One-Way Planet

By Tom Engelhardt
How the range of what's debatable, what's "normal" in US news reports has narrowed in recent years

Thu Mar. 24, 2005 3:00 AM EST

By Tom Engelhardt

Quote of the day: "I don't think that the world gives us the luxury of picking areas," [Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas] Feith said. "We have interests all over the world. I dare say that if anybody before September 11, 2001, was listing places that we would want to focus on as a matter of priority, Afghanistan would have been rather low on the list." (John Hedren, Policy OKs First Strike to Protect US, the Los Angeles Times)

At breakfast a couple of weeks back, having made my way through the sports section and chomping on the last of a morning bagel, I picked up the front-page of my hometown paper and a headline caught my eye -- Data Lacking on Iran's Arms, U.S. Panel Says. Not exactly a barnburner, but I was curious nonetheless. The piece by reporters Douglas Jehl and Eric Schmitt focused on a "nine-member bipartisan presidential panel, led by Laurence Silberman, a retired federal judge, and Charles S. Robb, a former governor and senator from Virginia." Appointed by the President, evidently to look into the state of American intelligence, the panel had been given "unrestricted access to the most senior people and the most sensitive documents of the intelligence agencies," and was soon due to report back to Bush. However, material from its report had been leaked to the two New York Times reporters, who led with what seemed the news of the second:

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"A commission due to report to President Bush this month will describe American intelligence on Iran as inadequate to allow firm judgments about Iran's weapons programs, according to people who have been briefed on the panel's work."

The piece was fairly typical of this sort of reporting in our imperial press. If anything, the anonymous sourcing was even vaguer than usual: That "according to people who have been briefed" was about as specific as it got, revealing next to nothing to a reader who wasn't a devotee of inside-the-Beltway, intra-bureaucratic wars. Perhaps this was another leak in the CIA's ongoing guerrilla struggle with the President (and new Agency boss, Porter Goss). Perhaps those well-briefed souls or spooks came from somewhere else entirely.

Still, to an outsider, it did look as though the information might have been leaked by someone (or ones) disturbed by the administration's drive to find, twist, or create evidence for a reasonably imminent Iranian bomb (and so by the campaign lurking behind those claims to take out the present Iranian regime in a repeat of our recent Iraqi experience). You might then say that this piece, however drab and obscure, was on the side of the gods.

What actually struck me, however, were the following paragraphs which lay at the heart of the piece:

"One person who described the panel's deliberations and conclusions characterized American intelligence on Iran as ‘scandalous,' given the importance and relative openness of the country, compared with such an extreme case as North Korea.

"That person and others who have been briefed on the panel's work would not be more specific in describing the inadequacies. But former government officials who are experts on Iran say that while American intelligence agencies have devoted enormous resources to Iran since the Islamic revolution of 1979, they have had little success in the kinds of human spying necessary to understand Iranian decision-making.

"Among the major setbacks, former intelligence officials have said, was the successful penetration in the late 1980's by Iranian authorities of the principal American spy network inside the country, which was being run from a C.I.A. station in Frankfurt. The arrests of reported American spies was known at the time, but the impact on American intelligence reverberated as late as the mid-1990's."

Now, for anyone, there are moments when the norm falls away and the previously normal suddenly seems slightly absurd. Sitting over the breakfast table, pondering these paragraphs, I found myself trying to imagine what this piece would look like from an Iranian point of view; or rather, I tried to imagine the unimaginable -- an Iranian equivalent:

On the front page of the English-language Tehran Times or a major Iranian paper, two journalists report on a special commission established by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to reassess Iranian intelligence. They describe the news leaked to them: Iranian intelligence on the United States is now a hopeless scandal, the commission report will say, even though the U.S. is a reasonably "open" country. Thanks to a major setback two decades ago, the roll-up by the FBI of an Iranian spy network centered in Washington DC (but operating out of Halifax, Canada), Iranian intelligence has next to no boots on the ground at a moment when nothing is more important than grasping the contours of the U.S. nuclear program. (This is crucial, though the piece doesn't quite say so, because the government is considering an air attack on key American nuclear sites in the near future.) "It is scandalous," the Iranian reporters quote their "well briefed" sources as saying, "a genuine failure of Iranian intelligence," and given the importance of the issue, the implications are clear: It must be rectified.

Of course, were the Iranian press to publish such a piece (inconceivable for so many reasons), can you imagine the reaction here? An open discussion -- call it, from the American perspective, an admission -- on the front-page of a major paper in a hostile nation of their previous failure to sustain massive spy operations inside our country and of the obvious need to rectify that failure? Just think what Russ Limbaugh or the pundits at Fox news, no less the major TV networks, would do with that one. My guess is that it would be taken as little short of a cause for war.

And yet, we do feel quite free to appoint commissions to look into such matters and then to discuss them on the front pages of our newspapers -- and the full range of discussion on such subjects these days runs only from whether our intelligence on Iran and its nuclear program is too "inadequate" for the judgments necessary to take further action against that country to just how large a network to set up within Iran to get us the information that it is our right to have. That is normalcy.

The thought that there might be anything strange about setting up massive spy operations inside another country (or, in fact, inside, above, and around just about any country on Earth) is really now beyond discussion, beyond thought. This is hardly surprising in an America where it's assumed that our "intelligence community" must grow ever vaster via an ever proliferating set of agencies, ever better funded, for ever more covert acts, done ever more freely in ever more places.

To think otherwise increasingly -- and in an increasing range of areas -- has come to feel unnatural. And to consider what our assumptions might look like from the perspective of other peoples, other nations, is really beyond the bounds -- not so much impermissible as just something that never comes to mind. Of course, the whole thrust of the Bush administration has been to emphasize that the United States has a right to do anything -- forget international treaties, alliances, conventions, usages, agreements, opinion, or even the issue of national sovereignty -- without regard to others; and, so far, in terms of what can be brought up in the American mainstream, they have been remarkably successful in advancing this perspective.

Globe-girding Bombs and Hunter-Killer Planes

Think of this dispatch then as a little series of thought experiments, bouncing off recent news reports, meant to indicate how the range of what's debatable, what's "normal," what simply comes to mind, has narrowed in recent years.

But first a couple of news reports from the Washington Post. On March 16, in a piece headlined Pentagon Has Far-Reaching Defense Spacecraft in Works, Walter Pincus wrote:

"The Pentagon is working to develop a suborbital space capsule within the next five years that would be launched from the United States and could deliver conventional weapons anywhere in the world within two hours, defense officials said… Because CAVs [Common Aero Vehicles], unlike missiles, can be recalled, they could be launched toward a potential target even before a final decision was made to attack… The first-generation CAV, expected to be ready by 2010, will have ‘an incredible capability to provide the warfighter with a global reach capability against high payoff targets,' Gen. Lance W. Lord, commander of Air Force Space Command, told the House Armed Services Committee last Wednesday… The system could, Lord said, ‘deliver a conventional payload precisely on target within minutes of a valid command and control release order…' Last October, the Pentagon announced deployment of its first mobile ground-based system that could temporarily disrupt satellite-based communications from an enemy satellite."

And on March 22, Pincus, on the high-tech weaponry beat, reported (Predator to See More Combat):

"The newest version of the Air Force's Predator unpiloted aircraft will perform primarily ‘hunter-killer' missions, according to newly available Pentagon documents… According to unclassified budget material, ‘The aircraft is being designed primarily to prosecute critical emerging time-sensitive targets as a radar-based attack asset with on-board hard-kill capability.' The Predator B will fly at 50,000 feet, twice the altitude capable by its predecessor, and will carry seven times the munitions load. It will be able to stay aloft for more than 30 hours, covering targets hundreds of miles from its land base."

Pincus is a skilled reporter, but the pieces are essentially technical in nature. Even the term "hunter-killer" isn't defined or discussed, although the Pentagon's ground based versions of the same -- "hunter-killer teams" -- are essentially meant to be international assassination squads sent out to "kick down the doors" of sovereignty and kill our assumed enemies wherever they may be, whenever we choose to do so.

So in the near enough future we'll have both land and airborne "hunter-killer" assassination capabilities and a weapon, hovering in the previously unweaponized heavens, capable of landing powerful munitions almost instantly anywhere on Earth. What we're clearly dealing with here is the Pentagon version of a hunter-killer principle raised to a planetary level, though none of this -- including the subject of giving free rein to an international assassination regime -- is likely to be considered or discussed in such pieces or others on similar subjects.

However, all of this, as Pincus indicates, has to be put in the context of the newest Pentagon document, the National Defense Strategy just signed by Donald Rumsfeld, which defines priorities for the various branches of the military in the coming years. It should be read, but it's been well summed up by the indefatigable Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service. In essence, it emphasizes preemptive war; codifies "preventive" war; endorses unilateralism in global affairs; denies safety from attack to those nations that do not "exercise their sovereignty responsibly" or that "use the principle of sovereignty as a shield" for nefarious activities, as we define them; and, as Lobe summarizes the document, insists that U.S. freedom of action must also be assured "in and from the global commons, including space and cyberspace, as well as international waters and airspace… Key goals ...are to ensure our access to and use of space, and to deny hostile exploitation of space to adversaries."

It's in this context that we might consider a front-page, anonymously-sourced, New York Times piece Steven R. Weisman wrote on March 22, headlined Europeans Said to Keep Embargo on Arms to China. Datelined Washington, it begins:

"Yielding to pressure from President Bush and threats of retaliation from Congress, the European Union has put off plans to lift its arms embargo on China this spring and may not press the issue until next year, American and European officials said Monday. The officials said that in addition to American pressure, European nations have been shaken by the recent adoption of legislation by the Chinese National People's Congress authorizing the use of force to stop Taiwan from seceding. The Chinese action, they said, jolted France and undercut its moves to end the embargo before June."

Now, let's try to imagine the unimaginable, a mirror-image piece in the leading Chinese paper, the People's Daily:

Beijing -- Yielding to pressure from President Hu Jintao and threats of retaliation from the National People's Congress, the European Union has put off plans to lift its arms embargo on the United States this spring and may not press the issue until next year, Chinese and European officials said Monday. The officials said that in addition to Chinese pressure, European nations have been shaken by the Pentagon's recent adoption of a planning document that would authorize the employment of high-technology weaponry and the use of force globally, without reference to sovereignty, to assassinate foes of choice or make war on any nation that it declares not to have used its "sovereignty responsibly." The Pentagon's action, they said, jolted France and undercut its moves to end the embargo before June.

Alternately, imagine a People's Daily piece that began this way:

Beijing -- Chinese military officials announced last week that Chinese scientists are working on a suborbital spacecraft, launchable from China by the year 2010, and capable of delivering conventional weapons anywhere in the world within two hours. In addition, the same military officials indicated that a new generation of Chinese unpiloted aircraft would soon be in the skies ready to undertake "hunter-killer" missions anywhere that China's enemies may reside. These two developments were backed up by the Chinese military's new strategic assessment of its mission in the world, made public this week, that declared no nation committing acts the Chinese considered dangerous to its homeland security would be able to hide behind the "shield of national sovereignty."

Okay, dream on. But if you don't think that there would be both panic and outrage in this country, given the appearance of anything like either of the above pieces, you're the dreamer. As it happens, the American desire to force the Europeans to continue their embargo on China is based on an expansion of Chinese military power far more modest than anything dreamed of in the Pentagon's heavens.

Mission Creep (or Is It Leap?)

On March 19, Ann Scott Tyson of the Washington Post offered an interesting portrait of our over-stretched military in crisis (Two Years Later, Iraq War Drains Military): its recruitment problems, its strains, its equipment breakdowns, and its fears for the future. ("'What keeps me awake at night is, what will this all-volunteer force look like in 2007?' Gen. Richard A. Cody, Army vice chief of staff, said at a Senate hearing this week.") This sense of crisis has, for instance, forced the National Guard and Reserves to raise their recruitment age limits from 34 to 40; and recruiters, even with ever richer financial inducements to offer, are still struggling to fill quotas. Quite typically, though, Tyson's piece assumes that there is only one solution imaginable to the crisis. As she puts it:

"The Iraq war has also led to a drop in the overall readiness of U.S. ground forces to handle threats at home and abroad, forcing the Pentagon to accept new risks -- even as military planners prepare for a global anti-terrorism campaign that administration officials say could last for a generation. Stretched by Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States lacks a sufficiently robust ability to put large numbers of ‘boots on the ground' in case of a major emergency elsewhere, such as the Korean Peninsula, in the view of some Republican and Democratic lawmakers and some military leaders. They are skeptical of the Pentagon's ability to substitute air and naval power, and they believe strongly that what the country needs is a bigger Army."

Of course, she's only quoting "some Republican and Democratic lawmakers and some military leaders," but I can assure you that you can search the mainstream press high and low without finding a reported piece suggesting another obvious response to the present crisis -- the scaling back of the American global mission. It is, by now, simply beyond discussion that we should garrison the planet. The question is never really the mission (as opposed to how to accomplish it more effectively), though we would obviously need less troops and a far smaller Pentagon if our orientation to the world and to "global force projection" were different – if, that is, the Pentagon were actually a "defense department." This not only isn't a subject up for discussion anywhere in the mainstream any more, it doesn't even come to mind.

There is, for example, no equivalent in the present day to Senator J. William Fulbright, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the Vietnam Era. No Fulbright-like figure will soon be writing a book about us entitled The Arrogance of Power. ("Power," as he wrote in 1966, "has a way of undermining judgment, of planting delusions of grandeur in the minds of otherwise sensible people and otherwise sensible nations.") Though Robert Byrd, the last senatorial leftover from that era, has said similar things, he's a completely marginalized figure in the Senate today.

Similarly, let's consider another recent Tyson piece out of the Pentagon. On March 11, under the headline U.S. Gaining World's Respect From Wars, Rumsfeld Asserts, Tyson began a piece on some testimony before the House Armed Services Committee by our Secretary of Defense this way: "Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld upheld the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan yesterday as powerful demonstrations of U.S. military prowess that will make other countries think twice about making 'mischief' around the world."

In addition to suggesting that there were great advantages in creating "a force of ‘battle-hardened veterans' whose overthrow of the Taliban government in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq erased doubts in the minds of the nation's friends and foes over U.S. willingness to use force and stay the course of conflicts," Rumsfeld seems to have suggested, by Tyson's account, a curious new post-Cold War form of deterrence. She quotes him as saying, "The world has seen, in the last 3 1/2 years, the capability of the United States of America to go into Afghanistan . . . and with 20,000, 15,000 troops working with the Afghans do what 200,000 Soviets couldn't do in a decade. They've seen the United States and the coalition forces go into Iraq. . . . That has to have a deterrent effect on people."

Now, I think anyone might admit that there's something striking in Rumsfeld comparing our Afghan War to the Soviet one; and, as it happens, Tyson did record a muted critical note among our congressional representatives on hearing his testimony. "Lawmakers," she wrote, "asked Rumsfeld to solve a shortage of jammers to counteract road bombs that have killed many U.S. troops in Iraq."

In fact, comments like Rumsfeld's, documents like the new National Security Strategy, and articles like Tyson's on our overstretched military and the need to strengthen it in order to fulfill our global "responsibilities" are everyday parts of what passes for public discourse in this country. Nobody thinks them at all strange. But imagine the Russian version of them in Pravda ("Years Later, War in Chechnya Drains Military"):

Moscow -- The Russian Army is suffering from a loss of new recruits due to the war in Chechnya, according to recent reports from military officials. The unexpectedly heavy demands of sustained ground combat are depleting military manpower and gear faster than they can be fully replenished. Shortfalls in recruiting and backlogs in needed equipment are taking a toll, and growing numbers of units have been broken apart or taxed by repeated deployments. "What keeps me awake at night is, what will this force look like in 2007?" General Yury Baluyevsky, head of the Russian General Staff, said at a Duma Foreign Affairs Committee hearing this week.

Only hours after the hearing ended, President Vladimir Putin pointed out that the Russian mission against "terrorists" must be bolstered, the conflict in Chechnya pursued to its successful conclusion, and the armed forces strengthened radically. There were, he pointed out, great advantages in creating "a force of battle-hardened veterans whose defeat of the Chechnyan bandits has erased doubts in the minds of the nation's friends and foes over Russian willingness to use force and stay the course of conflicts. That has to have a deterrent effect on people." Some Russian officials also worried that Russia lacks a sufficiently robust ability to put large numbers of "boots on the ground" in case of a major emergency elsewhere, such as in El Savador or Mexico. They are skeptical of the Russian military's ability to substitute air and naval power, and they believe strongly that what the country needs most is a bigger Army."

Call me an apocalypt, but I think the denunciations of such statements here -- and undoubtedly actions stronger than that -- would come hard and fast.

Alas, Babylon

Just to mention a final act -- though not the sort of thing you're likely to find front-paged in our press, not the sort of thing likely to cause a media stir in the US of A -- let me quote from a report in the British Guardian (later passed on by the Associated Press). Written by Rory McCarthy and Maev Kennedy, the January 15 piece Babylon wrecked by war began:

"Troops from the US-led force in Iraq have caused widespread damage and severe contamination to the remains of the ancient city of Babylon, according to a damning report released today by the British Museum…The ancient city has been used by US and Polish forces as a military depot for the past two years, despite objections from archaeologists… [John Curtis, keeper of the museum's Ancient Near East department] saw a 2,600-year-old brick pavement crushed by military vehicles, archaeological fragments scattered across the site, and trenches driven into ancient deposits. Vast amounts of sand and earth, visibly mixed with archaeological fragments, were gouged from the site to fill thousands of sandbags and metal mesh baskets."

Put in a nutshell, in April 2003 as the invasion of Iraq was winding down, the Pentagon, in its infinite wisdom, decided to build a military base -- the construction company was, of course, Halliburton subsidiary KBR -- cheek-to-jowl with one of the most treasured archeological sites on the planet. (The base actually enclosed part of ancient Babylon.) This was, let's remember, part of a war to preserve what our President called the Iraqi "patrimony" (though, to be fair, he used that word in reference to Iraqi oil). Among the few American responses of outrage I've seen was that of Nation magazine editor Katrina vanden Heuvel, who, under the appropriate headline Cultural Barbarism, recently wrote at her blog, Editor's Cut:

"The overall situation in Iraq is overwhelmingly a human tragedy but that does not exempt the US authorities, who set up Camp Babylon, from the consequences of what The Guardian called an act of ‘cultural barbarism'--carried out in their name by a subsidiary of Halliburton. There must be a full investigation of the damage caused, and Halliburton should be made to offer whatever compensation is possible for the wanton destruction of the world's cultural treasure."

The military's response was, as it happened, far quieter. The Guardian quotes Lieutenant Colonel Steven Boylan, an American military spokesman in Baghdad as saying, "The significance of Babylon is not lost on the coalition. The site dates back to the time of Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon, but there are very few visible original remains to the untrained eye." Evidently the principle here is out-of-sight, out-of-mind, which might stand in for a lot these last years.

So, for a final thought experiment, let's imagine -- though the parallel, given our relative historical newness, is hardly exact -- as a mirror-image for this, the great set of encampments the Syrian military has set up in Massachusetts, one of which encloses most of the original site of the first Plymouth settlement. "Unfortunately," a Syrian Air Force spokesman is quoted as saying, "though we recognize the richness of American history in the Plymouth military region, we were short on material for our air field and it's not an area rich in gravel. We had no choice but to grind up Plymouth Rock. It was," he added, "only a boulder, after all."

Okay, much as I happen to love Plymouth Plantations, it's largely a re-creation of the original settlement and so hardly comparable to Babylon -- and, of course, we all know that the Chinese pressure on the Europeans for that embargo against the United States, the Iranian spy program run out of Halifax, Vladimir Putin's comments about the Russian army and Mexico, and the Syrian base in Massachusetts are all in our present world the equivalent of ridiculous geopolitical jokes. After all, we're on a one-way planet when it comes to such matters -- and there are so many of them. Similar thought experiments could be done with, for instance, Bush administration nuclear policy vis-à-vis any country we dislike (we build ‘em, you don't); occupation policy vis-à-vis Syria and Iraq (we occupy, you can't), and so many other subjects that most of you can probably fill in better than I can.

In this way, we find ourselves living in a "category of one" world with an exaggerated version of a mentality that would have been familiar to most great imperial powers. (Until recently, however, even great imperial powers -- with the possible exceptions of Rome, Han China, and perhaps Spain at their heights -- would have found it hard to think of themselves as being in a category of one, given the competition.) The Bush administration embodies, with pride, a sense of what once would have been called imperial impunity; and, when it comes to most of the crucial issues having to do with our "mission" in the world, whatever the criticism in the mainstream, the mission itself and most of our ways of pursuing it now remain remarkably sacrosanct and off limits. There are few doubts about our right to put those CAVs in space, or send out that new generation of Predators to assassinate whomever, and so on.

But to really grasp why this is so, I suspect you have to throw in, as a kicker, a deep-seated American sense of national "exceptionalism," a sense of American goodness that can't be matched elsewhere on the planet. This is something most of us grew up with, that lies deep in our nation's history, in that sense of being in a New World, and well rid of an evil European old world. Though this is a deeply honorable (if also in many ways deeply flawed) strain of American thinking -- it's where much of the idea of American "promise" comes from -- it is also a state of mind that the Bush administration has played upon with consummate skill.

The combination of imperial impunity and national goodness of a kind not possessed by other lands has, in fact, proved something of a lethal cocktail. It lifts us into a "category of one" mentality in a way that seems to explain why we can possess weaponry and do things that, in others, would horrify us, and it absolves us of thinking about how others might look on us and our acts in the world.

Tom Engelhardt writes at edits Tomdispatch.com, where this piece first appeared.