The Empire Slogs Ahead

My failure to columnize last week was a function of a family situation, but hardly a crisis; my son, at whose new home we are staying (a bargain in the midst of the housing crisis), did not have Internet access at the time. So I am a week late in expounding what others have noticed: that there might, if one were charitable, have been a reason for the U.S. to reverse-engineer a form of torture developed by Chinese Communist and North Koreans – not to get at the truth, but to engineer false confessions.

According to the Senate Armed Services Committee report [.pdf] (a mostly Democratic-oriented document to be sure, but bearing at least some evidence to back its assertions), one of the reasons folks at the top agitated for "enhanced interrogation" techniques was that they weren’t getting what they wanted from early Guantanamo detainees – evidence that Saddam Hussein was in operational cahoots with al-Qaeda. Of course, as has become abundantly clear, this early justification for the pre-desired outcome of invading Iraq was not forthcoming because it didn’t exist.

So, the neat equation: The Cheney-Rumsfeld crowd didn’t want the truth; they wanted evidence to justify the forthcoming invasion, which meant they needed not reliable intelligence but lies. What better way to get false confessions than techniques designed to elicit just such results? And they probably knew there was no good evidence of a Saddam-Osama collaboration, but they didn’t care much. They needed revelations, reliable or not, that could be used to pump up the prewar propaganda barrage.

The only trouble with this neat equation is that there is also evidence, adduced by New York Times reporting, that the architects of the Bush-era torture regimen also didn’t do enough research to find out that the techniques they were adopting were originally communist tactics. They simply reverse-engineered the military’s SERE (survival, evasion, resistance, escape) training program, which had been developed after the Korean War to help U.S. pilots and other personnel to know what to expect, which they seemed to think was something of a generic torture-survival program incorporating the lessons of many wars instead of just one. Evidence of their possible shrewdness at adopting techniques designed to elicit lies is undermined by their ignorance of the provenance of the techniques.

So incompetence and ignorance trump immoral shrewdness. That’s one reason I’m constitutionally skeptical of most grand conspiracy theories (though it is undeniable that conspiracies exist). My abiding confidence in human incompetence, especially the incompetence of those who have seized power, makes me doubt the ability of such creatures to develop and carry out plans on a grand scale. They can’t even run a post office cost-efficiently.

Of course, discussing the sometime incompetence of our imperial masters raises an uncomfortable question. During the 2004 presidential campaign John Kerry is reputed to have cried out plaintively at some point, "I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy!" So how can we keep losing ground to incompetent and uninformed masters? Is there something in our DNA that requires pushing empires beyond their limits until they collapse in a heap?

The evidence this past week is that the current keepers of the imperial keys are not having such an easy time of it for the past month or so.

In the war that was supposed to have been won to the point of virtually ensuring a stable democracy, thanks to Bush’s courageous “surge,” violence has been rising. April was the most violent month in Iraq since March 2008. Unfortunately, one response to this increase in violence will be a plea to keep U.S. military forces in Iraq a while longer, “just until things calm down again." The possibility that the very presence of U.S. troops is a contributing factor in the violence will get short shrift.

In Afghanistan, even before President Obama’s “surge” is properly underway, things are deteriorating, with increased attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the Pakistani government doing its Wicked Witch of the West routine – “I’m melting, I’m melting” – in the face of multiple challenges, including its own sclerosis.

The likely result of these two situations is the commitment of even more resources the U.S. doesn’t really have – check out the deficits and projected deficits – to military, quasi-military, or nation-building enterprises likely to involve years of strenuous effort with depleted resources and with outcomes that are hardly likely to be favorable. Is this the way empires end – not with a bang, but with a whimper of pain from taxpayers?

So Democrats and Republicans alike, whether they are ready to acknowledge it or not, are up against some of the current limits on American power. The Iraq war has depleted our military resources and sapped military morale. The Af-Pak campaign might be propped up in the imaginations of the Obamaites by the capture or killing of Osama bin Laden himself, but it’s a mission without an exit strategy and without much of a picture, beyond platitudes about a vibrant and responsive democratic central government in Kabul, of what victory would look like.

Part of the reason, of course, that these barely competent keepers of the military option are improbably beating whatever keepers of the anti-imperial, anti-militaristic flame remain in late-imperial America, is that the so-called Left has largely defected from the antiwar movement. They have their man in the White House and, with a few honorable exceptions, are inclined at this point to follow marching orders rather than resist them, to submit themselves to the more enlightened types now in control of the imperial apparatus rather than ask hard questions. I expect that as the futility of establishing a Western-style government most Afghans see little need for becomes more apparent, we will see more of the Obama faithful revert to an antiwar stance. But the hope shared by both wings of the American Government Party, that if only "our guys" gain control things will be run better and life will improve, is a sturdy one, especially in the opening months of any new presidential administration.

So the empire slogs on, vowing to complete the impossible tasks set for it by the previous keepers of the imperial apparatus. Disillusionment seems inevitable, given the disconnect between boundless ambitions and limited resources. But not just yet.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).