Tom Engelhardt’s `The American Way Of War: How Bush’s War Became Obama’s
(Note: These are the notes done and more or less
the basis of a presentation of Tom Engelhardt’s book `The American Way of War: How Bush’s War Became Obama’s. It was `a joint book review’ done by Ibrahim Kazerooni and myself today – July 25, 2010 – at the Universalist Church in Denver. Both of us think the book is well done but with some reservations mentioned below. Our presentations were about 20 minutes each, followed by an hour of question and answers)
Notes for talk at the Universalist Church in Denver (July 25, 2010)
The American Way Of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obamas by Tom Engelhardt
An interesting format – responding to a book on US foreign policy and making a speech about it.
Have been doing an inordinate amount of reading this summer – in part I need to – it is what I do for a living and what sustains me in other ways.
Among the books that I have read…just a few..
- Two by Tony Judt – Ill Fares The Land and Reappraisals, the latter a collection of his essays most of which appeared in the New York Review of Books over the past decades
- In French – La Mediteranee Fasciste and now Magreb: La Traversee du Siecle by one Juliette Bessis – born a Tunisian Jew in Gabes. The first book is about how Mussolini tried, with some success to work the Italian community of Tunisia before WWII to `confiscate’ Tunisia from French control. While a few Tunisian national leaders were seduced by Mussolini’s feigned support for Tunisian independence, most of them were not taken in by his fascist arguments
- I’m now reading Marc Bloc’s The Strange Defeat – about France’s debacle before the Nazi juggernaut in 1939. Bloc, an assimilated Jewish Frenchman – culturally Jewish, but essentially, like myself an atheist – besides being an outstanding historian – represents that spirit of pre-World War II humanism that included such figures as Stefan Zweig,
Albert Camus and others. He was tortured and shot by the Nazis a few days after D-Day. He was not, from what I could tell, a Zionist.
- On the Middle East there is Jeremy Salt’s excellent The Unmaking of the Middle East in which he pulls no punches on the roles of Great Britain, the United States and Israel and Gilbert Achcar’s The Arabs and the Holocaust which I am just now getting into
I hope to use the insights, historical knowledge from these readings somehow – (but how?) in my teachings. It takes some time and thought to figure out how to integrate such works
The same goes for the book at hand – Tom Engelhardt’s The American Way Of War
Rich Smith had asked Ibrahim and me to talk about the war in Afghanistan. I believe we can do that, but thought it would be interesting to do it within a different framework – in response to a contemporary author writing about Afghanistan and US foreign policy. He, Rich was particularly interested in the Engelhardt’s book, which at the time, about a month ago, I had not read… but was willing to frame the discussion around the book.
Although we did get together to discuss how we would approach today’s talk, we did not particularly go into detail as to our impressions of the book. He did hint to me that he wasn’t especially impressed with it, that it contained nothing new, while I told him I thought it a pretty decent analysis, so it will `fun’ to see where it is that we agree and disagree. … ie – our discussion is not pre-rehearsed.
- Overall Engelhardt’s book – essentially a collection of essays that he posted on TomDispatch – his website/blog – is a solid book, well written, informative with a deep moral/ethical strain throughout. The book deals with the overall direction of US foreign policy in the post-Communist era, showing how US policy has evolved since the early 1990s, from one of searching for an `overarching theme’ to what is now an open-ended, permanent global war machine that goes from one war to another with no end in sight
- The book shows on just about every page the degree to which the military and militarization has permeated US society, its political and economic institutions, everything
down to its toys – its very soul and how in many cases how oblivious Americans are about the depth and the extent of this trend.
- It shows how we have entered into both a permanent war economy (the title of a now ancient book on the subject written 30 years ago) that fuels a permanent war machine – not just in the `broader Middle East’ as US generals call it, but everywhere
- Engelhardt deconstructs the `war on terrorism’ and the fetish the US has made over the 9-11 2001 terrorist attack on our country as well as anyone, showing how 9-11 was used as a springboard to institute a radical (in the reactionary sense of the word) policy that has included significant erosion of civil rights at home with unending war abroad most of it well outside the framework of international law.
- Engelhardt compares `acts of terrorism’, including the 9-11 bombing with what he describes as the terrorism of the US-led `war on terrorism’, which in the name of fighting terrorism – applies, rather cavalierly – the same methods – kidnapping, torture, assassination and an indiscriminate air war aimed in which the civilian casualties – `collateral damage’ is quite extensive (and always under-reported)
- Like Chalmers Johnson, whom he credits in the book, he talks of the network of US military bases being constructed worldwide, how the US has no intention of leaving Iraq, how the US and NATO troops in Afghanistan will probably be there for decades despite the rhetoric of a phased withdrawal
For all that the book is worthwhile – plus the fact that the man can write and write well…
The last section of the book deals with the Afghan/Pakistan war – the main point he makes is that, like in Iraq the United States is there to stay `semi-permanently’.
What the book does well is to describe the global US military build up – to examine and undermine the pretexts for that build up and to, with ample factual ammunition, deconstruct the rationales given first by the Bush Administration (not difficult to do) and now, unfortunately with Obama.
There is an excellent section on the recent speech Obama made at West Point which Engelhardt essentially views as Obama’s capitulation to his generals and the pressure from the military, a kind of turning point which cast aside any doubts some of us might have had, that Obama’s foreign policy would be in any substantial manner different from Bushes (although the rhetoric is softer)
On the other hand
- The book does not – or hardly – explain why US foreign policy has taken the radical turn to the right – what is the political economy, the rationale for this militarized foreign policy. If one argues that Sept 11 is a pretext for the implementation of a more militarized foreign policy still, that does not explain why US ruling circles were so receptive to the idea; there is something else going on, on a deeper level that appears missing – the essence of the long term US strategy to retain global political power (largely though not exclusively through the new application of military power)
- Yes, he does devote some time to the development of the neo-conservative strategy – the Project for a New American Century and the evolution of scoundrels like Bush, Rumsfeldt, Wolfowitz, Cheney, Powell, Elliot Abrams, that idiot John Bolton (he seems to let Condoleeza Rice off the hook) – but he hardly explains – other than to suggest the
obvious that in the aftermath of 9-11 the US Congress and public got stampeded into the war on terrorism with all it entails… but on deep structural level there are reasons why – short of conspiracy theories – the US moved in this direction. On this he is silent
- Although his `prescriptions’ for getting out of Afghanistan/Iraq are humane, decent enough, there is really very little `guidance’ or even ideas about how to rebuild a peace movement to challenge the trends for which he is so critical.
I hope to explore some possible themes of `where do we go from here’ that Engelhardt seems to ignore, in the question and answer
Still all told, a fine little volume.