Imperial Overstretch

Bush (the Father), a prophet in the wilderness:

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A R C H I V E :

The Road Not Traveled
Right on Track?
Snoop Dreams

New York to Baghdad
Patriot Gains (& Losses)
Under the Radar

Dean’s Digital Divide
Abbas Redux?
Under Cover of Darkness

Touring the ‘Fronts’
This is Going To Hurt
No Fun in the Sun

Wounded Inaction
Arnold’s Language Barrier

Crunch Time For Abbas
Any More Bright Ideas?
Timing Is Everything

Bush (the Father), a prophet in the wilderness:

Trying to eliminate Saddam, extending the ground war into an occupation of Iraq, would have violated our guideline about not changing objectives in midstream, engaging in Ômission creep,’ and would have incurred incalculable human and political costs. Apprehending him was probably impossible. We had been unable to find Noriega in Panama, which we knew intimately. We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq. The coalition would instantly have collapsed, the Arabs deserting it in anger and other allies pulling out as well. Under those circumstances, there was no viable “exit strategy” we could see, violating another of our principles. Furthermore, we had been self-consciously trying to set a pattern for handling aggression in the post-Cold War world. Going in and occupying Iraq, thus unilaterally exceeding the United Nations’ mandate, would have destroyed the precedent of international response to aggression that we hoped to establish. Had we gone the invasion route, the United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land. It would have been a dramatically different–and perhaps barren–outcome.

Spotted by the eagle-eyed editor of the History News Network website in George H.W. Bush and Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed (1998), pp. 489-90. (For a fuller version of the quote, click here)

The Pentagon’s Doug Feith, a profit in the wilderness:

…[W]e’ve come across a most timely announcement from the highly regarded international corporate and commercial law firm of Zell, Goldberg & Co. The firm ‘has recently established a task force dealing with issues and opportunities relating to the recently ended war with Iraq,’ its Web site announced. With offices in Israel and Washington, the firm says it ‘is assisting regional construction and logistics firms to collaborate with contractors from the United States and other coalition countries in implementing infrastructure and other reconstruction projects in Iraq.’ Through its Washington, D.C., office, ZGC is also assisting American companies in their relations with the United States government in connection with Iraqi reconstruction projects as prime contractors and consultants.

Interested parties can reach the law firm through its Web site, at Hmmm. Rings a bell. Oh, yes, that was the Web site of the Washington law firm of Feith & Zell, P.C., as in Douglas J. Feith… now undersecretary of defense for policy and head of — what else? — reconstruction matters in Iraq.”

From Al Kamen’s recent column in The Washington Post, ‘Feith-Based Initiative’.

Missing in the wilderness:

As the president explained the strategy Sunday night, ‘The Middle East will either become a place of progress and peace, or it will be an exporter of violence and terror that takes more lives in America and in other free nations.’ This enormously risky gamble is not, of course, the campaign that Congress committed to last fall or that the American people were asked to support. In a speech to the nation last October in which he outlined the case for war, the president made no mention at all of trying to transform the Middle East. Instead, he used the word ‘nuclear’ 20 times, the word ‘chemical’ 13 times, the word ‘biological’ 11 times.

In his most recent speech, none of those words even passed his lips.”

From Jay Bookman’s column, ‘‘Bin Laden’s Wish Granted’, in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

September 11 was, of course, an American experience of terror (though a remarkable number of the murdered were from other countries). In Iraq, which was in no way connected to September 11, despite our President’s endless efforts to connect nonexistent dots, an existence of terror continues unabated. Just this weekend in hostile Fallujah, trigger-nervous American troops managed to kill at least eight men from the police force we’ve been creating (as well as a Jordanian hospital guard). According to Rory McCarthy in Sunday’s Guardian:

    “American military officials were at a loss last night to explain why their soldiers opened fire with heavy machines guns on the officers, who were in two clearly marked Iraqi police cars in the town of Falluja. As well as the eight who died, four other policemen were injured. Their patrol cars had their sirens on and their warning lights flashing as they chased the suspects through the centre of town early yesterday. As the vehicles passed in front of a US military base American tanks opened fire without warning.”

The apologies, as ever, came slowly and were minimalist in nature: “Regrettably during the incident extensive damage was done to the [Jordanian] hospital and several security personnel were killed… our deepest regret for this incident to the families who have lost loved ones…” And there will, of course, be an “investigation,” which like all the others will end up nowhere in particular. But perhaps making war means never having to say that you’re sorry.

The fighting and killing that makes the news aside, life in Iraq, already a living horror for many under Saddam Hussein, has proved another kind of hell under our occupation.

Life in Iraq — illustrations:

Leave the car at home: Firas Yaseen Nadeem in the English language paper Iraq Today writes:

    “Mr. Bremer promised Iraqis all that they have been missing — freedom, democracy, welfare, and a say in the governance of their country. But so far we have had very little say in anything. We have been like a TV audience, watching as the world goes by. The governing council was picked, and we watched. New laws were passed and implemented, and we watched. The army was wiped away, and we watched. A long list of basic needs has been postponed; now that list has grown.”

And then Nadeem offers this little tip on how to live in an upside-down society with plenty of carjackers and little protection — “A new phenomenon has lately become prominent: car owners have resorted to hiring taxis, leaving their cars parked so that they might ensure staying alive in post-liberation Iraq.”

The pollsters’ adventures: Recently, the American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing Washington think-tank, hired Zogby International to do “the first scientific survey of Iraqi public opinion”. Just call it a poll. The results were interesting, and, as Guy Dinmore of The Financial Times writes, the experience of pollers hardly less so:

    “In Ramadi the pollsters were caught in crossfire in an ambush of US forces. One was arrested by Kurds in the north, while others were chased by car. In Basra some were detained for 24 hours.”

Oh, and here are some polling results — don’t confuse the bullet holes for hanging chads:

    “Asked whether in the next five years the US would ‘help’ Iraq, 35.3 per cent said yes while 50 per cent said the US would “hurt” Iraq. Asked the same of the UN, the figures were almost reversed, with 50.2 per cent saying it would help and 18.5 per cent the opposite.”

And then, of course, there’s just everyday life in Baghdad with Riverbend, whose Baghdad Burning blog repays regular reading. Here’s part of her latest:

    “Someone asked me why I didn’t write anything yesterday mentioning September 11. I’ll be perfectly honest — I had forgotten about it until around 2 pm. I woke up to no electricity, washed up and went into the kitchen to help out with breakfast.

    I found my mother struggling with the gas cylinder, trying to roll it around on the ground in front of the stove. The cylinder was almost empty and the bright blue flames were orange at the tips, threatening to go out any minute….My mother looked at me helplessly as the flames began dying away…. And that was the beginning of a series of difficulties: almost no water, relatives who dropped by for a lunch that couldn’t be cooked and a wasp’s nest that was terrorizing anyone who ventured into the garden.

    By 2 pm, the electricity was back on and I was sitting in front of the TV watching one of the Arabic stations. Suddenly, they showed American troops standing solemnly in a 9/11 Memorial Service being held in… Tikrit (where Saddam was born)!!

    I sat watching, confused. I assume it was done in that specific place so some oblivious person can, five years down the line, hold it up as testimony to the world that this whole war was, indeed, about terror and Osama bin Laden and 9/11 and WMD. It was done in that particular place so that someone, a week from now, can write to me and say, ‘Of course there was a link between Osama and Saddam and that’s why we attacked you. The proof is this: the 9/11 Memorial Service was held in Tikrit.’

    This famous ‘missing link’ between Iraq and the war on terror is like how I imagine a fairy might look — small, flighty, almost transparent and … nonexistent. Shortly after 9/11, this fairy was caught by the Pentagon and stashed in a cage for all the world to see.

    And the fairy? The fairy dug an escape tunnel to Iran… or perhaps Syria… or maybe North Korea. Time will tell — she will be caught again.”

Oh, and I should just add that the occupation administration, which has been spending money to buy oil from other countries for Iraq, now faces a suggestion by the “interim government” that electricity be purchased from Iran and Syria, a deal that, Stephen J. Glain of The Boston Globe comments “would probably enrich with US funds two countries that top the White House list of states that support terrorism.”

Guns vs. guns:

Last Sunday in his speech to the nation (from which he seems to have gotten no poll bump whatsoever, almost unprecedented for a major presidential address), the President asked for $87 billion for more of the same. Keep in mind that, depending on whose estimate you read, that figure falls short on next year’s projected Iraqi reconstruction needs by anywhere from $35 billion to (according to Warren Vieth and Esther Schrader of the Los Angeles Times) $55 billion dollars. Talk about cooking the books, the administration is evidently pretending that much of this “reconstruction funding gap” will be filled by international donors rushing forward under the aegis of a new UN resolution. (“‘From what we have been hearing about the donors conference [in October], they’ll be lucky if they get $1 billion,’ said Bathsheba Crocker, co-director of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.”)

At nearly $5 billion a month in spending for ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, or $60 billion a year, we’re now reaching Vietnam levels of expenditures, as Dave Moniz of USA Today details:

    “In Vietnam, the last sustained war the nation fought, the United States spent $111 billion during the eight years of the war, from 1964 to 1972. Adjusted for inflation, that’s more than $494 billion, an average of $61.8 billion per year, or $5.15 billion per month.”

One of the differences is that the crisis Lyndon Johnson found himself in during his presidency involved a painful choice between “guns” (the costs of the Vietnam War) and “butter” (the costs of pursuing a successful version of his “Great Society” program at home). Given that our present militarized administration is dedicated to tearing down any version of any Great Society program anywhere, the crisis might be called not guns vs. butter, but guns vs. guns.

Which brings to mind another question: Where is that $87 billion going anyway? The Bush administration offered some specifics: $800 million to pay for coalition “volunteers” in Iraq; $300 million for body armor for troops; $140 million for more Humvees. But, write Peter Spiegel and Marianne Brun Rovet of The Financial Times, most of the spending is shrouded in Pentagon secrecy:

    “[A]part from those few details, the Bush administration has been tight-lipped about where the huge sums — which come on top of $62bn appropriated for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in April — are going. Because Iraq military efforts are being funded outside the normal appropriations process, in so-called ‘supplemental’ or emergency spending bills, the funding does not go through the same rigorous congressional oversight to which normal Pentagon spending is subject annually… John Hamre, a former Pentagon budget chief who headed the administration-backed team of external experts to examine rebuilding efforts this summer, has said the $4bn a month the Defence Department is spending on military operations is high even by Pentagon standards: ‘A lot of people I know can’t figure out why that number is so expensive.'”

Put another way, we see a larger trend reflected here. In a military (and intelligence) budget that already threatens to swallow up every other kind of budgetary need, increasing amounts of money are simply disappearing into the “black budget”; into, that is, some black hole beyond Congressional oversight or accountability of any sort. Not surprisingly, given who’s in charge, this is likely to turn out to be some kind of giant Ponzi scheme, a governmental Enron, and guess who will, in the end, have to bail them out? (The contestant with the winning answer gets an all-expenses-paid one-way trip to Fallujah.)

And where are the troops?

Perhaps the most intriguing piece I’ve seen in recent days was an Associated Press report by Hamza Hendawi that appeared in the Boston Globe under the headline, ‘U.S. Troop Strength in Iraq Down to Nearly 116,000, Military Says’. It began:

    “The number of American troops deployed in Iraq is nearly 116,000, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition said Wednesday. That is at least 10,000 less than previously believed. As recently as last week, the number of U.S. soldiers in Iraq was believed to be between 125,000 and 130,000. The coalition spokesman, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity, did not explain the reduced figure, but his disclosure comes as the U.N. Security Council considers a U.S. draft resolution calling for a multinational force to join the American-led coalition.”

We’ve heard that the tracks of the Bradley Fighting Vehicles are wearing out (with replacements desperately short) as are the sand-clogged rotors of helicopters, but is this true of the troops as well? (For soaring costs of, and cooked books on, replacement parts for unexpectedly overused equipment, see Jonathan Weisman and Renae Merle is piece in The Washington Post.) As of a week or so ago, the Post reported that, in addition to 1,500 casualties shipped out of Iraq, over 4,500 other soldiers have been flown out of the country with mental and physical ailments of various sorts.

Historian Paul Kennedy and other scholars have written about the slow motion collapses of militarily and economically overstretched empires. Some have said that Iraq is Vietnam on crack cocaine, so perhaps we’re beginning to experience imperial overstretch in triple-time.

And then there’s that UN resolution our administration suddenly wants so desperately. Though the French position on such a resolution has just been summarily rejected by Colin Powell, in the end, I suspect the French won’t be willing to veto whatever modified version of an American resolution finally emerges. But — and here’s something that’s hardly been considered — what if they got a UN resolution and nobody came?

I’ve already mentioned the “reconstruction gap” that is unlikely to be filled elsewhere, UN resolution or not, but what about the foreign troop “gap.” Just recently, Vishal Hapar of the Hindustan Times reported on New Delhi’s decision.

    “India has decided it will not send troops to Iraq, even if the UN explicitly sanctioned multinational peacekeeping operations there, highly-placed Government sources said. This is in concert with the decision not to send troops to Liberia, which was requested for by the US recently.”

I hadn’t even heard of the Liberian request. The Indians are pleading “terrorist activity in Kashmir,” something no less serious a month or so back when the government was considering sending a large contingent to Iraq, and the Indians already have two infantry battalions committed to UN peacekeeping operations in Lebanon and Ethiopia-Eritrea (as well as an air force detachment in the Congo).

But these days you have to be a Polish politician, a maniac, or a Turkish general (for the Turks have their own agenda in Iraq) to consider sending your troops there under an American mandate — or you have to be incredibly desperate for work. Hence, the Fijians, as Australian ABC radio reports.

    “More than 300 former Fijian soldiers will leave Fiji later this week to take up security jobs in Iraq. The former soldiers have been employed by a British firm to provide escorts, liaise with United Nations representatives and guard oil and power mains. The Fijian government has hailed the move as a new employment opportunity for the men. However, a non government organisation, the Citizens Constitutional Forum, has criticised the government for allowing the men to be used as ‘mercenaries’ by a foreign company.

    The Fijian army is faced with the difficult task of finding employment for hundreds soldiers who will be phased out after the downsizing of Fiji’s peacekeeping operations overseas.”

Vietnam, the ur-analogy:

I tell you, historical analogies are on the collective brain. The other day in an interview on PBS’s News Hour, I heard Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld start to take up the Afghan analogy. (You remember the fate of the Soviet Union, though that wasn’t quite the point he was trying to make.) But can there be any question that the ur-analogy for Americans remains Vietnam? Mire, quaqmire, bog, quicksand, mud, doo-doo … you can hardly read a piece now which doesn’t have us “sucked in” a la Vietnam.

Col. David Hackworth, decorated Vietnam veteran, took this up recently in a piece entitled ‘DŽjˆ Vu All Over Again’ that began bluntly:

    “While on vacation in Crawford, Texas, Commander in Chief George W. Bush must have been drinking from the same well as Lyndon B. Johnson when LBJ got American boots stuck in Southeast Asia’s unforgiving swamps.

    In April 1965, as he was secretly signing off on the Vietnam troop buildup that would eventually grow to more than 500,000 American soldiers, LBJ said, ‘Let no one think for a moment that retreat from Vietnam would bring an end to conflict.’

    Bush’s assertion that our battered, overstretched combat troops in Iraq would ‘never retreat’ was a major deja vu moment. And the similarities don’t stop there. Both presidents got into deep doo-doo because they listened to their arrogant defense secretaries and an all-knowing coterie of civilian and uniformed go-along types running the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff rather than some smart, straight-shooting field generals.”

In his most recent column in The Washington Post, entitled ‘Stuck Like Lyndon’, Harold Meyerson writes, “Like Lyndon Johnson, Bush has gotten us stuck in a no-win conflict in a distant land, and, as they did during Johnson’s war, the American people know it.”

But, as I’ve said before, Vietnam is the analogy du jour every day of the week mainly because it’s lodged so deeply in the brains of the dreamy global dominators who plunged us into this mess. In fact, on the applicability of Vietnam as an analogy and all the knee-jerk thinking that goes with it, a kind of subconscious agreement exists across the mainstream political and media spectrum. Here, for instance, are two passing paragraphs from a recent Michael Dobbs piece in the Post:

    “Wolfowitz is by no means alone. Since the fall of Baghdad five months ago, senior administration officials from President Bush downward have been reinventing the rationale for war. In his television address Sunday night, Bush barely mentioned Hussein’s chemical and biological weapons programs. Instead, he described Iraq as ‘the central front’ in the war on terror, the site of a desperate last stand by the ‘enemies of freedom,’ who include former Hussein loyalists and foreign terrorists.

    Even opponents of the war acknowledge that now that the United States is in Iraq, it cannot afford to fail, in effect conceding that the invasion has created its own justification. There is broad agreement across the political spectrum that a premature withdrawal of U.S. troops would destabilize the entire region and undermine U.S. credibility.”

That word “credibility” is the Vietnam give-away. In Vietnam, everything rode on it. Credibility was the ethereal thing that the United States as a superpower could not afford to lose. Oddly enough, as a concept credibility is already a kind of surrender, because one is never credible in oneself, only in the eyes of others and so, in giving credibility such overwhelming value, you hand others the theoretical power to take what’s meaningful from you. That word — along with the fears and vulnerabilities it called up then and still calls up today — covers a host of sins. It provides the “bridge” that takes us from the conclusion that the present course of action is a catastrophe to the thought that more of the same is not only a viable route, but the only route “out.” To consider withdrawal or departure is to forsake credibility and so to think the unthinkable (and, of course, the Bush guys don’t have any intention of leaving in any case).

Here’s the small kernel of truth at the heart of credibility though. As with Vietnam, the “credibility” of the United States — were we to withdraw our forces quickly but in some measured and reasonably thoughtful fashion — would likely prove of little import — the world would, in fact, heave a sigh of relief — but the damage to the “credibility” of the Bush administration might be perfectly real. Their fate is, in a sense, in the eyes (and the hands) of others — of, in fact, us.

Who’s worried now?

Even those close to me thought I was a cockeyed optimist when, so many months ago, I was convinced that this administration’s dream of remaking the Middle East via a war in Iraq was both delusional and a doomed “project”; and that, in addition, the administration stood a good chance of going down in flames over it. Now, even the Republicans are worried. In his most recent column, Robert Novak writes:

    “Amid such complaints [about the rising price tag on Iraq], Republicans on Capitol Hill were stunned last Saturday when the Zogby Poll reported that Bush’s national approve-disapprove ratio has slipped into negative territory for the first time (with only 45 percent saying he is doing a good job). That couples with continued job losses across the country and the rising cost of Iraq, in blood and treasure. On top of that, GOP senators are depressed that Democrats are winning the judicial confirmation war.”

While Howard Kurtz, media columnist for the Washington Post, comments on a parallel reassessment of Howard Dean under the apt title ‘Bush’s Worst Nightmare’:

    “Even Howard Dean’s detractors now believe he’s for real. Real as in: Scoff all you want, this guy actually could be president… Now even some conservatives are saying: watch out. And there’s a Web site called Republicans for Dean.” Kurtz in turn quotes a piece in USA Today that says, “”Republican Party officials and political advisers to President Bush admit that they underestimated Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean and say they now consider him a formidable potential adversary. Some Bush allies say he reminds them of another insurgent candidate who once bedeviled Bush: Arizona Sen. John McCain. His wins in Republican primary elections in New Hampshire and Michigan rattled Bush’s 2000 campaign.”

Already, after an August that turned out to be no relief at all for the Busheviks, the rumors about “departures” are floating again — Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rice… For instance, Kurtz writes:

    “And the Wall Street Journal finds one fat target: ‘Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz faces a growing fury among Democrats and some conservatives at the optimistic projections he gave lawmakers just months ago. Rep. John Murtha (D., Pa.), a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee and strong ally of Mr. Bush’s father in the Gulf War, said flatly, ‘Wolfowitz is gone.””

While Novak suggests:

    “Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has become the scapegoat for all that has gone wrong in Iraq and is paying the price for disdaining from establishing good relations with U.S. senators for more than two and one-half years. Those senators get an earful about Rumsfeld from the uniformed military, whose criticism in private echoes what retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni has declared publicly. The unconfirmed rumor mill from the Pentagon to the Senate has Rumsfeld leaving early next year.”

And remember this is before the Washington political season, no less the electoral season, even heats up. This is before a hearing begins. This was the “silly season.”

(While reconsiderations of every sort are already under way, you might want to take a look at the latest entry in Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel’s blog “Editor’s Cut.” It’s on prospective candidate Gen. Wesley Clark, whose military record hasn’t received much attention in the press of late:

“While media commentary on Clark’s prospective candidacy has been almost entirely favorable–even adulatory–it’s worth looking back at a forgotten chapter in his military biography that occurred when Clark was Supreme Allied Commander of NATO and Commander In Chief for the US European Command. Call it Clark’s ‘High Noon’ showdown…”)

Finally I recommend a powerful column by Paul Krugman, who reminds us of something else I’ve long feared — if this administration goes down, he suspects (as do I), that they’re likely to do so with six guns blazing. In addition, I’ll cite Independent reporter Robert Fisk’s latest on how we squandered the political capital of 9/11 (“Not since the Second World War have we seen folly on this scale. And it has scarcely begun.”); and OpenDemocracy geopolitical columnist Paul Rogers’s hundredth column, a summary assessment of how we got where we are today.


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