America’s Shadow Wars in Africa

Summary:  There’s an institutional drive for growth, just like that in biological entities. Sometimes it become cancerous, inimical to the overall organism. So it is with our mad profitless empire — which makes previous empires (eg, Spain, British) look like works of genius. Here Nick Turse looks at the latest expansion, taking US forces — financed with borrowed money — into Africa. The tyrannical juntas there need our support!

Obama’s Scramble for Africa
Secret Wars, Secret Bases, and the Pentagon’s “New Spice Route” in Africa
By Nick Turse

Originally published at TomDispatch, 12 July 2012.
Reposted with the author’s generous permission.


  1. Introduction by Tom Endlehardt
  2. Our main feature by Nick Turse
  3. Reply by Africom, and Turse’s response
  4. About the author
  5. For more information about our empire

(1) Introduction by Tom Englehardt

Here’s an odd question: Is it possible that the U.S. military is present in more countries and more places now than at the height of the Cold War?  It’s true that the U.S. is reducing its forces and giant bases in Europe and that its troops are out of Iraq (except for that huge, militarized embassy in Baghdad).  On the other hand, there’s that massive ground, air, and naval build-up in the Persian Gulf, the Obama administration’s widely publicized “pivot” to Asia (including troops and ships), those new drone bases in the eastern Indian Ocean region, some movement back into Latin America (including a new base in Chile), and don’t forget Africa, where less than a decade ago, the U.S. had almost no military presence at all.  Now, as TomDispatch Associate Editor Nick Turse writes in the latest in his “changing face of empire” series, U.S. special operations forces, regular troops, private contractors, and drones are spreading across the continent with remarkable (if little noticed) rapidity.

Putting together the pieces on Africa isn’t easy.  For instance, only the other day it was revealed that three U.S. Army commandos in a Toyota Land Cruiser had skidded off a bridge in Mali in April.  They died, all three, along with three women identified as “Moroccan prostitutes.”  This is how we know that U.S. special operations forces were operating in chaotic, previously democratic Mali after a coup by a U.S.-trained captain accelerated the unraveling of the country, leading more recently to its virtual dismemberment by Tuareg rebels and Islamist insurgents.  Consider this a sample of what Nick Turse calls the U.S. military’s “scramble for Africa” in a seamy, secretive nutshell.

So here’s another question: Who decided in 2007 that a U.S. Africa Command should be set up to begin a process of turning that continent into a web of U.S. bases and other operations?  Who decided that every Islamist rebel group in Africa, no matter how local or locally focused, was a threat to the U.S., calling for a military response?  Certainly not the American people, who know nothing about this, who were never asked if expanding the U.S. global military mission to Africa was something they favored, who never heard the slightest debate, or even a single peep from Washington on the subject.

(2) Our main feature, by Nick Turse

They call it the New Spice Route, an homage to the medieval trade network that connected Europe, Africa, and Asia, even if today’s “spice road” has nothing to do with cinnamon, cloves, or silks.  Instead, it’s a superpower’s superhighway, on which trucks and ships shuttle fuel, food, and military equipment through a growing maritime and ground transportation infrastructure to a network of supply depots, tiny camps, and airfields meant to service a fast-growing U.S. military presence in Africa.

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The Great Charter. Its Fate, and Ours.

Summary:  The past decade has seen us stripped of civil liberties dating back to the signing of Magna Carta in 1215, and won through centuries of struggle since then.  As the Founders feared might happen.  Today Noam Chomsky explains how this happened and what it means for us. The next few years might be decisive; America’s future lies in our hands.

The Great Charter, Its Fate, and Ours

By Noam Chomsky. Originally published at TomDispatch. Reposted with their generous permission.

The tomb of Magna Carta


  1. Introduction by Tom Englehardt
  2. Destroying the Commons. How the Magna Carta Became a Minor Carta
  3. About the author
  4. For more information

(1)  Introduction by Tom Engelhardt

This week the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights filed suit against CIA Director David Petraeus, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and two top special operations forces commanders for “violating the Constitution and international law” in the drone assassination of three American citizens in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki, Samir Khan, and al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son Abdulrahman (though no one claims he had anything whatsoever to do with terror campaigns).  The suit is based on the Constitution’s promise of “due process” (“[N]or shall any person… be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”), which to the untutored eye of this non-lawyer clearly seems to involve “law.”

Attorney General Eric Holder evidently thinks otherwise and has explained his reasoning when it comes to the right of the Obama administration to order such deaths: “The Constitution guarantees due process, not judicial process.”  If you’re not inside the National Security Complex, it may be just a tad hard to grasp how “due process” could mean a secret process of review in the White House presided over by a president with a “kill list” (whose legal justification, laid out by the Justice Department, cannot be made public).  And yet that is, as far as we can tell, indeed the claim.

It will be a surprise if this case goes far.  The government is almost certain to bring to bear the usual not-quite-state-secrets-act to squelch it, with its lawyers undoubtedly claiming that any such trial could reveal damaging secrets about our expanding drone wars.  Of course, U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and more rarely Somalia are regularly in the news, and have been proudly cited or even boasted about by officials from the president on down, yet they remain somehow “covert” and unmentionable when it suits the administration.  And since just about anything the National Security Complex does evidently now qualifies for classified status, secrecy is increasingly the convenient excuse for just about anything.

In the case of our drone wars, “covert” clearly has little to do with secrecy in any normal sense and a lot to do with lack of accountability to anyone not involved in choosing those to be killed or launching the attacks.  One thing is clear: whatever the ACLU and others do, we now live in a post-legal America, a world in which no act (other than whistleblowing), however illegal, within the national security state can be successfully prosecuted in court.  This has clearly been part of a process by which, since 2001, American liberties have been turned in for “safety.”  Something did change after 9/11 (when “everything” was supposed to have changed) and in a speech at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, reproduced below in full, Noam Chomsky backs up a few centuries to lay out a vivid history of just how this happened.

(2)  Destroying the Commons. How the Magna Carta Became a Minor Carta
By Noam Chomsky
This is the full text of a speech he gave recently at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

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Pepe Escobar looks at the future, as we build a full spectrum confrontation world

Summary:  By now most people see that the world is changing, as the post-WWII era passes away. The only large group remaining blind to this: the American people. Here Pepe Escobar looks at today’s trends and extrapolates them into the future. America is at war, but with whom? Perhaps we’re at war with inevitable trends. At war with the future.

A History of the World, BRIC by BRIC:
Neoliberal Dragons, Eurasian Wet Dreams, and Robocop Fantasies

By Pepe Escobar
Originally published at TomDispatch, 26 April 2012
Reposted with the author’s generous permission.


  1. Introduction by Tom Endlehardt
  2. Our main feature by Pepe Escobar
  3. About the author
  4. For more information

(1) Introduction by Tom Englehardt

Last December, a super-secret RQ-170 Sentinel, part of a far-reaching program of CIA drone surveillance over Iran, went down (or was shot down, or computer-jacked and hacked down) and was recovered intact by the Iranian military.  This week, an Iranian general proudly announced that his country’s experts had accessed the plane’s computer — he offered information he claimed proved it — and were now “reverse-engineering” the drone to create one of their own.

Most or all of his claims have been widely doubted, derided, or simply dismissed in our world, and for all I know his was indeed pure bluster and bluff.  But if so, it still managed to catch an urge that lay behind a couple of hundred years of global history: to adapt the most sophisticated aspects of the West to resist the West.  That urge has been essential to the way our planet has developed. After all, much of the last two centuries might well be headlined in technological, economic, and even political terms, “The History of Reverse-Engineering.”

Starting in the 18th century, whether you were in the Ottoman Empire or China, wherever, in fact, cannon-mounted European ships appeared to break down doors and conquer countries or subject them to an alien will, the issue of reverse-engineering was always close at hand.  For endless decades, the preeminent question, the crucial thing to debate, was just what could be adapted from the Western arsenal of weapons, politics, technology, and ideas, and how it could be melded with local culture, how it could be given Ottoman, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, or [fill in the blank] “characteristics” and made to check or reverse the course of events.  The rise of Japan in the nineteenth century and the more recent spectacular growth of China are, without any doubt, cases of the history of reverse-engineering.

Whatever the successes and failures of that process, the question today — as the U.S. declines, Europe stagnates, and the explosive BRICS countries head for center stage — is perhaps this: Can reverse-engineering really take us any farther, or will it in the end simply take us down?  Isn’t it time for something new in the engineering universe or perhaps for the coming of reverse-reverse-engineering somewhere on this weather-freaky, overtaxed planet of ours?

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Memory Failure at the Pentagon, one that has cost us dearly (and will cost more before the end)

Summary:  We are like children, believing that closing our eyes tightly disappears the expense, casualties, and blowback from our war in Afghanistan. All that remains is the exhalation of our killing, our pride in our drones and special ops warriors. Unfortunately this does not as well as we hope. Nick Turse describes a more effective solution.

Wars of Attrition:
Green Zones of the Mind, Guerrillas, and a Technical Knockout in Afghanistan

By Nick Turse
Originally published at TomDispatch, 24 April 2012
Reposted with the author’s generous permission.


  1. Introduction by Tom Endlehardt
  2. Our main feature by Nick Turse
  3. About the author
  4. For more information

(1) Introduction by Tom Englehardt

Call it a mantra, a litany, or a to-don’t list, but the drip, drip, drip of Afghan disaster and the gross-out acts accompanying it have already resulted in one of those classic fill-you-in paragraphs that reporters hang onto for whenever the next little catastrophe rears its ugly head.  Here’s how that list typically went after the Los Angeles Times revealed that troops from the 82nd Airborne had mugged for the camera with the corpses or body parts of Afghan enemies:  “The images also add to a troubling list of cases — including Marines videotaped urinating on Taliban bodies, the burning of Korans, and the massacre of villagers attributed to a lone Army sergeant — that have cast American soldiers in the harshest possible light before the Afghan public.”

That is, of course, only a partial list.  Left out, for instance, was the American “kill team” that hunted Afghan civilians “for sport,” took body parts as trophies, and shot photos of their “kills,” not to speak of the sniper outfit that posed with an SS banner, or the U.S. base named “Combat Outpost Aryan.”  (For Afghans, of course, it’s been so much worse.  After all, what Americans even remember the obliterated wedding parties, eviscerated baby-naming ceremonies, blown away funerals, or even the eight shepherd boys “armed” with sticks recently slaughtered by helicopter, or any of the “thorough investigations” the U.S. military officially launched about which no one ever heard a peep, or the lack of command responsibility for any of this?)

When a war goes bad, you can be thousands of miles away and it still stinks like rotting cheese.  Hence, the constant drop in those American polling numbers about whether we should ever have fought the Afghan War.  Yes, war strain will be war strain and boys will be boys, but mistake after mistake, horror after horror, the rise of a historically rare phenomenon — Afghan soldiers and policemen repeatedly turning their guns on their American “allies” — all this adds up to a war effort increasingly on life support (even as the Obama administration negotiates to keep troops in the country through 2024).

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Some important articles. Mirrors in which we can see America.

Summary:  Every society has rationality tokens.  Some have many; some few.  In some they are held by people who become leaders of their society; in some they’re held by outcasts.  As a nation evolves, its rationality tokens pass into new hands.  Here we look at America, seeking to find their new holders.

A model American

The disk was made of an undistinguished alloy of common metals, a gray monotone. It looked like a Boston subway token, save for two words inlaid in silver. The words “Rationality Token” flashed against the dull metal background.

{Nathan explained …} “Years ago, a friend of mine noticed an odd thing about meetings with groups of bureaucrats.  Only one bureaucrat in the room would have something rational and intelligent to say about the question under discussion; the rest would answer either with a magician’s verbal handwaving, with statements that were internally inconsistent, or with statements that had no apparent connection to the topic.

“Oddly, for each question, a different bureaucrat gave the rational response. It seemed as though a law of nature prevented more than one bureaucrat from being rational at a time. And you could never predict which bureaucrat could answer a particular question rationally.  My friend developed a theory:  a roomful of bureaucrats shares a single rationality token. Only the one holding the token can act intelligently. The bureaucrats pass the token around secretly during the meeting.”

— from Marc Stiegler’s David’s Sling (1988) — free e-book  here

The bad news

We can easily ignore the rapid decay of the American polity, as it will affect most people only when too late for reform.  The media make this easier by distracting us with accounts of political class’ gibbering and capering, while in the shadows our leaders erase away our civil liberties.  The news media do this because we prefer not to know.  We cover our eyes to avoid seeing what we have become.

The good news

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Vietnam Has Left Town. Say Hello to our New Syndrome

Summary:  No nation, no matter how powerful, can long prosper (perhaps not even survive) with a broken observation-orientation-decision-action loop (OODA loop).  Like ours.  The primary symptom: an inability to learn.  We cannot learn from our peers’ to fix our health care system.  We cannot learn from our history to cope with 4GW (eg, foreign insurgencies).  Today Tom Engelhardt explains our attempts to forget lessons of the past, and so we repeat them.

The Afghan Syndrome:
Vietnam Has Left Town. Say Hello to the New Syndrome on the Block.

By Tom Engelhardt
Originally published at TomDispatch, 10 April 2012
Reposted with the author’s generous permission.


  1. The Smog of War
  2. A Titleholder for Pure, Long-Term Futility
  3. A Vietnam Analogy Memorial
  4. About the author
  5. For more information

(1)  The Smog of War

Take off your hat. Taps is playing. Almost four decades late, the Vietnam War and its post-war spawn, the Vietnam Syndrome, are finally heading for their American grave. It may qualify as the longest attempted burial in history. Last words — both eulogies and curses — have been offered too many times to mention, and yet no American administration found the silver bullet that would put that war away for keeps.

Richard Nixon tried to get rid of it while it was still going on by “Vietnamizing” it. Seven years after it ended, Ronald Reagan tried to praise it into the dustbin of history, hailing it as “a noble cause.” Instead, it morphed from a defeat in the imperium into a “syndrome,” an unhealthy aversion to war-making believed to afflict the American people to their core.

A decade later, after the U.S. military smashed Saddam Hussein’s army in Kuwait in the First Gulf War, George H.W. Bush exulted that the country had finally “kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all.” As it turned out, despite the organization of massive “victory parades” at home to prove that this hadn’t been Vietnam redux, that war kicked back. Another decade passed and there were H.W.’s son W. and his advisors planning the invasion of Iraq through a haze of Vietnam-constrained obsessions.

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Peter Van Buren explains “What We Lost in Iraq and Washington in 2009-2012”

Summary:  Today we have an account of one man’s experience doing the right thing in the New America.  He dared to tell us the truth about the Iraq War.  We repaid him with illegal punishments and a broken career (the whistleblower laws, like all laws today, were meaningless) — pour l’encouragement d’les autres. I have nothing to add other than: please read this, read his book — and remember this when you’re deciding if to get involved in the election.

“History is made at night. Character is what you are in the dark.”
— Lord John Whorfin in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984 film)

Today we have for your enlightenment “Left Behind – What We Lost in Iraq and Washington, 2009-2012” by Peter Van Buren, originally published at TomDispatch on 8 April 2012 — Reposted with the author’s generous permission.


  1. Introduction by Tom Englehardt: Peter Van Buren Joins The Whistleblowers’ Club
  2. Today’s essay by Peter Van Buren
  3. About the author
  4. Glenn Greenwald’s articles about the New America
  5. For more information: posts about the Iraq War

(1)  Introduction by Tom Engelhardt

Peter Van Buren Joins The Whistleblowers’ Club

Peter Van Buren’s journey to publication — and so to whistleblower status — was among the more improbable odysseys of our times.

In 2009-2010, he was a State Department official on a godforsaken forward operating base south of Baghdad, his mind boggled by what he was seeing of the grim farce of American “reconstruction” in Iraq. He was then sending emails home to his wife in the States that would, sooner or later, become part of his Iraq manuscript, and at night wandering the Web trying to learn more about the country and situation he had been plunged into. He stumbled upon TomDispatch and noticed that authors writing for the site sometimes produced books that TD then highlighted.

In 2010, back in the States with a rough manuscript in hand, knowing no one in publishing, not even realizing I was a book editor, he sent an email to the TomDispatch mail box that began: “I am a Foreign Service Officer just returned from a year in the field in Iraq (PRT leader) and I have a completed book draft. Would you be willing to read it as a possible title to publish, for a prepublication comment, and/or for a later excerpt on your site?”

… Normally I would simply have nixed Van Buren’s requests, but something stopped me, maybe the fact that he had recently returned from service in Iraq. I asked him to write a description of his book and himself, and passed it on to Steve Fraser, my partner at our co-publishing venture at Metropolitan Books, the American Empire Project. A few days later Steve told me that I needed to read Van Buren’s manuscript; he was a natural and it was the real McCoy.

Luck turned Steve into his editor and Van Buren into a published author and so dispatched him into the strange, embattled world of Obama-era governmental whistleblowers. As a group, they are just about the only people inside the National Security Complex who get in trouble for their acts. In our era, the illegal surveillers, the torturers, the kidnappers, those who launch and pursue undeclared and aggressive wars, and those who squander taxpayer dollars all run free. Later, if they were important enough, they write their memoirs for millions of dollars, peddle their speeches for hundreds of thousands more, and live the good life.

The only figures in the Complex regularly pursued as troublemakers and possible criminals turn out to be guilty of a single all-American crime: telling the citizenry what they should know about the operations of, and often enough the crimes of, the government they elected. Peter Van Buren did so with his book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. Now he’s a criminal and I the one who aided and abetted his “crime.”

(2)  Today’s reading

Left behind – What We Lost in Iraq and Washington, 2009-2012
By Peter Van Buren

People ask the question in various ways, sometimes hesitantly, often via a long digression, but my answer is always the same: no regrets.

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