One Man's Online Journey Through Bush's Alphabet Soup
by Tom Engelhardt
The Internet teaches its own lessons, often painfully quickly. In April 2005, I followed an urge, as I often did in those days. Our president, who would soon claim to be spending his spare time absorbing meaty books like King Leopold's Ghost, Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power, and Mao: The Unknown Story, was then largely known for reading The Pet Goat to schoolchildren while the 9/11 attacks were taking place and for being fond of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. So I took a plunge into humor and wrote a mock children's ABC book that I dubbed George's Amazing Alphabet Book of the Contemporary World, or al-Qaedas All Around. I claimed that the manuscript, produced by George W. himself, had been leaked to my TomDispatch.com Web site by "a senior official in one of our intelligence agencies."
Maybe it wasn't Jon-Stewart-worthy, but I posted it anyway as my commentary of the week and thought no more about it until the first angry e-mails began appearing in the TomDispatch mail box. A number of readers claimed I had been "gulled." I shoulda known! The president could never have written such a document! It had obviously been produced by the CIA! No, the Secret Service! No…
A perfectly sane friend rang up, wondering whether the manuscript could possibly be genuine – or was I pulling a leg or two? Irritated readers assured me that it was a total fraud and I a total fool for ever taking the word of that senior intelligence official.
I was stunned. I hadn't been trying to fool a soul, just make a passing point or two about our president and his people. Still, I got the message – an instant lesson in Bush-era online reality. You couldn't out-absurd this administration. You couldn't write a "document" so extreme that some readers wouldn't mistake it for the real thing. That was the extremity of our moment – thank you, George W!
Actually, back in November 2001, that very extremity had driven me on line in the first place and into the waiting arms of what became TomDispatch.com – after the assaults of 9/11; after we had been at "war" and George had become a "wartime" president with an ever-expanding idea of his own powers; after Americans had engaged in endless 9/11 rites in which we took all the roles in the global drama (except Ultimate Evil One); after we had become the planet's greatest victims, survivors, and dominators; after, with relentless, repetitive vigor, the heartland had donned hats and T-shirts proclaiming that they "loved" (or hearted) that former Sodom – to Los Angeles' Gomorrah – New York City; after the PATRIOT Act was reality; after the money – to "support our troops" – was already pouring into the Pentagon and allied private corporations; after a budding second Defense Department, the Office of Homeland Security, was a reality (it would be turned into a full-scale Department of Homeland Security in November 2002); after the Bush administration had begun planning for a detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that would become the jewel in the crown of an offshore Bermuda Triangle of injustice; after Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other top officials had made clear their urge to "take off the gloves" and commit just about any act imaginable, from kidnapping to torture, against anyone anywhere they believed to be a "terrorist"; after the newspapers I normally read in the still commanding world of print had narrowed their coverage, upped their "patriotism," and were beating the drums for George Bush's Global War on Terror.
TomDispatch was a happenstance, the unplanned creation of a man too old by half for the medium he stumbled into. It came into existence out of a simple urge not to sit still, not to continue my life as it had been while our already shaky world was being ravaged. Between November 2001 and 2004, it went from a private, no-name group e-mail for perhaps 12 friends and relatives to an official site in cyberspace, backed by the Nation Institute, and featuring a range of provocative writers and thinkers.
Sometime in 2004, the year after the site gained its name, I went out to lunch with a Mexican political cartoonist. In what still passed for real life, I was working, as I had been for almost 30 years, as a book editor in the publishing business and we were discussing a project we planned to do together. At one point, trying to explain his life and world to me, he said: "You know, for Mexicans, the PRI years" – he was talking about the one-party-state era in his country – "were shameful times…" He paused and then leaned across the table confidentially, "But we political cartoonists," he said, "we were like pigs in slop."
In the same confessional mode, what were indisputably the worst years of most of our lives turned out to be a small, late-in-life odyssey for me. Call it "A" for adventure.
TomDispatch is – as I often write inquisitive readers – the sideline that ate my life. Being in my late fifties and remarkably ignorant of the Internet world when it began, I brought some older print habits online with me. These included a liking for the well-made, well-edited essay, an aversion to the endless yak and insult that seemed to fill whole realms of cyberspace, and a willingness to go against, or beyond, every byte-sized truth of the online world where, it was believed, brevity was all and attention spans virtually nonexistent. TomDispatch pieces invariably ran long. They were, after all, meant to reframe a familiar, if shook-up, world that was being presented in a particularly limited way by the mainstream media.
Finding myself on a mad, unipolar imperial planet, I simply took the plunge into an alphabet soup of mayhem and chaos. Let me try, now, to offer you my shorthand version of the world according to TomDispatch.
An Expeditionary Service in an Expeditionary World
In late October 2007, when top-level volunteers for duty in Iraq from the U.S. State Department had long since thinned out, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice threatened to assign diplomats to posts in Baghdad and the provinces, whether they wanted to go or not. This had not happened since the days of the Vietnam War. At an angry "town hall" meeting of career diplomats, a foreign service officer named Jack Croddy denounced the plan. He called it a "potential death sentence." "It's one thing," he said, "if someone believes in what's going on over there and volunteers, but it's another thing to send someone over there on a forced assignment."
David Satterfield, Rice's deputy, responded: "I certainly understand very much that this is extremely difficult for people who have not contemplated this kind of service." Then he reportedly added, "This is an expeditionary world. For better or worse, it requires an expeditionary service."
An expeditionary world. An expeditionary service. How typical of those muscled-up, faintly un-American phrases – think "homeland," "regime change," "enhanced interrogation techniques," "extraordinary rendition" – that the Bush administration has made part of our vocabulary. These were years when American men (and a few women) put on the pith helmets they had last seen in imperial adventure films in the movie theaters of their childhoods, imagined themselves as the imperial masters of a global Pax Americana (as well as a domestic Pax Republicana), and managed to sound as if they were surging across the planet with Rudyard Kipling at their side.
In the good old days of 2002-2003, before a ragtag insurgency in Iraq managed to lay low the plans of the leaders of the Earth's "sole superpower," the administration's neoconservative followers and assorted pundits openly touted empire (and, incongruously enough, "freedom"). They spoke glowingly of the United States as a new Rome or a new imperial Britain. The U.S. was to be the last great power on which the sun could never – in fact, would never dare to – set. Commentator Max Boot was typical when he wrote of the U.S. military in 2002, that, in its "full-spectrum dominance," it "far surpasses the capabilities of such previous would-be hegemons as Rome, Britain, and Napoleonic France." Of course, back then, a barrel of crude oil was still in the $20 price range.
By that time, the leftover American internationalists, whose weak last hurrah was the Clinton interregnum, had been ousted. Clinton's eight years had, of course, taken place in the midst of a quarter century-long Republican "revolution" that, in the name of "small government," had ramped up the powers of the national security state and the profile of the Pentagon, while slowly strangling services to the populace. From George W. Bush on down, the officials of the new administration would, however, prove extreme, even by the standards of that right-wing revolution. They arrived triumphantly in Washington as armed, aggressive isolationists who couldn't swallow the concept of partnership either in Washington or in the world.
The phrase du jour was "unipolarity." In the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse, there was, it was said, only one Great Power "pole" left on the planet and it was firmly embedded in Washington, D.C. The job of the rest of the world was to accept that reality and bend a knee to it. Anything else would be considered a form of terrorism or, as the administration put it in one of its Ur-documents, the National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: "Our strength as a nation-state will continue to be challenged by those who employ a strategy of the weak using international fora, judicial processes and terrorism." There was an unholy troika for you, a genuine axis of evil.
When Bush's people sallied forth into the world, they did so without equals, and less as classic imperialists than as imperial looters (in conjunction with crony corporations like Halliburton, Bechtel, and Blackwater USA, to whom they slipped their no-bid contracts). Arm-in-arm with a mob of K-street lobbyists, congressional power brokers, and assorted right-wing think-tanks and media pundits, they were itching to take the world by storm. These were people who imagined no problems that couldn't be overcome by a shock-and-awe-style military strike abroad. They saw their toughest enemies, however, not overseas, but in Washington. As a result, they first seized the Pentagon, then Kiplinged the military and the intelligence services, sent the State Department into purdah, and set up the most secretive, yet leak-ridden, administration in American memory.
Unlike any previous administration, they arrived in office with a full-scale allied right-wing media network already firmly in place – their own publishing houses, newspapers, talk-radio shows, and "fair and balanced" TV news. They felt no need to jolly up to, or interact with, the rest of the media. As Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, put it in 2007, "We have endured nearly seven years of the most press-phobic government in a couple of generations."
In the phrase of critic Jay Rosen, the intent of the Bush administration was to "roll back" the media, pacifying and sidelining the major papers and TV networks; and, with the help of the assaults of 9/11, they were more than successful in doing so – for a time. Never, in fact, had an administration released less news to those covering them. (Most newspapers and the TV news, for instance, gave up even assigning a reporter to cover Vice President Dick Cheney, a man so averse to providing information that his daily schedule was regularly unavailable, while reporters couldn't even find out the full roster of people working in his "office.")
The administration's method of ruling revolved around injecting regular doses of fear into the public bloodstream, while dominating an increasingly powerless Congress. If conquering Washington had been the only thing that mattered, the Republicans might have been titans for decades, though it's worth remembering that to do so they still needed a little help from their enemies – even ones they didn't deign to pay the slightest attention to on occupying the Oval Office. After all, they were only conquerors after Sept. 11, 2001. On Sept. 10 of that year, the media was still describing the administration as "adrift"; its secretary of defense was believed to have "cratered"; and the president's polling figures were visibly sagging, thanks to a public that viewed him "not as decisive but as tentative and perhaps overly scripted."
The president, who had just returned from an overlong, much criticized vacation at his "ranch" in Crawford, Texas, was then being charged by figures in his own party and Republicans in Congress with being "out of touch" and out of ideas. Wielding, in Mike Davis' vivid phrase, hijacked "car bombs with wings," al-Qaeda solved that one fast. As the towers fell and that giant cloud of dust and ash rose toward the heavens, the Bush administration found itself swept along by the perfect storm toward its conquest of Washington.
When it came to conquering the world, however, the president's top officials would turn out to have an excess of faith and not a clue.
A Faith-Based Administration
Let's start with that faith. Much has been made of the Christian fundamentalist beliefs of George W. Bush and the religious foot soldiers of the Right whom his administration mobilized in the election campaigns of 2000 and 2004. But consider the possibility that the most fundamental belief of the top officials of his administration was, in fact, in the efficacy of force.
If the Republicans emerged from 9/11 as a fundamentalist regime, it wasn't really as a fundamentalist Christian one. After all, political strategist Karl Rove, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and the vice president were not Christian fundamentalists, any more than were key Pentagon officials Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, for example. The administration's top officials may not, in fact, have agreed among themselves on when (or whether) End Times would arrive, but they all had a singular faith in the U.S. military as the most awesome power projector in history.
They tended to hold individual American military commanders in contempt – unless they had a very big "Yessir" stamped on their foreheads – but when it came to the ability of the U.S. armed forces to accomplish anything, romantics would be a mild word for what they were. They believed themselves uniquely in possession of an ability to project force in ways no other country ever had; and so, despite much talk of "democracy" and "liberty," a Hellfire-missile-armed Predator drone would perhaps be the truest hallmark of the early 21st century American civilization they presided over.
They were in awe of the military at their president's command, armed to the teeth as it was with techno-toys; already garrisoning much of the globe (and about to garrison more of it); already on the receiving end of vast inflows of taxpayer dollars (and about to receive more of them); and already embedded in a sprawling network of corporate interests (and about to cede further control to such corporations). By the time the Bush administration took the helm of the warship of state, most of the globe had already been divided into U.S. military "commands" – essentially imperial viceroyships – but they would finish the job, creating a command for the "homeland," Northcom, in 2002, and for the previously forgotten, suddenly energy-hot, continent of Africa, Africom, in 2007.
The president and his top officials put the lean, mean, high-tech, all-volunteer military on a pedestal and worshipped it as the most shock-and-awesome institution around. Speaking of his war in Iraq in 2007, in a statement typical of his administration's military hyperbole, Bush said: "I'm confident we'll prevail because we have the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known – the men and women of the United States armed forces." The greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known. This was a claim unimaginable from any past president. Then again, all the president's men had similar warm and fuzzy visions of achieving planetary dominion of a sort that had once, in American parlance, been the goal only of the most evil of foreign powers – the Nazis, Imperial Japan, or Stalin's Russia.
When it came to unleashing that force to achieve their aims, they turned out to be fervent utopians and blind believers. They were firmly convinced that, with it, they could reshape the Middle East, establish an unassailable position in the oil heartlands of the planet, roll back the Russians (yet further), and cow the Chinese.
And then, with 9/11, the "Pearl Harbor" of the new century, they suddenly had a divine wind at their backs, a terrified populace ready to be led, a supine Congress, and a pacified media. Everything they believed deeply in seemed just so… well, possible. In faith-based terms, the attacks of 9/11 were a godsend. Not surprisingly, they promptly began to prepare to act on behalf of an angry imperial god by bringing the world – particularly its energy heartlands – to heel.
First, however, they created their sacred texts at the heart of which lay the doctrine of "preventive war." At the same time, the president began speaking out about the need to act forcefully to prevent the emergence of any possible threat to the country. As he put it in his 2002 State of the Union Address, "We'll be deliberate, yet time is not on our side. I will not wait on events, while dangers gather. I will not stand by, as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons."
Meanwhile, in the office of the White House Counsel and in the Justice Department, acolyte lawyers were creating pretzeled legal memos that essentially redefined torture out of existence, clearing a path for any agent or interrogator in the field ready to take off those constraining "gloves." At home, these fundamentalist believers were also working to free the president from all restraints, intending to create a Caesarian commander-in-chief presidency as well as the first imperial vice presidency in American history.
Because their faith was of the blind sort, however, they would misread the nature of what was powerful in our world; and so their fervent unipolarity would help give premature birth to a newly multipolar planet. Among other disastrous miscalculations, they would confuse the power that lay in the threat of loosing the American military with its actual ability to impose itself on places like Afghanistan and Iraq. They believed, like the monotheists they were, that a single God, personified by the military at their command, would sweep all before Him; that, with a "coalition of the willing" (by which they meant the submissive), they could take their God of force to the heathen at the point of a cruise missile, and that victory would be theirs. We now know just how impossibly wrong this belief would prove to be.
Missing Stories on a One-Way Planet
At his 2006 confirmation hearings for the post of CIA director Michael V. Hayden, who absorbed the Bush ethos while running the National Security Agency, the super-secret electronic spying organization, offered the following promise to Congress: "If confirmed as director, I would reaffirm the CIA's proud culture of risk-taking and excellence, particularly through the increased use of non-traditional operational platforms… and the inculcation of what I would call an expeditionary mentality." That same year, then-Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte told the Marine Corps Intelligence Association, "We are developing an 'expeditionary' mentality in the field of science and technology."
That old-fashioned imperial idea of an "expeditionary mentality" abroad took on a life of its own in the Bush years. The answer to any problem was that "expeditionary mentality" and the armed expedition that went with it. And disaster, of course, ensued. For the adherents of the cult of force, the world of fantasy took over; the result was an empire of stupidity. If, for instance, you were to offer a reckoning of the Bush administration's "Global War on Terror," you might – at least in the world according to TomDispatch – sum its achievements up this way:
With Guantanamo as the Devil's Island of the 21st century; with the extraordinary renditions, waterboardings, tortures, and abuses (and the perverse memos and photos that went with them); with the CIA's "ghost prisoners" and network of secret offshore prisons; with that Delta Force intelligence agent who, according to journalist Ron Suskind, stepped off a plane from Afghanistan holding the head of al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri in a "U.S. Government" metal box (the head, it turned out, belonged to someone else); with neither Osama bin Laden nor Zawahiri apprehended; with woebegone terror wannabes, the innocent, and small fry of every sort turned into Public Enemies numbers 1-1,000; with illegal spying and warrantless, limitless surveillance taking hold in "the Homeland"; with the Taliban rising from the grave and the original al-Qaeda (as opposed to name-stealing al-Qaedas elsewhere) finding a "safe haven" in Pakistan's tribal borderlands; the GWOT (as it so inelegantly came to be known) could easily have been renamed something like the "misfire on terror" (MOT) or even, with an eye to what developed in Iraq and elsewhere, the "engine for terror" (EFT).
Among the administration's greatest achievements was launching what in the eyes of many globally came to look like a "crusade" – to use a word that slipped effortlessly out of the president's mouth soon after 9/11 – against Islam. In the process, the president's neocon supporters demarcated an area extending from the western border of China, through the former Central Asian SSRs of the Soviet Union, through the Middle East, down through the Horn of Africa and across North Africa (more or less coinciding with the oil heartlands of the planet), and dubbed it "the arc of instability." Then, from Somalia to Pakistan, the Bush administration managed to set it aflame, transforming an empty turn of phrase into a reality on the ground, an actual arc of instability, even as the price of crude oil soared above $130 a barrel.
For most of these years, much of this was remarkably ill-covered (if covered at all) in the mainstream U.S. media. Almost no American reporter, for instance, considered it worth the bother to write about those massive "facts on the ground" in Iraq, the permanent mega-bases – heavily fortified American small towns, sometimes 15-20 square miles in area, with multiple bus routes, PXs, brand fast-food outlets, and many of the amenities of home – that the Pentagon was building at the cost of multi-billions of dollars. (And no television news show thought it worth the bother to show Americans pictures of what their tax dollars had built in Iraq.) Few American journalists in Iraq or Afghanistan bothered to look to the skies and consider the role of air power in the president's global war (even though air power had been the signature American way of war for well over half a century); almost all of them found the crucial issue of energy flows through the oil heartlands, and the vast oil reserves of Iraq in particular, an embarrassment to mention in conjunction with the invasion and occupation of that country.
From 2002 through 2007, TomDispatch has focused on stories like these, as well as on what underpins so many of the missing stories of these years – the imperial nature of the American world we've been inhabiting. For a brief period in 2002-2003, the neocons and various right-wing pundits were openly beating the drum for "empire," but when Iraq started to go south and the U.S. military visibly ran off the tracks, the words "empire" and "imperial" left the scene of the crime as well – except at Web sites like TomDispatch.
And yet, in American thinking, this still remains an imperial planet. Try to imagine, for instance, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad landing on an aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Mexico – as Vice President Dick Cheney did on the USS John C. Stennis on May 11, 2007, while it floated in the Persian Gulf off Iran's coast – and saying, as Cheney also did: "With two carrier strike groups in the Gulf, we're sending clear messages to friends and adversaries alike. We'll keep the sea lanes open. We'll stand with our friends in opposing extremism and strategic threats…," and so on.
If that had happened the other way round, it would have been cause for a declaration of war – and imagine what the press coverage would have been like then. Cheney's address to the sailors of the Stennis was instead reported as just another humdrum event on our still one-way planet.
In these last years, the Bush administration's unbounded sense of imperial impunity, and an older American belief that this country possesses a moral code exceptional among nations, have proven a lethal geopolitical cocktail. This curious perspective has led our administration to commit acts of horror in our name, while absolving us from thinking about how others might look on those acts – and by extension, how they think about us.
Because, for years, so little on these, and similar, subjects made it into print or onto the TV news, there has been a special need and place for online political Web sites. We started – and maintained – discussions that only slowly seeped into the mainstream, even as readers from that world increasingly fled online. At the height of the Bush administration's power and narcissism, what TomDispatch and other sites like it represented was perhaps a simple urge not to let them set an agenda for all of America, and for the planet. This, it turns out, they were incapable of doing – and for that, perhaps, we should be modestly thankful. When the first histories of our desperate times are finally written, historians will have to turn to the record created by the world of the Internet, or their histories will be as incomplete, the dots as unconnected as they were in the mainstream in these sorry years.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), a collection of some of the best pieces from his site, has just been published. Focusing on what the mainstream media didn't cover, it is functionally an alternative history of the mad Bush years. This essay is adapted from that book's introduction. A brief video in which Engelhardt discusses the book and the American mega-bases in Iraq can be viewed by clicking here.
Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt