Outside the Pentagon, the smoking rubble left when one wing of the Defense Department wasdestroyed by a hijacked airliner last September 11 is long since cleared. A scoreboard-sized digital clock counts down the days and hours until this coming September 11, when the Pentagon expects to have fully repaired the damage. “Let’s roll” — George W. Bush’s cloying new motto — scrolls across the bottom, as the seconds tick off the furious pace of rebuilding. Inside the military-industrial establishment, at briefings and beery stag dinners, the generals and contractors know their hour has already arrived.
The hijackers’ attacks, and more so the rapid collapse of the Taliban under the weight of US bombs, have been a great boon to believers in global governance through US military power. Already ascendant hardline unilateralists in the Bush administration — the circles surrounding Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld — have been boosted higher by the widely trumpeted successes of Operation Enduring Freedom. In the wartime deployments in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, which are taking on an air of permanence, the ultra-hawks are “pre-positioned” for containment of Russia and China, chief on their list of prospective challengers to US dominance. In the “axis of evil,” the hardliners find the necessary justification for throwing larger wads of taxpayer money at the continuously failing National Missile Defense program and for demanding from Congress a $48 billion jump in defense spending over last year. There is lonely Congressional dissent as Special Forces contingents are dispatched to the Philippines, Yemen and Georgia to help those governments quell Islamist insurgencies.
Even the Pentagon’s missteps are rewarded. As Norman Solomon observed in his column for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, the week-long flap over the Office of Strategic Influence — designed to feed disinformation to the foreign press — has “actually reinforced the notion that the US government has no rational motive for hiding truth, since its real endeavors can proudly stand the light of day.” After Rumsfeld sheepishly disbanded the in-house spin unit, few news outlets noticed that a similar outfit called the Information Awareness Office will be headed by retired Adm. John Poindexter, that paragon of official probity last sighted trying to explain the Iran-contra fiasco to a bewildered public.
As the articles in this issue argue, the latest consolidation of the military-industrial complex has done little or nothing to enhance the security of people in the Middle East and Central Asia. Even as winter snows hinder the suddenly hotter war in Afghanistan, more US interventions appear certain.
Renewed fighting in March has underscored the hollowness of the US victory in Afghanistan. At the hardliners’ urging, the US began its assault on the Taliban before a viable political alternative had been concocted. Anxious to avoid combat casualties, the administration could merely stand and watch when its proxies, the erstwhile Northern Alliance, rolled into Kabul considerably ahead of the agreed-upon schedule. With Northern Alliance fighters in control of the capital and major cities, it was impossible not to include Abdul Rashid Dostum and other commanders accused of war crimes as ministers in Hamid Karzai’s interim government. The resulting return of warlord politics to Afghanistan promises anything but stability. Already, it appears that warlords nominally friendly to the US presence and Karzai have at least twice misdirected US bombing and commando raids to eliminate their own rivals. There are whispers that the crime wave in Kabul — supposedly the one place where Karzai’s authority holds firm — is perpetrated by armed gangs loyal to members of the government. Outside Kabul, Afghan civilians are even more insecure. Karzai pleads for a bolstered International Security Assistance Force, incorporating US soldiers, to bring law and order to the provinces. It is at best uncertain how long the political will to police Afghanistan will last in Washington after US forces have thoroughly “body-slammed” (as one general put it) the core of al-Qaeda and Taliban militants still holed up in the mountains bordering Pakistan.
The blunt instrument of bombing — which killed untold hundreds of Afghan civilians — seems to have dismantled the Taliban and al-Qaeda as conventional military forces. But it was singularly unsuited to the declared war aim of killing or capturing Osama bin Laden, his top lieutenants and the Taliban leadership. If one accepts the understanding of al-Qaeda as a loose network of self-contained cells which rely on bin Laden only for spiritual inspiration and occasional financing, there is no basis for concluding that the war has reduced the risk of more attacks. Further, as John Sfakianakis demonstrates in this issue, the assets that al-Qaeda might use to fund further acts of destruction could very well be intact. Not surprisingly, Sen. Trent Lott and his fellow Republican flacks now claim that the “war on terrorism” will be a success even if the primary quarries elude US forces. These cold ironies ought to give pause to those on the left who thought the US could prosecute a “just war” in Afghanistan.
The fall of Kabul and Kandahar inaugurated a season of speculation about where the war will go next. Minor deployments aside, the target is almost certainly Iraq. According to Seymour Hersh in the March 11 New Yorker, Bush has given his team a deadline of April 15 to present a “coagulated plan” for completing his father’s unfinished business. Though bitter White House squabbles over the precise timing and shape of a “regime change” operation continue to rage, the upturn in the fortunes of the hardline unilateralists is ominous. When the Arab and Muslim world did not rise up in protest at the bombing of Afghanistan (aside from hastily quashed demonstrations in Palestine and Pakistan), the ultra-hawks silenced State Department complaints about the potential destabilization of client regimes. Cheney’s pending tour of the region is intended to assure regional allies that this administration’s intervention in Iraq, unlike the interrupted drive on Baghdad in 1991 and the “enhanced containment” schemes of the Clintonites, will complete the job. The hardliners fully expect Iraq’s neighbors to fall into line — at least privately — once they understand that the US means business. “Arabs are like most people,” Pentagon adviser Richard Perle told Hersh. “They like winners, and will go with winners all the time.”
The regional players that figure in the hardliners’ plans are those hosting US bases in proximity to Iraq: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Gulf countries. Cheney is likely assessing the extent of the payoff that will be required for these regimes to allow use of their territory for a US assault. Turkey’s severe financial crisis begs for a US bailout. For their part, the Saudis are putting their emissaries on al-Jazeera talk shows to implore the Iraqi regime not to “give the US an excuse” to attack, a signal that they will declare themselves powerless to resist US ambitions if Saddam Hussein refuses to allow new UN weapons inspections. But the concerns of both Turkey and Saudi Arabia about the territorial integrity of a post-war Iraq — a chief factor in the elder Bush’s decision not to overthrow Hussein in 1991 — have only one credible answer: US occupation. Such an endeavor could be far costlier, in Iraqi and American lives, than the administration imagines.
The Bush administration’s obsession with Iraq provides an explanation for its failure to brake the frightening escalation of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) operations against the Palestinians, including a series of aerial assassinations and bloody incursions into refugee camps across the Occupied Territories in March. The ultra-hawks have long argued for “decoupling” resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from material US interests in the Gulf. By their logic, this ideological bent now assumes a practical imperative: if Hussein responds to US intervention with warheads aimed at Tel Aviv, even the hardliners know that an Israeli counterattack would portend regional conflagration. Ariel Sharon may not show Yitzhak Shamir’s restraint at Iraqi missiles, but the shameless US invocations of Israel’s right to self-defense throughout most of the current wave of IDF assaults indicate that the Bush team hopes he will.
An analysis in the liberal Israeli daily Ha’aretz suggests that it was Sharon’s promises to hit the Palestinians harder — rather than the escalation itself — which jolted the White House into bringing Gen. Anthony Zinni and US ceasefire plans out of semi-retirement. Removal of the Palestinian Authority, by scotching the chances for a revived “peace process,” is the sole Israeli measure which the hardliners fear would jeopardize their grand strategy in the region. Actual peace remains a secondary concern at best.
The supreme self-confidence of the ultra-hawks showed most scarily in a March 9 Los Angeles Times story revealing classified military reports on scenarios for use of tactical nuclear weapons. One scenario is an Iraqi attack on Israel. The conjuncture of the hardliners’ belligerence and the misplaced public trust in the war effort is worrisome. As John Isaacs of the Council for a Livable World remarked, “Dr. Strangelove is clearly still alive in the Pentagon.”