The New Crusade: America's War on Terrorism
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Empire Notes

"We don't seek empires. We're not imperialistic. We never have been. I can't imagine why you'd even ask the question." Donald Rumsfeld, questioned by an al-Jazeera correspondent, April 29, 2003.

"No one can now doubt the word of America," George W. Bush, State of the Union, January 20, 2004.

A Blog by Rahul Mahajan

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August 18, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- A Blow for Democracy

A great blow has been struck for democracy.

No, it wasn’t John McCain posturing about the nonexistent U.S. defense of Georgia and Mikhail Saakashvili. Nor was this blow struck by the keyboard commandoes who infest the media, congratulating themselves on their courage in standing up to the Russian bear.

It happened halfway around the world and, as is so often the case, the United States and its chattering classes were on the wrong side of history.

The military dictator Pervez Musharraf, facing certain impeachment, resigned the last of his usurped offices, President of Pakistan.

Although he allowed a fair amount of freedom in the English-language media, the media in the local languages were tightly controlled. He ran rigged elections repeatedly and attempted to undercut the long-term basis for a return to electoral democracy by jerry-rigging his own political party, united by nothing more than subservience to power. He eviscerated the judiciary; things finally came to a head when the until-then-compliant Supreme Court refused to endorse his participation in America’s border-spanning snatch-and-grab-and-torture campaign, which is called the “war on terror” and remains bound by no law and few canons of decency. For inquiring into the fate of Pakistan’s “disappeared,” Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry was labeled a supporter of terrorism by Bush and Musharraf. As the confrontation escalated, Musharraf took repressive measures against lawyers and human rights advocates.

Musharraf played the role of an ally in the war on terror so well that he got over $10 billion in military aid from the United States since 9/11. Most of it was spent on advanced weapons systems of use only in a war against India – but the U.S. officials involved knew very well where it was going to go.

Musharraf helped foster the extreme Islamist parties as a counterweight to the established electoral system and materially supported the rise of the neo-Taliban, long after the United States scared him into terminating some support for the old Taliban leadership. While he was happy to let the United States take random innocent people and disappear them, key extremist militants were kept protected and operated with the cooperation of the state.

Ahmed Rashid, whose book Descent into Chaos is one of the few truly well-informed books about Afghanistan of recent years, considers that Musharraf simply pulled the wool over the Americans’ eyes, a view in which he is joined by Afghan president Hamid Karzai.

And yet, as the “war on terror” moved from failure to failure, bringing Islamist parties to power in the Northwest Frontier Province in 2002, turning Waziristan into a hotbed of Islamist rebellion, making Pakistan the target of a spate of suicide bombings that would be stunning in any country not occupied by American troops, the United States never ceased to trumpet Musharraf’s nonexistent secularism and respect for democracy, faulting him only for not acquiescing even more to the policies that were destroying Pakistan.

Democracy’s victory in Pakistan is only partial. As part of his agreement to step down, Musharraf got immunity for the crimes he has committed, a sorry compromise but one that was probably necessary in order to avert any more disasters. The Pakistani military is still the dominant power in the country; as Musharraf’s star fell, the United States prudently shifted its efforts to courting General Ashfaq Kayani, the current military Chief of Staff. The two political parties sharing official power right now have in general been hopelessly corrupt and unresponsive to the needs of the Pakistani people.

The question for the United States, as always, is whether it will bother to learn from any of the disasters it has created. The Russia-Georgia war seems to show clearly that we have learned little if anything from the destruction of Iraq. We have not even learned that the United States does not get to dictate everything that happens in the world. Our leaders would rather engage in impotent posturing that openly reveals both our hypocrisy and our lack of ability to control events in Georgia than do anything constructive.

In Pakistan and Afghanistan, we have clearly not learned another lesson of Iraq; smashing things is not always the best way to deal with a problem. With Musharraf out, U.S. pressure on Pakistan to mount more invasions of its tribal areas will continue, as will high-intensity raiding in southern Afghanistan. Expect things there to get worse before they, eventually, get better and we hail the foresight of the warmongers as some are doing over Iraq right now.

Posted at 10:25 am.

August 11, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- Don't Poke the Bear

Apologies for the two missed weeks. I've had health issues. It really is a weekly commentary.

Well, Georgia has, unfortunately rather explicably, rashly broken one of the oldest and simplest rules of foreign policy for those unfortunate enough to inhabit the vast stretch from eastern Europe to Korea: Don’t poke the bear.

It is nearly impossible to tell what is going on from the English-language media; with very few correspondents on the ground, most of what is being reported is statements from two governments not notably less mendacious during wartime than say the United States. The Russians claim that the Georgians have killed over 2000, mostly civilians, during the destruction of Tskhinvali, capital of South Ossetia. The Russians have killed some number of civilians as well, although seemingly a much smaller number.

The Georgians have shown some ability to fight back and have downed a few Russian planes, but of course there is no question about who will be the victor. About the only way the Russians could lose is if they decide to occupy Georgia, install their own government, make grandiose claims about how they can refashion Georgia’s political structure and cultural beliefs and make themselves vulnerable to insurgent tactics. Indeed, Georgian officials have already threatened guerrilla warfare.

There are reports that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Condoleezza Rice that Mikhail Saakashvili must go, which doesn’t speak well for the Russians’ ability to learn from the U.S. experience in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Given the principled opposition of the United States to any such hubristic attempts to redraw the map, as long as they're done by somebody else, it is only natural that George Bush and Dick Cheney have met these developments with the kind of hectoring denunciations that the Russians have grown to expect from Americans. And it’s not just them; Richard Holbrooke, the poster child for “sensible bipartisanship,” had an op-ed in the Post calling for further escalations in rhetorical aggression toward Russia. None of them seem to understand how ridiculous their sweeping statements ring in the light of American actions.

In order to understand this conflict and in particular Georgia’s senseless behavior, the actual intricacies of the dispute over South Ossetia are not that relevant, beyond the fact that Russia sees Georgia’s attempt to reassert control over South Ossetia as an infringement of Russia’s border.

The deeper and more compelling story has everything to do with external intervention. As Saakashvili said on a televised speech, this conflict really isn’t about Georgia; it’s about “American values.”

In particular, it’s about the American-sponsored Rose Revolution, which put the relentlessly pro-American Saakashvili in power. It’s about the push to include Georgia in NATO, making the already paranoid Russians feel completely encircled. It’s about America’s training and equipping of the Georgian army; indeed, it has essentially been created by the United States.

Somehow, in the mix of all those actions and American moral posturing about Russia, Saakashvili got the idea that the United States would aid his adventurism. He may even have gotten what he thought were assurances. U.S. intervention in order to short-circuit the Russian reaction was undoubtedly the key strategic element of his plan, such as it was.

Of course, had he bothered to consult either America’s history of abandonment of its allies or its postwar history of dealing with the Russians, he would have understood that there is no chance whatsoever of direct U.S. military intervention – beyond penny-ante acts like airlifting Georgian troops out of Iraq. The cynical champions of democracy in Washington and Europe’s capitals listened to Saakashvili’s invocation of the threat that, if the Russians could attack Georgia, “tomorrow Russian tanks might reach any European capital,” and were unmoved.

Russia is not the United States, which manages to “have interests” around the globe, which has more of an “interest” in Iraq than Iran does and more of an “interest” in Venezuela than Brazil does; Russia is concerned with its borders, with the treatment of ethnic Russians in former Soviet republics, and with being treated as a power rather than as a weak supplicant in the international arena. It’s not going to invade Berlin, but it’s not going to back down on this dispute.

Georgians are already, rightly, starting to blame the United States for egging on their government and then hanging it out to dry. This won’t be the first time a Russian invasion has provoked anti-Americanism.

I hold no brief for the Russians; indeed, I find their government rather scary. Even so, Russia is a power and the only way to get it to cease hostilities is to treat it as such. Synthetic hypocritical indignation only works with like-minded countries or with those that you can push around.

Posted at 10:36 am.
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