The Empire strikes out

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2003: Imperial Gong Show Year
By Tom Engelhardt

I haven’t checked my Chinese calendar but if 2003 wasn’t the Year of the Rat, I don’t know what it was. We would normally heave a collective sigh of relief to have left it even a day or two behind us — if 2004 didn’t lie ahead. Still, if the year was bad for the rest of us, it wasn’t exactly dazzling for the Bush administration either and perhaps we should count a few modest post-New Year’s blessings for that at least.

2002 should certainly have been dubbed the Year of the New Rome, the year neocon pundits (and a few liberal commentators as well) proudly urged us to shoulder our new imperial burden and emulate the Romans, or at least the 19th century Brits, forever and a day. If so, then 2003 was the year in which our homegrown imperialists fell silent on the subject of empire, while our legions, setting out to remake the Middle East and then the world (cap that W), fell into the nearest nation-building ditch.

In the spring of 2003, after a series of global skirmishes with enemies of some significance — France, Germany, Russia, and that “other superpower,” the protesting peoples of the world — the Bush administration launched its long-desired, long prepared for war against an enemy of no consequence. “Mission accomplished.”

But when we sent our first proconsul out to rule the newest part of our Middle Eastern Imperium of Freedom, he came back quicker than you can say “Jay Garner.” The second team was off the bench in no time and Coach Bush (having fronted for a second-rate baseball team earlier in his remarkably empty career) promptly rushed them onto the field, led by the well-appointed, well-booted L. Paul Bremer. Having left a cushy “risk management” company stateside to risk manage what was tagged as the future capital of Middle Eastern oil, he arrived in Baghdad speaking, like George himself, in the imperative. (Have we ever, by the way, had a president who told so many people in so many places so publicly what they “must” do?). Bursting with energy, Bremer dismissed the Iraqi army and the Baathist bureaucracy only to find — no Lawrence of Arabia he — that he couldn’t even get a phone line to Sadr City, no less a government into Baghdad or an army of useful natives into the field.

The latest Baghdad joke, according to Herbert Docena, reporting from that city for the Asia Times on-line, is: How many American troops does it take to screw in a light bulb? “About 130,000 so far, but don’t hold your breath.” And sadly, that’s not really a joke. Feeling his oats, Bremer promptly announced the dismemberment of the last thing at hand — what was left of the devastated Iraqi economy. Every strip-mining plan ever imagined by some right-wing Washington think-tank was promptly hauled out and dumped on a prostrate and largely unemployed Iraqi populace. And so Iraq was “opened” for business — without a government and with a foreign army in place — the way you might slit open a still breathing animal.

As it turned out, however, there were other “risk managers” around ready to play quite a different, if no less chancy game — and they turned out to be brutally good at it. After all, eight months and a right turn past victory later, and Baghdad International Airport is still not open to commercial traffic, thanks to those pesky shoulder-fired missiles that seem to litter Iraq and the shoulders to hoist them on. So while, from London to Maine, corporate privatizers can hold conferences galore on the country’s new economy, about all that will get them into deepest, (and part of the time quite literally) darkest imperial Baghdad is a dangerous drive overland, some body armor, and private guards.

Recently, even our proconsul narrowly escaped a roadside ambush near the capital. (Hint: the new police force, the new military, and the new Iraqi intelligence service we seem to be reconstituting from retread Saddamites are obviously riddled with people feeding information to the armed opposition.) So L. Paul now finds himself ensconced behind concertina wire, inside Baghdad’s ecologically unfriendly Green Zone, backing down on various proposals and swatting off obdurate Shiite clerics calling for democratic elections, while wondering what hit him and where in the world he’ll ever find a “sovereign” government to which to turn over some shred of power next June. So it goes in our unexpected world.

The Empire strikes out

2002 was the year of the Nuclear Posture Review, the National Security Strategy, the Axis of Evil, and the Bush Doctrine. It was the year when, as the Greta Garbo of hyperpowers, we declared our desire to be alone at the top; practically shouted out our plans to dominate the planet militarily to the end of time; publicized our desire to conquer the heavens with previously forbidden weaponry straight out of Flash Gordon; swore our fealty to the nuclear option till the (mad) cows come home (as they just have); insisted in the name of national security on the rejection, ripping up, or even unsigning of every protective, multilateral treaty or measure devised by the human mind in recent decades to keep our proliferating, global warming world somewhere on this side of the law; and insisted that “regime change” was in order — and that we would carry it out everywhere but in the United States. 2003 then might be considered the year when the planet proved its bedrock, cranky, anti-imperial recalcitrance.

So, with a nod to the neocons, here, retooled from the 1960s, is my adage for the New Year and beyond (and I’m willing to loan it out to anyone in Washington who finds it useful): Beware of domino theories. They tend to rear up and bite you in the butt.

In the 1960s, if we didn’t defend any small piece of global turf against nationalist and communist insurgencies, our leaders swore that its loss would be but the first toppling domino — as with South Vietnam — starting a cascade that would sweep the nations of the world into the communist camp. It’s perhaps symbolic of our unipolar world that our new imperialists imagined a far more “proactive” set of dominoes — not ones they would have to defend from toppling, but ones they would shove over themselves. Their war in Iraq was to be just the first push in a domino cascade that would reorder the planet into a Pax Americana. Hostile Syrian and Iranian regimes, sideswiped by a collapsing Iraqi domino, would go down; so would the supposedly friendly Saudi one; the Palestinians, helpless and alone, would be the next to follow, making a peace of the defeated with neocon darling Ariel Sharon; even Kim Jong-il, the “dear leader” of North Korea, halfway across the planet would be crushed beneath a pile of American dominoes, and while we were at it, the French, Germans, and Russians would go down too, though peaceably, leaving the superpower contender of the future, China, in a thoroughly exposed and indefensible position.

Of course, none of this happened. It seems years ago, though it was only months back that Syria, Iran, and North Korea were in our gun sights (with Cuba, Libya, and the Sudan not far behind). Only last June, the United States was threatening to become the national equivalent of a serial killer. And yet, by year’s end, the road to Damascus was closed; the President was welcoming Libyan strongman Qaddafi (the Saddam Hussein of the Age of Reagan) back into the comity of nations; U.S. aid was being readied for and sanctions temporarily lifted on an Iran suffering unparalleled devastation from a natural catastrophe (and American officials were even muttering about a new era in relations); something approaching actual negotiations with North Korea was being carried out through the Chinese government; and administration officials along with Bremer were searching madly for “withdrawal” formulas in Iraq (even if they were meant to leave our troops, Halliburton, and Bechtel there for an eternity). Meanwhile, in Washington, the neocons, jobs at risk, were threatening war and crying foul (or is it fowl?) as their global war-fighting plans were sent back to the think-tanks — at least for now — and the multilateralists of Father Bush’s administration were slipping back into positions of authority.

In 2002, thanks largely to Osama bin Laden, the Bush administration was flying higher than a cruise missile. By year’s end 2003, the only hawk still openly talking the talk of empire was the Vice-President, who included the following quotation from Benjamin Franklin in his Christmas card: “And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?” In short, by the end of 2003, despite a brief Alka-Seltzer moment of relief with the capture of Saddam Hussein (but not, of course, Osama bin Laden), something was wobbling in the House of Bush.

In instant retrospect, 2003 already looks like a Gong Show year for the American Empire. Put another way, when early in the year the administration reached into its mighty imperial arsenal, all it pulled out was brute force applied brutally in a three-week shock-and-awe campaign against Saddam Hussein’s pathetic military (and then reapplied with counterproductive ineffectiveness ever since). No one can deny that empires work on a principle of brute force. It’s a necessity if you plan to conquer others and rule them against their wishes, but it can’t be the only arrow in your quiver. A little finesse is usually necessary, if you plan to stick around for a while. Some plums need to be offered, at least to some of the conquered and those from elsewhere who fight in your legions. There has to be some way to join the empire as a junior partner and benefit somehow. None of this was available in the Bush version of shouldering the imperial burden.

To the extent that we proved imperial in 2003, it was largely in the Pentagon’s long-term planning for weapons systems, large and small, slated to dominate the planet for the next half-century or more. Can there be any doubt that we already have the weaponry of forty Roman empires and twenty British ones with more to come? After all, we even have futuristic weapons on the drawing boards for 2050.

But here’s a lesson for the year (also retooled from the 1960s): You can’t rule this bedeviling planet with weapons systems based in the United States, or on offshore aircraft carriers, or even on military bases dotted across the globe, no less via a series of delivery vehicles from outer space. The resistance in Iraq has made this point staggeringly clear: We smote — and given our fundamentalist administration that word is surely on target — Saddam Hussein’s regime with our techno-best and from its ruins arose an armed opposition centered in but not limited to Sunni Iraq. 5,000 armed men, if you believe the Pentagon, up to 50,000 if you believe a recent CIA report; all Baathist “bitter-enders” and al Qaeda warriors from elsewhere, if you believe Don Rumsfeld or the President, up to 23 different mostly home-grown resistance groups if you believe various foreign journalists. But the most curious thing is that no one in Washington or among our military and civil administrators in Baghdad quite knows who the armed opposition actually is and they tend to identify themselves mainly through roadside bombs and suicide bombers.

This is either some kind of bleak miracle, or an illusionist’s trick. After all, it took years in Vietnam against a powerful southern insurgency backed by the militarily strong and determined North Vietnamese regime backed in turn by the Earth’s other superpower, the USSR, and for good measure by Mao’s China with which it shared a border, with copious supplies flowing in from abroad and sanctuary areas in bordering Cambodia and Laos, before a desperate American president even began considering calling up the reserves. In Iraq, against relatively lightly armed, no-name insurgent forces of a few thousand or tens of thousands, without a significant power behind them, without sanctuaries, or major supply channels (other than the copious arms already cached in the country), with largely homemade bombs and small numbers of fanatical individuals willing to turn themselves into suicide weapons, the mightiest military power on earth has already been stretched to the breaking point. Its leaders, scouring the planet for new recruits, are having trouble finding enough troops to garrison an easily conquered, weak, and devastated country.

The foreign legions they’ve managed to dig up — a few thousand Spaniards and Poles, hundreds of Bulgarians and Thais, handfuls of Mongolians, Hondurans, and the like — add up modestly indeed, when you consider who’s asking for a hand. And even our own version of the Gurkhas, the British who, thanks to Tony Blair, have shipped out sizeable numbers of troops to garrison the – at present – more peaceable Shiite southern regions of the country, turn out to be doing their much needed work for sixpence and a song. Their cut of the Iraqi pie looks beyond modest. Like a child with a roomful of toys, all the Bush administration knows how to say is: “Mine.”

A global Enron moment

In a sense, our new Rome already lies in ruins without even an enemy fit to name to oppose us. And the true face of our home-grown regime in Washington is ever more visible. The visages on display aren’t those of an emperor and his administrators, proconsuls and generals, but of so many dismantlers, strip-miners, and plunderers; less Augustus, more Jesse James (the real one, not the movie hero).

They may be building weapons for 2050, but they’re plundering in Iraq and at home as if January 1 2004 were the beginning of the end of time. Having ushered into office the Halliburton (vice-)presidency, we now have a fitting “empire” to go with it. While empires must to some extent spread the wealth around, our proto-imperialists turn out to have the greed level and satiation point of so many malign children. Other than “must” and “mine,” the words they — and their corporate companions — know best, it seems, are “now,” “all,” and “alone.” It’s a vocabulary that doesn’t contain a future in it, not the sort of vocabulary with which to rule the world.

No matter how many times we insist that all we carry in our baggage train is “freedom” and “democracy” for the oppressed nations of the Earth, those elsewhere can see perfectly well that our saddlebags are full of grappling hooks and meat cleavers. Bad as 2003 was for us, it may not be long before it’s looked upon as their global Enron Moment.

2003 was the year our emperor’s men decided to use up as much as they could as fast as they could, though, thanks to our underachieving media, this can hardly be grasped here. The sad thing is that they are dismantling us, and what matters most to us in our country including our liberties — and all under the deceptive name of “national security.” They have an unerring eye for the weak and vulnerable and, on spotting them, set upon them like so many highwaymen.

Unfortunately, as representatives of insecurity rather than security, they have let loose forces for which they feel no responsibility. We are a nation of adults, living largely in denial, led by overgrown, malign children excited by the thought of sending other people’s actual children, a whole well-led army of them, including the older “weekend warriors” of the reserves and the National Guard, off to do the impossible as well as the unjust. And this is happening in part because — I believe — they don’t imagine war as carnage, but are energized by an especially shallow idea of war’s “glory,” just as the President has been thoroughly energized by the ludicrous idea that his is a “war presidency.”

The term “chickenhawks,” often used by critics, hardly catches this. It’s true that Bush’s first moments after the September 11th attacks — now buried by media and memory — were ones of flight, and so, undoubtedly, of shame and humiliation (which helps account for at least some of the exaggerated macho posturing — “bring ’em on” — that followed). Instead of stepping forward to lead a shocked nation in crisis by heading for Washington, he was shunted from a children’s classroom in Florida westward to safety.

What “chickenhawks” doesn’t catch, however, is both the immature mock solemnity and the fun of war play for them, something they first absorbed in their childhoods on screen and carry with them still. War for them — as they avoided anything having to do with either the Vietnam War or opposition to it — remains, I believe, a matter of toy soldiers, cowboys-and-Indians games, and glorious John Wayne-style movies in which the Marines advance, while the ambushing enemy falls before them and the Marine hymn wells up as The End flashes on screen.

In a similar way, the neocon utopians who dreamed up our distinctly unpeaceful Pax Americana in deepest, darkest Washington and out of whole cloth seem to have imagined global military domination as something akin to the board game Risk. They too were, after a fashion, Risk managers, seeing themselves rolling the dice for little weapons icons (most of which they controlled), oil-well icons (which they wanted) and strategic-country icons (which they needed). They were consummate game players. It just so happens our planet isn’t a two-dimensional gameboard, but a confusing, bloody, resistant, complex place that exists in at least three dimensions, all unexpected.

I mean if you think I’m kidding — about children playing games — just remember that we have a President who, according to the Washington Post‘s Bob Woodward, keeps a “scorecard” in his desk drawer with the names/faces and personality sketches of al Qaeda adversaries (and assumedly Saddam) and then X’s them out as they’re brought in “dead or alive.” Think tic-tac-toe here.

The president and his men, in short, have been living in a fantasy world that makes The Lord of the Rings look like an exercise in reality. Even before the Iraq war, this was worrisome to the adults who had to deal with them. This is why there was so much opposition within the top ranks of the military before the war; this was why there was no Pentagon planning whatsoever for the post-war moment (hey, you’ve just won the Iraq card in your game, now you fortify and move on); this was why, for instance, General Anthony Zinni, Vietnam veteran and former CentCom commander, who endorsed young George in the 2000 race, went into opposition to the administration; this is why a seething “intelligence community” has been in near revolt after watching our fantasists rejigger “intelligence” to make their “turn” come out right; this is why our great “adventure” in the Middle East pitched over into the nearest ditch.

2004 should be a fierce holding action for them. The question is — as with Richard Nixon in 1972 — can they make it through to November before the seams start to tear. They might be able to. But here’s the thing: Sooner or later, the children will leave the stage and some set of adults will have to start picking up the pieces. If the 2004 election is theirs, however well, sometimes there are just things, our planet included, too broken to fix.

Copyright C2004 Tom Engelhardt