by Tom Engelhardt
March 2, 2011
As the sun peeks over the horizon of the
Arab world, dusk is descending on America.
This is a global moment unlike any in memory, perhaps in history.
comparisons can be made to the wave of people power that swept Eastern
Europe as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989-91.
For those with longer
1968 might come to mind, that abortive moment when, in the
United States, France, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Brazil, and elsewhere,
including Eastern Europe, masses of people mysteriously inspired by each
other took to the streets of global cities to proclaim that change was on
For those searching the history books, perhaps you’ve focused on the year
1848 when, in a time that also mixed economic gloom with novel means of
disseminating the news, the winds of freedom seemed briefly to sweep across
Europe. And, of course, if enough regimes fall and the turmoil goes deep
enough, there’s always 1776, the American Revolution,
or 1789, the French
one, to consider.
Both shook up the world for decades after.
But here’s the truth of it: you have to strain to fit this Middle Eastern
moment into any previous paradigm, even as - from
China - it
already threatens to break out of the Arab world and spread like a fever
across the planet. Never in memory have so many unjust or simply despicable
rulers felt quite so nervous - or possibly quite so helpless (despite being
armed to the teeth) - in the presence of unarmed humanity.
And there has to
be joy and hope in that alone.
Even now, without understanding what it is we
face, watching staggering numbers of people, many young and dissatisfied,
take to the streets in,
...not to mention,
...would be inspirational.
Watching them face security forces using
batons, tear gas, rubber bullets, and in all too many cases, real bullets
(in Libya, even helicopters and planes) and somehow grow stronger is little
short of unbelievable.
Seeing Arabs demanding something we were convinced
was the birthright and property of the West, of the United States in
particular, has to send a shiver down anyone’s spine.
The nature of this potentially world-shaking phenomenon remains unknown and
probably, at this point, unknowable.
Are freedom and democracy about to
break out all over?
And if so, what will that turn out to mean?
If not, what
exactly are we seeing?
What light bulb was it that so unexpectedly turned on
in millions of Twittered and Facebooked brains - and why now?
I doubt those
who are protesting, and in some cases dying, know themselves. And that’s
That the future remains - always - the land of the unknown
should offer us hope, not least because that's the bane of ruling elites who
want to, but never can, take possession of it.
Nonetheless, you would expect that
a ruling elite, observing such
earth-shaking developments, might rethink its situation, as should the rest
of us. After all, if humanity can suddenly rouse itself this way in the face
of the armed power of state after state, then what's really possible on this
planet of ours?
Seeing such scenes repeatedly, who wouldn’t rethink the basics? Who wouldn’t
feel the urge to reimaging our world?
Let me offer as my nominee of choice not various desperate or dying Middle
Eastern regimes, but Washington.
Life in the Echo
So much of what Washington did imagine in these last years proved laughable,
even before this moment swept it away.
Just take any old phrase from
Bush years. How about “You’re either with us or against us”?
is how little it means today.
Looking back on Washington’s
mistaken assumptions about how our globe works, this might seem like the
perfect moment to show some humility in the face of what nobody could have
It would seem like a good moment for Washington - which, since
12, 2001, has been remarkably clueless about real developments on this
planet and repeatedly
miscalculated the nature of global power - to step
back and recalibrate.
As it happens, there's no evidence it's doing so. In fact, that may be
beyond Washington’s present capabilities, no matter how many
dollars it pours into “intelligence.”
And by “Washington,” I mean not just
the Obama administration, or the Pentagon, or our military commanders, or
the vast intelligence bureaucracy, but all those pundits and think-tankers
who swarm the capital, and the media that reports on them all. It’s as if
the cast of characters that makes up “Washington” now lives in some kind of
echo chamber in which it can only hear itself talking.
As a result, Washington still seems remarkably determined to play out the
string on an era that is all too swiftly passing into the history books.
While many have noticed the Obama administration's hapless struggle to catch
up to events in the Middle East, even as it clings to a
familiar coterie of
grim autocrats and oil sheiks, let me illustrate this point in another area
entirely - the largely forgotten war in Afghanistan.
After all, hardly
noticed, buried beneath 24/7
news from Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, and elsewhere
in the Middle East, that war continues on its destructive, costly course
with nary a blink.
Five Ways to Be Tone
Deaf in Washington
You might think that, as vast swathes of the Greater Middle East are set
ablaze, someone in Washington would take a new look at our
Af/Pak War and
wonder whether it isn’t simply beside the point.
No such luck, as the
following five tiny but telling examples that caught my attention indicate.
Consider them proof of the well-being of the American echo chamber and
evidence of the way Washington is proving incapable of rethinking its
longest, most futile, and most bizarre war.
Let’s start with a recent New York Times op-ed, “The ‘Long War’ May Be
Published last Tuesday as Libya was passing through “the
gates of hell,” it was an upbeat account of Afghan War commander General
David Petraeus’s counterinsurgency operations in southern Afghanistan. Its
authors, Nathaniel Fick and John Nagl, members of an increasingly
militarized Washington intelligentsia, jointly head the Center for a New
American Security in Washington.
Nagl was part of the team that wrote the
2006 revised Army counterinsurgency manual for which Petraeus is given
credit and was an advisor to the general in Iraq. Fick, a former Marine
officer who led troops in Afghanistan and Iraq and then was a civilian
instructor at the Afghanistan Counterinsurgency Academy in Kabul, recently
paid a first-hand visit to the country (under whose auspices we do not
The two of them are typical of many of Washington’s war experts who tend to
incestuous relationships with the military, moonlighting as enablers
or cheerleaders for our war commanders, and still remain go-to sources for
In another society, their op-ed would simply have been considered
Here’s its money paragraph:
“It is hard to tell when momentum shifts in a counterinsurgency campaign,
but there is increasing evidence that Afghanistan is moving in a more
positive direction than many analysts think. It now seems more likely than
not that the country can achieve the modest level of stability and
self-reliance necessary to allow the United States to responsibly draw down
its forces from 100,000 to 25,000 troops over the next four years.”
This is a classic Washington example of moving the goalposts.
What our two
experts are really announcing is that, even if all goes well in our
War, 2014 will not be its end date. Not by a long shot.
Of course, this is a position that Petraeus has supported. Four years from
now our “withdrawal” plans, according to Nagl and Fick, will leave 25,000
troops in place. If truth-telling or accuracy were the point of their
exercise, their piece would have been titled, “The ‘Long War’ Grows Longer.”
Even as the Middle East explodes and the U.S. plunges into a budget “debate”
significantly powered by our stunningly expensive wars that won’t end, these
two experts implicitly propose that General Petraeus and his successors
fight on in Afghanistan at
more than $100 billion a year into the distant
reaches of time, as if nothing in the world were changing.
seems like the definition of obliviousness and one day will undoubtedly look
delusional, but it’s the business-as-usual mentality with which Washington
faces a new world.
Or consider two striking comments General Petraeus himself made that
bracket our new historical moment.
At a morning briefing on January 19th,
according to New York Times reporter
Rod Nordland, the general was in an
exultant, even triumphalist, mood about his war. It was just days before the
first Egyptian demonstrators would take to the streets, and only days after
Tunisian autocrat Zine Ben Ali had met the massed power of nonviolent
demonstrators and fled his country.
And here’s what Petraeus so exuberantly
told his staff:
It’s true that the general had, for months, not only been sending new
American troops south, but ratcheting up the use of
air power, increasing
night raids, and generally
intensifying the war in the
Taliban’s home territory.
Still, under the best of circumstances, his was an
exultantly odd image.
It obviously called up the idea of a predator sinking
its teeth into the throat of its prey, but surely somewhere in the military
unconscious lurked a more classic American pop-cultural image - the
werewolf or vampire. Evidently, the general’s idea of an American future
involves an extended blood feast in the Afghan version of Transylvania, for
like Nagl and Fick he clearly plans to have those teeth in that jugular for
a long, long time to come.
A month later, on February 19th, just as all hell was breaking loose in
Bahrain and Libya, the general visited the Afghan presidential palace in
Kabul and, in dismissing
Afghan claims that recent American air raids in the
country’s northeast had killed scores of civilians, including children, he
made a comment that shocked President Hamid Karzai’s aides.
We don’t have it
verbatim, but the
Washington Post reports that, according to “participants,” Petraeus suggested,
One Afghan at the meeting responded:
In the American echo-chamber, the general’s comments may sound, if not
reasonable, then understandably exuberant and emphatic: We’ve got the enemy
by the throat! We didn’t create Afghan casualties; they did it to
Elsewhere, they surely sound obtusely tone deaf or simply vampiric, evidence that those inside the echo chamber
have no sense of how
they look in a shape-shifting world.
Now, let’s step across an ill-defined Afghan-Pakistan border into another
world of American obtuseness.
On February 15th, only four days after Hosni
Mubarak stepped down as president of Egypt,
Barack Obama decided to address
a growing problem in Pakistan.
Raymond Davis, a former U.S. Special Forces
soldier armed with a Glock semi-automatic pistol and alone in a vehicle
cruising a poor neighborhood of Pakistan’s second largest city, Lahore, shot
and killed two Pakistanis he claimed had menaced him at gunpoint. (One was
shot in the back.)
Davis reportedly got out of the vehicle firing his pistol, then photographed
the dead bodies and called for backup. The responding vehicle, racing to the
scene the wrong way in traffic, ran over a motorcyclist, killing him before
fleeing. (Subsequently, the wife of one of the Pakistanis Davis killed
committed suicide by ingesting rat poison.)
The Pakistani police took Davis into custody with a carful of strange
equipment. No one should be surprised that this was not a set of
circumstances likely to endear an already alienated population to its
supposed American allies.
In fact, it created a popular furor as Pakistanis
reacted to what seemed like the definition of imperial impunity, especially
when the U.S. government, claiming Davis was an “administrative and
technical official” attached to its Lahore consulate, demanded his release
on grounds of diplomatic immunity and promptly began pressuring an already
weak, unpopular government with loss of aid and support.
Senator John Kerry
paid a hasty visit, calls were made, and threats to cut
off U.S. funds were raised in the halls of Congress. Despite what was
happening elsewhere and in tumultuous Pakistan, American officials found it
hard to imagine that beholden Pakistanis wouldn’t buckle.
On February 15th, with the Middle East in flames, President Obama weighed
in, undoubtedly making matters worse:
“With respect to Mr. Davis, our
diplomat in Pakistan,” he said, “we've got a very simple principle here that
every country in the world that is party to the Vienna Convention on
Diplomatic Relations has upheld in the past and should uphold in the future,
and that is if our diplomats are in another country, then they are not
subject to that country's local prosecution."
The Pakistanis refused to give way to that “very simple principle” and not
long after, “our diplomat in Pakistan” was
identified by the British
'Guardian' as a former
Blackwater employee and present employee of the CIA.
was, the publication reported, involved in the Agency’s secret war in
Pakistan. That war, especially much-ballyhooed and expensive “covert” drone
attacks in the Pakistani tribal borderlands whose returns have been
overhyped in Washington, continues to generate blowback in ways that
Americans prefer not to grasp.
Of course, the president knew that Davis was a CIA agent, even when he
called him “our diplomat.”
As it turned out, so did
the New York Times and
other U.S. publications, which
refrained from writing about his real
position at the request of the Obama administration, even as they continued
to report (evasively, if not simply untruthfully) on the case.
Given what’s happening in the region, this represents neither reasonable
policy-making nor reasonable journalism.
If the late Chalmers Johnson, who
made the word “blowback” part of our everyday language, happens to be
looking down on American policy from some niche in heaven, he must be grimly
amused by the brain-dead way our top officials blithely continue to try to
bulldoze the Pakistanis.
Meanwhile, on February 18th
back in Afghanistan, the U.S. Treasury
Department imposed sanctions on one of that country’s “largest money
exchange houses,” charging,
Here’s how Ginger Thompson and Alissa J. Rubin of the New York Times
contextualized that act:
In a world in which Washington’s word seems to travel ever less far with
ever less authority, the response to this echo-chamber-style description,
and especially its central image - “a delicate balancing act” - would be:
no, not by a long shot.
In relation to a country that’s the
prime narco-state on the planet, what
could really be “delicate”?
If you wanted to describe the Obama
administration’s bizarre, pretzled relationship with President Karzai and
his people, words like “contorted,” “confused,” and “hypocritical” would
have to be trotted out.
If realism prevailed, the phrase “indelicate
imbalance” might be a more appropriate one to use.
Finally, journalist Dexter Filkins recently wrote a striking piece, “The
Afghan Bank Heist,” in the New Yorker magazine on the shenanigans that
brought Kabul Bank, one of Afghanistan's top financial institutions, to the
edge of collapse.
While bankrolling Hamid Karzai and his cronies by slipping
them staggering sums of cash, the bank’s officials essentially ran off with
the deposits of its customers. (Think of Kabul Bank as the institutional
Bernie Madoff of Afghanistan.)
In his piece, Filkins quotes an anonymous
American official this way on the crooked goings-on he observed:
Consider that line the echo-chamber version of stand-up comedy as well as a
reminder that only mad dogs and Americans stay out in the Afghan sun.
lot of Americans now in Afghanistan, that poor diplomat needs to be brought
home - and soon. He’s lost touch with the changing nature of his own
While we claim it as our duty to bring “nation-building” and “good
governance” to the benighted Afghans, at home the U.S. is being unbuilt,
democracy is essentially gone with the wind, the oligarchs are
field day, the Supreme Court has insured that massive influxes of money will
rule any future elections, and the biggest crooks of all get to play their
get-out-of-jail-free cards whenever they want.
In fact, the Kabul Bank
racket - a big deal in an utterly impoverished society - is a minor
sideshow compared to what American banks, brokerages, mortgage and insurance
companies, and other financial institutions did via their “ponzi schemes of
securitization” when, in 2008, they drove the U.S. and global economies into
And none of the individuals responsible went to prison, just old-fashioned
Ponzi schemers like Madoff. Not one of them was even put on trial.
Just the other day, federal
prosecutors dropped one of the last possible
cases from the 2008 meltdown.
Angelo R. Mozilo, the former chairman of
Countrywide Financial Corp., once the nation’s top mortgage company, did
have to settle a civil suit focused on his “ill-gotten gains” in the
subprime mortgage debacle for $67.5 million, but as with his peers, no
criminal charges will be filed.
We’re Not the Good
Imagine this: for the first time in history, a movement of Arabs is
inspiring Americans in Wisconsin and possibly elsewhere.
Right now, in other
words, there is something new under the sun and we didn’t invent it.
We’re not - catch your breath here - even the good guys. They
were the ones calling for freedom and democracy in the streets of Middle
Eastern cities, while the U.S. performed another of those indelicate
imbalances in favor of the thugs we’ve long supported in the Middle East.
History is now being reshaped in such a way that the previously major events
of the latter years of the foreshortened American century - the Vietnam
War, the end of the Cold War, even
- may all be dwarfed by this new
And yet, inside the Washington echo chamber, new thoughts about such
developments dawn slowly.
Meanwhile, our beleaguered, confused, disturbed
country, with its
disintegrating infrastructure, is ever less the
model for anyone anywhere (though again you wouldn’t know that here).
Oblivious to events, Washington clearly intends to fight its perpetual wars
and garrison its perpetual bases, creating yet more blowback and
destabilizing yet more places, until it eats itself alive. This is the
definition of all-American decline in an unexpectedly new world. Yes, teeth
may be in jugulars, but whose teeth in whose jugulars remains open to
speculation, whatever General Petraeus thinks.
As the sun peeks over the horizon of the Arab world, dusk is descending on
America. In the penumbra, Washington plays out the cards it once dealt
itself, some from the bottom of the deck, even as other players are leaving
Meanwhile, somewhere out there in the land, you can just hear the
faint howls. It’s feeding time and the scent of blood is in the air.