The World According to Tomdispatch
Edited by Tom Engelhardt
Verso Books, 2008
Tomdispatch is a US-based website set up by editor and publisher Tom Engelhardt in the wake of the US bombing of Afghanistan. The essays in this collection comprise the best of that website, and largely fall into two broad categories. The first lay bare the mechanics of the present day occupations, deception, and corruption practiced by the US state, whilst the second reveal the futility of the imperial project and start to map out the trajectory of resistance to it.
The section “Imperial Planet” opens with a debate between the editor and fellow academic Jonathan Schell over whether it is accurate to talk of a US “Empire” in the traditional sense. For Engelhardt, the answer is clear: yes it is, and it has been for sometime. For his colleague, the US is currently trying to become a true, old-fashioned, Empire, but is destined to fail before it achieves such a status. As Hobsbawm has noted elsewhere, today’s anti-colonialists, unlike those of the Victorian imperialist era, have far more than handcrafted spears with which to drive out the occupiers. And more importantly, notes Schell, “The local resistors are weak militarily but strong politically. The imperial masters are powerful militarily but nearly helpless politically. History teaches us that in these contests it is political power that prevails.”
It is this crucial point that is driven home again and again throughout the rest of the book: Whilst the US can – and will – throw its weight around in an increasingly brutal way, its political influence is irreversibly in decline.
Thus, Chalmers Johnson describes recent US attempts to remilitarize Japan and raises the specter of a resulting Sino-Japanese war. “Has the US considered this?” Johnson innocently enquires. I would have thought that was the whole point. Nevertheless, the essay serves to illustrate the growing marginalization of US influence in East Asia, especially following the US role in creating the 1997 currency crisis, as well as their blatant promotion of Japanese militarism and Taiwanese separatism(thankfully, recent events seem to confirm that the Taiwanese desire to act as US-anointed agent provocateur in the region is dwindling fast). Dilip Hiro picks up the theme of US marginalization, outlining the growing ties between developing countries which are making the USA increasingly impotent in imposing its economic will across the world. The military reflection of these evolving realities became unmistakably clear when the new Chinese-led military alliance, the Shanghai Co-operation Conference refused the US request to be granted even observer status – despite having already granted such status to both India and Iran.
In Latin America, Greg Grandin shows how the US military is busily fabricating an Al-Qaeda presence in the “lawless” tri-border region between Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina using the time-honored technique of planting stories in the local press for international media agencies to “discover”. The purpose? To justify a stepped-up counter-insurgency program across the region and a re-foundation of General Pinochet’s Operation Condor, which was responsible for the murder of thousands of “suspected leftists” across the continent during the 1980s. To achieve this, all the Congressional “checks and balances” on military aid, established in the light of the Iran-Contra scandal, are being quietly dismantled. For all that, the US strategy appears to going nowhere fast, as government after government have refused to participate in Rumsfeld’s “cross-border security force”; evidently, US military and economic blackmail does not carry the same weight as it did in the 1980s before it had been stymied by Chinese trade in the latter case, and Afghan and Iraqi resistance in the former.
Engelhardt himself focuses mostly on symbolism and historical analogy in US imperialism. Thus, the US’s charmingly named “lily pad” strategy of building military bases right across the so-called “arc of instability” from North Africa to Central Asia,(conveniently encompassing all the world’s major oil reserves) is seen as the contemporary equivalent of what was known in more candid times as “gunboat diplomacy”. But his real tour de force is an excellent piece on “the barbarism of war from the air”, which chronicles the history of both aerial warfare itself, and of the chimerical faith in the ability of such warfare to “break the will” of the enemy — a faith which has persisted in some quarters despite the countless refutations furnished by real life. Later chapters spell out the futility of aerial bombardment in more detail, with “Siege notes” — the frank war diaries of a middle class Lebanese — graphically demonstrating how the 2006Israeli invasion stirred up hitherto neglected passions of resistance and defiance against the aggressor.
Elsewhere, Noam Chomsky continues with his invaluable work of furnishing the anti-war movement with the latest statistical data to confirm and quantify the bleeding obvious –this time, for example, quoting Rand Corporation statistics suggesting a sevenfold increase in terrorism since the invasion of Iraq. His research on the huge US public opposition to their own government’s imperial bloodbaths serves to highlight a clear trend in today’s society – that it is increasingly only the most openly racist – or willfully ignorant – who will even attempt to justify the wars of aggression currently being waged or planned. It is the pro-war, not the anti-war, movement who are currently marginalized.
In “The Smash of Civilizations”, Chalmers Johnson fleshes out the details of the destruction and looting that followed in the wake of the blitzkrieg of Iraq, the largest-scale looting since the Mongol invasion of 1258, according to one Oxford professor. We all heard about the looting of Baghdad museum, but how many realized that the ancient city of Ur, “the literal heartland of human civilization” was chosen by the US military as the precise spot for two 10,000 foot runways, the construction of which “completely ruined” the area? Or that the 2,600-year old brick pavement at Babylon has now been thoroughly crushed by US military vehicles? Or that, before the invasion, a team of internationally renowned archeologists held three separate meetings with the Pentagon specifically to warn them about the dangers of looting? Obviously all this is as nothing compared to the human destruction heaped on Iraq — but nevertheless, for Iraqis, for whom “civilization” is more than just an excuse to knock people over the head, it is another body blow — as indeed it is for all of us.
That human destruction is also chronicled here. In “The Hidden War on Women in Iraq” — often hidden by the victims themselves to avoid shame — Ruth Rosen describes the epidemic of rape and forced prostitution now raging in that country, not only as a result of the imposed lawlessness of the occupation, but also as a specific interrogation technique by the occupiers themselves. Ann Jones goes on to paint a dire portrait of the position of women in NATO’s Afghanistan – with unfortunately only the briefest of allusions to the successes made by the Communist government in terms of girls education and ending feudal oppression in the late 1970s and 1980s.
Revealing historical parallels are drawn, notably between Bush’s invasion of Iraq and Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. Both were justified with the exact same troika of imperial excuses – that the offending regime was allied with the enemy, was a threat to security, and perpetrated a tyrannical rule over its people. Just like Bush, Napoleon feigned surprise at the natives’ “lack of gratitude” before suffering ignominious defeat as that ingratitude evolved into a ferocious resistance –though not before he had meted out plenty of futile brutalities against the resisting population. History repeating itself indeed.
The section on the “petro-industrial complex” opens with a comprehensive study of the recent history of Iraqi oil. In candid detail, it shows how Iraq is the archetypal example of the imperial economy trick. The trick roughly works like this: 1.Hoist an oppressive regime onto a third world country, 2. Extend billions of dollars ($120 billion in the case of Iraq) of credit to this regime to spend on your weapons to crush all real and imagined anti-imperialists, socialists, and democrats in the region, 3. When this has been accomplished, bemoan the inequality and lack of democracy in the country and use this as an excuse to invade, 4. Solemnly spell out to the newly installed “democratic government” the importance of honoring the debts incurred under your previous puppet, 5.Use the promise of “debt-relief” to force the new “democracy” to hand over all its economic sovereignty to your corporations (through “open markets,” abolition of subsidies and tariffs, and in the case of Iraq, “Production Sharing Agreements”). The same trick has been used repeatedly over the last half-century – in the Congo, in South Africa, and in countless Latin American countries – but it is Iraq that has the most room for “leverage”. With the highest per capita “debt” in the world alongside, in the words of Dick Cheney, the “ultimate prize” of its massive oil resources, the neocons are determined not to allow the reality of resistance prevent the orgy of looting they have always dreamt of.
The corporate takeover of Iraq is detailed here, as are similar activities closer to home. Just as contracts were drying up in Iraq, the very same vulture capitalist corporations started drooling over New Orleans. Nick Turse and Tom Engelhardt spell out the endemic corruption of the Bush administration, whose millionaire corporate backers have swarmed to that city “like flies to a rotting corpse” – with the most lucrative contracts going to companies connected to the former director of FEMA – the government department awarding the contracts. Unsurprisingly, a company linked to Jeb Bush was also awarded some juicy drainage contracts – and just as unsurprisingly, thirty of the pumps they provided were found to be defective. Staying on New Orleans, Rebecca Solnit urges us not to forget that the enduring “spectacle of crowds without food, water or sanitation…was the result not just of incompetence, but of malice”. She goes on to describe how the Crescent City Connection bridge was closed to those fleeing the drowning city by the police of neighboring Gretna, a rich white neighborhood who feared the fleeing hordes. She also details how all housing projects were shutdown in New Orleans, even those sustaining little or no flood damage, showing how Hurricane Katrina has been used as an excuse to evict working class communities – many of whom are still being refused the “right to return” to this day.
In one of the most thoughtful and challenging pieces of the book, “The Chauffeur’s Dilemma,” Adam Hothschild asks some hard questions about US society. The focus is on why it is that the 56% of working class men who believe that Bush’s tax cuts favor the rich, also favor those very same tax cuts. It is a thought-provoking piece and good to see elements of the US left starting to tackle this issue head on.
Overall, the compendium is a thoroughly researched and articulate guide to the current state of the US polity, and as such serves as a valuable contribution to the education of the anti-war movement.