From Twin Towers to Twin Camelots

The world falls in love with a charismatic young president, his stylish wife, and their charming young children. In the campaign for the presidency he has defeated his opponent in part by charging Republican failure in the war against America’s enemies. In the dawn of his administration this Harvard man musters strategic buttress from intellectuals bunkered  in think-tanks and academe, for a decisive escalation by which the foe will be routed. Counter-insurgency will go hand in hand with nation-building. Corruption will be banished and local troops trained to shoulder the burden of the war.

To be sure, there are differences between Jack Kennedy’s America in 1961 and Barack Obama’s in 2009. At the start of the Sixties the U.S. economy in its productive phase hadn’t crested. It was still on the way up to its peak in about 1969. The mantra was “guns and butter.” In 1961 the best and the brightest, defeating Vietnamese guerillas in their Top Secret memos to Kennedy and his commanders, invoked  Britain’s defeat of the Communist  insurgency in Malaya, courtesy of Frank Kitson’s counter-insurgency tactics and America’s victory over the Huks in the Philippines, with Edward Lansdale claiming the achievement. In 2009,  veterans’ hospitals here offer bleak testimony  that in Iraq 150,000 US troops, lavishly equipped with advanced weaponry were held down for years  in Iraq by the guerillas’ rudimentary roadside explosives.

Woe betide a president who believes his own stump speeches. In his campaign Obama outflanked charges initially from Hilary Clinton and then from John McCain that he was a peacenik and a wimp by declaring week after week that Iraq was the wrong battlefield, that the enemy was al Qaida and their sanctuary Afghanistan. An excited vibrancy colored the community organizer’s rhetoric as he spoke of his determination to “kill bin Laden.”

Most people thought this pledge would get lobbed into the trashcan the moment McCain conceded. But no. Last Friday I drove down Interstate 5 through the early spring blossom in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, listening to Obama on the radio marching through his schedule  for  escalation and victory in Afghanistan. He was born in the year JFK became president, but has this supposedly smart fellow not read a single decent history of the Vietnam war and of America’s defeat? Apparently not. Otherwise how could he blithely announce that “We will accelerate our efforts to build an Afghan Army of 134,000 and a police force of 82,000 so that we can meet these goals by 2011…Going forward, we will not blindly stay the course. Instead, we will set clear metrics to measure progress and hold ourselves accountable.”  Nothing perishes quicker in war than “clear metrics”.

Signficantly,according to Ray McGovern’s recent piece on this site Obama did not order a National Intelligence Estimate as he evolved his plan, doubtless because he and his National Security Adviser feared such an NIE might arrive at the same sort of depressing assessment as the April 2006 NIE on global terrorism, which  concluded invasions and occupations do not make America safer but lead instead to an upsurge in terrorism.

It seems, from an inside dopester story by Bill Gertz in the Washington Times, cited here by William Lind last week, that in the White House sessions formulating Obama’s Afghan policy Vice President Joe Biden,  and Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg, argued  for a minimal strategy of “stabilizing” Afghanistan. Against them Richard C. Holbrooke, Obama’s  special envoy for the region, U.S. Central Command leader Gen. David H. Petraeus and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton successfully  sold Obama on a major nation-building program, bringing Afghanistan out of feudal poverty and backwardness into the healthful air of a stable and prosperous economy, respectful of women and the polling booth.

Maybe Biden forgot to point out to his boss that this was the Afghanistan model espoused by the leftist Noor Taraki in the late 1970s, setting off US alarm bells which duly led to Taraki’s murder and  the CIA’s huge covert and successful  intervention in support of the drug barons and warlords, whose feudal offspring are now America’s actual or prospective allies in the war on the Taliban.
As Obama proudly flourished his alliterative triad (“to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan’) , I listened with the same dismayed frisson as  I did more than four decades ago to Kennedy’s similarly  childish rhetoric of intervention, whose dark underbelly was the murder of the Diem brothers, and the birth of the Phoenix assassination program of “Viet Cong infrastructure”.

Obama’s brisk sentences commit  thousands of fresh US troops to overwhelm the Taliban, oblivious of the judgment of sensible observers that it’s precisely the presence of foreign troops that prompts Pashtuns to support the Taliban and join their ranks. More brisk sentences summoned Pakistan to the crusade against terror, as if Pakistan’s intelligence establishment does not work hand in glove with the Taliban and protects al-Qaida leaders.

The march of folly is under way. Bush and Cheney’s “war on terror” is now married to Clintonian blueprints for nation building and social engineering, a wedding  officiated over by General Petraeus, whose mythical surge in Iraq was hailed last year by Obama as having “succeeded beyond our wildest dreams”.  The fantasy of America’s healing kiss smolders and flares  in Obama’s heart just as it did in Kennedy’s. Ray McGovern quotes Gen. Douglas McArthur as telling Kennedy in 1961: “Anyone wanting to commit American ground forces to the mainland of Asia should have his head examined.” True then, true now.

For a little vignette of the follies of US intervention, let me quote from  a recent eyewitness report by Philip Smucker of a US patrol in eastern Afghanistan, published in the McClatchy papers on April 2:

It took the 10th Mountain soldiers nearly two hours to make a descent that usually takes Afghans 20 minutes. Each Combat Company soldier carried between 80 and 130 pounds on his back. Inexperienced Afghan soldiers, unsure of the route, caused further delays, losing their way and threatening to gun down an unarmed shepherd.

Up to 130lbs on your back, in the Hindu Kush! Shades of S.L.A. Marshall’s studies of U.S.Marines on D-Day drowning in a couple of feet of water, pinioned under the weight of their vastly overloaded knapsacks. No wonder the Pentagon prefers to fire off Predators or bomb wedding parties from a safe height.

NATO – Still Mission-Creeping At 60

We’re at the sixtieth anniversary of NATO. This weekend there’s  a ceremony in Strasbourg and Kehl, the latter  being the German town facing Strasbourg on the east side of the Rhine. Sarkozy of France and Merkel of Germany meet and embrace, in symbolic affirmation of Unity Restored, after divisive conflicts now buried in the mists of time. I’m not sure what theatrical events have been planned to symbolize this celebration of Gallo-Teutonic  warmth, perhaps some flotilla on the mighty Rhine itself, with Sarko as a latterday Mark Anthony and Merkel as Cleo, perhaps some performance piece about Mars casting aside the instruments of war and entering the bower of Venus to enjoy the pleasures of peace. NATO’s impresarios could review a rather comical “Mars and Venus” I saw the other day, by the Dutch painter Cornelis Cornelisz, now in the excellent Norton Simon museum in Pasadena.  Mars, looking a bit  like Sarko with a mustache, has taken off his helmet, tunic and trousers and is standing nervously , while a rather suburban Venus, also en deshabille, lounges back on a plump cushion having her toenails trimmed.

To give vibrancy to the event Sarkozy has just formally brought France  back into NATO’s “integrated command”. Charles de Gaulle, a leader who looks better and better with every passing decade, took France out of this same integrated command back in 1966 as a rebuke to American domination of the alliance. There were plaintive howls from NATO’s bureaucratic establishment at redeployment from chic Paris to  dreary Brussels. No doubt there’ll soon be an institutional  shift back to Paris by NATO personnel, wearied of Belgian beer, moules frites and waterzooi.

There are  gale-force gusts of bombast about the NATO Alliance’s historic role as Europe’s mighty shield and buckler, guarantor of its freedoms against “aggression”, thus perpetuating sixty years of humbug. There was never the slightest chance of the Soviet Union and its auxiliaries in the Warsaw Pact moving rolling west in the prospective onslaught luridly evoked by Winston Churchill in a speech  at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in March, 1949. Churchill gestured to the specter of the “Mongol hordes” that had menaced Europe 700 years before, only heading home when the Great Khan died. “They never returned,” rumbled the old faker, “until now.”

Having  borne almost the entire burden on the Eastern front of crushing Hitler’s armies and having suffered appalling casualties in so doing, the Soviet Union was in no condition to invade western Europe. As Jordan Marsh points out, “one of the best-kept secrets of the cold war is that Nato was founded in 1949 to protect Western Europe against the Warsaw Pact, which was founded in 1954. There never was a threat of Russian invasion.  Stalin had entirely too much on his plate to think about such madness.  But Nato had to be established to enable the arming of West Germany without upsetting the French and to provide a market for the US Military Industrial Complex.  The biggest Russian threat was Stalin’s 1949 “Peace Initiative”, which would have included a united, unarmed, neutral German state.  No market for the MIC. No threat to France, Eastern Europe, or Russia.”

This didn’t impede mad Western scenarios of the sort that threat-inflators routinely issued down the decades until the very moment the Soviet Union collapsed, and even then there were hold-outs who maintained that the Russian bear was faking it, to throw the West off guard.

“It has been estimated recently by reliable authorities,” quavered the editor of Armored Cavalry Journal in 1947, “that Russia could probably invade and occupy the whole of Western Europe against resistance from present American, British and French troops in a matter of 48 hours.” Festooned with such verbal drapery, NATO lumbered into being in 1949, ratifying dominance of US arms procurement for the alliance, internal custodial sentry duty against any slide to the left by one or other of the European allies, establishment of West Germany as an independent state, and US control of the nuclear forces deemed necessary to counter supposed Soviet conventional superiority. Year upon year nothing dented the endless flow of “threat assessments” powering new weapons systems, “theater nuclear”  and “counterforce” doctrines that kept the arms factories running at full tilt and spawned a vast subculture of think-tanks, expert panels, and lobby shops.

Then, suddenly, it was all over. NATO’s formal purpose evaporated. The Soviet Union collapsed. Without delay NATO burgeoned into exactly what its left detractors had always said its essential function had been from the very start, a US-dominated political and military alliance, aimed at encircling Russia,and acting as enforcer for larger US imperial strategy. NATO’s onslaughts on Serbia duly followed.
Timed for the anniversary NATO’s leaders are scheduled  to proclaim a new “strategic concept” to define the organization’s mission for the 21st century, doubtless including its availability to battle global warming, latest in the long line of imaginary threats, conjured up to elicit larger budgets, more weapons, new “missions” launched from the ramparts of  Western capital. In the short term the warcry raised last week by Obama, only a few days after the tenth anniversary of NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia, is: On to Kabul!

NATO doesn’t need a new mission. It needs to disappear into the trashcan of history along with the cold war that engendered it.  Dragging myself through the transcripts of three sessions of the Council of Foreign Relations in January of this year, devoted to Russia, I was astounded to see no less a personage than Richard Burt apparently hinting at this. Burt was the New York Times “defense” correspondent who followed Al Haig into  the Reagan administration in 1981, heading the Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs at the State Department and later becoming ambassador to Germany. At the Council, Burt remarked that “ NATO is at this point an organization either in search of  a mission or an organization with too many missions” and “ needs to kind of fundamentally go through a pretty deep review of what its core mission is.”  Then he  remarked that  there is “something that President Obama could do in one week, and that was announce that he was going to go to the Congress to drop Jackson-Vanik…George W. Bush promised this to Vladimir Putin, I think, on three different occasions. Nothing ever happened.”

Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson authored  the  Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the Trade Reform Act in 1974, as part of his vain quest for the Democratic presidential  nomination in 1976. Jackson was chasing the Jewish vote. The statute  forbids the US government to extend “Most Favored Nation” status to countries with poor human rights records, particularly in the area of emigration. Jackson is dead. Millions of Jews have emigrated from the former Soviet Union, (including Avigdor Lieberman in 1978). But like NATO, Jackson-Vanik lives on malignly, blocking Russia from “most favored nation status in trade” on a permanent and unconditional basis. As the Russian Foreign Ministry remarked not so long ago, It is “one of the last anachronisms of the era of confrontation and distrust.” (China, which by any standard, has an awful human rights record,  enjoys permanent normal trade relations with the US.)

Anthony and Cleopatra  may enjoy each other amid the bathos and hypocrisy of NATO’s  April  anniversary on the Rhine. But if Obama and his Secretary of State wish to display any enthusiasm for constructive  change in the 21st century (no visible evidence thus far) , they could start by throwing Jackson-Vanik out the window. Maybe the Russians will set it as the price for extending assistance to NATO’s expanding role in Afghanistan.

McCarthyism and Middle Eastern Studies

Viciously strident on some campuses, deviously low-key on others, there’s a McCarthyite campaign in full spate across higher education in the U.S. today. In the sights of the witch-hunters are junior and senior faculty targeted as “anti-Israel”, as terror-symps, as leftists. For every headline case, like Norman Finkelstein or Joseph Massad or Juan Cole there are three or four less publicized smear campaigns, methodical onslaughts to derail a hiring, head off a tenure appointment, disinvite a speaker, fence off the campus from all dangerous thoughts. The consequence: a climate of fear, of methodical censorship, of cowardice.

In this context I highly recommend our current newsletter, featuring  Victoria Fontan’s narrative of her own experiences in US academia, after work in Fallujah and other Iraqi towns in the early months of the US occupation. Subscribers also get Alan Farago’s update on the battle to save the Everglades. From Paris  Serge Halimi reports on NATO’s mission creep.

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ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.