All-American Decline in a New World
3. Now, let’s step across an ill-defined Afghan-Pakistan border into another world of American obtuseness. On February 15, only four days after Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president of Egypt, Barack Obama decided to address a growing problem in Pakistan. Raymond Davis, a former US Special Forces soldier armed with a Glock semi-automatic pistol and alone in a vehicle cruising a poor neighborhood of Pakistan’s second largest city, Lahore, shot and killed two Pakistanis he claimed had menaced him at gunpoint. (One was evidently shot in the back.)
Davis reportedly got out of the vehicle firing his pistol, then photographed the dead bodies and called for backup. The responding vehicle, racing to the scene the wrong way in traffic, ran over a motorcyclist, killing him before fleeing. (Subsequently, the wife of one of the Pakistanis Davis killed committed suicide by ingesting rat poison.)
The Pakistani police took Davis into custody with a carful of strange equipment. No one should be surprised that this was not a set of circumstances likely to endear an already alienated population to its supposed American allies. In fact, it created a popular furor as Pakistanis reacted to what seemed like the definition of imperial impunity, especially when the US government, claiming Davis was an “administrative and technical official” attached to its Lahore consulate, demanded his release on grounds of diplomatic immunity and promptly began pressuring an already weak, unpopular government with loss of aid and support.
Senator John Kerry paid a hasty visit, calls were made, and threats to cut off US funds were raised in the halls of Congress. Despite what was happening elsewhere and in tumultuous Pakistan, American officials found it hard to imagine that beholden Pakistanis wouldn’t buckle.
On February 15, with the Middle East in flames, President Obama weighed in, undoubtedly making matters worse: “With respect to Mr. Davis, our diplomat in Pakistan,” he said, “we’ve got a very simple principle here that every country in the world that is party to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations has upheld in the past and should uphold in the future, and that is if our diplomats are in another country, then they are not subject to that country’s local prosecution.”
The Pakistanis refused to give way to that “very simple principle” and not long after, “our diplomat in Pakistan” was identified by the British Guardian as a former Blackwater employee and present employee of the CIA. He was, the publication reported, involved in the agency’s secret war in Pakistan. That war, especially much-ballyhooed and expensive “covert” drone attacks in the Pakistani tribal borderlands whose returns have been overhyped in Washington, continues to generate blowback in ways that Americans prefer not to grasp.
Of course, the president knew that Davis was a CIA agent, even when he called him “our diplomat.” As it turned out, so did the New York Times and other US publications, which refrained from writing about his real position at the request of the Obama administration, even as they continued to report (evasively, if not simply untruthfully) on the case.
Given what’s happening in the region, this represents neither reasonable policy-making nor reasonable journalism. If the late Chalmers Johnson, who made the word “blowback” part of our everyday language, happens to be looking down on American policy from some niche in heaven, he must be grimly amused by the brain-dead way our top officials blithely continue to try to bulldoze the Pakistanis.
4. Meanwhile, on February 18 back in Afghanistan, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on one of that country’s “largest money exchange houses,” charging “that it used billions of dollars transferred in and out of the country to help hide proceeds from illegal drug sales.”
Here’s how Ginger Thompson and Alissa J. Rubin of the New York Times contextualized that act: “The move is part of a delicate balancing act by the Obama administration, which aims to crack down on the corruption that reaches the highest levels of the Afghan government without derailing the counterinsurgency efforts that are dependent on Mr. Karzai’s cooperation.“
In a world in which Washington’s word seems to travel ever less far with ever less authority, the response to this echo-chamber-style description, and especially its central image—“a delicate balancing act”—would be: no, not by a long shot.
In relation to a country that’s the prime narco-state on the planet, what could really be “delicate”? If you wanted to describe the Obama administration’s bizarre, pretzled relationship with President Karzai and his people, words like “contorted,” “confused” and “hypocritical” would have to be trotted out. If realism prevailed, the phrase “indelicate imbalance” might be a more appropriate one to use.
5. Finally, journalist Dexter Filkins recently wrote a striking piece, “The Afghan Bank Heist,” in The New Yorker on the shenanigans that brought Kabul Bank, one of Afghanistan’s top financial institutions, to the edge of collapse. While bankrolling Hamid Karzai and his cronies by slipping them staggering sums of cash, the bank’s officials essentially ran off with the deposits of its customers. (Think of Kabul Bank as the institutional Bernie Madoff of Afghanistan.) In his piece, Filkins quotes an anonymous American official this way on the crooked goings-on he observed: “If this were America, fifty people would have been arrested by now.”
Consider that line the echo-chamber version of stand-up comedy as well as a reminder that only mad dogs and Americans stay out in the Afghan sun. Like a lot of Americans now in Afghanistan, that poor diplomat needs to be brought home—and soon. He’s lost touch with the changing nature of his own country. While we claim it as our duty to bring “nation-building” and “good governance” to the benighted Afghans, at home the United States is being unbuilt, democracy is essentially gone with the wind, the oligarchs are having a field day, the Supreme Court has insured that massive influxes of money will rule any future elections and the biggest crooks of all get to play their get-out-of-jail-free cards whenever they want. In fact, the Kabul Bank racket—a big deal in an utterly impoverished society—is a minor sideshow compared to what American banks, brokerages, mortgage and insurance companies and other financial institutions did via their “Ponzi schemes of securitization” when, in 2008, they drove the United States and global economies into meltdown mode.
And none of the individuals responsible went to prison, just old-fashioned Ponzi schemers like Madoff. Not one of them was even put on trial.
Just the other day, federal prosecutors dropped one of the last possible cases from the 2008 meltdown. Angelo R. Mozilo, the former chairman of Countrywide Financial Corporation, once the nation’s top mortgage company, did have to settle a civil suit focused on his “ill-gotten gains” in the subprime mortgage debacle for $67.5 million, but as with his peers, no criminal charges will be filed.
We’re Not the Good Guys
Imagine this: for the first time in history, a movement of Arabs is inspiring Americans in Wisconsin and possibly elsewhere. Right now, in other words, there is something new under the sun and we didn’t invent it. It’s not ours. We’re not—catch your breath here—even the good guys. They were the ones calling for freedom and democracy in the streets of Middle Eastern cities, while the United States performed another of those indelicate imbalances in favor of the thugs we’ve long supported in the Middle East.
History is now being reshaped in such a way that the previously major events of the latter years of the foreshortened American century—the Vietnam War, the end of the cold war, even 9/11—may all be dwarfed by this new moment. And yet, inside the Washington echo chamber, new thoughts about such developments dawn slowly. Meanwhile, our beleaguered, confused, disturbed country, with its aging, disintegrating infrastructure, is ever less the model for anyone anywhere (though again you wouldn’t know that here).
Oblivious to events, Washington clearly intends to fight its perpetual wars and garrison its perpetual bases, creating yet more blowback and destabilizing yet more places, until it eats itself alive. This is the definition of all-American decline in an unexpectedly new world. Yes, teeth may be in jugulars, but whose teeth in whose jugulars remains open to speculation, whatever General Petraeus thinks.
As the sun peeks over the horizon of the Arab world, dusk is descending on America. In the penumbra, Washington plays out the cards it once dealt itself, some from the bottom of the deck, even as other players are leaving the table. Meanwhile, somewhere out there in the land, you can just hear the faint howls. It’s feeding time and the scent of blood is in the air. Beware!