After six all-American decades in business, Toys "R" Us crashed in 2018, closing its 735 U.S. stores and filing for bankruptcy. As it happens, however, the Washington-branded outfit, Mistreatment and Misconduct "R" Us (or M&M "R" Us), continues to thrive, as it has this century so far. In case the holiday season has swept your memories away, let me just remind you that, over the last 18 years, it has specialized in torture (with a particular emphasis on waterboarding); the abuse of prisoners in offshore jails and black sites; high-tech global assassinations (oops... sorry, "targeted killings") across large swaths of the planet (their numbers up again in the Trump years); well-organized kidnappings from the streets of major global cities as well as the backlands of the planet; the deaths of civilians in a striking range of countries; the displacement of startling numbers of people, thanks to its never-ending wars and conflicts (refugees who have, in turn, helped spark right-wing populist movements in Europe and the U.S.); the aiding and abetting of the Saudi war in Yemen and so helping to create what could become the worst famine and starvation crisis in memory; and, most recently, border horrors of all sorts, especially focused on the mistreatment of children. And all of that is just to start down a list of its twenty-first-century "successes."
When it comes to M&M "R" Us, bankruptcy is not an option. If anything, the behavior is only spreading as TomDispatch regular Karen Greenberg has long been documenting. Today, she takes us onto the high seas to show us how that enterprise continues to thrive in the Trump era with -- and you hardly need a New Year's prediction for this one -- more to come in 2019. Tom
America's Mixed Messages
This Time at Sea
By Karen J. Greenberg
I grew up in New London, Connecticut, watching many a military ship float by my window. New London was home to the Coast Guard Academy and sat across the river from a U.S. Navy submarine base. Uniformed guardsmen, sailors in training, and sub crews leaving port would regularly wave to my friends and me from the decks of their ships. It never occurred to me that, 50 years later, such ships would come to my attention again, this time because of the confusing messages they're sending overseas, a reflection of the conflicting images embedded in Washington's latest version of diplomacy and foreign policy.
We still want populations around the world to admire, appreciate, and respect this country as a democracy and a powerful protector. Some ships are used to make exactly that point. And yet, in the twenty-first-century version of war American-style, other ships have become the very image and essence of hardship and harm in ways that violate the most basic tenets of democracy and justice.
This mixed message is anything but new to American foreign policy. In 2003, seven months after the invasion of Iraq, Margaret Tutwiler, incoming undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, was assigned to deal with the sort of worries then being raised by Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN). He chaired the Foreign Relations Committee and so oversaw Tutwiler's confirmation hearing, describing himself as "deeply concerned" and "anxious" about the country's deteriorating image abroad.
"Americans are troubled," he explained, "by examples of virulent anti-American hatred in the Islamic world and are frustrated by public opinion in allied countries that seems increasingly ready to question American motives or blame American actions for a host of problems." Tutwiler responded with intrepid optimism. She understood the uphill battle she faced, she assured him, one that required "maintaining and in some respects regaining respect and understanding" for the U.S. around the globe. And she promised to do what she could "to contribute to the overall effort of trying to prevent any further deterioration in our nation's image."
Five months later, Congressman Jose' Serrano (D-NY), a member of the House Appropriations Committee, would suggest just how implausible was Tutwiler's task of convincing allies and enemies alike of the good intentions of the United States, in Iraq in particular. Though respectful of the idea of public diplomacy, he expressed extreme doubt about the possibility of applying it successfully in that war-torn land then occupied by the U.S. military. As he put it, he was cognizant of just "how difficult it has become for us on the one hand to try to change the image of who we are; and, on the other hand, you know, invade and occupy an Arab country." Then he added, in a bow of empathy for Tutwiler, "I just wonder how my job would be if I had to tell people that I am a good guy, while, on the other hand, I hit them over the head with a hammer."
I was at that long-ago hearing and his words punctuated an otherwise boilerplate event, bringing the room to a stunned silence for a moment -- even if, soon after, everything went right on as if Serrano had never said a word. Since then, those words of his have come back to haunt me often, as I've witnessed the policies and practices deeply embedded in America's war on terror. In that moment, Serrano highlighted the deep contradiction between Washington's desire to project a protective, constructive, compassionate image abroad, and the contrasting reality of injustice and aggression which has torn at our standards and tarnished that very image. Recently, as I began to delve into this story of U.S. ships deployed on the high seas, his words resonated one more time in an unexpected fashion.
For a century, the U.S. Navy has used hospital ships to bring medical aid to those in need around the globe. In recent years, there have been two such vessels: the USNS Mercy and the USNS Comfort. The last two are still in operation as floating hospitals, transporting medical aid to communities around the globe. They provided medical assistance to Indonesia in the wake of the tsunami and earthquake in 2004, help to Haiti in the aftermath of its devastating 2010 earthquake, and aid to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria ripped through the island in the fall of 2017.
As 2018 ends, the Comfort is completing a three-month medical assistance program designed to tend to the sick in Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, and Honduras. Deployed as part of U.S. Southern Command's Enduring Promise Initiative, that ship, according to the Navy, "reflects the United States' enduring promise of friendship, partnership, and solidarity with the Americas."
Several years ago, out of curiosity, I asked a Navy friend if I could see the Comfort at a time when it was docked in Baltimore. Granted it didn't have patients then, but it proved to be a remarkable vessel. A full-scale hospital on the seas, it has 1,000 beds, several operating theaters, labs, radiology equipment, and dental equipment, while carrying a staff of 900. The Comfort is prepared to see up to 1,000 patients a day in distant lands. On December 1st, the head of U.S. Southern Command, Admiral Craig Faller, visited Colombia and met with local officials to underscore the "security partnership" between the two nations at the moment the ship was stationed there.
Unfortunately, this is not the only message that U.S. vessels are sending out these days. In the same hemisphere where the Comfort now sails, there are more than a dozen other ships on a shared mission of quite a different sort. These also fly the U.S. flag, although under the auspices of the Coast Guard, a division of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), rather than the Navy. Approximately 400-foot vessels, they are known as National Security Cutters and have been refashioned not as hospital ships but as prison ships. They, too, are patrolling the southern waters of the Americas. Their mission is the apprehension and detention of drug smugglers, part of a multinational effort to stem the narcotics trade. They detain prisoners of the "drug war" on board, theoretically as a prelude to their future charging and prosecution, usually in the United States.
During the first 20 years of this drug interdiction program, the U.S. detained around 200 individuals per year on board such ships. Then, in 2012, Washington escalated its efforts by launching a Coast Guard-led multinational campaign. It would soon be overseen by Marine General John Kelly, who became head of U.S. Southern Command as that year ended. A further and more pronounced expansion of the program came when he was appointed secretary of DHS, the Coast Guard's mother agency. In 2017, as shipboard detentions soared, Kelly described the policy as an effort to stem the "existential" threat to the nation that drug traffickers posed.
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