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Futile Brutality

By Dan Glazebrook

10 July, 2008

“The World According toTomdispatch”. Edited by Tom Engelhardt Reviewed by Dan Glazebrook

Tomdispatch is aUS-based website set up by editor and publisher Tom Engelhardt in the wake ofthe US bombing of Afghanistan. The essays in this collection comprise the bestof that website, and largely fall into two broad categories. The first lay barethe mechanics of the present day occupations, deception, and corruptionpracticed by the US state, whilst the second reveal the futility of the imperialproject and start to map out the trajectory of resistance to it.

The section “ImperialPlanet” opens with a debate between the editor and fellow academic JonathanSchell over whether it is accurate to talk of a US “Empire” in the traditionalsense. For Englehardt, 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 tofail before it achieves such a status. As Hobsbawm has noted elsewhere, today’santi-colonialists, unlike those of the Victorian imperialist era, have far morethan handcrafted spears with which to drive out the occupiers. And moreimportantly, notes Schell, “The local resistors are weak militarily but strongpolitically. The imperial masters are powerful militarily but nearly helplesspolitically. History teaches us that in these contests it is political powerthat prevails.”

It is this crucialpoint 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 increasinglybrutal way, its political influence is irreversibly in decline.

Thus, Chalmers Johnsondescribes recent US attempts to remilitarise Japan and raises the spectre of aresulting Sino-Japanese war. “Has the US considered this?” Johnson innocentlyenquires. I would have thought that was the whole point. Nevertheless, theessay serves to illustrate the growing marginalisation of US influence in EastAsia, especially following the US role in creating the 1997 currency crisis, aswell as their blatant promotion of Japanese militarism and Taiwanese separatism(thankfully, recent events seem to confirm that the Taiwanese desire to act asUS-annointed agent provacateur in the region is dwindling fast). Dilip Hiropicks up the theme of US marginalisation, outlining the growing ties betweendeveloping countries which are making the USA increasingly impotent in imposingits economic will across the world. The military reflection of these evolvingrealities became unmistakably clear when the new Chinese-led military alliance,the Shanghai Co-operation Conference refused the US request to be granted evenobserver status – despite having already granted such status to both India andIran.

In Latin America, GregGrandin shows hows the US military is busily fabricating an Al-Qaeda presencein the “lawless” triborder region between Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina usingthe time-honoured technique of planting stories in the local press forinternational media agencies to “discover”. The purpose? To justify astepped-up counter-insurgency programme across the region and a refoundation ofGeneral Pinchet’s Operation Condor, which was responsible for the murder ofthousands of “suspected leftists” across the continent during the 1980s. Toachieve this, all the Congressional “checks and balances” on military aid,established in the light of the Iran-Contra scandal, are being quietlydismantled. For all that, the US strategy appears to going nowhere fast, asgovernment after government have refused to participate in Rumsfeld’s“cross-border security force”; evidently, US military and economic blackmaildoes not carry the same weight as it did in the 1980s before it had beenstymied by Chinese trade in the latter case, and Afghan and Iraqi resistance inthe former.

Engelhardt himselffocusses mostly on symbolism and historical analogy in US imperialism. Thus,the US’s charmingly named “lily pad” strategy of building military bases rightacross the so-called “arc of instability” from North Africa to Central Asia,(conveniently encompassing all the world’s major oil reserves) is seen as thecontemporary equivalent of what was known in more candid times as “gunboatdiplomacy”. But his real tour de force is an excellent piece on “the barbarismof war from the air”, which chronicles the history of both aerial warfareitself, and of the chimerical faith in the ability of such warfare to “breakthe will” of the enemy – a faith which has persisted in some quarters despitethe countless refutations furnished by real life. Later chapters spell out thefutility of aerial bombardment in more detail, with “Siege notes” – the frankwar diaries of a middle class Lebanese – graphically demonstrating how the 2006Israeli invasion stirred up hitherto neglected passions of resistance anddefiance against the aggressor.

Elsewhere, NoamChomsky continues with his invaluable work of furnishing the anti-war movementwith the latest statistical data to confirm and quantify the bleeding obvious –this time, for example, quoting Rand Corporation statistics suggesting asevenfold increase in terrorism since the invasion of Iraq. His research on thehuge US public opposition to their own government’s imperial bloodbaths servesto highlight a clear trend in today’s society – that it is increasingly onlythe most openly racist – or willfully ignorant – who will even attempt tojustify the wars of aggression currently being waged or planned. It is thepro-war, not the anti-war, movement who are currently marginalised.

In “The Smash ofCivilisations”, Chalmers Johnson fleshes out the details of the destruction andlooting that followed in the wake of the blitzkrieg of Iraq, the largest-scalelooting since the Mongol invasion of 1258, according to one Oxford professor.We all heard about the looting of Baghdad museum, but how many realised that theancient city of Ur, “the literal heartland of human civilisation” was chosen bythe US military as the precise spot for two 10,000 foot runways, theconstruction of which “completely ruined” the area? Or that the 2,600-year oldbrick pavement at Babylon has now been thoroughly crushed by US militaryvehicles? Or that, before the invasion, a team of internationally renownedarcheologists held three separate meetings with the Pentagon specifically towarn them about the dangers of looting? Obviously all this is as nothingcompared to the human destruction heaped on Iraq – but nevertheless, forIraqis, for whom “civilisation” is more than just an excuse to knock peopleover the head, it is another body blow – as indeed it is for all of us.

That human destruction is alsochronicled here. In “The Hidden War on Women in Iraq” – often hidden by thevictims themselves to avoid shame - Ruth Rosen describes the epidemic of rapeand forced prostitution now raging in that country, not only as a result of theimposed lawlessness of the occupation, but also as a specific interrogation techniqueby the occupiers themselves. Ann Jones goes on to paint a dire portrait of theposition of women in NATO’s Afghanistan - with unfortunately only the briefestof allusions to the successes made by the Communist government in terms ofgirls education and ending feudal oppression in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Revealing historicalparallels are drawn, notably between Bush’s invasion of Iraq and Napoleon’sinvasion of Egypt. Both were justified with the exact same troika of imperialexcuses – that the offending regime was allied with the enemy, was a threat tosecurity, and perpetrated a tyrannical rule over its people. Just like Bush,Napolean feigned surprise at the natives’ “lack of gratitude” before sufferingignominious defeat as that ingratitude evolved into a ferocious resistance –though not before he had meted out plenty of futile brutalities against theresisting population. History repeating itself indeed.

The section on the“petro-industrial complex” opens with a comprehensive study of the recenthistory of Iraqi oil. In candid detail, it shows how Iraq is the archetypalexample of the imperial economy trick. The trick roughly works like this: 1.Hoist an oppressive regime onto a third world country, 2. Extend billions ofdollars ($120 billion in the case of Iraq) of credit to this regime to spend onyour weapons to crush all real and imagined anti-imperialists, socialists, anddemocrats in the region, 3. When this has been accomplished, bemoan theinequality and lack of democracy in the country and use this as an excuse toinvade, 4. Solemnly spell out to the newly installed “democratic government”the importance of honouring the debts incurred under your previous puppet, 5.Use the promise of “debt-relief” to force the new “democracy” to hand over allits economic sovereignty to your corporations (through “open markets”,abolition of subsidies and tariffs, and in the case of Iraq, “ProductionSharing Agreements”). The same trick has been used repeatedly over the lasthalf-century - in the Congo, in South Africa, and in countless Latin Americancountries – but it is Iraq that has the most room for “leverage”. With thehighest per capita “debt” in the world alongside, in the words of Dick Cheney,the “ultimate prize” of its massive oil resources, the neocons are determinednot to allow the reality of resistance prevent the orgy of looting they havealways dreamt of.

The corporate takeoverof Iraq is detailed here, as are similar activities closer to home. Just ascontracts were drying up in Iraq, the very same vulture capitalist corporationsstarted drooling over New Orleans. Nick Turse and Tom Elgelhardt spell out theendemic corruption of the Bush administration, whose millionaire corporatebackers have swarmed to that city “like flies to a rotting corpse” – with themost lucrative contracts going to companies connected to the former director ofFEMA - the government department awarding the contracts. Unsurprisingly, acompany linked to Jeb Bush was also awarded some juicy drainage contracts – andjust as unsurprisingly, thirty of the pumps they provided were found to bedefective. Staying on New Orleans, Rebecca Solnit urges us not to forget thatthe enduring “spectacle of crowds without food, water or sanitation…was theresult not just of incompetence, but of malice”. She goes on to describe howthe Crescent City Connection bridge was closed to those fleeing the drowningcity by the police of neighbouring Gretna, a rich white neighbourhood whofeared the fleeing hordes. She also details how all housing projects were shutdown in New Orleans, even those sustaining little or no flood damage, showinghow Hurricane Katrina has been used as an excuse to evict working classcommunities – many of whom are still being refused the “right to return” tothis day.

In one of the mostthoughtful and challenging pieces of the book, “The Chauffeur’s Dilemma”, AdamHothschild asks some hard questions about US society. The focus is on why it isthat the 56% of working class men who believe that Bush’s tax cuts favour therich, also favour those very same tax cuts. It is a thought-provoking piece and good to see elements of the US leftstarting to tackle this issue head on.

Overall, thecompendium is a thoroughly researched and articulate guide to the current stateof the US polity, and as such serves as a valuable contribution to theeducation of the anti-war movement.

Dan Glazebrook is a poltical journalist and aco-ordinator of the International Union of Parliamentarians for Palestine inBritain. He has contributed to Counterpunch and Morning Star amongst other publications. He can becontacted at


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