Program Explores Expanded Reach, Mission of the U.S. Military in the 21st Century; Esteemed Journalist Robert D. Kaplan Guides a Global Journey Into America’s Strategic Approach Post-9/11
How does the most powerful nation on Earth fight a war against a shadow enemy, one not affiliated with any state or bound by the rules of war? “Inside America’s Empire”is a new PBS documentary — a special in the acclaimed series AMERICA AT A CROSSROADS — that provides an inside and insightful look at America’s military and its efforts in what is likely to be more a war of ideas than of armaments. “Inside America’s Empire”airs Monday, September 3, 2007, 10:00-11:00 p.m. ET (check local listings) on PBS.
The attacks of September 11, 2001, shattered the American mirage of invulnerability, a false security born of being the world’s only superpower. The challenge of terrorism is likely to last for generations, and in a war without definable geographic borders or clear-cut victories, the threat may crop up anywhere. “Inside America’s Empire”illuminates how the U.S. military is confronting this complicated challenge in unexpected and innovative ways, as chronicled by respected military correspondent Robert D. Kaplan of The Atlantic. Kaplan takes viewers to the Philippines, Mali, Colombia and the Republic of Georgia to meet the commanders and grunts on the ground who are waging the war on terror, often acting more as humanitarians than as warriors. Kaplan’s incisive reporting and analysis make the case that this engagement with the peoples and cultures of the world — offering logistical support, humanitarian aid and weapons training — is integral to America’s security and future prosperity.
“Inside America’s Empire”is one of the wide array of documentaries commissioned as part of the celebrated AMERICA AT A CROSSROADS series. This initiative, created by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and produced under the aegis of WETA Washington, DC, was designed to create an in-depth, provocative series of films exploring the challenges confronting the world post-9/11. The first 11 films in the series aired on PBS April 15-20, 2007, generating a strong audience response and critical acclaim. Distinguished journalist Robert MacNeil hosted the series.
The guide for “Inside America’s Empire”is the esteemed foreign and military correspondent for The Atlantic, Robert D. Kaplan. The author of 12 books, Kaplan has been reporting and writing from the world’s hot spots for more than 20 years. His work is characterized by rich context, a deep regard for history and courage; in this documentary and for his published work, Kaplan has often ventured into some of the world’s most troubled spots.
“Inside America’s Empire”begins in the Philippines, an American ally of long-standing that has been battling a Muslim insurgency for years. There have been many links established between the Filipino terrorist group, Abu Sayef, and some of the most spectacular terrorist attacks in the United States and around the world. As part of its worldwide war on Islamic radicalism, the U.S. sent military advisors to the Phillippines in January 2002 — not to fight, but to advise and assist the Armed Forces of the Philippines in its anti-terrorist efforts.
Kaplan is informed by the local U.S. Special Forces commander that they are indeed in a dangerous area, and there are casualties from a recent fire-fight to prove it. But the strategy of the U.S./AFP forces here is to separate the insurgents from the local population, accomplished through providing dramatic upgrades to the daily lives of the Filipino citizenry. In the remote islands of Jolo and Basilan, Kaplan cites the improvements: reliable cell phone reception, paved roads, health clinics. These, in turn, have created new business opportunities for the populace.
Kaplan joins Colonel Jim Linder for a meeting of local Muslim and Christian leaders in the town of Basilan, where the commander sums up the American purpose succinctly. “I am here as the commander of the American forces not to bring war,” Col. Linder says, “but to wage peace.”
But Kaplan’s reporting reveals this type of “hearts and minds” operation to be a long slough. In the meantime, during Kaplan’s stay in the Philippines, a local village is bombed, resulting in dead and wounded. Clearly, there are no quick fixes here.
Kaplan, ever the student of history, notes that the American approach in the Philippines is right out of Empire 101. Citing the experiences of the British and French empires of centuries past, he observes, “The essence of empire is not fighting,” he observes, “but rather training indigenous forces to project power on their own, in their interest and in your interest.”
Case in point is Kaplan’s next stop, the West African country of Mali. Here, deep in the Sahara, American Special Forces are launching a pre-emptive strike of sorts. Military strategists fear West Africa is fertile ground for al-Qaeda and its offshoots. Thus a small U.S. contingent is here to build relationships with tribal and governmental leaders and to train Malian forces in security operations.
Kaplan accompanies the Americans on a trip to the remote village of Araouane — as Kaplan puts it, more moonscape than hometown — where the military provides the simplest of humanitarian aids: eye exams and glasses. In return, the American commander seeks information, the intelligence that will alert him to potential problems and help build a strong relationship with local tribal leaders.
“What’s really being created is a kind of warrior diplomat,” says Kaplan, “a chameleon of sorts. … They have to be able to know how to kill in one instance and love the people on the other.”
Kaplan’s next venue is not really a part of today’s war on terrorism. It is Colombia, a Latin American country into which the United States has poured billions in aid and military assistance to help the government fight the narcotics trade, another form of terrorism and outright criminality that affects U.S. national security.
In Colombia the U.S. military is again providing community services, but U.S. advisors are also working with the Colombian military to combat the drug trade. Here the enemy’s inspiration is not ideology but profits; a soldier explains to Kaplan that the drug dealers brought in so much money they did not bother to count it, but merely weighed it. Kaplan accompanies a Colombian unit on a visit to abandoned hamlet on the fringes of the Colombian Amazon, where the drug lords had set up a “community” where the coca growers could spend their earnings on various nefarious amusements. Now that the Colombian army has re-taken the area, the village has been abandoned, standing like a silent testament to the reach of the cocaine dealers.
“It’s like a gold rush town,” Kaplan mused, “except instead of gold it was cocaine.”
Here, the victories of the American-trained indigenous troops may seem small, but it is only through constant pressure that the Americans can hope to combat the drug trade and the Colombians can make their country governable.
Viewers travel from the Amazon to the lands of the former Soviet Union, as Kaplan next journeys to Georgia, a country in Kaplan’s phrase on the “tectonic plates” of geopolitics, surrounded by Russia and Iran. It’s an oil-rich region where grudges are borne over generations and where Russian resentment over losing their empire is palpable, played out in border and territorial disputes.
Kaplan meets a contingent of U.S. Marines, training the Georgian army. The Georgian military welcomes the Americans; they need massive assistance in their effort to build up a new military. The warm reception changes when Kaplan ventures into neighboring Ossetia, a disputed region where Russia has re-established a border presence and where Kaplan and crew are detained for hours, ultimately sent back to Georgia. Kaplan’s experience in the country reflects the American involvement there. Will the U.S. be caught up in the turmoil of a newly independent Georgia that is, in Kaplan’s words, “on the frontiers of many empires and ambitions?”
Viewers may be astonished by the far-flung reaches of America’s empire: the Philippines, Mali, Colombia, Georgia. Others may be equally astonished by the non-military nature of some of the American forces’ activities in these remote regions. But Kaplan concludes that the United States has little choice, citing as alternatives either isolationism or mass infantry invasions every 10 years or so.
CPB developed the initial concept for AMERICA AT A CROSSROADS in 2004 with an open call for film projects. More than 400 proposals were submitted from public television stations and independent documentary filmmakers around the world. In 2006, CPB named WETA the producing station to oversee all films throughout production.
Underwriters: Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Producer: WETA Washington, DC. Executive producers: Jeff Bieber and Phil Craig. Producer/director: Tim Pritchard. Series executive producers: Jeff Bieber and Dalton Delan. Series producer: Leo Eaton. Associate producer: Marjolaine Souquet. Format: CC Stereo DVI Letterbox/Widescreen where available. Online: pbs.org
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■ AMERICA AT A CROSSROADS’ interactive Web site is located at pbs.org/crossroads.