There has been quite a buzz in “progressive” circles over the new Esquire article about Admiral William Fallon, head of U.S. Central Command, the military satrapy that covers the entire “arc of crisis” at the heart of the “War on Terror,” from east Africa, across the Middle East, and on to the borders of China. Much has been made of Fallon’s alleged apostasy from the Bush regime’s bellicosity toward Tehran; indeed, the article paints Fallon as the sole bulwark against an American attack on Iran – and hints ominously that the good admiral may be forced out by George W. Bush this summer, clearing the way for one last murderous hurrah by the lame duck president. The general reaction to the article seems to be: God preserve this honorable man, and keep him as our shield and defender against the wicked tyrant.
But this is most curious. For behind the melodramatic framing and gushing hero-worship of the article – written by Thomas Barnett (of whom more later) – we find nothing but a few mild disagreements between Fallon and the White House over certain questions of tactics, timing and presentation in regard to American domination of a vast range of nations and peoples.
Fallon himself has long denied the hearsay evidence that he had declared, upon taking over Central Command, that a war on Iran “isn’t going to happen on my watch.” And in fact, the article itself depicts Fallon’s true attitude toward the idea of an attack on Iran right up front, in his own words. After noting Fallon’s concerns about focusing too much on Iran to the exclusion of the other “pots boiling over” in the region, Barnett presses the point and asks: And if it comes to war? Fallon replies with stark, brutal clarity:
“‘Get serious,’ the admiral says. ‘These guys are ants. When the time comes, you crush them.'”
The article makes clear that Fallon’s main concerns about a war with Iran are, as noted, about tactics and timing: Sure, when the time comes – no shuffling on that point – we’ll crush these subhumans like the insects they are; but we’ve already got a lot on our plate at the moment, so why not hold off as long as we can? After all, Fallon is conducting two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as overseeing an on-going “regime change” operation in Somalia, where the United States has been aiding Ethiopian invaders with bombing raids, death squads, renditions and missile strikes against Somali civilians – such as the one this week that killed three women and three children.
The most remarkable fact about the Esquire article is not its laughable portrayal of the man in charge of mass slaughter and military aggression across a broad swathe of the globe as a shining knight holding back the dogs of war. Nor is it the delusion on the part of Barnett — and much of the commentariat as well – that Bush would ever appoint some kind of secret peacenik as the main commander of his Terror War. (Although it could well be that Fallon will be fired in the end for not groveling obsequiously enough to the Leader, in the required Petraeus-Franks manner. Or indeed, that he might even resign rather than commit what he sees as the tactical error of crushing the Iranian ants at this particular time. But so what? If he quits, someone else who would be happy to do the stomping will be appointed in his place. If Bush decides to attack Iran, then Iran will be attacked. There is no one standing in the way. It’s as simple as that.)
No, what is most noteworthy about the article is that Barnett has given us, unwittingly, one of the clearest pictures yet of the true nature of the American system today. And that system is openly, unequivocally and unapologetically imperial, in every sense of the word, and in every sinew of its structure. For what is Fallon’s actual position? We see him commanding vast armies, both his own and those of local proxies, waging battles to bend nations, regions and peoples to the will of a superpower. We see him meeting with the heads of client kingdoms in his purview, in Cairo, Kabul, Baghdad, Dushanbe: advising, cajoling, demanding, threatening, wading deeply into the internal affairs of the dominated lands, seeking to determine their politics, their economic development, their military structure and foreign policies.
For example, Barnett tells us that Fallon was locked away with Pervez Musharaff for hours the day before the Pakistani dictator imposed emergency rule last year. Barnett, hilariously, swallows Fallon’s line that Washington didn’t greenlight Musharaff’s crackdown: “Did I tell him this is not a recommended course of action? Of course.” Yes, Admiral, whatever you say. But did you tell him there would be any adverse consequences whatsoever from Washington: any cut-off or even diminution of military and economic aid, for example? Of course not. (For a glimpse of hero-worship, here’s how Barnett sets the scene: “As the admiral recounts the exchange, his voice is flat, his gaze steady. His calculus on this subject is far more complex than anyone else’s.” A calculus more complex than anyone else’s in the whole wide world! And certainly more complex than any analysis those ants in Pakistan could come up with themselves.) To his credit, Fallon then goes on to give the true picture: Washington supported the crackdown because Pakistan is “an immature democracy” that needs a savvy strongman – and American loyalist – at the helm. As for the idea that Benazir Bhutto – then still alive – could play a role in stabilizing the country: “Fallon is pessimistic. He slowly shakes his head. ‘Better forget that.'” A few weeks later, Bhutto was out of the picture.
What we are seeing, quite simply, is an imperial proconsul in action. There is no difference whatsoever between Fallon’s role and that of the proconsuls sent out by the Roman emperors to deal with the wars and tribes and client kingdoms of the empire’s far-flung provinces. There too, the emperor could not simply snap his fingers and bend every event to his will; there had to be some cajoling, compromise, occasional setbacks. But behind everything lurked the threat of Roman military power and the promise of ruin and death if Rome’s interests were not accommodated in the end. It is the same with America’s pro-consuls today.
Nowhere in the article – nor anywhere else in the well-wadded bastions of the “bipartisan foreign policy community” (and amongst its fawning scribes) – will you find even the slightest inkling of a doubt that America should be comporting itself as an imperial power in this way. It is simply a given that an American military commander – with or without a calm, steely gaze and complex calculus – should be hashing out emergency decrees with Central Asian dictators, launching missile strikes on African villages, driving hell-for-leather in bristling convoys down the streets of occupied cities, stationing warships off the coast of Lebanon and Iran… and continually throwing massive amounts of American blood and treasure into a never-ending campaign to “crush the ants” that swarm so inconveniently around the imperial boot heels. For the elite – and, sadly, for the majority of other Americans as well – this is simply the natural order of the world. Not only are these imperial assumptions unquestioned; they are unconscious, as if it were literally inconceivable that the nation’s affairs could be ordered in any other way.
We should be grateful to Barnett. Not even the most scathing dissident could have produced a more damning indictment of America’s imperial system than this fawning – indeed groveling – piece of hagiography.
This is not the first time that Barnett’s true-believer cluelessness has produced genuine revelations. Last year, in a similarly gung-ho, brass-awed piece on Washington’s latest imperial satrapy, the Africa Command, Barnett revealed that the Bush Administration was using an American death squad in Somalia to “clean up” areas after a bombing or missile strike. As I wrote in June 2007:
The Esquire piece, by Thomas Barnett, is a mostly glowing portrait of the Africa Command, which, we are told, is designed to wed military, diplomatic, and development prowess in a seamless package, a whole new way of projecting American power: “pre-emptive nation-building instead of pre-emptive regime change,” or as Barnett describes it at another point, “Iraq done right.” Although Barnett’s glib, jargony, insider piece — told entirely from the point of view of U.S. military officials — does contain bits of critical analysis, it is in no way an expose. The new details he presents on the post-invasion slaughter are thus even more chilling, as they are offered simply as an acceptable, ordinary aspect of this laudable new enterprise.
Barnett reveals that the gunship attacks on refugees were just the first part of the secret U.S. mission that was “Africa Command’s” debut on the imperial stage. Soon after the attacks, “Task Force 88, a very secret American special-operations unit,” was helicoptered into the strike area. As Barnett puts it: “The 88’s job was simple: Kill anyone still alive and leave no unidentified bodies behind.”
Some 70,000 people fled their homes in the first wave of the Ethiopian invasion. (More than 400,000 fled the brutal consolidation of the invasion in Mogadishu last spring.) Tens of thousands of these initial refugees headed toward the Kenyan border, where the American gunships struck. When the secret operation was leaked, Bush Administration officials said that American planes were trying to hit three alleged al Qaeda operatives who had allegedly been given sanctuary by the Islamic Councils government decapitated by the Ethiopians. But Barnett’s insiders told him that the actual plan was to wipe out thousands of “foreign fighters” whom Pentagon officials believed had joined the Islamic Courts forces. “Honestly, nobody had any idea just how many there really were,” Barnett was told. “But we wanted to get them all.”
Thus the Kenyan border area — where tens of thousands of civilians were fleeing — was meant to be “a killing zone,” Barnett writes:
America’s first AC-130 gunship went wheels-up on January 7 from that secret Ethiopian airstrip. After each strike, anybody left alive was to be wiped out by successive waves of Ethiopian commandos and Task Force 88, operating out of Manda Bay. The plan was to rinse and repeat ‘until no more bad guys, as one officer put it.
At this point, Barnett — or his sources — turn coy. We know there were multiple gunship strikes; and from Barnett’s account, we know that the “88s” did go in at least once after the initial gunship attack to “kill anyone still alive and leave no unidentified bodies behind.” But Barnett’s story seems to suggest that once active American participation in the war was leaked, the “killing zone” was abandoned at some point. So there is no way of knowing at this point how many survivors of the American attacks were then killed by the “very special secret special-operations unit,” or how many “rinse-and-repeat” cycles the “88s” were able to carry out in what Barnett called “a good plan.”
Nor do we know just who the “88s” killed. As noted, the vast majority of refugees were civilians, just as the majority of the victims killed by the American gunship raids were civilians. Did the “88s” move in on the nomadic tribesmen decimated by the air attack and “kill everyone still alive”? Or did they restrict themselves to killing any non-Somalis they found among the refugees?
CHRIS FLOYD is an American journalist and frequent contributor to CounterPunch. He is the author of the book Empire Burlesque: High Crimes and Low Comedy in the Bush Imperium. He can be reached through his website: www.chris-floyd.com.