Below is my column in the latest print edition of CounterPunch. It was written last month, just after Barack Obama’s latest public embracement of the Potomac Empire’s Grand Philosophical Theory of International Statecraft: “More rubble, less trouble!” There may some overlap with my last post on this site, which developed a few of the ideas first explored in this article. The text below has been slightly revised and expanded from the print version.
The Peacey Prizey Prez has spoken, and the word he brings is — war! Not just war back in our old stomping grounds of Iraq, where the Imperial Winepress has been squeezing out the grapes of wrath for nigh on quarter of a century now. Nay, he bringeth us vast new fields to plow, in the ancient land of Assyria, therefore to make us fruitful with engorged blood.
Yes, it’s Iraq War III, or perhaps Sykes-Picot Revisited, or maybe even the Eighth (or Ninth or Forty-Fifth) Crusade of the Christian West Against the Infidel Saracens. Call it what you will, we are once more firmly embarked on a fruitless (and, we are fervently assured, bootless) quest for loot and dominance in Mesopotamia and environs. As always, these raw and bestial impulses are being gussied up in noble tropes; over the centuries, the rhetorical shadings change, but the propaganda message is always the same: the forces of good are fighting to save civilization from evil, world-devouring savages.
The bumper-sticker bromides offered by Obama in his White House revival of the long-running George Bush classic, “Bullshit in Babylon,” might have been simple, but the situation itself is as murky as the middle of the Hundred Years War. A gurgling stew of warring factions, shifting alliances, secret deals, base betrayals, panic reactions, cynical ploys and — above all — a pack of blundering, blithering idiots at the top, thrashing mindlessly and murderously back and forth. Tactical twits, yes, but united by a single, steady strategic goal: to maintain and expand the power and privileges of their respective ruling classes by any means necessary.
Obama’s speech was the usual farrago of arrant, transparent lies — delivered with his characteristic affectlessness. This is perhaps Obama's one redeeming feature as a leader: not only does he obviously know what a sick joke the whole set-up is -- he also can't hide this grim awareness. His whole aspect radiates unbearable tedium at going through the motions required to satisfy the American public’s insatiable craving for self-righteousness; hence the bromides, the pieties, the cartoon narratives and threadbare paeans to our holy “exceptionalism," delivered in a tranked-out drone. Poor guy: all this boring katzenjammer to get through – just to get on with the ugly, bloody business of empire.
Then again, this “redeeming” feature of awareness is also doubly damning: for Obama clearly knows that the course he has embarked upon will lead — inevitably, inexorably, without fail — to the death of thousands of innocent people and unimaginable suffering for millions more, as the poisonous fruits of America’s endless Terror War bear crop after crop in the years, the generations to come. He knows this is what he is doing, he knows what the results will be — but he is going forward anyway, like Macbeth stepped so far in blood that there is no point in turning back now.
To be sure, Obama sought to downplay the significance of this new American-made hellstorm of death. Taking pains to differentiate his military aggression in the region from his predecessor’s military aggression in the region, Obama likened this new effort to his existing campaigns of bombing, drone terrorism and death squads in Somalia and Yemen. He apparently thinks this comparison somehow puts him on the moral high ground. (“Hey, I’m a retail state terrorist, an upscale boutique merchant of death, not some vulgar wholesaler like that guy from Texas.”)
Much can be said about the specifics of the new Age of Insanity being ushered in by Obama and the other pipsqueaks of the Western world. For instance, how America and its allies have created the present crisis through the Hitlerian rape of Iraq in 2003, the deliberate division of the occupied land into corrupt sectarian enclaves, and the arming of extremists to foment civil war in Syria. (And that's just taking the last few years into account; never mind the genocidal slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis through sanctions, the millions killed in the region through America’s double-dealing prolongation of the Iraq-Iran War, the American-Saudi founding of the global jihadi movement to hotfoot the Soviets in Afghanistan, and so on and on back through the decades.) Not to mention the instigation of a new Cold War through the backing of violent regime change in Ukraine and the relentless, reckless push of NATO to Russia’s borders, which will likely fuel a new arms race and another era of nuclear brinkmanship.
Unpacking the details of the festering, multifarious evils of this new imperial “surge” is important work, and we should support all those who are carrying it out. This is especially vital in regard to younger people. There are whole generations coming of age who have never known anything but the howling echo chamber of post-9/11 militarism, fear, aggression and state murder. Anything and everything that can smuggle nuggets of truth to them, to “inoculate them with disillusionment” (in Henry Miller’s phrase) is to be encouraged.
But on another level, the situation embodied by Obama’s speech defeats all rational commentary and analysis. There is no longer even a pretense of reason or consistency behind the official enunciations of American policy. The system — the whole system — is now given over entirely to permanent war: hot war in Muslim lands, cold war in Eastern Europe, class war against the 99 percent at home. [As I noted here earlier,] that’s their only consistency. That’s their only casus belli. That’s all they know.
Sorry that service continues to be interrupted, but the problems are being worked on, and I hope we will be able to be less intermittent in transmission soon.
As we have noted before, if you find the site down for a long period of time, you might check out our former stomping grounds, now known as Empire Burlesque 1.0. If I have some burning word to say to the world but this site is down, I will post at the old homeplace.
Meanwhile, here's a glimpse of a man who sure enough has a burning word to say to the world -- and enough fire to keep saying it with power and moxie even in the lengthening shadows.
Shame on your greed, shame on your wicked schemes
I'll say this, I don't give a damn about your dreams
You want to climb to the top of this seething pit,
You got to walk and talk real nice.
But the secret price of power here is
Yesterday we wrote about the sudden-onset amnesia of our media-political class concerning the officially confirmed operations of American death squads. As we noted, official Washington is in a minor flutter at the moment over reports that Dick Cheney ordered and then concealed the existence of a planned program of targeted assassinations -- a program which was supposedly never implemented and was then supposedly cancelled by Obama CIA chief Leon Panetta. We merely pointed out the well-known fact -- supported by copious reportage in mainstream journals in the past eight years, not to mention proud public admissions by top government officials, including the president -- that the CIA (and other agents of the United States government) had indeed been murdering people in "extrajudicial assassinations" throughout the Bush Administration.
I concentrated on state murder during the Bush years because that is the ostensible focus of the current, manufactured controversy over the alleged existence of one allegedly non-operational program. However, as Jeremy Scahill points out, the Bush-Cheney murder racket was not created ex nihilo, but was a continuation and refinement of murder programs initiated by Bill Clinton. Scahill also makes the pertinent observation that "extrajudicial assassination" -- known quaintly in the old days as murder most foul -- is continuing unabated under Barack Obama.
The deep-dyed complicity of Democratic leaders, executive and congressional, in official murder sprees is the main reason we will never see a genuine investigation of America's death squads, as Scahill points out. Imperial crime is thoroughly bipartisan; neither faction dares push too far in such matters, because both are smeared and caked with blood.
Scahill's piece should be read in its entirety, but here are a few choice bits:
The fact is that many of Bush’s worst policies (now being highlighted by leading Democrats) were based in some form or another in a Clinton-initiated policy or were supported by the Democrats in Congress with their votes. To name a few: the USA PATRIOT Act, the invasion of Iraq, the attack against Afghanistan, the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program, the widespread use of mercenaries and other private contractors in US war zones and warrant-less wire-tapping...
As [the Democrats now pretending to be scandalized by the recent Cheney allegations] well know, President Obama has continued the Bush targeted assassination program using weaponized drones and special forces teams hunting "high value targets." As former CIA Counter-terrorism chief Vincent Cannistraro and others have pointed out, "The CIA runs drones and targets al-Qaeda safe houses all the time." Cannistraro told Talking Points Memo that there is no important difference between those kinds of attacks and "assassinations" with a gun or a knife.
...It is pretty clear that when the Bush administration took over, it picked up the Clinton administration’s policy on assassination and ran with it — albeit with more of a missionary zeal for killing and a removal of some of the layers of lawyering. In short, the Bush team expanded and streamlined the longstanding U.S. government assassination program.
Throughout the 1990s, the question of covert assassinations was a source of major discussion within the Clinton White House and it is clear assassinations were attempted with presidential approval. Newsweek magazine reported on how, in 1995, U.S. Special Forces facilitated the assassination of a Libyan "terrorist" in Bosnia, saying, "American authorities justified the assassination under a little-known 1993 ‘lethal finding’ signed by President Bill Clinton that gave permission to target terrorists." A former senior Clinton official speaking shortly after 9/11 called on the Bush administration not to escalate the U.S. assassination program, saying "We have a war on drugs, too, but we don’t kill drug lords." But then, with no apparent sense of contradiction, the official added, "we have proxies who do."
...The truth is, under Clinton, it wasn’t just proxies authorized to do the assassinations. ... Clinton did authorize what amounted to assassination squads to hunt down and kill bin Laden and other "al-Qaeda leaders." That happened officially in 1998 with Clinton’s signing of a Memorandum of Notification authorizing the CIA to carry out covert assassinations. George W. Bush was not the president and Dick Cheney was not the vice president. Of course, current CIA Director Leon Panetta was Clinton’s chief of staff from 1994 to 1997 and would have been party to years worth of discussion on this issue when Clinton was president. Under Clinton, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel issued secret rulings stating that the Ford/Reagan ban on assassinations did not apply to "military targets" or "to attacks carried out in preemptive self-defense," according to Steve Coll, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Ghost Wars.
Shortly after 9/11, Clinton stated this position publicly, supporting the Bush administration’s "war on terror" targeted assassination policy, saying on NBC News, "The ban that was put in effect under President Ford only applies to heads of state. It doesn’t apply to terrorists." That is a stunning statement that is a true legal stretch given the explicit language of the ban. Moreover, Clinton did, in fact, try to kill a head of state on April 22, 1999, when he ordered a NATO airstrike on the home of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Clinton and Gen. Wesley Clark also authorized an assassination attempt on Serbian Information Minister, Aleksander Vucic, bombing Radio Television Serbia when Vucic was scheduled to appear via satellite on CNN’s "Larry King Live." Vucic was not killed, but 16 media workers were.
Clinton also publicly acknowledged his own administration’s attempt to assassinate bin Laden. "I worked hard to try to kill him," Clinton said. "I authorized a finding for the CIA to kill him. We contracted with people to kill him. I got closer to killing him than anybody has gotten since." Clinton’s National Security Advisor Sandy Berger said after Clinton issued his 1998 "lethal finding," U.S. operatives worked with Afghan rebels for two years in an attempt to kill bin Laden. "There were a few points when the pulse quickened, when we thought we were close," Berger later recalled. Among the alleged attempts on bin Laden’s life taken by Clinton was the 1998 bombing of Afghanistan (which was coupled with a massive strike on the Al Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan).
As Coll observed of the Clinton policy: "Clinton had demonstrated his willingness to kill bin Laden, without any pretense of seeking his arrest."
Scahill has much more on the macabre history -- and the reeking hypocrisy -- behind the current "controversy.
And so a new war has begun. Or rather, a new front is opened (and an old one re-opened) in an ongoing, ever-expanding war. For the new war is of course our old friend, the War on Terror. (Although it should more accurately be termed “the War on Terror Spawned by the War on Terror.”)
The casus belli being offered up seem even more specious and shifting than usual. The vicious civil war we have fomented in Syria has spawned an extremist militia that is using the weapons we poured into Syria to attack the corrupt sectarian regime we installed in Iraq with our illegal invasion there earlier, which gave rise to a vicious civil war that has continued to this day, with both sides using our weapons.
But is “war” really the right word? “War” implies a discrete event; it has a beginning, some kind of trajectory, some kind of an end. But the fiery miasma of slaughter and profiteering that is the Terror War has no such form. It has no trajectory — and no end, as we have been told over and over by our bipartisan Terror Barons. For the imperial American state (and its various satellites, servants and satraps), the Terror War has become a state of nature — even THE state of nature. It is no longer an event in reality; it is the very form of reality itself. It must go on because it can’t NOT go on.
To our ruling classes, and their lackeys and abettors and worshippers across the commanding heights of Western society, the very idea of any alternative to ceaseless conflict is unimaginable …
Hey, it’s what we do. It’s what we are. As our latest temporary manager, Obama, said the other day, it’s how we roll. We exist solely to assert our dominance by violent force anywhere and anyhow we see fit. It is in blood and domination that we live and move and have our being. It doesn’t matter in the end who we are fighting against, or with, or if we change partners in the middle of the battle. It doesn’t matter if we fight an enemy here and arm him over there, or if our allies share the same extremism we are ostensibly trying to quell. It doesn’t matter what we say to justify the killing and profiteering we want to do, or that we change these justifications from day to day, even from hour to hour.
And it certainly doesn’t matter what “legal” basis we offer for our lawless and arbitrary actions. We are more than happy to spout some meaningless jargon, to torture and degrade the language, to openly mock the very notion of reason and law — as long as it keeps the editorial writers and think-tank quacks happy in their shallow fantasies of “serious” policy, as long as the public in whose name we are destabilizing and devouring the earth (including their own decaying communities) can keep believing that what we are doing with our killing and looting is keeping them safe from “psychopaths” and demonic beasts. As long as they can keep believing that they are being governed by a benevolent elite, whose ultimate aim — however badly and ineptly they sometimes pursue it — is to secure peace, freedom and prosperity for their own people, and for the world.
And thus we watch with wry bemusement how earnestly the opinion-makers and commentators — especially on the liberal side — debate the “issues” around our brutal and arbitrary actions (which they, sweet naifs, call “policies”). How they puzzle and puzzle til their puzzlers are sore, to make our policies better. ‘Oh, if only we could make our leaders see that their policies are counterproductive, that they are failing to produce the outcomes they are seeking. Oh, if only our leaders could be smarter, cleverer, more insightful — like us! But they just keep making the same mistakes, with the same bad outcomes, which just makes it harder for them to achieve their noble goals1”
It’s even more amusing when they get all scornful and sarcastic, when they smirk about what incompetent fools our elites are, how they’re so stupid that they can’t even see that they’re shooting ourselves in the foot over and over, how they couldn’t find their own ass with both hands even if both hands were stapled to their ass. (Was that Maher? Stewart? One of those media millionaires with the cutesy, soundbite smarm that passes for “dissent.”) We love these guys. We watch their shows. We pass around their best lines at the conference table. You can’t buy that kind of propaganda, that kind of reinforcement for the status quo. No one believe more in the system than these savvy snarkmasters. “The people in power now simply don’t know how to achieve their goals. They’re ruining the system! We need to get some better people in office to run the system. Then things will all right.”
But of course the truth is that the system works very well. It does what it intends to do, and pursues its goals with admirable, ruthless efficiency. Nothing deters the system: not facts, not law, not truth, not consequences, not appeals to reason or conscience, not concern for future — and certainly not snark from the chattering classes. The system can’t “fail” in its goals, because there are no “goals,” no endpoints. There is only the process — the endless, churning process of violent domination, and the power and profits this produces for those who join (or are born to) the elite. If one front in the Terror War produces what our naifs call a “policy failure” — the invasion of Iraq, say - so what? You just keep churning and fighting and profiteering on a dozen other fronts, while your “policy failure” ripens into a catastrophic societal breakdown, producing more excuses to “step back in” and resume the conflict there again.
So where is the “failure”? The violent, profitable process of empire — the shark that must keep eating or else it dies — has not skipped a beat. It just keeps expanding its range — and, as in Iraq now, it can always come back to an old killing field. As long as the system keeps killing and grinding and churning, it can’t fail, whatever may happen on this or that patch of ground at any particular time. The process — not the seriously analyzed “outcome” of an operation — is the whole point.
There must be blood, there must be loot, there must be expansion. When you’ve killed all the Indians, you go kill the gooks. If the Commies quit the field, you kill Muslims instead. This is what the system is. This is what the system does. And whoever seeks to control the system — whoever fights and claws their way into the cockpit of this monstrous machine, to give themselves and their courtiers a few years at the wheel — is a willing, eager part of the system.
For example, there is now a great deal of liberal handwringing about the “tragedy” of Barack Obama being “sucked back” into the morass of Iraq. “He wanted change, he wanted to lead us away from this kind of thing, but now look! Despite his best intentions, here we are again.” In most of these cases, Obama’s predecessor gets the blame — “Bush made a mess of Iraq, and now Obama has to clean it up.”
(I don’t recall seeing any commentary along these lines noting that Bill Clinton — the husband of the next president of the United States — also did yeoman service in making a mess of Iraq, having killed some 500,000 children with his pointless, punitive sanctions. He killed those children because Saddam wouldn’t give up his WMD — you know, the WMD he didn’t have. O, how we rightfully scorned Bush for ‘going to war over false pretenses” about that phantom WMD; but the good old Big Dawg killed half a million children for the same knowing lie, and left Iraqi society in chaos.)
Anyway, we are now told that thanks to Bush, Obama is between a rock and a hard place, trying his dee-diddly-darndest to deal with those extremist beheaders of ISIS (with the help of the extremist beheaders of Saudi Arabia) without putting “boots on the ground.” He wanted to change the system — but it looks like the “Deep State” was too much for him. What a tragedy for him — and for us.
Can we dispense briefly but decisively with this oleaginous bullshit by making a single observation? A man who hand-picked George Bush’s Secretary of Defense to serve as his own Master of War knew exactly what the system is — and did not have the slightest intention of changing it. In fact, Obama has been phenomenally successful in expanding the system of violence and domination, extending it new areas, with new tools (Oval Office death squads! Assassinating innocent teenagers!) — and bringing it all back home with hi-tech surveillance, whistleblower persecution and journalist prosecutions his predecessor could only dream of.
And so we are at war again. But we are never not at war anymore. That’s what we do. That’s what we are.
On three occasions in the past few days, I've been approached separately by three of my children, ranging in age from 9 to 28, each of whom asked in different ways, "What is this war with ISIS all about?" Adjusting my answer according to their age, understanding and education, I spoke of various factors behind the new war, trying to give more of the context, history and reality of what is going on, behind the blizzard of contradictory bull that surrounds the operation.
But later it occurred to me that the most direct -- and truest -- answer could be found in a short clip from an old film, made more than 30 years ago, in a scene set in the midst of a conflict now an entire century in the past. But the answer given then is most assuredly true now.
So here it is, delivered at a cozy black-tie dinner at the well-appointed Liberal Club of Portland, Oregon: