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Tom Engelhardt: Playing the Destabilization Card at Home and Abroad

[Mr. Engelhardt is the author of The End of Victory Culture and co-editor of History Wars, the Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past.]

One of these days, some scholar will do a little history of the odd moments when microphones or recording systems were turned on or left on, whether on purpose or not, and so gave us a bit of history in the raw. We have plenty of American examples of this phenomenon, ranging from the secret White House recordings of President John F. Kennedy's meetings with his advisers during the Cuban Missile Crisis (so voluminous as to become multi-volume publications) and Richard Nixon's secret tapes (minus those infamous 18½ minutes), voluminous enough so that you could spend the next 84 days nonstop listening to what's been made publicly available, to the moment in 1984 when a campaigning President Ronald_Reagan quipped on the radio during a microphone check (supposedly unaware that it was on):"My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes."

Just last week, a lovely little example of this sort of thing came our way and, twenty-two years after Ronald Reagan threatened to atomize the"evil empire," Russia was still the subject. Last Thursday, at a private lunch of G-8 foreign ministers in Moscow, an audio link to the media was left on, allowing reporters to listen in on a running series of arguments (or as the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler put it,"several long and testy exchanges") between U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov over a collective document no one would remember thenceforth

The whole event was a grim, if minor, comedy of the absurd. According to the Post account,"Reporters traveling with Rice transcribed the tape of the private luncheon but did not tell Rice aides about it until after a senior State Department official, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity as usual, assured them that ‘there was absolutely no friction whatsoever' between the two senior diplomats." (What better reminder do we need that so much anonymous sourcing granted by newspapers turns out to be a mix of unreliable spin and outright lies readers would be better off without?) In, as Kessler wrote,"a time of rising tension in U.S.-Russian relations," the recording even caught"the clinking of ice in glasses and the scratch of cutlery on plates," not to speak of the intense irritation of both parties.

"Sometimes the tone smacked of the playground" is the way a British report summed the encounter up, but decide for yourself. Here's a sample of what"lunch" sounded like -- the context of the discussion was Iraq (especially outrage over the kidnapping and murder of four employees of the Russian embassy in Baghdad):

"Rice said she worried [Lavrov] was suggesting greater international involvement in Iraq's affairs.

"'I did not suggest this,' Lavrov said. ‘What I did say was not involvement in the political process but the involvement of the international community in support of the political process.'

"'What does that mean?' Rice asked.

"There was a long pause. ‘I think you understand,' he said.

"'No, I don't,' Rice said.

"Lavrov tried to explain, but Rice said she was disappointed. ‘I just want to register that I think it's a pity that we can't endorse something that's been endorsed by the Iraqis and the U.N.,' she said, adding tartly: ‘But if that's how Russia sees it, that's fine.'"

Behind Rice's irritation certainly lay a bad few Russia weeks for the administration. Not only had the Russians been flexing their energy muscles of late, consorting with the Chinese and various of the Soviet Union's former Soviet Socialist Republics in Central Asia, which the Bush administration covets for their energy resources; but, as the ministers were meeting, Russian President Vladimir Putin -- you remember, another one of those world leaders George Bush "looked in the eyes" and found to be"trustworthy" (but that was so long ago) -- made it frustratingly clear that he would not back U.S. moves against neighboring Iran and its putative nuclear program at the UN."'We do not intend to join any sort of ultimatum, which only pushes the situation into a dead end, striking a blow against the authority of the UN Security Council,' Putin told Russian diplomats in Moscow in the presence of journalists. ‘I am convinced that dialogue and not isolation of one or another state is what leads to resolution of crises.'"

Destabilizing Russia

There is, however, a larger, far more perilous context within which to view the"testy" relationship between the two former Cold War superpowers and, for once, someone has managed to lay it out brilliantly, connecting the dots for the rest of us. In The New American Cold War, the cover story of the most recent Nation magazine, Russia specialist Stephen F. Cohen finally catches the essence of that ever degrading relationship. What Cohen points out is that, after the USSR unraveled, the Cold War never actually ended, not on the American side anyway, and today it not only continues at nearly full blast, but the Russians have finally reentered the game.

To offer a little context: In the early years of the Cold War, when the A-bomb and then the H-bomb were briefly American monopolies, there were, among American hardliners, those who, in the phrase of the time, wanted to"rollback" the Soviet Union in whatever fashion necessary. At an extreme, as early as 1950, the Strategic Air Command's Gen. Curtis LeMay urged the implementation of SAC Emergency War Plan I-49, which involved delivering a first strike of"the entire stockpile of atomic bombs… in a single massive attack," some 133 A-bombs on 70 Soviet cities in 30 days. However, it was another policy," containment" (first suggested by diplomat George Kennan in his famous"long telegram" from Moscow and then in his 1947 essay,"The Sources of Soviet Conduct," written under the pseudonym"Mr. X" in Foreign Affairs magazine), that took hold. Increasingly, as the years went by, as superpower nuclear arsenals came ever closer to parity, the U.S. and the USSR settled into the equivalent of family life together, bickering (at the cost of untold numbers of dead) only on the borderlands of their respective empires. In the later 1960s, containment became détente.

When Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980 and relaunched the Cold War against the"evil empire," matters threatened to change, but in the end -- despite a massive rearmament campaign (that began in the Carter years) and the launching of Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars"), meant to militarize space, détente hung in there; finally, to the surprise of all American strategists, the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe quickly unraveled without opposition from the remarkable Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (a rare instance of the head of an imperial order not turning to force as it was dismantled). After a moment's hesitation, America's cold warriors, including the massively funded intelligence community which had never so much as suspected the weakened state of the Soviet Union, declared global victory. Much of the rest of the story (the lack of a"peace dividend," the rise of the U.S. as the globe's supposed sole"hyperpower," the way the neoconservatives and others fell in love with American military might and its potential ability to alter the world in directions they passionately desired is now reasonably well known – except for the very large piece of the puzzle Cohen contributed last week.

In his essay, Cohen points out that Russia, despite recent gains, is still in"an unprecedented state of peacetime demodernization and depopulation," suffering"wartime death and birth rates" in a time of relative peace; while its unstable political system rests on the popularity of one man, Vladimir Putin. What was left of the USSR having almost imploded in the 1990s, he writes, even today we cannot be sure what the collapse of a power armed with every imaginable weapon of mass destruction might"mean for the rest of the world."

How, he asks, has every U.S. administration reacted to this globally perilous situation?

"Since the early 1990s Washington has simultaneously conducted, under Democrats and Republicans, two fundamentally different policies toward post-Soviet Russia -- one decorative and outwardly reassuring, the other real and exceedingly reckless. The decorative policy, which has been taken at face value in the United States, at least until recently, professes to have replaced America's previous cold war intentions with a generous relationship of ‘strategic partnership and friendship'… The real US policy has been very different -- a relentless, winner-take-all exploitation of Russia's post-1991 weakness. Accompanied by broken American promises, condescending lectures and demands for unilateral concessions, it has been even more aggressive and uncompromising than was Washington's approach to Soviet Communist Russia… [This policy includes a] growing military encirclement of Russia, on and near its borders, by US and NATO bases, which are already ensconced or being planned in at least half the fourteen other former Soviet republics, from the Baltics and Ukraine to Georgia, Azerbaijan and the new states of Central Asia. The result is a US-built reverse iron curtain and the remilitarization of American-Russian relations."

Destabilizing Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and the United States

This is the new, American-driven cold war -- a striking feature of our landscape, almost utterly ignored by the mainstream media -- that Cohen lays out at length and in compelling detail. Since 2000, these new cold war policies have only taken a turn for the disastrous. From its first moments in office, the Bush administration, made up almost solely of rabid former cold warriors, has been focused with an unprecedented passion and intensity on what can only be called a"rollback" policy. Defined a little more precisely, what they have pursued, as Cohen makes clear, is a policy of Russian"destabilization" with every means at their command -- and, until recently, with some success.

Their view was simple enough. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet empire, the United States was the sole military power of significance left standing. It had, as they saw it, enough excess power to ensure a Pax Americana into the distant future, in part by ensuring that no future or resurgent superpower or bloc of powers would, in any foreseeable future, arise to challenge the United States. As the President put it in an address at West Point in 2002,"America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge." The administration's new National Security Strategy of that year seconded the point, adding that the country must be"strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States."

This was to be accomplished by:

*ensuring that the former challenging superpower, once rolled back to something like its pre-imperial boundaries, would never arise in any significant new form from the rubble of its failed empire.

*ensuring that no new superpower would arise in economically resurgent Asia; in this regard, the Chinese would be essentially hemmed in, if not encircled, by American (and Japanese) power; a potentially independent Taiwan supported; and the Japanese and Chinese set at each others throats.

*ensuring that the oil heartlands of the planet in what was by then being called an"arc of instability" running from the Central Asian borderlands of Russia and China through the Middle East, North Africa (later, much of the rest of Africa), all the way to Latin America would be dotted with American military bases, anchored in the Middle East by an emboldened Israel and new more pro-American and subservient regimes in formerly enemy states like Iraq, Iran, and Syria, and that the planet's oil flows (hence the fate of the industrialized and industrializing parts of the planet) would remain under American control.

The administration's destabilization strategy, as convincingly laid out by Cohen, was not, however, limited to Russia. The ambitions of top administration officials and their supporters, after all, were world-spanning. (It wasn't for nothing that the neocons and allied pundits began talking about us as the planet's New Rome back in 2002, while we were tearing up treaties, setting up secret prisons, and preparing to launch our first"preventive" war.) In retrospect, it seems clear that destabilization was their modus operandi. Despite what some have argued in relation to Iraq (and elsewhere in the Middle East), they were undoubtedly not voting for chaos per se. What they were eager to do was put the strategically most significant and contested regions of the planet"in play," using the destabilization card, always assuming in every destabilization situation that the chips would fall on their side of the gaming table, and that, if worse came to worse, even chaos would turn out to be to their benefit.

In that spirit, they began working to destabilize Russia, hoping that even if"regime change" weren't possible, all sorts of energy resources and other political and economic fruits would fall their way from the rotting tree of the former Soviet Union. As we know, they didn't hesitate to do the same in Afghanistan, claiming that they were simply taking out al-Qaeda and its Taliban hosts (with whom they had, not so long before, been in pipeline negotiations). What they actually did, however, was settle in to that country for the long haul, setting up their normal run of bases and prisons, and in the process not fretting enormously about what destabilization was actually doing there -- creating a narco-warlord-Taliban failed state that now, of course, befuddles them.

Then, as we all know, they invaded Iraq, claiming they were pursuing Saddam Hussein's nonexistent WMD program via"decapitation" shock-and-awe attacks on his regime, the disbanding of his military, the dissolution of the Baath Party, the disbarment of many of its former members from office or jobs, and the dismantling of the state-organized and run economy -- a program of destabilization so sweeping as to take one's breath away and meant to launch a far more sweeping destabilization (and hence remaking) of the Middle East. The results of this project, still in progress, are by now well known -- including the fostering of a complex, bloodthirsty, sectarian bloodletting in Iraq which now threatens to spill across borders into neighboring lands (along with terrorism and oil sabotage).

Their most recent target is Iran -- or rather, ostensibly, Iran's nuclear energy program. In his latest report on the administration's Iranian policy, New Yorker journalist Seymour Hersh quotes a"high-ranking general" this way:"[T]he military's experience in Iraq, where intelligence on weapons of mass destruction was deeply flawed, has affected its approach to Iran. ‘We built this big monster with Iraq, and there was nothing there. This is son of Iraq.'" In fact, as Hersh has previously reported, administration strategists have long been trying to destabilize Iran in a variety of ways, while threatening future military assaults on that country's nuclear establishment. If, at some future point, they were to follow through on this, the results for the global economy would undoubtedly prove both staggering and destabilizing in ways it's quite possible no one could handle.

In the meantime, they have been willing to destabilize the world by essentially growing terror in the pursuit of other ends. Despite the centrality of the"global war on terror" to their plans, it's obvious that the taking out of hostile terrorist groups has not been the only, or even perhaps the primary item on their agenda -- after all, they curtailed the hunt for Osama bin Laden in order to whack Iraq. Rhetoric aside, they seem, in fact, to be quite willing to live with the global phenomenon of ever proliferating, ever more homegrown terrorist organizations.

Though it's been little noted, their program in the United States has been hardly less based on playing the destabilization card. As their minions in occupied Iraq were intent on radically"privatizing" -- that is, destabilizing -- the Iraqi government and economy, so they have been intent on radically privatizing (and destabilizing) the American government and economy. Recently, Frank Rich of the New York Times wrote a striking column, The Road from K Street to Yusufiya, on exactly this, pointing out that"nearly 40 cents of every dollar in federal discretionary spending now goes to private companies." It hardly mattered to them that they were essentially emptying civil government of its can-do powers; that they were replacing those hated bureaucrats in Washington with even less competent bureaucrats linked to private, crony corporations of their choice. As Rich put the matter:

"[T]he Bush brand of competitive sourcing, with its get-rich-quick schemes and do-little jobs for administration pals, spread like a cancer throughout the executive branch. It explains why tens of thousands of displaced victims of Katrina are still living in trailer shantytowns all these months later. It explains why New York City and Washington just lost 40 percent of their counterterrorism funds. It helps explain why American troops are more likely to be slaughtered than greeted with flowers more than three years after the American invasion of Iraq.

"The Department of Homeland Security, in keeping with the Bush administration's original opposition to it, isn't really a government agency at all so much as an empty shell, a networking boot camp for future private contractors dreaming of big paydays…"

Caesar's Palace

The top officials of this administration are remarkable gamblers and optimists. They have also proven remarkably single-minded in playing the destabilization game. If they are in the Roman-Empire business, don't think Augustus, think Caesar's Palace. Like so many gambling addicts, they've never run across a situation in which they're unwilling to roll the dice, no matter the odds. They just give those dice that special little rub and offer a prayer for good luck, always knowing that this just has to be their day.

Medicare, roll the dice. Social security, roll the dice. Tax the poor and middle class by untaxing the rich, no problem. Wipe out what's left of the checks and balances of the American system in favor of a theory of an all-encompassing" commander-in-chief" government, roll those dice. Launch endless, Swift-Boat-style, bare-knuckle campaigns of fear, lies, and fantasy (accompanied by gerrymandering and vote-suppression schemes) meant to install Republicans in power for decades to come, no matter the cost to the political system -- don't wait, toss ‘em now!

This is, essentially, a full-scale a program for the destabilization (as well as plundering) of this country, one that fits snugly with their operations potentially destabilizing the planet. And through it all, like the good cold warriors they are, they've never let up on that rollback campaign against Russia. Perhaps, as in the previous century, if all that needed to be compared was the relative powers of two superpowers, their acts, however fierce or cruel, might not have seemed so strategically wrongheaded. Having taken advantage of the weaknesses of their opposite number, administration officials might now be standing tall; while the Russians, crimped, impoverished, embittered, might indeed have been licking their wounds, while complaining angrily but impotently.

Such is not the case. The twenty-first century is already turning out to be far more than a hyperpower, or even a two superpower, world. Before the eyes of much of humanity, between November 2001 and March 2003, the Bush administration decided to demonstrate its singular strength by playing its destabilization trump card and setting in motion the vaunted military power of the United States. To the amazement of almost all, that military, destructive as it proved to be, was stopped in its tracks by two of the less militarily impressive"powers" on this planet -- Afghanistan and Iraq.

Before all eyes, including those of George, Dick, Don, Paul, Stephen, Condi, and their comrades, we visibly grew weaker. While the Bush administration was coveting what the Russians called their"near abroad" -- all those former SSRs around its rim -- and were eagerly peeling them away with"orange,""rose," and"tulip" revolutions, its own"near abroad" (what we used to like to call our Latin"backyard") was peeling away of its own accord, without the aid of a hostile superpower. This would once have been inconceivable, as would another reality -- up-and-coming economic powers like China and India traveling to that same"backyard" looking for energy deals. And yet a destabilized planet invariably means a planet of opportunity for someone.

In fact, Iraq proved such a black hole, so destabilizing for the Bush administration itself that its officials managed to look the other way while China emerged as an organizing power and economic magnet in Asia (a process from which the U.S. was increasingly excluded) and Russian energy reserves gave Putin and pals a new lease on life. Now, administration officials find themselves stunned by the results, which are not likely to be ameliorated by floating a bunch of aircraft-carrier task forces menacingly in the western Pacific.

In one of his recent commentaries, historian Immanuel Wallerstein pointed out that the"American Century," proclaimed by Time and Life Magazine owner Henry Luce in 1943, lasted far less than the expected hundred years. Now, the question -- and except for a few"declinist" scholars like Wallerstein, it would have been an unimaginable one as recently as 2003 -- is:"Whose century is the twenty-first century?" His grim answer: It will be the century of"multi-polar anarchy and wild economic fluctuations."

If you think about it, the single greatest destabilizing gamble this administration has taken has also been the least commented upon. A couple of years back"global warming" was largely a back-page story about tribal peoples having their habitats melted in the far north or finding their islands in danger of flooding somewhere in the distant Pacific. It was all ice all the time and if you didn't live near a glacier or somewhere in the tundra, it didn't have much to do with you -- and certainly nothing whatsoever to do with those nasty hurricanes that seemed to be increasing in strength in the Atlantic as were typhoons in the Pacific.

Now, global warming is front-page stuff and you don't have to go far to find it. Alaska isn't just melting any more, we are. Lately, a plethora of major stories and prime-time TV news reports have regularly talked not about the north, but about the planet"running a slight fever from greenhouse gases," or undergoing unexpectedly"abrupt" climate change, or of the U.S. itself having its warmest years in its history -- something reflected even in local headlines (For N. Texas, it's warmest year on record). And yet in our media the Bush administration still largely gets a free pass on the subject. No major cover stories are yet taking on the ultimate destabilization gamble of this administration, the fact that they are playing not just with the fate of this or that superpower or set of minor powers, but with that of the human race itself.

The willingness of the President and his officials to bet the store on the possibility that global warming doesn't exist, or won't hit as ferociously as expected, or soon enough to affect them, or will be solved by some future quick-fix still isn't thought of as real front-page news. In other words, their maddest gamble of all, next to which the destabilization of Iran or Russia dwindles to nothing, receives little attention. And yet, based on their track record, we know just what they are going to do -- throw those dice again.

For George W. Bush and his top officials, taking the long-term heat on this probably isn't really an issue. They have the mentality not just of gamblers but of looters and in a couple of years, if worse comes to worse, they can head for Crawford or Wyoming or estates and ranches elsewhere to hunt fowl and drink mai tais. It's the rest of us, and especially our children and grandchildren, who will still be here on this destabilized, energy-hungry planet without an air conditioner in sight.

Read entire article at TomDispatch.com