Twenty-first century gunboat diplomacy

Posted on

Imperial quote of the week (or: you don’t keep the New Rome waiting in the New Spain):A senior administration official traveling with [Secretary of State Colin] Powell described the meeting [after the funeral service for the Madrid bombing victims] as ‘good, positive and straightforward,’ adding, “[Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez] Zapatero was clear in his views that the U.N. needed to be in Iraq or Spain’s troops would leave. We said we’d be in touch with them as things developed.’ Still, the meeting between Mr. Powell and Mr. Zapatero lasted only 15 minutes. Mr. Powell was kept waiting for 40 minutes because Mr. Zapatero was running late after the funeral service went on longer than expected. It did not help that [French President] Chirac preceded Mr. Powell. One administration official said that Mr. Powell, who does not like to be kept waiting, considered leaving without meeting Mr. Zapatero. In the end, Mr. Powell cut the meeting short, explaining that he had a plane to catch, a senior administration official said.” (Elaine Sciolino, World Leaders Converge in Spain to Mourn Bomb Victims, the New York Times)

I guess the 4:17 commuter flight to Washington was on the tarmac, loaded and ready to go, and the airline wouldn’t hold it.

Twenty-first Century Gunboat Diplomacy
By Tom Engelhardt

1. Off the coast

The wooden sailing ship mounted with cannons, the gunboat, the battleship, and finally the “airship” — these proved the difference between global victory and staying at home, between empire and nothing much at all. In the first couple of centuries of Europe’s burst onto the world stage, the weaponry of European armies and their foes was not generally so disparate. It was those cannons on ships that decisively tipped the balance. And they continued to do so for a long, long time. Traditionally, in fact, the modern arms race is considered to have taken off at the beginning of the twentieth century with the rush of European powers to build ever larger, ever more powerful, “all-big-gun” battleships — the “dreadnoughts” (scared of nothings).

In “Exterminate All the Brutes,” a remarkable travel book that takes you into the heart of European darkness (via an actual trip through Africa), the Swede Sven Lindqvist offers the following comments on that sixteenth century sea-borne moment when Europe was still a barbaric outcropping of Euro-Asian civilization:

“Preindustrial Europe had little that was in demand in the rest of the world. Our most important export was force. All over the rest of the world, we were regarded at the time as nomadic warriors in the style of the Mongols and the Tatars. They reigned supreme from the backs of horses, we from the decks of ships.

“Preindustrial Europe had little that was in demand in the rest of the world. Our most important export was force. All over the rest of the world, we were regarded at the time as nomadic warriors in the style of the Mongols and the Tatars. They reigned supreme from the backs of horses, we from the decks of ships.

“Our cannons met little resistance among the peoples who were more advanced than we were. The Moguls in India had no ships able to withstand artillery fire or carry heavy guns Thus the backward and poorly resourced Europe of the sixteenth century acquired a monopoly on ocean-going ships with guns capable of spreading death and destruction across huge distances. Europeans became the gods of cannons that killed long before the weapons of their opponents could reach them.”

For a while, Europeans ruled the coasts where nothing could stand up to their ship-borne cannons and then, in the mid-nineteenth century in Africa as well as on the Asian mainland, the Europeans moved inland, taking their cannons upriver with them. For those centuries, the ship was, in modern terms, a floating military base filled with the latest in high-tech equipment. And yet ships had their limits as indicated by a well-known passage about a French warship off the African coast from Joseph Conrad’s novel about the Congo, Heart of Darkness:

“In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech – and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight.”

Well, maybe it wasn’t quite so droll if you happened to be on land, but the point is made. Of course, sooner or later (sometimes, as in Latin America or India, sooner) the Europeans did make it inland with the musket, the rifle, the repeating rifle, the machine gun, artillery, and finally by the twentieth century, the airplane filled with bombs or even, as in Iraq, poison gas. Backing up the process was often the naval vessel — as at the battle of Omdurman in the Sudan in 1898 when somewhere between 9,000 and 11,000 soldiers in the Mahdi’s army were killed (with a British loss of 48), thanks to mass rifle fire, Maxim machine guns, and the batteries of the gunboats floating on the Nile.

Winston Churchill was a reporter with the British expeditionary force and here’s part of his description of the slaughter (also from Lindqvist):

“The white flags [of the Mahdi’s army] were nearly over the crest. In another minute they would become visible to the batteries. Did they realize what would come to meet them? They were in a dense mass, 2,800 yards from the 32nd Field Battery and the gunboats. The ranges were known. It was a matter of machinery About twenty shells struck them in the first minute. Some burst high in the air, others exactly in their faces. Others, again, plunged into the sand, and, exploding, dashed clouds of red dust, splinters, and bullets amid the ranks It was a terrible sight, for as yet they had not hurt us at all, and it seemed an unfair advantage to strike thus cruelly when they could not reply.”

And — Presto! — before you knew it three-quarters of the world was a colony of Europe (or the United States or Japan). Not bad, all in all, for a few floating centuries. In the latter part of this period, the phrase “gunboat diplomacy” came into existence, an oxymoron that nonetheless expressed itself all too eloquently.

2. Our little “diplomats”

Today, gunboat diplomacy seems like a phrase from some antiquated imperial past (despite our thirteen aircraft carrier task forces that travel the world making “friendly” house calls from time to time). But if you stop thinking about literal gunboats and try to imagine how we carry out “armed diplomacy” — and, as we all know, under the Bush administration the Pentagon has taken over much that might once have been labeled “diplomacy” — then you can begin to conjure up our own twenty-first century version of gunboat diplomacy. But first, you have to consider exactly what the “platforms” are upon which we “export force,” upon which we mount our “cannons.”

What should immediately come to mind are our military bases, liberally scattered like so many vast immobile vessels over the lands of the Earth. This has been especially true since the neocons of the Bush administration grabbed the reins of power at the Pentagon and set about reconceiving basing policy globally; set about, that is, creating more “mobile” versions of the military base, ever more stripped down for action, ever closer to what they’ve come to call the “arc of instability,” a vast swath of lands extending from the former Yugoslavia and the former SSRs of Eastern Europe down deep into Northern Africa and all the way to the Chinese border. These are areas that represent, not surprisingly, the future energy heartland of the planet. What the Pentagon refers to as its “lily pads” strategy is meant to encircle and nail down control of this vast set of interlocking regions — the thought being that, if the occasion arises, the American frogs can leap agilely from one prepositioned pad to another, knocking off the “flies” as they go.

Thought about a certain way, the military base, particularly as reconceived in recent years, whether in Uzbekistan, Kosovo, or Qatar, is our “gunboat,” a “platform” that has been ridden ever deeper into the landlocked parts of the globe — into regions like the Middle East, where our access once had some limits, or like the former Yugoslavia and the ‘stans of Central Asia, where the lesser superpower of the Cold War era once blocked access entirely. Our new military bases are essentially the 21st century version of the old European warships; the difference being that, once built, the base remains in place, while its parts — the modern equivalents of those 16th century cannons — are capable of moving over land or water almost anywhere.

As Chalmers Johnson has calculated it in his new book on American militarism, The Sorrows of Empire, our global Baseworld consists of at least 700 military and intelligence bases; possibly — depending on how you count them up — many more. This is our true “imperial fleet” (though, of course, we have an actual imperial fleet as well, our aircraft carriers alone being like small, massively armed towns). In the last decade-plus, as the pace of our foreign wars has picked up, we’ve left behind, after each of them, a new set of bases like the droppings of some giant beast marking the scene with its scent. Bases were dropped into Saudi Arabia and the small Gulf emirates after our first Gulf War in 1991; into the former Yugoslavia after the Kosovo air war of 1999; into Pakistan, Afghanistan, and several of the former Central Asian SSRs after the Afghan war of 2001; and into Iraq after last year’s invasion.

The process has speeded up under the Bush administration, but until recent weeks, if you read our press, you would have had almost no way of knowing this; on Iraq, since in April 2003 the New York Times front-paged Pentagon plans to build four permanent bases there, none at all unless you wandered the Web reading the foreign press. Basing is generally considered here either a topic not worth writing about or an arcane policy matter best left to the inside pages for the policy wonks and news junkies. This is in part because we Americans — and by extension our journalists — don’t imagine us as garrisoning or occupying the world; and certainly not as having anything faintly approaching a military empire. Generally speaking, those more than seven hundred bases, our little “diplomats” (and the rights of extraterritoriality that go with them via Status of Forces Agreements) don’t even register on our media’s mental map of our globe.

Only recently, however, a few basing articles have suddenly appeared and, miracle of miracle, Christine Spolar of the Chicago Tribune has actually written one about our permanent Iraqi bases, endearingly referred to in the military as “enduring camps.” Such bases were almost certainly planned for by the Pentagon before the 2003 invasion. After all, we were also planning to withdraw most of our troops from Saudi Arabia — Osama bin Laden had complained bitterly about the occupation of Islam’s holy sites — and they weren’t simply going to be shipped back to the U.S.

But the numbers of those potential enduring camps in Iraq are startling indeed. The title of Spolar’s piece tells the tale: 14 ‘enduring’ bases set in Iraq and it begins with the line: “From the ashes of abandoned Iraqi army bases, U.S. military engineers are overseeing the building of an enhanced system of American bases designed to last for years.”

Think about 14 bases “for years,” and keep in mind that some of these bases are already comparable in size and elaborateness to the ones we built in Vietnam four decades ago. Spolar continues:

“As the U.S. scales back its military presence in Saudi Arabia, Iraq provides an option for an administration eager to maintain a robust military presence in the Middle East and intent on a muscular approach to seeding democracy in the region. The number of U.S. military personnel in Iraq, between 105,000 and 110,000, is expected to remain unchanged through 2006, according to military planners.

“‘Is this a swap for the Saudi bases?’ asked Army Brig. Gen. Robert Pollman, chief engineer for base construction in Iraq. ‘I don’t know. … When we talk about enduring bases here, we’re talking about the present operation, not in terms of America’s global strategic base. But this makes sense. It makes a lot of logical sense.'”

And keep in mind as well that all of this construction is being done to the tune of billions of dollars under contracts controlled by the Pentagon and, as Spolar writes, quite “separate from the State Department and its Embassy in Baghdad” (which, after June 30, is slated to be the largest embassy in the world with a “staff” of 3,000-plus).

As the Pentagon planned it, and as we knew via leaks to the press soon after the war, newly “liberated” Iraq, once “sovereignty” had been restored, was to have only a lightly armed military force of some 40,000 men and no air force. The other part of this equation, the given (if unspoken) part, was that some sort of significant long-term American military protection of the country would have to be put in place. That size Iraqi military in one of the most heavily armed regions of the planet was like an insurance policy that we would “have” to stay. And we’ve proceeded accordingly, emplacing our “little diplomats” right at a future hub of the global energy superhighway.

But we’ve made sure to cover the other on and off ramps as well. As James Sterngold of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote recently in a rundown of some of our post-9/11 basing policies (After 9/11, U.S. policy built on world bases):

“One year after U.S. tanks rolled through Iraq and more than two years after the United States bombed the Taliban out of power in Afghanistan, the administration has instituted what some experts describe as the most militarized foreign policy machine in modern history.

“The policy has involved not just resorting to military action, or the threat of action, but constructing an arc of new facilities in such places as Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Qatar and Djibouti that the Pentagon calls ‘lily pads.’ They are seen not merely as a means of defending the host countries — the traditional Cold War role of such installations — but as jumping-off points for future ‘preventive wars’ and military missions.”

In fact, our particular version of military empire is perhaps unique: all “gunboats,” no colonies. The combination of bases we set down in any given country is referred to in the Pentagon as our “footprint” in that country. It’s a term that may once have come from the idea of “boots on the ground,” but now has congealed, imagistically speaking, into a single (and assumedly singular) bootprint — as if, as it strode across the planet, the globe’s only hyperpower was so vast that it could place only a single boot in any given country at any time.

Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith has been the main Pentagon architect of a plan to “realign” our bases so as to “forward deploy” U.S. forces into the “arc of instability.” (On a planet so thoroughly garrisoned, though, what can “forward” actually mean?) In a December speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (Transforming the U.S. Global Defense Posture), he offered a Pentagon version of sensitivity in discussing his forward deployment plans: “Realigning the U.S. posture will also help strengthen our alliances by tailoring the physical US ‘footprint’ to suit local conditions. The goal is to reduce friction with host nations, the kind that results from accidents and other problems relating to local sensitivities.” (Moccasins, flip-flops, sandals anyone?)

In the meantime, to ensure that there will be no consequences if the giant foot, however enclosed, happens to stamp its print in a tad clumsily, causing the odd bit of collateral damage, he added:

“For this deployability concept to work, US forces must be able to move smoothly into, through, and out of host nations, which puts a premium on establishing legal and support arrangements with many friendly countries. We are negotiating or planning to negotiate with many countries legal protections for US personnel, through Status of Forces Agreements and agreements (known as Article 98 agreements) limiting the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court with respect to our forces’ activities.”

Bradley Graham of the Washington Post recently offered a more precise glimpse at Feith’s realignment strategy, which would move us away from our Cold War deployments, especially in Germany, Japan and Korea (U.S. May Halve Forces in Germany):

“The Pentagon has drafted plans to withdraw as many as half of the 71,000 troops based in Germany as part of an extensive realignment of American military forces that moves away from large concentrations in Europe and Asia, according to U.S. officials U.S. officials have said before that they intended to eliminate a number of large, full-service Cold War bases abroad and construct a network of more skeletal outposts closer to potential trouble spots in the Middle East and along the Pacific Rim.”

In fact, the structure of major bases and “forward operating sites” in the arc of instability and, from Eastern Europe to the Central Asian ‘stans, inside the former Soviet empire, is already in place or, as in Iraq, in the process of being built or negotiated. As Michael Kilian of the Chicago Tribune writes:

“[T]he United States now has bases or shares military installations in Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as on the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

“Rumsfeld and Pentagon officials are soon expected to unveil plans for a new U.S. military ‘footprint’ on the rest of the world. The plan is expected to include a shift of resources from the huge Cold War-era bases in Western Europe to new and smaller ones in Poland and other Eastern Europe nations as well as a relocation of U.S. troops in South Korea.”

In the meantime, Pentagon strategic planning for ever more, ever more aggressive future war-fighting is likely only to intensify this process. Los Angeles Times‘ military analyst William Arkin recently wrote of the unveiling of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s plan for a new military map of the globe (War Plans Meaner, not Leaner):

“The Rumsfeld plan envisions what it labels a ‘1-4-2-1 defense strategy,’ in which war planners prepare to fully defend one country (the United States), maintain forces capable of ‘deterring aggression and coercion’ in four ‘critical regions’ (Europe, Northeast Asia, East Asia, and the Middle East and Southwest Asia), maintain the ability to defeat aggression in two of these regions simultaneously, and be able to ‘win decisively’ – up to and including forcing regime change and occupying a country – in one of those conflicts ‘at a time and place of our choosing’. In the Clinton era, the Pentagon planned for fighting two wars simultaneously (in the Middle East and Northeast Asia). Under the new strategy, it must prepare for four.

“The planning model Rumsfeld and company have embraced is certainly more ambitious. It covers domestic and foreign contingencies and favors preemption over diplomacy, and military strikes over peacekeeping operations. The plan signals to the world that the United States considers nuclear weapons useful military instruments, to be employed where warranted.”

Or just consider another kind of footprint — the tap dancing kind. The Pentagon’s website informs us that at Lackland Air Force base in Texas, the Air Force has just held auditions in a “worldwide talent search” that even included a Robert de Niro impersonator. All of this was for the Tops in Blue (TIB) 2004 tour. Let me emphasize that we’re not talking about an “All-American” talent contest, but a worldwide one. And, in fact, according to the Air Force press release, the winner of the “male vocalist” spot on the tour was Airman 1st Class Antonio Dandridge from the 35th Civil Engineer Squadron at Misawa Air Base, Japan. A recent TIB tour managed to hit 27 countries (read military bases), including Bagram Air Base in embattled Afghanistan.

We’re talking a globe-girdling Baseworld here. Assumedly, the show’s finale will be a rousing chorus of “We Are the World.”

3. Twenty-second century gunboat diplomacy

At least as now imagined in the Pentagon, twenty-second century “gunboat diplomacy” will be conducted by what the Air Force’s Space Command refers to as “space-based platforms” and the “cannons” will be a range of “exotic” weapons and delivery systems. In still unweaponized space (if you exclude the various spy satellites overhead), we plan for our future “ships” to travel the heavens alone, representatives of a singular heavenly version of gunboat diplomacy. Among the “five priorities for national security space efforts in 2004” set out by Peter B. Teets, undersecretary of the Air Force and director of the National Reconnaissance Office, in recent testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the most striking, if also predictable, is that of “ensuring freedom of action in space” — as in freedom of action for us, and no action at all for anyone else.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has long been riveted by the idea of dominating space, and in his hands space, a void, is now being re-imagined as the ocean of our imperial future, thanks to space weaponry now on the drawing boards like the nicknamed “Rods from God.” These are to be “orbiting platforms stocked with tungsten rods perhaps 20 feet long and one foot in diameter that could be satellite-guided to targets anywhere on Earth within minutes. Accurate within about 25 feet, they would strike at speeds upwards of 12,000 feet per second, enough to destroy even hardened bunkers several stories underground.”

Planning among “high frontier” enthusiasts for the conquest and militarization of space began in the 1980s during the Reagan administration, but it has now reached new levels of realism (of a mad sort). Theresa Hitchens of the Center for Defense Information recently wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle (Reining in our weaponry):

“[T]he service’s gloves came off with the Feb. 17 release of the new U.S. Air Force Transformation Flight Plan. The document details a stunning array of exotic weapons to be pursued over the next decade: from an air-launched missile designed to knock satellites out of low orbit, to ground- and space- based lasers for attacking both missiles and satellites, to ‘hypervelocity rod bundles’ (nicknamed Rods from God) Far from being aimed solely at the protection of U.S. space capabilities, such weapons are instead intended for offensive, first-strike missions.”

Ever since H.G. Wells wrote The War of the Worlds in 1898, we humans have been imagining scenarios in which implacable aliens with superweapons arrive from space to devastate our planet. But what if it turns out that the implacable aliens are actually us — and that, as in the 16th century, someday in the not-too-distant future American “ships” will “burst from space” upon the “coasts” of our planet with devastation imprinted in their programs. These are, of course, the dreams of modern Mongols.

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is a co-founder of the American Empire Project ( and consulting editor at Metropolitan Books. He is the author of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing, and The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism and the Cold War.

Copyright C2004 Tom Engelhardt