Tomgram: Michael Schwartz, Twenty-First-Century Colonialism in Iraq

July 10, 2009

July 9, 2009
Tomgram: Michael Schwartz, Twenty-First-Century Colonialism in Iraq

One of the earliest metaphors President George W. Bush and some of his top officials wielded in their post-invasion salad days in Iraq involved bicycles. The question was: Should we take the “training wheels” off the Iraqi bike (of democracy)? Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, for example, commented smugly on the way getting Iraq “straightened out” was like teaching your kid to ride a bike:

“They’re learning, and you’re running down the street holding on to the back of the seat. You know that if you take your hand off they could fall, so you take a finger off and then two fingers, and pretty soon you’re just barely touching it. You can’t know when you’re running down the street how many steps you’re going to have to take. We can’t know that, but we’re off to a good start.”

That image (about as patronizingly colonial as they come) of the little pedaling Iraqi child with an American parent running close behind, was abandoned when around the first corner, as it turned out, was an insurgent with an rocket-propelled grenade. Many years and many disasters later, though, Americans, whether in the Obama administration, the Washington punditocracy, or the media are still almost incapable of being patronizing when it comes to Iraq. Take a typical recent piece of “news analysis” in the New York Times by a perfectly sharp journalist, Alissa J. Rubin. It was headlined in print “America’s New Role in Iraq Prompts a Search for Means of Influence” and focused, in part, on Vice President Joe Biden’s recent trip there supposedly to “assuage” Iraqi feelings that they are being “moved to the bottom shelf.”

Rubin writes (and this sort of thing has been written countless times before) that the Americans are now in search of a “new tone” for their dealings in that country. (In the Bush years, this was often called — in another strange imperial metaphor — “putting an Iraqi face” on things.) “They have,” she comments, “a reputation for being heavy-handed, for telling Iraqis what to do rather than asking what they want.” But of course, as the piece makes clear, whatever his tone, Biden arrived in Iraq to tell Iraqis what they should do — or as she puts it, to try to “solve” the “troubles… that stymied three previous ambassadors and President George W. Bush”: continuing sectarian animosities, the passage of an Iraqi oil law, and the Kurdish problem.

These, it seems, are still our burden and we really can’t imagine it any other way. As the Iraqis quoted in Rubin’s piece make clear, the dominant role played by the U.S. is resented by the occupied — especially the elite — who have contempt for the occupiers, even if they find it hard to imagine life without them.

I mention this only because the tone of American writing and thought on Iraq has always been tinged with what Michael Schwartz, TomDispatch regular and author of a superb study, War Without End: The Iraq War in Context, says is a deeper colonial urge, one that unfortunately may not be fading, even as discussion of a U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq grows. (Catch a TomDispatch audio interview with Schwartz by clicking here.) Tom

Colonizing Iraq
The Obama Doctrine?
By Michael Schwartz

Click here to read more of this dispatch.

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Tomgram: Nick Turse, Closing Down Main Street

March 7, 2009

February 22, 2009
Tomgram: Nick Turse, Closing Down Main Street

[Note for TomDispatch readers: Last week, I asked you to consider writing friends, colleagues, relatives — whomever — to urge them to go to the “sign up” window at the upper right of TD’s main screen, put in their email addresses, and receive the mailing that offers notification whenever a new post goes up. (Word of mouth is, of course, still the major kind of publicity this site can afford.) A number of you did so and TD got a nice stream of new subscribers. So, many thanks indeed! If some of you meant to do this but didn’t quite get around to it, now’s as perfect a time as any. Lots of good posts coming up, so please pass the word! By the way, let me offer special thanks to those of you who, unbidden, used the site contribution button (“Resist empire. Support TomDispatch”) and sent in contributions. Your generosity allows the site to offer younger writers like Dahr Jamail and Nick Turse a few extra $$$s for all their hard work. It matters. Tom]

As I read an early version of today’s third (but by no means last) piece in Nick Turse’s Tough Times series, I couldn’t help thinking about an old line that, by my childhood in the 1950s, had become a kind of national folk wisdom: “As General Motors goes, so goes the nation.” (Indeed, as befit the rise of the U.S. as an imperial power, “nation” was sometimes replaced with “world.”) Of course, in those days, if you were the head of General Motors, it wasn’t so unreasonable to imagine that you controlled the fate of the nation and the planet. Not only were you atop a global powerhouse of a company, but you might still be going places.

After all, in 1953, Charles Wilson, GM’s president, did become President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s secretary of defense. Asked in his Senate confirmation hearings whether he would have a problem making governmental decisions that might not be in the interest of GM, he famously replied that he found it hard to imagine a conflict of interest “because for years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa.” (Soon, that would be simplified to: “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.”)

Only a few years after Wilson stepped down, a new President, John F. Kennedy, asked Ford’s president, Robert S. McNamara, to step into the very same post. At that moment, it seemed true indeed that, as Big Auto went, so went the world. Of course, that was before McNamara and his “whiz kids” got us deep into, but not out of, the Vietnam War. Now, that’s so much ancient history — though today, you might imagine a new version of the old adage, based on Bush and Obama administration staffing decisions at the Treasury Department: What’s good for Goldman Sachs is good for the country.

In any case, if Wilson’s statement seems like history, the old GM line doesn’t. As General Motors goes, so goes America. How sadly true. We know just how GM is going these days — down the tubes; and, as Nick Turse indicates in his latest post, so go the towns and small cities not only in the vicinity of the Big Three’s collapse, but countrywide. Tom

Tough Times in Troubled Towns
America’s Municipal Meltdowns
By Nick Turse

When Barack Obama traveled to Elkhart, Indiana, to push his $800 billion economic recovery package two weeks ago, he made the former “RV capital of the world” a poster-child for the current economic crisis. Over the last year, as the British paper The Independent reported, “Practically the entire [recreational vehicle] industry has disappeared,” leaving thousands of RV workers in Elkhart and the surrounding area out of work. As Daily Show host Jon Stewart summed the situation up: “Imagine your main industry combines the slowdown of the auto market with the plunging values in the housing sector.” Unfortunately, the pain in Elkhart is no joke, and it only grew worse recently when local manufacturers Keystone RV Co. and Jayco Inc. announced more than 500 additional job cuts.

Click here to read more of this dispatch.

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Tomgram: Pratap Chatterjee, Inheriting Halliburton’s Army

February 19, 2009

February 19, 2009
Tomgram: Pratap Chatterjee, Inheriting Halliburton’s Army

The name search took a year, while the company became persona non grata in Iraq, but now it’s a reality. The notorious Blackwater Worldwide has officially rebranded itself Xe. According to a company memo, “Xe will be a one-stop shopping source for world class services in the fields of security, stability, aviation, training and logistics.”

It’s pronounced “Zee,” by the way, and it’s also, oddly enough, the symbol for Xenon, a colorless, odorless noble gas found in trace amounts in the Earth’s atmosphere. If only Blackwater and its ilk in the hire-a-gun private security business were found, under whatever names, in mere trace amounts in American foreign and military policy. But no such luck.

In the last eight years, many of the tasks formerly associated with the U.S. military have been privatized and outsourced in a wholesale way — from guard duty for U.S. diplomats to peeling potatoes and delivering the mail, not to speak of building and maintaining the U.S. bases that now dot the Middle East and Afghanistan. Without its private crony corporations, the Pentagon might, in fact, be on something like life support.

Maybe, in the end, Blackwater, under pressure from the Iraqi government, can be separated from U.S. operations in Iraq, but — it’s a guarantee — some similarly outfitted private contractor will simply fill in. This is one of the more entrenched legacies Barack Obama has inherited from the Bush years. It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about those security firms or KBR, the former Halliburton subsidiary that does just about everything the U.S. military needs to survive but actually fight, separating them from the Pentagon would involve an almost inconceivable set of operations at this point.

No one has done more striking work on this question than the managing editor of the website Corpwatch, Pratap Chatterjee, who has traveled the world, visiting U.S. bases and spending time with KBR’s employees (who make up a hidden “U.S. Army” in Iraq and Afghanistan), just to see how the largest of these crony corporations actually functions. Now he’s written a remarkable new book, Halliburton’s Army: How A Well-Connected Texas Oil Company Revolutionized the Way America Makes War, on just how it all works, up close and personal.

If only his book were history. Unfortunately, it’s evidently going to be our military future, as well as our past, as long as the American “mission” in the world isn’t downsized. So don’t miss either Chatterjee’s book or his report on KBR below, including “Welcome to McArmy!,” a special feature on the food KBR serves at one base in Iraq. It follows the main piece below. While you’re at it, catch a TomDispatch audio interview in which Chatterjee discusses KBR World by clicking here. Tom

The Military’s Expanding Waistline
What Will Obama Do With KBR?
By Pratap Chatterjee

President Obama will almost certainly touch down in Baghdad and Kabul in Air Force One sometime in the coming year to meet his counterparts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he will just as certainly pay a visit to a U.S. military base or two. Should he stay for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or midnight chow with the troops, he will no less certainly choose from a menu prepared by migrant Asian workers under contract to Houston-based KBR, the former subsidiary of Halliburton.

Click here to read more of this dispatch.

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Tomgram: The Empire v. The Graveyard

February 5, 2009

February 5, 2009
Tomgram: The Empire v. The Graveyard

Whistling Past the Afghan Graveyard
Where Empires Go to Die
By Tom Engelhardt

It is now a commonplace — as a lead article in the New York Times’s Week in Review pointed out recently — that Afghanistan is “the graveyard of empires.” Given Barack Obama’s call for a greater focus on the Afghan War (“we took our eye off the ball when we invaded Iraq…”), and given indications that a “surge” of U.S. troops is about to get underway there, Afghanistan’s dangers have been much in the news lately. Some of the writing on this subject, including recent essays by Juan Cole at Salon.com, Robert Dreyfuss at the Nation, and John Robertson at the War in Context website, has been incisive on just how the new administration’s policy initiatives might transform Afghanistan and the increasingly unhinged Pakistani tribal borderlands into “Obama’s War.”

In other words, “the graveyard” has been getting its due. Far less attention has been paid to the “empire” part of the equation. And there’s a good reason for that — at least in Washington. Despite escalating worries about the deteriorating situation, no one in our nation’s capital is ready to believe that Afghanistan could actually be the “graveyard” for the American role as the dominant hegemon on this planet.

In truth, to give “empire” its due you would have to start with a reassessment of how the Cold War ended. In 1989, which now seems centuries ago, the Berlin Wall came down; in 1991, to the amazement of the U.S. intelligence community, influential pundits, inside-the-Beltway think-tankers, and Washington’s politicians, the Soviet Union, that “evil empire,” that colossus of repression, that mortal enemy through nearly half a century of threatened nuclear MADness — as in “mutually assured destruction” — simply evaporated, almost without violence. (Soviet troops, camped out in the relatively cushy outposts of Eastern Europe, especially the former East Germany, were in no more hurry to come home to the economic misery of a collapsed empire than U.S. troops stationed in Okinawa, Japan, are likely to be in the future.)

In Washington where, in 1991, everything was visibly still standing, a stunned silence and a certain unwillingness to believe that the enemy of almost half a century was no more would quickly be overtaken by a sense of triumphalism. A multigenerational struggle had ended with only one of its super-participants still on its feet.

The conclusion seemed too obvious to belabor. Right before our eyes, the USSR had miraculously disappeared into the dustbin of history with only a desperate, impoverished Russia, shorn of its “near abroad,” to replace it; ergo, we were the victors; we were, as everyone began to say with relish, the planet’s “sole superpower.” Huzzah!

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Tomgram: Waltz with Bashir, Part 1

January 26, 2009

January 24, 2009

As a 19-year-old Israeli soldier, Ari Folman took part in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon and was on duty in Beirut during the notorious massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. Just a week ago, Waltz with Bashir, the animated documentary film Folman directed in which he explores his own nightmarish, half-suppressed memories of that period, was given its first underground screening in Lebanon — not far, in fact, from Hezbollah headquarters in southern Beirut — though the film is officially banned in that country. It has also been screened in Palestinian Ramallah and is reportedly soon to be shown in the Arab Gulf states. It has already won six Israeli Academy Awards, best foreign film at the Golden Globes, and is now nominated for an Oscar as best foreign film.

Waltz With Bashir

At this moment, when the Israeli assault on Gaza has ended in catastrophic destruction and death, director Folman’s remarkable voyage — he calls it a “bad acid trip” — into the oblivion of war trauma and the horrific recent history of the Middle East is as stunning, moving, and unnerving an experience as anything you’ll see this year, or perhaps any year. A no less remarkable graphic memoir, Waltz with Bashir, was developed in tandem with the film. It will be in your bookstores in a couple of weeks, but can be ordered in advance by clicking here. Not surprisingly, the book and film have some of the impact that the first “graphic novel,” Art Spiegelman’s MAUS, had when it came out in 1986, and that assessment comes from the fellow — me, to be exact — who published MAUS back then.

The single best piece on Waltz with Bashir and its relevance to the recent invasion of Gaza was written by Gary Kamiya of Salon.com. He concludes: “Of course, Israel’s moral culpability for the 1982 massacre [in Sabra and Shatila] is not the same as its moral responsibility for the civilians killed in the current war. But there are painful similarities. Sooner or later the patriotic war fervor will fade, and Israelis will realize that their leaders sent them to kill hundreds of innocent people for nothing. And perhaps in 2036, some haunted filmmaker will release ‘Waltz With Hamas.'”

Given the power and timeliness of this thoughtful, dreamlike memoir from a living hell, it’s a particular honor for TomDispatch to be releasing two long excerpts, exclusively, over the next two Saturdays. Thanks go to Metropolitan Books, the book’s publisher, for allowing it to happen. I hope what follows stuns and intrigues you. Keep an eye out for part 2 next Saturday. Tom

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Tomgram: Tony Karon, Obama’s Gaza Opportunity

January 26, 2009

January 22, 2009

[Note for TomDispatch readers: Saturday is usually a dead zone for this site, but no longer. For the next two Saturdays, TomDispatch will be offering sizeable excerpts from a soon-to-be-published graphic memoir, Waltz with Bashir, created alongside the remarkable new Israeli animated movie of the same title about the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which has just received an Oscar nomination for best foreign film. Keep your eyes out for it. Tell your friends. It’s a must read.]

Yes, we now know the ever grimmer statistics: more than 1,400 dead Gazans (and rising as bodies are dug out of the rubble); 5,500 wounded; hundreds of children killed; 4,000 to 5,000 homes destroyed and 20,000 damaged — 14% of all buildings in Gaza; 50,000 or more homeless; 400,000 without water; 50 U.N. facilities, 21 medical facilities, 1,500 factories and workshops, and 20 mosques reportedly damaged or destroyed; the smashed schools and university structures; the obliterated government buildings; the estimated almost two billion dollars in damage; all taking place on a blockaded strip of land 25 miles long and 4 to 7.5 miles wide that is home to a staggering 1.4 million people.

On the other side in Israel, there are a number of damaged buildings and 13 dead, including three civilians and three soldiers killed in a friendly-fire incident. But amid this welter of horrific numbers, here was the one that caught my eye — and a quote went with it: Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi, chief of staff of the Israeli Army, told Parliament on January 12th, “We have achieved a lot in hitting Hamas and its infrastructure, its rule and its armed wing, but there is still work ahead.”

Work? The “work” already done evidently included a figure he cited: more than 2,300 air strikes launched by the Israelis with the offensive against Hamas still having days to go. Think about that: in a heavily populated, heavily urbanized, 25-mile-long strip of land, 2,300 air strikes, including an initial surprise attack “in which 88 aircraft simultaneously struck 100 preplanned targets within a record span of 220 seconds.” Many of these strikes were delivered by Israel’s 226 U.S.-supplied F-16s or its U.S.-made Apache helicopters.

In addition, the Israelis evidently repeatedly used a new U.S. smart bomb, capable of penetrating three feet of steel-reinforced concrete, the bunker-busting 250-pound class GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb. (The first group of up to 1,000 of these that the U.S. Congress authorized Israel to buy only arrived in early December.) In use as well, the one-ton Mk84 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) and a 500-pound version of the same. These are major weapons systems. Evidently dropped as well were “Dime (dense inert metal explosive) bombs designed to produce an intense explosion in a small space. The bombs,” reported Raymond Whitaker of the British Independent, “are packed with tungsten powder, which has the effect of shrapnel but often dissolves in human tissue, making it difficult to discover the cause of injuries.”

Keep in mind that Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups are essentially incapable of threatening Israeli planes and that the Israelis were using their airborne arsenal in heavily populated areas. Though the air war was only one part of a massively destructive assault on Gaza, as a form of warfare, barbaric as it is, it invariably gets a free pass. Yet, if you conduct an air war in cities, it matters little how “smart” your weaponry may be; it will, in effect, be a war against civilians.

Whatever the damage done to Hamas, what happened in Gaza was, simply put, a civilian slaughter. And yet, as Tony Karon, TomDispatch regular and TIME.com senior editor, who runs the Rootless Cosmopolitan blog, indicates below, the very scale of the Israeli assault on what was essentially a captive population wiped away many illusions, tore up the Middle East playbook, and potentially created the basis for a new Obama era approach to both Israelis and Palestinians. Whether that opportunity will be taken up is another matter entirely. Tom

Change Gaza Can Believe In
Tearing Up Washington’s Middle East Playbook
By Tony Karon

Lest President Barack Obama’s opportunistic silence when Israel began the Gaza offensive that killed more than 1,400 Palestinians (more than 400 of them children) be misinterpreted, his aides pointed reporters to comments made six months earlier in the Israeli town of Sderot. “If somebody was sending rockets into my house, where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that,” Obama had said in reference to the missiles Hamas was firing from Gaza. “I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.”

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Tomgram: Andy Kroll, Will Public Education Be Militarized?

January 19, 2009

January 18, 2009
Tomgram: Andy Kroll, Will Public Education Be Militarized?

In two days, we enter a new Bush and Cheney-less era, though we’ll be living with their nightmarish legacy forever and a day. In response to change, all of us have to adapt — TomDispatch included. This site certainly won’t lose its focus on the world out there, the ongoing militarization of our country, the way we continue to garrison the planet, or the new military and civilian team of custodians and bureaucrats of empire just now being put in place to manage our ongoing wars. This coming week and next, for instance, the site will turn to the nightmare in Gaza, well covered indeed by the political blogosphere, while considering what, in the new Obama era, the future may hold in the Middle East; but TomDispatch will also (as today) aim to expand its domestic focus, while keeping a steady eye upon the economic devastation now roiling our country and planet. (By the way, on some Saturdays, including the next one, I’ll be having a surprise or two for TD readers, so keep your eyes peeled.)

Just as the Bush administration is handing off a host of foreign policy debacles to Barack Obama (including seemingly endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), a woefully mismanaged economic bailout, and possibly a second Great Depression, so the outgoing president is leaving the new administration with a public education mess. There’s the much maligned and underfunded No Child Left Behind Act which is up for reauthorization this year. The cost of going to college is also rapidly spiraling out of control, as evidenced in a recent report in which every state except California received an “F” for college affordability. And at the same time, student loans are drying up as lenders, fearing economic disaster, scale back their programs.

With this in mind, the stakes are high for the incoming Secretary of Education and Obama pal Arne Duncan, who was received with striking warmth during his Senate confirmation hearings this week. As Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) put it, “Mr. Duncan, there is no question that schools across America can benefit from the same kind of fresh thinking that you brought to Chicago public schools. As you know very well, perhaps our greatest educational challenge is to improve the performance of urban and rural public schools serving high-poverty communities.”

Today, Andy Kroll skips the “applause” and the “warm reception.” Instead, he puts Duncan’s “fresh thinking” in Chicago under the microscope. The results may surprise. (To catch a TomDispatch audio interview with Kroll on the new Secretary of Education, click here.) Tom

The Duncan Doctrine
The Military-Corporate Legacy of the New Secretary of Education
By Andy Kroll

On December 16th, a friendship forged nearly two decades ago on the hardwood of the basketball court culminated in a press conference at the Dodge Renaissance Academy, an elementary school located on the west side of Chicago. In a glowing introduction to the media, President-elect Barack Obama named Arne Duncan, the chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools system (CPS), as his nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education. “When it comes to school reform,” the President-elect said, “Arne is the most hands-on of hands-on practitioners. For Arne, school reform isn’t just a theory in a book — it’s the cause of his life. And the results aren’t just about test scores or statistics, but about whether our children are developing the skills they need to compete with any worker in the world for any job.”

Though the announcement came amidst a deluge of other Obama nominations — he had unveiled key members of his energy and environment teams the day before and would add his picks for the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior the next day — Duncan’s selection was eagerly anticipated, and garnered mostly favorable reactions in education circles and in the media. He was described as the compromise candidate between powerful teachers’ unions and the advocates of charter schools and merit pay. He was also regularly hailed as a “reformer,” fearless when it came to challenging the educational status quo and more than willing to shake up hidebound, moribund public school systems.

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