Read The United States of Fear Online

Authors: Tom Engelhardt

Tags: #Current Affairs, #QuarkXPress, #ebook

The United States of Fear (7 page)

BOOK: The United States of Fear
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Americans do seem to have turned the page on Bush and his cronies. (President Obama called it looking forward, not backward.) Still, glance over your shoulder and, if you’re being honest, you’ll have to admit that one thing didn’t happen: they didn’t turn the page on us.

They may have disappeared from our lives, but the post-9/11 world they had such a mad hand in creating hasn’t. It’s not just the Department of Homeland Security or that un-American word
homeland
, both of which are undoubtedly embedded in our lives forever. Or the Patriot Act, now as American as apple pie. Or Guantánamo which, despite a presidential promise, may never close. Or all the wild, overblown fears of terrorism and the new security world that goes with them, neither of which shows the slightest sign of abating. Or the National Security Agency’s surveillance of and spying on Americans which, as far as we can tell, is ongoing. No, it’s scores of Bush policies and positions that will clearly be with us until hell freezes over. Among them all, consider the Obama administration’s updated version of that signature Bush invention, the Global War on Terror.

Yes, Obama’s national security officials threw that term to the dogs back in 2009, and now pursue a no-name global strategy that’s meant not to remind you of the Bush era. Recently, the White House released an unclassified summary of its 2011 “National Strategy for Counter­terrorism,” a nineteen-page document in prose only a giant bureaucracy with a desire to be impenetrable could produce. If it makes a feeble attempt to put a little rhetorical space between Obama-style counter­terrorism and what the Bush administration was doing, it still manages to send one overwhelming message: George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, et al., are still striding amongst us, carrying big sticks and with that same crazed look in their eyes.

The Global War on Terror was the bastard spawn of the disorientation and soaring hubris of the days after the 9/11 attacks, which set afire the delusional geopolitical dreams of Bush, Cheney, their top national security officials, and their neocon supporters. And here’s the saddest thing: the Bush administration’s most extreme ideas when it comes to GWOT are now the humdrum norm of Obama administration policies—and hardly anyone thinks it’s worth a comment.

A History Lesson from Hell

It’s easy to forget just how quickly GWOT was upon us or how strange it really was. On the night of September 11, 2001, addressing the nation, President Bush first spoke of winning “the war against terrorism.” Nine days later, in an address to a joint session of Congress, the phrase “war on terror” was already being expanded. “Our war on terror,” Bush said, “begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.”

In those early days, there were already clues aplenty as to which way the wind was gusting in Washington. Top administration officials immediately made it plain that a single yardstick was to measure planetary behavior from then on: Were you “with us or against us”? From the Gulf of Guinea to Central Asia, that question would reveal everything worth knowing, and terror would be its measure.

As the
New York Times
reported on September 14, Bush’s top officials had “cast aside diplomatic niceties” and were giving Arab countries and “the nations of the world a stark choice: stand with us against terrorism or face the certain prospect of death and destruction.” According to Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage took that message directly to his country’s intelligence director: either ally with Washington in the fight against al-Qaeda, or prepare to be bombed “back to the Stone Age,” as Armitage reportedly put it.

Global War on Terror? They weren’t exaggerating. These were people shocked by what had happened to iconic buildings in the “homeland” and overawed by what they imagined to be the all-conquering power of the U.S. military. In their fever dreams, they thought that this was their moment and the apocalyptic winds of history were at their backs. And they weren’t hiding where they wanted it to blow them, either. That was why they tried to come up with names to replace GWOT—World War IV (the third was the Cold War) and the Long War being two of them—that would be even blunter about their desire to plunge us into a situation from which none of us would emerge in our lifetimes. But to the extent anything stuck, GWOT did.

As journalist Ron Suskind reported in his book
The One Percent Doctrine
, in a “Presidential Finding” on September 17, 2011, only six days after the World Trade Center towers went down, Bush granted the CIA an unprecedented license to wage war globally. By then, the CIA had presented him with a plan whose name was worthy of a sci-fi film: the “Worldwide Attack Matrix.” According to Suskind, it already “detailed operations [to come] against terrorists in 80 countries.”

In other words, with less than two hundred countries on the planet, the president had declared open season on nearly half of them. Of course, the Pentagon wasn’t about to be left out while the CIA was given the run of the globe. Soon enough, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld began building up an enormous CIA-style secret army of elite special operations forces within the military. By the end of the Bush years, these had reportedly been deployed in—don’t be surprised—sixty countries. In the Obama era, that number expanded to seventy-five—mighty close to the eighty in the Worldwide Attack Matrix.

And one more thing, there was a new weapon in the world, the perfect weapon to make mincemeat of all boundaries and a mockery of national sovereignty and international law (with little obvious danger to us): the pilotless drone. Surveillance drones already in existence were quickly armed with missiles and bombs and, in November 2002, one of these was sent out on the first CIA robot assassination mission—to Yemen, where six al-Qaeda suspects in a vehicle were obliterated without a by-your-leave to anyone.

CT to the Horizon

That CIA strike launched the drone wars, which are now a perfectly humdrum part of our American world of war. In June 2011, the Obama administration leaked news that it was intensifying its military-run war against al-Qaeda in Yemen by bringing the CIA into the action. The agency is now to build a base for its drone air wing somewhere in the Middle East to hunt Yemeni terrorists (and assumedly those elsewhere in the region as well). Yemen functionally has no government to cooperate with, but in pure Bushian fashion, who cares?

At the same time, unnamed American officials leaked the news that, for the first time, a U.S. military drone had conducted a strike against al-Shabab militants in Somalia, with the implication that this was a “war” that would also be intensifying. Meanwhile, curious reports were emerging from Pakistan, where the CIA has been conducting an escalating drone war since 2004 (strikes viewed “negatively” by 97 percent of Pakistanis, according to a 2011 Pew poll). Top Pakistani officials were threatening to shut down the agency’s drone operations at Shamsi air base in Baluchistan. Shamsi is the biggest of the three borrowed Pakistani bases from which the CIA secretly launches its drones. The Obama administration responded bluntly. White House counterterrorism chief John O. Brennan insisted that, whatever happened, the United States would continue to “deliver precise and overwhelming force against al-Qaida” in the Pakistani tribal areas.

As Spencer Ackerman of
Wired
’s
Danger Room
blog summed things up, “The harsh truth is that the Pakistanis can’t stop the drone war on their soil. But they can shift its launching points over the Afghan border. And the United States is already working on a backup plan for a long-term drone war, all without the Pakistanis’ help.” In other words, permission from a beleaguered local ally might be nice, but it isn’t a conceptual necessity.

If Bush’s crew is long gone, the world they willed us is alive and well. After all, there are reasonable odds that, on the day you read this, somewhere in the free-fire zone of the Greater Middle East, a drone “piloted” from an air base in the western United States or perhaps a secret “suburban facility” near Langley, Virginia, will act as judge, jury, and executioner somewhere in the “arc of instability.” It will take out a terrorist suspect or suspects, or a set of civilians mistaken for terrorists, or a “target” someone in Washington didn’t like, or that one of our allies-cum-intelligence-assets had it in for, or perhaps a mix of all of the above. We can’t be sure how many countries’ American drones, military or CIA, are patrolling, but in at least six of them—Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Iraq—they have launched strikes in recent years that have killed more “suspects” than ever died in the 9/11 attacks.

And there is more—possibly much more—to come. In late June 2011, the Obama administration posted that unclassified summary of its 2011 National Strategy for Counterterrorism at the White House website. It’s a document that carefully avoids using the term
war on terror
, even though counterterrorism adviser Brennan did admit that it “tracked closely with the goals” of the Bush administration.

The document tries to argue that, when it comes to counterterrorism (or CT), the Obama administration has actually pulled back somewhat from the expansiveness of Bush-era GWOT thinking. We are now, it insists, only going after “al-Qaeda and its affiliates and adherents,” not every “terror group” on the planet. But here’s the curious thing: when you check out its “areas of focus,” other than “the Homeland” (always capitalized as if our country were the United States of Homeland), what you find is an expanded version of the Bush global target zone, including the Maghreb and Sahel (North Africa), East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, South Asia, Central Asia, and—thrown in for good measure—Southeast Asia. In most of those areas, Bush-style hunting season is evidently still open.

If you consider deeds, not words, when it comes to drones the arc of instability is expanding—and based on the new counterterrorism document, the next place for our robotic assassins to cross borders in search of targets could be the Maghreb and Sahel. There, we’re told, al-Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), with roots in Algeria but operatives in northern Mali, among other places, potentially threatens “U.S. citizens and interests in the region.”

Here’s how the document puts the matter in its classically bureaucratese version of English: “[W]e must therefore pursue near-term efforts and at times more targeted approaches that directly counter AQIM and its enabling elements. We must work actively to contain, disrupt, degrade, and dismantle AQIM as logical steps on the path to defeating the group. As appropriate, the United States will use its CT tools, weighing the costs and benefits of its approach in the context of regional dynamics and perceptions and the actions and capabilities of its partners in the region.”

That may not sound so ominous, but best guess: the GWOT is soon likely to be on the march across North Africa, heading south. And Obama national security appointments only emphasize how much the drone wars are on Washington’s future agenda. After all, Leon Panetta, the man who since 2009 ran the CIA’s drone wars, has moved over to the Pentagon as secretary of defense, while Bush’s favorite general, David Petraeus, the war commander who loosed American air power (including drone power) in a massive way in Afghanistan, is moving on to the CIA.

On his first visit to South Asia as secretary of defense, Panetta made the claim that Washington was “within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaeda.” Perhaps it won’t surprise you that such news signals not a winding down, but a ratcheting up, of the Global War on Terror. Panetta, as Craig Whitlock of the
Washington Post
reported, “hinted of more to come, saying he would redouble efforts by the military and the spy agency to work together on counterterrorism missions outside the traditional war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq.”

More to come, as two men switching their “civilian” and military roles partner up. Count on drone-factory assembly lines to rev up as well, and the military’s special operations forces to be in expansion mode. And note that by the penultimate page of that CT strategy summary, the administration has left al-Qaeda behind and is muttering in bureau-speak about Hezbollah and Hamas, Iran and Syria (“active sponsors of terrorism”), and even the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

On the Bush administration’s watch, the United States blew a gasket, American power went into decline, and the everyday security of everyday Americans took a major hit. Still, give them credit. They were successful on at least one count: they made sure that we’d never stop fighting their war on terror. In this sense, Obama and his top officials are a drone national security team, carrying out the dreams and fantasies of their predecessors, while Bush and his men (and woman) give lucrative speeches and write books hundreds or thousands of miles away.

Chapter 2
Entering the Soviet Era
Washington Drunk on War

Mark it on your calendar. It seems we’ve finally entered the Soviet era in America.

You remember the Soviet Union, now almost twenty years in its grave, but who gives it a second thought today? Even in its glory years, that “evil empire” was sometimes referred to as “the second superpower.” In 1991, after seven decades, it suddenly disintegrated and disappeared, leaving the United States—the “sole superpower” or even the “hyperpower,” on planet Earth—surprised but triumphant.

The USSR had been heading for the exits for quite a while, not that official Washington had a clue. At the moment it happened, Soviet “experts” like Robert Gates, then director of the CIA, still expected the Cold War to go on and on. In Washington, eyes were trained on the might of the Soviet military, which the Soviet leadership had never stopped feeding, even as its sclerotic bureaucracy was rotting, its economy (which had ceased to grow in the late 1970s) was tanking, budget deficits were soaring, indebtedness to other countries was growing, and social welfare payments were eating into what funds remained. Not even a vigorous reformist leader like Mikhail Gorbachev could stanch the rot, especially when, in the late 1980s, the price of Russian oil fell drastically.

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