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The Dictionary of American Empire-Speak

Empire-speak can both shield us from global realities and blind us to them.

| Mon Mar. 2, 2009 1:15 PM EST

Imperial Jokes: In October 2008, Rafael Correa, the president of Ecuador, refused to renew the U.S. lease at Manta Air Base, one of at least 761 foreign bases, macro to micro, that the U.S. garrisons worldwide. Correa reportedly said: "We'll renew the base on one condition: that they let us put a base in Miami—an Ecuadorean base. If there's no problem having foreign soldiers on a country's soil, surely they'll let us have an Ecuadorean base in the United States."

This qualifies as an anti-imperial joke. The "leftist" president of Ecuador was doing no more than tweaking the nose of goliath. An Ecuadorian base in Miami? Absurd. No one on the planet could take such a suggestion seriously.

On the other hand, when it comes to the U.S. having a major base in Kyrgyzstan, a Central Asian land that not one in a million Americans has ever heard of, that's no laughing matter. After all, Washington has been paying $20 million a year in direct rent for the use of that country's Manas Air Base (and, as indirect rent, another $80 million has gone to various Kyrgyzstani programs). As late as last October, the Pentagon was planning to sink another $100 million into construction at Manas "to expand aircraft parking areas at the base and provide a 'hot cargo pad'—an area safe enough to load and unload hazardous and explosive cargo—to be located away from inhabited facilities." That, however, was when things started to go wrong. Now, Kyrgyzstan's parliament has voted to expel the U.S. from Manas within six months, a serious blow to our resupply efforts for the Afghan War. More outrageous yet to Washington, the Kyrgyzstanis seem to have done this at the bidding of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has the nerve to want to reestablish a Russian sphere of influence in what used to be the borderlands of the old Soviet Union.

Put in a nutshell, despite the crumbling U.S. economic situation and the rising costs of the Afghan War, we still act as if we live on a one-way planet. Some country demanding a base in the U.S.? That's a joke or an insult, while the U.S. potentially gaining or losing a base almost anywhere on the planet may be an insult, but it's never a laughing matter.

Imperial Thought: Recently, to justify those missile attacks in Pakistan, U.S. officials have been leaking details on the program's "successes" to reporters. Anonymous officials have offered the "possibly wishful estimate" that the CIA "covert war" has led to the deaths (or capture) of 11 of al Qaeda's top 20 commanders, including, according to a recent Wall Street Journal report, "Abu Layth al-Libi, whom U.S. officials described as 'a rising star' in the group."

"Rising star" is such an American phrase, melding as it does imagined terror hierarchies with the lingo of celebrity tabloids. In fact, one problem with Empire-speak, and imperial thought more generally, is the way it prevents imperial officials from imagining a world not in their own image. So it's not surprising that, despite their best efforts, they regularly conjure up their enemies as a warped version of themselves—hierarchical, overly reliant on leaders, and top heavy.

In the Vietnam era, for instance, American officials spent a remarkable amount of effort sending troops to search for, and planes to bomb, the border sanctuaries of Cambodia and Laos on a fruitless hunt for COSVN (the so-called Central Office for South Vietnam), the supposed nerve center of the communist enemy, aka "the bamboo Pentagon." Of course, it wasn't there to be found, except in Washington's imperial imagination.

In the Af-Pak "theater," we may be seeing a similar phenomenon. Underpinning the CIA killer-drone program is a belief that the key to combating al-Qaeda (and possibly the Taliban) is destroying its leadership one by one. As key Pakistani officials have tried to explain, the missile attacks, which have indeed killed some al-Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban figures (as well as whoever was in their vicinity), are distinctly counterproductive. The deaths of those figures in no way compensates for the outrage, the destabilization, the radicalization that the attacks engender in the region. They may, in fact, be functionally strengthening each of those movements.

What it's hard for Washington to grasp is this: "decapitation," to use another American imperial term, is not a particularly effective strategy with a decentralized guerrilla or terror organization. The fact is a headless guerrilla movement is nowhere near as brainless or helpless as a headless Washington would be.

Only recently, Eric Schmitt and Jane Perlez of the New York Times reported that, while top U.S. officials were exhibiting optimism about the effectiveness of the missile strikes, Pakistani officials were pointing to "ominous signs of Al Qaeda's resilience" and suggesting "that Al Qaeda was replenishing killed fighters and midlevel leaders with less experienced but more hard-core militants, who are considered more dangerous because they have fewer allegiances to local Pakistani tribes... The Pakistani intelligence assessment found that Al Qaeda had adapted to the blows to its command structure by shifting 'to conduct decentralized operations under small but well-organized regional groups' within Pakistan and Afghanistan."

Imperial Dreams and Nightmares: Americans have rarely liked to think of themselves as "imperial," so what is it about Rome in these last years? First, the neocons, in the flush of seeming victory in 2002-2003 began to imagine the U.S. as a "new Rome" (or new British Empire), or as Charles Krauthammer wrote as early as February 2001 in Time Magazine, "America is no mere international citizen. It is the dominant power in the world, more dominant than any since Rome."

All roads on this planet, they were then convinced, led ineluctably to Washington. Now, of course, they visibly don't, and the imperial bragging about surpassing the Roman or British empires has long since faded away. When it comes to the Afghan War, in fact, those (resupply) "roads" seem to lead, embarrassingly enough, through Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Russia, and Iran. But the comparison to conquering Rome evidently remains on the brain.

When, for instance, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post recently, drumming up support for the revised, age-of-Obama American mission in Afghanistan, he just couldn't help starting off with an inspiring tale about the Romans and a small Italian city-state, Locri, that they conquered. As he tells it, the ruler the Romans installed in Locri, a rapacious fellow named Pleminius, proved a looter and a tyrant. And yet, Mullen assures us, the Locrians so believed in "the reputation for equanimity and fairness that Rome had built" that they sent a delegation to the Roman Senate, knowing they could get a hearing, and demanded restitution; and indeed, the tyrant was removed.

Admittedly, this seems a far-fetched analogy to the U.S. in Afghanistan (and don't for a second mix up Pleminius, that rogue, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, even though the Obama-ites evidently now believe him corrupt and replaceable). Still, as Mullen sees it, the point is: "We don't always get it right. But like the early Romans, we strive in the end to make it right. We strive to earn trust. And that makes all the difference."

Mullen is, it seems, the Aesop of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and, in his somewhat overheated brain, we evidently remain the conquering (but just) "early" Romans—before, of course, the fatal rot set in.

And then there's the Washington Post's Thomas Ricks, a superb reporter who, in his latest book, gives voice to the views of Centcom Commander David Petraeus. Reflecting on Iraq, where he (like the general) believes we could still be fighting in "2015," Ricks begins a recent Post piece this way:

"In October 2008, as I was finishing my latest book on the Iraq war, I visited the Roman Forum during a stop in Italy. I sat on a stone wall on the south side of the Capitoline Hill and studied the two triumphal arches at either end of the Forum, both commemorating Roman wars in the Middle East... The structures brought home a sad realization: It's simply unrealistic to believe that the U.S. military will be able to pull out of the Middle East… It was a week when U.S. forces had engaged in combat in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan—a string of countries stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean—following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, the Romans and the British."

With the waning of British power, Ricks continues, it "has been the United States' turn to take the lead there." And our turn, as it happens, just isn't over yet. Evidently that, at least, is the view from our imperial capital and from our military viceroys out on the peripheries.

Honestly, Freud would have loved these guys. They seem to channel the imperial unconscious. Take David Petraeus. For him, too, the duties and dangers of empire evidently weigh heavily on the brain. Like a number of key figures, civilian and military, he has lately begun to issue warnings about Afghanistan's dangers. As the Washington Post reported, "[Petraeus] suggested that the odds of success were low, given that foreign military powers have historically met with defeat in Afghanistan. 'Afghanistan has been known over the years as the graveyard of empires,' he said. 'We cannot take that history lightly.'"

Of course, he's worrying about the graveyard aspect of this, but what I find curious—exactly because no one thinks it odd enough to comment on here—is the functional admission in the use of this old adage about Afghanistan that we fall into the category of empires, whether or not in search of a graveyard in which to die.

And he's not alone in this. Secretary of Defense Gates put the matter similarly recently: "Without the support of the Afghan people, Gates said, the U.S. would simply 'go the way of every other foreign army that's ever been in Afghanistan.'"

Imperial Blindness: Think of the above as just a few prospective entries in The Dictionary of American Empire-Speak that will, of course, never be compiled. We're so used to such language, so inured to it and to the thinking behind it, so used, in fact, to living on a one-way planet in which all roads lead to and from Washington, that it doesn't seem like a language at all. It's just part of the unexamined warp and woof of everyday life in a country that still believes it normal to garrison the planet, regularly fight wars halfway across the globe, find triumph or tragedy in the gain or loss of an air base in a country few Americans could locate on a map, and produce military manuals on counterinsurgency warfare the way a do-it-yourself furniture maker would produce instructions for constructing a cabinet from a kit.

We don't find it strange to have 16 intelligence agencies, some devoted to listening in on, and spying on, the planet, or capable of running "covert wars" in tribal borderlands thousands of miles distant, or of flying unmanned drones over those same borderlands destroying those who come into camera view. We're inured to the bizarreness of it all and of the language (and pretensions) that go with it.

If The Dictionary of American Empire-Speak were ever produced, who here would buy it? Who would feel the need to check out what seems like the only reasonable and self-evident language for describing the world? How else, after all, would we operate? How else would any American in a position of authority talk in Washington or Baghdad or Islamabad or Rome?

So it undoubtedly seemed to the Romans, too. And we know what finally happened to their empire and the language that went with it. Such a language plays its role in normalizing the running of an empire. It allows officials (and in our case the media as well) not to see what would be inconvenient to the smooth functioning of such an enormous undertaking. Embedded in its words and phrases is a fierce way of thinking (even if we don't see it that way), as well as plausible deniability. And in the good times, its uses are obvious.

On the other hand, when the normal ways of empire cease to function well, that same language can suddenly work to blind the imperial custodians—which is, after all, what the foreign policy "team" of the Obama era is—to necessary realities. At a moment when it might be important to grasp what the "American face" in the mirror actually looks like, you can't see it.

And sometimes what you can't bring yourself to see can, as now, hurt you.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the American Age of Denial. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), a collection of some of the best pieces from his site and an alternative history of the mad Bush years.

[Note: In thinking about a prospective Dictionary of American Empire-Speak, I found four websites particularly useful for keeping me up to date: Juan Cole's invaluable Informed Comment (I don't know how he stays at day-in, day-out, year after year); Antiwar.com and the War in Context, where editors with sharp eyes for global developments seem to be on the prowl 24/7; and last but by no means least, Noah Shachtman's Danger Room blog at Wired.com. Focused on the latest military developments, from strategy and tactics to hunter-killer drones and "robo-beasts," Danger Room is not only a must-follow site, but gives an everyday sense of the imperial bizarreness of our American world. Finally, a deep bow of thanks to Christopher Holmes, who keeps the copyediting lights burning in Japan, and TomDispatch eternally chugging along.]

Copyright 2009 Tom Engelhardt

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