If you go through life without making any enemies you’re doing something wrong. If you go through life making a lot of enemies you’re doing something worse.
For a long time, the US contented itself with one enemy, the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the CIA conducted covert operations such as rigging elections for dictators and assassinating their opponents. But those thus tyrannized had neither the inclination nor the resources to retaliate against the US.
Then, operating under the illusion that the mujahideen in Afghanistan were “freedom fighters,” as Ronald Reagan called them, we armed and supported them to the tune of billions of dollars. After driving the Soviets out, though, they were feeling their oats and looked around for a new target.
Watching us stand by as Israel poured salt in the wounds of Palestine and as, during the Gulf War, we stationed our troops in their holy land, Saudi Arabia, they found one what. Armed with our shoulder-mounted Stinger, among other weapons, the mujahideen turned around and bit the hand that fed them.
In other words, both by arming them and alienating them, we constructed enemies out of whole cloth. Who says the US doesn’t make anything anymore?
Then we retaliated for 9/11 against a sitting (Saddam Hussein) instead of a moving target (bin Laden). Our lack of discrimination sent the message that all of the Middle East was fair game. Voila — instant enemies: all you can fight.
To the right, making enemies is a problem only if you’re a wimpy liberal. To most Americans, it just comes with the territory when you’re in the right. To our corporate-friendly administration, it justifies billions for defense.
In fact, our overwrought foreign policy almost seems like a make-work scheme for defense industries. If indeed it is a New Deal for defense, then the Department of Homeland Security is the largest WPA project ever.
Presumably, the term “homeland” was chosen to make us feel safe. But to those with even a glancing knowledge of the past, it’s a sick joke. Its uses the terminology of our two most formidable foes from last century: the Nazis, who called Germany the fatherland, and Russia — the motherland.
Besides, a homeland is a region from whose loins sprung the ethnic group inhabiting it. The US, a melting pot, is the exact opposite. “Is that guy an Arab?” we wonder as we pass someone on the street. “Or a Hispanic?”
Even sicker is how little bang for the buck we’re getting from the Department of Homeland Security for $30 billion this year. In his recent Mother Jones series on the DHS, veteran journalist James Ridgeway writes that “safeguards against domestic terrorist attacks. . . despite a few marginal improvements, remain terrifyingly lax.”
Even the Government Accountability Office recently criticized it for failing to improve its ability to respond to emergencies. To add insult to injury, each year it routinely flunks its audits. But that’s probably of no concern to the administation, which was never on board with the creation of the DHS and, most likely, would be just as happy to see it implode.
Meanwhile, Ridgeway explains, for those Congess members, whether Democratic or Republican, who are inclined to lend the DHS a helping hand, “expanding federal regulation, increasing federal spending, hiring unionized federal workers, and facing down industries with powerful lobbies” is “politically risky” in today’s climate.
Besides its aversion to federal agencies (except the Defense Department), neither is the administration’s heart in defending our soil. It, of course, subscribes to the get-’em-over-thar theory (if it’s geopolitically convenient, that is — vide bin Laden).
A Defense Department program that embodies Bush & Co.’s policy of thwarting threats before they reach the US was already entrenched before they were elected: It’s called the national missile defense system (it doesn’t deserve initial caps). But as the administration does with bin Laden, the program ducks the obvious threats.
As a recent Rolling Stone article explained: “Even the Missile Defense Agency concedes that the [missile defense shield] — originally envisioned as a defense against a rival superpower — is no longer of any use against China or Russia.”
Let’s see if we’ve got this right. Russian and Chinese nuclear weapons would overpower the shield. Meanwhile, Iran is years away from developing nukes and North Korea negotiates them away. Against whose nukes then are we spending billions to defend ourselves?
“Would you believe,” as America’s most beloved intelligence agent, Maxwell Smart, used to say, “Venezuela?”
Meanwhile, the more prosaic threats remain legion. They include the obvious: flying planes into buildings (9/11) and blowing up trains (Madrid) and buses (as in London). Equally vulnerable are ports, especially, as Ridgeway details, liquified natural gas tankers.
These come under the heading of what John Robb of Global Guerillas fame calls “systems disruption.” Also included are attacks on bridges, tunnels, water supplies, pipelines and refineries. Equally as devastating is a cyber attack on an electrical grid.
Meanwhile, the hard right stokes fear of terrorists storming across the borders as an excuse to bash immigrants. But that doesn’t mean the danger doesn’t exist. If only a thousandth of each year’s three-quarter million illegal immigrants were Islamic terrorists, that still adds up to a battalion of 750. Many believe that sleeper agents, along with nuclear materials such as suitcase bombs, have already infiltrated the US.
The FBI and, especially, local police forces deserve some credit for the six-year sabbatical terrorists have taken from attacking us on our soil. More likely though, thanks to al-Qaeda’s reputation for making a virtue of patience, we’re in the eye of the storm.
An example of how it may be toying with us was described by Ron Suskind in his book The One Percent Doctrine. In 2003, plans to release hydrogen cyanide gas (a staple of Nazi gas chambers) in New York City’s subways was called off by Ayman al-Zawahiri. Apparently the prospect of a body count that might not exceed 9/11’s failed to light his fire.
In other words, the A-man and the Big O dream of a terror extravaganza like a multi-city nuclear attack. Acquiring nuclear know-how and materials requires serious money, though, to which al-Qaeda central may no longer have access.
Bin Laden, for instance, squandered much of his fortune on building projects in Sudan. (Once the heat came down from the US, though, it was: Thanks for the modernization program, Sheikh. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.)
Author Paul Williams (Osama’s Revenge, The Al Qaeda Connection) maintains al-Qaeda has generated significant cash through drug and blood diamond transactions. However, in 2005, Zawahiri wrote a famous letter to Abu Musab Zarqawi urging him to cool it with the beheadings (bad P.R., you know).
Also, claiming they were short on funds, he hit him up for a donation to the home office. Then, last month, President Bush’s homeland security adviser, Frances Townsend, called bin Laden “virtually impotent.” (One can’t help wonder how she knows.)
Whatever al-Qaeda central’s financial standing, there’s actually no need to raise a king’s ransom to spend on nuclear weapons. After all, attacking the infrastructure is as cheap as it is cost-effective.
In his recent book, Brave New War, Robb wrote that 9/11 was a “$250,000 attack. . . converted into an event that cost the United States over $80 billion.” One of bin Laden’s goals, he reminds us, remains “bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy.”
To expedite that, al-Qaeda has gone viral. As has been well-documented, it grants copyright-free use of its brand to knock-off terrorists like the late Zarqawi.
Along with groups advancing other causes, an “almost endless supply of attackers,” writes Robb, “could generate hundreds of millions, potentially billions, in damage.” In tacit agreement with bin Laden, he maintains that the “cumulative effect of these attacks could grind down even the strongest nation-state.”
The administration looks at threats through a telescope, thus magnifying al-Qaeda to the status of a state. Actual nations like Iraq and Iran, meanwhile, are inflated into near superpowers. But al-Qaeda is just a glorified crime syndicate.
Like all such organizations, as countless security experts have testified, it’s more susceptible to good old-fashioned crime busting than the heavy hand of the military. Ideally, local police forces, in collaboration with federal and international crime and intelligence agencies, should lead the way.
Along with urging the FBI to bring local officials into the loop, think-tanker Daniel Byman, writing on Slate, offers other suggestions for shoring up security stateside. Among them, the federal government needs to work harder to win the unequivocal support of American Muslims. (How that can be accomplished while the US continues to foment disruption in many of their homelands he doesn’t say.)
Byman also urges us to improve “perception management.” For example, in order to minimize societal impact, Israel cleans up immediately after a terrorist attack. Yet, from the executive branch to the DHS, the American government elevated our one substantial attack (9/11) to near-Holocaust status.
Robb too would like to see us adopt a “philosophy of resilience” to help us survive terrorist attacks. Because “strikes of the future will be strategic, pinpointing the systems we rely on,” he continues, “they will leave entire sections of the country without energy and communications for protracted periods.”
In other words, when it comes to security, not to mention other services, communities will be left to their own devices. Suburbs will become armed and patrolled by civilian police auxiliaries; the rich by the likes of Blackwater.
Still, he maintains, we don’t need an “activist foreign policy that seeks to rework the world in our image, police state measures to ensure state security, or spending all of our resources on protecting everything.” (Bear in mind that he’s no liberal.)
Rejecting an “activist foreign policy” obviously implies embracing diplomacy. But success isn’t guaranteed the next administration just because it’s more committed than Bush’s to relying on its statesmen (notice how that word has all but vanished from common usage). Is there any way to ensure a cure for the impotence of soft power without turning it hard?
By way of a preface, read what Arthur Silber, one of the Web’s top bloggers, has to say about Congressional Democrats (edited for conciseness). They “fail to mount serious opposition to our inevitable course toward widening war and an attack on Iran, not because they are afraid of being portrayed as ‘weak’ in the fight against terrorism. They don’t object because — they don’t object.
“That is: they agree that we have the ‘right’ to pursue a policy of aggressive interventionism supported by an empire of military bases.”
In other words, for all of Bush & Co.’s rapaciousness, not just congressional Democrats but, deep-down, most of us concur that, if we’re running out of oil, it’s our right, simply by dint of our might, to take what we need.
If it weren’t for all those pesky jihadis, mujahideen, global guerillas, terrorists — call them what you will — conspiring to topple us with everything from the slings of systems disruption to the arrows of nuclear missiles.
Attempting to secure our shores from them is like trying to defend the indefensible — literally. And metaphorically, as well, when we cling to the myth that we’re manifestly destined to determine the fates of other nations. Our military might, 700 bases around the world and nuclear capability have outlived whatever their usefulness they had.
The US has become like Russia — our once, and (the way things are going) — future enemy. We’re a lumbering mastodon, which the cave people of the world lure into traps, like Iraq, where we thrash around and lash out blindly. It could all have turned out differently if we hadn’t been stomping around their territory ravishing their resources.
In short, the US needs to take the “super” out of “superpower.” We might be surprised to find that a country could get used to life without the pressure of being number one.