Yes, their defensive zone is the planet and they
patrol it regularly. As ever, their planes and drones have been in the skies
these last weeks. They struck a village in Somalia,
tribal areas in Pakistan,
rural areas in Afghanistan, and urban
neighborhoods in Iraq. Their troops are training and advising the Iraqi
army and police as well as the new Afghan army, while their Special Operations
forces are planning
to train Pakistan's paramilitary Frontier Corps in that country's wild, mountainous
Their Vice President arrived in Baghdad not long before the government of
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched its recent (failed) offensive against
cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia in the southern oil city of Basra.
To "discuss" their needs in their President's eternal War on Terror, two of
their top diplomats, a deputy secretary of state and an assistant secretary
of state for South Asian affairs, arrived
in Pakistan to the helpless outrage of the local press on the
very day newly elected Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani was being given the
oath of office. ("I don't think it is a good idea for them to be here on this
particular day, right here in Islamabad, meeting with senior politicians in
the new government, trying to dictate terms..." was the way Zaffar
Abbas, editor of the newspaper Dawn, put it.)
At home, their politicians have nationally
televised debates in which they fervently discuss just how quickly they
would launch air assaults against Pakistan's tribal areas, without permission
from the Pakistani government but based on "actionable intelligence" on terrorists.
Their drones cruise the skies of the world looking for terrorist suspects to
in the phrase of the hour "take
out." Agents from their intelligence services have, these last years, roamed
the planet, kidnapping terrorist suspects directly off
the streets of major cities and transporting them to their own secret prisons,
or those of other countries willing to employ torture methods. Their spy satellites
circle the globe listening in on conversations wherever they please, while their
military has divided the whole planet into "commands," the last of which, Africom,
was just formed.
As far as they are concerned, nowhere do their interests not come into play;
nowhere, in fact, are they not paramount. As their President put
it recently, "If [our] strategic interests are not in Iraq the convergence
point for the twin threats of al-Qaeda and Iran, the nation Osama bin Laden's
deputy has called 'the place for the greatest battle,' the country at the heart
of the most volatile region on Earth then where are they?" (And you could
easily substitute the names of other countries for Iraq.)
Their President makes a habit of regularly telling
other countries what they "must" do. "At the same time," he said recently, "the
regimes in Iran and Syria must stop supporting violence and terror in
Iraq." It's especially important to him and his officials that other nations
not "interfere" in situations where, as in Iraq, they are so obviously "foreigners"
and have no business; no fingers, that is, are to be caught in other people's
cookie jars. Their Vice President made this point strikingly in an exchange
with a TV interviewer:
"Q: So what message are you sending to Iran, and how tough are
you prepared to get?
"Vice President: I think the message that the president sent clearly
is that we do not want them doing what they can to try to destabilize the
situation inside Iraq. We think it's very important that they keep their
folks at home."
A range of other countries, all with a natural bent for "interference" or
"meddling," must regularly be warned or threatened. After all, what needs to
be prevented, according to a typical formulation
of their President, is "foreign interference in the internal affairs of Iraq."
None of this advice do they apply to themselves for reasons far too obvious
to explain. Wherever they go sometimes in huge numbers, usually well-armed,
and, after a while, deeply entrenched in bases the size of small towns that
they love to build they feel comfortable. They are, after all, defending
their liberties by defending those of others elsewhere. Though there are natives
of one brand or another everywhere, they consider themselves the planet's only
true natives. Their motto might be: Wherever we hang our hats (or helmets) is
Others, who choose to fight them, automatically become aliens, intent as they
are on destroying the stability of that planetary "home." So, for years, their
military spokespeople referred to the Sunni insurgents they were battling in
Iraq as "anti-Iraqi forces."
It mattered little that almost all of them were, in fact, Iraqis; for the enemy
is, by nature, so beyond the pale as to be a stranger to his or her own country
or, just as likely, a cat's-paw of foreign forces and powers. Only when the
very same "anti-Iraqi forces" suddenly decided to become allies were they suddenly
granted the title, "concerned
citizens," or even, more gloriously, "Sons
When off duty, their luckier soldiers have the option of taking "rest and
recreation" in "the homeland" at places like the Hale Koa ("House of the Warrior")
Hotel in Honolulu, Hawaii, or in the extended homeland at, say, the
Edelweiss Lodge and Resort in the Bavarian Alps or the
Dragon Hill Lodge near thrilling downtown Seoul, South Korea all part
of their global system of Armed Forces Recreation Centers.
This is their world and welcome to it.
It's not exactly a mystery what country I'm talking about. You knew from the
beginning. Since the Soviet Union vanished in 1991, only one nation has made
itself at home everywhere on Earth; only one nation has felt that the planet's
interests and its own interests were essentially one; only one nation's military
garrisons and patrols our world from Greenland to the tropics, from the sea
bed to the edge of space; only one nation's military talks about its vast
array of bases as its "footprint" on the planet; only one nation judges
its essential and exceptional goodness, in motivation if nothing else, as justification
for any act it may take.
Putting an Iraqi Face on Iraq
Soon, U.S. surge commander General David Petraeus
will return to Washington to report
to Congress on our "progress" in Iraq and he'll do so with the worst
crisis in that country in almost a year still unresolved. He'll do so, in fact,
shrouded in yet another strategic disaster for the Bush administration. With
that in mind, let's take a moment to look back at just how, militarily at least,
the Bush administration first made itself at home in Iraq.
In the U.S., the administration's lack
of planning for the occupation of Iraq starting with the wholesale looting
of Baghdad after American troops had taken the capital has been the subject
of much debate and discussion in Congress and the media. While it's usually
noted in passing that, amid the chaos, orders had in fact been issued to American
troops to guard the Oil Ministry,
little is made of that. In fact, orders for U.S. troops to guard that ministry
and the Interior Ministry, and nothing else, were indeed given, which simply
indicates that administration planning was extremely focused on oil and the
secret police (and perhaps Saddam Hussein's secret archives).
In addition, we know that the administration ignored the 13-volume
"Future of Iraq" project put together by the State Department to guide an
occupation largely because its neocon officials were so intent on sidelining
the State Department more generally. On the other hand, the Pentagon did plan
for what it thought would matter. Specifically, from a front-page
April 19, 2003 New York Times article, we know that, by the time the
invasion began, the Pentagon already had on the drawing boards plans for building
four permanent mega-bases in Iraq. (They were meant to replace our bases in
Saudi Arabia.) And these were
indeed built (along with others and the largest
embassy on the planet) in more or less the locations originally described.
From the beginning, whatever planning it didn't do, the Bush administration
was certainly planning to make itself at home in Iraq in a big way for a long,
Much has also been made of the disastrous, seat-of-the-pants decision by the
administration, in the person of L. Paul Bremer III, head of the Coalition Provisional
Authority (CPA) then ruling Baghdad, to disband the Iraqi army. But few now
recall what the administration, the CPA, and the Pentagon had in mind (and leaked
to the press soon after the invasion) for a future Iraqi military of their dreams.
They had, in fact, reconceived the Iraqi army as a force of perhaps 40,000
lightly armed, largely border-guarding troops. Keep in mind that Saddam Hussein
had a military of 400,000 heavily armed troops and until the First Gulf War
in 1990 a powerful air force (as well as copious supplies of chemical weapons).
In the Middle East, for a country to have only a 40,000 man military without
tanks, artillery, or an air force to call on meant but one thing: that the U.S.
military and the U.S. Air Force, from bases in Iraq and in the region, were
to be Iraq's real fighting force in any crisis. This was the true planning message
of the Bush administration and it indicated just how "at home" its officials
thought they would be in occupied Iraq.
By the time it became obvious that such thinking was fantastical and George
Bush was starting to repeat the mantra,
"As Iraqis stand up, Americans will stand down," the idea of a 40,000-man force
had been long forgotten. By then, the U.S. military was at work creating a large
Iraqi army and national police force. But the effects of such planning remain
debilitatingly present, even today.
After all, the "crack" Iraqi units sent into Basra by Prime Minister Maliki
were still relatively lightly armed. (Hence, their complaints that the Sadrist
militia they came up against were often better armed than they were.) They still
had no significant Iraqi air force to call on, because as yet it hardly
exists. When they got desperate, they had to call on U.S. and British air
support as well as U.S. Special
Forces units. And, of course, in the fighting in Basra, as in Baghdad where
American units quickly
entered the fray, they showed no particular flair for "standing up." In fact,
according to the Associated Press's fine reporter Charles J. Hanley, the chief
American trainer of Iraqi forces, Lt. Gen. James Dubik, now
estimates that Iraq's military will not be able to guard the country's borders
effectively until, at the earliest, 2018.
There was a period, back in 2004-05, when the Bush administration regularly
wielded a telling image. They talked often about the importance of putting "an
Iraqi face" on various aspects of the situation in that country. Here's a typical
passage from the New York Times from that period: "By insisting that
they not be identified, the three officers based in Baghdad were following a
Pentagon policy requiring American commanders in Baghdad to put 'an Iraqi face'
on the war, meaning that Iraqi commanders should be the ones talking to reporters,
not Americans." This caught something of the strangeness of that moment, a strangeness
that has yet to disappear. After all, as an image, to put a "face" on anything
actually means to put a mask over an already present face, which was (and, even
today, in military terms largely remains) American power in Iraq.
The presentation of the recent Maliki government offensive, launched on the
eve of Petraeus's return, also represented, in part, an attempt to put an Iraqi
face on American at-homeness in that country. The fictional story put out as
the "Iraqi" offensive was launched printed up quite
seriously in our media was that Maliki had only informed the American
high command (and the British in Basra) of his prospective move in the
hours just before it was launched. This was, on the face of it, ludicrous.
The "Iraqi" army has been stood up trained, that is by U.S. advisors;
some of its units have U.S. advisors embedded in them; it is almost totally
reliant on the logistical support of the U.S. military. It could not move far
offensively without the significant prior knowledge of U.S. commanders (and
this was later admitted
by the President's National Security Council Advisor Stephen J. Hadley).
While Maliki had his own reasons for launching his forces (and allied militias)
against Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army in Basra, the Americans certainly imagined
a triumphant moment for Petraeus in his upcoming hearings, thanks to new evidence
that the Iraqi government was finally, in George Bush's words,
"in the lead" and its military shaping up well. As Leila Fadel of the McClatchy
"Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said the Iraqi operation was a 'byproduct
of the success' of the year-old U.S. troop surge." This was a fantasy, of course.
And the result was the
success of Sadr's forces from Basra to Baghdad and ongoing American attempts
any real involvement in the planning of the offensive.
The United States is hardly the first empire
whose representatives have felt at home anywhere in its world (if not, in past
times, in the world). When you are at the peak of your imperial powers,
you can ignore the problems and contradictions that such a feeling, such an
attitude, naturally calls up. This is no longer the situation for the United
States and so the contradictions ripen, the problems only grow, and the plunge
into delusional thinking deepens.
Take just the seeming conundrum of the recent battle in Basra. On one side,
you have an Iraqi army, trained for years by the Americans, to the tune of approximately
$22 billion in U.S. funds. On the other side, you have an (at best) partially
trained "militia" an "army" in name only. It may be that the Iranians have
put some effort or money into equipping the Mahdi Army though the evidence
for this is slim indeed but, if so, this would be minor by comparison.
When the two forces clashed, what was the result? Some Iraqi soldiers and
simply put down their weapons and, in certain cases, surrendered
or went over to the other side, or deserted, or fought half-heartedly; while
the Mahdis fought fiercely, cleverly, and, in the end, successfully, until called
off in triumph by their leader. They "stood
up" (just as they had against the full might of the American military in
the southern holy city of Najaf back in 2004). Could there, then, be two different
races of Iraqis, one set willing to fight with or without training or outside
help, the other unwilling, no matter the support?
The American military faced a similar situation four decades ago in Vietnam,
where American advisors training the South Vietnamese military regularly swore
that they would turn in their brigades of Vietnamese troops for just a few platoons
of Vietcong, who would stand and fight as if their lives depended on it.
Of course, the answer here is anything but mysterious. On the one hand, you
have a foreign-trained, foreign-advised, foreign-supplied force with confused
and divided loyalties that is only partially an "Iraqi" army; on the other,
you have a local force, fighting in a community, for the safety and wellbeing
of its own sons and wives, friends and relatives. The Mahdi Army members know
why they fight and who they fight for. They have "faith," and not just in the
religious sense. They are, in a word, at home.
The history of the last 200 years has regularly piled up evidence that this
matters far more than firepower. Human beings, that is, regularly "stand up"
for something other than shiny weapons or the interests of a foreign power,
no matter how at home its leaders may think they are in your country. The inability
to see this obvious point repeatedly and over decades represents delusional
thinking stemming, at least in part, from an inability of Americans to imagine
their own foreignness in the world.
In such cases, you misperceive who is on your side, why they are there, and
what, exactly, they are capable of. You misunderstand what the actual natives
of a place think of you. You don't grasp that, whatever the brute force and
finances at your command, you, as a foreigner, may never understand the situation
you believe you should control. Even the Maliki government itself, after all,
is only "on our side" thanks to its abysmal weakness. (Otherwise, it would be
far more closely allied with that other foreign power, Iran.) Sooner or later
usually sooner you simply delude yourself. You mistake your trained army
for an "Iraqi" or a "Vietnamese" one and so come to believe that, if only you
adjust your counterinsurgency tactics correctly, it will fight like one. Then
you act accordingly, which is, of course, disastrous.
Whatever General Petraeus says before Congress next week, however sane and
pragmatic he sounds, however impressive looking his charts and graphs, it's
worth keeping in mind that his testimony cannot help but be delusional, because
it stems from delusional premises and it can lead only to further disaster for
Americans and Iraqis.
Yes, of course, American planes and drones will continue to cruise the skies
of the globe "taking out" enemies (or missing them and taking out citizens elsewhere
whom we could care less about); American diplomats and high military officials
will continue to travel the planet in packs, indicating, however politely, what
politicians, military men, and diplomats elsewhere "must" do; and American military
men will continue to train the Iraqi army in the hopes that, in 2018 if not
sooner, it will stand up.
And yet, as long as we mistake ourselves for "the natives," as long as we
are convinced that our interests are paramount everywhere, and feel that we
must be part of the solution to every problem, our problems and the world's
will only multiply.
[Tomdispatch Recommendation: A recent Noam Chomsky piece, "We
Own the World," took up an allied set of topics to those in this essay.
It's a fascinating read and I urge you to check it out.]
Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt