Empire and Burlesque: Permanent Bases Rise While Public Gawks at Geeks

Thirty years ago, I was in Nashville for a Bob Dylan concert. It was during Dylan's "Vegas" tour: full entourage of back-up singers, horn players, "big band" arrangements, glitzy Elvis-style suits for the star, all of it slickly packaged by Hollywood impresario Jerry Weintraub, who handled Frank Sinatra and Neil Diamond, among others. It was, to put it mildly, a real hoot. Especially intriguing was the persona that Dylan had adopted for the tour: a chatty Vegas lounge singer, full of patter and stories for the crowd between numbers. (The very next year I saw him in much more ascetic guise, in a black leather jacket with a stripped-down band doing nothing but Christian songs to a half-empty house during a snowstorm in Knoxville. Now there's a man who really knows something about "change.")

But on that Nashville night, Dylan – loquacious, and probably libated – was doing a lot of his old tunes, including the surreal send-up of conventional wisdom, "Ballad of a Thin Man."  In that song, the hapless, clueless "hero" – the now iconic Mister Jones – is shown at one point handing in his ticket "to go see the geek." Even back in 1978, I was old enough to know what a geek really was, but Dylan obviously thought that most of the audience wouldn't get the reference; the word was fast losing its specificity, and was by then mostly used as a vague synonym for "nerd" or some other socially awkward person. So before playing the song, Dylan launched into a long, rambling story about "the carnivals we used to have in the Fifties," and how they all had a "geek" – someone who would bite the head off a live chicken, then proceed to eat the rest of the dead, bleeding, flapping carcass in front of the paying customers. It used to cost just a quarter to see the geek in the old days, Dylan said, "although it probably costs five dollars now."

Today of course, in our glittering 21st century of ubiquitous, 24-hour, multi-platform media access, we can watch geeks for free: all we have to do is turn to the latest reports on the presidential campaign. There we can see the revolting but fascinating spectacle of freakish characters willing to do just about anything – gnaw off a chicken head, lie like a dog, pander like a door pimp, crawl on their bellies to tongue a corporate boot, turn themselves inside out and shake their innards at the camera – to grab our attention and please the carnival's owners. We are also subjected to endless exegesis of every aspect of the geeks' performance: "Wasn't it wonderful how Obama nipped that chicken neck so expertly? Did Hillary do enough to win back the crowd when she slurped down the heart and the liver the same time? Should she have tried to get the gizzard in too? And what about McCain's trouble getting that right wing down his throat? Let's see what our expert analysts have to say. Over to you, Bill Kristol and James Carville…."

But while the feathers fly and the fan dancers trot across the electoral stage, the deadly, democracy-killing business of empire-building grinds on behind the gaudy scenes. And not a single one of the top troika are taking a stand against it; indeed, all of them have made their commitment to American military dominance of the planet – and their proud refusal to take any option "off the table" in world affairs – crystal clear. What we are seeing now – and what we will see when the race narrows down to just a pair of geeks chomping at the chicken – is simply a debate over the best way to keep the empire in fighting trim while gussying up some of the ham-handed excesses of the past few years.

A few days ago came the news – ignored or buried by almost every venue of that non-stop multi-platform media echo chamber – that the United States has made a very significant, and very permanent, addition its empire of bases: one that American officials freely admit will allow them to project "full spectrum" military dominance over 27 sovereign nations. And of course, what is most noteworthy about the development, reported in full in the Pentagon's own Stars and Stripes newspaper, is that this astonishing declaration of imperial aggression and hubris is regarded as something completely normal – indeed laudatory.

Stars and Stripes – an often excellent paper, reporting genuine news that the geek-gawking non-entities in the corporate media ignore – lays it all out, plain and simple:

CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait — U.S. Army Central is establishing a permanent platform for “full spectrum operations” in 27 countries around southwest Asia and the Middle East, its commander says.

Lt. Gen. James J. Lovelace said the Army has diverse capabilities here now but plans to reach a complete level of operational effectiveness by July. The restructuring, which offers more flexibility for offensive, defensive and stability operations, is a major piece of transformation worldwide, said Lovelace.

“It’s the first Army command to do this,” said Lovelace, who also heads the Coalition Forces Land Component. “Now, we’re not only operational but the Army has committed other assets…They regionally focus on this area. That was not always the case,” said Lovelace, who took command in mid-December. “These commands now have a permanent responsibility to this theater. They’ll have a permanent presence here. The personnel will change; the commands will remain."

Yes, the personnel will change – even in the White House. But the commands will remain. And this permanent, force-projecting base is of course just the icing on the imperial cake in the region; the U.S. military already has its boots in the ground all over the area, as the newspaper notes:

Col. Michael A. Carroll, USARCENT’s chief of staff, said the command has a footprint in 22 of the area’s 27 countries, where it conducts theater security engagements, peacekeeping and exercises with other militaries. [Not to mention a couple of good ole shootin' wars.]

…Lovelace said the war on terror and a need to be more operationally focused compelled the Army to alter its approach. “You don’t have the element of time on your side anymore, like we did in the Cold War. We’ve got to be ready tonight," he said. "That’s why now you have that broader commitment."

Strange how the "element of time" has narrowed so drastically; I remember being told back in those Cold War days that we were always, forever just six minutes away from nuclear annihilation: that's how long it would take a Soviet first strike to reach the heartland of the Homeland. But of course, as we all know, the few thousand actual Islamic terrorists out there – most of them in the pay of our allies Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, when they're not actually drawing checks from the CIA and the Pentagon – pose a far greater threat to the existence of the nation than the vast, globe-spanning nuclear arsenal of the Soviet Union ever did. Thus the need for planting new gargantuan, permanent military bases in the world's most volatile regions is more urgent and important than ever.

And that's why the new "full spectrum" Army base in Kuwait is just one of the force-projecting fortresses going up all over the world. As William Arkin reports in the Washington Post (not in the actual paper, mind you, but on the Post's blog):

The Air Force and Navy, meanwhile, have set up additional permanent bases in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman. By permanent I mean large and continuing American headquarters and presences, most of which are maintained through a combination of coalition activities, long-standing bilateral agreements and official secrecy. Tens of billions have been plowed into the American infrastructure. Admiral William J. Fallon, the overall commander of the region, was just in Oman this week after a trip to Iraq to secure continuing American military bases in that country.

This new base-building, Arkin says, astutely, has a two-fold purpose. First, it is part of the necessary infrastructure for continuing the war in Iraq on a permanent basis. Second, it is creating "facts on the ground" – like Ariel Sharon's illegal settlements all over Palestinian land – that any future president will find hard to undo…assuming that anyone who was not already committed heart-and-soul to imperial expansion would ever be allowed to get near the White House in the first place. As Arkin puts it:

When a war with Iran loomed and World War III seemed to be gaining traction in the Bush administration, this entire base structure was seen as the "build-up" for the next war. The build-up of course began decades ago, but since 9/11, the focus has been almost exclusively "supporting" U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran is there, but to interpret the planting of the American flags and the moving of chess pieces as being focused on Tehran is to miss what is really going on.

Regardless of who is elected, in the coming year U.S. combat forces in Iraq will undoubtedly continue to contract to a fewer number of combat brigades and special operations forces focused on counter-terrorism and the mission of continuing to train and mentor the Iraqi Army and police forces. Much of the "war" that is already being fought is being supported from Kuwait and other locations, and the ongoing shifts seem to point to an intent to increasingly pull additional functions and people out of harm's way.

Of course they will not be out of harm's way at all, because a permanent American military presence in the region brings with it its own dangers and provocations. But most important what it brings for the next president is a fait accompli: a pause that facilitates a drawdown that begins to look a lot like a continuation of the same military and strategic policy, even at a time when there is broad questioning as to whether this is the most effective way to fight "terrorism."

Arkin is of course being over-polite in his conclusion: it has long been clear that the Bush Administration's policies – repeatedly ratified by the bipartisan foreign policy establishment – have nothing to do with fighting "terrorism," effectively or otherwise. It is a demonstrable fact – attested to by the Administration's own intelligence services – that these policies are actually exacerbating, empowering and emboldening terrorism all over the world. It is also obvious – albeit far less openly acknowledged – that these policies are themselves a form of terrorism: state terrorism, on a massive scale, which has already killed at least a million people in Iraq alone.

But Arkin is right on the money in noting that these developments – which have drawn not a peep of protest or the slightest questioning from the great "progressives" seeking the Democratic nomination (much less the bilious bagman cruising to the GOP nod) – are indeed "a continuation of the same military and strategic policy" that is driving the imperial war-state on to more "full spectrum operations" all over the world, for decades to come. And much as I might wish it to be otherwise, I have seen nothing to make me believe that any of the chicken-chompers bound for the White House will make any actual, substantial changes in this policy, much less begin the task of rolling back the empire.

But hey, did you see how Hillary waggled those feathers in her mouth when Obama spit that beak out at her? Then Hillary's campaign manager said… and then the polls showed… and then McCain told a reporter that… and then the Oscars… March Madness, baby!

Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is -- do you, Mister Jones?