Outlaw Empire Meets the Wave: 5 Questions for Our Future

By Tom Engelhardt tomdispatch.com 11/08/06

The wave — and make no mistake, it’s a global one — has just crashed on our shores, soaking our imperial masters. It’s a sight for sore eyes.

It’s been a long time since we’ve seen an election like midterm 2006. After all, it’s a truism of our politics that Americans are almost never driven to the polls by foreign-policy issues, no less by a single one that dominates everything else, no less by a catastrophic war (and the presidential approval ratings that go with it). This strange phenomenon has been building since the moment, in May 2003, that George W. Bush stood under that White-House-prepared “Mission Accomplished” banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln and declared “major combat operations have ended.”

That “Top Gun” stunt — when a cocky President helped pilot an S-3B Viking sub reconnaissance Naval jet onto a carrier deck and emerged into the golden glow of “magic hour light” (as his handlers then called it) — was meant to give him the necessary victory photos to launch his 2004 presidential reelection campaign. As it turned out, that moment was but the first “milestone” on the path to Iraqi, and finally electoral, hell. Within mere months, those photos would prove useless for anyone but liberal bloggers. By now, they seem like artifacts from another age. On the way to the present “precipice” (or are we already over the edge?), there have been other memorable “milestones” — from the President’s July 2003 petulant “bring ‘em on” taunt to Iraq’s then forming insurgency to the Vice President’s June 2005 “last throes” gaffe. All such statements have, by now, turned to dust in American mouths.

In the context of the history of great imperial powers, how remarkably quickly this has happened. An American President, ruling the last superpower on this or any other planet, and his party have been driven willy-nilly into global and domestic retreat a mere three-plus years after launching the invasion of their dreams, the one that was meant to start them on the path to controlling the planet — and by one of the more ragtag minority rebellions imaginable. I’m speaking here, of course, of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, of perhaps 15,000 relatively lightly armed rebels whose main weapons have been the roadside bomb and the sniper’s bullet. What a grim, bizarre spectacle it’s been.

The Fall of the New Rome

But let’s back up a moment. After such an election, a bit of history, however quick and potted, is in order — in this case of the post-Cold War era of U.S. supremacy, now seemingly winding down. In the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, to be followed by the relatively violence-free collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a brief moment of conceptual paralysis among leadership elites in this country, none of whom had even imagined the loss of the “Evil Empire” (in President Ronald Reagan’s famous Star Wars-ian phrase) until it suddenly, miraculously evaporated. In this forgotten moment, we even heard hopeful mutterings about a “peace dividend” that would take all the extra military money that obviously was no longer needed to defend against a missing superpower and use it to rebuild America.

A mighty country, soon to be termed a “hyperpower,” straddling the globe alone and without obvious enemies — that should have been a formula for declaring victory (as many Cold Warriors promptly did) and acting accordingly (which none of them did). It should have been the moment for the Long Peace.

But in an enemy-less world, there was a small problem called the Pentagon (and the vast military-industrial complex that had grown up around it). So, while the peace-dividend-that-never-was vanished in the post-Cold-War morning fog, some new, prefab enemies did make their appearances with startling speed. They essentially had to.

These new dangers to our country were termed “rogue states,” an obvious step or two down from a single Evil Empire. They were, in fact, so relatively weak militarily that you needed to pile them up into a conceptual heap to get an enemy that would keep an empire and its global network of bases in military restocking mode. Not too many years down the line, the Bush administration would indeed pile three of them up in just this way into the gloriously labeled “axis of evil”; this was that old Evil Empire rejiggered for midget powers (or alternatively the Axis powers of World War II shrunk to Mini-Me standards).

Back in 1990, Saddam Hussein, our former ally in a Persian Gulf struggle with Iran for regional supremacy, invaded Kuwait and, voilà!, you had the first Gulf War. His military, already weakened by its eight-year bloodletting with Iran, was not exactly a goliath for a superpower to reckon with; but Americans took a tip from the dictator (who liked to see images of himself puffed to gigantic proportions everywhere in his land), blew his face was up to Hitlerian size, and stuck it on every magazine and in every TV news report in town (“Showdown with Saddam”). His genuinely evil-dictator face took the place of a whole nuclear-armed Evil Empire, while American troops slaughtered helpless Iraqi conscripts, burying them alive in their own trenches or wiping them out from the air on the aptly named “Highway of Death” out of Kuwait City.

Not so long after, in 1992, under the aegis of then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, a small group of unknown Defense Department staffers — Paul Wolfowitz, I. Lewis Libby, and Zalmay Khalilzad — unveiled a new draft Defense Planning Guidance, a document for developing military strategy and planning Pentagon budgets. It was the first such since the Cold War ended and, leaked to the New York Times, it was denounced as an extremist vision and buried. As the website Right Web describes it, the document “called for massive increases in defense spending, the assertion of lone superpower status, the prevention of the emergence of any regional competitors, the use of preventive — or preemptive — force, and the idea of forsaking multilateralism if it didn’t suit U.S. interests.”

Sound familiar? No wonder. It was the very imperial program for eternal American dominance and endless war against the planet’s rogue states that George W. Bush’s administration would officially adopt. By then, Wolfowitz was the number two man at the Pentagon; Libby, the Vice President’s good right hand; and Khalilzad was the new, post-invasion U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.

In a post-9/11 atmosphere of belligerent fear, their program went mainstream. Having been attacked not by a rogue state but by a squad of 19 terrorists pledging allegiance to a stateless terrorist organization, we were “at war” with evil itself. By 2002, the administration had conducted a “successful” war in Afghanistan; the Taliban had been crushed; Osama bin Laden was MIA; and the neocons were riding high. The rest of us found ourselves in a Global War on Terror, or the Long War, or World War III, or even World War IV or whatever our rulers chose to call it that week. (As we would learn in Iraq, counting was not one of their skills.)

Dazzled beyond any reasonable imperial sense by the power to dominant that they believed American military superiority gave them, top Bush administration officials essentially proclaimed the U.S. an empire by fiat, a superduperpower the likes of which the world had never seen. In their infamous 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States of America (essentially the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance document recycled), they swore that we would remain so forever and feed the Pentagon so much money that it would be bulked up into the distant future to suppress any potential superpower or bloc of powers that might emerge.

They insisted that we would go our own way, strike whomever we pleased, torture anyone we wished, and jail without recourse anyone we cared to sweep up or kidnap anywhere on Earth. The rest of the world could either approve or be damned, but it would be full speed ahead for us. Their acolytes in right-wing think tanks and lobbying outfits around Washington, along with Washington’s assembled punditry (and some liberal tag-alongs) declared the world on the verge of a Pax Americana and this nation the globe’s New Rome.

In the meantime, domestically, Karl Rove and his pals were working to ensure that the Republican Party would be dominant against all challengers for a generation or more. This was to be a domestic version of “full spectrum dominance.” The two — the global Pax Americana and the Party’s Pax Republicana seemed joined at the hip back then, each reinforcing the unilateral, don’t-tread-on-me, I’ll-do-anything-I-wish dominance of the other. It was Rovian Abramoffism at home and Cheney-izing Wolfowitzism abroad.

How deeply they misunderstood the nature of power in our world, and how thoroughly they miscalculated the limited nature of the power of the New Rome! If you want to take the measure of how far we’ve come since then, consider the spectacle of this last election season. Take Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. Like the President, deep into this September he was still excoriating the Democrats not just for their positions on the Iraq War, but for their “surrender” policies in the war on terror. As he put it in a PBS interview with Jim Lehrer on September 14th:

“I’d say, ‘Wake up, Harry Reid. Wake up, Harry Reid…’ I think that [the president] has got it right, that we’re not going to do what Harry Reid wants to do, and that is surrender, to wave a white flag, to cut and run at a time when we’re being threatened… as we all saw just three or four weeks ago, in a plot from Britain that was going to send 10 airplanes over here.”

He then characterized the Democratic Party as a group “who basically belittle in many ways this war on terror, who do want to wave this white flag and surrender.”

By late October, however, according to Washington Post reporters Peter Slevin and Michael Powell, Frist had fully grasped that the global and domestic programs of dominance no longer were working together. So he offered the following succinct advice — a flip-flop of the first order — to congressional candidates: “The challenge is to get Americans to focus on pocketbook issues, and not on the Iraq and terror issue.”

Just another “milestone” on the path to… well, that’s the question, isn’t it?

Oil Wars

After September 11, 2001, the President and his advisors were determined to run an invasion of, and war against, Iraq that would be the anti-Vietnam conflict of all time. From the draft to the body count, they were going to reverse all our Vietnam “mistakes.” Above all, they were going to win quickly and decisively. The result? In no time at all, they had brought us deep into the Iraqi “big muddy” (as the Vietnam-era phrase went). Now, looming in the distance — think of it as the dark at the end of this particular horror-fest of a tunnel — is the worst Vietnam nightmare of all: defeat. Just check Juan Cole’s Informed Comment website, for his “Top Ten Ways We Know We Have Lost in Iraq,” if you don’t believe me.

Unlike in Indochina, however, this time there’s something essential at stake. Whatever we were doing in the largely peasant land of Vietnam, in terms of global wealth and resources, it was just what Henry Kissinger and other frustrated U.S. policy-makers of that era always called it, a third- or fourth-rate power of no real value to anyone (other, of course, than its own inhabitants).

In Iraq, where a continuing American presence only ensures a deeper plunge into chaos, mayhem, blood, and horror as well as fragmentation and potential dissolution, departure nonetheless remains largely inconceivable. After all, Iraq has something everyone desperately values: Oil. In quantity. A “sea” of oil in the words of former Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz. In a backhanded way, the President has finally acknowledged the obvious — that his war in Iraq was, in significant part, an oil invasion, an oil occupation (remember it was only the Oil Ministry that we guarded in otherwise looted Baghdad), and so is also bound to be an oil defeat. As energy-obsessed Bush administration planners saw it, Iraq was to be the lynchpin — hence those permanent bases that were on the drawing boards as American troops invaded — of a Bush administration strategy for dominating the oil heartlands of the planet.

After Vietnam, the United States proved quite capable of putting itself back together (despite years of fierce culture wars). After Iraq — and keep in mind that we undoubtedly have at least a couple of years of horror to go — the question is whether the world will be similarly capable or whether the oil lands of the planet will lie in ruins along with the global economy.

Extremity on Display

So, just past the midterm election mark of 2006, what’s left of the New Rome? You could say that George W. Bush’s dark success story has involved bringing his version of the United States into line with the look of the “rogue” enemies and terrorist groups he set out to destroy. By the time Americans went to the polls on November 7th, 2006 to repudiate his policies, he had given our country the ultimate in makeovers, creating the look of an Outlaw Empire.

We now have our own killing fields in Iraq where, the latest casualty study tells us, somewhere between 400,000 and 900,000-plus “excess Iraqi deaths” have occurred since the 2003 invasion. And do you remember Saddam’s “torture chambers” (which the President used to cite all the time)? Now, we are the possessors of our own global prison system, our own (rented, borrowed, or jerry-rigged) torture chambers, our own leased airline to transport kidnapped prisoners around the planet, and a Vice President who has openly lobbied Congress for a torture exemption for the CIA and spoke glibly on the radio about “dunking” people in water. And, thanks to a supine Congress, we have the laws to go with it all.

The administration went after the right to torture or treat captives any way its agents pleased in places not open to any kind of oversight remarkably quickly after the September 11th attacks. By late 2001, Donald Rumsfeld’s office was instructing agents in the field in Afghanistan to “take the gloves off” with a captive. (Inside the CIA, as Ron Suskind has told us in his book The One Percent Doctrine, Director George Tenet was talking even more vividly about removing “the shackles” on the Agency.) Inside the White House Counsel’s office and the Justice Department, administration lawyers were already hauling out their dictionaries to figure out how to redefine “torture” out of existence. But why such an emphasis on torture (which is largely useless in the field, as everyone knows)?

What administration officials grasped, I believe, is this: If you could manage to get the right to legally employ extreme (and normally repugnant) acts of torture, then you would have in your possession the right to do anything. Think of the urge to abuse as the initial extreme expression of this administration’s secret obsession with the creation of a “wartime” commander-in-chief presidency which would leave Congress and the courts in the dust.

If you want to measure where this has taken Bush officialdom in five years, consider their latest legal defensive measure. According to the Washington Post, the administration has just gone to court to declare American “alternative interrogation techniques” — which simply means “torture” — as “among the nation’s most sensitive national security secrets.” It is trying to get a federal judge to bar “terrorism suspects held in secret CIA prisons” from even revealing to their own lawyers details about what was done to them by American interrogators. In other words, torture is now to be put in the secrecy vault like a national treasure. Next thing you know, we’ll be sending it to the Smithsonian.

Reflected in this desperate maneuver, you can catch a glimpse of an administration driven to the extremity of going to courts it despised — and thought it had cut out of the process of foreign imperial governance — simply to bury its own extreme misdeeds. You can feel the fear of the docket (and perhaps of history) in such a stance.

Another example of the extremity into which this administration has driven itself and the rest of us lies in an editorial published in the four main (officially private) military magazines, the Army Times, Air Force Times, Navy Times, and Marine Corps Times, on the very eve of the midterm elections. It called for Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation just after the President had given him his vote of confidence once again. Realistically speaking, this can only be seen as an extreme military intervention in the American electoral process.

In so many ways, the American Constitutional system has been shredded and this — whether we are to be an outlaw empire (and a failing one at that) — is what Americans were voting about this last Tuesday (though it was called “Iraq”).

The Wave

The history of recent American politics at the polls might be seen this way: Not so long after he declared the successful completion of his Iraqi dreams, George W. Bush found himself, to the surprise of his top advisors and supporters, hounded by Iraq’s Sunni insurgency. He essentially raced not John Kerry (who recently offered yet another example of his special lack of dexterity on the campaign trail) but that insurgency to the finish line in November 2004. With a little help from his friends in Ohio and the Rove smear-and-turnout operation, he managed to squeak by. Then, in another of those milestone moments on the way to disaster, he declared that he had “political capital” to spare and would spend it.

The next summer, two storms hit the endlessly vacationing President in Crawford, Texas — Hurricanes Cindy and Katrina. Cindy Sheehan tore away the bloodless look of casualty-lessness in Iraq (where body counts, body bags, and the return of the dead to these shores was being hidden away from both cameras and attention). She gave a mother’s face to a son’s death and to a nation’s increasing frustration. Katrina revealed to many Americans that the Bush administration had been creating Iraq-like conditions in the “homeland.” And that was more or less that. The President’s approval rating plunged under 40% and has (a few momentary blips aside) bounced around between there and the low 30s ever since. By election 2006, presidential “capital” was a concept long consigned to the dustbin of history.

Imagine where that “capital” will be by 2008. Our President has been wedded to his war of choice in a way unimaginable since Lyndon Baines Johnson quit the presidential race after the Tet Offensive in 1968. Based on what’s happened so far, there’s every reason to believe that, in 2008, he will still be wedded to it (as would potential Presidential candidate Sen. John McCain) and his approval ratings may be bouncing in the 20%-30% range by then.

So what part of the 2001 dream team and its “vision” of the world are we left with? To answer this, you first have to realize that yesterday’s electoral “wave” of repudiation is hardly an American phenomenon. It’s global and, if anything, we were way late into the water. All you have to do is look at the latest polling figures (which are but extensions of previous, similar polls) to see that wave in country after country. The most recent international survey of opinion — in Britain, Canada, Israel, and Mexico — found that Bush’s America is viewed as “a threat to world peace by its closest neighbors and allies.” In Britain, the land of the “special relationship,” only Osama bin Laden outranks our President as a global “danger to peace.” While he comes in a dozen points behind bin Laden, he does manage to best Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s grim leader, as well as those shining stars of the diplomatic firmament, the President of Iran and the leader of Hezbollah. And these are the countries most likely to have positive views of the U.S.

As hectorer-in-chief, George W. Bush has, hands down, used the word “must” more than any combination of presidents in our history. Only recently, he repeatedly told the North Koreans that they must not develop (and then test) nuclear weapons; he told the Iranians that they must halt their nuclear program; and his minions told the Nicaraguans that they must not vote for former Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega. The results: The North Koreans tested a weapon; the Iranians went right on enriching uranium; and the Nicaraguans, poverty-stricken and threatened with nothing short of economic ruin if their democratic vote went into the wrong column, simply ignored him.

All these decisions were based on assessments of the limits of power that had been revealed by the desperate acts of a failing empire stretched to its military and economic limits. If these are the “rogue” parts of the global wave, all you have to do is look at Russia’s reassertion of interest and power in its old energy-rich Central Asian bailiwick (much coveted by the Bush administration); or the expansion of Chinese economic power in Southeast Asia and energy power in Africa to see other aspects of the global wave of reassessment under way.

In fact, the global part of the election was long over by November 7, 2006. For vast majorities abroad, the vision of the U.S. as an Outlaw Empire is nothing new at all. The wave here has perhaps only begun to rise, but here too those presidential “musts” (along with the President’s designation of the Democrats as little short of “enemy noncombatants”) have begun to lose their effect. Hence the presidential plebiscite of yesterday. No matter what else flows from it, the fact that it happened is of real significance. A majority of the American people — those who voted anyway — did not ratify Bush’s Outlaw Empire. They took a modest step toward sanity. But what will follow?

Here, briefly, are five “benchmark” questions to ask when considering the possibilities of the final two years of the Bush administration’s wrecking-ball regime:

Will Iraq Go Away? The political maneuvering in Washington and Baghdad over the chaos in Iraq was only awaiting election results to intensify. Desperate call-ups of more Reserves and National Guards will go out soon. Negotiations with Sunni rebels, coup rumors against the Maliki government, various plans from James Baker’s Iraq Study Group and Congressional others will undoubtedly be swirling. Yesterday’s plebiscite (and exit polls) held an Iraqi message. It can’t simply be ignored. But nothing will matter, when it comes to changing the situation for the better in that country, without a genuine commitment to American withdrawal, which is not likely to be forthcoming from this President and his advisors any time soon. So expect Iraq to remain a horrifying, bloody, devolving fixture of the final two years of the Bush administration. It will not go away. Bush (and Rove) will surely try to enmesh Congressional Democrats in their disaster of a war. Imagine how bad it could be if — with, potentially, years to go — the argument over who “lost” Iraq has already begun.

Is an Attack on Iran on the Agenda? Despite all the alarums on the political Internet about a pre-election air assault on Iran, this was never in the cards. Even the hint of an attack on Iranian “nuclear facilities” (which would certainly turn into an attempt to “decapitate” the Iranian regime from the air) would send oil prices soaring. The Republicans were never going to run an election on oil selling at $120-$150 a barrel. This will be no less true of election year 2008. If Iran is to be a target, 2007 will be the year. So watch for the pressures to ratchet up on this one early in the New Year. This is madness, of course. Such an attack would almost certainly throw the Middle East into utter chaos, send oil prices through the roof, possibly wreck the global economy, cause serious damage in Iran, not fell the Iranian government, and put U.S. troops in neighboring Iraq in perilous danger. Given the administration record, however, all this is practically an argument for launching such an attack. (And don’t count on the military to stop it, either. They’re unlikely to do so.) Failing empires have certainly been known to lash out or, as neocon writer Robert Kagan put the matter recently in a Washington Post op-ed, “Indeed, the preferred European scenario [of a Democratic Congressional victory] — ‘Bush hobbled’ — is less likely than the alternative: ‘Bush unbound.’ Neither the president nor his vice president is running for office in 2008. That is what usually prevents high-stakes foreign policy moves in the last two years of a president’s term.” So when you think about Iran, think of Bush unbound.

Are the Democrats a Party? If Rovian plans for a Republican Party ensconced in Washington for eons to come now look to be in tatters, the Democrats have retaken the House (and possibly the Senate) largely as the not-GOP Party. The election may leave the Republicans with a dead presidency and a leading candidate for 2008 wedded to possibly the least popular war in our history; the Democrats may arrive victorious but without the genuine desire for a mandate to lead. Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats in recent years were not, in any normal sense, a party at all. They were perhaps a coalition of four or five or six parties (some trailing hordes of pundits and consultants, but without a base). Now, with the recruitment of so many ex-Republicans and conservatives into their House and Senate ranks, they may be a coalition of six or seven parties. Who knows? They have a genuine mandate on Iraq and a mandate on oversight. What they will actually do — what they are capable of doing (other than the normal money, career, and earmark-trading in Washington) — remains to be seen. They will be weak, the surroundings fierce and strong.

Will We Be Ruled by the Facts on the Ground? In certain ways, it may hardly matter what happens to which party. By now — and this perhaps represents another kind of triumph for the Bush administration — the facts on the ground are so powerful that it would be hard for any party to know where to begin. Will we, for instance, ever be without a second Defense Department, the so-called Department of Homeland Security, now that a burgeoning $59 billion a year private “security” industry with all its interests and its herd of lobbyists in Washington has grown up around it? Not likely in any of our lifetimes. Will an ascendant Democratic Party dare put on a diet the ravenous Pentagon, which now feeds off two budgets — its regular, near-half-trillion dollar Defense budget and a regularized series of multibillion dollar “emergency” supplemental appropriations, which are now part of life on the Hill. What this means is that the defense budget is not what we wage our wars on or pay for a variety of black operations (not to speak of earmarks galore) with. Don’t bet your bottom dollar that this will get better any time soon either. In fact, I have my doubts that a Democratic Congress with a Democratic president in tow could even do something modestly small like shutting down Guantanamo, no less begin to deal with the empire of bases that undergirds our failing Outlaw Empire abroad. So, from time to time, take your eyes off what passes for politics and check out the facts on the ground. That way you’ll have a better sense of where our world is actually heading.

What Will Happen When the Commander-in-Chief Presidency and the Unitary Executive Theory Meets What’s Left of the Republic? The answer on this one is relatively uncomplicated and less than three months away from being in our faces; it’s the Mother of All Constitutional Crises. But writing that now, and living with the reality then, are two quite different things. So when the new Congress arrives in January, buckle your seatbelts and wait for the first requests for oversight information from some investigative committee; wait for the first subpoenas to meet Cheney’s men in some dark hallway. Wait for this crew to feel the “shackles” and react. Wait for this to hit the courts — even a Supreme Court that, despite the President’s best efforts, is probably still at least one justice short when it comes to unitary-executive-theory supporters. I wouldn’t even want to offer a prediction on this one. But a year down the line, anything is possible.

So we’ve finally had our plebiscite, however covert, on the failing Outlaw Empire of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. But what about their autocratic inclinations at home. How will that play out?

Will it be: All hail, Caesar, we who are about to dive back into prime-time programming.

Or will it be: All the political hail is about to pelt our junior caesars as we dive back into prime-time programming? Stay tuned.

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.

Copyright 2006 Tom Engelhardt

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