The Hyperpower Hype and Where It Took Us

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[Note for readers: I’ll be on the move for the next few days with, at best, minimal access to the Internet — though I hope to post the next piece Tuesday. Those of you who write in should not expect quick responses. Tom]

Exporting Ruins
By Tom Engelhardt

Just last week, a jury began to deliberate on the fate of Zacarias Moussaoui, who may or may not have been the missing 20th hijacker in the September 11th attacks. At the same time, newly released recordings of 911 operators responding to calls from those about to die that day in the two towers were splashed across front pages nationwide. (“All I can tell you to do is sit tight. All right? Because I got almost every fireman in the city coming”)

Over four and a half years later, September 11, 2001 won’t go away. And little wonder. It remains the defining moment in our recent lives, the moment that turned us from a country into a “homeland.” With Iraq in a state of ever-devolving deconstruction, the President’s and Vice President’s polling figures in tatters, Karl Rove (Bush’s “brain”) again threatened with indictment, the Republican Party in disarray, and New Orleans as well as the Mississippi coast still largely unreconstructed ruins, perhaps it’s worth revisiting just what exactly was defined in that moment.

A DIY World of Terrorism

The brilliance of the al-Qaeda assault that day lay in its creation of a vision of destruction out of all proportion to the organization’s modest strength. At best, al-Qaeda had adherents in the thousands as well as a “headquarters” and training camps located in the backlands of one of the poorest countries on the planet.

Its leaders made the bold decision to launch an attack on the political and the financial capitals of what was then regularly termed the globe’s “sole hyperpower.” Although this face-off might have seemed the ultimate definition of asymmetric warfare, in terms of theatrical value — no small thing in our world of 24/7 news and entertainment — the struggle turned out to be eerily symmetrical. By the look of it (but only the look), the Earth’s lone superpower met its match that day. With box cutters, mace, two planes, and the use of Microsoft piloting software to speed their learning curve, a few determined fanatics, ready to kill and die, took aim at the two most iconic (if uninspired) buildings at the financial heart of the American system and managed to top the climax of any disaster film ever shot. What they created, in fact, was a Hollywood-style vision of the apocalypse, enough so that our media promptly dubbed the spot where those two towers crumbled in those vast clouds of dust and smoke, “Ground Zero,” a term previously reserved for an atomic explosion.

This was — let’s be blunt — an extraordinary accomplishment for a tiny band of men with one of the more extreme religious/political ideologies around; and, if the testimony under CIA interrogation of al-Qaeda’s Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is to be believed — summaries were released at the Moussaoui sentencing hearing — what happened seems to have stunned even him. (“According to the CIA summary, he said he ‘had no idea that the damage of the first attack would be as catastrophic as it was.'”)

And yet, so many years later, there have been no follow-up attacks here. This was obviously never the equivalent of breaking through military lines in war. There were no al-Qaeda troops poised to pour through that breach, ransack the rubble, and spread across New York; nor, like the Japanese at Pearl Harbor (to which the 9/11 assault was often compared), did al-Qaeda launch a simultaneous set of strikes elsewhere. Of this sort of activity the group was incapable. Such acts were far beyond its means.

By the look of it, there weren’t even sleeper cells in the U.S. ready to launch devastating follow-up attacks. (Given the Bush administration’s record from New Orleans to Iraq, we can take it for granted that its officials would have been incapable of stopping any such well-planned attacks.) As far as we can tell, most of the major terrorist assaults launched since then, from Bali to Baghdad, were essentially franchised operations, undertaken by groups who claimed a kinship of inspiration and ideology; and, in a number of devastating cases, including London and Madrid, by small, self-organized groups, brought to a boil by Bush’s War in Iraq, who struck on their own as, in essence, al-Qaeda wannabes. What al-Qaeda has really been promoting, because it was never capable of promoting much else, is a DIY world of terrorism.

Crossing the Line, Apocalypse Bound

Despite the limitless look of the destruction on September 11, 2001, the dangers al-Qaeda posed were of a limited nature. After all, it took the group a long time to meticulously plan each of its attacks, whether on the WTC, or the USS Cole in a harbor in Yemen, or two U.S. embassies in Africa. Years could pass between major attacks. When Osama bin Laden, according to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s CIA testimony, pushed for launching the attack on the World Trade Center in May 2001, seven months after the waterborne assault on the USS Cole, Mohammed ignored him because they simply weren’t ready.

Their attacks could be devastating locally, killing startling numbers, but that would be the end of matters for months or even years to come. Other than a finely tuned sense of the power of timing, theatrics, and publicity (which indicated just how “modern” a group calling for the return of a medieval Caliphate really was), the only thing al-Qaeda could brandish was an implicit futuristic threat: That someday they, or another group like them, might get their hands on an actual apocalyptic weapon, leaking out of the arsenals or labs of one of the two former Cold War superpowers or from those of proliferating lesser powers. Then they might create an actual Ground Zero, subjecting some city somewhere, possibly here, to a genuinely apocalyptic moment.

Certain analysts had long feared just this. One was Robert Jay Lifton who, back in 1999, wrote a far-seeing if little noticed book, Destroying the World to Save It, about the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan. It too had been led by a fanatically driven leader possessing a vision of the end of the world that probably was, Lifton says, “as old as death itself.” But whereas past religious groups had waited in expectation or terror for the predicted end of time to arrive, Aum’s guru set out to make it happen, to trigger Armageddon. He actually managed to finance and set up his own science labs, attract scientific types to his cult, and create a poor man’s weapon of mass destruction, the deadly nerve gas Sarin.

In 1995, his followers let imperfectly produced Sarin loose in the Tokyo subway system during a morning rush hour. Due to Aum’s amateurishness, few people were killed; but, as Lifton wrote, the cult had nonetheless crossed a “line” that few even knew existed. It became “the first group in history to combine ultimate fanaticism with ultimate weapons in a project to destroy the world.” Its acts were also a reminder that, sooner or later, weapons of mass destruction of one sort or another might indeed fall out of the control of states and into the hands of groups, cults, or even individuals who might feel none of the restraints states turn out to be under when it comes to their use.

This was an insight that lay just below the surface of our world until September 11, 2001, but that everyone evidently sensed — otherwise that Ground Zero label would never have come so naturally to mind. Thought about with a cold eye, the single most important set of acts the Bush administration could have undertaken — other than bringing to justice those who had launched the murderous assaults — would have been to nail down the globe’s nuclear as well as chemical and biological arsenals, and the Cold War labs that had produced them. It’s worth recalling that the largely forgotten anthrax killer or killers, who closed down Congress and killed postal workers that same September, used weaponized anthrax, evidently from the American weapons labs. In addition, genuine national security would have meant putting full-scale efforts into reversing the global proliferation of nuclear weapons — rather than just focusing ineptly on a couple of rogue states you were eager to whack anyway. You would certainly not have broken open the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, encouraged a state like India in its militarized nuclear dreams, or launched a major expansion and “modernization” of the already staggering American nuclear arsenal.

But of course nothing like this happened. In that terrible moment when a choice might have been made between the vision of apocalypse and the reality of al-Qaeda, between a malign version of the smoke-and-mirrors Wizard of Oz and the pathetic little man behind the curtain, the Bush administration opted for the vision in a major way. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, and other top officials chose to pump up al-Qaeda into a global enemy worthy of a new Cold War, a generational struggle that might comfortably be filled with smaller, regime-change-oriented, “preventive” hot wars against hopelessly outgunned enemies who — unlike in those Cold War days — would have no other superpower to call on for aid.

Hyper about Power

That radioactive decision, not the 9/11 attacks, determined the shape of our world. Bush declared his “crusade” — make no bones about it — against Islam (though al Qaeda was the fringiest of “Islamic” groups) and the Middle East. It was, above all, to be a crusade to dominate the energy heartlands of the planet.

In its own way, al-Qaeda was ready to accept the Bush version of itself. After all, our President had just elevated it into the major leagues of enemyhood, right up there with the big boys of history. Via various videos, including one just before the 2004 presidential elections, al-Qaeda’s leaders entered into a thoroughly bizarre “conversation” with the Bush administration, which, in press conferences, answered in kind. What a compliment! Who could reject a recruiting tool of that sort, right out of someone’s Hollywood fantasies. Why not be a group of Islamic Dr. No’s? (If only the Bush administration had reacted as James Bond did: “World domination. The same old dream. Our asylums are full of people who think they’re Napoleon. Or God.”)

On their part, Bush and his cohorts were all-too-ready to dance with this minor set of apocalypts, in part because they were themselves into fantasies of world domination — and considered themselves anything but mad. With visions of a “New Rome” — and a one-party democracy at home — dancing in their heads, they took that handy, terrifying image of the apocalypse in downtown New York and translated it into every sort of terror (including mushroom clouds threatening to go off over American cities and unmanned aerial vehicles spraying poisons along the East coast). In this way, they stampeded the American people and Congress into their crusade of choice.

The story of what followed you know well. Miraculously, al-Qaeda grew and the United States shrank. For one thing, it turned out that top American officials and the various neocons who worked for them or simply cheered them on from Washington’s think-tanks and editorial pages, had been taken in by their own hype about American military power. They deeply believed in their pumped-up version of our hyper-strength, our ability to do anything we pleased in a world of midgets; and with the Soviet Union gone, if you just checked out military budgets and high-tech weapons programs, it might indeed look that way. Economically, however, the U.S. was far less strong than they imagined and its military power turned out to be far more impressive when held in reserve as a threat than when put to use in Iraq, where our Army would soon be stopped dead in its half-tracks.

In retrospect, the Bush administration badly misread the U.S. position in the world. Its officials, blinded by their own publicity releases on the nature of American power, were little short of self-delusional. And so, with unbearable self-confidence, the administration set out flailingly and, in just a few short years, began to create something like a landscape of ruins.

Today, we stand in those ruins, whether we know it or not, though the Ground Zero of the Bush assault was obviously not here, but in Iraq. Starting with their “shock and awe,” son-et-lumière air assault on downtown Baghdad (which they promoted as if it were a hot, new TV show), they turned out to want their apocalyptic-looking scenes of destruction up on screen for the world to see no less than al-Qaeda did. It took next to no time for them to turn huge swaths of Iraq into the international equivalent of the World Trade Center. And it’s a reasonable guess — these people being painfully consistent in their predilections — that it’s only going to get worse. (As Sidney Blumenthal recently put it in another context, “Like all failed presidents, Bush is a captive in an iron cage of his own making. The greater his frustration, the tighter he grips the bars.”)

Just a quick look at the situation in Iraq today reveals levels of chaos and a “steady diet of carnage” that not long ago might have seemed unimaginable. The Bush people now find themselves oscillating weekly between desperate policy non-alternatives, while a low-level, vicious, Lebanon-style civil war develops on the ground. Just last week, “Iraqi troops” with U.S. advisors were reported to have raided a Shiite mosque complex in a Baghdad neighborhood controlled by the forces of Moqtada al-Sadr’s militia. A number of civilians, including an 80 year-old Imam, were killed, provoking an angry Shiite response, including calls for the sacking of Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador, indicating that a new stage had been reached.

For one thing, it’s now clear that there may no longer be “Iraqi troops.” In this case, the attackers turned out to be a Kurdish unit with American advisors, evidently perfectly happy to slaughter Sadr’s backers. What exists, what we’re “standing up” (so we can “stand down,” as the President regularly puts it) are Shiite units, Kurdish units, and even relatively modest units of Sunni troops. As Robert Dreyfuss recently commented, all of this signals “that the United States is now fighting virtually the entire Iraqi Arab population. Only the non-Arab Kurds seem loyal to the United States now, and the notoriously fickle Kurds, famed for shifting their allegiances on a dime, can’t be counted on as permanent friends, either.”

Meanwhile, the country is officially without a government. As Dreyfuss sums the situation up, “Post-Saddam Iraq has become a nightmare, a Mad Max world in which warlords rule.” While American power remains enormous there, it has proved less wieldable than anyone in the Bush administration ever imagined. The leading Shiite spiritual figure, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, hasn’t even bothered to open a letter from our President; previous Shiite allies have started denouncing us; Baghdad’s provincial council has suspended “cooperation” with the U.S. military and the U.S. embassy.

So here’s a future scenario to imagine: Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish troops all roaming urban neighborhoods, all engaging in revenge killings against the others, all with their own American advisors. It is no longer beyond the bounds of possibility that Americans could find themselves on every side of a future civil war; or, no less likely, that all sides could be attacking American troops — or both; and so, of course, could the Iranians whom the Bush administration, in another catch-22, threatens to attack and yet desperately needs.

In the meantime, the American air war against Iraqi cities quietly ratchets up and, amid the ruins, huge permanent American bases like the 19 square-mile Al-Asad airbase in Anwar Province — with its 17,000 troops, Burger King, Pizza Hut, car dealership Yellow and Blue bus routes, and “PX jammed with customers” — thrive. Only recently, the administration requested from Congress hundreds of millions more dollars to construct stronger perimeter defenses, better runways with permanent lighting, more permanent dining facilities and the like at the largest of these bases.

While the basics of everyday life in urban Iraq continue to peel away and the Iraqi oil industry looks to be on its last legs, the Pentagon delivers electricity, potable water, and fuel, not to speak of i-Pods, televisions, Internet access, and other goodies to our massive bases, some of which, visiting reporters tell us, now resemble small American towns and to which the administration hopes to withdraw most of its troops sooner or later. At a time when Daniel Speckhard, director of the U.S. Iraq Reconstruction Management Office, is putting the country on notice that it can “no longer count on U.S. reconstruction funds,” you might forgive an Iraqi for wondering how the administration that “liberated” their country could have done so much so efficiently for its soldiers and yet be so incapable of doing much of anything for the rest of the country.

The Rubble of Victory

At the moment, our bases exist like little untouched Edens in the eye of the storm. Undoubtedly, administration officials still imagine us camping out in the ruins in 2009 or 2019 — after all, for a while the Pentagon actually referred to these ziggurats of modern Iraq as “enduring camps” — while large cities like Mosul stew in their uncollected garbage and polluted sewage water, ever more rundown, ever more shot up, ever less under anyone’s control. (“The Americans are now just one more of the tribes of Mosul,” Patrick Cockburn of the British Independent quotes “one Arab source” as saying.)

It’s true that some neocons once imagined chaos as a kind of acceptable fallback position in the Middle East, if the best of all worlds didn’t work out. But this was the fantasy of people who had essentially never made it out of the Washington world of think tanks, punditry, and politics, who were desperately ready to be dazzled by the tales of Ahmed Chalabi and other exiled Iraqi Scheherazades. Anyone today who thinks that we can simply retreat to those permanent bases and protect the oil, while Iraq sinks further into chaos, while the ruins spread, should really think again.

“Imperial overreach” is too fancy a term for what the Bush administration has actually done. While its officials have talked a great game when it came to achieving “victory” in Iraq and exporting democracy to the Middle East, its main exports have turned out to be mayhem and ruins. And those it can continue to export. With every new move, yet more rubble, yet more terror, and undoubtedly yet more terrorists in Iraq and, sooner or later, in the wider region will be created. This is where the most essential choices made by the President, Vice President, and their chosen officials in the days after September 11, 2001 have taken us.

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s (“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, has recently come out in paperback.

Copyright 2006 Tom Engelhardt