Tom’s tomgram (sort of): The view from 35,000 feet

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On victory laps and photo ops
The view from 35,000 feet
By Tom Engelhardt

So it turns out that I have something in common with Don Rumsfeld and George the Younger. Our triumphant Secretary of Defense has just been taking his “victory lap” (or “victory tour”) through the imperium via Afghanistan (where he declared the Afghan war officially over, though the country is so unreconstructed that the Taliban is still evidently attracting followers), Saudi Arabia (where we’re withdrawing our troops — watch out Saudi royal house), and Iraq where in Saddam’s Abu Gharyb palace in Baghdad our homey conquering prince addressed the Iraqi people by TV and radio, a talk which, in most of that electricity-deficient country, no one could see or hear (“Back home in America, I have three children and six grandchildren I want the same things for them that each of you wants for your children and grandchildren”). Our triumphant president just took his “victory lap” in an S-3B Viking sub reconnaissance jet that gave him his “top gun” moment — and his ultimate photo op — landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln, the aircraft carrier whose planes had released over a third of the three million pounds of ordnance that hit Iraq. After carefully taking off his helmet in private — no goofy Michael Dukakis moments here — he then made a top-gun victory speech carefully billed as a not-quite-victory speech.

And I too am on my modest victory lap, heading home after two weeks of teaching, coach class across an appropriately cloud-covered land at 35,000 feet. I’m on a Continental Airlines jet where, to judge by the space available, new rows of seats must have been inserted between already existing rows. Though no giant, I’ve been left with the sort of leg space that would suit a contortionist and, when the fellow in front of me leans back to catch the postage-stamp sized in-flight movie, not even the space to straighten out my computer screen. But as I was looking down on a land I can’t see — as we all look into a future none of us can see — I suddenly realized that, like my leaders, I had had my own pleasurable photo-op moment this morning. Before I left the journalism school where I’ve been teaching, one of my students took my picture, as I sat at my “command” post, a computer in the school’s pressroom. But I tell you, enjoyable as my brief circuit of my little imperium was, I’m quite sure I haven’t had a hundredth as much fun as Rummy and W.

There’s so much symbolism washing around right now, some aimed at election 2004 but some just aimed, that it’s hard to know where to begin. There’s that carrier, for starts, that was heading for San Diego when the President landed — and was actually slowed down so that the photographers could take their perfect victory-at-sea pictures with no hint of land to mar the occasion. That ship the size of a large town with a crew of 5,000 was named for, god rest his soul, Abraham Lincoln. I try for a moment to imagine Abe piloting a plane with “Navy 1” and “Commander in Chief” carefully stenciled on its side, or giving anything like Bush’s 1,800-odd word speech filled with his usual mix of threats, orders, prayers, and lies (“Our war against terror is proceeding according to principles that I have made clear to all”) Of course, all that comes to mind are those 272 modest words uttered at that cemetery in Gettysburg, words from a man with an awareness that war is an unbearable tragedy, not a photo op or a victory lap.

Then again, Abe didn’t have the benefit of a childhood filled with glorious World War II movies or their triumphalist clones in our own times (like the recent Disney film Pearl Harbor, which also appropriated an aircraft carrier for its premiere and major photo op). Then again, Abe actually stood up in the House of Representatives to oppose an imperialist war against Mexico, and he never managed to utter a sentence like, “I was not prepared to shoot my eardrum out with a shotgun in order to get a deferment. Nor was I willing to go to Canada. So I chose to better myself by learning how to fly airplanes.” That’s how David Corn in his Nation weblog) recently quoted our president on his decision to join the Texas Air National Guard to do his best for our “noble cause,” as Ron Reagan later dubbed it, in the now-forgettable Vietnam era (after which, it seems, he absented himself from that tour of duty for a healthy year and a half.)

So, for George, there may have been no victory laps back then. But — rare as it may be — sometimes the remake just turns out to be so much better, so much more satisfying than the original. (Note by the way, that in a bow to Ronnie Reagan, who directed the first partly successfully reshoot of defeat in Vietnam, Bush had this line in his speech at sea: “This nation thanks all the members of our coalition who joined in a noble cause“) Vietnam itself naturally went unmentioned in that shipboard speech. In fact, only one war was mentioned, and not just once either. So here’s my quiz of the week. The first of you to guess which war that was gets a coach flight on Continental to the nearby city of your choice, but you have to pay for the physical therapist you’ll bring along to unknot you afterwards. Okay, and the answer is. “The character of our military through history — the daring of Normandy, the fierce courage of Iwo Jima [I think he means from Saving Private Ryan to The Sands of Iwo Jima] — the decency and idealism that turned enemies into allies — is fully present in this generation,” whose “greatness” he didn’t quite add seems to lie in turning allies into enemies. The speech, which is well worth reading, has World War II on the brain, even down to the cribs from Churchill (“We do not know the day of final victory, but we have seen the turning of the tide”)

Well, give the guy credit. He’s proved himself the anti-Dukakis of presidential mock-battle footage, the man who could don a military uniform get in a military vehicle and carry it off. He may be a better actor than old Ron R himself. (His on-board Tom Cruise “swagger” was a staple of press coverage yesterday.) And let’s get with the program here — he loves it. He’s visibly having the time of his life, going from army base to naval vessel to defense contractor — today he was at United Defense Industries in Northern California, the maker of the Bradley fighting vehicle, for yet another military photo op and speech. His is a domestic victory tour of the skeletal structure of the military-industrial complex — the bases, weaponry, and corporate sinews of a great military empire. His Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, meanwhile, was taking a spin through the foreign version of the same out there at the peripheries where the snipers still snipe and the Iraqi oil will someday flow again. But the president knows where the key screens are for showing the movie he’s enacting and Karl Rove and his other handlers are directing. For the unilateralist president of the fiercely unilateralist last empire, it turns out that there is only one real audience on earth — and it’s in living rooms and bedrooms all across America.

And so far he’s proved skilled indeed at playing to it. Who else matters? Not even the Brits, who, as Anatol Lieven comments (see below) are only likely to be offered a role in a U.S. empire of the sort “fulfilled by Nepal in the British Empire — a loyal provider of brave soldiers with special military skills” and who have been thrown the bone of dominion in the satrapy of Basra to relieve the Americans of the need to tie down troops everywhere in Iraq. In the eyes of the men directing “Bush at War,” after all, the American people are all that potentially stands between them and endless dominion, endless fun, endless victory laps and photo ops.

What a change between two administrations, both shepherding the world’s hyperpower through its paces. The last president was selling sleeping space in the Lincoln bedroom and having sex in the oval office; this one slept over on Lincoln, the aircraft carrier, and seems to be getting what can only be called an erotic charge out of war, which for the overgrown boys of this administration (as opposed to the overgrown boy of the last one) seems to be the sexiest thing on earth. If you oppose empire and, in fact, everything this administration stands for, then you have to imagine yourself right now on the Peter Brooks’ film version of that Lord of the Flies island, and those wild boys armed with spears, streaked with ochre, hunting boars out in the wild, have just smashed your glasses, so you know where you’re likely to end up.

The public photo ops have not only been masterful, they’ve been based on the pleasure principle and enacted by men who can hardly bear to keep the grins or smirks off their faces. Sometimes, however, private photo ops can tell you a great deal about the more carefully planned public ones. Here, for instance, from Vernon Loeb of the Washington Post (Rumsfeld Pays Visit to Postwar Iraq) is a description of a telling series of snapshots: “Numerous members of Rumsfeld’s staff expressed disbelief, after working virtually nonstop for months on the war, that they were inside one of Hussein’s palaces in Baghdad. They took turns having their pictures taken in a vast throne-like chair with lion’s heads on each arm.” Sounds like a kind of imperial Huey Newton fantasy moment.

(Here, as a sidebar, is a description of another sort of informal imperial photo op, a media one as recounted by Craig Nelson, Missteps by Press Color Iraqi Perceptions in Editor & Publisher magazine:

“Journalist Peter Wilson watched as a Los Angeles Times reporter walked to the driver’s window of a destroyed minibus on central Baghdad’s Sinak Bridge. Inside the broken window was the carbonized corpse of the vehicle’s driver, its charred arm resting on the window’s ledge.

“Bidding a photographer standing nearby to take his photo, the reporter stood about a foot from the corpse and, with his pen poised over his notebook, asked: ‘Well, sir, do you have any comment on what has happened to you here?’

“Thirty feet away, behind a cordon of barbed wire, stood about 20 Iraqis watching the American conduct a mock interview with the corpse of a man who probably had a family — all for a photo opportunity. They may have not understood what Mohan said, but they saw what he was doing, Wilson and two other Western eyewitnesses said.”)

But of all the photo ops I’ve seen in recent days, the one I happened to find stunning took up a staggering four columns across and close to a third of the page top to bottom, smack in the top center of Wednesday’s New York Times. It was a shot — and I’ve never seen the like — of the inside of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s plane on his recent victory lap. The caption said, “Defense Secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld, right center [for those who might have mistaken him for the military man bent over a note pad at left center of the first row of seats], on his aircraft in Saudi Arabia yesterday. U.S. forces will leave the kingdom within months.”

Rumsfeld, a small man in a dark suit and a red tie, sits in that front row slightly slumped, perhaps cracking his knuckles, looking modestly satisfied, a battered briefcase on a surface in front of him and not a bit dwarfed by the vastness of the C-17 — that looks like a cross between the Death Star and somebody’s emptied attic — filled with military men, assumedly aides, possibly traveling reporters, undoubtedly guards in rows behind him and along the walls. You certainly don’t need the Times caption to know what you’re looking at — a traveling world. And Rumsfeld himself looks — call it my overheated imagination — a little like a rumpled, down-home Darth Vader surrounded by a pile of pillows, a mess of suitcases and hanging clothes and in the distance what looks like a mountain of duffel bags. It’s not beautiful. It’s not slick like the Bush photo ops. It’s an actual working space and he’s distinctly at home in it. But the Times, having given the photo imperial space on its front page, made a statement. And the statement is, I think: This is the imperial space that our new Khans carry with them whenever they decide to survey the distant frontiers of their new realms and meet the satraps. (For a vivid sense of the “bubble” in which Rumsfeld and his entourage zip around the world, see Vernon Loeb’s Rumsfeld’s Flying Circus in the Washington Post.)

And make no mistake, those new realms are being reorganized in a major way right now. Basing emphases are being changed. Significant numbers of troops are about to be moved out of bases in the “old Europe” (perfidious Germany) and into the “New Europe” (Hungary, Poland, Rumania, Bulgaria), where it’s cheaper, closer to the oil and the geopolitical action, and a slap in the face to the Germans. (See Duncan Campbell, the Guardian, Military bases to be moved east.) They’re also being moved out of Saudi Arabia, where American forces will be reduced perhaps to pre-Gulf War levels (though still undoubtedly with access to the impressive base structure that’s there should we need it), and into Qatar and Iraq — and many undoubtedly rotated home to await the beginning of Gulf War III or Asian War IV or some such. (See David Hirst, the Guardian, Saudis wonder, will they be next?)

We’re now undergoing the beginnings of what may prove a significant redistricting of the overstretched American imperium which is so purely military that we rule no territories, just stake out vast bases and move in for the duration. (I say, by the way, that any time we move out, however provisionally — whether in Saudi Arabia, Germany, or South Korea and whether or not the government in a given country requested the move — I would feel distinctly nervous.) Let’s remember that these are men organizing for the future, who see themselves at the beginning of something like a thirty-year global war against “terror.” In the pack of striking lies and quarter-truths that made up the President’s speech on the Abe Lincoln is, for instance, this summary of the war against Iraq: “”The liberation of Iraq is a crucial advance in the campaign against terror. We have removed an ally of Al Qaeda, and cut off a source of terrorist funding. And this much is certain: No terrorist network will gain weapons of mass destruction from the Iraqi regime, because that regime is no more.”

The real question is: where will the next frontier war take place and under what conditions? This is probably something that the members of this administration don’t know. Events — even disasters at home or, say, the inability to bring Iraq to heel — may determine this for them. There are numerous potential targets of opportunity from Syria and Iran to North Korea. The other question, of course, is how you can run a distinctly overstretched empire, whose bases now extend from “Old Europe” (or for that matter Missouri) to the Horn of Africa and the Central Asian borders of China, on the single leg of military power and threats of force. The Romans may have been willing to slaughter resisters down to the last dog and cat, but they also offered their conquered lands a kind of universal citizenship in the empire. There was a way to join. Except at a military-to-military level there is simply no way to “join” our imperium, no way in the minds of the men of this administration short of obedience and subservience.

Honestly speaking, it’s hard to imagine how such a conquering country will ever manage to translate its military power into any kind political power whatsoever (See Gabriel Kolko’s essay below on this). Certainly, this is already a problem in Iraq as can be seen in the staggeringly woeful planning for a post-war occupation, which left even some of the oil fields we so wanted to preserve as a “patrimony” for the Iraqis looted.

The recent decision to appoint a “civilian,” an expert on “counter-terrorism,” L. Paul Bremmer III, a former assistant to six secretaries of state, beginning with Henry Kissinger, then a member of Kissinger Associates and now chairman of the crisis consulting practice of Marsh Inc, a global “risk services” company (whatever that may be), to oversee former General Jay Garner and his woeful crew in Baghdad is interesting. It’s certainly a signal of how ineptly even Washington must think matters are being handled.

I happen to think that we’re at a moment of almost incomparable peril. As historian Gabriel Kolko writes in “The Age of Unilateral War”: “The Iraq war is only the first step in the United States’ astonishingly ambitious project to recast the world [it is] the beginning of a cycle.” It may be an even more frightening moment if events spiral out of control in Iraq or for whatever reason this administration begins to lose its domestic audience, and so its ticket to the pleasure principle. As Kolko also says, “The men who lead [our country] are capable of anything.”

I include below four essays assessing both the peril of the moment and the possible seeds of weakness within the American imperial venture. I’ve mentioned above the pieces by Kolko at the Counterpunch website and Anatol Lieven in the London Review of Books. To them I add declinist scholar Immanuel Wallerstein’s latest on whether in the Bush era there is a “West” left. And finally, I include a piece by Martin Woollacott, a veteran Guardian reporter and no radical, on the weaknesses at the heart of the American global project. He ends with this striking line: “The truth is that a weakened America faces a weak world, not the best combination imaginable for the 21st century.” Tom

A Trap of Their Own Making
Anatol Lieven
The London Review of Books
May 8, 2003

Nineteenth-century empires were often led on from one war to another as a result of developments which imperial governments did not plan and domestic populations did not desire. In part this was the result of plotting by individual ‘prancing proconsuls’, convinced they could gain a reputation at small risk, given the superiority of their armies to any conceivable opposition; but it was also the result of factors inherent in the imperial process.

The difference today is that overwhelming military advantage is possessed not by a set of competing Western states, but by one state alone. Other countries may possess elements of the technology, and many states are more warlike than America; but none possesses anything like the ability of the US to integrate these elements (including Intelligence) into an effective whole, and to combine them with weight of firepower, capacity to transport forces over long distances and national bellicosity.

Anatol Lieven, a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC, is the author of Chechnya and Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry.

To read more Lieven click here

Strong-arm tactics leave the world a weaker place
Martin Woollacott
Friday May 2, 2003
The Guardian

The United States today is discovering what other great powers have found before it, which is that military victories can have results quite opposite to those intended. The world has not been made more pliant and respectful by a demonstration of American might, but is, on the contrary, more recalcitrant, sulky, and difficult than it was before the war.

That recalcitrance is visible in many ways and at many levels, from the violence on the streets of Falluja or Tel Aviv to the stubborn Israeli reinterpretations of American policy issuing forth in Jerusalem, from the sharp criticism of American pretensions heard in Moscow to the more muted defiance of France and Germany in Brussels, and from the fire fights on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to the verbal fisticuffs at the talks between the United States and North Korea in Beijing.

To read more Woollacott click here

The Age of Unilateral War
Iraq, the United States and the End of the European Coalition
By Gabriel Kolko
April 30, 2003

The disintegration of the Soviet bloc permitted American unilateralism on a scale the modern world has never seen. But with its war against Iraq the United States for the first time openly massed its military power and then invaded another nation, justifying the war in the name of the elimination of weapons of mass destruction and “regime change.” At the same time, it staked the very future of its existing alliances–NATO above all–but also the United Nations. NATO’s demise is a major outcome of the war against Iraq.

Gabriel Kolko is the leading historian of modern warfare. He is the author of the classic Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914 and Another Century of War?. He can be reached at: [email protected].

To read more Kolko click here

Does the Western World Still Exist?
By Immanuel Wallerstein
Commentary No. 112
May 1, 2003

This is not a question about cultural history, but about contemporary geopolitics. From 1945-2001, few persons doubted that there was something in the world political arena we could call the “West” or the “the Western world.” To be sure, there were some quibbles about who was included in it. Some countries were obviously part of it: the United States; the western European states; and Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. But at the fringes, there was argument. Was “eastern” Europe part of the Western world? Was Turkey? And what about Japan? Was it an honorary member of the West, as in the definition of the apartheid regime of South Africa, which designated the Japanese as “honorary Whites”?

But since the Bush regime embarked on its unilateral and macho march through the planet, relations of the United States and “Europe” have become strained. And the world’s politicians and media have come to recognize that the geopolitical unity of the “West” is no longer a self-evident proposition. After the U.S. conquest of Iraq, Tony Blair has set himself the public task of restoring the unity of Europe and the United States, which of course means that it is a task that requires effort, one whose prospects are uncertain.

The New York Times Sunday Magazine Section of April 27, 2003 contains two articles, both by British publicists. They have very different tones. One is by Timothy Garton Ash and is entitled “How the West Can Be One.” And the other is by Niall Ferguson, and he uses the very different title of “The Empire Slinks Back.” A close reading of the two articles reveals the nature of the debate between the erstwhile Establishment center and the newly-powerful far right.

Ash is the Director of European Studies at St. Antony’s College at Oxford and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution in Stanford (hardly a locus of radicalism). He is well-known for his extensive writings on east-central Europe, both before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He writes what is called a “plaintive letter” to his “dear American friends.” The opening line is: “We must put the West together again.” The article concentrates on two issues – the Middle East, and France. His views on the Middle East are quite similar to the ones Blair has been espousing publicly. In particular, he emphasizes the importance of creating a “viable Palestinian state.” On France, he believes they did act in his view in an “outrageous” manner concerning the Iraq war. But he says, nonetheless, that “the French-bashing in Washington has gone too far,” since “Churchill was right: the Europe we want cannot be built without France.” He pleads for a “less arrogant United States.”

When we turn to Ferguson’s article, the tune is quite different. Like Ash, he has links on both sides of the Atlantic. He is a professor of financial history at New York University as well as a senior research fellow of Jesus College at Oxford. His subtitle is “Why Americans don’t really have what it takes to rule the world.” And he deplores this. He accuses the United States of a “chronically short time frame.” He is afraid that Americans “lack the spine for long-term administration,” which he says the British had in their heyday. He notes that a segment of the British elite were willing to “spend their entire working lives…far from the land of their birth, running infernally hot, disease-ridden countries.” In contrast, “the products of America’s elite educational institutions are the people least likely to head overseas, other than on flying visits and holidays.” His conclusion? “So long as the American empire dare not speak its own name – so long as it continues this tradition of organized hypocrisy – today’s ambitious young men and women will take one look at the prospects for postwar Iraq and say with one voice, “Don’t even go there.'”

So Ash despairs that the United States will take the imperial path, unilaterally and arrogantly. And Ferguson despairs that the United States will not take the imperial path, which requires that they persistently occupy infernally hot, disease-ridden countries. Who is right? As in so many of these arguments, both are right. Ash is right that the United States cannot successfully go it alone – militarily perhaps, but not politically. And Ferguson is right that the U.S. elite is absolutely unready to serve as “District Officers” in the Third World.

Ash is pleading with the Bush regime to return to the foreign policy of yesteryear, based on a meaningfully collaborative Atlantic alliance. Ferguson is pleading with them not to do so, and to shed the hypocrisy of pretending to be starry-eyed idealists amidst a sea of terrorists. It seems to me likely that neither will get the U.S. policy for which they are pleading. The U.S. hawks will veto, have already vetoed, doing what Ash asks the United States to do. On the other hand, the U.S. hawk policy is over time politically unacceptable not only to the American electorate but to the U.S. elite, for precisely the reasons Ferguson adduces. Most Americans feel more comfortable being isolationist than being imperial overlords, however much they relish splendid military victories.

While the United States agonizes politically about its future world policy (and despite Bush’s current high ratings in the polls, which are quite transitory, the United States is indeed agonizing over this question), Europe will continue painfully to construct itself – as Europe, not as a part of the “the West” or of the “Atlantic world.” How can I say this when, at the moment, the United States seems far more politically unified than Europe, which seems to be in a state of acute and overt internal conflict?

There are really two reasons. One is economic, and one is cultural. The economics are rather simple to expound. On the one hand, Europe shares with the United States its interests in maintaining the present core-periphery split in the world-economy, with all the advantages that structure provides for the North. On the other hand, Europe is clearly an economic rival of the United States, and this rivalry will become more intense in the coming decades. So Europe has to balance its gains from a common front of the North in such arenas as the World Trade Organization, and its losses from a continuing economic advantage to the United States over it because of the role of the dollar, sustained as it is by U.S. military and political pressures on Europe.

If Europe fails to break the privileged role of the dollar, it is doomed to second-place status. Europeans are smart enough to realize this. Will they then sacrifice their class interests as integral members of the “North,” if they have a major fight with the United States? Not necessarily, because they believe that U.S. strategy as the North is less efficacious than the one they wish to pursue, and that the U.S. position on North-South questions is compromised by their simultaneous struggle against Europe. Europe thinks that a different North-South policy is not only in their own best interests but in that of the United States as well (even if the U.S. doesn’t realize this). It seems likely therefore that Europe will not call off its economic struggle with the United States, which revolves around both international financial arrangements and investments in new leading products. And in order to pursue their economic interests, Europe will now construct an independent military force, against which both Blair and Powell have recently once again voiced their vigorous opposition, an opposition tinged with considerable concern that they will not be able to stop it.

As for the cultural factor, we have to go back a bit in history. The United States is culturally an offshoot of Europe. And up until 1945, both in Europe (including, if not especially, Great Britain) and in the United States, Europe was the elder brother.
The post-1945 realignments turned Europe into the younger brother. And they have never really appreciated this turnaround. Europeans by and large swallowed it during the Cold War. But Europeans see no need to swallow it any more. Here, even the most conservative Europeans share the sentiment. Notice the cultural disdain in Ferguson’s arguments. Actually, his disdain is little different in terms of cultural politics than Ash’s plaintiveness. Ash is simply more polite.

Europe’s cultural pride is by and large absolutely incomprehensible to most Americans. It always has been. The French-bashing so prevalent today is not anti-French; it is anti-European. And the Europeans know it. Ash is not alone in seeing this clearly. Does the West still exist? It hasn’t disappeared entirely in geopolitical terms, but it does seem incredibly weakened.

by Immanuel Wallerstein

[Copyright by Immanuel Wallerstein. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to download, forward electronically or e-mail to others and to post this text on non-commercial community Internet sites, provided the essay remains intact and the copyright note is displayed. To translate this text, publish it in printed and/or other forms, including commercial Internet sites and excerpts, contact the author at [email protected]; fax: 1-607-777-4315.

These commentaries, published twice monthly, are intended to be reflections on the contemporary world scene, as seen from the perspective not of the immediate headlines but of the long term.]

To read Wallerstein’s piece on site click here