One night when I was in my teens, I found myself at a production of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. I had never heard of the playwright or the play, nor had I seen a play performed in the round. The actors were dramatically entering and exiting in the aisles when, suddenly, a man stood up in the audience, proclaimed himself a seventh character in search of an author, and demanded the same attention as the other six. At the time, I assumed the unruly “seventh character” was just part of the play, even after he was summarily ejected from the theater.
Now, bear with me a moment here. Back in 2002-2003, officials in the Bush administration and their neocon supporters, retro-think-tank admirers, and allied media pundits, basking in all their Global War on Terror glory, were eager to talk about the region extending from North Africa through the Middle East, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the former SSRs of Central Asia right up to the Chinese border as an “arc of instability.” That arc coincided with the energy heartlands of the planet and what was needed to “stabilize” it, to keep those energy supplies flowing freely (and in the right directions), was clear enough to them. The “last superpower,” the greatest military force in history, would simply have to put its foot down and so bring to heel the “rogue” powers of the region. The geopolitical nerve would have to be mustered to stamp a massive “footprint” — to use a Pentagon term of the time — in the middle of that vast, valuable region. (Such a print was to be measured by military bases established.) Also needed was the nerve not just to lob a few cruise missiles in the direction of Baghdad, but to offer such an imposing demonstration of American shock-and-awe power that those “rogues” — Iraq, Syria, Iran (Hezbollah, Hamas) — would be cowed into submission, along with uppity U.S. allies like oil-rich Saudi Arabia.
It would, in fact, be necessary — in another of those bluntly descriptive words of the era — to “decapitate” resistant regimes. This would be the first order of business for the planet’s lone “hyperpower,” now that it had been psychologically mobilized by the attacks of September 11, 2001. After all, what other power on Earth was capable of keeping the uncivilized parts of the planet from descending into failed-state, all-against-all warfare and dragging us (and our energy supplies) down with them?
Mind you, on September 11, 2001, as those towers went down, that arc of instability wasn’t exactly a paragon of… well, instability. Yes, on one end was Somalia, a failed state, and on the other, impoverished, rubble-strewn Afghanistan, largely Taliban-ruled (and al-Qaeda encamped); while in-between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a severely weakened nation with a suffering populace, but the “arc” was wracked by no great wars, no huge surges of refugees, no striking levels of destruction. Not particularly pleasant autocracies, some of a fundamentalist religious nature, were the rule of the day. Oil flowed (at about $23 a barrel); the Israeli-Palestinian conflict simmered uncomfortably; and, all in all, it wasn’t a pretty picture, nor a particularly democratic one, nor one in which, if you were an inhabitant of most of these lands, you could expect a fair share of justice or a stunningly good life.
Still, the arc of instability, as a name, was then more prediction than reality. And it was a prediction — soon enough to become a self-fulfilling prophesy — on which George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and all those neocons in the Pentagon readily staked careers and reputations. As a crew, already dazzled by American military power and its potential uses, such a bet undoubtedly looked like a sure winner, like betting with the house in a three-card monte scheme. They would just give the arc what it needed — a few intense doses of cruise-missile and B-1 bomber medicine, add in some high-tech military boots-on-the-ground, some night-vision goggled eyes in the desert, some Hellfire-missile-armed Predator drones overhead, and some “regime-change”-style injections of further instability. It was to be, as Andrew Bacevich has written, “an experiment in creative destruction.”
Next, with your bases set up in
Certainly, many of the top officials of the Bush administration and their neocons allies, dreaming of just such an orderly, American-dominated “Greater Middle East,” were ready to settle for a little chaos in the process. If a weakened
Little did they know.
The Tin Touch
Here’s the remarkable thing, when you think about it: All the Bush administration had to do was meddle in any country in that arc of instability (and which one didn’t it meddle in?), for actual instability, often chaos, sometimes outright disaster to set in. It’s been quite a record, the very opposite of an imperial golden touch.
And, on any given day, you can see the evidence of this on a case by case basis in your local paper or on the TV news. You can check out the Iraqi, or Somali, or Lebanese, or Iranian, or Pakistani disasters, or impending disasters. But what you never see is all those crises and potential crises discussed in one place — without which the magnitude of the present disaster and the dangers in our future are hard to grasp.
Few in the mainstream world have even tried to put them all together since the Bush administration rolled back the media, essentially demobilizing it in 2001-2002, at which point its journalists and pundits simply stopped connecting the dots. Give the Bush administration credit: Its top officials took in the world as a whole and at an imperial glance. They regularly connected the dots as they saw them. The post-9/11 strike at
Under the rubric of the “Global War on Terror,” they were considering literally dozens of countries as potential future targets. Dick Cheney put the matter bluntly back in August 2002 as the public drumbeat for an invasion of
“The war in
Almost immediately after the 9/11 attacks, they began stitching together the arc of instability in their minds with an eye not so much to Arabs, or South Asians, or even Israelis, but to playing their version of what the British imperialists used to call “the Great Game.” They had the full-scale rollback of energy-giant Russia in mind as well as the containment or rollback of potential future imperial power,
Think about that for a moment. A single power on Earth “beyond challenge.” This was a dream of planetary dominion that once would have been left to madmen. But in what looked like a world with only one Great Power, it was easy enough to imagine a Great Game with only one great player, an arms race with only one swift runner.
The Bush administration was essentially calling for a world in which no superpower, or bloc of powers, would ever be allowed to challenge this country’s supremacy. As the President put it in an address at West Point in 2002, “America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge, thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace.” The National Security Strategy put the same thought this way: “Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the
With this in mind, the arc of instability, which, in energy-flow terms, was quite literally the planet’s heartland, seemed the place to control. And yet — look hard as you will -â€“ you’re unlikely to find a single piece in your daily paper that takes in that arc; that, say, includes Somalia and Pakistan in the same piece, even though Bush administration policy has effectively tied them together in disaster. To take another example, the rise of Iran (and a possible “Shiite crescent”), Iran’s influence or interference in Iraq, Iran’s nuclear program, and Iran’s off-the-wall president have been near obsessions in the U.S. media; and yet, you would be hard-pressed to find a piece even pointing out that the Bush administration’s two invasions and occupations — Iraq and Afghanistan — which left both those countries bristling with vast American bases and sprawling American-controlled prison systems, took place on either side of Iran. Add in the fact that the Bush administration, probably through the CIA, is essentially running terror raids into Iran through Pakistan and you have a remarkably different vision of Iran’s geostrategic situation than even an informed American media consumer would normally see.
After September 11, 2001, but based on the sort of pre-2001 thinking you could find well represented at the neocon website Project for the New American Century, the Bush administration’s top officials wrote their own drama for the arc of instability. They were, of course, the main characters in it, along with the
Today, not six years after they raised the curtain on what was to be their grand imperial drama, they find themselves in a dark theater with at least six crises in search of an author, all clamoring for attention — and every possibility that a seventh (not to say a seventeenth) “character” in that rowdy, still gathering, audience may soon rise to insist on a part in the horrific farce that has actually taken place.
Six Crises in Search of an Author
Sweeping across the region from East to West, let’s briefly note the six festering or clamoring crisis spots, any one of which could end up with the play’s major role before George W. Bush slips out of office.
Pakistan: The Pakistani government was America’s main partner, along with the Saudis, in funding, arming, and running the anti-Soviet struggle of the mujahedeen, including Osama bin Laden, in Afghanistan back in the 1980s; and Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, was the godfather of the Taliban (and remains, it seems, a supporter to this day). In September 2001, the Bush administration gave the country’s coup-installed military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, the basic you’re-either-with-us-or-against-us choice. He chose the “with” and in the course of these last years, under constant American pressure, has lost almost complete control over Pakistan’s tribal regions along the Afghan border to various tribal groups, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other foreign jihadis, who have established bases there. Now, significant parts of the country are experiencing unrest in what looks increasingly like a countdown to chaos in a nuclear-armed nation.
Afghanistan: In the meantime, from those Pakistani base areas, the revived and rearmed Taliban (and their al-Qaeda partners) are preparing to launch a major spring offensive in Afghanistan, using tactics from the Iraq War (suicide bombers or “Mullah Omar’s Missiles,” as they call them, and the roadside bomb or IED). They are already capable of taking over southern Afghan districts for periods of time. The Bush administration used the Northern Alliance — that is, proxy Afghan forces — to take
Israel/Palestine/Lebanon: From an early green light for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to join the Global War on Terror (against the Palestinians) to a green light for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to launch and continue a war against Hezbollah in Lebanon last summer, the Bush administration has largely green-lighted Israel these last years. It has also ignored or, in the case of the Lebanon War, purposely held back any possibility of serious peace talks. The provisional results are in. In Lebanon, the heavily populated areas of the Shiite south were strewn with Israeli cluster bombs, making some areas nearly uninhabitable; up to a quarter of the population was, for a time, turned into refugees; parts of Lebanese cities including Beirut were flattened by the Israeli air force; and yet Hezbollah was strengthened, the U.S.-backed Siniora government radically weakened, and the country drawn closer to a possible civil war. In the Palestinian areas, Bush administration democracy-promotion efforts ended with a Hamas electoral victory. Starved of foreign aid and having suffered further Israeli military assaults, the Palestinian population is ever more immiserated; Hamas and Fatah are at each other’s throats; and the U.S.-backed President of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, is in a weakened position. In the wake of a disastrous war,
In short, from
A Rube Goldberg Machine
At any moment, somewhere in the now-destabilized “arc of instability,” that seventh character could indeed rise, demand attention, and refuse to be ejected from the premises. There are many possible candidates. Here are just a few:
Al-Qaeda, an organization dispersed but never fully dismantled by the Bush administration, has now, according to Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times, rebuilt itself in the Pakistani borderlands with new training camps, new base areas, and a new generation of leaders in their thirties, all still evidently serving under Osama bin Laden. (In the future, Mazzetti suggests even younger leaders are likely to come from the hardened veterans of campaigns in Bush’s
Iraqi Kurdistan is now a relatively peaceful area, but from the disputed, oil-rich city of
Oil pipelines, which, from the Black Sea to the
Outside the “arc of instability,” but deeply affected by what goes on there, let’s not forget:
The American People — Oh yes, them. They haven’t really hit the streets yet, but they’ve hit the opinion polls hard and last November some of them hit the polling booths — decisively. Who knows when they will “stand up” and insist on being counted. Perhaps in 2008.
In other words, in addition to the normal cast of characters dreamt up by the Bush administration in its fantasy production in the global round, a whole set of unexpected characters are already moving up and down the aisles, demanding attention, and at any moment, that seventh character — whether state, ethnic group, terrorist cadre, or some unknown crew in search of an author is likely to make its presence felt.
And let’s not forget that there is one more obvious “character” out there in search of an author; that there is one more Bush-destabilized place on the planet not yet mentioned, even though it may be the most important of all. I’m talking, of course, about
Consider the process by which it turned
It’s no longer far-fetched to say that, with the President’s polling figures in the low 30s, resistance to his war still growing, a Democratic Congress beginning to feel its strength, the Republican Party shaking and its presidential candidates preparing to head for the hills, corruption and political scandals popping up everywhere, and high military figures implicitly reading the riot act to their political leaders, the already listing Bush imperial ship of state seems to be making directly for the next floating iceberg.
Imagine then, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney still clinging tenaciously to what’s left of their dreams and delusions amid the ruins of their plans — as the USS Nimitz sails toward the Persian Gulf; as American agents of various sorts “advise” and, however indirectly, shuffle aid to extremist groups eager to fell the Iranian regime; as a new campaign against the Syrian regime is launched; as stolen Iraqi oil money is shuttled to the Siniora government in Lebanon (and then, according to Seymour Hersh, to Sunni jihadi groups in Lebanon and the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria); and as American agents continue to “interrogate” suspected jihadis in their latest borrowed secret prisons in Ethiopia, while American-backed Ethiopian troops only find themselves more embroiled in Somalia. Imagine all that, and then ask yourself, what levers on that Rube Goldberg machine they’ve done so much to create are they still capable of pulling?
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), where this article first appeared, is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.