Am I going too fast for you? Then, take a breath, buckle on your seatbelt, put on your helmet, check your oxygen gauge, and then let me beam these stories up to you one at a time (along with a few other gems stored in the Mother Ship of my brain).
George's Half-Step Program to Energy Independence So this was the year that the President of Oil discovered we were "addicted" to the stuff and, worse yet, that it came from "unstable parts of the world" -- hold on a sec, while I fill my gas tank -- but he also came up with a solution! Thanks to his Advanced Energy Initiative, ethanol, essentially a corn product, would power us into the future along with hybrid car engines and the odd nuclear power plant. Twenty years from now, he assured us in his State of the Union Address, we more or less won't know the Middle East exists.
Though our brush-cutting President did mention wood chips and switch grass, ethanol is essentially a corn product; and corn is our petroleum farm crop of choice, since growing it in quantity involves massive infusions of oil-based chemical fertilizer. So maybe we should consider George's ethanol-fix like one of those nicotine patches for cigarette smokers. Throw in some leftover radioactive waste from those nuclear plants his administration would love to hug into existence and it all made perfect sense to me... until the next day when an administration that had never heard of no-backsies took it all back. The President's suggestion about making 75% of Middle Eastern oil imports go away "was purely an example," insisted an embarrassed Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman. And anyway, it turned out that none of it really mattered since, as Paul Krugman pointed out: "[T]he National Renewable Energy Laboratory is about to lay off staff because of budget cuts. ?A veteran researcher,' reports The New York Times, ?said the staff had been told that the cuts would be concentrated among researchers in wind and biomass, which includes ethanol.'" Of course, the President and his men generated enough wind last week to create a little extra power -- if only we'd put some money into alternative fuels.
By the way, elsewhere in the world -- and yes, in case you didn't notice, there is an elsewhere -- King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia set off on his first trip outside the Middle East, perfectly timed to the President's desire to ditch the whole region. (And given what's happened to him there, you can't blame the guy, can you?) The Saudi king, in search of reliable allies, boarded his plane and promptly headed for... China. At his blog, The Dreyfuss Report, Robert Dreyfuss sums up administration oil planning in the Middle East thusly:
"America's military effort to secure hegemony over the world's oil deposits in the Gulf looks like this: Iraq, a mess, governed by Iran-linked Shiites; Iran, angry once again at the Great Satan and looking toward Russia and China; and Saudi Arabia, the big enchilada, starting to learn to speak Chinese. Some hegemony."
Encouraging Energy Independence in Iraq: In his State of the Union Address, the President once again invoked victory in discussing the war in Iraq -- "Fellow citizens, we are in this fight to win, and we are winning. (Applause.) The road of victory is the road that will take our troops home." At a taxpayer cost of at least $4.5 billion a month, the price of "victory" in Iraq is now (in case you're curious) an estimated $100,000 a minute. Strangely, though, the President never mentioned how Iraq, with staggering oil reserves, might actually aid his plan for American energy independence from the Middle East. Who remembers those three to five million barrels of oil that Paul Wolfowitz and other administration neocons once knew the Iraqis would be pumping in next to no time at all, giving them the wherewithal to pay for us for occupying them, setting up permanent bases on their territory, and (unlike ET) never going home. After all, as Wolfowitz put it way back in May 2003, Iraq "floats on a sea of oil." ("The oil revenue of that country could bring between 50 and 100 billion dollars over the course of the next two or three years. We're dealing with a country that could really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon.")
Well, in the years since our "cakewalk" invasion, oil production in Iraq has taken a slightly different turn. At about 2.5 million barrels a day in the final days of Saddam's rule, output nosedived by another 8% last year, reaching 1.5 million barrels a day, and is probably significantly below that now. In fact, it's been dropping faster than the President's polling numbers -- and last week, just as George was touting our coming victory in Iraq, rebels there mortared a major petroleum facility in Kirkuk, setting it ablaze, and hitting an important pipeline to Turkey. An Iraqi executive with the North Oil Co. called it the "most severe attack we have ever faced on an oil installation." So far, thanks to American "reconstruction" and insurgent sabotage, Baghdad has been liberated from all but a few hours a day of electricity. Soon, the whole country (and so the world) may be able to declare its independence from any significant amount of exportable Iraqi oil -- making it a model for energy independence on the planet.
Oh, and while we're talking about Iraq, we Americans are a proud, traditionalist nation and one of our more regular traditions of recent years has been firing missiles into crowded streets, or small villages across those lands long labeled an "arc of instability," knocking off innocent civilians, including women and children. After each such incident, our military announces an investigation that fades into space and out of media memory without any spokesperson ever having to utter the words, "We're sorry." (That's a matter of principle!)
On January 13, a Predator drone shot a Hellfire missile into a house in a Pakistani village near the Afghan border in a botched assassination attempt against al-Qaeda number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Of course, the requisite group of women and children was murdered in the process. Then, last Thursday, a U.S. helicopter, reportedly fired on by gunmen from a rooftop in Sadr City, the vast Shiite slum in Baghdad, sent one or more missiles into a crowded street, killing a 20 year old woman, Ikhlas Abdul-Hussein, and wounding a two-year old child. Admittedly, we haven't hit a wedding party -- a sub-specialty of our Air Force -- since 2004, but last week American soldiers did their best to make up for that oversight by extending another small tradition, shooting up the cars of diplomats in and around Baghdad. A trigger-happy gunner on an American convoy in that city's Green Zone riddled a vehicle ("with a Maple Leaf flag plastered to the windshield") occupied by a group of Canadian diplomats, including the Acting Ambassador. Miraculously, no one was hit. The Canadians, a sober lot, claimed they were driving slowly and at a careful distance from the convoy. The Americans insisted their car was overtaking the convoy at a rapid speed and that they had ignored warning hand-signals. The obligatory meaningless investigation is now underway, while "the Bush administration voiced regret but, so far, no official apology." (Canada, mind you, has just elected a conservative Prime Minister, friendly to Washington, but never saying sorry is a near-Constitutional matter and allies, after all, are only allies.)
Meanwhile, from the news desk of the future -- but released this week -- the Pentagon has plans to create a new "Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron" under the ever-expanding U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). Undoubtedly, in the never-ending search for victims, it will be tasked "to go boldly where no drone has gone before."
Money Makes the World Go Boom! Here's a genuine surprise: In his new budget, the President, who last week declared himself boldly determined, as the Washington Post put it, to "constrain the massive entitlement programs for the elderly and the poor," and "carve money from Medicaid," is proposing a 5% rise in funds for the hapless Department of Homeland Confusion (er... Security), and another 5% rise for the Pentagon. The Pentagon's budget is slated to come in at a mere $439.3 billion, but here's the curious thing -- it includes no funds for the Afghan or Iraqi wars, minimally estimated at $120 billion next year. Makes sense, no? Who would put the costs of actual warfare in the budget of what was once the War Department before we spread our military across the globe and renamed it the Department of Defense?
The Pentagon's just released Quadrennial Defense Review puts great weight on fighting the war on terror for eons to come and, in preparation, a series of weapons systems that have nothing to do with that "war" are getting infusions of extra funds. Following the sort of sacrificial behavior for which the Pentagon is well known, not a single major weapons system has even been modestly cut back. In other words, weapons-entitlement programs are alive and well in America. (As the insider Nelson Report pointed out recently: Since 2001, in current dollars, the Pentagon budget has experienced "a 41% increase, exclusive of the supplemental allocations for Iraq, Afghanistan, and the [Global War on Terror].")
To celebrate their prospective good fortune, the six Chiefs of the Joint Chiefs of Staff pointedly launched... a letter-writing assault on a cartoonist. No kidding. As Paul Woodward of the War in Context website put it, this "24-star letter" was aimed at protesting a Tom Toles cartoon ("beyond tasteless") in the Washington Post that used an armless, legless soldier in a hospital bed to mock Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld for "breaking" the Army. You can only hope that the Chiefs are better at fighting a war than (mis)interpreting a cartoon.
A small sartorial suggestion to head Chief, Gen. Peter Pace: I wouldn't put that "beyond tasteless" slogan on a T-shirt and wear it to an official do in Washington, given the endless T-shirt wars the Bush administration has been fighting for years at its campaign events nationwide. These burst out again in the galleries of the House of Representatives the night of the State of the Union. Police roughly arrested, handcuffed, and briefly charged Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier who died in Iraq and a guest of Representative Lynn Woolsey of California, for wearing a T-shirt with the treasonous slogan, "2,245 Dead. How Many More?" They also ejected Beverly Young, wife of Republican Representative Bill Young of Florida, Chairman of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, for wearing a T-shirt "bearing words of support for U.S. Troops." (Then again, if I remember my song lyrics correctly, isn't freedom just another word for nothing left to wear?)
While the Joint Chiefs face down a cartoonist and the administration fights its war on T-shirt terror, let me return to the subject of mega-money and entitlements for a moment. Last week, the President reassured Exxon Mobil Corporation, which had just announced record profits of $10.71 billion for the fourth quarter of 2005, that Americans should not expect any price breaks from a genuinely entitled winner while waiting for their future ethanol fix. "I think that basically the price is determined by the marketplace," he told the Associated Press, "and that's the way it should be."
Hi-ho, Hi-ho, It's Off to the Longest War We Go: Language, what would the Bush administration do without it? One of John Wayne's famous lines was, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." And the Bush administration is actively of that linguistic school. Of course, when reality bites you in the you-know-what and you can't do a heck of a lot about it, what are you going to do but re-label your product? In this way, the "war on terror," aka, "the Global War on Terror," aka "GWOT," aka "World War IV," aka "the Global Struggle against Violent Extremism," has just become, by administration fiat, "the Longest War" (a phrase that's been hanging around unloved in Neocon Land for a long time, though it's now being attributed to former Centcom Commander John Abizaid. It's undoubtedly been chosen because the President's lovely global "war" has gone on remarkably... well, long.
The phrase was on the President's lips last Tuesday night. It led off the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review, released last week. It was mentioned by various administration officials and promoted heavily by Donald Rumsfeld, who was also plugging a world in which, as Lolita Baldor of AP reported, "despite progress in fighting terrorism, the threat today may be greater than ever before because the available weapons are far more dangerous." In a speech at the National Press Club, subtly entitled, "The Long War," the Don touched all the bases. He compared Osama bin Laden to Adolf Hitler and Vladimir Lenin, and claimed we were in a "generational conflict" like the Cold War of which Iraq and Afghanistan were merely the "early battles." Meanwhile, across town, our intelligence tsar was assuring Congress that U.S. "intelligence reporting" -- why am I already losing confidence in this statement? -- "indicates that nearly 40 terrorist organizations, insurgencies, or cults have used, possessed, or expressed an interest in chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear agents or weapons." (Somewhere in all this, I think I can hear Karl Rove conducting a midterm election campaign based on the only card this administration still has in its hand: the fear of terrorism.)
Still, I suspect "the Long War" will soon join the "Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism" in the dust bin of history. In fact, on naming its terror war, the Bush administration could probably use a little help. How about the Scare-You-to-Death-Struggle-for-Global-Ethanol-Independence-and-Republican-Electoral-Victories War (or SYTDSFGEIAREVW)? If that doesn't work for you, the Nation magazine's Katrina van den Heuvel is ready to lend a hand. Having already published her hilarious The Dictionary of Republicanisms, she's now launching a contest to capture the essence of GWOT-ability (a little like guacamole) in a single, punchy name.
Club Homeland Detention: Halliburton, the first corporation into Iraq, contractually speaking, and the biggest financial winner in the "reconstruction" sweepstakes for that deconstructed country, fortuitously also found itself perched right atop the list of post-Katrina New Orleans reconstruction contractors. Now, through its subsidiary KBR, known for building military bases to last, as well as Guantanamo's infamous "cages," Halliburton gets a shot at the real American thing -- actual emergency detention centers for "immigrants" -- or, hey, in a crisis, for whomever. The Army Corps of Engineers awarded it a contract last month -- though the story only oozed out this week -- worth up to $385 million (not including the near-obligatory overcharges) for, according to the New York Times, "an unexpected influx of immigrants, to house people in the event of a natural disaster or for new programs that require additional detention space." It's those "new programs" that give special pause.
They Fought the Law and the Law Lost: Finally, in the week that just was, our President and his top officials continued their vigorous efforts to rewrite the Constitution. They took up the National Security Agency warrantless spying, evidently had an unannounced constitutional convention in the White House, called on the peerless minds of various White House and justice department lawyers, asked the Attorney General (former White House Counsel, former General Counsel, and friend) Alberto Gonzales for his honest opinion, and then had the good sense to double check with lawyers at the NSA to make sure everything that agency had been doing was genuinely and legally below board and utterly constitutional. Finally, they turned the whole ball of wax over to Karl Rove, who recognized an election issue when he saw one, and next thing you knew, there was the President, at the State of the Union, insisting, as in some Avon ad, that al-Qaeda was calling and it was darn tootin' constitutional as all get out to listen in on what's conveniently been relabeled "a terrorist surveillance program" (no genuine citizens allowed to join!).
I suppose, based on that unbelievably dreary textbook you had to read back in junior high civics class, you thought amending the Constitution took a two-thirds vote of each house of Congress and then passage by three-quarters of the states. Silly you! It only takes two-thirds of the President's brain, three-quarters of the Vice President's brain, and 100% of his Chief of Staff David Addington's brain; toss in the odd administration lawyer or two to check the fine print, and, as they say in one province of Canada (don't shoot!), Voilà!
Now, unbuckle those straps, take that helmet off, and relax. It's a new week. Enjoy yourself!
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War. His novel, The Last Days of Publishing, has recently come out in paperback.
Copyright 2006 Tom Engelhardt
This piece first appeared at Tomdispatch.com.