News From the Far Side of Nowhere
In a Crippled World, All the News That’s Fit to Splint
By Tom Engelhardt
Breaking News! — as NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt often puts it when beginning his evening broadcast. Here, in summary, is my view of the news that’s breaking in the United States on just about any day of the week:
Trump. Trump. Trump. Trump. Trump.
Or rather (in the president’s style):
Trump! Trump! Trump! Trump! Trump!!!!!!!!
Or here’s another way of thinking about the news unmediated — a word that’s gained new resonance in the age of The Donald — by anyone but him: below you’ll find a set of run-on tweets from you-know-who to his base — and by that I mean not just his American fans but “the Fake News Media” that treats such messages as the catnip of their twenty-first-century lives. These particular ones are from the afternoon of November 29th and the morning of November 30th @realDonaldTrump (mistakes and all). Consider it a wee sampling of the unmediated DJT (SAD!). However, given the desperately sped up all-Donald-all-the-time universe we live in, these — being almost two weeks old — are already ancient history, the equivalent of so many messages from Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, scratched in cuneiform on clay tablets:
“Just landed in Argentina with @FLOTUS Melania! #G20Summit. ‘This demonstrates the Robert Mueller and his partisans have no evidence, not a whiff of collusion, between Trump and the Russians. Russian project legal. Trump Tower meeting (son Don), perfectly legal. He wasn’t involved with hacking.’ Gregg Jarrett. A total Witch Hunt! Alan Dershowitz: ‘These are not crimes. He (Mueller) has no authority to be a roving Commissioner. I don’t see any evidence of crimes.’ This is an illegal Hoax that should be ended immediately. Mueller refuses to look at the real crimes on the other side. Where is the IG REPORT? Arrived in Argentina with a very busy two days planned. Important meetings scheduled throughout. Our great Country is extremely well represented. Will be very productive! Oh, I get it! I am a very good developer, happily living my life, when I see our Country going in the wrong direction (to put it mildly). Against all odds, I decide to run for President & continue to run my business-very legal & very cool, talked about it on the campaign trail… Lightly looked at doing a building somewhere in Russia. Put up zero money, zero guarantees and didn’t do the project. Witch Hunt!”
And so it goes in an America already preparing to sign off on 2018 in a blur of Trump.
Or think of the Trumpian news cycle as just a set of trigger names: Paul (pardon “not off the table”) Manafort, Michael (“very weak”) Cohen, Robert (“phony witch hunt”) Mueller, Mia (“gave me no love”) Love, Vladimir (“very, very strong”) Putin, Elizabeth (“Pocahontas”) Warren, Mohammed (“might have done it” ) bin Salman, Justin (“stabbed us in the back”) Trudeau, Emmanuel (“very insulting”) Macron, Rex (“dumb as a rock“) Tillerson, James (“weak and untruthful slime ball”) Comey, Jim (“rude, terrible person”) Acosta, Roger (“guts”) Stone.
Or here are the names of the 13 New York Times reporters with bylines on pieces in some way related to Donald Trump and in that paper on the day after the president’s former lawyer Michael Cohen pled guilty to lying to Congress about a “potential Russian business deal during the presidential campaign”: Mike McIntire, Megan Twohey, Mark Mazzetti, Benjamin Weiser, Ben Protess, Maggie Haberman, Peter Baker, Daniel Politi, David D. Kirkpatrick, Michael S. Schmidt, Sharon LaFraniere, Linda Qui, and David E. Sanger. And these six reporters were given credit for helping on one or more of the pieces those 13 were involved in producing: Katie Benner, Nicholas Fandos, Eileen Sullivan, William K. Rashbaum, Neil MacFarquhar, Matt Apuzzo, and Andrew Kramer. (And that’s not even including whoever wrote the unsigned editorial page column, “Why It Matters That Mr. Cohen Lied,” or Kitty Bennett who, according to a note, “contributed research” to one of those pieces.)
And if you’re not yet feeling satisfied that I’ve caught our Trumpian moment adequately, I could certainly launch into a list of the endless insults the president regularly tosses out at “the Fake News Media” and “the Clinton News Network” in the feeding frenzy that now passes for “the news” or I could simply offer you the most relevant insults he aimed at individual reporters — mainly black ones — on the week of November 5th. (“What a stupid question. What a stupid question. But I watch you a lot and you ask a lot of stupid questions.”) At this point, though, let me take pity on your souls. I suspect you’ve already got the gist of things. I have a feeling, in fact, that you already had it long before I ever put down a word of the above.
After all, as hard as it may still be to believe, HE looms over our lives, our planet, in a way no other human being ever has, not even a Joseph Stalin or a Mao Zedong, whose images were once plastered all over the Soviet Union and China. Even the staggering attention recently paid to an otherwise less than overwhelming dead president, one George H.W. Bush, could only have occurred because, in his relative diffidence, he seemed like the un-Trump of some long gone moment. The blanket coverage was, in other words, really just another version of Trump! Trump! Trump! Trump! Trump!!!!!!!!
All in all, check off these first two presidential years of his as a bravura performance, which shouldn’t really surprise any of us. What was he, after all, but a whiz of a performer long before he hit the White House? And what are we — the media and the rest of us — but (whether we like it or not, whether we care to be or not) his apprentices?
Now, for a little breaking news of another sort! Unbelievably enough, despite all evidence to the contrary, there’s still an actual world out there somewhere, even if Donald Trump’s shambling 72-year-old figure has thrown so much of it into shadow. I’m talking about a world — or parts of it, anyway — that doesn’t test well in focus groups and isn’t guaranteed, like this American president, to keep eyes eternally (or even faintly) glued to screens, a world that, in the age of Donald Trump, goes surprisingly unnoted and unnoticed.
So consider the rest of this piece the most minimalist partial rundown on, in particular, an American imperial world of war and preparations for the same, that is, but shouldn’t be, in the shadows; that shouldn’t be, but often is dealt with as if it existed on the far side of nowhere.
What We Don’t See
Let’s start with the only situation I can recall in which Donald Trump implicitly declared himself to be an apprentice. In the wake of the roadside-bomb deaths of three American soldiers in Afghanistan (a fourth would die later) — neither Donald Trump nor anyone else in Washington gives a damn, of course, about the escalating numbers of dead Afghans, military and civilian — the president expressed his condolences in an interview with the Washington Post. He then went on to explain why he (and so we) were still in Afghanistan (14,000 or so U.S. military personnel, a vast array of American air power, and nearly 27,000 private contractors). “We’re there,” he said, “because virtually every expert that I have and speak to say[s] if we don’t go there, they’re going to be fighting over here. And I’ve heard it over and over again.”
Those “experts” are undoubtedly from among the very crew who have, over the last 17-plus years, helped fight the war in Afghanistan to what top U.S. commanders now call a “stalemate,” which might otherwise be defined as the edge of defeat. In those years, before Donald Trump entered the Oval Office threatening to dump the longest war in American history, it had largely disappeared from American consciousness. So had much else about this country’s still-spreading wars and the still-growing war state that went with them.
In other words, none of what’s now happening in Afghanistan and elsewhere is either unique to, or even attributable to, the Trumpian moment. This president has merely brought to a head a process long underway in which America’s never-ending war on terror, which might more accurately be thought of as a war to spread terror, had long ago retreated to the far side of nowhere.
Similarly, the war state in Washington, funded in a fashion that no other set of countries on this planet even comes close to, and growing in preeminence, power, and influence by the year, continues to go largely unnoticed. Today, it is noted only in terms of Donald Trump, only to the degree that he blasts its members or former members for their attitudes toward him, only to the degree to which his followers denounce “the deep state.” Meanwhile, ex-CIA, ex-NSA, and ex-FBI officials he’s excoriated suddenly morph into so many liberal heroes to be all-but-worshipped for opposing him. What they did in the “service” of their country — from overseeing torture, warrantless wiretapping, wars, and drone assassination programs to directly intervening for the first time in an American election — has been largely forgiven and forgotten, or even turned into bestsellerdom.
Yes, American troops (aka “warriors,” aka “heroes”) from the country’s all volunteer force, or AVF, continue to be eternally and effusively thanked for their service in distant war zones, including by a president who speaks of “my generals” and “my military.” However, that military has essentially become the U.S. equivalent of the French Foreign Legion, an imperial police force fighting wars in distant lands while most Americans obliviously go about their business.
And who these days spends any time thinking about America’s drone wars or the assassin-in-chief in the Oval Office who orders “targeted killings” across significant parts of the planet? Yes, if you happened to read a recent piece by Spencer Ackerman at the Daily Beast, you would know that, under President Trump, the already jacked-up drone strikes of the Obama era have been jacked-up again: 238 of them in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan alone in the first two years of Trump’s presidency (and that doesn’t even include Libya). And keep in mind that those figures also don’t include far larger numbers of drone strikes in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The numbers of dead from such strikes (civilian as well as terrorist) are essentially of no interest here.
And here’s another crucial aspect of Washington’s militarized global policies that has almost completely disappeared into the shadows. If you read a recent piece by Nick Turse at the Intercept, you would know that, across the continent of Africa, the U.S. now has at least 34 military installations, ranging from small outposts to enormous, still expanding bases. To put this in the context of the much-ballyhooed new great power struggle on Planet Earth, the Chinese have one military base on that continent (in Djibouti near the biggest U.S. base in Africa, Camp Lemonnier) and the Russians none.
In the Greater Middle East, from Afghanistan to Turkey, though it’s hard to come up with a good count, the U.S. certainly has 50 or more significant garrisons (in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Oman, Qatar, and Turkey, among other places); Russia two (in Syria); and China none. In fact, never has any country garrisoned the planet in such an imperial and global fashion. The U.S. still has an estimated 800 or so military bases spread across the globe, ranging from tiny “lily pads” to garrisons the size of small American towns in what Chalmers Johnson once called its “empire of bases.” And the American high command is clearly still thinking about where further garrisons might go. As the Arctic, for instance, begins to melt big time, guess who’s moving in?
And yet, in the age of Trump, when on any given day the New York Times has scads of employees focused on the president, neither that paper nor any other mainstream media outlet finds it of interest to cover developments in that empire of bases. In other words, for the media as for the American public, one of the major ways this country presents itself to others, weapons in hand, essentially doesn’t exist.
The world as it is — the world of those wars, those bases, and a national security state looming in its own unauditable fashion over the nation’s capital as well as the planet — has essentially been obliterated from American life, except as it relates to one man. Only when he manically tweets, complains, insults, or comments about any of this, does it, or a cast of characters connected to it, briefly emerge from the shadows and become a modest part of American life.
“We Came, We Saw, He Died”
Donald Trump is hardly alone in this process of self-focused obliteration. Consider, for instance, the former first lady, senator, secretary of state, and failed presidential candidate whom the president still likes to call “crooked Hillary.” In a Guardian interview, she recently made headlines by offering a little unsolicited advice on right-wing populism to political figures on another continent. “I think Europe needs to get a handle on migration because that is what lit the flame,” she said. “I admire the very generous and compassionate approaches that were taken particularly by leaders like Angela Merkel, but I think it is fair to say Europe has done its part, and must send a very clear message — ‘we are not going to be able to continue to provide refuge and support’ — because if we don’t deal with the migration issue it will continue to roil the body politic.”
In other words, when it comes to dealing with the staggering number of displaced people on this planet, she had some words of wisdom for Europe’s leaders, but curiously — or perhaps not so curiously at all — there was a small personal connection she managed to avoid. When you look at where those refugees eager to flood Europe are coming from, the three countries that have led the list since 2014 are Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan; the fourth is Nigeria. In other words, refugees from the top three lands now creating a political crisis in Europe were displaced, at least in significant part, thanks to the American war on terror and the never-ending fallout from the 2003 Bush administration invasion of Iraq. Hillary Clinton, of course, backed that invasion big time as a senator and she was involved in all of those American wars as secretary of state.
In addition, Nigerian and other desperate African refugees heading north for possible nightmarish journeys across the Mediterranean normally pass through another war-torn catastrophe of a land. Its name should certainly ring a bell with the former secretary of state. After all, she infamously mocked the 2011 death of its autocratic ruler during a U.S./NATO military intervention she had promoted this way: “We came, we saw, he died.”
Think of that as the epitaph on the gravestone not just of the now-failed state and terrorist haven of Libya, but of the twenty-first-century Washington Dream of a world of successful American wars and of a planetary Pax Americana. In other words, given the last 17-plus years, there was nothing strange about the fact that Hillary Clinton offered advice to the Europeans (don’t let them in!), but not to us (get out!).
Or think of it this way: those shadows were there, obliterating much of a splintering and splinted world even before Donald Trump shambled into the Oval Office. In this century, Americans have been in something like a contest of avoidance when it came to what their country and the planet it garrisons were becoming. If anything, Donald J. Trump has only made that avoidance easier — at least for the moment — as his penumbra spreads ever more darkly across our land.
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War (Dispatch Books).
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.
Copyright 2018 Tom Engelhardt