Notes from the colonial era

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On October 20, under the subhead “Petroleum News: Not for Everybody,” Washington Post columnist Al Kamen reported the following:

“An e-mail Friday morning offered a wonderful opportunity for the Interior Department’s 70,000 employees.

“‘The Secretary’s Alaska Field Office and the Alaska offices of MMS [Minerals Management Service] and BLM [Bureau of Land Management] have purchased a bulk subscription to the electronic version of Petroleum News for all Interior employees,’ said the note from Camden Toohey, a special assistant to Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton, based in Anchorage.

“‘Petroleum News is a weekly newspaper based in Anchorage that covers the oil and gas industry in North America,’ Toohey explained. But then, two minutes later, a second e-mail came flying in from the tech people at Interior. ‘Subject: ALL EMPLOYEE MESSAGE Nationwide — Correction: The Petroleum News Subscription has been cancelled.’

“‘Correction,’ the e-mail began. ‘Please disregard this message,’ meaning the first e-mail. ‘This message should not had went out to all employees.’ [sic]

“Not speak we much English, just networking computer stuff we do.”

(Al Kamen, Many Names for a Scandal)

“‘The Secretary’s Alaska Field Office and the Alaska offices of MMS [Minerals Management Service] and BLM [Bureau of Land Management] have purchased a bulk subscription to the electronic version of Petroleum News for all Interior employees,’ said the note from Camden Toohey, a special assistant to Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton, based in Anchorage.

“‘Petroleum News is a weekly newspaper based in Anchorage that covers the oil and gas industry in North America,’ Toohey explained. But then, two minutes later, a second e-mail came flying in from the tech people at Interior. ‘Subject: ALL EMPLOYEE MESSAGE Nationwide — Correction: The Petroleum News Subscription has been cancelled.’

“‘Correction,’ the e-mail began. ‘Please disregard this message,’ meaning the first e-mail. ‘This message should not had went out to all employees.’ [sic]

“Not speak we much English, just networking computer stuff we do.”

(Al Kamen, Many Names for a Scandal)

Evidently it took just those two minutes — two minutes too long, as it happened — for someone at the Interior Department to realize that this might not be the best publicity for our present All Petroleum Administration (APA). But the urge should be noted. Of course, maybe they were also planning to offer free subs to the Sierra Club’s magazine. On the other hand, maybe under the Bush administration the “interior” of Interior Department has been redefined as the interior of the earth and whatever resides there.

Notes from the colonial era:

As it turns out, this administration adores the interior of the earth, whether in Alaska or in Kyrgystan. You haven’t heard of Kyrgystan? Well, catch up with the Bushonauts in Central Asia via Lutz Kleveman, whose Guardian piece, “The New Great Game” I include below. As you may remember, we arrived in the ‘stans of Central Asia, previously a preserve of the old USSR and then of Russia on temporary assignment for the war on terror (though the way had been prepared during the Clinton administration). Now, make-do tent-city bases are turning into concrete and we’re settling in for the long haul.

According to Kleveman, “Bush has used his massive military build-up in Central Asia to seal the cold war victory against Russia, to contain Chinese influence and to tighten the noose around Iran. Most importantly, however, Washington is exploiting the ‘war on terror’ to further American oil interests in the Caspian region. But this geopolitical gamble involving thuggish dictators and corrupt Saudi oil sheiks is only likely to produce more terrorists.”

It turns out, in fact, that the “democracy” we were intent on bringing to Iraq just wasn’t meant for our new central Asian allies, where “the main spoils in today’s Great Game are Caspian oil and gas.” Kleveman, while explaining the latest regional imperial struggles over oil and natural gas pipeline routes, manages to link the world from China to Iraq (and beyond) into a system that makes some sense. This sort of writing simply can’t be found in the American mainstream. There, it’s generally taboo to link more than two countries in a single article. Geopolitical analysis, once a mainstay of the Cold War world, has disappeared, which means that there’s no way to follow the thinking of an administration which is all big-picture and whose strategists are considering fossil-fuel flows (and base sitings) from Colombia to the Chinese border, Iraq to Africa. My guess is that what we all need is a free, on-line sub to Petroleum News just to keep up with our new, one-sided imperial (dis)order.

By the way, did anyone catch the fact that, on the President’s terror-obsessed jaunt through Asia this week, he had an official taster? Here’s an imperial update worth noting. The last I remember, a human being did this job. Maybe it was the court jester, or maybe I just grew up on too many Hollywood movies about Medieval Europe? In any case, according to the Guardian, a mouse is now filling in. Its headline tells all: Thai mouse to risk life for Bush in last line of bio-chemical defence. (“Poisoners might not need direct access to the food though,” adds reporter John Aglionby, “as 300 tribespeople gathered in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai yesterday to put a curse on Mr Bush and other leaders who are perceived to exploit the poor.”

A final note on the subject:

“American officials say the White House did respond to a Thai government request asking for Mr Bush’s favourite Thai dishes but they declined to disclose what the president asked to be served.

“Asian food has not always agreed with the Bush family. The president’s father, George senior, once collapsed at a banquet in Japan, although officials insisted it was from exhaustion and not anything more sinister.”

I don’t know about George’s favorite Thai dish (chili dogs?), but I do know something about the favorite dishes of our troops in Baghdad. Iraq’s first Burger King has been planted in the heart of the occupied capital. Theola Labbe of the Washington Post reports (US Troops Order Comfort, With Fries on the Side):

“Welcome to Iraq, home of the Whopper. Deep inside Baghdad International Airport, past a vehicle search, a body search and four checkpoints, soldiers are lined up for burgers and fries. They have come by plane from Mosul, 220 miles north, for onion rings. They have picked up Chicken Royale sandwiches while picking up buddies flying back from a two-week home leave. They have begged and borrowed Humvees, making up any excuse for a trip to the airport and a reminder of what the pink mixture of ketchup and mayonnaise oozing from a fresh Whopper tastes like

“‘We’re lucky if we can get over here once a month, we’re so busy raiding houses and kicking down doors in the middle of the night,’ said [platoon leader Adrian Miller, 19, of Bascom, Ohio], who bought $84 worth of food. ‘When we get free time and no one is using the trucks, then we come out here.'”

It seems appropriate, the war having been launched on a series of whoppers, that there’s now a giant and successful Whopper right in the fortified heart of the occupation enterprise. And if you’ll excuse my stream of consciousness day, talking about who’s dishing what to whom and what agrees with which Bush, there’s that award the Father is bestowing on the Son’s great critic of the moment. As Boston Globe columnist Georgie Anne Geyer reports (Bush Sr.’s ‘message’ to Bush Jr.):

“It’s not as though Osama bin Laden gave a Jihad Award to Ariel Sharon, or Donald Rumsfeld gave his Good Pal Award to Condoleezza Rice. It’s not even as though Dick Cheney gave his Favorite Foreigners Citation to the French. But the news from College Station, Texas, this week — that the First Father, former President George H.W. Bush, has given his own most treasured award to Senator Edward Kennedy — is nearly as astonishing.

“When it was announced (with amazingly little fanfare) that the pugnaciously anti-Iraq war Democrat Kennedy had been awarded the 2003 George Bush Award for Excellence in Public Service, so many jaws dropped all over Washington that usually voluble politicians were only heard swallowing their real thoughts

“Now it’s all out. Father Bush has done it in his own preferred nuanced way — the way Establishment gentlemen operate — but he has revealed the depth of his disagreement with his impetuously uninformed son.”

And speaking about whoppers, the son continued on his way through the imperium this week offering up a few fascinating whoppers of his own, complete with mayo and ketchup. In the Philippines, for instance, he raised a whole new historical analogy for the Iraq occupation by claiming that in 1898 the United States had “liberated the Philippines from colonial rule.” As the New York Times‘ David Sanger wrote (Bush Cites Philippines as Model in Rebuilding Iraq):

“In an eight-hour visit, Mr. Bush for the first time drew explicit comparisons between the transition he is seeking in Iraq and the rough road to democracy that the Philippines traveled from the time the United States seized it from Spain in 1898 to the present day.

“‘Some say the culture of the Middle East will not sustain the institutions of democracy,’ Mr. Bush said, taking on the critics of his oft-stated goal to use Iraq as a laboratory for spreading democratic institutions in the Middle East. ‘The same doubts were once expressed about the culture of Asia. Those doubts were proven wrong nearly six decades ago.'”

He managed, of course, to skip the almost five decades between “liberation” from Spanish colonialism and the economically and militarily limited independence the Philippines finally managed to get from its next colonial overlord. Steve Shalom of the ZNET website put Bush’s bizarre claims into perspective, writing in part (The Philippine Model):

“What does the historical record tell us about the U.S. commitment to promoting democracy? A hundred years ago, the United States defeated the Spanish colonizers of the Philippines only to take over the islands for itself. (In Bush’s speech on Saturday this was summarized as “Together our soldiers liberated the Philippines from colonial rule.” And in the words of presidential press secretary Scott McClellan, national hero Jose Rizal’s martyrdom in 1896 inspired the Philippines: ‘And later, revolution broke out and Asia soon had its first independent republic.’ Well, yes, but that independent republic was promptly conquered by the United States.) When critics of the U.S. annexation of the Philippines charged that Washington had not obtained the consent of the inhabitants, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge replied that if consent of the inhabitants were necessary ‘then our whole past record of expansion is a crime.’

“What did Filipinos want back in 1898? What was their democratic wish? According to a U.S. general testifying before the U.S. Senate, Filipinos had so little notion of what independence meant that they probably thought it was something to eat. ‘They have no more idea of what it means than a shepherd dog,” he explained. But shortly afterwards in his testimony, the general stated that the Filipinos “want to get rid of the Americans.’ ‘They do?’ asked a confused Senator. ‘Yes, sir,’ replied the general. ‘They want us driven out, so that they can have this independence, but they do not know what it is.’

“This U.S. inability to understand the real meaning of self-determination was not just a turn-of-the-century myopia. Consider the following scene from the 1945 motion picture ‘Back to Bataan.’ In a 1941 Philippine schoolhouse, an American teacher asks the students what the United States gave to the Philippines. ‘Soda pop!’ ‘Hot dogs!’ ‘Movies!’ ‘Radio!’ ‘Baseball!’ scream the pupils. But, the teacher and the principal correct the erring youngsters by explaining that the real American contribution was teaching the Filipinos freedom. At first, however, says the teacher with a straight face, the Filipinos did not appreciate freedom for they ‘resisted the American occupation.’

“Indeed they did. And many thousands of Filipinos — combatants and non-combatants — were slaughtered by U.S. military forces to teach Filipinos the U.S. meaning of freedom. In 1946, after nearly half a century, U.S. colonial rule in the Philippines came to an end. But U.S. domination continued and Philippine democracy remained thwarted. This was not the first instance where a colony was given independence and colonialism was replaced with neocolonialism. To take one example at random, Britain gave Iraq independence in 1932, but not before it had signed a 25-year treaty granting London access to Iraqi military bases and western oil companies had attained a lock on Iraqi oil.”

In a sense, however, the President was all too accurate in his analogy, just not in the way he imagined. It’s clear that the Iraqi occupation, with that Burger King planted deep in its heart, is indeed a modernized version of our Philippine experience. Yes, we want the Iraqis to take over the unpleasant work from us — the guard duty, the policing of difficult areas, the patrolling of ambush-ridden spots, and so on. In fact, we seem intent now on creating the sort of “native” troops and constabulary that once was the Way of an imperially occupied world. But the Bush administration never intended to hand over the power to determine the nature of Iraqi sovereignty to Iraqis. In fact, actual Iraqis, Ahmed Chalabi aside, hardly had cameo roles in our plans — other than, of course, as strewers of flowers in the path of the arriving forces. Or, put in a different fashion, even now it’s quite evident that we have no intention of departing.

Only the other day, our embattled and unhappy military, according to Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post (Reduction in US Troops Eyed for ’04), offered a plan that “amounts to being the first formal military exit strategy for Iraq,” but like so many withdrawal plans of the Vietnam era, it wasn’t really meant to get us out. This plan, which many insiders seem to agree is optimistic in the extreme, still leaves perhaps 50,000 American troops in Iraq in 2005; and the new general scheduled to take over command in Iraq next year, Thomas F. Metz, expects our troops to remain through at least 2006.

This minimalist “withdrawal” plan is clearly aimed at two audiences, neither Iraqi: one is military men who fear that the strains of keeping so many troops including reserves and National Guard in Iraq for so long, “could damage troop morale, leave the armed forces shorthanded if crises emerge in North Korea and elsewhere, and help create a long-term personnel shortage in the service.” The second is voters in the U.S. where, it is hoped, such a gesture toward withdrawal “could reduce political pressure on the Bush administration as the presidential campaign gets fully underway.”

So let’s just take a spin around Iraq, where resistance has clearly been spreading both north to Kirkuk and south from Baghdad toward the Shiite areas of the country. Yesterday, a staggering 43 attacks of various sorts were recorded. Raymond Bonner of the New York Times put this upsurge in perspective when he visited an American unit patrolling a region near the Syrian frontier. As he points out, the news on the ground is quite different from the Bush administration’s description of how things are going in Iraq. The colonel in charge doesn’t even have an interpreter and the 1,300 soldiers under his command can call on exactly three interpreters. This in itself tells you much about our problems in Iraq. As Bonner describes it, the colonel’s troops are (For G.I.’s in Isolated Town, Unknown Enemy Is Elusive):

“fighting for control of this gritty industrial town [Husayba] of 40,000, a main crossing point into Syria. In the past three weeks, an unidentified enemy deploying ever more sophisticated military tactics and powerful weapons, including mortars and land mines, has been hitting American troops, day and night. Last week, dealing a severe setback to the American plan to turn over authority to Iraqis, the police chief was gunned down. On Friday, about 20 armed men took over the police station for more than seven hours and warned that anyone who collaborated with the Americans would be killed.”

“‘I cannot control the ground around the police station,’ Colonel Reillytold his superior over the radio’We are not trained to fight a war like thisWe’re trained to fight an army face to face, to engage in direct combat, an enemy we can see.”

A line that might have been said – in fact, has been said – by those leading imperial forces of occupation over the last two hundred years. It was a commonplace of the Vietnam era.

And here’s a description of life in heart of occupied Baghdad, where, according to Agence France Presse, some Iraqis are citing not the Philippines or Vietnam, but an analogy closer at hand and perhaps more relevant:

“Rocked by a spate of deadly suicide bombings, the US-led coalition has thrown up concrete fortifications all over the Iraqi capital, infuriating Baghdadis who say they feel as though they are living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

“‘Welcome to the West Bank on the Tigris,’ has become the standard greeting for visitors to central Baghdad’s Al-Tashree neighborhood, which has been completely fenced in by the US forces who have their headquarters nearby An eerie silence hangs over the five-square-kilometer (two-square-mile) enclave, sealed off by three-meter (10-foot) high and 50-centimeter (20-inch) thick concrete walls

“‘We are held captive. The Israelis surround Palestinians by a wall in the West Bank. Their mentors, the Americans, do the same in Baghdad,’ says [one neighborhood Iraqi].

“‘Even workers won’t venture out here. There has been no garbage collection or draining of septic tanks since September,’ she adds, pointing to heaps of garbage in the street.”

My God is bigger than yours — our mono-manic world:

What is it about our world anyway? All the monos — starting with monotheism — seem to be doing us in. Where are the pagans now that we need them? I include below strong columns on monotheism by the Boston Globe‘s James Carroll and the Times‘ Paul Krugman. Carroll writes on General Jerry Boykin’s very boy(kin)-ish claim that his god was bigger than the Islamic one. Boy, you can’t get any clearer or more basic than that, can you — not without dropping your pants and checking things out in person.

Carroll, a Catholic himself, stares an exclusivist monotheism in the face and concludes, “A respectful religious pluralism is no longer just a liberal hope but an urgent precondition of justice and peace. In the 21st century, exclusivist religion, no matter how ‘mainstream’ and no matter how muted the anathemas that follow from its absolutes, is a sure way to religious war.”

(It’s interesting to note, by the way, that the administration has made no real moves to curb the general, his lame apology aside, no less ask for his resignation — an unlikely possibility given Bush’s most essential base of support.)

Krugman turns to the anti-Semitic rantings of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and puts them into an interesting, if unsettling context, coming to a conclusion not so dissimilar from Carroll’s.

“And bear in mind that Mr. Mahathir’s remarks were written before the world learned about the views of Lt. Gen. William ‘My God Is Bigger Than Yours’ Boykin. By making it clear that he sees nothing wrong with giving an important post in the war on terror to someone who believes, and says openly, that Allah is a false idol Donald Rumsfeld has gone a long way toward confirming the Muslim world’s worst fears.

“Somewhere in Pakistan Osama bin Laden must be enjoying this. The war on terror didn’t have to be perceived as a war on Islam, but we seem to be doing our best to make it look that way.”

But Gen. Boykin and Osama bin Laden are not the only men who are mono-manic or claim that they possess the biggest of all. We have a whole administration of political and geostrategic monotheists, the wilder among whom, like ex-CIA director James Woolsey, already believe themselves to be deep into “World War IV.” Many of them are undoubtedly quite genuinely convinced that they are fighting a single, global enemy, a new Communism, mano-a-mano and to the death.

As Jonathan Landay, Warren Strobel and William Douglas of Knight-Ridder report (Discord in Bush team distressing allies, Congress):

“The Cheney-Rumsfeld camp looks at the terrorist threat much as communism was viewed during the Cold War: a global network of evildoers whose links to one another are real even if they aren’t visible. They oppose negotiating with governments in Syria, Iran and North Korea that they say support terrorism

“‘What happened was that Cheney and Rumsfeld essentially went on a crusade against terrorism, starting with Iraq, and Powell kept trying, mostly without success, to rein them in,’ said one official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. ‘Cheney is always in Bush’s ear whispering ‘terrorism, terrorism, terrorism.’ He’s obsessed.'”

Now, according to Jim Lobe of Inter Press News Service, he’s likely to be whispering up a storm re: Syria:

“A neo-conservative strategist who has long called for the United States and Israel to work together to ‘roll back’ the Ba’ath-led government in Syria has been quietly appointed as a Middle East adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney.

“David Wurmser, who had been working for Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton, joined Cheney’s staff under its powerful national security director, I. Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby, in mid-September, according to Cheney’s office.

“The move is significant, not only because Cheney is seen increasingly as the dominant foreign-policy influence on President George W. Bush, but also because it adds to the notion that neo-conservatives remain a formidable force under Bush despite the sharp plunge in public confidence in Bush’s handling of post-war Iraq resulting from the faulty assumptions propagated by the ‘neo-cons’ before the war.'”

Paul Woodward of the website has caught the spirit of the administration’s political monotheism quite tellingly in “The unity of terror,” a little essay at his site, writing in part (The Unity of Terror):

“In a recent report from PBS’s Frontline — Richard Perle takes credit for the pivotal line in President Bush’s address to the nation on September 11, 2001: ‘We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.’

“Since the Bush administration made this inclusive principle the foundation of the war on terrorism Ariel Sharon and numerous other political leaders have asserted that their own regional conflict — whether it be in Palestine, Chechnya or the Philippines — is simply a local front in a global war against a common enemy.

“Richard Perle, in quasi-theological terms, posits a ‘unity of terror.’ In the same spirit, an editorial in Sunday’s Jerusalem Post, in reference to the terrorists who killed three Americans in Gaza this week, goes so far as to say: ‘Whether it was Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or perhaps even al-Qaida itself matters little and in fact tends to distract from what the West knows but often does not like to admit: The tentacles all belong to the same enemy.’

“Within this conception of terrorism, a phenomenon that is scattered across the globe has been turned into a beast of mythological proportions. Terrorism has been reduced to terror, and the actors, their actions and their effects have been fused into an entity that is explained and understood simply by recognizing its existence. Attempts to analyze motives, discriminate between groups or in any other way apply a nuanced interpretation of terrorism are, we are told, an expression of weakness.

“If belief in the unity of terror is now an article of faith among the high priests in this war on terror are we now expected to believe that whoever they select as their next target is by definition ‘the same enemy’ — an enemy about whom we need know nothing more than that they deserve to be destroyed?”

Perhaps those who dream utopian dreams of global dominance need oversized enemies, or perhaps those inclined to a kind of political or religious monomania need vast single-cause explanations for how our world works it’s evil to make sense of what they’re intent on doing anyway.

There’s no question that this sort of thinking – or at least its results — has unnerved some bedrock Republicans. A recent column by conservative columnist Robert Novak (War worried Republicans) is revealing on this score. It also has this sentence, the first use I’ve seen of the phrase “war weariness”: “Irritation with the president’s intractable opposition to loans spread to his strongest supporters in the House and probably reflects Iraqi war weariness.”

Novak writes:

“Members of the president’s party are really worried about the war “Concern by Republican constituents over American soldiers being picked off one by one suggests deep-seated hostility to new battlefields. A new combat area was suggested in a little noticed Associated Press interview in Jerusalem last weekend with Richard Perle, a Defense Policy Board member and close adviser to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. ‘We have problems with the Syrians who continue to support terrorism,’ said Perle, adding ominously, ‘Syria is militarily very weak.’

“That’s what Perle was saying about Iraq two years ago, and he was exactly right in conventional terms. It is postwar worries that haunt Dick Lugar and other thoughtful Republicans, who do not relish Syria as yet another fighting front in the war against terrorism.”


The new Great Game
By Lutz Kleveman
The Guardian
October 20, 2003

Nearly two years ago, I travelled to Kyrgyzstan, the mountainous ex-Soviet republic in Central Asia, to witness a historical event: the deployment of the first American combat troops on former Soviet soil.

As part of the Afghan campaign, the US air force set up a base near the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. Brawny pioneers in desert camouflages were erecting hundreds of tents for nearly 3,000 soldiers. I asked their commander, a wiry brigadier general, if and when the troops would leave Kyrgyzstan (and its neighbour Uzbekistan, where Washington set up a second airbase). “There is no time limit,” he replied. “We will pull out only when all al-Qaeda cells have been eradicated.”

Lutz Kleveman is the author of The New Great Game: Blood and Oil in Central Asia (Atlantic Books)

To read more Kleveman click here

Warring with God
By James Carroll
The Boston Globe
October 21, 2003

I knew that my God was bigger than his,” Lieutenant General William G. Boykin said of his Muslim opponent. “I knew that my God was a real God, and his was an idol.” That and other remarks derogatory of Islam caused a stir last week, especially because the general holds a key position in the war on terrorism. Awkward memories surfaced of President Bush’s inadvertent use of the term “crusade” to define that war, and fears broke into the open that the war was, despite disclaimers, a religious war after all.

Boykin’s Pentagon superiors did not seem to take offense, but Muslim leaders did, and so did members of Congress. Boykin’s remarks can only inflame Arab perceptions. On Friday the general offered a sort of apology.

To read more Carroll click here

Listening to Mahathir
By Paul Krugman
The New York Times
October 21 2003

The Europeans killed 6 million Jews out of 12 million. But today the Jews rule this world by proxy: They get others to fight and die for them.” So said Mahathir Mohamad, the prime minister of Malaysia, at an Islamic summit meeting last week. The White House promptly denounced his “hate-filled remarks.”

Indeed, those remarks were inexcusable. But they were also calculated – for Mr. Mahathir is a cagey politician, who is neither ignorant nor foolish. And to understand why he made those remarks is to realize how badly things are going for U.S. foreign policy.

To read more Krugman click here