The Everyday Extremism of Washington

Secretary Doomsday and the Empathy Gap

A front-page New York Times headline last week put the matter politely indeed: "In Pakistan, U.S. Courts Leader of Opposition." And nobody thought it was strange at all.

In fact, it's the sort of thing you can read just about any time when
it comes to American policy in Pakistan or, for that matter,
Afghanistan. It's just the norm on a planet on which it's assumed that
American civilian and military leaders can issue pronunciamentos about
what other countries must
do; publicly demand various actions of ruling groups; opt for specific
leaders, and then, when they disappoint, attempt to replace them; and
use what was once called "foreign aid," now taxpayer dollars largely funneled through the Pentagon, to bribe those who are hard to convince.

Last week as well, in a prime-time news conference, President Obama said
of Pakistan: "We want to respect their sovereignty, but we also
recognize that we have huge strategic interests, huge national security
interests in making sure that Pakistan is stable and that you don't end
up having a nuclear-armed militant state."

To the extent that this statement was commented on, it was praised here
for its restraint and good sense. Yet, thought about a moment, what the
president actually said went something like this: When it comes to U.S.
respect for Pakistan's sovereignty, this country has more important
fish to fry. A look at the historical record indicates that Washington
has, in fact, been frying those "fish" for at least the last four
decades without particular regard for Pakistani sensibilities.

In a week in which the presidents of both Pakistan and Afghanistan
have, like two satraps, dutifully trekked to the U.S. capital to be
called on the carpet by Obama and his national security team,
Washington officials have been issuing one shrill statement after
another about what U.S. media reports regularly term the "dire situation" in Pakistan.

Of course, to put this in perspective, we now live in a thoroughly
ramped-up atmosphere in which "American national security" -- defined
to include just about anything unsettling that occurs anywhere on Earth
-- is the eternal preoccupation of a vast national security
bureaucracy. Its bread and butter increasingly seems to be worst-case
scenarios (perfect for our 24/7 media to pounce on) in which something
truly catastrophic is always about to happen to us,
and every "situation" is a "crisis." In the hothouse atmosphere of
Washington, the result can be a feeding frenzy in which doomsday
scenarios pour out. Though we don't recognize it as such, this is a
kind of everyday extremism.

Being Hysterical in Washington

As the recent release of more Justice Department torture memos (which were also, in effect, torture manuals)
reminds us, we've just passed through eight years of such obvious
extremism that the present everyday extremity of Washington and its
national security mindset seems almost a relief.

We naturally grasp the extremity of the Taliban -- those floggings,
beheadings, school burnings, bans on music, the medieval attitude
toward women's role in the world -- but our own extremity is in no way
evident to us. So Obama's statement on Pakistani sovereignty is
reported as the height of sobriety, even when what lies behind it is an
expanding "covert" air war and assassination campaign
by unmanned aerial drones over the Pakistani tribal lands, which has
reportedly killed hundreds of bystanders and helped unsettle the

Let's stop here and consider another bit of news that few of us seem to
find strange. Mark Lander and Elizabeth Bumiller of the New York Timesoffered
this tidbit out of an overheated Washington last week: "President Obama
and his top advisers have been meeting almost daily to discuss options
for helping the Pakistani government and military repel the [Taliban]
offensive." Imagine that. Almost daily. It's this kind of atmosphere that naturally produces the bureaucratic equivalent of mass hysteria.

In fact, other reports indicate that Obama's national security team has been convening regular "crisis" meetings and having "nearly nonstop discussions"
at the White House, not to mention issuing alarming and alarmist
statements of all sorts about the devolving situation in Pakistan, the
dangers to Islamabad, our fears for the Pakistani nuclear arsenal, and
so on. In fact, Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landy of McClatchy news
service quote "a senior U.S. intelligence official" (from among the
legion of anonymous officials who populate our nation's capital) saying:
"The situation in Pakistan has gone from bad to worse, and no one has
any idea about how to reverse it. I don't think 'panic' is too strong a
word to describe the mood here."

Now, if it were the economic meltdown, the Chrysler bankruptcy, the
bank stress tests, the potential flu pandemic, or any number of
close-to-home issues pressing in on the administration, perhaps this
would make some sense. But everyday discussions of Pakistan?

You know, that offensive in the Lower Dir Valley. That's near the Buner
District. You remember, right next to the Swat Valley and, in case
you're still not completely keyed in, geographically speaking, close to
the Malakand Division. I mean, if the Pakistani government were in
crisis over the deteriorating situation in Fargo, North Dakota, we
would consider it material for late night jokesters.

And yet, in the strange American world we inhabit, nobody finds these
practically Cuban-Missile-Crisis-style, round-the-clock meetings the
least bit strange, not after eight years of post-9/11 national security
fears, not after living with worst-case scenarios in which jihadi atomic bombs regularly are imagined going off in American cities.

in mind a certain irony here: We essentially know what those crisis
meetings will result in. After all, the U.S. government has been
embroiled with Pakistan for at least 40 years and for just that long,
its top officials have regularly come to the same policy conclusions --
to support Pakistani military dictatorships or, in periods when
civilian rule returns, pour yet more money (and support) into the
Pakistani military. That military has long been a power unto itself
in the country, a state within a state. And in moments like this, part
of our weird extremism is that, having spent decades undermining
Pakistani democracy, we bemoan its "fragility" in the face of threats
and proceed to put even more of our hopes and dollars into its
military. (As Strobel and Landy report, "Some U.S. officials say
Pakistan's only hope, and Washington's, too, at this stage may be the
country's army. That, another senior official acknowledged Wednesday,
'means another coup.'")

In the Bush years, this support added up to at least $10 billion, with next to no idea what the military was doing with it. Another $100 million
went into making that country's nuclear-weapons program, about which
there is now such panic, safer from theft or other intrusion, again
with next to no idea of what was actually done with those dollars. And
now the Obama administration is rushing to create a new Pakistan
Counterinsurgency Capability Fund that will be controlled
by General David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command. If Congress
agrees -- and in this panic atmosphere, how could it not? -- there will
be an initial rushed down payment of $400 million to train the
Pakistani military, probably outside that country, in counterinsurgency
warfare. ("The fund would be similar to those used to train and equip
Iraqi and Afghan soldiers and police, Petraeus said.")

Doomsday Scenarios

Oh, and speaking of extremism, the ur-extreme statement of the last few
weeks came from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and was treated like
the most ho-hum news here. In congressional testimony, she insisted
that the situation in Pakistan -- that Taliban thrust into Swat and the
lower Dir Valley -- "poses a mortal threat to the security and safety
of our country and the world."

Umm... Okay, the situation is unnerving -- certainly for the
Pakistanis, the large majority of whom have not the slightest love for
the Taliban, have opted for democracy and against military dictatorship
with a passion, and yet strongly oppose the destabilizing American air
war in their borderlands. It could even result in the fall of the
elected government or of democracy itself -- not exactly a rare event
in the annals of recent Pakistani history. It's undoubtedly unnerving
as well for the American military,
intent on fighting a war in Afghanistan that has spilled disastrously
across the open border. (As Pakistan expert Anatol Lieven wrote recently:
"The danger to Pakistan is not of a Taliban revolution, but rather of
creeping destabilization and terrorism, making any Pakistani help to
the U.S. against the Afghan Taliban even less likely than it is at

In other words, it's not a pretty picture. If you happen to live in the
tribal borderlands, or Swat, or the Dir Valley, squeezed between the
Taliban, the Pakistani Army, whose attacks cause great civilian harm,
and those drones cruising overhead, you may be in trouble, if not in flight
-- or you may simply support the Taliban, as most of the rest of
Pakistan does not. If you happen to live in India, you might start
working up a sweat over what the future holds on the other side of the
border. But all of this is unlikely
to be a "mortal threat" even to Islamabad, the Pakistani military, or
that nuclear arsenal American national security managers spend so much
time fretting about. It is certainly not a "mortal threat to the
security and safety of our country."

here's a little common sense. If Pakistan poses a mortal threat to you
in New York, Toledo, or El Paso, well then, get in line. Believe me, it
will be a long one and you'll be toward the back. Despite constant
reports that lightly armed Taliban militants are only 60 miles from the
"doorstep" of Islamabad, Pakistan's national capital, and increasing
inside-the-Beltway invocations of Ayatollah Khomeini's 1979 revolution
in Iran, you're unlikely to see a Taliban government in Islamabad anytime soon, or probably ever. As one unnamed expert commented recently in the insider Washington newsletter, the Nelson Report,
"I find it troubling that we are hyping the 'security situation' in
Pakistan. Pakistan is not being taken over, the FATA [Federally
Administered Tribal Areas] is. This has been happening since 2004."

Mind you, when Vice President Joe Biden said something extreme about
flu precautions -- don't take the subway! -- the media didn't hesitate
to laugh him off stage.
When Hillary Clinton said what should be considered the equivalent
about Pakistan, everyone treated it as part of a sober
national-security conversation.

Of course, when it comes to hysteria, nothing helps like a nuclear arsenal, and in recent weeks nuclear doomsday scenarios have broken out
like a swine flu pandemic, even though a victorious Taliban regime in
Islamabad with a nuclear arsenal would undoubtedly still find the
difficulties of planting and detonating such devices in American cities
close to insurmountable.

By the way, for all our kindly talk about how the poor Pakistanis just
can't get it together democracy-wise, the U.S. has a terrible record
when it comes not just to promoting democracy in that country, but to
really giving much of a damn about its people. In fact, not to put too
kindly a point on things, Washington has, over the past decades, done
few favors for ordinary Pakistanis. Having played our version of the
imperial Great Game first vis-a-vis the Soviets and, more recently, a
bunch of jihadist
warriors, we are now waging a most unpopular and destabilizing air war
without mercy in parts of that country, and another deeply unpopular
war just across its mountainous, porous border.

And this brings us to perhaps the most extreme aspect of the mentality
of our national security managers -- what might be called their empathy
gap. They are, it seems, incapable of seeing the situations they deal
through the eyes of those being dealt with. They lack, that is, all
empathy, which means, in the end, that they lack understanding. They
take it for granted that America's destiny is to "engineer" the fates
of peoples half a world away and are incapable of imagining that the
United States could, in almost any situation, be part of the problem,
not a major part of its solution. This is surely folly of the first
order and, year after year, has only made the "situation" in Pakistan

Closing the Empathy Gap?

To complete our picture of this over-the-top moment, we have to
leave the heated confines of Washington and head for California's China
Lake. That's where the U.S. military tests some of its advanced

On April 20th, Peter Pae of the Los Angeles Timesreported
the following: "A 5-pound missile the size of a loaf of French bread is
being quietly tested in the Mojave Desert north of Los Angeles as the
military searches for more deadly and far more precise robotic weapons
for modern warfare."

This tiny missile called the Spike will someday replace the 100-pound
Hellfire missiles mounted on our Predator and more advanced Reaper
unmanned aerial drones flying those assassination missions over the
tribal lands of Pakistan. New weaponry like this is invariably promoted
as being more "precise," and so capable of causing less "collateral
damage," than whatever we've been using; that is, as an advance for
humanity. But in this case, up to 12 of these powerful micro-weapons
will someday replace the two Hellfires now capable of being mounted on
a Predator, which means a future drone will have to come home far less
often as it cruises the badlands of the planet looking for targets.

According to Pae, this new development is considered a "milestone" in
weaponizing robot planes. Chillingly, he quotes Steven Zaloga, a
military analyst with the Teal Group Corporation as saying, "We're sort
of at the same stage as we were in 1914 when we began to arm

Not only that but the Spike may someday soon be mounted on a new
generation of more deadly drones, one of which, General Atomics
Aeronautical Systems' Avenger or Predator C, is already being tested. It will be able to fly 50% faster than the Reaper and at up to 60,000 feet for 20 hours before returning to base.

In other words, the decisions to be made in future panicky "crisis"
meetings in Washington, when "American security" once again faces a
"mortal threat," are already being predetermined in the Mojave desert
and elsewhere. In the Pentagon's eternal arms race of one,
a major vote is being cast at China Lake for future Terminator wars. In
a crisis mood of desperation, we tend to fall back on what we know.
This, too, plays into Washington's national-security extremism.

By now it should be obvious enough that the military approaches to
Afghanistan and Pakistan (or the newly merged Af-Pak battlefield) have
been in the process of failing for years. Take just our drone wars:
they are not only killing significant numbers of civilians, but also
destabilizing Pakistan's tribal lands -- military and civilian
officials there have long begged us
to ground them -- and so creating an anti-American atmosphere
throughout that country. Recently, former advisor to Gen. David
Petraeus and counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen told Congress:

"We need to call off the drones... Since 2006, we've
killed 14 senior Al Qaeda leaders using drone strikes; in the same time
period, we've killed 700 Pakistani civilians in the same area. The
drone strikes are highly unpopular. They are deeply aggravating to the
population. And they've given rise to a feeling of anger that coalesces
the population around the extremists and leads to spikes of
extremism... The current path that we are on is leading us to loss of
Pakistani government control over its own population."

Sage advice. If President Obama temporarily suspended the Bush-era
drone war, which his administration has recently escalated, it would
represent a start down a different path, one not already strewn with
the skeletons of failed policies. And while he's at it -- and here's a
little touch of extremism by American standards -- why not declare a
six-month moratorium on all drone research of any sort, a brief period
to reconsider whether we really want to pursue such "solutions" ad infinitum?

Why not, in fact, call for a six-month moratorium on all weapons
research? A long Pentagon holiday. Militarily, the U.S. is in no danger
of losing significant military ground globally by shutting down its
R&D machine for a time, while reconsidering whether it actually
wants to lead the planet into a future filled with Spikes and Avengers.

If, however, nothing else was done, at least the president should order
his national security team to calm down, skip those crisis meetings on
Pakistan, tamp down the doomsday scenarios, and try to take a few
minutes to imagine what the world looks like if you're not in
Washington or the skies over our planet. Are there really no solutions
anywhere that don't need to be engineered first in our national

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