Fantasies of American Power

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Note: The following essay was much influenced by Mark Danner’s comments on the “preponderance” of American power in an interview I did with him for this site. His latest book, a tiny but important paperback, The Secret Way to War: The Downing Street Memo and the Iraq War’s Buried History (introduction by Frank Rich), has just come out. It includes three pieces that appeared at Tomdispatch thanks to the kindness of the editors of the New York Review of Books. It is, in my opinion, a must-buy. ~ Tom

“This Is Our Destiny”: Fantasies of American Preponderance

“We must perhaps reluctantly accept that we have to help this region become a normal region, the way we helped Europe and Asia in another era. Now it’s this area from Pakistan to Morocco that we should focus on… The world has gotten smaller and is getting smaller and smaller all the time… Isolationism, fortress America isn’t going to deal with these problems of the kind that we’re facing. Willy-nilly, this is our destiny, given our preponderance in the world, our role in the world and because of our successes.”

~ Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador to Iraq in an April 24th interview with Borzou Daragahi of the Los Angeles Times

“In short, an attack on Iran would be an act of political folly, setting in motion a progressive upheaval in world affairs. With the U.S. increasingly the object of widespread hostility, the era of American preponderance could even come to a premature end.”

~ Former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, “Been There, Done That,” op-ed, Los Angeles Times, April 23, 2006

Hmmm… American preponderance. We know that this preponderance dazzled the men who became known as neoconservatives (though only the “neo” part of it seems even faintly accurate as a label) — and Zalmay Khalilzad, our ambassador to and putative viceroy in Baghdad, was one of them. They wanted to wield that “preponderance” of power preponderantly. They wanted to lower America’s terrible, swift sword decisively.

Now, preponderance (“superiority in weight, force, influence, numbers, etc.”) is a strange word when you think about it, seeming to have both “ponder” and “ponderous” hidden somewhere within. As it happened, while the neocons proposed much from inside Washington’s Beltway, from various right-wing think-tanks and later from the inner offices of the Bush administration, while oil-consultant Khalilzad was still trying to sort out energy pipeline deals with the Taliban, and while various Iraqi exile Scheherezades were whispering sweet nothings in their ears about flowers, and liberated populaces, and the glory that was Rome — oh, sorry, those were pundits on the editorial pages of our major newspapers — they surely pondered too little.

They had been so certain of themselves for so long that they, along with administration mentors Don Rumsfeld and the Veep, had no need to think too deeply. After all, why ponder when you already know? Anyway, when it came to knocking off Iraq, if somebody didn’t agree with you — as was true of almost every expert in the State Department and most elsewhere in the government, as well as numerous generals, not to speak of Father Bush’s men like family consigliere James Baker and daddy’s former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft — well, you just kicked them out of your gatherings, or left them out in the cold, to preserve the unanimity of consensus thinking. This lent the old adage, “ignorance is bliss,” new meaning in the halls of superpower governance.

And then, to make bad worse, all that preponderant American power they were going to shock and awe the world with — and that would indeed prove devastatingly destructive — turned out to be so much more ponderous, so much less effective, than any of them ever imagined from their offices in Washington.

In a sense, they’re undoubtedly still in shock, still largely acting as if the ship of state weren’t listing, as if the only thing needed was the odd course tweak or two — the most recent formula for this being: skip some of that “democracy” malarkey and head for a little more good old autocratic/dictatorial geopolitics, and while you’re at it, send the second team, a (James) Baker’s dozen (in fact, a party of ten) stocked with Clinton/Bush Senior “wise men” (and a woman) off to Baghdad for a little stir of the salad dressing, an extra twist or two of salt and pepper, as that ship drifts among the rocks.

Of course, somewhere in their souls, they must have known something, mustn’t they? After all on January 29, 2002, our President announced to Congress and the nation that we faced an “axis of evil” — three countries instantly elevated into the pantheon of righteous historical analogy just beside that other “axis” — you know, Tojo, Benito, Adolph and their lovely war of choice, World War II.

Talk about power and preponderance, then and now. When administration officials peered out from the capital of the globe’s only “hyperpower” at desperate, starveling, grim-faced North Korea with its possible nuclear weapon or two, riven, fundamentalist Iran with all that oil but a per-capita income level of something like $2,000 a year, and, of course, war-ravaged, sanctions-weakened, pitiful Iraq, held together by engineering ingenuity, mad dictatorial power, and baling wire, how could they not have been dazzled by the preponderance of possibility that seemed to lie before them?

Still — and it’s a big still — when they struck, they chose by far the weakest of the three evil lands, the one least likely to be able to whack back. They decided to send the cavalry against Saddam’s by-then hopelessly fifth-rate military. They were going to stomp his forces, take him down, locate themselves in the non-Saudi part of the Middle East, and then turn around and intimidate the rest of the “axis” (as well as Syria, and anyone else in sight). It would be, in neocon Kenneth Adelman’s famous prewar word, a “cakewalk.”

Okay, we all know now that these oh-so-practical plans were part and parcel of a set of fantasies meant for the consumption of the American public, but no less believed in by them for all that. In fact, although just about everyone on the planet then believed, to one degree or another, in American preponderance, no one believed in it more firmly or deeply than the top officials of the Bush administration. And what glorious, theocratic dreams they had based on that belief. Best of all, they could dream on the cheap, so sure were they that their foes would be as dazzled by our preponderance as they were. as Paul Wolfowitz put it, Iraq was a country that “floats on a sea of oil” and we, of course, were going to be floating atop it. We would have, in the phrase of that moment, “permanent access” to Iraq for all time to come. Now, a cool $300—400 billion later with only perhaps another trillion dollars to go…)

As it happened, a bunch of Sunni “bitter-enders” weren’t as impressed with us as we were and the rest of the unraveling you know; and now, it seems, nobody’s all that impressed. Not the North Koreans. Not certainly, the Iranians, who are, if anything, too radically unimpressed with the preponderance of American power for their own good.

Anyway, you would think, under such circumstances, that someone up there might perhaps ponder a bit. But, by the evidence, no such luck — despite the revolt of the retired generals (seven or eight of them standing in for a bevy of disgruntled, angry non-retirees). What rethinking there has been seems just so completely retro-imperial, so-Vietnam, that it’s hard to even find words to sum it up.

Of course, among the original neocon dreamers, Paul Wolfowitz was pensioned off to the World Bank, Douglas Feith sent home to spend more time with his family, and ally John Bolton dispatched to whack the UN; but those left at the helm (facing backwards and sideways) still seem too dazzled by half by fantasies of American preponderance, by that feeling… you know… that, given who we are and the power we wield… this can’t be happening — that the U.S. will still, in the end, prove part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Let’s just drop in, then, on a few of the remaining dreams of the Bush administration, a little list of ongoing fantasies of the Iraqi occupation, all reflecting an unshakeable belief that American power is still the “decider,” that it is still our sad “destiny,” our weary burden, to shoulder American preponderance and march on into that darkling night.

The Turning Point (or the Last Chance): Iraq has a new prime-minister designate, more or less the twin of the previous one shoved out of power by Sunnis, Kurds, and Ambassador Khalilzad. He now has less than 30 days to form a government inside the fortified Green Zone that will somehow do something for someone in a city (forget the country) crawling with militias and death squads, whose mixed neighborhoods are separating fast, which, as Juan Cole points out, sometimes gets less than an hour of electricity a day, which lacks so many other urban amenities, but experiences, on average, perhaps 50 kidnappings in that same twenty-four hours. A typical small event in lawless Baghdad, as reported in today’s New York Times, involved gunmen stopping a minibus in Western Baghdad and slaughtering four college students, at least two of whom may have had “names that suggested they were Shiite.”

In this context, the President welcomed back his secretaries of state and defense last week. On his orders, they had just flown to Baghdad in what appeared to be an unseemly rush to stamp “American preponderance” on the forehead of the new Prime-Minister Designate Nuri al-Maliki and so brand him an American “puppet.” (I didn’t use that word, I swear. A reporter questioning the two secretaries at a Baghdad news conference did.) From the Rose Garden, the President made a statement in which he referred to Maliki’s prospective new government (that, for all we know, may never come into being), using a politer p-word — “partner.” He claimed that (gasp!) we had finally reached the “turning point” for which all Americans have been waiting so breathlessly. (In the Vietnam era, of course, this was the infamous “light at the end of the tunnel,” the military version of which was the “crossover point.”) Not that such a turning point hasn’t already been announced a million times by just about every American civil and military official in sight, but his exact words were: “This new government is going to represent a new start for the Iraqi people… we believe this is a turning point for the Iraqi citizens, and it’s a new chapter in our partnership.” A new chapter? Maybe the President was reading Stephen King’s Carrie for the first time over the weekend. Who knows? Can anyone but him believe this any more?

Not, evidently, his secretary of state, who is reputedly slightly more reality-based than the Man Upstairs. Her people seem to have chosen another image, according to a New York Times report on her trip to Baghdad: “At least in Ms. Rice’s entourage, there was an atmosphere that the joint visit might offer a last chance to reverse some of the mistakes of the past three years in providing security for Iraq, getting the oil and power systems back and curbing sectarian hatreds and corruption.”

A last chance. The President aside, the images used by this administration have, like its polling figures, been on a distinct downward slide for some time. Only months ago, its officials reached the Iraqi “precipice” and finally looked down into “the abyss” of civil war, before everyone (supposedly) took “a step back.” Evidently, one step back from the precipice offers you that “last chance.” For what you might ask? The answer’s obvious: For American preponderance to finally get it right.

The Second Liberation of Baghdad (or Last Chance, Take Two): Given that ruling the city-state of Baghdad, rather than just the citadel of the Green Zone, would be a giant step forward for this administration and its “partner,” it has been reported that the American military is planning a “second liberation” of Baghdad. (At this point, you wouldn’t think anyone would care to recall, even by implication, the first liberation, which proved grim indeed.) According to Sarah Baxter of the London Sunday Times, American military planners under Lieutenant-General David Petraeus, who put a good deal of effort into “standing up” the Iraqi army, are planning to launch this neighborhood by neighborhood campaign as soon as they have a government, however wobbly, “standing up” somewhere inside the Green Zone.

They will then “clear, hold, and build” — think of the failed Vietnam-era “oil spot” strategy — in a ground campaign supported by air power. “Helicopters suitable for urban warfare” will be brought to bear, possibly backed by “heavily armed AC-130 aircraft and F-16s. But close air support is more likely to be provided by Cobra and Little Bird helicopters to minimize casualties.”

According to Baxter, this second liberation won’t involve all-out combat like the November 2004 campaign against Falluja in which approximately three-quarters of that city was turned to rubble, but a more precise set of operations modeled on the “successful” campaign in Tal Afar, near the Syrian border, where only part of the town was rubble-ized. As John Burns and Dexter Filkins reported recently in the New York Times, the Army has been practicing this sort of new-style warfare in twelve “virtual Iraqi villages” in the California desert with the help of Hollywood stunt extras and Carl Weathers, “best known for his portrayal of the boxer Apollo Creed in the Rocky films,” giving acting tips to the “insurgents.” Even there, our troops don’t do all that well; but, oh my gosh, in the real Baghdad this will surely work! Even better, by “minimizing casualties” through air power in the heavily populated capital, hearts and minds galore can be captured.

The War Can Be Won from Las Vegas (Last Chance, Take Three): Call in the (air) cavalry. This is the more general version of the above, the belief that air power — we have it, they don’t — can do what ground troops couldn’t. The insurgents may control their neighborhoods, towns, and villages, but at least we can spot and destroy them whenever and wherever they gather via our “flock” of Predator drones over Baghdad and elsewhere (but operated from a base outside Las Vegas), as Michael Hirsh reports in Newsweek.

Does no one remember the Vietnam equivalent of this: Robert McNamara’s sure-fire “electronic battlefield” and the hubris that went with it? Or the massive use of air power over rural (and sometimes urban) South Vietnam and its results? Ever since World War II, air power has been the American form of war-fighting and its promise has always dazzled strategists. Yet it is essentially guaranteed to be no more decisive in the urban jungles of Iraq than it was in the actual jungles of Vietnam.

We’ll Never Leave (and You Can’t Make Us): This might be thought of as the we’re-so-preponderant-you’ll-never-be-able-to-get-rid-of-us fantasy. The Bush administration continues to build-up our major bases in Iraq massively. When you look under the headlines, U.S. officials tend to let leak that we’re digging in at our major “consolidated” bases for at least a decade — and you now find quotes from officials on those bases like this: “It’s safe to say Balad will be here for a long time.”

The 15 square-mile American air base at Balad — in air-traffic terms second only to London’s Heathrow Airport — is indeed a massive American town with at least some of the amenities of home. Dubbed “Mortaritaville” by its residents, it is, according to Hirsh, “shaping up to resemble a warrior’s country club.”

Or, if you’re talking “permanent,” consider the embassy we’re building inside Baghdad’s Green Zone. It’s the size of Vatican city, will have its own apartment buildings (six of them) for its staff of perhaps 5,500 (all that diplomatic heavy-lifting), its own electricity, well-water, and waste-treatment facilities to guarantee “100 percent independence from city utilities,” not to speak of the “swimming pool, gym, commissary, food court and American Club, all housed in a recreation building.” And unlike just about every other reconstruction project in the country, it’s going up efficiently and on schedule.

In fact, reports the London Times’ Daniel McGrory, it drives Baghdad residents wild to watch what they call, in mock-honor of Saddam Hussein’s famously self-glorifying building projects, “George W’s palace,” as it rises on the banks of the Tigris River, while their lives crumble around them. It will be bermed, “hardened,” and have its own defense force (just like the Vatican!). A citadel inside a citadel, this one is clearly meant for the ages. Talk about preponderant! Talk about signaling who we think is in command in Iraq! How sensible to establish our diplomatic position in relation to our Iraqi “partner” by erecting the ziggurat of ziggurats. Imagine, as Iraq disintegrates, our soldiers (and their attendant KBR workers) living in blissful, Pizza-Hut isolation on our little, well-fortified American islands. Do you really think that’s likely to last long?

Recall our giant bases at places like Danang and Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam or our embassy in Saigon. They, too, were meant for permanency until, of course, we didn’t turn out to be quite as preponderant as we dreamed. On the bright side, a hardened fortress of an embassy will be a perfect spot from which to organize an evacuation of the country someday.

Let’s Divide It Up! (Last Chance, Take Four): Think of the tripartite division of Iraq as the preponderance of American power for the rest of Washington. This week, Democratic Senator Joseph Biden and Leslie Gelb in a New York Times op-ed (Unity through Autonomy) suggested that the Bush administration step up to the plate “decisively” and “choose a third way” between never “cutting and running” and “bringing the troops home now.” (Biden and Gelb seem to be decisively into the power of three.) We can, they suggest, begin to shepherd the division of Iraq (already underway in any case) into Shiite, Kurdish, and Sunni sectors via a five-part plan that will also leave in place, evidently permanently, “a small but effective residual force to combat terrorists and keep the neighbors honest.” In other words, if we can’t make it work, at least we can divvy it up. These gentlemen are, according to Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post, but the tip of the partitioning iceberg:

“As the U.S. military struggles against persistent sectarian violence in Iraq, military officers and security experts find themselves in a vigorous debate over an idea that just months ago was largely dismissed as a fringe thought: that the surest — and perhaps now the only — way to bring stability to Iraq is to divide the country into three pieces. Those who see the partitioning of Iraq as increasingly attractive argue that separating the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds may be the only solution to the violence that many experts believe verges on civil war.”

Whether or not Iraq actually divides in three, the idea that Americans can decide on such a path, that we can “step in” at a time when “options in Iraq are narrowing” for us, and still solve the problem, seems but another version of the same old same old. Hubris rebottled. Do these people have any idea of the hatreds already let loose by the American occupation, or the ones that are likely to be released by such an American plan, or how certain it is that any American planning for Iraq will work out horribly at the cost of who knows how many further lives?

Let’s Bomb Iran (Last Chance, Take Five): Don’t even get me started on this one. The American invasion of Iraq has proved a bottomless catastrophe, bombing a disaster, regime change an abyss — all based on a deep-seated belief in the power of “American preponderance”… and now, could I please have the envelop with the possible plan for extracting ourselves from this mess? Let’s see. It says: Send American planes and missiles over Iran, loose the Israelis on that country, knock out some of their nuclear program, bomb the hell out of them, make sure there’s plenty of “collateral damage,” and hope for “regime change.”

Gee, put the tens of billions of dollars that go into the CIA into my bank account and I’ll be happy to give you my advice on this one. Or why not just listen to our country’s retired generals, who crept up reasonably close to your basic Seven-Days-in-May territory, to make a similar point, however obliquely, about Iran. As Tony Karon of Time magazine notes, thoughtfully as ever, in his Rootless Cosmopolitan blog: “Having watched the Iraq debacle take shape in no small part because those from the military establishment in a position to do so (think Colin Powell) failed to publicly challenge what they could see was a disaster in the making, the generals are clearly inclined to act preemptively this time.”

Unfortunately, when you look down the list of retired military men speaking out, they all are Army or Marine generals, almost all associated with war-fighting in Iraq. Not an admiral, nor anyone associated with the Air Force, has been in critical sight — and those, of course, are the two services that would be preponderantly used in Iran. (The Navy, in particular, has been sidelined in Iraq, which is never good for the old yearly budget battle back in Washington.)

To all of this I would just counterpoise my own little riddle:

Question: What’s the difference between the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and a future massive air assault on Iran?

Answer: When it comes to Iran, the nature of the catastrophe will be evident on day one.

Gee, you don’t exactly have to be a genius to grasp this. You only have to take the odd glance at the oil-futures market — at present the hottest thing in town (other than oil company profits). Whack Iran and you probably get $120 a barrel oil or worse on the spot. In fact, just the threat may get you there. And that’s before Iran lifts a finger. Regime change in Iran via the preponderance of American air power? It will surely be more like global turmoil — some version of Iraq writ painfully large (and if you think things are bad for Americans in Iraq now, just wait).

In the end, the dazzling dream of American preponderance may turn our era into one of energy chaos and ever more widespread terrorism.

Let me just put a tad of passing reality up against all these fantasies: George Bush’s approval rating just hit 32%, the lowest of his presidency, in the latest CNN poll; 30% in New Hampshire (a state he won in 2000); and even white evangelicals are starting to peel away. The President has been losing on average a percentage point a month since January 2005. Call this the preponderance of polls.

Or consider the comment of Riverbend, the pseudonymous young Sunni blogger in Baghdad, on possible American bombing plans for Iran:

“While I hate the Iranian government, the people don’t deserve the chaos and damage of air strikes and war. I don’t really worry about that though, because if you live in Iraq — you know America’s hands are tied. Just as soon as Washington makes a move against Tehran, American troops inside Iraq will come under attack. It’s that simple — Washington has big guns and planes… But Iran has 150,000 American hostages.”

Hers is a glimpse of reality worth tens of billions of intelligence dollars, and it came to her in a building that lacks electricity most of the time. Then again, without electricity over three years after Baghdad fell to American troops (and Iraqi looters), she’s not dazzled by American preponderance, that holy grail of global power, and every illusory perk that goes with it. Because our leaders still are, they may never learn — to our shame and the future pain of many Iranians.

Tom Engelhardt [send him mail] is editor of TomDispatch.com, a project of the Nation Institute. He is the author of several books, including The Last Days of Publishing: A Novel and The End of Victory Culture.

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