The squawking chicken

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Aid and comfort to himself:Administration officials said Bush enjoys surprises and showing himself in charge, and Thursday’s whirlwind trip involved both. The president told reporters on Air Force One afterward that he had watched the landing from the cockpit and had spent weeks quizzing his pilot and military and security officials about the trip’s feasibility, insisting that it be scrapped if it endangered any Americans. ‘I was pretty tough,’ he said.” (Mike Allen, With Iraq Trip, an Afterglow, but Uncertain Aftermath, the Washington Post)

Aid and comfort to the enemy:[A]nother member of the governing council, who asked not to be named, said the ‘excessive secrecy’ surrounding the visit could provide a propaganda boost to the insurgents. ‘They will be able to boast that they forced the most powerful man in the world to come in through the back door,’ he said.” (Michael Howard and Julian Borger, Iraqis express cynicism at Bush’s 150-minute visit, the Guardian)

At Baghdad International Airport, the President has his triumphant photo-op moment, while in Baghdad our top commander, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez announces that attacks against American troops (but not Iraqis who work with us) have “dropped sharply” in the last two weeks, the weeks of Operation Iron Hammer. (The other day, though, Juan Cole, whose “Informed Consent” website I’ve now linked this weblog to, had an interesting alternative explanation: “[I]t may be that the end of Ramadan and the arrival of Eid al-Fitr [breaking the fast, a joyous holiday] has drawn even the guerrillas into an endless round of socializing. Contrary to what many Pentagon spokesmen and journalists seem to think, Ramadan and other Islamic holy days aren’t actually very good times to try to mobilize people for secular activities.”)

In the last two days, however, 2 Japanese diplomats and their driver, 7 Spanish intelligence agents, 2 South Korean electricians contracted by a U.S. company to lay power lines at an electricity transmission station near Tikrit, a Colombian civilian working for defense contractor Kellogg Brown & Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton, and two American soldiers patrolling on the border with Syria have died in a new round of attacks — and that’s without mentioning the many dead Iraqis or wounded Americans. Whether by inadvertence, planning, or more likely a combination of the two, these attacks, like past ones, hit at countries – Japan, South Korea, Spain – where support for American operations is embroiled in controversy and deeply unpopular, clearly attempting to strip away allies and further isolate the occupation forces and their Iraqis.

In the meantime, while American intelligence has been near to nonexistent in Iraq — why that should surprise anyone, given our prewar display of “intelligence” dexterity, bewilders me — fears are rising that our Iraqi opponents have been all too well informed about us. From the suicide bombing right under de Mello’s window at the Baghdad UN offices to the missiles that hit the floor below Paul Wolfowitz’s room at the al-Rashid Hotel, the enemy seems impressively in the know about American (and allied) activities.

In fact, a recent AP report by Jim Krane summarizes Gen. Sanchez thusly on the subject:

“There is no evidence that al-Qaida terrorists have taken part in the long string of attacks on U.S. or Iraqi targets, but some U.S.-trained Iraqi police appear to have coordinated some of those assaults, the top U.S. military official in Iraq said Saturday.

“There is no evidence that al-Qaida terrorists have taken part in the long string of attacks on U.S. or Iraqi targets, but some U.S.-trained Iraqi police appear to have coordinated some of those assaults, the top U.S. military official in Iraq said Saturday.

“U.S. military officials are concerned that some attacks on Americans have been coordinated by a few of the numerous Iraqi civilians hired by the U.S. military, who may glean intelligence on troop movements and travels of high-ranking officers, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez told reporters at the Baghdad Convention Center.”

This does have a Vietnam-like ring to it and points out the all-too-obvious dangers of “Iraqification,” the hurried half-training of a police force, civil defense corps and army, filled with god knows who, but certainly men you could never be sure were going to fight for you.

Bush’s photo-op in Baghdad was, to mangle a metaphor, the political equivalent of that Dutch boy’s finger in the dike, which, by the way, seems to be springing leaks elsewhere at a rapid pace. Bryan Bender of the Boston Globe (Guerrilla War in Iraq Spreading), for instance, offers a picture of the war quite unlike the one the administration has been peddling:

“The guerrilla war in Iraq has moved steadily beyond the so-called Sunni Triangle and into areas of the country once considered peaceful, a potentially ominous development for security forces trying to restore order in the country. Since the end of major combat operations on May 1, nearly 40 percent of attacks on US and coalition targets have been outside the Sunni Triangle, home to many remnants of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s regime, according to internal Defense Department reports obtained by the Globe.”

40% of the attacks are no longer in the Sunni Triangle. Think about that. No wonder the Bush men are anxiously reshuffling the deck. Unfortunately for them, they don’t all seem to be at the same card table anymore or agreed upon the game they’re playing. At, the conservative William S. Lind recently offered this canny analysis of what’s going on in Washington, where 40% of the infighting has reputedly spread beyond the State Department and the Pentagon (The Politics of War).

“What is interesting is that the most powerful man in Washington, Karl Rove, who is President George W. Bush’s political advisor, has apparently figured out that the Iraq war is lost (Afghanistan is not on his political radar screen). Further, he has discerned that if Mr. Bush goes into the 2004 election with the war in Iraq still going on, and still going badly, Mr. Bush is toast. The result was the recent decision to turn the government back to the Iraqis sometime next summer.

“Will it work? Probably not. Mr. Rove still faces two big fights, and neither will be easy. The first will be a nasty political brawl with the so-called “neo-cons,” more accurately neo-Jacobins, who gave us the Iraq War in the first place. Their political future is at stake in Iraq, and if we are defeated, they go straight into history’s wastebasket. They are determined to fight down to the last American paratrooper, and once they figure out that Mr. Rove wants out, they will go after him with everything they have”

But devolving Iraq is only part of a larger imperial picture seldom considered in this country.

The squawking chicken and other jokes (on us) from the new imperial era:

So here’s the chicken joke:

A man with a chicken perched on his shoulder seats himself at a bar and orders a boilermaker. After a few minutes, the chicken suddenly squawks, “Whatever happened to the peace dividend?” The bartender exclaims, “That’s amazing!” The guy with the chicken looks up surprised. “What’s so amazing?” he asks. The bartender says, “I’ve had a lot of talking chickens in this bar, but none of them ever mentioned the peace dividend.” The drinker replies with pride, “Well, he’s always had a mind for trivia.”

Okay, maybe it’s not quite a joke. I’m usually weak on my punch-lines which is no doubt why the phone never rings with job offers from sit-com writing teams. But you take my point. Can you even remember the moment — it was in the Neolithic Age just after the Berlin Wall dropped and the Soviet Union collapsed — that anyone was talking about a “peace dividend”? That was a moment when the Pentagon, resistant to a governmental version of corporate downsizing, was desperately casting about for enemies big enough to fit a Pentagon-sized budget. It quickly settled upon what were then called “rogue states,” now the Axis of Evil plus a few.

I was reminded of this the other day by a reference to that peace dividend in a British Guardian editorial about the $401.3 billion dollar Pentagon budget George Bush just signed into law – and, as the editorial pointed out (Scary and scandalous):

“Amazingly, this figure does not include one-off appropriations for US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan of approximately $150bn. Overall US defence expenditure under Mr Bush is at record levels. It is higher, in relative terms, than equivalent, average American spending during the cold war years when a hostile Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact confronted the US and its allies with thousands of nuclear warheads deployed on land, at sea and in the air, as well as chemical and biological weapons and vast conventional forces.”

The Guardian editorial writers suggest that the 2004 “campaign slogan could almost be: ‘Vote for Bush. It’s really scary.'”

Looking back on the forgotten “peace dividend,” symbol of a thoroughly missed moment, it’s evident that what they got was a massive “war dividend,” while we got stiffed. All you have to do is consider that $401.3 billion, add in the Iraq and Afghan supplementals, toss in the bloated intelligence budget, and various black budgets and slush funds we undoubtedly know nothing about, and then for good measure stir in some percentage of the Dept. of Homeland Security’s militarized budget, not to speak of militarized bits and pieces of other agency budgets and it’s hard not to notice — though, to give them full credit, the media do a great job of trying — that our imperial presence is, essentially, a military one about which (given the levels of funding and corporate/Pentagon corruption) there is nothing Spartan whatsoever.

I’m including below three recent essays on what to make of imperial America, but note in passing where they appear. Jonathan Schell explores whether we a rising empire, a falling empire, or an empire at all. And he suggests provocatively that of the imperial tripod of military, economic, and political power, our imperial presence totally lacks a political leg, which means it’s always in danger of toppling over. He points, for instance, to Iraq:

“The new twist in policy is said to consist of ‘turning over’ power to ‘the Iraqis,’ but it’s not clear that the United States in fact yet possesses political power in Iraq or that the Iraqis in question – all American appointees – have or can acquire stature in their own country. For power, imperial or domestic, is not a fixed asset, like oil reserves, which can be turned over by one owner to another. In truth, the United States, for all its armed might, cannot really be said to exercise political power in Iraq, and it cannot hand over to someone else what it doesn’t yet possess.”

His thoughtful comments, however, appear at the Yale Global website and nowhere else. An excerpt from Chalmers Johnson’s remarkable upcoming book, The Sorrows of Empire (on which more later in the week), focuses on exactly what those “sorrows” are likely to be, but it too can only be found on-line at the Foreign Policy in Focus Website. And Guardian columnist George Monbiot just wrote his weekly column on why we shouldn’t be trapped in the administration’s “moral” arguments for war in Iraq:

“A superpower does not have moral imperatives. It has strategic imperatives. Its purpose is not to sustain the lives of other people, but to sustain itself. Concern for the rights and feelings of others is an impediment to the pursuit of its objectives. It can make the moral case, but that doesn’t mean that it is motivated by the moral case.”

But you’d be hard-put to find Monbiot’s column here off the Internet. In fact, our empire, whatever it might be and however awesome it might look elsewhere on this planet, is anything but a looming presence in our papers or on TV. It had a brief moment, when the right was touting us as the new Rome, but — I wonder why — that seems to have died down in recent months and with it our global footprint has more or less disappeared from the press. In any case, as best I can below, let me trace out a bit of that footprint, whose shape (to this modest detective) looks distinctly like that of a combat boot or two or three.

Making yourself comfortable on the SOFA:

Start with the fact that we have more than 700 bases abroad. Which means, of course, hundreds of thousands of Americans in uniform (and sometimes their dependents) are scattered around the world. You can get a sense of this from the Where are the Legions? [SPQR] Global Deployments of US Forces display at the website. Around that same world, the American government has negotiated Status of Forces Agreements or SOFAs that, in places like South Korea, give American soldiers who commit crimes of one sort or another in peacetime a kind of extraterritoriality and usually prevent them from having to face local courts which would be likely to pass far harsher judgments on them than the American military ever will.

This was a way of life for 19th century imperialists, who, for example, carved out little extraterritorial enclaves all along the coast of China. This was certainly the case of the collapsed empire of the Soviet Union, whose military men led privileged lives elsewhere in the Communist “bloc.” This is the peacetime way of life of the U.S. military whose forces abroad are largely shielded from local judgments. Increasingly, if the Bush administration has its way (thanks to bilateral agreements forced on other nations), American soldiers in wartime will be responsible to no other body, certainly not to the new International Criminal Court, for crimes of war or crimes against humanity.

When you consider whether the Bush administration is planning to withdraw from Iraq or simply planning to conduct withdrawal-like maneuvers with the 2004 election in mind, you should keep your eye on two things we’re incapable of seeing, because they are hardly ever reported on: the permanent bases we’re building in Iraq (see below) and whatever SOFA agreement we may negotiate with whatever new entity is set up (if it is) by next July.

What we do know now is that, despite the deaths of and injury to many Iraqis under questionable circumstances, no American soldier (that I know of anyway) has been punished for any act against the civilian population. Rory McCarthy of the Guardian reports, however, that (U.S. pays up for fatal Iraqi blunders):

“The US military has paid out $1.5m (£907,000) to Iraqi civilians in response to a wave of negligence and wrongful death claims filed against American soldiers families have come forward with accounts of how American soldiers shot dead or seriously wounded unarmed Iraqi civilians with no apparent cause. In many cases their stories are confirmed by Iraqi police investigations. Beyond the initial payments there is little recourse for the families of the dead. No American soldier has been prosecuted for illegally killing an Iraqi civilian and commanders refuse even to count the number of civilians killed or injured by their soldiers.”

And here’s the key passage in McCarthy’s piece:

“Iraqi courts, because of an order issued by the US-led authority in Baghdad in June, are forbidden from hearing cases against American soldiers or any other foreign troops or foreign officials in Iraq.”

This is in essence the equivalent of an imposed SOFA agreement on an occupied land. It is the functional definition not of the rights of an occupying power but of imperial impunity.

Bases as a way of life:

Here’s another of those subjects that is desperately hard to “see,” given our media. The world is our oyster when it comes to bases. They are almost everywhere. And where they aren’t, they are just about to appear. After each of our most recent wars — in Kosovo, in the Persian Gulf the first time around, and in Afghanistan — like some vast creature leaving its spoor behind, we’ve left strings of bases. So, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, we now have bases not only in Afghanistan but in the various ‘stans of Central Asia, where we are quietly dueling the Russians, the former imperial proprietors, for dominance. In the case of Kyrgyzstan, for instance, the Russians and Americans have actually opened new dueling bases. (Pepe Escobar, Touching Base, the Asia Times)

And keep your eye on Georgia, once also part of the Soviet sphere. There may be more to its “velvet revolution,” Eric Margolis of the Toronto Sun tells us in his most recent column, than meets the eye:

“The latest recipient of Washington’s “regime change” was not some miscreant Muslim state but the mainly Christian mountain nation of Georgia. Eduard Shevardnadze, the 75-year-old strongman who has ruled post-Soviet Georgia’s 5.1 million citizens since 1991, was overthrown by a bloodless coup that appears to have been organized and financed by the Bush administration.

“Shevardnadze’s sin, in Washington’s eyes, was being too chummy with Moscow and obstructing a major U.S. oil pipeline, due to open in 2005, from Central Asia, via Georgia, to Turkey. Georgia occupies the heart of the wild, unruly, and strategic Caucasus region, which I call the Mideast North. In recent months, Shevardnadze had given new drilling and pipeline concessions to Russian firms.”

We are, in Chalmers Johnson’s phrase, an “empire of bases.” This is our Great Game, even though there is no longer a Great Imperial Enemy to play it with. But if you read our papers you would have little idea that this was even a noticeable aspect of the U,S. presence abroad. We are now in the midst of what Bryan Bender of the Boston Globe calls the “most sweeping shift in the American military presence abroad since World War II,” and his piece, modest and vague as it may be, is about as good as it gets when it comes to coverage here:

“The military’s new emphasis is likely to be on geographic areas where US forces have increasingly found themselves fighting the global war on terrorism – particularly in the Middle East and Central Asia.

“The United States has started expanding its network of small, sparsely populated facilities in Africa, Central and Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. In the last couple of years, US facilities have been established in the Horn of Africa (Djibouti), in former Soviet republics (Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan), and in former Eastern Bloc states (Bulgaria, Romania).”

And yet even in this piece there is nothing on our urge, for instance, to reestablish ourselves in the Philippines where we were forced from our bases in the early 1990s by two formidable powers — a volcanic eruption and a popular democratic one. And, far more important, there is nothing in the piece or in the press on the permanent bases being built in Iraq. For the neocons and other varieties of Washington hawk, Iraq was to be the new lynchpin of an ever more elaborate basing structure in the “arc of instability,” stretching across the world’s oil lands and to the very borders of China.

Take a look at Global Security’s detailed layout of our bases in Iraq, ranging from elaborate semi-permanent structures to emergency landing fields, Iraq Facilities. There are literally dozens of them. It’s quite remarkable. There is some writing about this in the Arab world — for instance, Secret Washington plan to establish six permanent US, UK military bases in Iraq:

“Al-Arab Al-Yawm’s correspondent Ahmad Sabri reports from Baghdad that sources close to the Interim Governing Council of Iraq have told al-Arab al-Yawm in Baghdad that the new US strategy in Iraq which Paul Bremer brought back to the Council members from Washington has not yet been revealed in its entirety. The reliable sources say that there are clauses in the agreement that are to remain secret until an appropriate time comes for their publication.

“The sources revealed that the most important of these secret clauses in the document — which the Council announced after meeting Bremer at the beginning of this week — provide for the establishment of at least six military bases in different parts of Iraq in which American forces will be concentrated on a permanent basis in order to guarantee a continued American and British presence in accordance with the strategy that brought their fleets to these hot waters in the first place.”

But since the people who run our media don’t see us as an imperial entity, the global sweep of, and linkages among these base structures escape them and so no teams of reporters pursue stories about them or make much of anything of them. When bases are reported on at all, they fall into some completely eye-glazing policy-wonk category. And so our empire conveniently escapes our own eyes.

A weapons race of one:

But lurking behind the Great Game is a far greater, or madder, or more apocalyptic game in which an empire of permanent bases and forward bases abroad would be largely retired and the world instead dominated from the “last frontier” — space. This, of course, sounds wacky. And it is. But it’s also where the thoughts and r&d funds of this administration tend to head, the sad culmination of nearly a century of sci-fi fantasies read by lonely, dreamy boys.

One of the things that fascinates me in a morbid sort of way is the present “arms race of one.” If the modern arms race started perhaps in the late 19th century as a British/German naval competition to build ever more powerful dreadnoughts (and I know that historians argue about this), it remained a two-(or more)-sided race right through the Cold War — the Allies versus the Axis, the Americans versus the Russians.

As the word “race” implied, throughout the Cold War the two superpowers hustled to create ever more powerfully world-destroying weapons and the vehicles to deliver them and the tactics to go with them or defend against them. The two sides were locked in a race for weapons that might best each other from which neither dared to opt out for fear — as the image implied — of falling behind the other, which meant, at least in the minds of policy planners, being dominated.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was, it turns out, the ultimate test of whether “arms race” was the correct image for what was going on and it now seems clear enough that it wasn’t. The old USSR opted out in the most definitive way possible. Under the pressure of the wishes of its various peoples, it disappeared, and yet the arms “race,” after the briefest of faltering moments, leapt the Cold War era in the United States and continued on as if there were an opponent driving us.

Today, under the Bush administration, we may even be outpacing ourselves. For instance, Fred Kaplan of Slate lays out administration plans for a whole new arsenal of nuclear weaponry in Why spend money on useless weapons?:

“A little-noted clause of the Fiscal Year 2004 defense bill, which both houses of Congress passed with barely a shrug last week, puts the United States back in the business-after a decadelong moratorium-of developing, testing, and eventually building a new generation of exotic nuclear weapons

“The upshot is that, just as the Bush administration is jawboning Iran and North Korea to halt their nuclear-weapons programs (and lobbying European leaders to join in on the pressure), it is also-despite possessing 7,650 nuclear warheads and bombs already-moving to build more.”

It turns out that if what’s left when the two superpower race ends is one great empire, and global domination is still the name of its great imperial game, then one is plenty for an “arms race.” Recently, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Ruth Rosen caught this impulse at its wildest (Arming Outer Space):

“Look up at the sky. Imagine space-based weapons orbiting the globe, ready to zap or nuke any country declared an imminent threat to the United States. No, this is not science fiction. It is Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s vision of global domination By appointing Rumsfeld as his defense secretary, President Bush chose a man whom the Washington Post described as ‘the leading proponent not only of national missile defenses, but also of U.S. efforts to take control of outer space.'”

And here’s the sort of thing Rumsfeld and his ilk dream of — forward bases in space making all those bases on Earth expendable, and weapons like the Hypersonic Cruise Vehicle that could be, as a headline puts it, Bombing Anywhere On Earth In Less Than Two Hours:

“The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the US Air Force share a vision of a new transformational capability that aims to provide a means of delivering a substantial payload from within the continental United States (CONUS) to anywhere on Earth in less than two hours. This capability would free the U.S. military from reliance on forward basing to enable it to react promptly and decisively to destabilizing or threatening actions by hostile countries and terrorist organizations.

“The US Government’s vision of an ultimate prompt global reach capability (circa 2025 and beyond) is engendered in a reusable Hypersonic Cruise Vehicle (HCV). It is envisioned that this autonomous aircraft would be capable of taking off from a conventional military runway and striking targets 9,000 nautical miles distant in less than two hours.”

And of course, it’s necessary to throw into the mix giant corporate entities ready to turn such dystopian imperial dreams into a kind of mind-warping “reality” (Northrop Grumman Takes Aim At Hypersonic Weapon Delivery System):

“‘This project continues the investments that Northrop Grumman has made in recent years to help the U.S. government reach its goal of affordable, reusable access to space,’ said Doug Young, director of space access programs for Northrop Grumman’s Integrated Systems sector.”

Perhaps this is how the Great Game of Empire will someday end, given those hands busily at work on the mad drawing boards of the Pentagon, not with a whimper but with a bang. Tom

America’s Vulnerable Imperialism
By Jonathan Schell
November 24, 2003

In the wake of September 11, 2001, American political observers have adopted a surprising new piece of conventional wisdom: the United States has become an imperial power, and a global one at that. The old left-wing epithet “American imperialism” has become a term of approbation on the right and among many in the center. Exhibit A would be the overthrow of the Taliban government in Afghanistan, and exhibit B would be the occupation of Iraq. Beyond that new consensus, however, opinion has remained quite wildly divided. I count at least five radically diverging views.

Jonathan Schell is a visiting fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization and a visiting lecturer at the Yale Law School. He is the author of “The Real War, and The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People”.

To read more Schell click here

Sorrows of Empire
By Chalmers Johnson
Foreign Policy in Focus

Although tyranny, because it needs no consent, may successfully rule over foreign peoples, it can stay in power only if it destroys first of all the national institutions of its own people.

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

With the fall of Baghdad, America’s dutiful Anglophone allies–the British and Australians–are due for their just rewards: luncheons for Blair and Howard with the Boy Emperor at his “ranch” in Crawford, Texas. The Americans fielded an army of 255,000 in Iraq, the British 45,000, and the Australians 2,000. It was not much of a war–merely confirming the antiwar forces’ contention that an unchallenged slaughter of Iraqis and a Mongol-like sacking of an ancient city were not necessary to deal with the menace of Saddam Hussein. But the war did leave the United States and its two Sepoy nations much weaker than they had been before the war–the Western democratic alliance was seemingly irretrievably fractured; a potentiality for British leadership of the European Union went up in smoke; Pentagon plans to make Iraq over into a client state sundered on Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish realities; and “international law,” including the Charter of the United Nations, was grievously weakened. Why the British and Australians went along with this fiasco when they could so easily have stood for something other than might makes right remains a mystery.

Chalmers Johnson is the president of the Japan Policy Research Institute in California and author of Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. This essay is an excerpt from his forthcoming book The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Repbublic (New York: Metropolitan Books; and London: Verso).

To read more Johnson click here

The moral myth
By George Monbiot
The Guardian
November 25, 2003

It is no use telling the hawks that bombing a country in which al-Qaida was not operating was unlikely to rid the world of al-Qaida. It is no use arguing that had the billions spent on the war with Iraq been used instead for intelligence and security, atrocities such as last week’s attacks in Istanbul may have been prevented. As soon as one argument for the invasion and occupation of Iraq collapses, they switch to another. Over the past month, almost all the warriors – Bush, Blair and the belligerents in both the conservative and the liberal press – have fallen back on the last line of defence, the argument we know as “the moral case for war”.

To read more Monbiot click here