Storms that knock out power for days, stripping away the veil that America’s infrastructure matches its first-world ambitions, are now common-place. Equally common, at least while there was an election on, were statements by candidates about “nation building at home” and “rebuilding America’s infrastructure.”
Candidate Obama repeatedly assured Americans that it was time to reap a peace dividend as America’s wars wind down. Nation-building here at home should, he insisted, be put on the agenda: “What we can now do is free up some resources, to, for example, put Americans back to work, especially our veterans, rebuilding our roads, our bridges.”
The news is that the spending process is already well underway, albeit by the Pentagon, in the Middle East. TomDispatch, in an excellent piece America Begins Nation-Building at Home (Provided Your Home is the Middle East) by Nick Turse, lays out the extent of taxpayer money being spent: The Pentagon awarded $667.2 million in contracts in 2012, and more than $1 billion during Barack Obama’s first term in office for construction projects in largely autocratic Middle Eastern nations, according to figures provided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Middle East District (USACE-MED). More than $178 million in similar funding is already anticipated for 2013. These contracts represent a mix of projects, including expanding and upgrading military bases used by U.S. troops in the region, building facilities for indigenous security forces, and launching infrastructure projects meant to improve the lives of local populations.
The figures are telling, but far from complete. They do not, for example, cover any of the billions spent on work at the more than 1,000 U.S. and coalition bases, outposts, and other facilities in Afghanistan or the thousands more manned by local forces. They also leave out construction projects undertaken in the region by other military services like the U.S. Air Force, as well as money spent at an unspecified number of bases in the Middle East that the Corps of Engineers “has no involvement with,” according to Joan Kibler, chief of the Middle East District’s public affairs office.
But what is a picture if not worth a few million bucks? The photo above is of the $1 billion U.S. embassy in Baghdad, bad enough but at least still in partial use. Here’s a photo of just part of the U.S.-built facility at the Baghdad Airport. Everything you see was carted to Iraq with your tax dollars, put up and maintained with your tax dollars, and then simply abandoned along with your tax dollars when the Iraq War got boring for the U.S. Have a look:
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Some images remain like scars on my memory. One of the last things I saw in Iraq, where I spent a year with the Department of State helping squander some of the $44 billion American taxpayers put up to “reconstruct” that country, were horses living semi-wild among the muck and garbage of Baghdad. Those horses had once raced for Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein and seven years after their “liberation” by the American invasion of 2003, they were still wandering that unraveling, unreconstructed urban landscape looking, like many other Iraqis, for food.
I flew home that same day, a too-rapid change of worlds, to a country in which the schools of my hometown in Ohio could not afford to pay teachers a decent wage. Once great cities were rotting away as certainly as if they were in Iraq, where those horses were scrabbling to get by. To this day I’m left pondering these questions: Why has the United States spent so much money and time so disastrously trying to rebuild occupied nations abroad, while allowing its own infrastructure to crumble untended? Why do we even think of that as “policy”?
The Good War(s)
With the success of the post-World War II Marshall Plan in Europe and the economic miracle in Japan, rebuilding other countries gained a certain imperial patina. Both took relatively little money and time. The reconstruction of Germany and Japan cost only $32 billion and $17 billion, respectively (in 2010 dollars), in large part because both had been highly educated, industrialized powerhouses before their wartime destruction.
In 2003, still tumescent with post-9/11 rage and dreams of global glory, anything seemed possible to the men and women of the Bush administration, who would cite the German and Japanese examples of just what the U.S. could do as they entered Iraq. Following what seemed like a swift military defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the plan had gotten big and gone long. It was nothing less than this: remake the entire Middle East in the American image.
The country’s mighty military was to sweep through Iraq, then Syria — Marines I knew told me personally that they were issued maps of Syria in March 2003 — then Iran, quickly set up military bases and garrisons (“enduring camps”), create Washington-friendly governments, pour in American technology and culture, bring in the crony corporations under the rubric of “reconstruction,” privatize everything, stand up new proxy militaries under the rubric of regime change, and forever transform the region.
Once upon a time, the defeated Japanese and Germans had become allies and, better yet, consumers. Now, almost six decades later, no one in the Bush administration had a doubt the same would happen in Iraq — and the Middle East would follow suit at minimal cost, creating the greatest leap forward for a Pax Americana since the Spanish-American War. Added bonus: a “sea of oil.”
By 2010, when I wrote We Meant Well, the possibility that some level of success might be close by still occupied some official minds. American boots remained on the ground in Mesopotamia and looked likely to stay on for years in at least a few of the massive permanent bases we had built there. A sort-of elected government was more or less in place, and in the press interviews I did in response to my book I was regularly required to defend its thesis that reconstruction in Iraq had failed almost totally, and that the same process was going down in Afghanistan as well. It was sometimes a tough sell. After all, how could we truly fail, being plucky Americans, historically equipped like no one else with plenty of bootstraps and know-how and gumption.
Failure Every Which Way
Now, it’s definitive. Reconstruction in Iraq has failed. Dismally. The U.S. couldn’t even restore the country’s electric system or give a majority of its people potable water. The accounts of that failure still pour out. Choose your favorites; here are just two recent ones of mine: a report that a $200 million year-long State Department police training program had shown no results (none, nada), in part because the Iraqis had been completely uninterested in it; and a long official list of major reconstruction projects uncompleted, with billions of taxpayer dollars wasted, all carefully catalogued by the now-defunct Special Inspector for Iraq Reconstruction.
Failure, in fact, was the name of the game when it came to the American mission. Just tote up the score: the Iraqi government is moving ever closer to Iran; the U.S. occupation, which built 505 bases in the country with the thought that U.S. troops might remain garrisoned there for generations, ended without a single base in U.S. hands (none, nada); no gushers of cheap oil leapt USA-wards nor did profits from the above leap into the coffers of American oil companies; and there was a net loss of U.S. prestige and influence across the region. And that would just be the beginning of the list from hell.
Even former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, George W. Bush’s accomplice in the invasion of Iraq and the woman after whom Chevron Oil once named a double-hulled oil tanker, now admits that “we didn’t understand how broken Iraq was as a society and we tried to rebuild Iraq from Baghdad out. And we really should have rebuilt Iraq outside Baghdad in. We should have worked with the tribes. We should have worked with the provinces. We should have had smaller projects than the large ones that we had.”
Strange that when I do media interviews now, only two years later, nobody even thinks to ask “Did we succeed in Iraq?” or “Will reconstruction pay off?” The question du jour has finally shifted to: “Why did we fail?”
Corruption and Vanity Projects
Why exactly did we fail to reconstruct Iraq, and why are we failing in Afghanistan? (Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s new book, Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, is the Afghan version of We Meant Well in detailing the catastrophic outcomes of reconstruction in that never-ending war.) No doubt more books, and not a few theses, will be written, noting the massive corruption, the overkill of pouring billions of dollars into poor, occupied countries, the disorganization behind the effort, the pointlessly self-serving vanity projects — Internet classes in towns without electricity — and the abysmal quality of the greedy contractors, on-the-make corporations, and lame bureaucrats sent in to do the job. Serious lessons will be extracted, inevitable comparisons will be made to post-World War II Germany and Japan and think tanks will sprout like mushrooms on rotted wood to try to map out how to do it better next time.
For the near term a reluctant acknowledgment of our failing economy may keep the U.S. out of major reconstruction efforts abroad. Robert Gates, who succeeded Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, told a group of West Point cadets that “any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.” Still, the desire to remake other countries — could Syria be next? — hovers in the background of American foreign policy, just waiting for the chance to rise again.
The standard theme of counterinsurgency theory (COIN in the trade) is “terrorists take advantage of hunger and poverty.” Foreigners building stuff is, of course, the answer, if only we could get it right. Such is part of the justification for the onrushing militarization of Africa, which carries with it a reconstruction component (even if on a desperately reduced scale, thanks to the tightening finances of the moment). There are few historical examples of COIN ever really working and many in which failed, but the idea is too attractive and its support industry too well established for it to simply go away.
Why Reconstruction at All?
Then there’s that other why question: Why, in our zeal to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan, we never considered spending a fraction as much to rebuild Detroit, New Orleans, or Cleveland (projects that, unlike Afghanistan and Iraq in their heyday, have never enjoyed widespread support)?
I use the term “reconstruction” for convenience, but it is important to understand what the U.S. means by it. Once corruption and pure greed are strained out (most projects in Iraq and Afghanistan were simply vehicles for contractors to suck money out of the government) and the vanity projects crossed off (building things and naming them after the sitting ambassador was a popular suck-up technique), what’s left is our desire for them to be like us.
While, dollar-for-dollar, corruption and contractor greed account for almost all the money wasted, the idea that, deep down, we want the people we conquer to become mini-versions of us accounts for the rest of the drive and motivation. We want them to consume things as a lifestyle, shit in nice sewer systems, and send everyone to schools where, thanks to the new textbooks we’ve sponsored, they’ll learn more about… us. This explains why we funded pastry-making classes to try to turn Iraqi women into small business owners, why an obsession with holding mediagenic elections in Iraq smothered nascent grassroots democracy (remember all those images of purple fingers?), why displacing family farms by introducing large-scale agribusiness seemed so important, and so forth.
By becoming versions of us, the people we conquer would, in our eyes, redeem themselves from being our enemies. Like a perverse view of rape, reconstruction, if it ever worked, would almost make it appear that they wanted to be violated by the American military so as to benefit from being rebuilt in the American fashion. From Washington’s point of view, there’s really no question here, no why at all. Who, after all, wouldn’t want to be us? And that, in turn, justifies everything. Think of it as an up-to-date take on that classic line from Vietnam, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”
Americans have always worn their imperialism uncomfortably, even when pursuing it robustly. The British were happy to carve out little green enclaves of home, and to tame — brutally, if necessary — the people they conquered. The United States is different, maybe because of the lip service politicians need to pay to our founding ideals of democracy and free choice.
We’re not content merely to tame people; we want to change them, too, and make them want it as well. Fundamentalist Muslims will send their girls to school, a society dominated by religion will embrace consumerism, and age-old tribal leaders will give way to (U.S.-friendly, media-savvy) politicians, even while we grow our archipelago of military bases and our corporations make out like bandits. It’s our way of reconciling Freedom and Empire, the American Way. Only problem: it doesn’t work. Not for a second. Not at all. Nothing. Nada.
From this point of view, of course, not spending “reconstruction” money at home makes perfect sense. Detroit, et al., already are us. Free choice is in play, as citizens of those cities “choose” not to get an education and choose to allow their infrastructure to fade. From an imperial point of view it makes perfectly good sense. Erecting a coed schoolhouse in Kandahar or a new sewer system in Fallujah offers so many more possibilities to enhance empire. The home front is old news, with growth limited only to reviving a status quo at huge cost.
Once it becomes clear that reconstruction is for us, not them, its purpose to enrich our contractors, fuel our bureaucrats’ vanity, and most importantly, justify our imperial actions, why it fails becomes a no-brainer. It has to fail (not that we really care). They don’t want to be us. They have been them for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. They may welcome medicines that will save their children’s lives, but hate the culture that the U.S. slipstreams in like an inoculation with them.
Failure in the strict sense of the word is not necessarily a problem for Washington. Our purpose is served by the appearance of reconstructing. We need to tell ourselves we tried, and those (dark, dirty, uneducated, Muslim, terrorist, heathen) people we just ran over with a tank actually screwed this up. And OK, sure, if a few well-connected contractors profit along the way, more power to them.
Here’s the bottom line: a nation spends its resources on what’s important to it. Failed reconstruction elsewhere turns out to be more important to us than successful reconstruction here at home. Such is the American way of empire.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Please note that despite the extensive coverage of my article, including CBS, the article was not included in the daily State Department web summary. The primary site, TomDispatch.com, is still electronically blocked on all State Department computers for whatever the hell “Wikileaks Content” is. I am certain The Onion regrets the error.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Nick Turse’s changing face of empire series has been especially popular at TomDispatch. His most recent piece on how the U.S. military presence is spreading in Africa was publicly disputed by U.S. Africa Command, leading to a debate between AFRICOM and Turse about American actions. Now, his latest on proxy wars fills us in on where the American way of war is going: Washington Puts Its Money on Proxy War, The Election Year Outsourcing That No One Is Talking About.
The U.S. fought a proxy war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, arming the mujahedeen against the Soviets and look where that got us: to 9/11 and into an Afghan War all our own. Nonetheless, tired of vast numbers of American combat boots on the Eurasian mainland, Washington has looked over history and decided to try again, writes TomDispatch Associate Editor Nick Turse in the latest piece in his “changing face of empire” series.
Proxy war, he tells us, is going to be a major component of the American way in the decades to come. While it may sound like a formula for success on the cheap, it is, he writes, a potential danger of the first order. “Right now, the U.S. is once again training, advising, and conducting joint exercises all over the world with proxy war on its mind and the concept of ‘unintended consequences’ nowhere in sight in Washington. Whether today’s proxies end up working for or against Washington’s interests or even become tomorrow’s enemies remains to be seen. But with so much training going on in so many destabilized regions, and so many proxy forces being armed in so many places, the chances of blowback grow greater by the day.”
From Afghanistan to Honduras, Asia to Africa, Turse explores the stunning myriad of training missions the U.S. military has undertaken, something most Americans know nothing about. He explores our present proxy war in Somalia and other potential proxy battles to come. He considers how Washington is planning to outsource fighting duties to local proxies around the world, and just how it’s laying the groundwork for the extensive use of surrogate forces in the future, training “native” troops to carry out missions — up to and including outright warfare.
Here’s something genuinely different from TomDispatch.com.
In response to Nick Turse’s July 12 piece, “Obama’s Scramble for Africa,” Colonel Tom Davis, the director of the U.S. Africa Command Office of Public Affairs, wrote in disputing a number of Turse’s points. Though TomDispatch does not normally post letters to the editor or have a comments section, this seemed interesting enough to make an exception. The debate is now up at the site.
The article makes for important reading as we learn of a growing US military presence throughout Africa (Admitted: Uganda, South Sudan, Mali, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Botswana, Kenya, Burundi, Ethiopia and Djibouti, currently some 5,000 personnel), complete with complex special ops, US troops on the ground engaged in “training” and occasional combat, along with the sad, usual accidents involving prostitutes and naughty boys that follow our military worldwide, most recently in Mali.
The back-and-forth between the Army and TomDispatch lays bare their two worldviews – Washington’s urge to garrison and control the planet militarily and a critical response that calls for a major downsizing of the U.S. mission in the world. There is a lot of information in this article on a topic covered lightly if at all by most other media sources.
Bonus: While the Army took the time to read, respond and intelligently challenge TomDispatch, the web site remains blocked and unavailable to State Department employees still, due to some mysterious “Wikileaks” connection never made clear. State Department employees cannot follow this important debate, by senior management decision. Sorry, enjoy your irrelevance. Breaking: State Department people who do wish to read the article can do so on a mirror site, Salon.
Bonus Bonus: While the primary US engagement in Africa continues to morph into a military one, China’s dominant relationships on the continent are economic.
In an age where dissent is thought of as a form of treason, where Federal agencies spy on their own employees to prevent whistleblowing, it is important to remind ourselves that as government workers– f*ck that, public servants– we have an obligation to speak out to the people we serve.
MacBain’s piece uses the voices of Daniel Ellsberg, author Eyal Press (Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times), attorney Chase Madar(The Passion of Bradley Manning), me, and one-time Constitutional law professor Barack Obama.
Listen to it carefully, before someone switches the channel on you and
It probably hasn’t been the most popular thing to do, but I’m glad that TomDispatch has been one place that has continued to focus on the “collateral damage” of our recent wars and is the only website that has kept a count of one of the more shocking aspects of those wars: the obliteration of wedding parties by the US using aerial strikes.
The US recently killed 18 Afghan civilians (including nine children) at a wedding in a village in Logar Province. This — and TomDispatch has been counting over the years — is at least the seventh wedding party eviscerated by a US air strike since 2001.
Why weddings? The US also has a policy of striking funerals, probably for the same reasons. The “policy” angle is that weddings and funerals are gatherings of important
people targets at a known place and time. Killing Bad Guy No. 167 means wiping out the rest of the guests at the same time collaterally.
TomDispatch, in an article subtitled Till Death Do Us Part, looks deeper into the shame of accepting such collateral damage, positing the use of armed drones inside the US as a way of making the murky ethics of all this clearer.
An important article, read it online now at TomDispatch.
The future is now. This new Ebook Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050 is the first unclassified history of US drone warfare, written as it happened.
From the opening missile salvo in the skies over Afghanistan in 2001 to a secret strike in the Philippines early this year, or a future in which drones dogfight off the coast of Africa, Terminator Planet takes you to the front lines of combat, Washington war rooms, and beyond.
Drawing on several years of research, including official documents, open-source intelligence, and interviews with military officers, two of the foremost analysts specializing in drone war offer a sobering, factual account of robot warfare combined with critical analyses found nowhere else.
Loaded with rarely seen Pentagon photos, Terminator Planet provides a rich history of the last decade of drone warfare, a clear-eyed look at its present, and a far-reaching guide to its future.
Want more drone? Check TomDispatch for a devastating look at a weapons system that’s failing to perform as promised, but ever more disastrously embedded in our world — Nick Turse, “A Drone-Eat-Drone World, With Its ‘Roadmap’ in Tatters, the Pentagon Detours to Terminator Planet.”
People, we’ve left behind the fiction of Hollywood for a less high-tech but distinctly dystopian reality. It isn’t quite the movies and it isn’t what the Pentagon mapped out, but it indisputably provides a clear path to a grim and grimy Terminator Planet.
From TomDispatch: A devastating account of drone wars as our number one export of the twenty-first century and just how we’ve become a Predator nation, America as a Shining Drone Upon a Hill, On Staring Death in the Face and Not Noticing.
It was one of the great self-congratulatory speeches of our era — Obama counter-terrorism tsar John Brennan offering a full-throated defense of the administration’s “covert” drone wars. In his latest post, focusing on what author Tom Engelhardt calls his “shining drone upon a hill” speech, he considers the nature of American exceptionalism in our time and the way it blinds us to ourselves, to how we actually look to the rest of the world.
Engelhardt writes of an American dream of this country as a “shining city”: Whatever that ‘city,’ that dream, was once imagined to be, it has undergone a largely unnoticed metamorphosis in the twenty-first century. It has become — even in our dreams — an up-armored garrison encampment, just as Washington itself has become the heavily fortified bureaucratic heartland of a war state. So when Brennan spoke, what he offered was a new version of American exceptionalism: the first ‘shining drone upon a hill’ speech.
Tom Engelhardt explores his over-the-top language of self-congratulation, his fears of how others less wise, judicious, and moral than us might use drones in the future, and in the process the way a sense of American exceptionalism blinds our leaders to a changing American reality. He concludes that “What they can’t see in the haze of exceptional self-congratulation is this: they are transforming the promise of America into a promise of death. And death, visited from the skies, isn’t precise. It isn’t glorious. It isn’t judicious. It certainly isn’t a shining vision. It’s hell. And it’s a global future for which, someday, no one will thank us.”
Be sure to read the entire piece at TomDispatch. And keep a sharp eye out overhead.
In some 24 years of government service, I experienced my share of dissonance when it came to what was said in public and what the government did behind the public’s back. In most cases, the gap was filled with scared little men and women, and what was left unsaid just hid the mistakes and flaws of those anonymous functionaries.
What I saw while serving the State Department at a forward operating base in Iraq was, however, different. There, the space between what we were doing (the eye-watering waste and mismanagement), and what we were saying (the endless claims of success and progress), was filled with numb soldiers and devastated Iraqis, not scaredy-cat bureaucrats.
That was too much for even a well-seasoned cubicle warrior like me to ignore and so I wrote a book about it, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the War for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. I was on the spot to see it all happen, leading two Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in rural Iraq while taking part up close and personal in what the U.S. government was doing to, not for, Iraqis. Originally, I imagined that my book’s subtitle would be “Lessons for Afghanistan,” since I was hoping the same mistakes would not be endlessly repeated there. Sometimes being right doesn’t solve a damn thing.
The whole story makes for an interesting read, especially the part about how the book came to be published. You can read the original article about all this on TomDispatch.com.
The piece was also reprinted at a number of other sites:
My recent posting on TomDispatch included a contest, where readers sent in questions for me. TomDispatch chose the most interesting one for me to answer. The winner also got a signed copy of my book. My thanks to everyone who sent in questions. Here is the winner:
Does your experience since whistle-blowing indicate our government’s mere aversion to criticism, heightened by increasingly useful technology? Or, is it evidence of being actively targeted for disturbing the status-quo of ongoing operations?
As a smart person once said, the crux of the State Department’s ongoing failures is that it is an island: it is a very inward looking and massively bureaucratic organization, which spends the majority of its time serving its own internal clients rather than talking to foreigners, Congress and other government partners. Clinton has not addressed this problem. Instead she has created yet more layers within State through the appointment of at least three dozen Special Advisors and Envoys to serve her political constituencies. State has some great talent but it’s being swallowed in the bureaucracy.
The Department of State is also far too sensitive to criticism. While the military and the CIA almost enjoy the odd crank or critic, State is frightened that the slightest negative remark will mean Daddy does not love them anymore. Seriously, these people are like the worst abused person still hoping to be loved by his abuser. State is always getting its budget cut by Congress, always behind the curve when important decisions are made in the White House, always hoping to be cool like its big brothers in the Pentagon or CIA. Instead, the State Department finds itself increasingly useful in government only as a kind of overseas concierge, doing the clerical work of issuing visas and passports while hand-holding Congressional fact-finding visits to London and Paris.
Under such circumstances, someone like me coming along with a book screaming that the “Emperor has no clothes!” is very unwelcome. Worse than mere criticism, my book is criticism from inside, which rings all too true to other insiders and can’t be easily dismissed by outsiders. That is why the State Department has acted so vengefully against me, turning its Keystone Cop-like Diplomatic Security goons loose to drum up some unholy hodge-podge to use to fire me. It is kind of sad really, a once-proud Cabinet agency reduced to making up lies about an unimportant employee to protect itself from, well, itself.
At the same time, we live in an extraordinary age of growing Federal government power, where, for the first time, the Federal government has set out to systematically create a climate of fear in the US to enhance its own power. Fear of external things—terrorists, Communists, Nazis and the like has long been a trick card the government has used. But we are experiencing a change where in addition to fear of externals, the Federal Government wants us to fear it. So, Americans are subjected to pointless humiliation at the airport, and now routinely spied upon under the Orwellian-named “Patriot Act.” We watch our freedoms dissipate and our fear of the Government, that it will one day use a drone or a night raid to render one of us into a secret prison for torture, grow.
In such a world, dissent in any form, maybe every form, must be stomped on. And so, for writing a book and a blog, the Department of State has turned on me like an angry dog.
Enjoy your free book, it is on the way!
“Countries that restrict free access to information or violate the basic rights of internet users risk walling themselves off from the progress of the next century,” said SecState Hillary Clinton.
Clinton has made internet freedom and the rights of bloggers and journalists a cornerstone of her foreign policy, going as far as citing the free use of social media as a prime mover in the Arab Spring. At the Conference on Internet Freedom at the Hague, Clinton said:
When ideas are blocked, information deleted, conversations stifled, and people constrained in their choices, the internet is diminished for all of us.
In China, several dozen companies signed a pledge in October, committing to strengthen their – quote – “self-management, self-restraint, and strict self-discipline.” Now, if they were talking about fiscal responsibility, we might all agree. But they were talking about offering web-based services to the Chinese people, which is code for getting in line with the government’s tight control over the internet.
The United States wants the internet to remain a space where economic, political, and social exchanges flourish. To do that, we need to protect people who exercise their rights online.
Yet inside her own Department of State, Clinton presides over the censoring of the internet, blocking objectionable web sites that refer to Wikileaks, such as TomDispatch (above), while allowing sites that play to State’s own point of view, such as Fox.com, which also refer to Wikileaks. The use of specialized software and VPNs that State recommends to Iranians to circumvent the firewall block placed by the Tehran government are prohibited by the State Department to its own employees to get around State’s own firewall blocks.
While Clinton mocks Chinese companies, claiming terms like “self-management, self-restraint, and strict self-discipline” equate to censorship, her own Department’s social media guidance reminds employees to “be mindful of the weight of your expressed views as a U.S. government official,” and to “Remember that you are a Foreign Service USG employee.” Official guidance reminds employees that “All Department organizations with a social media site must monitor user-generated content,” and cites 27 laws and regulations that must be followed to be acceptable to the government. Self-censorship is the byword at State, as it is in China. Government bureaucrats know that this sort of slow-drip intimidation keeps people in line. They are meant to see what’s happening and remain silent.
One web site reported that when Matt Armstrong was hired as Executive Director for the now defunct Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, a condition to his hiring was to stop blogging. The condition was set by the office of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.
Whistleblower Ray McGovern was arrested merely for physically standing and turning his back on Clinton at a public rally where she was speaking about the importance of freedom of speech. Did Secretary of State Clinton say anything about the arrest?
She remained silent.
We do not.
TomDispatch offers a head-smacking piece on how far we have slid down that slippery slope into becoming just another crappy security state:
Sometimes a little distance is all it takes. I left town — and the country — for nine days, hardly a blink in time, but time enough, as it happened, for another small, airless room to be added to the American national security labyrinth. While I was gone, Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Jr., okayed new guidelines allowing the National Counterterrorism Center, a post-9/11 creation, to hold on to information about Americans in no way known to be connected to terrorism — about you and me, that is — for up to five years.
Joseph K., that icon of single-lettered anonymity from Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial, would undoubtedly have felt right at home in Clapper’s Washington… For most Americans, though, it was just life as we’ve known it since September 11, 2001, since we scared ourselves to death and accepted that just about anything goes, as long as it supposedly involves protecting us from terrorists.
Read the entire article on TomDispatch now.
On the same theme, we deviate slightly today from our usual fetid pile of snark and sarcasm to being you some rationale, intelligent commentary about the silliness of airport security screening as practiced in the US. Bruce Schneier writes:
(The Transportation Security Administration, TSA) wants us to trust that a 400-ml bottle of liquid is dangerous, but transferring it to four 100-ml bottles magically makes it safe. They want us to trust that the butter knives given to first-class passengers are nevertheless too dangerous to be taken through a security checkpoint. They want us to trust the no-fly list: 21,000 people so dangerous they’re not allowed to fly, yet so innocent they can’t be arrested. They want us to trust that the deployment of expensive full-body scanners has nothing to do with the fact that the former secretary of homeland security, Michael Chertoff, lobbies for one of the companies that makes them. They want us to trust that there’s a reason to confiscate a cupcake (Las Vegas), a 3-inch plastic toy gun (London Gatwick), a purse with an embroidered gun on it (Norfolk, VA), a T-shirt with a picture of a gun on it (London Heathrow) and a plastic lightsaber that’s really a flashlight with a long cone on top (Dallas/Fort Worth).
Increased fear is the final harm, and its effects are both emotional and physical. By sowing mistrust, by stripping us of our privacy—and in many cases our dignity—by taking away our rights, by subjecting us to arbitrary and irrational rules, and by constantly reminding us that this is the only thing between us and death by the hands of terrorists, the TSA and its ilk are sowing fear. And by doing so, they are playing directly into the terrorists’ hands.
The goal of terrorism is not to crash planes, or even to kill people; the goal of terrorism is to cause terror. Liquid bombs, PETN, planes as missiles: these are all tactics designed to cause terror by killing innocents. But terrorists can only do so much. They cannot take away our freedoms. They cannot reduce our liberties. They cannot, by themselves, cause that much terror. It’s our reaction to terrorism that determines whether or not their actions are ultimately successful. That we allow governments to do these things to us—to effectively do the terrorists’ job for them—is the greatest harm of all.
Read the entire article online.
TomDispatch tells us more about how we evolved into a country without much purpose abroad beyond targeted killing with our robots:
Put drones in a more familiar context, skip the awestruck commentary, and they should have been eerily familiar. We should have known that remotely piloted vehicles were heading toward us these last four decades, that they were, in fact, the most natural form of war for the All Volunteer Military (and the demobilized American public that went with it).
Go back to one of the most momentous, if underrated and little considered, decisions of the “American Century” — the decision, in the wake of Vietnam, to sever the military from potentially unruly draftees and create an all-professional army, while not backing down from the American global mission. The amateurs, a democratic citizenry, were demobilized, sent home, and sidelined as a new American way of war was launched that would grow ever more remote (as in “remotely piloted vehicle”) from most Americans, while corporations, not citizens, would be mobilized for our new wars.
Although early drone technology was already being used over North Vietnam, it’s in another sense entirely that drones have been heading into America’s future since 1973. There was an eerie logic to it: first came professional war, then privatized war, then mercenary and outsourced war — all of which made war ever more remote from most Americans. Finally, both literally and figuratively, came remote war itself.
Read the whole article now on TomDispatch.
The Daily Kos calls State out:
State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren writes in TomDispatch today about the escalating retaliation taken against him since he wrote a book about massive reconstruction fraud in Iraq.
Even as the Secretary of State rails against suppression of free speech abroad, the State Department continues to retaliate and threaten Van Buren for a book written in his personal capacity on his personal time.
And Van Buren understands – unfortunately firsthand – the unjust consequences that too often come with following one’s conscience. If the State Department is to promote freedom of speech abroad, it should start with protecting speech – even dissenting speech – from its own employees.
Isn’t this just a little embarrassing Madame Secretary? Aren’t you just a little ashamed at the gap between what you say and what your organization does? Because even if you don’t know or don’t care, others are watching.
Have you no shame Madame?
Read the full article on the Daily Kos.
Starting off 2012 by looking back to look forward, TomDispatch features a stinging piece titled How Two Wars in the Greater Middle East Revealed the Weakness of the Global Superpower. The question being answered is the obvious one, about winning and losing, and what those terms mean, in Iraq and Afghanistan.
With the current phase of the Iraq War now over and the US troops mostly out of Iraq, TomDispatch is pretty clear on what defines the loss:
If you want a simple gauge of the depths of America’s debacle in the oil heartlands of the planet, consider just how the final unit of American troops left Iraq. According to Tim Arango and Michael Schmidt of the New York Times, they pulled out at 2:30 a.m. in the dead of night. No helicopters off rooftops, but 110 vehicles setting out in the dark from Contingency Operating Base Adder. The day before they left, according to the Times reporters, the unit’s interpreters were ordered to call local Iraqi officials and sheiks with whom the Americans had close relations and make future plans, as if everything would continue in the usual way in the week to come.
In other words, the Iraqis were meant to wake up the morning after to find their foreign comrades gone, without so much as a goodbye. This is how much the last American unit trusted its closest local allies. After shock and awe, the taking of Baghdad, the mission-accomplished moment, and the capture, trial, and execution of Saddam Hussein, after Abu Ghraib and the bloodletting of the civil war, after the surge and the Sunni Awakening movement, after the purple fingers and the reconstruction funds gone awry, after all the killing and the dying, the U.S. military slipped into the night without a word.
As for the real lesson:
As it turned out, the power of the U.S. military was threateningly impressive, but only until George W. Bush pulled the trigger twice. In doing so, he revealed to the world that the U.S. could not win distant land wars against minimalist enemies or impose its will on two weak countries in the Greater Middle East. Another reality was exposed as well, even if it has taken time to sink in: we no longer live on a planet where it’s obvious how to leverage staggering advantages in military technology into any other kind of power. In the process, all the world could see what the United States was: the other declining power of the Cold War era.
Be sure to read the whole piece at TomDispatch for an important perspective as we move in 2012.
Tom Engelhardt, whose website TomDispatch provides daily evidence of America’s decline into a large, angry child abroad, has a new book coming out that ties together a number of threads from recent history supporting his thesis (Tom, it should be noted, runs The American Empire Project, which helped publish my own book).
Here’s some advance information on Tom’s latest work, The United States of Fear:
In 2008, when the U.S. National Intelligence Council issued its latest report meant for the administration of newly elected President Barack Obama, it predicted that the planet’s “sole superpower” would suffer a modest decline and a soft landing fifteen years hence.
In his new book The United States of Fear, Tom Engelhardt makes clear that Americans should don their crash helmets and buckle their seat belts, because the United States is on the path to a major decline at a startling speed. Engelhardt offers a savage anatomy of how successive administrations in Washington took the “Soviet path”—pouring American treasure into the military, war, and national security—and so helped drive their country off the nearest cliff.
This is the startling tale of how fear was profitably shot into the national bloodstream, how the country—gripped by terror fantasies—was locked down, and how a brain-dead Washington elite fiddled (and profited) while America quietly burned. Think of it as the story of how the Cold War really ended, with the triumphalist “sole superpower” of 1991 heading slowly for the same exit through which the Soviet Union left the stage twenty years earlier.
Better yet, read Tom’s own comments on his book, and the relationship between the Occupy Wall Street movement and the decline of the Empire.
The United States of Fearis available now as a preorder on Amazon.com!
If you’ve surfed over from the excerpt from my book on TomDispatch, or you’ve read the chapter entitled “Chicken Shit” in the book, you know all about the $2.58 million failed chicken processing plant in Iraq your tax dollars paid for.
But could you imagine the scene? To help out, here are some photos from the actual plant, including an image from the chicken beheading room not usually shown to visitors. Mmmm… tasty.
Best of all, KPFK 90.7 FM in L.A radio host Jon Weiner located actual US Army propaganda video of the chicken plant.
When watching the video (yeah, you tax dollars paid for that too), be sure to note the sign at the very beginning, and the line in the narration that says the plant employs 400 Iraqis. See if you can spot more than 10 working there.
When we can’t even get the propaganda right, it is really time to go home troops.
While Van Buren may be ratcheting up his rhetoric against State over the last 24 hours, he’s been criticizing the department and the U.S. government pretty much ever since he launched his personal blog in April as a supplement to We Meant Well. In one of his first posts, entitled “Bureaucratic Chlamydia,” Van Buren described the “half-assed nature” in which the State Department prepared “people like me to live and work in a war zone.”
A month later, Van Buren noted that while the State Department was spending millions to end web censorship overseas, it was censoring TomDispatch, the site he contributed to, in its own offices because TomDispatch ran content from WikiLeaks. Van Buren’s taken his criticism outside the blog as well. In a piece for TomDispatch in June, for example, he questioned State’s long-term plans for Iraq.
The Net is abuzz today with the irony, that Peter Van Buren, a 23-year foreign service officer with the U.S Department of State, may be the only department personnel to be fired over the WikiLeaks’ scandal. Van Buren, who just published the book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of Iraqi People this week, relayed in a powerful column at TomDispatch this morning how he was called in, interrogated and accused of disclosing classified material. His crime? Embedding links to WikiLeaked cables in a post on his personal blog.
The State Department is going after the messenger, but we need to keep a laser focus on the message: that our post-invasion efforts to “reconstruct” Iraq in the name of “counterinsurgency” has been a gigantic failure, the proportions of which we will still be measuring for years to come.
The story of my interrogation by the State Department, over a link dating from August on my blog to a Wikileaks document already on the web (I was accused of disclosing classified information because of the link!) is all over the web.
If you have not read it at TomDispatch, or are a State Department employee blocked by a firewall from reading TomDispatch, you can still see the article on a growing number of mirrors:
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