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Washington Has No Learning Curve

A secret CIA drone base, a blowback world, and why the US military keeps repeating the same mistakes.

| Tue Feb. 12, 2013 9:15 PM EST

This was, of course, a kind of madness. After all, al-Qaeda wasn't a state or even much of an organization; in real terms, it barely existed. So declaring "war" on its scattered minions globally was little short of a bizarre and fantastical act. And yet any other approach to what had happened was promptly laughed out of the American room. And before you could blink, the US was invading... nuts, you already knew the answer: Afghanistan.

After another dazzlingly brief and triumphant campaign, using tiny numbers of American military personnel and CIA operatives (as well as US air power), the first of Washington's you-can't-go-home-again crew marched into downtown Kabul and began hunkering down, building bases, and preparing to stay. One Afghan war, it turned out, hadn't been faintly enough for Washington. And soon, it would be clear that one Iraq war wasn't either. By now, we were in the express lane in the Möbius loop of history.

"Stuff Happens"

This should be getting more familiar to you. It might also strike you—though it certainly didn't Washington back in 2002-2003—that there was no reason things should turn out better the second time around. With that new "secret Saudi base" in mind, remember that somewhere in the urge to invade Iraq was the desire to find a place in the heart of the planet's oil lands where the Pentagon would be welcome to create not "enduring camps" (please don't call them "permanent bases"!)—and hang in for enduring decades to come.

So in early April 2003, invading American troops entered a chaotic Baghdad, a city being looted. ("Stuff happens," commented Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in response.) On April 29th, Rumsfeld held a news conference with Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, broadcast on Saudi TV, announcing that the US would pull all its combat troops out of that country. No more garrisons in Saudi Arabia. Ever. US air operations were to move to al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar. As for the rest, there was no need even to mention Iraq. This was just two days before President Bush landed a jet, Top Gun-style, on an aircraft carrier off San Diego and—under a White House-produced banner reading "Mission Accomplished"—declared "the end of major combat operations in Iraq." And all's well that ends well, no?

You know the rest, the various predictable disasters that followed (as well as the predictably unpredictable ones). But don't think that, as America's leaders repeat their mistakes endlessly—using varying tactics, ranging from surges to counterinsurgency to special operations raids to drones, all to similar purposes—everything remains repetitively the same. Not at all. The repeated invasions, occupations, interventions, drone wars, and the like have played a major role in the unraveling of the Greater Middle East and increasingly of northern Africa as well.

Here, in fact, is a rule of thumb for you: keep your eye on the latest drone bases the CIA and the US military are setting up abroad—in Niger, near its border with Mali, for example—and you have a reasonable set of markers for tracing the further destabilization of the planet. Each eerily familiar tactical course change (always treated as a brilliant strategic coup) each next application of force, and more things "metastasize."

And so we reach this moment and the news of that two-year-old secret Saudi drone base. You might ask yourself, given the previous history of US bases in that country, why the CIA or any administration would entertain the idea of opening a new US outpost there. Evidently, it's the equivalent of catnip for cats; they just couldn't help themselves.

We don't, of course, know whether they blanked out on recent history or simply dismissed it out of hand, but we do know that once again garrisoning Saudi Arabia seemed too alluring to resist. Without a Saudi base, how could they conveniently strike al-Qaeda wannabes in a neighboring land they were already attacking from the air? And if they weren't to concentrate every last bit of drone power on taking out al-Qaeda types (and civilians) in Yemen, one of the more resource-poor and poverty-stricken places on the planet? Why, the next thing you know, al-Qaeda might indeed be ruling a Middle Eastern Caliphate. And after that, who knows? The world?

Honestly, could there have been a stupider gamble to take (again)? This is the sort of thing that helps you understand why conspiracy theories get started—because people in the everyday world just can't accept that, in Washington, dumb and then dumber is the order of the day.

When it comes to that "secret" Saudi base, if truth be told, it does look like a conspiracy—of stupidity. After all, the CIA pushed for and built that base; the White House clearly accepted it as a fine idea. An informal network of key media sources agreed that it really wasn't worth the bother to tell the American people just how stupidly their government was acting. (The managing editor of the New York Times explained its suppression by labeling the story nothing more than "a footnote.") And last week, at the public part of the Brennan nomination hearings, none of the members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is supposed to provide the CIA and the rest of the US Intelligence Community with what little oversight they get, thought it appropriate to ask a single question about the Saudi base, then in the news.

The story was once again buried. Silence reigned. If, in the future, blowback does occur, thanks to the decision to build and use that base, Americans won't make the connection. How could they?

It all sounds so familiar to me. Doesn't it to you? Shouldn't it to Washington?

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse's new book,The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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