Off the Script

Can the Pentagon’s neocons survive any more missteps?

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The shooting party: “One of Washington’s big guns came to Westmoreland County yesterday for a day’s shooting at the Rolling Rock Club in Ligonier Township. For the second time in two years, Vice President Dick Cheney arrived at daybreak at Arnold Palmer Airport in Latrobe. Air traffic was halted briefly at about 7 a.m. as Air Force Two landed and Cheney’s security detail loaded him and his favorite shotgun into a Humvee and drove up U.S. Route 30 to the exclusive country club…

“Cheney shot more than 70 ringneck pheasants and an unknown number of mallard ducks. The birds were plucked and vacuum-packed in time for Cheney’s afternoon flight to Washington, D.C. … Scott Wakefield, a dog handler at the club, said about 500 farm-raised pheasants were released from nets for the morning hunt. The 10-man hunting party that included Cheney shot 417 pheasants. The vice president was set to hunt ducks in the afternoon.”

(Needless to say, the ducks were just not flying by at the time. Rebekah Scott, Cheney in region for a day of small-game hunting, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “This wasn’t a hunting ground. It was an open-air abattoir, and the vice president should be ashamed to have patronized this operation and then slaughtered so many animals,” states Wayne Pacelle, a senior vice president of the Humane Society of the United States. “If the Vice President and his friends wanted to sharpen their shooting skills, they could have shot skeet or clay, not resorted to the slaughter of more than 400 creatures planted right in front of them as animated targets.”)

The sailing party: At the Department of Defense website on Thursday December 12th was a dramatic photo of a sailboat with the caption, “Sail Away: The U.S. Sailing team jockeys for position and tries to find the best wind in the 6th race of the 3rd World Military Games Sailing Competition, held near Catania, Sicily, Dec. 9. The Military World Games consist of 86 participating countries and are designed to promote ‘Peace through Sports.’ U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Brian P. Smarr.”

The Wrestling Party:

All of a sudden, it’s almost a sport figuring out what in the world is going on with the neocons, and with the Bush administration as a whole. After all, a mere 8-plus months in the pit of Iraq and they’ve left in the dust a proud prewar era in which there was a single party line, enforced throughout the government. Today, party lines trip over each other daily in their rush into and out of press conferences, and nobody in this administration seems to speak with one voice. In fact, it would hardly be inappropriate to say that this administration is now speaking in tongues.

Just this week, in debarring various foreign governments from the Iraq reconstruction “bidding” process (as if there really were one), the Defense Department’s Paul Wolfowitz launched a shot across the bow of Jim Baker’s mission. (Of course, the cannon on the DOD deck also blew sky-high in the process.) The most interesting up-close-and-dirty interpretation of Baker’s mission — ostensibly to deal with Iraq’s debt burden — can be found at Josh Marshall’s talkingpointsmemo website. There, an anonymous “former high-level Democratic executive branch appointee” writes in part:

“Iraq is the site of so many mistakes, who can the Administration call on to win the game? The answer is, as so often before in Bush Family history, Jim Baker. Only the naive can think his mission — special part-time job (so conflicts of interest will not need to be disclosed), with plane, staff, and direct report to President — is about renegotiating Iraq’s debt obligations, as if he were restructuring a company’s balance sheet. This company is deep into chapter 7. It loses vast sums of money a day. Its few, severely impaired assets have been spoken for many times over. Its employees are impoverished and barely working. Its political liabilities are burgeoning: indeed it is the principal risk to the parent company’s future. If Iraq could be liquidated, it would be. But instead the proprietors need to abandon it.

“Finding a way to separate Bush and the United States from Iraq is this latest, and hardest, of the Baker rescue missions…. Support for the Dean-Gore campaign shows that much of America already understands that Iraq has been a calamity for America as well as for Iraqis. The Baker mission shows that someone in the Administration also understands that third base needs a sure-handed veteran, in a hurry. So, again, a Bush’s political fate is in Baker’s hands.”

It’s not so surprising that Wolfowitz, the ultimate neocon, should want to undercut such a mission. After all, the neocons don’t want out. As the Weekly Standard has made all too clear, they want in ever further. More troops, more commitment. And little wonder. Iraq was their ticket to political paradise, their all-consuming dream of the good global life. Iraq ‘R Them and they’re going down with it, but not without a fight.

Paul Krugman made something like this point in his Friday column (A Deliberate Debacle):

“In short, this week’s diplomatic debacle probably reflects an internal power struggle, with hawks using the contracts issue as a way to prevent Republican grown-ups from regaining control of U.S. foreign policy. And initial indications are that the ploy is working — that the hawks have, once again, managed to tap into Mr. Bush’s fondness for moralistic, good-versus-evil formulations. ‘It’s very simple,’ Mr. Bush said yesterday. ‘Our people risk their lives. . . . Friendly coalition folks risk their lives. . . . The contracting is going to reflect that.’

“In the end the Bush doctrine — based on delusions of grandeur about America’s ability to dominate the world through force — will collapse. What we’ve just learned is how hard and dirty the doctrine’s proponents will fight against the inevitable.”

The neocons aren’t alone in this. For the President, every problem but Iraq, even the jobless “recovery,” might at least conceivably be blamed for the time being on someone else. Yes, the Clinton economy looked good and the deficit was under control, but the underlying … well, you know what the routine will be. The Iraq disaster, however, is George Bush’s property, lock, stock and barrel (of oil, if it could be gotten out of the ground). Karl Rove knows this. The president’s father knows this. We all know this. I don’t happen to believe that the President will prove capable of shedding Iraq, but Baker’s “mission” represents his first major attempt to do so and, as the Florida election indicated, no one should underestimate the guy.

Jim Lobe in The Axis of Incoherence, a piece posted at, takes up this issue and the cross-purposes, if not near state of war, within the administration in Washington and Iraq:

“But Wednesday’s embarrassing and potentially costly snafu [the Wolfowitz directive] is symptomatic of a larger problem faced by an administration that seems increasingly at sea over what to do about Iraq and whose constituent parts are trying desperately to protect their own interests.

“This has become especially clear over the past month in Iraq itself where the US military has adopted much more aggressive counterinsurgency tactics in order to reduce insurgent attacks against its own forces, even at the expense of the larger struggle waged by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of Iraqis…

“The CPA and the military now have ‘opposing goals,’ noted ret. Rear Adm. David Oliver, who just returned from a high-level CPA job… ‘The military’s goal has nothing to do with the (Coalition’s) success…’

“And while Bush has clearly been tilting away from the hawks in favor of the realists over the past two months, incoherence is likely to persist so long as both forces retain the ability to undermine each other. That Baker was the latest victim of this incoherence on his first day of work is particularly juicy. Of all Bush’s advisers, Baker — a dyed-in-the-wool realist who, as Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff and secretary of state during the first Gulf War, showed little patience for bureaucratic or ideological intrigue, least of all by neo-conservatives — may be very well-placed to correct the problem.”

Baker assumedly would “correct” the problem by trying to peel off the neocons from this administration. One can already sense the rising animosity on the neocon side of this equation in two curious documents issued this week by William Kristol, who runs the neocon bible, the Weekly Standard, until now much attended to inside Bush’s beltway. The first was an op-ed in the Washington Post in which Kristol wrote a reasonably coherent script for a Dean path to victory in 2004 and managed in the process to suggest a neocon stab-in-the-back theory of the election to come (How Dean could win…):

“But what about Sept. 11? Surely Bush’s response to the attacks, and his overall leadership in the war on terrorism, remain compelling reasons to keep him in office. They do for me. But while Bush is committed to victory in that war, his secretary of state seems committed to diplomatic compromise, and his secretary of defense to an odd kind of muscle-flexing-disengagement. And when Bush’s chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., said on Sunday with regard to Iraq, ‘We’re going to get out of there as quickly as we can, but not before we finish the mission at hand,’ one wonders: Wouldn’t Howard Dean agree with that formulation? Indeed, doesn’t the first half of that sentence suggest that even the most senior of Bush’s subordinates haven’t really internalized the president’s view of the fundamental character of this war? If they haven’t, will the American people grasp the need for Bush’s continued leadership on Nov. 2? If not, prepare for President Dean.”

Do I hear the first stirrings of a “who lost Iraq” debate on the right? In the very same week, in his own magazine, writing of the President’s decision to “chastise” Taiwan’s leader for his proposed missile referendum, Kristol with buddies Robert Kagan and Gary Schmitt, all directors of the notorious Project for a New American Century, wielded one of the most damning words in the right’s arsenal (Bush Speaks on China and Taiwan, President Bush chooses to partly appease the Chinese and chastise Taiwan):

“The president’s statement today is a mistake. Appeasement of a dictatorship simply invites further attempts at intimidation. Standing with democratic Taiwan would secure stability in East Asia. Seeming to reward Beijing’s bullying will not.”

Appeasement? Them’s fightin’ words. Only Neville Chamberlain and Democrats “appease.”

Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service — this is the all-Lobe dispatch, it seems — suggests that the neocons and allied hawks right up to the vice-president may soon be history in a fine piece of speculation on inside-the-Beltway wars. He also sent me the following small but fascinating tidbit, which should whet your appetite for the longer piece:

“Some analysts believe that Baker’s return was promoted by Rove as part of a discreet ”dump-Cheney” campaign. Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer and political columnist for the American Conservative, wrote this week that Baker and Scowcroft are ”orchestrating” a Rove-backed campaign to blame Cheney and the neo-conservatives around him and in the Pentagon for botching Iraq and, with it, Bush’s re-election chances.”

The question is, will the “realists” — Baker, Blackwill et. al. — as he calls them, be able to enclose Washington’s neocon “Sunni Triangle” in barbed wire and conduct a successful suppression campaign? This sort of strategy usually turns out to be a lot more difficult than anyone imagines. We already have an administration near the boiling point. Parts of the intelligence “community” are enraged (where did the Plame case go anyway? Check out Rep. Henry Waxman’s recent call for “whistleblowers”); the military is stretched to the psychic limit and angry; and as the Busheviks found out with CIA Director George Tenet, you can set up that plank, but it’s hard to make people walk it. Too many terrible stories about “appeasement” just waiting to come out.

The media demobilized:

But for a minute, let’s dream the dream. Let’s imagine that at least the lower level neocons will be peeled away as Lobe suggests. That would remove the utopian dreamers and take us down to the bedrock-vision thing of this administration — and such a thing exists. Let me suggest it by juxtaposing two passages from two pieces, starting with a paragraph from a Robert Kennedy Jr. piece discussed in an earlier environmental dispatch. Kennedy writes (Crimes against Nature):

“There is no better example of the corporate cronyism now hijacking American democracy than the White House’s cozy relationship with the energy industry. It’s hard to find anyone on Bush’s staff who does not have extensive corporate connections, but fossil-fuel executives rule the roost. The energy industry contributed more than $48.3 million to Republicans in the 2000 election cycle, with $3 million to Bush. Now the investment has matured. Both Bush and Cheney came out of the oil patch. Thirty-one of the Bush transition team’s forty-eight members had energy-industry ties. Bush’s cabinet and White House staff is an energy-industry dream team — four cabinet secretaries, the six most powerful White House officials and more than twenty high-level appointees are alumni of the industry and its allies.”

And here, from a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed by William D. Hartung, The Booming Defense Business), the second passage:

“As soon as he took office, Rumsfeld set out to recruit a core group of corporate executives to run the Pentagon in what one commentator described as ‘Department of Defense Inc.’ Nowhere was Rumsfeld’s vision of a corporate-dominated department more evident than in his initial choices to run three military services: Secretary of the Air Force James Roche, a former vice president at Northrop Grumman; Secretary of the Navy Gordon England, a former executive at General Dynamics; and former Secretary of the Army Thomas E. White, who came from Enron.

“In its first year and a half in office, the Bush administration named 32 appointees to top policymaking positions who were former executives, paid consultants or major shareholders of top defense contractors.”

The point is, these are not just names or positions set side by side. This administration is all about linkages on the largest scale — unbelievably tight linkages that add up perhaps less to a vision of the world than to a way of life. Of these linkages, only one has surfaced in any significant way in our media recently — and that is Halliburton, the former bailiwick of our vice-president. The New York Times and ABC News in particular have suddenly taken out after the company on the issue of overcharging the government for gas transported into Iraq, and Howard Dean may have broken out of his race-for-the-nomination news ghetto by calling for an investigation of the company, focusing on Cheney’s “ethics.” Of course, if our media worked right, the only front-page story worth reporting on Halliburton — because it would be truly out of the ordinary — would have a headline like, “Halliburton Undercharges U.S. Government for Iraqi Gas Deliveries.” But for a headline like that ever to be front-page news, there would have to be an understanding that this was a government of plunderers whose nature is to overcharge us for everything.

We have a regime in Washington for whom linkages are exactly what matters and those linkages have driven our leaders to a vision of how the world works and could conceivably be controlled, a vision that focuses on energy flows and military power. They see the world, quite correctly and quite naturally — this is what their experience has taught them — as a set of energy flows that keep the planetary system going just the way your bloodstream with its heart, valves, arteries and veins keeps you going. Of course, it’s hardly a complicated step then to imagine that the globe’s energy heart, valves, arteries and veins can be controlled in various ways with the correct sort of planning.

As they read the energy journals and listen to insider talk, they also are aware of the sort of thing that George Monbiot wrote about in a recent column for the Guardian (Bottom of the barrel):

“Every generation has its taboo, and ours is this: that the resource upon which our lives have been built is running out. We don’t talk about it because we cannot imagine it. This is a civilisation in denial.

“Oil itself won’t disappear, but extracting what remains is becoming ever more difficult and expensive. The discovery of new reserves peaked in the 1960s. Every year we use four times as much oil as we find. All the big strikes appear to have been made long ago… No one with expertise in the field is in any doubt that the global production of oil will peak before long. The only question is how long. The most optimistic projections are the ones produced by the US department of energy, which claims that this will not take place until 2037. But the US energy information agency has admitted that the government’s figures have been fudged… Other analysts are less sanguine. The petroleum geologist Colin Campbell calculates that global extraction will peak before 2010.”

David Ignatius wrote a column in a similar vein in The Washington Post last month, but generally in our media the rule might be: Energy bills, yes. Energy flows, well, they’re a country by country matter to be reported, if at all, on business pages. Yet the Iraq war was waged by men with a sophisticated sense of energy flows and a belief that fossil fuels, which do power the world, may be running down. Admittedly, fears that such energy sources would run out or dry up have been raised almost since fossil fuels were first used as major power sources, and this latest set of fears might be just the next set to be disproved. I’m not judging the reality here, just saying that nailing down oil and natural gas reserves for the future is the way these men think. And it makes sense given their backgrounds and their worldview. After all, to a large extent, you are what you’ve done and who you know.

Where this sort of thinking came up in our media before or during the Iraq war, it was generally reduced to the poster-board slogan, “No war for oil,” pasted on the antiwar opposition and then dismissed as ridiculously simpleminded. As if we either went into Iraq for the literal oil under the ground and nothing else, or the war had nothing to do with oil. Since then, the very subject has been largely forgotten and oil has once again become a limited business-section story.

Similarly, the Busheviks tend to think in terms of linkages on the matter of military power, and on a very large scale at that. First of all, Rumsfeld is hardly alone among them in believing that taking the “high ground,” in this case space, with all sorts of futuristic weaponry in programs run by corporations funded in part by the building of “missile defense” systems, is the way to go. This is no secret.

Here’s Rumsfeld citing space as “fundamental to modern warfare” in a recent DOD press release (Gerry J. Gilmore, Space, Missile Defense Essential To Defense, Rumsfeld Says, American Forces Press Service):

“Defending America, its overseas military and its allies from ballistic missiles laden with weapons of mass destruction ‘is now America’s highest priority,’ Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld noted today…. ‘Over the past few years we have recognized that space and information are not only enablers, but (also) core war fighting competencies,’ Rumsfeld said, adding, ‘That realization is being validated in both Afghanistan and Iraq.'”

Recently, Bill Berkowitz, who does a column for the website, wrote a superb piece on our space warriors, pointing out that (Space Wars, Apocalypse Soon?):

“While Lt. Gen. Boykin’s [anti-Islamic] remarks had an Apocalypse Now vibe to them, the other Lieutenant General — Lt. Gen. Edward Anderson, a deputy commander of US Northern Command — was more focused on Apocalypse Soon: He told an audience at a geospatial intelligence conference in New Orleans that war in space was, well, pretty much inevitable… Lt. Gen. Anderson’s remarks stirred up only a few headlines, caused a slight rumble on the Internet, and then drifted off into the media-saturated ether. In this day and age, anti-Muslim-war-against-terrorism speechifying trumps warnings of real wars just about every time.”

Similarly, Reuben Pedatzur in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz offered some interestingly jaded comments on missile defense (Only two countries in the world):

“There’s something amusing about the debate that’s been going on for the last four decades over the question of developing defense systems against ballistic missiles. The facts don’t change, nor do they confuse the supporters of defense systems, who will always find reasons to continue investing tens of billions of dollars in advanced technologies that are dubious at best and almost certainly unnecessary… [T]he supporters of ABM systems won’t allow logic, facts and basic strategic analysis interfere with their way of thinking. Therefore in the last 15 years, the U.S. has allocated some $90 billion developing ABM systems, and as of now, still does not have a single operational system. In a study published in January, researchers from two major think tanks said the costs of American-developed defensive systems against missiles will reach the fantastic sum of somewhere between $800 billion and $1.2 trillion by 2025.”

You can find this sort of thing in Pentagon hand-outs, on the web, and in the foreign press. But the drive to occupy our still largely demilitarized heavens, and the links between this drive, the Bush administration, and a range of American weapons corporations — totally basic thinking for Rumsfeld and his confreres — can’t be found where Americans in large numbers get their information. Similarly, except on the odd op-ed page or in the odd column (such as this striking example from James Carroll of the Boston Globe), the idea that our wars might be driven by war profits and the complex corporate system that goes with them exists nowhere in the mainstream. Consequently, the “lease everything” privatizing thinking that goes with that is also largely absent (except in its details and particulars which make up what news stories there are on the subject) — other than on the web, in alternative publications and abroad.

Of the urge to put the military, which occupies much of the world via its 700-plus bases, into the private “hands” of small numbers of corporate entities, James Ridgeway of New York’s Village Voice recently wrote (Rumsfeld Watch)

“If Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has his way, the vaunted U.S. military of the future will be transformed into what amounts to corporate-owned units…. The intention, he claims, is to put the lid on money going into expanding of the army so it can be diverted to new technologies such as Rummy’s favorite hobby, fighting wars from space.

“Rumsfeld has already outsourced much of the logistics and supply functions of the military to private firms, especially to Cheney’s old employer Halliburton. There are now 90-odd companies competing to provide private soldiers from places like Fiji and Nepal to work as machine-gun-toting guards in Iraq. Rumsfeld has considered privatizing U.S. military arsenals, its ammunition plants, and repair depots by spinning them off into federal corporations modeled along the lines of Fannie Mae. The secretary, whom Jesse Helms once called ‘the Energizer Bunny,’ also wants to free up some of the military budget as venture capital to entice private industry into running our armed forces.”

The single best piece I’ve seen on the subject of privatizing the military appeared recently in the British Guardian. There, Ian Traynor wrote of warfare’s new corporate feudalism, in which even the “natives” brought in to do the dirty work of occupation — the Gurkhas, Fijians and the like — are provided by vast corporate fiefdoms; weapons systems are in essence proprietary war systems, manned by private technicians (“When America launched its invasion in March, the battleships in the Gulf were manned by US navy personnel. But alongside them sat civilians from four companies operating some of the world’s most sophisticated weapons systems”); and the “downsizing” of national war machines has stoked the up-sizing of private versions of the same. This remarkable picture of our new military — second-nature to our leaders — remains largely unknown to the American public.

The connections are missing. Here we are with a government focused wildly, almost madly, on a vision of the world which takes them from the Alaska oil fields to Washington to Iraq to space, and our newspapers and TV stations have largely demobilized, delinking all their analyses, focusing only the most nationally limited of stories. Here, for instance, is a rare passage, plucked from a week-old New York Times piece on the speedy arrival of our secretary of defense in post-“velvet revolution” Georgia. It was the fourth paragraph in a Thom Shankar report tucked away inside the paper, but at least you can count three countries and a pipeline in it. In that, it stands, like the cheese of children’s rhyme fame, surprisingly alone in our delinked world of news reportage:

“The United States views Georgia as a strategic partner, in part for its location, along an arc of instability in a region thought to be a crossroads for terrorists. A pipeline set to open in 2005 linking Azerbaijan, which Mr. Rumsfeld visited Thursday, and Turkey, NATO’s only Islamic member, runs across Georgia, as well.”

Additional dispatches from Tom Engelhardt can be found throughout the week at, a weblog of The Nation Institute.


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