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12/3/2015

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.

The U.S. is transfixed by its multibillion-dollar electoral circus. The European Union is paralyzed by austerity, fear of refugees, and now all-out jihad in the streets of Paris. So the West might be excused if it’s barely caught the echoes of a Chinese version of Roy Orbison’s “All I Have to Do Is Dream.” And that new Chinese dream even comes with a road map.

The crooner is President Xi Jinping and that road map is the ambitious, recently unveiled 13th Five-Year-Plan, or in the pop-video version, the Shisanwu. After years of explosive economic expansion, it sanctifies the country’s lower “new normal” gross domestic product growth rate of 6.5% a year through at least 2020.

It also sanctifies an updated economic formula for the country: out with a model based on low-wage manufacturing of export goods and in with the shock of the new, namely, a Chinese version of the third industrial revolution. And while China’s leadership is focused on creating a middle-class future powered by a consumer economy, its president is telling whoever is willing to listen that, despite the fears of the Obama administration and of some of the country’s neighbors, there’s no reason for war ever to be on the agenda for the U.S. and China.

Given the alarm in Washington about what is touted as a Beijing quietly pursuing expansionism in the South China Sea, Xi has been remarkably blunt on the subject of late. Neither Beijing nor Washington, he insists, should be caught in the Thucydides trap, the belief that a rising power and the ruling imperial power of the planet are condemned to go to war with each other sooner or later.

It was only two months ago in Seattle that Xi told a group of digital economy heavyweights, “There is no such thing as the so-called Thucydides trap in the world. But should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might create such traps for themselves.”

A case can be made — and Xi’s ready to make it — that Washington, which, from Afghanistan to Iraq, Libya to Syria, has gained something of a reputation for “strategic miscalculation” in the twenty-first century, might be doing it again.  After all, U.S. military strategy documents and top Pentagon figures have quite publicly started to label China (like Russia) as an official “threat.”

To grasp why Washington is starting to think of China that way, however, you need to take your eyes off the South China Sea for a moment, turn off Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and the rest of the posse, and consider the real game-changer — or “threat” — that’s rattling Beltway nerves in Washington when it comes to the new Great Game in Eurasia.

Xi’s Bedside Reading

Swarms of Chinese tourists iPhoning away and buying everything in sight in major Western capitals already prefigure a Eurasian future closely tied to and anchored by a Chinese economy turbo-charging toward that third industrial revolution. If all goes according to plan, it will harness everything from total connectivity and efficient high-tech infrastructure to the expansion of green, clean energy hubs. Solar plants in the Gobi desert, anyone?

Yes, Xi is a reader of economic and social theorist Jeremy Rifkin, who first conceived of a possible third industrial revolution powered by both the Internet and renewable energy sources.

Solar plant

The possibility of a high-tech third industrial revolution drives China's push for greater infrastructure in the near future.

It turns out that the Chinese leadership has no problem with the idea of harnessing cutting-edge Western soft power for its own purposes. In fact, they seem convinced that no possible tool should be overlooked when it comes to moving the country on to the next stage in the process that China’s Little Helmsman, former leader Deng Xiaoping, decades ago designated as the era in which “to get rich is glorious."

It helps when you have $4 trillion in foreign currency reserves and massive surpluses of steel and cement.  That’s the sort of thing that allows you to go “nation-building” on a pan-Eurasian scale. Hence, Xi’s idea of creating the kind of infrastructure that could, in the end, connect China to Central Asia, the Middle East, and Western Europe.  It’s what the Chinese call “One Belt, One Road”; that is, the junction of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Twenty-First Century Maritime Silk Road.

Since Xi announced his One Belt, One Road policy in Kazakhstan in 2013, PricewaterhouseCoopers in Hong Kong estimates that the state has ploughed more than $250 billion into Silk Road-oriented projects ranging from railways to power plants. Meanwhile, every significant Chinese business player is on board, from telecom equipment giant Huawei to e-commerce monster Alibaba (fresh from its Singles Day online blockbuster). The Bank of China has already provided a $50 billion credit line for myriad Silk Road-related projects. China’s top cement-maker Anhui Conch is building at least six monster cement plants in Indonesia, Vietnam, and Laos. Work aimed at tying the Asian part of Eurasia together is proceeding at a striking pace.  For instance, the China-Laos, China-Thailand, and Jakarta-Bandung railways — contracts worth over $20 billion — are to be completed by Chinese companies before 2020.

With business booming, right now the third industrial revolution in China looks ever more like a mad scramble toward a new form of modernity.

A Eurasian “War on Terror”

The One Belt, One Road plan for Eurasia reaches far beyond the Rudyard Kipling-coined nineteenth century phrase “the Great Game,” which in its day was meant to describe the British-Russian tournament of shadows for the control of Central Asia. At the heart of the twenty-first century’s Great Game lies China’s currency, the yuan, which may, by November 30th, join the International Monetary Fund’s Special Drawing Rights reserve-currency basket. If so, this will in practice mean the total integration of the yuan, and so of Beijing, into global financial markets, as an extra basket of countries will add it to their foreign exchange holdings and subsequent currency shifts may amount to the equivalent of trillions of U.S. dollars.

Couple the One Belt, One Road project with the recently founded, China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and Beijing’s Silk Road Infrastructure Fund ($40 billion committed to it so far).  Mix in an internationalized yuan and you have the groundwork for Chinese companies to turbo-charge their way into a pan-Eurasian (and even African) building spree of roads, high-speed rail lines, fiber-optic networks, ports, pipelines, and power grids.

According to the Washington-dominated Asian Development Bank (ADB), there is, at present, a monstrous gap of $800 billion in the funding of Asian infrastructure development to 2020 and it’s yearning to be filled. Beijing is now stepping right into what promises to be a paradigm-breaking binge of economic development.

And don’t forget about the bonuses that could conceivably follow such developments. After all, in China’s stunningly ambitious plans at least, its Eurasian project will end up covering no less than 65 countries on three continents, potentially affecting 4.4 billion people.  If it succeeds even in part, it could take the gloss off al-Qaeda- and ISIS-style Wahhabi-influenced jihadism not only in China’s Xinjiang Province, but also in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. Imagine it as a new kind of Eurasian war on terror whose “weapons” would be trade and development. After all, Beijing’s planners expect the country’s annual trade volume with belt-and-road partners to surpass $2.5 trillion by 2025.

Oil barrels

As China decreases its reliance on ocean shipping lanes for oil and natural gas, the U.S. has less influence on energy sources within the country.

At the same time, another kind of binding geography — what I’ve long called Pipelineistan, the vast network of energy pipelines crisscrossing the region, bringing its oil and natural gas supplies to China — is coming into being.  It’s already spreading across Pakistan and Myanmar, and China is planning to double down on this attempt to reinforce its escape-from-the-Straits-of-Malacca strategy. (That bottleneck is still a transit point for 75% of Chinese oil imports.) Beijing prefers a world in which most of those energy imports are not water-borne and so at the mercy of the U.S. Navy. More than 50% of China’s natural gas already comes overland from two Central Asian "stans" (Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan) and that percentage will only increase once pipelines to bring Siberian natural gas to China come online before the end of the decade.

Of course, the concept behind all this, which might be sloganized as “to go west (and south) is glorious” could induce a tectonic shift in Eurasian relations at every level, but that depends on how it comes to be viewed by the nations involved and by Washington.

Leaving economics aside for a moment, the success of the whole enterprise will require superhuman PR skills from Beijing, something not always in evidence. And there are many other problems to face (or duck): these include Beijing’s Han superiority complex, not always exactly a hit among either minority ethnic groups or neighboring states, as well as an economic push that is often seen by China’s ethnic minorities as benefiting only the Han Chinese. Mix in a rising tide of nationalist feeling, the expansion of the Chinese military (including its navy), conflict in its southern seas, and a growing security obsession in Beijing. Add to that a foreign policy minefield, which will work against maintaining a carefully calibrated respect for the sovereignty of neighbors. Throw in the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia and its urge both to form anti-Chinese alliances of “containment” and to beef up its own naval and air power in waters close to China.  And finally don’t forget red tape and bureaucracy, a Central Asian staple. All of this adds up to a formidable package of obstacles to Xi’s Chinese dream and a new Eurasia.

All Aboard the Night Train

The Silk Road revival started out as a modest idea floated in China’s Ministry of Commerce. The initial goal was nothing more than getting extra “contracts for Chinese construction companies overseas.” How far the country has traveled since then.  Starting from zero in 2003, China has ended up building no less than 16,000 kilometers of high-speed rail tracks in these years — more than the rest of the planet combined.

And that’s just the beginning. Beijing is now negotiating with 30 countries to build another 5,000 kilometers of high-speed rail at a total investment of $157 billion. Cost is, of course, king; a made-in-China high-speed network (top speed: 350 kilometers an hour) costs around $17 million to $21 million per kilometer. Comparable European costs: $25 million to $39 million per kilometer. So no wonder the Chinese are bidding for an $18 billion project linking London with northern England, and another linking Los Angeles to Las Vegas, while outbidding German companies to lay tracks in Russia.

On another front, even though it’s not directly part of China’s new Silk Road planning, don’t forget about the Iran-India-Afghanistan Agreement on Transit and International Transportation Cooperation. This India-Iran project to develop roads, railways, and ports is particularly focused on the Iranian port of Chabahar, which is to be linked by new roads and railways to the Afghan capital Kabul and then to parts of Central Asia.

Why Chabahar? Because this is India’s preferred transit corridor to Central Asia and Russia, as the Khyber Pass in the Afghan-Pakistani borderlands, the country’s traditional linking point for this, remains too volatile. Built by Iran, the transit corridor from Chabahar to Milak on the Iran-Afghanistan border is now ready. By rail, Chabahar will then be connected to the Uzbek border at Termez, which translates into Indian products reaching Central Asia and Russia.

Think of this as the Southern Silk Road, linking South Asia with Central Asia, and in the end, if all goes according to plan, West Asia with China. It is part of a wildly ambitious plan for a North-South Transport Corridor, an India-Iran-Russia joint project launched in 2002 and focused on the development of inter-Asian trade. 

Of course, you won’t be surprised to know that, even here, China is deeply involved. Chinese companies have already built a high-speed rail line from the Iranian capital Tehran to Mashhad, near the Afghan border. China also financed a metro rail line from Imam Khomeini Airport to downtown Tehran. And it wants to use Chabahar as part of the so-called Iron Silk Road that is someday slated to cross Iran and extend all the way to Turkey. To top it off, China is already investing in the upgrading of Turkish ports.

Who Lost Eurasia?

For Chinese leaders, the One Belt, One Road plan — an “economic partnership map with multiple rings interconnected with one another” — is seen as an escape route from the Washington Consensus and the dollar-centered global financial system that goes with it. And while “guns” are being drawn, the “battlefield” of the future, as the Chinese see it, is essentially a global economic one.

On one side are the mega-economic pacts being touted by Washington — the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership — that would split Eurasia in two. On the other, there is the urge for a new pan-Eurasian integration program that would be focused on China, and feature Russia, Kazakhstan, Iran, and India as major players. Last May, Russia and China closed a deal to coordinate the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) with new Silk Road projects. As part of their developing strategic partnership, Russia is already China’s number one oil supplier.

With Ukraine’s fate still in the balance, there is, at present, little room for the sort of serious business dialogue between the European Union (EU) and the EEU that might someday fuse Europe and Russia into the Chinese vision of full-scale, continent-wide Eurasian integration. And yet German business types, in particular, remain focused on and fascinated by the limitless possibilities of the New Silk Road concept and the way it might profitably link the continent.

Bullet train

Light rail contracts for Chinese contractors are linking vast portions of Eurasia.

If you’re looking for a future first sign of détente on this score, keep an eye on any EU moves to engage economically with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.  Its membership at present: China, Russia, and four "stans" (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan). India and Pakistan are to become members in 2016, and Iran once U.N. sanctions are completely lifted. A monster second step (no time soon) would be for this dialogue to become the springboard for the building of a trans-European “one-belt” zone.  That could only happen after there was a genuine settlement in Ukraine and EU sanctions on Russia had been lifted. Think of it as the long and winding road towards what Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to sell the Germans in 2010: a Eurasian free-trade zone extending from Vladivostok to Lisbon.

Any such moves will, of course, only happen over Washington’s dead body.  At the moment, inside the Beltway, sentiment ranges from gloating over the economic “death” of the BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), most of which are facing daunting economic dislocations even as their political, diplomatic, and strategic integration proceeds apace, to fear or even downright anticipation of World War III and the Russian “threat.”

No one in Washington wants to “lose” Eurasia to China and its new Silk Roads. On what former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski calls “the grand chessboard,” Beltway elites and the punditocracy that follows them will never resign themselves to seeing the U.S. relegated to the role of “offshore balancer,” while China dominates an integrating Eurasia.  Hence, those two trade pacts and that “pivot,” the heightened U.S. naval presence in Asian waters, the new urge to “contain” China, and the demonization of both Putin’s Russia and the Chinese military threat.

Thucydides, Eat Your Heart Out

Which brings us full circle to Xi’s crush on Jeremy Rifkin. Make no mistake about it: whatever Washington may want, China is indeed the rising power in Eurasia and a larger-than-life economic magnet. From London to Berlin, there are signs in the EU that, despite so many decades of trans-Atlantic allegiance, there is also something too attractive to ignore about what China has to offer. There is already a push towards the configuration of a European-wide digital economy closely linked with China. The aim would be a Rifkin-esque digitally integrated economic space spanning Eurasia, which in turn would be an essential building block for that post-carbon third industrial revolution.

The G-20 this year was in Antalya, Turkey, and it was a fractious affair dominated by Islamic State jihadism in the streets of Paris. The G-20 in 2016 will be in Hangzhou, China, which also happens to be the hometown of Jack Ma and the headquarters for Alibaba. You can’t get more third industrial revolution than that. 

One year is an eternity in geopolitics. But what if, in 2016, Hangzhou did indeed offer a vision of the future, of silk roads galore and night trains from Central Asia to Duisburg, Germany, a future arguably dominated by Xi’s vision.  He is, at least, keen on enshrining the G-20 as a multipolar global mechanism for coordinating a common development framework. Within it, Washington and Beijing might sometimes actually work together in a world in which chess, not Battleship, would be the game of the century.

Thucydides, eat your heart out.

Pepe Escobar is an independent political analyst who writes for RT and Sputnik, and is a TomDispatch regular. His latest book is Empire of Chaos. His next book, 2030, is out this month. Follow him on Facebook.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2015 Pepe Escobar

Top photo by Fotolia/idrive

Middle photo by Fotolia/John Borda

Bottom photo by Fotolia/photoclicks



10/28/2015

Afghan soldiers

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.

First came Fallujah, then Mosul, and later Ramadi in Iraq. Now, there is Kunduz, a provincial capital in northern Afghanistan. In all four places, the same story has played out: in cities that newspaper reporters like to call “strategically important,” security forces trained and equipped by the U.S. military at great expense simply folded, abandoning their posts (and much of their U.S.-supplied weaponry) without even mounting serious resistance. Called upon to fight, they fled. In each case, the defending forces gave way before substantially outnumbered attackers, making the outcomes all the more ignominious.

Together, these setbacks have rendered a verdict on the now more-or-less nameless Global War on Terrorism (GWOT). Successive blitzkriegs by ISIS and the Taliban respectively did more than simply breach Iraqi and Afghan defenses. They also punched gaping holes in the strategy to which the United States had reverted in hopes of stemming the further erosion of its position in the Greater Middle East.

Recall that, when the United States launched its GWOT soon after 9/11, it did so pursuant to a grandiose agenda. U.S. forces were going to imprint onto others a specific and exalted set of values. During President George W. Bush’s first term, this “freedom agenda” formed the foundation, or at least the rationale, for U.S. policy.

The shooting would stop, Bush vowed, only when countries like Afghanistan had ceased to harbor anti-American terrorists and countries like Iraq had ceased to encourage them. Achieving this goal meant that the inhabitants of those countries would have to change. Afghans and Iraqis, followed in due course by Syrians, Libyans, Iranians, and sundry others would embrace democracy, respect human rights, and abide by the rule of law, or else. Through the concerted application of American power, they would become different — more like us and therefore more inclined to get along with us. A bit less Mecca and Medina, a bit more “we hold these truths” and “of the people, by the people.”

So Bush and others in his inner circle professed to believe. At least some of them, probably including Bush himself, may actually have done so.

History, at least the bits and pieces to which Americans attend, seemed to endow such expectations with a modicum of plausibility. Had not such a transfer of values occurred after World War II when the defeated Axis Powers had hastily thrown in with the winning side? Had it not recurred as the Cold War was winding down, when previously committed communists succumbed to the allure of consumer goods and quarterly profit statements?

If the appropriate mix of coaching and coercion were administered, Afghans and Iraqis, too, would surely take the path once followed by good Germans and nimble Japanese, and subsequently by Czechs tired of repression and Chinese tired of want. Once liberated, grateful Afghans and Iraqis would align themselves with a conception of modernity that the United States had pioneered and now exemplified. For this transformation to occur, however, the accumulated debris of retrograde social conventions and political arrangements that had long retarded progress would have to be cleared away. This was what the invasions of Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom!) and Iraq (Operation Iraqi Freedom!) were meant to accomplish in one fell swoop by a military the likes of which had (to hear Washington tell it) never been seen in history. POW!

Standing Them Up As We Stand Down

Concealed within that oft-cited “freedom” — the all-purpose justification for deploying American power — were several shades of meaning. The term, in fact, requires decoding. Yet within the upper reaches of the American national security apparatus, one definition takes precedence over all others. In Washington, freedom has become a euphemism for dominion. Spreading freedom means positioning the United States to call the shots. Seen in this context, Washington’s expected victories in both Afghanistan and Iraq were meant to affirm and broaden its preeminence by incorporating large parts of the Islamic world into the American imperium. They would benefit, of course, but to an even greater extent, so would we.

Alas, liberating Afghans and Iraqis turned out to be a tad more complicated than the architects of Bush’s freedom (or dominion) agenda anticipated. Well before Barack Obama succeeded Bush in January 2009, few observers — apart from a handful of ideologues and militarists — clung to the fairy tale of U.S. military might whipping the Greater Middle East into shape. Brutally but efficiently, war had educated the educable. As for the uneducable, they persisted in taking their cues from Fox News and the Weekly Standard.

Soldiers

Yet if the strategy of transformation via invasion and “nation building” had failed, there was a fallback position that seemed to be dictated by the logic of events. Together, Bush and Obama would lower expectations as to what the United States was going to achieve, even as they imposed new demands on the U.S. military, America’s go-to outfit in foreign policy, to get on with the job.

Rather than midwifing fundamental political and cultural change, the Pentagon was instead ordered to ramp up its already gargantuan efforts to create local militaries (and police forces) capable of maintaining order and national unity. President Bush provided a concise formulation of the new strategy: “As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.” Under Obama, after his own stab at a “surge,” the dictum applied to Afghanistan as well. Nation-building had flopped. Building armies and police forces able to keep a lid on things now became the prevailing definition of success.

The United States had, of course, attempted this approach once before, with unhappy results. This was in Vietnam. There, efforts to destroy North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces intent on unifying their divided country had exhausted both the U.S. military and the patience of the American people. Responding to the logic of events, Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon had a tacitly agreed upon fallback position. As the prospects of American forces successfully eliminating threats to South Vietnamese security faded, the training and equipping of the South Vietnamese to defend themselves became priority number one.

Dubbed “Vietnamization,” this enterprise ended in abject failure with the fall of Saigon in 1975. Yet that failure raised important questions to which members of the national security elite might have attended: Given a weak state with dubious legitimacy, how feasible is it to expect outsiders to invest indigenous forces with genuine fighting power? How do differences in culture or history or religion affect the prospects for doing so? Can skill ever make up for a deficit of will? Can hardware replace cohesion? Above all, if tasked with giving some version of Vietnamization another go, what did U.S. forces need to do differently to ensure a different result?

At the time, with general officers and civilian officials more inclined to forget Vietnam than contemplate its implications, these questions attracted little attention. Instead, military professionals devoted themselves to gearing up for the next fight, which they resolved would be different. No more Vietnams — and therefore no more Vietnamization.

After the Gulf War of 1991, basking in the ostensible success of Operation Desert Storm, the officer corps persuaded itself that it had once and for all banished its Vietnam-induced bad memories. As Commander-in-Chief George H.W. Bush so memorably put it, “By God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.”

In short, the Pentagon now had war figured out. Victory had become a foregone conclusion. As it happened, this self-congratulatory evaluation left U.S. troops ill-prepared for the difficulties awaiting them after 9/11 when interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq departed from the expected script, which posited short wars by a force beyond compare ending in decisive victories. What the troops got were two very long wars with no decision whatsoever. It was Vietnam on a smaller scale all over again — times two.

Vietnamization 2.0

For Bush in Iraq and Obama after a brief, half-hearted flirtation with counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, opting for a variant of Vietnamization proved to be a no-brainer. Doing so offered the prospect of an escape from all complexities. True enough, Plan A — we export freedom and democracy — had fallen short. But Plan B — they (with our help) restore some semblance of stability — could enable Washington to salvage at least partial success in both places. With the bar suitably lowered, a version of “Mission Accomplished” might still be within reach.

If Plan A had looked to U.S. troops to vanquish their adversaries outright, Plan B focused on prepping besieged allies to take over the fight. Winning outright was no longer the aim — given the inability of U.S. forces to do so, this was self-evidently not in the cards — but holding the enemy at bay was.

Although allied with the United States, only in the loosest sense did either Iraq or Afghanistan qualify as a nation-state. Only nominally and intermittently did governments in Baghdad and Kabul exercise a writ of authority commanding respect from the people known as Iraqis and Afghans. Yet in the Washington of George Bush and Barack Obama, a willing suspension of disbelief became the basis for policy. In distant lands where the concept of nationhood barely existed, the Pentagon set out to create a full-fledged national security apparatus capable of defending that aspiration as if it represented reality. From day one, this was a faith-based undertaking.

As with any Pentagon project undertaken on a crash basis, this one consumed resources on a gargantuan scale — $25 billion in Iraq and an even more staggering $65 billion in Afghanistan. “Standing up” the requisite forces involved the transfer of vast quantities of equipment and the creation of elaborate U.S. training missions. Iraqi and Afghan forces acquired all the paraphernalia of modern war — attack aircraft or helicopters, artillery and armored vehicles, night vision devices and drones. Needless to say, stateside defense contractors lined up in droves to cash in.

Based on their performance, the security forces on which the Pentagon has lavished years of attention remain visibly not up to the job. Meanwhile, ISIS warriors, without the benefit of expensive third-party mentoring, appear plenty willing to fight and die for their cause. Ditto Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. The beneficiaries of U.S. assistance? Not so much. Based on partial but considerable returns, Vietnamization 2.0 seems to be following an eerily familiar trajectory that should remind anyone of Vietnamization 1.0. Meanwhile, the questions that ought to have been addressed back when our South Vietnamese ally went down to defeat have returned with a vengeance.

Conference

The most important of those questions challenges the assumption that has informed U.S. policy in the Greater Middle East since the freedom agenda went south: that Washington has a particular knack for organizing, training, equipping, and motivating foreign armies. Based on the evidence piling up before our eyes, that assumption appears largely false. On this score, retired Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, a former military commander and U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan, has rendered an authoritative judgment. “Our track record at building [foreign] security forces over the past 15 years is miserable,” he recently told the New York Times. Just so.

Fighting the Wrong War

Some might argue that trying harder, investing more billions, sending yet more equipment for perhaps another 15 years will produce more favorable results. But this is akin to believing that, given sufficient time, the fruits of capitalism will ultimately trickle down to benefit the least among us or that the march of technology holds the key to maximizing human happiness. You can believe it if you want, but it’s a mug’s game.

Indeed, the United States would be better served if policymakers abandoned the pretense that the Pentagon possesses any gift whatsoever for “standing up” foreign military forces. Prudence might actually counsel that Washington assume instead, when it comes to organizing, training, equipping, and motivating foreign armies, that the United States is essentially clueless.

Exceptions may exist. For example, U.S. efforts have probably helped boost the fighting power of the Kurdish peshmerga. Yet such exceptions are rare enough to prove the rule. Keep in mind that before American trainers and equipment ever showed up, Iraq’s Kurds already possessed the essential attributes of nationhood. Unlike Afghans and Iraqis, Kurds do not require tutoring in the imperative of collective self-defense.

What are the policy implications of giving up the illusion that the Pentagon knows how to build foreign armies? The largest is this: subletting war no longer figures as a plausible alternative to waging it directly. So where U.S. interests require that fighting be done, like it or not, we’re going to have to do that fighting ourselves. By extension, in circumstances where U.S. forces are demonstrably incapable of winning or where Americans balk at any further expenditure of American blood — today in the Greater Middle East both of these conditions apply — then perhaps we shouldn’t be there. To pretend otherwise is to throw good money after bad or, as a famous American general once put it, to wage (even if indirectly) “the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy." This we have been doing now for several decades across much of the Islamic world.

In American politics, we await the officeholder or candidate willing to state the obvious and confront its implications.


Andrew J. Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University. He is the author of Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country, among other works. His new book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East (Random House), is due out in April 2016.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2015 Andrew Bacevich

Top photo by Fotolia/dougg

Middle photo by Fotolia/dougg

Bottom photo by Fotolia/aerogondo



6/3/2015

Sea ice

As sea ice in the Arctic vanishes, the Navy looks to begin naval training including live bombing runs and the use of active sonar in the middle of the most pristine, economically valuable and sustainable salmon fishery in the country.

Reprinted with permission by TomDispatch [This essay is a joint TomDispatch/Truthout report.]

I lived in Anchorage for 10 years and spent much of that time climbing in and on the spine of the state, the Alaska Range. Three times I stood atop the mountain the Athabaskans call Denali, "the great one." During that decade, I mountaineered for more than half a year on that magnificent state’s highest peaks. It was there that I took in my own insignificance while living amid rock and ice, sleeping atop glaciers that creaked and moaned as they slowly ground their way toward lower elevations.

Alaska contains the largest coastal mountain range in the world and the highest peak in North America. It has more coastline than the entire contiguous 48 states combined and is big enough to hold the state of Texas two and a half times over. It has the largest population of bald eagles in the country. It has 430 kinds of birds along with the brown bear, the largest carnivorous land mammal in the world, and other species ranging from the pygmy shrew that weighs less than a penny to gray whales that come in at 45 tons. Species that are classified as "endangered" in other places are often found in abundance in Alaska.

Now, a dozen years after I left my home state and landed in Baghdad to begin life as a journalist and nine years after definitively abandoning Alaska, I find myself back. I wish it was to climb another mountain, but this time, unfortunately, it’s because I seem increasingly incapable of escaping the long and destructive reach of the U.S. military.

That summer in 2003 when my life in Alaska ended was an unnerving one for me. It followed a winter and spring in which I found myself protesting the coming invasion of Iraq in the streets of Anchorage, then impotently watching the televised spectacle of the Bush administration’s "shock and awe" assault on that country as Baghdad burned and Iraqis were slaughtered. While on Denali that summer I listened to news of the beginnings of what would be an occupation from hell and, in my tent on a glacier at 17,000 feet, wondered what in the world I could do.

In this way, in a cloud of angst, I traveled to Iraq as an independent news team of one and found myself reporting on atrocities that were evident to anyone not embedded with the U.S. military, which was then laying waste to the country. My early reporting, some of it for TomDispatch, warned of body counts on a trajectory toward one million, rampant torture in the military’s detention facilities, and the toxic legacy it had left in the city of Fallujah thanks to the use of depleted uranium munitions and white phosphorous.

As I learned, the U.S. military is an industrial-scale killing machine and also the single largest consumer of fossil fuels on the planet, which makes it a major source of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. As it happens, distant lands like Iraq sitting atop vast reservoirs of oil and natural gas are by no means its only playing fields.

Take the place where I now live, the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. The U.S. Navy already has plans to conduct electromagnetic warfare training in an area close to where I moved to once again seek solace in the mountains: Olympic National Forest and nearby Olympic National Park. And this June, it's scheduling massive war games in the Gulf of Alaska, including live bombing runs that will mean the detonation of tens of thousands of pounds of toxic munitions, as well as the use of active sonar in the most pristine, economically valuable, and sustainable salmon fishery in the country (arguably in the world). And all of this is to happen right in the middle of fishing season.

This time, in other words, the bombs will be falling far closer to home. Whether it's war-torn Iraq or "peaceful" Alaska, Sunnis and Shi'ites or salmon and whales, to me the omnipresent “footprint” of the U.S. military feels inescapable.

The War Comes Home

In 2013, U.S. Navy researchers predicted ice-free summer Arctic waters by 2016 and it looks as if that prediction might come true. Recently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that there was less ice in the Arctic this winter than in any other winter of the satellite era. Given that the Navy has been making plans for "ice-free" operations in the Arctic since at least 2001, their June "Northern Edge" exercises may well prove to be just the opening salvo in the future northern climate wars, with whales, seals, and salmon being the first in the line of fire.

In April 2001, a Navy symposium entitled "Naval Operations in an Ice-Free Arctic" was mounted to begin to prepare the service for a climate-change-induced future. Fast forward to June 2015. In what the military refers to as Alaska's "premier" joint training exercise, Alaskan Command aims to conduct “Northern Edge” over 8,429 nautical miles, which include critical habitat for all five wild Alaskan salmon species and 377 other species of marine life. The upcoming war games in the Gulf of Alaska will not be the first such exercises in the region — they have been conducted, on and off, for the last 30 years — but they will be the largest by far. In fact, a 360 percent rise in munitions use is expected, according to Emily Stolarcyk, the program manager for the Eyak Preservation Council (EPC).

The waters in the Gulf of Alaska are some of the most pristine in the world, rivaled only by those in the Antarctic, and among the purest and most nutrient-rich waters anywhere. Northern Edge will take place in an Alaskan “marine protected area,” as well as in a NOAA-designated “fisheries protected area.” These war games will also coincide with the key breeding and migratory periods of the marine life in the region as they make their way toward Prince William Sound, as well as further north into the Arctic.

Species affected will include blue, fin, gray, humpback, minke, sei, sperm, and killer whales, the highly endangered North Pacific right whale (of which there are only approximately 30 left), as well as dolphins and sea lions. No fewer than a dozen native tribes including the Eskimo, Eyak, Athabascan, Tlingit, Sun'aq, and Aleut rely on the area for subsistence living, not to speak of their cultural and spiritual identities.

The Navy is already permitted to use live ordnance including bombs, missiles, and torpedoes, along with active and passive sonar in "realistic" war gaming that is expected to involve the release of as much as 352,000 pounds of "expended materials" every year. (The Navy’s EIS lists numerous things as “expended materials,” including missiles, bombs, torpedoes.) At present, the Navy is well into the process of securing the necessary permits for the next five years and has even mentioned making plans for the next 20. Large numbers of warships and submarines are slated to move into the area and the potential pollution from this has worried Alaskans who live nearby.

"We are concerned about expended materials in addition to the bombs, jet noise, and sonar," the Eyak Preservation Council's Emily Stolarcyk tells me as we sit in her office in Cordova, Alaska. EPC is an environmental and social-justice-oriented nonprofit whose primary mission is to protect wild salmon habitat. "Chromium, lead, tungsten, nickel, cadmium, cyanide, ammonium perchlorate, the Navy's own environmental impact statement says there is a high risk of chemical exposure to fish."

Kodiak Harbor

Alaska's fisheries are the mainstays of many coastal town economies. The Navy's Northern Edge training plan risks decimating local fish populations, and contaminating those that remain with cyanide and other toxic chemicals.

Tiny Cordova, population 2,300, is home to the largest commercial fishing fleet in the state and consistently ranks among the top 10 busiest U.S. fishing ports. Since September, when Stolarcyk first became aware of the Navy's plans, she has been working tirelessly, calling local, state and federal officials and alerting virtually every fisherman she runs into about what she calls “the storm” looming on the horizon. "The propellants from the Navy's missiles and some of their other weapons will release benzene, toluene, xylene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and naphthalene into the waters of twenty percent of the training area, according to their own EIS [environmental impact statement]," she explains as we look down on Cordova’s harbor with salmon fishing season rapidly approaching. As it happens, most of the chemicals she mentioned were part of BP’s disastrous 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which I covered for years, so as I listened to her I had an eerie sense of futuristic déjà vu.

Here’s just one example of the kinds of damage that will occur: the cyanide discharge from a Navy torpedo is in the range of 140-150 parts per billion. The Environmental Protection Agency’s "allowable" limit on cyanide: one part per billion.

The Navy's EIS estimates that, in the five-year period in which these war games are to be conducted, there will be more than 182,000 "takes" — direct deaths of a marine mammal, or the disruption of essential behaviors like breeding, nursing, or surfacing. On the deaths of fish, it offers no estimates at all. Nevertheless, the Navy will be permitted to use at least 352,000 pounds of expended materials in these games annually. The potential negative effects could be far-reaching, given species migration and the global current system in northern waters.

In the meantime, the Navy is giving Stolarcyk’s efforts the cold shoulder, showing what she calls “total disregard toward the people making their living from these waters." She adds, “They say this is for national security. They are theoretically defending us, but if they destroy our food source and how we make our living, while polluting our air and water, what's left to defend?"

Stolarcyk has been labeled an "activist" and "environmentalist," perhaps because the main organizations she’s managed to sign on to her efforts are indeed environmental groups like the Alaska Marine Conservation Council and the Alaskans First Coalition.

"Why does wanting to protect wild salmon habitat make me an activist?" she asks. "How has that caused me to be branded as an environmentalist?" Given that the Alaska commercial fishing industry could be decimated if its iconic “wild-caught” salmon turn up with traces of cyanide or any of the myriad chemicals the Navy will be using, Stolarcyk could as easily be seen as fighting for the well-being, if not the survival, of the fishing industry in her state.

War Gaming the Community

The clock is ticking in Cordova and others in Stolarcyk’s community are beginning to share her concerns. A few like Alexis Cooper, the executive director of Cordova District Fishermen United (CDFU), a non-profit organization that represents the commercial fishermen in the area, have begun to speak out. "We're already seeing reduced numbers of halibut without the Navy having expanded their operations in the GOA [Gulf of Alaska]," she says, "and we’re already seeing other decreases in harvestable species."

CDFU represents more than 800 commercial salmon fishermen, an industry that accounts for an estimated 90 percent of Cordova’s economy. Without salmon, like many other towns along coastal southeastern Alaska, it would effectively cease to exist.

Teal Webber, a lifelong commercial fisherwoman and member of the Native Village of Eyak, gets visibly upset when the Navy's plans come up. "You wouldn't bomb a bunch of farmland," she says, "and the salmon run comes right through this area, so why are they doing this now?" She adds, "When all of the fishing community in Cordova gets the news about how much impact the Navy's war games could have, you'll see them oppose it en masse."

While I’m in town, Stolarcyk offers a public presentation of the case against Northern Edge in the elementary school auditorium. As she shows a slide from the Navy's environmental impact statement indicating that the areas affected will take decades to recover, several fishermen quietly shake their heads.

One of them, James Weiss, who also works for Alaska's Fish and Game Department, pulls me aside and quietly says, "My son is growing up here, eating everything that comes out of the sea. I know fish travel through that area they plan to bomb and pollute, so of course I'm concerned. This is too important of a fishing area to put at risk."

In the question-and-answer session that follows, Jim Kasch, the town’s mayor, assures Stolarcyk that he'll ask the city council to become involved. "What's disturbing is that there is no thought about the fish and marine life," he tells me later. "It's a sensitive area and we live off the ocean. This is just scary." A Marine veteran, Kasch acknowledges the Navy's need to train, then pauses and adds, "But dropping live ordnance in a sensitive fishery just isn't a good idea. The entire coast of Alaska lives and breathes from our resources from the ocean."

That evening, with the sun still high in the spring sky, I walk along the boat docks in the harbor and can’t help but wonder whether this small, scruffy town has a hope in hell of stopping or altering Northern Edge. There have been examples of such unlikely victories in the past. A dozen years ago, the Navy was, for example, finally forced to stop using the Puerto Rican island of Vieques as its own private bombing and test range, but only after having done so since the 1940s. In the wake of those six decades of target practice, the island’s population has the highest cancer and asthma rates in the Caribbean, a phenomenon locals attribute to the Navy's activities.

Similarly, earlier this year a federal court ruled that Navy war games off the coast of California violated the law. It deemed an estimated 9.6 million "harms" to whales and dolphins via high-intensity sonar and underwater detonations improperly assessed as "negligible" in that service’s EIS.

As a result of Stolarcyk's work, on May 6th Cordova’s city council passed a resolution formally opposing the upcoming war games. Unfortunately, the largest seafood processor in Cordova (and Alaska), Trident Seafoods, has yet to offer a comment on Northern Edge. Its representatives wouldn’t even return my phone call on the subject. Nor, for instance, has Cordova’s Prince William Sound Science Center, whose president, Katrina Hoffman, wrote me that “as an organization, we have no position statement on the matter at this time." This, despite their stated aim of supporting "the ability of communities in this region to maintain socioeconomic resilience among healthy, functioning ecosystems.” (Of course, it should be noted that at least some of their funds come from the Navy.)

Government-to-Government Consultation

At Kodiak Island, my next stop, I find a stronger sense of the threat on the horizon in both the fishing and tribal communities and palpable anger about the Navy's plans. Take J.J. Marsh, the CEO of the Sun'aq Tribe, the largest on the island. "I think it's horrible," she says the minute I sit down in her office. “I grew up here. I was raised on subsistence living. I grew up caring about the environment and the animals and fishing in a native household living off the land and seeing my grandpa being a fisherman. So obviously, the need to protect this is clear."

What, I ask, is her tribe going to do?

She responds instantly. "We are going to file for a government-to-government consultation and so are other Kodiak tribes so that hopefully we can get this stopped.”

The U.S. government has a unique relationship with Alaska’s Native tribes, like all other American Indian tribes. It treats each as if it were an autonomous government. If a tribe requests a “consultation,” Washington must respond and Marsh hopes that such an intervention might help block Northern Edge. "It's about the generations to come. We have an opportunity as a sovereign tribe to go to battle on this with the feds. If we aren't going to do it, who is?"

Melissa Borton, the tribal administrator for the Native Village of Afognak, feels similarly. Like Marsh’s tribe, hers was, until recently, remarkably unaware of the Navy's plans. That’s hardly surprising since that service has essentially made no effort to publicize what it is going to do. "We are absolutely going to be part of this [attempt to stop the Navy]," she tells me. "I'm appalled."

One reason she’s appalled: she lived through Alaska’s monster Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989. “We are still feeling its effects,” she says. “Every time they make these environmental decisions they affect us... We are already plagued with cancer and it comes from the military waste already in our ground or that our fish and deer eat and we eat those... I've lost family to cancer, as most around here have and at some point in time this has to stop."

When I meet with Natasha Hayden, an Afognak tribal council member whose husband is a commercial fisherman, she puts the matter simply and bluntly. “This is a frontal attack by the Navy on our cultural identity."

Gary Knagin, lifelong fisherman and member of the Sun'aq tribe, is busily preparing his boat and crew for the salmon season when we talk. “We aren't going to be able to eat if they do this. It's bullshit. It'll be detrimental to us and it's obvious why. In June, when we are out there, salmon are jumping [in the waters] where they want to bomb as far as you can see in any direction. That's the salmon run. So why do they have to do it in June? If our fish are contaminated, the whole state's economy is hit. The fishing industry here supports everyone and every other business here is reliant upon the fishing industry. So if you take out the fishing, you take out the town."

The Navy’s Free Ride

I requested comment from the U.S. military's Alaskan Command office, and Captain Anastasia Wasem responded after I returned home from my trip north. In our email exchange, I asked her why the Navy had chosen the Gulf of Alaska, given that it was a critical habitat for all five of the state’s wild salmon. She replied that the waters where the war games will occur, which the Navy refers to as the Temporary Maritime Activities Area, are "strategically significant" and claimed that a recent "Pacific command study" found that naval training opportunities are declining everywhere in the Pacific "except Alaska," which she referred to as "a true national asset."

"The Navy's training activities,” she added, “are conducted with an extensive set of mitigation measures designed to minimize the potential risk to marine life."

Whale tail

The Navy claims that its war game plans will not have unacceptably detrimental effects on marine wildlife, despite the official environmental impact survey prediction of over 182,000 "takes," deaths or disruptions of essential behaviors, over the five-year war game period.

In its assessment of the Navy’s plans, however, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), one of the premier federal agencies tasked with protecting national fisheries, disagreed. "Potential stressors to managed species and EFH [essential fish habitat],” its report said, “include vessel movements (disturbance and collisions), aircraft overflights (disturbance), fuel spills, ship discharge, explosive ordnance, sonar training (disturbance), weapons firing/nonexplosive ordnance use (disturbance and strikes), and expended materials (ordnance-related materials, targets, sonobuoys, and marine markers). Navy activities could have direct and indirect impacts on individual species, modify their habitat, or alter water quality." According to the NMFS, effects on habitats and communities from Northern Edge “may result in damage that could take years to decades from which to recover.”

Captain Wasem assured me that the Navy made its plans in consultation with the NMFS, but she failed to add that those consultations were found to be inadequate by the agency or to acknowledge that it expressed serious concerns about the coming war games. In fact, in 2011 it made four conservation recommendations to avoid, mitigate, or otherwise offset possible adverse effects to essential fish habitat. Although such recommendations were non-binding, the Navy was supposed to consider the public interest in its planning.

One of the recommendations, for instance, was that it develop a plan to report on fish mortality during the exercises. The Navy rejected this, claiming that such reporting would "not provide much, if any, valuable data." As Stolarcyk told me, “The Navy declined to do three of their four recommendations, and NMFS just rolled over."

I asked Captain Wasem why the Navy choose to hold the exercise in the middle of salmon fishing season.

"The Northern Edge exercise is scheduled when weather is most conducive for training," she explained vaguely, pointing out that "the Northern Edge exercise is a big investment for DoD [the Department of Defense] in terms of funding, use of equipment/fuels, strategic transportation, and personnel."

Arctic Nightmares

The bottom line on all this is simple, if brutal. The Navy is increasingly focused on possible future climate-change conflicts in the melting waters of the north and, in that context, has little or no intention of caretaking the environment when it comes to military exercises. In addition, the federal agencies tasked with overseeing any war-gaming plans have neither the legal ability nor the will to enforce environmental regulations when what’s at stake, at least according to the Pentagon, is “national security.”

Needless to say, when it comes to the safety of locals in the Navy’s expanding area of operation, there is no obvious recourse. Alaskans can’t turn to NMFS or the Environmental Protection Agency or NOAA. If you want to stop the U.S. military from dropping live munitions, or blasting electromagnetic radiation into national forests and marine sanctuaries, or poisoning your environment, you'd better figure out how to file a major lawsuit or, if you belong to a Native tribe, demand a government-to-government consultation and hope it works. And both of those are long shots, at best.

Meanwhile, as the race heats up for reserves of oil and gas in the melting Arctic that shouldn't be extracted and burned in the first place, so do the Navy's war games. From southern California to Alaska, if you live in a coastal town or city, odds are that the Navy is coming your way, if it's not already there.

Nevertheless, Emily Stolarcyk shows no signs of throwing in the towel, despite the way the deck is stacked against her efforts. "It's supposedly our constitutional right that control of the military is in the hands of the citizens," she told me in our last session together. At one point, she paused and asked, "Haven’t we learned from our past mistakes around not protecting salmon? Look at California, Oregon, and Washington's salmon. They’ve been decimated. We have the best and most pristine salmon left on the planet, and the Navy wants to do these exercises. You can't have both."

Stolarcyk and I share a bond common among people who have lived in our northernmost state, a place whose wilderness is so vast and beautiful as to make your head spin. Those of us who have experienced its rivers and mountains, have been awed by the northern lights, and are regularly reminded of our own insignificance (even as we gained a new appreciation for how precious life really is) tend to want to protect the place as well as share it with others.

"Everyone has been telling me from the start that I'm fighting a lost cause and I will not win," Stolarcyk said as our time together wound down. "No other non-profit in Alaska will touch this. But I actually believe we can fight this and we can stop them. I believe in the power of one. If I can convince someone to join me, it spreads from there. It takes a spark to start a fire, and I refuse to believe that nothing can be done."

Three decades ago, in his book Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez suggested that, when it came to exploiting the Arctic versus living sustainably in it, the ecosystems of the region were too vulnerable to absorb attempts to "accommodate both sides." In the years since, whether it’s been the Navy, Big Energy, or the increasingly catastrophic impacts of human-caused climate disruption, only one side has been accommodated and the results have been dismal.

In Iraq in wartime, I saw what the U.S. military was capable of in a distant ravaged land. In June, I’ll see what that military is capable of in what still passes for peacetime and close to home indeed. As I sit at my desk writing this story on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, the roar of Navy jets periodically rumbles in from across Puget Sound where a massive naval air station is located. I can’t help but wonder whether, years from now, I’ll still be writing pieces with titles like "Destroying What Remains," as the Navy continues its war-gaming in an ice-free summer Arctic amid a sea of off-shore oil drilling platforms.


Dahr Jamail, a TomDispatch regular, spent, all told, more than a year as an unembedded journalist in Iraq between 2003 and 2014. He is a recipient of numerous honors, including the Martha Gellhorn Award for Journalism and the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism for his work in Iraq. He is the author of two books: Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq and The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is a staff reporter forTruthout. This is a joint TomDispatch/Truthout report.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2015 Dahr Jamail



2/26/2015

John Donvan Intelligence Squared 

Intelligence Squared U.S. is an Oxford-style debate series covering a range of relevant controversial topics, from science refuting God to “too big to fail” big banks. The series recently celebrated its 100th debate, and Utne Reader editorial intern Soli Salgado had an opportunity to talk with moderator John Donvan beforehand about how the topics develop, the challenges of moderating, and preserving the integrity of the ancient art of debate.

Utne Reader: How has previous reporting for ABC News helped you as a moderator?

John Donvan: I had 30 years of ABC and did virtually every beat there was: I was a foreign correspondent for 13 years, came back and worked as a general assignment reporter, then as the White House correspondent. In the course of all that, at some point or other I covered every printed story there ever was, sometimes three times over, and that really gave me a broad range: from economy to religion to poverty to race science to medicine to health to politics and international conflicts. We haven’t really had a debate where I haven’t covered the issue in some fashion or other. We just had a debate on genetically modified food, and I did a broadcast on that in 1999. The debate before that was on assisted suicide, and I had done a one-hour documentary on that in 1994. It’s like a perfect repurposing of my entire body of knowledge gained from my career as an ABC reporter.

What non-reportorial experience has come into play for you in this job?
I’m very interested in acting and performance. I went to the Acting Conservatory at the Studio Theater in Washington. I’ve done a lot of improv, classical, live storytelling, Shakespeare, and comedy—all gave me instincts that allow me to be live in front of people and in the moment. It really became important when I started moderating because there’s no script in the debate. It’s much closer to improv in that I have to be reacting all the time and paying attention to keep it on course. That matter of performing and being really aware of a live audience has been a perfect complement to the more intellectual side of journalism.

Describe what you expect from the 100th debate.
It’s on the notion of whether America is in decline or not. The idea of the 100th is that it’s big and sweeping and looking at both the past and present and this administration at this time. There’s an electric feeling in the room. To me it’s amazing that we get 500 people to come watch a debate in New York City when there’s so much else going on. You revive this ancient yet timeless format of an artistic style of debate and bring it to New York at a time when everything is so polarized. So at the 100th debate we’ll talk about that achievement and have a big party afterwards and a rapper come on stage rapping about our previous accomplishments.  

How are the guests chosen and invited? Are you a part of that process?
I’m in Washington, so I come up for meetings from time to time. But the process within the organization is very democratic—it’s a small organization with a few people—and everybody on the staff throws in ideas that usually begin with topics that are just interesting and relevant within themselves, but without knowing there’s actually a debate there, that there’s a dichotomy of views with legitimate arguments on both sides. So we start with a broad discussion about topics. “We should do something about ‘healthcare,’ and then it becomes, ‘What’s relevant about it? What’s being debated?’ Some are framed as verdicts on situations, others are framed as a policy choice that needs to be seen.

We’ll put out a lot of lines to people in their fields, or sometimes we go to interdisciplinaries and might call a philosopher to ask his opinion on science or religion. We try to get a sense of whether there’s a strong debate with credible arguments on both sides, and then whether there are people willing to argue both sides. We have a producer or two full-time reaching out to potential debaters, seeing what they would say and if there’s a coherence: if they can get on stage, but also being able to talk and being in a competition. Not everybody can.

We ask for ideas and get emails all the time, and we take that very seriously. But they really come from all over, from conversations. I’ve asked people at dinner parties for ideas for debates that are now in the hopper.

Is there a rehearsal, or are you surprised by what the debaters say in the moment?
I don’t know what they’re going to say in the body of the debate. They’ll come with prepared remarks, but we strongly discourage debaters to come in with a script for opening remarks. We have some sense from conversations beforehand through the booking process about their arguments, so we can know if there’s a head-to-head or not. But all of the debaters write. They’ve almost always published on these topics, and I read a lot, if not most, of those. Usually to figure out their rhythm as speakers, I’ll watch them on YouTube. But on the night of the debate, I literally don’t know what they’re going to say. And sometimes they don’t say what we expected them to argue, or their arguments come from a different angle, which is fine, so long as they’re not just talking past each other.

That’s where the improv comes into play; it’s so unscripted, we don’t know where it’s going to go. Every time I go up I’m worried there’s going to be a trainwreck, and so far we haven’t had one.

What’s the hardest part of moderating?
I figured out that the hardest part is the easiest part: the art of interruption. It is the key to moderating, and getting over the inhibition, I think any of us have, to interrupt somebody when they’re trying to say something meaningful. It seems impertinent and it seems rude. But I learned that if I didn’t interrupt people, they would just move way, way off topic quickly. They’d also spend an enormous amount of time elaborating on the same point, giving an example of why they were right and then another example, and another... It’s a combination of the art of listening closely and the art of interruption. I tell them before going on stage that I’ll do that, and most are pretty good about it.

You seem to moderate so fairly and straightforward, yet after most presidential debates, there’s controversy and criticism from the public regarding the moderator. Why do you think that is? Is it just the different style of debates?
The presidential debates are set up to be for moderator failure. The candidates come in with no true intention to debate one another, and there are so many rules set out to avoid them falling on their faces, that the moderator really has a difficult time.

The trick is getting involved without making it about yourself. It’s not about you: it’s about the debaters and the debate. But you also have to get in to keep them on course. And the presidential debates are not set up to be debates. They’re alternating press conferences. The guys come in with their talking points, and very rarely do they respond to one another’s points. They just talk past each other. And the moderator who does not interrupt quickly is sitting on two press conferences going on.

I see my mission is to protect the integrity of the debate. So if somebody dodges a question, I will jump on him—not because I’m on the other guy’s side, but because I’m on the debate’s side. If somebody ignores a really good point landed by their opponent and tries to change the subject, I will intervene because the audience wants to hear what the response is. The presidential debates are not set up to do that. That’s not what the parties want, and the parties control what the debates are about. It’s very frustrating to watch those things.

Read Donvan’s Washington Post article regarding the structure of modern presidential debates.

Oftentimes you see that audience members changed their minds on certain issues, when you compare how they voted at the beginning of the debate to how they voted at the end. Do you think that’s something special to Intelligence Squared in its format, or is any well-structured debates capable of the same thing?
I don’t think that’s just us. I think any really, really good debate can do the same thing.

The social contribution that a debate really makes is that by definition the audience is forced to listen to a point of view that may oppose their own, and they’re also forced to listen (for the first time, probably) to a well-articulated dissection of the weaknesses of the views they already hold. They may go in wanting to root for their side, and they may leave still rooting for their side, but they’ll very likely have been exposed to arguments against their side or for the other side that they never really had to sit and pay total attention to. If the debate works well, and the debaters are really engaging in an intellectual Ping-Pong match, with real intellectual integrity, really listening to each other in real intellectual combat—that sucks people in, in such a way that maybe they do end up acknowledging the flaws in the arguments they favored or strengths in the other guy’s. Doesn’t mean you have to switch sides. That’s particularly relevant today when there’s no middle space anymore. People for the most part have retreated to their chambers in terms of ideas they’re going to hear. This little show we put on—it’s a show, but it’s got value and integrity. It’s really an experience.

I always go to the lobby afterward because I love that moment of the debate when people spill out on the streets and sidewalks on 67th Street arguing with each other. They’re really alive with it. Who knew that the fusty old model of the Oxford style debate would be so relevant and alive and engaging and entertaining? It’s because they’re seeing a real debate. I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a hunger for it, for debating civilly. We’re actually pulling it off, and it’s not boring. It’s a tough conversation. I’m not saying it’s Kumbaya. But it’s not done by screaming, rather by being as smart as they can be.

Have you ever had any difficulty remaining impartial?
I came up in the tradition of ABC News, which is not so much the ruling tradition in journalism anymore. It was always in the vein of “try to keep your personal views out of it.” That’s where my training was and that part comes naturally. I’m really careful in not having the audience members feel what I’m thinking or that I’m trying to steer the debate in any way, because that would really kill the integrity of it. I’ve found it’s been easy to pretend to be impartial.

What have been the most memorable debates you’ve moderated?
I like the cultural topics that are more about the human condition and less about what the government should be doing. We’ve done whether there’s life after death, whether religion is a force of good or evil, the state of men in society. We’ve done whether college football is a good or bad thing for the university and the players. Nobody’s really debating these topics. Whereas all the policy issues, you can hear debates on them all the time. You’ll hear lots of panel discussions on life after death, for example, but to actually hear actual evidence mounting on both sides, it’s an interesting thing.

The most difficult one we’ve done was a few years ago on whether or not the U.N. should recognize Palestine. The debate was between two opponents who were both Jewish, and it became very bitter and very personal to the two of them. They began to berate each other, each calling the other a traitor. They each took the charge so personally that they began to scream at each other. For the first and only time, I left my position at the podium and I walked around to the front of the stage, and with my back to the audience I faced them and raised my hands, quite consciously hoping to invoke Moses parting the Red Sea, and asked them to please be silent. They finally stopped, and I told them that what they were doing was essentially opposite to the goal of our debate and that they need to pull it back. And they did, though that was probably the roughest moment.

What would you like our Utne readers to know about Intelligence Squared if they haven’t heard about it before? There’s a lot of overlap between the intellectual aspiration of the Utne readers and Intelligence Squared. There’s open-mindedness and curiosity, a thirst to know, and desire to be entertained. These are entertaining. When you hear the word “debate” it doesn’t sound like it’s going to be fun evening, but it is. People come on dates and romance each other at the event. It’s a lot more fun from an intellectual point of view than it sounds like.

We have an app that has everything, for iPhones and Androids. Look for IQ2US in the search. You’ll have access to all the debates we’ve ever done as podcasts, and we post a bunch of the articles and research related to the debates, most by the debaters themselves. There’s also an opinion poll and information on upcoming debates.



2/20/2015

Soldier holding gun

War movies since World War II tend to follow the same reductive formula, presenting Americans as the winners even in conflicts that ended in failure.

Reprinted with permission by TomDispatch.

In the age of the all-volunteer military and an endless stream of war zone losses and ties, it can be hard to keep Homeland enthusiasm up for perpetual war. After all, you don't get a 9/11 every year to refresh those images of the barbarians at the airport departure gates. In the meantime, Americans are clearly finding it difficult to remain emotionally roiled up about our confusing wars in Syria and Iraq, the sputtering one in Afghanistan, and various raids, drone attacks, and minor conflicts elsewhere.

Fortunately, we have just the ticket, one that has been punched again and again for close to a century: Hollywood war movies (to which the Pentagon is always eager to lend a helping hand). American Sniper, which started out with the celebratory tagline “the most lethal sniper in U.S. history” and now has the tagline “the most successful war movie of all time,” is just the latest in a long line of films that have kept Americans on their war game. Think of them as war porn, meant to leave us perpetually hyped up. Now, grab some popcorn and settle back to enjoy the show.

There’s Only One War Movie

Wandering around YouTube recently, I stumbled across some good old government-issue propaganda.  It was a video clearly meant to stir American emotions and prepare us for a long struggle against a determined, brutal, and barbaric enemy whose way of life is a challenge to the most basic American values. Here's some of what I learned: our enemy is engaged in a crusade against the West; wants to establish a world government and make all of us bow down before it; fights fanatically, beheads prisoners, and is willing to sacrifice the lives of its followers in inhuman suicide attacks.  Though its weapons are modern, its thinking and beliefs are 2,000 years out of date and inscrutable to us.

Of course, you knew there was a trick coming, right? This little U.S. government-produced film wasn’t about the militants of the Islamic State. Made by the U.S. Navy in 1943, its subject was “Our Enemy the Japanese.” Substitute “radical Islam” for “emperor worship,” though, and it still makes a certain propagandistic sense. While the basics may be largely the same (us versus them, good versus evil), modern times do demand something slicker than the video equivalent of an old newsreel. The age of the Internet, with its short attention spans and heightened expectations of cheap thrills, calls for a higher class of war porn, but as with that 1943 film, it remains remarkable how familiar what’s being produced remains.

Like propaganda films and sexual pornography, Hollywood movies about America at war have changed remarkably little over the years. Here's the basic formula, from John Wayne in the World War II-era Sands of Iwo Jima to today's American Sniper:

• American soldiers are good, the enemy bad. Nearly every war movie is going to have a scene in which Americans label the enemy as “savages,” “barbarians,” or “bloodthirsty fanatics,” typically following a “sneak attack” or a suicide bombing. Our country’s goal is to liberate; the enemy's, to conquer. Such a framework prepares us to accept things that wouldn’t otherwise pass muster. Racism naturally gets a bye; as they once were “Japs” (not Japanese), they are now “hajjis” and “ragheads” (not Muslims or Iraqis). It’s beyond question that the ends justify just about any means we might use, from the nuclear obliteration of two cities of almost no military significance to the grimmest sort of torture. In this way, the war film long ago became a moral free-fire zone for its American characters.

• American soldiers believe in God and Country, in “something bigger than themselves,” in something “worth dying for,” but without ever becoming blindly attached to it. The enemy, on the other hand, is blindly devoted to a religion, political faith, or dictator, and it goes without saying (though it’s said) that his God—whether an emperor, Communism, or Allah—is evil. As one critic put it back in 2007 with just a tad of hyperbole, “In every movie Hollywood makes, every time an Arab utters the word Allah … something blows up.”

• War films spend no significant time on why those savages might be so intent on going after us. The purpose of American killing, however, is nearly always clearly defined. It's to “save American lives,” those over there and those who won’t die because we don't have to fight them over here. Saving such lives explains American war: in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, for example, the main character defuses roadside bombs to make Iraq safer for other American soldiers. In the recent World War II-themed Fury, Brad Pitt similarly mows down ranks of Germans to save his comrades. Even torture is justified, as in Zero Dark Thirty, in the cause of saving our lives from their nightmarish schemes. In American Sniper, shooter Chris Kyle focuses on the many American lives he’s saved by shooting Iraqis; his PTSD is, in fact, caused by his having “failed” to have saved even more. Hey, when an American kills in war, he's the one who suffers the most, not that mutilated kid or his grieving mother — I got nightmares, man! I still see their faces!

• Our soldiers are human beings with emotionally engaging backstories, sweet gals waiting at home, and promising lives ahead of them that might be cut tragically short by an enemy from the gates of hell. The bad guys lack such backstories. They are anonymous fanatics with neither a past worth mentioning nor a future worth imagining. This is usually pretty blunt stuff. Kyle’s nemesis in American Sniper, for instance, wears all black. Thanks to that, you know he’s an insta-villain without the need for further information. And speaking of lack of a backstory, he improbably appears in the film both in the Sunni city of Fallujah and in Sadr City, a Shia neighborhood in Baghdad, apparently so super-bad that his desire to kill Americans overcomes even Iraq's mad sectarianism.

• It is fashionable for our soldiers, having a kind of depth the enemy lacks, to express some regrets, a dollop of introspection, before (or after) they kill. In American Sniper, while back in the U.S. on leave, the protagonist expresses doubts about what he calls his “work.” (No such thoughts are in the book on which the film is based.) Of course, he then goes back to Iraq for three more tours and over two more hours of screen time to amass his 160 “confirmed kills.”

• Another staple of such films is the training montage. Can a young recruit make it? Often he is the Fat Kid who trims down to his killing weight, or the Skinny Kid who muscles up, or the Quiet Kid who emerges bloodthirsty. (This has been a trope of sexual porn films, too: the geeky looking guy, mocked by beautiful women, who turns out to be a superstar in bed.) The link, up front or implied, between sexuality, manhood, and war is a staple of the form. As part of the curious PTSD recovery plan he develops, for example, Kyle volunteers to teach a paraplegic vet in a wheelchair to snipe. After his first decent shot rings home, the man shouts, “I feel like I got my balls back!”

• Our soldiers, anguished souls that they are, have no responsibility for what they do once they’ve been thrown into our wars.  No baby-killers need apply in support of America's post-Vietnam, guilt-free mantra, “Hate the war, love the warrior.” In the film First Blood, for example, John Rambo is a Vietnam veteran who returns home a broken man. He finds his war buddy dead from Agent Orange-induced cancer and is persecuted by the very Americans whose freedom he believed he had fought for. Because he was screwed over in The 'Nam, the film gives him a free pass for his homicidal acts, including a two-hour murderous rampage through a Washington State town. The audience is meant to see Rambo as a noble, sympathetic character. He returns for more personal redemption in later films to rescue American prisoners of war left behind in Southeast Asia.

• For war films, ambiguity is a dirty word. Americans always win, even when they lose in an era in which, out in the world, the losses are piling up. And a win is a win, even when its essence is one-sided bullying as in Heartbreak Ridge, the only movie to come out of the ludicrous invasion of Grenada. And a loss is still a win in Black Hawk Down, set amid the disaster of Somalia, which ends with scenes of tired warriors who did the right thing. Argo—consider it honorary war porn—reduces the debacle of years of U.S. meddling in Iran to a high-fiving hostage rescue. All it takes these days to turn a loss into a win is to zoom in tight enough to ignore defeat. In American Sniper, the disastrous occupation of Iraq is shoved offstage so that more Iraqis can die in Kyle’s sniper scope. In Lone Survivor, a small American “victory” is somehow dredged out of hopeless Afghanistan because an Afghan man takes a break from being droned to save the life of a SEAL.

In sum: gritty, brave, selfless men, stoic women waiting at home, noble wounded warriors, just causes, and the necessity of saving American lives. Against such a lineup, the savage enemy is a crew of sitting ducks who deserve to die. Everything else is just music, narration, and special effects. War pornos, like their oversexed cousins, are all the same movie.

Young soldier 

War films are not about reality, but they do create realities of their own that encourage young people to join our volunteer military in pursuit of a glorious emotional fantasy of America at war.

A Fantasy That Can Change Reality

But it's just a movie, right? Your favorite shoot-em-up makes no claims to being a documentary. We all know one American can't gun down 50 bad guys and walk away unscathed, in the same way he can't bed 50 partners without getting an STD. It's just entertainment. So what?

So what do you, or the typical 18-year-old considering military service, actually know about war on entering that movie theater? Don’t underestimate the degree to which such films can help create broad perceptions of what war’s all about and what kind of people fight it. Those lurid on-screen images, updated and reused so repetitively for so many decades, do help create a self-reinforcing, common understanding of what happens “over there,” particularly since what we are shown mirrors what most of us want to believe anyway.

No form of porn is about reality, of course, but that doesn’t mean it can’t create realities all its own. War films have the ability to bring home emotionally a glorious fantasy of America at war, no matter how grim or gritty any of these films may look. War porn can make a young man willing to die before he’s 20. Take my word for it: as a diplomat in Iraq I met young people in uniform suffering from the effects of all this. Such films also make it easier for politicians to sweet talk the public into supporting conflict after conflict, even as sons and daughters continue to return home damaged or dead and despite the country’s near-complete record of geopolitical failures since September 2001. Funny thing: American Sniper was nominated for an Academy Award for best picture as Washington went back to war in Iraq in what you'd have thought would be an unpopular struggle.

Learning From the Exceptions

You can see a lot of war porn and stop with just your toes in the water, thinking you've gone swimming. But eventually you should go into the deep water of the “exceptions,” because only there can you confront the real monsters.

There are indeed exceptions to war porn, but don’t fool yourself, size matters. How many people have seen American Sniper, The Hurt Locker, or Zero Dark Thirty? By comparison, how many saw the anti-war Iraq War film Battle for Haditha, a lightly fictionalized, deeply unsettling drama about an American massacre of innocent men, women, and children in retaliation for a roadside bomb blast?

Timing matters, too, when it comes to the few mainstream exceptions. John Wayne’s The Green Berets, a pro-Vietnam War film, came out in 1968 as that conflict was nearing its bloody peak and resistance at home was growing. (The Green Berets gets a porn bonus star, as the grizzled Wayne persuades a lefty journalist to alter his negative views on the war.) Platoon, with its message of waste and absurdity, had to wait until 1986, more than a decade after the war ended.

In propaganda terms, think of this as controlling the narrative. One version of events dominates all others and creates a reality others can only scramble to refute. The exceptions do, however, reveal much about what we don’t normally see of the true nature of American war. They are uncomfortable for any of us to watch, as well as for military recruiters, parents sending a child off to war, and politicians trolling for public support for the next crusade.

War is not a two-hour-and-12-minute hard-on. War is what happens when the rules break down and, as fear displaces reason, nothing too terrible is a surprise. The real secret of war for those who experience it isn't the visceral knowledge that people can be filthy and horrible, but that you, too, can be filthy and horrible. You don't see much of that on the big screen.

Soldier in the desert

The true nature of American war rarely surfaces in mainstream war films: that war is what happens when the rules break down.

The Long Con

Of course, there are elements of “nothing new” here. The Romans undoubtedly had their version of war porn that involved mocking the Gauls as sub-humans. Yet in 21st-century America, where wars are undeclared and Washington dependent on volunteers for its new foreign legion, the need to keep the public engaged and filled with fear over our enemies is perhaps more acute than ever.

So here’s a question: If the core propaganda messages the U.S. government promoted during World War II are nearly identical to those pushed out today about the Islamic State, and if Hollywood’s war films, themselves a particularly high-class form of propaganda, have promoted the same false images of Americans in conflict from 1941 to the present day, what does that tell us? Is it that our varied enemies across nearly three-quarters of a century of conflict are always unbelievably alike, or is it that when America needs a villain, it always goes to the same script?


Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during the Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. A TomDispatch regular, he writes about current events at his blog, We Meant Well. His latest book is Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit's Men Explain Things to Me, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2015 Peter Van Buren

Top photo by Fotolia/guerrieroale

Middle photo by Fotolia/Syda Productions

Bottom photo by Fotolia/Oleg_Zabielin



2/6/2015

Lone-Wolf Terrorist

Lone-wolf terrorism does represent a genuine risk, but it's an exceedingly rare and minimal one.

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.

The shadow of a new threat seems to be darkening the national security landscape: the lone-wolf terrorist.

“The lone wolf is the new nightmare,” wrote Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer recently, and the conservative pundit wasn’t alone in thinking so. “I really see [lone wolves] as being a bigger threat than al-Qaeda, or the Islamic State, or the al-Qaeda franchises,” Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical analysis at the global intelligence and advisory firm Stratfor, told VICE News. Similarly, in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks, appearing on “Meet the Press,” Attorney General Eric Holder said, “The thing that I think keeps me up most at night [is] this concern about the lone wolf who goes undetected.”

You could multiply such statements many times over. There’s only one problem with the rising crescendo of alarm about lone wolves: most of it simply isn’t true. There’s nothing new about the “threat” and the concept is notoriously unreliable, as well as selectively used. (These days, “lone wolf” has largely become a stand-in for “Islamic terrorist,” though the category itself is not bound to any specific ideological type.) Worst of all, its recent highlighting paves the way for the heightening of abusive and counterproductive police and national security practices, including the infiltration of minority and activist communities and elaborate sting operations that ensnare the vulnerable. In addition, the categorization of such solitary individuals as terrorists supposedly driven by ideology — left or right, secular or religious — often obscures multiple other factors that may actually cause them to engage in violence.

Like all violent crime, individual terrorism represents a genuine risk, just an exceedingly rare and minimal one. It’s not the sort of thing that the government should be able to build whole new, intrusive surveillance programs on or use as an excuse for sending in agents to infiltrate communities. National programs now being set up to combat lone-wolf terrorism have a way of wildly exaggerating its prevalence and dangers — and in the end are only likely to exacerbate the problem. For Americans to concede more of their civil liberties in return for “security” against lone wolves wouldn’t be a trade; it would be fraud.

Anatomy of the Wolf

The “literature” on both terrorism and the lone wolf should be approached with a healthy degree of skepticism. To this day, there is little consensus on what exactly terrorism is; the same is true of the lone-wolf variety.

In the media and in recent academic studies, what separates the lone-wolf terrorist from the phenomenon in general is the perpetrator. Lone wolves are, by definition, solitary individuals, almost always men, often with mental health problems, who lash out violently against civilian targets. At least in some fashion, they are spurred on by belief. Researcher Michael Becker defines it this way: “Ideologically driven violence, or attempted violence, perpetrated by an individual who plans and executes an attack in the absence of collaboration with other individuals or groups.” Although you wouldn’t know it at the moment in America, the motivation for such attacks can run the gamut from religiously inspired anti-abortion beliefs to white supremacy, from animal rights to an al-Qaeda-inspired worldview.

According to the literature, lone wolves are unique in the annals of terrorism because of the solitariness with which they plan and carry out their acts. They lack peer or group pressure and their crimes are conceived and executed without assistance. In this way, they bear a strong resemblance to the individual school shooters and rampage killers that Americans are already so used to.

One practical reason many such individuals act alone, according to researchers, is fear of detection. In “Laws for the Lone Wolf,” white supremacist Tom Metzger wrote: “The less any outsider knows, the safer and more successful you will be. Keep your mouth shut and your ears open. Never truly admit to anything.” (Before 9/11, lone-wolf terrorism in America was overwhelmingly a right-wing affair.)

This isn’t to say that individuals who commit political violence don’t talk to anyone before they attack. Recent research into 119 lone-actor terrorists in the United States and Europe, who were either convicted of such a crime or died during it, finds that they often expressed their extremist beliefs, grievances, and sometimes their violent intentions to others — mostly friends and family or online communities. The good news should be that family, friends, and colleagues might be able to help prevent those close to them from engaging in political violence if, as a society, we were to adopt strategies that built trust of law enforcement in the public, particularly affected communities, rather than fear and suspicion. (But given the record these last years, don’t hold your breath.)

On the other hand, the methods that the police and national security state seem to be exploring to deal with the issue — like trying to determine what kinds of individuals will join terrorist groups or profiling lone wolves — won’t work. The reasons individuals join terrorist groups are notoriously complex, and the same holds true for politically violent people who act alone. After reviewing those 119 lone-wolf cases, for example, the researchers concluded, “There was no uniform profile of lone-actor terrorists.” Even if a “profile” were to emerge, they added, it would be essentially worthless: “[T]he use of such a profile would be unwarranted because many more people who do not engage in lone-actor terrorism would share these characteristics, while others might not but would still engage in lone-actor terrorism.”

As a group, such solitary terrorists differ from society at large in one crucial way: almost one out of three had been diagnosed with a mental illness or personality disorder before engaging in political violence. Another study concentrating on 98 U.S. perpetrators found that approximately 40% had recognizable mental health problems. The comparable figure for the general population: 1.5%.

Given such high rates of psychological disturbance, there’s a chance individual attacks could be prevented if at-risk people got the mental health care they needed before they took a violent turn.

Mental Illness

A study found that 40 percent of U.S. solitary terrorists had recognizable mental health problems, but in general, there is no uniform profile of lone-wolf terrorists.

Fact vs. Fiction

Fortunately, what makes lone wolves so difficult to detect beforehand renders them more impotent when they strike.

Because such individuals don’t have a larger network of financing and training, and may be disturbed as well, they are likely to have a far less sophisticated skill set when it comes to arming themselves or planning attacks. Terrorism researcher Ramon Spaaij of Australia’s Victoria University created a database of 88 identified lone wolves who perpetrated attacks between 1968 and 2010 in 15 countries. What he found should dispel some of the fear now being associated with lone-wolf terrorism and so the increasingly elaborate and overzealous government planning around it.

Spaaij identified 198 total attacks by those 88 solo actors — just 1.8% of the 11,235 recorded terrorist incidents worldwide. Since lone wolves generally don’t have the know-how to construct bombs (as the Unabomber did), they usually rely on firearms and attack soft, populated targets, which law enforcement responds to quickly. Therefore, Spaaij found that the average lethality rate was .062 deaths per attack while group-based terrorists averaged 1.6 people per attack.

Inside the United States, 136 people died due to individual terrorist attacks between 1940 and 2012 — each death undoubtedly a tragedy, but still a microscopic total compared to the 14,000 murders the FBI has reported in each of the last five years. In other words, you shouldn’t be losing sleep over lone-wolf attacks. As an American, the chance that you’ll die in any kind of terrorist violence is infinitesimal to begin with. In fact, you’re four more times likely to die from being struck by lightning. If anything, the present elevation of the lone-wolf terrorist to existential threat status in Washington creates the kind of fear and government overreach that the perpetrators of such attacks want to provoke.

If individual terrorists are the “new nightmare,” it’s only because we allow them to be.

Lone Wolf ≠ Muslim

During the December hostage crisis at a café in Sydney, Australia, orchestrated by Man Haron Monis, an Iranian immigrant, former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell had this dire prediction: “[W]e’re going to see this kind of attack here,” he told “CBS This Morning.” “It shouldn’t surprise people when this happens here sometime over the next year or so, guaranteed.”

This was typical of the recent rhetorical escalation by officials and former officials in the national security state when it comes to this kind of terror. But Morell’s prediction was no prediction at all. Such attacks do occur here. One had, for instance, been solved a little more than a month earlier. Eric Matthew Frein was apprehended the day before Halloween through an intensive search in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania after shooting two state troopers outside a police barracks with a sniper rifle in September. Officer Corporal Bryon K. Dickson II died, while Trooper Alex T. Douglass was wounded. Frein, whom authorities initially called an “anti-government survivalist,” was eventually charged with two terrorism counts after he told police that the shootings were a way to “wake people up.” They also found a letter he had written to his parents stating that he wanted to “ignite a fire” because only “another revolution can get us back the liberties we once had.”

Individual violence like this, whether labeled as terrorism or not, is nothing new. It’s been dealt with for decades without the kind of panic, fear-mongering, and measures being instituted today. After all, according to Spaaij, between 1968 and 2010, 45% of all individual terrorist attacks recorded in 15 countries occurred in the United States.

However, as Spaaij and his research partner Mark Hamm discovered, these figures are distinctly bloated. The reason is simple: included in them are numerous examples of “individual” terrorist acts inspired by al-Qaeda-style ideology that actually resulted from law enforcement-instigated or -aided plots. Spaaij and Hamm found that at least 15 of these had occurred between 2001 and 2013. In them, a “lone” perpetrator would actually be involved with, and often directed or encouraged by, a government informant or undercover agent. This adds up to about 25% of post-9/11 cases of lone wolfism in the U.S., though the label is hardly accurate under the circumstances. These are essentially government stings, which not only inflate the number of individual terrorism incidents in the U.S., but disproportionately focus law enforcement attention on American Muslim communities.

An egregious example was the case of Rezwan Ferdaus, a 26-year-old Massachusetts man and American Muslim. The FBI busted him in 2011 for conspiring with undercover agents to build crude explosive-laden drones out of remote-controlled planes to fly into the Pentagon and the Capitol Building. In reality, this was a government-concocted plot, and Ferdaus was no lone wolf. (He was incapable of thinking this up or carrying it off on his own.) The FBI ignored clear signs that their target wasn’t a terrorist, but a mentally ill man, deteriorating rapidly. Nevertheless, he was repeatedly termed a lone wolf by law enforcement and the media. Charged with providing material support to terrorists, in 2012, he was sentenced to 17 years in prison.

By contrast, when the apparent lone wolf isn’t a Muslim or other minority, he rarely finds the fear-inducing terrorist label pinned on him by the government, the media, or security experts. Take James von Brunn, a white supremacist who murdered a security guard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. According to the Department of Homeland Security, the act had no connection to terrorism, although it was ideologically motivated, as one FBI official acknowledged.

Or Francis Grady, who tried to burn down a Planned Parenthood clinic in Grand Chute, Wisconsin, in 2012, because, as he told a U.S. district court judge, “They’re killing babies there.” Grady was not charged with a terrorism offence either. When asked why, Assistant United States Attorney William Roach said that Grady had tried to burn down an unoccupied room in an empty building.

Compare those reactions to the case of Zale Thompson, a disturbed African-American man who attacked four New York City police officers in October with a hatchet. Only a day after the attack, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said, “I’m very comfortable this was a terrorist attack, certainly.” The apparent evidence: Thompson was a recent convert to Islam who had visited websites affiliated with terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS.

As Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, “Terrorism is simultaneously the single most meaningless and manipulated word in the American political lexicon.” The same can be said of its lone-wolf version. Not surprisingly, it has by now become essentially synonymous with being Muslim and little else, which stigmatizes American Muslims and makes their communities targets for abusive law enforcement techniques, including FBI-style sting operations and massive, intrusive surveillance. Typically, one terrorism researcher defined lone wolves as “individuals pursuing Islamist terrorist goals alone.” In reality, Muslims have no more of a monopoly on lone-wolf terrorism than they do on terrorism more generally.

American Muslim

Fear of lone-wolf violence places a disproportionate amount of law enforcement attention, which includes stings and intrusive surveillance, on Muslim communities in the U.S.

Counterproductive Responses

At the moment, the response to the lone-wolf hullabaloo, like so much else in recent years, is inching us further down the path toward an American police state. One government response, now being re-emphasized, comes (of course!) with its own acronym: countering violent extremism, or CVE.

The program, announced in 2011, aims to partner with communities — almost exclusively Muslim ones in practice — in the name of terrorism prevention. One of the ways communities are to do this is by creating safe spaces where individuals can discuss politics and religion without fear of lurking government agents. Yet members of these same communities will then be encouraged to report back to authorities about what was said and by whom in an effort to identify those at-risk of becoming violent extremists, whether alone or in concert with others. American Muslim communities have already experienced government stings and infiltration by informants, and tasking community members to report back to authorities doesn’t seem much different than directly putting agents in their midst.

If CVE’s goal is to build the capacity within communities to prevent violence and terrorism, lone or otherwise, then agencies like Health and Human Services and the Department of Education should be leading the way. They could provide social and mental health services and educational resources — to all communities instead of singling particular ones out based on religion, race, or ethnicity. Instead, not surprisingly, the White House has put the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and the FBI in charge of executing its CVE programs, while emphasizing the coordinating role of local U.S. Attorneys’ Offices. American Muslim communities are rightly leery of this arrangement, particularly in light of the way these outfits have recently focused on religious beliefs as a basis for suspicion and, at least in the FBI’s case, have manufactured terror plots by preying on the sick and the vulnerable.

Other proposed solutions to the “lone-wolf” problem are even more indiscriminate.

In a recent book, former RAND Corporation analyst Jeffrey Simon offers an inventory of possible technological strategies for identifying the wolf in sheep’s clothing before he attacks. These are typical of our moment and include the widespread use of Internet-enabled smart surveillance cameras, as well as the active, suspicionless monitoring of Internet and social media usage. Another increasingly popular approach he suggests is the expansion of biometric collection, meaning the government would assemble biological traits unique to each individual, such as facial dimensions and DNA, without any evidence of wrongdoing.

It should be noted that such an approach — and it’s typical of the direction the national security state and law enforcement have taken in these years — would represent a fundamental assault on a free society. Such “countermeasures” should send a shiver down your spine. Simon seems to recognize this, writing, “Privacy issues will have to be addressed, including the willingness of the public to have their facial expressions, eye movements, heart rates, breathing patterns, and other characteristics captured by sophisticated sensors wherever they go in order for a decision to be made by others concerning what they might be intending to do.”

The dangers to Americans in allowing government agencies to collect such intimate information in order to discover whether any of them are possible lone wolves should be obvious in terms of the destruction of privacy, among other things. The result would be both an Orwellian world and a hopeless one in safety terms. It’s already clear that none of these expensive and advanced technological “solutions” will work. Totally innocent conduct (“false positives”) will overwhelm the truly menacing. Some of these approaches, like surveillance cameras, may help finger a perpetrator after the crime, while others, such as trying to identify who will engage in terrorism by his body language, will only further contribute to the security theater the government has staged since 9/11.

Nevertheless, the ineffectiveness of an intrusive security state won’t stop its adherents from pushing for more power and methods of control that are ever more intrusive. “We have to put... aside... all the bleeding-heart, politically correct people who say we can't be emphasizing one community over the other," VICE quoted Congressman Peter King as saying in a radio appearance. The threat, he added, is “coming from the Muslim community and it shows that the [New York Police Department] and [former police commissioner] Ray Kelly were right for so many years when they were really saturating areas where they thought the threat was coming from."

The once-secret NYPD suspicionless surveillance program King is referring to — it stretched from Connecticut to Pennsylvania — never produced a single terrorism lead, much less a conviction. It was “successful” at only one thing: making American Muslim communities in the greater metropolitan area feel as if they were under siege and destroying trusting relations between them and the police.

As King demonstrates, the people who pledge to protect our lives and our liberties are often the same ones who cry wolf. With shepherds like these guarding the flock, wolves may be beside the point.


Matthew Harwood is senior writer/editor of the ACLU and holds an M.Litt. in International Security Studies from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. His work has appeared at Al Jazeera America, the American Conservative, the Guardian, Guernica, Salon, War is Boring, and the Washington Monthly. He is also a TomDispatch regular.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit's Men Explain Things to Me, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2015 Matthew Harwood

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1/23/2015

Imperial Power

More invasion of our privacy and further militarization have become a way of life in Washington.

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.

When it comes to the national security state, our capital has become a thought-free zone. The airlessness of the place, the unwillingness of leading players in the corridors of power to explore new ways of approaching crucial problems is right there in plain sight, yet remarkably unnoticed. Consider this the Tao of Washington.

Last week, based on a heavily redacted 231-page document released by the government in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, Charlie Savage, a superb reporter for the New York Times, revealed that the FBI has become a “significant player” in the world of warrantless surveillance, previously the bailiwick of the National Security Agency. The headline on his piece was: “FBI is broadening surveillance role, report shows.”

Here’s my question: In the last 13 years, can you remember a single headline related to the national security state that went “FBI [or fill in your agency of choice] is narrowing surveillance role [or fill in your role of choice], report shows”? Of course not, because when any crisis, problem, snafu or set of uncomfortable feelings, fears, or acts arises, including those by tiny groups of disturbed people or what are now called “lone wolf” terrorists, there is only one imaginable response: more money, more infrastructure, more private contractors, more surveillance, more weaponry, and more war. On a range of subjects, our post-9/11 experience should have taught us that this — whatever it is we’re doing — is no solution to anything, but no such luck.

More tax dollars consumed, more intrusions in our lives, the further militarization of the country, the dispatching of some part of the U.S. military to yet another country, the enshrining of war or war-like actions as the option of choice — this, by now, is a way of life. These days, the only headlines out of Washington that should surprise us would have “narrowing” or “less,” not “broadening” or “more,” in them.

Thinking outside the box may seldom have been a prominent characteristic of Washington, but when it comes to innovative responses to problems, our political system seems particularly airless right now. Isn’t it strange, for instance, that being secretary of state these days means piling up bragging rights to mileage by constantly, frenetically circumnavigating the globe? The State Department website now boasts that John Kerry has traveled 682,000 miles during his time in office, just as it once boasted of Hillary Clinton’s record-breaking 956,733 miles, and yet, like the secretary of defense or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs or the CIA director or the national security advisor or the president himself, when it comes to rethinking failing policies, none of them ever seem to venture into unknown territory or entertain thoughts that might lead in unsettling directions. No piling up of the mileage there.

In a sense, there are only two operative words in twenty-first-century Washington: more and war. In this context, there really is just one well-policed party of thought in town. It matters not a whit that, under the ministrations of that “party,” the Pentagon and the rest of the national security state have grown to monstrous proportions, even though American war and security policies don’t have a significant success to their name.

Four Words That Rule Washington (and Two Words That Don’t)

Here then are four key words — security, safety, intelligence, and war — essential to present-day Washington. Add in two others, peace and bases, that for very different reasons are missing in action. Now, put together both the chatter and the silences around those six words and you can begin to grasp why our nation’s capital is such a dead zone in terms of new ideas or ways of acting in our world.

Let’s start with two words so commonplace that no serious player would bother to question them: security (as in “national”) and safety (as in “American”). On those two words alone, the new Washington has been funded and expanded endlessly in the post-9/11 era. They are the soil in which has grown just about every action that put the state intrusively in our lives, sidelined the citizenry, and emboldened a spirit of impunity in the national security bureaucracy, a sense that no one will ever be held accountable for any action, including kidnapping, torture, murder, the destruction of evidence, assassination, and perjury. Both words have an implied “from” after them, as in “from terrorism.”

And yet it has been estimated that an American’s annual fatality risk from terrorism is only one in 3.5 million. When it comes to your security and safety, in other words, don’t focus on local lone wolf jihadists; just put your car in the garage and leave it there. After all, your odds on losing your life in a traffic accident in any year are about one in 8,000.

Put another way, Americans have learned how to live with, on average, approximately 38,000 traffic deaths a year in the post-9/11 era without blinking, without investing trillions of dollars in a network of agencies to protect them from vehicles, without recruiting hundreds of thousands of private contractors to help make them safe and secure from cars, trucks, and buses. And yet when it comes to the deaths of tiny numbers of Americans, nothing is too much for our safety and security. More astonishing yet, almost all of this investment has visibly led not to the diminution of terrorism, but to its growth, to ever more terrorists and terror organizations and ever greater insecurity. This, in turn, has spurred the growth of the national security state yet more, even though it has shown little evidence of offering us significant protection.

Car Accident

Keep your car off the road if you think terrorism is a real danger.

Imagine that the government suddenly decided to build high-tech shark fences off every American beach to protect bathers from another kind of headline-inducing predator which strikes even more rarely than terrorists. Imagine as well that an enormous bureaucracy was created to construct and oversee the maintenance of those fences and the launching of armed patrols to take out the global shark population. And imagine as well that the result was a rise in the threat of shark attacks off those coasts, as well as endless claims from the officials in that bureaucracy that they were doing a completely bang-up job. Wouldn’t their word be doubted? Wouldn’t the whole program be reconsidered? Wouldn’t there be a debate in this country about what it means to be safe and secure, and about where our tax dollars were going?

Life itself is a danger zone. It’s not possible to live in total safety and security. So any system that aims to offer that, even for one phenomenon, and then feeds off the very opposite, should be open to question. Certainly, sacrificing things that have long been considered important to American life for protection from the rare and random chance that you might be injured or die is a decision that should be rethought from time to time. In this case, however, it seems that we can no longer imagine what life without a looming national security state might be like.

Now, here’s another word closely associated with the last two: intelligence. Consider it sacrosanct, representing as it does the religion of the national security state. There is only one rule when it comes to intelligence: you can’t have too much of it. Hence, our 17 ever-expanding, intertwined “intelligence” agencies, a vast, still proliferating apparatus for conducting covert ops and gathering information on everyone from presidents and chancellors to peasants in the rural backlands of the planet in every form in which anyone could possibly communicate or simply express themselves or even engage in public play.

This vast world of information overload has, in turn, been plunged into a world of secrecy in which, if it weren’t for leakers and whistleblowers, we would never have any intelligence that they didn’t want us to have. Over these last years, this system has proven intrusive in ways that even the totalitarian states of the previous century couldn’t have imagined, as well as abusive in ways degrading almost beyond imagination. It has also collected more information about all of us than can even be grasped; and yet, as far as we can tell, it has also been eternally a step behind in delivering actionable information to the government on just about any subject you want to mention.

However, whether what it does works or not, is legal or not, is useful or not, doesn't matter in Washington. There, the American intelligence community is unassailable. It emerges from every imbroglio, including the recent one over torture, stronger, not weaker. Its leadership, having made howling mistakes from 9/11 on, is never held accountable for any of them and is always promoted and honored. Oversight of what it does is on the wane. The visibly Orwellian nature of American intelligence is now widely accepted, at least in Washington, as a necessity of our age, of our need for... you guessed it... safety and security.

As a result, its bureaucratic expansion, secret wars, global kill lists, and other activities are largely beyond challenge. In response, for instance, to the disaster of 9/11, a new post, the director of national intelligence, was created to better coordinate the “U.S. intelligence community.” The director's “office,” which started with a staff of 11, now has an estimated 1,750 employees, the sort of growth that can be seen just about everywhere in the intelligence world.

We no longer have the slightest idea what life might be like if, instead of 17 significant intelligence outfits, we had just two of them, or even one. Or whether an intelligence agency operating purely on open-source information might not offer a more useful view of how our world works to American leaders than the vast, secretive, privatized crew of the present moment. We have no idea what our world would be like if the president no longer had his private army, the CIA (not to mention his second private army, the Joint Special Operations Command). None of this could possibly be brought up in the halls of power in Washington.

And here’s another word that’s had its way in the capital in these years: war (and related terms like intervention, counterinsurgency, surge, and raid). It has become the option of choice in situation after situation, while the Pentagon has reached monumental proportions and its elite operatives have become a massive secret military within the military. In any crisis, even essentially civilian ones such as the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa, that military is invariably called upon to ride to the rescue.

You could, in fact, think of these last 13 years in Washington as a sweeping, all-encompassing experiment in modern warfare. The denizens of that city now live in an eternal “wartime,” while from Pakistan to Libya across the Greater Middle East and now much of Africa, U.S. military personnel are eternally engaged in a range of wars, war-like activities, and preparations for future conflicts, while the skies are filled with U.S. planes and drones. At a moment when war seems to be the only go-to option (other than sanctions) in the U.S. foreign policy tool box and a high official can even talk about declaring war on scattered deranged individuals, the results of this military-first global strategy should be considered definitively in. Since 9/11, it has led to a series of well-publicized failures of the first order without a single genuine success, not one instance where anything like a goal Washington set was actually met. Yet a military-first policy remains the unquestioned, unchallenged option of choice and the military budget is largely sacrosanct even for a budget-cutting Congress.

Here, on the other hand, is a word you won’t see in Washington: peace. Once, it was part of the American political lexicon; now, it’s essentially been banished. You’d have to be a wuss to use it.

And here’s another word that’s essentially forbidden: bases. Since World War II, the U.S. has garrisoned the planet in a way achieved by no other imperial power. In the twenty-first century, when even the largest powers have only a few or no military bases outside their national territories, the U.S. still has hundreds scattered around the world. Included in the tally should be the 11 floating towns, loaded with air power — we call them aircraft carriers — that regularly cruise the high seas.

Aircraft Carrier

The aircraft carrier: a constant reminder of American military power throughout the seas.

The Greater Middle East is packed to the seams with U.S. military bases and drone bases have been spreading rapidly as well. This is a living reality in much of the world. In the U.S., it goes essentially unnoticed and almost completely unmentioned. It's so fundamental to Washington’s military-first policies that, while taken for granted, it is beyond discussion or even public acknowledgement. The very idea of beginning to dismantle this empire of bases, which would automatically change Washington’s military stance in relation to the rest of the planet, is similarly beyond consideration, discussion, or thought.

Who knows what it would mean to abolish the CIA, slash the defense budget, scale down American intelligence, dismantle that empire of bases, or return peace to its first-option status? We know nothing about this because we haven’t seen any of it tried, or even seriously discussed, in twenty-first-century Washington.

Decades of the Living Dead

In the title of his prophetic pre-9/11 book Blowback, Chalmers Johnson brought that term of CIA tradecraft out of the closet. He focused on the way covert Agency operations in distant lands carried the seeds of future retaliation on this country. Because those operations were so secret, though, ordinary Americans were incapable of making the connection between what we did and what hit us. Today, in a world filled with blowback, the connections between Washington’s acts and what follows are no longer in the shadows but regularly in plain sight. Yet they are seldom acknowledged, particularly by policymakers in Washington.

In the wake of the 2014 midterm elections, the capital is said to be a big government town being taken over by smaller government types — not, however, if you’re talking about the national security state. With the rarest of exceptions, the “small government” folks, aka Republicans, have never seen an oppressive state power they wouldn’t bow down before and champion. Hence, whatever the situation at hand — Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Ukraine, surveillance — Republican war hawks, now in control of Congress, will invariably demand more.

Nor should you imagine, as the 2016 campaign revs up, that any of this is likely to change in the years to come. If we end up with the much-ballyhooed dynastic contest between Hillary and Jeb (or, if you prefer, Hillary and that eternal presidential wannabe Mitt), here’s what you should already know: whichever candidate steps into the Oval Office in January 2017 will bring along a whole host of suitably retread personalities toting a jostling crowd of retread ideas.

Some of the people the new president will nominate for office or appoint as advisors will be familiar faces, since that's the way of the world in Washington. Naturally, they will carry with them the most familiar of Washington mindsets. Just recall January 2009, when the hope candidate entered the White House bringing with him those economic retreads from the reign of the man from Hope, Larry Summers and Robert Rubin; in foreign and war policy, there was the ur-Clintonista Hillary, Bush military appointee General David Petraeus, and the director of the CIA under George H.W. Bush and secretary of defense under his son, the former cold warrior Robert Gates. Others who weren’t household names or faces from previous administrations might as well have been. In foreign, war, and economic policy, it was a cast of characters eminently suitable for (as I wrote at the time) a political zombie movie.

Similarly, none of the retreads Hillary, Jeb, or Mitt would bring with them will have a new idea or entertain a thought that wanders off the Washington reservation. And that essentially guarantees one thing: Republican or Democrat, it’ll be dead air to 2020 — and if either a Bush or a Clinton is then reelected, until 2025, by which time the U.S. would have been led by those two families for 28 of the last 36 years. Washington is, in this sense, the land of the walking policy dead and war, safety, security, and intelligence (that is, failure and disaster) are ours to the horizon.


Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His new book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (Haymarket Books).

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit's Men Explain Things to Me, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2015 Tom Engelhardt

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