Blogs > HNN > America's Iraq, Hendrix's Army and the Arrogance of Power

Feb 19, 2005 8:58 pm

America's Iraq, Hendrix's Army and the Arrogance of Power

Thanks to all those who commented on my letter to John Yoo. As of yet, no reply. Tikkun magazine has agreed to run my letter with his reply if he's interested. I will keep people informed.

Where to start since the last week? It seems the Bush Administration has once again gotten its way in Iraq—no surprise there. Power rarely loses, especially when the opposition is either confused, coopted, pathetic or some combination of the three. So now, as the Shi‘i coalition tries to put together a government, the contender for the post of PM, Ibrahim Jaafari, explained in a NY Times article that he "would first try to halt the violence and not push for coalition troops to leave anytime soon."

The good news, at least, is that Ash-Sharq al-Awsat is reporting that interim finance minister and America's main supporter of privatizing everything in Iraq that isn't nailed down Adil Abdul Mahdi, has withdrawn his name for the race for PM. But with Jaafari refusing to call for a timetable for a US withdrawal from Iraq, and the US-dependent Kurds happy to see us stay as long as possible, and the insurgency continuing unabated and thus keeping the Shi‘a scared enough not to risk demanding the US leave any time soon (thus Jaafari's position), it looks like Washington need not worry about being asked to leave in the near future.

But in this situation, why is no one asking the Administration what "leaving" means? I mean, while President Bush has said that the US would leave if asked (and it's very nice of him to say so), what does leaving mean—actually withdrawing every single US soldier? Abandoning the more than one dozen expensive and valuable bases that when I was in Iraq last spring were about the only thing being built (rather than destroyed) in Iraq? Giving up the corporate cash-cow of the occupation and reconstruction? Not controlling or at least having a strong hand in managing the petroleum sector? I cannot imagine a scenario where the US would willingly leave Iraq with no troops and no contracts behind. And this is why things are not going to get tangibly better in Iraq until the US is sure that when it leaves, it's leaving significant personnel, material and agreements behind…

And this is why I'm a bit confused about Thomas Friedman's recent column, "No Mullah Left Behind,", which I actually find myself agreeing with in large parts. Friedman argues that "As a geo-green, I believe that combining environmentalism and geopolitics is the most moral and realistic strategy the U.S. could pursue today. Imagine if President Bush used his bully pulpit and political capital to focus the nation on sharply lowering energy consumption and embracing a gasoline tax." Who couldn't agree with that? But let's remember, at least when he wrote The Lexus and the Olive Tree Lexuses wasn't exactly known for their fuel efficiency (and with a price tag of $50,000 plus for the new hybrid RX400, how many people can take advantage of its new-found "geo-greenness")?

And Friedman is right on the money, and worth quoting, when he says that "What would that buy? It would buy reform in some of the worst regimes in the world, from Tehran to Moscow. It would reduce the chances that the U.S. and China are going to have a global struggle over oil - which is where we are heading… It would significantly improve America's standing in the world by making us good global citizens… Sadly, the Bush team won't even consider this. It prefers cruise missiles to cruise controls."

But what Friedman doesn't seem to understand is that the "weapondollar-petrodollar coalition" (as Israeli economists J. Nitzan and Sh. Bichler term it) that he is taking on is in fact at the heart of the project of neoliberal globalization that he has so wholeheartedly supported the last decade. (This dynamics is also why the call for "greater coordination" by the US and Europe in promoting peace is in the ME by Ghassan Rubeiz in the CS Monitor is impractical and in fact unwise—any coordination will not be for the good of the region; that's fore sure…) Friedman doesn't get that the US doesn't mind the mullahs in Iran feeling "emboldened" by unprecedented oil profits. In fact, the more they're emboldened the better the system functions; precisely because it needs continual tension, confrontation and manageable conflict and violence to sustain itself and even grow (for several concise versions of their arguments, go to Certainly, without the Axis of Evil and its Outposts of Tyranny, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld wouldn't have the pleasure of going before Congress to ask for money to complete researching a bunker-busting nuclear weapon—not that the US has any plans to use it, of course. We just need to study the issue. Can we think of a better way to get Iran to cooperate than developing bunker busting weapons? How brilliant.

Here's enough to make my blood curdle and actually leave the country. In today's NY Times there's an article titled "On Maneuvers with the Army's Game Sqade,, which explores the close working relationship between violent video game designers and the US military and their joint quest to come up with video games that can duplicate combat simulators. Why is this so important? Let's here the Army explain it: The goal of the video game, "America's Army," which is among the most popular combat simulation games around, is to "strategically communicate the Army's values to the American public." I could make an unpleasant allusion to the Army's values as displayed in GTMO, Abu Ghraib, tens of thousands of civilian deaths, and dozens of violations of the Geneva Conventions every day, but a retired Army major who is one of the projects directors explains that "if players consistently kill civilians… they end up in Leavenworth."

How nice! I guess the world has nothing to worry about now.

The director continued, "We don't expect that a young person is going to play the game and run out and join the Army…We want the game to help us form a more long-term connection with the young person." And how do they do that? Especially to the games target audience of 13-year old boys (any parents out here getting queasy yet? I sure am) put Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile" on the soundtrack.

Okay, it's nice to know that guitar gods can still inspire kids 30 years after their untimely demise; but let me get this straight: Jimi Hendrix, who actually served his country in war time—unlike you know who—and came back and opposed the war with every ounce of blood he could pour into his guitar in songs like "Machine Gun" and his incredible Woodstock performance of the "Star-Spangled Banner," is now being used to sell the US Army? As someone who's been playing guitar most of my life this is twisted and disgusting enough to make me want to write something that will get me sent to GTMO until my son is of draftable age. So I'll move on… But those who'd like to understand the situation in more depth should check out my colleague and friend Simon Penny's discussion of the "military-entertainment complex".

But it gets even worse. I have just come across a quote from an October 17, 2004 article by Ron Suskind in the New York Times Magazine:
In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency. The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'

This is the heart of what I term the "Axis of arrogance and ignorance" that dominate US foreign policy today. it's the same utter hubris that characterized pervious empires, and has lead neocon intellectuals like Michael Ledeen to blather on about how the US is the "most revolutionary power" in history, for whom "creative destruction is our middle name." One could go on an on piling up quotes, but the point is clear, and it shows why Iraq is both so important a battlefield in the struggle against American empire, and why the Bush Administration, as the senior official noted, is going to keep on "creating new realities" while the rest of the world struggles just to keep up with our last piece of handiwork.

But here's where it gets interesting. While I have long argued that whatever its rhetoric on democracy the Bush Administration and the larger existing world system require authoritarianism and a constant low level but manageable conflict punctuated by periodic mass violence to survive, I am beginning to think that there is a scenario in which the Bush Administration would in fact—rather than just rhetoric—support "democracy" in the Middle East. This would be one in which the region goes through a similar process as occurred in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism (indeed, Bush Administration officials have used the Eastern Europe analogy recently). What happened in Eastern Europe is that during the last decade or more of their existence the socialist states increasingly lost their legitimacy in the eyes of citizens at the same time they gradually lost the ability to provide the basic services—inexpensive staple goods, universal healthcare and education, etc—that constituted their end of the "authoritarian bargain" they made with their peoples. At the same time what Vaclav Havel called the "parallel polis" of alternative structures evolved based on "informal networks" and gray and black markets to fill the void created by a slowly crumbling statist system. As these networks became increasingly powerful citizens had new avenues for securing their needs and interests, which further eroded the hegemony of the state (meaning its ability to rule by consent (however passive) as much if not more than by straight domination/coercion).

By the late 1980s, the balance of power between the states and their societies with their alternative networks and economies had shifted so much towards the latter that the socialist/communist states of the Eastern Bloc collapsed of their own (largely) dead weight. This phenomenon in fact bears some very interesting similarities to the Middle East, where the tradition of interventionist and even socialist-leaning states in countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Syria or Iran, is also shakier than ever. It is this fact that has neocons so excited. With the right—in the neocon mind, violent—push, why shouldn't the Middle East follow in Eastern Europe's footsteps? Only a closet racist would deny the Arab world it's chance to embrace democracy and free markets.

But it's not just that the Eastern Bloc collapsed; it's what happened next: most of the important countries—Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, etc.—both embraced officially neoliberal globalization and the free market and joined NATO. This means that at once their economies where completely opened to "Western" corporations but at the same time they had to spend large amounts of much needed hard currency on "modernizing" their armed forces through the purchase of American, British and French weapons. Yet while anyone who's been to Prague or Budapest lately will assume that, however Faustian, the bargain with the West was well worth it, a new report in the Guardian points out that for the majority of the citizens of the major Eastern European countries their economies—that is, their individual standards of living—has actually decreased significantly in the last decade, precisely because of the impact of neoliberal globalization and hugely expensive arms purchases on their fragile economies.

Specifically, Neil Clark wrote in the February 10, 2005 issue that "neoliberalism has delivered unemployment and lower living standards for the majority in Eastern Europe. (to cite one example of what's happening there, "In Poland, a country where 17% of the population now live below the poverty line, the government has recently spent $3.5bn on new fighter planes and $250m worth of anti-tank missiles." A similar fate could easily await the people of the ME if the region fully joins the globalized (i.e., neoliberalized) economy, because as of now despite the myriad problems Arab/Muslim countries have among the lowest levels of poverty and inequality in the world. It is unlikely that many residents of the region would trade the little food and housing security they have for the gilded promises of an American-style consumer paradise which they know from their experiences with the system and the US specifically are probably an unachievable dream in their country. And this is why America must "pacify" Iraq in order to make it "safe for democracy" and free markets.

Of course, Iraq has enough oil to be able to survive (at least the Shi‘i and Sunni parts) fairly well under US domination as long as the US isn't too greedy. Much of the rest of the Arab/Muslim world don't have that option, which is why the next few years will be extremely interesting.

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