Tip Sheet for the Global Midterms
This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.
You can't turn on the TV news or pick up a paper these days without stumbling across the latest political poll and the pros explaining how to parse it, or some set of commentators, pundits and reporters placing their bets on the midterm elections. The media, of course, loves a political horse race, and as those 2010 midterms grow ever closer, you can easily feel like you're not catching the news but visiting an Off-Track Betting parlor.
Fortified by rounds of new polls and all those talking heads calibrating and recalibrating prospective winners and losers, seats "leaning Democratic" and "leaning Republican," the election season has essentially become an endless handicapping session. This is how American politics is now framed—as a months- or years-long serial election for which November 2 is a kind of hangover. Then, only weeks after the results are in, the next set of polls will be out and election 2012, the Big Show, will be on the agenda with all the regular handicappers starting to gather at all the usual places.
Doesn't it strike you as odd, though, that this mania for handicapping remains so parochially electoral? After all, it could be applied to so many things, including the state of the world at large as seen from Washington. So consider this my one-man tip sheet on what you could think of as the global midterms, focused on prospective winners and losers, as well as those "on the cusp," including crucial countries and key personalities.
Osama bin Laden: Who woulda thunk it? More than nine years after 9/11, Osama bin Laden and his number-two compadre, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are believed to be alive, well and living comfortably in the Pakistani borderlands with not a cave in sight, according to the best guesstimate of a "NATO official who has day-to-day responsibility for the war in Afghanistan." With the globe's "sole superpower" eternally on his trail—admittedly, the Bush administration took a few years off from the "hunt" to crash and burn in Iraq—he's a prospective global winner just for staying alive. But before we close the books on him, he gets extra points for a singular accomplishment: with modest funds and a few thousand ragtag masked recruits, swinging on monkey bars and clambering over obstacles in "camps" in Afghanistan, he managed to lure the United States into two financially disastrous, inconclusive wars, one in its eighth year, the other in its tenth. To give credit where it's due, he had help from the Bush administration with its dominatrix-like global fantasies. Still, it's not often that someone can make his dreams your nightmares on such a scale.
The Taliban: Here's another crew heading toward the winner's circle after yet another typically fraud-wracked Afghan parliamentary election conferring even less legitimacy on President Hamid Karzai's toothless government in Kabul. Think of the Taliban as the miracle story of the global backlands, the phoenix of extreme Islamic fundamentalist movements. After all, in November 2001, when the Taliban were swept out of Kabul, the movement couldn't have been more thoroughly discredited. Afghans were generally sick of their harsh rule and abusive ways and, if reports can be believed, relieved, even overjoyed, to be rid of them (whatever Afghans thought about their country being invaded). But when night fell in perhaps 2005–06, they were back, retooled and remarkably effective.
And it's only gotten worse (or, from the Taliban point of view, better) ever since. Yes, they are now getting pounded by a heightened American bombing campaign, a Special Operations night-raids-and-assassination campaign and pressure from newly surging US forces in the southern part of the country. Nonetheless, as the Wall Street Journal reported recently, they are achieving some remarkable successes in northern Afghanistan. After all, the Taliban had always been considered a Pashtun tribal movement and while there are Pashtuns in the north, they are a distinct minority. The Journal nonetheless reports: "the insurgency is now drawing ethnic Uzbeks, Tajiks and other minorities previously seen as unsympathetic to the rebel cause."
If, more than nine years later, the Taliban—the Taliban!—is attracting groups that theoretically loath it, have few cultural affinities with it and long fought or opposed it, then you know that the American campaign in Afghanistan has hit its nadir. Thanks to us and our man in Kabul, the Taliban is increasingly the fallback position, the lesser of two disasters, for Afghan nationalists. This helps explain why more than $27 billion in American training funds hasn't produced an Afghan military or police force capable of or willing to fight, while Taliban guerrillas, lacking such aid, fight fiercely anyway.
Iran (in Iraq): Remember that old witticism of the neocons of the ascendant Bush moment back in 2003: "Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran"? Well, it's turned out to be truer than they ever imagined. Just recently, for instance, Iraqi caretaker prime minister Nouri al-Maliki went to Tehran to try to hammer out a deal to keep his position (see Sadr, Muqtada al-, below). It's undeniable that Iran, a moderate-sized regional power the Bush administration expected to crush and instead found itself struggling with by proxy in Iraq for years, now has a preponderant position of influence there. Despite so many billions of dollars and American lives, not to speak of years of covert destabilization campaigns aimed at Iran, Tehran seems to have outmaneuvered Washington in Baghdad (and perhaps in Lebanon as well). Call that an ongoing win against the odds.
China: Here's the bad news when it comes to China—a weak third quarter dropped the growth rate of its gross domestic product to 9.6 percent. Yep, you read that right: only 9.6 percent (down from 10.3 percent in the second quarter). For comparison, the US rate of growth leaped from 1.7 percent in the second quarter to 2.3 percent in the third quarter, with some experts predicting no growth or even shrinkage by year's end. Make no mistake, China has its lurking problems, including an overheating urban real estate market verging on bubbledom (which, post-2008, should cause any leadership to shudder) and tens of millions of peasants left in dismal poverty in the long decades when "to get rich" was "glorious." Still, the country has managed to pass Japan for number-two-global-economic-power status, to corner a startling range of future global energy reserves so that its economy can drink deep for decades to come and to forge a front-running position in various renewable-energy fields. Its leaders have accomplished all this thanks to economic muscle, diplomacy and cash (think bribes) without sending its soldiers abroad or fighting a war (or even a skirmish) overseas. They have even learned how to be thoroughly belligerent while relying only on economic power. Check out, for instance, the over-the-top way they crushed Japan in a recent standoff over a Chinese trawler captain in Japanese custody, wielding only the threat to withhold rare earth metals (necessary to various advanced industrial processes), 95–97 percent of which are, at the moment, produced by China. We're definitely talking global winner here.
Drone makers: If America's wars are eternal field laboratories for new weaponry, then the grand winners of the latest round of wars are the drone makers. General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, the jewel in the crown of Southern California's drone industry, now employs 10,000 workers and runs double shifts in, as W.J. Hennigan of the Los Angeles Times writes, a "fast-growing business…fueled by Pentagon spending—at least $20 billion since 2001—and billions more chipped in by the CIA and Congress." Washington has been plunking down more than $5 billion a year for its drone purchases, the development of future drone technology and the carrying out of 24/7 robot assassination campaigns as well as a full-scale Terminator war in the Pakistani borderlands. These "precision" weapons are capable of taking out people, including civilians in the vicinity, from thousands of miles away. The drones themselves—termed by CIA director Leon Panetta "the only game in town" when it comes to stopping Al Qaeda—turn out to be capable of settling nothing. For every bad guy they kill, they kill civilians as well, seeding new enemies in what is essentially a war to create future terrorists. But that hardly matters. Terminator wars are hot and the drone, as a product, is definitely a global winner. Not only are American companies starting to export the craft to allies willing to pay in global hotspots but other countries are lining up to create drone industries of their own. Expect the friendly skies to continue to fill.
Muqtada al-Sadr: Here's a heartwarming winner's circle story about a highly experienced political operator, still known in the US press as the "anti-American cleric" who just couldn't be kept down. Sadr led an armed Shiite movement of the poor in Iraq that, in 2004, actively fought US forces to a draw in the old city of Najaf. He himself was hunted by the US military and, at one point during the years when Washington ruled in Baghdad, warrants were even put out for his arrest in a murder case. Still, the guy survived, as did his movement, armed and then un- (or less) armed. In 2007, he packed his bags and moved to the safety of neighboring Iran to "study" and move up in Shia clerical ranks. In the most recent Iraqi elections, now seven months past, for a parliament that has yet to meet, his movement won more than 10 percent of the vote and with that he was declared a "kingmaker." He has always unwaveringly called for a full American withdrawal from his country. Now, with the potential power to return Nouri al-Maliki (for whom he has no love) to the prime ministership, he is evidently insisting that Washington retain not a single future base in Iraq—and the Obama administration is twitching with discomfort.
General Stanley McChrystal: And here's another heartwarming winner's-circle story. Once upon a time, McChrystal was essentially the US military's assassin-in-chief. For five years he commanded the Pentagon's super-secret Joint Special Operations Command, which, among other things, ran what Seymour Hersh called an "executive assassination wing" out of Vice President Dick Cheney's office. Then the general was appointed Afghan War commander by Barack Obama and, under the worst of circumstances, tried to implement his boss's textbook version of counterinsurgency doctrine (see COIN and Petraeus, General David, below). He actually cut back radically on the US air war in Afghanistan in an attempt to kill far fewer of the civilians he was supposed to "protect" and have a better shot at winning "hearts and minds."
The result: utter frustration. The Taliban grew, Afghans remained miserably unhappy and American troops hated his new war-fighting policy that meant they couldn't call in air support when they wanted it. He and his circle of former Special Ops types flew to Paris to greet NATO allies (for whom, it seems, he had nothing but contempt), drank hard and vented their feelings toward the Obama administration, all in the presence of a Rolling Stone reporter. Next thing you know, the president has canned his war commander, putting him momentarily in the loser's circle—and that was his good fortune. He was shown the door out of Afghanistan before the going got worse. He is now in the process of retooling himself via a teaching position at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University as a budding leadership guru and inspirational speaker. ("Few people can speak about leadership, teamwork, and international affairs with as much insight as General Stanley McChrystal...")
If you're a typical American of a certain age laid off in today's bad times, the likelihood of getting a half-decent job is next to nil (and retraining isn't going to help much either). On the other hand, if you begin high enough and, say, the president of the United States axes you, all's well with the world.