In 2016, something extraordinary happened in the politics of diverse countries around the world. With surprising speed and simultaneity, a new generation of populist leaders emerged from the margins of nominally democratic nations to win power. In doing so, they gave voice, often in virulent fashion, to public concerns about the social costs of globalization.
Even in societies as disparate as the affluent United States and the impoverished Philippines, similarly violent strains of populist rhetoric carried two unlikely candidates from the political margins to the presidency. On opposite sides of the Pacific, these outsider campaigns were framed by lurid calls for violence and even murder.
As his insurgent crusade gained momentum, billionaire Donald Trump moved beyond his repeated promises to fight Islamic terror with torture and brutal bombing by also advocating the murder of women and children. “The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families,” he told Fox News. “They care about their lives, don’t kid yourself. When they say they don’t care about their lives, you have to take out their families.”
At the same time, campaigning in the Philippines on a law-and-order program of his own, Rodrigo Duterte, then mayor of a remote provincial city, swore that he would kill drug dealers across the nation, sparing nothing in the way of violent imagery. “If by chance that God will place me [in the presidency],” he promised in launching his campaign, “watch out because the 1,000 [people executed while he was a mayor] will become 100,000. You will see the fish in Manila Bay getting fat. That is where I will dump you.”
The rise of these political soulmates and populist strongmen not only resonated deeply in their political cultures, but also reflected global trends that made their bloodstained rhetoric paradigmatic of our present moment. After a post-Cold War quarter-century of globalization, displaced workers around the world began mobilizing angrily to oppose an economic order that had made life so good for transnational corporations and social elites.
Between 1999 and 2011, for instance, Chinese imports had eliminated 2.4 million American jobs, closing furniture manufacturers in North Carolina, factories that produced glass in Ohio, and auto parts and steel companies across the Midwest. As a range of nations worldwide reacted to such realities by imposing a combined 2,100 restrictions on imports to staunch similar job losses, world trade actually started to slow down without a major recession for the first time since 1945.
The Bloodstained History of Populism
Across Europe, hyper-nationalist right-wing parties like the French National Front, the Alternative for Germany, and the UK Independence Party won over voters by cultivating nativist, especially anti-Islamic, responses to globalization. Simultaneously, a generation of populist demagogues either held, gained, or threatened to take power in democracies around the world: Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Erdogan in Turkey, Donald Trump in the U.S., Narendra Modi in India, Prabowo Subianto in Indonesia, and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, among others.
Indian essayist Pankaj Mishra recently summed up their successes this way: “Demagogues are still emerging, in the West and outside it, as the promise of prosperity collides with massive disparities of wealth, power, education, and status.” The Philippine economy offered typically grim news on this score. It grew by an impressive 6% annually in the six years before Duterte launched his presidential campaign, even as a staggering 26 million poor Filipinos struggled to survive on a dollar a day. In those years, just 40 elite Filipino families grabbed an estimated 76% of all the wealth this growth produced.
Scholar Michael Lee suggests that a populist leader succeeds by rhetorically defining his or her national community by both its supposedly “shared characteristics” and its inevitable common “enemy,” whether Mexican “rapists” or Muslim refugees, much as the Nazis created a powerful sense of national selfhood by excluding certain groups by “blood.” In addition, he argues, such movements share the desire for an “apocalyptic confrontation” through a final “mythic battle” as “the vehicle to revolutionary change.”
Although scholars like Lee emphasize the ways in which populist demagogues rely on violent rhetoric for their success, they tend to focus less on another crucial aspect of such populists globally: actual violence. These movements might still be in their (relatively) benign phase in the United States and Europe, but in less developed democracies around the world populist leaders haven’t hesitated to inscribe their newfound power on the battered bodies of their victims.
For more than a decade, for instance, Russian President Vladimir Putin, a reasonable candidate for sparking this wave of populism, has demonstrated his famously bare-chested version of power politics by ensuring that opponents and critics meet grim ends under “mysterious” circumstances. These include the lethal spritz of polonium 210 that killed Russian secret police defector Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006; the shooting of journalist and Putin critic Anna Politkovskaya outside her Moscow apartment that same year; a dose of rare Himalayan plant poison for banker and Putin nemesis Alexander Perepilichny in London in 2012; a fusillade that felled opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in downtown Moscow in 2015; and four fatal bullets this March for refugee whistleblower Denis Voronenkov on a Kiev sidewalk, which Ukraine has denounced as “an act of state terrorism.”
As an Islamist populist, Turkish president Recep Erdogan has projected his power through a bloody repression of, and a new war with, the country’s Kurdish minority. He portrays the Kurds as a cancer within the country’s body politic whose identity must be extinguished, much as his forebears rid themselves of the Armenians. In addition, since mid-2016, he’s overseen a wholesale purge of 50,000 officials, journalists, teachers, and military officers in the aftermath of a failed coup, and in a brutal round of torture and rape filled Turkish prisons to the brim.
In 2014, retired general Prabowo Subianto nearly won Indonesia’s presidency with a populist campaign of “strength and order.” In fact, Prabowo’s military career had long been steeped in such violence. In 1998, when the authoritarian regime of his father-in-law Suharto was at the brink of collapse, Prabowo, then commander of the Kopassus Rangers, staged the kidnapping-disappearance of a dozen student activists, the savage rape of 168 Chinese women (acts meant to incite racial violence), and the burning of 43 shopping malls and 5,109 buildings in Jakarta, the country’s capital, that left more than 1,000 dead.
During his first months in power, newly elected Philippine President Duterte waged his highly publicized war on the drug trade in city slums by loosing the police and vigilantes nationwide in a campaign already marked, in its first six months, by at least 7,000 extrajudicial killings. The bodies of his victims were regularly dumped on Manila’s streets as warnings to others and as down payments on Duterte’s promises of a new, orderly country.
And he wasn’t the first populist in Asia to take such a path either. In 2003, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra launched his “red shirt” movement as a war on his country’s rampant methamphetamine abuse. In just three months under Thaksin’s rule, the police carried out 2,275 extrajudicial killings of suspected drug dealers and users, often leaving the bodies where they fell as a twisted tribute to his power.
Such examples of populist political carnage and the likelihood of more to come — including what Donald Trump’s presidency might have in store — raise certain questions: Just what dynamics lie behind the urge toward violence that seems to propel such movements? Why does the virulent campaign rhetoric of populist political movements so often morph into actual violence once a populist wins power? And why is that violence invariably aimed at enemies believed to threaten the imagined integrity of the national community?
In their compulsion to “protect” the nation from what are seen as pernicious alien influences, such populist movements are defined by their need for enemies. That need, in turn, infuses them with an almost uncontrollable compulsion for conflict that transcends actual threats or rational political programs.
To give this troubling trend its political due, it’s necessary to understand how, at a particular moment in history, global forces have produced a generation of populist leaders with such potential compulsions. And at the moment, there may be no better example to look to than the Philippines.
During its last half-century of bloodstained elections, two populists, Ferdinand Marcos and Rodrigo Duterte, won exceptional power by combining the high politics of diplomacy with the low politics of performative violence, scattering corpses scarred by their signature brutality as if they were so many political pamphlets. A quick look at this history offers us an unsettling glimpse of America’s possible political future.
Populism in the Philippines: the Marcos Era
Although now remembered mainly as a “kleptocrat” who plundered his country and enriched himself with shameless abandon (epitomized by the discovery that his wife possessed 3,000 pairs of shoes), Ferdinand Marcos was, in fact, a brilliant populist, thoroughly skilled in the symbolic uses of violence.
As his legal term as president came to an end in 1972, Marcos — who, like many populists, saw himself as chosen by destiny to save his people from perdition — used the military to declare martial law. He then jailed 50,000 opponents, including the senators who had blocked his favored legislation and the gossip columnists who had mocked his wife’s pretensions.
The first months of his dictatorship actually lacked any official violence. Then, just before dawn on January 15, 1973, Constabulary officers read a presidential execution order and strapped Lim Seng, an overseas Chinese heroin manufacturer, to a post at a Manila military camp. As a battery of press photographers stood by, an eight-man firing squad raised their rifles. Replayed endlessly on television and in movie theaters, the dramatic footage of bullets ripping open the victim’s chest was clearly meant to be a vivid display of the new dictator’s power, as well as an appeal to his country’s ingrained anti-Chinese racism. Lim Seng would be the only victim legally executed in the 14 years of the Marcos dictatorship. Extra-judicial killings were another matter, however.
Marcos made clever use of the massive U.S. military bases near Manila to win continuing support for his authoritarian (and increasingly bloody) rule from three successive American administrations, even effectively neutralizing President Jimmy Carter’s human rights policy. After a decade of dictatorship, however, the economy began to collapse from a too-heavy dose of “crony capitalism” and the political opposition started to challenge Marcos’s self-image as destiny’s chosen one.
To either sate or subdue an increasingly restive population, he soon resorted to escalating raw violence. His security squads conducted what were referred to as “salvagings,” more than 2,500 of them (or 77% of the 3,257 extrajudicial killings during his 14-year dictatorship). Bodies scarred by torture were regularly abandoned in public plazas or at busy intersections so passers-by could read the transcript of terror in their stigmata. In the capital, Manila, with only 4,000 police for six million residents, the Marcos regime also deputized hundreds of “secret marshals” responsible for more than 30 shoot-on-sight fatalities during May 1985, the program’s first month, alone.
Yet the impact of Marcos’s version of populist violence proved mutable — effective at the start of martial law when people yearned for order and counterproductive at its close when Filipinos again longed for freedom. That shift in sentiment soon led to his downfall in the first of the dramatic “people power” revolutions that would challenge autocratic regimes from Beijing to Berlin.
Populism in the Philippines: Duterte’s Violence
Rodrigo Duterte, the son of a provincial governor, initially pursued a career as the mayor of Davao City, a site of endemic violence that left a lasting imprint on his political persona.
In 1984, after the communist New People’s Army made Davao its testing ground for urban guerilla warfare, the city’s murders soared, doubling to 800, including the assassination of 150 policemen. To check the communists, who took over part of the city, the military mobilized criminals and ex-communists as death squad vigilantes in a lethal counterterror campaign. When I visited Davao in 1987 to investigate death squad killings, that remote southern city already had an unforgettable air of desolation and hopelessness.
It was in this context of rising national and local extrajudicial slaughter that the 33-year old Rodrigo Duterte launched his political career as the elected mayor of Davao City. That was in 1988, the first of seven terms that would keep him in office, on and off, for another 21 years until he won the country’s presidency in 2016. His first campaign was hotly contested and he barely beat his rivals, taking only 26% of the vote.
Around 1996, he reportedly mobilized his own vigilante group, the Davao Death Squad. It would be responsible for many of the city’s 814 extrajudicial killings over the next decade, as victims were dumped on city streets with faces wrapped bizarrely in packing tape. Duterte himself may have killed one or more of the squad’s victims. Apart from liquidating criminals, the Davao Death Squad also conveniently eliminated the mayor’s political rivals.
Campaigning for president in 2016, Duterte would proudly point to the killings in Davao City and promise a drug war that would murder 100,000 Filipinos if necessary. In doing so, he was also drawing on historical resonances from the Marcos era that lent some political depth to his violent rhetoric. By specifically praising Marcos, promising to finally bury his body in the National Heroes Cemetery in Manila, and supporting Ferdinand Marcos Jr. for vice president, Duterte identified himself with a political lineage of populist strongmen epitomized by the old dictator at a time when desperate Filipinos were looking for new hope of a decent life.
On taking office, President Duterte promptly started his promised anti-drug campaign and dead bodies became commonplace sights on city streets nationwide, sometimes accompanied by a crude cardboard sign reading “I am a pusher,” or simply with their faces wrapped in the by-now trademark packing tape used by the Davao Death Squad. Although Human Rights Watch would declare his drug war a “calamity,” a resounding 85% of Filipinos surveyed were “satisfied,” apparently seeing each body sprawled on a city street as another testament to the president’s promise of order.
At the same time, like Marcos, Duterte deployed a new style of diplomacy as part of his populist reach for unrestrained power. Amid rising tensions in the South China Sea between Beijing and Washington, he improved his country’s bargaining position by distancing himself from the Philippines’ classic alliance with the United States. At the 2016 ASEAN conference, reacting to Barack Obama’s criticism of his drug war, he said bluntly of the American president, “Your mother’s a whore.”
A month later during a state visit to Beijing, Duterte publicly proclaimed “separation from the United States.’’ By setting aside his country’s recent slam-dunk win over China at the Court of Arbitration in the Hague in a legal dispute over rival claims in the South China Sea, Duterte came home with $24 billion in Chinese trade deals and a sense that he was helping establish a new world order.
In January, after his police tortured and killed a South Korean businessman on the pretext of a drug bust, he was forced to call a sudden halt to the nationwide killing spree. Like his role model Marcos, however, Duterte’s populism seems to contain an insatiable appetite for violence and so it was not long before bodies were once again being dumped on the streets of Manila, pushing the death toll past 8,000.
Success and the Strongman
The histories of these Filipino strongmen, past and present, reveal two overlooked aspects of the ill-defined phenomenon of global populism: the role of what might be termed performative violence in projecting domestic strength and a complementary need for diplomatic success to show international influence. How skillfully these critical poles of power are balanced may offer one gauge for speculating about the fate of populist strongmen in disparate parts of the globe.
In Russia’s case, Putin’s projection of strength through the murder of selected domestic opponents has been matched by unchecked aggression in Georgia and Ukraine — a successful balancing act that has made his country, with its rickety economy the size of Italy’s, seem like a great power again and is likely to extend his autocratic rule into the foreseeable future.
In Turkey, Erdogan’s harsh repression of ethnic and political enemies has essentially sunk his bid for entry into the European Union, plunged him into an unwinnable war with Kurdish rebels, and complicated his alliance with the United States against Islamic fundamentalism — all potential barriers to his successful bid for unchecked power.
In Indonesia, Prabowo Subianto failed in his critical first step: building a domestic base large enough to sweep him into the presidency, in part because his call for order resonated so discordantly with a public still capable of remembering his earlier bid for power through eerie violence that roiled Jakarta with hundreds of rapes, fires, and deaths.
Without the popular support generated by his local spectacle of violence, President Duterte’s de facto abrogation of his country’s claims to the South China Sea’s rich fishing grounds and oil reserves in his bid for Chinese support risks a popular backlash, a military coup, or both. For the time being, however, Duterte’s deft juxtaposition of international maneuvering and local bloodletting has made him a successful Philippine strongman with, as yet, few apparent checks on his power.
While the essential weakness of the Philippine military limits Duterte’s outlets for his populist violence to the police killings of poor street drug dealers, Donald Trump faces no such restraints. Should Congress and the courts check the virulence of his domestic attacks on Muslims, Mexicans, or other imagined enemies and should his presidency run into further setbacks like the recent repeal-Obamacare humiliation, he could readily resort to violent military adventures not only in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Libya, but even in Iran, not to speak of North Korea, in a bid to recover his populist aura of overweening power. In this way, unlike any other potential populist politician on the planet, he holds the fate of countless millions in his much-discussed hands.
If populism’s need for what scholar Michael Lee calls an “apocalyptic confrontation” and a “mythic battle” proves accurate, it might, in the end, lead the Trump administration’s “systemic revolutionaries” far beyond even their most extreme rhetoric into an endlessly escalating cycle of violence against foreign enemies, using whatever weapons are available, whether drones, special operations forces, fighter bombers, naval armadas, or even nuclear weapons.
The Bloodstained Rise of Global Populism
In ways that have eluded Washington pundits and policymakers, President Barack Obama is deploying a subtle geopolitical strategy that, if successful, might give Washington a fighting chance to extend its global hegemony deep into the twenty-first century. After six years of silent, sometimes secret preparations, the Obama White House has recently unveiled some bold diplomatic initiatives whose sum is nothing less than a tri-continental strategy to check Beijing’s rise. As these moves unfold, Obama is revealing himself as one of those rare grandmasters who appear every generation or two with an ability to go beyond mere foreign policy and play that ruthless global game called geopolitics.
Since he took office in 2009, Obama has faced an unremitting chorus of criticism, left and right, domestic and foreign, dismissing him as hapless, even hopeless. “He's a poor ignoramus; he should read and study a little to understand reality," said Venezuela’s leftist president Hugo Chavez, just months after Obama’s inauguration. “I think he has projected a position of weakness and… a lack of leadership,” claimed Republican Senator John McCain in 2012. “After six years,” opined a commentator from the conservative Heritage Foundation last April, “he still displays a troubling misunderstanding of power and the leadership role the United States plays in the international system.” Even former Democratic President Jimmy Carter recently dismissed Obama’s foreign policy achievements as “minimal.” Voicing the views of many Americans, Donald Trump derided his global vision this way: “We have a president who doesn’t have a clue.”
But let's give credit where it's due. Without proclaiming a presumptuously labeled policy such as “triangulation,” “the Nixon Doctrine,” or even a “freedom agenda,” Obama has moved step-by-step to repair the damage caused by a plethora of Washington foreign policy debacles, old and new, and then maneuvered deftly to rebuild America’s fading global influence.
Viewed historically, Obama has set out to correct past foreign policy excesses and disasters, largely the product of imperial overreach, that can be traced to several generations of American leaders bent on the exercise of unilateral power. Within the spectrum of American state power, he has slowly shifted from the coercion of war, occupation, torture, and other forms of unilateral military action toward the more cooperative realm of trade, diplomacy, and mutual security — all in search of a new version of American supremacy.
Obama first had to deal with the disasters of the post-9/11 years. Looking through history’s rearview mirror, Bush-Cheney Republicans imagined the Middle East was the on-ramp to greater world power and burned up at least two trillion dollars and much of U.S. prestige in a misbegotten attempt to make that illusion a reality. Since the first day of his presidency, Obama has been trying to pull back from or ameliorate the resulting Bush-made miasmas in Afghanistan and Iraq (though with only modest success), while resisting constant Republican pressures to reengage fully in the permanent, pointless Middle Eastern war that they consider their own. Instead of Bush's endless occupations with 170,000 troops in Iraq and 101,000 in Afghanistan, Obama's military has adopted a more mobile Middle Eastern footprint of advisers, air strikes, drones, and special operations squads. On other matters, however, Obama has acted far more boldly.
Covert Cold War Disasters
Obama’s diplomats have, for instance, pursued reconciliation with three “rogue” states — Burma, Iran, and Cuba — whose seemingly implacable opposition to the U.S. sprang from some of the most disastrous CIA covert interventions of the Cold War.
In 1951, as that “war” gripped the globe, Democratic President Harry Truman ordered the CIA to arm some 12,000 Nationalist Chinese soldiers who had been driven out of their country by communist forces and had taken refuge in northern Burma. The result: three disastrous attempts to invade their former homeland. After being slapped back across the border by mere provincial militia, the Nationalist troops, again with covert CIA support, occupied Burma’s northeast, prompting Rangoon to lodge a formal complaint at the U.N. and the U.S. ambassador to Burma to resign in protest.
Not only was this operation one of the great disasters in a tangled history of such CIA interventions, forcing a major shake-up inside the Agency, but it also produced a lasting breach in bilateral relations with Burma, contributing to that country’s sense of isolation from the international community. Even at the Cold War’s close 40 years later, Burma’s military junta persisted in its international isolation while retaining a close dependency relationship with China, thereby giving Beijing a special claim to its rich resources and strategic access to the Indian Ocean.
During his initial term in office, Obama made a concerted effort to heal this strategic breach in Washington’s encirclement of the Eurasian land mass. He sent Hillary Clinton on the first formal mission to Burma by a secretary of state in more than 50 years; appointed the first ambassador in 22 years; and, in November 2012, became the first president to visit the country that, in an address to students at Rangoon University, he called the “crossroads of East and South Asia” that borders on “the most populated nations on the planet.”
Washington’s Cold War blunders were genuinely bipartisan. Following Truman and drawing on his own experience as Allied commander for Europe during World War II, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower proceeded to wage the Cold War from the White House with the National Security Council as his staff and the CIA as his secret army. Among the 170 CIA covert operations in 48 countries that Eisenhower authorized, two must rank as major debacles, inflicting especially lasting damage on America’s global standing.
In 1953, after Iran’s populist Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq challenged Britain’s imperial monopoly over his country’s oil industry, Eisenhower authorized a covert regime change operation to be engineered by the CIA and British intelligence. Though the Agency came perilously close to failure, it did finally succeed in installing the young, untested Shah in power and then helped him consolidate his autocratic rule by training a secret police, the notorious Savak, in torture and surveillance. While Washingtonians toasted the delicious brilliance of this secret-agent-style derring-do, Iranians seethed until 1979 when demonstrators ousted the Shah and students stormed the U.S. embassy, producing a 35-year breach in relations that weakened Washington’s position in the Middle East.
In September 2013, spurning neoconservative calls for a military solution to the “Iranian problem,” Obama dramatically announced the first direct contact with that country’s leader since 1979. In this way, he launched two years of sustained diplomacy that culminated in an historic agreement halting Iran’s nuclear program. From a geopolitical perspective, this prospective entente, or at least truce, avoided the sort of military action yearned for by Republicans that would have mired Washington in yet another Middle Eastern war. It would also have voided any chance for what, in 2011, Secretary of State Clinton first termed “a pivot to new global realities.” She spoke as well of “our strategic turn to the Asia-Pacific,” a policy which, in a 2014 Beijing press conference, Obama would tout as “our pivot to Asia.”
During his last months in office in 1960, President Eisenhower also infamously authorized a CIA invasion of Cuba, confident that 1,000 ragtag Cuban exiles backed by U.S. airpower could somehow overthrow Fidel Castro’s entrenched revolutionary regime. Inheriting this operation and sensing disaster, President John F. Kennedy forced the CIA to scale back its plans without stopping the Agency from proceeding. So it dumped those exiles on a remote beach 50 impassable miles of trackless, tangled swamp from their planned mountain refuge and sat back as Castro’s air force bombed them into surrender.
For the next 40 years, the resulting rupture in diplomatic relations and the U.S. embargo of Cuba weakened Washington’s position in the Cold War, the Caribbean, and even southern Africa. After decades of diplomatic isolation and economic embargo failed to change the communist regime, President Obama initiated a thaw in relations, culminating in the July 2015 reopening of the U.S. embassy in Havana, closed for nearly 55 years.
Obama’s Dollar Diplomacy
Moving from repair to revival, from past to future, President Obama has been using America’s status as the planet’s number one consumer nation to create a new version of dollar diplomacy. His strategy is aimed at drawing China’s Eurasian trading partners back into Washington’s orbit. While Beijing has been moving to bring parts of Africa, Asia, and Europe into a unified “world island” with China at its epicenter, Obama has countered with a bold geopolitics that would trisect that vast land mass by redirecting its trade towards the United States.
During the post-9/11 decade when Washington was spilling its blood and treasure onto desert sands, Beijing was investing its trillions of dollars of surplus from trade with the U.S. in plans for the economic integration of the vast Eurasian land mass. In the process, it has already built or is building an elaborate infrastructure of high-speed, high-volume railroads and oil and natural gas pipelines across the vast breadth of what Sir Halford Mackinder once dubbed the “world island.” Speaking of pivots to Asia and elsewhere, in a 1904 scholarly essay titled “The Geographical Pivot of History,” this renowned British geographer, who started the study of geopolitics, redrew the world map, reconceptualizing Africa, Asia, and Europe not as three separate continents, but as a vast single land mass whose sheer size could, if somehow integrated, make it the epicenter of global power.
In a bid to realize Mackinder’s vision a century later, China has set out to unify Eurasia economically through massive construction financed by loans, foreign aid, and a new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank that has already attracted 57 members, including some of Washington’s staunchest allies. With $4 trillion in hard-currency reserves, China has invested $630 billion of it overseas in the last decade, mostly within this tri-continental world island.
As an index of influence, China now accounts for 79% of all foreign investment in Afghanistan, 70% in Sierra Leone, and 83% in Zimbabwe. With a massive infusion of investment that will reach a trillion dollars by 2025, China has managed to double its annual trade with Africa over the past four years to $222 billion, three times America’s $73 billion. Beijing is also mobilizing military forces potentially capable of surgically slicing through the arc of bases, naval armadas, and military alliances with which Washington has ringed the world island from England to Japan since 1945.
In recent months, however, Obama has unleashed a countervailing strategy, seeking to split the world island economically along its continental divide at the Ural Mountains through two trade agreements that aim to capture nothing less than “the central global pole position” for “almost two-thirds of world GDP [gross domestic product] and nearly three-quarters of world trade.” With the impending approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Washington hopes to redirect much of the vast trade in the Asian half of Eurasia toward North America.
Should another set of parallel negotiations prove successful by their target date of 2016, Washington will reorient the European Union’s portion of Eurasia, which still has the world’s largest single economy and another 16% of world trade, toward the U.S. through the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
Finally, in a stroke of personal diplomacy that much of the U.S. media misconstrued as a sentimental journey, Obama has been courting African nations aggressively, convening a White House summit for more than 50 of that continent’s leaders in 2014 and making a state visit to East Africa in July 2015. With its usual barbed insight, Beijing’s Global Times has quite accurately identified the real aim of Obama’s Africa diplomacy as “off-setting China’s growing influence and recovering past U.S. leverage.”
When grandmasters play the great game of geopolitics, there is, almost axiomatically, a certain sangfroid to their moves, an indifference to any resulting collateral damage at home or abroad. These two treaties, so central to Obama’s geopolitical strategy, will bring in their wake both diplomatic gains and high social costs. Think of it in blunt terms as the choice between maintaining the empire abroad and sustaining democracy at home.
In his six years in office, Obama has invested diplomatic and political capital in advancing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a prospective treaty that carefully excludes China from membership in an apparent bid to split its would-be world island right down its Pacific littoral. Surpassing any other economic alliance except the European Union, this treaty will bind the U.S. and 11 nations around the Pacific basin, including Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, and Vietnam, that represent $28 trillion in combined GDP or 40% of gross world product and a third of all global trade. By sweeping up areas like agriculture, data flows, and service industries, this treaty aspires to a Pacific economic integration unparalleled in any existing trade pact. In the process, it would draw these highly productive nations away from China and into America’s orbit.
Not surprisingly, Obama has faced ferocious opposition within his own party from Senator Elizabeth Warren and others who are sharply critical of the highly secretive nature of the negotiations for the pact and the way it is likely to degrade labor and environmental laws in the U.S. So scathing was this critique that, in June 2015, he needed Republican votes to win Senate approval for “fast track” authority to complete the final round of negotiations in coming months.
To pull at the western axis of China’s would-be world island, Obama is also aggressively pursuing negotiations for the TTIP with the European Union and its $18 trillion economy. The treaty seeks fuller economic integration between Europe and America by meshing government regulations on matters such as auto safety in ways that might add some $270 billion to their annual trade.
By transferring control over consumer safety, the environment, and labor from democratic states to closed, pro-business arbitration tribunals, argues a coalition of 170 European civil society groups, the TTIP, like its Pacific counterpart, will exact a high social cost from participating countries. While the European Union’s labyrinthine layers of bureaucracy and the complexity of relations among its sovereign states make completion of negotiations within the year unlikely, the TTIP treaty, propelled by Obama’s singular determination, is moving at light speed compared to the laggard Doha round of World Trade Organization negotiations, now in year 12 of inconclusive talks with no end in sight.
Grandmasters of Geopolitics
In his determined pursuit of this grand strategy, Obama has revealed himself as one of the few U.S. leaders since America’s rise to world power in 1898 who can play this particular great game of imperial domination with the requisite balance of vision and ruthlessness. Forget everyone’s nominee for master diplomat, Henry Kissinger, who was as inept as he was ruthless, extending the Vietnam War by seven bloody years to mask his diplomatic failure, turning East Timor over to Indonesia for decades of slaughter until its inevitable independence, cratering U.S. credibility in Latin America by installing a murderous military dictatorship in Chile, and mismanaging Moscow in ways that extended the Cold War by another 15 years. Kissinger’s career, as international law specialist Richard Falk wrote recently, has been marked by “his extraordinary capacity to be repeatedly wrong about almost every major foreign policy decision made by the U.S. government over the course of the last half-century.”
Once we subject other American leaders to a similar calculus of costs and benefits, we are, surprisingly enough, left with just three grandmasters of geopolitics: Elihu Root, the original architect of America’s rise to global power; Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Carter, who shattered the Soviet Empire, making the U.S. the world’s sole superpower; and Barack Obama, who is defending that status and offering a striking imperial blueprint for how to check China’s rise. In each case, their maneuvers have been supple and subtle enough that they have eluded both contemporary observers and later historians.
Many American presidents — think Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton — have been capable diplomats, skilled at negotiating treaties or persuading allies to do their bidding. But surprisingly few world leaders, American or otherwise, have a capacity for mastering both the temporal and spatial dimensions of global power — that is, the connections between present actions and often distant results as well as an intuitive ability to grasp the cultural, economic, and military forces whose sum is geopolitics. Mastering both of these skills involves seeing beneath the confusion of current events and understanding the deeper currents of historical change. Root and Brzezinski both had an ability to manipulate the present moment to advance long-term American interests while altering, often fundamentally, the future balance of global power. Though little noticed in the avalanche of criticism that has all but buried his accomplishments in the Oval Office, Obama seems to be following in their footsteps.
Elihu Root, Architect of American Power
All but forgotten today, Elihu Root was the true architect of America’s transformation from an insular continental nation into a major player on the world stage. About the time Sir Halford Mackinder was imagining his new model for studying global power, Root was building an institutional infrastructure at home and abroad for the actual exercise of that power.
After a successful 30-year career as a corporate lawyer representing the richest of robber barons, the most venal of trusts, and even New York's outrageously corrupt William "Boss" Tweed, Root devoted the rest of his long life to modernizing the American state as secretary of war, secretary of state, a senator, and finally a plenipotentiary extraordinaire. Not only did he shape the conduct of U.S. foreign policy for the century to come, but he also played an outsized role, particularly for a cabinet secretary of a then-peripheral power, in influencing the character of an emerging international community.
As a prominent attorney, Root understood that the Constitution’s protection of individual liberties and states’ rights had created an inherently weak federal bureaucracy, ill suited for the concerted projection of American imperial power beyond its borders. To transform this “patchwork” state and its divided society — still traumatized by the Civil War — into a world power, Root spent a quarter-century in the determined pursuit of three intertwined objectives: fashioning the fragmentary federal government into a potent apparatus for overseas expansion, building a consensus among the country’s elites for such an activist foreign policy, and creating new forms of global governance open to Washington’s influence.
As secretary of war (1899-1904), Root reformed the Army’s antiquated structure, creating a centralized general staff, establishing a modern war college, and expanding professional training for officers. Through this transformation, the military moved far beyond its traditional mission of coastal defense and became an increasingly agile force for overseas expansion — in China, the Philippines, the Caribbean, Latin America, and, ultimately, Europe itself. With his eye firmly fixed on America’s ascent, Root also covered up atrocities that accompanied the army’s extraordinarily brutal pacification of the Philippines.
As secretary of state (1907-1909), senator (1909-1915), and special envoy to Russia (1917), Root then led a sustained diplomatic effort to make the country, for the first time, a real presence in the community of nations. To insert Washington — until then at the periphery of a world politics still centered on Europe — in the game of global power projection, Secretary of State Root launched an unprecedented tour of Latin America in 1906, winning the continent’s support.
With the backing of 17 Latin republics among the 44 nations present, Washington gained sufficient geopolitical clout at the Second Hague Peace Conference in 1907 to conclude the first broad international legal agreement on the laws of war. To house the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the world’s first ongoing institution for global governance, which emerged from the Hague peace conferences, Root’s friend Andrew Carnegie spent $1.5 million, a vast sum at the time, to build the lavish Peace Palace at The Hague in 1913. A year later, as chair of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (1910-1925), Root helped establish The Hague Academy of International Law housed within that Peace Palace.
Simultaneously, he cemented a close alliance with Britain by promoting treaties to resolve territorial disputes that had roiled relations with the world’s preeminent power for the better part of a century. That effort won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1912. Even in retirement at age 75, Root served on a League of Nations committee that established the Permanent Court of International Justice, realizing his long-held vision of the international community as an assembly of sovereign states governed by the rule of law.
Throughout these decades, Root was careful to cultivate support for an assertive foreign policy among the country’s ruling East Coast elites. As the culmination of this effort, in 1918 he led a group of financiers, industrialists, and corporate lawyers in establishing the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, which soon became the country’s most influential forum for shaping public consensus for an expansive foreign policy. He also cultivated academic specialists at leading universities nationwide, using their expertise to shape and support his foreign policy ideas. In sum, Root recast American society to forge a nexus of money, influence, and intellect that would sustain U.S. foreign policy for the next century.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, Destroyer of Empires
After a long period of indifferent international leadership, during Jimmy Carter’s presidency foreign policy came under the charge of an underestimated figure, National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. Émigré Polish aristocrat, professor of international relations, and an autodidact when it came to geopolitics, he was above all an intellectual acolyte of Sir Halford Mackinder. Through both action and analysis, Brzezinski made Mackinder’s concept of Eurasia as the world island and its vast interior heartland as the “pivot” of global power his own. He would prove particularly adept at applying Sir Halford’s famous dictum: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; Who rules the World-Island commands the world.”
Wielding a $100 million CIA covert operation like a sharpened wedge, Brzezinski drove radical Islam from Afghanistan into the “heartland” of Soviet Central Asia, drawing Moscow into a debilitating decade-long Afghan war that weakened Russia sufficiently for Eastern Europe to finally break free from the Soviet empire. With a calculus that couldn’t have been more coldblooded, he understood and rationalized the untold misery and unimaginable human suffering his strategy inflicted through ravaged landscapes, the millions his policy uprooted from ancestral villages and turned into refugees, and the countless Afghan dead and wounded. Dismissing the long-term damage as "some stirred-up Moslems," as he saw it, none of it added up to a hill of beans compared to the importance of striking directly into the Eurasian heartland to free Eastern Europe, half a continent away, and shatter the Soviet empire. And these results did indeed mark Brzezinski as a grandmaster of geopolitics in all its ruthless realpolitik. (Mind you, the future suffering from those "stirred-up Moslems" now includes the rise of al-Qaeda, 9/11, and America’s second Afghan War, as well as the unsettling of the Greater Middle East thanks to the growth of the Islamic extremism he first nurtured.)
In 1998, in retirement, Brzezinski again applied Sir Halford’s theory, this time in a book titled The Grand Chessboard, a geopolitical treatise on America’s capacity for extending its global hegemony. Although Washington was still basking in the pre-9/11 glow of its newly won grandeur as the world’s sole superpower, he could already imagine the geopolitical constraints that might come into play and undermine that status. If the U.S. then seemed a colossus standing astride the world, Eurasia still remained “the globe’s most important playing field… with preponderance over the entire Eurasian continent serving as the central basis for global primacy.”
That Eurasian “megacontinent,” Brzezinski observed, “is just too large, too populous, culturally too varied, and composed of too many historically ambitious and politically energetic states to be compliant toward even the most economically successful and politically preeminent global power.” Washington, he predicted, could continue its half-century dominion over the “oddly shaped Eurasian chessboard — extending from Lisbon to Vladivostok” only as long as it could preserve its unchallenged “perch on the Western periphery,” while the vast “middle space” does not become “an assertive single entity," and the Eastern end of the world continent did not unify itself in a way that might lead to “the expulsion of America from its offshore bases.” Should any of these critical conditions change, Brzezinski warned prophetically, “a potential rival to America might at some point arise.”
Barack Obama, Defender of U.S. Global Hegemony
Less than a decade later, China emerged to challenge America’s control of Eurasia and so threaten Washington’s standing as the globe’s great hegemon. While the U.S. military was mired in the Middle East, Beijing quietly began working to unify that vast “middle space” of Eurasia, while preparing to neutralize America’s “offshore bases.”
By the time Barack Obama entered the Oval Office in 2009, there were already the first signs of a serious geopolitical challenge that only the president and his closest advisers seemed to recognize. In a speech to the Australian parliament in November 2011, Obama said: “Let there be no doubt: in the Asia-Pacific in the twenty-first century, the United States of America is all in.” After two long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan “that cost us dearly, in blood and treasure, “ he explained, “the United States is turning our attention to the vast potential of the Asia Pacific region,” which is “the world’s fastest-growing region — and home to more than half the global economy.” His initial deployment of just 2,500 U.S. troops to Australia seemed a slender down payment on his “deliberate and strategic decision” to become America’s first “Pacific president,” producing a great deal of premature criticism and derision.
Four years later, one CNN commentator would still be calling this “Obama’s pivot to nowhere.” Even seasoned foreign policy commentator Fareed Zakaria would ask, in early 2015, “Whatever happened to the pivot to Asia?” Answering his own question, Zakaria argued that the president was still mired in the Middle East and the centerpiece of that pivot, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, seemed to be facing certain defeat in Congress.
To the consternation of his critics, in the waning months of his presidency, from Iran to Cuba, from Burma to the Pacific Ocean, Obama has revealed himself as an American strategist potentially capable of laying the groundwork for the continued planetary dominion of the United States deep into the twenty-first century. In the last 16 months of his presidency, with a bit of grit and luck and a final diplomatic surge — concluding the nuclear treaty with Iran to prevent another debilitating Middle Eastern conflict, winning congressional approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and completing negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership — Obama just might secure the U.S. a significant extension of its waning global hegemony.
Specifics aside, the world’s two most powerful nations, China and the United States, seem to have developed conflicting geopolitical strategies to guide their struggle for global power. Whether Beijing will succeed in moving ever further toward unifying Asia, Africa, and Europe into that world island or Washington will persist with Obama’s strategy of splitting that land mass along its axial divisions via trans-oceanic trade won’t become clear for another decade or two.
We still cannot say whether the outcome of this great game will be decided through an almost invisible commercial competition or a more violent drama akin to history’s last comparable imperial transition, the protracted rivalry between Napoleon’s “continental system” and Britain’s maritime strategy at the start of the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, we are starting to see the broad parameters of an epochal geopolitical contest likely to shape the world’s destiny in the coming decades of this still young twenty-first century.
Alfred W. McCoy, a TomDispatch regular, is the Harrington Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author, most recently, of Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation, and co-editor of Endless Empire: Europe’s Eclipse, Spain’s Retreat, America’s Decline.
Copyright 2015 Alfred W. McCoy
Grandmaster of the Great Game
The American surveillance state is now an omnipresent reality, but its deep history is little known and its future little grasped. Edward Snowden’s leaked documents reveal that, in a post-9/11 state of war, the National Security Agency (NSA) was able to create a surveillance system that could secretly monitor the private communications of almost every American in the name of fighting foreign terrorists. The technology used is state of the art; the impulse, it turns out, is nothing new. For well over a century, what might be called “surveillance blowback” from America’s wars has ensured the creation of an ever more massive and omnipresent internal security and surveillance apparatus. Its future (though not ours) looks bright indeed.
In 1898, Washington occupied the Philippines and in the years that followed pacified its rebellious people, in part by fashioning the world’s first full-scale “surveillance state” in a colonial land. The illiberal lessons learned there then migrated homeward, providing the basis for constructing America’s earliest internal security and surveillance apparatus during World War I. A half-century later, as protests mounted during the Vietnam War, the FBI, building on the foundations of that old security structure, launched large-scale illegal counterintelligence operations to harass antiwar activists, while President Richard Nixon’s White House created its own surveillance apparatus to target its domestic enemies.
In the aftermath of those wars, however, reformers pushed back against secret surveillance. Republican privacy advocates abolished much of President Woodrow Wilson’s security apparatus during the 1920s, and Democratic liberals in Congress created the FISA courts in the 1970s in an attempt to prevent any recurrence of President Nixon’s illegal domestic wiretapping.
Today, as Washington withdraws troops from the Greater Middle East, a sophisticated intelligence apparatus built for the pacification of Afghanistan and Iraq has come home to help create a twenty-first century surveillance state of unprecedented scope. But the past pattern that once checked the rise of a U.S. surveillance state seems to be breaking down. Despite talk about ending the war on terror one day, President Obama has left the historic pattern of partisan reforms far behind. In what has become a permanent state of “wartime” at home, the Obama administration is building upon the surveillance systems created in the Bush years to maintain U.S. global dominion in peace or war through a strategic, ever-widening edge in information control. The White House shows no sign — nor does Congress — of cutting back on construction of a powerful, global Panopticon that can surveil domestic dissidents, track terrorists, manipulate allied nations, monitor rival powers, counter hostile cyber strikes, launch preemptive cyberattacks, and protect domestic communications.
Writing for TomDispatch four years ago during Obama’s first months in office, I suggested that the War on Terror has “proven remarkably effective in building a technological template that could be just a few tweaks away from creating a domestic surveillance state — with omnipresent cameras, deep data-mining, nano-second biometric identification, and drone aircraft patrolling ‘the homeland.’”
That prediction has become our present reality — and with stunning speed. Americans now live under the Argus-eyed gaze of a digital surveillance state, while increasing numbers of surveillance drones fill American skies. In addition, the NSA’s net now reaches far beyond our borders, sweeping up the personal messages of many millions of people worldwide and penetrating the confidential official communications of at least 30 allied nations. The past has indeed proven prologue. The future is now.
The Coming of the Information Revolution
The origins of this emerging global surveillance state date back over a century to “America’s first information revolution” for the management of textual, statistical, and analytical data — a set of innovations whose synergy created the technological capacity for mass surveillance.
Here’s a little litany of “progress” to ponder while on the road to today’s every-email-all-the-time version of surveillance.
Within just a few years, the union of Thomas A. Edison’s quadruplex telegraph with Philo Remington’s commercial typewriter, both inventions of 1874, allowed for the accurate transmission of textual data at the unequalled speed of 40 words per minute across America and around the world.
In the mid-1870s as well, librarian Melvil Dewey developed the “Dewey decimal system” to catalog the Amherst College Library, thereby inventing the “smart number” for the reliable encoding and rapid retrieval of limitless information.
The year after engineer Herman Hollerith patented the punch card (1889), the U.S. Census Bureau adopted his Electrical Tabulating machine to count 62,622,250 Americans within weeks — a triumph that later led to the founding of International Business Machines, better known by its acronym IBM.
By 1900, all American cities were wired via the Gamewell Corporation’s innovative telegraphic communications, with over 900 municipal police and fire systems sending 41 million messages in a single year.
A Colonial Laboratory for the Surveillance State
On the eve of empire in 1898, however, the U.S. government was still what scholar Stephen Skowronek has termed a “patchwork” state with a near-zero capacity for domestic security. That, of course, left ample room for the surveillance version of modernization, and it came with surprising speed after Washington conquered and colonized the Philippines.
Facing a decade of determined Filipino resistance, the U.S. Army applied all those American information innovations — rapid telegraphy, photographic files, alpha-numeric coding, and Gamewell police communications — to the creation of a formidable, three-tier colonial security apparatus including the Manila Police, the Philippines Constabulary, and above all the Army’s Division of Military Information.
In early 1901, Captain Ralph Van Deman, later dubbed “the father of U.S. Military Intelligence,” assumed command of this still embryonic division, the Army’s first field intelligence unit in its 100-year history. With a voracious appetite for raw data, Van Deman’s division compiled phenomenally detailed information on thousands of Filipino leaders, including their physical appearance, personal finances, landed property, political loyalties, and kinship networks.
Starting in 1901, the first U.S. governor-general (and future president) William Howard Taft drafted draconian sedition legislation for the islands and established a 5,000-man strong Philippines Constabulary. In the process, he created a colonial surveillance state that ruled, in part, thanks to the agile control of information, releasing damning data about enemies while suppressing scandals about allies.
When the Associated Press’s Manila bureau chief reported critically on these policies, Taft’s allies dug up dirt on this would-be critic and dished it out to the New York press. On the other hand, the Division of Military Information compiled a scandalous report about the rising Filipino politician Manuel Quezon, alleging a premarital abortion by his future first lady. Quezon, however, served the Constabulary as a spy, so this document remained buried in U.S. files, assuring his unchecked ascent to become the first president of the Philippines in 1935.
During the U.S. conquest of the Philippines, Mark Twain wrote an imagined history of twentieth-century America. In it, he predicted that a “lust for conquest” had already destroyed “the Great [American] Republic,” because “trampling upon the helpless abroad had taught her, by a natural process, to endure with apathy the like at home.” Indeed, just a decade after Twain wrote those prophetic words, colonial police methods came home to serve as a template for the creation of an American internal security apparatus in wartime.
After the U.S. entered World War I in 1917 without an intelligence service of any sort, Colonel Van Deman brought his Philippine experience to bear, creating the U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Division (MID) and so laying the institutional foundations for a future internal security state.
In collaboration with the FBI, he also expanded the MID’s reach through a civilian auxiliary organization, the American Protective League, whose 350,000 citizen-operatives amassed more than a million pages of surveillance reports on German-Americans in just 14 months, arguably the world’s most intensive feat of domestic surveillance ever.
After the Armistice in 1918, Military Intelligence joined the FBI in two years of violent repression of the American left marked by the notorious Luster raids in New York City, J. Edgar Hoover’s “Palmer Raids” in cities across the northeast and the suppression of union strikes from New York City to Seattle.
When President Wilson left office in 1921, incoming Republican privacy advocates condemned his internal security regime as intrusive and abusive, forcing the Army and the FBI to cut their ties to patriotic vigilantes. In 1924, Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone, worrying that “a secret police may become a menace to free government,” announced “the Bureau of Investigation is not concerned with political or other opinions of individuals.” Epitomizing the nation’s retreat from surveillance, Secretary of War Henry Stimson closed the Military Intelligence cipher section in 1929, saying famously, “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.”
After retiring at the rank of major general that same year, Van Deman and his wife continued from their home in San Diego to coordinate an informal intelligence exchange system, compiling files on 250,000 suspected “subversives.” They also took reports from classified government files and slipped them to citizen anti-communist groups for blacklisting. In the 1950 elections, for instance, Representative Richard Nixon reportedly used Van Deman’s files to circulate “pink sheets” at rallies denouncing California Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas, his opponent in a campaign for a Senate seat, launching a victorious Nixon on the path to the presidency.
From retirement, Van Deman, in league with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, also proved crucial at a 1940 closed-door conference that awarded the FBI control over domestic counterintelligence. The Army’s Military Intelligence, and its successors, the CIA and NSA, were restricted to foreign espionage, a division of tasks that would hold, at least in principle, until the post-9/11 years. So armed, during World War II the FBI used warrantless wiretaps, “black bag” break-ins, and surreptitious mail opening to track suspects, while mobilizing more than 300,000 informers to secure defense plants against wartime threats that ultimately proved “negligible.”
The Vietnam Years
In response to the civil rights and anti-Vietnam protests of the 1960s, the FBI deployed its COINTELPRO operation, using what Senator Frank Church’s famous investigative committee later called “unsavory and vicious tactics… including anonymous attempts to break up marriages, disrupt meetings, ostracize persons from their professions, and provoke target groups into rivalries that might result in deaths.”
In assessing COINTELPRO’s 2,370 actions from 1960 to 1974, the Church Committee branded them a “sophisticated vigilante operation” that “would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity.” Significantly, even this aggressive Senate investigation did not probe Director Hoover’s notorious “private files” on the peccadilloes of leading politicians that had insulated his Bureau from any oversight for more than 30 years.
After New York Times reporter Seymour Hersh exposed illegal CIA surveillance of American antiwar activists in 1974, Senator Church’s committee and a presidential commission under Nelson Rockefeller investigated the Agency’s “Operation Chaos,” a program to conduct massive illegal surveillance of the antiwar protest movement, discovering a database with 300,000 names. These investigations also exposed the excesses of the FBI’s COINTELPRO, forcing the Bureau to reform.
To prevent future abuses, President Jimmy Carter signed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in 1978, creating a special court to approve all national security wiretaps. In a bitter irony, Carter’s supposed reform ended up plunging the judiciary into the secret world of the surveillance managers where, after 9/11, it became a rubberstamp institution for every kind of state intrusion on domestic privacy.
How the Global War on Terror Came Home
As its pacification wars in Afghanistan and Iraq sank into bloody quagmires, Washington brought electronic surveillance, biometric identification, and unmanned aerial vehicles to the battlefields. This trio, which failed to decisively turn the tide in those lands, nonetheless now undergirds a global U.S. surveillance apparatus of unequalled scope and unprecedented power.
After confining the populations of Baghdad and the rebellious Sunni city of Falluja behind blast-wall cordons, the U.S. Army attempted to bring the Iraqi resistance under control in part by collecting, as of 2011, three million Iraqi fingerprints,iris, and retinal scans. These were deposited in a biometric database in West Virginia that American soldiers at checkpoints and elsewhere on distant battlefields could at any moment access by satellite link. Simultaneously, the Joint Special Operations Command under General Stanley McChrystal centralized all electronic and satellite surveillance in the Greater Middle East to identify possible al-Qaeda operatives for assassination by Predator drones or hunter-killer raids by Special Operations commandos from Somalia to Pakistan.
Domestically, post-9/11, the White House tried to create a modern version of the old state-citizen alliance for domestic surveillance. In May 2002, President Bush’s Justice Department launched Operation TIPS with “millions of American truckers, letter carriers, train conductors, ship captains, utility employees, and others” spying on fellow citizens. But there was vocal opposition from members of Congress, civil libertarians, and the media, which soon forced Justice to quietly kill the program.
In a digital iteration of the same effort, retired admiral John Poindexter began to set up an ominously titled Pentagon program called Total Information Awareness to amass a “detailed electronic dossier on millions of Americans.” Again the nation recoiled, Congress banned the program, and the admiral was forced to resign.
Defeated in the public arena, the Bush administration retreated into the shadows, where it launched secret FBI and NSA domestic surveillance programs. Here, Congress proved far more amenable and pliable. In 2002, Congress erased the bright line that had long barred the CIA from domestic spying, granting the agency the power to access U.S. financial records and audit electronic communications routed through the country.
Defying the FISA law, in October 2001 President Bush ordered the NSA to commence covert monitoring of private communications through the nation’s telephone companies without the requisite warrants. According to the Associated Press, he also “secretly authorized the NSA to plug into the fiber optic cables that enter and leave the United States” carrying the world’s “emails, telephone calls, video chats, websites, bank transactions, and more.” Since his administration had already conveniently decided that “metadata was not constitutionally protected,” the NSA began an open-ended program, Operation Stellar Wind, “to collect bulk telephony and Internet metadata.”
By 2004, the Bush White House was so wedded to Internet metadata collection that top aides barged into Attorney General John Ashcroft’s hospital room to extract a reauthorization signature for the program. They were blocked by Justice Department officials led by Deputy Attorney General James Comey, forcing a two-month suspension until that FISA court, brought into existence in the Carter years, put its first rubber-stamp on this mass surveillance regime.
Armed with expansive FISA court orders allowing the collection of data sets rather than information from specific targets, the FBI’s “Investigative Data Warehouse” acquired more than a billion documents within five years, including intelligence reports, social security files, drivers’ licenses, and private financial information. All of this was accessible to 13,000 analysts making a million queries monthly. In 2006, as the flood of data surging through fiber optic cables strained NSA computers, the Bush administration launched the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity to develop supercomputing searches powerful enough to process this torrent of Internet information.
In 2005, a New York Times investigative report exposed the administration’s illegal surveillance for the first time. A year later, USA Today reported that the NSA was “secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon, and Bell South.” One expert called it “the largest database ever assembled in the world,” adding presciently that the Agency’s goal was “to create a database of every call ever made.”
In August 2007, in response to these revelations, Congress capitulated. It passed a new law, the Protect America Act, which retrospectively legalized this illegal White House-inspired set of programs by requiring greater oversight by the FISA court. This secret tribunal — acting almost as a “parallel Supreme Court” that rules on fundamental constitutional rights without adversarial proceedings or higher review — has removed any real restraint on the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of Internet metadata and regularly rubberstamps almost 100% of the government’s thousands of surveillance requests. Armed with expanded powers, the National Security Agency promptly launched its PRISM program (recently revealed by Edward Snowden). To feed its hungry search engines, the NSA has compelled nine Internet giants, including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, AOL, and Skype, to transfer what became billions of emails to its massive data farms.
Obama’s Expanding Surveillance Universe
Instead of curtailing his predecessor’s wartime surveillance, as Republicans did in the 1920s and Democrats in the 1970s, President Obama has overseen the expansion of the NSA’s wartime digital operations into a permanent weapon for the exercise of U.S. global power.
The Obama administration continued a Bush-era NSA program of “bulk email records collection” until 2011 when two senators protested that the agency’s “statements to both Congress and the Court… significantly exaggerated this program’s effectiveness.” Eventually, the administration was forced to curtail this particular operation. Nonetheless, the NSA has continued to collect the personal communications of Americans by the billions under its PRISM and other programs.
In the Obama years as well, the NSA began cooperating with its long-time British counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), to tap into the dense cluster of Trans-Atlantic Telecommunication fiber optic cables that transit the United Kingdom. During a visit to a GCHQ facility for high-altitude intercepts at Menwith Hill in June 2008, NSA Director General Keith Alexander asked, “Why can’t we collect all the signals all the time? Sounds like a good summer project for Menwith.”
In the process, GCHQ’s Operation Tempora achieved the “biggest Internet access” of any partner in a “Five Eyes” signals-intercept coalition that, in addition to Great Britain and the U.S., includes Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. When the project went online in 2011, the GCHQ sank probes into 200 Internet cables and was soon collecting 600 million telephone messages daily, which were, in turn, made accessible to 850,000 NSA employees.
The historic alliance between the NSA and GCHQ dates back to the dawn of the Cold War. In deference to it, the NSA has, since 2007, exempted its “2nd party” Five Eyes allies from surveillance under its “Boundless Informant” operation. According to another recently leaked NSA document, however, “we can, and often do, target the signals of most 3rd party foreign partners.” This is clearly a reference to close allies like Germany, France, and Italy.
On a busy day in January 2013, for instance, the NSA collected 60 million phone calls and emails from Germany — some 500 million German messages are reportedly collected annually — with lesser but still hefty numbers from France, Italy, and non-European allies like Brazil. To gain operational intelligence on such allies, the NSA taps phones at the European Council headquarters in Brussels, bugs the European Union (EU) delegation at the U.N., has planted a “Dropmire” monitor “on the Cryptofax at the EU embassy DC,” and eavesdrops on 38 allied embassies worldwide.
Such secret intelligence about its allies gives Washington an immense diplomatic advantage, says NSA expert James Bamford. “It’s the equivalent of going to a poker game and wanting to know what everyone’s hand is before you place your bet.” And who knows what scurrilous bits of scandal about world leaders American surveillance systems might scoop up to strengthen Washington’s hand in that global poker game called diplomacy.
This sort of digital surveillance was soon supplemented by actual Internet warfare. Between 2006 and 2010, Washington launched the planet’s first cyberwar, with Obama ordering devastating cyberattacks against Iran’s nuclear facilities. In 2009, the Pentagon formed the U.S. Cyber Command (CYBERCOM), with a cybercombat center at Lackland Air Base initially staffed by 7,000 Air Force employees. Over the next two years, by appointing NSA chief Alexander as CYBERCOM’s concurrent commander, it created an enormous concentration of power in the digital shadows. The Pentagon has also declared cyberspace an “operational domain” for both offensive and defensive warfare.
Controlling the Future
By leaking a handful of NSA documents, Edward Snowden has given us a glimpse of future U.S. global policy and the changing architecture of power on this planet. At the broadest level, this digital shift complements Obama’s new defense strategy, announced in 2012, of reducing costs (cutting, for example, infantry troops by 14%), while conserving Washington’s overall power by developing a capacity for “a combined arms campaign across all domains — land, air, maritime, space, and cyberspace.”
While cutting conventional armaments, Obama is investing billions in constructing a new architecture for global information control. To store and process the billions of messages sucked up by its worldwide surveillance network (totaling 97 billion items for March alone), the NSA is employing 11,000 workers to build a $1.6 billion data center in Bluffdale, Utah, whose storage capacity is measured in “yottabytes,” each the equivalent of a trillion terabytes. That’s almost unimaginable once you realize that just 15 terabytes could store every publication in the Library of Congress.
From its new $1.8 billion headquarters, the third-biggest building in the Washington area, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency deploys 16,000 employees and a $5 billion budget to coordinate a rising torrent of surveillance data from Predators, Reapers, U-2 spy planes, Global Hawks, X-37B space drones, Google Earth, Space Surveillance Telescopes, and orbiting satellites.
To protect those critical orbiting satellites, which transmit most U.S. military communications, the Pentagon is building an aerospace shield of pilotless drones. In the exosphere, the Air Force has since April 2010 been successfully testing the X-37B space drone that can carry missiles to strike rival satellite networks such as the one the Chinese are currently creating.
For more extensive and precise surveillance from space, the Pentagon has been replacing its costly, school-bus-sized spy satellites with a new generation of light, low cost models such as the ATK-A200. Successfully launched in May 2011, this module is orbiting 250 miles above the Earth with remote-controlled, U-2 quality cameras that now provide the “U.S. Central Command an assured ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) capability.”
In the stratosphere, close enough to Earth for audiovisual surveillance, the Pentagon is planning to launch an armada of 99 Global Hawk drones — each equipped with high-resolution cameras to surveil all terrain within a 100-mile radius, electronic sensors to intercept communications, and efficient engines for continuous 24-hour flight.
Within a decade, the U.S. will likely deploy this aerospace shield, advanced cyberwarfare capabilities, and even vaster, more omnipresent digital surveillance networks that will envelop the Earth in an electronic grid capable of blinding entire armies on the battlefield, atomizing a single suspected terrorist, or monitoring millions of private lives at home and abroad.
Sadly, Mark Twain was right when he warned us just over 100 years ago that America could not have both empire abroad and democracy at home. To paraphrase his prescient words, by “trampling upon the helpless abroad” with unchecked surveillance, Americans have learned, “by a natural process, to endure with apathy the like at home.”
Alfred W. McCoy is the J.R.W. Smail Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A TomDispatch regular, he is the author Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State (University of Wisconsin), which is the source for much of the material in this essay.
Copyright 2013 Alfred W. McCoy
After a decade of fiery public debate and bare-knuckle partisan brawling, the United States has stumbled toward an ad hoc bipartisan compromise over the issue of torture that rests on two unsustainable policies: impunity at home and rendition abroad.
President Obama has closed the CIA’s “black sites,” its secret prisons where American agents once dirtied their hands with waterboarding and wall slamming. But via rendition — the sending of terrorist suspects to the prisons of countries that torture — and related policies, his administration has outsourced human rights abuse to Afghanistan, Somalia, and elsewhere. In this way, he has avoided the political stigma of torture, while tacitly tolerating such abuses and harvesting whatever intelligence can be gained from them.
This “resolution” of the torture issue may meet the needs of this country’s deeply divided politics. It cannot, however, long satisfy an international community determined to prosecute human rights abuses through universal jurisdiction. It also runs the long-term risk of another sordid torture scandal that will further damage U.S. standing with allies worldwide.
Perfecting a New Form of Torture
The modern American urge to use torture did not, of course, begin on September 12, 2001. It has roots that reach back to the beginning of the Cold War and a human rights policy riven with contradictions. Publicly, Washington opposed torture and led the world in drafting the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and the Geneva Conventions in 1949. Simultaneously and secretly, however, the Central Intelligence Agency began developing ingenious new torture techniques in contravention of these same international conventions.
From 1950 to 1962, the CIA led a secret research effort to crack the code of human consciousness, a veritable Manhattan project of the mind with two findings foundational to a new form of psychological torture. In the early 1950s, while collaborating with the CIA, famed Canadian psychologist Dr. Donald Hebb discovered that, using goggles, gloves, and earmuffs, he could induce a state akin to psychosis among student volunteers by depriving them of sensory stimulation. Simultaneously, two eminent physicians at Cornell University Medical Center, also working with the Agency, found that the most devastating torture technique used by the KGB, the Soviet secret police, involved simply forcing victims to stand for days at a time, while legs swelled painfully and hallucinations began.
In 1963, after a decade of mind-control research, the CIA codified these findings in a succinct, secret instructional handbook, the KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation manual. It became the basis for a new method of psychological torture disseminated worldwide and within the U.S. intelligence community. Avoiding direct involvement in torture, the CIA instead trained allied agencies to do its dirty work in prisons throughout the Third World, like South Vietnam’s notorious “tiger cages.”
The Korean War added a defensive dimension to this mind-control research. After harsh North Korean psychological torture forced American POWs to accuse their own country of war crimes, President Dwight Eisenhower ordered that any serviceman subject to capture be given resistance training, which the Air Force soon dubbed with the acronym SERE (for survival, evasion, resistance, escape).
Once the Cold War ended in 1990, Washington resumed its advocacy of human rights, ratifying the U.N. Convention Against Torture in 1994, which banned the infliction of “severe” psychological and physical pain. The CIA ended its torture training in the Third World, and the Defense Department recalled Latin American counterinsurgency manuals that contained instructions for using harsh interrogation techniques. On the surface, then, Washington had resolved the tension between its anti-torture principles and its torture practices.
But when President Bill Clinton sent the U.N. Convention to Congress for ratification in 1994, he included language (drafted six years earlier by the Reagan administration) that contained diplomatic “reservations.” In effect, these addenda accepted the banning of physical abuse, but exempted psychological torture.
A year later, when the Clinton administration launched its covert campaign against al-Qaeda, the CIA avoided direct involvement in human rights violations by sending 70 terror suspects to allied nations notorious for physical torture. This practice, called “extraordinary rendition,” had supposedly been banned by the U.N. convention and so a new contradiction between Washington’s human rights principles and its practices was buried like a political land mine ready to detonate with phenomenal force, just 10 years later, in the Abu Ghraib scandal.
Right after his first public address to a shaken nation on September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush gave his White House staff expansive secret orders for the use of harsh interrogation, adding, “I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass.”
Soon after, the CIA began opening “black sites” that would in the coming years stretch from Thailand to Poland. It also leased a fleet of executive jets for the rendition of detained terrorist suspects to allied nations, and revived psychological tortures abandoned since the end of the Cold War. Indeed, the agency hired former Air Force psychologists to reverse engineer SERE training techniques, flipping them from defense to offense and thereby creating the psychological tortures that would henceforth travel far under the euphemistic label “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
In a parallel move in late 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld appointed General Geoffrey Miller to head the new prison at Guantanamo, Cuba, and gave him broad authority to develop a total three-phase attack on the sensory receptors, cultural identity, and individual psyches of his new prisoners. After General Miller visited Abu Ghraib prison in September 2003, the U.S. commander for Iraq issued orders for the use of psychological torture in U.S. prisons in that country, including sensory disorientation, self-inflicted pain, and a recent innovation, cultural humiliation through exposure to dogs (which American believed would be psychologically devastating for Arabs). It is no accident that Private Lynndie England, a military guard at Abu Ghraib prison, was famously photographed leading a naked Iraqi detainee leashed like a dog.
Just two months after CBS News broadcast those notorious photos from Abu Ghraib in April 2004, 35% of Americans polled still felt torture was acceptable. Why were so many tolerant of torture?
One partial explanation would be that, in the years after 9/11, the mass media filled screens large and small across America with enticing images of abuse. Amid this torrent of torture simulations, two media icons served to normalize abuse for many Americans — the fantasy of the “ticking time bomb scenario” and the fictional hero of the Fox Television show “24,” counterterror agent Jack Bauer.
In the months after 9/11, Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz launched a multimedia campaign arguing that torture would be necessary in the event U.S. intelligence agents discovered that a terrorist had planted a ticking nuclear bomb in New York’s Times Square. Although this scenario was a fantasy whose sole foundation was an obscure academic philosophy article published back in 1973, such ticking bombs soon enough became a media trope and a persuasive reality for many Americans — particularly thanks to “24,” every segment of which began with an oversized clock ticking menacingly.
In 67 torture scenes during its first five seasons, the show portrayed agent Jack Bauer’s recourse to abuse as timely, effective, and often seductive. By its last broadcast in May 2010, the simple invocation of agent Bauer’s name had become a persuasive argument for torture used by everyone from Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to ex-President Bill Clinton.
While campaigning for his wife Hillary in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, Clinton typically cited “24” as a justification for allowing CIA agents, acting outside the law, to torture in extreme emergencies. “When Bauer goes out there on his own and is prepared to live with the consequences,” Clinton told Meet the Press, “it always seems to work better.”
Impunity in America
Such a normalization of “enhanced interrogation techniques” created public support for an impunity achieved by immunizing all those culpable of crimes of torture. During President Obama’s first two years in office, former Vice President Dick Cheney and his daughter Liz made dozens of television appearances accusing his administration of weakening America’s security by investigating CIA interrogators who had used such techniques under Bush.
Ironically, Obama’s assassination of Osama bin Laden in May 2011 provided an opening for neoconservatives to move the nation toward impunity. Forming an a cappella media chorus, former Bush administration officials appeared on television to claim, without any factual basis, that torture had somehow led the Navy SEALs to Bin Laden. Within weeks, Attorney General Eric Holder announced an end to any investigation of harsh CIA interrogations and to the possibility of bringing any of the CIA torturers to court. (Consider it striking, then, that the only “torture” case brought to court by the administration involved a former CIA agent, John Kiriakou, who had leaked the names of some torturers.)
Starting on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the country took the next step toward full impunity via a radical rewriting of the past. In a memoir published on August 30, 2011, Dick Cheney claimed the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on an al-Qaeda leader named Abu Zubaydah had turned this hardened terrorist into a “fount of information” and saved “thousands of lives.”
Just two weeks later, on September 12, 2011, former FBI counterterror agent Ali Soufan released his own memoirs, stating that he was the one who started the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah back in 2002, using empathetic, non-torture techniques that quickly gained “important actionable intelligence” about “the role of KSM [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] as the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.”
Angered by the FBI’s success, CIA director George Tenet dispatched his own interrogators from Washington led by Dr. James Mitchell, the former SERE psychologist who had developed the agency’s harsh “enhanced techniques.” As the CIA team moved up the “force continuum” from “low-level sleep deprivation” to nudity, noise barrage, and the use of a claustrophobic confinement box, Dr. Mitchell’s harsh methods got “no information.”
By contrast, at each step in this escalating abuse, Ali Soufan was brought back for more quiet questioning in Arabic that coaxed out all the valuable intelligence Zubaydah had to offer. The results of this ad hoc scientific test were blindingly clear: FBI empathy was consistently effective, while CIA coercion proved counterproductive.
But this fundamental yet fragile truth has been obscured by CIA censorship and neoconservative casuistry. Cheney’s secondhand account completely omitted the FBI presence. Moreover, the CIA demanded 181 pages of excisions from Ali Soufan’s memoirs that reduced his chapters about this interrogation experience to a maze of blackened lines no regular reader can understand.
The agency’s attempt to rewrite the past has continued into the present. Just last April, Jose Rodriguez, former chief of CIA Clandestine Services, published his uncensored memoirs under the provocative title Hard Measures: How Aggressive C.I.A. Actions after 9/11 Saved American Lives. In a promotional television interview, he called FBI claims of success with empathetic methods “bullshit.”
With the past largely rewritten to assure Americans that the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” had worked, the perpetrators of torture were home free and the process of impunity and immunity established for future use.
Rendition Under Obama
Apart from these Republican pressures, President Obama’s own aggressive views on national security have contributed to an undeniable continuity with many of his predecessor’s most controversial policies. Not only has he preserved the controversial military commissions at Guantanamo and fought the courts to block civil suits against torture perpetrators, he has, above all, authorized continuing CIA rendition flights.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama went beyond any other candidate in offering unqualified opposition to both direct and indirect U.S. involvement in torture. “We have to be clear and unequivocal. We do not torture, period,” he said, adding, “That will be my position as president. That includes, by the way, renditions.”
Only days after his January 2009 inauguration, Obama issued a dramatic executive order ending the CIA’s coercive techniques, but it turned out to include a large loophole that preserved the agency’s role in extraordinary renditions. Amid his order’s ringing rhetoric about compliance with the Geneva conventions and assuring “humane treatment of individuals in United States custody,” the president issued a clear and unequivocal order that “the CIA shall close as expeditiously as possible any detention facilities that it currently operates and shall not operate any such detention facility in the future.” But when the CIA’s counsel objected that this blanket prohibition would also “take us out of the rendition business,” Obama added a footnote with a small but significant qualification: “The terms ‘detention facilities’ and ‘detention facility’ in… this order do not refer to facilities used only to hold people on a short-term, transitory basis.” Through the slippery legalese of this definition, Obama thus allowed the CIA continue its rendition flights of terror suspects to allied nations for possible torture.
Moreover, in February 2009, Obama’s incoming CIA director Leon Panetta announced that the agency would indeed continue the practice “in renditions where we returned an individual to the jurisdiction of another country, and they exercised their rights… to prosecute him under their laws. I think,” he added, ignoring the U.N. anti-torture convention’s strict conditions for this practice, “that is an appropriate use of rendition.”
As the CIA expanded covert operations inside Somalia under Obama, its renditions of terror suspects from neighboring East African nations continued just as they had under Bush. In July 2009, for example, Kenyan police snatched an al-Qaeda suspect, Ahmed Abdullahi Hassan, from a Nairobi slum and delivered him to that city’s airport for a CIA flight to Mogadishu. There he joined dozens of prisoners grabbed off the streets of Kenya inside “The Hole” — a filthy underground prison buried in the windowless basement of Somalia’s National Security Agency. While Somali guards (paid for with U.S. funds) ran the prison, CIA operatives, reported the Nation’s Jeremy Scahill, have open access for extended interrogation.
Obama also allowed the continuation of a policy adopted after the Abu Ghraib scandal: outsourcing incarceration to local allies in Afghanistan and Iraq while ignoring human rights abuses there. Although the U.S. military received 1,365 reports about the torture of detainees by Iraqi forces between May 2004 and December 2009, a period that included Obama’s first full year in office, American officers refused to take action, even though the abuses reported were often extreme.
Simultaneously, Washington’s Afghan allies increasingly turned to torture after the Abu Ghraib scandal prompted U.S. officials to transfer most interrogation to local authorities. After interviewing 324 detainees held by Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) in 2011, the U.N. found that “torture is practiced systematically in a number of NDS detention facilities throughout Afghanistan.” At the Directorate’s prison in Kandahar one interrogator told a detainee before starting to torture him, “You should confess what you have done in the past as Taliban; even stones confess here.”
Although such reports prompted both British and Canadian forces to curtail prisoner transfers, the U.S. military continues to turn over detainees to Afghan authorities — a policy that, commented the New York Times, “raises serious questions about potential complicity of American officials.”
How to Unclog the System of Justice One Drone at a Time
After a decade of intense public debate over torture, in the last two years the United States has arrived at a questionable default political compromise: impunity at home, rendition abroad.
This resolution does not bode well for future U.S. leadership of an international community determined to end the scourge of torture. Italy’s prosecution of two-dozen CIA agents for rendition in 2009, Poland’s recent indictment of its former security chief for facilitating a CIA black site, and Britain’s ongoing criminal investigation of intelligence officials who collaborated with alleged torture at Guantanamo are harbingers of continuing pressures on the U.S. to comply with international standards for human rights.
Meanwhile, unchecked by any domestic or international sanction, Washington has slid down torture’s slippery slope to find, just as the French did in Algeria during the 1950s, that at its bottom lies the moral abyss of extrajudicial execution. The systematic French torture of thousands during the Battle of Algiers in 1957 also generated over 3,000 “summary executions” to insure, as one French general put it, that “the machine of justice” not be “clogged with cases.”
In an eerie parallel, Washington has reacted to the torture scandals of the Bush era by generally forgoing arrests and opting for no-fuss aerial assassinations. From 2005 to 2012, U.S. drone killings inside Pakistan rose from zero to a total of 2,400 (and still going up) — a figure disturbingly close to those 3,000 French assassinations in Algeria. In addition, it has now been revealed that the president himself regularly orders specific assassinations by drone in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia off a secret “kill list.” Simultaneously, his administration has taken just one terror suspect into U.S. custody and has not added any new prisoners to Guantanamo, thereby avoiding any more clogging of the machinery of American justice.
Absent any searching inquiry or binding reforms, assassination is now the everyday American way of war while extraordinary renditions remain a tool of state. Make no mistake: some future torture scandal is sure to arise from another iconic dungeon in the dismal, ever-lengthening historical procession leading from the “tiger cages” of South Vietnam to “the salt pit” in Afghanistan and “The Hole” in Somalia. Next time, the world might not be so forgiving. Next time, with those images from Abu Ghraib prison etched in human memory, the damage to America’s moral authority as world leader could prove even more deep and lasting.
Alfred W. McCoy is the J.R.W. Smail Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A TomDispatch regular, he is the author of A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, From the Cold War to the War on Terror, which provided documentation for the Oscar-winning documentary feature film Taxi to the Darkside. His recent book, Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation (University of Wisconsin, 2012) explores the American experience of torture during the past decade.
Copyright 2012 Alfred W. McCoy
Impunity at Home, Rendition Abroad
In one of history’s lucky accidents, the juxtaposition of two extraordinary events has stripped the architecture of American global power bare for all to see. Last November, WikiLeaks splashed snippets from U.S. embassy cables, loaded with scurrilous comments about national leaders from Argentina to Zimbabwe, on the front pages of newspapers worldwide. Then just a few weeks later, the Middle East erupted in pro-democracy protests against the region’s autocratic leaders, many of whom were close U.S. allies whose foibles had been so conveniently detailed in those same diplomatic cables.
Suddenly, it was possible to see the foundations of a U.S. world order that rested significantly on national leaders who serve Washington as loyal “subordinate elites” and who are, in reality, a motley collection of autocrats, aristocrats, and uniformed thugs. Visible as well was the larger logic of otherwise inexplicable U.S. foreign policy choices over the past half-century.
Why would the CIA risk controversy in 1965, at the height of the Cold War, by overthrowing an accepted leader like Sukarno in Indonesia or encouraging the assassination of the Catholic autocrat Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon in 1963? The answer — and thanks to WikiLeaks and the “Arab spring,” this is now so much clearer — is that both were Washington’s chosen subordinates until each became insubordinate and expendable.
Why, half a century later, would Washington betray its stated democratic principles by backing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak against millions of demonstrators and then, when he faltered, use its leverage to replace him, at least initially with his intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, a man best known for running Cairo’s torture chambers (and lending them out to Washington)? The answer again: because both were reliable subordinates who had long served Washington’s interests well in this key Arab state.
Across the Greater Middle East from Tunisia and Egypt to Bahrain and Yemen, democratic protests are threatening to sweep away subordinate elites crucial to the wielding of American power. Of course, all modern empires have relied on dependable surrogates to translate their global power into local control — and for most of them, the moment when those elites began to stir, talk back, and set their own agendas was also the moment when it became clear that imperial collapse was in the cards.
If the "velvet revolutions” that swept Eastern Europe in 1989 tolled the death knell for the Soviet empire, then the "jasmine revolutions" now spreading across the Middle East may well mark the beginning of the end for American global power.
Putting the Military in Charge
To understand the importance of local elites, look back to the Cold War’s early days when a desperate White House was searching for something, anything that could halt the seemingly unstoppable spread of what Washington saw as anti-American and pro-communist sentiment. In December 1954, the National Security Council (NSC) met in the White House to stake out a strategy that could tame the powerful nationalist forces of change then sweeping the globe.
Across Asia and Africa, a half-dozen European empires that had guaranteed global order for more than a century were giving way to 100 new nations, many — as Washington saw it — susceptible to “communist subversion.” In Latin America, there were stirrings of leftist opposition to the region’s growing urban poverty and rural landlessness.
After a review of the “threats” facing the U.S. in Latin America, influential Treasury Secretary George Humphrey informed his NSC colleagues that they should “stop talking so much about democracy” and instead “support dictatorships of the right if their policies are pro-American.” At that moment with a flash of strategic insight, Dwight Eisenhower interrupted to observe that Humphrey was, in effect, saying, “They’re OK if they’re our s.o.b.’s.”
It was a moment to remember, for the President of the United States had just articulated with crystalline clarity the system of global dominion that Washington would implement for the next 50 years — setting aside democratic principles for a tough realpolitik policy of backing any reliable leader willing to support the U.S., thereby building a worldwide network of national (and often nationalist) leaders who would, in a pinch, put Washington’s needs above local ones.
Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. would favor military autocrats in Latin America, aristocrats across the Middle East, and a mixture of democrats and dictators in Asia. In 1958, military coups in Thailand and Iraq suddenly put the spotlight on Third World militaries as forces to be reckoned with. It was then that the Eisenhower administration decided to bring foreign military leaders to the U.S. for further “training” to facilitate “the ‘management’ of the forces of change released by the development” of these emerging nations. Henceforth, Washington would pour military aid into the cultivation of the armed forces of allies and potential allies worldwide, while “training missions” would be used to create crucial ties between the U.S. military and the officer corps in country after country — or where subordinate elites did not seem subordinate enough, help identify alternative leaders.
When civilian presidents proved insubordinate, the Central Intelligence Agency went to work, promoting coups that would install reliable military successors –replacing Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, who tried to nationalize his country's oil, with General Fazlollah Zahedi (and then the young Shah) in 1953; President Sukarno with General Suharto in Indonesia during the next decade; and of course President Salvador Allende with General Augusto Pinochet in Chile in 1973, to name just three such moments.
In the first years of the twenty-first century, Washington’s trust in the militaries of its client states would only grow. The U.S. was, for example, lavishing $1.3 billion in aid on Egypt’s military annually, but investing only $250 million a year in the country’s economic development. As a result, when demonstrations rocked the regime in Cairo last January, as the New York Times reported, “a 30-year investment paid off as American generals… and intelligence officers quietly called… friends they had trained with,” successfully urging the army’s support for a “peaceful transition” to, yes indeed, military rule.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, Washington has, since the 1950s, followed the British imperial preference for Arab aristocrats by cultivating allies that included a shah (Iran), sultans (Abu Dhabi, Oman), emirs (Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Dubai), and kings (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco). Across this vast, volatile region from Morocco to Iran, Washington courted these royalist regimes with military alliances, U.S. weapons systems, CIA support for local security, a safe American haven for their capital, and special favors for their elites, including access to educational institutions in the U.S. or Department of Defense overseas schools for their children.
In 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice summed up this record thusly: “For 60 years, the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy… in the Middle East, and we achieved neither.”
How It Used to Work
America is by no means the first hegemon to build its global power on the gossamer threads of personal ties to local leaders. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Britain may have ruled the waves (as America would later rule the skies), but when it came to the ground, like empires past it needed local allies who could serve as intermediaries in controlling complex, volatile societies. Otherwise, how in 1900 could a small island nation of just 40 million with an army of only 99,000 men rule a global empire of some 400 million, nearly a quarter of all humanity?
From 1850 to 1950, Britain controlled its formal colonies through an extraordinary array of local allies — from Fiji island chiefs and Malay sultans to Indian maharajas and African emirs. Simultaneously, through subordinate elites Britain reigned over an even larger “informal empire” that encompassed emperors (from Beijing to Istanbul), kings (from Bangkok to Cairo), and presidents (from Buenos Aires to Caracas). At its peak in 1880, Britain's informal empire in Latin America, the Middle East, and China was larger, in population, than its formal colonial holdings in India and Africa. Its entire global empire, encompassing nearly half of humanity, rested on these slender ties of cooperation to loyal local elites.
Following four centuries of relentless imperial expansion, however, Europe’s five major overseas empires were suddenly erased from the globe in a quarter-century of decolonization. Between 1947 and 1974, the Belgian, British, Dutch, French, and Portuguese empires faded fast from Asia and Africa, giving way to a hundred new nations, more than half of today’s sovereign states. In searching for an explanation for this sudden, sweeping change, most scholars agree with British imperial historian Ronald Robinson who famously argued that “when colonial rulers had run out of indigenous collaborators,” their power began to fade.
During the Cold War that coincided with this era of rapid decolonization, the world’s two superpowers turned to the same methods regularly using their espionage agencies to manipulate the leaders of newly independent states. The Soviet Union’s KGB and its surrogates like the Stasi in East Germany and the Securitate in Romania enforced political conformity among the 14 Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe and challenged the U.S. for loyal allies across the Third World. Simultaneously, the CIA monitored the loyalties of presidents, autocrats, and dictators on four continents, employing coups, bribery, and covert penetration to control and, when necessary, remove nettlesome leaders.
In an era of nationalist feeling, however, the loyalty of local elites proved a complex matter indeed. Many of them were driven by conflicting loyalties and often deep feelings of nationalism, which meant that they had to be monitored closely. So critical were these subordinate elites, and so troublesome were their insubordinate iterations, that the CIA repeatedly launched risky covert operations to bring them to heel, sparking some of the great crises of the Cold War.
Given the rise of its system of global control in a post-World War II age of independence, Washington had little choice but to work not simply with surrogates or puppets, but with allies who — admittedly from weaker positions — still sought to maximize what they saw as their nations’ interests (as well as their own). Even at the height of American global power in the 1950s, when its dominance was relatively unquestioned, Washington was forced into hard bargaining with the likes of the Philippines’ Raymond Magsaysay, South Korean autocrat Syngman Rhee, and South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem.
In South Korea during the 1960s, for instance, General Park Chung Hee, then president, bartered troop deployments to Vietnam for billions of U.S. development dollars, which helped spark the country's economic "miracle." In the process, Washington paid up, but got what it most wanted: 50,000 of those tough Korean troops as guns-for-hire helpers in its unpopular war in Vietnam.
Post-Cold War World
After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, ending the Cold War, Moscow quickly lost its satellite states from Estonia to Azerbaijan, as once-loyal Soviet surrogates were ousted or leapt off the sinking ship of empire. For Washington, the “victor” and soon to be the “sole superpower” on planet Earth, the same process would begin to happen, but at a far slower pace.
Over the next two decades, globalization fostered a multipolar system of rising powers in Beijing, New Delhi, Moscow, Ankara, and Brasilia, even as a denationalized system of corporate power reduced the dependency of developing economies on any single state, however imperial. With its capacity for controlling elites receding, Washington has faced ideological competition from Islamic fundamentalism, European regulatory regimes, Chinese state capitalism, and a rising tide of economic nationalism in Latin America.
As U.S. power and influence declined, Washington’s attempts to control its subordinate elites began to fail, often spectacularly — including its efforts to topple bête noire Hugo Chavez of Venezuela in a badly bungled 2002 coup, to detach ally Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia from Russia’s orbit in 2008, and to oust nemesis Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2009 Iranian elections. Where a CIA coup or covert cash once sufficed to defeat an antagonist, the Bush administration needed a massive invasion to topple just one troublesome dictator, Saddam Hussein. Even then, it found its plans for subsequent regime change in Syria and Iran blocked when these states instead aided a devastating insurgency against U.S. forces inside Iraq.
Similarly, despite the infusions of billions of dollars in foreign aid, Washington has found it nearly impossible to control the Afghan president it installed in power, Hamid Karzai, who memorably summed up his fractious relationship with Washington to American envoys this way: “If you're looking for a stooge and calling a stooge a partner, no. If you're looking for a partner, yes.”
Then, late in 2010, WikiLeaks began distributing those thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables that offer uncensored insights into Washington’s weakening control over the system of surrogate power that it had built up for 50 years. In reading these documents, Israeli journalist Aluf Benn of Haaretz could see “the fall of the American empire, the decline of a superpower that ruled the world by the dint of its military and economic supremacy.” No longer, he added, are “American ambassadors… received in world capitals as ‘high commissioners'… [instead they are] tired bureaucrats [who] spend their days listening wearily to their hosts' talking points, never reminding them who is the superpower and who the client state.”
Indeed, what the WikiLeaks documents show is a State Department struggling to manage an unruly global system of increasingly insubordinate elites by any means possible — via intrigue to collect needed information and intelligence, friendly acts meant to coax compliance, threats to coerce cooperation, and billions of dollars in misspent aid to court influence. In early 2009, for instance, the State Department instructed its embassies worldwide to play imperial police by collecting comprehensive data on local leaders, including “email addresses, telephone and fax numbers, fingerprints, facial images, DNA, and iris scans.” Showing its need, like some colonial governor, for incriminating information on the locals, the State Department also pressed its Bahrain embassy for sordid details, damaging in an Islamic society, about the kingdom’s crown princes, asking: “Is there any derogatory information on either prince? Does either prince drink alcohol? Does either one use drugs?"
With the hauteur of latter-day imperial envoys, U.S. diplomats seemed to empower themselves for dominance by dismissing “the Turks neo-Ottoman posturing around the Middle East and Balkans,” or by knowing the weaknesses of their subordinate elites, notably Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s “voluptuous blonde” nurse, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari’s morbid fear of military coups, or Afghan Vice President Ahmad Zia Massoud’s $52 million in stolen funds.
As its influence declines, however, Washington is finding many of its chosen local allies either increasingly insubordinate or irrelevant, particularly in the strategic Middle East. In mid-2009, for instance, the U.S. ambassador to Tunisia reported that “President Ben Ali… and his regime have lost touch with the Tunisian people,” relying “on the police for control,” while “corruption in the inner circle is growing” and “the risks to the regime's long-term stability are increasing.” Even so, the U.S. envoy could only recommend that Washington “dial back the public criticism” and instead rely only on “frequent high-level private candor” — a policy that failed to produce any reforms before demonstrations toppled the regime just 18 months later.
Similarly, in late 2008 the American Embassy in Cairo feared that “Egyptian democracy and human rights efforts… are being suffocated.” However, as the embassy admitted, “we would not like to contemplate complications for U.S. regional interests should the U.S.-Egyptian bond be seriously weakened.” When Mubarak visited Washington a few months later, the Embassy urged the White House “to restore the sense of warmth that has traditionally characterized the U.S.-Egyptian partnership.” And so in June 2009, just 18 months before the Egyptian president’s downfall, President Obama hailed this useful dictator as “a stalwart ally… a force for stability and good in the region."
As the crisis in Cairo’s Tahrir Square unfolded, respected opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei complained bitterly that Washington was pushing “the whole Arab world into radicalization with this inept policy of supporting repression.” After 40 years of U.S. dominion, the Middle East was, he said, “a collection of failed states that add nothing to humanity or science” because “people were taught not to think or to act, and were consistently given an inferior education.”
Absent a global war capable of simply sweeping away an empire, the decline of a great power is often a fitful, painful, drawn-out affair. In addition to the two American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down to something not so far short of defeat, the nation’s capital is now writhing in fiscal crisis, the coin of the realm is losing its creditworthiness, and longtime allies are forging economic and even military ties to rival China. To all of this, we must now add the possible loss of loyal surrogates across the Middle East.
For more than 50 years, Washington has been served well by a system of global power based on subordinate elites. That system once facilitated the extension of American influence worldwide with a surprising efficiency and (relatively speaking) an economy of force. Now, however, those loyal allies increasingly look like an empire of failed or insubordinate states. Make no mistake: the degradation of, or ending of, half a century of such ties is likely to leave Washington on the rocks.
Alfred W. McCoy is professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a TomDispatch regular, and author most recently of the award-winning book, Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State. He has also convened the “Empires in Transition” project, a global working group of 140 historians from universities on four continents. The results of their first meetings were published as Colonial Crucible: Empire in the Making of the Modern American State, and the findings from their latest conference, at Barcelona last June, will appear next year as Endless Empires: Spain’s Retreat, Europe’s Eclipse, and America’s Decline. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which McCoy discusses why Washington is likely to cling disastrously to empire in the midst of decline, click here, or download it to your iPod here.
Brett Reilly is a graduate student in History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is studying U.S. foreign policy in Asia.
Copyright 2011 Alfred W. McCoy and Brett Reilly
Washington on the Rocks
The crisis has come suddenly, almost without warning. At the far edge of American power in Asia, things are going from bad to much worse than anyone could have imagined. The insurgents are spreading fast across the countryside. Corruption is rampant. Local military forces, recipients of countless millions of dollars in U.S. aid, shirk combat and are despised by local villagers. American casualties are rising. Our soldiers seem to move in a fog through a hostile, unfamiliar terrain, with no idea of who is friend and who is foe.
After years of lavishing American aid on him, the leader of this country, our close ally, has isolated himself inside the presidential palace, becoming an inadequate partner for a failing war effort. His brother is reportedly a genuine prince of darkness, dealing in drugs, covert intrigues, and electoral manipulation. The U.S. Embassy demands reform, the ouster of his brother, the appointment of honest local officials, something, anything that will demonstrate even a scintilla of progress.
After all, nine years earlier U.S. envoys had taken a huge gamble: rescuing this president from exile and political obscurity, installing him in the palace, and ousting a legitimate monarch whose family had ruled the country for centuries. Now, he repays this political debt by taunting America. He insists on untrammeled sovereignty and threatens to ally with our enemies if we continue to demand reforms of him. Yet Washington is so deeply identified with the counterinsurgency campaign in his country that walking away no longer seems like an option.
This scenario is obviously a description of the Obama administration’s devolving relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul this April. It is also an eerie summary of relations between the Kennedy administration and South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon nearly half a century earlier, in August 1963. If these parallels are troubling, they reveal the central paradox of American power over the past half-century in its dealings with embattled autocrats like Karzai and Diem across that vast, impoverished swath of the globe once known as the Third World.
Our Man in Kabul
With his volatile mix of dependence and independence, Hamid Karzai seems the archetype of all the autocrats Washington has backed in Asia, Africa, and Latin America since European empires began disintegrating after World War II. When the CIA mobilized Afghan warlords to topple the Taliban in October 2001, the country’s capital, Kabul, was ours for the taking — and the giving. In the midst of this chaos, Hamid Karzai, an obscure exile living in Pakistan, gathered a handful of followers and plunged into Afghanistan on a doomed CIA-supported mission to rally the tribes for revolt. It proved a quixotic effort that required rescue by Navy SEALs who snatched him back to safety in Pakistan.
Desperate for a reliable post-invasion ally, the Bush administration engaged in what one expert has called “bribes, secret deals, and arm twisting” to install Karzai in power. This process took place not through a democratic election in Kabul, but by lobbying foreign diplomats at a donors’ conference in Bonn, Germany, to appoint him interim president. When King Zahir Shah, a respected figure whose family had ruled Afghanistan for more than 200 years, returned to offer his services as acting head of state, the U.S. ambassador had a “showdown” with the monarch, forcing him back into exile. In this way, Karzai’s “authority,” which came directly and almost solely from the Bush administration, remained unchecked. For his first months in office, the president had so little trust in his nominal Afghan allies that he was guarded by American security.
In the years that followed, the Karzai regime slid into an ever deepening state of corruption and incompetence, while NATO allies rushed to fill the void with their manpower and material, a de facto endorsement of the president’s low road to power. As billions in international development aid poured into Kabul, a mere trickle escaped the capital’s bottomless bureaucracy to reach impoverished villages in the countryside. In 2009, Transparency International ranked Afghanistan as the world’s second most corrupt nation, just a notch below Somalia.
As opium production soared from 185 tons in 2001 to 8,200 tons just six years later — a remarkable 53% of the country’s entire economy — drug corruption metastasized, reaching provincial governors, the police, cabinet ministers, and the president’s own brother, also his close adviser. Indeed, as a senior U.S. antinarcotics official assigned to Afghanistan described the situation in 2006, “Narco corruption went to the very top of the Afghan government.” Earlier this year, the U.N. estimated that ordinary Afghans spend $2.5 billion annually, a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product, simply to bribe the police and government officials.
Last August’s presidential elections were an apt index of the country’s progress. Karzai’s campaign team, the so-called warlord ticket, included Abdul Dostum, an Uzbek warlord who slaughtered countless prisoners in 2001; vice presidential candidate Muhammed Fahim, a former defense minister linked to drugs and human rights abuses; Sher Muhammed Akhundzada, the former governor of Helmand Province, who was caught with nine tons of drugs in his compound back in 2005; and the president’s brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, reputedly the reigning drug lord and family fixer in Kandahar. “The Karzai family has opium and blood on their hands,” one Western intelligence official told the New York Times during the campaign.
Desperate to capture an outright 50% majority in the first round of balloting, Karzai’s warlord coalition made use of an extraordinary array of electoral chicanery. After two months of counting and checking, the U.N.’s Electoral Complaints Commission announced in October 2009 that more than a million of his votes, 28% of his total, were fraudulent, pushing the president’s tally well below the winning margin. Calling the election a “foreseeable train wreck,” the deputy U.N. envoy Peter Galbraith said, “The fraud has handed the Taliban its greatest strategic victory in eight years of fighting the United States and its Afghan partners.”
Galbraith, however, was sacked and silenced as U.S. pressure extinguished the simmering flames of electoral protest. The runner-up soon withdrew from the run-off election that Washington had favored as a face-saving, post-fraud compromise, and Karzai was declared the outright winner by default. In the wake of the farcical election, Karzai not surprisingly tried to stack the five-man Electoral Complaints Commission, an independent body meant to vet electoral complaints, replacing the three foreign experts with his own Afghan appointees. When the parliament rejected his proposal, Karzai lashed out with bizarre charges, accusing the U.N. of wanting a “puppet government” and blaming all the electoral fraud on “massive interference from foreigners.” In a meeting with members of parliament, he reportedly told them: “If you and the international community pressure me more, I swear that I am going to join the Taliban.”
Amid this tempest in an electoral teapot, as American reinforcements poured into Afghanistan, Washington’s escalating pressure for “reform” only served to inflame Karzai. As Air Force One headed for Kabul on March 28th, National Security Adviser James Jones bluntly told reporters aboard that, in his meeting with Karzai, President Obama would insist that he prioritize “battling corruption, taking the fight to the narco-traffickers.” It was time for the new administration in Washington, ever more deeply committed to its escalating counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan, to bring our man in Kabul back into line.
A week filled with inflammatory, angry outbursts from Karzai followed before the White House changed tack, concluding that it had no alternative to Karzai and began to retreat. Jones now began telling reporters soothingly that, during his visit to Kabul, President Obama had been “generally impressed with the quality of the [Afghan] ministers and the seriousness with which they’re approaching their job.”
All of this might have seemed so new and bewildering in the American experience, if it weren’t actually so old.
Our Man in Saigon
The sorry history of the autocratic regime of Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon (1954-1963) offers an earlier cautionary roadmap that helps explain why Washington has so often found itself in such an impossibly contradictory position with its authoritarian allies.
Landing in Saigon in mid-1954 after years of exile in the United States and Europe, Diem had no real political base. He could, however, count on powerful patrons in Washington, notably Democratic senators Mike Mansfield and John F. Kennedy. One of the few people to greet Diem at the airport that day was the legendary CIA operative Edward Lansdale, Washington’s master of political manipulation in Southeast Asia. Amid the chaos accompanying France’s defeat in its long, bloody Indochina War, Lansdale maneuvered brilliantly to secure Diem’s tenuous hold on power in the southern part of Vietnam. In the meantime, U.S. diplomats sent his rival, the Emperor Bao Dai, packing for Paris. Within months, thanks to Washington’s backing, Diem won an absurd 98.2% of a rigged vote for the presidency and promptly promulgated a new constitution that ended the Vietnamese monarchy after a millennium.
Channeling all aid payments through Diem, Washington managed to destroy the last vestiges of French colonial support for any of his potential rivals in the south, while winning the president a narrow political base within the army, among civil servants, and in the minority Catholic community. Backed by a seeming cornucopia of American support, Diem proceeded to deal harshly with South Vietnam’s Buddhist sects, harassed the Viet Minh veterans of the war against the French, and resisted the implementation of rural reforms that might have won him broader support among the country’s peasant population.
When the U.S. Embassy pressed for reforms, he simply stalled, convinced that Washington, having already invested so much of its prestige in his regime, would be unable to withhold support. Like Karzai in Kabul, Diem’s ultimate weapon was his weakness — the threat that his government, shaky as it was, might simply collapse if pushed too hard.
In the end, the Americans invariably backed down, sacrificing any hope of real change in order to maintain the ongoing war effort against the local Viet Cong rebels and their North Vietnamese backers. As rebellion and dissent rose in the south, Washington ratcheted up its military aid to battle the communists, inadvertently giving Diem more weapons to wield against his own people, communist and non-communist alike.
Working through his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu — and this should have an eerie resonance today — the Diems took control of Saigon’s drug racket, pocketing significant profits as they built up a nexus of secret police, prisons, and concentration camps to deal with suspected dissidents. At the time of Diem’s downfall in 1963, there were some 50,000 prisoners in his gulag.
Nonetheless, from 1960 to 1963, the regime only weakened as resistance sparked repression and repression redoubled resistance. Soon South Vietnam was wracked by Buddhist riots in the cities and a spreading Communist revolution in the countryside. Moving after dark, Viet Cong guerrillas slowly began to encircle Saigon, assassinating Diem’s unpopular village headmen by the thousands.
In this three-year period, the US military mission in Saigon tried every conceivable counterinsurgency strategy. They brought in helicopters and armored vehicles to improve conventional mobility, deployed the Green Berets for unconventional combat, built up regional militias for localized security, constructed “strategic hamlets” in order to isolate eight million peasants inside supposedly secure fortified compounds, and ratcheted up CIA assassinations of suspected Viet Cong leaders. Nothing worked. Even the best military strategy could not fix the underlying political problem. By 1963, the Viet Cong had grown from a handful of fighters into a guerrilla army that controlled more than half the countryside.
When protesting Buddhist monk Quang Duc assumed the lotus position on a Saigon street in June 1963 and held the posture while followers lit his gasoline-soaked robes which erupted in fatal flames, the Kennedy administration could no longer ignore the crisis. As Diem’s batons cracked the heads of Buddhist demonstrators and Nhu’s wife applauded what she called “monk barbecues,” Washington began to officially protest the ruthless repression. Instead of responding, Diem (shades of Karzai) began working through his brother Nhu to open negotiations with the communists in Hanoi, signaling Washington that he was perfectly willing to betray the U.S. war effort and possibly form a coalition with North Vietnam.
In the midst of this crisis, a newly appointed American ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge, arrived in Saigon and within days approved a plan for a CIA-backed coup to overthrow Diem. For the next few months, Lansdale’s CIA understudy Lucien Conein met regularly with Saigon’s generals to hatch an elaborate plot that was unleashed with devastating effect on November 1, 1963.
As rebel troops stormed the palace, Diem and his brother Nhu fled to a safe house in Saigon’s Chinatown. Flushed from hiding by promises of safe conduct into exile, Diem climbed aboard a military convoy for what he thought was a ride to the airport. But CIA operative Conein had vetoed the flight plans. A military assassin intercepted the convoy, spraying Diem’s body with bullets and stabbing his bleeding corpse in a coup de grâce.
Although Ambassador Lodge hosted an embassy celebration for the rebel officers and cabled President Kennedy that Diem’s death would mean a “shorter war,” the country soon collapsed into a series of military coups and counter-coups that crippled army operations. Over the next 32 months, Saigon had nine new governments and a change of cabinet every 15 weeks — all incompetent, corrupt, and ineffective.
After spending a decade building up Diem’s regime and a day destroying it, the U.S. had seemingly irrevocably linked its own power and prestige to the Saigon government — any government. The “best and brightest” in Washington were convinced that they could not just withdraw from South Vietnam without striking a devastating blow against American “credibility.” As South Vietnam slid toward defeat in the two years following Diem’s death, the first of 540,000 U.S. combat troops began arriving, ensuring that Vietnam would be transformed from an American-backed war into an American war.
Under the circumstances, Washington searched desperately for anyone who could provide sufficient stability to prosecute the war against the communists and eventually, with palpable relief, embraced a military junta headed by General Nguyen Van Thieu. Installed and sustained in power by American aid, Thieu had no popular following and ruled through military repression, repeating the same mistakes that led to Diem’s downfall. But chastened by its experience after the assassination of Diem, the U.S. Embassy decided to ignore Thieu’s unpopularity and continue to build his army. Once Washington began to reduce its aid after 1973, Thieu found that his troops simply would not fight to defend his unpopular government. In April 1975, he carried a hoard of stolen gold into exile while his army collapsed with stunning speed, suffering one of the most devastating collapses in military history.
In pursuit of its Vietnam War effort, Washington required a Saigon government responsive to its demands, yet popular with its own peasantry, strong enough to wage a war in the villages, yet sensitive to the needs of the country’s poor villagers. These were hopelessly contradictory political requisites. Finding that civilian regimes engaged in impossible-to-control intrigues, the U.S. ultimately settled for authoritarian military rule which, acceptable as it proved in Washington, was disdained by the Vietnamese peasantry.
Death or Exile?
So is President Karzai, like Diem, doomed to die on the streets of Kabul or will he, one day, find himself like Thieu boarding a midnight flight into exile?
History, or at least our awareness of its lessons, does change things, albeit in complex, unpredictable ways. Today, senior U.S. envoys have Diem’s cautionary tale encoded in their diplomatic DNA, which undoubtedly precludes any literal replay of his fate. After sanctioning Diem’s assassination, Washington watched in dismay as South Vietnam plunged into chaos. So chastened was the U.S. Embassy by this dismal outcome that it backed the subsequent military regime to a fault.
A decade later, the Senate’s Church Committee uncovered other U.S. attempts at assassination-cum-regime-change in the Congo, Chile, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic that further stigmatized this option. In effect, antibodies from the disastrous CIA coup against Diem, still in Washington’s political bloodstream, reduce the possibility of any similar move against Karzai today.
Ironically, those who seek to avoid the past may be doomed to repeat it. By accepting Karzai’s massive electoral fraud and refusing to consider alternatives last August, Washington has, like it or not, put its stamp of approval on his spreading corruption and the political instability that accompanies it. In this way, the Obama administration in its early days invited a sad denouement to its Afghan adventure, one potentially akin to Vietnam after Diem’s death. America’s representatives in Kabul are once again hurtling down history’s highway, eyes fixed on the rear-view mirror, not the precipice that lies dead ahead.
In the experiences of both Ngo Dinh Diem and Hamid Karzai lurks a self-defeating pattern common to Washington’s alliances with dictators throughout the Third World, then and now. Selected and often installed in office by Washington, or at least backed by massive American military aid, these client figures become desperately dependent, even as they fail to implement the sorts of reforms that might enable them to build an independent political base. Torn between pleasing their foreign patrons or their own people, they wind up pleasing neither. As opposition to their rule grows, a downward spiral of repression and corruption often ends in collapse; while, for all its power, Washington descends into frustration and despair, unable to force its allies to adopt reforms which might allow them to survive. Such a collapse is a major crisis for the White House, but often — Diem’s case is obviously an exception — little more than an airplane ride into exile for the local autocrat or dictator.
There was — and is — a fundamental structural flaw in any American alliance with these autocrats. Inherent in these unequal alliances is a peculiar dynamic that makes the eventual collapse of such American-anointed leaders almost inevitable. At the outset, Washington selects a client who seems pliant enough to do its bidding. Such a client, in turn, opts for Washington’s support not because he is strong, but precisely because he needs foreign patronage to gain and hold office.
Once installed, the client, no matter how reluctant, has little choice but to make Washington’s demands his top priority, investing his slender political resources in placating foreign envoys. Responding to an American political agenda on civil and military matters, these autocrats often fail to devote sufficient energy, attention, and resources to cultivating a following; Diem found himself isolated in his Saigon palace, while Karzai has become a “president” justly, if derisively, nicknamed “the mayor of Kabul.” Caught between the demands of a powerful foreign patron and countervailing local needs and desires, both leaders let guerrillas capture the countryside, while struggling uncomfortably, and in the end angrily, as well as resentfully, in the foreign embrace.
Nor are such parallels limited to Afghanistan today or Vietnam almost half a century ago. Since the end of World War II, many of the sharpest crises in U.S. foreign policy have arisen from just such problematic relationships with authoritarian client regimes. As a start, it was a similarly close relationship with General Fulgencio Batista of Cuba in the 1950s which inspired the Cuban revolution. That culminated, of course, in Fidel Castro’s rebels capturing the Cuban capital, Havana, in 1959, which in turn led the Kennedy administration into the catastrophic Bay of Pigs invasion and then the Cuban Missile Crisis.
For a full quarter-century, the U.S. played international patron to the Shah of Iran, intervening to save his regime from the threat of democracy in the early 1950s and later massively arming his police and military while making him Washington’s proxy power in the Persian Gulf. His fall in the Islamic revolution of 1979 not only removed the cornerstone of American power in this strategic region, but plunged Washington into a succession of foreign policy confrontations with Iran that have yet to end.
After a half-century as a similarly loyal client in Central America, the regime of Nicaragua’s Anastasio Somoza fell in the Sandinista revolution of 1979, creating a foreign policy problem marked by the CIA’s contra operation against the new Sandinista government and the seamy Iran-Contra scandal that roiled President Reagan’s second term.
Just last week, Washington’s anointed autocrat in Kyrgyzstan, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, fled the presidential palace when his riot police, despite firing live ammunition and killing more than 80 of his citizens, failed to stop opposition protesters from taking control of the capital, Bishkek. Although his rule was brutal and corrupt, last year the Obama administration courted Bakiyev sedulously and successfully to preserve U.S. use of the old Soviet air base at Manas critical for supply flights into Afghanistan. Even as riot police were beating the opposition into submission to prepare for Bakiyev’s “landslide victory” in last July’s elections, President Obama sent him a personal letter praising his support for the Afghan war. With Washington’s imprimatur, there was nothing to stop Bakiyev’s political slide into murderous repression and his ultimate fall from power.
Why have so many American alliances with Third World dictators collapsed in such a spectacular fashion, producing divisive recriminations at home and policy disasters abroad?
During Britain’s century of dominion, its self-confident servants of empire, from viceroys in plumed hats to district officers in khaki shorts, ruled much of Africa and Asia through an imperial system of protectorates, indirect rule, and direct colonial rule. In the succeeding American “half century” of hegemony, Washington carried the burden of global power without a formal colonial system, substituting its military advisers for imperial viceroys.
In this new landscape of sovereign states that emerged after World War II, Washington has had to pursue a contradictory policy as it dealt with the leaders of nominally independent nations that were also deeply dependent on foreign economic and military aid. After identifying its own prestige with these fragile regimes, Washington usually tries to coax, chide, or threaten its allies into embracing what it considers needed reforms. Even when this counsel fails and prudence might dictate the start of a staged withdrawal, as in Saigon in 1963 and Kabul today, American envoys simply cannot let go of their unrepentant, resentful allies, as the long slide into disaster gains momentum.
With few choices between diplomatic niceties and a destabilizing coup, Washington invariably ends up defaulting to an inflexible foreign policy at the edge of paralysis that often ends with the collapse of our authoritarian allies, whether Diem in Saigon, the Shah in Tehran, or on some dismal day yet to come, Hamid Karzai in Kabul. To avoid this impending debacle, our only realistic option in Afghanistan today may well be the one we wish we had taken in Saigon back in August 1963 — a staged withdrawal of U.S. forces.
Alfred W. McCoy is the J.R.W. Smail Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, which probes the conjuncture of illicit narcotics and covert operations over the past 50 years. His latest book, Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State, explores the influence of overseas counterinsurgency operations on the spread of internal security measures here at home.
Copyright 2010 Alfred W. McCoy
Originally posted at TomDispatch.com
America and the Dictators
In his approach to National Security Agency surveillance, as well as CIA renditions, drone assassinations, and military detention, President Obama has to a surprising extent embraced the expanded executive powers championed by his conservative predecessor, George W. Bush. This bipartisan affirmation of the imperial executive could “reverberate for generations,” warns Jack Balkin, a specialist on First Amendment freedoms at Yale Law School. And consider these but some of the early fruits from the hybrid seeds that the Global War on Terror has planted on American soil. Yet surprisingly few Americans seem aware of the toll that this already endless war has taken on our civil liberties.
Don’t be too surprised, then, when, in the midst of some future crisis, advanced surveillance methods and other techniques developed in our recent counterinsurgency wars migrate from Baghdad, Falluja, and Kandahar to your hometown or urban neighborhood. And don’t ever claim that nobody told you this could happen — at least not if you care to read on.
Think of our counterinsurgency wars abroad as so many living laboratories for the undermining of a democratic society at home, a process historians of such American wars can tell you has been going on for a long, long time. Counterintelligence innovations like centralized data, covert penetration, and disinformation developed during the Army’s first protracted pacification campaign in a foreign land — the Philippines from 1898 to 1913 — were repatriated to the United States during World War I, becoming the blueprint for an invasive internal security apparatus that persisted for the next half century.
Almost 90 years later, George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror plunged the U.S. military into four simultaneous counterinsurgency campaigns, large and small — in Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and (once again) the Philippines — transforming a vast swath of the planet into an ad hoc “counterterrorism” laboratory. The result? Cutting-edge high-tech security and counterterror techniques that are now slowly migrating homeward.
As the War on Terror enters its ninth year to become one of America’s longest overseas conflicts, the time has come to ask an uncomfortable question: What impact have the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — and the atmosphere they created domestically — had on the quality of our democracy?
Every American knows that we are supposedly fighting elsewhere to defend democracy here at home. Yet the crusade for democracy abroad, largely unsuccessful in its own right, has proven remarkably effective in building a technological template that could be just a few tweaks away from creating a domestic surveillance state — with omnipresent cameras, deep data-mining, nano-second biometric identification, and drone aircraft patrolling “the homeland.”
Even if its name is increasingly anathema in Washington, the ongoing Global War on Terror has helped bring about a massive expansion of domestic surveillance by the FBI and the National Security Agency (NSA) whose combined data-mining systems have already swept up several billion private documents from U.S. citizens into classified data banks. Abroad, after years of failing counterinsurgency efforts in the Middle East, the Pentagon began applying biometrics — the science of identification via facial shape, fingerprints, and retinal or iris patterns — to the pacification of Iraqi cities, as well as the use of electronic intercepts for instant intelligence and the split-second application of satellite imagery to aid an assassination campaign by drone aircraft that reaches from Africa to South Asia.
In the panicky aftermath of some future terrorist attack, Washington could quickly fuse existing foreign and domestic surveillance techniques, as well as others now being developed on distant battlefields, to create an instant digital surveillance state.
The Crucible of Counterinsurgency
For the past six years, confronting a bloody insurgency, the U.S. occupation of Iraq has served as a white-hot crucible of counterinsurgency, forging a new system of biometric surveillance and digital warfare with potentially disturbing domestic implications. This new biometric identification system first appeared in the smoking aftermath of “Operation Phantom Fury,” a brutal, nine-day battle that U.S. Marines fought in late 2004 to recapture the insurgent-controlled city of Falluja. Bombing, artillery, and mortars destroyed at least half of that city’s buildings and sent most of its 250,000 residents fleeing into the surrounding countryside. Marines then forced returning residents to wait endless hours under a desert sun at checkpoints for fingerprints and iris scans. Once inside the city’s blast-wall maze, residents had to wear identification tags for compulsory checks to catch infiltrating insurgents.
The first hint that biometrics were helping to pacify Baghdad’s far larger population of seven million came in April 2007 when the New York Times published an eerie image of American soldiers studiously photographing an Iraqi’s eyeball. With only a terse caption to go by, we can still infer the technology behind this single record of a retinal scan in Baghdad: digital cameras for U.S. patrols, wireless data transfer to a mainframe computer, and a database to record as many adult Iraqi eyes as could be gathered. Indeed, eight months later, the Washington Post reported that the Pentagon had collected over a million Iraqi fingerprints and iris scans. By mid-2008, the U.S. Army had also confined Baghdad’s population behind blast-wall cordons and was checking Iraqi identities by satellite link to a biometric database.
Pushing ever closer to the boundaries of what present-day technology can do, by early 2008, U.S. forces were also collecting facial images accessible by portable data labs called Joint Expeditionary Forensic Facilities, linked by satellite to a biometric database in West Virginia. “A war fighter needs to know one of three things,” explained the inventor of this lab-in-a-box. “Do I let him go? Keep him? Or shoot him on the spot?”
A future is already imaginable in which a U.S. sniper could take a bead on the eyeball of a suspected terrorist, pause for a nanosecond to transmit the target’s iris or retinal data via backpack-sized laboratory to a computer in West Virginia, and then, after instantaneous feedback, pull the trigger.
Lest such developments seem fanciful, recall that Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward claims the success of George W. Bush’s 2007 troop surge in Iraq was due less to boots on the ground than to bullets in the head — and these, in turn, were due to a top-secret fusion of electronic intercepts and satellite imagery. Starting in May 2006, American intelligence agencies launched a Special Action Program using “the most highly classified techniques and information in the U.S. government” in a successful effort “to locate, target and kill key individuals in extremist groups such as al-Qaeda, the Sunni insurgency and renegade Shia militias.”
Under General Stanley McChrystal, now U.S. Afghan War commander, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) deployed “every tool available simultaneously, from signals intercepts to human intelligence” for “lightning quick” strikes. One intelligence officer reportedly claimed that the program was so effective it gave him “orgasms.” President Bush called it “awesome.” Although refusing to divulge details, Woodward himself compared it to the Manhattan Project in World War II. This Iraq-based assassination program relied on the authority Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld granted JSOC in early 2004 to “kill or capture al-Qaeda terrorists” in 20 countries across the Middle East, producing dozens of lethal strikes by airborne Special Operations forces.
Another crucial technological development in Washington’s secret war of assassination has been the armed drone, or unmanned aerial vehicle, whose speedy development has been another by-product of Washington’s global counterterrorism laboratory. Half a world away from Iraq in the southern Philippines, the CIA and U.S. Special Operations Forces conducted an early experiment in the use of aerial surveillance for assassination. In June 2002, with a specially-equipped CIA aircraft circling overhead offering real-time video surveillance in the pitch dark of a tropical night, Philippine Marines executed a deadly high-seas ambush of Muslim terrorist Aldam Tilao (a.k.a. “Abu Sabaya”).
In July 2008, the Pentagon proposed an expenditure of $1.2 billion for a fleet of 50 light aircraft loaded with advanced electronics to loiter over battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq, bringing “full motion video and electronic eavesdropping to the troops.” By late 2008, night flights over Afghanistan from the deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt were using sensors to give American ground forces real-time images of Taliban targets — some so focused that they could catch just a few warm bodies huddled in darkness behind a wall.
In the first months of Barack Obama’s presidency, CIA Predator drone strikes have escalated in the Pakistani tribal borderlands with a macabre efficiency, using a top-secret mix of electronic intercepts, satellite transmission, and digital imaging to kill half of the Agency’s 20 top-priority al-Qaeda targets in the region. Just three days before Obama visited Canada last February, Homeland Security launched its first Predator-B drones to patrol the vast, empty North Dakota-Manitoba borderlands that one U.S. senator has called America’s “weakest link.”
While those running U.S. combat operations overseas were experimenting with intercepts, satellites, drones, and biometrics, inside Washington the plodding civil servants of internal security at the FBI and the NSA initially began expanding domestic surveillance through thoroughly conventional data sweeps, legal and extra-legal, and — with White House help — several abortive attempts to revive a tradition that dates back to World War I of citizens spying on suspected subversives.
“If people see anything suspicious, utility workers, you ought to report it,” said President George Bush in his April 2002 call for nationwide citizen vigilance. Within weeks, his Justice Department had launched Operation TIPS (Terrorism Information and Prevention System), with plans for “millions of American truckers, letter carriers, train conductors, ship captains, utility employees and others” to aid the government by spying on their fellow Americans. Such citizen surveillance sparked strong protests, however, forcing the Justice Department to quietly bury the president’s program.
Simultaneously, inside the Pentagon, Admiral John Poindexter, President Ronald Reagan’s former national security advisor (swept up in the Iran-Contra scandal of that era), was developing a Total Information Awareness program which was to contain “detailed electronic dossiers” on millions of Americans. When news leaked about this secret Pentagon office with its eerie, all-seeing eye logo, Congress banned the program, and the admiral resigned in 2003. But the key data extraction technology, the Information Awareness Prototype System, migrated quietly to the NSA.
Soon enough, however, the CIA, FBI, and NSA turned to monitoring citizens electronically without the need for human tipsters, rendering the administration’s grudging retreats from conventional surveillance at best an ambiguous political victory for civil liberties advocates. Sometime in 2002, President Bush gave the NSA secret, illegal orders to monitor private communications through the nation’s telephone companies and its private financial transactions through SWIFT, an international bank clearinghouse.
After the New York Times exposed these wiretaps in 2005, Congress quickly capitulated, first legalizing this illegal executive program and then granting cooperating phone companies immunity from civil suits. Such intelligence excess was, however, intentional. Even after Congress widened the legal parameters for future intercepts in 2008, the NSA continued to push the boundaries of its activities, engaging in what the New York Times politely termed the systematic “overcollection” of electronic communications among American citizens. Now, for example, thanks to a top-secret NSA database called “Pinwale,” analysts routinely scan countless “millions” of domestic electronic communications without much regard for whether they came from foreign or domestic sources.
Starting in 2004, the FBI launched an Investigative Data Warehouse as a “centralized repository for… counterterrorism.” Within two years, it contained 659 million individual records. This digital archive of intelligence, social security files, drivers’ licenses, and records of private finances could be accessed by 13,000 Bureau agents and analysts making a million queries monthly. By 2009, when digital rights advocates sued for full disclosure, the database had already grown to over a billion documents.
And did this sacrifice of civil liberties make the United States a safer place? In July 2009, after a careful review of the electronic surveillance in these years, the inspectors general of the Defense Department, the Justice Department, the CIA, the NSA, and the Office of National Intelligence issued a report sharply critical of these secret efforts. Despite George W. Bush’s claims that massive electronic surveillance had “helped prevent attacks,” these auditors could not find any “specific instances” of this, concluding such surveillance had “generally played a limited role in the F.B.I.’s overall counterterrorism efforts.”
Amid the pressures of a generational global war, Congress proved all too ready to offer up civil liberties as a bipartisan burnt offering on the altar of national security. In April 2007, for instance, in a bid to legalize the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretaps, Congressional representative Jane Harman (Dem., California) offered a particularly extreme example of this urge. She introduced the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act, proposing a powerful national commission, functionally a standing “star chamber,” to “combat the threat posed by homegrown terrorists based and operating within the United States.” The bill passed the House by an overwhelming 404 to 6 vote before stalling, and then dying, in a Senate somewhat more mindful of civil liberties.
Only weeks after Barack Obama entered the Oval Office, Harman’s life itself became a cautionary tale about expanding electronic surveillance. According to information leaked to the Congressional Quarterly, in early 2005 an NSA wiretap caught Harman offering to press the Bush Justice Department for reduced charges against two pro-Israel lobbyists accused of espionage. In exchange, an Israeli agent offered to help Harman gain the chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee by threatening House Democratic majority leader Nancy Pelosi with the loss of a major campaign donor. As Harman put down the phone, she said, “This conversation doesn’t exist.”
How wrong she was. An NSA transcript of Harman’s every word soon crossed the desk of CIA Director Porter Goss, prompting an FBI investigation that, in turn, was blocked by then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales. As it happened, the White House knew that the New York Times was about to publish its sensational revelation of the NSA’s warrantless wiretaps, and felt it desperately needed Harman for damage control among her fellow Democrats. In this commingling of intrigue and irony, an influential legislator’s defense of the NSA’s illegal wiretapping exempted her from prosecution for a security breach discovered by an NSA wiretap.
Since the arrival of Barack Obama in the White House, the auto-pilot expansion of digital domestic surveillance has in no way been interfered with. As a result, for example, the FBI’s “Terrorist Watchlist,” with 400,000 names and a million entries, continues to grow at the rate of 1,600 new names daily.
In fact, the Obama administration has even announced plans for a new military cybercommand staffed by 7,000 Air Force employees at Lackland Air Base in Texas. This command will be tasked with attacking enemy computers and repelling hostile cyber-attacks or counterattacks aimed at U.S. computer networks — with scant respect for what the Pentagon calls “sovereignty in the cyberdomain.” Despite the president’s assurances that operations “will not — I repeat — will not include monitoring private sector networks or Internet traffic,” the Pentagon’s top cyberwarrior, General James E. Cartwright, has conceded such intrusions are inevitable.
Sending the Future Home
While U.S. combat forces prepare to draw-down in Iraq (and ramp up in Afghanistan), military intelligence units are coming home to apply their combat-tempered surveillance skills to our expanding homeland security state, while preparing to counter any future domestic civil disturbances here.
Indeed, in September 2008, the Army’s Northern Command announced that one of the Third Division’s brigades in Iraq would be reassigned as a Consequence Management Response Force (CMRF) inside the U.S. Its new mission: planning for moments when civilian authorities may need help with “civil unrest and crowd control.” According to Colonel Roger Cloutier, his unit’s civil-control equipment featured “a new modular package of non-lethal capabilities” designed to subdue unruly or dangerous individuals — including Taser guns, roadblocks, shields, batons, and beanbag bullets.
That same month, Army Chief of Staff General George Casey flew to Fort Stewart, Georgia, for the first full CMRF mission readiness exercise. There, he strode across a giant urban battle map filling a gymnasium floor like a conquering Gulliver looming over Lilliputian Americans. With 250 officers from all services participating, the military war-gamed its future coordination with the FBI, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and local authorities in the event of a domestic terrorist attack or threat. Within weeks, the American Civil Liberties Union filed an expedited freedom of information request for details of these deployments, arguing: “[It] is imperative that the American people know the truth about this new and unprecedented intrusion of the military in domestic affairs.”
At the outset of the Global War on Terror in 2001, memories of early Cold War anti-communist witch-hunts blocked Bush administration plans to create a corps of civilian tipsters and potential vigilantes. However, far more sophisticated security methods, developed for counterinsurgency warfare overseas, are now coming home to far less public resistance. They promise, sooner or later, to further jeopardize the constitutional freedoms of Americans.
In these same years, under the pressure of War on Terror rhetoric, presidential power has grown relentlessly, opening the way to unchecked electronic surveillance, the endless detention of terror suspects, and a variety of inhumane forms of interrogation. Somewhat more slowly, innovative techniques of biometric identification, aerial surveillance, and civil control are now being repatriated as well.
In a future America, enhanced retinal recognition could be married to omnipresent security cameras as a part of the increasingly routine monitoring of public space. Military surveillance equipment, tempered to a technological cutting edge in counterinsurgency wars, might also one day be married to the swelling domestic databases of the NSA and FBI, sweeping the fiber-optic cables beneath our cities for any sign of subversion. And in the skies above, loitering aircraft and cruising drones could be checking our borders and peering down on American life.
If that day comes, our cities will be Argus-eyed with countless thousands of digital cameras scanning the faces of passengers at airports, pedestrians on city streets, drivers on highways, ATM customers, mall shoppers, and visitors to any federal facility. One day, hyper-speed software will be able to match those millions upon millions of facial or retinal scans to photos of suspect subversives inside a biometric database akin to England’s current National Public Order Intelligence Unit, sending anti-subversion SWAT teams scrambling for an arrest or an armed assault.
By the time the Global War on Terror is declared over in 2020, if then, our American world may be unrecognizable — or rather recognizable only as the stuff of dystopian science fiction. What we are proving today is that, however detached from the wars being fought in their name most Americans may seem, war itself never stays far from home for long. It’s already returning in the form of new security technologies that could one day make a digital surveillance state a reality, changing fundamentally the character of American democracy.
Alfred W. McCoy is the J.R.W. Smail Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of A Question of Torture, among other works. His most recent book is Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State (University of Wisconsin Press) which explores the influence of overseas counterinsurgency operations throughout the twentieth century in spreading ever more draconian internal security measures here at home.
Copyright 2009 Alfred W. McCoy
Welcome Home, War!
If, like me, you’ve been following America’s torture policies not just for the last few years, but for decades, you can’t help but experience that eerie feeling of déjà vu these days. With the departure of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney from Washington and the arrival of Barack Obama, it may just be back to the future when it comes to torture policy, a turn away from a dark, do-it-yourself ethos and a return to the outsourcing of torture that went on, with the support of both Democrats and Republicans, in the Cold War years.
Like Chile after the regime of General Augusto Pinochet or the Philippines after the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, Washington after Bush is now trapped in the painful politics of impunity. Unlike anything our allies have experienced, however, for Washington, and so for the rest of us, this may prove a political crisis without end or exit.
Despite dozens of official inquiries in the five years since the Abu Ghraib photos first exposed our abuse of Iraqi detainees, the torture scandal continues to spread like a virus, infecting all who touch it, including now Obama himself. By embracing a specific methodology of torture, covertly developed by the CIA over decades using countless millions of taxpayer dollars and graphically revealed in those Iraqi prison photos, we have condemned ourselves to retreat from whatever promises might be made to end this sort of abuse and are instead already returning to a bipartisan consensus that made torture America’s secret weapon throughout the Cold War.
Despite the 24 version of events, the Bush administration did not simply authorize traditional, bare-knuckle torture. What it did do was develop to new heights the world’s most advanced form of psychological torture, while quickly recognizing the legal dangers in doing so. Even in the desperate days right after 9/11, the White House and Justice Department lawyers who presided over the Bush administration’s new torture program were remarkably punctilious about cloaking their decisions in legalisms designed to preempt later prosecution.
To most Americans, whether they supported the Bush administration torture policy or opposed it, all of this seemed shocking and very new. Not so, unfortunately. Concealed from Congress and the public, the CIA had spent the previous half-century developing and propagating a sophisticated form of psychological torture meant to defy investigation, prosecution, or prohibition — and so far it has proved remarkably successful on all these counts. Even now, since many of the leading psychologists who worked to advance the CIA’s torture skills have remained silent, we understand surprisingly little about the psychopathology of the program of mental torture that the Bush administration applied so globally.
Physical torture is a relatively straightforward matter of sadism that leaves behind broken bodies, useless information, and clear evidence for prosecution. Psychological torture, on the other hand, is a mind maze that can destroy its victims, even while entrapping its perpetrators in an illusory, almost erotic, sense of empowerment. When applied skillfully, it leaves few scars for investigators who might restrain this seductive impulse. However, despite all the myths of these last years, psychological torture, like its physical counterpart, has proven an ineffective, even counterproductive, method for extracting useful information from prisoners.
Where it has had a powerful effect is on those ordering and delivering it. With their egos inflated beyond imagining by a sense of being masters of life and death, pain and pleasure, its perpetrators, when in office, became forceful proponents of abuse, striding across the political landscape like Nietzschean supermen. After their fall from power, they have continued to maneuver with extraordinary determination to escape the legal consequences of their actions.
Before we head deeper into the hidden history of the CIA’s psychological torture program, however, we need to rid ourselves of the idea that this sort of torture is somehow “torture lite” or merely, as the Bush administration renamed it, “enhanced interrogation.” Although seemingly less brutal than physical methods, psychological torture actually inflicts a crippling trauma on its victims. “Ill treatment during captivity, such as psychological manipulations and forced stress positions,” Dr. Metin Basoglu has reported in the Archives of General Psychiatry after interviewing 279 Bosnian victims of such methods, “does not seem to be substantially different from physical torture in terms of the severity of mental suffering.”
A Secret History of Psychological Torture
The roots of our present paralysis over what to do about detainee abuse lie in the hidden history of the CIA’s program of psychological torture. Early in the Cold War, panicked that the Soviets had somehow cracked the code of human consciousness, the Agency mounted a “Special Interrogation Program” whose working hypothesis was: “Medical science, particularly psychiatry and psychotherapy, has developed various techniques by means of which some external control can be imposed on the mind/or will of an individual, such as drugs, hypnosis, electric shock and neurosurgery.”
All of these methods were tested by the CIA in the 1950s and 1960s. None proved successful for breaking potential enemies or obtaining reliable information. Beyond these ultimately unsuccessful methods, however, the Agency also explored a behavioral approach to cracking that “code.” In 1951, in collaboration with British and Canadian defense scientists, the Agency encouraged academic research into “methods concerned in psychological coercion.” Within months, the Agency had defined the aims of its top-secret program, code-named Project Artichoke, as the “development of any method by which we can get information from a person against his will and without his knowledge.”
This secret research produced two discoveries central to the CIA’s more recent psychological paradigm. In classified experiments, famed Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb found that he could induce a state akin to drug-induced hallucinations and psychosis in just 48 hours — without drugs, hypnosis, or electric shock. Instead, for two days student volunteers at McGill University simply sat in a comfortable cubicle deprived of sensory stimulation by goggles, gloves, and earmuffs. “It scared the hell out of us,” Hebb said later, “to see how completely dependent the mind is on a close connection with the ordinary sensory environment, and how disorganizing to be cut off from that support.”
During the 1950s, two neurologists at Cornell Medical Center, under CIA contract, found that the most devastating torture technique of the Soviet secret police, the KGB, was simply to force a victim to stand for days while the legs swelled, the skin erupted in suppurating lesions, and hallucinations began — a procedure which we now politely refer to as “stress positions.”
Four years into this project, there was a sudden upsurge of interest in using mind control techniques defensively after American prisoners in North Korea suffered what was then called “brainwashing.” In August 1955, President Eisenhower ordered that any soldier at risk of capture should be given “specific training and instruction designed to… withstand all enemy efforts against him.”
Consequently, the Air Force developed a program it dubbed SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) to train pilots in resisting psychological torture. In other words, two intertwined strands of research into torture methods were being explored and developed: aggressive methods for breaking enemy agents and defensive methods for training Americans to resist enemy inquisitors.
In 1963, the CIA distilled its decade of research into the curiously named KUBARK Counter-intelligence Interrogation manual, which stated definitively that sensory deprivation was effective because it made “the regressed subject view the interrogator as a father-figure… strengthening… the subject’s tendencies toward compliance.” Refined through years of practice on actual human beings, the CIA’s psychological paradigm now relies on a mix of sensory overload and deprivation via seemingly banal procedures: the extreme application of heat and cold, light and dark, noise and silence, feast and famine — all meant to attack six essential sensory pathways into the human mind.
After codifying its new interrogation methods in the KUBARK manual, the Agency spent the next 30 years promoting these torture techniques within the U.S. intelligence community and among anti-communist allies. In its clandestine journey across continents and decades, the CIA’s psychological torture paradigm would prove elusive, adaptable, devastatingly destructive, and powerfully seductive. So darkly seductive is torture’s appeal that these seemingly scientific methods, even when intended for a few Soviet spies or al-Qaeda terrorists, soon spread uncontrollably in two directions — toward the torture of the many and into a paroxysm of brutality towards specific individuals. During the Vietnam War, when the CIA applied these techniques in their search for information on top Vietcong cadre, the interrogation effort soon degenerated into the crude physical brutality of the Phoenix Program, producing 46,000 extrajudicial executions and little actionable intelligence.
In 1994, with the Cold War over, Washington ratified the U.N. Convention Against Torture, seemingly resolving the tension between its anti-torture principles and its torture practices. Yet when President Clinton sent this Convention to Congress, he included four little-noticed diplomatic “reservations” drafted six years before by the Reagan administration and focused on just one word in those 26 printed pages: “mental.”
These reservations narrowed (just for the United States) the definition of “mental” torture to include just four acts: the infliction of physical pain, the use of drugs, death threats, or threats to harm another. Excluded were methods such as sensory deprivation and self-inflicted pain, the very techniques the CIA had propagated for the past 40 years. This definition was reproduced verbatim in Section 2340 of the U.S. Federal Code and later in the War Crimes Act of 1996. Through this legal legerdemain, Washington managed to agree, via the U.N. Convention, to ban physical abuse even while exempting the CIA from the U.N.’s prohibition on psychological torture.
This little noticed exemption was left buried in those documents like a landmine and would detonate with phenomenal force just 10 years later at Abu Ghraib prison.
War on Terror, War of Torture
Right after his public address to a shaken nation on September 11, 2001, President Bush gave his staff secret orders to pursue torture policies, adding emphatically, “I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass.” In a dramatic break with past policy, the White House would even allow the CIA to operate its own global network of prisons, as well as charter air fleet to transport seized suspects and “render” them for endless detention in a supranational gulag of secret “black sites” from Thailand to Poland.
The Bush administration also officially allowed the CIA ten “enhanced” interrogation methods designed by agency psychologists, including “waterboarding.” This use of cold water to block breathing triggers the “mammalian diving reflex,” hardwired into every human brain, thus inducing an uncontrollable terror of impending death.
As Jane Mayer reported in the New Yorker, psychologists working for both the Pentagon and the CIA “reverse engineered” the military’s SERE training, which included a brief exposure to waterboarding, and flipped these defensive methods for use offensively on al-Qaeda captives. “They sought to render the detainees vulnerable — to break down all of their senses,” one official told Mayer. “It takes a psychologist trained in this to understand these rupturing experiences.” Inside Agency headquarters, there was, moreover, a “high level of anxiety” about the possibility of future prosecutions for methods officials knew to be internationally defined as torture. The presence of Ph.D. psychologists was considered one “way for CIA officials to skirt measures such as the Convention Against Torture.”
From recently released Justice Department memos, we now know that the CIA refined its psychological paradigm significantly under Bush. As described in the classified 2004 Background Paper on the CIA’s Combined Use of Interrogation Techniques, each detainee was transported to an Agency black site while “deprived of sight and sound through the use of blindfolds, earmuffs, and hoods.” Once inside the prison, he was reduced to “a baseline, dependent state” through conditioning by “nudity, sleep deprivation (with shackling…), and dietary manipulation.”
For “more physical and psychological stress,” CIA interrogators used coercive measures such as “an insult slap or abdominal slap” and then “walling,” slamming the detainee’s head against a cell wall. If these failed to produce the results sought, interrogators escalated to waterboarding, as was done to Abu Zubaydah “at least 83 times during August 2002” and Khalid Sheikh Mohammad 183 times in March 2003 — so many times, in fact, that the repetitiousness of the act can only be considered convincing testimony to the seductive sadism of CIA-style torture.
In a parallel effort launched by Bush-appointed civilians in the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld gave General Geoffrey Miller command of the new American military prison at Guantanamo in late 2002 with ample authority to transform it into an ad hoc psychology lab. Behavioral Science Consultation Teams of military psychologists probed detainees for individual phobias like fear of the dark. Interrogators stiffened the psychological assault by exploiting what they saw as Arab cultural sensitivities when it came to sex and dogs. Via a three-phase attack on the senses, on culture, and on the individual psyche, interrogators at Guantanamo perfected the CIA’s psychological paradigm.
After General Miller visited Iraq in September 2003, the U.S. commander there, General Ricardo Sanchez, ordered Guantanamo-style abuse at Abu Ghraib prison. My own review of the 1,600 still-classified photos taken by American guards at Abu Ghraib — which journalists covering this story seem to share like Napster downloads — reveals not random, idiosyncratic acts by “bad apples,” but the repeated, constant use of just three psychological techniques: hooding for sensory deprivation, shackling for self-inflicted pain, and (to exploit Arab cultural sensitivities) both nudity and dogs. It is no accident that Private Lynndie England was famously photographed leading an Iraqi detainee leashed like a dog.
These techniques, according to the New York Times, then escalated virally at five Special Operations field interrogation centers where detainees were subjected to extreme sensory deprivation, beating, burning, electric shock, and waterboarding. Among the thousand soldiers in these units, 34 were later convicted of abuse and many more escaped prosecution only because records were officially “lost.”
“Behind the Green Door” at the White House
Further up the chain of command, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, as she recently told the Senate, “convened a series of meetings of NSC [National Security Council] principals in 2002 and 2003 to discuss various issues… relating to detainees.” This group, including Vice President Cheney, Attorney General John Ashcroft, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and CIA director George Tenet, met dozens of times inside the White House Situation Room.
After watching CIA operatives mime what Rice called “certain physical and psychological interrogation techniques,” these leaders, their imaginations stimulated by graphic visions of human suffering, repeatedly authorized extreme psychological techniques stiffened by hitting, walling, and waterboarding. According to an April 2008 ABC News report, Attorney General Ashcroft once interrupted this collective fantasy by asking aloud, “Why are we talking about this in the White House? History will not judge this kindly.”
In mid-2004, even after the Abu Ghraib photos were released, these principals met to approve the use of CIA torture techniques on still more detainees. Despite mounting concerns about the damage torture was doing to America’s standing, shared by Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice commanded Agency officials with the cool demeanor of a dominatrix. “This is your baby,” she reportedly said. “Go do it.”
Even as they exercise extraordinary power over others, perpetrators of torture around the world are assiduous in trying to cover their tracks. They construct recondite legal justifications, destroy records of actual torture, and paper the files with spurious claims of success. Hence, the CIA destroyed 92 interrogation videotapes, while Vice President Cheney now berates Obama incessantly (five times in his latest Fox News interview) to declassify “two reports” which he claims will show the informational gains that torture offered — possibly because his staff salted the files at the NSC or the CIA with documents prepared for this very purpose.
Not only were Justice Department lawyers aggressive in their advocacy of torture in the Bush years, they were meticulous from the start, in laying the legal groundwork for later impunity. In three torture memos from May 2005 that the Obama administration recently released, Bush’s Deputy Assistant Attorney General Stephen Bradbury repeatedly cited those original U.S. diplomatic “reservations” to the U.N. Convention Against Torture, replicated in Section 2340 of the Federal code, to argue that waterboarding was perfectly legal since the “technique is not physically painful.” Anyway, he added, careful lawyering at Justice and the CIA had punched loopholes in both the U.N. Convention and U.S. law so wide that these Agency techniques were “unlikely to be subject to judicial inquiry.”
Just to be safe, when Vice President Cheney presided over the drafting of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, he included clauses, buried in 38 pages of dense print, defining “serious physical pain” as the “significant loss or impairment of the function of a bodily member, organ, or mental faculty.” This was a striking paraphrase of the outrageous definition of physical torture as pain “equivalent in intensity to… organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death” in John Yoo’s infamous August 2002 “torture memo,” already repudiated by the Justice Department.
Above all, the Military Commissions Act protected the CIA’s use of psychological torture by repeating verbatim the exculpatory language found in those Clinton-era, Reagan-created reservations to the U.N. Convention and still embedded in Section 2340 of the Federal code. To make doubly sure, the act also made these definitions retroactive to November 1997, giving CIA interrogators immunity from any misdeeds under the Expanded War Crimes Act of 1997 which punishes serious violations with life imprisonment or death.
No matter how twisted the process, impunity — whether in England, Indonesia, or America — usually passes through three stages:
1. Blame the supposed “bad apples.”
2. Invoke the security argument. (“It protected us.”)
3. Appeal to national unity. (“We need to move forward together.”)
For a year after the Abu Ghraib exposé, Rumsfeld’s Pentagon blamed various low-ranking bad apples by claiming the abuse was “perpetrated by a small number of U.S. military.” In his statement on May 13th, while refusing to release more torture photos, President Obama echoed Rumsfeld, claiming the abuse in these latest images, too, “was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals.”
In recent weeks, Republicans have taken us deep into the second stage with Cheney’s statements that the CIA’s methods “prevented the violent deaths of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of people.”
Then, on April 16th, President Obama brought us to the final stage when he released the four Bush-era memos detailing CIA torture, insisting: “Nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.” During a visit to CIA headquarters four days later, Obama promised that there would be no prosecutions of Agency employees. “We’ve made some mistakes,” he admitted, but urged Americans simply to “acknowledge them and then move forward.” The president’s statements were in such blatant defiance of international law that the U.N.’s chief official on torture, Manfred Nowak, reminded him that Washington was actually obliged to investigate possible violations of the Convention Against Torture.
This process of impunity is leading Washington back to a global torture policy that, during the Cold War, was bipartisan in nature: publicly advocating human rights while covertly outsourcing torture to allied governments and their intelligence agencies. In retrospect, it may become ever more apparent that the real aberration of the Bush years lay not in torture policies per se, but in the President’s order that the CIA should operate its own torture prisons. The advantage of the bipartisan torture consensus of the Cold War era was, of course, that it did a remarkably good job most of the time of insulating Washington from the taint of torture, which was sometimes remarkably widely practiced.
There are already some clear signs of a policy shift in this direction in the Obama era. Since mid-2008, U.S. intelligence has captured a half-dozen al-Qaeda suspects and, instead of shipping them to Guantanamo or to CIA secret prisons, has had them interrogated by allied Middle Eastern intelligence agencies. Showing that this policy is again bipartisan, Obama’s new CIA director Leon Panetta announced that the Agency would continue to engage in the rendition of terror suspects to allies like Libya, Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia where we can, as he put it, “rely on diplomatic assurances of good treatment.” Showing the quality of such treatment, Time magazine reported on May 24th that Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, who famously confessed under torture that Saddam Hussein had provided al-Qaeda with chemical weapons and later admitted his lie to Senate investigators, had committed “suicide” in a Libyan cell.
The Price of Impunity
This time around, however, a long-distance torture policy may not provide the same insulation as in the past for Washington. Any retreat into torture by remote-control is, in fact, only likely to produce the next scandal that will do yet more damage to America’s international standing.
Over a 40-year period, Americans have found themselves mired in this same moral quagmire on six separate occasions: following exposés of CIA-sponsored torture in South Vietnam (1970), Brazil (1974), Iran (1978), Honduras (1988), and then throughout Latin America (1997). After each exposé, the public’s shock soon faded, allowing the Agency to resume its dirty work in the shadows.
Unless some formal inquiry is convened to look into a sordid history that reached its depths in the Bush era, and so begins to break this cycle of deceit, exposé, and paralysis followed by more of the same, we’re likely, a few years hence, to find ourselves right back where we are now. We’ll be confronted with the next American torture scandal from some future iconic dungeon, part of a dismal, ever lengthening procession that has led from the tiger cages of South Vietnam through the Shah of Iran’s prison cells in Tehran to Abu Ghraib and the prison at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.
The next time, however, the world will not have forgotten those photos from Abu Ghraib. The next time, the damage to this country will be nothing short of devastating.
Alfred W. McCoy is the J.R.W. Smail Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, From the Cold War to the War on Terror (Metropolitan Books), which is also available in Italian and German translations. Later this year, Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State, a forthcoming book of his, will explore the influence of overseas counterinsurgency operations on the spread of internal security measures here at home. To catch a TomDispatch audio interview in which McCoy discusses the CIA’s “Manhattan Project of the mind,” click here.
Copyright 2009 Alfred W. McCoy