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Peter Van Buren, The Manning Trial Began on 9/11

7:11 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

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

Bradley Manning - Caricature

Bradley Manning – Caricature

Close your eyes for a moment, think about recent events, and you could easily believe yourself in a Seinfeldian Bizarro World. Now, open them and, for a second, everything looks almost familiar… and then you notice that a dissident is fleeing a harsh and draconian power, known for its global surveillance practices, use of torture, assassination campaigns, and secret prisons, and has found a haven in a heartless world in… hmmm… Russia. That dissident, of course, is Edward Snowden, just granted a year’s temporary asylum in Russia, a.k.a. the defender of human rights and freedom 2013, and so has been released from a Washington-imposed imprisonment in Moscow’s international air terminal and the threat of far worse.

Now, close your eyes, open them again, and for just a moment, doesn’t the world look a little more orderly?  After all, a draconian imperial power has taken one of its own dissidents, who wanted to reveal the truth about its cruel war practices and global diplomatic maneuverings, thrown him in prison without charges, abused and mistreated him, brought him before a drumhead military court and, on essentially trumped up charges of “espionage,” convicted him of just what its leaders wanted to convict him of.  That power, of course, must be Russia and all’s right with the world… oops, I mean, that’s U.S. Army Private First Class Bradley Manning and the “evil empire” that mistreated him is… gulp… the United States.

Think about it for a moment: if Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a place of asylum for American dissidents and the U.S. is doing a reasonable job of imitating aspects of the old USSR, we are on Bizarro Earth, aren’t we?

Today, former State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren, author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, considers how America’s distant wars have come home and how, under that pressure, this country is morphing into something unrecognizable.  Worse yet, it’s quite possible that we’re only at the beginning of that transformation.  To give but a small example of what the future might hold, psychiatrist and author Jonathan Shay, famous for his work with traumatized Vietnam veterans, suggested in Daedalus in 2011 that no one knows what it means for similarly traumatized employees of our Warrior corporations, the rent-a-gun “veterans” of our recent war zones to come home to no health care and no support system.  And he offered an eerie, if provocative, comparison to the footloose German veterans of World War I who, in the 1920s, joined the Freikorps and played their part in the radicalization and then Nazification of that country.

“I am not saying,” he wrote, “that I know that the Weimar Republic would still exist today, with all that implies about a different course to history, if Germany had had Vet Centers and VA Mental Health Clinics. But historians generally agree that the Freikorps contributed to the weakening of the new German political fabric in the immediate aftermath of World War I.”  His is a chilling reminder that, wherever we are now, it might just be a rest stop on some bizarro road to hell. Tom

Welcome to Post-Constitution America
What If Your Country Begins to Change and No One Notices?
By Peter Van Buren

On July 30, 1778, the Continental Congress created the first whistleblower protection law, stating “that it is the duty of all persons in the service of the United States to give the earliest information to Congress or other proper authority of any misconduct, frauds, or misdemeanors committed by any officers or persons in the service of these states.”

Two hundred thirty-five years later, on July 30, 2013, Bradley Manning was found guilty on 20 of the 22 charges for which he was prosecuted, specifically for “espionage” and for videos of war atrocities he released, but not for “aiding the enemy.”

Days after the verdict, with sentencing hearings in which Manning could receive 136 years of prison time ongoing, the pundits have had their say. The problem is that they missed the most chilling aspect of the Manning case: the way it ushered us, almost unnoticed, into post-Constitutional America.

The Weapons of War Come Home
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Rebecca Solnit, The Art of Not Knowing Where You Are

6:59 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

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

Arctic Tern

An arctic tern in flight. Rebecca Solnit finds inspiration in Arctic wilderness.

Here are my three fleeting personal experiences of the far North.  In 1982, on my only trip to Japan, I flew over the Aleutian Islands.  Out the plane window was a spectacular sight, jagged, snowy mountaintops tearing through clouds — spectacular, that is, until a stewardess came over and asked me to pull down the shade.  The movie Fame was onscreen and the Aleutian light was bothering the passengers around me.

In another distant year, after a boondoggle of a summer trip to a “peace conference” in Stockholm and a night spent farther north in Sweden where the sun set late and slow, and I could go out “after dark” to gather wild mushrooms with an expert (and her two Egyptian wolfhounds), I flew home over Greenland.  That place had loomed mysteriously large on my childhood globe and indeed, even from the heights, Greenland once again loomed large and mysterious.  Finally, if memory is to be trusted, I once saw the Aurora Borealis faintly over Long Island (New York).  Other than that my sole venture north of southern Canada was in an early, particularly degraded part of my work life.  I first broke into publishing as a freelance editor of textbooks for professors whose idea of scholarly research was, in at least one case, to take a publisher’s money meant for a research assistant and spend it on a snow blower.  (Perhaps that, too, should qualify as an obscure connection to the snowy north.)  In any case, it meant that I became a de facto researcher for the book, my entertainment at the time.

I ended up writing those little boxes, you know, the ones with curious tales and even more curious facts that are meant to enliven a dreary text, including one I wrote about the far north that has never left my mind.  As it happened, in the Middle Ages, certain birds like the “barnacle goose” had breeding grounds so far north that no European had seen them.  Conveniently, for those in Catholic Europe yearning to eat flesh on Fridays, that aptly named goose and other northern breeders could be imagined as generating from shells and so products of the sea (“neither flesh, nor born of flesh”).  Once the actual breeding grounds were discovered and the lack of barnacles with geese in them became apparent, the French word for that goose (and more generally for “duck”), “canard,” also became the word for “hoax,” “false report,” “lie.”  Fully accurate or not, it’s the memory of “the north” that I carry with me.

Today, in a lovely experiment, Rebecca Solnit has adapted a section of her new book, The Faraway Nearby, for this website.  That book contains some of the most beautiful writing she’s ever done, sentences that will make you (or at least made me) gasp out loud.  The book is officially a memoir about her difficult relationship with her mother, but honestly that’s a little like saying The Odyssey is a tale of a traveler’s conflicted relationship with a one-eyed stranger.  The Faraway Nearby is also a flight and an escape, literal and figurative, into the north of everything, into a place of total darkness — which, TomDispatch readers will remember, was the confounding image of hope Solnit first brought to this site in May 2003 — and of total light.  It’s about fleeing yourself and so finding yourself, often in others and in the most unexpected ways.  It’s about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Che Guevara’s visit to a leprosy colony.  It’s about… well, take a taste below and then make sure that you explore The Faraway Nearby at your leisure.  Head north, young woman (or young man), into the healing darkness that links you to the rest of us.  No recent book I’ve picked up has been more worth the read. Tom

The Far North of Experience 
In Praise of Darkness (and Light) 
By Rebecca Solnit

One summer some years ago, on a peninsula jutting off another peninsula off the west coast of Iceland, I lived among strangers and birds. The birds were mostly new species I got to know a little, the golden plovers plaintively dissembling in the grass to lead intruders away from their nests, the oystercatchers who flew overhead uttering unearthly oscillating cries, the coastal fulmars, skuas, and guillemots, and most particularly the arctic terns. The impeccable whiteness of their feathers, the sharpness of their scimitar wings, the fierceness of their cries, and the steepness of their dives were all enchanting.

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Michael Klare: A Future in Arms

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.

A mid-air refueling of a fighter plane

Stratotankers, like the one shown here refueling a jet, were recently sold to the Israeli military.

Imagine for a moment that in 2010, China’s leaders had announced a long-term, up to $60 billion arms deal with an extreme Islamic fundamentalist regime in the Middle East, one that was notoriously repressive to women and a well-known supporter of the Taliban.  Imagine as well that the first $30 billion part of that deal, involving 84 advanced jet fighters, was sealed in 2011, and that, since then, the sales have never stopped: several kinds of helicopters, artillery, armored personnel carriers, upgraded tanks, surface-to-air missile systems, even possibly a litoral combat vessel, among other purchases.  Then include one more piece of information in the mix.  In 2013, China added in “an advanced class of precision ‘standoff munitions’” — missiles that could be fired from those previously purchased advanced jet fighters.

Given all this, we would know what to think.  It would be just the sort of thing you might expect from an unscrupulous, retrograde communist regime with no values whatsoever, one willing above all else to keep the production lines of its weapons makers humming.  Washington would long ago have denounced such dealings in no uncertain terms.  In fact, such a scenario is utterly fantastic and essentially unimaginable — for China.  But it happens to be a perfectly accurate description of the lucrative relationship that American arms makers and the Pentagon have with Saudi Arabia, a country Washington has promoted and sold weaponry to as if there were no tomorrow.

And that’s just to dip a toe into the strange world of the global arms “trade,” though in recent years it’s become something closer to a U.S. monopoly in straightforward dollar terms.  Now, TomDispatch regular Michael Klare, author of The Race for What’s Left and an expert on energy and also on that bizarre “trade,” offers a glimpse into its latest grim set of wrinkles — new sales that might signal a twenty-first-century revival of the Cold War. Tom

The Cold War Redux? 
Are Washington, Moscow, and Beijing Using the Global Arms Trade to Create a New Cold War? 
By Michael T. Klare

Did Washington just give Israel the green light for a future attack on Iran via an arms deal?  Did Russia just signal its further support for Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime via an arms deal?  Are the Russians, the Chinese, and the Americans all heightening regional tensions in Asia via arms deals?  Is it possible that we’re witnessing the beginnings of a new Cold War in two key regions of the planet — and that the harbingers of this unnerving development are arms deals?

International weapons sales have proved to be a thriving global business in economically tough times.  According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), such sales reached an impressive $85 billion in 2011, nearly double the figure for 2010.  This surge in military spending reflected efforts by major Middle Eastern powers to bolster their armories with modern jets, tanks, and missiles — a process constantly encouraged by the leading arms manufacturing countries (especially the U.S. and Russia) as it helps keep domestic production lines humming.  However, this familiar if always troubling pattern may soon be overshadowed by a more ominous development in the global arms trade: the revival of far more targeted Cold War-style weapons sales aimed at undermining rivals and destabilizing regional power balances.  The result, inevitably, will be a more precarious world.

Arms sales have always served multiple functions.  Valuable trade commodities, weapons can prove immensely lucrative for companies that specialize in making such products.  Between 2008 and 2011, for example, U.S. firms sold $146 billion worth of military hardware to foreign countries, according to the latest CRS figures.  Crucially, such sales help ensure that domestic production lines remain profitable even when government acquisitions slow down at home.  But arms sales have also served as valuable tools of foreign policy — as enticements for the formation of alliances, expressions of ongoing support, and a way to lure new allies over to one’s side.  Powerful nations, seeking additional allies, use such sales to win the allegiance of weaker states; weaker states, seeking to bolster their defenses, look to arms deals as a way to build ties with stronger countries, or even to play one suitor off another in pursuit of the most sophisticated arms available.

Throughout the Cold War, both superpowers employed weapons transfers as a form of competition, offering advanced arms to entice regional powers to defect from each other’s alliance systems or to counter offers made by the other side.  Egypt, for example, was convinced to join the Soviet sphere in 1955 when provided with arms the West had refused to deliver.  In the late 1970s, it moved back into the American camp after Washington anted up far better weapons systems.

In those years, the Americans and the Soviets also used arms transfers to bolster key allies in areas of strategic confrontation like the Middle East.  Washington armed Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Iran when it was still ruled by the Shah; Russia armed Iraq and Syria. These transfers played a critical role in Cold War diplomacy and sometimes helped tilt the scales in favor of decisions to go to war.  In the Yom Kippur War of 1973, for example, Egypt, emboldened by an expanded arsenal of Soviet antitank missiles, attacked Israeli forces in the Negev desert.

In the wake of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, the commercial aspect of arms sales came to the fore.  Both Washington and Moscow were, by then, far more interested in keeping their military production lines running than in jousting for advantage abroad, so emphasis was placed on scoring contracts from those with the means to pay — mainly the major oil producers of the Middle East and Latin America and the economically expansive “tigers” of Asia.  Between 2008 and 2011, the CRS ranked the leading purchasers of conventional arms in the developing world this way: Saudi Arabia, India, the United Arab Emirates, Brazil, Egypt, and Venezuela.  Together, these six countries ordered $117 billion in new weaponry.

Arms Sales Take a New Path

Only recently has some version of great power dueling and competition started up again, and in the early months of 2013 it seems to be gaining momentum.  Several recent developments highlight this trend:

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Pepe Escobar: A Full Spectrum Confrontation World?

6:51 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

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

Brazilian coast. Photo by Rhys Asplundh

Last December, a super-secret RQ-170 Sentinel, part of a far-reaching program of CIA drone surveillance over Iran, went down (or was shot down, or computer-jacked and hacked down) and was recovered intact by the Iranian military.  This week, an Iranian general proudly announced that his country’s experts had accessed the plane’s computer — he offered information he claimed proved it — and were now “reverse-engineering” the drone to create one of their own.

Most or all of his claims have been widely doubted, derided, or simply dismissed in our world, and for all I know his was indeed pure bluster and bluff.  But if so, it still managed to catch an urge that lay behind a couple of hundred years of global history: to adapt the most sophisticated aspects of the West to resist the West.  That urge has been essential to the way our planet has developed. After all, much of the last two centuries might well be headlined in technological, economic, and even political terms, “The History of Reverse-Engineering.”

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Tomgram: Engelhardt, Clueless in Afghanistan — and Washington

8:41 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

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

[Note for TomDispatch readers: Don’t miss the review Dan Froomkin, the Huffington Post’s senior Washington correspondent, wrote about my new book, The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s, under the title “The Essential, Undistractable Engelhardt” for his Neiman Watchdog website (cross-posted at the Huffington Post).  Here are a few excerpts: “The mainstream media have always been easily distracted and beguiled... This makes us particularly fortunate to have a few relentless souls like Tom Engelhardt around, using the Internet not to chase the latest chatter but to tenaciously chronicle, explore, and illuminate the unspoken realities that shape our political discourse... Engelhardt, a longtime book editor, is the creator and editor of the TomDispatch.com website… He is the finder and cultivator of important progressive voices… But at the heart of TomDispatch.com is Engelhardt's own work and his... thesis that America is a modern empire that has become addicted to the wars that are hastening its decline... His new book is a seamlessly edited collection of his writings... and establishes him as one of the grand chroniclers of the post-9/11 era.”  And keep in mind that if you buy my book, or anything else, after arriving at Amazon.com via a book link at this site, TD gets a small percentage of your purchase at no cost to you.  If you’re an Amazon shopper, get in the habit.  It’s an easy way to support TomDispatch and is greatly appreciated!  Keep an eye out for the next TD post Thursday on our more relaxed summer schedule, a new piece by Andrew Bacevich.  Tom]

The Opposites Game 
All the Strangeness of Our American World in One Article
 
By Tom Engelhardt

Have you ever thought about just how strange this country’s version of normal truly is?  Let me make my point with a single, hardly noticed Washington Post news story that’s been on my mind for a while.  It represents the sort of reporting that, in our world, zips by with next to no reaction, despite the true weirdness buried in it.

The piece by Craig Whitlock appeared on June 19th and was headlined, “U.S. military criticized for purchase of Russian copters for Afghan air corps.”  Maybe that’s strange enough for you right there.  Russian copters?  Of course, we all know, at least vaguely, that by year’s end U.S. spending on its protracted Afghan war and nation-building project will be heading for $350 billion dollars.  And, of course, those dollars do have to go somewhere.

Admittedly, these days in parts of the U.S., state and city governments are having a hard time finding the money just to pay teachers or the police.  The Pentagon, on the other hand, hasn’t hesitated to use at least $25-27 billion to “train” and “mentor” the Afghan military and police — and after each round of training failed to produce the expected results, to ask for even more money, and train them again.  That includes the Afghan National Army Air Corps which, in the Soviet era of the 1980s, had nearly 500 aircraft and a raft of trained pilots.  The last of that air force — little used in the Taliban era — was destroyed in the U.S. air assault and invasion of 2001.  As a result, the "Afghan air force” (with about 50 helicopters and transport planes) is now something of a misnomer, since it is, in fact, the U.S. Air Force.

Still, there are a few Afghan pilots, mostly in their forties, trained long ago on Russian Mi-17 transport helicopters, and it’s on a refurbished version of these copters, Whitlock tells us, that the Pentagon has already spent $648 million.  The Mi-17 was specially built for Afghanistan’s difficult flying environment back when various Islamic jihadists, some of whom we’re now fighting under the rubric of “the Taliban,” were allied with us against the Russians.

Here’s the first paragraph of Whitlock’s article: “The U.S. government is snapping up Russian-made helicopters to form the core of Afghanistan’s fledgling air force, a strategy that is drawing flak from members of Congress who want to force the Afghans to fly American choppers instead.”

So, various congressional representatives are upset over the lack of a buy-American plan when it comes to the Afghan air force.  That’s the story Whitlock sets out to tell, because the Pentagon has been planning to purchase dozens more of the Mi-17s over the next decade, and that, it seems, is what’s worth being upset about when perfectly good American arms manufacturers aren’t getting the contracts.

But let’s consider three aspects of Whitlock’s article that no one is likely to spend an extra moment on, even if they do capture the surpassing strangeness of the American way of war in distant lands — and in Washington.

1. The Little Training Program That Couldn’t:  There are at present an impressive 450 U.S. personnel in Afghanistan training the Afghan air force.  Unfortunately, there’s a problem.  There may be no “buy American” program for that air force, but there is a “speak American” one.  To be an Afghan air force pilot, you must know English — “the official language of the cockpit,” Whitlock assures us (even if to fly Russian helicopters).  As he points out, however, the trainees, mostly illiterate, take two to five years simply to learn the language.  (Imagine a U.S. Air Force in which, just to take off, every pilot needed to know Dari!)

Thanks to this language barrier, the U.S. can train endlessly and next to nothing is guaranteed to happen. “So far,” reports Whitlock, “only one Afghan pilot has graduated from flight school in the United States, although dozens are in the pipeline. That has forced the air corps to rely on pilots who learned to fly Mi-17s during the days of Soviet and Taliban rule.”  In other words, despite the impressive Soviet performance in the 1980s, the training of the Afghan Air Force has been re-imagined by Americans as a Sisyphean undertaking.

And this offers but a hint of how bizarre U.S. training programs for the Afghan military and police have proven to be. In fact, sometimes it seems as if exactly the same scathing report, detailing the same training problems and setbacks, has been recycled yearly without anyone who mattered finding it particularly odd — or being surprised that the response to each successive piece of bad news is to decide to pour yet more money and trainers into the project. 

For example, in 2005, at a time when Washington had already spent $3.3 billion training and mentoring the Afghan army and police, the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO) issued a report indicating that “efforts to fully equip the increasing number of [Afghan] combat troops have fallen behind, and efforts to establish sustaining institutions, such as a logistics command, needed to support these troops have not kept pace.”  Worse yet, the report fretted, it might take “up to $7.2 billion to complete [the training project] and about $600 million annually to sustain [it].”

In 2006, according to the New York Times, “a joint report by the Pentagon and the State Department… found that the American-trained police force in Afghanistan is largely incapable of carrying out routine law enforcement work, and that managers of the $1.1 billion training program cannot say how many officers are actually on duty or where thousands of trucks and other equipment issued to police units have gone.”  At best, stated the report, fewer than half of the officially announced number of police were “trained and equipped to carry out their police functions.” 

In 2008, by which time $16.5 billion had been spent on Army and police training programs, the GAO chimed in again, indicating that only two of 105 army units were "assessed as being fully capable of conducting their primary mission," while "no police unit is fully capable."  In 2009, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction reported that “only 24 of 559 Afghan police units are considered ready to operate without international help.”  Such reports, as well as repeated (and repetitive) news investigations and stories on the subject, invariably are accompanied by a litany of complaints about corruption, indiscipline, illiteracy, drug taking, staggering desertion rates, Taliban infiltration, ghost soldiers, and a host of other problems.  In 2009, however, the solution remained as expectable as the problems: “The report called for more U.S. trainers and more money.”

This June, a U.S. government audit, again from the Special Inspector General, contradicted the latest upbeat American and NATO training assessments, reporting that “the standards used to appraise the Afghan forces since 2005 were woefully inadequate, inflating their abilities.”  The usual litany of training woes followed.  Yet, according to Reuters, President Obama wants another $14.2 billion for the training project “for this year and next.” And just last week, the Wall Street Journal’s Julian Barnes reported that new Afghan war commander General David Petraeus is planning to “retool” U.S. strategy to include “a greater focus on how Afghanistan’s security forces are being trained.” 

When it comes to U.S. training programs then, you might conclude that Afghanistan has proved to be Catch-22-ville, the land where time stood still — and so, evidently, has the Washington national security establishment’s collective brain.  For Washington, there seems to be no learning curve in Afghanistan, not when it comes to “training” Afghans anyway.    

And here is the oddest thing of all, though no one even bothers to mention it in this context: the Taliban haven’t had tens of billions of dollars in foreign training funds; they haven’t had years of advice from the best U.S. and NATO advisors that money can buy; they haven’t had private contractors like DynCorp teaching them how to fight and police, and strangely enough, they seem to have no problem fighting.  They are not undermanned, infiltrated by followers of Hamid Karzai, or particularly corrupt.  They may be illiterate and may not be fluent in English, but they are ready, in up-to platoon-sized units, to attack heavily fortified U.S. military bases, Afghan prisons, a police headquarters, and the like with hardly a foreign mentor in sight.

Consider it, then, a modern miracle in reverse that the U.S. has proven incapable of training a competent Afghan force in a country where arms are the norm, fighting has for decades seldom stopped, and the locals are known for their war-fighting traditions.  Similarly, it’s abidingly curious that the U.S. has so far failed to train a modest-sized air force, even flying refurbished Italian light transport planes from the 1980s and those Russian helicopters, when the Soviet Union, the last imperial power to try this, proved up to creating an Afghan force able to pilot aircraft ranging from helicopters to fighter planes. 

2. Non-Exit strategies: Now, let’s wade a little deeper into the strangeness of what Whitlock reported by taking up the question of when we’re actually planning to leave Afghanistan.  Consider this passage from the Whitlock piece: “U.S. military officials have estimated that the Afghan air force won’t be able to operate independently until 2016, five years after President Obama has said he intends to start withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan. But [U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Michael R.]Boera said that date could slip by at least two years if Congress forces the Afghans to fly U.S. choppers.”

In other words, while Americans argue over what the president’s July 2011 drawdown date really means, and while Afghan President Hamid Karzai suggests that Afghan forces will take over the country’s security duties by 2014, Whitlock’s anonymous “U.S. military officials” are clearly operating on a different clock, on, in fact, Pentagon time, and so are planning for a 2016-2018 target date for that force simply to “operate independently” (which by no means indicates “without U.S. support.”) 

If you were of a conspiratorial mind, you might almost think that the Pentagon preferred not to create an effective Afghan air force and instead — as has also been the case in Iraq, a country that once had the world’s sixth largest air force and now, after years of U.S. mentoring, has next to nothing — remain the substitute Afghan air force forever and a day.

3. Who Are the Russians Now?: Okay, let’s move even deeper into American strangeness with a passage that makes up most of the 20th and 21st paragraphs of Whitlock’s 25-paragraph piece:  “In addition,” he reports, “the U.S. Special Operations Command would like to buy a few Mi-17s of its own, so that special forces carrying out clandestine missions could cloak the fact that they are American. ‘We would like to have some to blend in and do things,’ said a senior U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the clandestine program.”

No explanation follows on just how — or where — those Russian helicopters will help “cloak” American Special Operations missions, or what they are to “blend” into, or the “things” they are to do.  There’s no further discussion of the subject at all. 

In other words, the special op urge to Russianize its air transport has officially been reported, and a month later, as far as I know, not a single congressional representative has made a fuss over it; no mainstream pundit has written a curious, questioning, or angry editorial questioning its appropriateness; and no reporter has, as yet, followed up.   

As just another little factoid of no great import buried deep in an article focused on other matters, undoubtedly no one has given it a thought.  But it’s worth stopping a moment and considering just how odd this tiny bit of news-that-won’t-ever-rise-to-the-level-of-news actually is.  One way to do this is to play the sort of opposites game that never quite works on this still one-way planet of ours.   

Just imagine a similar news item coming out of another country. 

*Hot off the wires from Tehran: Iranian special forces teams are scouring the planet for old American Chinook helicopters so they can be well “cloaked” in planned future forays into Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province. 

*The People’s Daily reports: Chinese special forces operatives are buying relatively late model American helicopters so that… Well, here’s one problem in the opposites game, and a clue to the genuine strangeness of American activities globally: why would the Chinese need to do such a thing (and, in fact, why would we)?  Where might they want to venture militarily without being mistaken for Chinese military personnel? 

That might be a little hard to imagine right now, but I guarantee you one thing: had some foreign news source reported such a plan, or had Craig Whitlock somehow uncovered it and included it in a piece — no matter how obscurely nestled — there would have been pandemonium in Washington.  Congress would have held hearings.  Pundits would have opined on the infamy of Iranian or Chinese operatives masking themselves in our choppers.  The company or companies that sold the helicopters would have been investigated.  And you can imagine what Fox News commentators would have had to say. 

When we do such things, however, and a country like Pakistan reacts with what’s usually described as “anti-Americanism,” we wonder at the nationalistic hair-trigger they’re on; we comment on their over-emotionalism; we highlight their touchy “sensibilities”; and our reporters and pundits then write empathetically about the difficulties American military and civilian officials have dealing with such edgy natives.    

Just the other day, for instance, the Wall Street Journal’s Barnes reported that U.S. Special Operations Forces are expanding their role in the Pakistani tribal borderlands by more regularly “venturing out with Pakistani forces on aid projects, deepening the American role in the effort to defeat Islamist militants in Pakistani territory that has been off limits to U.S. ground troops.”  The Pakistani government has not been eager to have American boots visibly on the ground in these areas, and so Barnes writes: “Because of Pakistan’s sensitivities, the U.S. role has developed slowly.” 

Imagine how sensitive they might prove to be if those same forces began to land Russian helicopters in Pakistan as a way to “cloak” their operations and blend in?  Or imagine just what sort of hair-trigger the natives of Montana might be on if Pakistani special operations types were roaming Glacier National Park and landing old American helicopters outside Butte.  

Then consider the sensitivities of Pakistanis on learning that the just appointed head of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service turns out to be a man of “impeccable credentials” (so says CIA Director Leon Panetta).  Among those credentials are his stint as the CIA station chief in Pakistan until sometime in 2009, his involvement in the exceedingly unpopular drone warin that country’s tribal borderlands, and the way, as the Director put it a tad vaguely, he “guided complex operations under some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable." 

Here’s the truth of the matter, as Whitlock’s piece makes clear: we carry on in the most bizarre ways in far-off lands and think nothing of it.  Historically, it has undoubtedly been the nature of imperial powers to consider every strange thing they do more or less the norm.  For a waning imperial power, however, such an attitude has its own dangers.  If we can’t imagine the surpassing strangeness of our arrangements for making war in lands thousands of miles from the U.S., then we can’t begin to imagine how the world sees us, which means that we’re blind to our own madness. Russian helicopters, that’s nuthin’ by comparison.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket Books), has just been published. You can catch him discussing it on a TomCast video by clicking here.

[Note for readers: On the folly of American training programs for the Afghanistan Army, TomDispatch had an on-the-spot report that still shouldn’t be missed, Ann Jones’s September 20, 2009, piece “Meet the Afghan Army, Is It a Figment of Washington’s Imagination?”] 

Copyright 2010 Tom Engelhardt