Tales from the Northwest Frontier

One of my favorite movies is The Tailor of Panama, based on the tongue-in-cheek novel written by John Le Carre which was in turn derived from Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana. In the film, Pierce Brosnan was featured as a corrupt British intelligence officer who fraudulently convinced the CIA to fund a secret army that did not actually exist.  When one of the CIA officers complained that he had never heard of the group, Brosnan replied "Of course not.  It’s a SECRET army."  He got his money.

The story is appropriate because if you want to fool someone the establishment of a false narrative is essential.  False narrative has been around for a long time, at least since the time of Herodotus, though the first Greek historian at least had the integrity to sometimes suggest that the tales that he was relating might not be completely truthful.  Such candor is rarely found today.  Post-9/11 Americans have wallowed in their own false narrative while producing devastation in many parts of the world, referring antiseptically to COIN doctrine and overseas contingency operations instead of state-sponsored terrorism and assassination teams, which is what the euphemisms really mean. 

A recent example of a magnificently false and malicious narrative appeared in Time magazine, which featured a cover photo of an Afghan woman with her nose cut off.  The magazine suggested that the United States has to remain in Afghanistan to prevent similar mutilations, a concept that is both breathtaking in its irrelevance and suggestive of borderline imbecility on the part of the magazine’s readers. Time‘s tale is a throwback to the days of the British Empire, the white man’s burden, a bizarre narrative in which America’s bold warriors are sacrificing their lives to protect the weak and helpless across the Khyber Pass and along the Northwest Frontier.  Would that it were so, but devastated wedding parties targeted by drone pilots sitting in air-conditioned comfort in Nevada tell a different story.

The false narrative we are hearing in America today is that constant war is both necessary and manageable not to mention a safeguard of the US Constitution and our way of life.  The Founding Fathers would not agree and would be horrified if they returned to America today.  They saw clearly that foreign entanglements would bring about the death of the Republic and granted only to Congress the power to declare war.  In spite of that, however, the United States has sent its soldiers into combat situations more than seventy times since the defeat of Japan in 1945, all without a declaration of war by Congress, and the president has acquired pretty much a free hand to initiate military action. 

And the imperial agenda, relying on a completely false narrative, has had a major impact on both the size and intrusiveness of the federal government, which many Americans are beginning to rightly fear.  No one should doubt that ill-conceived security measures and the deliberate exaggeration of the threat of terrorism have driven much of both foreign and domestic policy since 9/11.  Many Americans want smaller and cheaper government, less interference from Washington in their daily lives, and fewer programs that are intended to socially re-engineer the nation.  But many of the very same people fail to connect the dots because they also want a strong, assertive national defense and are supporters of an aggressive foreign and security policy because they have been lied to by our leaders and the media regarding the actual dangers that confront them.  A recent opinion poll reveals that two thirds of Americans want to attack Iran because they wrongly believe that it already has a nuclear weapon, triggering a war that would likely have unimaginable consequences, not least of which would be gas at $10 a gallon and a wrecked economy.

It is precisely the interventionist defense and foreign policies that are driving the bad things most Americans see in government. It is easy to forget that when Bill Clinton left office in 2000 there was a budget surplus.  Ballooning defense and security spending since that time, all accomplished without raising taxes, has been the engine of growth for a suffocating $13 trillion national debt, a total that increases by $4 billion every day.  The United States now accounts for 45% of the entire world total for military spending, euphemistically referred to as "defense."  The Pentagon budget has gone from $432 billion in 2001 to a projected $720 billion in 2011, not including the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The Federal Government is twice as big as it was in 2001 and there has been the creation of major new bureaucracies at the Department of Homeland Security and the office of the Director of National Intelligence, neither of which can be regarded as a model of efficiency. 

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 in circumstances somewhat similar to the current American financial slide, a Russian politician joked that his country was somewhat like Upper Volta with nuclear armed ballistic missiles.  At the time Upper Volta was the poorest country in the world and his point was that having the world’s greatest missile force did not make up for having a wrecked economy.  For the United States to continue its imperialist foreign policy, and there is every sign that it intends to do so, will eventually lead to economic and social collapse. 

The first thing that must be done to fix the government in Washington is for the United States to end its wars overseas and dramatically scale back on its international commitments.  There is no good reason for Washington to serve as the world’s policeman (or bully) and many good reasons why it should cease and desist from doing so.  Reason number one should be that the muscular foreign policy has actually been helping those who seek to harm the United States.  In October 2004 Osama bin Laden referred to the damage, saying "We are continuing in the same policy to make America bleed profusely to the point of bankruptcy." The numbers alone demonstrate that bin Laden has succeeded, far beyond his wildest imaginings.  Iraq alone has cost $1 trillion and counting, 4400 Americans have died together with as many as 650,000 Iraqis.  Afghanistan and Iraq continue to run a tab at $12 billion per month, with 1,200 more American dead in Afghanistan, and global war is expanding, not contracting, as the Obama Administration contemplates increased direct involvement in Yemen, Pakistan, and the Horn of Africa.  Americans are overall less safe, not more.

US policies also propagate terrorism in the form of blowback.  Every diplomat or intelligence officer understands that when a man attempts to detonate an SUV in Times Square or ignite explosives in his underwear on board an airliner it is because the US is bombing and killing in places like Yemen and Pakistan.  So why doesn’t the White House get it?  Stop one and you stop the other.  Ron Paul recently wrote "No matter our intentions, the violence of our militarism in foreign lands causes those residents to seek revenge if innocents are killed.  One does not have to be Muslim to react this way, just human." 

Americans should be skeptical about anything being promoted by the government or the mainstream media.  They should challenge every dollar being demanded by the Defense Department, the intelligence agencies, and by the Department of Homeland Security.  Put an end to the American empire and its symbiotic military industrial complex and you can stop writing a blank check every year for the Pentagon, you can stop borrowing money to fund the wars, and you can take sensible steps to reduce the size of government.  As the memory of the overhyped terrorist threat fades, you might even begin to restore some of those civil liberties that have been stripped away by the Patriot Acts, the Military Commissions Act, and the assertion of state secrets privilege. 

America needs first of all to stop thinking of war like it is some kind of romantic novel or Hollywood production. Glamorizing and glorifying the young men and women fighting the desperate natives in the Hindu Kush will only result in many more dead and national bankruptcy. It is time to tell a different tale.  If there is to be any healing, Americans must acknowledge that it has been the brutal and disastrous foreign and security policies that have driven virtually everything that ails the United States today.

Author: Philip Giraldi

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is a contributing editor to The American Conservative and executive director of the Council for the National Interest.