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Debacle! How Two Wars in the Greater Middle East Revealed the Weakness of the Global Superpower

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Posted on Jan 4, 2012
United States Marine Corps Official Page (CC-BY)

U.S. Marines patrol a desert in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in June 2010.

By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch

This piece originally appeared at TomDispatch.

It was to be the war that would establish empire as an American fact.  It would result in a thousand-year Pax Americana.  It was to be “mission accomplished” all the way.  And then, of course, it wasn’t.  And then, almost nine dismal years later, it was over (sorta).

It was the Iraq War, and we were the uninvited guests who didn’t want to go home.  To the last second, despite President Obama’s repeated promise that all American troops were leaving, despite an agreement the Iraqi government had signed with George W. Bush’s administration in 2008, America’s military commanders continued to lobby and Washington continued to negotiate for 10,000 to 20,000 U.S. troops to remain in-country as advisors and trainers.

Only when the Iraqis simply refused to guarantee those troops immunity from local law did the last Americans begin to cross the border into Kuwait.  It was only then that our top officials began to hail the thing they had never wanted, the end of the American military presence in Iraq, as marking an era of “accomplishment.”  They also began praising their own “decision” to leave as a triumph, and proclaimed that the troops were departing with—as the president put it—“their heads held high.”

In a final flag-lowering ceremony in Baghdad, clearly meant for U.S. domestic consumption and well attended by the American press corps but not by Iraqi officials or the local media, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta spoke glowingly of having achieved “ultimate success.”  He assured the departing troops that they had been a “driving force for remarkable progress” and that they could proudly leave the country “secure in knowing that your sacrifice has helped the Iraqi people begin a new chapter in history, free from tyranny and full of hope for prosperity and peace.”  Later on his trip to the Middle East, speaking of the human cost of the war, he added, “I think the price has been worth it.”

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And then the last of those troops really did “come home”—if you define “home” broadly enough to include not just bases in the U.S. but also garrisons in Kuwait, elsewhere in the Persian Gulf, and sooner or later in Afghanistan.

On December 14th at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the president and his wife gave returning war veterans from the 82nd Airborne Division and other units a rousing welcome.  With some in picturesque maroon berets, they picturesquely hooahed the man who had once called their war “dumb.” Undoubtedly looking toward his 2012 campaign, President Obama, too, now spoke stirringly of “success” in Iraq, of “gains,” of his pride in the troops, of the country’s “gratitude” to them, of the spectacular accomplishments achieved as well as the hard times endured by “the finest fighting force in the history of the world,” and of the sacrifices made by our “wounded warriors” and “fallen heroes.”

He praised “an extraordinary achievement nine years in the making,” framing their departure this way: “Indeed, everything that American troops have done in Iraq—all the fighting and all the dying, the bleeding and the building, and the training and the partnering—all of it has led to this moment of success… [W]e’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.”

And these themes—including the “gains” and the “successes,” as well as the pride and gratitude, which Americans were assumed to feel for the troops—were picked up by the media and various pundits.  At the same time, other news reports were highlighting the possibility that Iraq was descending into a new sectarian hell, fueled by an American-built but largely Shiite military, in a land in which oil revenues barely exceeded the levels of the Saddam Hussein era, in a capital city which still had only a few hours of electricity a day, and that was promptly hit by a string of bombings and suicide attacks from an al-Qaeda affiliated group (nonexistent before the invasion of 2003), even as the influence of Iran grew and Washington quietly fretted.

A Consumer Society at War

It’s true that, if you were looking for low-rent victories in a near trillion-dollar war, this time, as various reporters and pundits pointed out, U.S. diplomats weren’t rushing for the last helicopter off an embassy roof amid chaos and burning barrels of dollars.  In other words, it wasn’t Vietnam and, as everyone knew, that was a defeat.  In fact, as other articles pointed out, our—as no fitting word has been found for it, let’s go with—withdrawal was a magnificent feat of reverse engineering, worthy of a force that was a nonpareil on the planet.

Even the president mentioned it.  After all, having seemingly moved much of the U.S. to Iraq, leaving was no small thing.  When the U.S. military began stripping the 505 bases it had built there at the cost of unknown multibillions of taxpayer dollars, it sloughed off $580 million worth of no-longer-wanted equipment on the Iraqis.  And yet it still managed to ship to Kuwait, other Persian Gulf garrisons, Afghanistan, and even small towns in the U.S. more than two million items ranging from Kevlar armored vests to port-a-potties.  We’re talking about the equivalent of 20,000 truckloads of materiel.

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By jonf, January 5, 2012 at 1:55 pm Link to this comment

great article. Now, one supposes, it is time to restore American Power. So, that must mean another war,maybe in Iran this time.

What a pity. This freaking war on terror has us in its deadly grip.

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By diamond, January 5, 2012 at 1:50 pm Link to this comment

“Imperialism has more important fish to fry than simply enriching defense contractors.”

Unfortunately that’s simply not true. The United States’ entire impetus to war and invasion is not driven solely by money, of course, but the need to make huge profits drives the arms corporations the same as it drives any other corporations. And how do they make those huge profits? By manufacturing enemies and manufacturing wars and pumping weapons into conflicts in the third world, many of which are the result of American meddling: Haiti being a case in point, or the entire Middle East. The fact that literally millions of people lose their lives or become refugees doesn’t interest them in the slightest. The only people they are answerable to are the shareholders. They are moral pygmies, but that is a necessity in their line of work.

War now kills many more civilians than soldiers and the time is not far off when 100% of those killed in a war waged on the third world by the first world will be civilians. The advent of drones only makes this more inevitable. General Sir Rupert Smith (the man who broke the siege of Sarajevo) writes with forensic clarity on why this form of warfare has been retained and expanded:

‘The paradigm of interstate industrial warfare,’ he writes, ‘still lives on conceptually in our age of confrontations and reduced conflicts despite its loss of utility after August 1945. Like the burnt out and hollow shanties left in the wake of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki the structures of interstate industrial war were both useless and dangerous to those who sought them. None the less, like those cities, the paradigm was reconstructed for political and pragmatic purposes, but unlike them, it never took on new life’ (From ‘The Utility of Force: the Art of War in the Modern World’, General Sir Rupert Smith).

The idea of interstate industrial war was the driving force behind the arms race that took place during the Cold War, even though as Smith points out, the weapons being developed would have served no purpose if used in this form of war. A massed military force could only be a target for nuclear weapons and the ultimate goal of interstate industrial war, namely the capture of the State along with its people, infrastructure and resources ‘would be destroyed by the war’.  The demise of the Soviet Union, far from causing the West to ease back on weapons production and military aggression, caused a frisson of hubris and a rush of blood to the head followed by the invention of the ‘War on Terror’- which is a war by the developed capitalist world on the undeveloped world, its people and its resources. The evidence for this is plentiful.

In a sense the threat doesn’t matter: the main thing is not to let anyone change the game. ‘The point is the same: to make sure there’s no threat to the defense budget’ (‘Private Warriors’).  Once it was obvious that North Korea was in the grip of starvation and economic collapse the threat boosters turned their attention to China, creating doomsday scenarios in which China sank the US fleet and ‘the Middle Kingdom ruled once more’, (From ‘Private Warriors, Ken Silverstein).  The desperate need for a credible global threat was summed up by Colin Powell when he told Congress in 1991, ‘I’m running out of demons. I’m down to Kim Il Sung and Castro’.  Which is why the Pentagon and the arms corporations have put so much time and effort into creating demons in order to maintain Cold War levels of arms spending.  The Pentagon is caught up in a fantasy of total power and unaccountable, technological war. It has already created disaster in Iraq and Afghanistan and may yet do the same in Iran but the ghost in the machine is the insatiable lust for profits.

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By mt56, January 5, 2012 at 9:30 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

If the war is “over,” how come my friend’s son is about to redeploy to Iraq? How
many other people in the military are going back there? It would be interesting to
get some hard data.

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By bonito, January 5, 2012 at 8:50 am Link to this comment

How do you Mr. President, welcome Home with heads
held high troops you send to kill other Human beings,
in their own homes, in their own towns and cities, in
their own country, in a War that was authorized by
that great mind Bush the junior, based on a lie. Was
that stupid aggression really worth the tens of
thousands of Iraqi lives, and thousands of U.S.
Troops, not to mention the Trillion or so of Dollars
wasted on a failed foreign adventure, that could very
well go down in History as the greatest Military
Blunder since the charge of the light Brigade.

Ask the Soldiers and Marines that lived this
Nightmare, then and only then if they should answer
truthfully, will you know for sure if this TRIP was
really necessary.

Young Men and Women volunteer many times as a result
of owning a false sense of Bravado, or a strong
desire for adventure, brought on by an abnormal
amount of Flag Waving. Others because just maybe this
is the only way to get three meals a day and a tent
or fox hole to sleep in at night. I speak from my own
experience some many years ago. 

I hesitate to believe that We should be proud of our
( troops ) that are engaged in Genocide, just because
many Chicken Hawks in Congress think that it is a
good idea to go kill a bunch of people just to prove
We are the only true Superpower and/or to support a
failed Foreign Policy.

Allow their families to welcome them home, that is
their responsibility, the sooner We as a Nation cease
to glorify our many illegal Wars, and, the Warriors
We send to fight them, the sooner We may be proud of
ourselves and our Country. The many dollars saved
could be better spent on improving the lives of our
own Citizens, rather than buying the friendship of
our former enemies. The same rich people will still
own those countries as before, and the people their
will be no better off than if We had not invaded
them.

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By Arabian Sinbad, January 5, 2012 at 8:20 am Link to this comment

An excellent article indeed!

If this article confirms a basic fact it’s that the American political-military-industrial complex is evil through and through, and that these two destructive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were based on lies, deception, misinformation and cheating the American public in their blood and treasure.

But that’s not the worst part if it! The worst is that the evil perpetrators continue to propagate these lies and deceptions to glorify them as victories and achievements as the average enlightened and educated citizen see them for the evil and betrayal that they are! A total disregard and insult to the intelligence and moral sense of those who know better!

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By race_to_the_bottom, January 5, 2012 at 5:58 am Link to this comment

By diamond, January 4 at 1:11 pm

I think another, more important reason to fake the star wars test was to convice the Soviets that it was viable and so force them to spend huge sums to counteract it. Imperialism has more important fish to fry than simply enriching defense contractors.

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By race_to_the_bottom, January 5, 2012 at 5:45 am Link to this comment

The National Security State nominally headed by Obama has recently realized that while the US has been buried in a quagmire in the Middle East and Central Asia, China has been extending its influence throughout the world, and the Asian Pacific area in the first place. The entire area has come to realize that China saved the entire area from a US/European style meltdown.

So the US is rushing to put out the fire in the only way it knows how. Send in the Marines! The “return to Asia”, or whatever they call it. It won’t wash. Only idiots in the are will hitch themselves to the attemtp to “contain” China, as the latest developments in the China/Japanese relationship prove.

At the same time, of course, the US is not really through with the Middle East. It is determined to wage war on some level with Iran. It is actually already doing so.  A quagmire on steriods. As hard as it is to believe, it now appears that US policy in the region is determined as much, or maybe more, in Tel Aviv as in Washington, a completely absurd situation.

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By Obamais God, January 5, 2012 at 12:02 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Why the hell did we not steal the Iraqi oil? Why invade a country and not take the only thing worth invading it for? That was the biggest mistake of the war. Otherwise, only 4500 dead, nothing compared to Vietnam or Korea or World Wars I and II. And a small city in the form of an embassy. How is this a debacle? What war isn’t? All in all, our military is still worshipped, the middle east is in its “spring”, and the Taliban is open to talking to the US, might makes right.

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By SteveL, January 4, 2012 at 11:14 pm Link to this comment

Three points:  1 Anyone who ever peaked into a history book would never put
their military in Afghanistan or Iraq.  2 If you are going to ignore history and go
there anyway what are you going to do that is different from what has been tried
before?  3 Maybe Bush and Co. understood the first two points all to well and got
us in a perpetual quagmire in order to empty the U.S. treasury into contractors like
Halliburton and Blackwater’s pockets

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By flaco, January 4, 2012 at 5:18 pm Link to this comment

@diamond.

It did make perfect sense here too.

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By gerard, January 4, 2012 at 3:16 pm Link to this comment

One thing this recent debacle has done is to push war off the page as the only, or the most viable way to manage “foreign policy.”  One more hatchet job needs doing:  Moving investment policy away from military and related production and directing it into domestic reconstruction, education, affordable housing, clean environmental developments and restoration of truly democratic civil rights and jurisdiction. 
  Essential to all this will be restoration of full rights guaranteed to all citizens by the original Constitution and elimination of recently installed limitations and outrages such as the legitization of torture.
  We have plenty to do, and maybe the most rewarding incentive is that it won’t be necessary to kill anyone in the entire process, but instead will simply restore fuller, better, happier lives for us all.

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By diamond, January 4, 2012 at 2:16 pm Link to this comment

That should have gone to the Kucinich story but the Truthdig computer decided otherwise and sent it to this story for reasons which elude me.

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By diamond, January 4, 2012 at 2:11 pm Link to this comment

“Sweet-smiling, sweet-talking Dennis Kucinich, and Alan Grayson, Bernie Sanders, Ron Paul, and the others in Congress who speak and/or vote against war or bank fraud or the erosion of civil rights are part of the biggest war machine on the face of the earth. They don’t really want to change it because they enjoy and benefit from being a part of it. They’re as hypocritical as the people who vote for them.”

Even if that wasn’t true, the system is so flawed and so corrupt that people like Kucinich are seen as traitors by the pigs with their trotters firmly in the trough. And it goes much further than mere politicians. The corruption is throughout the Pentagon, the arms corporations, the CIA, Wall Street and every part of the secret state and the invisible government.

Why is all this corruption tolerated by the officer corps themselves? Ernie Fitzgerald, a former Air Force official fired by Nixon because he blew the whistle on cost overruns on Lockheed’s C-130 sums it up:

‘...if you don’t raise too much of a fuss about horror stories you come across, when you retire a nice man will come calling. Typically he’ll be another retired officer. And he’ll be driving a fancy car…and wearing a $2,000 suit and Gucci shoes and a Rolex watch. He will offer to make a comfortable life for you by getting you a comfortable job at one of the contractors. Now if you go around kicking people in the shins, raising hell about the outrages committed by the big contractors, no nice man comes calling. It’s that simple’ (From ‘Private Warriors’, Ken Silverstein.

Clearly there is only so much room at the arms corporation trough and anyone who squeals on their fellow porkers gets shut out. In all but the case of a truly principled person such as Fitzgerald, this threat is enough to ensure conformity and obedience and so the taxpayer goes on getting dudded and wars go on being manufactured for corporate gain via plundering the third world, as in the days of the British Empire, forerunner of the American Empire. Kucinich will remain on the fringe because, let’s face it, he’s just not a team player.

Tests on ‘Star Wars’ were faked during Reagan’s time.
‘In 1984 a developmental interceptor homed in on and destroyed a Minuteman missile target. The Pentagon immediately claimed that the test showed that it was possible ‘to hit a bullet with a bullet’ and proved that Star Wars could work’.

But all was not as it seemed. Nine years after this test the ‘New York Times’ revealed in a story that this exercise was faked. Scientists had done a couple of things to influence the outcome: a homing beacon had been placed on the Minuteman and this heated it and made it much more visible to the interceptor. And if this didn’t work the scientists also put high explosives on the missile which would explode in the event of a near miss, making it seem that the interceptor had destroyed the missile. The reason for doing this was not only to give Reagan hope that Star Wars, his pet project, would perhaps go into production but there was also an economic imperative. One of those involved in faking the test almost seemed to beg for absolution.

‘We would lose hundreds of millions of dollars in Congress if we didn’t perform successfully’, he told the New York Times.

A former Lockheed engineer, Houston Rice, told Ken Silverstein in a phone interview that the contractors actually knew that the so-called ‘Star Wars Astrodome’ was unworkable. The engineers, he said, knew promises made by the company during the bidding process on a Star Wars component were ‘ridiculous’:

‘They simply outlied the competition and when they got the contract they turned it over to engineers who knew it couldn’t be done’.

That being the case, people like Kucinich are the least of America’s problems. It’s the people whose faces you never see that are the problem.

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