The Theater of the Imperially Absurd
One night when I was in my teens, I found myself at a production of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. I had never heard of the playwright or the play, nor had I seen a play performed in the round. The actors were dramatically entering and exiting in the aisles when, suddenly, a man stood up in the audience, proclaimed himself a seventh character in search of an author, and demanded the same attention as the other six. At the time, I assumed the unruly “seventh character” was just part of the play, even after he was summarily ejected from the theater.
Now, bear with me a moment here. Back in 2002-2003, officials in the Bush administration and their neocon supporters, retro-think-tank admirers, and allied media pundits, basking in all their Global War on Terror glory, were eager to talk about the region extending from North Africa through the Middle East, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the former SSRs of Central Asia right up to the Chinese border as an “arc of instability.” That arc coincided with the energy heartlands of the planet and what was needed to “stabilize” it, to keep those energy supplies flowing freely (and in the right directions), was clear enough to them. The “last superpower,” the greatest military force in history, would simply have to put its foot down and so bring to heel the “rogue” powers of the region. The geopolitical nerve would have to be mustered to stamp a massive “footprint” – to use a Pentagon term of the time – in the middle of that vast, valuable region. (Such a print was to be measured by military bases established.) Also needed was the nerve not just to lob a few cruise missiles in the direction of Baghdad, but to offer such an imposing demonstration of American shock-and-awe power that those “rogues” – Iraq, Syria, Iran (Hezbollah, Hamas) – would be cowed into submission, along with uppity U.S. allies like oil-rich Saudi Arabia.
It would, in fact, be necessary – in another of those bluntly descriptive words of the era – to “decapitate” resistant regimes. This would be the first order of business for the planet’s lone “hyperpower,” now that it had been psychologically mobilized by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. After all, what other power on Earth was capable of keeping the uncivilized parts of the planet from descending into failed-state, all-against-all warfare and dragging us (and our energy supplies) down with them?
Mind you, on Sept. 11, 2001, as those towers went down, that arc of instability wasn’t exactly a paragon of… well, instability. Yes, on one end was Somalia, a failed state, and on the other, impoverished, rubble-strewn Afghanistan, largely Taliban-ruled (and al-Qaeda encamped); while in-between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a severely weakened nation with a suffering populace, but the “arc” was wracked by no great wars, no huge surges of refugees, no striking levels of destruction. Not particularly pleasant autocracies, some of a fundamentalist religious nature, were the rule of the day. Oil flowed (at about $23 a barrel); the Israeli-Palestinian conflict simmered uncomfortably; and, all in all, it wasn’t a pretty picture, nor a particularly democratic one, nor one in which, if you were an inhabitant of most of these lands, you could expect a fair share of justice or a stunningly good life.
Still, the arc of instability, as a name, was then more prediction than reality. And it was a prediction – soon enough to become a self-fulfilling prophecy – on which George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and all those neocons in the Pentagon readily staked careers and reputations. As a crew, already dazzled by American military power and its potential uses, such a bet undoubtedly looked like a sure winner, like betting with the house in a three-card monte scheme. They would just give the arc what it needed – a few intense doses of cruise-missile and B-1 bomber medicine, add in some high-tech military boots-on-the-ground, some night-vision-goggled eyes in the desert, some Hellfire-missile-armed Predator drones overhead, and some “regime change”-style injections of further instability. It was to be, as Andrew Bacevich has written, “an experiment in creative destruction.”
First Afghanistan, then Iraq. Both pushovers. How could the mightiest force on the planet lose to such puny powers? As a start, you would wage a swift air-war/proxy-war/Special-Forces war/dollar-war – CIA agents would arrive in friendly areas of northern Afghanistan in late 2001 carrying suitcases stuffed with money – in one of the most backward places on the planet. Your campaign would be against an ill-organized, ill-armed, ragtag enemy. You would follow that by thrusting into the soft, military underbelly of the Middle East and taking out the hollow armed forces of Saddam Hussein in a “cakewalk.”
Next, with your bases set up in Afghanistan and Iraq on either side of Iran – and Pakistan, also bordering Iran, in hand – what would it take to run the increasingly unpopular mullahs who governed that land out of Tehran? Meanwhile, Syria, another weakened, wobbly state divided against itself, now hemmed in not only by militarily powerful Israel but American-occupied Iraq on the other would be a pushover. In each of these lands, you would soon enough end up with an American-friendly government, run by some figure like the Pentagon’s favorite Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi; and, voilà! (okay, they wouldn’t have used French), you would have a Middle East made safe for Israel and for American domination. You would, in short, have your allies in Europe and Japan as well as your possible future enemies, Russia and China, by the throat in an increasingly energy-starved world.
Certainly, many of the top officials of the Bush administration and their neocons allies, dreaming of just such an orderly, American-dominated “Greater Middle East,” were ready to settle for a little chaos in the process. If a weakened Iraq broke into several parts; or, say, the oil-rich Shi’ite areas of Saudi Arabia happened to fall off that country, well, too bad. They’d deal.
Little did they know.
The Tin Touch
Here’s the remarkable thing, when you think about it: All the Bush administration had to do was meddle in any country in that arc of instability (and which one didn’t it meddle in?), for actual instability, often chaos, sometimes outright disaster to set in. It’s been quite a record, the very opposite of an imperial golden touch.
And, on any given day, you can see the evidence of this on a case by case basis in your local paper or on the TV news. You can check out the Iraqi, or Somali, or Lebanese, or Iranian, or Pakistani disasters, or impending disasters. But what you never see is all those crises and potential crises discussed in one place – without which the magnitude of the present disaster and the dangers in our future are hard to grasp.
Few in the mainstream world have even tried to put them all together since the Bush administration rolled back the media, essentially demobilizing it in 2001-2002, at which point its journalists and pundits simply stopped connecting the dots. Give the Bush administration credit: Its top officials took in the world as a whole and at an imperial glance. They regularly connected the dots as they saw them. The post-9/11 strike at Afghanistan was never simply a strike at al-Qaeda (or the Taliban who hosted them). It was always a prelude to war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. And the invasion of Iraq was never meant to end in Baghdad (as indicated in the neocon prewar quip, “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran”). Nor was Tehran to be the end of the line.
Under the rubric of the “Global War on Terror,” they were considering literally dozens of countries as potential future targets. Dick Cheney put the matter bluntly back in August 2002 as the public drumbeat for an invasion of Iraq was just revving up:
“The war in Afghanistan is only the beginning of a lengthy campaign, Cheney noted. ’Were we to stop now, any sense of security we might have would be false and temporary,’ he said. ’There is a terrorist underworld out there spread among more than 60 countries.’”
Almost immediately after the 9/11 attacks, they began stitching together the arc of instability in their minds with an eye not so much to Arabs, or South Asians, or even Israelis, but to playing their version of what the British imperialists used to call “the Great Game.” They had the full-scale rollback of energy-giant Russia in mind as well as the containment or rollback of potential future imperial power, China, already visibly desperate for Iraqi, Iranian, and other energy supplies. In the year before the invasion of Iraq, they were remarkably blunt about this. They proudly published that seminal document of the Bush era, the National Security Strategy of the United States of America, 2002, which called for the U.S. to “build and maintain” its military power on the planet “beyond challenge.”
Think about that for a moment. A single power on Earth “beyond challenge.” This was a dream of planetary dominion that once would have been left to madmen. But in what looked like a world with only one Great Power, it was easy enough to imagine a Great Game with only one great player, an arms race with only one swift runner.
The Bush administration was essentially calling for a world in which no superpower, or bloc of powers, would ever be allowed to challenge this country’s supremacy. As the president put it in an address at West Point in 2002, “America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge, thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace.” The National Security Strategy put the same thought this way: “Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military buildup in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States.” That’s anywhere on the planet. Ever. And the president and his followers promptly began to hike the Pentagon budget to suit their oversized, military fantasies of what an American “footprint” should be.
With this in mind, the arc of instability, which, in energy-flow terms, was quite literally the planet’s heartland, seemed the place to control. And yet – look hard as you will -– you’re unlikely to find a single piece in your daily paper that takes in that arc; that, say, includes Somalia and Pakistan in the same piece, even though Bush administration policy has effectively tied them together in disaster. To take another example, the rise of Iran (and a possible “Shi’ite crescent”), Iran’s influence or interference in Iraq, Iran’s nuclear program, and Iran’s off-the-wall president have been near obsessions in the U.S. media; and yet, you would be hard-pressed to find a piece even pointing out that the Bush administration’s two invasions and occupations – Iraq and Afghanistan – which left both those countries bristling with vast American bases and sprawling American-controlled prison systems, took place on either side of Iran. Add in the fact that the Bush administration, probably through the CIA, is essentially running terror raids into Iran through Pakistan and you have a remarkably different vision of Iran’s geostrategic situation than even an informed American media consumer would normally see.
After Sept. 11, 2001, but based on the sort of pre-2001 thinking you could find well represented at the neocon Web site Project for the New American Century, the Bush administration’s top officials wrote their own drama for the arc of instability. They were, of course, the main characters in it, along with the U.S. military, some Afghan and Iraqi exiles who would play their necessary roles in the “liberation” of their countries, and a few evil ogres like Saddam Hussein.
Today, not six years after they raised the curtain on what was to be their grand imperial drama, they find themselves in a dark theater with at least six crises in search of an author, all clamoring for attention – and every possibility that a seventh (not to say a seventeenth) “character” in that rowdy, still gathering, audience may soon rise to insist on a part in the horrific farce that has actually taken place.
Six Crises in Search of an Author
Sweeping across the region from East to West, let’s briefly note the six festering or clamoring crisis spots, any one of which could end up with the play’s major role before George W. Bush slips out of office.
Pakistan: The Pakistani government was America’s main partner, along with the Saudis, in funding, arming, and running the anti-Soviet struggle of the mujahedeen, including Osama bin Laden, in Afghanistan back in the 1980s; and Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, was the godfather of the Taliban (and remains, it seems, a supporter to this day). In September 2001, the Bush administration gave the country’s coup-installed military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the basic you’re-either-with-us-or-against-us choice. He chose the “with” and in the course of these last years, under constant American pressure, has lost almost complete control over Pakistan’s tribal regions along the Afghan border to various tribal groups, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other foreign jihadis, who have established bases there. Now, significant parts of the country are experiencing unrest in what looks increasingly like a countdown to chaos in a nuclear-armed nation.
Afghanistan: In the meantime, from those Pakistani base areas, the revived and rearmed Taliban (and their al-Qaeda partners) are preparing to launch a major spring offensive in Afghanistan, using tactics from the Iraq War (suicide bombers or “Mullah Omar’s Missiles,” as they call them, and the roadside bomb or IED). They are already capable of taking over southern Afghan districts for periods of time. The Bush administration used the Northern Alliance – that is, proxy Afghan forces – to take Kabul in November 2001. It then set up its bases and prisons and established President Hamid Karzai as the “mayor of Kabul,” only to abandon the task of providing real security and beginning the genuine reconstruction of the country in order to invade Iraq. The rest of this particular horror story is, by now, reasonably well known. The country beyond booming Kabul remains impoverished and significantly in ruins; the population evidently ever more dissatisfied; the American and NATO air war ever more indiscriminate; and it is again the planet’s largest producer of opium poppies and, as such, supplier of heroin. Over five years after its “liberation” from the Taliban, Afghanistan is a failed state, home to a successful guerrilla war by one of the most primitively fundamentalist movements on the planet, and a thriving narco-kingdom. It is only likely to get worse. For the first time, the possibility that, like the Russians before them, the Americans (and their NATO allies) could actually suffer defeat in that rugged land seems imaginable.
Iran: The country is a rising regional power, with enormous energy resources, and Shi’ite allies and allied movements of various sorts throughout the region, including in southern Iraq. But it also has an embattled, divided, fundamentalist government capable of rallying its disgruntled populace only with nationalism (call it, playing the American card). Energy-rich as it is, Iran also has a fractured, weakened economy, threatened with sanctions; and its major enemy, the Bush administration, is running a series of terror operations against it, while trying to cause dissension in its oil-rich minority regions. It is also deploying an unprecedented show of naval and air strength in the Persian Gulf. (An aircraft-carrier, the USS Nimitz, with its strike group, is now on its way to join the two carrier task forces already in place there.) In addition, the administration has threatened to launch a massive air assault on Iran’s nuclear and other facilities. Though Iraq runs it a close race, Iran may be the single potentially most explosive hot spot in the arc of instability. In a nanosecond, it would be capable, under U.S. attack, or even some set of miscalculations on all sides, both of suffering grievous harm and of imposing enormous damage not just on American troops in Iraq, or on the oil economy of the region, but on the global economy as well.
Iraq: Do I need to say a word? Iraq is the poster-boy for the Bush administration’s ability to turn whatever it touches into hell on Earth. In Iraq, the vaunted American military has been stopped in its tracks by a minority Sunni insurgency. (In recent weeks, however, the war there is threatening to turn into something larger, as the American military launches attacks on radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia.) Iraq now is the site of a religio-ethnic civil war of striking brutality, loosing waves of refugees within the country and on neighboring states; neighborhoods are being ethnically cleansed and deaths have reached into the hundreds of thousands. Amid all this, the occupying U.S. military fully controls only Baghdad’s fortified citadel within a city, the Green Zone (and even there dangers are mounting) as well as a series of enormous, multibillion-dollar bases it has built around the country. Iraq is now essentially a failed state and the situation continues to devolve under the pressure of the president’s latest “surge” plan. If that plan were to succeed, the citadel-state of the Green Zone would, at best, be turned into the city-state of Baghdad in a sea of chaos. Like Iran, Iraq has the potential to draw other states in the region into a widening civil-cum-religious-cum-terrorist war.
Israel/Palestine/Lebanon: From an early green light for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to join the Global War on Terror (against the Palestinians) to a green light for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to launch and continue a war against Hezbollah in Lebanon last summer, the Bush administration has largely green-lighted Israel these last years. It has also ignored or, in the case of the Lebanon War, purposely held back any possibility of serious peace talks. The provisional results are in. In Lebanon, the heavily populated areas of the Shi’ite south were strewn with Israeli cluster bombs, making some areas nearly uninhabitable; up to a quarter of the population was, for a time, turned into refugees; parts of Lebanese cities including Beirut were flattened by the Israeli air force; and yet Hezbollah was strengthened, the U.S.-backed Siniora government radically weakened, and the country drawn closer to a possible civil war. In the Palestinian areas, Bush administration democracy-promotion efforts ended with a Hamas electoral victory. Starved of foreign aid and having suffered further Israeli military assaults, the Palestinian population is ever more immiserated; Hamas and Fatah are at each other’s throats; and the U.S.-backed president of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, is in a weakened position. In the wake of a disastrous war, Israel, with a government whose head has a 3 percent approval rate, is hardly the triumphant, dominant power in the Middle East that various Bush administration figures imagined once upon a time. This looks like another deteriorating situation with no end in sight.
Somalia (or Black Hawk Down, Round 2): In 2006, director Porter Goss’ CIA bet on a group of discredited Somali warlords, threw money and support behind them, and – typically – lost out to an Islamist militia that took most of the country and imposed relative peace on it for the first time in years. The ever proactive Bush administration then turned to the autocratic Ethiopian regime and its military (advised and armed by the U.S. with a helping hand from the North Koreans) to open “a new front” in the Global War on Terror. The Ethiopians promptly launched their own “preventive” invasion of Somalia (with modest U.S. air support), installed a government in the capital, Mogadishu, proclaimed victory over the Islamists, and – giant surprise –promptly found themselves mired in an inter-clan civil war with Iraqi overtones. Today, Somalia, long a failed state and then, for a few months, almost a peaceful land (even if ruled by Islamists fundamentalists), is experiencing the worst fighting and death levels in 15 years. The new government in Mogadishu is shaky; their Ethiopian military supporters bloodied; over 1,000 civilians in the capital are dead or wounded, and tens of thousands of refugees are fleeing Mogadishu and crossing borders in a state of need. Rate it: a developing disaster – with worse to come.
In short, from Somalia to Pakistan, the region is today a genuine arc of instability. It is filled with ever more failed states (Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine, which never even made it to statehood before collapse), possible future failed states (Lebanon, Pakistan), ever shakier autocracies (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan); and huge floods of refugees, internal and external (Somalia, Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan) as well as massively damaged areas (Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza, Lebanon). It is also witnessing the growth of extremist and terrorist organizations and sentiments.
A Rube Goldberg Machine
At any moment, somewhere in the now-destabilized “arc of instability,” that seventh character could indeed rise, demand attention, and refuse to be ejected from the premises. There are many possible candidates. Here are just a few:
Al-Qaeda, an organization dispersed but never fully dismantled by the Bush administration, has now, according to Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times, rebuilt itself in the Pakistani borderlands with new training camps, new base areas, and a new generation of leaders in their thirties, all still evidently serving under Osama bin Laden. (In the future, Mazzetti suggests even younger leaders are likely to come from the hardened veterans of campaigns in Bush’s Iraq). Al-Qaeda is a wild card throughout the region.
Iraqi Kurdistan is now a relatively peaceful area, but from the disputed, oil-rich city of Kirkuk to its Turkish and Iranian borders it is also a potential future powder keg and the focus for interventions of all sorts.
Oil pipelines, which, from the Black Sea to the Persian Gulf, crisscross the region, are almost impossible to defend effectively. At any moment, some group or groups, copying the tactics of the Sunni insurgents in Iraq, could decide to begin a sabotage campaign against them (or the other oil facilities in the region).
Saudi Arabia, an increasingly ossified religious autocracy, faces opponents ready to practice terrorism against its oil infrastructure and rising unrest in its oil-rich Shi’ite areas as well as an ascendant Iran.
Syria, a rickety minority regime, under internal pressure, now faces the launching of a renewed Bush administration campaign to further undermine its power. Though we have no way of knowing the scope of this campaign, it seems the president and his top officials have learned absolutely nothing about what their meddling is likely to accomplish.
Outside the “arc of instability,” but deeply affected by what goes on there, let’s not forget:
The U.S. Army: 13,000 National Guardsmen have just been notified of a coming call-up, long before they were due for another tour of duty in Iraq. The Army, like the Marine Corps, finds itself under near-unbearable pressure from the Iraq and Afghan Wars and, as a result, is sending less than fully trained troops, recruited under ever lower standards, with worn equipment, into battle. The Army, for instance, is having trouble holding on to its best soldiers. Beyond their minimum five years of service, to take an example, “just 62 percent of West Pointers re-upped, about 25 percentage points lower than at the other service academies.” And the public grumbling of the top brass is on the increase. Who knows what this means for the future?
The American People – Oh yes, them. They haven’t really hit the streets yet, but they’ve hit the opinion polls hard and last November some of them hit the polling booths – decisively. Who knows when they will “stand up” and insist on being counted. Perhaps in 2008.
In other words, in addition to the normal cast of characters dreamt up by the Bush administration in its fantasy production in the global round, a whole set of unexpected characters are already moving up and down the aisles, demanding attention, and at any moment, that seventh character – whether state, ethnic group, terrorist cadre, or some unknown crew in search of an author is likely to make its presence felt.
And let’s not forget that there is one more obvious “character” out there in search of an author; that there is one more Bush-destabilized place on the planet not yet mentioned, even though it may be the most important of all. I’m talking, of course, about Washington D.C.; I’m talking about the Bush administration itself.
Consider the process by which it turned Washington into a mini-arc of instability: First, it fantasized about the “arc of instability,” then stitched it together into a genuine Rube Goldberg instability machine, one where any group, across thousands of miles, might pull some switch that would set chaos rolling, the flames licking across the oil heartlands of the planet. Then, remarkably enough, the administration itself and all its dreams – both of a Pax Americana globe and a Pax Republicana United States – began to disintegrate. The whole edifice, from Rumsfeld’s high-tech military to Karl Rove’s political machine, became destabilized under its own tin touch. The putative playwright became just another desperate character.
It’s no longer far-fetched to say that, with the president’s polling figures in the low 30s, resistance to his war still growing, a Democratic Congress beginning to feel its strength, the Republican Party shaking and its presidential candidates preparing to head for the hills, corruption and political scandals popping up everywhere, and high military figures implicitly reading the riot act to their political leaders, the already listing Bush imperial ship of state seems to be making directly for the next floating iceberg.
Imagine then, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney still clinging tenaciously to what’s left of their dreams and delusions amid the ruins of their plans – as the USS Nimitz sails toward the Persian Gulf; as American agents of various sorts “advise” and, however indirectly, shuffle aid to extremist groups eager to fell the Iranian regime; as a new campaign against the Syrian regime is launched; as stolen Iraqi oil money is shuttled to the Siniora government in Lebanon (and then, according to Seymour Hersh, to Sunni jihadi groups in Lebanon and the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria); and as American agents continue to “interrogate” suspected jihadis in their latest borrowed secret prisons in Ethiopia, while American-backed Ethiopian troops only find themselves more embroiled in Somalia. Imagine all that, and then ask yourself, what levers on that Rube Goldberg machine they’ve done so much to create are they still capable of pulling?