TEJAKULA, north Bali – As far as precious little corners of paradise in Southeast Asia go, one could hardly ask for more. An isolated octagonal house with a beautiful garden, owned by a retired couple from California, facing a volcanic rock beach to the north of the tropical island of Bali, with the only locals being fishermen who at night set out on a junkuh – the elegant, wooden predecessor of the catamaran – to scour the calm, warm waters for tuna and barracuda.

The night is mostly pitch black – courtesy of punctual power shortages from the grid in distant Java. The sound is the usual, cacophonous tropical jungle “silence” – deafened by the inevitable daily storm. There’s not much to do except sit at the seaside bale, pinpoint the kerosene lamps identifying the junkuh, and stare at the Bali sea.

But this being Bali, where everything is a matter of sekala and niskala, soon I saw myself staring at the abyss.

Sekala is the fabulous, fascinating Balinese world of ritual, ceremony, dance, drama and endless daily offerings to the spirit world. But the real action is in niskala – the occult, the magic underlining it all. In Bali definitely what you see is not what you get.

So while staring at the sea I was actually thinking about the late, great Howard Zinn, American historian, author and activist who died on January 27 this year, and his take on this sorry world of non-stop war and infinite injustice; Zinn asked how can we “stay socially engaged,” committed to a struggle for justice and truth, and still keep our sanity and not become resigned or cynical, or turn into a vegetable, or totally burn out.

Did I miss much while staring at the Bali sea? Oh, the usual shop of horrors. The ghost of Osama bin Laden released a new audio hit blasting the US for global warming and inciting everyone to dump the US dollar (the ghost is right on both counts). Pakistani Taliban supremo Hakeemullah Mehsud may or may not have been blasted to bits by a US drone (who cares? His replacement is already in business). US President Barack Obama’s surge duly proceeds as a Kill Bill-style killing spree on both sides of the AfPak border. The Central Intelligence Agency swears al-Qaeda will try another hit inside the US within the next six months. There was a corporate takeover of American democracy (so why not “elect” US politicians by auction, once and for all?) and neo-cons are now rehashing the mantra “Bomb, Bomb Iran” as the only way for Obama to save his presidency.

So the moment I laid my eyes on the Internet, borrowing the satellite dish signal of my neighbor Hans, a Dutch architect who wisely said bye-bye to cranky, fearful, priced-out and reactionary Europe – the Bali sea instantly vanished. It was not only a matter of niskala taking over sekala. It was a matter of being sucked back into the realm of the hungry ghosts – and all that’s left in this case is the abyss, as in the Pentagon’s “long war.”

Ghosts in regalia

Last weekend, the Pentagon told the Obama administration to tell the whole of US media that it was stepping up its war machine (from extra Patriot missile batteries in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to Aegis-class cruisers on permanent patrol) against possible missile attacks by Iran on those helpless peons to democracy – the Arab Gulf petro-monarchies.

The operative word is “possible.” Former president George W. Bush’s preventive war ethos rules more than ever in Washington. It does not matter that the possibility of Tehran launching a first strike on any US Arab ally is as high as corporations not owning US democracy. And by the way, what happened to missile defense in Eastern Europe, also supposed to protect it from those same evil Tehran missiles?

So Pentagon logic now totally rules. The Pentagon assumes Iran will now prop up its own defenses. Thus the Pentagon may claim that Iran is “threatening its neighbors” – and deploy even more military might. It’s the logic of an arms race, which Tehran obviously cannot keep up with, that may give the Pentagon the “defensive” excuse it’s been waiting for, so one more war can be marketed to the battered US populace.

Pentagon hawks, always oblivious to internal political subtleties of “The Other” – the developing world enemy du jour – obviously ignore that for the regime in Tehran the key existential threat now is the internal opposition movement. The military dictatorship of the mullahtariat has better fish to fry than to launch a missile at Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the tallest man-made structure ever built.

The whole thing still qualifies as a tragicomedy when added to the fact that the Pentagon was forced to admit its attempt to shoot down a mimicked Iran ballistic missile miserably failed, courtesy of a “rogue” Raytheon radar.

To top it all, tragicomedy finally melts into farce as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “warns” China that it must support more sanctions against Iran – as if Beijing would agree to what amounts to an act of war against one of its key energy partners, especially after the Obama-approved US$6.4 billion arms sale to US client Taiwan, which includes 60 Black Hawk helicopters, Patriot missiles and advanced Harpoon missiles that can be used against land or ship targets, all of them obviously mainland Chinese.

The US Senate also approved a bill that would punish companies for exporting gasoline to Iran or helping Iran to expand its oil refining capability – by the way, this is another act of war. All these moves obviously have to be seen within the “grand chessboard” (copyright Dr Zbigniew Brzezinski, former US national security advisor ) of the New Great Game in Eurasia and the irreversible decline of the American empire/ascension of China. The Beijing collective leadership is not exactly quaking in their Ferragamos.

What does it take for Washington elites to realize that mini-acts of war simply won’t intimidate a military dictatorship of the mullahtariat, which is now fighting internally for its own survival? President Mahmud Ahmadinejad himself – for all his outbursts – has been wily enough to defuse the whole nuclear issue, saying on Iranian state TV the country would have “no problem” to send its low-enriched uranium abroad at 3.5% for further enrichment at 20% and taking it back four or five months later, as dictated by the United Nations. This voids any possible rationale for an attack on Iran by the US, Israel, or both. But it does not mean the attack won’t happen.

The Islamic regime’s short-term strategy is to lump all internal opponents as lackeys of the US and Israel and at the same time beef up its already considerable prestige in the Arab street as well as around the Muslim world as resisters to American imperialism. Meanwhile, in the US, the Israel lobby, industrial-military hawks, the Republican right and corporate media will keep up relentless pressure on Obama to “act.” The abyss scenario for 2010 reads like a crescendo series of Washington ultimatums against an already cornered military dictatorship of the mullahtariat. There can only be one terrible outcome; Tehran surrenders, or the dogs of war will be unleashed.

Barry does Indonesia

And all this is still part of a larger – warring – picture. This week, Pentagon supremo Robert Gates released two new key documents – the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR in Pentagon-speak), and the Pentagon’s 2011 defense budget proposal, at a staggering $708.2 billion (plus a request for $3 billion to help pay for the AfPak war).

The QDR (one year in redaction, full support of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) may have, at least in theory, finished off with Bush’s pre-emptive war doctrine. But still it paints a Hieronymus Bosch-like picture of Hobbesian hell – including everything from suicide bombers attacking inside the US to waves of attacks against the worldwide US empire of bases, biological terrorist attacks and even Taiwan being attacked by – what else? – Chinese missiles.

The new arsenal of weapons Gates needs was immaculately described by a top Pentagon civilian strategist as “a broad portfolio of military capabilities with maximum versatility across the widest possible spectrum of conflict.” Problem is, all those masses of supremely equipped American soldiers will still have no ground intelligence and won’t be able to speak a single “hello” in a foreign language. So much for conquering the hearts and minds of the inscrutable “other.”

The hungry ghosts are having a ball. Early this week, the US launched Cobra Gold – its mega-military exercise in the Pacific in cooperation with allies Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Indonesia. The Pentagon, industrial-military and political elites, and their courtiers in the American corporate media would rather crave then abandon the mindset of a “long war” for global hegemony.

Obama will come to Indonesia next month to relive his “Little Barry” 1967-1971 Jakarta years and practice his Bahasa Indonesia vocabulary. It might do him some good to skip Java for a while and go Balinese. Maybe staring at the sea will make him see niskala – and prevent him from being permanently engulfed by the realm of the hungry ghosts.


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