Hijacking the American Plane of State


Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and 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 latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

Isn’t there something strangely reassuring when your eyeballs are gripped by a “mystery” on the news that has no greater meaning and yet sweeps all else away?  This, of course, is the essence of the ongoing tale of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.  Except to the relatives of those on board, it never really mattered what happened in the cockpit that day.  To the extent that the plane’s disappearance was solvable, the mystery could only end in one of two ways: it landed somewhere (somehow unnoticed, a deep unlikelihood) or it crashed somewhere, probably in an ocean.  End of story.  It was, however, a tale with thrilling upsides when it came to filling airtime, especially on cable news.  The fact that there was no there there allowed for the raising of every possible disappearance trope -- from Star Trekkian black holes to the Bermuda Triangle to Muslim terrorists -- and it had the added benefit of instantly evoking a popular TV show.  It was a formula too good to waste, and wasted it wasn’t.

The same has been true of the story that, in the U.S., came to vie with it for the top news spot: the devastating mudslide in Washington State.  An act of nature, sweeping out of nowhere, buries part of a tiny community, leaving an unknown but possibly large number of people dead.  Was anyone still alive under all that mud?  (Such potential “miracles” are like manna from heaven for the TV news.)  How many died?  These questions mattered locally and to desperate relatives of those who had disappeared, but otherwise had little import.  Yes, unbridled growth, lack of attention to expected disasters, and even possibly climate change were topics that might have been attached to the mudslide horror.  As a gruesome incident, it could have stood in for a lot, but in the end it stood in for nothing except itself and that was undoubtedly its abiding appeal.

Both stories had the added benefit (for TV) of an endless stream of distraught relatives: teary or weeping or stoic or angry faces in desperately tight close-ups making heartfelt pleas for more information.  For the media, it was like the weather before climate change came along. 

In response, just about anything else that could pass for news was swept aside.  Given a media that normally rushes heedlessly from one potential 24/7 story to another, this was striking.  In the case of Flight 370, for instance, on the 21st day after its disappearance, it still led NBC’s Nightly News with Brian Williams (with the mudslide, one week after it happened, the number two story).

In those weeks, only one other story broke their stranglehold on the news.  It was the seemingly critical question of what in the world was going on in Ukraine.  There was the Russian military move into the Crimea, the referendum on that peninsula, its annexation, the alarm of the U.S. and the European Union, the imposition of (modest) sanctions, and various warnings of a Russian military build-up and possible invasion of eastern Ukraine.  Unlike the other two stories, it seemed consequential enough.  And yet in some eerie way, it, too, came to resemble them.  It was as if with the news on Ukraine we were being sucked back into another era -- that of the superpower-run twentieth century.

The question that seemed to loom was this: Are we in a new (i.e., the old) Cold War?  It was so front and center that it sent opinion pollsters scrambling and they promptly discovered that half of all Americans thought we were -- itself less a testament to American opinion than to the overwhelming media narrative that we were indeed living through the Cold War redux.

Was the Soviet Union being raised from the dead?  Think of this as the Flight 370 of global political coverage.  It had everything a story needed: people in the square; a foreign leader who glowered just like a movie villain should and, for once in the twenty-first century, wasn’t a U.S. president or vice president; and fears of Russian troops entering the rest of Ukraine, with Lithuania, Estonia, or some other former satellite of the Soviet Union next in line.  Where would it end?  How could Vladimir Putin’s juggernaut be stopped?

As a story, it was a time warp miracle all its own.  After so many years, an American president was denouncing not al-Qaeda, or the Taliban, or the Iraqis, or the Iranians, but the Russians.  Once again, as in the good old bad old days, U.S. officials could decry the tyranny of a major state and its dangers to the globe with a straight face.  There was finally a black-and-white tale of international morality in which Americans could denounce an invasion.  It had the comfy familiarity of an old-fashioned script, one whose ending everybody already knew.  It implied that the world was once again easy to grasp, that everything was finally back in order -- the good guys and the bad guys, East and West, freedom and tyranny.

As an old script, it had all the fearsome charms of familiarity.  While signaling danger, it actually helped tame a world that otherwise looked unsettling indeed.

As it happens, however, Soviet armies will never again threaten to plunge through the Fulda Gap.  The Warsaw Pact is long gone, never to be revived, and Germany will remain a united powerhouse, not a divided land.  Argue as you will about whether the Russians or Putin are “evil,” one thing is certain, there is no “empire” to go with it.  President Obama was on the mark recently when he referred to Putin’s Russia as a “regional power” and not a superpower at all.  Not even close.  If anything, it’s a country that, thanks to NATO, the U.S., and the European Union, already had its back to the wall, with its former “satellites” long ago stripped away, and Ukraine looking like it was about to go, too.  (After all, an American diplomat, talking tough, was secretly recorded seemingly sorting out a future Ukrainian government with the local American ambassador!)

Russia may not even quite be a regional powerhouse.  Its economy is shaky and, unlike the Soviet Union, it is now largely an oil and gas state and, worse yet, its energy reserves are expected to be in decline in future decades.

A Planet for the Taking

So, no, Virginia, Flight 370 was not commandeered by aliens and Vladimir Putin is not Joseph Stalin’s younger brother.  The U.S. is not in a new Cold War, its troops do not stand in any danger of going toe-to-toe with Russian invaders, and a two-superpower world is dead and buried, but so, it seems, is a one superpower world.  History is a powerful tool, but sometimes when lost stories and old scripts dominate the headlines, it’s worth asking whether, behind the scrim of the familiar and the empty, there might not lurk an unnerving world, a new age that no one cares to focus on.

As with a magician, sometimes you have to look where he isn’t pointing to catch sight of reality.  With that in mind, I’d like to nominate British journalist Patrick Cockburn for a prize.  In the midst of the recent headlines, in the most important article no one noticed, he pointed out something genuinely unnerving about our world.

Yes, we’re all aware that the U.S. invasion of Iraq didn’t exactly work out as planned and that Afghanistan has been a nearly 13-year disaster, even though the U.S. faced the most ragtag of minority insurgencies in both places.  What, however, about the monumental struggle that used to be called the Global War on Terror?  After all, we got Osama bin Laden.  It took a while, but SEAL Team 6 shot him down in his hideout in Pakistan.  And for years, thanks to the CIA’s drone assassination campaigns in the Pakistani tribal borderlands, Yemen, and Somalia (as well as a full scale hunter-killer operation in Iraq while we were still occupying that country), we’ve been told that endless key al-Qaeda “lieutenants” have been sent to their deaths and that al-Qaeda in Afghanistan has been reduced to 50-100 members.Yet Cockburn concludes: “Twelve years after the ‘war on terror’ was launched it has visibly failed and al-Qaeda-type jihadis, once confined to a few camps in Afghanistan, today rule whole provinces in the heart of the Middle East.”  Look across that region today and from Pakistan to Libya, you see the rise, not the fall, of jihadis of every type.  In Syria and parts of Iraq, groups that have associated themselves with al-Qaeda now have a controlling military presence in territories the size of, as Cockburn points out, Great Britain.  He calls al-Qaeda’s recent rise as the jihadi brand name of choice and the failure of the U.S. campaign against it “perhaps the most extraordinary development of the 21st century.”  And that, unlike the claims we've been hearing at the top of the news for weeks now, might not be an exaggeration.

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