Twenty-first Century Gunboat Diplomacy
Twenty-first Century Gunboat Diplomacy
Imperial quote of the week (or: you don't keep the New Rome waiting in the New Spain): "A senior administration official traveling with [Secretary of State Colin] Powell described the meeting [after the funeral service for the Madrid bombing victims] as 'good, positive and straightforward,' adding, "[Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez] Zapatero was clear in his views that the U.N. needed to be in Iraq or Spain's troops would leave. We said we'd be in touch with them as things developed.'... Still, the meeting between Mr. Powell and Mr. Zapatero lasted only 15 minutes. Mr. Powell was kept waiting for 40 minutes because Mr. Zapatero was running late after the funeral service went on longer than expected. It did not help that [French President] Chirac preceded Mr. Powell. One administration official said that Mr. Powell, who does not like to be kept waiting, considered leaving without meeting Mr. Zapatero. In the end, Mr. Powell cut the meeting short, explaining that he had a plane to catch, a senior administration official said." (Elaine Sciolino, "World Leaders Converge in Spain to Mourn Bomb Victims," New York Times, 3/25/04)
I guess the 4:17 commuter flight to Washington was on the tarmac, loaded and ready to go, and the airline wouldn't hold it.
1. Off the coast
The wooden sailing ship mounted with cannons, the gunboat, the battleship, and finally the "airship" -- these proved the difference between global victory and staying at home, between empire and nothing much at all. In the first couple of centuries of Europe's burst onto the world stage, the weaponry of European armies and their foes was not generally so disparate. It was those cannons on ships that decisively tipped the balance. And they continued to do so for a long, long time. Traditionally, in fact, the modern arms race is considered to have taken off at the beginning of the twentieth century with the rush of European powers to build ever larger, ever more powerful, "all-big-gun" battleships -- the "dreadnoughts" (scared of nothings).
In "Exterminate All the Brutes," a remarkable travel book that takes you into the heart of European darkness (via an actual trip through Africa), the Swede Sven Lindqvist offers the following comments on that sixteenth century sea-borne moment when Europe was still a barbaric outcropping of Euro-Asian civilization:
Winston Churchill was a reporter with the British expeditionary force and here's part of his description of the slaughter (also from Lindqvist):
2. Our little "diplomats"
Today, gunboat diplomacy seems like a phrase from some antiquated imperial past (despite our thirteen aircraft carrier task forces that travel the world making "friendly" house calls from time to time). But if you stop thinking about literal gunboats and try to imagine how we carry out "armed diplomacy" -- and, as we all know, under the Bush administration the Pentagon has taken over much that might once have been labeled "diplomacy" -- then you can begin to conjure up our own twenty-first century version of gunboat diplomacy. But first, you have to consider exactly what the "platforms" are upon which we "export force," upon which we mount our "cannons."
What should immediately come to mind are our military bases, liberally scattered like so many vast immobile vessels over the lands of the Earth. This has been especially true since the neocons of the Bush administration grabbed the reins of power at the Pentagon and set about reconceiving basing policy globally; set about, that is, creating more "mobile" versions of the military base, ever more stripped down for action, ever closer to what they've come to call the "arc of instability," a vast swath of lands extending from the former Yugoslavia and the former SSRs of Eastern Europe down deep into Northern Africa and all the way to the Chinese border. These are areas that represent, not surprisingly, the future energy heartland of the planet. What the Pentagon refers to as its "lily pads" strategy is meant to encircle and nail down control of this vast set of interlocking regions -- the thought being that, if the occasion arises, the American frogs can leap agilely from one prepositioned pad to another, knocking off the "flies" as they go.
Thought about a certain way, the military base, particularly as reconceived in recent years, whether in Uzbekistan, Kosovo, or Qatar, is our "gunboat," a "platform" that has been ridden ever deeper into the landlocked parts of the globe -- into regions like the Middle East, where our access once had some limits, or like the former Yugoslavia and the 'stans of Central Asia, where the lesser superpower of the Cold War era once blocked access entirely. Our new military bases are essentially the 21st century version of the old European warships; the difference being that, once built, the base remains in place, while its parts -- the modern equivalents of those 16th century cannons -- are capable of moving over land or water almost anywhere.
As Chalmers Johnson has calculated it in his new book on American militarism, The Sorrows of Empire, our global Baseworld consists of at least 700 military and intelligence bases; possibly -- depending on how you count them up -- many more. This is our true "imperial fleet" (though, of course, we have an actual imperial fleet as well, our aircraft carriers alone being like small, massively armed towns). In the last decade-plus, as the pace of our foreign wars has picked up, we've left behind, after each of them, a new set of bases like the droppings of some giant beast marking the scene with its scent. Bases were dropped into Saudi Arabia and the small Gulf emirates after our first Gulf War in 1991; into the former Yugoslavia after the Kosovo air war of 1999; into Pakistan, Afghanistan, and several of the former Central Asian SSRs after the Afghan war of 2001; and into Iraq after last year's invasion.
The process has speeded up under the Bush administration, but until recent weeks, if you read our press, you would have had almost no way of knowing this; on Iraq, since on April 19, 2003 the New York Times front-paged Pentagon plans to build four permanent bases there, none at all unless you wandered the Web reading the foreign press. Basing is generally considered here either a topic not worth writing about or an arcane policy matter best left to the inside pages for the policy wonks and news junkies. This is in part because we Americans -- and by extension our journalists -- don't imagine us as garrisoning or occupying the world; and certainly not as having anything faintly approaching a military empire. Generally speaking, those more than seven hundred bases, our little "diplomats" (and the rights of extraterritoriality that go with them via Status of Forces Agreements) don't even register on our media's mental map of our globe.
Only recently, however, a few basing articles have suddenly appeared and, miracle of miracle, Christine Spolar of the Chicago Tribune has actually written one about our permanent Iraqi bases, endearingly referred to in the military as "enduring camps." Such bases were almost certainly planned for by the Pentagon before the 2003 invasion. After all, we were also planning to withdraw most of our troops from Saudi Arabia -- Osama bin Laden had complained bitterly about the occupation of Islam's holy sites -- and they weren't simply going to be shipped back to the U.S.
But the numbers of those potential enduring camps in Iraq are startling indeed. The title of Spolar's piece tells the tale: "14 'enduring' bases set in Iraq" (3/23/04) and it begins with the line: "From the ashes of abandoned Iraqi army bases, U.S. military engineers are overseeing the building of an enhanced system of American bases designed to last for years."
Think about 14 bases "for years," and keep in mind that some of these bases are already comparable in size and elaborateness to the ones we built in Vietnam four decades ago. Spolar continues:
As the Pentagon planned it, and as we knew via leaks to the press soon after the war, newly "liberated" Iraq, once "sovereignty" had been restored, was to have only a lightly armed military force of some 40,000 men and no air force. The other part of this equation, the given (if unspoken) part, was that some sort of significant long-term American military protection of the country would have to be put in place. That size Iraqi military in one of the most heavily armed regions of the planet was like an insurance policy that we would "have" to stay. And we've proceeded accordingly, emplacing our "little diplomats" right at a future hub of the global energy superhighway.
But we've made sure to cover the other on and off ramps as well. As James Sterngold of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote recently in a rundown of some of our post-9/11 basing policies ("After 9/11, U.S. policy built on world bases," 3/21/04):
Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith has been the main Pentagon architect of a plan to "realign" our bases so as to "forward deploy" U.S. forces into the "arc of instability." (On a planet so thoroughly garrisoned, though, what can "forward" actually mean?) In a December speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (Transforming the U.S. Global Defense Posture), he offered a Pentagon version of sensitivity in discussing his forward deployment plans: "Realigning the U.S. posture will also help strengthen our alliances by tailoring the physical US 'footprint' to suit local conditions. The goal is to reduce friction with host nations, the kind that results from accidents and other problems relating to local sensitivities." (Moccasins, flip-flops, sandals anyone?)
In the meantime, to ensure that there will be no consequences if the giant foot, however enclosed, happens to stamp its print in a tad clumsily, causing the odd bit of collateral damage, he added:
We're talking a globe-girdling Baseworld here. Assumedly, the show's finale will be a rousing chorus of "We Are the World."
3. Twenty-second century gunboat diplomacy
At least as now imagined in the Pentagon, twenty-second century "gunboat diplomacy" will be conducted by what the Air Force's Space Command refers to as "space-based platforms" and the "cannons" will be a range of "exotic" weapons and delivery systems. In still unweaponized space (if you exclude the various spy satellites overhead), we plan for our future "ships" to travel the heavens alone, representatives of a singular heavenly version of gunboat diplomacy. Among the "five priorities for national security space efforts in 2004" set out by Peter B. Teets, undersecretary of the Air Force and director of the National Reconnaissance Office, in recent testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the most striking, if also predictable, is that of "ensuring freedom of action in space" -- as in freedom of action for us, and no action at all for anyone else.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has long been riveted by the idea of dominating space, and in his hands space, a void, is now being re-imagined as the ocean of our imperial future, thanks to space weaponry now on the drawing boards like the nicknamed "Rods from God" (Pittsburgh Post Gazette, 7/23/03). These are to be "orbiting platforms stocked with tungsten rods perhaps 20 feet long and one foot in diameter that could be satellite-guided to targets anywhere on Earth within minutes. Accurate within about 25 feet, they would strike at speeds upwards of 12,000 feet per second, enough to destroy even hardened bunkers several stories underground."
Planning among "high frontier" enthusiasts for the conquest and militarization of space began in the 1980s during the Reagan administration, but it has now reached new levels of realism (of a mad sort). Theresa Hitchens of the Center for Defense Information recently wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle ("Reining in our weaponry," 3/15/04):
[Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), where this article first appeared, is a co-founder of the American Empire Project (www.americanempireproject.com) and consulting editor at Metropolitan Books. He is the author of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing, and The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism and the Cold War.]