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Phantom Menace

The Washington agencies of national security display a distressing detachment from the realities of the American situation in the Middle East.

The Army, its Reserve, and the Marine Corps are overcommitted, with deteriorating morale. The volunteer military cannot find the recruits it needs. Conscription is politically unthinkable but could become the only alternative. In these circumstances, the Defense Department, which has been unable to supply body and vehicle armor in adequate quantities, is preoccupied with new nuclear weapons and space wars. It wants vast new expenditures on projects with no relevance to present realities—new and “more usable” nuclear weapons, including earth-penetrating “bunker busters.” The need is highly debatable, and the political costs of developing new nuclear weapons enormous.

The Air Force wants a national-security directive to “establish and maintain space superiority,” a project on which it seems already to have spent billions, and on which it wants to spend more, up to an estimated trillion dollars (and beyond, as experience of such estimates suggests).

Quite beyond the project’s feasibility, cost, foreign-policy implications, and likelihood to inspire countermeasures, it is another demand for a military capability irrelevant to the present and realistically foreseeable future security needs of the country.

On May 9, a lost light plane entering Washington airspace produced a panicked evacuation of Congress, the White House, and most of the rest of official Washington. We are urged to control outer space, but one errant light plane terrorizes our nation’s capital. The one is costly fantasy. The other is reality.

A new Bureau of Reconstruction and Stabilization in the State Department is charged with organizing the reconstruction of countries where the United States has deemed it necessary to intervene in order to make them into market democracies. The bureau has 25 countries under surveillance as possible candidates for Defense Department deconstruction and State Department reconstruction. The bureau’s director is recruiting “rapid-reaction forces” of official, nongovernmental, and corporate business specialists. He hopes to develop the capacity for three full-scale, simultaneous reconstruction operations in different countries.

He told a recent conference on this subject (according to Naomi Klein in The Nation) that some of these American corporations will be given “pre-completed” contracts for reconstruction work in countries currently unaware that they are candidates for destruction/reconstruction. Getting the paperwork done beforehand, he said, could “cut off three to six months in your response time.”

This occurs at the same time American military forces still are unable to pacify Iraq or Afghanistan, agricultural societies of less than 25 million people each, both largely in ruins. The billions Washington already has spent on reconstruction have yet to produce reliable electric power, clean water, or a functioning sewer system in Baghdad itself.

The creation of an official capability for reconstructing 25 countries, at a time when anonymous senior Army officers are quoted as saying that the United States could be defeated in Iraq, is the most egregious Washington example of a pathological disconnection from reality.

However, it is a logical bureaucratic response to the announced administration intention to overturn tyrants and spread liberty throughout the world.

The United States suffers a hypertrophy of irrelevant power in a policy context of unrealizable ambitions and unacknowledged or morbidly denied failures: in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in the War on Terror, where the Taliban fight to return in Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden and the Mullah Omar remain at large.

One is inclined to dismiss all this as product of institutional delusion or bureaucratic make-work. However, it responds to the expressed interests of the president. As one of his associates said, “we make reality.” This was in response to a question about realism. The remark unknowingly echoed one of Hannah Arendt’s acute observations about totalitarianism. One of the most significant aspects of the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century was that they “made reality” out of fictions. They were based on ideological fantasies that were false, but these fantasies were made into the reality upon which national policy was based. They thus came catastrophically true—until their inner falsehood brought disaster.

If the machinery of American government is put to work on the premises that the nation faces new wars, new dangers that will require the use of new nuclear weapons, and faces threats from space that it must pre-emptively counter with weapons that pose radical new threats to other nations, then “realities” will be created that foster disorder and war. Others will not like this falsified American version of truth. In the long run, Americans might not like it either.


William Pfaff is a columnist for the International Herald Tribune. Copyright Tribune Media Services.

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