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

8:39 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Debacle in Syria

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

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

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

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

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

Laughingstock in Egypt

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

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

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

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

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

Saudi and Israeli Punching Bag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iran: Obama’s Ironic Beacon of Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2013 Bob Dreyfuss

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

Tomgram: William Astore, War! What Is It Good For? Profit and Power

6:28 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.

It’s no news (and in fact rarely makes it off the inside pages of our newspapers) that the U.S. dominates — one might almost say monopolizes — the global arms market.  In 2011, the last year for which figures are available, U.S. weapons makers tripled their sales to $66.3 billion and were expected to remain in that range for 2012 as well.  In other words, they took 78% of the market that year, with Russia coming in a vanishingly distant second at $4.8 billion in sales.
PROFIT is our MOTIVE
This country has long had a special propensity for exporting things that go boom in the night: the products of both the military-industrial complex and Hollywood, each a near-monopoly in its particular market.  As it happened, on the very eve of a government shutdown, the Pentagon caught the spirit of the times by dumping $5 billion into the coffers of defense contractors for future weaponry and equipment of all sorts.  As TomDispatch regular Bill Astore writes today, the business of America has increasingly become war, so no one should be surprised that, even with the government officially shut down, the Obama administration didn’t turn off the lights in the offices where arms deals are a major focus of attention.  As Cora Currier of ProPublica recently reported, in those shutdown weeks, the administration, in fact, lent an especially helping hand to American arms dealers.  It loosened controls over military exports by moving the licensing process for foreign sales on “whole categories” of military equipment from the State Department (which, at least theoretically, has to consider the human rights records of countries slated to receive arms packages) to the Commerce Department, where, it seems, just about anything goes.  The big weapons firms have been lobbying for this for quite a while.

As Currier writes, “The switch from State to Commerce represents a big win for defense manufacturers, who have long lobbied in favor of relaxing U.S. export rules, which they say put a damper on international trade. Among the companies that recently lobbied on the issue: Lockheed, which manufactures C-130 transport planes, Textron, which makes Kiowa Warrior helicopters, and Honeywell, which outfits military choppers.”

So while the government may have been closed for you, if you were a child in need of government-funded meals or an abused woman in need of a shelter or a rancher whose cattle just died in a massive snowstorm, the government remained open and hard at work for the major weapons companies.  Oh, and if you were a reporter wanting to know more about the recent arms sales decision, then the shutdown got in your way, too.  As Currier adds, “An interview with Commerce Department officials was canceled due to the government shutdown, and the State Department did not respond to questions.” Let William Astore take it from there. Tom

The Business of America Is War
Disaster Capitalism on the Battlefield and in the Boardroom
By William J. Astore

There is a new normal in America: our government may shut down, but our wars continue.  Congress may not be able to pass a budget, but the U.S. military can still launch commando raids in Libya and Somalia, the Afghan War can still be prosecuted, Italy can be garrisoned by American troops (putting the “empire” back in Rome), Africa can be used as an imperial playground (as in the late nineteenth century “scramble for Africa,” but with the U.S. and China doing the scrambling this time around), and the military-industrial complex can still dominate the world’s arms trade. Read the rest of this entry →

Tomgram: Engelhardt, Advice from the Colonel

6:27 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 Etiquette of War and Surveillance
Letters to Colonel Manners (Ret.)
By Tom Engelhardt

[Editor’s Note: In the sequester and government-shutdown era, the classic military newspaper Stars and Stripes is facing some of the problems of its civilian brethren and so downsizing its print edition. Among the features to go: Dear Abby. As it happens, TomDispatch is ready to step into the breach.  We’ve called on an old and knowledgeable friend, Colonel Manners (ret.), whose experience in military and surveillance matters is evident from his impressive CV (unfortunately, a classified document). His assignment: to answer letters from Americans puzzled by the etiquette, manners, and language of the arcane national security world of Washington. Here is a first sampling from a column that, in syndication, could go global.]

Dear Col. Manners,

I’m an embattled newspaper editor.  Recently, I read a New Yorker piece by Ken Auletta that included this disturbing passage about the New York Times: “In early August, the Times was working on a story about an intercepted terror threat when James R. Clapper, the administration’s director of intelligence, asked the paper’s Washington bureau to withhold certain details. Clapper warned that, if the full version were made public, the Times ‘would have blood on our hands.’” The Times withheld those details.  However, with so many classified documents pouring out of Washington and the possibility that some might come into the possession of my paper, I worry about finding blood on my hands, too.  On a personal note, I’m extremely squeamish.  In college, I had to leave my biology class when the professor showed a film on Harvey’s discovery of the circulatory system.  While watching Grey’s Anatomy, I have to close my eyes whenever surgery comes on screen.  I grow faint if I get a paper cut.  Any suggestions?

Stressed and Bloody Anxious in Chicago

Dear Stressed and Bloody Anxious,

I see your problem.  Fortunately, I can assure you that it’s all in your head.  To understand why, you need to grasp a distinction that’s clear in Washington, but might be less so in Chicago.  When a government official suggests that an outsider might have “blood” on his or her hands — as happened repeatedly, for instance, during the Bradley Manning imbroglio – they are talking about prospective blood, future blood.  Negative reactions to blood, according to scientific studies, are due, in part, to its alarming red color.  Future blood, being metaphorical, is not red.  If it gets on your hands, you will not actually “see” it.

In Washington, this is similarly true of past blood.  Take National Intelligence Director Clapper.  From 2001-2006, he was the director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, then undersecretary of defense for intelligence, before being nominated in the Obama years to head the office of national intelligence.  In other words, he has served in Washington throughout the Iraq and Afghan Wars, as well as the Global War on Terror.  Like many Washington officials, military and civilian, who supported the American global mission in those years, he might be said to have some responsibility for any number of deaths and so to have “blood on his hands.”  Think of the almost 4,500 Americans who died in Iraq or the nearly 2,300 who have, thus far, died in Afghanistan, or the tens of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans who died in those years.

Now, here’s the point: Washington is not disturbed by such blood.  The reason is simple.  It, too, can’t be seen.  I’ve met Clapper and I can assure you that, when he shakes your hand, there is not the slightest trace of a reddish tint anywhere on it.  (He’s got an impressively firm grip, by the way!)  This, I hope, will lighten your unnecessarily grim mood.  Like so many other stalwarts in our national security universe, Clapper is a model.  He is unfazed, and his “blood” is far more real than the highly speculative and metaphorical blood that might someday be on your hands for a killing related to the release of a classified document.  Note that, despite the appearance of startling numbers of such documents in recent years, there is no record of prospective blood actually being spilled.

Yours truly,
Col. Manners (ret.)  

***

Dear Col. Manners,

As the owner of a furniture store in Kalamazoo, Michigan, I’ve been worried about our competitors, especially IKEA, getting a step on us.  So here’s what I want to know: recently, speaking of Iran, President Obama said that he was keeping “all options on the table,” adding that “we will do anything to make sure Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon.”  I’ve noticed that this phrase has, since 9/11, grown ever more popular in Washington.  I was wondering about that table everyone is talking about.  Given that it seems to be reserved for major weapons systems of various sorts and nothing else (at least nothing else is ever mentioned), who manufactures such a table?  Can I order it somewhere?  Does it really exist or is it just an image meant to stand in for a future military assault on Iran (or wherever)?  Would it be too big to fit in my store?  I’m most appreciative for any information you could give me on the subject. 

Tabled in Kalamazoo

Dear Tabled in Kalamazoo,

That table is quite real.  I saw one once.  I obviously can’t say where, though it held a set of bunker-busting missiles.  I should add that it is not a table in the normal sense — i.e., one of those four-legged, flat-topped structures we tend to place in our dining rooms or kitchens.  Again, I can say no more.  Rest assured, however, that when the president says “all options are on the table,” he means it.  And you are quite accurate in pointing out that on such tables “all” the options are indeed military.  Though always referred to in the singular, in reality, there are a number of such tables for each country mentioned; the Syrian ones, for example, hold Tomahawk missiles and B-2 bombers; the Iranian ones, those bunker-busters, among other major weapons systems.

I don’t know if you noticed, but on the night before the recent government shutdown, the Pentagon went on a buying spree, dumping $5 billion into the accounts of major weapons makers (and others).  According to someone I trust in Washington, the intelligence community similarly dipped into its black budget accounts and bought a number of things, including at least three back-up “option tables” at a cost of millions of dollars.  (Again, I can’t tell you exactly how much.)  Unfortunately, you cannot purchase such products for your store.  The good news is that neither can IKEA.

Sincerely,
Col. Manners (ret.)

***

Dear Col. Manners,

I have to ask for your discretion, for reasons that will quickly become apparent.  There are 12 documented cases in which a National Security Agency employee used NSA surveillance programs to hack into a partner’s, lover’s, or romantic interest’s email or listen in on his or her phone calls.  And this is generally considered just “the tip of the iceberg.”  I am a civilian employee of the NSA.  Consider me the unlucky thirteenth case.  I know that such acts are sardonically known as LoveINT, but in my case that wasn’t it.  As I’ve told my former partner, I just wanted to know if she and a friend of ours were planning a surprise birthday party for me.  (I’m one of those people who doesn’t like to be caught off-guard.)

The Agency took no action against me, but my partner has never forgiven me.  (She’s now living with our former mutual friend.)  She still insists that I should apologize. I consider this irrational.  I say that no harm was done.  I’ve pointed out to her that the NSA hacked into the emails and phone calls of Dilma Rousseff, the Brazilian president, and the president of the United States has refused to apologize.  His only response was to launch a many months-long “broad review” of NSA practices.  (Believe me, there’s nothing to investigate.  We did it.)  As far as I can see, there’s an equivalency in the two cases: like my partner, Rousseff responded in an overly emotional way, calling off a long planned trip to Washington and later denouncing the U.S. at the United Nations.  Here’s my question: if the president doesn’t have to apologize, why should I?  Who’s in the right here?  Please settle this dispute for me.

Unlucky 13

Dear Unlucky 13,

I’m afraid that the rules of etiquette are different in the two cases you cite.  While I regret to tell you this, you are in the wrong and should apologize.  In our personal lives, it is important to say we’re sorry to those we treat badly, and hacking into your partner’s email is, by definition, bad manners. 

Similarly, on a global scale, if, say, the Argentinean government had hacked into President Rousseff’s email, an apology would indeed be in order.  It’s clearly not a good neighborly thing to do.  But I hardly need to add the obvious: the United States is not a normal nation.  It’s the planet’s sole superpower.  It goes by a different rulebook, which it writes itself, and that is as it should be.  So if we Americans have been playing by house rules in the case of the NSA and Rousseff, then what is there to apologize for?

It’s common knowledge that an American president does not apologize for the acts of his hackers or his soldiers or his spies or his officials or his drones.  In addition, it’s obvious that such an apology would be impractical and set this country on the road to hell.  After all, once a president stopped playing by the superpower rulebook and started apologizing, just consider the Pandora’s box he would open (without a hint of hope at the bottom).  If we were a normal nation, there would be a vast list of things he would have to apologize for, including, just in the last decade, kidnappings, torture, abuse, murder, imprisonment in black sites, assassination, and so on and so forth.

So, Unlucky 13, swallow your bad luck and say you’re sorry, but don’t ask the president to do the same.

Confidentially yours,
Col. Manners (ret.)

***

Dear Col. Manners,

I’m a housewife in Tulsa and I had a question for you about the president’s plan for a Syrian intervention.  I know that, in the end, it didn’t happen, and I hope you won’t think it’s frivolous of me to bring it up a month later, but I simply couldn’t get it out of my mind.  Here’s what I’ve been wondering about: Why is it called “humanitarian intervention” when the president’s (and Pentagon’s) plan, as best I understood it, was to loose Tomahawk missiles and bombers on Damascus?  I don’t see anything “human” or “humanitarian” in that.  And here’s another related question: why are such strikes always referred to as “surgical” and “precise” when, as far as I can tell, they invariably kill civilians?

Oklahoma Gal

Dear Oklahoma Gal,

Nothing frivolous about your thinking!  Let me start with that “surgically precise.”  The answer is: American weapons makers are the best in the world and so all of our latest weapons are indeed surgical and precise in their impact.  Keep in mind, however, that, as studies have shown, “surgically precise” is a term with significant latitude.  Consider, for instance, that, according to a report published in the Archives of Surgery, in a six-and-a-half-year period, Colorado doctors operated on the wrong patient at least 25 times, and another 107 times on the wrong body part.  So, surgically precise — yes, indeed!

As for that term “humanitarian intervention,” as you probably know, the Supreme Court long ago turned the corporation into a “person” for matters of law.  The Pentagon has functionally done the same thing for weapons like the Tomahawk missile for matters of war.  That transformation may not have the force of law, but it does have force, so to speak.  Because the Tomahawk is an American missile (produced by the Raytheon corporation, a genuine American outfit), and because, by definition, what we Americans do always comes from the best of intentions and an essential goodness of heart, because, that is, we are as exceptional, as one of a kind, in war as in peace, a missile attack on Syria (or elsewhere) would, by definition, be both “human” and “humanitarian” — and to complete the phrase in question, no one could deny that, had it happened, it would also have been an “intervention.”  After all, Washington’s record on interventions speaks for itself.  No country in memory has been as prolific an interventionist as the U.S.A. — and it’s a record, like all records, worth taking some pride in.

Yours definitionally,
Col. Manners (ret.)

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.

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

David Vine: The Pentagon’s Italian Spending Spree

6:27 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.

Aerial Photo

The Pentagon, launching tomorrow’s wars today.

This may be a propitious moment to offer an up-to-date version of a classic riddle: Which came first, the chicken or the terrorist?  For many in this country, the Kenyan mall horror arrived out of the blue, out of nowhere, out of a place and a time without context. Next thing you know, it’s all 24/7-ing on your TV set. You can’t avoid it. The grim news, the slaughter, the four-day stand-off, the “exclusive” video of destruction and death, the teary faces, the dramatic tales, the cruelty and the killing, the collapse of part of the building and scenes of utter desolation, the shifting casualty counts, and suddenly, scores of FBI agents — from what once upon a time was a U.S. domestic law enforcement agency — on the ground in distant Nairobi checking out biometric data in the rubble, and you’re being told about a “direct threat” to “the homeland” from a scary Somali terror group called al-Shabab whose killers in Kenya may (or may not) have included recruited Somali-Americans and even a British woman known as “the white widow.”

The idea that there was some history to all of this, that it involved Washington and the U.S. military, secret CIA prisons and covert drone strikes, the funding, supplying, and organizing of proxy African troops, and the thorough destabilizing of Somalia because Washington feared an Islamic group that was actually unifying the country — out of which al-Shabab (“the youth”) emerged — seems unbelievable, though it is simple fact.  And here’s a reality that you won’t see on your TV screen 24/7: if al-Shabab is a nightmare, history has joined it to Washington at the hip.  The particular kind of destabilization that gripped Somalia in the post-9/11 years, including a U.S.-inspired Ethiopian invasion and years later a Kenyan version of the same, has now spread to Kenya itself.  As Nick Turse has argued at this site, this sort of destabilization is now happening across the African continent.  The U.S. military, along with the CIA and U.S. intelligence, is moving more deeply into Africa, and in the process, from Libya to the Central African Republic, it is helping to turn the continent into Terror Central.

Those scores of FBI agents combing the ruins in Nairobi (as well as the beefed up CIA contingent now dealing with the situation) aren’t the answer to a sudden crisis.  They are signs of a long-term problem; they are the chicken to the terrorist egg — and which came first almost doesn’t matter anymore.  If you decide that anyone, anywhere, on Earth can be an imminent “danger” to the homeland and you’ve already transformed the very idea of “national” defense into international defense, and nowhere is too far to go to “defend” yourself, then you are always going to be stirring things up in distant places in ways you don’t understand and with a hatful of unintended consequences.

And don’t think that all of this is just so much seat-of-the-pants happenstance either.  The planning for America’s militarized African presence has been going on for years, even if beyond the sight of most Americans, as this site has repeatedly reported.  Today, TomDispatch regular David Vine explores another previously unnoted aspect of Washington’s preparations for future wars in a destabilizing Africa: a startling traffic jam of U.S. military bases in Italy.  Someday, in some unexpected way, the Italian base story will suddenly break big-time in the mainstream and, once again, it will seem to arrive out of the blue, out of nowhere, without any context, and everyone will be shocked, shocked (unless, of course, you read it first at TomDispatch). Tom

The Italian Job
How the Pentagon Is Using Your Tax Dollars to Turn Italy into a Launching Pad for the Wars of Today and Tomorrow
By David Vine

The Pentagon has spent the last two decades plowing hundreds of millions of tax dollars into military bases in Italy, turning the country into an increasingly important center for U.S. military power. Especially since the start of the Global War on Terror in 2001, the military has been shifting its European center of gravity south from Germany, where the overwhelming majority of U.S. forces in the region have been stationed since the end of World War II. In the process, the Pentagon has turned the Italian peninsula into a launching pad for future wars in Africa, the Middle East, and beyond.

Read the rest of this entry →

Tomgram: Kramer and Pemberton, Downsizing the Military Mission, Upsizing the Peacetime One

6:37 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.

Would you rather have butter or guns

Would you rather have butter or guns

In the preface to his 1974 classic, The Permanent War Economy, Seymour Melman decried America’s choice of guns over butter.  He wrote:

“Traditional economic competence of every sort is being eroded by the state capitalist directorate that elevates inefficiency to a national purpose, that disables the market system, that destroys the value of the currency, and that diminishes the decision power of all institutions other than its own. Industrial productivity, the foundation of every nation’s economic growth, is being eroded by the relentlessly predatory effects of military economy.”

The time couldn’t have looked riper for beating swords into plowshares. After more than 10 years, U.S. combat in Vietnam had ended and President Nixon had recently begun normalizing relations with China, that Communist behemoth.  And yet, in 1986, more than a decade later, Melman surveyed the governmental landscape and saw the same forces at play in the same ways.  By then, however, deindustrialization had obliterated whole American industries — especially in what came to be called the Rust Belt — that had once produced durable goods and offered well-paying jobs that had once been the pride of the planet.  “Instead of enjoying guns and butter, we are suffering a national blight of street begging, homelessness, and hunger, unseen since the Great Depression,” he wrote then.

In the years since, the primary Communist behemoth on the planet, the Soviet Union, went belly up and its satellite states in Eastern Europe and Central Asia spun out of its orbit.  Still, even with no real enemies on the horizon, talk of a “peace dividend” in Washington came and went in the blink of an eye.  A smoldering war with Iraq, combat in the former Yugoslavia, an abortive intervention in Somalia, and attacks in Sudan and Afghanistan followed.  Not long after, the permanent war economy, still thriving, found itself profitably joined to the idea of permanent war, aka the Global War on Terror.  A decade of disaster followed, in which successful invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan devolved into ruinous, wheel-spinning occupations, and interventions in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere produced at best dubious, at worst disastrous, results.  Meanwhile, the military-industrial complex and the national security state continued to engorge themselves on taxpayer dollars.

In 2004, Melman died without ever seeing his dream of converting any significant part of the American war economy into a peace economy get the slightest traction.  Today, however, Washington has recently quit one major war and is winding down another.  For the first time in memory, a bipartisan coalition in Congress has also pushed back against a presidential rush to war.  In addition, and to the amazement of Washington watchers of every stripe, a bipartisan agreement in Congress will, albeit modestly, ratchet down runaway Pentagon spending.  Were Melman still alive, he would no doubt be writing with increased vigor about converting the military economy to a civilian one.  In his stead, TomDispatch regular Mattea Kramer of the National Priorities Project and Miriam Pemberton of the Institute for Policy Studies pick up the banner and suggest how America’s overabundance of swords might, in the foreseeable future, be beaten into wind turbines. -Nick Turse

Beating Swords Into Solar Panels
Re-Purposing America’s War Machine
By Mattea Kramer and Miriam Pemberton

A trillion dollars.  It’s a lot of money.  In a year it could send 127 million college students to school, provide health insurance for 206 million people, or pay the salaries of seven million schoolteachers and seven million police officers.  A trillion dollars could do a lot of good.  It could transform or save a lot of lives.  Now, imagine doubling the money; no, tripling it.  How about quadrupling it, maybe quintupling it, or even sextupling it?  Unfortunately, you really will have to imagine that, because the money to do it isn’t there.  It was (or will be) spent on Washington’s disastrous post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

War, the military-industrial complex, and the national security state that go with it cost in every sense an arm and a leg.  And that, in the twenty-first century, has been where so many American tax dollars have gone.

That’s because the cost of war always turns out to be more than estimated.  Who could forget the $60 billion high-end figure the Bush administration offered in early 2003 as its estimate for its coming invasion of Iraq? A decade later, we’ve spent $814 billion in Iraq to date with the full price tag yet to come in. Recently, when the Obama administration was planning to launch Tomahawk missiles against Syria, just about nobody even bothered to talk about what it would have cost. (Before Washington even considered such a strike, the Tomahawk program was already costing U.S. taxpayers $36,000 per hour all year long.)

This reality has slowly sunk into American consciousness, which may be why the public in opinion polls has proven so clearly opposed to jumping into another overseas conflict when tax dollars are desperately needed at home.

And those Tomahawk missiles are just icing on the cake of what this country spends on its military and the national security state that goes with it, estimated at nearly a trillion dollars a year. A fire hose of taxpayer cash — to the tune of around $600 billion — gets pumped into the Department of Defense each year (and that doesn’t include the “civilian” intelligence community or the Department of Homeland Security).

The spending on that war machine is so profligate, in fact, that the Pentagon has never successfully completed an audit; its officials can’t even tell you where all that money goes. The U.S. accounts for a staggering 40% of all military expenditures globally. And some members of Congress — their bread buttered by military contractors — are ready to use the next war, whether in Syria or elsewhere, as a pretext to sustain or even expand our current wartime military budget.

Early Experiments in Civilianizing the Military Economy
Read the rest of this entry →

Eduardo Galeano, Robots, Drugs, and Collateral Damage

7:25 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.

Eduardo Aleano’s Children of the Days

It could be any week on that great U.S. military base we know as Planet Earth and here’s the remarkable thing: there’s always news.  Something’s always happening somewhere, usually on more than one continent, as befits the largest, most destructive, most technologically advanced (and in many ways least successful) military on the planet.  In our time, the U.S. military has been sent into numerous wars, failed to win a single one, and created plenty of blowback.  But hey, who has to win a specific war when it’s “wartime” all the time?

These last weeks were the American military equivalent of a no-news period.  Nothing really happened.  I mean, yes, there was the war in Afghanistan, the usual round of night raids, dead civilians, and insider attacks.  Nothing worth spending much time on, other than whether the U.S. might, in frustration over Afghan President Hamid Karzai, exercise the “zero option” after 2014 and leave – or not.  And yes, there was that drone attack last week in the tribal borderlands of Pakistan that killed three “militants” (or so we’re told), despite the complaints of the country’s new government.  (I mean, what say should it have in the matter?)

And there was the news that Washington was seeking an “expanded role” for its military in the Philippines, where the question of the month was: Could the Pentagon “position military equipment and rotate more personnel” there, “while avoiding the contentious issue of reestablishing American bases in the country” — so said “officials from both countries,” according to the New York Times.  After all, if we call the places where our troops are stationed “Philippine bases,” what’s the problem? And, believe me, no one wants to hear a lot of whining about it from a bunch of Filipinos either!

And don’t forget about those American drones now flying over Mali from a base recently established in Niger, part of a blowback-generating set of Pentagon operations on the African continent.  They got a little attention last week.  And one more thing, conveniently on the same continent: since Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey put in calls to their Egyptian counterparts as they were launching a military coup in an ongoing pre-revolutionary situation, the Pentagon has, it seems, never been less than in touch with its Egyptian military pals, a crew significantly trained, advised, and paid for by Washington.

And that’s just what made it into the news in the most humdrum military week of 2013.  Today, Eduardo Galeano, one of the great global writers, takes us from 1916 to late tomorrow night via eight little excerpts from his new book, Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human Historyreminding us of what some really newsworthy moments were like.  Think of it as a kind of highlight reel from almost a century of the American way of war. Tom

Iraq Invades the United States 
And Other Headlines from an Upside Down History of the U.S. Military and the World 
By Eduardo Galeano

[The following passages are excerpted from Eduardo Galeano’s new book, Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History (Nation Books).] 

The Day Mexico Invaded the United States
(March 9)

On this early morning in 1916, Pancho Villa crossed the border with his horsemen, set fire to the city of Columbus, killed several soldiers, nabbed a few horses and guns, and the following day was back in Mexico to tell the tale.

This lightning incursion is the only invasion the United States has suffered since its wars to break free from England.

In contrast, the United States has invaded practically every country in the entire world.

Since 1947 its Department of War has been called the Department of Defense, and its war budget the defense budget.

The names are an enigma as indecipherable as the Holy Trinity.

God’s Bomb
(August 6)

In 1945, while this day was dawning, Hiroshima lost its life. The atomic bomb’s first appearance incinerated this city and its people in an instant.

The few survivors, mutilated sleepwalkers, wandered among the smoking ruins. The burns on their naked bodies carried the stamp of the clothing they were wearing when the explosion hit. On what remained of the walls, the atom bomb’s flash left silhouettes of what had been: a woman with her arms raised, a man, a tethered horse.

Three days later, President Harry Truman spoke about the bomb over the radio.

He said: “We thank God that it has come to us, instead of to our enemies; and we pray that He may guide us to use it in His ways and for His purposes.”

Manufacturing Mistakes
(April 20)

It was among the largest military expeditions ever launched in the history of the Caribbean. And it was the greatest blunder.

The dispossessed and evicted owners of Cuba declared from Miami that they were ready to die fighting for devolution, against revolution.

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Nick Turse, The Snags, Snares, and Snafus of Covering the U.S. Military

6:40 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 30-year-old history of U.S. foreign policy: now, there’s a dynamite issue!  Explosive, in fact.  Far too dangerous, it turns out, for Americans to be informed about or have access to basic documents about — so you might conclude from a recent report at Steven Aftergood’s website Secrecy News.

U.S. Africa Command C4ISR Senior Leaders Conference, Vicenza, Italy, February 2011

U.S. Africa Command C4ISR Senior Leaders Conference, Vicenza, Italy, February 2011

According to him, “A 1991 statute mandated that the State Department publish the documentary record of U.S. foreign policy (known as Foreign Relations of the United States, or FRUS) no later than 30 years after the events described.”  They were years behind when President Obama, still in his sunshine mode, hit the Oval Office and ordered State “to complete the processing of the backlog of 25-year-old records awaiting declassification by the end of December 2013.”

Didn’t happen, of course.  And that, it turns out, is the least of it.  A State Department historical advisory committee (HAC), a “panel of distinguished historians,” has just weighed in with its own fears that “a substantial percentage of those records that have been reviewed by the NDC [National Declassification Center] have not been cleared for release to the public.  In the opinion of the HAC, the relatively high number of reviewed documents that remain withheld from researchers and citizens raises fundamental questions about the declassification guidelines.”  The historians wonder, in fact, whether the majority of the FRUS volumes will ever see the light of day.

History, too, may need its Edward Snowden, a rogue historian with access to those State documents and the urge to travel to Hong Kong or tour the bowels of Moscow’s international airport terminal.  If no such historian appears, then Americans curious about the documentary history of our past may get another 30 years of the good old runaround — and even then it’ll be nothing compared to what TomDispatch Managing Editor Nick Turse, author of the bestseller Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, received from the U.S. military. Tom

The Classic Military Runaround
Your Tax Dollars at Work Keeping You in the Dark
By Nick Turse

There are hundreds, possibly thousands of U.S. personnel — the military refuses to say how many — stationed in the ochre-tinted country of Qatar.  Out in the searing heat of the desert, they fly fighter jets or fix them.  They equip and arm troops headed to war.  Some work in a high-tech command-and-control center overseeing U.S. air operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere in the Greater Middle East.  Yet I found myself sitting in a hotel room in Doha, Qatar’s capital, about 30 miles east of al-Udeid Air Base, the main U.S. installation in the country, unable to see, let alone talk, to any of them.

In mid-May, weeks before my arrival in Qatar, I sent a request to the public affairs office at the base to arrange a visit with the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, the unit that, according to the military, carries out a “criti­cal combat mission that spans nearly 6,000 miles from the Horn of Africa to Northern Afghanistan.”  Or at least I tried to.  Day or night, weekday or weekend, the website refused to deliver my message.  Finally, I dug up an alternate email address and sent in my request.  Days passed with no word, without even an acknowledgement.  I followed up yet again and finally received a reply — and then it began.

The initial response came on May 28th from the Media Operations Chief at Air Forces Central Command Public Affairs.  She told me that I needed to contact the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing’s Public Affairs liaison, Captain Angela Webb, directly.  So I repeatedly wrote to Captain Webb.  No response.  On June 10th, I received an email from Susan Harrington.  She was, she told me, “taking over” for Captain Webb.  Unfortunately, she added, it was now far too close to my arrival in Qatar to arrange a visit.  “Due to time constraints,” she wrote me, “I do not think it will be possible to support this request since we are likely already within that 30 day window.”

Don’t think I was surprised.  By now, I’m used to it.  Whether I’m trying to figure out what the U.S. military is doing in Latin America or Africa, Afghanistan or Qatar, the response is remarkably uniform  – obstruction and obfuscation, hurdles and hindrances.  In short, the good old-fashioned military runaround.  I had hoped to take a walk around al-Udeid Air Base, perhaps get a glimpse of the jumbotron-sized screens and rows of computers in its Combined Air and Space Operations Center.  I wanted to learn how the drawdown in Afghanistan was affecting life on the base.

Instead, I ended up sitting in the climate-controlled comfort of my hotel room, staring at a cloudless sky, typing these words behind double-paned glass that shielded me from the 106 degree heat outside.  For my trouble, on my return to the United States, I was detained at Kennedy Airport in New York by agents of the Department of Homeland Security.  Their question for me: Was I planning to fight against U.S. forces in Afghanistan?

Base Desires in Africa

If you are an American citizen, you’re really not supposed to know about operations at al-Udeid Air Base.  The men and women there on your dime can’t even “mention the base name or host nation name in any unsecured communications.”  Instead, they’re instructed to say that they are at an “undisclosed location in Southwest Asia” instead of “the Deid,” as they call it.

It isn’t the only base that the Pentagon wants to keep in the shadows.  You’re also not supposed to know how many bases the U.S. military currently has in Africa.  I learned that the hard way.  As a start, let me say that, officially speaking, there is only a single U.S. facility on the entire continent that the military formally calls a “base”: Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, a tiny nation in the Horn of Africa.  U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) is adamant about this and takes great pains to emphasize it.  Internally, however, they do admit that they also have forward operating sites (aka “enduring locations”), contingency security locations (which troops periodically rotate in and out of), and contingency locations (which are used only during ongoing operations).  But don’t try to get an official list of these or even a simple count — unless you’re ready for the old-fashioned runaround.

In May 2012, I made the mistake of requesting a list of all facilities used by the U.S. military in Africa broken down by country.  Nicole Dalrymple of AFRICOM’s Public Affairs Office told me the command would look into it and would be in touch.  I never heard from her again.  In June, Pat Barnes, AFRICOM’s Public Affairs liaison at the Pentagon, shot down my request, admitting only that the U.S. military had a “a small and temporary presence of personnel” at “several locations in Africa.”  Due to “force protection” issues, he assured me, he could not tell me “where our folks are located and what facilities they use.”

That July, with sparing assistance from AFRICOM, I published an article on “Secret Wars, Secret Bases, and the Pentagon’s ‘New Spice Route’ in Africa,” in which I attempted to shed light on a growing U.S. military presence on that continent.  This included a previously ignored logistics network set up to service U.S. military operations, with critical nodes in Manda Bay, Garissa, and Mombasa in Kenya; Kampala and Entebbe in Uganda; Bangui and Djema in the Central African Republic; Nzara in South Sudan; and Dire Dawa in Ethiopia.   I also drew attention to posts, airports, and other facilities used by Americans in Arba Minch in Ethiopia, Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, and the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean.
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Dilip Hiro, How the Pentagon Corrupted Afghanistan

6:24 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.

Tilt-shifted pentagon

Why did nation-building fail in Afghanistan? The answer lies close to home.

America’s post-9/11 conflicts have been wars of corruption, a point surprisingly seldom made in the mainstream media. Keep in mind that George W. Bush’s administration was a monster of privatization. It had its own set of crony corporations, including HalliburtonKBRBechtel, and various oil companies, as well as a set of mercenary rent-a-gun outfits like Blackwater, DynCorp, and Triple Canopy that came into their own in this period.  It took the plunge into Iraq in March 2003, sweeping those corporations and an increasingly privatized military in with it.  In the process, Iraq would become an example not of the free market system, but of a particularly venal form of crony capitalism (or, as Naomi Klein has labeled it, “disaster capitalism”).

Add in another factor: in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration began pouring money into the Pentagon, into, that is, an organization whose budget has never been able to pass an audit.  There was so staggeringly much money to throw around then — and hubris to spare as well.  Among the first acts of L. Paul Bremer III, the new American proconsul in Baghdad, was the disbanding of Saddam Hussein’s army (creating an unemployed potential insurgent class) and the closing down of a whole range of state enterprises along with the privatization of the economy (creating their unemployed foot soldiers).  All of this, in turn, paved the way for a bonanza of “reconstruction” contracts granted, of course, to the administration’s favorite corporations to rebuild the country.  There were slush funds aplenty; money went missing without anyone blinking; and American occupation officials reportedly “systematically looted” Iraqi funds.

In April 2003, when American troops entered Baghdad, it was already aflame and being looted by its own citizens.  As it turned out, the petty looters soon enough went home — and then the real looting of the country began.  The occupiers, thanks to the U.N., fully controlled Iraq’s finances and no one at the U.N. or elsewhere had the slightest ability to exercise any real supervision over what the occupation regime did or how it spent Iraq’s money.  Via a document labeled “Order 17,” Bremer granted every foreigner connected to the occupation enterprise the full freedom of the land, not to be interfered with in any way by Iraqis or any Iraqi political or legal institution.  He gave them all, that is, an official get-out-of-jail-free card.

Who could be surprised, then, that the massive corporate attempt to rebuild Iraq would result in a plague of overbilling, remarkable amounts of shoddy or useless work, and a blown $60 billion “reconstruction” effort that would leave the country with massive unemployment and without reliable electricity, water, or sewage systems?  Could there be a sadder story of how war making and corruption were being wedded on a gigantic scale in an already fading new century?  As it turned out, the answer to that question was: yes.

Iraqi corruption was no anomaly of war, as TomDispatch regular Dilip Hiro makes clear today.  Just consider the way Washington turned the “liberation” of Afghanistan into another field day for corruption. Tom

The Great Afghan Corruption Scam 
How Operation Enduring Freedom Mutated into Operation Enduring Corruption 
By Dilip Hiro

Washington has vociferously denounced Afghan corruption as a major obstacle to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. This has been widely reported. Only one crucial element is missing from this routine censure: a credible explanation of why American nation-building failed there. No wonder. To do so, the U.S. would have to denounce itself.

Corruption in Afghanistan today is acute and permeates all sectors of society. In recent years, anecdotal evidence on the subject has been superseded by the studies of researchers, surveys by NGOs, and periodic reports by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). There is also the Corruption Perceptions Index of the Berlin-based Transparency International (TI). Last year, it bracketed Afghanistan with two other countries as the most corrupt on Earth.

None of these documents, however, refers to the single most important fact when it comes to corruption: that it’s Washington-based.  It is, in fact, rooted in the massive build-up of U.S. forces there from 2005 onward, the accompanying expansion of American forward operating bases, camps, and combat outposts from 29 in 2005 to nearly 400 five years later, and above all, the tsunami of cash that went with all of this.

Last month, when an Afghan court sentenced Sher Khan Farnood and Khalil Ullah Ferozi, the chairman and chief executive of the Kabul Bank, for looting its deposits in a gigantic Ponzi scheme, the event received some media attention. Typically, however, the critical role of the Americans in the bank’s murky past was missing in action.

Founded as a private company in 2004, the Kabul Bank was promptly hailed by American officials in Afghanistan as a linchpin in the country’s emerging free market economic order. In 2005, action followed words. The Pentagon, paymaster for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), signed a contract with the bank to disperse the salaries of ANSF soldiers and policemen.

With that, the fledgling financial institution acquired an impressive cash flow. Moreover, such blatant American support generated confidence among better-off Afghans. Soon enough, they were lining up to deposit their money. Starting in 2006, the surging inflow of cash encouraged Farnood and Ferozi to begin skimming off depositors’ funds as unsecured loans to themselves through fake front companies. Thus was born the world’s largest banking scam (when calculated as a percentage of the country’s gross domestic product) with the U.S. Embassy in Kabul acting as its midwife.

How It All Happened

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The Pentagon as a Global NRA: For Washington, There Is No Arms Control Abroad

8:26 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 as a Global NRA 
For Washington, There Is No Arms Control Abroad 
By Tom Engelhardt

A toy-like image of the Pentagon created using tilt shift

This dangerous weapon is NOT a toy.

Given these last weeks, who doesn’t know what an AR-15 is?  Who hasn’t seen the mind-boggling stats on the way assault rifles have flooded this country, or tabulations of accumulating Newtown-style mass killings, or noted that there are barely more gas stations nationwide than federally licensed firearms dealers, or heard the renewed debates over the Second Amendment, or been struck by the rapid shifts in public opinion on gun control, or checked out the disputes over how effective an assault-rifle ban was the last time around?  Who doesn’t know about the NRA’s suggestion to weaponize schools, or about the price poor neighborhoods may be paying in gun deaths for the present expansive interpretation of the Second Amendment?  Who hasn’t seen the legions of stories about how, in the wake of the Newtown slaughter, sales of guns, especially AR-15 assault rifles, have soared, ammunition sales have surged, background checks for future gun purchases have risen sharply, and gun shows have been besieged with customers?

If you haven’t stumbled across figures on gun violence in America or on suicide-by-gun, you’ve been hiding under a rock.  If you haven’t heard about Chicago’s soaring and Washington D.C.’s plunging gun-death stats (and that both towns have relatively strict gun laws), where have you been?

Has there, in fact, been any aspect of the weaponization of the United States that, since the Newtown massacre, hasn’t been discussed?  Are you the only person in the country, for instance, who doesn’t know that Vice President Joe Biden has been assigned the task of coming up with an administration gun-control agenda before Barack Obama is inaugurated for his second term?  And can you honestly tell me that you haven’t seen global comparisons of killing rates in countries that have tight gun laws and the U.S., or read at least one discussion about life in countries like Colombia or Guatemala, where armed guards are omnipresent?

After years of mass killings that resulted in next to no national dialogue about the role of guns and how to control them, the subject is back on the American agenda in a significant way and — by all signs — isn’t about to leave town anytime soon.  The discussion has been so expansive after years in a well-armed wilderness that it’s easy to miss what still isn’t being discussed, and in some sense just how narrow our focus remains.

Think of it this way: the Obama administration is reportedly going to call on Congress to pass a new ban on assault weapons, as well as one on high-capacity ammunition magazines, and to close the loopholes that allow certain gun purchasers to avoid background checks.  But Biden has already conceded, at least implicitly, that facing a Republican-controlled House of Representatives and a filibuster-prone Senate, the administration’s ability to make much of this happen — as on so many domestic issues — is limited.

That will shock few Americans.  After all, the most essential fact about the Obama presidency is this: at home, the president is a hamstrung weakling; abroad, in terms of his ability to choose a course of action and — from drones strikes and special ops raids to cyberwar and other matters — simply act, he’s closer to Superman.  So here’s a question: while the administration is pledging to try to curb the wholesale spread of ever more powerful weaponry at home, what is it doing about the same issue abroad where it has so much more power to pursue the agenda it prefers?

Flooding the World With the Most Advanced Weaponry Money Can Buy

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