The Great American Disconnect
Posted on Jun 10, 2007
In addition, as the insurgency gained traction and Baghdad fell into disarray as well as sectarian warfare, administration planners began the building of a massively fortified, $600 million, blast-resistant compound of 20-odd buildings in the heart of Baghdad’s Green Zone, the largest “embassy” on the planet, so independent that it would have no need of Iraq for electricity, water, food, or much of anything else. Scheduled to “open” this September, it will be both a citadel and a home for thousands of diplomats, spies, guards, private security contractors and the foreign workers necessary to meet “community” needs.
The Media Blind to the Bases
From 2003 to the present, the work building, maintaining and continually upgrading these bases (and their equivalents in Afghanistan) has never ended. Though the huge base-building contracts were given out long ago, consider just a couple of modest contracts of recent vintage. In March 2006, Dataline Inc. of Norfolk, Virginia was awarded a $5 million contract for “technical control facility upgrades and cable installation,” mainly at “Camp Fallujah, Iraq (25 percent), Camp Al Asad, Iraq (25 percent), [and] Camp Taqaddum, Iraq (25 percent).” In December 2006, Watkinson L.L.C. of Houston was awarded a $13 million “firm-fixed-price contract for design and construction of a heavy aircraft parking apron and open cargo storage yard” for Al-Asad Air Base, “to be completed by Sept. 17, 2007.” In March 2007, Lockheed Martin Integrated Systems was awarded a $73 million contract to “provide recurring requirements such as operations and maintenance support for base local area network, commercial satellite communication, technical control facility, and circuit actions, telephone, land mobile radio and both inside and outside cable plant installations ... at 13 bases in Iraq, Afghanistan and six other nations which fall in the United States Central Command Area of Responsibility.”
And major base building may not be at an end. Keep your eye on Iraqi Kurdistan. According to Juan Cole, the Kurdish press continues to report rumors that American base-building activities are now switching there. Little is known about this, except that some in Washington consider Iraqi Kurdistan an obvious place to “redeploy” American troops in any future partial withdrawal or draw-down scenarios.
Square, Site wide
It didn’t matter that those bases were never officially labeled “permanent.” After all, as the Korea model (now almost six decades old) indicates, such bases, rather than colonies, have long been the American way of empire—and, with rare exceptions, they have arrived and not left. They remain immobile gunboats primed for a kind of eternal armed “diplomacy.” As they cluster tellingly in key regions of the planet, they make up what the Pentagon likes to call our “footprint.”
As Chalmers Johnson has pointed out in his book The Sorrows of Empire, the United States has, mainly since World War II, set up at least 737 such bases, mega and micro—and probably closer to 1,000—worldwide. Everywhere, just as Tony Snow has said, the Americans would officially be “invited” in by the local government and would negotiate a “status of forces agreement,” the modern equivalent of the colonial era’s grant of extraterritoriality, so that the American troops would be minimally subject to foreign courts or control. There are still at least 12 such bases in Korea, 37 on the Japanese island of Okinawa alone, and so on, around the globe.
Since the Gulf War in 1990, such base-creation has been on the rise. The Bush, Clinton, and younger Bush administrations have laid down a string of bases from the old Eastern European satellites of the Soviet Union (Romania, Bulgaria) and the former Yugoslavia through the Greater Middle East (Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates), to the Horn of Africa (Djibouti), into the Indian Ocean (the “British” island of Diego Garcia), and right through Central Asia (Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Pakistan, where we “share” Pakistani bases).
Bases have followed our little wars of recent decades. They were dropped into Saudi Arabia and the small Gulf emirates around the time of our first Gulf War in 1991; into the former Yugoslavia after the Kosovo air war of 1999; into Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the former Central Asian SSRs after the Afghan war of 2001; and into Iraq, of course, after the invasion of 2003 where they were to replace the Saudi bases being mothballed as a response to Osama bin Laden’s claims that Americans were defiling the holiest spots of Islam.
In effect, when it came to bases in the post-9/11 years, the emphasis was, on the one hand, encircling Russia from its former Eastern European satellites to its former Central Asian SSRs and, on the other hand, securing a series of bases across the oil heartlands of the planet, a swath of territory known to the administration back in 2002-2003 as “the arc of instability.” Iraq was, obviously, but part—though a crucial part—of such imperial dreaming about how to dominate the planet. And yet the military ziggurats that made those dreams manifest, and all the billions of taxpayer dollars and the obvious urge for “permanence” that went with them, were largely left out of mainstream reporting on, debate about, or discussion of the occupation of Iraq.
Iraq as Korea, 2003-2007
The administration remained remarkably tight-lipped about all this building activity and what it might mean—beyond periodic denials that any such efforts were “permanent”; and, with rare exceptions, even when journalists reported from Camp Victory or other major bases, they never managed to put them on the reportorial landscape. Those bases—and the colossus of an “embassy” that went with them—just weren’t considered all that important.
Perhaps for reporters and editors, used to an inside-the-Beltway universe in which the United States simply could not act in an imperial manner, the bases were givens—like the American way of life. Evidently, for most reporters, there was, in a sense, nothing to notice. As a consequence, there has been endless discussion about Bush administration “incompetence” (of which there has been plenty), but not the quite competent planning that left such structures impressively on the Iraqi landscape. If the subject wasn’t exactly blacked-out in the United States, it did, at least, undergo a kind of whiteout.
So much about Iraq was up for discussion, but the preponderant evidence on the ground, so utterly solid, carried no weight. It was evidence of nothing. For American reporters, as for American Secretaries of Defense, the full-scale garrisoning of Planet Earth is simply not a news story. As a result, most Americans have had next to no idea that we were creating multibillion-dollar edifices on Iraqi soil meant for a near eternity.
Remarkably enough, when asked late last year by pollsters from the Program on International Policy Attitudes whether we should have the “permanent” bases in Iraq, a whopping 68% of Americans said no. But when the issue of bases and permanency arises at all in our press, it’s usually in the context of Iraqi “suspicions” on the subject. (Oh, those paranoid foreigners!) Typically, the Los Angeles Times cited Michael O’Hanlon, an oft-quoted analyst at the Brookings Institution, saying the following of the president’s endorsement of the Korea model: “In trying to convey resolve, [Bush] conveys the presumption that we’re going to be there for a long time. ... It’s unhelpful to handling the politics of our presence in Iraq.” No, Michael, the bases are our politics in Iraq.
Generally, the Democrats and their major presidential candidates line up with O’Hanlon. And yet no significant Democratic proposal for “withdrawal” from Iraq is really a full-scale withdrawal proposal. They are all proposals to withdraw American combat brigades (perhaps 50,000-60,000 troops) from the country, while withdrawing most other Americans into those giant bases that are too awkward to mention.
Suddenly, however, discussion of the “Korea model” has entered the news and so put those bases—and the idea of a permanent military presence in Iraq—in the American viewfinder for what may be the first time. You only have to look at Iraq today to know that, like so much else our imperial dreamers have conjured up, this fantasy too—of a calming Iraq developing over the decades into a friendly democracy, while American troops sit tight in their giant base-towns—is doomed to one kind of failure or another, while the oil lands of the planet threaten to implode.
The Korea model is just one of the administration’s many grotesque, self-interested misreadings of history, but it isn’t new. It isn’t a fantasy the Ppresident and his top officials have just stumbled upon in post-surge desperation. It’s the fantasy they rumbled into Baghdad aboard back in 2003. It’s the imperial fantasy that has never left their minds from that first shock-and-awe moment until now.
Give them credit for consistency. On this “model,” whatever it may be called, the Bush administration bet the store and, on it, they have never wavered. Because of some of the worst reporting on an important topic in recent memory, most Americans have lived out these last years in remarkable ignorance of what was actually being built in Iraq. Now, perhaps, that great American disconnect is beginning to end, which may be more bad news for the Bush administration.
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.
© 2007 Tom Engelhardt
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