Call me crazy, if you want, but I think I see how to do it!
We have two intractable issues, one intractable president, and an intractable world, but what if it weren’t so? What if those two intractable problems could be swept off the table by a single gesture from that same intractable man?
As a start, consider the problem of President Trump’s embattled “great, great wall,” the one to be built across 1,000 (or is it 2,000?) miles of our southern border, the one that so obsesses him, filling every other hour of his tweet-storming day, the one that a recalcitrant Mexican government refused to pay for, that Congress wouldn’t pony up the money for, and that striking percentages of Americans don’t want to fund either. As for turning it into a national emergency, that’s only going to line the pockets of law firms, not build the “big, fat, beautiful wall” of his dreams. But what if there were a simple solution, an easy-to-make deal that could solve his wall problem, while wiping the other intractable problem that goes by the name of China off the map of American troubles?
Wouldn’t that be a geopolitical magic trick of the first order, the art of the deal on a previously unimaginable scale? If your answer is yes, as it would almost have to be, then here’s the amazing thing: just a little fresh thinking in Donald Trump’s Washington could make it so.
Great, Great Walls in History
With that in mind, let me begin with China and show you just how it could be done. First, a simple question: Historically speaking, what country has had the greatest success building great, great walls? It’s a no-brainer, right?
I mean, how long is China’s famed Great Wall? Not a mere couple of thousand miles, but more like 13,000 of them (as Donald Trump himself has, in the past, pointed out). Admittedly, the idea of that wall — if not the actual set of walls built at different moments in history — was initially conceived of in 220 BC by Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of a unified China. And here’s the remarkable thing: the construction of various versions of his wall continued, on and off, for almost 2,000 years, into the mid-seventeenth century. Urban legends aside, China’s Great Wall is not visible to the naked eye from space, but it’s no less impressive for that. It was meant to keep out the nomadic peoples of the Asian steppes and other “barbarians” who might threaten the empire. Admittedly, as will undoubtedly be true of Trump’s future great wall (if it’s ever built), China’s version kept out far less than was advertised. Otherwise, there would never have been either a Mongol or a Manchu dynasty, both founded by invading groups from outside the wall.
Still, that country’s Great Wall is a monument to the building and engineering skills of a remarkable imperial power and, even in the twenty-first century, remains a tourist magnet. (More than 10 million people visit it annually.) That, in turn, should appeal to the Donald Trump we all now know so well, the man who clearly would, in the fashion of the Qin emperor, like his name to be highlighted in the history books a couple of thousand years from now. You know, the guy who is eternally eager to give the thumb (“You’re fired!”) to anyone not willing to make it so (which, of course, means just about everyone).
At the moment, he and his men are deep in a fierce trade war, escalating tariff battles, high-pressure negotiations, and various kinds of semi-militarized struggles with China, a country that, alone on the planet, has a special relationship to great walls. Now, do me a favor: keep all of that in the back of your mind for a moment, while I move on to some history that’s a little closer to home.
When it comes to the building of monumental infrastructure of the most tangible sort (rather than that of the virtual world), what country on this planet would you normally look to? In the 1950s or 1960s, it would, of course, have been the United States. In those decades, from superhighways to airports, this country was the planet’s infrastructure-building powerhouse.
Almost half a century later, though, it’s quite another story. In 2017, for instance, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave U.S. infrastructure a D+ on a “report card” it issued. From dams to roads, levees to drinking-water systems, airports to public transit, the situation could hardly have been more dismal. Imagine this: the highest grade, a “B,” went to “rail” in a country that has yet to build a single high-speed mile of it (and whose only significant high-speed line in the late planning stages, the one that was to run between San Francisco and Los Angeles, now seems to be going down). China, on the other hand, already has 15,500 miles of high-speed rail and far more planned for the future.
In reality, Americans simply don’t invest in infrastructure any more. Our airports generally have a third-world feel to them, our rail lines are sagging, public transportation is generally a joke, highways potholed, and few in Washington seem to give a damn. As of 2019, despite moments of Trumpian braggadocio about a supposed $1.5 trillion infrastructure investment plan — largely a scam that has yet to arrive in Congress — the only kind of infrastructure still getting attention is, of course, the president’s great wall to nowhere. And if it ever does get started, you might think twice about letting American companies loose on it, given their lack of recent experience with infrastructure construction. All of which leads me back to China.
The Belt, Road, and Wall Initiative?
The president is now knee deep in a trade war with China that couldn’t be more threatening. His tariffs (and the tariffs that country slapped on American goods in return) have already hit the Chinese economy in ways that could, in the long run, destabilize it. If so, in what’s still a distinctly global economy, the U.S. would undoubtedly be clobbered, too.
Now, add in just one more thing: unlike the United States, twenty-first-century China has launched what could prove to be the greatest global infrastructure project of all time. I’m thinking of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, a projected series of pipelines, rail lines, highways, ports, and the like that Beijing is intent on helping finance and construct across much of Eurasia and Africa at an initial cost of more than $1 trillion and, in the future, up to $8 trillion. It’s a plan meant to span 64 countries, potentially linking significant parts of the global economy directly to Beijing for decades to come.
Given all of the above, here’s my suggestion to you, Mr. President: make this country the first in the Americas to join that project. In the process, you would, of course, insist on relabeling it the Belt, Road, and Wall Initiative, or even the Donald J. Trump Belt, Road, and Wall Initiative. You would then simply take those punitive tariffs and that trade war of yours off the table in return for one simple thing: the twenty-first century’s empire of infrastructure, that land of Great Walls, would have to take full responsibility, at a cost of between $25 billion and $70 billion, for fulfilling your promise to your base and building that long-ballyhooed great wall of yours along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Admittedly, you continue to claim that your wall is already being built, but of course it isn’t. Not a mile of it. And given the morass of court cases and other roadblocks likely to follow your recent national emergency declaration, that could be the situation for the rest of your term, during which you, your family, and the wall could all find yourselves locked in a myriad of court struggles. And yet, with a single decision you could instantly create a planet on which the two largest economies were no longer at war and a truly great, great wall, one to boggle even your imagination, might indeed be built, its parapets emblazoned with your name in giant gold letters. That future Chinese wall in North America, stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, might even be the first wall on the planet truly visible to the naked eye from space.
Imagine for a moment if, in election campaign 2016, you hadn’t so vociferously and repeatedly assured that base of yours that the Mexicans would pay for your wall. After all, had you known your history a little better, you would have realized that Mexico lost most of its wall-building moxie in its post-Aztec incarnation. But what if, from the very beginning, you had called upon China to pay for and construct the wall instead? Had you done so, much that has been tense and threatening to the global economy (not to speak of the possibility of a future World War III) might have been avoided. Still, even on this increasingly absurd planet of ours, it’s not too late for you to decisively move in another direction.
Were you to do so, it would instantly be the deal of at least the century and you would be the dealer of perhaps any century. Of course, it goes without saying that, given the historical record, you would have to grant the Chinese another 2,000 years to complete the greatest wall of all.
A Swiftian Modest Proposal for the President
As I approach 75, I’m having a commonplace experience for my age. I live with a brain that’s beginning to dump previously secure memories — names, the contents of books I read long ago (or all too recently), events, whatever. If you’re of a certain age yourself, you know the story.
Recently, however, I realized that this experience of loss, like so much else in our world, is more complex than I imagined. What I mean is that such loss also involves gain. It’s turned my mind to, and made me something of an instant expert on, one aspect of twenty-first-century America: the memory hole that’s swallowed up parts of our all-too-recent history. In fact, I’ve been wondering whether aging imperial powers, like old men and women, have a tendency to discard what once had been oh-so-familiar. There’s a difference, though, when it comes to the elites of the aging empire I live in at least. They don’t just dump things relatively randomly as I seem to be doing. Instead, they conveniently obliterate all memory of their country’s — that is, their own — follies and misdeeds.
Let me give you an example. But you need to bear with me here because I’m about to jump into the disordered mind of a man who, though two years younger than me, has what might be called — given present-day controversies — a borderline personality. I’m thinking of President Donald Trump, or rather of a particular moment in his chaotic recent mental life. As the New Year dawned, he chaired what now passes for a “cabinet meeting.” That mainly means an event in which those present grovel before, fawn over, and outrageously praise him in front of the cameras. Otherwise, Trump, a man who doesn’t seem to know the meaning of advice or of a meeting, held a 95-minute presidential ramble through the brambles in front of a Game of Thrones-style “[Iran] Sanctions Are Coming” poster of… well, him. The media typically ate it up, even while critiquing the president’s understanding of that HBO TV series. And so it goes in the Washington of 2019.
Excuse me if I seem to be wandering off subject (another attribute of the aging mind), but I’m about to plunge into history and our president is neither a historian, nor particularly coherent. Read any transcript of his and not only does he flip from subject to subject, sentence by sentence, but even — no small trick — within sentences. In other words, he presents a translation problem. Fortunately, he’s surrounded by a bevy of translators (still called “reporters” or “pundits”) and, unlike the translators in the president’s meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin, we have their notes.
So here, as a start, is a much-quoted passage of his on this country’s never-ending Afghan War from that cabinet meeting, which reporters and pundits jumped on with alacrity and criticized him roundly for:
“We’re going to do something that’s right. We are talking to the Taliban. We’re talking to a lot of different people. But here’s the thing — because mentioned India: India is there. Russia is there. Russia used to be the Soviet Union. Afghanistan made it Russia, because they went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan. Russia. So you take a look at other countries. Pakistan is there; they should be fighting. But Russia should be fighting.
“The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. They were right to be there. The problem is it was a tough fight. And literally, they went bankrupt. They went into being called Russia again, as opposed to the Soviet Union. You know, a lot [of] these places you’re reading about now are no longer a part of Russia because of Afghanistan.”
As I said, Donald Trump is no historian. So it’s true that the Red Army didn’t move into Afghanistan in 1979 thanks to a terrorist presence in Russia. And yes, every stray pen or talking head in Washington seemed to skewer the president for his ignorance of that reality, including the Atlantic’s eminent neocon pundit David Frum who basically claimed that the president was simply pushing the latest dish of pasta Putinesca our way. (“It’s amazing enough that any U.S. president would retrospectively endorse the Soviet invasion. What’s even more amazing is that he would do so using the very same falsehoods originally invoked by the Soviets themselves: ‘terrorists’ and ‘bandit elements.’ It has been an important ideological project of the Putin regime to rehabilitate and justify the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan…”)
While critics like Frum did begrudgingly admit that the Soviet fiasco in Afghanistan might have had just a teensy-weensy something or other to do with the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, less than two years after the Red Army limped home, the president, they insisted, basically got that wrong, too. The Soviet Union bankrupted by Afghanistan? Not in your dreams, buddy, or as the Washington Post‘s Aaron Blake wrote in a piece headlined “Trump’s Bizarre History Lesson on the Soviet Union, Russia, and Afghanistan”:
“The overlap between the fall of the Soviet Union and its foray into Afghanistan is obvious. The USSR invaded in 1979 and left a decade later, in 1989. The superpower dissolved shortly thereafter in 1991. But correlation is not causation… It was perhaps among the many reasons the USSR collapsed. But it was not the reason.”
And then, of course, came the next presidential tweet, and everyone — except me — moved on with alacrity. I was left alone, still dredging through my memories of that ancient conflict, which, these days, no one but the president would even think of bringing up in the context of the ongoing U.S. war in Afghanistan. And yet here’s the curious thing when it comes to an aging empire that prefers not to remember the history of its folly: Donald Trump was right that Russia’s Afghan misadventure is a remarkably logical place to start when considering the present American debacle in that same country.
Two Empires Trapped in Afghanistan
Let me mention one thing no one’s likely to emphasize these days when it comes to the Russian decision to enter that Afghan quagmire in 1979. At the highest levels of the Carter and then the Reagan administrations, top American officials were working assiduously to embroil the Soviets in Afghanistan and would then invest staggering sums in a CIA campaign to fund Islamic extremist guerrillas to keep them there. Not that anyone in Washington is likely to play this up in 2019, but the U.S. began aiding those Mujahidin guerrillas not after the Red Army moved in to support a pro-Soviet regime in Kabul, but six months before.
Here’s how President Carter’s national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, would describe the situation almost two decades later:
“According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the mujahidin began during 1980, that’s to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan. But the reality, kept secret until now, is completely different: on 3 July 1979 President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And on the same day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained that in my opinion this aid would lead to a Soviet military intervention.”
Asked if he had any regrets, Brzezinski responded:
“Regret what? The secret operation was an excellent idea. It drew the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? On the day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, saying, in essence: ‘We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War.'”
Think about that largely missing bit of history for a moment. Top U.S. officials wanted to give the Soviet Union a version of their own disastrous Vietnam experience and so invested billions of dollars and much effort in that proxy war — and it worked. The Soviet leadership continued to pour money into their military misadventure in Afghanistan when their country was already going bankrupt and the society they had built was beginning to collapse around them. They were indeed suffering from what General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev came to call “the bleeding wound.” And if that isn’t the language of disaster (or bankruptcy or, perhaps more accurately, implosion), what is? Yes, Afghanistan, that “graveyard of empires,” wasn’t the only thing that took their world down, but the way their much-vaunted army finally limped home a decade later was certainly a significant factor in its collapse.
Now, let me tax your memory (and especially elite Washington’s) just a bit more. Think again about the history that led up to the American war President Trump was fretting about in that cabinet meeting. Under the circumstances, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Brzezinski and his successors were just a tad too successful — or, to put it another way, that they lured not one but two empires into their trap; the second being, of course, the American one.
After all, in that 10-year Afghan proxy war (1979-1989), they laid the foundations for the creation by a rich young Saudi named Osama bin Laden of a resistance outfit of Arab fighters. You know, “al-Qaeda,” or “the base.” They also funded other extremist Islamic figures and groups like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar or the Haqqani network that would, more than a decade after the Soviets straggled home, go to war against… well, us. And through their investment in that brutal quagmire, they also helped lay the foundations for the destruction and destitution of significant parts of Afghanistan, and so for the brutal civil war that followed in the early 1990s amid the ruins. Out of that, of course, came another group whose name might still ring a bell or two: the Taliban.
In other words, Brzezinski & Co. laid the foundations for what would become a nearly 30-year American quagmire war (with a decade off between its two parts) in a land that, in 1979, few Americans other than a bunch of hippies had ever heard of. Here, then, is a small hint for the president: you might consider starting to refer to Afghanistan — and I assure you this would be historically accurate (even if you were roundly criticized for it by the Washington punditariat) — as America’s “bleeding wound.”
No matter how many years it goes on, one thing seems probable: like the Red Army, the U.S. military will finally limp out of that country in defeat and will also, in some way, bring that defeat home with them. It may not be what finally bankrupts or implodes the great(er) and far wealthier imperial power of the Cold War era, but as with Russia it will surely lend a helping hand.
There’s No Success Like Failure in Washington
In a country in which implosive elements are already being mixed into its politics, President Trump had his finger on something when he brought up the Russian war in Afghanistan. However historically and syntactically mixed up he might have been, his brain was still far more on target than those of most of the wise men and women of the present Washington establishment.
Take David Frum. Who today thinks much about his role in the history of American folly? As a speechwriter for George W. Bush, however, he was memorably ordered to produce “in a sentence or two our best case for going after Iraq.” In other words, he was to make a case for the invasion of that country in the president’s 2002 State of the Union address. At that time, with America’s superpower enemy, the Soviet Union, long gone and the U.S. seemingly unopposed on planet Earth, he somehow found three weak countries — Iraq, Iran, and North Korea — to turn into a World War II-style “axis of evil.” In doing so, he produced this memorable passage for the president:
“States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.”
Mission accomplished! No matter that neither Iraq, nor the other two countries were anywhere near having nukes.
Donald Trump has often been accused of megalomania as if that were a unique trait of his, but that’s because we’ve blotted out Washington’s other megalomaniacs of this century. I’m thinking of the neocon officials of the Bush administration with their urge to turn this planet into an American possession and their disastrous invasion of Iraq. Because of that sense of amnesia, David Frum, Mr. Axis of Evil, like the rest of his neocon companions has, a decade and a half later, risen again in Washington. Like him, many of them are now critics of the Trump administration, while others, like National Security Advisor John Bolton, are ascendant in that very administration.
In the end, when it comes to history and memory, it all seems to prove one thing: if you want to ensure your success in twenty-first-century Washington, there’s no way you can be too wrong. (The key figures in that city these days are evidently only familiar with the first of those two famed lines in Bob Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero”: “She knows there’s no success like failure/And that failure’s no success at all.”)
You now have 60 seconds (and the clock’s already ticking) to answer a question: Who, in or out of the administration, critic, pundit, or official, was against the invasion of Iraq once upon a time? I think you know the answer to that one. If you were against the single most disastrous, megalomanic foreign policy act of this century, there’s no place for you in present-day Washington, not in the administration, either party in Congress, or even in memory. You are not worth listening to, writing about, thinking about, or remembering in any way. You are the anti-Frum and have been deposited in the proverbial dustbin of history along with all those other embarrassing memories like… to mention just one more… the myriad elections in other countries that the U.S. interfered with before we were shocked (shocked!) to discover that some country might have meddled with one of ours.
Think of those neocons, the ones who have yet again made it into positions of power or influence and respect in Washington, as the gang who helped pave the way for Donald Trump to become president. Think of them as the imploders. Think of them as our domestic bleeding wound and (when it comes to taking down the system) the truest pasta Putinesca around.
What Might Have Been?
And now that I’ve left you with a completely bad taste in your mouth, let me bring up another small forgotten memory, one that might qualify — in an alternate universe of memories at least — as utopian, rather than dystopian. I’m thinking about “the peace dividend.” You don’t remember it? Well, that’s not surprising. But after the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991 (something official Washington hadn’t faintly expected and initially greeted in a kind of stunned silence), it briefly seemed as if the great-power struggles that had preoccupied history since perhaps the fifteenth century were finally over. The U.S. was the lone superpower left on planet Earth. Enemies were beyond scarce. A judgment of some sort had been rendered and, for a brief moment, even in Washington, people began talking about that most miraculous of things: a peace dividend.
The staggering sums that had gone into the Pentagon and the rest of the national security state in the Cold War years were visibly no longer necessary. So it was time to bring it all — billions and billions of dollars that had long been invested in the militarization of our American world — home. There was, after all, nothing left to build up military power against and so that money could now be put into what wouldn’t for another decade be called “the homeland.”
In fact, though modest cuts were made in U.S. forces and military spending in those years, they would prove to be anything but a dividend and would soon enough simply evaporate in the face of the military-industrial complex and, of course, that “axis of evil.”
In the years that followed, the very idea of a peace dividend, even the phrase itself, would simply vanish. Still, just for a moment, in a country whose infrastructure is now crumbling, whose teachers are underpaid, whose health care system is under siege, it was possible to dream about a world in which the bleeding wounds of the planet might begin to be staunched. Imagine that and think about what the future might have been.
“The Bleeding Wound”
Sixty-six million years ago, so the scientists tell us, an asteroid slammed into this planet. Landing on what’s now Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, it gouged out a crater 150 kilometers wide and put so much soot and sulfur into the atmosphere that it created what was essentially a prolonged “nuclear winter.” During that time, among so many other species, large and small, the dinosaurs went down for the count. (Don’t, however, tell that to your local chicken, the closest living relative — it’s now believed — of Tyrannosaurus Rex.)
It took approximately 66 million years for humanity to evolve from lowly surviving mammals and, over the course of a recent century or two, teach itself how to replicate the remarkable destructive power of that long-gone asteroid in two different ways: via nuclear power and the burning of fossil fuels. And if that isn’t an accomplishment for the species that likes to bill itself as the most intelligent ever to inhabit this planet, what is?
Talking about accomplishments: as humanity has armed itself ever more lethally, it has also transformed itself into the local equivalent of so many asteroids. Think, for instance, of that moment in the spring of 2003 when George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and crew launched the invasion of Iraq with dreams of setting up a Pax Americana across the Greater Middle East and beyond. By the time U.S. troops entered Baghdad, the burning and looting of the Iraqi capital had already begun, leaving the National Museum of Iraq trashed (gone were the tablets on which Hammurabi first had a code of laws inscribed) and the National Library of Baghdad, with its tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts, in flames. (No such “asteroid” had hit that city since 1258, when Mongol warriors sacked it, destroying its many libraries and reputedly leaving the Tigris River running “black with ink” and red with blood.)
In truth, since 2003 the Greater Middle East has never stopped burning, as other militaries — Afghan, Iranian, Iraqi, Israeli, Russian, Saudi, Syrian, Turkish — entered the fray, insurgent groups rose, terror movements spread, and the U.S. military never left. By now, the asteroidal nature of American acts in the region should be beyond question. Consider, for example, the sainted retired general and former secretary of defense, Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis, the man who classically said of an Iraqi wedding party (including musicians) that his troops took out in 2004, “How many people go to the middle of the desert… to hold a wedding 80 miles from the nearest civilization?” Or consider that, in the very same year, Mattis and the 1st Marine Division he commanded had just such an impact on the Iraqi city of Fallujah, leaving more than 75% of it in rubble.
Or focus for a moment on the destruction caused by some combination of U.S. air power, ISIS suicide bombers, artillery, and mortars that, in seven months of fighting in 2017, uprooted more than a million people from the still largely un-reconstructed Iraqi city of Mosul (where 10 million tons of rubble are estimated to remain). Or try to bring to mind the rubblized city of Ramadi. Or consider the destruction of the Syrian city of Raqqa, the former “capital” of ISIS’s caliphate, left more than 80% “uninhabitable” after the U.S. (and allied) air forces dropped 20,000 bombs on it. All are versions of the same phenomenon.
And yet when it comes to asteroids and the human future, one thing should be obvious. Such examples still represent relatively small-scale local impacts, given what’s to come.
The Wars From Hell
If you happened to be an Afghan, Iraqi, Libyan, Syrian, Somali, or Yemeni in the twenty-first century, can there be any question that life would have seemed asteroidal to you? What Osama bin Laden began with just 19 fanatic followers and four hijacked commercial airliners the U.S. military continued across the Greater Middle East and North Africa as if it were the force from outer space (which, in a sense, it was). It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about cities turned to rubble, civilians slaughtered, wedding parties obliterated, populations uprooted and sent into various forms of exile, the transformation of former nations (however autocratic) into failed states, or the spread of terrorism. It’s been quite a story. More than 17 years and at least $5.6 trillion after the Bush administration launched its Global War on Terror, can there be any question that the wildest dreams of Osama bin Laden have been more than fulfilled? And it’s not faintly over yet.
More remarkable still, just about all of this has largely been ignored in the country that functionally made it so. If you asked most Americans, they would certainly know that almost 3,000 civilians were slaughtered in the terror attacks of 9/11, but how many (if any) would be aware of the several hundred civilians — brides, grooms, revelers, you name it — similarly slaughtered in what were, in essence, U.S. terror attacks against multiple wedding parties in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen? And that’s just to begin to mention the kinds of destruction that have gone on largely unnoticed here.
In the first 18 years of this century, tens of millions of people have been uprooted and displaced — more than 13 million in Syria alone — from what had been their homes, lives, and worlds. Many of them were sent fleeing into countries like Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Sooner or later, more than one million Syrians made it to Europe and 21,000 even made it to the United States. In the process, Washington’s wars (and the conflicts that unfolded from them) unsettled ever more of the planet in much the way those particulates in the atmosphere did the world of 66 million years ago. So consider it an irony that, here in the U.S., so few connections have been made between such events and an unceasing series of American conflicts across the Greater Middle East and Africa — or that the thought of even the mildest sorts of retreats from any of those battlegrounds instantly leaves political and national security elites in Washington (and the media that cover them) in an uproar of horror.
Consider this a tale of imperial power gone awry that — were anyone here truly paying attention — could hardly have been uglier. And no matter what happens from here on, it’s hard to imagine how things won’t, in fact, get uglier still. I’m not just thinking about Donald Trump’s Washington in 2019, where such ugliness is par for the course. I’m thinking about all of those lands affected by America’s unending post-9/11 wars (and the catastrophic American-backed Saudi one in Yemen that goes with them) — about, that is, the region and the conflicts from which Donald Trump sorta, maybe, in the most limited of ways was threatening to begin pulling back as last year ended and about which official Washington promptly went nuts.
We’re talking, of course, about the conflicts from hell that have long been labeled “the war on terror” but — given the spread of terror groups and the rise of the anti-immigrant right in Europe and the United States — should probably have been called “the war for terror” or the “war from hell.” And it’s this that official Washington and much of the mainstream media can’t imagine getting rid of or out of.
Naturally, doing so will be ugly. In functionally admitting to a kind of defeat (even if the president insists on calling it victory), Washington will be tossing aside allies — Kurds, Afghans, and others — and leaving those who don’t deserve such a fate in so many ditches (just as it did in Vietnam long ago). Worse yet, it will be leaving behind a part of the world that, on its watch, became not just a series of failed or semi-failed states, but a failed region. It will be leaving behind populations armed to the teeth, bereft of normal lives, or often of any sort of life at all, and of hope. It will be leaving behind a generation of children robbed of their futures and undoubtedly mad as hell. It will be leaving behind those cities in rubble and a universe of refugees and insurgents galore. Even if ISIS doesn’t rebound, don’t imagine that other horrors can’t arise in such circumstances and amid such wreckage. Ugly will be the word for it.
And for some of that ugliness, you can indeed thank Donald Trump, whether he withdraws American troops from Syria, as promised, or not. After all, here’s the strange thing: though no one in Washington or elsewhere in this country had paid more than passing attention to it, the recent Syrian “withdrawal” decision wasn’t The Donald’s first. Last March, he “froze” $200 million that had been promised for Syrian aid and reconstruction, money that assumedly might have gone to derubblizing parts of that country — and rather than being up in arms about it, rather than offering a crescendo of criticism (as with his recent decision to withdraw troops), rather than resignations and protests, official Washington and the media that covers it just shrugged their collective shoulders. It couldn’t have been uglier, but Washington was unfazed.
As for countermanding the president’s order and staying, we already know what more than 17 years of endless American war have delivered to that region (as well as subtracted from the American treasury). What would another two, four, or eight years of — to use a fairly recent Pentagon term — “infinite war” mean? Here’s one thing for sure: ugly wouldn’t even cover it. And keep in mind that, despite Donald Trump’s recent Syrian and Afghan decisions (both of which are reversible), so much of what passes for American war in this century, including the particularly grim Saudi version of it in Yemen and those Air Force and CIA drone assassination strikes across much of the region, has shown little sign of abating anytime soon.
Using Up Precious Time
And then, of course, there’s that other issue, the one where withdrawal can’t come into play, the one where ugly doesn’t even begin to cover the territory.
In case you haven’t instantly guessed — and I suspect you have — I’m thinking about what’s happening to the place known to its English-speaking inhabitants as Earth. It no longer takes a scientist or a probing intelligence to know that the planet that welcomed humanity all these thousands of years has begun to appear a good deal less gracious thanks to humanity’s burning of fossil fuels and the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. By now, no matter where you live, you should know the litany well enough, including (just to start down a long list): temperatures that are soaring and only promise to rise yet more; a record melting of Arctic ice; a record heating of ocean waters; ever fiercer storms; ever fiercer wildfires (and ever longer fire seasons); rising sea levels that promise to begin drowning coastal cities sometime later this century; the coming of mega-droughts and devastating heat waves (that by 2100 may, for instance, make the now heavily populated North China plain uninhabitable).
Nor do you have to be a scientist these days to draw a few obvious conclusions about trends on a planet where the last four years are the hottest on record and 20 of the last 22 years qualify as the warmest yet. And keep in mind that most of this was already clear enough at the moment in planetary history when a near-majority of Americans elected as president an ardent climate-change denier, as were so many in the party of which he became the orange-haired face. And also keep in mind that the very term climate-change denier no longer seems faintly apt as a description for him, “his” party, or the crew he’s put in control of the government. Instead, they are proving to be the most enthusiastic group of climate-change aiders and abettors imaginable.
In other words, the administration heading the country that, historically, has been the largest emitter of greenhouse gases is now in the business — from leaving the Paris climate accord to opening the way for methane gas releases, from expanding offshore drilling to encouraging Arctic drilling, from freeing coal plants to release more mercury into the atmosphere to rejecting its own climate-change study — of doing more of the same until the end of time. And that’s certainly a testament to something. Ultimately, though, what it’s doing may be less important than what it isn’t doing. On a planet on which, according to the latest U.N. report, there are only perhaps a dozen years left to keep the long-term global temperature rise under 1.5 degrees centigrade, the Trump administration is wasting time in the worst way imaginable.
An Asteroidal Future
Even 18 years into a series of “quagmire” Middle Eastern wars, the U.S. could still withdraw from them, however ugly the process might be. It could indeed bring the troops home; it could ground the drones; it could downsize the Special Operations forces that now add up to a secret army of 70,000 (larger than the armies of many nations) at present deployed to much of the globe. It could do many things.
What Washington can’t do — what we can’t do — is withdraw from the Earth, which is why we are now living on what I increasingly think of as a quagmire planet.
In the 1960s, that word, quagmire (“a bog having a surface that yields when stepped on”), and its cognates — swamp, sinkhole, morass, quicksand, bottomless pit — were picked up across the spectrum of American politics and applied to the increasingly disastrous war in Vietnam. It was an image that robbed Washington of much of its responsibility for that conflict. The quagmire itself was at fault — or as historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., put it at the time: “And so the policy of ‘one more step’ lured the United States deeper and deeper into the morass… until we find ourselves entrapped in that nightmare of American strategists, a land war in Asia.”
Embedded in the war talk of those years, quagmire was, in fact, not a description of the war as much as a worldview imposed on it. That image turned Vietnam into the aggressor, transferring agency for all negative action to the land itself, which had trapped us and wouldn’t let us go, even as that land was devalued. After all, to the Vietnamese, their country was anything but a quagmire. It was home and the American decision to be there a form of hated or desired (or sometimes, among America’s allies there, both hated and desired) intervention. Much the same could be said, of course, of the Greater Middle East in this century.
When it comes to this planet in the era of climate change, however, quagmire seems like a far more appropriate image, as long as we keep in mind that we are the aggressors. It is we who are burning those fossil fuels. It is, as our president loves to put it, “American energy dominance” that is threatening to submerge Miami, Shanghai, and other coastal cities in the century to come. It is the urge of the Trump administration to kneecap the development of alternative energies, while promoting coal, oil, and natural gas production that is threatening the human future. It is the acts and attitudes of Trumpian-like figures from Poland to Saudi Arabia to Brazil that threaten our children and grandchildren into the distant future, that threaten, in fact, to turn the Earth itself into a rubblized, ravaged planet. It is Vladimir Putin’s Russian petro-state that is at work creating a future swamp of destruction in the Arctic and elsewhere. It is a Chinese inability to truly come to grips with its use of coal (not to mention the way it’s exporting coal plants to Africa and elsewhere) that threatens to make our world into a morass. It is the lack of any urge on the part of fossil fuel CEOs to “keep it in the ground” that will potentially take humanity down for the count.
In that context, think of the man who, from his earliest moments in the Oval Office, wanted to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement, filled his cabinet with climate-change aiders and abettors, was desperate to obliterate his predecessor’s modest steps on climate change, and never saw a coal mine, oil rig, or fracking outfit he didn’t love as the latest asteroid to hit Planet Earth. Under the circumstances, if the rest of us don’t get ourselves together, we are likely to be the dinosaurs of the Anthropocene era.
Donald Trump himself is, of course, just a tiny, passing fragment of human history. Already 72, he will undoubtedly be taken down by a Big Mac attack or something else in the years to come and most of his record will become just so much human history. But on this single subject, his impact threatens to be anything but a matter of human history. It threatens to play out on a time scale that should boggle the mind.
He is a reminder that, on this quagmire planet of ours, we — the rest of us — have no place to go, despite NASA’s plans to send humans to Mars, the rise of privatized projects for space tourism, and a Chinese spacecraft’s landing on the far side of the moon. So, if we care about our children and grandchildren, as 2019 begins there is no time to spare and no more burning issue on Planet Earth than this.
Is Donald Trump an Asteroid?
Breaking News! — as NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt often puts it when beginning his evening broadcast. Here, in summary, is my view of the news that’s breaking in the United States on just about any day of the week:
Trump. Trump. Trump. Trump. Trump.
Or rather (in the president’s style):
Trump! Trump! Trump! Trump! Trump!!!!!!!!
Or here’s another way of thinking about the news unmediated — a word that’s gained new resonance in the age of The Donald — by anyone but him: below you’ll find a set of run-on tweets from you-know-who to his base — and by that I mean not just his American fans but “the Fake News Media” that treats such messages as the catnip of their twenty-first-century lives. These particular ones are from the afternoon of November 29th and the morning of November 30th @realDonaldTrump (mistakes and all). Consider it a wee sampling of the unmediated DJT (SAD!). However, given the desperately sped up all-Donald-all-the-time universe we live in, these — being almost two weeks old — are already ancient history, the equivalent of so many messages from Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, scratched in cuneiform on clay tablets:
“Just landed in Argentina with @FLOTUS Melania! #G20Summit. ‘This demonstrates the Robert Mueller and his partisans have no evidence, not a whiff of collusion, between Trump and the Russians. Russian project legal. Trump Tower meeting (son Don), perfectly legal. He wasn’t involved with hacking.’ Gregg Jarrett. A total Witch Hunt! Alan Dershowitz: ‘These are not crimes. He (Mueller) has no authority to be a roving Commissioner. I don’t see any evidence of crimes.’ This is an illegal Hoax that should be ended immediately. Mueller refuses to look at the real crimes on the other side. Where is the IG REPORT? Arrived in Argentina with a very busy two days planned. Important meetings scheduled throughout. Our great Country is extremely well represented. Will be very productive! Oh, I get it! I am a very good developer, happily living my life, when I see our Country going in the wrong direction (to put it mildly). Against all odds, I decide to run for President & continue to run my business-very legal & very cool, talked about it on the campaign trail… Lightly looked at doing a building somewhere in Russia. Put up zero money, zero guarantees and didn’t do the project. Witch Hunt!”
And so it goes in an America already preparing to sign off on 2018 in a blur of Trump.
Or think of the Trumpian news cycle as just a set of trigger names: Paul (pardon “not off the table”) Manafort, Michael (“very weak”) Cohen, Robert (“phony witch hunt”) Mueller, Mia (“gave me no love”) Love, Vladimir (“very, very strong”) Putin, Elizabeth (“Pocahontas”) Warren, Mohammed (“might have done it” ) bin Salman, Justin (“stabbed us in the back”) Trudeau, Emmanuel (“very insulting”) Macron, Rex (“dumb as a rock“) Tillerson, James (“weak and untruthful slime ball”) Comey, Jim (“rude, terrible person”) Acosta, Roger (“guts”) Stone.
Or here are the names of the 13 New York Times reporters with bylines on pieces in some way related to Donald Trump and in that paper on the day after the president’s former lawyer Michael Cohen pled guilty to lying to Congress about a “potential Russian business deal during the presidential campaign”: Mike McIntire, Megan Twohey, Mark Mazzetti, Benjamin Weiser, Ben Protess, Maggie Haberman, Peter Baker, Daniel Politi, David D. Kirkpatrick, Michael S. Schmidt, Sharon LaFraniere, Linda Qui, and David E. Sanger. And these six reporters were given credit for helping on one or more of the pieces those 13 were involved in producing: Katie Benner, Nicholas Fandos, Eileen Sullivan, William K. Rashbaum, Neil MacFarquhar, Matt Apuzzo, and Andrew Kramer. (And that’s not even including whoever wrote the unsigned editorial page column, “Why It Matters That Mr. Cohen Lied,” or Kitty Bennett who, according to a note, “contributed research” to one of those pieces.)
And if you’re not yet feeling satisfied that I’ve caught our Trumpian moment adequately, I could certainly launch into a list of the endless insults the president regularly tosses out at “the Fake News Media” and “the Clinton News Network” in the feeding frenzy that now passes for “the news” or I could simply offer you the most relevant insults he aimed at individual reporters — mainly black ones — on the week of November 5th. (“What a stupid question. What a stupid question. But I watch you a lot and you ask a lot of stupid questions.”) At this point, though, let me take pity on your souls. I suspect you’ve already got the gist of things. I have a feeling, in fact, that you already had it long before I ever put down a word of the above.
After all, as hard as it may still be to believe, HE looms over our lives, our planet, in a way no other human being ever has, not even a Joseph Stalin or a Mao Zedong, whose images were once plastered all over the Soviet Union and China. Even the staggering attention recently paid to an otherwise less than overwhelming dead president, one George H.W. Bush, could only have occurred because, in his relative diffidence, he seemed like the un-Trump of some long gone moment. The blanket coverage was, in other words, really just another version of Trump! Trump! Trump! Trump! Trump!!!!!!!!
All in all, check off these first two presidential years of his as a bravura performance, which shouldn’t really surprise any of us. What was he, after all, but a whiz of a performer long before he hit the White House? And what are we — the media and the rest of us — but (whether we like it or not, whether we care to be or not) his apprentices?
Now, for a little breaking news of another sort! Unbelievably enough, despite all evidence to the contrary, there’s still an actual world out there somewhere, even if Donald Trump’s shambling 72-year-old figure has thrown so much of it into shadow. I’m talking about a world — or parts of it, anyway — that doesn’t test well in focus groups and isn’t guaranteed, like this American president, to keep eyes eternally (or even faintly) glued to screens, a world that, in the age of Donald Trump, goes surprisingly unnoted and unnoticed.
So consider the rest of this piece the most minimalist partial rundown on, in particular, an American imperial world of war and preparations for the same, that is, but shouldn’t be, in the shadows; that shouldn’t be, but often is dealt with as if it existed on the far side of nowhere.
What We Don’t See
Let’s start with the only situation I can recall in which Donald Trump implicitly declared himself to be an apprentice. In the wake of the roadside-bomb deaths of three American soldiers in Afghanistan (a fourth would die later) — neither Donald Trump nor anyone else in Washington gives a damn, of course, about the escalating numbers of dead Afghans, military and civilian — the president expressed his condolences in an interview with the Washington Post. He then went on to explain why he (and so we) were still in Afghanistan (14,000 or so U.S. military personnel, a vast array of American air power, and nearly 27,000 private contractors). “We’re there,” he said, “because virtually every expert that I have and speak to say[s] if we don’t go there, they’re going to be fighting over here. And I’ve heard it over and over again.”
Those “experts” are undoubtedly from among the very crew who have, over the last 17-plus years, helped fight the war in Afghanistan to what top U.S. commanders now call a “stalemate,” which might otherwise be defined as the edge of defeat. In those years, before Donald Trump entered the Oval Office threatening to dump the longest war in American history, it had largely disappeared from American consciousness. So had much else about this country’s still-spreading wars and the still-growing war state that went with them.
In other words, none of what’s now happening in Afghanistan and elsewhere is either unique to, or even attributable to, the Trumpian moment. This president has merely brought to a head a process long underway in which America’s never-ending war on terror, which might more accurately be thought of as a war to spread terror, had long ago retreated to the far side of nowhere.
Similarly, the war state in Washington, funded in a fashion that no other set of countries on this planet even comes close to, and growing in preeminence, power, and influence by the year, continues to go largely unnoticed. Today, it is noted only in terms of Donald Trump, only to the degree that he blasts its members or former members for their attitudes toward him, only to the degree to which his followers denounce “the deep state.” Meanwhile, ex-CIA, ex-NSA, and ex-FBI officials he’s excoriated suddenly morph into so many liberal heroes to be all-but-worshipped for opposing him. What they did in the “service” of their country — from overseeing torture, warrantless wiretapping, wars, and drone assassination programs to directly intervening for the first time in an American election — has been largely forgiven and forgotten, or even turned into bestsellerdom.
Yes, American troops (aka “warriors,” aka “heroes”) from the country’s all volunteer force, or AVF, continue to be eternally and effusively thanked for their service in distant war zones, including by a president who speaks of “my generals” and “my military.” However, that military has essentially become the U.S. equivalent of the French Foreign Legion, an imperial police force fighting wars in distant lands while most Americans obliviously go about their business.
And who these days spends any time thinking about America’s drone wars or the assassin-in-chief in the Oval Office who orders “targeted killings” across significant parts of the planet? Yes, if you happened to read a recent piece by Spencer Ackerman at the Daily Beast, you would know that, under President Trump, the already jacked-up drone strikes of the Obama era have been jacked-up again: 238 of them in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan alone in the first two years of Trump’s presidency (and that doesn’t even include Libya). And keep in mind that those figures also don’t include far larger numbers of drone strikes in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The numbers of dead from such strikes (civilian as well as terrorist) are essentially of no interest here.
And here’s another crucial aspect of Washington’s militarized global policies that has almost completely disappeared into the shadows. If you read a recent piece by Nick Turse at the Intercept, you would know that, across the continent of Africa, the U.S. now has at least 34 military installations, ranging from small outposts to enormous, still expanding bases. To put this in the context of the much-ballyhooed new great power struggle on Planet Earth, the Chinese have one military base on that continent (in Djibouti near the biggest U.S. base in Africa, Camp Lemonnier) and the Russians none.
In the Greater Middle East, from Afghanistan to Turkey, though it’s hard to come up with a good count, the U.S. certainly has 50 or more significant garrisons (in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Oman, Qatar, and Turkey, among other places); Russia two (in Syria); and China none. In fact, never has any country garrisoned the planet in such an imperial and global fashion. The U.S. still has an estimated 800 or so military bases spread across the globe, ranging from tiny “lily pads” to garrisons the size of small American towns in what Chalmers Johnson once called its “empire of bases.” And the American high command is clearly still thinking about where further garrisons might go. As the Arctic, for instance, begins to melt big time, guess who’s moving in?
And yet, in the age of Trump, when on any given day the New York Times has scads of employees focused on the president, neither that paper nor any other mainstream media outlet finds it of interest to cover developments in that empire of bases. In other words, for the media as for the American public, one of the major ways this country presents itself to others, weapons in hand, essentially doesn’t exist.
The world as it is — the world of those wars, those bases, and a national security state looming in its own unauditable fashion over the nation’s capital as well as the planet — has essentially been obliterated from American life, except as it relates to one man. Only when he manically tweets, complains, insults, or comments about any of this, does it, or a cast of characters connected to it, briefly emerge from the shadows and become a modest part of American life.
“We Came, We Saw, He Died”
Donald Trump is hardly alone in this process of self-focused obliteration. Consider, for instance, the former first lady, senator, secretary of state, and failed presidential candidate whom the president still likes to call “crooked Hillary.” In a Guardian interview, she recently made headlines by offering a little unsolicited advice on right-wing populism to political figures on another continent. “I think Europe needs to get a handle on migration because that is what lit the flame,” she said. “I admire the very generous and compassionate approaches that were taken particularly by leaders like Angela Merkel, but I think it is fair to say Europe has done its part, and must send a very clear message — ‘we are not going to be able to continue to provide refuge and support’ — because if we don’t deal with the migration issue it will continue to roil the body politic.”
In other words, when it comes to dealing with the staggering number of displaced people on this planet, she had some words of wisdom for Europe’s leaders, but curiously — or perhaps not so curiously at all — there was a small personal connection she managed to avoid. When you look at where those refugees eager to flood Europe are coming from, the three countries that have led the list since 2014 are Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan; the fourth is Nigeria. In other words, refugees from the top three lands now creating a political crisis in Europe were displaced, at least in significant part, thanks to the American war on terror and the never-ending fallout from the 2003 Bush administration invasion of Iraq. Hillary Clinton, of course, backed that invasion big time as a senator and she was involved in all of those American wars as secretary of state.
In addition, Nigerian and other desperate African refugees heading north for possible nightmarish journeys across the Mediterranean normally pass through another war-torn catastrophe of a land. Its name should certainly ring a bell with the former secretary of state. After all, she infamously mocked the 2011 death of its autocratic ruler during a U.S./NATO military intervention she had promoted this way: “We came, we saw, he died.”
Think of that as the epitaph on the gravestone not just of the now-failed state and terrorist haven of Libya, but of the twenty-first-century Washington Dream of a world of successful American wars and of a planetary Pax Americana. In other words, given the last 17-plus years, there was nothing strange about the fact that Hillary Clinton offered advice to the Europeans (don’t let them in!), but not to us (get out!).
Or think of it this way: those shadows were there, obliterating much of a splintering and splinted world even before Donald Trump shambled into the Oval Office. In this century, Americans have been in something like a contest of avoidance when it came to what their country and the planet it garrisons were becoming. If anything, Donald J. Trump has only made that avoidance easier — at least for the moment — as his penumbra spreads ever more darkly across our land.
News From the Far Side of Nowhere
Face it: it’s been an abusive time, to use a word he likes to wield. In his telling, of course, it’s he or his people who are always the abused ones and they — the “fake news media” — are the abusers. But let’s be honest. You’ve been abused, too, and so have I. All of us have and by that same fake news media.
It isn’t complicated, really. Thanks to them, to those cable news talking heads who never stop yammering about him, to the reporters who clamor over his every word or twitch, he’s always there, 24/7. I know that it’s still called covering the news, but it’s a phrase that no longer faintly fits the situation. Yes, a near majority of Americans voted for him as president, but no one voted to make him a living (and living-room) icon, a never-ending presence not just in our world, but in all our private worlds, too.
Never, not ever, has a single human being been so inescapable. You can’t turn on the TV news, read a newspaper, listen to the radio, wander on social media, or do much of anything else without almost instantly bumping into or tripping over… him, attacking them, praising himself, telling you how wonderful or terrible he feels and how much he loves or loathes… well, whatever happens to be ever so briefly on his mind that very moment.
And if that isn’t really almost too obvious to write down, then what is? Still, just briefly, let’s try to take in the obvious. Let me put it this way: never, not since Adam or certainly Nebuchadnezzar, not to speak of Eve or Cleopatra, has anyone in history been so unrelentingly focused upon or mercilessly covered — so, in a sense, fawned upon (and, of course, “abused”). In the past, I’ve labeled what we’re living through “the white Ford Bronco presidency” because, for the last nearly three years, the media has covered him as if he were indeed O.J. Simpson in that car fleeing the police over his wife’s murder, as if, that is, there were nothing else on Earth worth gluing our eyeballs to, and not as in O.J.’s case for a relatively few hours, but for what already seems like an eternity.
In a way, this is the simplest piece I’ve ever written, because whoever you are, wherever you live in this country (or possibly on the planet), whatever you think of him, positive or negative, you already know all of this. You’ve already discussed it with your friends. You’ve certainly wondered what would happen if the mainstream media suddenly stopped attending to Donald Trump — and oh yes, I hadn’t mentioned his name until now, because why bother? You never had a doubt, did you?
My guess on the effect of such a withdrawal of coverage: he’d shrivel up and die. Your guess may be different, but it doesn’t matter because we’re clearly never going to find out. Even the recent presidential decision to take away CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta’s press pass — doctored video of his behavior and all — after a distinctly abusive press conference (“I’ll tell you what: CNN should be ashamed of itself having you working for them. You are a rude, terrible person. You shouldn’t be working for CNN”), was only the cause for yet another deluge of coverage. None of Acosta’s media compatriots, not even at CNN, decided, for instance, to protest by refusing to cover another White House event until he got that pass back (though CNN is suing the Trump administration). None of them evidently even seriously considered closing the door, shutting the gate, turning their backs on you-know-who. That clearly is the twenty-first-century media version of thinking about the unthinkable.
Honestly, who doesn’t talk about all this in the face of a presidency that’s in your face, all our faces, in a way that no other president, emperor, king, autocrat, dictator, movie star, celebrity, or [feel free to fill in whatever I haven’t thought of here] has ever before been. His every phrase, tweet, complaint, bit of praise, parenthetical comment, angry snit, insult, or even policy decision is reported, discussed, gnawed on, considered, reconsidered, yakked about nonstop, hour after hour after endless hour, reshown in clip after repetitive clip. This is, in short, a unique historical experience of ours and ours alone. How could we not talk about it all the time?
The Media Critic-in-Chief
Oh wait! Oddly enough, in case you hadn’t noticed, there’s one place where it’s barely talked about at all, where silence largely reigns, and to my mind that couldn’t be stranger.
Here’s the only catch in the non-stop coverage of Donald J. Trump (2015 to 2018 and beyond): that same mainstream media that can’t get enough of him, that eats up and gnaws on his every odd phrase, gesture, act, or passing thought, is essentially silent on only one thing: the coverage itself. The most obvious subject in the world — not him, but the thing that keeps him going, that keeps the whole ship of state more or less afloat at this point — the unprecedented focus on him just doesn’t seem to be a subject fit for significant coverage, even though it’s a commonplace in our conversations out here in what still passes for the real world. We may regularly roll our eyes, but the mainstream media programmatically never does. Not in public anyway. And as was true from the beginning of the Trump era, from the New York Times and Politico to the Atlantic magazine, media outfits have hired yet more people to cover… well, Donald Trump (and not just from Washington either) and ploughed right on.
But do they cover themselves? Hardly. Media critics inside those mainstream companies have become an ever rarer species. The New York Times, for instance, let go of its “public editor” in May 2017 and left it to perhaps random tweeters to handle how the paper was covering anything. And that’s been typical. Or put another way: there’s really only one media critic left in the mainstream world — and you know just who he is! (A typical tweeted comment of his: “A very big part of the Anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News. It has gotten so bad and hateful that it is beyond description. Mainstream Media must clean up its act, FAST!”) And sometimes that criticism couldn’t be more personal. (“Loser,” he recently called White House reporter April Ryan. “What a stupid question that is,” he said to CNN’s Abby Phillip. “What a stupid question. But I watch you a lot, you ask a lot of stupid questions.”) I’m referring, of course, to America’s media-critic-in-chief now in residence in Washington, D.C., when, of course, he isn’t out in the provinces getting a little love from his adoring “base” in those endless rallies for the midterm elections and, of course, the ones for the 2020 campaign, which began long ago.
And naturally enough, the “fake news” reporters can’t cover those rallies enough or discuss them and what he says at them more often. But again, there’s one catch, one lacuna, in all this. They almost never cover Donald J. Trump’s rally of rallies in that same analytical and dissecting fashion. I’m thinking, of course, of the rallies that truly keep him going — and by that I mean his endless set of interactions with… yep, the media. After all, without being eternally in their glowing spotlight, without that endless coverage of everything him, what would he be?
In a sense, those hordes of reporters crowding into his world are his most adoring fans (even if many of them may loathe him personally). They may not literally bathe him in love (as his fans in those stadiums do), but they certainly bathe him in what he loves most, what clearly keeps him up and running: attention. And from each of those media “rallies” of his, however small, however impromptu, however angry or insulting, no matter the nature of the words exchanged, he clearly comes away feeling clean as a new-born babe (though they perhaps feel dirty as… well, who knows what).
It may not be a love affair, but it certainly is an affair to remember. And despite the fact that his official news conferences may be rare, he manages to meet the press (to use a thoroughly outmoded phrase) constantly and in ways too numerous to mention. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that he’s taken more questions from reporters — even if he’s regularly mangled and shredded them — than all our recent presidents (except that other classic narcissist, Bill Clinton).
The Donald’s Earned Media World
Being the canny self-promoter that he is, Donald Trump knows the value of those exchanges, no matter their nature. He knows that the specifics of what the media may write or say about him matter remarkably little, as long as they cover him in this totalistic fashion, as long as they never stop bathing him in his own ultimate form of glory. They are, as he would be the first to tell you, his “earned media.” In fact, just the other day at his post-election news conference, he had this little exchange with a reporter:
“Q: Mr. President, first off, I personally think it’s very good to have you here because a free press and this type of engagement —
“The President: I do, too. Actually? I do, too.
“Q: Yes. It’s vital to democracy.
“The President: It’s called ‘earned media.’ It’s worth billions. Go ahead.”
Let’s be clear: Donald Trump is no fool. He knows that he’s got not just a knack but the knack for accruing “earned media” — that is, unpaid for publicity and advertising. Estimates were that he got a staggering $5.6 billion of it during his 2015-2016 election campaign and, exactly as he implied in that knowing aside, it’s never ended. And yes, it is “vital” to him, if not to “democracy.” Think of him, in fact, as President Earned Media.
Since we are talking about a mutual affair, however, the opposite is also true: Donald Trump is the media’s version of… at the risk of being completely repetitious, earned media. No one’s put it better than former CBS head Leslie Moonves — recently taken down by the #MeToo moment — during the 2016 election campaign. “It may not be good for America,” he said, “but it’s damn good for CBS.” He added, “The money’s rolling in and this is fun. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this [is] going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But bring it on, Donald. Keep going.” And, as we all know, Donald did.
Keep in mind that the media had been thrown into chaos and confusion by the growth of the online world of the Internet, as many news businesses faltered and staff cuts were widespread. How convenient, then, to stumble upon such genuine human clickbait, someone on whom you could focus your attention so relatively cheaply and profitably. So much for covering the world, a distinctly expensive proposition! Talk about bargain basement candidacies and presidencies!
From the moment he descended that escalator in Trump Tower in June 2015, Donald Trump became the media equivalent of a freebie — someone viewers and readers just couldn’t help watching, hearing about, reading about. It was like stumbling on a gold mine in the desert. As it turned out, Americans were indeed ready to have the talking heads of CNN (now the president’s eternal punching bag), MSNBC, and Fox News yammer on hour after hour, day after day, about him and only him. It was, in its own way, a genuine miracle for news companies that had found themselves up against the wall and it couldn’t have been more real, or — as, at some level, Donald Trump himself grasped — more fake.
Put it all together and you can understand how a major Trump rally — oops, I mean that post-election news conference of his — actually worked. But first let me take a moment, in truly Trumpian fashion, to thank myself on your behalf. Like you, I watched clips of that news conference. Then I did all of you a favor and actually read the whole 17,000-plus words of it, one hour and 26 minutes worth of his and their words, so you wouldn’t have to.
And believe me, it was quite a performance as the president called on/ignored reporters desperate to get his attention, insulted them, spoke with them, spoke against them, spoke over them (“We are a hot country. This is a hot White House…”), spoke around them, described them (“I come in here as a nice person wanting to answer questions and I have people jumping out of their — their seats, screaming questions at me…”), wandered away from them, wandered away from himself, ignored or didn’t answer their questions, was incoherent for significant stretches of time, or couldn’t even hold onto a thought. And by the way, the reporters there more than matched him (“One, I was tempted to ask you why you like Oprah so much, but I think I’ll go on to the question that…”), blow for blowhard (“Based off of that, how would you say, over the last two years, God plays — what kind of a factor He plays in the day-to-day execution of the Office of the Presidency?…”).
Read the whole thing and you’d have to be struck — even by the less-than-soaring standards of past presidential news conferences — by how little (with a bow to Gertrude Stein) there there actually was there. The president’s incoherence was remarkably well matched by the dreariness of the generally expectable, largely thought-free questions he was asked on a limited set of topics.
As always, though, there were those Trumpian moments that aren’t likely to leave your head soon thereafter. There was, for instance, the exchange in which the president called on PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor, a relatively rare black reporter in that room. She began her question this way, “On the campaign trail, you called yourself a nationalist. Some people saw that as emboldening white nationalists. Now people are also saying…”
At that point, the president promptly interrupted to respond: “I don’t know why you’d say that. That’s such a racist question.” (Something he’d then repeat twice more.) The pure chutzpah of that response should have taken anyone’s breath away, but it was also a reminder of the strange sense of freedom Trump feels to say anything in the presence of the media, including mocking or insulting three black female reporters at that news conference.
And this can only happen again and again and again. It’s hard not to feel that we are all now eternally watching two sets of addicts who simply can’t exist without or get enough of each other.
Toward the end of that news conference, one of the reporters began a question (also focused on white nationalism) this way: “Thank you, sir. And I think we’d all love to have more of these, if you’re willing…”
It tells us so much about our twenty-first-century Trumpian world that anyone in that press corps would wish for more of the same. I have a feeling that somewhere in all of this someone, maybe Bob Mueller, should indict all of them for fraud. In the meantime, the rest of us remain in a world wallpapered with Donald Trump, a world in which the fake news media, which is his truest “base,” just can’t get enough of him.
The Donald and the Fake News Media
Who could forget that moment? The blue [red] wave — long promised but also doubted — had, however modestly [however massively], hit Washington and [the Democrats had just retaken Congress] [the Republicans had held Congress] [the Democrats had taken the House]. The media, Fox News and the usual right-wing websites aside, hailed the moment. [Fox News and the usual right-wing websites cheered the president on.] Donald Trump’s grip on America had finally been broken [reinforced]. Celebrations were widespread. Congressional investigations, possibly even impeachment, were only months and a new Congress away [were now a faint memory], and it was then, of course, that the unexpected struck. It was then that President Trump, citing national security concerns and a crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border, began the process whose end point we, of course, already know…
Okay, consider that the dystopian me speaking. We don’t, of course, really know how our story yet ends, not faintly. While I was writing this piece, I didn’t even know how Tuesday’s vote would turn out, though by the time you read it, you may. Given the experience of election 2016, it would take a brave [foolish] soul to make a prediction this time around.
I certainly learned a lesson that November. During the previous months of campaigning that election season, I never wrote a piece at TomDispatch that didn’t leave open the possibility of Donald Trump winning the presidency. In the couple of weeks before that fateful November day, however, I got hooked on the polling results and on Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight website and became convinced that Hillary Clinton was a shoo-in.
Of course, I was in good company. As Michael Wolff would later report in his bestselling book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, on election eve, few in the Trump campaign, including the candidate himself, expected to win. Most of them, again including The Donald, were already trying to parlay what they assumed was an assured loss into their next jobs or activities, including in the candidate’s case a possible “Trump network.”
So when, sometime after midnight, reality finally began to sink in — fittingly enough, I had a 103-degree fever and was considering heading for an emergency room — I was as disbelieving as the president-to-be. (He had, Wolff tells us, “assured” his wife, Melania, who was reportedly in tears of anything but joy that night, that he would never win and that she would never find herself in the White House.) By then, it was for me a fever dream to imagine that bizarre, belligerent, orange-haired salesman-cum-con-artist entering the Oval Office.
Honestly, I shouldn’t have been the least bit surprised. During election campaign 2016, I grasped much of this. I wrote of the future president, for instance, as a con artist (particularly in reference to those taxes of his that we couldn’t see) and how Hillary Clinton’s crew hadn’t grasped the obvious: that many Americans would admire him for gaming the system, even if they couldn’t do the same themselves. As I wrote at the time: “It’s something Donald Trump knows in his bones, even if all those pundits and commentators and pollsters (and for that matter Hillary Clinton’s advisers) don’t: Americans love a con man.”
I also saw that he was daring in ways unimaginable to an American politician — because, of course, he wasn’t one — particularly in promoting his slogan, MAGA, whose key word few of the political cognoscenti paid the slightest attention to: “again.” At that moment, for presidents or politicians who wanted to become just that, it was obligatory to claim that the United States wasn’t just great but the greatest, most exceptional, most indispensable land ever. (As Hillary Clinton typically put it that election season: “America is indispensable — and exceptional — because of our values.”) Trump’s “again” in Make America Great Again suggested something quite different and so rang a bell in the heartland. In the process, he became America’s first declinist presidential candidate. Early that October, I wrote this:
“[A] significant part of the white working class, at least, feels as if, whether economically or psychologically, its back is up against the wall and there’s nowhere left to go. Under such circumstances, many of these voters have evidently decided that they’re ready to send a literal loose cannon into the White House; they’re willing, that is, to take a chance on the roof collapsing, even if it collapses on them. That is the new and unrecognizable role that Donald Trump has filled. It’s hard to conjure up another example of it in our recent past. The Donald represents, as a friend of mine likes to say, the suicide bomber in us all. And voting for him, among other things, will be an act of nihilism, a mood that fits well with imperial decline.
“Think of him as a message in a bottle washing up on our shore…”
And yet, on that day of decision, I evidently reverted to the boy I had once been, the boy who grew up with a vision of an idealized America that would always do the right thing. So I was shocked to the core by Donald Trump’s victory.
In that fever dream of a night, when he washed up on all our shores, I had certainly been trumped, but then, so had he, so had we all. Under the circumstances, I’m sure you’ll understand why I’ve remained hesitant about putting my faith in polls in this election season or giving special significance to reports that the White House staff was glum as hell about the coming midterms and expected the worst. (After all, mightn’t this be that Michael Wolff election night all over again?)
The American Shooting Gallery
Two years after that fateful November night in 2016, we’re still living in a fever dream of some sort, enveloped 24/7 by the universe of President Trump and the “fake news media,” that provides him and the rest of us with a strange, all-encompassing echo chamber. America, you might say, now has a 103-degree temperature and there isn’t an emergency room in sight.
And it’s unlikely to get better, whatever happens in the midterm elections. Those who expect that a Democratic victory or a devastating Mueller report in the weeks to come will be the beginning of the end for the Trump presidency (or, for that matter, that the victory of an ever more extreme Republican Party will simply prove more of the grisly same) might want to reconsider. Perhaps it’s worth weighing other grimmer possibilities in the as-yet-unending rise of what’s still called “right-wing populism,” not just locally but globally. Here in the United States, with hate and venom surging (and, yes indeed, being encouraged by President Trump for his own purposes), a genuinely ugly strain central to this country’s history is being resurrected. In the process, a burgeoning number of deeply disturbed (and deeply animated) figures from among the most over-armed civilian population on the planet — Yemen, of all the grim places, comes in a distant second — are turning this country into a shooting gallery.
Win or lose today, don’t think that the Donald Trump we have is the one we’re fated to have until the day he goes down in flames. He is distinctly a work in progress, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say: in regress. In that context, let me mention an evolution of a grim sort in my own thinking over the last two years.
For some time now there have been both thinkers and activists who have been convinced that Donald Trump is an American Mussolini, an outright fascist. (According to his ex-wife, in the early 1990s he kept a book of Hitler’s speeches by his bedside and, during the 2016 election campaign, he retweeted a Mussolini quote, defending himself for doing so.) I’ve always disagreed, however. To my mind, he’s clearly been a man who wants to be idolized and adulated (as happens at any of his rallies) — wants, that is, to have fans, not (in the fascistic sense) followers; applause and the eternal spotlight, not a social movement. That, it seems to me, has been an accurate description of the president who entered the Oval Office and occupied it in such a suggestive way these last nearly two years. But I’ve recently started to wonder. After all, once upon a time, Donald Trump wasn’t a Republican either. Let’s face it, he’s a quick learner when it comes to whatever may benefit The Donald.
And keep in mind that he entered an unsettled world already well prepared for such a presidency by his predecessors in Washington. If the fascist or, if you prefer, autocratic tendency that lurks in him and in the situation that surrounds him does come out more fully, he will obviously be aided by the ever more imperial presidency that was created in the decades before he left Trump Tower for the White House.
When he entered the Oval Office, he found there a presidency in which — particularly on the subject of war (the president was, for instance, already America’s global assassin-in-chief) — his powers increasingly stood outside both Congress and the Constitution. The weapons he’s now bringing to bear, including executive orders and the U.S. military, were already well prepared for him. The refugees he makes such effective use of, whether from Syria or Central America, came to him, at least in part, thanks to this country’s war and other policies that had already roiled significant parts of the planet. Before entering the Oval Office, the only aspect of such preparations he had any role in was the increasingly staggering inequality that gave a “populist” billionaire president, always ready to put more money in the hands of his .01% pals, a pained but receptive audience in the heartland.
In other words, this world and the fever dream that goes with it were Donald Trump’s oyster before he ever lifted a finger in the White House. As a result, no election results, no matter whether the Democrats or the Republicans “win,” are likely to bring that temperature down. In fact, if the Democrats do take the House (or even Congress), Donald Trump is unlikely to become more pliable. If the Mueller report results in impeachment proceedings in the House, he won’t be humbled. In the face of any such development, my guess is that his impulse will be to become more autocratic, more imperial, and even possibly more fascistic. And the same may hold if the Republicans hang onto both houses of Congress.
Waiting for the Red Hats
Even before the vote was in, the evidence was there. In the lead-up to the election, 5,000-plus U.S. troops (or maybe 15,000?) are headed for the U.S.-Mexico border to deal with what the president has called both an “invasion” and a “national emergency.” (“Fake news!”) There, those troops will essentially twiddle their thumbs (since they are legally allowed to do little) simply because the president wanted it so. There may, in fact, be two soldiers for every desperate refugee, including children and babies, headed toward the U.S. border in that now notorious “caravan” from Honduras. In other words, on a whim, Donald Trump is already capable of building a wall (of troops) at that border. The question worth asking is this: In an embattled near-future moment in which a truly Trumpian military figure (think of “him” as the next John Bolton) is in place as secretary of defense and another “national emergency” is declared, where might those troops go next because the president wanted it so?
In the days before the election, the president also threatened to sign an executive order to nullify birthright citizenship — in the process, threatening to functionally nullify the Constitution (see the 14th Amendment), while bringing back to life the ugliest strains of American racial history just because he wanted it so. At the moment, he might not even sign that order or, if he does, it might go down big time in Congress and the courts. But who knows what the future of an executive-order presidency holds, especially with another Supreme Court justice pick or two in place, no matter who controls Congress?
As for those rallies of his: tell me you can’t conceive of a future America in which his adulatory crowds have stopped simply cheering and shouting for him (“Build the wall!” “Lock her up!”) and are now marching for him as well. Is it really so hard to imagine a future in which there would be a place for a Trump Corps or for “the Red Hats”; for, that is, the kind of social movement that would no longer be confined to the arenas and stadiums of red-state America or even the polling booths of Election Day, one that might indeed be in the streets of this country at the beck and call of a fierce and autocratic billionaire?
In an increasingly unsettled world, an Autocrats, Incorporated moment globally, with an ever more powerful chief executive, and a right wing still on the march, everything that Donald Trump inherited could certainly be intensified further. And he might be just the man to do it. In a world in which Congress is no longer fully in his camp, in which legal charges against him, his family, and his cronies only grow, to adapt a title from a Russian novel of the early twentieth century, unquiet could flow The Don — and in that lies peril for us all.
Now, excuse me, I’m heading out to vote.
We’re already two years past the crystal anniversary and eight years short of the silver one, or at least we would be, had it been a wedding — and, after a fashion, perhaps it was. On October 7, 2001, George W. Bush launched the invasion — “liberation” was the word often used then — of Afghanistan. It was the start of the second Afghan War of the era, one that, all these years later, still shows no signs of ending. Though few realized it at the time, the American people married war. Permanent, generational, infinite war is now embedded in the American way of life, while just about the only part of the government guaranteed ever more soaring dollars, no matter what it does with them, is the U.S. military.
This October 7th marked the 17th anniversary of that first of so many still-spreading conflicts. In league with various Afghan warlords, the U.S. military began moving into that country, while its Air Force launched a fierce campaign, dropping large numbers of precision munitions and hundreds of cluster bombs. Those were meant not just for al-Qaeda, the terror outfit that, the previous month, had dispatched its own precision air force — hijacked American commercial jets — to take out iconic buildings in New York and Washington, but the Taliban, a fundamentalist sect that then controlled most of the country. By early 2002, that movement had been ejected from its last provincial capital, while Osama bin Laden had fled into hiding in Pakistan. And so it began.
The 17th anniversary of that invasion passed in the heated aftermath of the Kavanaugh hearings, as the president was rallying his base by endlessly bashing the Democrats as an “angry mob” promoting “mob rule.” So if you weren’t then thinking about Afghanistan, don’t blame yourself. You were in good company.
On October 8th, for instance, the front page of my hometown newspaper had headlines like “Court Showdown Invigorates G.O.P. in Crucial Races” and “20 Dead Upstate as Limo Crashes on Way to Party.” If you were old like me and still reading the paper version of the New York Times, you would have had to make your way to page seven to find out that such an anniversary had even occurred. There, a modest-sized article, headlined “On 17th Anniversary of U.S. Invasion, 54 Are Killed Across Afghanistan,” began this way:
“Kabul, Afghanistan — At least 54 people have been killed across Afghanistan in the past 24 hours, according to a tally based on interviews with officials on Sunday — 17 years to the day [after] American forces invaded the country to topple the Taliban regime. The violence was a reminder that the war has only raged deadlier with time, taking a toll on both the Afghan security forces and the civilians caught in the crossfire…”
And that, really, was that. Little other mention anywhere and no follow-up. No significant commentary or major op-eds. No memorials or ceremonies. No thoughts from Congress. No acknowledgement from the White House.
Yes, 3,546 American and NATO troops had died in those long years (including seven Americans so far in 2018). There have also been Afghan deaths aplenty, certainly tens of thousands of them in a country where significant numbers of people are regularly uprooted and displaced from their homes and lives. And 17 years later, the Taliban controls more of the country than at any moment since 2002; the U.S.-backed Afghan security forces are reportedly taking casualties that may, over the long run, prove unsustainable; provincial capitals have been briefly seized by insurgent forces; civilian deaths, especially of women and children, are at their highest levels in years (as are U.S. and Afghan air strikes); al-Qaeda has grown and spread across significant parts of the Middle East and Africa; a bunch of other terror outfits, including ISIS, are now in Afghanistan; and ISIS, like al-Qaeda (of which it was originally an offshoot), has also franchised itself globally.
In other words, 17 years later, what was once known as the Global War on Terror and is now a set of conflicts that no one here even bothers to name has only grown worse. Meanwhile, the military that American presidents repeatedly hailed as the greatest fighting force in history continues to battle fruitlessly across a vast swath of the planet. Afghanistan, of course, remains America’s “longest war,” as articles regularly acknowledged some years ago. These days, however, it has become so eternal that it has evidently outgrown the label “longest.”
(Un)Happy Anniversary indeed!
Wedded to War
If you consider this the anniversary of a marriage made in hell, then you would also have to think of the war on terror that started in Afghanistan as having had a brood of demon children — the invasion of Iraq being the first of them — and by now possibly even grandchildren. Meanwhile, the first actual American children born after the 9/11 attacks can now join the U.S. military and go fight in… well, Afghanistan, where about 14,000 American military personnel, possibly tens of thousands of private contractors, and air power galore (as well as the CIA’s drones) remain active indeed.
And keep in mind that Americans aren’t the only people wedded to war in the twenty-first century. However, when it comes to the others I have in mind, it’s not a matter of anniversaries ignored, but anniversaries that will never be. Let’s start with a recent barely reported incident in Afghanistan. On October 5th, either the U.S. Air Force or the Afghan one that has been armed, trained, and supported by the U.S. military destroyed part of a “wedding procession” in Kandahar Province, reportedly killing four and wounding eight, including women and children. (By the way, on the day of the 17th anniversary of the war, an Afghan air strike reportedly killed 10 children.) We don’t know — and probably never will — which air force was responsible, nor do we know if the bride or groom survived, no less whether they will marry and someday celebrate their 17th anniversary.
All we know and probably will ever know is that, in the melee that is still Afghanistan, the obliteration of that wedding procession was just one more scarcely noted, remarkably repetitive little nightmare to which Americans will pay no attention whatsoever. Admittedly, when directly asked by pollsters 17 years later, a near majority of them (49%) do think that U.S. goals still remain unmet in that country and, according to other recent polls, somewhere between 61% and 69% of Americans would support the withdrawal of all U.S. forces there. That, however, is anything but a stunning figure given that, in 2011, a Washington Post-ABC News poll indicated that two-thirds of Americans believed the Afghan war “no longer worth fighting.” Evidently it’s now simply no longer worth giving a moment’s thought to.
Essentially unnoticed here, the destruction of wedding parties by U.S. air power has, in fact, been a relative commonplace in these years of endless war across the Greater Middle East. The first time American air power obliterated a wedding in Afghanistan was in late December 2001. U.S. B-52 and B-1B bombers mistakenly took out much of a village in Paktia Province killing more than 100 civilians while wedding festivities were underway, an event barely noted in the American media. We do not know if the bride and groom survived. (Imagine, however, the non-stop media attention if a terrorist had attacked a wedding in this country and killed anyone, no less the bride or groom!)
The second incident we know of took place in Khost Province in Eastern Afghanistan in May 2002 while a wedding was underway and villagers were firing in the air, a form of celebration there. At least 10 people died and many more were wounded. The third occurred that July in Oruzgan Province when the U.S. Air Force dropped seven 2,000-pound bombs on a wedding party, again evidently after celebratory firing had taken place, wiping out unknown numbers of villagers including, reportedly, a family of 25 people. In July 2008, a missile from a U.S. plane took out a party escorting a bride to the groom’s house in Nuristan Province, killing at least 47 civilians, 39 of them women and children, including the bride. The next month in Laghman Province, American bombers killed 16 Afghans in a house, including 12 members of a family hosting a wedding. In June 2012, in Logar Province, another wedding party was obliterated, 18 people dying (half of them children). This was the only one of these slaughters for which the U.S. military offered an apology.
And that’s just what I happen to know about wedding parties in Afghanistan in these years. Don’t forget Iraq either, where in May 2004 U.S. jets attacked a village near the Syrian border filled with people sleeping after a wedding ceremony, killing at least 42 of them, including “27 members of the [family hosting the wedding ceremony], their wedding guests, and even the band of musicians hired to play at the ceremony.” Of that attack, the man who was then commander of the U.S. 1st Marine Division and is now secretary of defense, James “Mad Dog” Mattis, said dismissively, “How many people go to the middle of the desert… to hold a wedding 80 miles from the nearest civilization?”
And don’t forget the 15 or so Yemenis on the way to a wedding in December 2013 who were “mistaken for an al-Qaeda convoy” and taken out by a U.S. drone. As I’ve written elsewhere, since September 11, 2001, we’ve been number one… in obliterating wedding parties. Still, we’ve had some genuine competition in recent years — above all, the Saudis in their brutal American-backed and -supplied air war in Yemen. From an incident in September 2015 in which their missiles killed more than 130 Yemenis at a wedding reception (including the usual women and children) to a strike on a wedding in April of this year that took out the groom, they’ve run a close second to the U.S. And then there’s ISIS, which, from Afghanistan to Turkey, seems to have a knack of its own for sending its version of a precision air force (suicide bombers) to take out weddings.
All of these, of course, represent anniversaries that will never be, which couldn’t be sadder. In truth, if you live in any of the battle zones of the still-expanding war on terror, you should probably think twice about getting married or at least having a wedding ceremony. Since Americans don’t focus on such moments in our never-ending conflicts, they have no way of seeing them as the heart and soul of the twenty-first-century American way of war. And of course there’s always the question that General Mattis raised to take into account: What are you going to do with people who insist on getting married in the desert — other than slaughter them?
Only days after the 9/11 attacks, every member of Congress but one voted in favor of the Bush administration’s authorization of military force that opened the way not just for the Afghan invasion, but so much else that followed. The sole no vote came from Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA), who warned that “a rush to launch precipitous military counterattacks runs too great a risk that more innocent men, women, children will be killed.” How right she proved to be.
By now, there is the equivalent of unending “towers” of dead women and children in the Greater Middle East, while millions of Afghans and others have been displaced from their homes and record millions more sent fleeing across national boundaries as refugees. That, in turn, has helped fuel the “populist” right in both Europe and the U.S., so in a sense, Donald Trump might be said to be one result of the invasion of Afghanistan — of, that is, a twenty-first-century American push to unsettle the world. Who knows what else (and who else) America’s wars may produce before they end, as they will someday?
Here, however, is one possibility that, at this point, isn’t part of any thinking in this country but perhaps should be. In the wake of America’s first Afghan War (1979-1989), the Red Army, the stymied military forces of the other Cold War superpower, the Soviet Union, finally limped out of that “bleeding wound” — as Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev called Afghanistan. They would return to a sapped, fragmenting empire and a country that would implode less than two years later.
In that post-Afghan moment of victory — the end of the Cold War — nothing of the Russian experience was recognized as instructive for the last superpower on planet Earth. Here’s my question, then: What if that first Afghan War was the real-world equivalent of a movie preview? Someday, when the second Afghan War finally ends and the U.S. military limps home from its many imperial adventures abroad as the Red Army once did, will it, too, find an empire on the verge of imploding and a country in deep trouble?
Is that really beyond imagining anymore? And if it were so, wouldn’t that be an anniversary to remember?
I know you won’t believe me. Not now, not when everything Donald Trump does — any tweet, any insult at any rally — is the news of the day, any day. But he won’t be remembered for any of the things now in our headlines. No human being, it’s true, has ever been covered the way he has, so what an overwhelming record there should be. News about him and his associates fills front pages daily in a way that only something like a presidential assassination once did and he has the talking heads of cable TV yakking about him as no one has ever talked about anyone. And don’t even get me started on social media and The Donald.
In a sense, like it or not, we are all now his apprentices and his transformational powers are little short of magical. Simply by revoking the security clearance of John Brennan — who even knew that America’s deep-staters could keep such clearances long after they left government — he managed to make the former Obama counterterrorism czar and CIA head, a once-upon-a-time “enhanced interrogation techniques” advocate and drone-meister, into a liberal hero; by attacking former FBI head James Comey, he turned the first national security state official ever to intervene in and alter an American presidential election (and not in Hillary Clinton’s favor either) into a bestselling, well-reviewed, much-lauded author; by his dismissive taunts and enmity in life and death, he helped ensure that Senator John McCain would have a New York Times obituary of such laudatory length that, in the past, it might only have been appropriate for someone who had actually won the presidency; with his charges and passing insults, he even proved capable — miracle of all miracles — of turning Attorney General Jeff Sessions into a warrior for justice.
Donald Trump is, in the most bizarre sense possible, a transformational figure, not to speak of the man who makes the “fake news” fake, or at least grotesquely overblown and over-focused. He has the uncanny ability to draw every camera in the house, all attention, blocking out everything but himself. Still, omnipresent as he is — or He is — take my word for it, he won’t be remembered for any of this. It will all go down the media drain with him one of these days. Don’t be fooled by newspapers or the Internet. They are not history. They are anything but what will someday be remembered.
Still, don’t for a second imagine that Donald Trump won’t be remembered. He will — into the distant future in a way that no other American president is likely to be.
A Forgettable Presidency
Let me tell you first, though, what he won’t be remembered for.
He won’t be remembered for entering the presidential race on an escalator to Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World”; or for those “Mexican rapists” he denounced; or for that “big, fat, beautiful” wall he was promoting; or for how he dealt with “lyin’ Ted,” “low-energy Jeb,” and Carly (“Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?”) Fiorina, or the “highly overrated” Megyn Kelly’s menstrual cycle (“You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever”). He won’t be remembered for that pussy-grabbing video that didn’t determine the 2016 election; or for the size of his hands; or even for those chants, still in vogue, of “lock her up.” He won’t be remembered for his bromance with Vladimir Putin; or his bitter complaints about a rigged election, rigged debates, a rigged moderator, and a rigged microphone (before, of course, he won). He won’t be remembered for his “stormy” relationship with a porn star; or even the hush money he paid her and another woman he had an affair with to keep their mouths shut during election season and thereafter, or his three wives; or the book of Hitler’s speeches once by his bedside; or the five casinos that, as a great “businessman,” he took into bankruptcy; or the undocumented workers he hired at next to no pay; or all the people he stiffed; or the students he took to the cleaners at Trump “University”; or the private airplane with 24-carat gold-plated bathroom fixtures he flew in; or those giant gold letters he’s branded onto property after property globally; or the way he promoted his own children and in-laws and their businesses in the White House; or the hotel that he built in the Old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue and, once he entered the Oval Office, turned into a hub of corruption.
He won’t be remembered for the record crew of people who took positions in his administration only to find themselves, within a year or so (or even days), fleeing the premises or out on their noses, including Anthony Scaramucci (6 days), Michael Flynn (25 days), Mike Dubke (74 days), Sean Spicer (183 days), Reince Priebus (190 days), Sebastian Gorka (208 days), Steve Bannon (211 days), Tom Price (232 days), Dina Powell (358 days), Omarosa Manigault Newman (365 days), Rob Porter (384 days), Hope Hicks (405 days), Rex Tillerson (406 days), David Shulkin (408 days), Gary Cohn (411 days), H.R. McMaster (413 days), John McEntee (417 days), and Scott Pruitt (504 days). And White House Counsel Don McGahn was only recently tweeted out of office, too, with others to follow.
He won’t be remembered for the way more of his associates and hangers-on found themselves in the grips of the legal system in less time than any other president in history, including Paul Manafort (convicted of tax fraud), Michael Cohen (pled guilty to tax evasion), Rick Gates (pled guilty to financial fraud and lying to investigators), Alex van der Zwaan (pled guilty to lying to investigators), Michael Flynn (pled guilty to lying to the FBI), and George Papadopoulos (ditto). With plenty more, it seems, to come. Nor will he be remembered for the number of close associates who turned on him — from his personal lawyer Michael Cohen, who once swore to take a bullet for him, only to testify against him; to the publisher of the National Enquirer, David Pecker, who had long buried salacious material about him, only to accept an immunity deal from federal prosecutors to blab about him; to the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, who did the same. Nor will The Don(ald) be remembered for his mafia-style language and focus (“RAT,” “loyalty,” and “flipping”), his familiar references to a mob boss, the way he clings to his personal version of omertà, the Mafia code of silence, or for being “a president at war with the law.”
He won’t be remembered for campaigning against the Washington “swamp” and, on arrival in the White House, creating an administration that would prove to be an instant swamp of personal corruption — from EPA head Scott Pruitt’s $43,000 soundproof office phone booth, the millions of taxpayer dollars he racked up for a 20-person, full-time security detail, and the more than $105,000 he spent on first-class air travel (and $58,000 more on charter and military planes) in his first year in office; to the near-million dollars of taxpayer money Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price poured into flights on private charter planes and military jets; to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s $12,000 charter plane ride on an oil executive’s private plane, his nifty $53,000 worth of helicopter rides on the public dole, and his $139,000 office “door”; to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson’s $31,000 office dining set. And that’s just to start down such a list (without even including the president and his family).
Nor will he be remembered for the sinkhole and stink hole of environmental pollution he and his crew are creating for the rest of us, nor for the estimated up to 1,400 extra premature deaths annually and “up to 15,000 new cases of upper respiratory problems, a rise in bronchitis, and tens of thousands of missed school days,” thanks to his administration’s easing of federal pollution regulations on coal-burning power plants. Nor for “greatly increased levels of air pollutants like mercury, benzene and nitrogen oxides,” thanks to its push to relax air pollution rules of many sorts. Nor for the suppression of news about pollution science. Nor for drastic cuts to the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency, lest it protect us against anything at all that corporate America wants to do. Nor for the opening of America’s waterways to far greater dumping of waste and pollutants, including mining waste. And that, again, is just to start down a list.
By the time he’s done, the swampiness of Washington and the nation will undoubtedly be beyond calculation, but that is not what history will remember him for. Nor, in the country that may already have outpaced the inequality levels of the Gilded Age, will it remember him for the way in which he and his Republican colleagues, thanks to their tax “reform” bill, have ensured that inequality will only soar in a country in which just three men — Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and Jeff Bezos — already have as much wealth as the bottom half of American society (160 million people). Nor will it remember the way Donald Trump reinforced racism and a growing tide of white supremacy (just the prerequisites needed for establishing a “populist” version of authoritarianism in the U.S.), including the “birtherism” by which he rose as a politician, his “evenhanded” remarks after Charlottesville (“very fine people, on both sides”), his implicit racial slurs, his obsession with black football players who take a knee in protest, his tweeting of a white supremacist conspiracy theory about South Africa — for which former Klan leader David Duke tweeted his thanks — and the rest of a now familiar litany.
Nor will the man who claimed in campaign 2016 that he could “win” better than the U.S. military high command (“I know more about ISIS than the generals do…”) when it came to America’s wars or get us out of them be remembered for having done neither. Nor for his urge to pour yet more tens of billions of taxpayer dollars into the Pentagon and the national security state (even as he regularly blasts its officials).
And keep in mind that this is just to graze the surface of the Trump presidency — and while all of it matters (or at least obsesses us now) and some of it will matter greatly for a long time to come, it’s not what history will remember Donald Trump for.
A Crime Against Humanity
On that score, the record is clear, in part because we are already beginning to live the very future that will remember Donald Trump in only one way. It’s a future that, at its core, has animated his presidency from its first days. Whatever else he thinks, says, tweets, or does, President Trump and his administration have been remarkably focused not just on denying that humanity faces a potential future of environmental ruin — as in the term “climate-change denial” so regularly attached to a startling list of people in his administration — but on aiding and abetting the disaster to come.
As everyone knows, Donald Trump is taking the world’s historic number one (and presently number two) emitter of greenhouse gases out of the Paris climate agreement. He is also, not to put the matter too subtly, a fossil-fuel nut, nostalgic perhaps for the polluted but energized American world of his 1950s childhood. From his first moments in office, he was prepared to turn his administration’s future energy policy into what Michael Klare has called, “a wish list drawn up by the major fossil fuel companies.” He has been obsessed with ensuring that the U.S. dominate the global oil market (think: Saudi America), saving the dying coal-mining business in this country, building yet more pipelines, rolling back Obama-era fossil fuel economy standards for autos and other vehicles, and letting the big energy companies drill just about anywhere from previously out-of-bounds waters off America’s coasts to Alaska’s protected Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In other words, every act of his related to energy reveals the leader of the planet’s “last superpower” as a climate-change enabler of a sort that once would only have been the fantasy of some energy company CEO.
This makes him and his administration criminals of a historic sort. After all, he and his cronies are aiming at what can only be thought of as terracide, the destruction of the environment of the planet that has sustained us for thousands of years. That would be a literal crime against humanity so vast that it has, until this moment, gone unnamed and, until relatively recently, almost unimagined.
In the wake of this summer, climate-change denial, however ascendant in Washington, is an obvious joke. You no longer have to be a scientist studying the subject or even particularly well informed to grasp that. As New York Times reporter Somini Sengupta put it recently, in covering the heat waves that have engulfed the planet, “For many scientists, this is the year they started living climate change rather than just studying it.” The rest of us are now living it as well.
The math is no longer even complicated. As Sengupta points out, 2018 is shaping up to be the fourth warmest year on record. The other three? 2015, 2016, and 2017. In fact, of the 18 warmest years on record, 17 took place in guess which century? For the lower 48 states, this was, May to July, the hottest summer ever; Japan had an “unprecedented” heat wave; Europe broiled; Sweden’s tallest mountain ceased to be so as its glacial peak melted; numerous fires broke out within the European part of the Arctic Circle; scientists were spooked by the fact that the oldest, strongest ice in Arctic waters started to break up; California, along with much of western North America burned amid air so polluted that warnings were regularly issued in a fire season that threatened never to end. The temperature set records at over 86 degrees Fahrenheit for 16 straight days in Oslo, Norway; over 91 degrees for 16 straight days in Hong Kong; 122 degrees in Nawabsha, Pakistan; and 124 degrees in Ouargla, Algeria. Ocean waters were experiencing record warmth, too.
And again, that’s just to start down a far longer list and but a taste of what the future, according to The Don(ald), has in store for us. Imagine, for instance, what the intensification of all this means: a California that never stops burning; coastal cities swamped by rising seas; significant parts of the North China plain (where millions of people live) made potentially uninhabitable thanks to devastating heat waves; tens of millions of human beings turned into the very people Donald Trump hates most: migrants and refugees. This is the world that our president is preparing for our grandchildren and their children and grandchildren.
So tell me that he won’t be remembered for his absolute, if ignorant, dedication to the taking down of civilization.
In other words, the one thing Donald Trump will be remembered for — and what a thing it will be! — is his desire to put us all on an escalator to hell; to, that is, a future of fire and fury. It could make him and the executives of the largest energy companies the greatest criminals in history. If the emissions of greenhouse gases aren’t significantly cut back and then halted in a reasonable period of time, the crime he is now aiding and abetting with such enthusiasm is the only one, other than a nuclear war, that could end history as we know it, which might mean that Donald Trump won’t be remembered at all. And if that isn’t big league, what is?
What Will Donald Trump Be Remembered For?
Fair warning. Stop reading right now if you want, because I’m going to repeat myself. What choice do I have, since my subject is the Afghan War (America’s second Afghan War, no less)? I began writing about that war in October 2001, almost 17 years ago, just after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. That was how I inadvertently launched the unnamed listserv that would, a year later, become TomDispatch. Given the website’s continuing focus on America’s forever wars (a phrase I first used in 2010), what choice have I had but to write about Afghanistan ever since?
So think of this as the war piece to end all war pieces. And let the repetition begin!
Here, for instance, is what I wrote about our Afghan War in 2008, almost seven years after it began, when the U.S. Air Force took out a bridal party, including the bride herself and at least 26 other women and children en route to an Afghan wedding. And that would be just one of eight U.S. wedding strikes I toted up by the end of 2013 in three countries, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen, that killed almost 300 potential revelers. “We have become a nation of wedding crashers,” I wrote, “the uninvited guests who arrived under false pretenses, tore up the place, offered nary an apology, and refused to go home.”
Here’s what I wrote about Afghanistan in 2009, while considering the metrics of “a war gone to hell”: “While Americans argue feverishly and angrily over what kind of money, if any, to put into health care, or decaying infrastructure, or other key places of need, until recently just about no one in the mainstream raised a peep about the fact that, for nearly eight years (not to say much of the last three decades), we’ve been pouring billions of dollars, American military know-how, and American lives into a black hole in Afghanistan that is, at least in significant part, of our own creation.”
Here’s what I wrote in 2010, thinking about how “forever war” had entered the bloodstream of the twenty-first-century U.S. military (in a passage in which you’ll notice a name that became more familiar in the Trump era): “And let’s not leave out the Army’s incessant planning for the distant future embodied in a recently published report, ‘Operating Concept, 2016-2028,’ overseen by Brigadier General H.R. McMaster, a senior adviser to Gen. David Petraeus. It opts to ditch ‘Buck Rogers’ visions of futuristic war, and instead to imagine counterinsurgency operations, grimly referred to as ‘wars of exhaustion,’ in one, two, many Afghanistans to the distant horizon.”
Here’s what I wrote in 2012, when Afghanistan had superseded Vietnam as the longest war in American history: “Washington has gotten itself into a situation on the Eurasian mainland so vexing and perplexing that Vietnam has finally been left in the dust. In fact, if you hadn’t noticed — and weirdly enough no one has — that former war finally seems to have all but vanished.”
Here’s what I wrote in 2015, thinking about the American taxpayer dollars that had, in the preceding years, gone into Afghan “roads to nowhere, ghost soldiers, and a $43 million gas station” built in the middle of nowhere, rather than into this country: “Clearly, Washington had gone to war like a drunk on a bender, while the domestic infrastructure began to fray. At $109 billion by 2014, the American reconstruction program in Afghanistan was already, in today’s dollars, larger than the Marshall Plan (which helped put all of devastated Western Europe back on its feet after World War II) and still the country was a shambles.”
And here’s what I wrote last year thinking about the nature of our never-ending war there: “Right now, Washington is whistling past the graveyard. In Afghanistan and Pakistan the question is no longer whether the U.S. is in command, but whether it can get out in time. If not, the Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians, the Indians, who exactly will ride to our rescue? Perhaps it would be more prudent to stop hanging out in graveyards. They are, after all, meant for burials, not resurrections.”
And that’s just to dip a toe into my writings on America’s all-time most never-ending war.
What Happened After History Ended
If, at this point, you’re still reading, I consider it a miracle. After all, most Americans hardly seem to notice that the war in Afghanistan is still going on. To the extent that they’re paying attention at all, the public would, it seems, like U.S. troops to come home and the war to end.
That conflict, however, simply stumbles on amid continuing bad news with nary a soul in the streets to protest it. The longer it goes on, the less — here in this country at least — it seems to be happening (if, that is, you aren’t one of the 15,000 American troops stationed there or among their families and friends or the vets, their families and friends, who have been gravely damaged by their tours of duty in Kabul and beyond).
And if you’re being honest, can you really blame the public for losing interest in a war that they largely no longer fight, a war that they’re in no way called on to support (other than to idolize the troops who do fight it), a war that they’re in no way mobilized for or against? In the age of the Internet, who has an attention span of 17 years, especially when the president just tweeted out his 47th outrageous comment of the week?
If you stop to think about it between those tweets, don’t you find it just a tad grim that, close enough to two decades later, this country is still fighting fruitlessly in a land once known by the ominous sobriquet “the graveyard of empires”? You know, the one whose tribal fighters outlasted Alexander the Great, the Mongols, the British, and the Russians.
Back in October 2001, you might have thought that the history lurking in that phrase would have given George W. Bush’s top officials pause before they decided to go after not just Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan but the Taliban, too. No such luck, of course — then or since.
They were, of course, leading the planet’s last superpower, the only one left when the Soviet Union imploded after its Afghan war disaster, the one its leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, grimly dubbed “the bleeding wound.” They hadn’t the slightest doubt that the United States was exempt from history, that everyone else had already filled that proverbial graveyard and that there would never be a gravestone for them. After all, the U.S. was still standing, seemingly triumphant, when history officially “ended” (according to one of the neocon prophets of that moment).
In reality, when it comes to America’s spreading wars, especially the one in Afghanistan, history didn’t end at all. It just stumbled onto some graveyard version of a Möbius strip. In contrast to the past empires that found they ultimately couldn’t defeat Afghanistan’s insurgent tribal warriors, the U.S. has — as Bush administration officials suspected at the time — proven unique. Just not in the way they imagined.
Their dreams couldn’t have been more ambitious. As they launched the invasion of Afghanistan, they were already looking past the triumph to come to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the glories that would follow once his regime had been “decapitated,” once U.S. forces, the most technologically advanced ever, were stationed for an eternity in the heart of the oil heartlands of the Greater Middle East. Not that anyone remembers anymore, but Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, and the rest of that crew of geopolitical dreamers wanted it all.
What they got was no less unique in history: a great power at the seeming height of its strength and glory, with destructive capabilities beyond imagining and a military unmatched on the planet, unable to score a single decisive victory across an increasingly large swath of the planet or impose its will, however brutally, on seemingly far weaker, less well-armed opponents. They could not conquer, subdue, control, pacify, or win the hearts and minds or anything else of enemies who often fought their trillion-dollar foe using weaponry valued at the price of a pizza. Talk about bleeding wounds!
A War of Abysmal Repetition
Thought of another way, the U.S. military is now heading into record territory in Afghanistan. In the mid-1970s, the rare American who had heard of that country knew it only as a stop on the hippie trail. If you had then told anyone here that, by 2018, the U.S. would have been at war there for 27 years (1979-1989 and 2001-2018), he or she would have laughed in your face. And yet here we are, approaching the mark for one of Europe’s longest, most brutal struggles, the Thirty Years’ War of the seventeenth century. Imagine that.
And just in case you’re paying no attention at all to the news from Afghanistan these days, rest assured that you don’t have to. You already know it!
To offer just a few examples, the New York Times recently revealed a new Trump administration plan to get U.S.-backed Afghan troops to withdraw from parts of the countryside, ceding yet more territory to the Taliban, to better guard the nation’s cities. Here was the headline used: “Newest U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan Mirrors Past Plans for Retreat.” (“The withdrawal resembles strategies embraced by both the Bush and Obama administrations that have started and stuttered over the nearly 17-year war.”) And that generally is about as new as it gets when it comes to Afghan news in 2018.
Consider, for instance, a report from early July that began, “An American service member was killed and two others were wounded in southern Afghanistan on Saturday in what officials described as an ‘apparent insider attack’”; that is, he was killed by an armed Afghan government soldier, an ally, not an enemy. As it happened, I was writing about just such “insider” or “green-on-blue” violence back in July 2012 (when it was rampant) under the headline “Death by Ally” (“a message written in blood that no one wants to hear”). And despite many steps taken to protect U.S. advisers and other personnel from such attacks since, they’re still happening six years later.
Or consider the report, “Counternarcotics: Lessons from the U.S. Experience in Afghanistan,” issued this June by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan (SIGAR). Its focus: 15 years of American efforts to suppress opium growing and the heroin trade in that country (at historic lows, by the way, when the U.S. invaded in 2001). More than eight and a half billion American dollars later, SIGAR found, opium remains the country’s largest cash crop, supporting “590,000 full-time jobs — which is more people than are employed by Afghanistan’s military and security forces.” Oh, wait, historian Alfred McCoy was writing about just that at TomDispatch back in 2010 under the headline “Can Anyone Pacify the World’s Number One Narco-State?” (“In ways that have escaped most observers, the Obama administration is now trapped in an endless cycle of drugs and death in Afghanistan from which there is neither an easy end nor an obvious exit.”)
Recently, SIGAR issued another report, this one on the rampant corruption inside just about every part of the Afghan government and its security forces, which are famously filled with scads of “ghost soldiers.” How timely, given that Ann Jones was focused on that very subject, endemic corruption in Afghanistan, at TomDispatch back in… hmmm, 2006, when she wrote, “During the last five years, the U.S. and many other donor nations pledged billions of dollars to Afghanistan, yet Afghans keep asking: ‘Where did the money go?’ American taxpayers should be asking the same question. The official answer is that donor funds are lost to Afghan corruption. But shady Afghans, accustomed to two-bit bribes, are learning how big-bucks corruption really works from the masters of the world.”
I could, of course, go on to discuss “surges” — the latest being the Trump administration’s mini-one to bring U.S. troop levels there to 15,000 — such surges having been a dime-a-dozen phenomena in these many years. Or the recent ramping up of the air war there (essentially reported with the same headlines you could have found over articles in… well… 2010) or the amount of territory the Taliban now controls (at record levels 17 years after that crew was pushed out of the last Afghan city they controlled), but why go on? You get the point.
Almost 17 years and, coincidentally enough, 17 U.S. commanders later, think of it as a war of abysmal repetition. Just about everything in the U.S. manual of military tactics has evidently been tried (including dropping “the mother of all bombs,” the largest non-nuclear munition in that military’s arsenal), often time and again, and nothing has even faintly done the trick — to which the Pentagon’s response is invariably a version of the classic misquoted movie line, “Play it again, Sam.”
And yet, amid all that repetition, people are still dying; Afghans and others are being uprooted and displaced across Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and deep into Africa; wars and terror outfits are spreading. And here’s a simple enough fact that’s worth repeating: the endless, painfully ignored failure of the U.S. military (and civilian) effort in Afghanistan is where it all began and where it seems never to end.
A Victory for Whom?
Every now and then, there’s the odd bit of news that reminds you we don’t have to be in a world of repetition. Every now and then, you see something and wonder whether it might not represent a new development, one that possibly could lead out of (or far deeper into) the graveyard of empires.
As a start, though it’s been easy to forget in these years, other countries are affected by the ongoing disaster of a war in Afghanistan. Think, for instance, of Pakistan (with a newly elected, somewhat Trumpian president who has been a critic of America’s Afghan War and of U.S. drone strikes in his country), Iran, China, and Russia. So here’s something I can’t remember seeing in the news before: the military intelligence chiefs of those four countries all met recently in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, officially to discuss the growth of Islamic State-branded insurgents in Afghanistan. But who knows what was really being discussed? And the same applies to the visit of Iran’s armed forces chief of staff to Pakistan in July and the return visit of that country’s chief of staff to Iran in early August. I can’t tell you what’s going on, only that these are not the typically repetitive stories of the last 17 years.
And hard as it might be to believe, even when it comes to U.S. policy, there’s been the odd headline that might pass for new. Take the recent private, direct talks with the Taliban in Qatar’s capital, Doha, initiated by the Trump administration and seemingly ongoing. They might — or might not — represent something new, as might President Trump himself, who, as far as anyone can tell, doesn’t think that Afghanistan is “the right war.” He has, from time to time, even indicated that he might be in favor of ending the American role, of “getting the hell out of there,” as he reportedly told Senator Rand Paul, and that’s unique in itself (though he and his advisers seem to be raring to go when it comes to what could be the next Afghanistan: Iran).
But should the man who would never want to be known as the president who lost the longest war in American history try to follow through on a withdrawal plan, he’s likely to have a few problems on his hands. Above all, the Pentagon and the country’s field commanders seem to be hooked on America’s “infinite” wars. They exhibit not the slightest urge to stop them. The Afghan War and the others that have flowed from it represent both their raison d’être and their meal ticket. They represent the only thing the U.S. military knows how to do in this century. And one thing is guaranteed: if they don’t agree with the president on a withdrawal strategy, they have the power and ability to make a man who would do anything to avoid marring his own image as a winnner look worse than you could possibly imagine. Despite that military’s supposedly apolitical role in this country’s affairs, its leaders are uniquely capable of blocking any attempt to end the Afghan War.
And with that in mind, almost 17 years later, don’t think that victory is out of the question either. Every day that the U.S. military stays in Afghanistan is indeed a victory for… well, not George W. Bush, or Barack Obama, and certainly not Donald Trump, but the now long-dead Osama bin Laden. The calculation couldn’t be simpler. Thanks to his “precision” weaponry — those 19 suicidal hijackers in commercial jets — the nearly 17 years of wars he’s sparked across much of the Muslim world cost a man from one of Saudi Arabia’s wealthiest families a mere $400,000 to $500,000. They’ve cost American taxpayers, minimally, $5.6 trillion dollars with no end in sight. And every day the Afghan War and the others that have followed from it continue is but another triumphant day for him and his followers.
A sad footnote to this history of extreme repetition: I wish this essay, as its title suggests, were indeed the war piece to end all war pieces. Unfortunately, it’s a reasonable bet that, in August 2019, or August 2020, not to speak of August 2021, I’ll be repeating all of this yet again.
The War Piece to End All War Pieces
There was a period in my later life when I used to say that, from the age of 20 to my late sixties, I was always 40 years old; I was, that is, an old young man and a young old one. Tell that to my legs now. Of course, there’s nothing faintly strange in such a development. It’s the most ordinary experience in life: to face your own failing self, those muscles that no longer work the way they used to, those brain cells jumping ship with abandon and taking with them so many memories, so much knowledge you’d rather keep aboard. If you’re of a certain age — I just turned 74 — you know exactly what I mean.
And that, as they say, is life. In a sense, each of us might, sooner or later, be thought of as a kind of failed experiment that ends in the ultimate failure: death.
And in some ways, the same thing might be said of states and empires. Sooner or later, there comes a moment in the history of the experiment when those muscles start to falter, those brain cells begin jumping ship, and in some fashion, spectacular or not, it all comes tumbling down. And that, as they say (or should say), is history. Human history, at least.
In a sense, it may hardly be more out of the ordinary to face a failing experiment in what, earlier in this century, top officials in Washington called “nation building” than in our individual lives. In this case, the nation I’m thinking about, the one that seems in the process of being unbuilt, is my own. You know, the one that its leaders — until Donald Trump hit the Oval Office — were in the habit of eternally praising as the most exceptional, the most indispensable country on the planet, the global policeman, the last or sole superpower. Essentially, it. Who could forget that extravagant drumbeat of seemingly obligatory self-praise for what, admittedly, is still a country with wealth and financial clout beyond compare and more firepower than the next significant set of competitors combined?
Still, tell me you can’t feel it? Tell me you couldn’t sense it when those election results started coming in that November night in 2016? Tell me you can’t sense it in the venomous version of gridlock that now grips Washington? Tell me it’s not there in the feeling in this country that we are somehow besieged (no matter our specific politics), demobilized, and no longer have any real say in a political system of, by, and for the billionaires, in a Washington in which the fourth branch of government, the national security state, gets all the dough, all the tender loving care (except, at this moment, from our president), all the attention for keeping us “safe” from not much (and certainly not itself)? In the meantime, most Americans get ever less and have ever less say about what they’re not getting. No wonder in the last election the country’s despairing heartland gave a hearty orange finger to the Washington elite.
States of Failure
“Populist” is the term of the moment for the growing crew of Donald Trumps around the planet. It may mean “popular,” but it doesn’t mean “population”; it doesn’t mean “We, the People.” No matter what that band of Trumps might say, it’s increasingly not “we” but “them,” or in the case of Donald J. Trump in particular, “him.”
No, the United States is not yet a failed or failing state, not by a long shot, not in the sense of countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen that have been driven to near-collapse by America’s twenty-first-century wars and accompanying events. And yet, doesn’t it seem ever easier to think of this country as, in some sense at least, a failing (and flailing) experiment?
And don’t just blame it on Donald Trump. That’s the easy path to an explanation. Something had to go terribly wrong to produce such a president and his tweet-stormed version of America. That should seem self-evident enough, even to — though they would mean it in a different way — The Donald’s much-discussed base. After all, if they hadn’t felt that, for them, the American experiment was failing, why would they have voted for an obvious all-American con man? Why would they have sent into the White House someone whose Apprentice-like urge is to fire us all?
It’s hard to look back on the last decades and not think that democracy has been sinking under the imperial waves. I first noticed the term “the imperial presidency” in the long-gone age of Richard Nixon, when his White House began to fill with uniformed flunkies and started to look like something out of an American fantasy of royalty. The actual power of that presidency, no matter who was in office, has been growing ever since. Whatever the Constitution might say, war, for instance, is now a presidential, not a congressional, prerogative (as is, to take a recent example, the imposition of tariffs on the products of allies on “national security” grounds).
As Chalmers Johnson used to point out, in the Cold War years the president gained his own private army. Johnson meant the CIA, but in this century you would have to add America’s ever vaster, still expanding Special Operations forces (SOF), now regularly sent on missions of every sort around the globe. He’s also gained his own private air force: the CIA’s Hellfire-missile armed drones that he can dispatch across much of the planet to kill those he’s personally deemed his country’s enemies. In that way, in this century — despite a ban on presidential assassinations, now long ignored — the president has become an actual judge, jury, and executioner. The term I’ve used in the past has been assassin-in-chief.
All of this preceded President Trump. In fact, if presidential wars hadn’t become the order of the day, I doubt his presidency would have been conceivable. Without the rise of the national security state to such a position of prominence; without much of government operations descending into a penumbra of secrecy on the grounds that “We, the People” needed to be “safe,” not knowledgeable; without the pouring of taxpayer dollars into America’s intelligence agencies and the U.S. military; without the creation of a war-time Washington engaged in conflicts without end; without the destabilization of significant parts of the planet; without the war on terror — it should really be called the war for terror — spreading terrorism; without the displacement of vast populations (including something close to half of Syria’s by now) and the rise of the populist right on both sides of the Atlantic on the basis of the resulting anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim sentiments, it’s hard to imagine him. In other words, before he ever descended that Trump Tower escalator into the presidential race in 2015, empire had, politically speaking, trumped democracy and a flawed but noble experiment that began in 1776 was failing.
Had that imperial power not been exercised in such a wholesale way in this century, Donald Trump would have been unimaginable. Had President George W. Bush and his cronies not decided to invade Iraq, The Donald probably would have been inconceivable as anything but the proprietor of a series of failed casinos in Atlantic City, the owner of what he loves to call “property” (adorned with those giant golden letters), and a TV reality host. And the American people would not today be his apprentices.
When that “very stable genius” (as he reminded us again recently) inherited such powers long in the making, he also inherited the power to use them in ways that would have been unavailable to the president of a country that had genuine “checks and balances,” one in which the people knew what was going on and in some sense directed it. Consider it a sign of the times that he’s the second president to lose the popular vote in this 18-year-old century — the first, of course, being George W. “Hanging Chad” Bush. So perhaps it’s only proper that President Trump has now nominated to the Supreme Court a judge who was once a Republican operative for the very legal team focused on stopping the recount of those contested Florida ballots in 2000 — a recount the Supreme Court did indeed halt, throwing the election to Bush. Note that Brett Kavanaugh is also the perfect justice for America’s new imperial age of decline, one who genuinely believes that the law should read: the president, while in office, is above it. Think of him as Caligula’s future enabler.
In other words, in the twenty-first century, Donald Trump is proof indeed that the American experiment in democracy may be coming to an unseemly end in a president with all the urges of an autocrat (and so many other urges as well). Or think of it this way: the contest — from early on an essential part of American life — between democracy and empire seems to be ending with empire the victor. However — and here may be Donald Trump’s particular significance — empire, too, looks to be heading toward some kind of ultimate failure. He himself is visibly a force for imperial demolition. He seems intent — as in the recent abusive NATO meeting and the chaotic get-together with Russian President Vladimir Putin — on dismantling the very world that imperial America built for itself in the wake of World War II. You know, the one in which it was to be the ultimate and eternal victor in a rivalry between imperial powers that had begun in perhaps the fifteenth century, reached its peak when only two “super” rivals were left to face each other in the Cold War, and ended with a single power seemingly triumphant and alone on planet Earth.
How quickly those historically unique dreams of global dominion fell apart in the “infinite wars” of this century. Think of Donald Trump as the overly ripe fruit of that failure, that endless imperial moment that never quite was. Think of him as the daemon in the (malfunctioning) global machinery of a world that is itself — as in Brexiting “Europe” — evidently beginning to come apart at the seams amid war, a flood of global refugees, and one factor never experienced before (on which more below). Think of America as being caught up in some only half-recognized United Stexit moment, though what exactly we are withdrawing from may be less than clear.
Still, bad as any moment might be, you can always hope for, dream about, and work for so much better, as so many have over the centuries. After all, everything I’ve described remains the norm of history. What empire hasn’t had its Caligulas, its Trumps? What empire hasn’t, in the end, gone down? What democratic experiment hasn’t sooner or later faltered? Even the best of experiments come up short as autocrats take power and hand their rule on to their sons, only to be overthrown by some revolt, some new attempt to make better sense of this world, which itself falters sooner or later. And so it goes.
Again, that, as they say, is history, a series of failed experiments, but ones that always end, in their own fashion, with hope still alive for a better, fairer, juster world. Yes, a particular failure might be terrible for you, your community, even several generations of yous, but it, too, will pass and you can expect our better angels to reappear someday, even if not in your lifetime — or at least until recently you could do so.
The Ultimate Experiment
There is, however, another experiment, a planet-wide one that seems to be failing as well. You could think of it as humanity’s experiment with industrial civilization, which is disastrously altering the environment of this previously welcoming world of ours. I’m referring, of course, to what the greenhouse gases from the fossil fuels we’ve been burning in such profusion since the eighteenth century are doing to our planet.
Whether you call it climate change or global warming, the one thing it isn’t — despite the fact that we’ve done it — is history. Not human history anyway. After all, its effects will exist on a time scale that dwarfs our own. If allowed to play out to its fullest, it could destroy civilization. And ironically enough, unlike so many of our experiments, this was one we didn’t even know we were conducting for something like a century and a half. So consider it an irony that it’s the one likely to endanger every other imaginable experiment. If not somehow halted in a reasonably decisive fashion, it could not only inundate coastal cities, turn verdant lands into parched landscapes, and create weather extremes presently hard to imagine, but produce heat that will be devastating.
And yet don’t give us any kind of a free pass on this one. Despite those endless years of not knowing what we were doing, ignorance can’t be pled. Increasing numbers of us (including the giant oil companies who did everything humanly possible to keep the news from the rest of us) have known about this since at least the 1960s. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson’s science advisory committee sent him a report that highlighted a human-caused warming of the planet from the carbon dioxide burned off by fossil fuels. It included remarkably accurate projections of the increased heat to come in the twenty-first century and of other effects of climate change, including sea level rise and the warming of sea waters. So don’t say that no one was warned. As time went on, we’ve been warned again and again.
And for this, too, Donald Trump can’t be blamed, but his presence in the White House is now a powerful symbol of a human failure to grasp the dangers involved. Talk about a symbolic act of self-destruction: the American people put a fierce climate denier in the White House. He, in turn, has brought his passionate 1950s-style fantasies of an even more oil-fueled global future with him. He has, among other things, appointed a remarkable set of Republican climate-change doubters and deniers to crucial positions throughout his administration. He’s moved to withdraw this country from the Paris climate accord, while powering up fossil-fuel and greenhouse-gas-producing projects of every sort and weakening the drive to develop alternative energy sources; he has, that is, done everything in his power to stoke global warming.
Along with the actions of the CEOs of the giant oil companies, this will surely prove to be the greatest criminal enterprise in history, since it takes the all-time largest greenhouse gas emitter out of the running (except at the state and local level) when it comes to impeding global warming. In other words, whatever else he may be, President Donald Trump seems singularly intent on being a one-man wrecking crew when it comes to human history.
Since Lucy walked upright by that African lake three million years ago, this has been a remarkably welcoming planet for the human experiment. If, in the coming century, climate change hits full force, it won’t just be a matter of refugees in the hundreds of millions or individual deaths in countless numbers, or some failing democracy that became an empire. It could mean the failure of the whole human experiment in ways that are still hard to grasp. It could mean no more chance for failure, The End.
That’s something worth working against. That’s a failure no one in any possible future can afford.
In the meantime, here I am, another year closer to my own moment of “failure,” living in a potentially failing country on a potentially failing planet. Happy birthday to me.
Three Failing Experiments?
When you think of addiction in America today, one thing comes to mind: the opioid epidemic. And it should. It’s serious. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, almost 64,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses in 2016 (more than died in the Vietnam War), an average of 175 people a day. In that year, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimated that 11.5 million Americans “misused” pain medication. (Note that such figures are still on the rise.) Only recently, the surgeon general issued a rare national advisory “urging more Americans to carry naloxone, a drug used to revive people overdosing on opioids.” This crisis of addiction has already cost the country an estimated $1 trillion since 2001 and might, in the next three years alone, cost more than half that much again.
The United States, however, has two other crises that, in the long run, will cost Americans far more. Yet they get remarkably little attention as addiction phenomena. The first is so obvious that no one should have to comment on it. Here’s the strange thing, though: it’s a rare moment when there’s any serious analysis of it or real attention given to it as an addiction.
This country (and above all its media) is addicted to Donald J. Trump in a way that no population, no media, possibly not even the Communist Chinese press in the days of Mao Zedong, ever was to any figure. Since he rode that Trump Tower escalator into the presidential race in June 2015 to the tune of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” and took out after Mexican “rapists” and future Great Walls, no one — nothing — has ever been covered or attended to this way, online or off, in daily life or in our increasingly shared, increasingly addictive media life. (Yes, the Internet and social media are undoubtedly addictions of some sort, too, but let’s not head down that road or I’ll never stop writing!)
Not Donald Trump’s 2016 electoral victory, nor his tax “reform” gift to the 1%, nor his chance to appoint a second Supreme Court justice (with more openings likely to come) — none of these or anything else he’s done or is likely to do will qualify as the truest, deepest, most far-reaching of his triumphs. That can only be the unprecedented way he continues to draw attention. It represents a victory of the first order for him of a unique, almost incomprehensible sort, made more so by the inability of those who report on him to take in what’s happened to them or analyze their situation in any serious way.
Addicted to Trump
Donald J. Trump, as candidate and president, has trumped the attention span of this country, possibly of the planet. Eyes have been focused on him, his insults, his tweets, his passing thoughts, his every comment, his acts, major and minor, and the associated acts and reactions of those who circle around him, as never before in history — not for a king, an emperor, or a dictator, and certainly not for a president. His truest triumph has been to make himself into the voluntary drug of choice for most of a country and all of the media in a way we’ve never imagined possible, and for which, it seems, there is no naloxone.
He has, in the deepest sense, turned the media he loves to loathe, thrives on hating, into a genuine mechanism for producing “fake news” — about him. It’s only real news if you think that The Donald should be the focus of essentially everything, if you believe that nothing else on this planet should take place except refracted through him.
When it comes to the media in particular, Donald Trump is the opioid crisis. He’s their drug of choice. He gets them high. They can’t help themselves, nor can they stop. As head of CBS Leslie Moonves put it during election campaign 2016: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” And then he added, “The money’s rolling in and this is fun. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this [is] going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
And it’s never ended. The president glues eyeballs to papers, to the endlessly talking heads on the cable news networks, to Twitter, to anything that now passes for media, at a time when so many news outfits are in so many other ways coming unglued. More reporters have undoubtedly been assigned to cover him and his acolytes than ever covered anything or anyone else on a day-by-day, week-by-week basis. Every day of Donald Trump’s life is, in coverage terms, something like the equivalent of the Kennedy assassination, which might be thought of as the first 24/7 TV event, or perhaps the 1994 O.J. Simpson white Ford Bronco car chase that was, in some strange way, a preview of this Trumpian media moment.
It really doesn’t matter much what the “story” is when it comes to his presidency. Whatever it is, it’s promptly swarmed by that media without the slightest sense of proportion or any feeling for what actually matters on this planet of ours. In almost every sense, in fact, Donald Trump now regularly blots out the sun.
Take a small incident just over two weeks ago. With a party of family members, Trump Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders stopped off at the Red Hen, a tiny farm-to-table restaurant in Lexington, Virginia. Mid-meal, she was asked to leave by the owner after staff members raised “concerns.” I’m only reminding you of this — a couple of weeks ago you undoubtedly could have told me every detail — because it’s already been consigned to the dust bin of history as other Trump-infused tales — from the resignation of Supreme Court justice Kennedy to prank-calling the president — have swept it aside. Of course, Sanders’s half-eaten dinner also helped sweep aside previous stories of our time like that message on the back of Melania Trump’s coat on her first trip to the U.S.-Mexico border (“I really don’t care. Do U?”).
When Sanders left that restaurant and then tweeted about it, a storm of coverage, as well as a firestorm of tweets, Facebook posts, insults, and praise about the judgment of the restaurant’s owner, arguments over the ideological polarization of the country, and so much else, including the “weaponization” of the restaurant-review website Yelp, flooded over us. Unrelated restaurants with “Red Hen” in their name elsewhere in the country (or even the world) received threats of all sorts and were inundated with insulting messages as were shops and restaurants that happened to be located near the actual Red Hen.
The story became front-page news nationwide and, for instance, led NBC Nightly News (which I happened to watch) on the evening that the stock market swooned over trade-war fears. In my own hometown paper, the New York Times, it was a front-page story and not one but two reporters were assigned to a crucial sideline piece about why President Trump’s Twitter finger was so slow; why, that is, he waited 48 hours — two full days! — before tweeting his support for his press secretary by attacking the Red Hen for having a “filthy” exterior and undoubtedly being “dirty” inside. The Times journalists focused on “the president’s uncharacteristically tepid, delayed response,” wondering whether it was a sign that Sanders was on her way out. (The Washington Post, on the other hand, dissected the president’s response in terms of, as the headline on one of its articles put it, “everything Trump got wrong about Red Hen, in one tweet.”) And so it went.
Tell me, then, if this isn’t an addiction, what is it? And what’s the one thing you know about addictions? Whatever high they give you — and let’s not deny that Donald Trump offers us a constant set of highs (whether as rushes of agreement and pleasure or horror and dismay) — if you can’t stop yourself from taking the drug, day after day, night after night, there will be a price to pay. Somebody better have the equivalent of naloxone on hand.
Addicted to War
And then there’s that other twenty-first-century all-American addiction, in some ways far stranger than the Trumpian one and likely to be no less costly in the long run: addiction to war. Almost 17 years after the Global War on Terror was launched, the highs — the invasion of Afghanistan! The taking of Kabul! The smashing of Iraq! The capture of Saddam Hussein! — are long gone. Now exhausted and discouraged, those hooked nonetheless remain unable to stop.
In some ways, addiction may seem like a strange category when applied to this country’s war-making, as for most Americans the very opposite seems to be true. Since a series of historic global antiwar protests faded out with the invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003, it’s as if most Americans had gone cold turkey on this country’s credit-card wars. Willfully demobilized by the top officials of the Bush administration, who preferred to conduct their military operations without citizen or congressional oversight, they simply turned away and went about their business. Meanwhile, America’s all-volunteer military, increasingly a kind of foreign legion for much of the population, has continued to fight never-endingly and remarkably fruitlessly across a vast swath of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.
The divorce of most Americans from Washington’s wars and those fighting them may be less than apparent because, according to the polls, the public has a kind of blind trust and soaring “confidence” in the U.S. military, unlike any other part of the government or, for that matter, the society, and because the urge to “thank” the “warriors” is now such a basic part of American life. But all of that is, I suspect, little more than a massive compensation reaction from a public that otherwise could not care less.
When it comes to Washington’s still-spreading war on terror, the media has, if anything, followed suit. Recently, for instance, Reuters correspondent Indrees Ali posted a photo on Twitter of a large, almost empty room filled with chairs, with the caption: “There are exactly four journalists at the Pentagon briefing on Afghanistan.” That single image sums up the present situation vividly. Almost 17 years after the invasion of Afghanistan by a military repeatedly hailed as “the finest fighting force the world has ever known,” at a moment when Taliban insurgents are again gaining ground, a Pentagon briefing on developments there is of no interest. Yes, events in such wars are still dutifully reported from time to time, but those reports, often tucked away on the inside pages of papers or deep in the nightly news, don’t hold a candle to Melania’s jacket, the president’s latest tweet, or a Red Hen rebuff.
And yet the photo of that Pentagon briefing is deceptive. It leaves out a key group still in the room: those addicted to an American style of war-making through which, year after year, the still-theoretically dominant power on the planet only seems to induce the spread of terror movements, disorder, destruction, and the displacement of increasingly large populations (contributing to a global refugee crisis that is, in its own way, helping to remake the planet).
Missing from that photo are the characters who have OD’d on U.S. military power and yet can’t stop mainlining it in ways that have become all-too-familiar since 2001. I’m thinking of the generals of the U.S. military, the men who have led an endless set of campaigns as part of what those inside the Pentagon are now grimly referring to as an “infinite war” leading nowhere. And they’re strung out. As Mark Perry reported recently in Foreign Policy, Secretary of Defense James “Mad Dog” Mattis and other American generals, unlike the president’s new civilian counselors, National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, are not eager for the next potential war, the one with Iran that already looms on the horizon. They understand that they could launch such a conflict successfully, destroying much of Iran’s military (and its nuclear facilities), and still, as with Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and so on, somehow not get out.
And yet, much as they don’t want a bright, shiny new war (and who could blame them under the circumstances), they can’t imagine leaving the old ones behind either. And that’s America’s war addiction in a nutshell, one that has long had in its grip most of elite Washington and the rest of a national security state set up around a style of infinite-war-making that must always be fed with ever increasing numbers of taxpayer dollars. Thanks to those dollars, we, the taxpayers, could be thought of as so many street-level drug peddlers in this country’s war equivalent of the opioid epidemic. The politicians who feed those dollars into the military maw would be the doctors who prescribe opioids, understanding full-well their ability to hook patients. And the Military-Industrial Complex — the giant weapons companies and the warrior corporations that now go into action in lock-step with that military — would be the drug companies that have profited so off the opioid crisis even as they stoked it.
Returning momentarily to Donald Trump, you can feel the power of that war addiction in his inability to fulfill his promise to fight those conflicts in a winning style and, if necessary, quickly extricate the country from what he termed its “$7 trillion” Greater Middle Eastern disaster. In his own fashion, he, too, has been hooked. And when the increasingly tired and distraught generals he chose to surround himself with proved unpalatable to him, Trump notably picked as replacements civilians guaranteed to keep the ball rolling when it came to America’s wars from hell.
So, addiction? If you don’t think this country has an addiction crisis (other than opioids), think again.
As I was putting the finishing touches on my new book, the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute published an estimate of the taxpayer dollars that will have gone into America’s war on terror from September 12, 2001, through fiscal year 2018. That figure: a cool $5.6 trillion (including the future costs of caring for our war vets). On average, that’s at least $23,386 per taxpayer.
Keep in mind that such figures, however eye-popping, are only the dollar costs of our wars. They don’t, for instance, include the psychic costs to the Americans mangled in one way or another in those never-ending conflicts. They don’t include the costs to this country’s infrastructure, which has been crumbling while taxpayer dollars flow copiously and in a remarkably — in these years, almost uniquely — bipartisan fashion into what’s still laughably called “national security.” That’s not, of course, what would make most of us more secure, but what would make them — the denizens of the national security state — ever more secure in Washington and elsewhere. We’re talking about the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. nuclear complex, and the rest of that state-within-a-state, including its many intelligence agencies and the warrior corporations that have, by now, been fused into that vast and vastly profitable interlocking structure.
In reality, the costs of America’s wars, still spreading in the Trump era, are incalculable. Just look at photos of the cities of Ramadi or Mosul in Iraq, Raqqa or Aleppo in Syria, Sirte in Libya, or Marawi in the southern Philippines, all in ruins in the wake of the conflicts Washington set off in the post–9/11 years, and try to put a price on them. Those views of mile upon mile of rubble, often without a building still standing untouched, should take anyone’s breath away. Some of those cities may never be fully rebuilt.
And how could you even begin to put a dollars-and-cents value on the larger human costs of those wars: the hundreds of thousands of dead? The tens of millions of people displaced in their own countries or sent as refugees fleeing across any border in sight? How could you factor in the way those masses of uprooted peoples of the Greater Middle East and Africa are unsettling other parts of the planet? Their presence (or more accurately a growing fear of it) has, for instance, helped fuel an expanding set of right-wing “populist” movements that threaten to tear Europe apart. And who could forget the role that those refugees — or at least fantasy versions of them — played in Donald Trump’s full-throated, successful pitch for the presidency? What, in the end, might be the cost of that?
Opening the Gates of Hell
America’s never-ending twenty-first-century conflicts were triggered by the decision of George W. Bush and his top officials to instantly define their response to attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center by a tiny group of jihadis as a “war”; then to proclaim it nothing short of a “Global War on Terror”; and finally to invade and occupy first Afghanistan and then Iraq, with dreams of dominating the Greater Middle East — and ultimately the planet — as no other imperial power had ever done.
Their overwrought geopolitical fantasies and their sense that the U.S. military was a force capable of accomplishing anything they willed it to do launched a process that would cost this world of ours in ways that no one will ever be able to calculate. Who, for instance, could begin to put a price on the futures of the children whose lives, in the aftermath of those decisions, would be twisted and shrunk in ways frightening even to imagine? Who could tote up what it means for so many millions of this planet’s young to be deprived of homes, parents, educations — of anything, in fact, approximating the sort of stability that might lead to a future worth imagining?
Though few may remember it, I’ve never forgotten the 2002 warning issued by Amr Moussa, then head of the Arab League. An invasion of Iraq would, he predicted that September, “open the gates of hell.” Two years later, in the wake of the actual invasion and the U.S. occupation of that country, he altered his comment slightly. “The gates of hell,” he said, “are open in Iraq.”
His assessment has proven unbearably prescient — and one not only applicable to Iraq. Fourteen years after that invasion, we should all now be in some kind of mourning for a world that won’t ever be. It wasn’t just the US military that, in the spring of 2003, passed through those gates to hell. In our own way, we all did. Otherwise, Donald Trump wouldn’t have become president.
I don’t claim to be an expert on hell. I have no idea exactly what circle of it we’re now in, but I do know one thing: we are there.
The Infrastructure of a Garrison State
If I could bring my parents back from the dead right now, I know that this country in its present state would boggle their minds. They wouldn’t recognize it. If I were to tell them, for instance, that just three men — Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffett — now possess as much wealth as the bottom half of the US population, of 160 million Americans, they would never believe me.
How, for instance, could I begin to explain to them the ways in which, in these years, money flowed ever upward into the pockets of the immensely wealthy and then down again into what became one-percent elections that would finally ensconce a billionaire and his family in the White House? How would I explain to them that, while leading congressional Democrats and Republicans couldn’t say often enough that this country was uniquely greater than any that ever existed, none of them could find the funds — some $5.6 trillion for starters — necessary for our roads, dams, bridges, tunnels, and other crucial infrastructure? This on a planet where what the news likes to call “extreme weather” is increasingly wreaking havoc on that same infrastructure.
My parents wouldn’t have thought such things possible. Not in America. And somehow I’d have to explain to them that they had returned to a nation which, though few Americans realize it, has increasingly been unmade by war — by the conflicts Washington’s war on terror triggered that have now morphed into the wars of so many and have, in the process, changed us.
Such conflicts on the global frontiers have a tendency to come home in ways that can be hard to track or pin down. After all, unlike those cities in the Greater Middle East, ours aren’t yet in ruins — though some of them may be heading in that direction, even if in slow motion. This country is, at least theoretically, still near the height of its imperial power, still the wealthiest nation on the planet. And yet it should be clear enough by now that we’ve crippled not just other nations but ourselves in ways that I suspect — though I’ve tried over these years to absorb and record them as best I could — we can still barely see or grasp.
In my new book, A Nation Unmade by War, the focus is on a country increasingly unsettled and transformed by spreading wars to which most of its citizens were, at best, only half paying attention. Certainly, Trump’s election was a sign of how an American sense of decline had already come home to roost in the era of the rise of the national security state (and little else).
Though it’s not something normally said here, to my mind President Trump should be considered part of the costs of those wars come home. Without the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and what followed, I doubt he would have been imaginable as anything but the host of a reality TV show or the owner of a series of failed casinos. Nor would the garrison-state version of Washington he now occupies be conceivable, nor the generals of our disastrous wars whom he’s surrounded himself with, nor the growth of a surveillance state that would have staggered George Orwell.
The Makings of a Blowback Machine
It took Donald Trump — give him credit where it’s due — to make us begin to grasp that we were living in a different and devolving world. And none of this would have been imaginable if, in the aftermath of 9/11, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney & Co. hadn’t felt the urge to launch the wars that led us through those gates of hell. Their soaring geopolitical dreams of global domination proved to be nightmares of the first order. They imagined a planet unlike any in the previous half millennium of imperial history, in which a single power would basically dominate everything until the end of time. They imagined, that is, the sort of world that, in Hollywood, had been associated only with the most malign of evil characters.
And here was the result of their conceptual overreach: never, it could be argued, has a great power still in its imperial prime proven quite so incapable of applying its military and political might in a way that would advance its aims. It’s a strange fact of this century that the U.S. military has been deployed across vast swaths of the planet and somehow, again and again, has found itself overmatched by underwhelming enemy forces and incapable of producing any results other than destruction and further fragmentation. And all of this occurred at the moment when the planet most needed a new kind of knitting together, at the moment when humanity’s future was at stake in ways previously unimaginable, thanks to its still-increasing use of fossil fuels.
In the end, the last empire may prove to be an empire of nothing at all — a grim possibility which has been a focus of TomDispatch, the website I’ve run since November 2002. Of course, when you write pieces every couple of weeks for years on end, it would be surprising if you didn’t repeat yourself. The real repetitiousness, however, wasn’t at TomDispatch. It was in Washington. The only thing our leaders and generals have seemed capable of doing, starting from the day after the 9/11 attacks, is more or less the same thing with the same dismal results, again and again.
The U.S. military and the national security state that those wars emboldened have become, in effect — and with a bow to the late Chalmers Johnson (a TomDispatch stalwart and a man who knew the gates of hell when he saw them) — a staggeringly well-funded blowback machine. In all these years, while three administrations pursued the spreading war on terror, America’s conflicts in distant lands were largely afterthoughts to its citizenry. Despite the largest demonstrations in history aimed at stopping a war before it began, once the invasion of Iraq occurred, the protests died out and, ever since, Americans have generally ignored their country’s wars, even as the blowback began. Someday, they will have no choice but to pay attention.
An Empire of Nothing at All?
They are the extremists. If you need proof, look no further than the Afghan capital, Kabul, where the latest wave of suicide bombings has proven devastating. Recently, for instance, a fanatic set off his explosives among a group of citizens lining up outside a government office to register to vote in upcoming elections. At least 57 people died, including 22 women and eight children. ISIS’s branch in Afghanistan proudly took responsibility for that callous act — but one not perhaps quite as callous as the ISIS suicide bomber who, in August 2016, took out a Kurdish wedding in Turkey, missing the bride and groom but killing at least 54 people and wounding another 66. Twenty-two of the dead or injured were children and the bomber may even have been a child himself.
Such acts are extreme, which by definition makes the people who commit them extremists. The same is true of those like the “caliph” of the now-decimated Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who order, encourage, or provide the ideological framework for such acts — a judgment few in this country (or most other places on the planet) would be likely to dispute. In this century, from Kabul to Baghdad, Paris to San Bernardino, such extreme acts of indiscriminate civilian slaughter have only multiplied. Though relatively commonplace, each time such a slaughter occurs, it remains an event of horror and is treated as such in the media. If committed by Islamists against Americans or Europeans, suicide attacks of this sort are given 24/7 coverage here, often for days at a time.
And keep in mind that such extreme acts aren’t just restricted to terror groups, their lone wolf followers, or even white nationalists and other crazed men in this country, armed to the teeth, who, in schools, workplaces, restaurants, and elsewhere, regularly wipe out groups of innocents. Take the recent charges that the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad used outlawed chemical weapons in a rebel-held suburb of Damascus, that country’s capital, killing families and causing havoc. Whether that specific act proves to have been as advertised or not, there can be no question that the Assad regime has regularly slaughtered its own citizens with chemical weapons, barrel bombs, artillery barrages, and (sometimes Russian) air strikes, destroying neighborhoods, hospitals, schools, markets, you name it. All of this adds up to a set of extreme acts of the grimmest kind. And such acts could be multiplied across significant parts of the planet, ranging from the Myanmar military’s brutal ethnic-cleansing campaign against that country’s Rohingya minority to acts of state horror in places like South Sudan and the Congo. In this sense, our world certainly doesn’t lack either extreme thinking or the acts that go with it.
We here in the United States are, of course, eternally shocked by their extremism, their willingness to kill the innocent without compunction, particularly in the case of Islamist groups, from the 9/11 attacks to ISIS’s more recent slaughters.
However, one thing is, almost by definition, obvious. We are not a nation of extreme acts or extreme killers. Quite the opposite. Yes, we make mistakes. Yes, we sometimes kill. Yes, we sometimes even kill the innocent, however mistakenly. Yes, we are also exceptional, indispensable, and great (again), as so many politicians and presidents have been telling us for so many years now. And yes, you might even say that in one area we are extreme — in the value we put on American lives, especially military ones. The only thing this country and its leaders are not is extremist in the sense of an al-Qaeda or an ISIS, an Assad regime or a South Sudanese one. That goes without saying, which is why no one here ever thinks to say it.
Brides and Grooms in an Extreme World
Still, just for a moment, as a thought experiment, set aside that self-evident body of knowledge and briefly try to imagine our own particular, indispensable, exceptional version of extremity; that is, try to imagine ourselves as an extreme nation or even, to put it as extremely as possible, the ISIS of superpowers.
This subject came to my mind recently thanks to a story I noticed about another extreme wedding slaughter — this one not by ISIS but thanks to a Saudi “double-tap” airstrike on a wedding in Yemen, first on the groom’s party, then on the bride’s. The bride and possibly the groom died along with 31 other wedding goers (including children). And keep in mind that this wasn’t the first or most devastating Saudi attack on a wedding in the course of its brutal air war in Yemen since 2015.
To take out a wedding, even in wartime, is — I think you could find general agreement on this — an extreme act. Two weddings? More so. And nowhere near the war’s battle lines? More so yet. Of course, given the nature of the Saudi regime, it could easily be counted as another of the extreme governments on this planet. But remember one thing when it comes to that recent wedding slaughter, another country has backed the Saudi royals to the hilt in their war in Yemen: the United States. Washington has supported the Saudi war effort in just about every way imaginable — from refueling their planes in mid-air to providing targeting intelligence to selling them billions of dollars of weaponry and munitions of every sort (including cluster bombs) used in that war. This was true in the Obama years and is, if anything, doubly so at a moment when President Trump has put so much energy and attention into plying the Saudis with arms. So tell me, given that the staggering suffering of civilians in Yemen is common knowledge, shouldn’t our support for the Saudi air war be considered an extreme policy?
Keep in mind as well that, between December 29, 2001, when U.S. B-52 and B-1B bombers killed more than 100 revelers at a wedding in a village in eastern Afghanistan, and December 2013 when a CIA drone took out a… yep… Yemeni wedding party, U.S. air power wiped out all or parts of at least eight weddings, including brides, grooms, and even musicians, killing and wounding hundreds of participants in three countries (and only apologizing in a single case). The troops of present Secretary of Defense James Mattis, when he was commanding the 1st Marine Division in Iraq in 2004, were responsible for one of those slaughters. It took place in Western Iraq and was the incident in which those musicians died, as reportedly did 14 children. When asked about it at the time, Mattis responded: “How many people go to the middle of the desert… to hold a wedding 80 miles from the nearest civilization?” And that response was no more callous or extreme than the New York Daily News’s front-page headline, so many years later, for that U.S. drone strike in Yemen: “Bride and Boom!”
Imagine, for a moment, that a wedding party in some rural part of the United States had been wiped out by a foreign air strike and an Iraqi insurgent leader had responded as Mattis did or an Iraqi paper had used some version of the News’s headline. I don’t think it’s hard to conjure up what the reaction might have been here. Add another little fact to this: to the best of my knowledge, TomDispatch was the only media outlet that tried to keep a record of those American wedding slaughters; otherwise they were quickly forgotten in this country. So tell me, doesn’t that have a feeling of extremity and of remarkable callousness to it? Certainly, if those massacres had been the acts of al-Qaeda or ISIS and American brides, grooms, musicians, and children had been among the dead, there’s no doubt what we would be saying about them 24/7.
A New Kind of Death Cult?
Now, for a moment, let’s consider the possible extremism of Washington in a more organized way. Here, then, is my six-category rundown of what I would call American extremity on a global scale:
Garrisoning the globe: The U.S. has an estimated 800 or so military bases or garrisons, ranging from the size of American small towns to tiny outposts, across the planet. They exist almost everywhere — Europe, South Korea, Japan, Australia, Afghanistan, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America — except in countries that are considered American foes (and given the infamous Guantánamo Bay Detention Center in Cuba, there’s even an exception to that). At the moment, Great Britain and France still have small numbers of bases, largely left over from their imperial pasts; that rising great power rival China officially has one global garrison, a naval base in Djibouti in the horn of Africa (near an American base there, one of its growing collection of outposts on that continent), which much worries American war planners, and a naval base, in the process of being built, in Gwadar, Pakistan; that other great power rival, Russia, still has several bases in countries that were once part of the Soviet Union, and a single naval base in Syria (which similarly disturbs American military planners). The United States, as I said, has at least 800 of them, a number that puts in the shade the global garrisons of any other great power in history, and to go with them, more than 450,000 military personnel stationed outside its borders. It shouldn’t be surprising then that, like no other power in history, it has divided the world — every bit of it — as if slicing a pie, into six military commands; that’s six commands for every inch of the globe (and another two for space and cyberspace). Might all of this not be considered just a tad extreme?
Funding the military: The U.S. puts approximately a trillion dollars annually in taxpayer funds into its military, its 17 intelligence agencies, and what’s now called “homeland security.” Its national security budget is larger than those of the next eight countries combined and still rising yearly, though most politicians agree and many regularly insist that the U.S. military has been badly underfunded in these years, left in a state of disrepair, and needs to be “rebuilt.” Now, honestly, don’t you think that qualifies as both exceptional in the most literal sense and kind of extreme?
Fighting wars: The United States has been fighting wars nonstop since its military invaded Afghanistan in October 2001. That’s almost 17 years of invasions, occupations, air campaigns, drone strikes, special operations raids, naval air and missile attacks, and so much else, from the Philippines to Pakistan, Afghanistan to Syria, Libya to Niger. And in none of those places is such war making truly over. It goes without saying that there’s no other country on the planet making war in such a fashion or over anything like such a period of time. Americans were, for instance, deeply disturbed and ready to condemn Russia for sending its troops into neighboring Ukraine and occupying Crimea. That was considered an extreme act worthy of denunciations of the strongest sort. In this country, though, American-style war, despite invasions of countries thousands of miles away and the presidentially directed targeting of individuals across the globe for assassination by drone with next to no regard for national sovereignty is not considered extreme. Most of the time, in fact, it’s seldom thought about at all or even seriously debated. And yet, isn’t fighting unending wars across thousands of miles of the planet for almost 17 years without end, while making the president into a global assassin, just a tad extreme?
Destroying cities: Can there be any question that, in the American mind, the most extreme act of this century was the destruction of those towers in New York City and part of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, with the deaths of almost 3,000 unsuspecting, innocent civilians? That became the definition of an extreme act by a set of extremists. Consider, however, the American response. Across significant parts of the Middle East in the years since, the U.S. has had a major hand in destroying not just tower after tower, but city after city — Fallujah, Ramadi, and Mosul in Iraq, Raqqa in Syria, Sirte in Libya. One after another, parts or all of them were turned into literal rubble. A reported 20,000 munitions were dropped on Raqqa, the “capital” of the brief Islamic State, by U.S. and allied air power, leaving at least 1,400 civilians dead, and barely a building untouched or even standing (with the Trump administration intent on not providing funds for any kind of reconstruction). In these years, in response to the destruction in whole or part of a handful of buildings, the U.S. has destroyed (often with a helping hand from the Islamic State) whole cities, while filling the equivalent of tower after tower with dead and wounded civilians. Is there nothing extreme about that?
Displacing people: In the course of its wars, the U.S. has helped displace a record number of human beings since the last days of World War II. In Iraq alone, from the years of conflict that Washington set off with its invasion and occupation of 2003, vast numbers of people have been displaced, including in the ISIS era, 1.3 million children. In response to that reality, in “the homeland,” the man who became president in 2017 and the officials he appointed went to work to transform the very refugees we had such a hand in creating into terrifying bogeymen, potentially the most dangerous and extreme people on the planet, and then turned to the task of ensuring that none of them would ever arrive in this country. Doesn’t that seem like an extreme set of acts and responses?
Arming the planet (and its own citizens as well): In these years, as with defense spending, so with the selling of weaponry of almost every imaginable sort to other countries. U.S. weapons makers, aided and abetted by the government, have outpaced all possible competitors in global arms sales. In 2016, for instance, the U.S. took 58% of those sales, while between 2002-2016, Washington transferred weaponry to 167 countries, or more than 85% of the nations on the planet. Many of those arms, including cluster bombs, missiles, advanced jet planes, tanks, and munitions of almost every sort, went into planetary hot spots, especially the Middle East. At the same time, the citizens of the U.S. themselves have more arms per capita (often of a particularly lethal military sort) than the citizens of any other country on Earth. And appropriately enough under the circumstances, they commit more mass killings. When it comes to weaponry, then, wouldn’t you call that extreme on both a global and a domestic scale?
And that’s only to begin to plunge into the topic of American extremity. After all, we now have a president whose administration considers it perfectly normal, in fact a form of “deterrence policy,” to separate parents from even tiny children crossing our southern border or to cut food aid and raise the rent on poor Americans. We’re talking about a president with a cult-like following whose government is ideologically committed to wiping out environmental protections of every sort and pushing the further fossil fuelization of the country and the planet, even if it means the long-term destruction of the very environment that has nurtured humanity these last thousands of years.
Think of this perhaps as a new kind of death cult, which means that Donald Trump might be considered the superpower version of an Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. As with all such things, this particular cult did not come from nowhere, but from a land of growing extremity, a country that now, it seems, may be willing to preside over not just cities in ruin but a planet in ruin, too. Doesn’t that seem just a little extreme to you?
The Caliphate of Trump
The lessons of history? Who needs them? Certainly not Washington’s present cast of characters, a crew in flight from history, the past, or knowledge of more or less any sort. Still, just for the hell of it, let’s take a few moments to think about what some of the lessons of the last years of the previous century and the first years of this one might be for the world’s most exceptional and indispensable nation, the planet’s sole superpower, the globe’s only sheriff. Those were, of course, commonplace descriptions from the pre-Trump era and yet, in the age of MAGA, already as moldy and cold as the dust in some pharaonic tomb.
Let’s start this way: you could think of the post-Cold War era, the years after the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, as the moment of America’s first opioid crisis. The country’s politicians and would-be politicians were, then, taking street drugs (K-Street and military-industrial-complex ones, to be exact) and having remarkable visions of a planet available for the taking, as well as the keeping, forever and ever, amen.
On a globe without another superpower — pre-Putin Russia was a shattered, impoverished shell of the former Soviet Union, while China was still entering the capitalist world, Communist party in tow — history’s ultimate opportunity had obviously presented itself. And about to ascend to the holodeck of the USS America (beam me up, Dick Cheney!) were history’s ultimate opportunists, the men (and woman) who would, in January 2001, occupy the top posts in the administration of President George W. Bush. That, of course, included Cheney who, after overseeing a wide-ranging search for the best candidate for vice president, had appointed himself to the job. As a group, they couldn’t have been more ready for America’s ultimate moment in the sun. They had been preparing for it for years and largely came out of the first think tank — the Project for the New American Century — ever to enter the Oval Office. They had long been in favor of ensuring this country’s “unchallenged supremacy” by building its already staggering military into a force beyond compare. In doing so, they had no doubt that they would achieve the previously inconceivable: an “American geopolitical preeminence,” as they politely put it, that would be like no other great power’s ever.
A Power “Beyond Challenge”
As it happened, their moment came with blinding, thoroughly unexpected speed on September 11, 2001. Their response would be captured perfectly only five hours after the attacks of that day. From the partially devastated Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, already certain that al-Qaeda was behind the strikes, ordered his aides (as one of them scribbled down) to “go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not.” And so they did. What followed would be not just the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, but of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, a country completely unconnected to the attacks of 9/11. And not just Iraq either, not in their fevered imaginations anyway (as once again today in the fever dreams of newly appointed National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo), but Iran, too. Not far behind in the sweep-it-up category would come, they were convinced, the rest of the Greater Middle East (still being called in those days “the arc of instability” — little did they know!). In the end, they had no doubt that the rest of the planet would fall in line, too (or pay the price). It was to be a Pax Americana planet for the ages.
In the carnage that followed, it was easy to forget just how expansive those fever dreams were. But give them credit: whatever else they did (or didn’t do), geopolitically speaking, George W. Bush’s crew thought big. Just consider their seminal document of the post-9/11 moment, the 2002 National Security Strategy. Their goal, it stated, was to ensure that the U.S. would “build and maintain” the country’s “defenses” (that is, military power) “beyond challenge.” And keep in mind that they were already talking about a country in, as that document put it, “a position of unparalleled military strength.”
Let that roll around in your head for a second so many years later: on this planet a single, unparalleled military power “beyond challenge.” That was a dream of dominion that once would have been left to “Evil Empires” or madmen (or the truly, truly bad guys in Hollywood movies). But in the world as they imagined it then, the one in which only that “sole” superpower stood tall, how easy it proved to imagine a Great Game with just a single player and an eternal arms race of one.
The top officials of the Bush administration were, as I wrote back then, pure fundamentalists when it came to U.S. military power. As President Bush later put it, they considered that military “the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known.” Under such circumstances, why would anyone be shy about loosing it to “liberate” the rest of the planet? In that 2002 document, the Bush administration essentially called for a world in which no other great power or bloc of powers would ever again be allowed to challenge this country’s supremacy. As the president put it in an address at West Point that same year, “America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge, thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace.”
The National Security Strategy put the same thought this way: “Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States.” And the president and his men promptly began to hike the Pentagon budget to fit their oversized fantasies of what an American planetary “footprint” should look like (a process that, despite everything that followed, has never ended).
The Lessons of American War
So much of this has, of course, already been buried in the sands of history, but that’s no reason for it to be forgotten. Almost 17 years after 9/11, the parts of the planet that “the greatest force, etc., etc.” was loosed upon remain in remarkable upheaval and disarray, while failed states and terror groups multiply, producing more displaced people and refugees than at any time since the end of World War II. Another great power, China, is rising, and an economically less than great Russia continues to hang in there militarily and strategically by force of Putinian chutzpah. Not surprisingly, American decline has become a topic of the moment.
What conclusions, then, might be drawn from the era of folly that led us to this Trumpian moment? Here are my suggestions for five possible lessons from the American experience of war in the twenty-first century:
Lesson one: It should have been too obvious to say, but wasn’t: Earth can’t be conquered by a single power, no matter how strong. Try to do so and you’ll end up taking yourself down in some fashion.
Shakespeare would have been fascinated by the hubris of America’s leaders in these years (and that was before Mr. Hubris Himself even hit the White House). It couldn’t be clearer today that the military-first grab for an all-American planet proved strikingly too much for the U.S. to swallow by an Iraqi mile. It never even came close to happening. When the history of American decline is written, perhaps it will be said that never was there a great power whose leaders so effectively took it down themselves simply by wanting too much too badly and by woefully misunderstanding the nature of power on this planet. For Washington, the urge to make Earth into its imperium proved the equivalent of a submarine putting a torpedo into its own bow.
Lesson two: In the twenty-first century, military power, even that of the “finest fighting force in the history of the world” (another presidential descriptor of these years), isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It doesn’t matter how many hundreds of billions of dollars you put into building up and maintaining that military yearly or how many trillions of dollars you sink into its wars and the mayhem they produce.
In 2018, the greatest military on Earth turned out to be incapable of ultimately defeating forces that were producing roadside bombs for the cost of a pizza. If you want to measure the effectiveness of the U.S. military, note, for instance, that more than a decade and a half after its “Global War on Terror” was launched there are al-Qaeda affiliates in far more places than on September 12, 2001; the original al-Qaeda still exists; other al-Qaeda crews are fighting with reasonable success from Yemen to Syria to North Africa; ISIS, while destroyed as a state or “caliphate,” continues as a guerrilla movement in parts of Syria and Iraq and its branded affiliates have spread across that former “arc of instability” from Niger and Libya to Afghanistan and the Philippines. Washington’s war on terror, in other words, turned into a war for the spread of terror.
Lesson three: Military power is now a force for chaos. Historically, in the imperial ages that preceded this one, such power, while applied brutally and devastatingly, could also be a way of imposing order on conquered and colonized areas. (Hence, say, the British Raj in India or the French military hold on Indochina.) No longer, it seems, not in the wake of the twentieth century wars of liberation and independence in the formerly colonized world. We’re now on a planet that simply doesn’t accept military-first conquest and occupation, no matter under what guise it arrives (including the spread of “democracy”). So beware of unleashing modern military power. It turns out to contain within it striking disintegrative forces on a planet that can ill afford such chaos.
Lesson four: At least at the imperial level, victory turns out to be a concept from another century. In its wars of recent years, the American military has moved from dreams of victory to an acceptance that its conflicts might be “generational” in nature to, most recently, the idea of “infinite war” (that is, war without hope of end or ultimate success). In this way, its top commanders have admitted that, by their own definition, they now live in a victory-less world.
Lesson five: Imperial wars do come home, even if in ways often hard to spot or grasp. Indeed, America’s wars of the twenty-first century have been returning to the homeland not as victory but as a kind of defeat, however hard that may be to see.
Donald Trump is proof of that. His slogan “Make America Great Again” — implying, as no other politician of his moment dared do, that the country was no longer great — rang a bell in the heartland and helped win him the 2016 election. His America First campaign similarly embodied a declinist sensibility, even if not recognized as such.
In promoting a presidency that would (again) put American first, Trump reflected what, for so many Americans, was a distinctly twenty-first-century message. Despite those soaring Washington dreams of an all-American planet, this century has proved anything but an America First one in the white American heartland. While citizen tax dollars poured down the drain of those distant wars (and the scams linked to them), the country’s unparalleled global corporate power helped generate profits and wealth beyond compare — but mainly for a single gilded class of one percenters. And so the numbers of multimillionaires and billionaires multiplied impressively, creating an ever-widening inequality gap. In those same years, with a helping hand from the Supreme Court, the American political system was turned over, lock, stock, and barrel, to those very billionaires and multimillionaires and their super PACs. Meanwhile, actual investment in this country’s basic infrastructure, in everything that had once made it the most advanced of first world countries, went off a cliff.
All of this was felt particularly deeply by the inhabitants of the country’s white heartland, as the future seemed to close in on so many of them. In their own fashion, they had absorbed some intuitive version of the above “lessons” of recent history, as had Donald Trump. As a result, in election 2016, along with all his tweets, insults, and nicknames, which became the heart and soul of media coverage, he did something far more crucial. He reassured Americans who felt that their lives and those of their children (going into debt for their very educations in ways that once would have been unimaginable) were turning third world on them. This they blamed on both the “swamp” of Washington and people of color of every sort. In his own distinctive way, Trump reassured them that life in America didn’t have to be like this, repeatedly sending them messages of firstness and greatness, as well as anti-immigrant-ness, with convincing fire and fury.
Of course, upon entering the Oval Office, our first billionaire president promptly chose a cabinet of billionaires and multimillionaires, while the great achievement of his initial year as president would be to free both corporate America and that same gilded class of yet more financial responsibility for the nation, thanks to his tax “reform” bill. Meanwhile, he oversaw the expansion of America’s wars in distant lands.
None of this should have been slightly surprising. After all, whatever reassurance he may have offered, his campaign was always a The Donald First one. And whatever they thought they were doing, his voters were electing a man whose deepest expertise lay in how to emerge from bankruptcy proceedings smelling like a rose. Now, he seems intent on applying those special skills to peace, war, and the economy.
That means, in another year or two, you can count on lessons of American war six through 10 from me. In the meantime, hold on to your hats.
A Tale of American Hubris
A record? Come on! Don’t minimize what’s happening. It’s far too unique, too unprecedented even to be classified as “historic.” Call it mega-historic, if you wish. Never from Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar to Soviet despot Joseph Stalin, from the Sun King Louis the XIV to President Ronald Reagan, from George Washington to Barack Obama, has anyone — star, icon, personality, president, autocrat, emperor — been covered in anything like this fashion.
In our American world, the only comparison might be to a few days of media coverage of the assassination of John F. Kennedy or the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan or, in more recent times, a terror attack like the one in San Bernardino. Keep in mind, though, that such coverage has been going on for more than two and a half years now. So here’s another possible point of comparison, though it only lasted a couple of hours almost a quarter of a century ago. In fact, it may be the most appropriate comparison of all in a landscape in which shrinking media outlets have been scrambling to glue eyeballs to page or screen in an otherwise dazzling landscape of distraction. Think of Donald Trump’s White House sojourn so far as our first white Ford Bronco presidency.
Imagine that, in June 2015, The Donald hadn’t swept down that Trump Tower escalator into the presidential race to the sounds of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” but had instead slipped behind the wheel of O.J. Simpson’s infamous white Ford Bronco and headed off on the nearest highway, the one leading directly into all our brains. The two hours that Simpson spent armed in that vehicle in 1994, four days after the murder of his wife, with the police trailing him and TV news helicopters hovering overhead, would prove to be our first experience of the reality TV version of the “news” in which we’re now immersed. If you remember, it seemed to unfold in something like slow motion as roadside crowds turned out to cheer the “Juice” on. It would essentially be two hours of nothing whatsoever that nonetheless seemed to supersede everything else on Earth, two hours during which Americans ordered record amounts of home-delivered pizza, while watching traffic flowing on a highway to nowhere. In the process, a vision of mayhem that might otherwise have passed for boredom was etched permanently into the media’s DNA.
Think of Donald Trump as the O.J. Simpson of our moment and those hours on that highway as a preview of what media life (which, with the arrival of the handheld screen, has become more or less all life) turned out to be. Think of Donald Trump’s presidential run and now presidency as a never-ending white Ford Bronco ride, and if you accept that, all that remains to be asked is who was murdered (democracy?) and did he do it?
All Trump All the Time
Here, in my opinion, may be the strangest thing of all. Who doesn’t sense just how unprecedented the media spectacle of our moment is? Every single day is a new Trump dawn, a new firing or appointment at the White House, a new tweet storm, a new outrageous statement or policy, a new insult, a new lie or misstatement, a new bit of news about Stormy Daniels or other women who — your choice — had affairs with, were groped by, defamed by, or silenced by him, and so on down an endlessly repetitive list of what has become “the news” more or less 24/7 or perhaps more accurately 24/365 (with not a holiday in sight).
Who wouldn’t agree with that? And yet have you noticed how little such coverage is itself actually covered? At least during the election campaign you could get some overview numbers on the blitz of attention the media was giving candidate Trump. It was regularly said, for instance, that he had gotten $5 billion in free advertising in those endless months in which his face, rants, tweets, nicknames, his… well, you name it… was eternally front and center in our media lives.
Post-election, nothing has really changed and yet when was the last time you saw a mainstream news article on such an unprecedented phenomenon? When did anyone front page the fact that no human being in history has ever been covered in this fashion, a fashion that gives the very word “cover” a grim new meaning?
I mean I’m just one guy. My resources are slim. I have no studies commissioned on this subject and little to draw on except my own experience of everyday life. So here’s the closest I can come to catching the nature of that coverage for you. I go to the gym almost every day. There’s a waiting area I pass through on my route in and out of the men’s locker room. On one wall is a large-screen TV. Sometimes, it’s tuned to sports, but mostly it has the cable news on. Basketball games aside, it really doesn’t matter what time I arrive, or whether it’s MSNBC, CNN, or even on the rarest of occasions (this is New York City, after all!) Fox News, here’s what’s always the same: on screen are those ever-present talking heads yakking away about, well, Donald Trump or something related to him (the Mueller investigation, the steel and aluminum or Chinese tariffs, Stormy Daniels, the president’s Putin bromance… you know the list) and under them there’s that crawl, that news ticker, the one that, day in, day out, is always — and I mean always — scrolling away on subjects about or related to Donald Trump.
Recently, I started jotting down samples from my brief moments passing through that waiting area and here’s what I got: “Trump turning to key allies to fill top cabinet posts”; “Daniels’s lawyer: Trump pursuing $20 million in bogus damages”; “Poll: Trump gets bump but Dems widen midterm edge”; “McCain slams Trump for congratulating Putin on reelection”; “Polygraph: porn star truthful about unprotected sex with Trump”; “Lawsuits putting new attention on Trump’s past deals to silence accusers”; “Trump Russia probe lawyer John Dowd resigns”; “Trump turns to Bush-era Iraq War architect who advocated military strikes on Iran, North Korea.”
And it’s not just cable news. Take my hometown newspaper, the New York Times. Never — of this I have no doubt — has it covered a president, his doings, and those of his administration this way. As it cuts its copyediting staff (and grammatical errors become a more regular part of its news reports), it has assigned a staggering number of reporters to Donald J. Trump and his doings.
Consider, for instance, the Times front page of March 8th. The two articles atop its right side dealt with Trump’s steel and aluminum tariff decision (“More than 100 Republican lawmakers implored President Trump to drop plans…”) and the firings and departures plaguing his White House (“Aides’ Exodus Leaves Trump to His Instinct”). The mid-page story under a photo of a New Yorker with an umbrella in “thundersnow” was headlined “Porn Actress’s Trump Claims Shift, Noisily, to Legal System.” And to the left of that was a piece on a Trumpian attack on California’s immigration policy (“Attorney General Jeff Sessions sued California this week for not doing enough…”).
In other words, across the top of that front page, there was no world but a Trumpian one, or put another way (which is why I happened to save that front section), leaving aside the actual thundersnow storm that hit New York (page A25), there were two other “stormy” articles that day: the Stormy Daniels piece, obviously considered the far more newsworthy and front-paged, while left for page A20 was a piece on a new report suggesting that, given the impact of climate change and “land subsidence” in the San Francisco Bay Area, significantly more of that region than expected was likely to be underwater or subject to disastrous flooding in 2100.
The reportorial effort involved in all of this was striking. Two of the four front-page Trump pieces were the work of two reporters, so five reporters — Peter Baker twice, Adam Liptak, Maggie Haberman, Jim Rutenberg, and Ana Swanson — get credit for producing the group of them.
Of the nine pages of national news inside the paper, approximately five were dedicated to Trump-related pieces (G.O.P. doubts about the president; unease on Wall Street over the departure of economic adviser Gary Cohn; the way Trump campaign workers scored jobs in the new administration; reaction to the Trump tax cut in Ohio; the latest on Trump and the Mueller investigation; former Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg’s agreement to testify for that investigation; and more on Sessions, California, and immigrants). Those pieces absorbed the time and attention of 10 more reporters (and Maggie Haberman a second time).
Two more reporters and another half-page should be added for a piece in the international news section (“Kushner Goes to Mexico, A Shift in U.S. Diplomacy”), and both of the editorials on the opinion page that day (“Gary Cohn Joins the Exodus” and “The Race-Based Mortgage Penalty,” which started, “As the Trump administration begins to gut federal enforcement of civil rights laws…”) were Trump-focused. On the op-ed page, the very headlines of two of its four columns (“Mr. Trump, Here’s a Hero; It’s Your Turn” and “Is Trump About to Start a Trade War?”) were similarly oriented, and a third column dealt with the president at least in passing.
That’s 15 reporters, three op-ed writers, and the unnamed people who produced those editorials. And on any given day of the Trump era so far, you stood a reasonable chance of finding something similar in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and elsewhere across the shrinking world of American newspapers and far more of the same, hour after hour of it, on cable news. And yet you already know that this seemingly overwhelming media reality goes largely unnoted and unacknowledged in those same papers and news shows.
An All-American Cult of Personality
Believe me, if this were happening in Russia or China (The cult of Putin! The cult of Xi!), it would be a major news story and treated as such. After all, thought of a certain way, what we’ve been watching is indeed the creation of an all-American cult of personality (quite literally so when it comes to Trump’s “base,” as any of his rallies suggest). And yet that and the media’s role in it isn’t news.
Admittedly, Donald Trump is a hell of a story. And for a media filled with shrinking news staffs and desperate to find ways to hold onto or increase readership or viewership, he’s a godsend (as well as a monster). After all, his greatest skill — the one he’s spent a lifetime perfecting — is undoubtedly his unerring instinct for just how to attract the camera under more or less any circumstances. The result, however, is a picture of the world that’s deceptive in the extreme. These days, if you only watched TV and read mainstream papers, you would be excused for thinking that we were in a world of Donald Trump and little else. By now, he’s all but blotted out the sun itself. In this sense, for instance, he isn’t so much a climate-change denier in an administration filled with them and dedicated to the promotion of fossil fuels as a climate-change obliterator. (Hence, p. A20 is the only spot left for that “little” story on the sinking of San Francisco.)
And doesn’t all this suit him to a T? Yes, he hates and excoriates the “fake news media.” Can there be any doubt that the negative treatment he regularly receives from all outlets except Fox News does indeed get under his skin, big time. But above all, good news or bad, who can’t feel that his deepest desire is simply to be the news, any kind of news, all kinds of news — and in this he has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings?
Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, with the help of a thoroughly controlled party press, Communist Party leader Mao Zedong developed a remarkable cult of personality that blotted out just about everything else in China. He, his face, even the mole on that face, loomed over the landscape in an unprecedented way. He was literally looking at you wherever you were in that country.
Donald Trump is evidently our upside-down version of Mao, a major difference being that the media that rushed to create his all-American personality cult did so without either official approval or the threat of a draconian state forcing it to do so. As Trump himself insists almost daily, our “crazed” media has not been brought to heel at all. And yet, the effect is in some ways eerily similar. These days, you can’t really escape that big, ambling, shambling, rambling body, that pugnaciously jut-jawed red face topped by the iconic orange comb-over (his equivalent of Mao’s mole).
Back in 1948, George Orwell imagined a society 36 years in the future in which, no matter where you went, “Big Brother” was watching you. That certainly fit the desires, if not the capabilities, of totalitarian governments in that twentieth century moment. It even fit with certain tendencies Orwell believed he saw in western capitalist society. And he wasn’t wrong: the urge to surveil populations has only grown in our American world in the years since in ways that would have blown the minds of the Communist leaders of that past era.
Seven decades after Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984 was published, we in the United States do indeed find ourselves in a full-scale surveillance society — and that world, as Edward Snowden let us know in such a memorable fashion back in 2013, preceded Donald Trump. But when it comes to Trump, here’s the curious thing that Orwell himself couldn’t have imagined: Big Brother isn’t watching us, we’re forever watching him.
Donald Trump, the president we meet in the media every hour of every day, blots out much of the rest of the world and much of what’s meaningful in it. Such largely unexamined, never-ending coverage of his doings represents a triumph of the first order both for him (no matter how he rails against the media) and for an American cult of personality that will take us who knows where (but nowhere good).