Strange sightings and eerie quotes from our ridiculous planet

And speaking of empires: Tips on how to improve relations with the United (no empire here) States of America and associated bases (but far less than the number needed to qualify for imperial status)


This week 73 year-old Nguyen Cao Ky, the former South Vietnamese prime minister, visited Vietnam for the first time since his ignominious flight to a U.S. aircraft carrier deck as Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, was falling April 1975. Jane Perlez of the New York Times, in a report on his visit, offered a little lesson in “diplomacy” vis-à-vis our country in the Age of the Younger Bush (“After Decades, Saigon Figure Visits Vietnam With U.S. Nod,” 1/26/04):


Mr. Ky‘s visit, though informal, comes with some behind-the-scenes encouragement from the Bush administration. Last year, an American official suggested to the government here that it try to mend fences with Mr. Ky as a way to help Vietnam improve its image in the United States… In the months leading up to Mr. Ky‘s arrival, Vietnam took several conventional steps to foster better relations with Washington.


“A United States Navy vessel docked in Ho Chi Minh City in November, the third such visit in nearly three decades. The head of the Vietnamese military, Pham Van Tra, visited the Pentagon last fall and met with Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld. Deputy Prime Minister Vu Khoan told Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in December that Vietnam would try to meet the requirements needed for membership in the World Trade Organization by 2005.”


To summarize the minimal “conventional steps” to better relations with the U.S., you open your economy to us, let our Navy’s ships dock at your ports, visit the Pentagon to improve military-to-military relations, and — voila, as they once said in Hanoi — you’re our friend. Oh, the Vietnamese would have let the State Department visit too, but the darn place didn’t have any aircraft carriers.


If no one else can say a good word about Halliburton, then Halliburton will


Halliburton has struck back, launching a vigorous print and TV ad campaign to offset a wee bit of bad publicity it’s received lately. Here’s a note from the Houston Chronicle (1/24/04) on the subject:


“In an advertisement in the Chronicle, Halliburton CEO Dave Lesar argued: ‘Not many companies have our know-how, At one base, we flip thousands of omelets to feed the troops at breakfast. Simultaneously, in other parts of the country, we implement engineering plans to rebuild the country’s oil infrastructure.


“‘These are special skills, not special interests,’ Lesar wrote.”


Halliburton would only be a “special interest” if the U.S. occupied a much greater piece of the Earth’s surface and wanted to build more bases on it.


How to send troops to Iraq


Japanese troops — officially known as the Japanese Self-Defense Forces — have now landed in southern Iraq to be part of our Coalition providing security to the country. For a Japanese government, hard at work trying to break open its “peace constitution” — that artifact of the American occupation of Japan after World War II, much lauded by the Bush administration in the run-up to war — our little war has proved fortuitous. Many official Japanese have been spoiling to send Japanese ground forces abroad in some kind of modified military role for the first time since 1945, and now, thanks to Iraq, it’s happening; but as with other of our “allies” in Iraq, the sending of troops has been unpopular in Japan; so unpopular in fact that, according to Japan Today, the government has resorted to a curious ploy to make sure nothing goes wrong (“Japan reportedly paying Y10 bil to Iraqis to guard SDF,” 1/27/04):


“The Japanese government is reportedly paying approximately 10 billion yen to Iraqi tribal leaders to provide bodyguards for the Self-defense Forces in Iraq. A spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office said: ‘It is rather cheap if we can buy security for our soldiers with that amount of money. In Iraq, oil money is distributed to those tribes. It is more important for the Japanese government to make one-time payments to the leaders than to pay them a salary. That will help their local economy and benefit Japan‘s foreign policy toward new Iraq…’


“Last year, Abdul Amir Rikaabi, the powerful leader of an Iraqi tribe, visited Japan and Koizumi made a confidential agreement with him in which Japan would pay a huge amount of money in exchange for protection, according to a source in the Prime Minister’s Office.”


So, hired Iraqis will defend the Japanese troops sent to bring “security” to Iraq. Well, it’s just a wacky world, isn’t it?


(By the way, one interesting resource for subjects Japanese is at Japan Focus on ZNET.)


WMD where are you?


The third of our mighty trio of administration globe-trotters, Attorney General John Ashcroft offered the following slightly flat-Earth fallback position on those pesky missing weapons of mass destruction while hustling around Austria. According William Kole of AP (1/26/04), he said, “Weapons of mass destruction including evil chemistry and evil biology are all matters of great concern, not only to the United States but also to the world community. They were the subject of U.N. resolutions.” And then he had a little vacation fun: “On Tuesday, Ashcroft planned to visit a military base where Austria‘s elite Cobra police commando unit is based.”


In the meantime, back in Washington, the administration’s former WMD point man in Iraq, David Kay, blasted a hole in the bow of the ship of state by insisting that, by all odds, Iraqi WMD didn’t exist. He made the following devastating comment (and then called for an independent commission to investigate): “It turns out we were all wrong, probably, in my judgment. And that is most disturbing.”


Well, not all, as Haroon Siddiqui of the Toronto Star points out (“Truth catching up to Bush,” 1/29/04):


“[Kay's] conclusions are the same as those of Scott Ritter, a member of the first United Nations weapons inspections team that was withdrawn in 1998. And of Hans Blix, head of the reconstituted U.N. inspections team. And of Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency.”


The only difference is that Ritter, Blix, and El Baradei — who aren’t of course “we” but “they” — came to these conclusions before we invaded another country. Small difference.


So now we have to live through a farcical discussion of and investigation of our “intelligence community,” an endless rehashing of “intelligence mistakes” as if none of this were at all obvious beforehand, as if this administration hadn’t been intent on invading, intelligence or no, as if it weren’t well known that Saddam’s Iraq was, by April 2003, a pathetic shadow of its former military self and no threat to the United States (whatever the threat it posed to its own citizens). Beam me up, Scottie.


At his Informed Comment website, historian Juan Cole, seizing on the President’s latest fallback position, offered a simple way of making this reality remarkably clear:


“Bush maintains that despite the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Saddam Hussein posed ‘a grave and gathering threat to America and the world.’


“This allegation simply is not true, however much a monster Saddam may be. Let’s look at the issue Harpers style:


US population: 295 million

Iraq population: 24 million


US per capita annual income: $37,600

Iraq per capita annual income: 700


US nuclear warheads: 10,455

Iraq nuclear warheads: 0


US tons of lethal chemical weapons (1997): 31,496

Iraq tons of lethal chemical weapons (1997): 0


Number of foreign troops and civilians US military has killed since 1968: approx. 2 million

Number of foreign troops and civilians Iraqi military has killed since 1968: approx. 250,000″


After rejecting an independent commission to investigate our “intelligence failures,” the President, according to Dana Milbank and Dana Priest of the Washington Post (1/31/04), has just signaled his acceptance of such a commission in “an effort to get out in front of a potentially dangerous issue that threatens to cloud his reelection bid.” Sooner or later, a friend of mine predicts, the President will announce the formation of just such a commission, to be led by the unimpeachable Lord (no “sexing up” here) Hutton.


How to organize intelligence the right way


Okay, maybe our intelligence stinks, but some people actually have assets on the ground. Rowan Scarborough of the conservative Washington Times reports (“U.S. suspects Iraqi moles at Baghdad headquarters,” 1/26/04):


“Some senior administration officials suspect that Saddam Hussein’s followers have penetrated the coalition headquarters in Baghdad and passed information to guerrilla fighters.


“A defense official told The Washington Times the suspicion at this point is not based on conclusive evidence, but on supposition. The source said some senior officials believe it is too much of a coincidence that Saddam loyalists know where and when to attack Army convoys. At times, attackers also seem to know the planned route of low-flying helicopters, more than 10 of which have been shot down since May.”


No wonder the CIA is now setting up an Iraqi counterintelligence operation around some reliable intelligence guys who really know what they’re doing — Saddam’s former (and much feared) intelligence operatives.


How to speak to terrorists and not end up in Guantanamo


Here’s a group that the U.S. government has identified as terrorists, that had long-term ties to Saddam Hussein and whose forces may have helped Saddam put down the 1991 Shia rebellion. (Remember those killing fields which came to provide justification for our war over a decade later?) And a major neocon figure has just spoken at a charity event evidently meant to help them. No, we’re not talking Al Qaeda here, but the Iranian group, Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK).


Of this, Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post wrote in part (“Charity Event May Have Terrorist Link,” 1/28/04):


“Pentagon adviser Richard N. Perle, a strong advocate of war against Iraq, spoke last weekend at a charity event that U.S. officials say may have had ties to an alleged terrorist group seeking to topple the Iranian government and backed by Saddam Hussein.


“The event, attended by more than 3,000 people Saturday at the Washington Convention Center, generated enough concerns within the administration that officials debated whether they had the legal authority to block the event, U.S. officials said yesterday. FBI agents attended it and, as part of a continuing investigation, the Treasury Department on Monday froze the assets of the event’s prime organizer, the Iranian-American Community of Northern Virginia.”


Note that Perle interrupted his book tour for An End to Evil: How to Fight the War on Terror, written with former Bush speechwriter David Frum, to give the speech. In a striking piece posted at Antiwar.com several days before Kessler’s piece appeared, the website’s columnist Justin Raimondo wrote (Richard Perle Supports Terrorism):


“He is the author of a book that criticizes the U.S. government for being too soft on terrorism. He was an advocate of invading Iraq – and most of the other Arab countries in the Middle East – long before 9/11. He wants us to give up a lot of our civil liberties, including submitting to a national ID card, and he’s taken to the hustings promoting an approach to the “war on terrorism” that’s more royalist than the king….


“In France, members of MEK were rounded up after a plot to attack Iranian embassies across Europe was exposed: fanatical MEK-ites set themselves on fire in protest. Clearly, these are a bunch of dangerous radicals, who might resort to violence at any moment. When the MEK connection to the January 24 event came out, the Red Cross and La Leche International, which had agreed to lend their names, withdrew. Even Rep. Tancredo, formerly a staunch defender of the group, backpedaled, withdrawing his support for the fundraiser.


“But not Richard Perle…


“For Perle, a member of the Defense Policy Board, to make a public appearance – in the middle of his book tour! – in front of a group that killed at least 6 U.S. citizens, and wouldn’t hesitate to kill more in pursuit of their goals, is an outrage. If someone with an Arab name and connections to Muslim organizations had dared do such a thing, he would have been shipped to Guantanamo so fast his head would’ve spun off its axis. People are being jailed and deported for much less, these days: but I guess there’s one standard for the Richard Perles of this world, and another for the rest of us.”


Strange alliances in a strange world


Will this administration implode like a political dirty bomb before November 2004? Have the Democrats, thanks largely to Howard Dean, found something like their voices? (Check out Los Angeles Times‘ analyst William Arkin’s Jan. 25 piece on how close those voices still are to the Bush administration’s national security positions.) Is the intelligence “community” in Washington, seething since last summer, ready to blow? If Bush finally agrees to an independent commission, how will he deal with an investigation of CIA director George Tenet whom he couldn’t force to walk the plank at a far more advantageous moment in 2003?


How long can he offer his explanations without beginning to sound hollow, lame, tacky even to some of his own supporters? Haroon Siddiqui in the piece mentioned above offers this comment on his latest Iraq fallback explanation:


“… the White House is now trying a new tack: that Bush had never characterized Saddam’s danger as ‘imminent,’ only as ‘grave and growing.’


“There is a difference? The last time the White House tried such hair-splitting was when Bill Clinton argued it was not ‘sex’ that he had had with Monica Lewinsky. The difference in this case, of course, is that more than 500 Americans and nearly 15,000 Iraqi soldiers and civilians are dead.”


Robert Scheer of the LA Times had a similar thought, in his Jan. 27 column, “Baghdad is Bush’s Blue Dress.”


My gut feeling is that we are witnessing a process of slow change. I note, for instance, a small rise in the number of people who write me and sign their e-mails something like “a former Republican,” or are outraged anti-imperial conservatives or libertarians. We’re in a strange new world — as I meant to indicate above — and alliances, political bedfellows, even the definitions of left and right may be in the process of changing in interesting ways.


I leave you then with a few paragraphs from an environmental piece by Nick Jans that caught my eye in USA Today on the unhappiness that some hunters are now feeling with the Bush assault on the Western environment (“Conservative sportsmen turn against Bush,” 1/27/04). He speaks of:


“…a powerful rumble of discontent…growing from what seems, at first glance, an unlikely source. Just weeks before the exemption [of Alaska's Tongass National Forest from former president Clinton's "roadless rule"] was declared, Dale Bosworth, chief of the Forest Service, received a petition from the Northern Sportsmen Network of Juneau, Alaska. It was signed by 470 gun clubs from across the USA, 40 of them based in President Bush’s home state of Texas….


“‘This is a constituency that is slow to anger, but the administration is starting to see a backlash,’ [Chris] Wood [vice president for conservation at Trout Unlimited] says. ‘The “Sportsmen for Bush” bumper stickers … might be pretty scarce in 2004…’


“Whether this wide-flung group is capable of banding together with their traditional environmentalist foes to protect common interests remains to be seen. But the angry shouts are growing. When I look in the mirror, I see an ardent outdoorsman and an independent who once voted Republican. I won’t make that mistake again.”



[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]

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