Obama’s Bush-League World
This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.
George W. who? I mean, the guy is so over. He turned the big six-five the other day and it was barely a footnote in the news. And Dick Cheney, tick-tick-tick. Condoleezza Rice? She’s already onto her next memoir, and yet it’s as if she’s been wiped from history, too? As for Donald Rumsfeld, he published his memoir in February and it hit the bestseller lists, but a few months later, where is he?
And can anyone be surprised? They were wrong about Afghanistan. They were wrong about Iraq. They were wrong about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. They were wrong about what the US military was capable of doing. The country imploded economically while they were at the helm. Geopolitically speaking, they headed the car of state for the nearest cliff. In fact, when it comes to pure wrongness, what weren’t they wrong about?
Americans do seem to have turned the page on Bush and his cronies. (President Obama called it looking forward, not backward.) Still, glance over your shoulder and, if you’re being honest, you’ll have to admit that one thing didn’t happen: they didn’t turn the page on us.
They may have disappeared from our lives, but the post-9/11 world they had such a mad hand in creating hasn’t. It’s not just the Department of Homeland Security or that un-American word “homeland,” both of which are undoubtedly embedded in our lives forever; or the Patriot Act, now as American as apple pie; or Guantánamo, which, despite a presidential promise, may never close; or all the wild, overblown fears of terrorism and the new security world that goes with them, neither of which shows the slightest sign of abating; or the National Security Agency’s surveillance and spying on Americans which, as far as we can tell, is ongoing. No, it’s scores of Bush policies and positions that will clearly be with us until hell freezes over. Among them all, consider the Obama administration’s updated version of that signature Bush invention, the “Global War on Terror.”
Yes, Obama’s national security officials threw that term to the dogs back in 2009, and now pursue a no-name global strategy that’s meant not to remind you of the Bush era. Recently, the White House released an unclassified summary of its 2011 “National Strategy for Counterterrorism,” a nineteen-page document in prose only a giant bureaucracy with a desire to be impenetrable could produce. (Don’t bother to read it. I read it for you.) If it makes a feeble attempt to put a little rhetorical space between Obama-style counterterrorism and what the Bush administration was doing, it still manages to send one overwhelming message: George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, et al., are still striding amongst us, carrying big sticks and with that same crazed look in their eyes.
The “Global War on Terror” (or GWOT in acronym-crazed Washington) was the bastard spawn of the disorientation and soaring hubris of the days after the 9/11 attacks, which set afire the delusional geopolitical dreams of Bush, Cheney, their top national security officials, and their neocon supporters. And here’s the saddest thing: the Bush administration’s most extreme ideas when it comes to GWOT are now the humdrum norm of Obama administration policies—and hardly anyone thinks it’s worth a comment.
A History Lesson from Hell
It’s easy to forget just how quickly GWOT was upon us or how strange it really was. On the night of September 11, 2001, addressing the nation, President Bush first spoke of winning “the war against terrorism.” Nine days later, in an address to a joint session of Congress, the phrase “war on terror” was already being expanded. “Our war on terror,” Bush said, “begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.”
In those early days, there were already clues aplenty as to which way the wind was gusting in Washington. Top administration officials immediately made it plain that a single yardstick was to measure planetary behavior from then on: Were you “with us or against us”? From the Gulf of Guinea to Central Asia, that question would reveal everything worth knowing, and terror would be its measure.
As the New York Times reported on September 14, Bush’s top officials had “cast aside diplomatic niceties” and were giving Arab countries and “the nations of the world a stark choice: stand with us against terrorism or face the certain prospect of death and destruction.” According to Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage took that message directly to his country’s intelligence director: either ally with Washington in the fight against Al Qaeda, or prepare to be bombed “back to the Stone Age,” as Armitage reportedly put it.
“Global War on Terror”? They weren’t exaggerating. These were people shocked by what had happened to iconic buildings in “the homeland” and overawed by what they imagined to be the all-conquering power of the US military. In their fever dreams, they thought that this was their moment and the apocalyptic winds of history were at their backs. And they weren’t hiding where they wanted it to blow them either. That was why they tried to come up with names to replace GWOT—World War IV (the third was the cold war) and the Long War being two of them—that would be even blunter about their desire to plunge us into a situation from which none of us would emerge in our lifetimes. But to the extent anything stuck, GWOT did.
And if everything is in a name, then the significance of that one wasn’t hard to grasp. Bush’s national security folks focused on an area that they termed “the arc of instability.” It stretched from North Africa to the Chinese border, conveniently sweeping through the major oil lands of the planet. They would later dub it “the Greater Middle East.” In that vast region, they were ready to declare hunting season open and they would be the ones to hand out the hunting licenses.
Within weeks of 9/11, top administration officials like Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz were speaking of this vast region as a global “swamp,” an earthly miasma that they were going to “drain” of terrorists. As the US military had declared whole areas of enemy-controled rural Vietnam “free fire zones” in the 1960s, so they were going to turn much of the planet into such a zone, a region where no national boundary, no claim of sovereignty would stop them from taking out whomever (or whatever government) they cared to.
Within days of 9/11, administration officials let it be known that, in their war, they were preparing to target terrorist groups in at least sixty countries. And if they were that blunt in public, in private they were exuberantly extreme. Top officials spoke with gusto about “taking off the gloves” or “the shackles” (the ones, as they saw it, that Congress had placed on the executive branch and the intelligence community in the wake of the Vietnam War and the Watergate affair).
As journalist Ron Suskind reported in his book The One Percent Doctrine, in a “Presidential Finding” on September 17, 2011, only six days after the World Trade Center towers went down, Bush granted the CIA an unprecedented license to wage war globally. By then, the CIA had presented him with a plan whose name was worthy of a sci-fi film: the “Worldwide Attack Matrix.” According to Suskind, it already “detailed operations [to come] against terrorists in 80 countries.”
In other words, with less than 200 countries on the planet, the president had declared open season on nearly half of them. Of course, the Pentagon wasn’t about to be left out while the CIA was given the run of the globe. Soon enough, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld began building up an enormous CIA-style secret army of elite special operations forces within the military. By the end of the Bush years, these had reportedly been deployed in — don’t be surprised—sixty countries. In the Obama era, that number expanded to seventy-five—mighty close to the eighty in the Worldwide Attack Matrix.
And one more thing, there was a new weapon in the world, the perfect weapon to make mincemeat of all boundaries and a mockery of national sovereignty and international law (with little obvious danger to us): the pilotless drone. Surveillance drones already in existence were quickly armed with missiles and bombs and, in November 2002, one of these was sent out on the first CIA robot assassination mission—to Yemen, where six Al Qaeda suspects in a vehicle were obliterated without a by-your-leave to anyone.