The Force Is Not with Them
The Middle East Aflame and the Bush Administration Adrift
By Tom Engelhardt
So, as the world spins on a dime, where exactly are we?
As a man who is no fan of fundamentalists of any sort, let me offer a proposition that might make some modest sense of our reeling planet. Consider the possibility that the most fundamental belief, perhaps in all of history, but specifically in these last catastrophic years, seems to be in the efficacy of force — and the more of it the merrier. That deep belief in force above all else is perhaps the monotheism of monotheisms, a faith remarkably accepting of adherents of any other imaginable faith — or of no other faith at all. Like many fundamentalist faiths, it is also resistant to drawing any reasonable lessons from actual experience on this planet.
The Bush administration came to power as a fundamentalist regime; and here I’m not referring to the Christian fundamentalist faith of our President. After all, Karl Rove, Donald Rumsfeld, and our Vice President seem not to be Christian fundamentalists any more than were Paul Wolfowitz or Douglas Feith. Bush’s top officials may not have agreed among themselves on whether End Time would arrive, or even on the domestic social issues of most concern to the Christian religious right in this country, but they were all linked by a singular belief in the efficacy of force.
In fact, they believed themselves uniquely in possession of an ability to project force in ways no other power on the planet or in history ever could. While hardly elevating the actual military leadership of the country (whom they were eager to sideline), they raised the all-volunteer American military itself onto a pedestal and worshipped it as the highest tech, most shock-and-awesome institution around. They were dazzled by the fact that it was armed with the smartest, most planet-spanning, most destructive set of weapons imaginable, and backed by an unparalleled military-industrial complex as well as a “defense” budget that would knock anyone’s socks off (and their communications systems down). It was enough to dazzle the administration’s top officials with dreams of global domination; to fill them with a vision of a planet-wide Pax Americana; to send them off to the moon (which, by the way, was certainly militarizable).
Force, then, was their idol and they bowed down before it. When it came to the loosing of that force (and the forces at their command), they were nothing short of fervent utopians and blind believers. They were convinced that with such force (and forces), they could reshape the world in just about any way they wanted to fit their visionary desires.
And then, of course, came 9/11, the “Pearl Harbor” of this century. Suddenly, they had a divine wind at their back, a terrified populace before them ready to be led, and everything they believed in seemed just so well, possible. It was, in faith-based terms, a godsend. Not surprisingly, they promptly began to prepare to act in the stead of an imperially angry god and to bring the world — particularly its energy heartlands — to heel.
First, however, because they had long been People of the Word, they created their sacred texts, their doctrine. In the form of “preventive war” and keeping other potential superpowers or blocs of powers from ever rising up to challenge the United States, they enshrined force at the apex of their pantheon of deities in their National Security Strategy of 2002. (The term “preventive war” was in itself reasonably unique. Usually even the most aggressive dictators don’t label their planned wars with terms that creep right up to the edge of “aggressive” and then promote them that way to the world.) At the same time, the President then began speaking out about the need not to wait until the threat of destruction was upon us as in his 2002 State of the Union Address where he said: “We’ll be deliberate, yet time is not on our side. I will not wait on events, while dangers gather. I will not stand by, as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.”
Soon enough, his advisors began raising Iraqi mushroom clouds over American cities and describing fantasy Iraqi unmanned aerial vehicles that might spray those cities with chemical or biological weapons in order to make an already scared populace and cowed Congress into believers as well. This was, of course, in the period when their long-time supporters and a supportive corps of pundits, radio talk-show hosts, and communicators of various sorts were speaking proudly, even boastfully, about the United States as the sole “hyperpower” on the planet or the globe’s New Rome; when even a liberal Canadian commentator, Michael Ignatieff, could publish a piece in the New York Times Magazine extolling George Bush’s U.S. as “a new invention in the annals of political science, an empire lite, a global hegemony whose grace notes are free markets, human rights and democracy, enforced by the most awesome military power the world has ever known.” He wrote as well of the necessity of Americans shouldering the “burden of empire” in Iraq. (Historically, there’s only one such “burden,” by the way — and it’s Rudyard Kipling’s nineteenth century “white man’s burden.”)
Those, of course, were the good times when “neoconservatism” (partially a shorthand term for this religious bent, for the love of “the most awesome military power the world has ever known”) was truly ascendant. That term was also shorthand for an imperial mission to be shouldered by officials convinced that our empire should stand tall, alone, and on one leg — the leg of “force.”
In any case, having enshrined “preventive war” at the heart of the Bush Doctrine, they went in search of someplace to loose it on the world, someplace that might look militarily strong enough and heinous enough, but would be weak enough to make a point fast. They needed a roguish country, preferably run by a nasty dictator, preferably smack in the oil heartlands of the globe, that could be taken down quickly as a demonstration of that “awesome military power,” a place that could be shock-and-awed into instant submission. It would be both a cakewalk and a case in point for the rest of the region about what a group of determined fundamentalists might do to anyone who opposed their religion and their wishes.
Well, we know the place; we know how they first shock-and-awed Congress and the American people into an invasion; and we all remember how they put their plan into practice — with a confidence and lack of planning for any alternative possibilities or realities that was typical of true believers. And so, on March 20, 2003, they loosed their cruise-missile-styled lightning bolts on Baghdad because they knew one thing — that the force was with them and that, because the United States was the military superpower of all superpowers in all of history, it was theirs alone
Stock and Awe: The Force of an Anxious Market
Now, let’s jump a few familiar years ahead on our fast-spinning, wobbly globe and see if we can land on the present moment, July 16, 2006. In the process, let’s also take a little spin through our “empire lite,” that vaunted New Rome, that Pax Americana as it’s developed since the Bush administration decided to “take the gloves off,” and apply its power fully and brutally from Iraq to Guantanamo. In fact, let’s do a fly-by of what the neocons’ once called “the arc of instability” three years later:
In Afghanistan, as an ABC network news journalist touring American bases reported the other night, American officers are begging for more troops. (The Brits, just taking over in the south, are already desperately sending them in!) This is a response to the “eradicated” Taliban unexpectedly ramping up their force levels; narco-warlords growing ever more entrenched; the security situation in the capital, Kabul, and elsewhere deteriorating; and American bombing runs (including the use of B-52s) increasing. Force has truly become the arbiter of Afghanistan’s terrible fate.
The situation has, in fact, deteriorated so rapidly in the Bush administration’s model “nation-building” project that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, on a quick dash through sunny Tajikistan last week, suggested that bad news, looked at in another light, might actually be splendid tidings. According to David S. Cloud of the New York Times, “Mr. Rumsfeld acknowledged that the number of Taliban attacks may be up this year. But he said the increasingly brazen tactics had made it easier for American, Afghan and NATO forces to find them. ‘Every time they come together,’ he said, ‘they get hit and they get hurt. So the fact that we see a somewhat different method of operation during this period is correct, but it has not necessarily been disadvantageous because the more that are in one place, the easier they are to attack.'”
For a while, back in 2003-04, when things began to go sour in Iraq, various neocons suggested that the country might providentially prove to be a kind of global “flypaper” drawing all the terrorists to one spot for what, in near biblical terms, would prove to be a terrorist-zapping Armageddon. The theory was quietly dropped into the dustbin of history when only its first half proved accurate; but here it is back with us again in devolving Afghanistan and on the lips of our Secretary of Defense because well, the idea of overwhelming force solving all problems just feels so good and sounds so right to a believer when things are going so wrong.
In the former flypaper-land of Iraq, the Bush administration’s application of full-frontal force has, by now, released every two-bit sectarian thug, death-squad killer, jihadi fanatic, and angry rebel onto the streets of the capital, Baghdad — where perhaps a fifth or more of the country’s population lives — armed to the teeth and ready to maim, mutilate, torture, and kill. Not surprisingly, overwhelming, shock-and-awe force has released a nightmare of counterforce there that has shoved every other, more peaceable possible way of doing or thinking about anything into the shade and onto the sidelines (if not simply into the morgue).
In the wake of the killing of Abu Musad al-Zarqawi, a potential turning-of-the-tide moment, according to our President, the Iraqi capital, in particular, has been drenched in a high tide of blood; and, despite all the talk about possible “draw-downs” of American troops, commanding general George W. Casey, Jr. has just called for yet more American soldiers to be sent into the lawless, uncontrollable capital. At the same time, in America’s fantasy Iraq, a single, relatively quiet southern province bordering Saudi Arabia has just been officially “turned over” to the charge of Iraqi security forces and the act declared a “milestone” by Casey and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. (When any American official even mutters “milestone,” or “tidal change,” or “turning point” in relation to Iraq, watch out!)
In fact, Iraqis seem to be paying ever less attention to American commands, demands, and orders — and no wonder, since over the last four years every attempt to impose the administration’s will on Iraq purely by force of arms and in an imperial manner has failed dismally — and to this dismal failure there is neither an end in sight, nor an imaginable bottoming-out tidal moment.
Meanwhile, as no one could have missed by now, the Mediterranean edge of the Middle East is teetering at the edge of full-scale war, behind which lurks the threat of an even wider regional war of some previously almost unimaginable sort. There, too, the recourse to arms has overwhelmed any other possible option. Hamas guerrillas broke into Israel, killed two soldiers and captured another. They certainly must have had a sense of what the Israeli reaction to such a raid might be; but for the sake of argument, let’s say they didn’t.
In the meantime, at the Lebanese border with Israel, the guerrillas of the Hezbollah movement watched the Israelis mercilessly take out a power plant, government offices, and various other infrastructural targets in Gaza, while killing civilians and hammering urban areas as a “response” to the capture of their soldier. Hezbollah then launched their own incursion into Israel, killing several soldiers and capturing two more. With the example of Gaza in front of them, they had to know just exactly what the Olmert government would do to the civilian infrastructure of Lebanon itself — and clearly it made no difference.
As for the Israelis, at this point they visibly feel free of all outside restraint or constraint, given the Bush administration, and so can bomb, blockade, missile, and attack almost at will — and, with their eyes on Syria and Iran, are threatening to widen this war yet further, setting the region ablaze. As in the slums of Baghdad, so too in Gaza, Lebanon, and possibly elsewhere, the urge is to settle historic grudges via shock-and-awe tactics. And yet, as Rami Khouri has written recently, the Israelis are “in the bizarre position of repeating policies that have consistently failed for the past 40 years.” The last time this happened, the Israelis made it all the way to Beirut and ended up stuck in Lebanon for 18 years before withdrawing ignominiously. In the process, they helped midwife the Hezbollah movement and give it luster, a reputation, and strength.
We seem today to be headed into Lebanon redux in a region where the principle of force has been set loose to trump all else. On all sides, fundamentalists in the religion of force are thundering threats and imprecations, while issuing sets of impossible demands. In the typical words of Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah (whose home and office had just been wiped out by Israeli missiles): “You wanted an open war, and we are heading for an open war We are ready for it The surprises that I have promised you will start now.” And, of course, as in Gaza where random Palestinian civilians suffer and die under Israeli attack, so in Israel random civilians are wounded or die under a barrage of Hezbollah rockets; so, in Lebanon, helpless civilians die in homes, on highways, wherever, under a rain of Israeli bombs and missiles.
And all this is happening without either Iran, the third member of George Bush’s axis of evil, or Syria, the unspoken fourth member (like an unindicted co-conspirator), have truly entered the fray (except, possibly, by proxy through their stand-ins in Gaza and Lebanon). Yet Iran is already offering up increasingly bloodcurdling threats. Emboldened by the American disaster in Iraq, its fundamentalist leaders, too, seem in a rush to threaten force and more force.
Now, just try to imagine an American attack on suspected Iranian nuclear facilities — something that journalist Seymour Hersh, in a recent New Yorker piece, reports a “senior military official” claiming Secretary of Defense Donald Rumfeld and his “senior aides” still “really think they can do on the cheap, and they underestimate the capability of the [Iranian] adversary.” In a similar fashion, the Iranian leadership undoubtedly underestimates its bogged-down American adversary. It’s the nature of such a faith to overestimate your own ability to use force and underestimate the capabilities of your opponents.
If Bush and his top officials arrived on the Iraqi scene believing that the force was with them and only them, the last three-plus years have offered (if not taught) a rather different lesson. After all, they now find themselves in a roiling crowd of medium-sized and smaller states, stateless movements, and extremist grouplets, all passionately devoted to the same principle of force as them. The fundamentalist belief in force, once let loose in this fashion — once (you might say) modeled by the globe’s reigning hyperpower — turns out to be a distinctly pagan faith. From the streets of Gaza to the slums of Baghdad, from the mountains of Afghanistan to Beirut International Airport and the halls of the Pentagon, this is a religion open to one and all, ready to embrace many contradictory gods into its pantheon.
And here’s the irony. The hyperpower that loosed this singular round of force on our world seems strangely sidelined, while others move boldly to apply its most essential principles profligately, every one of them emboldened both by our example and by our dismal failure. Talk about Pandora’s Box (without Hope anywhere in sight)!
What force has done, thanks to the Bush administration’s utopian foolishness, is to tie the region’s many competing groups, movements, and states into an ever-tightening, Gordian-style knot — and that knot, in turn, has been ever more tightly hitched to the global economy, so that every tug on any loose end now sends oil prices up another disastrous notch and trembling stock markets into convulsions. (Call it stock-and-awe!) Just Friday, the Dow Jones completed a three-day, 400 point shuddering drop, while oil, not so long ago hovering in the vicinity of $30 for a barrel of crude, managed to hit a staggering $78.40 a barrel by the end of last week — and remember, this was just based on “nerves,” not on more oil supplies actually going off the market, as would certainly happen, one way or another, in a widening conflict in the region.
In fact, the oil heartlands of the planet look to be heading for further rounds of violence and turmoil and, potentially, the American and global economy with them — and the only tool imaginable to anybody is still: Force.
The Bush administration had no wish for other tools — that was the meaning, after all, of “unilateralism” — and so now it has no other tools in its “arsenal.” It lost most of its allies while in its unilateral dream-state. Focusing all its attention on the Pentagon and on military-to-military relations globally, it also lost whatever modest capacity might have been available to it not just to head down another path, but to deploy the most basic tools of diplomacy. What it has left is, of course, force; but its own on-the-ground forces are dangerously depleted and it’s evidently no longer obvious to top administration officials exactly where American force (and forces) should be applied (much as they may loathe the Iranians and Syrians).
They launched a force party in the Middle East. Now it’s in full swing; the club’s pilled high with dancers; many of the exits are bolted shut; the bouncers are no longer at the front door; and, on stage, the performers are brandishing blowtorches, while the Earth’s last hyperpower and its hyper-commander-in-chief President are watching, helplessly, from the sidelines. As Dan Froomkin, the fine Washington Post on-line columnist, pointed out this week in a column headlined Bush the Bystander, “stopping off in Germany on his way to the G-8 summit in Russia,” as the Middle East caught fire, “Bush reserved his greatest enthusiasm for tonight’s pig roast — technically, a wild-boar barbecue — bringing it up three times. ‘I’m looking forward to that pig tonight,’ he gushed.”
Conceptually, what else could he do but offer his support to the Israelis (with but polite demurrals about “restraint” from his Secretary of State). After all, what are the Israelis doing but fighting their own hopeless “war on terrorism” American-style?
As journalist Warren Strobel summed up the regional situation: “Virtually every president faces a plethora of global crises, sometimes simultaneously. What’s new is that the United States’ ability to influence events has shrunk, largely because U.S. troops and treasure remain mired in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Iraq war has diminished foreign confidence in American leadership, according to foreign policy experts and some U.S. officials.” Former Israeli cabinet minister Yossi Beilin made a similar point to Haaretz. “The worsening conflict in the Middle East is a blatant reflection of the weakness of the American partner,”
Everywhere this administration is being less attended to. Everywhere, others are sharpening their knives, loading their weapons, and preparing to smite their enemies, inspired by the American example, liberated by its failure.
Oh, and while I’ve been mentioning the international face of the two-faced religion of force, I’ve forgotten to mention how it’s been playing out at home.
After all, in the Bush years the Pentagon and the military have been fully elevated to the role of first providers (of everything) — a role for which they are visibly unprepared. Nation-building and diplomacy have largely become military, not State Department, matters, as has intelligence-gathering of every sort. For the first time, a permanent, peacetime North American Command (Northcom) has been established for the continental U.S., while the military, not the civil government, is now to be the initial, and possibly main, responder in situations ranging from disastrous hurricanes to a potential Avian flu pandemic.
But for overwhelming force to be effective at home or abroad, it must be, in the minds of fundamentalists like, say, our grey and secretive Vice President, or his own eminence gris, David Addington, not to speak of eager force-hounds like “torture memo” author John Yoo or former Former General Counsel for the Pentagon William J. Haynes II, now up for for a federal appeals court judgeship, applied in a timely fashion and effectively. Democracy, officially to be spread to the world, turns out to be such a messy contraption in “time of war” at home. If you’re a believer, then you don’t want anything, certainly not congressional oversight or an informed public, to get in the way of that necessary, firm, and preventive application of force in a time of crisis — and what time isn’t?
Of course, what you really need to concentrate force effectively elsewhere — consider this to be the unwritten part of the Bush Doctrine — is a concentration of power at home in a single figure, not the President (a peace-time title describing a fettered office), but the President as “commander-in-chief” — a military man, freed in “wartime” of all those nasty checks and balances, and so able to act decisively in any way necessary to make force utterly effective, whether in a distant, recalcitrant foreign land or in a nearby prison.
That summarizes, of course, the now-infamous unitary executive theory of government, a creative form of not-exactly-strict constructionism, which essentially was aimed at reinventing the Constitution (like the wheel), neutering Congress, and sidelining the American people in favor of a single commander-in-chief preserving democracy for the rest of us as he sees fit — essentially, when you come right down to it, an autocrat or king. And we know how our present commander-in-chief saw fit. In fact, he — they — came so very close, even managing to get two new justices on the Supreme Court who were, above all else, believers in the most extreme theory of the presidency ever proposed.
But as in Iraq, force, or the domestic equivalent — the “preventive” politics of fear, manipulation, lies, and secrecy — proved not quite enough and so at home, as abroad, the President’s foes in Congress, the federal bureaucracy, the courts, and elsewhere, watching the opinion polls, noting his faltering performance, absorbing the sinkhole quality of Iraq, sensing that this administration was losing its forcefulness began pushing back or paying less attention. In turn, as with the recent Supreme Court decision on detainees at Guantanamo (or the NSA surveillance issue), the administration has been slowly giving way, twisting and squirming, parsing words and pretzeling meanings as it retreats.
If your religion is force, then showing weakness, not smiting your foes, only encourages the look of a woebegone commander-in-chief presidency. In that light, the recent Hamdan v. Rumsfeld decision of the Supreme Court was but another blow to the President’s unfettered self.
And yet old faiths, and the habits that go with them, die hard. When the Hamdan decision came down, the President’s reaction was an interesting (if hardly noted) one. He immediately said: “We will seriously look at the findings, obviously, and one thing I am not going to do, though, is that I am not going to jeopardize the safety of the American people.” The findings? Was he under the impression that a Supreme Court decision was like the “findings” of a presidentially appointed commission, like the 9/11 Commission, offering advice to the President to be seriously looked at and considered?
Then again, that was just his first reaction. With time and further thought, here’s what he said about the decision at a news conference in Chicago last week: “I am willing,” he assured the assembled journalists and the American public, “to abide by the ruling of the Supreme Court.” He was now willing to abide hmmm. If that wasn’t the imperial commander-in-chief of our nation hanging in there, I don’t know what would be. He added: “They didn’t [say] we couldn’t have done — made that decision, see. They were silent on whether or not Guantanamo — whether or not we should have used Guantanamo. In other words, they accepted the use of Guantanamo, the decision I made.” Aha
And, of course, the acolytes of his fundamentalist faith haven’t exactly gone away either. Last week, for instance, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony from Steven Bradbury, head of the Justice Department’s office of legal counsel. Vermont’s Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy asked him about the President’s claim that the Court’s Hamdan decision “upheld his position on Guantanamo.”
LEAHY: Was the President right or was he wrong?
BRADBURY: It’s under the law of war —
LEAHY: Was the President right or was he wrong?
BRADBURY: The President is always right.
The President’s record in the Middle East and elsewhere tells us otherwise, of course. From Pyongyang to Tehran, Baghdad to Gaza and Tel Aviv, smaller powers — or simply parties, militias, or mass movements — are going their own way, considering their own narrow interests, and exploring just how far force can take them, while ignoring the words of the Bush administration. In this sense, they learned their new religious catechism well: If you can’t impose it on me by force of arms, then to hell with you.
So here we are armed to the teeth in a hair-trigger world with a bevy of angry states happy to declare their own unilateral “wars on terror” and pursue their own armed solutions. They’ve all got the fervor and the faith. As for the rest of us, who knows what we’re sliding into or how in the world to put on the brakes.
Out of the last Israeli invasion and occupation of Lebanon came both the fundamentalist extremism of Hezbollah and of Ariel Sharon. Who knows what will come from this round of the same — certainly, nothing good as long as force is the only ruling deity in our world.
Oh, and there’s one fundamentalist character I’ve left out of the mix, someone who definitely bows down to force. Call everything that’s happened these last few years Osama’s dream. It’s hard not to think of William Butler Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming,” and then wonder: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War. His novel, The Last Days of Publishing, is now out in paperback.
Copyright 2006 Tom Engelhardt