Chaos under Heaven: The Bush Administration’s Not-So-Silly Season

On withdrawal maneuvers and other half-baked schemes.

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“Asked about continued political challenges such as Iraq and Social Security, Bush said he doesn’t care about the polls.

“Q But power is perception.

“THE PRESIDENT: Power is being the President.” (George Bush in an interview with Texas reporters.)

G-SAVE Yourself!

Last week, the State Department issued an “updated worldwide caution” about “extremist violence” against U.S. citizens traveling abroad. According to Robin Wright of the Washington Post, the warning

“said attacks against private and official targets could come in the form of assassinations, kidnappings, hijackings or bombings. The targets could include places where Americans meet or visit, such as residential areas, hotels and restaurants, as well as places of worship, schools, clubs, business offices and public areas, the caution said…As causes of concern, the department cited spillover from the U.S. intervention in Iraq in and outside the Middle East…”

This was not long after other officials in the Bush administration, who had been arguing fiercely since September 11, 2001 for a series of deep links between terrorism and Iraq, strove hard to deny that the terrorist bombings in London’s subways had anything to do with Iraq. So the message was clear: Don’t leave home because… uh, they hate us (but Iraq has nothing to do with it). Somebody just hadn’t bothered to inform the State Department.

In the meantime, the President and his people — who have spent the last four years reaching for their dictionaries (the way gunfighters once reached for their six-guns) whenever they wanted to redefine our world to fit their needs — suddenly, and quite atypically, broke ranks over a definition. A week ago, led by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, the President’s top men and women began using a new phrase. The Global War on Terror (fondly, if inelegantly, known as GWOT) was to be no more. It was now the “global struggle against violent extremism” (or G-SAVE) and Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained why. He told the National Press Club that he had “objected to the use of the term ‘war on terrorism’ before, because if you call it a war, then you think of people in uniform as being the solution.”

Somehow, the new term, and acronym, hit the planet like one of those “tripods” from Mars after the germs got to it. The media ridiculed it, and George Bush, our “war president,” agreed. He immediately broke ranks with his own spinmeisters. In a speech last week, he managed to use the phrase “war on terror” repeatedly and “global struggle against violent extremism” a total of zero times. According to former State Department counterterrorism official Larry Johnson, at a White House meeting a peeved “Bush reportedly said he was not in favor of the new term . . . In fact, he said, ‘no one checked with me.’ That comment brought an uncomfortable silence to the assembled group of pooh-bahs. The president insisted it was still a war as far as he is concerned.”

But perhaps there’s a compromise here. We wouldn’t want to lose this administration’s four-year late recognition that military power is not the be-all and end-all in the struggle against terrorism. So how about combining the two acronyms, saving the “struggle” against “violent extremism,” while not losing the “war” element that so sets the President’s blood a-boiling. What about G-SAVEGWOT?

An even surer sign that the Bush version of the summer not-so-silly season was upon us came when al-Qaeda’s number-two man Ayman al-Zawahiri (whom the administration has been incapable of hunting down in the mountains along the Pakistani-Afghan border) suddenly released a video filled with threats against the U.S. (“If you continue the same policy of aggression against Muslims, God willing, you will see horror that will make you forget what you saw in Vietnam.”) The President promptly got up at a news conference at his Crawford, Texas “ranch” and responded in kind. It was a performance that recalled his infamous 2003 “bring ‘em on” comment in relation to Iraq’s insurgents. Filled with his usual resolution, vowing to “stay the course” in Iraq, refusing to let al-Qaeda “drive us out of the broader Middle East,” he managed to grant al-Zawahiri the kind of attention that might otherwise have gone to the head of state of a major enemy power; that is, he essentially acted as an unpaid publicist and recruitment officer for Zawahiri Operations. Thus, the path of madness.

The Sunny-side of the Well-Mined Highway

Meanwhile, any time the Iraqi insurgents change tactics or alter their behavior in any way, our publicly sunny-side up military high command immediately offers the rosiest of predictions. Take, for instance, Maj. Gen. William Webster, who heads Task Force Baghdad. In early July, at the end of a 7-week crackdown campaign against insurgents in the Iraqi capital, when attacks fell off significantly — do I need to explain to anyone the essential principles of guerrilla war against a more powerful force? — the general announced: “I do believe… that the ability of these insurgents to conduct sustained high-intensity operations, as they did last year — we’ve mostly eliminated that.” This was, of course, only moments before Baghdad was again drenched in blood and flooded with suicide bombings.

But give this much to our commanders, one upbeat prediction after another about “turned corners” and “tipping points,” has proven wrong — in fact, it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that not a single positive Bush administration prediction about Iraq has proven accurate, and yet that stops no one. At the end of last week, there was Brig. Gen. C. Donald Alston, chief spokesman for the American command, right back up at that prediction podium:

“‘When I look at the bar charts, the statistics are a clear indication that the tempo of suicide attacks has decreased,’ General Alston said, noting that the percentage of car bombings involving suicide bombers was as high as 60 percent a few months ago. He expressed optimism that the flow of foreign fighters was ebbing. ‘This is not an expanding insurgency,’ he said.”

Calling General Alston, calling General Alston… Perhaps one of these days someone should G-SAVE one of our generals before another of these ridiculous statements pops out. These too have something of a “bring ’em on” quality to them.

If this hadn’t all been going on for so long, we could perhaps just write it off to some Bush administration version of the summer silly season — to August when newspeople search for stories and dog-bites-shark, president-challenges-terrorist material has traditionally hit the front pages of papers across the country. If only…

Whether it’s GWOT or G-SAVE or, for that matter, “World War IV,” or the “Long War,” or any of the other leaden phrases this administration and its neocon followers have specialized in, there is today a level of global chaos, a kind of political helter-skelter, that leaves us with regular headlines like “Two Explosions Hit Popular Turkish Resort.” (Substitute almost any nationality other than American right now and the headline still seems to hold). Imagine that, more than two years after the fall of Baghdad, the deaths of three or four American soldiers (or scores of Iraqis) in a day are now so ho-hum as to be relegated to the deepest inside pages of our papers.

Today, you evidently need 14 Marines (and an Iraqi translator), all burned to death in a military vehicle in western Iraq — if, that is, you want to hit the front pages of major papers across the country and make it to the top of the nightly TV news. The question is: Six months or a year from now, will 14 American deaths in a day have become commonplace enough to be relegated to the inside pages, while generals like Alston and Webster will still be claiming that the insurgency is not expanding, that attacks are on the wane?

Setting Records and Five-Star Sacrifices

After the London bombings and with the continuing chaos in Iraq — no connections please (“Nonsense!” “Discredited!” insisted Don Rumsfeld) — it’s hard not to feel that the Bush administration is summoning grim reality from somewhere deep in its wildest nightmares. Others might imagine that, under the circumstances, real policy alterations, actual changes in course, might be in order. And evidently the President now feels the same way. While squabbling over the definition of his “war” and doing pro bono work to elevate the status of al-Zawahiri, he clearly sensed the need to take some meaningful action, to do something path-breaking, record setting — and so he headed off on the most extended vacation of his two-term presidency, five weeks in Crawford, the longest presidential vacation in 36 years. It’s the 49th trip he’s made to his ranch and the 319th day that he’s spent in Crawford, according to Jim VandeHei and Peter Baker of the Washington Post, “roughly 20 percent of his presidency to date.” (And that’s without even counting those weekends at Camp David or the summer visits with his folks in Kennebunkport, Maine.) This is a particularly record-setting moment because, by the time he returns, five years into his presidency, he will have bested his idol, Ronald Reagan, who in his 8 years as president spent 335 days on vacation.

While the President is at Crawford, perhaps he’ll be thinking about the book he might sell in his post-presidential sunset for multi-millions; you know, the one he will “write,” but not of course, in Newsweek’s phrase, “physically write.” Advisor Karen Hughes, Newsweek adds, “is expected to play a role in the president’s new book, along with Mike Gerson, his former chief speechwriter, who crafted Bush’s public voice in his first term.” I wonder if that’s his “physical voice”?

He may need that extra vacation time at the ranch because there’s a knotty problem to be finessed, one typical of our tough, new G-SAVEGWOT world, one his predecessors didn’t have to face. Exactly what “raw material” is “he” to base the book on? Unlike his father who kept a diary and wrote letters, or Bill Clinton who taped “conversations about his life with former speechwriter Ted Widmer,” or Brother Jeb who, if Newsweek is to be believed, specializes in emails, the President can mainly fall back on a record of “thank-you notes and greeting cards” he scribbles “with a black Sharpie marker.”

Okay, it’s August. It’s record-settingly hot across the country — and even more so across Iraq where electricity is generally less available than it was under Saddam Hussein, and air conditioning undoubtedly the sort of thing you dream about in a fever haze of insomnia. Still, for the President in Crawford there’s something in Iraq to feel positive about.

Without even a helping hand from Gen. Webster or Gen. Alston, it turns out that there is some good news when it comes to Iraq. Right-wingers always claim that the media and the war’s critics never notice the “good news” in that benighted land; but, believe me, that’s hardly the case, as I’m about to prove. Yes, Iraq may have devolved into a classically failed state and, at every turn, the Pentagon may have pioneered new paths, set future records, and won awards in the category of Lack of Foresight — For $200, what Secretary of Defense shrugged off an initial wave of looting and burning in Baghdad by saying, “Freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things… Stuff happens”? For $300, what Coalition Provisional Authority head disbanded the Iraqi army? — but on one specific issue, the Pentagon simply cannot be faulted when it comes to exercising foresight in Iraq:

At the end of June, Ashraf Khalil and Patrick J. McDonnell of the Los Angeles Times reported that, with just over 10,000 prisoners held in American-run jails across Iraq (only a few hundred of them foreigners) and another “1,630 detainees awaiting processing in different Army divisional and brigade headquarters,” the Pentagon had spotted a growth industry and was acting accordingly. “Business is booming,” commented Maj. Gen. William Brandenburg, who oversees U.S.-run prisons in that country. So the military began expanding the two Army-run prisons, Camp Bucca and Abu Ghraib; as Army spokesman Lt. Col. Guy Rudisill put it, “pushing our surge capacity” — and not to be caught short of facilities, they were actually adding a new prison, Fort Suse (“a former Russian-built barracks near Sulaymaniya.”) “Part of it used to be a prison, so it should be easy to renovate,” Brandenburg added. So convenient, just like that old Saddam Hussein war horse Abu Ghraib. Better yet, all of this was being done at a bargain basement cost of $50 million. A mere dribble in the Iraqi bucket and a sharp riposte to critics who claim that the Bush administration isn’t engaged in serious reconstruction efforts in that country.

I think that we can all revel in the knowledge that this was money at least as well spent as the $150,000 our CIA agents plugged into 5-star hotels back in 2003 while engaged in a “rendition operation” in Italy; or the million bucks in taxpayer money that the Halliburton-owned KBR’s Tiger Team of in-house auditors put into decent digs at the five-star Kuwait Kempinski Hotel while researching KBR overcharges to the military. (By comparison, according to Ed Harriman in the London Review of Books, American troops in the region were sleeping in tents at a cost of $1.39 a day, tents the KBR people refused to move into when asked by the Army.) Or what about those American dollars ploughed into a “Truth Tour” of Iraq for a group of conservative radio-talk show hosts aimed at finding the hidden “good news” in that country, an expenses-paid voyage that, columnist Bill Berkowitz tells us, was partially sponsored (for who knows how much) by the Office of Media Outreach, a taxpayer-funded publicity arm of the Department of Defense; or how about that nifty $100,000 the Air Force ploughed into an experimental program in Hollywood meant to turn scientists into screenwriters (including that national-security essential three-hour session on “agents and managers”)?

Unfortunately, our enemies seem to have gotten word about the kind of life Americans engaged in G-SAVINGGWOT feel they have every right to live. According to the New York Times, the Jordanian government has just “arrested 17 men it said were linked to Al Qaeda in Iraq and were plotting to attack American military personnel who frequent Jordan’s five-star hotels while on leave in Iraq.”

Oh, sorry, I think I got distracted. It must be August. What was I talking about? Right… Pentagon long-range planning and foresight in Iraq. When the military put out its latest vacancy sign at Abu Ghraib and other U.S.-run prisons there, they were aiming for cells (or at least space of some sort) for 16,000 prisoners. Unfortunately, Iraq’s prisons under American control are evidently like LA’s highways. If you build them, “they” will come. Just the other week, Donald Rumsfeld announced that we were now holding 15,000 assumedly enraged prisoners (more than enough to form an insurgency by themselves). Not quite the ceiling but…

Withdrawal Maneuvers and Other Half-Baked Schemes

As far as Tomdispatch informants can tell, the Pentagon’s plan evidently is to get all Iraqi males of “military age” into some prison or another, or into some unit of the new Iraqi Army or police, and then safely “drawdown” our forces in that country. And speaking about withdrawals (in the context of the Bush not-so-silly season), as the President’s poll figures continue to drop like Iraq’s oil output and the thought of 2006 mid-term elections with a hopeless war raging on rises in the Republican political brain, and the military worries ever more about its vaunted forces going down the no-volunteer drain, our media have suddenly, even miraculously, filled with endless rumors about and curiously qualified official statements on “withdrawal” from Iraq.

All of this started with another of those leaked British documents claiming that U.S. officials favored “a relatively bold reduction in force numbers” in Iraq within the next year. Not so long after that, both Donald Rumsfeld and the top American military man in Iraq, General George W. Casey, suggested that significant withdrawals of American forces might be possible in the relatively near future. Casey’s exact comment was: “If the political process continues to go positively, and if the development of the security forces continues to go as it is going, I do believe we’ll still be able to take some fairly substantial reductions after these elections in the spring and summer.” (Note that looming set of “ifs”). This, in turn, opened the media “withdrawal” floodgates.

In this, the Bush administration seems to be taking yet another leaf out of an ancient but tried-and-true Vietnam playbook. In those long-lost years, “withdrawal” plans never involved actual withdrawal, but all sorts of departure-like maneuvers including negotiation offers never meant to be taken up by the enemy and a “Vietnamization” plan rather like the present “Iraqification” one meant to “stand up” the Iraqi military in place of significant numbers of American troops. Each gesture of withdrawal, back then, only allowed the war planners to fight on a little longer. The same seems to hold true today.

Looked at baldly (and I say that as a bald guy), the Pentagon “withdrawal” plan (which may involve little more than withdrawing troops to Kuwait and bases outside of Iraq’s cities), as Michael Hirsh and John Barry of Newsweek cannily point out, simply brings us back to the original Rumsfeld plan, which was to draw down our troops to the 30,000-40,000 level by the end of 2003 and have them well-situated in a small number of heavily fortified permanent bases (then charmingly referred to as “enduring camps”). Now, Rumsfeld more modestly hopes to halve the American forces in Iraq to 60,000 by the end of 2006 and assumedly housed them in those bases. His main commanders speak even more modestly of a drop of perhaps 20,000-30,000 troops from the present troop level of 138,000 by next spring, but only after a rise of 20,000 troops in time for Iraq’s prospective elections in December. All of this, in turn, is couched in “ifs” of every sort. As Centcom Commander John Abizaid put it recently, we may “have to keep the current levels of about 138,000 American soldiers in Iraq throughout 2006 if security and political trends are unfavorable for a withdrawal.”

One of the problems involved in all American “withdrawal” discussions, unfortunately, is that those long-planned “enduring camps” in Iraq seldom come up. They’re just not on many minds (other than the Bush administration’s collective one). For that, you have to look to coverage abroad. And yet there are now reputedly over 100 American bases of every size in that country (and a new one has only recently been established in Iraq’s western desert). Some like Camp Victory at Baghdad Airport are massive beyond imagining, Vietnam-era-sized installations with the look of eternal permanency (and evidently with significant permanent housing for American troops being built into them as well).

Right now, the “withdrawal” trial balloons are, at best, in the lingo of the Pentagon, about reducing the American military “footprint” in Iraq. But like most of the half-baked schemes of Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, the Bush administration’s withdrawal strategy is likely to prove as much fantasy as the original Rumsfeld 2003 drawdown plans were. The “standing up” of an Iraqi military on which every administration plan is predicated already seems an exercise in futility, not to say predictable disaster. In the meantime, at home, calls for the setting of timetables for total withdrawal are beginning to mount and pressure is building, even without a significant antiwar movement — enough so that the President now has to continually deny that he will ever set such a timetable. In the meantime, the “coalition of the ever less willing” is drawing down and at a pretty respectable pace. Even the Brits — we swear, no connection to those bombings in London — may really be mostly out of Iraq by the end of next year. And for good reason.

The truth is that Iraq, which was to be only the first stop on a Bush administration (and neocon) military tour of the Middle East, and then assumedly the world, has so far proven the last stop on the global domination line. It has revealed to a startled world the remarkable weakness of the Earth’s last superpower, the land which was, Roman-style, supposed to imprint a Pax Americana on the planet. It has ripped up the all-volunteer military and confounded the dreams of the ever angrier neocons.

In the period before 9/11, neocon writers often focused on the spread of a failed-state world, a supposed jungle of unrulable instability out there on the peripheries, one on which only the sole global hyperpower would assumedly have the capability to impose some level of order. Some of those neocons, in their eagerness to whack various regimes in the Middle East — Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon — probably didn’t care greatly if, as a result, they created failed states throughout the region. Chaos didn’t perhaps seem the worst fate for many of those lands (as long as Ariel Sharon’s Israel was strengthened in the process).

Little did they know. Now, they have indeed succeeded in creating a failed-state right in the oil-rich heart of the Middle East and the chaos of Iraq has proceeded to suck the American military as well as Bush administration policies and dreams of every sort down with it, creating maneuvering space for countries as disparate as Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela.

In fact, it’s unlikely that the Bush administration — possibly any American government — will be able to live comfortably with Iraq as a failed state, its ripples of chaos spreading regionally, even globally. And yet the administration has already demonstrated with definitive thoroughness that it is capable of doing little about the situation — except continually making it worse.

Someday, withdrawal will come, “permanent” bases or no. Staying is not conceivable and the longer we remain, the worse the situation is likely to be when we depart. But on such subjects and on the matter of taking any responsibility for its actions, this administration is not only shameless, but quite hopeless. It can only create more chaos, foster yet more mad plans for future operations like — if the latest rumors leaked to ex-CIA official Philip Giraldi of American Conservative magazine are to be believed — taking out the Iranian nuclear program using… doh!… nuclear weapons. Even Homer Simpson, six beers to the wind, couldn’t have come up with that one, but evidently our Vice President has.

If you really want to sample the madness of our times, consider Juan Cole’s little history of how “the American Right, having created the [anti-Soviet] Mujahideen [in Afghanistan] and having mightily contributed to the creation of al-Qaeda, abruptly announced that there was something deeply wrong with Islam, that it kept producing terrorists,” or just wrap your mind around the fate of the poor birdwatcher in George Bush’s America. Cynthia H. Cho of the Los Angeles Times recently reported that, from Cape Charles, Virginia, to Sierra Vista, Arizona, your typical birder, walking quietly in nature with a pair of binoculars (and possibly a telescope and camera), the very picture of the harmless human being, is now feeling the pinch of the homeland security state. “At popular birding sites across the country, they are facing stricter regulations — in some cases being required to hire a police escort — as authorities beef up national security.” Birds, it turns out, don’t hesitate to congregate around key bridges, tunnels, roads, and military facilities like so many terrorist rock doves and who knows what stranger may be lurking in their vicinity cleverly dressed in the guise of a birder.

Take a Proud Step Forward… Mr. Anonymous!

So to sum up:

More prisons in Iraq = withdrawal from Iraq. So spend, spend, spend on constructing or reconstructing those jails.

More five-star hotels = an intensified war on terror. So fill those scenic rooms at taxpayer expense — and don’t forget to knock off the macadamia nuts in the mini-fridge! (On the other hand, America’s Spartan warriors –and Spartan auditors — might consider crossing up the terrorists by varying their lodgings in order to G-SAVE themselves; they might, that is, make the ultimate sacrifice and, from time to time, stay in 4 or even… gasp!… 3-star hotels.)

Travel = Death. So if you’re a U.S. citizen, thinking about those late summer days abroad, you should probably cancel those plans and catch another showing of War of the Worlds instead.

Birdwatching = security risk. So if you’re heading out for a quiet, woodsy morning with that nesting pair of Blackburnian warblers near the local nuclear plant, bring your own guards and the necessary papers.

Oh, and to catch the full spirit of our Bushificated summer of fun, just consider the State Department’s recently announced winner of its annual Foreign Service National Employee of the Year award. According to the eagle-eyed Al Kamen in his Washington Post on-line column, “In the Loop,” the winner gets “a certificate signed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and $10,000.” And, as it happens, that man, an official in the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, has a remarkable tale to tell. As Kamen relates it, his “life was at risk night and day” and he had “many close calls personally and several friends were slain.”

“If that’s not enough, ‘after a suicide bomber detonated [a] device within five yards of the dining table,’ the announcement says, [he] ‘limped in to the embassy and continued working despite suffering from shock and severe hearing loss. When a colleague was assassinated’ and his U.S. supervisor sent home the following day, [he] ‘vowed to work “even if no one was left.”‘

“And when the delegates to the Iraqi National Assembly met at a Baghdad hotel, he was ‘trapped in the elevator when a rocket slammed into the hotel,’ we’re told. ‘Later that day, a Gurkha security guard standing a few feet away was struck in the head by shrapnel from an exploding mortar round,’ and [he] provided first aid.”

So, to honor this American hero, we give you our proud winner… step forward, Mr. Anonymous! (His name was omitted from the State Department announcement “for security reasons.”)

And if that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about the state of our American world today, then, boy do I have a five-star hotel in sunny Baghdad to sell you!

[Note of thanks: I use many wonderful article-collection websites to research my pieces, most of which I try to thank in some fashion from time to time. For this particular dispatch, I found Paul Woodward’s The War in Context website particularly useful in reviewing key developments of the last few weeks. Woodward has a sharp eye for provocative pieces published wherever and a well-sharpened tongue when, on rare occasions, he offers up one of his pungent, koan-like comments. I recommend his website to all of you. And, as ever, I thank Nick Turse for his invaluable efforts on behalf of Tomdispatch.]

Copyright 2005 Tom Engelhardt


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Straight to the point: Donations have been concerningly slow for our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, over the next few weeks so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

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