Jessica Mathews, then a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, affirmed Baker’s concerns by publishing an identically titled column in the Washington Post a mere six days later.  Mathews reported “troubling signs that the turning inward that many feared would follow the Cold War’s end is indeed happening.”  With both the Times and the Post concurring, “the new isolationism” had seemingly reached pandemic proportions (as a title, if nothing else).

Did the “new” isolationism then pave the way for 9/11?  Was al-Qaeda inspired by an unwillingness on Washington’s part to insert itself into the Islamic world?

Unintended and unanticipated consequences stemming from prior U.S. interventions might have seemed to offer a better explanation.  But this much is for sure:  as far as the Times was concerned, even in the midst of George W. Bush’s Global War in Terror, the threat of isolationism persisted.

In January 2004, David M. Malone, president of the International Peace Academy, worried in a Times op-ed “that the United States is retracting into itself” — this despite the fact that U.S. forces were engaged in simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Among Americans, a concern about terrorism, he insisted, was breeding “a sense of self-obsession and indifference to the plight of others.”  “When Terrorists Win: Beware America’s New Isolationism,” blared the headline of Malone’s not-so-new piece.

Actually, Americans should beware those who conjure up phony warnings of a “new isolationism” to advance a particular agenda.  The essence of that agenda, whatever the particulars and however packaged, is this: If the United States just tries a little bit harder — one more intervention, one more shipment of arms to a beleaguered “ally,” one more line drawn in the sand — we will finally turn the corner and the bright uplands of peace and freedom will come into view.

This is a delusion, of course.  But if you write a piece exposing that delusion, don’t bother submitting it to the Times.

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University.  His new book is Breach of Trust:  How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country.

Copyright 2013 Andrew Bacevich

Tomgram: Engelhardt, What Planet Are We On?

6:36 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.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Thought I might recommend a new little book series from the Nation magazine (everyone’s publishing these days!) -- classic essays by some of that mag’s best writers and among my own favorites, including Gore Vidal’s State of the Union, [Kurt] Vonnegut by the Dozen, and an upcoming volume by E.L. Doctorow.  Each is a guarantee of pleasure.  And here’s a small reminder: if you are an Amazon customer, travel to that site via any TomDispatch book link (or cover image link), and buy books we recommend or anything else whatsoever, book or not, we get a small cut of your purchase at no cost to you.  It’s a fine, no-pain-all-gain way to contribute to the site. Tom]

Why Washington Can’t Stop
The Coming Era of Tiny Wars and Micro-Conflicts
By Tom Engelhardt

In terms of pure projectable power, there’s never been anything like it.  Its military has divided the world — the whole planet — into six “commands.”  Its fleet, with 11 aircraft carrier battle groups, rules the seas and has done so largely unchallenged for almost seven decades.  Its Air Force has ruled the global skies, and despite being almost continuously in action for years, hasn’t faced an enemy plane since 1991 or been seriously challenged anywhere since the early 1970s.  Its fleet of drone aircraft has proven itself capable of targeting and killing suspected enemies in the backlands of the planet from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Yemen and Somalia with little regard for national boundaries, and none at all for the possibility of being shot down.  It funds and trains proxy armies on several continents and has complex aid and training relationships with militaries across the planet.  On hundreds of bases, some tiny and others the size of American towns, its soldiers garrison the globe from Italy to Australia, Honduras to Afghanistan, and on islands from Okinawa in the Pacific Ocean to Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.  Its weapons makers are the most advanced on Earth and dominate the global arms market.  Its nuclear weaponry in silos, on bombers, and on its fleet of submarines would be capable of destroying several planets the size of Earth.  Its system of spy satellites is unsurpassed and unchallenged.  Its intelligence services can listen in on the phone calls or read the emails of almost anyone in the world from top foreign leaders to obscure insurgents.  The CIA and its expanding paramilitary forces are capable of kidnapping people of interest just about anywhere from rural Macedonia to the streets of Rome and Tripoli.  For its many prisoners, it has set up (and dismantled) secret jails across the planet and on its naval vessels.  It spends more on its military than the next most powerful 13 states combined.  Add in the spending for its full national security state and it towers over any conceivable group of other nations.

In terms of advanced and unchallenged military power, there has been nothing like the U.S. armed forces since the Mongols swept across Eurasia.  No wonder American presidents now regularly use phrases like “the finest fighting force the world has ever known” to describe it.  By the logic of the situation, the planet should be a pushover for it.  Lesser nations with far lesser forces have, in the past, controlled vast territories.  And despite much discussion of American decline and the waning of its power in a “multi-polar” world, its ability to pulverize and destroy, kill and maim, blow up and kick down has only grown in this new century.

No other nation’s military comes within a country mile of it.  None has more than a handful of foreign bases.  None has more than two aircraft carrier battle groups.  No potential enemy has such a fleet of robotic planes.  None has more than 60,000 special operations forces.  Country by country, it’s a hands-down no-contest. The Russian (once “Red”) army is a shadow of its former self.  The Europeans have not rearmed significantly.  Japan’s “self-defense” forces are powerful and slowly growing, but under the U.S. nuclear “umbrella.”  Although China, regularly identified as the next rising imperial state, is involved in a much-ballyhooed military build-up, with its one aircraft carrier (a retread from the days of the Soviet Union), it still remains only a regional power.

Despite this stunning global power equation, for more than a decade we have been given a lesson in what a military, no matter how overwhelming, can and (mostly) can’t do in the twenty-first century, in what a military, no matter how staggeringly advanced, does and (mostly) does not translate into on the current version of planet Earth.

A Destabilization Machine

Let’s start with what the U.S. can do.  On this, the recent record is clear: it can destroy and destabilize.  In fact, wherever U.S. military power has been applied in recent years, if there has been any lasting effect at all, it has been to destabilize whole regions.

Back in 2004, almost a year and a half after American troops had rolled into a Baghdad looted and in flames, Amr Mussa, the head of the Arab League, commented ominously, “The gates of hell are open in Iraq.”  Although for the Bush administration, the situation in that country was already devolving, to the extent that anyone paid attention to Mussa’s description, it seemed over the top, even outrageous, as applied to American-occupied Iraq.  Today, with the latest scientific estimate of invasion- and war-caused Iraqi deaths at a staggering 461,000, thousands more a year still dying there, and with Syria in flames, it seems something of an understatement.

It’s now clear that George W. Bush and his top officials, fervent fundamentalists when it came to the power of U.S. military to alter, control, and dominate the Greater Middle East (and possibly the planet), did launch the radical transformation of the region.  Their invasion of Iraq punched a hole through the heart of the Middle East, sparking a Sunni-Shiite civil war that has now spread catastrophically to Syria, taking more than 100,000 lives there.  They helped turn the region into a churning sea of refugees, gave life and meaning to a previously nonexistent al-Qaeda in Iraq (and now a Syrian version of the same), and left the country drifting in a sea of roadside bombs and suicide bombers, and threatened, like other countries in the region, with the possibility of splitting apart.

And that’s just a thumbnail sketch.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about destabilization in Afghanistan, where U.S. troops have been on the ground for almost 12 years and counting; Pakistan, where a CIA-run drone air campaign in its tribal borderlands has gone on for years as the country grew ever shakier and more violent; Yemen (ditto), as an outfit called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula grew ever stronger; or Somalia, where Washington repeatedly backed proxy armies it had trained and financed, and supported outside incursions as an already destabilized country came apart at the seams and the influence of al-Shabab, an increasingly radical and violent insurgent Islamic group, began to seep across regional borders.  The results have always been the same: destabilization.

Consider Libya where, no longer enamored with boots-on-the-ground interventions, President Obama sent in the Air Force and the drones in 2011 in a bloodless intervention (unless, of course, you were on the ground) that helped topple Muammar Qaddafi, the local autocrat and his secret-police-and-prisons regime, and launched a vigorous young democracy… oh, wait a moment, not quite.  In fact, the result, which, unbelievably enough, came as a surprise to Washington, was an increasingly damaged country with a desperately weak central government, a territory controlled by a range of militias — some Islamic extremist in nature — an insurgency and war across the border in neighboring Mali (thanks to an influx of weaponry looted from Qaddafi’s vast arsenals), a dead American ambassador, a country almost incapable of exporting its oil, and so on.

Libya was, in fact, so thoroughly destabilized, so lacking in central authority that Washington recently felt free to dispatch U.S. Special Operations forces onto the streets of its capital in broad daylight in an operation to snatch up a long-sought terrorist suspect, an act which was as “successful” as the toppling of the Qaddafi regime and, in a similar manner, further destabilized a government that Washington still theoretically backed. (Almost immediately afterward, the prime minister found himself briefly kidnapped by a militia unit as part of what might have been a coup attempt.)

Wonders of the Modern World 

If the overwhelming military power at the command of Washington can destabilize whole regions of the planet, what, then, can’t such military power do?  On this, the record is no less clear and just as decisive.  As every significant U.S. military action of this new century has indicated, the application of military force, no matter in what form, has proven incapable of achieving even Washington’s most minimal goals of the moment.

Consider this one of the wonders of the modern world: pile up the military technology, pour money into your armed forces, outpace the rest of the world, and none of it adds up to a pile of beans when it comes to making that world act as you wish.  Yes, in Iraq, to take an example, Saddam Hussein’s regime was quickly “decapitated,” thanks to an overwhelming display of power and muscle by the invading Americans.  His state bureaucracy was dismantled, his army dismissed, an occupying authority established backed by foreign troops, soon ensconced on huge multibillion-dollar military bases meant to be garrisoned for generations, and a suitably “friendly” local government installed.

And that’s where the Bush administration’s dreams ended in the rubble created by a set of poorly armed minority insurgencies, terrorism, and a brutal ethnic/religious civil war.  In the end, almost nine years after the invasion and despite the fact that the Obama administration and the Pentagon were eager to keep U.S. troops stationed there in some capacity, a relatively weak central government refused, and they departed, the last representatives of the greatest power on the planet slipping away in the dead of night.  Left behind among the ruins of historic ziggurats were the “ghost towns” and stripped or looted U.S. bases that were to be our monuments in Iraq.

Today, under even more extraordinary circumstances, a similar process seems to be playing itself out in Afghanistan — another spectacle of our moment that should amaze us.  After almost 12 years there, finding itself incapable of suppressing a minority insurgency, Washington is slowly withdrawing its combat troops, but wants to leave behind on the giant bases we’ve built perhaps 10,000 “trainers” for the Afghan military and some Special Operations forces to continue the hunt for al-Qaeda and other terror types.

For the planet’s sole superpower, this, of all things, should be a slam dunk.  At least the Iraqi government had a certain strength of its own (and the country’s oil wealth to back it up).  If there is a government on Earth that qualifies for the term “puppet,” it should be the Afghan one of President Hamid Karzai.  After all, at least 80% (and possibly 90%) of that government’s expenses are covered by the U.S. and its allies, and its security forces are considered incapable of carrying on the fight against the Taliban and other insurgent outfits without U.S. support and aid.  If Washington were to withdraw totally (including its financial support), it’s hard to imagine that any successor to the Karzai government would last long.

How, then, to explain the fact that Karzai has refused to sign a future bilateral security pact long in the process of being hammered out?  Instead, he recently denounced U.S. actions in Afghanistan, as he had repeatedly done in the past, claimed that he simply would not ink the agreement, and began bargaining with U.S. officials as if he were the leader of the planet’s other superpower.

A frustrated Washington had to dispatch Secretary of State John Kerry on a sudden mission to Kabul for some top-level face-to-face negotiations.  The result, a reported 24-hour marathon of talks and meetings, was hailed as a success: problem(s) solved.  Oops, all but one.  As it turned out, it was the very same one on which the continued U.S. military presence in Iraq stumbled — Washington’s demand for legal immunity from local law for its troops.  In the end, Kerry flew out without an assured agreement.

Making Sense of War in the Twenty-First Century

Whether the U.S. military does or doesn’t last a few more years in Afghanistan, the blunt fact is this: the president of one of the poorest and weakest countries on the planet, himself relatively powerless, is essentially dictating terms to Washington — and who’s to say that, in the end, as in Iraq, U.S. troops won’t be forced to leave there as well?

Once again, military strength has not carried the day.  Yet military power, advanced weaponry, force, and destruction as tools of policy, as ways to create a world in your own image or to your own taste, have worked plenty well in the past.  Ask those Mongols, or the European imperial powers from Spain in the sixteenth century to Britain in the nineteenth century, which took their empires by force and successfully maintained them over long periods.

What planet are we now on?  Why is it that military power, the mightiest imaginable, can’t overcome, pacify, or simply destroy weak powers, less than impressive insurgency movements, or the ragged groups of (often tribal) peoples we label as “terrorists”? Why is such military power no longer transformative or even reasonably effective?  Is it, to reach for an analogy, like antibiotics?  If used for too long in too many situations, does a kind of immunity build up against it?

Let’s be clear here: such a military remains a powerful potential instrument of destruction, death, and destabilization.  For all we know — it’s not something we’ve seen anything of in these years — it might also be a powerful instrument for genuine defense.  But if recent history is any guide, what it clearly cannot be in the twenty-first century is a policymaking instrument, a means of altering the world to fit a scheme developed in Washington.  The planet itself and people just about anywhere on it seem increasingly resistant in ways that take the military off the table as an effective superpower instrument of state.

Washington’s military plans and tactics since 9/11 have been a spectacular train wreck.  When you look back, counterinsurgency doctrine, resuscitated from the ashes of America’s defeat in Vietnam, is once again on the scrap heap of history.  (Who today even remembers its key organizing phrase — “clear, hold, and build” — which now looks like the punch line for some malign joke?)  “Surges,” once hailed as brilliant military strategy, have already disappeared into the mists.  “Nation-building,” once a term of tradecraft in Washington, is in the doghouse.  “Boots on the ground,” of which the U.S. had enormous numbers and still has 51,000 in Afghanistan, are now a no-no.  The American public is, everyone universally agrees, “exhausted” with war.  Major American armies arriving to fight anywhere on the Eurasian continent in the foreseeable future?  Don’t count on it.

But lessons learned from the collapse of war policy?  Don’t count on that, either.  It’s clear enough that Washington still can’t fully absorb what’s happened.  Its faith in war remains remarkably unbroken in a century in which military power has become the American political equivalent of a state religion.  Our leaders are still high on the counterterrorism wars of the future, even as they drown in their military efforts of the present.  Their urge is still to rejigger and reimagine what a deliverable military solution would be.

Now the message is: skip those boots en masse — in fact, cut down on their numbers in the age of the sequester — and go for the counterterrorism package.  No more spilling of (American) blood.  Get the “bad guys,” one or a few at a time, using the president’s private army, the Special Operations forces, or his private air force, the CIA’s drones. Build new barebones micro-bases globally.  Move those aircraft carrier battle groups off the coast of whatever country you want to intimidate.

It’s clear we’re entering a new period in terms of American war making.  Call it the era of tiny wars, or micro-conflicts, especially in the tribal backlands of the planet.

So something is indeed changing in response to military failure, but what’s not changing is Washington’s preference for war as the option of choice, often of first resort.  What’s not changing is the thought that, if you can just get your strategy and tactics readjusted correctly, force will work.  (Recently, Washington was only saved from plunging into another predictable military disaster in Syria by an offhand comment of Secretary of State John Kerry and the timely intervention of Russian President Vladimir Putin.)

What our leaders don’t get is the most basic, practical fact of our moment: war simply doesn’t work, not big, not micro — not for Washington.  A superpower at war in the distant reaches of this planet is no longer a superpower ascendant but one with problems.

The U.S. military may be a destabilization machine.  It may be a blowback machine.  What it’s not is a policymaking or enforcement machine.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture (now also in a Kindle edition), runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

[Note: A deep bow of thanks to Nick Turse for his continuing help and, above all, inspiration.]

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 Tom Engelhardt

Max Blumenthal: Expulsion and Revulsion in Israel

10:00 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

Editor’s Note: Max Blumenthal and his book Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel will be featured in FDL’s Book Salon November 2nd. Philip Munger aka Edward Teller will host.

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

An unidentified visitor in the Negev Desert village of Umm Al Hiran

In case you hadn’t noticed, Israel has been in the news a lot lately. After all, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived at the U.N. in the midst of an Iranian “charm offensive,” just as presidents Obama and Rouhani were having the first conversation between Iranian and American heads of state since Jimmy Carter’s day, and gave the usual hellfire sermon. He said Israel would, if necessary, “stand alone,” implicitly threatening to launch an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities without Washington’s support (an act that is, in reality, increasingly unlikely), and generally acted like the odd man out. Soon after, he made a comment reflecting his ignorance of life among the Iranian young — “If the people of Iran were free, they could wear jeans, listen to Western music, and have free elections ” — and the next thing you knew, indignant Iranian tweets were going up along with photosof jeans and Western music albums. And so another round of news stories hit the wires.

Only one problem: just about all the “Israeli” news here is focused on its future policy toward Iran, and remarkably little of it on the way Israel continues to eat up Palestinian lands and displace Palestinians on the West Bank and elsewhere, or the way in which Israeli control over so much of the West Bank is stunting the Palestinian economy. Fortunately, Max Blumenthal, who previously slipped inside the Republican Party and produced a bestselling book, has spent four years researching the on-the-ground realities of Israel. Today, he offers us a powerful, if grim, glimpse of just where Israel has been and where it’s heading, the sort of up-close-and-personal reporting you’re not likely to see in the American mainstream media (not, at least, since President Obama tried — and failed — to get the Israelis to stop building new settlements and other housing on Palestinian or contested lands). But think of today’s TomDispatch post as just a snapshot. The full picture can be found in Blumenthal’s new blockbuster of a book, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel. It’s an odyssey of a trip into a largely unknown Israel and a remarkable, as well as riveting, piece of reportage. Tom

The Desert of Israeli Democracy
A Trip Through the Negev Desert Leads to the Heart of Israel’s National Nightmare
By Max Blumenthal

From the podium of the U.N. General Assembly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seamlessly blended frightening details of Iranian evildoing with images of defenseless Jews “bludgeoned” and “left for dead” by anti-Semites in nineteenth century Europe. Aimed at U.S. and Iranian moves towards diplomacy and a war-weary American public, Netanyahu’s gloomy tirade threatened to cast him as a desperate, diminished figure. Though it was poorly received in the U.S., alienating even a few of his stalwart pro-Israel allies, his jeremiad served a greater purpose, deflecting attention from his country’s policies towards the group he scarcely mentioned: the Palestinians.

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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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Michael T. Klare, 2040 or Bust

7:42 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.

 

If you’re an oil exec, the world is a rosy place — and I’m not talking about the pink haze of heat that’s been rising from the burning American West all summer.  I’m talking about energy consumption where the news just couldn’t be cheerier.  Despite declines in North America and Europe, according to a new study by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), world consumption of petroleum products in 2012 rose to record heights, a staggering 88.9 million barrels a day.  Increases in Asia in particular were impressive, as a snazzy little animated graphic of soaring global oil use, 1980-2012, at the EIA’s website makes clear.

And speaking of upbeat news, there was another rosy record set in 2012 (at least, if you’re an oil exec who could care less about the fate of the planet): carbon dioxide emissions leaped into the atmosphere in record quantities, 31.6 billion tons of CO2, even as U.S. greenhouse gas emissions dropped, in part because utilities were switching from coal to natural gas.  Of course, significant amounts of the coal not used in this country get shipped off to places like China where it no longer counts as U.S. emissions when it heads skyward.

Anyway, put the two together and you can practically see the heat haze of an eternal summer rising on the eastern horizon.  In fact, these days even the worst news for the rest of us can be good news for the energy industry.  For example, the possibility of an American intervention in Syria, a spreading conflict in the region, and chaos in Middle Eastern oil markets has already helped raise the price of a barrel of crude oil above $115.  An American air assault on Syrian military facilities in Damascus could send that price over $120 and cause pain at the pump in the U.S. as well.  So you and I won’t be happy, but oil execs will be toasting their good fortune.

In the coming years, there’s likely to be no end to this sort of good news, as Michael Klare, TomDispatch energy expert and author of The Race for What’s Left, makes clear today.  If you thought fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions were at unbeatable levels, just wait until he introduces you to Earth 2040.  If, by then, you’re the CEO of a big energy company, you’ll truly be in the pink.  As for the rest of us, if you’ll excuse the expression, we’ll be in the red. Tom

Our Fossil-Fueled Future
World Energy in 2040
By Michael T. Klare

What sort of fabulous new energy systems will the world possess in 2040?  Which fuels will supply the bulk of our energy needs?  And how will that change the global energy equation, international politics, and the planet’s health?  If the experts at the U.S. Department of Energy are right, the startling “new” fuels of 2040 will be oil, coal, and natural gas — and we will find ourselves on a baking, painfully uncomfortable planet.

It’s true, of course, that any predictions about the fuel situation almost three decades from now aren’t likely to be reliable.  All sorts of unexpected upheavals and disasters in the years ahead make long-range predictions inherently difficult.  This has not, however, deterred the Department of Energy from producing a comprehensive portrait of the world’s future energy system.  Known as the International Energy Outlook (IEO), the assessment incorporates detailed projections of future energy production and consumption.  Although dense with statistical data and filled with technical jargon, the 2013 report provides a unique and disturbing picture of our planetary future.

Many of us would like to believe that, by 2040, the world will be far along the path toward a green industrial future with wind, solar, and renewable fuels providing the bulk of our energy supplies.  The IEO assumes otherwise.  It anticipates a world in which coal — the most carbon-intense of all major fuels — still supplies more of our energy than renewables, nuclear, and hydropower combined.

The world it foresees is also one in which oil remains a preeminent source of energy, while hydro-fracking and other drilling techniques for extracting unconventional fossil fuels are far more widely employed than today.  Wind and solar energy will also play a bigger role in 2040, but — as the IEO sees it — will still represent only a small fraction of the global energy mix.

Admittedly, International Energy Outlook is a government product of this moment with all the limitations that implies.  It envisions the future by extrapolating from current developments.  It is not visionary.  Its authors can’t imagine energy breakthroughs that have yet to happen, or changes in world attitudes that may affect how energy is dealt with, or events like wars, environmental disasters, and global economic recessions or depressions that could alter the world’s energy situation.  Nonetheless, because it assesses current endeavors that are sure to have long-lasting repercussions, like the present massive worldwide investments in shale oil and shale gas extraction, it provides an extraordinary resource for imagining the energy crisis in our future.

Among its major findings are three fundamental developments:

* Global energy use will continue to rise rapidly, with total world consumption jumping from 524 quadrillion British thermal units (BTUs) in 2010 to an estimated 820 quadrillion in 2040, a net increase of 56%.  (A BTU is the amount of energy needed to heat one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit.)

* An increasing share of world energy demand will be generated by developing countries, especially those in Asia.  Of the nearly 300 quadrillion BTUs in added energy needed to meet global requirements between now and 2040, some 250 quadrillion, or 85%, will be used to satisfy rising demand in the developing world.

* China, which only recently overtook the United States as the world’s leading energy consumer, will account for the largest share — 40% — of the growth in global consumption over the next 30 years.

These projections may not in themselves be surprising, but if accurate, the consequences for the global economy, world politics, and the health and well-being of the planetary environment will be staggering.  To meet constantly expanding world requirements, energy producers will be compelled to ramp up production of every kind of fossil fuel at a time of growing concern about the paramount role those fuels play in fostering runaway climate change.  Meanwhile, the shift in the center of gravity of energy consumption from the older industrial powers to the developing world will lead to intense competition for access to available supplies.

To fully appreciate the significance of the IEO’s findings, it is necessary to consider four critical trends: the surprising resilience of fossil fuels, the degree to which the world’s energy will be being provided by unconventional fossil fuels, the seemingly relentless global increase in emissions of carbon dioxide, and significant shifts in the geopolitics of energy.

The Continuing Predominance of Fossil Fuels

Anyone searching for evidence that we are transitioning to a system based on renewable sources of energy will be sorely disappointed by the projections in the 2013 International Energy Outlook.  Although the share of world energy provided by fossil fuels is expected to decline from 84% in 2010 to 78% in 2040, it will still tower over all other forms of energy.  In fact, in 2040 the projected share of global energy consumption provided by each of the fossil fuels (28% for oil, 27% for coal, and 23% for gas) will exceed that of renewables, nuclear, and hydropower combined (21%).

Oil and coal continue to dominate the fossil-fuel category despite all the talk of a massive increase in natural gas supplies — the so-called shale gas revolution — made possible by hydro-fracking.  Oil’s continued supremacy can be attributed, in part, to the endless growth in demand for cars, vans, and trucks in China, India, and other rising states in Asia.  The prominence of coal, however, is on the face of it less expectable.  Given the degree to which utilities in the United States and Western Europe are shunning coal in favor of natural gas, the prominence the IEO gives it in 2040 is startling.  But for each reduction in coal use in older industrialized nations, we are seeing a huge increase in the developing world, where the demand for affordable electricity trumps concern about greenhouse gas emissions. 

The continuing dominance of fossil fuels in the world’s energy mix will not only ensure the continued dominance of the great fossil-fuel companies — both private and state-owned — in the energy economy, but also bolster their political clout when it comes to decisions about new energy investment and climate policy.  Above all, however, soaring fossil-fuel consumption will result in a substantial boost in greenhouse gas emissions, and all the disastrous effects that come with it.

The Rise of the “Unconventionals”

At present, most of our oil, coal, and natural gas still comes from “conventional” sources — deposits close to the surface, close to shore, and within easy reach of transportation and processing facilities.  But these reservoirs are being depleted at a rapid pace and by 2040 — or so the Department of Energy’s report tells us — will be unable to supply more than a fraction of our needs.  Increasingly, fossil fuel supplies will be of an “unconventional” character — materials hard to refine and/or acquired from deposits deep underground, far from shore, or in relatively inaccessible locations.  These include Canadian tar sands, Venezuelan extra-heavy crude, shale gas, deep-offshore oil, and Arctic energy.

Until recently, unconventional oil and gas constituted only a tiny share of the world’s energy supply, but that is changing fast.  Shale gas, for example, provided a negligible share of the U.S. natural gas supply in 2000; by 2010, it had risen to 23%; in 2040, it is expected to exceed 50%.  Comparable increases are expected in Canadian tar sands, Venezuelan extra-heavy crude, and U.S. shale oil (also called “tight oil”).

By definition, unconventional fuels are harder to produce, refine, and transport than conventional ones.  In most cases, this means that more energy is consumed in their extraction than in the exploitation of conventional fuels, with more carbon dioxide being emitted per unit of energy produced.  As is especially the case with fracking, the extraction of unconventional fuels normally requires significant infusions of water, raising the possibility of competition and conflict among major water consumers over access to supplies that, by 2040, will be severely threatened by climate change.

Relentless Growth in Carbon Emissions

By 2040, humanity will be burning far more fossil fuels than today: 673 quadrillion BTUs, compared to 440 quadrillion in 2010.   The continued dominance of fossil fuels, rising coal demand, and a growing reliance on unconventional sources of supply can only have one outcome, as the IEO makes clear: a huge jump in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.

Carbon dioxide is the most prominent of the anthropogenic greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere, and the combustion of fossil fuels is the primary source of that CO2; hence, the IEO’s projections on energy-related carbon emissions constitute an important measure of humankind’s ongoing role in heating the planet.

And here’s the bad news: as a result of the continued reliance on fossil fuels, global carbon emissions from energy are projected to increase by a stunning 46% between 2010 and 2040, jumping from 31.2 billion to 45.5 billion metric tons.  No more ominous sign could be found of the kind of runaway global warming likely to be experienced in the decades to come than this grim figure.

In the IEO projections, all fossil fuels and all of the major consuming regions contribute to this nightmarish future, but coal is the greatest culprit.  Of the extra 14.3 billion metric tons of CO2 to be added to global emissions over the next 30 years, 6.8 billion, or 48%, will be generated by the combustion of coal.  Because most of the increase in coal consumption is occurring in China and India, these two countries will have a major responsibility for accelerating the pace of global warming. China alone is expected to contribute half of the added CO2 in these decades; India, 11%.

New Geopolitical Tensions

Finally, the 2013 edition of International Energy Outlook is rife with hints of possible new geopolitical tensions generated by these developments.  Of particular interest to its authors are the international implications of humanity’s growing reliance on unconventional sources of energy.  While the know-how to extract conventional energy resources is by now widely available, the specialized technology needed to exploit shale gas, tar sands, and other such materials is far less so, giving a clear economic advantage in the IEO’s projected energy future to countries which possess these capabilities.

One consequence, already evident, is the dramatic turnaround in America’s energy status.  Just a few years ago, many analysts were bemoaning the growing reliance of the United States on energy imports from Africa and the Middle East, with an attendant vulnerability to overseas chaos and conflict.  Now, thanks to American leadership in the development of shale and other unconventional resources, the U.S. is becoming less dependent on imported energy and so finds itself in a stronger position to dominate the global energy marketplace.

In one of many celebratory passages on these developments, the IEO affirms that a key to “increasing natural gas production has been advances in the application of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technologies, which made it possible to develop the country’s vast shale gas resources and contributed to a near doubling of total U.S. technically recoverable natural gas resource estimates over the past decade.” 

At the same time, the report asserts that energy-producing countries that fail to gain mastery over these new technologies will be at a significant disadvantage in the energy marketplace of 2040. Russia is particularly vulnerable in this regard: heavily dependent on oil and gas revenues to finance government operations, it faces a significant decline in output from its conventional reserves and so must turn to unconventional supplies; its ability to acquire the needed technologies will, however, be hindered by its historically poor treatment of foreign companies.

China is also said to face significant challenges in the new energy environment.  Simply to meet the country’s growing need for energy is likely to prove an immense challenge for its leaders, given the magnitude of its requirements and the limits to China’s domestic supplies.  As the world’s fastest growing consumer of oil and gas, an increasing share of its energy supplies must be imported, posing the same sort of dependency problems that until recently plagued American leaders.  The country does possess substantial reserves of shale gas, but lacking the skills needed to exploit them, is unlikely to become a significant producer for years to come.

The IEO does not discuss the political implications of all this.  However, top U.S. leaders, from the president on down, have been asserting that America’s mastery of new energy technologies is contributing to the nation’s economic vitality, and so enhancing its overseas influence.  “America’s new energy posture allows us to engage from a position of greater strength,” said National Security Advisor Tom Donilon in an April speech at Columbia University.  “Increasing U.S. energy supplies act as a cushion that helps reduce our vulnerability to global supply disruptions and price shocks. It also affords us a stronger hand in pursuing and implementing our international security goals.”

The Department of Energy’s report avoids such explicit language, but no one reading it could doubt that its authors are thinking along similar lines.  Indeed, the whole report can be viewed as providing ammunition for the pundits and politicians who argue that the emerging global energy equation is unusually propitious for the United States (so long, of course, as everyone ignores the effects of climate change) — an assessment that can only energize advocates of a more assertive U.S. stance abroad.

The World of 2040

The 2013 International Energy Outlook offers us a revealing peek into the thinking of U.S. government experts — and their assessment of the world of 2040 should depress us all.  But make no mistake, none of this can be said to constitute a reliable picture of what the world will actually look like at that time.

Many of the projected trends are likely to be altered, possibly unrecognizably, thanks to unforeseen developments of every sort, especially in the climate realm.  Nonetheless, the massive investments now being made in conventional and unconventional oil and gas operations will ensure that these fuels play a significant role in the energy mix for a long time to come — and this, in turn, means that international efforts to slow the pace of planetary warming are likely to be frustrated.  Similarly, Washington’s determination to maintain U.S. dominance in the exploitation of unconventional fuel resources, combined with the desires of Chinese and Russian leaders to cut into the American lead in this field, is guaranteed to provoke friction and distrust in the decades to come.

If the trends identified in the Department of Energy report prove enduring, then the world of 2040 will be one of ever-rising temperatures and sea levels, ever more catastrophic storms, ever fiercer wildfires, ever more devastating droughts.  Can there, in fact, be a sadder conclusion when it comes to our future than the IEO’s insistence that, among all the resource shortages humanity may face in the decades to come, fossil fuels will be spared? Thanks to the exploitation of advanced technologies to extract “tough energy” globally, they will remain relatively abundant for decades to come.

So just how reliable is the IEO assessment?  Personally, I suspect that its scenarios will prove a good deal less than accurate for an obvious enough reason.  As the severity and destructiveness of climate change becomes increasingly evident in our lives, ever more people will be pressing governments around the world to undertake radical changes in global energy behavior and rein in the power of the giant energy companies.  This, in turn, will lead to a substantially greater emphasis on investment in the development of alternative energy systems plus significantly less reliance on fossil fuels than the IEO anticipates. 

Make no mistake about it, though: the major fossil fuel producers — the world’s giant oil, gas, and coal corporations — are hardly going to acquiesce to this shift without a fight.  Given their staggering profits and their determination to perpetuate the fossil-fuel era for as a long as possible, they will employ every means at their command to postpone the age of renewables.  Eventually, however, the destructive effects of climate change will prove so severe and inescapable that the pressure to embrace changes in energy behavior will undoubtedly overpower the energy industry’s resistance.

Unfortunately, none of us can actually see into the future and so no one can know when such a shift will take place.  But here’s a simple reality: it had better happen before 2040 or, as the saying goes, our goose is cooked.

Michael Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left, just published in paperback by Picador. A documentary movie based on his book Blood and Oil can be previewed and ordered at www.bloodandoilmovie.com. You can follow Klare on Facebook by clicking here. 

[Note to readers: As most of this text is based on a single document, International Energy Outlook 2013, there are fewer hyperlinks to source material than is usual in my pieces.  The report itself can be viewed by clicking here.]

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 Michael T. Klare

Nick Turse, AFRICOM’s Gigantic “Small Footprint”

6:31 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’s a question for you: Can a military tiptoe onto a continent? It seems the unlikeliest of images, and yet it’s a reasonable enough description of what the U.S. military has been doing ever since the Pentagon created an Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2007. It’s been slipping, sneaking, creeping into Africa, deploying ever more forces in ever more ways doing ever more things at ever more facilities in ever more countries — and in a fashion so quiet, so covert, that just about no American has any idea this is going on.  One day, when an already destabilizing Africa explodes into various forms of violence, the U.S. military will be in the middle of it and Americans will suddenly wonder how in the world this could have happened. 

In the Cold War years, while proxy battles took place between U.S.- and Soviet-backed forces in Angola and other African lands, the U.S. military, which by then had garrisoned much of the planet, was noticeably absent from the continent.  No longer.  And no one who might report on it seems to be paying attention as a downsizing media evidently sees no future in anticipating America’s future wars.  In fact, with the exception of Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post, it’s hard to think of any journalist who has dug into the fast-expanding American role in Africa. 

Enter TomDispatch’s Nick Turse.  When it comes to American military plans for that continent, he has been doing the work of the rest of the American foreign press corps on his own.  For the last two years, while his bestselling book on the Vietnam War, Kill Anything That Moves, was being published, he has been carefully tracking and mapping the growing American military presence in Africa, exploring the way those moves may actually be helping to destabilize the continent, and doing his best to make sure that U.S. planning for future wars there doesn’t go unnoticed and unreported. 

Today, he puts his work — and his efforts to mine resistant AFRICOM spokespeople for information — into a single panorama of everything a fine reporter and outsider can possibly know now about Washington’s ongoing militarization of Africa.  It’s a grim tale of the way, via a hush-hush version of mission creep, the Pentagon and AFRICOM are turning Africa into a battlefield of the future.  Don’t say you weren’t warned — at TomDispatch. Tom

The Pivot to Africa
The Startling Size, Scope, and Growth of U.S. Military Operations on the African Continent
By Nick Turse

They’re involved in Algeria and Angola, Benin and Botswana, Burkina Faso and Burundi, Cameroon and the Cape Verde Islands.  And that’s just the ABCs of the situation.  Skip to the end of the alphabet and the story remains the same: Senegal and the Seychelles, Togo and Tunisia, Uganda and Zambia.  From north to south, east to west, the Horn of Africa to the Sahel, the heart of the continent to the islands off its coasts, the U.S. military is at work.  Base construction, security cooperation engagements, training exercises, advisory deployments, special operations missions, and a growing logistics network, all undeniable evidence of expansion — except at U.S. Africa Command.

To hear AFRICOM tell it, U.S. military involvement on the continent ranges from the miniscule to the microscopic.  The command is adamant that it has only a single “military base” in all of Africa: Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti.  The head of the command insists that the U.S. military maintains a “small footprint” on the continent. AFRICOM’s chief spokesman has consistently minimized the scope of its operations and the number of facilities it maintains or shares with host nations, asserting that only “a small presence of personnel who conduct short-duration engagements” are operating from “several locations” on the continent at any given time. 

With the war in Iraq over and the conflict in Afghanistan winding down, the U.S. military is deploying its forces far beyond declared combat zones.  In recent years, for example, Washington has very publicly proclaimed a “pivot to Asia,” a “rebalancing” of its military resources eastward, without actually carrying out wholesale policy changes.  Elsewhere, however, from the Middle East to South America, the Pentagon is increasingly engaged in shadowy operations whose details emerge piecemeal and are rarely examined in a comprehensive way.  Nowhere is this truer than in Africa.  To the media and the American people, officials insist the U.S. military is engaged in small-scale, innocuous operations there.  Out of public earshot, officers running America’s secret wars say: “Africa is the battlefield of tomorrow, today.”

The proof is in the details — a seemingly ceaseless string of projects, operations, and engagements.  Each mission, as AFRICOM insists, may be relatively limited and each footprint might be “small” on its own, but taken as a whole, U.S. military operations are sweeping and expansive.  Evidence of an American pivot to Africa is almost everywhere on the continent.  Few, however, have paid much notice.


The U.S. Military’s Pivot to Africa, 2012-2013 (key below article) ©2013 TomDispatch ©Google

If the proverbial picture is worth a thousand words, then what’s a map worth? Take, for instance, the one created by TomDispatch that documents U.S. military outposts, construction, security cooperation, and deployments in Africa.  It looks like a field of mushrooms after a monsoon.  U.S. Africa Command recognizes 54 countries on the continent, but refuses to say in which ones (or even in how many) it now conducts operations. An investigation by TomDispatch has found recent U.S. military involvement with no fewer than 49 African nations

In some, the U.S. maintains bases, even if under other names. In others, it trains local partners and proxies to battle militants ranging from Somalia’s al-Shabab and Nigeria’s Boko Haram to members of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.  Elsewhere, it is building facilities for its allies or infrastructure for locals. Many African nations are home to multiple U.S. military projects. Despite what AFRICOM officials say, a careful reading of internal briefings, contracts, and other official documents, as well as open source information, including the command’s own press releases and news items, reveals that military operations in Africa are already vast and will be expanding for the foreseeable future. 

A Base by Any Other Name…

What does the U.S. military footprint in Africa look like? Colonel Tom Davis, AFRICOM’s Director of Public Affairs, is unequivocal: “Other than our base at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, we do not have military bases in Africa, nor do we have plans to establish any.” He admits only that the U.S. has “temporary facilities elsewhere… that support much smaller numbers of personnel, usually for a specific activity.” 

AFRICOM’s chief of media engagement Benjamin Benson echoes this, telling me that it’s almost impossible to offer a list of forward operating bases. “Places that [U.S. forces] might be, the range of possible locations can get really big, but can provide a really skewed image of where we are… versus other places where we have ongoing operations. So, in terms of providing a number, I’d be at a loss of how to quantify this.” 

A briefing prepared last year by Captain Rick Cook, the chief of AFRICOM’s Engineering Division, tells a different story, making reference to forward operating sites or FOSes (long-term locations), cooperative security locations or CSLs (which troops periodically rotate in and out of), and contingency locations or CLs (which are used only during ongoing operations). A separate briefing prepared last year by Lieutenant Colonel David Knellinger references seven cooperative security locations across Africa whose whereabouts are classified.  A third briefing, produced in July of 2012 by U.S. Army Africa, identifies one of the CSL sites as Entebbe, Uganda, a location from which U.S. contractors have flown secret surveillance missions using innocuous-looking, white Pilatus PC-12 turboprop airplanes, according to an investigation by the Washington Post

The 2012 U.S. Army Africa briefing materials obtained by TomDispatch reference plans to build six new gates to the Entebbe compound, 11 new “containerized housing units,” new guard stations, new perimeter and security fencing, enhanced security lighting and new concrete access ramps, among other improvements.   Satellite photos indicate that many, if not all, of these upgrades have, indeed, taken place. 


Entebbe Cooperative Security Location, Entebbe, Uganda, in 2009 and 2013 ©2013 Google ©2013 Digital Globe

A 2009 image (above left) shows a barebones compound of dirt and grass tucked away on a Ugandan air base with just a few aircraft surrounding it.  A satellite photo of the compound from earlier this year (above right) shows a strikingly more built-up camp surrounded by a swarm of helicopters and white airplanes. 

Initially, AFRICOM’s Benjamin Benson refused to comment on the construction or the number of aircraft, insisting that the command had no “public information” about it. Confronted with the 2013 satellite photo, Benson reviewed it and offered a reply that neither confirmed nor denied that the site was a U.S. facility, but cautioned me about using “uncorroborated data.” (Benson failed to respond to my request to corroborate the data through a site visit.) “I have no way of knowing where the photo was taken and how it was modified,” he told me. “Assuming the location is Entebbe, as you suggest, I would again argue that the aircraft could belong to anyone… It would be irresponsible of me to speculate on the missions, roles, or ownership of these aircraft.” He went on to suggest, however, that the aircraft might belong to the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) which does have a presence at the Entebbe air base. A request for comment from MONUSCO went unanswered before this article went to press.

This buildup may only be the beginning for Entebbe CSL. Recent contracting documents examined by TomDispatch indicate that AFRICOM is considering an additional surge of air assets there — specifically hiring a private contractor to provide further “dedicated fixed-wing airlift services for movement of Department of Defense (DoD) personnel and cargo in the Central African Region.” This mercenary air force would keep as many as three planes in the air at the same time on any given day, logging a total of about 70 to 100 hours per week. If the military goes ahead with these plans, the aircraft would ferry troops, weapons, and other materiel within Uganda and to the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan.

Another key, if little noticed, U.S. outpost in Africa is located in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. An airbase there serves as the home of a Joint Special Operations Air Detachment, as well as the Trans-Sahara Short Take-Off and Landing Airlift Support initiative. According to military documents, that “initiative” supports “high-risk activities” carried out by elite forces from Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans Sahara. Lieutenant Colonel Scott Rawlinson, a spokesman for Special Operations Command Africa, told me that it provides “emergency casualty evacuation support to small team engagements with partner nations throughout the Sahel,” although official documents note that such actions have historically accounted for only 10% of its monthly flight hours. 

While Rawlinson demurred from discussing the scope of the program, citing operational security concerns, military documents again indicate that, whatever its goals, it is expanding rapidly. Between March and December 2012, for example, the initiative flew 233 sorties. In the first three months of this year, it carried out 193.

In July, Berry Aviation, a Texas-based longtime Pentagon contractor, was awarded a nearly $50 million contract to provide aircraft and personnel for “Trans-Sahara Short Take-Off and Landing services.”  Under the terms of the deal, Berry will “perform casualty evacuation, personnel airlift, cargo airlift, as well as personnel and cargo aerial delivery services throughout the Trans-Sahara of Africa,” according to a statement from the company. Contracting documents indicate that Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tunisia are the “most likely locations for missions.”

Special Ops in Africa

Ouagadougou is just one site for expanding U.S. air operations in Africa.  Last year, the 435th Military Construction Flight (MCF) — a rapid-response mobile construction team — revitalized an airfield in South Sudan for Special Operations Command Africa, according to the unit’s commander, Air Force lieutenant Alexander Graboski.  Before that, the team also “installed a runway lighting system to enable 24-hour operations” at the outpost.  Graboski states that the Air Force’s 435th MCF “has been called upon many times by Special Operations Command Africa to send small teams to perform work in austere locations.” This trend looks as if it will continue. According to a briefing prepared earlier this year by Hugh Denny of the Army Corps of Engineers, plans have been drawn up for Special Operations Command Africa “operations support” facilities to be situated in “multiple locations.” 

AFRICOM spokesman Benjamin Benson refused to answer questions about SOCAFRICA facilities, and would not comment on the locations of missions by an elite, quick-response force known as Naval Special Warfare Unit 10 (NSWU 10).  But according to Captain Robert Smith, the commander of Naval Special Warfare Group Two, NSWU 10 has been engaged “with strategic countries such as Uganda, Somalia, [and] Nigeria.” 

Captain J. Dane Thorleifson, NSWU 10’s outgoing commander, recently mentioned deployments in six “austere locations” in Africa and “every other month contingency operations — Libya, Tunisia, [and] POTUS,” evidently a reference to President Obama’s three-nation trip to Africa in July.  Thorleifson, who led the unit from July 2011 to July 2013, also said NSWU 10 had been involved in training “proxy” forces, specifically “building critical host nation security capacity; enabling, advising, and assisting our African CT [counterterror] partner forces so they can swiftly counter and destroy al-Shabab, AQIM [Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb], and Boko Haram.”

Nzara in South Sudan is one of a string of shadowy forward operating posts on the continent where U.S. Special Operations Forces have been stationed in recent years. Other sites include Obo and Djema in the Central Africa Republic and Dungu in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  According to Lieutenant Colonel Guillaume Beaurpere, the commander of the 3rd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group, “advisory assistance at forward outposts was directly responsible for the establishment of combined operations fusion centers where military commanders, local security officials, and a host of international and non-governmental organizations could share information about regional insurgent activity and coordinate military activities with civil authorities.”

Drone bases are also expanding.  In February, the U.S. announced the establishment of a new drone facility in Niger.  Later in the spring, AFRICOM spokesman Benjamin Benson confirmed to TomDispatch that U.S. air operations conducted from Base Aerienne 101 at Diori Hamani International Airport in Niamey, Niger’s capital, were providing “support for intelligence collection with French forces conducting operations in Mali and with other partners in the region.”  More recently, the New York Times noted that what began as the deployment of one Predator drone to Niger had expanded to encompass daily flights by one of two larger, more advanced Reaper remotely piloted aircraft, supported by 120 Air Force personnel.  Additionally, the U.S. has flown drones out of the Seychelles Islands and Ethiopia’s Arba Minch Airport. 

When it comes to expanding U.S. outposts in Africa, the Navy has also been active.  It maintains a forward operating location — manned mostly by Seabees, Civil Affairs personnel, and force-protection troops — known as Camp Gilbert in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia.  Since 2004, U.S. troops have been stationed at a Kenyan naval base known as Camp Simba at Manda Bay.  AFRICOM’s Benson portrayed operations there as relatively minor, typified by “short-term training and engagement activities.”  The 60 or so “core” troops stationed there, he said, are also primarily Civil Affairs, Seabees, and security personnel who take part in “military-to-military engagements with Kenyan forces and humanitarian initiatives.” 

An AFRICOM briefing earlier this year suggested, however, that the base is destined to be more than a backwater post.  It called attention to improvements in water and power infrastructure and an extension of the runway at the airfield, as well as greater “surge capacity” for bringing in forces in the future.  A second briefing, prepared by the Navy and obtained by TomDispatch, details nine key infrastructure upgrades that are on the drawing board, underway, or completed. 

In addition to extending and improving that runway, they include providing more potable water storage, latrines, and lodgings to accommodate a future “surge” of troops, doubling the capacity of washer and dryer units, upgrading dining facilities, improving roadways and boat ramps, providing fuel storage, and installing a new generator to handle additional demands for power.  In a March article in the National Journal, James Kitfield, who visited the base, shed additional light on expansion there.  “Navy Seabee engineers,” he wrote, “…have been working round-the-clock shifts for months to finish a runway extension before the rainy season arrives. Once completed, it will allow larger aircraft like C-130s to land and supply Americans or African Union troops.”

AFRICOM’s Benson tells TomDispatch that the U.S. military also makes use of six buildings located on Kenyan military bases at the airport and seaport of Mombasa.  In addition, he verified that it has used Léopold Sédar Senghor International Airport in Senegal for refueling stops as well as the “transportation of teams participating in security cooperation activities” such as training missions.  He confirmed a similar deal for the use of Addis Ababa Bole International Airport in Ethiopia. 

While Benson refused additional comment, official documents indicate that the U.S. has similar agreements for the use of Nsimalen Airport and Douala International Airport in Cameroon, Amílcar Cabral International Airport and Praia International Airport in Cape Verde, N’Djamena International Airport in Chad, Cairo International Airport in Egypt, Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and Moi International Airport in Kenya, Kotoka International Airport in Ghana, ‎ Marrakech-Menara Airport in Morocco, Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Nigeria, Seychelles International Airport in the Seychelles, Sir Seretse Khama International Airport in Botswana, Bamako-Senou International Airport in Mali, and Tunis-Carthage International Airport in Tunisia.  ‎All told, according to Sam Cooks, a liaison officer with the Defense Logistics Agency, the U.S. military now has 29 agreements to use international airports in Africa as refueling centers. 

In addition, U.S. Africa Command has built a sophisticated logistics system, officially known as the AFRICOM Surface Distribution Network, but colloquially referred to as the “new spice route.” It connects posts in Manda Bay, Garissa, and Mombasa in Kenya, Kampala and Entebbe in Uganda, Dire Dawa in Ethiopia, as well as crucial port facilities used by the Navy’s CTF-53 (“Commander, Task Force, Five Three”) in Djibouti, which are collectively referred to as “the port of Djibouti” by the military.  Other key ports on the continent, according to Lieutenant Colonel Wade Lawrence of U.S. Transportation Command, include Ghana’s Tema and Senegal’s Dakar. 

The U.S. maintains 10 marine gas and oil bunker locations in eight African nations, according to the Defense Logistics Agency. AFRICOM’s Benjamin Benson refuses to name the countries, but recent military contracting documents list key fuel bunker locations in Douala, Cameroon; Mindelo, Cape Verde; Abidjan, Cote D’Ivoire; Port Gentil, Gabon; Sekondi, Ghana; Mombasa, Kenya; Port Luis, Mauritius; Walvis Bay, Namibia; Lagos, Nigeria; Port Victoria, Seychelles; Durban, South Africa; and Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. 

The U.S. also continues to maintain a long-time Naval Medical Research Unit, known as NAMRU-3, in Cairo, Egypt.  Another little-noticed medical investigation component, the U.S. Army Research Unit – Kenya, operates from facilities in Kisumu and Kericho.

(In and) Out of Africa

When considering the scope and rapid expansion of U.S. military activities in Africa, it’s important to keep in mind that certain key “African” bases are actually located off the continent.  Keeping a semblance of a “light footprint” there, AFRICOM’s headquarters is located at Kelley Barracks in Stuttgart-Moehringen, Germany.  In June, Süddeutsche Zeitung reported that the base in Stuttgart and the U.S. Air Force’s Air Operations Center in Ramstein were both integral to drone operations in Africa.

Key logistics support hubs for AFRICOM are located in Rota, Spain; Aruba in the Lesser Antilles; and Souda Bay, Greece, as well as at Ramstein.  The command also maintains a forward operating site on Britain’s Ascension Island, located about 1,000 miles off the coast of Africa in the South Atlantic, but refused requests for further information about its role in operations. 

Another important logistics facility is located in Sigonella on the island of Sicily. Italy, it turns out, is an especially crucial component of U.S. operations in Africa.  Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Africa, which provides teams of Marines and sailors for “small-footprint theater security cooperation engagements” across the continent, is based at Naval Air Station Sigonella.  It has, according to AFRICOM’s Benjamin Benson, recently deployed personnel to Botswana, Liberia, Djibouti, Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Tunisia, and Senegal.

In the future, U.S. Army Africa will be based at Caserma Del Din in northern Italy, adjacent to the recently completed home of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team.  A 2012 U.S. Army Africa briefing indicates that construction projects at the Caserma Del Din base will continue through 2018. The reported price-tag for the entire complex:  $310 million.  

A Big Base Gets Bigger

While that sum is sizeable, it’s surpassed by spending on the lone official U.S. base on the African continent, Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti.  That former French Foreign Legion post has been on a decade-long growth spurt. 

In 2002, the U.S. dispatched personnel to Africa as part of Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA).  The next year, CJTF-HOA took up residence at Camp Lemonnier, where it resides to this day.  In 2005, the U.S. struck a five-year land-use agreement with the Djiboutian government and exercised the first of two five-year renewal options in late 2010.  In 2006, the U.S. signed a separate agreement to expand the camp’s boundaries to 500 acres.

According to AFRICOM’s Benson, between 2009 and 2012, $390 million was spent on construction at Camp Lemonnier.  In recent years, the outpost was transformed by the addition of an electric power plant, enhanced water storage and treatment facilities, a dining hall, more facilities for Special Operations Command, and the expansion of aircraft taxiways and parking aprons. 

A briefing prepared earlier this year by the Naval Facilities Engineering Command lists a plethora of projects currently underway or poised to begin, including an aircraft maintenance hangar, a telecommunications facility, a fire station, additional security fencing, an ammunition supply facility, interior paved roads, a general purpose warehouse, maintenance shelters for aircraft, an aircraft logistics apron, taxiway enhancements, expeditionary lodging, a combat aircraft loading apron, and a taxiway extension on the east side of the airfield. 

Navy documents detail the price tag of this year’s proposed projects, including $7.5 million to be spent on containerized living units and workspaces, $22 million for cold storage and the expansion of dining facilities, $27 million for a fitness center, $43 million for a joint headquarters facility, and a whopping $220 million for a Special Operations Compound, also referred to as “Task Force Compound.”


Plans for Construction of the Special Operations or “Task Force” Compound at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti

According to a 2012 briefing by Lieutenant Colonel David Knellinger, the Special Operations Compound will eventually include at least 18 new facilities, including a two-story joint operations center, a two-story tactical operations center, two five-story barracks, a large motor pool facility, a supply warehouse, and an aircraft hangar with an adjacent air operations center.   

A document produced earlier this year by Lieutenant Troy Gilbert, an infrastructure planner with AFRICOM’s engineer division, lists almost $400 million in “emergency” military construction at Camp Lemonnier, including work on the special operations compound and more than $150 million for a new combat aircraft loading area.  Navy documents, for their part, estimate that construction at Camp Lemonnier will continue at $70 million to $100 million annually, with future projects to include a $20 million wastewater treatment plant, a $40 million medical and dental center, and more than $150 million in troop housing.

Rules of Engagement

In addition, the U.S. military has been supporting construction all over Africa for its allies.  A report by Hugh Denny of the Army Corps of Engineers issued earlier this year references 79 such projects in 33 countries between 2011 and 2013, including Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Chad, Cote D’Ivoire, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Swaziland, Tanzania, Tunisia, The Gambia, Togo, Uganda, and Zambia.  The reported price-tag: $48 million.

Senegal has, for example, received a $1.2 million “peacekeeping operations training center” under the auspices of the U.S. Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance (ACOTA) program. ACOTA has also supported training center projects in Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Niger, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania, Togo, and Uganda.

The U.S. is planning to finance the construction of barracks and other facilities for Ghana’s armed forces.  AFRICOM’s Benson also confirmed to TomDispatch that the Army Corps of Engineers has plans to “equip and refurbish five military border security posts in Djibouti along the Somalia/Somaliland border.”  In Kenya, U.S. Special Operations Forces have “played a crucial role in infrastructure investments for the Kenyan Special Operations Regiment and especially in the establishment of the Kenyan Ranger school,” according to Lieutenant Colonel Guillaume Beaurpere of the 3rd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group.

AFRICOM’s “humanitarian assistance” program is also expansive.  A 2013 Navy briefing lists $7.1 million in humanitarian construction projects — like schools, orphanages, and medical facilities — in 19 countries from Comoros and Guinea-Bissau to Rwanda.  Hugh Denny’s report also lists nine Army Corps of Engineers “security assistance” efforts, valued at more than $12 million, carried out during 2012 and 2013, as well as 15 additional “security cooperation” projects worth more than $22 million in countries across Africa.

A Deluge of Deployments

In addition to creating or maintaining bases and engaging in military construction across the continent, the U.S. is involved in near constant training and advisory missions.  According to AFRICOM’s Colonel Tom Davis, the command is slated to carry out 14 major bilateral and multilateral exercises by the end of this year.  These include Saharan Express 2013, which brought together forces from Cape Verde, Cote d’Ivoire, The Gambia, Liberia, Mauritania, Morocco, Senegal, and Sierra Leone, among other nations, for maritime security training; Obangame Express 2013, a counter-piracy exercise involving the armed forces of many nations, including Benin, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Nigeria, Republic of Congo, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Togo; and Africa Endeavor 2013, in which the militaries of Djibouti, Burundi, Cote d’Ivoire, Zambia, and 34 other African nations took part.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  As Davis told TomDispatch, “We also conduct some type of military training or military-to-military engagement or activity with nearly every country on the African continent.”  A cursory look at just some of U.S. missions this spring drives home the true extent of the growing U.S. engagement in Africa. 

In January, for instance, the U.S. Air Force began transporting French troops to Mali to counter Islamist forces there.  At a facility in Nairobi, Kenya, AFRICOM provided military intelligence training to junior officers from Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and South Sudan.  In January and February, Special Operations Forces personnel conducted a joint exercise code-named Silent Warrior with Cameroonian soldiers.  February saw South African troops travel all the way to Chiang Mai, Thailand, to take part in Cobra Gold 2013, a multinational training exercise cosponsored by the U.S. military.

In March, Navy personnel worked with members of Cape Verde’s armed forces, while Kentucky National Guard troops spent a week advising soldiers from the Comoros Islands.  That same month, members of Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Africa deployed to the Singo Peace Support Training Center in Uganda to work with Ugandan soldiers prior to their assignment to the African Union Mission in Somalia.  Over the course of the spring, members of the task force would also mentor local troops in Burundi, Cameroon, Ghana, Burkina Faso, the Seychelles, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Liberia.

In April, members of the task force also began training Senegalese commandos at Bel-Air military base in Dakar, while Navy personnel deployed to Mozambique to school civilians in demining techniques. Meanwhile, Marines traveled to Morocco to conduct a training exercise code-named African Lion 13 with that country’s military.  In May, Army troops were sent to Lomé, Togo, to work with members of the Togolese Defense Force, as well as to Senga Bay, Malawi, to instruct soldiers there.

That same month, Navy personnel conducted a joint exercise in the Mediterranean Sea with their Egyptian counterparts.  In June, personnel from the Kentucky National Guard deployed to Djibouti to advise members of that country’s military on border security methods, while Seabees teamed up with the Tanzanian People’s Defense Force to build maritime security infrastructure.  That same month, the Air Force airlifted Liberian troops to Bamako, Mali, to conduct a six-month peacekeeping operation.

Limited or Limitless?

Counting countries in which it has bases or outposts or has done construction, and those with which it has conducted military exercises, advisory assignments, security cooperation, or training missions, the U.S. military, according to TomDispatch’s analysis, is involved with more than 90% of Africa’s 54 nations. While AFRICOM commander David Rodriguez maintains that the U.S. has only a “small footprint” on the continent, following those small footprints across the continent can be a breathtaking task.

It’s not hard to imagine why the U.S. military wants to maintain that “small footprint” fiction.  On occasion, military commanders couldn’t have been clearer on the subject.  “A direct and overt presence of U.S. forces on the African continent can cause consternation… with our own partners who take great pride in their post-colonial abilities to independently secure themselves,” wrote Lieutenant Colonel Guillaume Beaurpere earlier this year in the military trade publication Special Warfare. Special Operations Forces, he added, “must train to operate discreetly within these constraints and the cultural norms of the host nation.”

On a visit to the Pentagon earlier this summer, AFRICOM’s Rodriguez echoed the same point in candid comments to Voice of America: “The history of the African nations, the colonialism, all those things are what point to the reasons why we should… just use a small footprint.”

And yet, however useful that imagery may be to the Pentagon, the U.S. military no longer has a small footprint in Africa.  Even the repeated claims that U.S. troops conduct only short-term. intermittent missions there has been officially contradicted.  This July, at a change of command ceremony for Naval Special Warfare Unit 10, a spokesman noted the creation and implementation of “a five-year engagement strategy that encompassed the transition from episodic training events to regionally-focused and persistent engagements in five Special Operations Command Africa priority countries.”

In a question-and-answer piece in Special Warfare earlier this year, Colonel John Deedrick, the commander of the 10th Special Forces Group, sounded off about his unit’s area of responsibility.  “We are widely employed throughout the continent,” he said. “These are not episodic activities.  We are there 365-days-a-year to share the burden, assist in shaping the environment, and exploit opportunities.” 

Exploitation and “persistent engagement” are exactly what critics of U.S. military involvement in Africa have long feared, while blowback and the unforeseen consequences of U.S. military action on the continent have already contributed to catastrophic destabilization.

Despite some candid admissions by officers involved in shadowy operations, however, AFRICOM continues to insist that troop deployments are highly circumscribed.  The command will not, however, allow independent observers to make their own assessments.  Benson said AFRICOM does not “have a media visit program to regularly host journalists there.” 

My own requests to report on U.S. operations on the continent were, in fact, rejected in short order.  “We will not make an exception in this case,” Benson wrote in a recent email and followed up by emphasizing that U.S. forces are deployed in Africa only “on a limited and temporary basis.”  TomDispatch’s own analysis — and a mere glance at the map of recent missions — indicates that there are, in fact, very few limits on where the U.S. military operates in Africa. 

While Washington talks openly about rebalancing its military assets to Asia, a pivot to Africa is quietly and unmistakably underway.  With the ever-present possibility of blowback from shadowy operations on the continent, the odds are that the results of that pivot will become increasingly evident, whether or not Americans recognize them as such.  Behind closed doors, the military says: “Africa is the battlefield of tomorrow, today.”  It remains to be seen just when they’ll say the same to the American people.     

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com and a fellow at the Nation Institute.  An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and the Nation, on the BBC, and regularly at TomDispatch. He is the author most recently of the New York Times bestseller Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam.  You can catch his conversation with Bill Moyers about that book by clicking here.  His website is NickTurse.com 

Key to the Map of the U.S. Military’s Pivot to Africa, 2012-2013

Green markers: U.S. military training, advising, or tactical deployments during 2013
Yellow markers:
U.S. military training, advising, or tactical deployments during 2012
Purple marker:
U.S. “security cooperation”
Red markers:
Army National Guard partnerships
Blue markers:
U.S. bases, forward operating sites (FOSes), contingency security locations (CSLs), contingency locations (CLs), airports with fueling agreements, and various shared facilities
Green push pins:
U.S. military training/advising of indigenous troops carried out in a third country during 2013
Yellow push pins:
U.S. military training/advising of indigenous troops carried out in a third country during 2012

Copyright 2013 Nick Turse