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American Grand Delusions
Why the Testimony of General Petraeus Will Be Delusional
By Tom Engelhardt
Yes, their defensive zone is the planet and they patrol it regularly. As ever, their planes and drones have been in the skies these last weeks. They struck a village in Somalia, tribal areas in Pakistan, rural areas in Afghanistan, and urban neighborhoods in Iraq. Their troops are training and advising the Iraqi army and police as well as the new Afghan army, while their Special Operations forces are planning to train Pakistan’s paramilitary Frontier Corps in that country’s wild, mountainous borderlands.
Their Vice President arrived in Baghdad not long before the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched its recent (failed) offensive against cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia in the southern oil city of Basra. To “discuss” their needs in their President’s eternal War on Terror, two of their top diplomats, a deputy secretary of state and an assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs, arrived in Pakistan — to the helpless outrage of the local press — on the very day newly elected Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani was being given the oath of office. (“I don’t think it is a good idea for them to be here on this particular day right here in Islamabad, meeting with senior politicians in the new government, trying to dictate terms…” was the way Zaffar Abbas, editor of the newspaper Dawn, put it.)
At home, their politicians have nationally televised debates in which they fervently discuss just how quickly they would launch air assaults against Pakistan’s tribal areas, without permission from the Pakistani government but based on “actionable intelligence” on terrorists. Their drones cruise the skies of the world looking for terrorist suspects to — in the phrase of the hour — “take out.” Agents from their intelligence services have, these last years, roamed the planet, kidnapping terrorist suspects directly off the streets of major cities and transporting them to their own secret prisons, or those of other countries willing to employ torture methods. Their spy satellites circle the globe listening in on conversations wherever they please, while their military has divided the whole planet into “commands,” the last of which, Africom, was just formed.
As far as they are concerned, nowhere do their interests not come into play; nowhere, in fact, are they not paramount. As their President put it recently, “If [our] strategic interests are not in Iraq — the convergence point for the twin threats of al Qaeda and Iran, the nation Osama bin Laden’s deputy has called ‘the place for the greatest battle,’ the country at the heart of the most volatile region on Earth — then where are they?” (And you could easily substitute the names of other countries for Iraq.)
Their President makes a habit of regularly telling other countries what they “must” do. “At the same time,” he said recently, “the regimes in Iran and Syria must stop supporting violence and terror in Iraq.” It’s especially important to him and his officials that other nations not “interfere” in situations where, as in Iraq, they are so obviously “foreigners” and have no business; no fingers, that is, are to be caught in other people’s cookie jars. Their Vice President made this point strikingly in an exchange with a TV interviewer:
“Q: So what message are you sending to Iran, and how tough are you prepared to get?
“Vice President: I think the message that the president sent clearly is that we do not want them doing what they can to try to destabilize the situation inside Iraq. We think it’s very important that they keep their folks at home.”
A range of other countries, all with a natural bent for “interference” or “meddling,” must regularly be warned or threatened. After all, what needs to be prevented, according to a typical formulation of their President, is “foreign interference in the internal affairs of Iraq.”
None of this advice do they apply to themselves for reasons far too obvious to explain. Wherever they go — sometimes in huge numbers, usually well-armed, and, after a while, deeply entrenched in bases the size of small towns that they love to build — they feel comfortable. They are, after all, defending their liberties by defending those of others elsewhere. Though there are natives of one brand or another everywhere, they consider themselves the planet’s only true natives. Their motto might be: Wherever we hang our hats (or helmets) is home.
Others, who choose to fight them, automatically become aliens, intent as they are on destroying the stability of that planetary “home.” So, for years, their military spokespeople referred to the Sunni insurgents they were battling in Iraq as “anti-Iraqi forces.” It mattered little that almost all of them were, in fact, Iraqis; for the enemy is, by nature, so beyond the pale as to be a stranger to his or her own country or, just as likely, a cat’s-paw of foreign forces and powers. Only when the very same “anti-Iraqi forces” suddenly decided to become allies were they suddenly granted the title, “concerned citizens,” or even, more gloriously, “Sons of Iraq.”
When off duty, their luckier soldiers have the option of taking “rest and recreation” in “the homeland” at places like the Hale Koa (“House of the Warrior”) Hotel in Honolulu, Hawaii, or in the extended homeland at, say, the Edelweiss Lodge and Resort in the Bavarian Alps or the Dragon Hill Lodge near thrilling downtown Seoul, South Korea — all part of their global system of Armed Forces Recreation Centers.
This is their world — and welcome to it.
It’s not exactly a mystery what country I’m talking about. You knew from the beginning. Since the Soviet Union vanished in 1991, only one nation has made itself at home everywhere on Earth; only one nation has felt that the planet’s interests and its own interests were essentially one; only one nation’s military garrisons and patrols our world from Greenland to the tropics, from the sea bed to the edge of space; only one nation’s military talks about its vast array of bases as its “footprint” on the planet; only one nation judges its essential and exceptional goodness, in motivation if nothing else, as justification for any act it may take.
Putting an Iraqi Face on Iraq
Soon, U.S. surge commander General David Petraeus will return to Washington to report to Congress on our “progress” in Iraq — and he’ll do so with the worst crisis in that country in almost a year still unresolved. He’ll do so, in fact, shrouded in yet another strategic disaster for the Bush administration. With that in mind, let’s take a moment to look back at just how, militarily at least, the Bush administration first made itself at home in Iraq.
In the U.S., the administration’s lack of planning for the occupation of Iraq — starting with the wholesale looting of Baghdad after American troops had taken the capital — has been the subject of much debate and discussion in Congress and the media. While it’s usually noted in passing that, amid the chaos, orders had in fact been issued to American troops to guard the Oil Ministry, little is made of that. In fact, orders for U.S. troops to guard that ministry and the Interior Ministry, and nothing else, were indeed given, which simply indicates that administration planning was extremely focused — on oil and the secret police (and perhaps Saddam Hussein’s secret archives).
In addition, we know that the administration ignored the 13-volume “Future of Iraq” project put together by the State Department to guide an occupation — largely because its neocon officials were so intent on sidelining the State Department more generally. On the other hand, the Pentagon did plan for what it thought would matter. Specifically, from a front-page April 19, 2003 New York Times article, we know that, by the time the invasion began, the Pentagon already had on the drawing boards plans for building four permanent mega-bases in Iraq. (They were meant to replace our bases in Saudi Arabia.) And these were indeed built (along with others and the largest embassy on the planet) in more or less the locations originally described. From the beginning, whatever planning it didn’t do, the Bush administration was certainly planning to make itself at home in Iraq in a big way for a long, long time.
Much has also been made of the disastrous, seat-of-the-pants decision by the administration, in the person of L. Paul Bremer III, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) then ruling Baghdad, to disband the Iraqi army. But few now recall what the administration, the CPA, and the Pentagon had in mind (and leaked to the press soon after the invasion) for a future Iraqi military of their dreams.
They had, in fact, reconceived the Iraqi army as a force of perhaps 40,000 lightly armed, largely border-guarding troops. Keep in mind that Saddam Hussein had a military of 400,000 heavily armed troops and — until the First Gulf War in 1990 — a powerful air force (as well as copious supplies of chemical weapons). In the Middle East, for a country to have only a 40,000 man military without tanks, artillery, or an air force to call on meant but one thing: that the U.S. military and the U.S. Air Force, from bases in Iraq and in the region, were to be Iraq’s real fighting force in any crisis. This was the true planning message of the Bush administration and it indicated just how “at home” its officials thought they would be in occupied Iraq.
By the time it became obvious that such thinking was fantastical and George Bush was starting to repeat the mantra, “As Iraqis stand up, Americans will stand down,” the idea of a 40,000-man force had been long forgotten. By then, the U.S. military was at work creating a large Iraqi army and national police force. But the effects of such planning remain debilitatingly present, even today.
After all, the “crack” Iraqi units sent into Basra by Prime Minister Maliki were still relatively lightly armed. (Hence, their complaints that the Sadrist militia they came up against were often better armed than they were.) They still had no significant Iraqi air force to call on, because as yet it hardly exists. When they got desperate, they had to call on U.S. and British air support as well as U.S. Special Forces units. And, of course, in the fighting in Basra, as in Baghdad where American units quickly entered the fray, they showed no particular flair for “standing up.” In fact, according to the Associated Press’s fine reporter Charles J. Hanley, the chief American trainer of Iraqi forces, Lt. Gen. James Dubik, now estimates that Iraq’s military will not be able to guard the country’s borders effectively until, at the earliest, 2018.
There was a period, back in 2004-05, when the Bush administration regularly wielded a telling image. They talked often about the importance of putting “an Iraqi face” on various aspects of the situation in that country. Here’s a typical passage from the New York Times from that period: “By insisting that they not be identified, the three officers based in Baghdad were following a Pentagon policy requiring American commanders in Baghdad to put ‘an Iraqi face’ on the war, meaning that Iraqi commanders should be the ones talking to reporters, not Americans.” This caught something of the strangeness of that moment, a strangeness that has yet to disappear. After all, as an image, to put a “face” on anything actually means to put a mask over an already present face, which was (and, even today, in military terms largely remains) American power in Iraq.
The presentation of the recent Maliki government offensive, launched on the eve of Petraeus’s return, also represented, in part, an attempt to put an Iraqi face on American at-homeness in that country. The fictional story put out as the “Iraqi” offensive was launched — printed up quite seriously in our media — was that Maliki had only informed the American high command (and the British in Basra) of his prospective move in the hours just before it was launched. This was, on the face of it, ludicrous. The “Iraqi” army has been stood up — trained, that is — by U.S. advisors; some of its units have U.S. advisors embedded in them; it is almost totally reliant on the logistical support of the U.S. military. It could not move far offensively without the significant prior knowledge of U.S. commanders (and this was later admitted by the President’s National Security Council Advisor Stephen J. Hadley).
While Maliki had his own reasons for launching his forces (and allied militias) against Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Basra, the Americans certainly imagined a triumphant moment for Petraeus in his upcoming hearings, thanks to new evidence that the Iraqi government was finally, in George Bush’s words, “in the lead” and its military shaping up well. As Leila Fadel of the McClatchy Newspapers reported, “Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said the Iraqi operation was a ‘byproduct of the success’ of the year-old U.S. troop surge.” This was a fantasy, of course. And the result was the success of Sadr’s forces from Basra to Baghdad — and ongoing American attempts to disavow any real involvement in the planning of the offensive.
The United States is hardly the first empire whose representatives have felt at home anywhere in its world (if not, in past times, in the world). When you are at the peak of your imperial powers, you can ignore the problems and contradictions that such a feeling, such an attitude, naturally calls up. This is no longer the situation for the United States and so the contradictions ripen, the problems only grow, and the plunge into delusional thinking deepens.
Take just the seeming conundrum of the recent battle in Basra. On one side, you have an Iraqi army, trained for years by the Americans, to the tune of approximately $22 billion in U.S. funds. On the other side, you have an (at best) partially trained “militia” — an “army” in name only. It may be that the Iranians have put some effort or money into equipping the Mahdi Army — though the evidence for this is slim indeed — but, if so, this would be minor by comparison.
When the two forces clashed, what was the result? Some Iraqi soldiers and policemen simply put down their weapons and, in certain cases, surrendered or went over to the other side, or deserted, or fought half-heartedly; while the Mahdis fought fiercely, cleverly, and, in the end, successfully, until called off in triumph by their leader. They “stood up” (just as they had against the full might of the American military in the southern holy city of Najaf back in 2004). Could there, then, be two different races of Iraqis, one set willing to fight with or without training or outside help, the other unwilling, no matter the support?
The American military faced a similar situation four decades ago in Vietnam, where American advisors training the South Vietnamese military regularly swore that they would turn in their brigades of Vietnamese troops for just a few platoons of Vietcong, who would stand and fight as if their lives depended on it.
Of course, the answer here is anything but mysterious. On the one hand, you have a foreign-trained, foreign-advised, foreign-supplied force with confused and divided loyalties that is only partially an “Iraqi” army; on the other, you have a local force, fighting in a community, for the safety and wellbeing of its own sons and wives, friends and relatives. The Mahdi Army members know why they fight and who they fight for. They have “faith,” and not just in the religious sense. They are, in a word, at home.
The history of the last 200 years has regularly piled up evidence that this matters far more than firepower. Human beings, that is, regularly “stand up” for something other than shiny weapons or the interests of a foreign power, no matter how at home its leaders may think they are in your country. The inability to see this obvious point — repeatedly and over decades — represents delusional thinking stemming, at least in part, from an inability of Americans to imagine their own foreignness in the world.
In such cases, you misperceive who is on your side, why they are there, and what, exactly, they are capable of. You misunderstand what the actual natives of a place think of you. You don’t grasp that, whatever the brute force and finances at your command, you, as a foreigner, may never understand the situation you believe you should control. Even the Maliki government itself, after all, is only “on our side” thanks to its abysmal weakness. (Otherwise, it would be far more closely allied with that other foreign power, Iran.) Sooner or later — usually sooner — you simply delude yourself. You mistake your trained army for an “Iraqi” or a “Vietnamese” one and so come to believe that, if only you adjust your counterinsurgency tactics correctly, it will fight like one. Then you act accordingly, which is, of course, disastrous.
Whatever General Petraeus says before Congress next week, however sane and pragmatic he sounds, however impressive looking his charts and graphs, it’s worth keeping in mind that his testimony cannot help but be delusional, because it stems from delusional premises and it can lead only to further disaster for Americans and Iraqis.
Yes, of course, American planes and drones will continue to cruise the skies of the globe “taking out” enemies (or missing them and taking out citizens elsewhere whom we could care less about); American diplomats and high military officials will continue to travel the planet in packs, indicating, however politely, what politicians, military men, and diplomats elsewhere “must” do; and American military men will continue to train the Iraqi army in the hopes that, in 2018 if not sooner, it will stand up.
And yet, as long as we mistake ourselves for “the natives,” as long as we are convinced that our interests are paramount everywhere, and feel that we must be part of the solution to every problem, our problems — and the world’s — will only multiply.
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com, is the co-founder of the American Empire Project. His book, The End of Victory Culture (University of Massachusetts Press), has been updated in a newly issued edition that deals with victory culture’s crash-and-burn sequel in Iraq.
[Tomdispatch Recommendation: A recent Noam Chomsky piece, “We Own the World,” took up an allied set of topics to those in this essay. It’s a fascinating read and I urge you to check it out.]
Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt