with reporters on the South Lawn of the White House, a President with a new mission, a new cause, and a new purpose in life told the American people that, though they had to "go back to work tomorrow," they should now know that they were facing a "new kind of evil." He added, "And we understand. And the American people are beginning to understand. This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while."
This crusade, this war on terrorism. It had such a ring to it; in the Arab world, of course, it was a ring many centuries old and deeply disturbing. And it came so
to "the peaceful teachings of Islam" perverted by "a fringe form of Islamic extremism" to begin to make up for it). But that little "slip" of the tongue spoke volumes. It signaled that George W. Bush was already in his own heroic dream world and, only those few days after the 9/11 attacks, had both a "crusade" on the brain and "victory" in that crusade firmly in mind. As a result, he made this promise to the American people: "It is time for us to win the first war of the 21st century decisively, so that our children and our grandchildren can live peacefully into the 21st century."
Now, here we are, just over five years further into the 21st century, and the President, who only nine months ago was still proudly (if a little desperately) trumpeting his
about "success," or about a "victory," no longer decisive, that "will not look like the ones our fathers and grandfathers achievedâ€¦ [with a] surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship." And when it comes to our "children and grandchildren living peacefully into the 21st century," tell that to the 21,500 Americans about to be "surged" into the murderous streets and alleys of Baghdad.
As for that "Global War on Terror," with the fifth anniversary
of the opening of Guantanamo as the Devil's Island of the twenty-first
century just past; after all the extraordinary renditions, the
waterboardings, the perverse tortures and perverse photos that went
with them; after the "ghost prisoners" and the network of secret CIA
prisons set up around the world; after that Delta Force intelligence
agent stepped off a plane from Afghanistan (as journalist Ron Suskind
tells the story in his book The One Percent Doctrine
) with the
suspected head of al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri in a "US
Government" metal box (it was somebody else's); after the CIA was
denounced throughout Europe for its illegal rendition flights and with
its agents just now heading toward trial
in Italy for a kidnapping
operation on the streets of Milan; after neither Osama bin Laden, nor
Zawahiri were ever apprehended; after woebegone wannabes, the innocent,
and small fry of every sort were turned into Public Enemies numbers
1-1,000; after, in the name of national safety from terror, illegal
spying and warrantless surveillance, as well as military intelligence activities of many kinds
made their way into "the Homeland"; after the Taliban rose from the
grave and the original al-Qaeda (as opposed to the name-stealing
al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia or other al-Qaeda wannabes elsewhere on our
planet) found a relatively comfortable homeland, a "safe haven" along
the Pakistani tribal borderlands near Afghanistan; after all of that,
the GWOT (as it so inelegantly came to be known) could easily be
renamed something like the "misfire on terror" (MOT) or even, with an
eye to what's developed in Iraq and elsewhere, the "engine for terror"
But if we skip the promise of victory as well as of
safety for our children and grandchildren, if we look the other way
when it comes to our losing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, if we ignore
the militarization of our country and the eroding of constitutionally
guaranteed rights, if we only focus on that other part of the
Presidential vision from those post-9/11 days, the one that wasn't
scripted for George Bush, that just slipped out easy as pie -- that
promise of an American "crusade"â€¦ well, call that a "success" of sorts.
It may, in fact, be his only success. After all, in a bare few years,
he and his collaborators have managed to create the look of a genuine
"clash of civilizations," of, in fact, a war against Islam. In the eyes
of many, the United States is now, indeed, a crusader nation.
Creating Instability in the Arc of Instability
Just take a glance at a map of what, in their heyday, the neocons and
other Bush administration supporters used to call "the arc of
instability" -- an area that extended from the Chinese border and the
former Central Asian SSRs of the ex-Soviet Union across the Middle
East, down through the Horn of Africa and across North Africa -- and
that managed to coincide with the oil heartlands of the planet. This
vast region from Afghanistan to Somalia is now either aflame or
threatening to be so.
The Bush administration (along with its NATO allies) is involved in a war in Afghanistan that is growing ever fiercer
it is in a heavily armed near-conflict with Iran and threatening more
to come; and, of course, it's thoroughly bogged down in a war/civil-war
and occupation of Iraq, where the response to ever worse news and a
clear public desire in the U.S. as well as Iraq for American troops to
depart has been the much-publicized "surge." The Bush administration,
which armed and supported the unsuccessful but remarkably destructive
Israeli thrust into Lebanon last summer to take out Hizbollah, has
reportedly just let the CIA loose
in that country in support of an ever weaker Lebanese government
against an emboldened Hizbollah; similarly it supported democracy among
the Palestinians only until they voted in Hamas and has since been
eager to undermine and revoke the results; American Special Operations
forces and Air Force gunships have recently been loosed on an Islamic
movement -- previously unsuccessfully opposed by the CIA (which funded
local murderous warlords) -- that had brought order to Somalia for the
first time in memory, and its fingerprints
are all over an invasion of that Islamic land by a harsh and autocratic
Ethiopian regime that is largely Christian. (The quick Ethiopian
invasion "victory" in Somalia threatens simply to repeat the quick
American invasion "victory" in Iraq in 2003 with an insurgency and
chaos almost certain
to follow.) The same administration is now issuing hardly veiled
threats against Shiite-ruled Syria; it is also bringing a new carrier
task force into the Persian Gulf, emplacing Patriot anti-missile
batteries in some of the smaller Gulf oil states (an act that can only
be aimed at Iran), and has been raiding
Iranian diplomatic offices and missions in Iraq under a presidential order
Bush evidently issued some months ago, all framed by a possible future air assault on Iran. As Juan Cole
put the matter recently, "The difficulties faced by the U.S. military
occupation of Iraq itself may well be made the pretext for aggressive
action against Iran."
The President no longer spends his time reminding Americans of the "peaceful teachings" of Islam; instead, he regularly speaks
of the ideology of "Islamo-fascism," of those "radical Islamic extremists" intent on building a "Caliphate," a "radical Islamic empire"
from Afghanistan to Gibraltar. Such references to Islam fit well with
the tunnel vision he and his compatriots imposed on that arc of
instability. As if to bring their wildest fantasies to life, they have
indeed managed to create what looks remarkably like a crusader map of
the region. In the process, they have certainly given "instability" a
new, more menacing meaning.
While the USS John C. Stennis
and its attendant ships sail
toward the Persian Gulf to join the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower
(whose planes are now flying "regular intelligence missions"
over Somalia) and an admiral, William J. Fallon, whose specialty is not ground warfare but naval aviation
(think: air assault on Iran's nuclear facilities) replaces Army General John Abizaid as the head of the U.S. Central Command
the President and his top officials seem to be contemplating further
instability engendering acts. They evidently are now eager to drag the
reasonably stable Sunni autocracies -- Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and
the smaller states of the Gulf -- that the U.S. has long supported into
a de facto anti-Shiite war alliance. This is clearly meant to blunt
Iranian influence and ward off the establishment of a "Shiite crescent"
in the region; it is also a classic colonial maneuver in which one set
of natives is brought in to pacify another set. While theoretically
aimed at Iran, however, its most likely effects will be elsewhere. By
enrolling these regimes (some with their own restive Shiite minorities)
in what looks like a war against Islam, it is only likely to weaken
them, possibly even shaking some of them to their roots, and so
spreading more chaos and violence.
By now, this is just par
for the course. There has probably not been a single step taken by the
Bush administration in the greater Middle East that hasn't gone badly
and, from Afghanistan to Somalia, hardly a step is being contemplated
that doesn't threaten further instability, unrest, bloodshed, and a
further shaking of American power in the region. The saddest thing is
that you need know next to nothing about Somalia (or Afghanistan, or
the Pakistani border areas, or Iran, or even Iraq) to know that worse
is to come, that each brief moment of administration "success" carries
the seeds of its own future failure.
Dribbling into Baghdad
The President's Iraq "surge" plan, his "new way forward," is but the
most obvious example. "Surge," as a start, turns out to be a misnomer
for the pathetic version of escalation now in the works. Of those
21,500 troops being "surged," some are simply being kept in Iraq longer
than previously announced; others, already assigned to go, are being
rushed Iraq-ward earlier than expected and undoubtedly less well
prepared and equipped. They will, in fact, be dribbled onto the mean
streets of Baghdad and al-Anbar Province from now through April. Add
that four-month surge to the 130,000-odd troops already there and you don't even come near
to reaching the troop levels the U.S. had in Iraq at the end of 2005 (when times were somewhat better).
Because of the overstretched nature of American troop deployments and a
force structure threatening to come apart at the seams, the neocon
fantasy of maintaining even such troop levels in Baghdad for a year to
eighteen months is sure to be disappointed. This "drip, drip" of forces
will be but so many drops in a quickly evaporating bucket. Since the
President's "new" plan for success in Iraq has been broadcast to the
skies in every media form imaginable, those who could feel its brunt in
the Iraqi capital like Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, are
already engaged in their own preparations
to outlast it.
In the meantime, the U.S. will "embed" even more American trainers in the largely Shiite military
and police forces in order to get a better handle on violence in the
country; but since they are essentially training
religious-cum-sectarian forces, they will, in fact, be "standing up" a
motor for yet more civil strife and ethnic cleansing. In the meantime,
some of the new Iraqi units being brought into the city to match the
American surge will evidently be from Kurdistan, introducing not only
another group of soldiers who won't even speak
the local language, but also a new and combustible element in the civil strife already underway.
If there is to be a real surge in Iraq, we've already had a hint of
where it is likely to come from -- and it will have the potential to be
even more disastrous, more instability-creating than any of the above.
The day before the President's speech, not just American Apache
helicopter gunships but jets hit
the long resistant
Sunni insurgent stronghold of Haifa Street, just adjacent to Baghdad's
fortified Green Zone. This represents the sole kind of military power
that the Bush administration could truly ratchet up -- as well as a
part of the Iraq war that the American media has adamantly refused to
pay attention to since the invasion of 2003. Reporters in Baghdad
simply will not look up. They may soon have to, however.
In the end, as American troops are put into small, neighborhood, fortified living quarters and plunged into "exactly
the sort of tough urban fight that war planners strove to avoid during
the spring 2003 invasion of the country," the Bush "surge" is likely to
mean even more damage to the Iraqi capital, home to perhaps one-quarter
of the country's population. And that is likely to be just the
beginning. The President is ensuring further Iraqi
and American dead and wounded, the destruction of much property, and
the inflaming of passions of every sort. It's a formula for catastrophe
and -- with the possible exception of the President, the
Vice-President, and a dwindling number of hangers-on -- the truth is
that everyone in Washington, in the world, knows it.
being planned by the Bush administration for Baghdad might end up
proving nothing short of barbaric. From the first American "thunder
runs" of tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles through the capital in
early April 2003 and the "stuff happens"
wholesale looting that followed to the present moment, the city has
suffered no worse fate since the Mongols sacked it in 1268.
It's worth remembering in this context that, when the original
Crusaders arrived in the Middle East, they weren't what undoubtedly
comes into the Presidential brain on the subject. They weren't knights
in shining armor. They weren't so many Errol Flynns. The European
knights of the actual crusades came from a world that was still a
barbarian outland, a coarse periphery of the Eurasian continent, while
the Arab world was the homeland of a genuine high civilization.
When the crusaders first arrived amid their slaughter of Arabs (and of Jews), as the remarkable Lebanese novelist
Amin Maalouf reminds us in his history, The Crusades through Arab Eyes
they were looked on with horror by local Arab populations. They were
feared as barbarians, as mass murderers, quite literally as cannibals.
The chronicler Usamah Ibn Munqidh, would, for instance, write: "All
those who were well-informed about the [crusaders] saw them as beasts,
superior in courage and fighting ardour but in nothing else, just as
animals are superior in strength and aggression."
unkind assessment," adds Maalouf, "accurately reflects the impression
made by the [crusaders] upon their arrival in Syria: they aroused a
mixture of fear and contempt, quite understandable on the part of an
Arab nation which, while far superior in culture, had lost all
Americans, despite heavy competition, now look like the new barbarians
of the arc of instability -- and things are going to get worse. Don't
think the calling of air power into downtown Baghdad is likely to be
forgotten. This is
the behavior of barbarians, no less so than the use of suicide bombs in Baghdad's streets.
The Church of Our Man of Global Domination
So think of this as Bush's crusading scorecard for the years 2001-2007
-- this record of barbarism with its guarantee of a "whirlwind of
blowback," as Pepe Escobar
of the Asia Times
puts it, and the unmistakable look of a war against Islam.
In truth, the most obvious factor linking all of the above together,
however, the real thing they have in common, is not, in the normal
sense, religious at all. If there is a religious war going on, waged by
men (and a few women) of faith, then that faith is neither
Christianity, nor Judaism, nor is the war against Islam per se
. It comes instead from the fundamentalist Church of Our Man of Global Domination and at its heart is the monotheistic religion of Force
If the arc of instability were inhabited by recalcitrant, angry,
sometimes armed, and sometimes destructive Buddhists, sitting on vast
energy reserves, this war would look like a war against the Buddha
The essential doctrine of faith that ties all the
disparate foreign-policy acts of this administration together is the
belief that to every global problem, to every difficult situation,
there is but a single striking and uniform response -- not the
application of democracy, but the application of force.
In its pursuit of force as a faith, the Bush administration has managed to lower the bar on all applications
of force by any state (just as it has raised the value of a nuclear
arsenal and so, despite its threats of war, lowered the bar on the
proliferation of those weapons). This is but a small part of the price
a regime of force must pay when force is such an inadequate instrument
in our world. The single most striking aspect of Bush foreign policy is
that, over and over, it is revealed to be a quiver with but a single
arrow in it. If things are going well, you reach back take that arrow
of force, or the threat of it, and notch it into your bow. If things
are going badly, you do the same. For an administration so focused on
the domination of planetary resources, its officials have, in fact,
proven themselves remarkably resourceless.
The sort of eternal global military domination imagined in the National Security Strategy
document they issued with great fanfare in 2002 is, of course, long
gone. The sort of domination in Iraq and other lands in the arc of
instability of which the neocons dreamed so fervently is no longer at
The religion of Force has proven itself a
remarkably weak reed in our complex and difficult world, but that
doesn't matter to them. Like many cultists, deeply imbued with their
own way of looking at life, our President, our Vice President, and
their dwindling band of compatriots can still imagine no other
solutions than force, whatever the presenting problems. Not only can't
they think outside the box, but the box itself is narrowing around this
Presidency and Vice Presidency -- and believe me, given their crusading
record, that's dangerous indeed.
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.
[Note: This Sunday, check out Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold's Ghost,
on "The Big Push" in Iraq. In the Tomdispatch January militarization
series, look forward to a major piece on the U.S. air war from Nick
Turse in perhaps two weeks.
Copyright 2007 Tom Engelhardt