A Debacle Marks the Decline of Washington's World Leadership

The collapse of the American project in Afghanistan may fade fast from the news here, but don’t be fooled. It couldn’t be more significant in ways few in this country can even begin to grasp.

“Remember, this is not Saigon,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a television audience on August 15th, the day the Taliban swept into the Afghan capital, pausing to pose for photos in the grandly gilded presidential palace. He was dutifully echoing his boss, President Joe Biden, who had earlier rejected any comparison with the fall of the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon, in 1975, insisting that “there’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable.”

Both were right, but not in the ways they intended. Indeed, the collapse of Kabul was not comparable. It was worse, incomparably so. And its implications for the future of U.S. global power are far more serious than the loss of Saigon.

On the surface, similarities abound. In both South Vietnam and Afghanistan, Washington spent 20 years and countless billions of dollars building up massive, conventional armies, convinced that they could hold off the enemy for a decent interval after the U.S. departure. But presidents Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam and Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan both proved to be incompetent leaders who never had a chance of retaining power without continued fulsome American backing.

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

What Really Matters in the U.S. of A.

They weren’t kidding when they called Afghanistan the “graveyard of empires.” Indeed, that cemetery has just taken another imperial body. And it wasn’t pretty, was it? Not that anyone should be surprised. Even after 20 years of preparation, a burial never is.

In fact, the shock and awe(fulness) in Kabul and Washington over these last weeks shouldn’t have been surprising, given our history. After all, we were the ones who prepared the ground and dug the grave for the previous interment in that very cemetery.

That, of course, took place between 1979 and 1989 when Washington had no hesitation about using the most extreme Islamists — arming, funding, training, and advising them — to ensure that one more imperial carcass, that of the Soviet Union, would be buried there. When, on February 15, 1989, the Red Army finally left Afghanistan, crossing the Friendship Bridge into Uzbekistan, Soviet commander General Boris Gromov, the last man out, said, “That’s it. Not one Soviet soldier or officer is behind my back.” It was his way of saying so long, farewell, good riddance to the endless war that the leader of the Soviet Union had by then taken to calling “the bleeding wound.” Yet, in its own strange fashion, that “graveyard” would come home with them. After all, they returned to a bankrupt land, sucked dry by that failed war against those American- and Saudi-backed Islamist extremists.

A Climate Disaster Zone, Not a Military Superpower

In recent months, Washington has had a lot to say about China’s ever-expanding air, naval, and missile power. But when Pentagon officials address the topic, they generally speak less about that country’s current capabilities, which remain vastly inferior to those of the U.S., than the world they foresee in the 2030s and 2040s, when Beijing is expected to have acquired far more sophisticated weaponry.

“China has invested heavily in new technologies, with a stated intent to complete the modernization of its forces by 2035 and to field a ‘world-class military’ by 2049,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin testified in June. The United States, he assured the Senate Armed Services Committee, continues to possess “the best joint fighting force on Earth.” But only by spending countless additional billions of dollars annually, he added, can this country hope to “outpace” China’s projected advances in the decades to come.

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

And (Un)Welcome to It

Admittedly, I hadn’t been there for 46 years, but old friends of mine still live (or at least lived) in the town of Greenville, California, and now… well, it’s more or less gone, though they survived.  The Dixie Fire, one of those devastating West Coast blazes, had already “blackened” 504 square miles of Northern California in what was still essentially the (old) pre-fire season. It would soon become the second-largest wildfire in the state’s history. When it swept through Greenville, much of downtown, along with more than 100 homes, were left in ashes as the 1,000 residents of that Gold Rush-era town fled.

I remember Greenville as a wonderful little place that, all these years later, still brings back fond memories.  I’m now on the other coast, but much of that small, historic community is no longer there. This season, California’s wildfires have already devastated three times the territory burned in the same period in 2020’s record fire season. And that makes a point that couldn’t be more salient to our moment and our future. A heating planet is a danger, not in some distant time, but right now — yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Don’t just ask the inhabitants of Greenville, ask those in the village of Monte Lake, British Columbia, the second town in that Canadian province to be gutted by flames in recent months in a region that normally — or perhaps I should just say once upon a time — was used to neither extreme heat and drought, nor the fires that accompany them.

But No Questions about War Please!

“The thirty-year interregnum of U.S. global hegemony,” writes David Bromwich in the journal Raritan, “has been exposed as a fraud, a decoy, a cheat, [and] a sell.” Today, he continues, “the armies of the cheated are struggling to find the word for something that happened and happened wrong.”

In fact, the armies of the cheated know exactly what happened, even if they haven’t yet settled on precisely the right term to describe the disaster that has befallen this nation.

What happened was this: shortly after the end of the Cold War, virtually the entire American foreign-policy establishment succumbed to a monumentally self-destructive ideological fever.

Call it INS, shorthand for Indispensable Nation Syndrome. Like Covid-19, INS exacts a painful toll of victims. Unlike Covid, we await the vaccine that can prevent its spread. We know that preexisting medical conditions can increase a person’s susceptibility to the coronavirus. The preexisting condition that increases someone’s vulnerability to INS is the worship of power.

Back in 1998, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright not only identified INS, but also captured its essence. Appearing on national TV, she famously declared, “If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future.”

Is This Country Heading for the Exit?

It was all so long ago, in a world seemingly without challengers. Do you even remember when we Americans lived on a planet with a recumbent Russia, a barely rising China, and no obvious foes except what later came to be known as an “axis of evil,” three countries then incapable of endangering this one? Oh, and, as it turned out, a rich young Saudi former ally, Osama bin Laden, and 19 hijackers, mostly of them also Saudis, from a tiny group called al-Qaeda that briefly possessed an “air force” of four commercial jets. No wonder this country was then touted as the greatest force, the superest superpower ever, sporting a military that left all others in the dust.

And then, of course, came the launching of the Global War on Terror, which soon would be normalized as the plain-old, uncapitalized “war on terror.” Yes, that very war — even if nobody’s called it that for years — began on September 11, 2001. At a Pentagon partially in ruins, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, already aware that the destruction around him was probably Osama bin Laden’s responsibility, ordered his aides to begin planning for a retaliatory strike against… Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Rumsfeld’s exact words (an aide wrote them down) were: “Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not.”

U.S.-China Near-War Status Report

It’s the summer of 2026, five years after the Biden administration identified the People’s Republic of China as the principal threat to U.S. security and Congress passed a raft of laws mandating a society-wide mobilization to ensure permanent U.S. domination of the Asia-Pacific region. Although major armed conflict between the United States and China has not yet broken out, numerous crises have erupted in the western Pacific and the two countries are constantly poised for war. International diplomacy has largely broken down, with talks over climate change, pandemic relief, and nuclear nonproliferation at a standstill. For most security analysts, it’s not a matter of if a U.S.-China war will erupt, but when.

Does this sound fanciful? Not if you read the statements coming out of the Department of Defense (DoD) and the upper ranks of Congress these days.

“China poses the greatest long-term challenge to the United States and strengthening deterrence against China will require DoD to work in concert with other instruments of national power,” the Pentagon’s 2022 Defense Budget Overview asserts. “A combat-credible Joint Force will underpin a whole-of-nation approach to competition and ensure the Nation leads from a position of strength.”   

Fifty Years of Reinforcing Racism

Fifty years ago, on June 17, 1971, President Richard Nixon stood before the White House press corps, staffers at his side, to announce “a new, all-out offensive” against drug abuse, which he denounced as “America’s public enemy number one.” He called on Congress to contribute $350 million for a worldwide attack on “the sources of supply.” The first battle in this new drug war would be fought in South Vietnam where, Nixon said, “a number of young Americans have become addicts as they serve abroad.”

While the president was declaring his war on drugs, I was stepping off a trans-Pacific flight into the searing tropical heat of Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital, to report on the sources of supply for the drug abuse that was indeed sweeping through the ranks of American soldiers fighting this country’s war in Vietnam.

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

Three-Quarters of a Century of Nuclear Follies — And That's Just Where to Begin

Yes, once upon a time I regularly absorbed science fiction and imagined futures of wonder, but mainly of horror.  What else could you think, if you read H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds under the covers by flashlight while your parents thought you were asleep?  Of course, that novel was a futuristic fantasy, involving as it did Martians arriving in London to take out humanity. Sixty-odd years after secretly reading that book and wondering about the future that would someday be mine, I’m living, it seems, in that very future, however Martian-less it might be.  Still, just in case you hadn’t noticed, our present moment could easily be imagined as straight out of a science-fiction novel that, even at my age, I’d prefer not to read by flashlight in the dark of night. 

I mean, I was barely one when Hiroshima was obliterated by a single atomic bomb. In the splintering of a moment and the mushroom cloud that followed, a genuinely apocalyptic power that had once rested only in the hands of the gods (and perhaps science-fiction authors) became an everyday part of our all-too-human world.  From that day on, it was possible to imagine that we — not the Martians or the gods — could end it all. It became possible to imagine that we ourselves were the apocalypse. And give us credit. If we haven’t actually done so yet, neither have we done a bad job when it comes to preparing the way for just such a conclusion to human history. 

The Passing of the Present and the Decline of America

“I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.”
— Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

Kurt Vonnegut’s famous novel about the World War II bombing of the German city of Dresden appeared the year I graduated from West Point. While dimly aware that its publication qualified as a literary event, I felt no urge to read it. At that moment, I had more immediate priorities to attend to, chief among them: preparing for my upcoming deployment to Vietnam.

Had I reflected on Vonnegut’s question then, my guess is that I would have judged the present to be both very wide and very deep and, as a white American male, mine to possess indefinitely. Life, of course, was by no means perfect. The Vietnam War had obviously not gone exactly as expected. The cacophonous upheaval known as “the Sixties” had produced considerable unease and consternation. Yet a majority of Americans — especially those with their hands on the levers of political, corporate, and military power — saw little reason to doubt that history remained on its proper course and that was good enough for me.

America's Role in a World Transformed

During the summer of 2020, as I was writing this book, nervous Americans sensed the onset of a terrifying Apocalypse. Wildfires scorching vast areas of California, Oregon, and Washington and hurricanes pummeling the Gulf Coast reinforced those terrors. Fears that events were literally taking an apocalyptic turn became explicit and widespread. Editors inserted the term itself into headlines. THE APOCALYPSE FEELS NIGH.1 THE CLIMATE APOCALYPSE HAS ARRIVED.2 HOW THE APOCALYPSE BECAME THE NEW NORMAL.3 AN APOCALYPTIC AUGUST IN CALIFORNIA.4 APOCALYPSE IN CALIFORNIA—COMING TO YOU SOON.5 By implication, that you could be anyone anywhere.

Fires and floods were only the latest in a succession of punishments Americans were obliged to endure. First had come the toxic and divisive presidency of Donald Trump. Then in the spring of 2020, a deadly pandemic engulfed the nation, nearly bringing it to its knees. Trailing just steps behind came an economic collapse so severe as to elicit comparisons with the Great Depression of the 1930s. Before Americans had fully absorbed these disruptions, a mass movement demanding a reckoning with the nation’s legacy of racism erupted, unleashing, in turn, a white nationalist backlash.

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

What Planet Will Our Children and Grandchildren Inherit?

Let me start with my friend and the boat. Admittedly, they might not seem to have anything to do with each other. The boat, a guided-missile destroyer named the USS Curtis Wilbur, reportedly passed through the Straits of Taiwan and into the South China Sea, skirting the Paracel Islands that China has claimed as its own. It represented yet another Biden-era challenge to the planet’s rising power from its falling one. My friend was thousands of miles away on the West Coast of the United States, well vaccinated and going nowhere in Covid-stricken but improving America.

As it happens, she’s slightly younger than me, but still getting up there, and we were chatting on the phone about our world, about the all-too-early first wildfire near Los Angeles, the intensifying mega-drought across the West and Southwest, the increasing nightmare of hurricane season in the Atlantic and so on. We were talking about the way in which we humans — and we Americans in particular (though you could toss in the Chinese without a blink) — have been wreaking fossil-fuelized havoc on this planet and what was to come.

Biden the Bold vs. Joe the Timid

Is President Biden afflicted with the political equivalent of a split personality?  His first several months in office suggest just that possibility.  On the home front, the president’s inclination is clearly to Go Big.  When it comes to America’s role in the world, however, Biden largely hews to pre-Trumpian precedent.  So far at least, the administration’s overarching foreign-policy theme is Take It Slow.

“Joe Biden Is Electrifying America Like F.D.R.”  So proclaimed the headline of a recent Nicholas Kristof column in the New York Times.  Even allowing for a smidgen of hyperbole, the comparison is not without merit.  Much like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during his famous First Hundred Days in office in the midst of the Great Depression, Biden has launched a flurry of impressively ambitious domestic initiatives in the midst of the Great Pandemic — an American Rescue Plan, an American Jobs Plan, an American Families Plan, and most recently an environmental restoration program marketed as America the Beautiful. 

A Nation Unmade by War by Tom Engelhardt

The Imperial Presidency Comes Home to Roost

Joe Biden’s got a problem — and so do I. And so, in fact, do we.

At 76 years old, you’d think I’d experienced it all when it comes to this country and its presidencies. Or most of it, anyway. I’ve been around since Franklin D. Roosevelt was president. Born on July 20, 1944, I’m a little “young” to remember him, though I was a war baby in an era when Congress still sometimes declared war before America made it.

As a boy, in my liberal Democratic household in New York, I can certainly remember singing (to the tune of “Whistle While You Work”) our version of the election-year ditty of 1956 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower faced off against Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson. The pro-Republican kicker to it went this way: “Eisenhower has the power, Stevenson’s a jerk.” We, however, sang, “Eisenhower has no power, Stevenson will work!” As it happened, we never found out if that was faintly true, since the former Illinois governor got clobbered in that election (just as he had in 1952).

Kill Anything That Moves

The 20th Anniversary of the War on Terror Arrives

“This is a different kind of war, which we will wage aggressively and methodically to disrupt and destroy terrorist activity,” President George W. Bush announced a little more than two weeks after the 9/11 attacks. “Some victories will be won outside of public view, in tragedies avoided and threats eliminated. Other victories will be clear to all.”

This year will mark the 20th anniversary of the war on terror, including America’s undeclared conflict in Afghanistan. After that war’s original moniker, Operation Infinite Justice, was nixed for offending Muslim sensibilities, the Pentagon rebranded it Operation Enduring Freedom. Despite neither a clear victory, nor the slightest evidence that enduring freedom had ever been imposed on that country, “U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan ended,” according to the Defense Department, in 2014. In reality, that combat simply continued under a new name, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, and grinds on to this very day.

Like the 2003 invasion of Iraq, known as Operation Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom and Freedom’s Sentinel failed to live up to their names. Nor did any of the monikers slapped on America’s post-9/11 wars ever catch the public imagination; the battlefields spread from Afghanistan and Iraq to Yemen, Somalia, the Philippines, Libya, Syria, Niger, Burkina Faso, and beyond — at a price tag north of $6.4 trillion and a human toll that includes at least 335,000 civilians killed and at least 37 million displaced from their homes. Meanwhile, those long promised clear victories never materialized even as the number of terrorist groups around the world proliferated.