“We Destroyed the Cities to Save Them” and other future headlines
A twin explosion in Kobane. Photo taken from Flickr user Karl-Ludwig Poggemann
One of the charms of the future is its powerful element of unpredictability, its ability to ambush us in lovely ways or bite us unexpectedly in the ass. Most of the futures I imagined as a boy have, for instance, come up deeply short, or else I would now be flying my individual
And who thought that the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street were coming down the pike or, for that matter, a terror caliphate in the heart of the former Middle East or a Donald Trump presidential run that would go from success to success amid free media coverage the likes of which we’ve seldom seen? (Small career tip: don’t become a seer. It’s hell on Earth.)
All of this might be considered the bad but also the good news about the future. On an increasingly grim globe that seems to have failure stamped all over it, the surprises embedded in the years to come, the unexpected course changes, inventions, rebellions, and interventions offer, at least until they arrive, grounds for hope. On the other hand, in that same grim world, there’s an aspect of the future that couldn’t be more depressing: the repetitiveness of so much that you might think no one would want to repeat. I’m talking about the range of tomorrow’s headlines that could be written today and stand a painfully reasonable chance of coming true.
I’m sure you could produce your own version of such future headlines in a variety of areas, but here are mine when it comes to Washington’s remarkably unwinnable wars, interventions, and conflicts in the Greater Middle East and increasingly Africa.
What “Victory” Looks Like
Let’s start with an event that occurred in Iraq as 2015 ended and generated
“Homes?” he said. “There are no homes.”
And here’s what victory turned out to look like: according to the Iraqi defense minister, at least
Hubbard also cited the head of the Anbar provincial council as estimating that “rebuilding the city would require $12 billion.” (Other Iraqi officials put that figure at
Let’s add one more thing before we write our future headlines. The day after President Obama gave his final
In fact, such a campaign would give “elimination operations” new meaning, since it would clearly involve quite literally eliminating the urban infrastructure of significant parts of the region. Three cities are, in fact, at present targeted:
There has, of course, been much talk about an offensive to retake Mosul since relatively small numbers of Islamic State fighters captured the city from tens of thousands of
As a result, the end of the year headline for American/Iraqi/Kurdish/Syrian rebel operations—adapted from an
“Success” against and “victory” over the Islamic State would undoubtedly leave much of the region a modern Carthage.
Based on Ramadi, you could then perhaps offer these “ballpark” (not that any stadiums would be left standing) future estimates for rebuilding: Falluja, $10 billion; Raqqa, $7 billion; Mosul, $20 to $25 billion. Those are obviously fantasy figures, but the point is that “success” against and “victory” over the Islamic State would undoubtedly leave much of the region a modern Carthage. And who would pay for a new Ramadi, or Mosul, or Fallujah, or Raqqa, no less all of them and more?
Put another way, “victory” would mean that Iraq will have far fewer habitable cities and a far larger number of displaced people whose resettlement will undoubtedly be subject to the ethnic tensions that helped fuel the Islamic State in the first place. This represents a reasonably predictable future, one that should be obvious enough to anyone who took a half-serious look at the situation. It certainly should be obvious to Ashton Carter, as well as to American planners at the Pentagon and in the Obama administration. And yet the planning goes on as if “victory” were a meaningful category under the circumstances.
And here’s the thing: you can join the Islamic State in blowing up the physical plant of Syria and parts of Iraq and then eject its fighters from the rubble, but you’ll be destroying the means of existence of a vast, increasingly unsettled population. What you may not be able to do in the process is destroy a movement that began in an
Unleashing the Special Operators and the Drones
Now, let’s consider another set of potential future headlines linked to present planning and past experience. Secretary of Defense Carter claims that the US strategy against the Islamic State is focused on creating “sustainable political stability in the region,” by which he means not just the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, but all of the Greater Middle East. As he said to the members of the 101st Airborne:
For this, he clearly plans to let loose American Special Operations forces not just in Syria but elsewhere on assassination missions against key Islamic State figures or those heading their distant franchises. He’s also intent on sending in the drones across the region in “counter-terror operations and strikes on high-value targets” to “act decisively to prevent ISIL affiliates from becoming as great of a threat as the parent tumor itself.”
As with the future taking of cities in Iraq and Syria, there is an experiential baseline for such operations across the region. In his book
In fact, in both the drug wars and the terror wars, as Cockburn
Hence, first in the Bush era in a seat-of-the-pants way and then in the Obama years in a
What’s striking when you listen to Secretary of Defense Carter is that, obvious as this may be, none of it seems to truly penetrate in Washington. Otherwise how do you explain the lack of any serious recalibration of American actions, the only debate being between those in the Obama administration, including the president, who favor a version of mission creep and their Republican critics who favor doing more in a bigger way? In other words, in 2016 we’re clearly going to witness further rounds of the utterly familiar with—somehow—the expectation that something different will happen. Since that’s not likely, for the next set of future headlines just reach into the familiar past, substituting, when necessary, the future terror kingpin’s name: “
The Arc of Instability
Recently, with Ashton Carter’s strategy for “stability” on my mind, I caught a phrase in a news report that I hadn’t heard for quite a while. A journalist, perhaps on NPR, was discussing the recent al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)
Back in the early years of the century, officials of the Bush administration and supportive neocons regularly used that phrase to describe the Greater Middle East, from Pakistan to North Africa. Strangely enough, it disappeared in the post-Iraqi invasion years and remained largely absent in the Obama years as the disastrous Libyan intervention,
Today, in a way that would have been unimaginable back in 2002-2003, the region is filled with failing or failed states from Afghanistan and Syria to Libya, Yemen, and Mali. While Iraq may not quite be a failed state, it is no longer exactly a country either, but something like a
Whatever surprises are in store for us, the mere prospect of such a future should make your blood run cold.
We can’t, of course, know just what countries will fail next. However, it’s safe to assume that, as long as the Obama strategy—and the Hillary Clinton or Ted Cruz or Donald Trump or Marco Rubio one that may follow—involves more (or much more) of the same, more (or much more) of the same is likely to happen. As a result, similar predictable headlines will appear, as countries dissolve in various ways and the Islamic State, groups like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or newly founded terror outfits gain footholds amid the chaos. In that case, you only have to look into the recent past for headlines-to-come and adapt them slightly: “
Amid the grimly predictable, there are, of course, many unknowns. Above all, we have no idea what it means at this point in history to turn a region, city by city, country by country, into something like a vast failed state and then continue to bomb the rubble. How do we begin to imagine what could emerge from the ruins of such a failed region in such a world, from an arc of instability far vaster than anything we have contemplated since World War II? I wouldn’t want to predict the headlines that could someday emerge from that situation, but whatever surprises are in store for us, the mere prospect of such a future should make your blood run cold.
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.