This is a global moment unlike any in memory, perhaps in history. Yes, comparisons can be made to the wave of people power that swept Eastern Europe as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989-91. For those with longer memories, perhaps 1968 might come to mind, that abortive moment when, in the United States, France, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Brazil, and elsewhere, including Eastern Europe, masses of people mysteriously inspired by each other took to the streets of global cities to proclaim that change was on the way.
For those searching the history books, perhaps you’ve focused on the year 1848 when, in a time that also mixed economic gloom with novel means of disseminating the news, the winds of freedom seemed briefly to sweep across Europe. And, of course, if enough regimes fall and the turmoil goes deep enough, there’s always 1776, the American Revolution, or 1789, the French one, to consider. Both shook up the world for decades after.
But here’s the truth of it: you have to strain to fit this Middle Eastern moment into any previous paradigm, even as — from Wisconsin to China — it already threatens to break out of the Arab world and spread like a fever across the planet. Never in memory have so many unjust or simply despicable rulers felt quite so nervous — or possibly quite so helpless (despite being armed to the teeth) — in the presence of unarmed humanity. And there has to be joy and hope in that alone.
Even now, without understanding what it is we face, watching staggering numbers of people, many young and dissatisfied, take to the streets in Morocco, Mauritania, Djibouti, Oman, Algeria, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Yemen, and Libya, not to mention Bahrain, Tunisia, and Egypt, would be inspirational. Watching them face security forces using batons, tear gas, rubber bullets, and in all too many cases, real bullets (in Libya, even helicopters and planes) and somehow grow stronger is little short of unbelievable. Seeing Arabs demanding something we were convinced was the birthright and property of the West, of the United States in particular, has to send a shiver down anyone’s spine.
The nature of this potentially world-shaking phenomenon remains unknown and probably, at this point, unknowable. Are freedom and democracy about to break out all over? And if so, what will that turn out to mean? If not, what exactly are we seeing? What light bulb was it that so unexpectedly turned on in millions of Twittered and Facebooked brains — and why now? I doubt those who are protesting, and in some cases dying, know themselves. And that’s good news. That the future remains — always — the land of the unknown should offer us hope, not least because that’s the bane of ruling elites who want to, but never can, take possession of it.
Nonetheless, you would expect that a ruling elite, observing such earth-shaking developments, might rethink its situation, as should the rest of us. After all, if humanity can suddenly rouse itself this way in the face of the armed power of state after state, then what’s really possible on this planet of ours?
Seeing such scenes repeatedly, who wouldn’t rethink the basics? Who wouldn’t feel the urge to reimagine our world?
Let me offer as my nominee of choice not various desperate or dying Middle Eastern regimes, but Washington.
Life in the Echo Chamber
So much of what Washington did imagine in these last years proved laughable, even before this moment swept it away. Just take any old phrase from the Bush years. How about “You’re either with us or against us”? What’s striking is how little it means today. Looking back on Washington’s desperately mistaken assumptions about how our globe works, this might seem like the perfect moment to show some humility in the face of what nobody could have predicted.
It would seem like a good moment for Washington — which, since September 12, 2001, has been remarkably clueless about real developments on this planet and repeatedly miscalculated the nature of global power — to step back and recalibrate.
As it happens, there’s no evidence it’s doing so. In fact, that may be beyond Washington’s present capabilities, no matter how many billions of dollars it pours into “intelligence.” And by “Washington,” I mean not just the Obama administration, or the Pentagon, or our military commanders, or the vast intelligence bureaucracy, but all those pundits and think-tankers who swarm the capital, and the media that reports on them all. It’s as if the cast of characters that makes up “Washington” now lives in some kind of echo chamber in which it can only hear itself talking.
As a result, Washington still seems remarkably determined to play out the string on an era that is all too swiftly passing into the history books. While many have noticed the Obama administration’s hapless struggle to catch up to events in the Middle East, even as it clings to a familiar coterie of grim autocrats and oil sheiks, let me illustrate this point in another area entirely — the largely forgotten war in Afghanistan. After all, hardly noticed, buried beneath 24/7 news from Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, and elsewhere in the Middle East, that war continues on its destructive, costly course with nary a blink.
Five Ways to Be Tone Deaf in Washington
You might think that, as vast swathes of the Greater Middle East are set ablaze, someone in Washington would take a new look at our Af/Pak War and wonder whether it isn’t simply beside the point. No such luck, as the following five tiny but telling examples that caught my attention indicate. Consider them proof of the well-being of the American echo chamber and evidence of the way Washington is proving incapable of rethinking its longest, most futile, and most bizarre war.
1. Let’s start with a recent New York Times op-ed, “The ‘Long War’ May Be Getting Shorter.” Published last Tuesday as Libya was passing through “the gates of hell,” it was an upbeat account of Afghan War commander General David Petraeus’s counterinsurgency operations in southern Afghanistan. Its authors, Nathaniel Fick and John Nagl, members of an increasingly militarized Washington intelligentsia, jointly head the Center for a New American Security in Washington. Nagl was part of the team that wrote the 2006 revised Army counterinsurgency manual for which Petraeus is given credit and was an advisor to the general in Iraq. Fick, a former Marine officer who led troops in Afghanistan and Iraq and then was a civilian instructor at the Afghanistan Counterinsurgency Academy in Kabul, recently paid a first-hand visit to the country (under whose auspices we do not know).
The two of them are typical of many of Washington’s war experts who tend to develop incestuous relationships with the military, moonlighting as enablers or cheerleaders for our war commanders, and still remain go-to sources for the media.
In another society, their op-ed would simply have been considered propaganda. Here’s its money paragraph:
“It is hard to tell when momentum shifts in a counterinsurgency campaign, but there is increasing evidence that Afghanistan is moving in a more positive direction than many analysts think. It now seems more likely than not that the country can achieve the modest level of stability and self-reliance necessary to allow the United States to responsibly draw down its forces from 100,000 to 25,000 troops over the next four years.”
This is a classic Washington example of moving the goalposts. What our two experts are really announcing is that, even if all goes well in our Afghan War, 2014 will not be its end date. Not by a long shot.
Of course, this is a position that Petraeus has supported. Four years from now our “withdrawal” plans, according to Nagl and Fick, will leave 25,000 troops in place. If truth-telling or accuracy were the point of their exercise, their piece would have been titled, “The ‘Long War’ Grows Longer.”
Even as the Middle East explodes and the U.S. plunges into a budget “debate” significantly powered by our stunningly expensive wars that won’t end, these two experts implicitly propose that General Petraeus and his successors fight on in Afghanistan at more than $100 billion a year into the distant reaches of time, as if nothing in the world were changing. This already seems like the definition of obliviousness and one day will undoubtedly look delusional, but it’s the business-as-usual mentality with which Washington faces a new world.
2. Or consider two striking comments General Petraeus himself made that bracket our new historical moment. At a morning briefing on January 19th, according to New York Times reporter Rod Nordland, the general was in an exultant, even triumphalist, mood about his war. It was just days before the first Egyptian demonstrators would take to the streets, and only days after Tunisian autocrat Zine Ben Ali had met the massed power of nonviolent demonstrators and fled his country. And here’s what Petraeus so exuberantly told his staff: “We’ve got our teeth in the enemy’s jugular now, and we’re not going to let go.”
It’s true that the general had, for months, not only been sending new American troops south, but ratcheting up the use of air power, increasing Special Operations night raids, and generally intensifying the war in the Taliban’s home territory. Still, under the best of circumstances, his was an exultantly odd image. It obviously called up the idea of a predator sinking its teeth into the throat of its prey, but surely somewhere in the military unconscious lurked a more classic American pop-cultural image — the werewolf or vampire. Evidently, the general’s idea of an American future involves an extended blood feast in the Afghan version of Transylvania, for like Nagl and Fick he clearly plans to have those teeth in that jugular for a long, long time to come.
A month later, on February 19th, just as all hell was breaking loose in Bahrain and Libya, the general visited the Afghan presidential palace in Kabul and, in dismissing Afghan claims that recent American air raids in the country’s northeast had killed scores of civilians, including children, he made a comment that shocked President Hamid Karzai’s aides. We don’t have it verbatim, but the Washington Post reports that, according to “participants,” Petraeus suggested “Afghans caught up in a coalition attack in northeastern Afghanistan might have burned their own children to exaggerate claims of civilian casualties.”
One Afghan at the meeting responded: "I was dizzy. My head was spinning. This was shocking. Would any father do this to his children? This is really absurd."
In the American echo-chamber, the general’s comments may sound, if not reasonable, then understandably exuberant and emphatic: We’ve got the enemy by the throat! We didn’t create Afghan casualties; they did it to themselves! Elsewhere, they surely sound obtusely tone deaf or simply vampiric, evidence that those inside the echo chamber have no sense of how they look in a shape-shifting world.
3. Now, let’s step across an ill-defined Afghan-Pakistan border into another world of American obtuseness. On February 15th, only four days after Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president of Egypt, Barack Obama decided to address a growing problem in Pakistan. Raymond Davis, a former U.S. Special Forces soldier armed with a Glock semi-automatic pistol and alone in a vehicle cruising a poor neighborhood of Pakistan’s second largest city, Lahore, shot and killed two Pakistanis he claimed had menaced him at gunpoint. (One was evidently shot in the back.)
Davis reportedly got out of the vehicle firing his pistol, then photographed the dead bodies and called for backup. The responding vehicle, racing to the scene the wrong way in traffic, ran over a motorcyclist, killing him before fleeing. (Subsequently, the wife of one of the Pakistanis Davis killed committed suicide by ingesting rat poison.)
The Pakistani police took Davis into custody with a carful of strange equipment. No one should be surprised that this was not a set of circumstances likely to endear an already alienated population to its supposed American allies. In fact, it created a popular furor as Pakistanis reacted to what seemed like the definition of imperial impunity, especially when the U.S. government, claiming Davis was an “administrative and technical official” attached to its Lahore consulate, demanded his release on grounds of diplomatic immunity and promptly began pressuring an already weak, unpopular government with loss of aid and support.
Senator John Kerry paid a hasty visit, calls were made, and threats to cut off U.S. funds were raised in the halls of Congress. Despite what was happening elsewhere and in tumultuous Pakistan, American officials found it hard to imagine that beholden Pakistanis wouldn’t buckle.
On February 15th, with the Middle East in flames, President Obama weighed in, undoubtedly making matters worse: “With respect to Mr. Davis, our diplomat in Pakistan,” he said, “we’ve got a very simple principle here that every country in the world that is party to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations has upheld in the past and should uphold in the future, and that is if our diplomats are in another country, then they are not subject to that country’s local prosecution."
The Pakistanis refused to give way to that “very simple principle” and not long after, “our diplomat in Pakistan” was identified by the British Guardian as a former Blackwater employee and present employee of the CIA. He was, the publication reported, involved in the Agency’s secret war in Pakistan. That war, especially much-ballyhooed and expensive “covert” drone attacks in the Pakistani tribal borderlands whose returns have been overhyped in Washington, continues to generate blowback in ways that Americans prefer not to grasp.
Of course, the president knew that Davis was a CIA agent, even when he called him “our diplomat.” As it turned out, so did the New York Times and other U.S. publications, which refrained from writing about his real position at the request of the Obama administration, even as they continued to report (evasively, if not simply untruthfully) on the case.
Given what’s happening in the region, this represents neither reasonable policy-making nor reasonable journalism. If the late Chalmers Johnson, who made the word “blowback” part of our everyday language, happens to be looking down on American policy from some niche in heaven, he must be grimly amused by the brain-dead way our top officials blithely continue to try to bulldoze the Pakistanis.
4. Meanwhile, on February 18th back in Afghanistan, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on one of that country’s “largest money exchange houses,” charging “that it used billions of dollars transferred in and out of the country to help hide proceeds from illegal drug sales.”
Here’s how Ginger Thompson and Alissa J. Rubin of the New York Times contextualized that act: “The move is part of a delicate balancing act by the Obama administration, which aims to crack down on the corruption that reaches the highest levels of the Afghan government without derailing the counterinsurgency efforts that are dependent on Mr. Karzai’s cooperation."
In a world in which Washington’s word seems to travel ever less far with ever less authority, the response to this echo-chamber-style description, and especially its central image — “a delicate balancing act” — would be: no, not by a long shot.
In relation to a country that’s the prime narco-state on the planet, what could really be “delicate”? If you wanted to describe the Obama administration’s bizarre, pretzled relationship with President Karzai and his people, words like “contorted,” “confused,” and “hypocritical” would have to be trotted out. If realism prevailed, the phrase “indelicate imbalance” might be a more appropriate one to use.
5. Finally, journalist Dexter Filkins recently wrote a striking piece, “The Afghan Bank Heist,” in the New Yorker magazine on the shenanigans that brought Kabul Bank, one of Afghanistan’s top financial institutions, to the edge of collapse. While bankrolling Hamid Karzai and his cronies by slipping them staggering sums of cash, the bank’s officials essentially ran off with the deposits of its customers. (Think of Kabul Bank as the institutional Bernie Madoff of Afghanistan.) In his piece, Filkins quotes an anonymous American official this way on the crooked goings-on he observed: “If this were America, fifty people would have been arrested by now.”
Consider that line the echo-chamber version of stand-up comedy as well as a reminder that only mad dogs and Americans stay out in the Afghan sun. Like a lot of Americans now in Afghanistan, that poor diplomat needs to be brought home — and soon. He’s lost touch with the changing nature of his own country. While we claim it as our duty to bring “nation-building” and “good governance” to the benighted Afghans, at home the U.S. is being unbuilt, democracy is essentially gone with the wind, the oligarchs are having a field day, the Supreme Court has insured that massive influxes of money will rule any future elections, and the biggest crooks of all get to play their get-out-of-jail-free cards whenever they want. In fact, the Kabul Bank racket — a big deal in an utterly impoverished society — is a minor sideshow compared to what American banks, brokerages, mortgage and insurance companies, and other financial institutions did via their “ponzi schemes of securitization” when, in 2008, they drove the U.S. and global economies into meltdown mode.
And none of the individuals responsible went to prison, just old-fashioned Ponzi schemers like Madoff. Not one of them was even put on trial.
Just the other day, federal prosecutors dropped one of the last possible cases from the 2008 meltdown. Angelo R. Mozilo, the former chairman of Countrywide Financial Corp., once the nation’s top mortgage company, did have to settle a civil suit focused on his “ill-gotten gains” in the subprime mortgage debacle for $67.5 million, but as with his peers, no criminal charges will be filed.
We’re Not the Good Guys
Imagine this: for the first time in history, a movement of Arabs is inspiring Americans in Wisconsin and possibly elsewhere. Right now, in other words, there is something new under the sun and we didn’t invent it. It’s not ours. We’re not — catch your breath here — even the good guys. They were the ones calling for freedom and democracy in the streets of Middle Eastern cities, while the U.S. performed another of those indelicate imbalances in favor of the thugs we’ve long supported in the Middle East.
History is now being reshaped in such a way that the previously major events of the latter years of the foreshortened American century — the Vietnam War, the end of the Cold War, even 9/11 — may all be dwarfed by this new moment. And yet, inside the Washington echo chamber, new thoughts about such developments dawn slowly. Meanwhile, our beleaguered, confused, disturbed country, with its aging, disintegrating infrastructure, is ever less the model for anyone anywhere (though again you wouldn’t know that here).
Oblivious to events, Washington clearly intends to fight its perpetual wars and garrison its perpetual bases, creating yet more blowback and destabilizing yet more places, until it eats itself alive. This is the definition of all-American decline in an unexpectedly new world. Yes, teeth may be in jugulars, but whose teeth in whose jugulars remains open to speculation, whatever General Petraeus thinks.
As the sun peeks over the horizon of the Arab world, dusk is descending on America. In the penumbra, Washington plays out the cards it once dealt itself, some from the bottom of the deck, even as other players are leaving the table. Meanwhile, somewhere out there in the land, you can just hear the faint howls. It’s feeding time and the scent of blood is in the air. Beware!
Copyright 2011 Tom Engelhardt