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Occupying Different Worlds: NATO and Its Citizens

NATO protestors in Chicago, May 19, 2012. (Photo: Zach Roberts /

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NATO protestors in Chicago, May 19, 2012. (Photo: Zach Roberts /“Health care, not warfare!” was the slogan of the sizzling hot day Saturday as hundreds of protesters flooded the tranquil tree-lined street where sits 4228 North Hermitage Ave., the residence of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. At issue was the Mayor’s recent decision to close six of twelve city mental health clinics because of a budget crisis that is not so severe as to prohibit the city from spending tens of millions of dollars to host this weekend’s NATO summit.

Michael Hastings, author of The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan, was among the many journalists at the event. For him, this critique is key. “We’re spending $700 billion a year on defense,” he told me. “We spent $120 billion in 2011 in Afghanistan. The takeaway I got from the protesters was that this money could be better spent at home than on these different foreign policy adventures. The adventures have turned out not to be very beneficial for most Americans or most Afghans either.”

In fact, the bind Afghans will find themselves in after American withdrawal will be a central topic of discussion inside the halls of the NATO summit. “Forget protests,” MSNBC gratuitously advised. “NATO summit’s problem is Afghanistan.” There, as in the United States, human well-being is subordinated well beneath wealthy interests’ drive to accumulate capital.

Two years ago, the U.S. discovered nearly $1 trillion in previously unknown iron, copper, cobalt, gold and lithium deposits in Afghanistan, which General David H. Petraeus, then commander of U.S. Central Command, hailed as showing “stunning potential.” The Afghan Ministry of Mines has developed a “Business Plan for an “Investor Friendly Environment” in which the ministry will “[improve] private sector’s access to Afghanistan’s mineral resources” and “enable and facilitate domestic and international private investment with the same rules for all.” Given the festering cesspool of corruption that constitutes Afghanistan’s government and ownership class, the last claim is somewhat dubious.

Shockingly, though, the international community is having a very difficult time coming up with money to support Afghanistan’s efforts to recover from the decade of ruin to which the American military occupation has relgated the impoverished country. The U.S. is set to pledge $2 billion per year to this effort – compare this to the $100 billion per year that the U.S. spent to maintain its recent military surge – and this is so far the world’s largest pledge.

“In many ways, the [NATO] summit is kabuki theater,” said Hastings. “Many of these decisions have already been made, and this is the symbolic effort to show that there’s a consensus about what to do in Afghanistan.”

The international negotiations around the minutiae of that consensus will take place within the parameters of a very narrow ideological outlook that essentially affirms the desirability of NATO’s cooperation in the project of global U.S. military hegemony. The only people in Chicago who will be providing an alternative vision for American foreign policy will be the protesters, barred from entry into the discussions. “Broadly, I think it’s very fair to say that those attending the summit and those protesting on the streets are operating in completely separate spheres,” according to Hastings, who also said that these summits are held “in a bubble…and that’s intentional. That’s why there’s heavy police presence.”

That presence got especially heavy last night, as Chicago police beat protesters with clubs and bikes, plowed into a group of protesters in a van, and surrounded the vehicle of livestream journalists Tim Pool and Luke Rudkowski who were cuffed and interrogated by police with guns drawn.
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