Handicapping the Global Midterms

You can’t turn on the TV news or pick up a paper these days without stumbling across the latest political poll and the pros explaining how to parse it, or some set of commentators, pundits, and reporters placing their bets on the midterm elections. The media, of course, loves a political horse race and, as those 2010 midterms grow ever closer, you can easily feel like you’re not catching the news but visiting an off-track betting parlor.

Fortified by rounds of new polls and all those talking heads calibrating and recalibrating prospective winners and losers, seats “leaning Democratic” and “leaning Republican,” the election season has essentially become an endless handicapping session. This is how American politics is now framed – as a months or years-long serial election for which Nov. 2 is a kind of hangover. Then, only weeks after the results are in, the next set of polls will be out and election 2012, the Big Show, will be on the agenda with all the regular handicappers starting to gather at all the usual places.

Doesn’t it strike you as odd, though, that this mania for handicapping remains so parochially electoral? After all, it could be applied to so many things, including the state of the world at large as seen from Washington. So consider this my one-man tip sheet on what you could think of as the global midterms, focused on prospective winners and losers, as well as those “on the cusp,” including crucial countries and key personalities.

Prospective Winners

Osama bin Laden: Who woulda thunk it? More than nine years after 9/11, Osama bin Laden and his number two compadre, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are believed to be alive, well, and living comfortably in the Pakistani borderlands with not a cave in sight, according to the best guesstimate of a “NATO official who has day-to-day responsibility for the war in Afghanistan.” With the globe’s “sole superpower” eternally on his trail – admittedly, the Bush administration took a few years off from the “hunt” to crash and burn in Iraq – he’s a prospective global winner just for staying alive. But before we close the books on him, he gets extra points for a singular accomplishment: with modest funds and a few thousand ragtag masked recruits, swinging on monkey bars and clambering over obstacles in “camps” in Afghanistan, he managed to lure the United States into two financially disastrous, inconclusive wars, one in its eighth year, the other in its tenth. To give credit where it’s due, he had help from the Bush administration with its dominatrix-like global fantasies. Still, it’s not often that someone can make his dreams your nightmares on such a scale.

The Taliban: Here’s another crew heading toward the winner’s circle after yet another typically fraud-wracked Afghan parliamentary election conferring even less legitimacy on President Hamid Karzai’s toothless government in Kabul. Think of the Taliban as the miracle story of the global backlands, the phoenix of extreme Islamic fundamentalist movements. After all, in November 2001, when the Taliban were swept out of Kabul, the movement couldn’t have been more thoroughly discredited. Afghans were generally sick of their harsh rule and abusive ways and, if reports can be believed, relieved, even overjoyed, to be rid of them (whatever Afghans thought about their country being invaded). But when night fell in perhaps 2005-2006, they were back, retooled and remarkably effective.

And it’s only gotten worse (or, from the Taliban point of view, better) ever since. Yes, they are now getting pounded by a heightened American bombing campaign, a Special Operations night-raids-and-assassination campaign, and pressure from newly surging U.S. forces in the southern part of the country. Nonetheless, as the Wall Street Journal reported recently, they are achieving some remarkable successes in northern Afghanistan. After all, the Taliban had always been considered a Pashtun tribal movement and while there are Pashtuns in the north, they are a distinct minority. The Journal nonetheless reports: “[T]he insurgency is now drawing ethnic Uzbeks, Tajiks, and other minorities previously seen as unsympathetic to the rebel cause.”

If, more than nine years later, the Taliban – the Taliban! – is attracting groups that theoretically loath it, have few cultural affinities with it, and long fought or opposed it, then you know that the American campaign in Afghanistan has hit its nadir. Thanks to us and our man in Kabul, the Taliban is increasingly the fallback position, the lesser of two disasters, for Afghan nationalists. This helps explain why more than $27 billion dollars in American training funds hasn’t produced an Afghan military or police force capable of or willing to fight, while Taliban guerrillas, lacking such aid, fight fiercely anyway.

Iran (in Iraq): Remember that old witticism of the neocons of the ascendant Bush moment back in 2003: “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran”? Well, it’s turned out to be truer than they ever imagined. Just recently, for instance, Iraqi caretaker prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, went to Tehran to try to hammer out a deal to keep his position (see Sadr, Muqtada al-, below). It’s undeniable that Iran, a moderate-sized regional power the Bush administration expected to crush and instead found itself struggling with by proxy in Iraq for years, now has a preponderant position of influence there. Despite so many billions of dollars and American lives, not to speak of years of covert destabilization campaigns aimed at Iran, Tehran seems to have outmaneuvered Washington in Baghdad (and perhaps in Lebanon as well). Call that an on-going win against the odds.

China: Here’s the bad news when it comes to China – a weak third quarter dropped the growth rate of its gross domestic product to 9.6 percent. Yep, you read that right: only 9.6 percent (down from 10.3 percent in the second quarter). For comparison, the U.S. rate of growth leaped from 1.7 percent in the second quarter to 2.3 percent in the third quarter, with some experts predicting no growth or even shrinkage by year’s end. Make no mistake, China has its lurking problems, including an overheating urban real-estate market verging on bubbledom (which, post-2008, should cause any leadership to shudder) and tens of millions of peasants left in dismal poverty in the long decades when “to get rich” was “glorious.” Still, the country has managed to pass Japan for number-two-global-economic-power status, to corner a startling range of future global energy reserves so that its economy can drink deep for decades to come, and to forge a front-running position in various renewable-energy fields. Its leaders have accomplished all this thanks to economic muscle, diplomacy, and cash (think: bribes) without sending its soldiers abroad or fighting a war (or even a skirmish) overseas. They have even learned how to be thoroughly belligerent while relying only on economic power. Check out, for instance, the over-the-top way they crushed Japan in a recent stand-off over a Chinese trawler captain in Japanese custody, wielding only the threat to withhold rare earth metals (necessary to various advanced industrial processes), 95 percent-97 percent of which are, at the moment, produced by China. We’re definitely talking global winner here.

Drone Makers: If America’s wars are eternal field laboratories for new weaponry, then the grand winners of the latest round of wars are the drone makers. General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, the jewel in the crown of Southern California’s drone industry, now employs 10,000 workers and runs double shifts in, as W.J. Hennigan of the Los Angeles Times writes, a “fast-growing business … fueled by Pentagon spending – at least $20 billion since 2001 – and billions more chipped in by the CIA and Congress.” Washington has been plunking down more than $5 billion a year for its drone purchases, the development of future drone technology, and the carrying out of 24/7 robot assassination campaigns as well as a full-scale Terminator war in the Pakistani borderlands. These “precision” weapons are capable of taking out people, including civilians in the vicinity, from thousands of miles away. The drones themselves – termed by CIA Director Leon Panetta “the only game in town” when it comes to stopping al-Qaeda – turn out to be capable of settling nothing. For every bad guy they kill, they kill civilians as well, seeding new enemies in what is essentially a war to create future terrorists. But that hardly matters. Terminator wars are hot, and the drone, as a product, is definitely a global winner. Not only are American companies starting to export the craft to allies willing to pay in global hotspots, but other countries are lining up to create drone industries of their own. Expect the friendly skies to continue to fill.

Muqtada al-Sadr: Here’s a heartwarming winner’s-circle story about a highly experienced political operator, still known in the U.S. press as the “anti-American cleric,” who just couldn’t be kept down. Sadr led an armed Shi’ite movement of the poor in Iraq that, in 2004, actively fought U.S. forces to a draw in the old city of Najaf. He himself was hunted by the U.S. military and, at one point during the years when Washington ruled in Baghdad, warrants were even put out for his arrest in a murder case. Still, the guy survived, as did his movement, armed and then un- (or less) armed. In 2007, he packed his bags and moved to the safety of neighboring Iran to “study” and move up in Shia clerical ranks. In the most recent Iraqi elections, now seven months past, for a parliament that has yet to meet, his movement won more than 10 percent of the vote and with that he was declared a “kingmaker.” He has always unwaveringly called for a full American withdrawal from his country. Now, with the potential power to return Nouri al-Maliki (for whom he has no love) to the prime ministership, he is evidently insisting that Washington retain not a single future base in Iraq – and the Obama administration is twitching with discomfort.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal: And here’s another heartwarming winner’s circle story. Once upon a time, McChrystal was essentially the U.S. military’s assassin in chief. For five years he commanded the Pentagon’s super-secret Joint Special Operations Command, which, among other things, ran what Seymour Hersh called an “executive assassination wing” out of Vice President Dick Cheney’s office. Then, the general was appointed Afghan War commander by Barack Obama and, under the worst of circumstances, tried to implement his boss’s textbook version of counterinsurgency doctrine (see COIN and Petraeus, General David, below). He actually cut back radically on the U.S. air war in Afghanistan in an attempt to kill far less of the civilians he was supposed to “protect” and have a better shot at winning “hearts and minds.”

The result: utter frustration. The Taliban grew, Afghans remained miserably unhappy, and American troops hated his new war-fighting policy, which meant they couldn’t call in air support when they wanted it. He and his circle of former Special Ops types flew to Paris to greet NATO allies (for whom, it seems, he had nothing but contempt), drank hard, and vented their feelings toward the Obama administration, all in the presence of a Rolling Stone reporter. Next thing you know, the president has canned his war commander, putting him momentarily in the loser’s circle – and that was his good fortune. He was shown the door out of Afghanistan before the going got worse. He is now in the process of retooling himself via a teaching position at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University as a budding leadership guru and inspirational speaker. (“Few people can speak about leadership, teamwork, and international affairs with as much insight as Gen. Stanley McChrystal…”)

If you’re a typical American of a certain age laid off in today’s bad times, the likelihood of getting a half-decent job is next to nil (and retraining isn’t going to help much either). On the other hand, if you begin high enough and, say, the president of the United States axes you, all’s well with the world.

On the Cusp

Gen. David Petraeus: The Great Surgifier of Baghdad and the Seer of Kabul is now, it seems, in something of a rush. For one thing, his fabulous 2006-2008 surge in Iraq turns out to have been for the benefit of Iran, not Washington (see Iran in Iraq above). In addition, as members of the Sunni Awakening Movement reportedly peel off in disillusionment or disgust with the present largely Shi’ite government and rejoin the insurgency in significant numbers, his modest success is threatening to unravel behind him – and so is American support for the Afghan War he now commands, according to the opinion polls.

As a result, according to Washington pundit (and Petraeus-lover) David Ignatius, he’s making a “strategic pivot” – a decorous phrase – in Afghanistan. Give him credit for daring – or desperation. He may be known as the progenitor of the Army’s present counterinsurgency strategy, or COIN, the man who dusted off that failed, long discarded doctrine from the Vietnam era, made it thrillingly sexy, complete with new manual, and elevated it to a central position in Army planning for years to come, but he’s not a man to let consistency stand in his way. Seeing the need for quick signs of “progress” in Afghanistan (where the war has been going desperately badly), both for a December Obama administration policy review and to keep any U.S. troop drawdowns to a minimum in 2011, he has countermanded former war commander McChrystal’s COIN-ish attempt to radically scale back U.S. air strikes. Instead, he’s loosed the U.S. Air Force on the Taliban, opted to try to pound them with anything available, pushed for escalation in the form of “hot pursuit” across the Pakistani border, upped Special Operations “capture or kill” raids, and generally left COIN in a ditch. Think of his new tactics as BKJ, for bomb-kill-jaw – the jawing being about “peace talks” and aimed at influential sectors of the U.S. media, among others, part of a rising drumbeat of “progress” propaganda from the general’s headquarters.

Well-connected, savvy, and willing to shift tactics on a moment’s notice, Petraeus is a figure to contend with in Washington, our most political general since I don’t know when. Like Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, he may be playing a cagey hand to extend matters through 2012, when a president ready to fight on till hell freezes over could take office. He’s a man on the cusp, destined for success, but only a few hops, skips, and jumps ahead of failure.

(By the way, keep an eye on another Bush-era holdover, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, if you want to gauge what Washington thinks of the war’s “progress.” Just a month ago, he was publicly muttering about retirement early next year. He’s not a man who will want to preside over disaster in Afghanistan. If he does leave early in 2011, just assume that the war is headed for the toilet and, having supported his war commanders in their surge strategy through 2009 and 2010, he’s getting out while the going is still good and his reputation intact.)

Pakistan: Only recently 20 percent underwater, Pakistan is in a protracted military, intelligence, and policy dance with the U.S., the Afghans, the Taliban, India, and god knows who else so intricate that only a contortionist could appreciate it. For Washington, Pakistan is an enigma curled in a conundrum wrapped in a roti and sprinkled with hot pepper. With the Obama administration schizophrenically poised between partnership and poison – policies of “hot pursuit” across the Pakistani border and placation, showering the Pakistani military with yet more weaponry and cutting off some units from any aid at all – anything is possible. Armed to the teeth, clobbered by nature, beset by fundamentalist guerrillas, surrounded by potential enemies, and unraveling, democratic and ever at the edge of military rule, Pakistan is the greatest unknown of the Greater Middle East (even if it is in South Asia). If it’s on the cusp of hell, then, like it or not, Washington will be, too.

Israel: The question here is straightforward enough: Just how badly can Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu and his government treat the Obama administration (and the president himself) and get away with it? Right now, the answer seems to be, as badly as it wants. After all, Washington put almost all its global diplomatic apples in one ill-woven negotiating basket, named it making progress on a two-state solution to the Israel/Palestine problem, started talks, and then offered Israel a package of goodies of a sort that would normally only be given away deep into negotiations, if at all, for nothing more than a two-month extension of the Israeli settlement-construction freeze. The result: Israeli settlers are again building up a storm on the West Bank while the Netanyahu government plays even harder to get. If the Obama administration can’t do better than this, then at the next TomDispatch handicapping session Israel has a reasonable shot at being elevated into the winner’s circle. If Obama and his team ever get tired of being kicked around by Netanyahu & Co., especially with the U.S. midterms behind them, life could get tougher for Bibi. The real question is: Can the prime minister play out this version of the game until 2012 in hopes that Obama will lose out and a new U.S. president will be ready to give away the store?

Iran (not in Iraq): Nasty government, shaky economy beset by international sanctions, poor choices, and poor planning, irritated population, enemies with malice aforethought, and an embattled peaceful nuclear program that could be headed for “breakout” capacity versus fabulous reserves of oil and natural gas and integration into the great Eurasian energy grid as well as into the energy-eager plans of China, Russia, Pakistan, and India. It’s anybody’s bet.

The Global Economy: I wouldn’t even think about handicapping this one or guessing what it might be on the cusp of. After all, Asian economies (minus Japan) are heating up, as are a number of developing ones like Brazil’s (with capital flowing to such places in problematic amounts); meanwhile, the American economy is cold as a tomb, and Europe is teetering at the edge of who knows what. If this isn’t the definition of a jerry-built Rube-Goldberg-version of a global system, what is? Put your money down if you want, but you’ll get no odds here.

Prospective Losers

Counterinsurgency Doctrine or COIN: It was Petraeus’s baby and later the belle of the military ball as well as the talk of the militarized intelligentsia at every Washington think-tank that mattered. It took the U.S. Army by storm and, when it comes to laying out the latest plans for the U.S. Army’s future fighting doctrine, it’s still counterinsurgency all the way to the horizon (and 2028). But how long does any fad last? Who remembers hula hoops, bell bottoms, or the Whiskey a Go Go? In the same way, in Afghanistan, COIN, the military doctrine of “protecting the people” in order to win “hearts and minds,” just lost out to smashing the enemy – and whoever else happens to be around (see Petraeus, Gen. David, above). Okay, COIN is still there, and you’ll hear the carnies in and out of the war-making tent talking a great COIN game for some time to come, but that was the case in Vietnam, too, even after B-52s were carpet-bombing the South Vietnamese countryside and CIA-sponsored teams were roaming the provinces murdering locals by the score. Hearts and minds? COIN’s a loser, and even Gen. Petraeus now seems to know it (though he’ll never admit it).

Great Britain: The British lion just got a haircut and – who could be surprised – most of the hair that got cut was shorn from women and children, always first to disembark from the HMS Economy. One other casualty of government slashing, however, is the British defense establishment, suffering an 8 percent budget cut over the next four years – which means losing lots of jets, 17,000 bodies, and even the fleet’s flagship aircraft carrier, which will be “decommissioned,” leaving the British unable to launch a plane at sea until at least 2019. As the Washington Post politely put the matter: “[T]he [government’s] moves amount to a tactical scaling down of military ambition by the one European ally consistently willing to back the United States with firepower in international conflicts.” Put more bluntly, as the British in their imperial days used native recruits to help police their colonies and fight their wars, so in recent years, the Brits have been America’s Gurkhas. No longer, however, will Britain be, militarily speaking, the mouse that roared. Despite pathetic pledges to remain at the American side in Afghanistan forever and a day, the sun is now setting on the British military, which means that the U.S. has lost its key sidekick in any future “coalition of the willing.” (Note for the Pentagon: Carpe diem. The Brits are the canary in the mine on this. Sooner or later, it will be your turn, too. By then, of course, women and children in the U.S. will already be well shorn.)

Iraqis, Afghans, and Americans: We’re talking peoples here. Afghans and Iraqis have spent these last years, if not decades, in hell. Lives ripped apart and destroyed, exiles created in vast numbers, basic services debilitated. The numbers of dead and wounded, while contested, are vast enough to stagger the imagination. Just the other day, thanks to the WikiLeaks Iraq document dump, Iraq Body Count was able to identify approximately 15,000 previously unknown Iraqi civilian deaths between 2004 and 2009. As that organization’s John Sloboda commented, the new cache of 400,000 U.S. military documents from 2004-2009 shows “the relentless grind of daily killings in almost every town or village in every province.” The Iraqis, like the Afghans, deserved better and yet, when it comes to misery and death, there’s still no end in sight. Both peoples were supposedly “liberated” by American invasions. Both are the true losers of the last decade and the saddest of stories, planetarily speaking. And let’s not forget the American people either, pounded in their own way. Just imagine what kind of winners they might have been if, instead of building vast, useless base complexes in Iraq and Afghanistan (and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East) and fighting trillion-dollar wars, the U.S. had chosen to build almost anything at home. But why go down that road? It’s such a sorry what-if journey to nowhere (see Economy, the American, below).

Barack Obama & Company: He had the numbers (in the polls and in Congress) and the popularity in early 2009. He could have done almost anything. But first, in the key areas of foreign and economic policy, he surrounded himself with the old crew, the deadest of heads, and the stalest Washington thinking around. While this was presented as an Ivy League fest of the best and the brightest, so far their track record shows them to be politically dumb and dumber. They missed out on jobs (about as simple and basic as you can get), and took a dismal year of review to double down twice on a war from hell. Now, the president stands a reasonable chance in 2012 of turning over to a new (possibly far more dismal) administration an even more disastrous Afghan War, an unfinished Iraq crisis, a Guantanamo still unclosed, “don’t ask, don’t tell” still in place (who says the coming Congress will care to do Obama’s bidding on this one, now that he’s bypassed the courts), and a jobless nonrecovery or worse – and that’s just to start down the path of DisObamapointment.

The American Economy: Don’t even get me started. Just kiss this one goodbye for a while.

Check back in a month. With the global (and American) midterms over and the Big Show of 2012 ahead, rest assured that our hardy gang of pollsters and pundits will soon be gearing up again. You can sort through the odds and place your next set of bets in late November.

Copyright 2010 Tom Engelhardt

Author: Tom Engelhardt

An editor in publishing for the last 25 years, Tom Engelhardt is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War era, now out in a revised edition with a new preface and afterword, and Mission Unaccomplished, TomDispatch Interviews With American Iconoclasts and Dissenters. He is at present consulting editor for Metropolitan Books, a fellow of the Nation Institute, and a teaching fellow at the journalism school of the University of California, Berkeley. Visit his Web site. This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.