The empire of nothing at all

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Do you remember it? In the weeks, the months before our most recent war it often seemed like the most used term in the media. I’m talking about “regime change,” of course. Someday, someone will write its history for us. It seemed to arrive as if from the blue and colonize our news in an instant. It was clearly meant as a euphemism — “regimes” are such self-evidently brutal creatures and “change” is such a modest, benign, even pallid word — for a violent act of state. It stood in for the overthrow of the government of another sovereign state, whether by “decapitation” (to use another of the new terms that our second Iraq War added to our vocabularies, this one stronger and more violent than the one it replaced, “assassination”), coup d’etat, or invasion, and its replacement by a more acceptable government.

We’re now in a lull between wars. Only recently has “regime change” popped up again, this time in reference, of course, to Iran. (See, for instance, a Financial Times’ piece Rumsfeld pushes for regime change in Iran, which begins, “Donald Rumsfeld, US defence secretary, is spearheading efforts to make ‘regime change’ in Iran the official policy goal of the Bush administration, but his campaign is meeting with considerable resistance from other senior figures, according to officials and analysts.”) But I thought it might be worth taking a moment to consider the term in light of what the still brief postwar experience in Iraq might have to teach us.

It turns out, strangely enough, that “regime change” was not only a euphemism, but possibly a gross misnomer. If regime change implies anything, it’s an exchange, however violent or forcible, of one regime for another, the governmental equivalent perhaps of flipping or juggling a ball from one hand to the other, or perhaps from one person to another. But, here’s the odd thing, there turns out, so far, to be no other “regime.” There turns out to be more or less nothing at all except a brutal descent from tyranny into anarchy. At every level in Iraq, nothing. In the meanwhile, all the explanations for why “regime change” should have happened (except for Saddam’s brutality, which was never in question) have evaporated like so many puddles of water on a blistering highway. No weapons of mass destruction, no ties to Al Qaeda — well, you know the litany on this one by now — and perhaps most important, given all those prewar promises for the “reconstruction” of Iraq, no money.

David Teather of the British Guardian reports (Future oil sales may be pawned to banks) that “American officials are considering a plan to use Iraq’s future oil and gas revenues as collateral to raise cash to rebuild the country. Several US companies, including Halliburton and Bechtel, which are jostling for the lucrative reconstruction contracts, are reportedly pushing the scheme to expedite the commissioning process.” So already the occupation administration, such as it is, is considering putting what future Iraq may have in hock in order to limp forward in the present because — and here’s a simple truth no one cares to write much about — there is to be no Marshall Plan, no Japan-style rebuilding, no significant investment of U.S. public funds into the actual reconstruction of Iraq. Such funds don’t exist. Among all the things that we now know can be shoved through Congress with relative impunity, this is unlikely to be one. There is then a financial void that accompanies the regime void in today’s Iraq.

In the meantime, the new occupation administration, the second since war’s end, run by counter-terrorism expert L. Paul Bremer III, seems intent on recreating Iraq as a free trade zone for the United States and turning the country into a thoroughly privatized land, which means of course dismantling what’s left of Iraq’s protected economy. On this today, Edmund L. Andrews of the New York Times was vivid indeed. (After Years of Stagnation, Iraqi Industries Are Falling to a Wave of Imports) This is familiar territory. We already know where this led our prize pupil of the 1990s, Argentina — to a collapse of a sort we can’t even begin to imagine.

What’s clear now (if it wasn’t before) is that our men in Baghdad arrived with a set of inside-the beltway, think-tank dreams which sounded expansive but were exceptionally limited, exceptionally focused on military power, bases, and oil, and precariously attached to each other like a house of cards. There was that glorious reception (you know, like in Paris in 1944), the instant revival of the decrepit Iraqi oil industry, the installation of our own Iraqis (Chalabi et. al.). These were nothing but dreams — and all of them were known to be dreams before the war even began. What could have been more striking than that we didn’t even bother to arrive with more than a couple of Iraqis in tow, not even translators, as far as I can tell?

In a land where the AK-47 in the bedroom is now a given (one rare thing that Iraq seems to have in common with parts of the United States), it turns out that what we performed was not “regime change,” but something far closer to a massive decapitation — and unlike Dr. Frankenstein, we evidently have no idea at all how you should revive the body.

At the very least we need a new term for regime-change-without-the-regime-to-be-changed-to. As an empire, we are becoming increasingly used to balancing on only the military leg. There was, in this light, a fascinating piece by Joseph Galloway in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Officials: Rumsfeld trying to make foreign policy (but found at the website) that begins, “President Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and other top officials are spending hours coping with frequent, unsolicited attempts by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to make foreign policy, according to senior administration officials who are directly involved.” Does nobody remember what tends to happen to economies when militaries dominate? Check out Brazil after 1964, for example. We’re talking catastrophe and corruption at almost unimaginable levels.

All these guys dreaming about the Roman Empire or the British Empire. Dream on. The question is, what are we an empire of? Perhaps this is, as Iraq seems to indicate, as Afghanistan does indicate, the empire of nothing at all. Or the empire of rubble.

Of course, let’s face it, we do live in a mad and degraded world, where words often have little or no meaning whatsoever and the media air is so filled with lies that the public simply ceases to give a damn. Still, let me run through a little list of recent lies and oddities involving our own empire of nothing.

Weapons of Mass Destruction:

Let’s start with the fact that our president has now claimed that we found them — those weapons of mass destruction; well not them exactly, but two trucks that maybe, coulda, woulda, hadda, sorta. As the Washington Post reported (Mike Allen, Bush: ‘We Found’ Banned Weapons, President Cites Trailers in Iraq as Proof)

“President Bush, citing two trailers that U.S. intelligence agencies have said were probably used as mobile biological weapons labs, said U.S. forces in Iraq have ‘found the weapons of mass destruction’ that were the United States’ primary justification for going to war.

“In remarks to Polish television at a time of mounting criticism at home and abroad that the more than two-month-old weapons hunt is turning up nothing, Bush said that claims of failure were ‘wrong.’ The remarks were released today.

“‘You remember when [Secretary of State] Colin Powell stood up in front of the world, and he said Iraq has got laboratories, mobile labs to build biological weapons,’ Bush said in an interview before leaving today on a seven-day trip to Europe and the Middle East. ‘They’re illegal. They’re against the United Nations resolutions, and we’ve so far discovered two. And we’ll find more weapons as time goes on.'”

If you want another view of these two trucks (and other wmd developments), take a look at Slate‘s Fred Kaplan in Vanishing Agents, Did Iraq really have weapons of mass destruction?:

“Read closely, though, the CIA report [on those two trucks] reveals considerable ambiguity about the nature of these vehicles. For example, it notes that Iraqi officials–presumably those currently being interrogated–say the trailers were used to produce hydrogen for artillery weather-balloons. (Many Army units float balloons to monitor the accuracy of artillery fire.)

“The report also notes that, in order to produce biological weapons, each trailer would have to be accompanied by a second and possibly a third trailer, specially designed to grow, process, sterilize, and dry the bacteria. Such trailers would “have equipment such as mixing tanks, centrifuges, and spray dryers”–none of which were spotted in the trailers that were found. The problem, the CIA acknowledges, is that “we have not yet found” these post-production trailers. Question: Is it that they haven’t been found–or that they don’t exist?”

In the meantime, yesterday’s New York Times had a piece by James Dao and Thom Shanker (Powell Defends Information He Used to Justify Iraq War) that began:

“Secretary of State Colin L. Powell today fiercely defended the intelligence used by the Bush administration to justify war against Iraq, saying he spent several late nights poring over the Central Intelligence Agency’s reports because he knew the credibility of the country and the president were at stake

“Another top official, George Tenet, the director of central intelligence, insisted today that his agency’s work had not been compromised by politics. ‘I’m enormously proud of the work of our analysts,’ he said in a statement. ‘The integrity of our process has been maintained throughout, and any suggestion to the contrary is simply wrong.'”

But across the Atlantic, where both the weather and the news seem different, Dan Plesch and Richard Norton-Taylor, defense experts for the Guardian, report on quite another Powell, drawing on a secret transcript of a meeting between his British counterpart and him just before his UN performance. The document has been circulating in NATO diplomatic circles, possibly leaked by diplomats who felt betrayed by post-war wmd developments. (Straw, Powell had serious doubts over their Iraqi weapons claims, Secret transcript revealed)

“Jack Straw and his US counterpart, Colin Powell, privately expressed serious doubts about the quality of intelligence on Iraq’s banned weapons programme at the very time they were publicly trumpeting it to get UN support for a war on Iraq Their deep concerns emerged at a private meeting between the two men shortly before a crucial UN security council session on February 5…

“Mr Powell shared the concern about intelligence assessments, especially those being presented by the Pentagon’s office of special plans set up by the US deputy defence secretary, Paul Wolfowitz. he told Mr Straw he had come away from the meetings [with US intelligence] ‘apprehensive’ about what he called, at best, circumstantial evidence highly tilted in favour of assessments drawn from them, rather than any actual raw intelligence. Mr Powell told the foreign secretary he hoped the facts, when they came out, would not ‘explode in their faces’.”

Treatment of Prisoners, or what are tabloids for, anyway:

There have been numerous reports, in the British press anyway, of less than liberation-style behavior toward Iraqi military prisoners by both the Americans and the British. The British have gotten a good press here for being better at empire than Americans are. Perhaps this is what is meant. Here may be the grimmest story of the weekend from a Murdoch tabloid, the Sun, in England, My horror at POW sex abuse pics. (Well, what’s politics when money’s to be made?) But fair warning, this stuff is stomach turning and in my hometown paper it — along with the more general charges about prisoner mistreatment — rated only a quiet piece tucked way inside the Saturday paper. The Sun piece begins:

“The young mum who uncovered the Iraqi PoW sex snaps scandal said last night: ‘I felt sick to the stomach at those pictures.'”

“Kelly Tilford, 22, called police after developing a film in her photo shop.

“The shocking pictures — revealed by The Sun yesterday — showed male Iraqis apparently forced into sexual positions by their British captors. In another a prisoner was suspended by rope from a fork-lift truck driven by a laughing Brit.”

No Collateral Damage:

The “precision” of our weaponry and so the resulting lack of “collateral damage” (dead civilians) are among the greatest myths of our new frontier wars. The long-term casualty counts from such wars will prove large and plenty collateral as Kamal Ahmed reveals in today’s Observer. But who even bothers to think about the “precision weaponry” which landed in the right spot but simply failed to explode. Ahmed informs us that “landmine experts say that up to 10,000 separate [unexploded] cluster bombs and bomblets could be lying in cities, farmland and on the main road arteries across the country.”

His piece, Revealed: the cluster bombs that litter Iraq, begins:

“The shocking extent of unexploded cluster bombs dropped by American and British planes, which litter Iraq eight weeks after the conflict, is revealed in detail for the first time today.

“The first map based on military intelligence to show the exact location of unexploded anti-personnel mines, cluster bombs and anti-tank mines, obtained by The Observer, shows the vast area of the country which is at danger from live munitions.

“Experts in clearing conflict zones of unexploded bombs say that millions of Iraqi adults and children are at risk, along with humanitarian aid workers, United Nations personnel, civilian staff and military officials.

“Its revelation raises fresh questions for Tony Blair and George Bush, who insisted that post-conflict Iraq would be a safer place than it was under Saddam Hussein.”

The Real Scandal at the New York Times:

While the journalistic misdeeds of Jayson Blair have gotten endless copy — talk about weapons of mass distraction — the journalistic scandal at the Times that should have mattered, Judith Miller’s scare reports on Saddam Hussein’s wmd, based on the most self-interested and tattered of non-sources, the U.S. military and Chalabi, have gone largely unnoticed. Fortunately, Nation columnist Katha Pollitt puts Blair and Miller nicely into context in a recent column:

White Lies
By Katha Pollitt
The Nation
June 16, 2003 issue

The radio went on in the middle of the night and there in my ear was the voice of a young man. It was a soothing voice, deferential, quizzical, NPR-ish, the voice boy journalists in the high-end media use when they are trying to get Nazis to talk about their childhoods. And yet there was a kind of suppressed glee in it, too–as if he had just gotten the perfect quote from Adolf Jr. for his lead. Yes, the young man said ruefully, he knew people hated him; yes, he’s become more religious. Well, naturally! This was Stephen Glass, the New Republic tale-spinner, pushing his autobiographical novel The Fabulist, and public contrition just goes with the territory. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who famously said there are no second acts in American lives, should only be alive to see how wrong he was.

To read more Pollitt click here

Leave no stone or life form untouched:

In this unique category, here’s a military charmer from the Miami Herald (found at the website):

They’re in the Navy now: Six sea lions get drafted
Florida creatures go to depths humans can’t
By Phil Long
The Miami Herald
May 27, 2003

ORLANDO – The Navy, known for its famous SEALS, is recruiting six real sea lions from a pod at Sea World of Orlando.

Unlike humans, they swim 25 miles an hour in short bursts, dive to 1,000 feet on a single gulp of air and can be trained to sneak up on a terrorist diver and slap a metal clamp on his leg.

All for a few pounds of fish.

The Orlando Six will replace a half dozen older California sea lions set for retirement from the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center in San Diego.

Sea lions are part of the Navy’s Shallow Water Intruder Protection System. ”They have extremely sensitive underwater directional hearing as well as low light level vision,” said Ed Budzyna, deputy public affairs officer for the center.

They perform well even in at night or in murky water, he added.

To read more on the sea lions click here