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A Counterplea for Retracted U.S. Military Engagement

This is an excerpt from my recent piece for The Diplomat.

Former Defense Department officials Michèle Flournoy and Janine Davidson’s new article, “A Plea for Smart, Forward U.S. Military Engagement,” may contain some surprises for followers of contemporary history. The piece begins:

The recent global economic downturn has generated doubts about American resilience and our ability to lead in the world. Far from being a nation in decline, however, the United States’ global standing remains unmatched and the imperative for it to lead in today’s tumultuous environment is clear. Those who assume that in order to recover economically the United States must close its overseas bases and bring its military forces home misunderstand the role the U.S. military plays in promoting global prosperity.”

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Noriega’s Return

The London Review of Books blog has just published my short post on the repatriation to Panama of former dictator Manuel Noriega. The post begins:

The president of Panama, Ricardo Martinelli, announced on Twitter on 2 December that the repatriation and immediate imprisonment of Manuel Noriega would enable Panamanians to ‘finally close this bitter chapter’ of history. Noriega arrived in Panama City nine days later, the third and final stop on a multinational extradition tour that began with his ousting by the US military in January 1990 in Operation Just Cause. Incarcerated for nearly two decades in Miami on drug trafficking charges, Noriega then performed a shorter stint in a Paris jail for money laundering and was convicted in absentia in Panama for the murder of two political opponents in the 1980s. He is now in the El Renacer prison in Gamboa.

Residents of El Chorrillo, a poor area of Panama City, may not share Martinelli’s sense of justice and closure. It was bombed so heavily during Operation Just Cause that ambulance drivers referred to it as ‘Little Hiroshima’. According to the US military, a few hundred Panamanian civilians were killed; the UN puts the number at 2500 and other estimates are even higher. On the invasion’s tenth anniversary in 1999, US General Marc Cisneros said:

“I think we could have done it with less troops and less destruction. We made it look like we were battling Goliath… We are mesmerized with firepower. We have all these new gadgets, laser-guided missiles and stealth fighters, and we are just dying to use that stuff.”

Click here to read the post in its entirety at the LRB blog.

Thomas Friedman’s Confusions

The London Review of Books blog has just published my very short piece on Thomas Friedman’s Iraq war crimes, which begins:

In his most recent book, Thomas Friedman – New York Times columnist, Pulitzer Prize winner, presidential adviser – says of the Iraq War that he has ‘nothing but regret for the excessive price that America and Iraq have had to pay in lives and treasure’. The body count seems to be less cause for concern, however, than the fact that China, which has not been distracted from domestic infrastructure projects by pricey wars abroad, can now build a convention centre in approximately the same time it takes for the Washington Metro crew to repair two escalators in Friedman’s local subway station (the book is called That Used To Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back). Still, he’s come a long way since May 2003, when he said that the US military had to go ‘house to house from Basra to Baghdad’, wielding ‘a very big stick’ and instructing Iraqis to ‘Suck On This’.

Click here to read the rest of the piece at the LRB blog.

Thomas Friedman—Greenwashing Imperial Messenger?

My book The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work was recently excerpted at Guernica Magazine.

Here’s an excerpt of the excerpt:

Despite Friedman’s newfound annoyance that the United States is preoccupied with nation-building abroad and that “the Cheneyites want to make fighting Al Qaeda our Sputnik“ while “China is doing moon shots“ and turning from red to green, he credits the U.S. army with “outgreening al-Qaeda” in Iraq. In Hot, Flat, and Crowded, we learn that this has been achieved via a combination of insulation foam and renewable energy sources, reducing the amount of fuel required to air condition troop accommodations in certain locations.

After speaking with army energy consultant Dan Nolan— whom he “couldn’t help but ask, ’Is anybody in the military saying, “Oh gosh, poor Dan has gone green—has he gone girly-man on us now?“ ’—Friedman announces that the outgreening of Al Qaeda constitutes a typical example:

“of what happens when you try to solve a problem by outgreening the competition—you buy one and you get four free. In Nolan’s case, you save lives by getting [fuel transportation] convoys off the road, save money by lowering fuel costs [from the quoted ‘hundreds of dollars per gallon’ often required to cover delivery], and maybe have some power left over to give the local mosque’s imam so his community might even toss a flower at you one day, rather than a grenade.”

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Thomas Friedman plots a return to US glory

(Photo: EPA)

The following is my review for Al Jazeera of Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum’s new book That Used to Be Us.

In a January 2011 Fox Business interview, three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman – famed begetter of the notion that the US military should make Iraqis “Suck. On. This“- described his forthcoming book That Used to Be Us as “the first book I’ve really written about America”.

Published last month with the subtitle How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented – And How We Can Come Back, the treatise is co-authored by Friedman’s proclaimed “intellectual soul mate” Michael Mandelbaum, a Johns Hopkins professor who appears on an excessive basis in Friedman’s columns and who is credited with coining the mantra that “people do not change when you tell them they should; they change when they tell themselves they must”. Said mantra does not stop either character from cheerleading the US war on Iraq, which Friedman additionally manages to cast as “the most radical-liberal revolutionary war the US has ever launched” despite simultaneously defining himself as “a liberal on every issue other than this war”.

As for Friedman’s assertion that the current book is the first one he has really written about America, this is not entirely reconcilable with his announcement during a 2010 presentation at Istanbul’s Ozyegin University that his then – latest bestseller Hot, Flat, and Crowded “is really about America”. He adds that The World Is Flat, as well as Hot, Flat, and Crowded, marketed as groundbreaking texts about globalisation and the environment, respectively, “have nothing to do with technology or environment at heart” and are instead “basically cries of the heart to get my country focused on fixing itself”.
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Financial Times betrays Thomas Friedman

Today marks the release of yet another book by Thomas Friedman, the New York Times’ prolific foreign affairs columnist whose articles over the years have exposed such trends as the “collective madness” of Palestinians and the progress in Mexican baby names to more NAFTA-friendly alternatives than Juan, such as Alexander and Kevin.

Friedman’s latest book, endearingly titled That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, is coauthored by Friedman’s “intellectual soulmate”, the foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum—a longtime staple of Friedman columns and a purveyor of such predictable notions as that “The real threat to world stability is not too much American power. It is too little American power”.

Despite having admitted to an audience in Istanbul that his two previous bestsellers—The World Is Flat and Hot, Flat, and Crowded, marketed as wakeup calls concerning globalization and clean energy, respectively—really “have nothing to do with technology or environment at heart” and are instead “basically cries of the heart to get my country focused on fixing itself”, Friedman managed to advertise That Used to Be Us as “the first book I’ve really written about America” during an interview with Fox’s Don Imus earlier this year.

Slightly more surprising than Friedman’s continuing habit of self-contradiction is a recent less-than-favorable review of the new book on the website of the Financial Times, the institution that in 2005 partnered with Goldman Sachs to bestow upon Friedman the first annual £30,000 Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award for The World Is Flat. Friedman responded to the honor by referring to the pair as “two such classy organizations”, before finally conceding two years after the 2008 financial crisis that Goldman Sachs is perhaps in fact “utterly selfish”.

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Little-known world war excuses slaughter of Panamanian civilians

The remains of Noriega’s former beach house (Photo: Kurt Fernández)

Shortly after midnight on December 20, 1989, Don Felipe—a Panamanian man now in his fifties—emerged from his house near Río Hato military base, 52 miles west of Panama City. He cannot remember why he went wandering outside at such a late hour, but he does remember what happened after he killed the snake that appeared in his path.

Don Felipe imitates the sound of incoming aircraft, followed by explosions. This was Operation Just Cause, the U.S. invasion that ousted Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. The crafting of the “just cause” required the vilification of Noriega on account of drug trafficking and other unsavory activities—all of which had also taken place during his decades of partnership with the CIA.

Standing in the ruins of Noriega’s beach house near Río Hato, Don Felipe looks out to sea as he recalls the terror of December 20. His daughter, three years old at the time, asked him to take her away from the bombs. “Where could I take her?” he says.

His neighbor’s family fled in their car. It was fired on by U.S. helicopters and a teenage son perished. Don Felipe could not understand such errors in a military operation touted as a triumph of surgical precision.

A few days after speaking with Don Felipe, I attended a birthday party in the nearby town of Coronado, where I discussed the surgical issue with a former member of the U.S. Air Force who was intermittently dancing with a bottle of rum in each hand.

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