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).
Big Brother Isn’t Watching You
You want to see “blowback” in action? That’s easy enough. All you need is a vague sense of how Google Search works. Then type into it phrases like “warmest years,” “rising sea levels,” “melting ice,” “lengthening wildfire season,” or “future climate refugees,” and you’ll find yourself immersed in the grimmest of blowback universes. It’s a world which should give that CIA term of tradecraft a meaning even the Agency never imagined for it.
But before I put you on this blowback planet of ours and introduce you to the blowback president presiding over it, I want to take a moment to remember Mr. Blowback himself.
And what a guy he was! Here’s how he described himself in the last piece he wrote for TomDispatch just months before his death in November 2010: “My own role these past 20 years has been that of Cassandra, whom the gods gave the gift of foreseeing the future, but also cursed because no one believed her.”
He wasn’t being immodest. He had, in many ways, seen the shape of things to come for what he never hesitated to call “the American empire,” including — in that 2010 piece — its decline. As he wrote then, “Thirty-five years from now, America’s official century of being top dog (1945-2045) will have come to an end; its time may, in fact, be running out right now. We are likely to begin to look ever more like a giant version of England at the end of its imperial run, as we come face to face with, if not necessarily to terms with, our aging infrastructure, declining international clout, and sagging economy.”
You know how — if you’re of a certain age at least — there are those moments when you go back to the books that truly mattered to you, the ones that somehow prepared you, as best anyone can be prepared, for the years to come. One I return to regularly is his. I’m talking about Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire.
The man who wrote that was Chalmers Johnson, a former CIA consultant and eminent scholar of modern Asian history, who would in that work characterize himself in his former life as a “spear-carrier for empire.”
Blowback was published in 2000 to next to no notice. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, however, it became a bestseller. There was so much to learn from it, starting with the very definition of blowback, a word he brought out of the secret world for the rest of us to consider. “The term ‘blowback,’ which officials of the Central Intelligence Agency first invented for their own internal use,” he wrote, “refers to the unintended consequences of policies that were kept secret from the American people. What the daily press reports as the malign acts of ‘terrorists’ or ‘drug lords’ or ‘rogue states’ or ‘illegal arms merchants’ often turn out to be blowback from earlier American operations.”
And if “unintended consequences” isn’t a supremely appropriate title under which to write the misbegotten history of the years that followed 9/11 in the era of the self-proclaimed “sole superpower” or, as American politicians love to say, “the indispensable nation,” what is? Of course, in the best blowback fashion, al-Qaeda’s attacks of that day hit this country like literal bolts from the blue — even the top officials of George W. Bush’s administration were stunned as they scurried for cover. Of all Americans, they at least should have been better prepared, given the warning offered to the president only weeks earlier by that blowback center of operations, the CIA. (“Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” was the title of the presidential daily brief of August 6, 2001.)
Osama bin Laden would prove to be the poster boy of blowback. His organization, al-Qaeda, would be nurtured into existence by an all-American urge to give the Soviet Union its own Vietnam, what its leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, would later call its “bleeding wound,” and to do so in, of all places, Afghanistan. In October 2001, 12 years after the Red Army limped out of that country in defeat and a decade after the Soviet Union imploded, in part thanks to that very wound, Washington would launch a “Global War on Terror.” It would be the Bush administration’s response to al-Qaeda’s supposedly inexplicable attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. The Taliban’s Afghanistan would be its first target and so would begin America’s second Afghan War, a conflict now almost 17 years old with no end in sight. Yet in our American world, remarkably few connections are ever made between the present war and that blowback moment against the Soviets nearly 40 years ago. (Were he alive, Chalmers Johnson, who never ceased to make such connections, would have been grimly amused.)
Giving Imperial Overstretch New Meaning
Talk about the endless ramifications of blowback. It was bin Laden’s genius — for a mere $400,000 to $500,000 — to goad Washington into spending trillions of dollars across significant parts of the Islamic world fighting conflict after conflict, all of which only seemed to create yet more rubble, terror outfits, and refugees (who, in turn, have helped fuel yet more right-wing populist movements from Europe to Donald Trump’s America). Tell me it’s not a blowback world!
As it happened, bin Laden’s 2001 attacks brought official Washington not to its knees but to its deepest post-Cold War conviction: that the world was its oyster; that, for the first time in history, a single great power potentially had it all, a shot at everything, starting with Afghanistan, followed by Iraq, then much of the rest of the Middle East, and sooner or later the whole planet. In a post-Soviet world in which America’s leaders felt the deepest sense of triumphalism, the 9/11 attacks seemed like the ultimate insult. Who would dream of doing such a thing to the greatest power of all of time?
In an act of pure wizardry, bin Laden drew out of Bush, Cheney, and company their deepest geopolitical fantasies about the ability of that all-powerful country and, in particular, “the greatest force for freedom in the history of the world,” the U.S. military, to dominate any situation on Earth. The early months of 2003, when they were preparing to invade Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, may have been their ultimate hubristic moment, in which imagining anything other than success of a historic sort, not just in that country but far beyond it, was inconceivable.
Until then, never — except in Hollywood movies when the bad guy rubbed his hands with glee and cackled that the world was his — had any power truly dreamed of taking it all, of ruling, or at least directing, the planet itself. Even for a globalizing great power without rivals and wealthy almost beyond compare that would prove the ultimate in conceptual overstretch. Looking back, it’s easy enough to see that almost 17 years of ceaseless war and conflict across the Greater Middle East, Africa, and even parts of Asia, of massive destruction, of multiplying failed states, of burgeoning terror outfits, and of blowback of every sort, have given the old phrase, “biting off more than you can chew,” new geopolitical meaning.
Washington created what was, in effect, a never-ending blowback machine. In those years, while the distant wars went on and on (and terrors of every imaginable sort grew in this country), the United States was transformed in a remarkable, if not yet fully graspable, fashion. The national security state now reigns supreme in Washington; generals (or retired generals) are perched (however precariously) atop key parts of the civilian government; a right-wing populist, who rose to power in part on the fear of immigrants, refugees, and Islamic extremists, has his giant golden letters emblazoned on the White House (and a hotel just down Pennsylvania Avenue that no diplomat or lobbyist with any sense would dare not patronize); the police have been militarized; borders have been further fortified; spy drones have been dispatched to American skies; and the surveillance of the citizenry and its communications have been made the order of the day. Meanwhile, the latest disturbed teen, armed with a military-style AR-15 semi-automatic, has just perpetrated another in a growing list of slaughters in American schools. In response, the president, Republican politicians, and the National Rifle Association have all plugged the arming of teachers and administrators, as well as the “hardening” of schools (including the use of surveillance systems and other militarized methods of “defense”), and so have given phrases like “citadel of learning” or “bastion of education” new meaning. In these same years, various unnamed terrors and the weaponization of the most psychically distraught parts of the citizenry under the rubric of the Second Amendment and the sponsorship of the NRA, the Republican Party, and most recently Donald Trump have transformed this country into something like an armed camp.
It seems, in other words, that in setting out to take the world, in some surprising fashion this country both terrorized and conquered itself. For that, Osama bin Laden should certainly be congratulated but so should George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and all their neoconservative pals, not to speak of David Petraeus, James Mattis, John Kelly, H.R. McMaster, and a host of other generals of America’s losing wars.
Think of it this way: at what looked like the height of American power, Washington managed to give imperial overstretch a historically new meaning. Even on a planet without other great power rivals, a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East, no less the full-scale garrisoning and policing of significant parts of the rest of the globe proved far too much for the sole superpower, no matter how technologically advanced its military or powerful and transnational its economy. As it turned out, that urge to take everything would prove the perfect launching pad for this country’s decline.
Someday (if there is such a day), this record will prove a goldmine for historians of imperial power and blowback. And yet all of this, even the fate of this country, should be considered relatively minor matters, given the ultimate blowback to come.
Humanity Nailed to a Cross of Coal
There was, in fact, another kind of blowback underway and the American empire was clearly a player in it, too, even a major one, but hardly the only one. Every place using fossil fuels was involved. This form of blowback threatens not just the decline of a single great imperial power but of humanity itself, of the very environment that nurtured generation after generation of us over these thousands of years. By definition, that makes it the worst form of blowback imaginable.
What I have in mind, of course, is climate change or global warming. In a way, you could think of it as the story of another kind of superpower and how it launched the decline of us all. On a planetary scale, the giant corporations (and national fuel companies) that make up global Big Energy have long been on the hunt for every imaginable reserve of fossil fuels and for ways to control and exploit them. The oil, natural gas, and coal such outfits extracted fueled industrial society, still-spreading car cultures, and consumerism as we know it.
Over most of the years such companies were powering human development, the men who ran them and their employees had no idea that the greenhouse gasses released by the burning of fossil fuels were heating the atmosphere and the planet’s waters in potentially disastrous ways. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, like scientists elsewhere, those employed by ExxonMobil, the world’s largest oil company, had become aware of the phenomenon (as would those of other energy companies). That meant the men who ran Exxon and other major firms recognized in advance of most of the rest of us just what kind of blowback the long-term burning of oil, natural gas, and coal was going to deliver: a planet ever less fit for human habitation.
They just didn’t think those of us in the non-scientific community should know about it and so, by the 1990s, they were already doing their damnedest to hide it from us. However, when scientists not in their employ started to publicize the new reality in a significant way, as the heads of some of the most influential and wealthiest corporations on Earth they began to invest striking sums in the fostering of a universe of think tanks, lobbyists, and politicians devoted to what became known as climate-change denial. Between 1998 and 2014, for instance, Exxon would pump $30 million into just such think tanks and similar groups, while donating $1.87 million directly to congressional climate-change deniers.
It doesn’t take a lot of thought to realize that, from its inception, this was the functional definition of the worst crime in history. In the name of record profits and the comfortable life (as well as corporate sustainability in an unendingly fossil-fuelized world), their CEOs had no hesitation about potentially dooming the human future to a hell on Earth of rising temperatures, rising sea levels, and ever more extreme weather; they gave, that is, a new, all-encompassing meaning to the term genocide. They were prepared, if necessary, to take out the human species.
But I suspect even they couldn’t have imagined quite how successful they would be when it came to bringing the sole superpower of the post-9/11 world on board. In a sense, the two leading forms of blowback of the twenty-first century — the imperial and fossil-fuelized ones — came to be focused in a single figure. After all, it’s hard to imagine the rise to power of Donald Trump in a world in which the Bush administration had decided not to invade either Afghanistan or Iraq but to treat its “Global War on Terror” as a localized set of police actions against one international criminal and his scattered group of followers.
As it happened, one form of blowback from the disastrous wars that were meant to create the basis for a Pax Americana planet helped to produce the conditions and fears at home that put Donald Trump in the White House.
Or put another way, in the face of the evidence produced by essentially every knowledgeable scientist on Earth, on a planet already feeling the early and increasingly extreme results of a warming atmosphere, millions of Americans elected a man who claimed it was all a “hoax,” who was unabashedly dedicated above anything else (except perhaps his “big, fat, beautiful wall” on the Mexican border) to a fossil-fuelized American planet, and who insisted that he would run an administration that would make this country “energy dominant” again. They elected, in other words, a representative of the very set of lobbyists, climate deniers, and politicians who had, in essence, been created by Big Energy. Or put another way, they voted for a man who pledged to bring back the dying American coal industry and was prepared to green-light oil and natural gas pipelines of whatever sort, open the nation’s coastal waters to drilling, and lift restrictions of every kind on energy companies, while impeding the development of alternative sources of energy and other attempts to mitigate climate change. As the ultimate President Blowback, Donald Trump promptly filled every last faintly relevant post in his administration with climate-change deniers and allies of Big Energy, while abandoning the Paris climate accord.
In other words, President Donald Trump has dedicated himself to nailing humanity to a cross of coal.
Where’s Chalmers Johnson now that we really need him?
The Ultimate Blowback Universe
Recently, a memory of my son as a small boy came back to me. He was, in those days, terrified of clowns. Something about their strange, mask-like, painted faces unnerved him utterly, chilled him to the bone. To the rest of us, they were comic, but to him — or so I came to imagine anyway — they were emanations from hell.
Those circus memories of long ago seem relevant to me today because, in November 2016, the American electorate, or a near majority of them anyway, chose to send in the clowns. They voted willingly, knowingly, for the man with that strange orange thing on his head, the result — we now know, thanks to his daughter — of voluntary “scalp reduction surgery.” They voted for the man with the eerily red face, an unearthly shade seldom seen since the perfection of Technicolor. They voted for the overweight man who reputedly ate little but Big Macs (for fear of being poisoned), while swinging one-handed from a political trapeze with fingers of a particularly contestable size. They voted for the man who never came across a superlative he couldn’t apply to himself. Of his first presidential moment, he claimed “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe”; he declared himself “the greatest jobs president that God ever created”; he swore to reporters that he was “the least racist person you have ever interviewed”; he offered his version of modesty by insisting that, “with the exception of the late, great Abraham Lincoln, I can be more presidential than any president that’s ever held this office”; and when his mental state was challenged, he responded that his “two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart,” adding, “I think that [I] would qualify as not smart, but genius… and a very stable genius at that!”
Of course, none of this is news to you, not if you have a screen in your life (or more likely your hand) — the very definition of twenty-first-century modernity. In fact, by the time this piece comes out, you’ll undoubtedly have a new set of examples to cite. After all, these days that essentially is the news: him and any outrageous thing he wants to say and not much else, which means that he is indisputably the greatest, possibly in the history of the universe, when it comes to yanking just about anybody’s chain.
And you certainly don’t need me to go on about that strange skill of his, since every time he says or tweets anything over the top or grotesque beyond belief, the media’s all over it 24/7. No one, for instance, could doubt that never in our history has the word “shithole” (or, in some cases, “s–hole”) or even “shithouse” been used more frequently than in the wake of the president’s recent wielding of it (or them or one or the other) for unnamed African countries and Haiti in a White House meeting on immigration. That meeting proved an ambush and a half, only spiraling further out of control when, in its wake, the president denied ever using the word “shithole” and was backed by Republican attendees evidently so desperate to curry favor that they pretended they hadn’t heard the word, which, by now, just about everyone on Earth has heard or seen in English or some translation thereof.
Since he rode down that Trump Tower escalator into our political lives in June 2015, this sort of thing and more or less nothing else has largely been “the news.” It goes without saying — which won’t stop me from saying it — that not since Nebuchadnezzar’s words were first scratched onto a cuneiform tablet has more focus been put on the passing words, gestures, and expressions of a single human being. And that’s the truest news about the news of this era. It’s been consumed by a single news hog. Which means that Donald Trump has already won, no matter what happens, since he continues to be treated as if he were the only three-ring circus in town, as if he were in himself that classic big-top Volkswagen filled to the brim with clowns.
The Imperial Presidency Exposed
Who could deny that much of the attention he’s received has been based on the absurdity, exaggeration, unsettling clownishness of it all, right down to the zany crew of subsidiary clowns who have helped keep him pumped up and cable newsed in the Oval Office?
In early October 2016, I suggested that a certain segment of voters in the white heartland, feeling their backs against the economic wall and the nation in decline — Donald Trump being our first true declinist candidate (hence that “again” in MAGA) — was prepared to send a “suicide bomber” into the White House. And I suggested as well that they were willing to do so even if the ceiling collapsed on them. (Had I thought of it at the time, I would have added that much of the mainstream media also had its back to the wall with its status and finances in decline, staffs shrinking, and fears rising that it might be eaten alive by social media. As a result, some of its key players were similarly inclined to escort that suicide bomber Washington-wards, no matter what fell or whom it hit.)
In retrospect, that has, I think, proven an accurate assessment, but like all authors I reserve the right to change my imagery in midstream, which brings me back to my son’s childhood fear of clowns. At least for me, that now catches the most essential aspect of the age of Trump: its clownishness. And despite the fact that The Donald is often treated by his opponents as a laughing matter, an absurdity, a jokester (and a joke) in the Oval Office, I don’t mean those clowns, the ones that leave you rolling in the aisles. I mean my son’s clowns, the death’s-head ones whose absurd versions of the gestures of everyday life leave you chilled to the bone, genuinely afraid.
Donald Trump fits that image exactly because — though you wouldn’t know it from the usual coverage of him — he isn’t at all unique (except in the details, except in the exaggeration of it all). What makes him so clownish, in the sense I’m describing, is that he offers a chillingly exaggerated, wildly fiery-and-furious version of the very imperial American presidency we’ve come to know over these last seven decades: the one that has long ridden herd on a nuclear apocalypse; that killed millions on its journey to nowhere in Southeast Asia in the previous century; that hasn’t been able to stop itself from overseeing more than a quarter-century of war-making — two wars, to be exact — in Afghanistan of all places; that, in its pursuit of its never-ending “war” on terror, has made war on so much else as well, turning significant parts of the planet into zones of increasing chaos, failed states, fleeing populations, and wholesale destruction; the one whose “precision” military — the battle against ISIS in Iraq and Syria has been termed the “most precise campaign in history” — has helped transform cities from Ramadi and Fallujah to Mosul and Raqqa into landscapes that, in their indiscriminate wreckage, look like Stalingrad after the battle in World War II (and that now is threatening to develop a “precision” version of nuclear war as well); and that has, in this century, overseen the creation of “Saudi America” on a planet in which it was already easy enough to grasp that fossil fuels were doing the kinds of damage to the human environment that nothing short of a giant asteroid or nuclear war might otherwise do.
From his America First policies to his reported desire to see (and make use of) terrorist attacks on this country, the man who has declared climate change a Chinese hoax, threatened to loose “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” described other countries in language once considered unpresidential by presidents who nonetheless treated the very same countries like “shitholes,” and given “his” generals a remarkably free hand to “win” the war on terror is but an eerily clownish version of all that has gone before. He has, in a sense, ripped away the façade of dignity from the imperial presidency and let us glimpse just what is truly imperial (and imperious) about it. He continues to show us in new ways quite an old reality: how terrifying a force for destruction, possibly even on a planetary level, U.S. power can be.
And just in case you don’t think that Volkswagen of Trump’s (or maybe I mean that private plane with the golden bathroom fixtures) is filled with other clowns whose acts should similarly chill you to the bone, let’s skip Scott Pruitt as he secretly dismantles the Environmental Protection Agency and so many protections for our health, the Energy Department’s Rick Perry as he embraces the CEOs of Big Energy, that future oil-spill king, the Interior Department’s Ryan Zinke, and the rest of the domestic wrecking crew, and turn instead to “his” generals — the ones from America’s losing wars — that President Trump has made ascendant in Washington.
And even then, let’s skip their urge to create smaller, more “usable” nuclear weapons (a process started in the Obama years), or hike the nuclear budget, or redefine ever more situations, including cyber attacks on the U.S., as potential nuclear ones; and let’s skip as well their eagerness, from Niger to Yemen, Libya to Somalia, to expand and heighten the war on terror in an exaggerated version of exactly what we’ve been living through these past 16 years. Let’s concentrate instead on just one place, the ur-location for that war, the country about which those in the Pentagon are no longer speaking of war at all but of “generational struggle”: Afghanistan.
The Graveyard of Empires
Think of it: 28 years after the Soviet army limped out of that infamous “graveyard of empires” at the end of a decade-long struggle in which the U.S. had backed the most extreme groups of Islamic fundamentalists (including a rich young Saudi by the name of Osama bin Laden), 16 years after the U.S. returned to invade and “liberate” Afghanistan, they’re still at it. In December, with Donald Trump lifting various constraints on U.S. military commanders there, the generals were, for instance, sending in the planes. That month there were more U.S. air strikes — 455 in a winter period of minimal fighting — than not just the previous December (65) but December 2012 (about 200) when 100,000 U.S. troops were still in-country. The phrase of this moment among U.S. military officers in Afghanistan, according to Max Bearak of the Washington Post: “We’re at a turning point.” Another: “The gloves are off.” (Admittedly, no U.S. commander has as yet reported seeing “the light at the end of the tunnel,” but don’t rule it out.)
In the meantime, drones of both the armed and unarmed surveillance variety are being reassigned to Afghanistan in rising numbers (as well as more helicopters, ground vehicles, and artillery). With the recent announcement that 1,000 more personnel will soon head for that country, U.S. troop strength continues to grow, bringing the numbers of American advisers, trainers, and Special Operations forces there up to perhaps 15,000 or more (as opposed to the 11,000 or so when Donald Trump entered the Oval Office).
In addition, the military has plans to double the size of Afghanistan’s own special ops forces and triple the size of its air force, while the head of U.S. Central Command, General Joseph Votel, is calling for far more aggressive actions by those American-advised Afghan security forces in the upcoming spring fighting season. (To put this in perspective, a 2008 U.S. military plan to spend billions of dollars ensuring that the Afghan air force was fully staffed, supplied, trained, and “self-sufficient” by 2015 ended seven years later with it in a “woeful state” of disrepair and near ruin.) Meanwhile, as part of this ramp-up of operations, the Navy is planning to hire drone-maker General Atomics to fly that company’s surveillance drones in Afghanistan in what’s being termed “a ‘surge’ of intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance capabilities.”
If all of this sounds faintly familiar to you, I’m not surprised. In fact, if you’ve already stopped paying attention — as most Americans on the nonexistent “home front” seem to have done when it comes to most of America’s wars of this era — I just want you to know that I completely understand. Sixteen repetitive years later, with the Taliban again in control of something close to half of Afghanistan, your response couldn’t be more all-American. Surges, turning points, more aggressive actions, you’ve heard it all before — and when it comes to Afghanistan, the odds are that you’ll hear it all again.
And don’t for a moment think that this doesn’t add up to another version of sending in the clowns.
If you don’t believe that retired General James Mattis, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, and retired General James Kelly, aka the secretary of defense, the national security adviser, and the White House chief of staff, respectively, are clowns, if you’re still convinced that they’re the “adults” in the Trumpian playroom, check out Afghanistan and think again. But don’t blame them either. What else can a clown do, once those giant floppy shoes are on their feet, their faces are painted, and the bulbous red nose is in place, but act the part? So many years later, they simply can’t imagine another way to think about the world of American war. They only know what they know. Give them a horn and they’ll honk it; give them Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy and they’ll still honk that horn.
For the last decade and a half, through invasions and occupations, surges and counterinsurgency operations, bombing runs and drone strikes, commando raids and training missions, they and their colleagues in the U.S. high command have helped spread terror movements across significant parts of the planet, while playing a major role in creating a series of failing or failed states across the Greater Middle East and Africa. They’ve helped uproot whole populations and transform major cities into spectacles of ruin. Think of this as their twenty-first-century destiny. They’ve proven to be key actors in what has become an American empire of chaos or perhaps simply an empire of graveyards.
They can’t help themselves. Forgive them, Father, for they are clowns led by the greatest clownster-in-chief in the history of this country. Yes, he makes even them uncomfortable because no one can pull the curtains back from the reality of the imperial presidency in quite the way he can. No one can showcase our grim American world, tweet by outrageous tweet, in quite his fashion.
And yes, it can all look ludicrous as hell, but don’t laugh. Don’t even think about it. Not now, not when we’re all at the circus watching those emanations from hell perform. Instead, be chilled — chilled to the bone. Absurd as every pratfall may be, it’s distinctly a vision from hell, an all-American vision for the ages.
Creating an Empire of Graveyards?
He left Air Force Two behind and, unannounced, “shrouded in secrecy,” flew on an unmarked C-17 transport plane into Bagram Air Base, the largest American garrison in Afghanistan. All news of his visit was embargoed until an hour before he was to depart the country.
More than 16 years after an American invasion “liberated” Afghanistan, he was there to offer some good news to a U.S. troop contingent once again on the rise. Before a 40-foot American flag, addressing 500 American troops, Vice President Mike Pence praised them as “the world’s greatest force for good,” boasted that American air strikes had recently been “dramatically increased,” swore that their country was “here to stay,” and insisted that “victory is closer than ever before.” As an observer noted, however, the response of his audience was “subdued.” (“Several troops stood with their arms crossed or their hands folded behind their backs and listened, but did not applaud.”)
Think of this as but the latest episode in an upside down geopolitical fairy tale, a grim, rather than Grimm, story for our age that might begin: Once upon a time — in October 2001, to be exact — Washington launched its war on terror. There was then just one country targeted, the very one where, a little more than a decade earlier, the U.S. had ended a long proxy war against the Soviet Union during which it had financed, armed, or backed an extreme set of Islamic fundamentalist groups, including a rich young Saudi by the name of Osama bin Laden.
By 2001, in the wake of that war, which helped send the Soviet Union down the path to implosion, Afghanistan was largely (but not completely) ruled by the Taliban. Osama bin Laden was there, too, with a relatively modest crew of cohorts. By early 2002, he had fled to Pakistan, leaving many of his companions dead and his organization, al-Qaeda, in a state of disarray. The Taliban, defeated, were pleading to be allowed to put down their arms and go back to their villages, an abortive process that Anand Gopal vividly described in his book, No Good Men Among the Living.
It was, it seemed, all over but the cheering and, of course, the planning for yet greater exploits across the region. The top officials in the administration of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were geopolitical dreamers of the first order who couldn’t have had more expansive ideas about how to extend such success to — as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld indicated only days after the 9/11 attacks — terror or insurgent groups in more than 60 countries. It was a point President Bush would reemphasize nine months later in a triumphalist graduation speech at West Point. At that moment, the struggle they had quickly, if immodestly, dubbed the Global War on Terror was still a one-country affair. They were, however, already deep into preparations to extend it in ways more radical and devastating than they could ever have imagined with the invasion and occupation of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the domination of the oil heartlands of the planet that they were sure would follow. (In a comment that caught the moment exactly, Newsweek quoted a British official “close to the Bush team” as saying, “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.”)
So many years later, perhaps it won’t surprise you — as it probably wouldn’t have surprised the hundreds of thousands of protesters who turned out in the streets of American cities and towns in early 2003 to oppose the invasion of Iraq — that this was one of those stories to which the adage “be careful what you wish for” applies.
And it’s a tale that’s not over yet. Not by a long shot. As a start, in the Trump era, the longest war in American history, the one in Afghanistan, is only getting longer. There are those U.S. troop levels on the rise; those air strikes ramping up; the Taliban in control of significant sections of the country; an Islamic State-branded terror group spreading ever more successfully in its eastern regions; and, according to the latest report from the Pentagon, “more than 20 terrorist or insurgent groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
Think about that: 20 groups. In other words, so many years later, the war on terror should be seen as an endless exercise in the use of multiplication tables — and not just in Afghanistan either. More than a decade and a half after an American president spoke of 60 or more countries as potential targets, thanks to the invaluable work of a single dedicated group, the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, we finally have a visual representation of the true extent of the war on terror. That we’ve had to wait so long should tell us something about the nature of this era of permanent war.
The Costs of War Project has produced not just a map of the war on terror, 2015-2017 (released at TomDispatch with this article), but the first map of its kind ever. It offers an astounding vision of Washington’s counterterror wars across the globe: their spread, the deployment of U.S. forces, the expanding missions to train foreign counterterror forces, the American bases that make them possible, the drone and other air strikes that are essential to them, and the U.S. combat troops helping to fight them. (Terror groups have, of course, morphed and expanded riotously as part and parcel of the same process.)
A glance at the map tells you that the war on terror, an increasingly complex set of intertwined conflicts, is now a remarkably global phenomenon. It stretches from the Philippines (with its own ISIS-branded group that just fought an almost five-month-long campaign that devastated Marawi, a city of 300,000) through South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and deep into West Africa where, only recently, four Green Berets died in an ambush in Niger.
No less stunning are the number of countries Washington’s war on terror has touched in some fashion. Once, of course, there was only one (or, if you want to include the United States, two). Now, the Costs of War Project identifies no less than 76 countries, 39% of those on the planet, as involved in that global conflict. That means places like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya where U.S. drone or other air strikes are the norm and U.S. ground troops (often Special Operations forces) have been either directly or indirectly engaged in combat. It also means countries where U.S. advisers are training local militaries or even militias in counterterror tactics and those with bases crucial to this expanding set of conflicts. As the map makes clear, these categories often overlap.
Who could be surprised that such a “war” has been eating American taxpayer dollars at a rate that should stagger the imagination in a country whose infrastructure is now visibly crumbling? In a separate study, released in November, the Costs of War Project estimated that the price tag on the war on terror (with some future expenses included) had already reached an astronomical $5.6 trillion. Only recently, however, President Trump, now escalating those conflicts, tweeted an even more staggering figure: “After having foolishly spent $7 trillion in the Middle East, it is time to start rebuilding our country!” (This figure, too, seems to have come in some fashion from the Costs of War estimate that “future interest payments on borrowing for the wars will likely add more than $7.9 trillion to the national debt” by mid-century.)
It couldn’t have been a rarer comment from an American politician, as in these years assessments of both the monetary and human costs of war have largely been left to small groups of scholars and activists. The war on terror has, in fact, spread in the fashion today’s map lays out with almost no serious debate in this country about its costs or results. If the document produced by the Costs of War project is, in fact, a map from hell, it is also, I believe, the first full-scale map of this war ever produced.
Think about that for a moment. For the last 16 years, we, the American people, funding this complex set of conflicts to the tune of trillions of dollars, have lacked a single map of the war Washington has been fighting. Not one. Yes, parts of that morphing, spreading set of conflicts have been somewhere in the news regularly, though seldom (except when there were “lone wolf” terror attacks in the United States or Western Europe) in the headlines. In all those years, however, no American could see an image of this strange, perpetual conflict whose end is nowhere in sight.
Part of this can be explained by the nature of that “war.” There are no fronts, no armies advancing on Berlin, no armadas bearing down on the Japanese homeland. There hasn’t been, as in Korea in the early 1950s, even a parallel to cross or fight your way back to. In this war, there have been no obvious retreats and, after the triumphal entry into Baghdad in 2003, few advances either.
It was hard even to map its component parts and when you did — as in an August New York Times map of territories controlled by the Taliban in Afghanistan — the imagery was complex and of limited impact. Generally, however, we, the people, have been demobilized in almost every imaginable way in these years, even when it comes to simply following the endless set of wars and conflicts that go under the rubric of the war on terror.
Mapping 2018 and Beyond
Let me repeat this mantra: once, almost seventeen years ago, there was one; now, the count is 76 and rising. Meanwhile, great cities have been turned into rubble; tens of millions of human beings have been displaced from their homes; refugees by the millions continue to cross borders, unsettling ever more lands; terror groups have become brand names across significant parts of the planet; and our American world continues to be militarized.
This should be thought of as an entirely new kind of perpetual global war. So take one more look at that map. Click on it and then enlarge it to consider the map in full-screen mode. It’s important to try to imagine what’s been happening visually, since we’re facing a new kind of disaster, a planetary militarization of a sort we’ve never truly seen before. No matter the “successes” in Washington’s war, ranging from that invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 to the taking of Baghdad in 2003 to the recent destruction of the Islamic State’s “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq (or most of it anyway, since at this moment American planes are still dropping bombs and firing missiles in parts of Syria), the conflicts only seem to morph and tumble on.
We are now in an era in which the U.S. military is the leading edge — often the only edge — of what used to be called American “foreign policy” and the State Department is being radically downsized. American Special Operations forces were deployed to 149 countries in 2017 alone and the U.S. has so many troops on so many bases in so many places on Earth that the Pentagon can’t even account for the whereabouts of 44,000 of them. There may, in fact, be no way to truly map all of this, though the Costs of War Project’s illustration is a triumph of what can be seen.
Looking into the future, let’s pray for one thing: that the folks at that project have plenty of stamina, since it’s a given that, in the Trump years (and possibly well beyond), the costs of war will only rise. The first Pentagon budget of the Trump era, passed with bipartisan unanimity by Congress and signed by the president, is a staggering $700 billion. Meanwhile, America’s leading military men and the president, while escalating the country’s conflicts from Niger to Yemen, Somalia to Afghanistan, seem eternally in search of yet more wars to launch.
Pointing to Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea, for instance, Marine Corps Commandant General Robert Neller recently told U.S. troops in Norway to expect a “bigass fight” in the future, adding, “I hope I’m wrong, but there’s a war coming.” In December, National Security Adviser Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster similarly suggested that the possibility of a war (conceivably nuclear in nature) with Kim Jong-un’s North Korea was “increasing every day.” Meanwhile, in an administration packed with Iranophobes, President Trump seems to be preparing to tear up the Iran nuclear deal, possibly as early as this month.
In other words, in 2018 and beyond, maps of many creative kinds may be needed simply to begin to take in the latest in America’s wars. Consider, for instance, a recent report in the New York Times that about 2,000 employees of the Department of Homeland Security are already “deployed to more than 70 countries around the world,” largely to prevent terror attacks. And so it goes in the twenty-first century.
So welcome to 2018, another year of unending war, and while we’re on the subject, a small warning to our leaders: given the last 16 years, be careful what you wish for.
Mapping a World From Hell
Let’s start with the universe and work our way in. Who cares? Not them because as far as we know they aren’t there. As far as we know, no one exists in our galaxy or perhaps anywhere else but us (and the other creatures on this all-too-modest planet of ours). So don’t count on any aliens out there caring what happens to humanity. They won’t.
As for it — Earth — the planet itself can’t, of course, care, no matter what we do to it. And I’m sure it won’t be news to you that, when it comes to him — and I mean, of course, President Donald J. Trump, who reputedly has a void where the normal quotient of human empathy might be — don’t give it a second’s thought. Beyond himself, his businesses, and possibly (just possibly) his family, he clearly couldn’t give less of a damn about us or, for that matter, what happens to anyone after he departs this planet.
As for us, the rest of us here in the United States at least, we already know something about the nature of our caring. A Yale study released last March indicated that 70% of us — a surprising but still less than overwhelming number (given the by-now-well-established apocalyptic dangers involved) — believe that global warming is actually occurring. Less than half of us, however, expect to be personally harmed by it. So, to quote the eminently quotable Alfred E. Newman, “What, me worry?”
Tell that, by the way, to the inhabitants of Ojai and other southern California hotspots — infernos, actually — being reduced to cinders this December, a month that not so long ago wasn’t significant when it came to fires in that state. But such blazes should have been no surprise, thanks to the way fire seasons are lengthening on this warming planet. A burning December is simply part of what the governor of California, on surveying the fire damage recently, dubbed “the new normal” — just as ever more powerful Atlantic hurricanes, growing increasingly fierce as they pass over the warming waters of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico on their way to batter the United States, are likely to be another new normal of our American world.
In the wake of the hottest year on record, we all now live on a new-normal planet, which means a significantly more extreme one. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that the political version of that new normal involves a wildly overheated, overbearing, over-hyped, over-tweeted president (even if only 60-odd percent of us believe that he could truly harm us). He’s a man who, as the New York Times reported recently, begins to boil with doubt and disturbance if he doesn’t find himself in the headlines, the focus of cable everything, for even a day or two. He’s a man who seems to thrive only when the pot is boiling and when he’s the center of the universe. And what a world we’ve prepared for such an incendiary figure! (More on that later.)
We’re all now immersed in an evolving Trumpocalypse. In a sense, we were there even before The Donald entered the Oval Office. Just consider what it meant to elect a visibly disturbed human being to the highest office of the most powerful, potentially destructive nation on Earth. What does that tell you? One possibility: given the near majority of American voters who sent him to the White House, by campaign 2016 we were already living in a deeply disturbed country. And considering the coming of 1% elections, the growth of plutocracy, the blooming of a new Gilded Age whose wealth disparities must already be competitive with its nineteenth-century predecessor, the rise of the national security state, our endless wars (now turning “generational”), the increasing militarization of this country, and the demobilization of its people, to mention only a few twenty-first-century American developments, that should hardly be surprising.
Could Donald Trump Be the End of Evolutionary History?
Recently, as I was mulling over the extremity of this Trumpian moment, a depiction of evolution from my youth popped into my head. Sometimes back then, such illustrations, as I remember them, began with a fish-like creature flippering its way out of the water to be transformed into a reptile, but this one, known as the “March of Progress,” started with a hunched over ape-like creature. What followed were a series of figures that, left to right, grew ever more Homo-sapiens-like and ever more upright to the last guy, a muscular-looking fellow walking oh-so-erectly.
He, of course, was a proud specimen of us and we — it went without saying at the time — were the proud end of the line on this planet. We were it, progress personified! Even in my youth, however, we were also in the process of updating that evolutionary end point. At the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, the fear of another kind of end, one that might truly be the end of everything, had become a nightmarish commonplace in our lives.
One night almost 60 years ago, for instance, I can still vividly remember myself on my hands and knees crawling through the rubble of an atomically devastated city. It was just a nightmare, of course, but of a sort that was anything but uncommon for those of us growing up then. And there were times — especially during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 — when those nuclear nightmares left the world of dreams and pop culture for everyday life. And even before that, if you were a child, you regularly experienced the fear of obliteration, as the air raid sirens wailed outside your classroom window, the radio on your teacher’s desk broadcast warnings from Conelrad, and you “ducked and covered” under your flimsy desk.
With the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, such fears receded, though they shouldn’t have, since by then, in a world of spreading nuclear states, we already knew about “nuclear winter.” What that meant should have been terrifying. A perfectly imaginable nuclear war, not between superpowers but regional powers like India and Pakistan, could put so much smoke, so many particulates, into the atmosphere as to absorb sunlight for years, radically cooling the planet and possibly starving out most of humanity.
Only in our moment, however, have such nuclear fears returned in a significant way. Under the circumstances, more than half a century after that March of Progress imagery became popular, if we were to provisionally update it, we might have to add a singularly recognizable figure to the far right side of that diorama (appropriately enough): a large but slightly stooped man with a jut-chin, a flaming face, and a distinctive orange comb-over.
Which brings us to a straightforward enough question: Could Donald Trump prove to be the end of evolutionary history? The answer, however provisionally, is that he could. At a minimum, right now he qualifies as the most dangerous man on the planet. He might indeed be the final stopping spot (or at least the person who pointed the way toward it) for human history, for everything that led to this moment, to us.
What Rough Beast, Its Hour Come Round at Last…?
Whatever you do, however, don’t just blame Donald Trump for this. He was simply the particularly unsettling version of Homo sapiens ushered into the White House on a backlash vote of dissatisfaction in 2016. When he got there, he unexpectedly found powers beyond compare awaiting him like so many loaded guns. As was true with the two presidents who preceded him, he automatically became not just the commander-in-chief of this country but its assassin-in-chief; that is, he found himself in personal control of an armada of drone aircraft that could be sent just about anywhere on Earth at his command to kill just about anyone of his choosing. At his beck and call, he also had the equivalent of what historian Chalmers Johnson once called the president’s own private army (now, armies): both the CIA irregulars Johnson was familiar with and the U.S. military’s vast, secretive Special Operations forces. Above all, however, he found himself in charge of the planet’s largest nuclear arsenal, weaponry that he and he alone could order into use.
In short, like this country’s other presidents since August 1945, he was fully weaponized and capable of singlehandedly turning this planet, or significant parts of it, into an instant inferno, a wasteland of — in his incendiary phrase in relation to North Korea — “fire and fury.” On January 20, 2017, in other words, he became the personification of a duck-and-cover planet (even though, as had been true since the 1950s, there was really nowhere to hide). It made no difference that he himself was woefully ignorant about the nature and power of such weaponry.
And speaking of planetary infernos, he also found himself weaponized when it came to a second set of instruments of ultimate destruction about which he was no less ignorant and to which he was even more in thrall. He brought to the Oval Office — Make America Great Again! — a nostalgia for his fossil-fuelized childhood world of the 1950s. Weaponized by Big Energy, he arrived prepared to ensure that the wealthiest and most powerful country on the planet would clear the way for yet more pipelines, fracking, offshore drilling, and just about every other imaginable form of exploitation of oil, natural gas, and coal (but not alternative energy). All of this was intended to create, as he proclaimed, a new “golden age,” not just of American energy independence but of “energy dominance” on a planetary scale. And here’s what that really means: through his executive orders and the decisions of the stunning range of climate deniers and Big Oil enthusiasts he appointed to key posts in his administration, he can indeed ensure that ever more greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels will enter the atmosphere in the years to come, creating the basis for another kind of apocalypse.
On the promotion of global warming in his first year in office, it’s reasonable to say, with a certain Trumpian pride, that the president has once again made the United States the planet’s truly “exceptional” nation. In November, only five months after President Trump announced that the U.S. would withdraw as soon as possible from the Paris climate agreement to fight global warming, Syria (of all countries) finally signed onto it, the last nation on Earth to do so. That meant this country was truly… well, you can’t say left out in the “cold,” not on this planet anymore, but quite literally exceptional in its single-minded efforts to ensure the destruction of the very environment that had for so long ensured humanity’s well-being and made the creation of those illustrations of evolutionary progress possible.
Still, you can’t just blame President Trump for this either. He’s not responsible for the ingenuity, that gift of evolution, that led us, wittingly in the case of nuclear weapons and (initially) unwittingly in the case of climate change, to take powers once relegated to the gods and place them in our own hands — as of January 20, 2017, in fact, in the hands of Donald J. Trump. Don’t blame him alone for the fact that the most apocalyptic moment in our history might come not via an asteroid from outer space, but from Trump Tower.
So here we are, living with a man whose ultimate urge seems to be to bring the world to a boil around himself. It’s possible that he might indeed be the first president since Harry Truman in 1945 to order the use of nuclear weapons. As Nobel Prize winner Beatrice Fihn, director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, recently commented, the world might be only “a tiny tantrum” away from nuclear war in Asia. At the very least, he may already be helping to launch a new global nuclear arms race in which countries from South Korea and Japan to Iran and Saudi Arabia could find themselves with world-ending arsenals, leaving nuclear winter in the hands of… well, don’t even think about it.
Now, imagine that amended evolutionary chart again or perhaps — in honor of The Donald’s recent announcement that the U.S. was recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — call to mind poet William Butler Yeats’s words about a world in which “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity,” while some “rough beast, its hour come round at last” is slouching “towards Bethlehem to be born.” Think then of what a genuine horror it is that so much world-ending power is in the hands of any single human being, no less such a disturbed and disturbing one.
Of course, while Donald Trump might represent the end of the line that began in some African valley so many millennia ago, nothing on this planet is graven in stone, not when it comes to us. We still have the potential freedom to choose otherwise, to do otherwise. We have the capacity for wonders as well as horrors. We have the ability to create as well as to destroy.
In the phrase of Jonathan Schell, the fate of the Earth remains not just in his hands, but in ours. If they, those nonexistent aliens, don’t care and the planet can’t care and the alien in the White House doesn’t give a damn, then it’s up to us to care. It’s up to us to protest, resist, and change, to communicate and convince, to fight for life rather than its destruction. If you’re of a certain age, all you have to do is look at your children or grandchildren (or those of your friends and neighbors) and you know that no one, Donald Trump included, should have the right to consign them to the flames. What did they ever do to end up in a hell on Earth?
2018 is on the horizon. Let’s make it a better time, not the end of time.
Honestly, if there’s an afterlife, then the soul of Osama bin Laden, whose body was consigned to the waves by the U.S. Navy back in 2011, must be swimming happily with the dolphins and sharks. At the cost of the sort of spare change that Donald Trump recently offered aides and former campaign officials for their legal troubles in the Russia investigation (on which he’s unlikely to deliver) — a mere $400,000 to $500,000 — bin Laden managed to launch the American war on terror. He did so with little but a clever game plan, a few fanatical followers, and a remarkably intuitive sense of how this country works.
He had those 19 mostly Saudi hijackers, a scattering of supporters elsewhere in the world, and the “training camps” in Afghanistan, but his was a ragged and understaffed movement. And keep in mind that his sworn enemy was the country that then prided itself on being the last superpower, the final winner of the imperial sweepstakes that had gone on for five centuries until, in 1991, the Soviet Union imploded.
The question was: With such limited resources, what kind of self-destructive behavior could he goad a triumphalist Washington into? The key would be what might be called apocalyptic humiliation.
Looking back, 16 years later, it’s extraordinary how September 11, 2001, would set the pattern for everything that followed. Each further goading act, from Afghanistan to Libya, San Bernardino to Orlando, Iraq to Niger, each further humiliation would trigger yet more of the same behavior in Washington. After all, so many people and institutions — above all, the U.S. military and the rest of the national security state — came to have a vested interest in Osama bin Laden’s version of our world.
Grim as the 9/11 attacks were, with nearly 3,000 dead civilians, they would be but the start of bin Laden’s “success,” which has, in truth, never ended. The phrase of that moment — that 9/11 had “changed everything” — proved far more devastatingly accurate than we Americans imagined at the time. Among other things, it transformed the country in essential ways.
After all, Osama bin Laden managed to involve the United States in 16 years of fruitless wars, most now “generational” conflicts with no end in sight, which would only encourage the creation and spread of terror groups, the disintegration of order across significant parts of the planet, and the displacement of whole populations in staggering numbers. At the same time, he helped turn twenty-first-century Washington into a war machine of the first order that ate the rest of the government for lunch. He gave the national security state the means — the excuse, if you will — to rise to a kind of power, prominence, and funding that might otherwise have been inconceivable. In the process — undoubtedly fulfilling his wildest dreams — he helped speed up the decline of the very country that, since the Cold War ended, had been plugging itself as the greatest ever.
In other words, he may truly be the (malign) genius of our age. He created a terrorist version of call and response that still rules Donald Trump’s Washington in which the rubblized generals of America’s rubblized wars on an increasingly rubblized planet now reign supreme. In other words, The Donald, Defense Secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster were Osama bin Laden’s grim gift to the rest of us. Thanks to him, literally trillions of taxpayer dollars would go down the tubes in remarkably pointless wars and “reconstruction” scams abroad that now threaten to feed on each other to something like the end of (American) time.
Of course, he had a little luck in the process. As a start, no one, not even the 9/11 plotters themselves, could have imagined that those towers in Manhattan would collapse before the already omnipresent cameras of the age in a way that would create such classically apocalyptic imagery. As scholar Paul Boyer once argued, in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Americans never stopped dreaming of a nuclear attack on this country. Our pop culture was filled with such imagery, such nightmares. On that September day, many Americans suddenly felt as if something like it had finally happened. It wasn’t happenstance that, within 24 hours, the area of downtown Manhattan where the shards of those towers lay would be dubbed “Ground Zero,” a term previously reserved for the spot where a nuclear explosion had taken place, or that Tom Brokaw, anchoring NBC’s non-stop news coverage, would claim that it was “like a nuclear winter in lower Manhattan.”
The sense of being sneak-attacked on an apocalyptic scale — hence the “new Pearl Harbor” and “Day of Infamy” headlines — proved overwhelming as the scenes of those towers falling in a near mushroom cloud of smoke and ash were endlessly replayed. Of course, no such apocalyptic attack had occurred. The weapons at hand weren’t even bombs or missiles, but our own airplanes filled with passengers. And yes, it was a horror, but not the horror Americans generally took it for. And yet, 16 years later, it’s still impossible to put 9/11 in any kind of reasonable context or perspective in this country, even after we’ve helped to rubblize major cities across the Middle East — most recently the Syrian city of Raqqa — and so aided in creating landscapes far more apocalyptic looking than 9/11 ever was.
As I wrote long ago, 9/11 “was not a nuclear attack. It was not apocalyptic. The cloud of smoke where the towers stood was no mushroom cloud. It was not potentially civilization ending. It did not endanger the existence of our country — or even of New York City. Spectacular as it looked and staggering as the casualty figures were, the operation was hardly more technologically advanced than the failed attack on a single tower of the World Trade Center in 1993 by Islamists using a rented Ryder truck packed with explosives.”
On the other hand, imagine where we’d be if Osama bin Laden had had just a little more luck that day; imagine if the fourth hijacked plane, the one that crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, had actually reached its target in Washington and wiped out, say, the Capitol or the White House.
Bin Laden certainly chose his symbols of American power well — financial (the World Trade Center), military (the Pentagon), and political (some target in Washington) — in order to make the government and people of the self-proclaimed most exceptional nation on Earth feel the deepest possible sense of humiliation.
Short of wiping out the White House, bin Laden could hardly have hit a more American nerve or created a stronger sense that the country which felt it had everything was now left with nothing at all.
That it wasn’t true — not faintly — didn’t matter. And add in one more bit of bin Laden good luck. The administration in the White House at that moment had its own overblown dreams of how our world should work. As they emerged from the shock of those attacks, which sent Vice President Dick Cheney into a Cold-War-era underground nuclear bunker and President George W. Bush onto Air Force One — he was reading a children’s book, My Pet Goat, to school kids in Florida as the attacks occurred — and in flight away from Washington to Barksdale Air Base in Louisiana, they began to dream of their global moment. Like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in the partially destroyed Pentagon, they instantly started thinking about taking out Iraq’s autocratic ruler Saddam Hussein and launching a project to create a Middle East and then a planet over which the United States alone would have dominion forever and ever.
As befitted those Pearl Harbor headlines, on the night of September 11th, the president was already speaking of “the war against terrorism.” Within a day, he had called it “the first war of the twenty-first century” and soon, because al-Qaeda was such a pathetically inadequate target, had added, “Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there.”
It couldn’t have been stranger. The United States was “at war,” but not with a great power or even one of the regional “rogue states” that had been the focus of American military thinking in the 1990s. We were at war with a phenomenon — “terrorism” — on a global scale. As Rumsfeld would say only five days after 9/11, the new war on terror would be “a large multi-headed effort that probably spans 60 countries, including the United States.” In the phrase of the moment, they were going to “drain the swamp” globally.
Even setting aside that terrorism then had no real armies, no real territory, essentially nothing, this couldn’t have been more wildly out of proportion to what had actually happened or to the outfit that had caused it to happen. But anyone who suggested as much (or something as simple and unimpressive as a “police action” against bin Laden and crew) was promptly laughed out of the room or abused into silence. And so a call-and-response pattern that fit bin Laden’s wildest dreams would be established in which, whatever they did, the United States would always respond by militarily upping the ante.
In this way, Washington promptly found itself plunged into a Global War on Terror, or GWOT, that was essentially a figment of its own imagination. The Bush administration, not Osama bin Laden, then proceeded to turn it into a reality, starting with the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. Meanwhile, from the passage of the Patriot Act to the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, a newly national-securitized Washington would be built up on a previously unheard of scale.
In other words, we were already entering Osama bin Laden’s America.
The War Lovers
In this way, long before Donald Trump and Rex Tillerson began downsizing the State Department, George W. Bush and his top officials (who, except for Colin Powell, had never been to war) committed themselves to the U.S. military as the option of choice for what had previously been called “foreign policy.” Fortunately for bin Laden, they would prove to be the ultimate fundamentalists when it came to that military. They had little doubt that they possessed a force beyond compare with the kind of power and technological resources guaranteed to sweep away everything before it. That military was, as the president boasted, “the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known.” What, then, could possibly stop it from spearheading the establishment of a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East and elsewhere that would leave the Roman and British empires in the shade? (As it happened, they had absorbed nothing of the twentieth century history of insurrection, rebellion, and resistance in the former colonial world. If they had, none of what followed would have surprised them in the least.)
And so the wars would spread, states would begin to crumble, terror movements would multiply, and each little shiver of fear, each set of American deaths, whether by such movements or “lone wolves” in the U.S. and Europe, would call up just one response: more of the same.
Think of this as Osama bin Laden’s dream world, which we would create for him and his fellow jihadists.
I’ve been writing about this at TomDispatch year after year for a decade and a half now and nothing ever changes. Not really. It’s all so sadly predictable as, years after bin Laden was consigned to his watery grave, Washington continues to essentially do his bidding in a remarkably brainless fashion.
Think of it as a kind of feedback loop in which the interests of a domestic security and surveillance state, built to monumental proportions on a relatively minor fear (of terrorism), and a military eternally funded to the heavens on a remarkably bipartisan basis for its never-ending war on terror ensure that nothing ever truly changes. In twenty-first-century Washington, failure is the new success and repetition is the rule of the day, week, month, and year.
Take, for example, the recent events in Niger. Consider the pattern of call-and-response there. Almost no Americans (and it turned out, next to no senators) even knew that the U.S. had something like 900 troops deployed permanently to that West African country and two drone bases there (though it was no secret). Then, on October 4th, the first reports of the deaths of four American soldiers and the wounding of two others in a Green Beret unit on a “routine training mission” in the lawless Niger-Mali border area came out. The ambush, it seemed, had been set by an ISIS affiliate.
It was, in fact, such an obscure and distant event that, for almost two weeks, there was little reaction in Congress or media uproar of any sort. That ended, however, when President Trump, in response to questions about those dead soldiers, attacked Barack Obama and George W. Bush for not calling the parents of the American fallen (they had) and then got into a dispute with the widow of one of the Niger dead (as well as a Democratic congresswoman) over his condolence call to her. The head of the Joint Chiefs was soon forced to hold a news conference; former four-star Marine General and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, whose son had died in Afghanistan, felt called upon to go to the mat for his boss, falsely accuse that congresswoman, and essentially claim that the military was now an elite caste in this country. This certainly reflected the new highly militarized sense of power and worth that lay at the heart of bin Laden’s Washington.
It was only then that the event in distant Niger became another terrorist humiliation of the first order. Senators were suddenly outraged. Senator John McCain (one of the more warlike members of that body, famous in 2007 for jokingly singing, to the tune of an old Beach Boys song, “Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran”) threatened to subpoena the administration for more Niger information. Meanwhile his friend Senator Lindsey Graham, another war hawk of the first order, issued a classic warning of this era: “We don’t want the next 9/11 to come from Niger!”
And suddenly U.S. Africa Command was highlighting its desire for more money from Congress; the military was moving to arm its Reaper drones in Niger with Hellfire missiles for future counterterrorism operations; and Secretary of Defense Mattis was assuring senators privately that the military would “expand” its “counterterrorism focus” in Africa. The military began to prepare to deploy Hellfire Missile-armed Reaper drones to Niger. “The war is morphing,” Graham insisted. “You’re going to see more actions in Africa, not less; you’re going to see more aggression by the United States toward our enemies, not less; you’re going to have decisions being made not in the White House but out in the field.”
Rumors were soon floating around that, as the Washington Post reported, the administration might “loosen restrictions on the U.S. military’s ability to use lethal force in Niger” (as it already had done in the Trump era in places like Syria and Yemen). And so it expectably went, as events in Niger proceeded from utter obscurity to the near-apocalyptic, while — despite the strangeness of the Trumpian moment — the responses came in exactly as anyone reviewing the last 16 years might have imagined they would.
All of this will predictably make things in central Africa worse, not better, leading to… well, more than a decade and a half after 9/11, you know just as well as I do where it’s leading. And there are remarkably few brakes on the situation, especially with three generals of our losing wars ruling the roost in Washington and Donald Trump now lashed to the mast of his chief of staff.
Welcome to Osama bin Laden’s America.
Osama Bin Laden’s America
It took 14 years, but now we have an answer.
It was March 2003, the invasion of Iraq was underway, and Major General David Petraeus was in command of the 101st Airborne Division heading for the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. Rick Atkinson, Washington Post journalist and military historian, was accompanying him. Six days into a lightning campaign, his division suddenly found itself stopped 30 miles southwest of the city of Najaf by terrible weather, including a blinding dust storm, and the unexpectedly “fanatical” attacks of Iraqi irregulars. At that moment, Atkinson reported,
“[Petraeus] hooked his thumbs into his flak vest and adjusted the weight on his shoulders. ‘Tell me how this ends,’ he said. ‘Eight years and eight divisions?’ The allusion was to advice supposedly given the White House in the early 1950s by a senior Army strategist upon being asked what it would take to prop up French forces in South Vietnam. Petraeus’s grin suggested the comment was more droll quip than historical assertion.”
Certainly, Petraeus knew his history when it came to American interventions in distant lands. He had entered West Point just as the American war in Vietnam was beginning to wind down and did his doctoral dissertation at Princeton in 1987 on that conflict (“The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam: A Study of Military Influence and the Use of Force in the Post-Vietnam Era”). In it, he wrote,
“Vietnam cost the military dearly. It left America’s military leaders confounded, dismayed, and discouraged. Even worse, it devastated the armed forces, robbing them of dignity, money, and qualified people for a decade… Vietnam was an extremely painful reminder that when it comes to intervention, time and patience are not American virtues in abundant supply.”
So no wonder he was well acquainted with that 1954 exchange between President Dwight D. Eisenhower and former Korean War commander General Matthew Ridgeway about the French war in Vietnam. Perhaps, the “droll quip” aspect of his comment lay in his knowledge of just how badly Ridgeway underestimated both the years and the troop numbers that the American version of that war would eat up before it, too, ended in disaster and in a military as riddled with protest and as close to collapse as was imaginable for an American force of our era.
In his thesis, Petraeus called for the military high command to be granted a far freer hand in whatever interventions the future held. In that sense, in 1987, he was already mainlining into a twenty-first-century world in which the U.S. military continues to get everything it wants (and more) as it fights its wars without having to deal with either an obstreperous citizen army or too many politicians trying to impose their will on its actions.
And by the way, though his Najaf comments have regularly been cited as if they were sui generis, as the Ridgeway reference indicates, he was hardly the first American military commander or political figure to appropriate Joan of Arc’s question in Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan: “How long, oh Lord, how long?”
As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam recounted in his history of the Vietnam years, The Best and the Brightest, for instance, President Lyndon Johnson turned to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Earle Wheeler in a June 1965 meeting and asked of the war in Vietnam, “What do you think it will take to do the job?”
Wheeler’s answer echoed Ridgeway’s 11 years earlier, though in the escalatory mode that was typical of Vietnam: “It all depends on what your definition of the job is, Mr. President. If you intend to drive the last Vietcong out of Vietnam it will take seven hundred, eight hundred thousand, a million men and about seven years. But if your definition of the job is to prevent the Communists from taking over the country, that is, stopping them from doing it, then you’re talking about different gradations and different levels. So tell us what the job is and we’ll answer it.”
A Generational Approach to America’s Wars
Not so long after that moment on the outskirts of Najaf, the 101st Airborne made its way to Baghdad just as the burning and looting began, and that would only be the prologue to David Petraeus’s war, to his version of eight years and eight divisions. When an insurgency (actually several) broke out in Iraq, he would be dispatched to the northern city of Mosul (now a pile of rubble after its 2017 “liberation” from the Islamic State in Washington’s third Iraq War). There, he would first experiment with bringing back from the Vietnam experience the very strategy the U.S. military had hoped to be rid of forever: “counterinsurgency,” or the winning of what in that war had regularly been called “hearts and minds.” In 2004, Newsweek was already hailing him on its cover with the dramatic question: “Can This Man Save Iraq?” (Four months after Petraeus ended his stint in that city, the police chief he had trained there went over to the insurgents and it became a stronghold for them.)
By the time the occupation of Iraq turned into a full-scale disaster, he was back at Fort Leavenworth running the U.S. Army’s Combined Arms Center. During that period, he and another officer, Marine Lieutenant General James Mattis — does that name ring any bells? — joined forces to oversee the development and publication of Field Service Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency Operations. It would be the first official counterinsurgency (COIN) how-to book the military had produced since the Vietnam years. In the process, he became “the world’s leading expert in counterinsurgency warfare.” He would famously return to Iraq in 2007, that manual in hand, with five brigades, or 20,000 U.S. troops, for what would become known as “the surge,” or “the new way forward,” an attempt to bail the Bush administration out of its disastrous occupation of the country. His counterinsurgency operations would, like the initial invasion, be hailed by experts and pundits in Washington (including Petraeus himself) as a marvel and a success of the first order, as a true turning point in Iraq and in the war on terror.
A decade later, with America’s third Iraq War ongoing, you could be excused for viewing the “successes” of that surge somewhat differently.
In the process, Petraeus (or “King David” as he was supposedly nicknamed by Iraqis during his stint in Mosul) would become America’s most celebrated, endlessly featured general, and go on in 2008 to head U.S. Central Command (overseeing America’s wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq). In 2010, he would become the U.S. Afghan commander, largely so that he could perform the counterinsurgency miracles in Afghanistan he had supposedly performed in Iraq. In 2011, he became Barack Obama’s CIA director only to crash and burn a year later in a scandal over a lover-cum-biographer and the misuse of classified documents, after which he morphed into a go-to expert on our wars and a partner at KKR, a global investment firm. In other words, as with the three generals of the surge generation now ascendant in Washington, including Petraeus’s former COIN pal James Mattis (who also headed U.S. Central Command), he presided over this country’s failing wars in the Greater Middle East.
And only recently, 14 years after he and Atkinson were briefly trapped outside Najaf, in his role as a pundit and prognosticator on his former wars, he finally answered — and not quippingly either — the question that plagued him then. Though his comments were certainly covered in the news (as anything he says is), in a sense no one noticed. Asked by Judy Woodruff of the PBS News Hour whether, in Donald Trump’s America, it was “smart” to once again send more U.S. troops surging into Afghanistan, he called the Pentagon’s decision “heartening,” even as he warned that it wasn’t a war that would end any time soon.
Instead, after so many years of involvement, experience, thought, and observation, in a studio without a grain of sand, no less a dust storm in sight, he offered this observation:
“But this is a generational struggle. This is not something that is going to be won in a few years. We’re not going to take a hill, plant a flag, [and] go home to a victory parade. And we need to be there for the long haul, but in a way that is, again, sustainable. We have been in Korea for 65-plus years because there is an important national interest for that. We were in Europe for a very long period of time, still there, of course, and actually with a renewed emphasis now, given Russia’s aggressive actions. And I think that’s the way we need to approach this.”
In proposing such a “generational struggle” to be handed on to our children, if not grandchildren, he’s in good company. In recent times, the Pentagon high command, too, has been adopting a “generational approach” to Afghanistan and assumedly our other wars across the Greater Middle East and Africa. Similarly, the scholars of the Brookings Institution have urged on Washington’s policymakers what they call “an enduring partnership” in Afghanistan: “The U.S.-Afghan partnership should be recognized as generational in duration, given the nature of the threat and the likely longevity of its future manifestations.”
Even if, under further questioning by Woodruff, Petraeus wouldn’t quite cop to a 60-year Afghan war (that is, to a war lasting at least until 2061), his long-delayed answer to his own question of the 2003 invasion moment was now definitive. Such American wars won’t end. Not now. Maybe not ever. And in a way you can’t be much blunter or grimmer than that in your assessment of the “successes” of the war on terror.
A Military Success Story of the Strangest Sort
Until James “Mad Dog” Mattis hit Washington in 2017, no American general of our era was ever written about as much as, or in a more celebratory fashion, than David Petraeus. Adulatory (if not fawning) profiles of him are legion. Even today, in the wake of barely avoided felony and other charges (for, among other things, lying to the FBI) — he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in the handling of classified documents and was sentenced to two years of probation and a fine — he may still be this country’s most celebrated general.
But why exactly the celebration? The answer would have to be that he continues to be lauded and considered a must-quote expert because in Washington this country’s war on terror and the generalship that’s accompanied it are now beyond serious analysis or reconsideration. Sixteen years after the invasion of Afghanistan, as America’s wars continue to spread across the Greater Middle East and Africa, its generals — thanks in part to Donald Trump and the need for “adult day care” in the White House — are still treated like the only “adults in the room” in our nation’s capital, like, in short, American winners.
And yet consider recent events in the central African country of Niger, which already has an operating U.S. drone base, another under construction, and about 800 American troops quietly but permanently stationed there. It’s also a country that, until this moment, not an American in a million would have been able to locate on a map. On October 4th, four Green Berets were killed and two others wounded during a “routine training mission” there. Patrolling with Nigerien troops, they were ambushed by Islamic militants — whether from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or a new branch of ISIS remains unclear. That officially makes Niger at least the eighth country, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, and Libya, to be absorbed into Washington’s war on terror and, in case you hadn’t noticed, in none of them has that war ended and in none have U.S. forces triumphed.
And yet you could comb the recent mainstream coverage of the events in Niger without finding any indication that those deaths represented a modest new escalation in the never-ending, ever-spreading war on terror.
As was inevitable, in Iraq and Syria, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic “caliphate” is finally collapsing. The city of Mosul is back in Iraqi hands, as is Tal Afar, and more recently the town of Hawija (with a rare mass surrender of ISIS militants). Those were the last significant urban areas controlled by ISIS in Iraq, while in Syria, the “apocalyptic ruins” of the Islamic State’s “capital,” Raqqa, are also largely in the hands of forces allied with and supported by the air power of the U.S. military. In what are now the ravaged ruins of Syria and Iraq, however, such “victories” will inevitably prove as hollow as were the “successful” invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq or the “successful” overthrow of Libyan autocrat Muammar Gaddafi. Meanwhile, the Islamic State may have spread its brand to another country with U.S. forces in it. And yet, across a vast swath of the planet, the wars of David Petraeus, James Mattis, and the other generals of this era simply go on and on in a region being fractured and devastated (and whose vast numbers of displaced refugees are, in turn, helping to fracture Europe).
Worse yet, it’s a situation that can’t be seriously discussed or debated in this country because, if it were, opposition to those wars might rise and alternatives to them and the by-now brain-dead decisions of those generals, including newly heightened air wars and the latest mini-surge in Afghanistan, might become part of an actual national debate.
So think of this as a military success story of the strangest sort — success that can be traced directly back to a single decision, now decades old, made by a long-discredited American president, Richard Nixon. Without returning to that decision, there is simply no way to understand America’s twenty-first-century wars. In its own way, it would prove an act of genius (if, at least, you wanted to fight never-ending wars until the end of time).
In any case, credit, when owed, must be given. Facing an antiwar movement that wouldn’t go away and, by the early 1970s, included significant numbers of both active-duty servicemen and Vietnam veterans, the president and his secretary of defense, Melvin Laird, decided to try to cut into its strength by eliminating the draft. Nixon suspected that young men not endangered by the possibility of being sent into the Vietnam War might be far less eager to demonstrate against it. The military high command was uncertain about such a move. They worried, with reason, that in the wake of Vietnam it would be hard to recruit for an all-volunteer military. Who in the world, they wondered, would want to be part of such a discredited force? That was, of course, a version of Nixon’s thinking turned upside down, but the president moved ahead anyway and, on January 27, 1973, conscription was ended. There would be no more draft calls and the citizen’s army, the one that had fought World War II to victory and had raised such a ruckus about the grim and distasteful war in Vietnam, would be no more.
In that single stroke, before he himself fell prey to the Watergate scandal and resigned his presidency, Nixon functionally created a legacy for the ages, paving the way for the American military to fight its wars “generationally” and lose them until hell froze over with the guarantee that no one in this country would seem to care a whit. Or put another way, can you truly imagine such silence in “the homeland” if an American draft were continually filling the ranks of a citizen’s army to fight a 16-year-old war on terror, still spreading, and now considered “generational”? I doubt it.
So as American air power in places like Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan is ramped up yet again, as the latest mini-surge of troops arrives in Afghanistan, as Niger enters the war, it’s time to put generals David Petraeus, James Mattis, H.R. McMaster, and John Kelly in context. It’s time to call them what they truly are: Nixon’s children.
“Tell Me How This Ends?”
It’s January 2025, and within days of entering the Oval Office, a new president already faces his first full-scale crisis abroad. Twenty-four years after it began, the war on terror, from the Philippines to Nigeria, rages on. In 2024 alone, the U.S. launched repeated air strikes on 15 nations (or, in a number of cases, former nations), including the Philippines, Burma, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, the former Iraq, the former Syria, Kurdistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Mali, and Nigeria.
In the weeks before his inauguration, a series of events roiled the Greater Middle East and Africa. Drone strikes and raids by U.S. Special Operations forces in Saudi Arabia against both Shiite rebels and militants from the Global Islamic State killed scores of civilians, including children. They left that increasingly destabilized kingdom in an uproar, intensified the unpopularity of its young king, and led to the withdrawal of the Saudi ambassador from Washington. In Mali, dressed in police uniforms and riding on motorcycles, three Islamic militants from the Front Azawad, which now controls the upper third of the country, gained entry to a recently established joint U.S.-French military base and blew themselves up, killing two American Green Berets, three American contractors, and two French soldiers, while wounding several members of Mali’s presidential guard. In Iraq, as 2024 ended, the city of Tal Afar — already “liberated” twice since the 2003 invasion of that country, first by American troops in 2005 and then by American-backed Iraqi troops in 2017 — fell to the Sunni militants of the Global Islamic State. Though now besieged by the forces of the Republic of Southern Iraq backed by the U.S. Air Force, it remains in their hands.
The crisis of the moment, however, is in Afghanistan where the war on terror first began. There, the Taliban, the Global Islamic State (or GIS, which emerged from the Islamic State, or ISIS, in 2019), and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan (or AQIA, which split from the original al-Qaeda in 2021) now control an increasing number of provincial capitals. These range from Lashgar Gah in Helmand Province in the southern poppy-growing heartlands of the country to Kunduz in the north, which first briefly fell to the Taliban in 2015 and now is in the hands of GIS militants. In the meantime, the American-backed government in the Afghan capital, Kabul, is — as in 2022 when a “surge” of almost 25,000 American troops and private contractors saved it from falling to the Taliban — again besieged and again in danger. The conflict that Lieutenant General Harold S. Forrester, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, had only recently termed a “stalemate” seems to be devolving. What’s left of the Afghan military with its ghost soldiers, soaring desertion rates, and stunning casualty figures is reportedly at the edge of dissolution. Forrester is returning to the United States this week to testify before Congress and urge the new president to surge into the country up to 15,000 more American troops, including Special Operations forces, and another 15,000 private contractors, as well as significantly more air power before the situation goes from worse to truly catastrophic.
Like many in the Pentagon, Forrester now regularly speaks of the Afghan War as an “eonic struggle,” that is, one not expected to end for generations…
You think not? When it comes to America’s endless wars and conflicts across the Greater Middle East and Africa, you can’t imagine a more-of-the-same scenario eight years into the future? If, in 2009, eight years after the war on terror was launched, as President Obama was preparing to send a “surge” of more than 30,000 U.S. troops into Afghanistan (while swearing to end the war in Iraq), I had written such a futuristic account of America’s wars in 2017, you might have been no less unconvinced.
Who would have believed then that political Washington and the U.S. military’s high command could possibly continue on the same brainless path (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say superhighway) for another eight years? Who would have believed then that, in the fall of 2017, they would be intensifying their air campaigns across the Greater Middle East, still fighting in Iraq (and Syria), supporting a disastrous Saudi war in Yemen, launching the first of yet another set of mini-surges in Afghanistan, and so on? And who would have believed then that, in return for prosecuting unsuccessful wars for 16 years while aiding and abetting in the spread of terror movements across a vast region, three of America’s generals would be the most powerful figures in Washington aside from our bizarre president (whose election no one could have predicted eight years ago)? Or here’s another mind-bender: Would you really have predicted that, in return for 16 years of unsuccessful war-making, the U.S. military (and the rest of the national security state) would be getting yet more money from the political elite in our nation’s capital or would be thought better of than any other American institution by the public?
Now, I’m the first to admit that we humans are pathetic seers. Peering into the future with any kind of accuracy has never been part of our skill set. And so my version of 2025 could be way off base. Given our present world, it might prove to be far too optimistic about our wars.
After all — just to mention one grim possibility of our moment — for the first time since 1945, we’re on a planet where nuclear weapons might be used by either side in the course of a local war, potentially leaving Asia aflame and possibly the world economy in ruins. And don’t even bring up Iran, which I carefully and perhaps too cautiously didn’t include in my list of the 15 countries the U.S. was bombing in 2025 (as opposed to the seven at present). And yet, in the same world where they are decrying North Korea’s nuclear weapons, the Trump administration and its U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, seem to be hard at work creating a situation in which the Iranians could once again be developing ones of their own. The president has reportedly been desperate to ditch the nuclear agreement Barack Obama and the leaders of five other major powers signed with Iran in 2015 (though he has yet to actually do so) and he’s stocked his administration with a remarkable crew of Iranophobes, including CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, all of whom have been itching over the years for some kind of confrontation with Iran. (And given the last decade and a half of American war fighting in the region, how do you think that conflict would be likely to turn out?)
Donald Trump’s Washington, as John Feffer has recently pointed out, is now embarked on a Pyongyang-style “military-first” policy in which resources, money, and power are heading for the Pentagon and the U.S. nuclear arsenal, while much of the rest of the government is downsized. Obviously, if that’s where your resources are going, then that’s where your efforts and energies will go, too. So don’t expect less war in the years to come, no matter how inept Washington has proven when it comes to making war work.
Now, let’s leave those wars aside for a moment and return to the future:
It’s mid-September 2025. Hurricane Wally has just deluged Houston with another thousand-year rainfall, the fourth since Hurricane Harvey hit the region in 2017. It’s the third Category 6 hurricane — winds of 190 or more miles an hour — to hit the U.S. so far this year, the previous two being Tallulah and Valerie, tying a record first set in 2023. (Category 6 was only added to the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale in 2022 after Hurricane Donald devastated Washington D.C.) The new president did not visit Houston. His press secretary simply said, “If the president visited every area hit by extreme weather, he would be incapable of spending enough time in Washington to oversee the rebuilding of the city and govern the country.” She refused to take further questions and Congress has no plans to pass emergency legislation for a relief package for the Houston region.
Much of what’s left of that city’s population is either fled ahead of the storm or is packed into relief shelters. And as with Miami Beach, it is now believed that some of the more flood-prone parts of the Houston area will never be rebuilt. (Certain ocean-front areas of Miami were largely abandoned after Donald hit in 2022 on its way to Washington, thanks in part to a new reality: sea levels were rising faster than expected because of the stunning pace at which the Greenland ice shield meltdown.)
Meanwhile, the temperature just hit 112 degrees, a new September record, in San Francisco. That came after a summer in which a record 115 was experienced, making Mark Twain’s apocryphal line, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco,” an artifact of the past. In another year without an El Niño phenomenon, the West Coast has again been ablaze and the wheat-growing regions of the Midwest have been further devastated by a tenacious drought, now four years old.
Around the planet, heat events are on the rise, as are storms and floods, while the wildfire season continues to expand globally. To mention just two events elsewhere on Earth: in 2024, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR), thanks to both spreading conflicts and an increase in extreme weather events, more people were displaced — 127.2 million — than at any time on record, almost doubling the 2016 count. UNHCR director Angelica Harbani expects that figure to be surpassed yet again when this year’s numbers are tallied. In addition, a speedier than expected meltdown of the Himalayan glaciers has created a permanent water crisis in parts of South Asia also struck by repeated disastrous monsoons and floods.
In the United States, the week after Hurricane Wally destroyed Houston, the president flew to North Dakota to proudly mark the beginning of the construction of the Transcontinental Pipeline slated to bring Canadian tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to the East Coast. “It will help ensure,” he said, “that the United States remains the oil capital of the planet.”
Think of it this way: a new weather paradigm is visibly on the rise. It just walloped the United States from the burning West Coast to the battered Florida Keys. And another crucial phenomenon has accompanied it: the rise to power in Washington — and not just there — of Republican climate-change denialism. Think of the two phenomena together as the alliance from hell. So far there’s no evidence that a Washington whose key agencies are well stocked with climate-change deniers is likely to be transformed any time soon.
Now, meld those two future scenarios of mine: the fruitless pursuit of never-ending wars and the increasing extremity of the weather on a planet seemingly growing hotter by the year. (Sixteen of the 17 warmest years on record occurred in the twenty-first century and the 17th was 1998.) Try to conjure up such a world for a moment and you’ll realize that the potential damage could be enormous, even if the planet’s “lone superpower” continues to encourage the greatest threat facing us for only a brief period, even if Donald Trump doesn’t win reelection in 2020 or worse than him isn’t heading down the pike.
The Frying of Our World
There have been many imperial powers on Planet Earth. Any number of them committed massive acts of horror — from the Mongol empire (whose warriors typically sacked Baghdad in 1258, putting its public libraries to the torch, reputedly turning the Tigris River black with ink and that city’s streets red with blood) to the Spanish empire (known for its grim treatment of the inhabitants of its “new world” possessions, not to speak of the Muslims, Jews, and other heretics in Spain itself) to the Nazis (no elaboration needed). In other words, there’s already competition enough for the imperial worst of the worst. And yet don’t imagine that the United States doesn’t have a shot at taking the number one spot for all eternity. (USA! USA!)
Depending on how the politics of this country and this century play out, the phrase “fiddling while Rome burns” might have to be seriously readjusted. In the American version, you would substitute “fighting never-ending wars across the Greater Middle East, Africa, and possibly Asia” for “fiddling” and for “Rome,” you would insert “the planet.” Only “burns” would remain the same. For now, at least, you would also have to replace the Roman emperor Nero (who was probably playing a lyre, since no fiddles existed in his world) with Donald Trump, the Tweeter-in-Chief, as well as “his” generals and the whole crew of climate deniers now swarming Washington, one more eager than the next to release the full power of fossil fuels into an overburdened atmosphere.
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that my own country, so eternally overpraised by its leaders in these years as the planet’s “indispensable” and “exceptional” nation with “the finest fighting force the world has ever known” might usher in the collapse of the very environment that nurtured humanity all these millennia. As the “lone superpower,” the last in a line-up of rival great powers extending back to the fifteenth century, what a mockery it threatens to make of the long-gone vision of history as a march of progress through time. What a mockery it threatens to make of the America of my own childhood, the one that so proudly put a man on the moon and imagined that there was no problem on Earth it couldn’t solve.
Imagine the government of that same country, distracted by its hopeless wars and the terrorist groups they continue to generate, facing the possible frying of our world — and not lifting a finger to deal with the situation. In a Washington where less is more for everything except the U.S. military (for which more is invariably less), the world has been turned upside down. It’s the definition of an empire of madness.
Hold on a second! Somewhere, faintly, I think I hear a fiddle playing and maybe it’s my imagination, but do I smell smoke?
Empire of Madness
It was bloody and brutal, a true generational struggle, but give them credit. In the end, they won when so many lost.
James Comey was axed. Sean Spicer went down in a heap of ashes. Anthony Scaramucci crashed and burned instantaneously. Reince Priebus hung on for dear life but was finally canned. Seven months in, Steve Bannon got the old heave-ho and soon after, his minion, Sebastian Gorka, was unceremoniously shoved out the White House door. In a downpour of potential conflicts of interest and scandal, Carl Icahn bowed out. Gary Cohn has reportedly been at the edge of resignation. And so it goes in the Trump administration.
Except for the generals. Think of them as the last men standing. They did it. They took the high ground in Washington and held it with remarkable panache. Three of them: National Security Advisor Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, Secretary of Defense and retired Marine General John Mattis, and former head of the Department of Homeland Security, now White House Chief of Staff, retired Marine General John Kelly stand alone, except for President Trump’s own family members, at the pinnacle of power in Washington.
Those three generals from America’s losing wars are now triumphant. One of them is the ultimate gatekeeper when it comes to who sees the president. All three influence his thoughts and speeches. They are the “civilians” who control the military and American war policy. They, and they alone, have made the president go against his deepest urges, as he admitted in his address to the nation on the war in Afghanistan. (“My original instinct was to pull out and historically I like following my instincts.”) They’ve convinced him to release the military (and the CIA) from significant oversight on how they pursue their wars across the Greater Middle East, Africa, and now the Philippines. They even convinced him to surround their future actions in a penumbra of secrecy.
Their wars, the ones that began almost 16 years ago and just keep morphing and spreading (along with a proliferating assortment of terror groups), are now theirs alone to fight and… well, we’ll get to that. But first let’s step back a moment and think about what’s happened since January.
The Winningest President and the Losingest Generals
The most surprising winner of our era and possibly — to put ourselves fully in the Trumpian spirit — of any era since the first protozoan stalked the Earth entered the Oval Office on January 20th and promptly surrounded himself with a set of generals from America’s failed wars of the post-9/11 era. In other words, the man who repeatedly promised that in his presidency Americans would win to the point of tedium — “We’re going to win so much, you’re going to be so sick and tired of winning, you’re going to come to me and go ‘Please, please, we can’t win anymore’” — promptly chose to elevate the losingest guys in town. If reports are to be believed, he evidently did this because of his military school background, his longstanding crush on General George Patton of World War II fame (or at least the movie version of him), and despite having actively avoided military service himself in the Vietnam years, his weak spot for four stars with tough monikers like “Mad Dog.”
During the election campaign, though a general of his choice led the chants to “lock her up,” Trump himself was surprisingly clear-eyed when it came to the nature of American generalship in the twenty-first century. As he put it, “Under the leadership of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton the generals have been reduced to rubble, reduced to a point where it is embarrassing for our country.” On coming to power, however, he reached into that rubble to choose his guys. In the years before he ran, he had been no less clear-eyed on the war he just extended in Afghanistan. Of that conflict, he typically tweeted in 2013, “We have wasted an enormous amount of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Their government has zero appreciation. Let’s get out!”
On the other hand, the careers of his three chosen generals are inextricably linked to America’s losing wars. Then-Colonel H.R. McMaster gained his reputation in 2005 by leading the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment into the Iraqi city of Tal Afar and “liberating” it from Sunni insurgents, while essentially inaugurating the counterinsurgency tactics that would become the heart and soul of General David Petraeus’s 2007 “surge” in Iraq.
Only one small problem: McMaster’s much-publicized “victory,” like so many other American military successes of this era, didn’t last. A year later, Tal Afar was “awash in sectarian violence,” wrote Jon Finer, a Washington Post reporter who accompanied McMaster into that city. It would be among the first Iraqi cities taken by Islamic State militants in 2014 and has only recently been “liberated” (yet again) by the Iraqi military in a U.S.-backed campaign that has left it only partially in rubble, unlike so many other fully rubblized cities in the region. In the Obama years, McMaster would be the leader of a task force in Afghanistan that “sought to root out the rampant corruption that had taken hold” in the American-backed government there, an effort that would prove a dismal failure.
Marine General Mattis led Task Force 58 into southern Afghanistan in the invasion of 2001, establishing the “first conventional U.S. military presence in the country.” He repeated the act in Iraq in 2003, leading the 1st Marine Division in the U.S. invasion of that country. He was involved in the taking of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, in 2003; in the fierce fighting for and partial destruction of the city of Fallujah in 2004; and, in that same year, the bombing of what turned out to be a wedding party, not insurgents, near the Syrian border. (“How many people go to the middle of the desert… to hold a wedding 80 miles from the nearest civilization?” was his response to the news.) In 2010, he was made head of U.S. Central Command, overseeing the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan until 2013 when he urged the Obama administration to launch a “dead of night” operation to take out an Iranian oil refinery or power plant, his idea of an appropriate response to Iran’s role in Iraq. His proposal was rejected and he was “retired” from his command five months early. In other words, he lost his chance to set off yet another never-ending American war in the Middle East. He is known for his “Mattisisms” like this piece of advice to U.S. Marines in Iraq in 2003: “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.”
Retired Marine General John Kelly was assistant division commander in Iraq under Mattis, who personally promoted him to brigadier general on the battlefield. (Present head of the Joint Chiefs, General Joe Dunford, was an officer in the same division at the same time and all three reportedly remain friends.) Though Kelly had a second tour of duty in Iraq, he never fought in Afghanistan. Tragically, however, one of his sons (who had also fought in Fallujah in 2004) died there after stepping on an improvised explosive device in 2010.
McMaster was among the earliest figures in the Pentagon to begin speaking of the country’s post-9/11 wars as “generational” (that is, never-ending). In 2014, he said,
“If you think this war against our way of life is over because some of the self-appointed opinion-makers and chattering class grow ‘war weary,’ because they want to be out of Iraq or Afghanistan, you are mistaken. This enemy is dedicated to our destruction. He will fight us for generations, and the conflict will move through various phases as it has since 9/11.”
In short, you could hardly pick three men more viscerally connected to the American way of war, less capable of seriously reassessing what they have lived through, or more fully identified with the failures of the war on terror, especially the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. When it comes to the “rubble” of American generalship in these years, Mattis, McMaster, and Kelly would certainly be at the top of anyone’s list.
Think of them, in fact, as the ultimate survivors of a system that at its upper levels is not known, even in the best of times, for promoting original, outside-the-box thinkers. They are, in other words, the ultimate four-star conformists because that’s the character trait you need to make it to generalship in the U.S. military. (Original thinkers and critics never seem to make it past the rank of colonel.)
And as their “new” Trump-era Afghan policy indicates, when faced with their wars and what to do about them, their answer is invariably some version of more of the same (with the usual, by-now-predictable results).
All Hail the Generals!
Now, let’s take one more step back from the situation at hand, lest you imagine that President Trump’s acts, when it comes to those generals, are unique to our time. Yes, two retired generals and one still active in posts previously (with the rarest of exceptions) reserved for civilians do represent something new in American history. Still, this Trumpian moment should be seen as the culmination of, not a departure from, the policies of the two previous administrations.
In these years, America’s generals have failed everywhere except in one place, and that just happens to be the only place that truly matters. Call Afghanistan a “stalemate” as often as you want, but almost 16 years after the U.S. military loosed the power of “the finest fighting force the world has ever known” (aka “the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known”), the Taliban are ascendant in that benighted land and that’s the definition of failure, no matter how you tote things up. Those generals have indeed been losers in that country, as they and others have been in Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, and someday undoubtedly Syria (no matter what immediate victories they might chalk up). In only one place did their generalship work effectively; in only one place have they truly succeeded; in only one place could they now conceivably proclaim “victory at last!”
That place is, of course, Washington, D.C., where they are indeed the last men standing and, in Trumpian terms, absolute winners.
In Washington, their generalship has been anything but rubble. It’s always been another kind of more — more of whatever they wanted, from money to surges to ever-greater power and authority. In Washington, they’ve been the winners ever since President George W. Bush launched his Global War on Terror.
What they couldn’t do in Baghdad, Kabul, Tripoli, or anywhere else across the Greater Middle East and Africa, they’ve done impressively in our nation’s capital. In years when they unsuccessfully brought the full power of the greatest arsenal on the planet to bear on enemies whose weaponry cost the price of a pizza, they continued to rake in billions of dollars in Washington. In fact, it’s reasonable to argue that the losing conflicts in the war on terror were necessary prerequisites for the winning budgetary battles in that city. Those never-ending conflicts — and a more generalized (no pun intended) fear of (Islamic) terrorism heavily promoted by the national security state — have driven funding success to staggering levels in the nation’s capital, perhaps the single issue on which Repubicans and Democrats have seen eye to eye in this period.
In this context, Donald Trump’s decision to surround himself with “his” generals has simply brought this reality more fully into focus. He’s made it clear why the term “deep state,” often used by critics of American war and national security policies, inadequately describes the situation in Washington in this century. That term brings up images of a hidden state-within-a-state that controls the rest of the government in some conspiratorial fashion. The reality in Washington today is nothing like that. Despite both its trove of secrets and its desire to cast a shadow of secrecy over government operations, the national security state hasn’t exactly been lurking in the shadows in these years.
In Washington, whatever the Constitution may say about civilian control of the military, the generals — at least at present — control the civilians and the deep state has become the all-too-visible state. In this context, one thing is clear, whether you’re talking about the country’s panoply of “intelligence” agencies or the Pentagon, failure is the new success.
And for all of this, one thing continues to be essential: those “generational struggles” in distant lands. If you want to see how this works in a nutshell, consider a single line from a recent piece on the Afghan War by New York Times reporter Rod Nordland. “Even before the president’s [Afghan] speech, the American military and Afghan leaders were laying long-term plans,” Nordland points out and, in that context, adds in passing, “The American military has a $6.5-billion plan to make the Afghan air force self-sufficient and end its overreliance on American air power by 2023.”
Think for a moment about just that relatively modest part (a mere $6.5 billion!) of the U.S. military’s latest plans for a more-of-the-same future in Afghanistan. As a start, we’re already talking about six more years of a war that began in October 2001, was essentially an extension of a previous conflict fought there from 1979 to 1989, and is already the longest war in American history. In other words, the idea of a “generational struggle” there is anything but an exaggeration.
Recall as well that, in January 2008, U.S. Brigadier General Jay Lindell, then-commander of the Combined Air Power Transition Force in Afghanistan, was projecting an eight-year U.S. plan that would leave the Afghan air force fully staffed, supplied, trained, and “self-sufficient” by 2015. (In 2015, Rod Nordland would check out that air force and find it in a “woeful state” of near ruin.)
So in 2023, if that full $6.5 billion is indeed invested in — perhaps the more fitting phrase might be squandered on — the Afghan air force, one thing is a given: it will not be “self-sufficient.” After all, 16 years later with not $6.5 billion but more than $65 billion appropriated by Congress and spent on the training of the Afghan security forces, they are now taking terrible casualties, experiencing horrendous desertion rates, filled with “ghost” personnel, and anything but self-sufficient. Why imagine something different for that country’s air force $6.5 billion and six years later?
In America’s war on terror, such things should be considered tales foretold, even as the losing generals of those losing wars strut their stuff in Washington. Elsewhere on the planet, the U.S. military’s plans for 2020, 2023, and beyond will undoubtedly be yet more landmarks on a highway to failure. Only in Washington do such plans invariably work out. Only in Washington does more of the same turn out to be the ultimate formula for success. Our losing wars, it seems, are a necessary backdrop for the ultimate winning war in our nation’s capital. So all hail America’s generals, mission accomplished!
Victory at Last!
Let me try to get this straight: from the moment the Soviet Union imploded in 1991 until recently just about every politician and mainstream pundit in America assured us that we were the planet’s indispensable nation, the only truly exceptional one on this small orb of ours.
We were the sole superpower, Earth’s hyperpower, its designated global sheriff, the architect of our planetary future. After five centuries of great power rivalries, in the wake of a two-superpower world that, amid the threat of nuclear annihilation, seemed to last forever and a day (even if it didn’t quite make it 50 years), the United States was the ultimate survivor, the victor of victors, the last of the last. It stood triumphantly at the end of history. In a lottery that had lasted since Europe’s wooden ships first broke out of a periphery of Eurasia and began to colonize much of the planet, the United States was the chosen one, the country that would leave every imperial world-maker from the Romans to the British in its shadow.
Who could doubt that this was now our world in a coming American century beyond compare?
And then, of course, came the attacks of 9/11. A mere $400,000 and 19 suicidal hijackers (mostly Saudis) armed with box cutters and organized from Afghanistan, a country plunged into an Islamic version of the Middle Ages, had challenged the greatest power of all time. In the process, they would bring down iconic structures in what would soon be known to Americans as “the homeland,” while killing almost 3,000 innocent civilians, acts so shocking that they really did change the world.
Yet even then, a fervor for world-organizing triumphalism only took firmer hold in Washington. The top officials of President George W. Bush’s administration almost instantly saw the 9/11 attacks as their very own “Pearl Harbor,” the twenty-first-century equivalent of the moment that had launched the U.S. on the path to post-World War II superpowerdom. As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld instantly told his aides in the rubble of the Pentagon, “Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not.” And indeed they would do just that, seizing the moment with alacrity and promptly launching the “Global War on Terror” — aka, among the cognoscenti, World War IV (the third, in their minds, having been the Cold War).
No simple “police action” against the modest al-Qaeda organization and Osama bin Laden would do (and those who suggested something so pathetically humble were to be laughed out of the room). At that moment, their newly launched “war” was to be aimed at no less than 60 countries. The world was to be swept clean of “terror” and the tool for doing so and for imposing Washington’s version of a world order on much of the planet would be the U.S. military, a force like none ever seen before. It was, President Bush would claim, “the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known.” It was, as both he and Barack Obama affirmed, as became gospel on both sides of the aisle in Washington (until Donald Trump arrived in the presidential race of 2016), “the finest fighting force” in history. It was so unquestionably powerful that no enemy could conceivably stand in its path. It would “liberate” not just Afghanistan, but Iraq, a country in the Middle Eastern oil heartlands that had nothing to do with either al-Qaeda or Islamic terror but had a ruler despised in Washington.
And that, mind you, would only be the beginning. Syria and Iran would undoubtedly follow and soon enough the Greater Middle East would be brought under the aegis of a Pax Americana. Meanwhile, globally, no country or even bloc of countries would be capable of rising to challenge the United States into the imaginable future. As Bush put it in a speech at West Point in 2002, “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.” In that year, the U.S. National Security Strategy similarly called for the country to “build and maintain” its military power “beyond challenge.”
What a soaring dream it all was! In response to the destruction of part of the Pentagon and those towers in New York City, a small group of top officials in Washington, long waiting for just such an opportunity, were determined to impose their version of order and democracy, military-first, on significant parts of the planet and no one would be capable of resisting. Not for long anyway.
Almost 16 years later, you know how that dream of domination turned out, but to Washington’s power players at the time it all seemed so obvious. Except for a few retrograde Muslim rebels, it was clearly no one else’s planet but ours to organize as we wished. The Soviet Union was already an instant historical memory, its empire scattered to the winds, and Russia itself largely immiserated. The Chinese had a capitalist economy of no small means (even if run by a Communist Party), but as a military force, as a great power, they were anything but impressive. And if you looked at the rest of the world, there were no other potential great powers, no less superpowers, on any imaginable horizon.
Given the history of the Global War on Terror and of the stunning inability of the U.S. military to impose Washington’s will, no less its planetary dreams, on more or less anyone, it took an awful long time for such thinking to begin to die. And before it did, the political class, in a fervor of defensive exaggeration, began insisting in a mantra-like way on the “indispensability” and “exceptionality” of… well, us. It was as if the sense of decline most Americans had started feeling in their bones wasn’t happening. Of course, the constant invocation of the country’s singular specialness should itself have signaled just how wrong things were, because when you’re truly indispensable and exceptional you don’t need to repeatedly say so (or even say it at all).
It took a reality TV star with a curious comb-over who had run a set of casinos into the ground to pick up a Reagan-era slogan, “Make America Great Again,” and bodysurf it into the White House. He did so in part on the widespread sense in the American heartland that, a quarter-century after the Soviet Union imploded, the U.S. was indeed in decline, even heading for the exit at a creep, not a gallop. The “again” in that slogan was the telltale signal that the billionaire “businessman” (and classic American huckster) had an intuitive handle on an American world of failed war-making and raging inequality about which both his Republican opposition and his Democratic opponent in election 2016, all still priming the pump of indispensability and exceptionality, seemed clueless.
Now, here we are on the planet the U.S. was to dominate and run for an eternity with an embattled president surrounded by generals whose skills were honed in America’s losing wars of the twenty-first century. If you want a personal gauge of American decline, consider this: barely half a year into office, Donald J. Trump is already threatening to launch a nuclear war and exploring whether he has the power not just to pardon aides, friends, and family, but himself in case of future convictions. With the previous decade and a half in mind, here’s a question for you: Pardon me, but even if he pardons himself, who’s going to pardon the rest of us?
I mean, am I wrong, or aren’t we living in the mess of a world the sole superpower had a major hand in creating and was, once upon a not-so-distant time, all too eager to take credit for? So I find it strange that no one who matters here seems to feel the slightest responsibility for the planet’s dismal state. All the politicians, power players, and pundits in Washington who wouldn’t have hesitated to take complete credit, had the U.S. achieved anything like its fantasy of a Pax Americana world, couldn’t be quicker these days to place the blame for what’s actually happened elsewhere.
You know the tale. When it comes to the world’s ills, it’s Vlad, the Ukrainian Impaler, or Vlad, the Hacker, who’s spoiled so much. Among other things, he had, we’re told, the temerity to mess with the sacrosanct electoral system of the most democratic country on the planet, a place so pure that its denizens had never heard of such a shocking act — except, of course, for the scores of times Washington did exactly that to other countries. (Who in the U.S. these days even remembers “the first 9/11”?) The Russian president now gets much of the blame in Washington for the sorry mess of our world, from Eastern Europe and the unsettled NATO alliance to Syria. As for where the rest of the blame lands: it’s the Chinese, of course, who’ve had the nerve to flex their potential great-power muscles by bulking up their military, building fake “islands” in the South China Sea, and claiming parts of that body of water as their own, while not pressuring the North Koreans harder to stand down. It’s the Iranians who somehow are responsible for much of the mess in the Middle East, along with various jihadi successors and spin-offs from the original al-Qaeda. They take the rest of the blame for the world of chaos that continues to spread across the Greater Middle East, parts of Africa, and now the Philippines (not to mention the refugees fleeing embattled and desperate lands who are, we are regularly assured, threatening the continental U.S. with disastrous harm).
I don’t mean to say that such a crew (refugees excepted) shouldn’t bear some of the blame for our disintegrating world, but just remind me: Wasn’t the Islamic State born in an American military prison in Iraq? Weren’t the Iranian theocrats, those Great-Satan haters, born in the grim crucible of the Shah’s rule (and that of his brutal secret police) after the CIA helped hatch a coup that overthrew the elected prime minister of that country in 1953? Didn’t Washington ignore promises made to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and others and do its damnedest to move NATO’s line of control into parts of the former Soviet empire and associated satellite states?
Didn’t the Bush administration lump North Korea with Iraq, a nation it was eager to invade, and Iran, another it planned to take down sooner or later, in the infamous “axis of evil,” even though the North Koreans had nothing to do with either of those countries? In the most public manner possible, in a State of the Union address to the nation, the American president linked all three of those countries to terrorism and evil in what was unmistakably a “regime change” package. (If you were eager to convince the North Korean leadership that possessing a nuclear arsenal was the only way to go, that certainly was a good start.) In the process, didn’t George W. Bush and his officials functionally shred the Clinton-negotiated agreement by which the North Koreans had indeed frozen their nuclear program, in part by listing that country in its 2002 Nuclear Posture Review “as one of the states that might become the target of a preventive strike”?
And that’s just to begin to explore what it meant to be in the world of the sole superpower from 2001 to 2017. Remind me, for example, which country only recently announced its withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, the crucial global architecture for protecting the planetary environment, and so humanity’s future, from a grim kind of dismemberment?
Who’s Going to Sanction Us?
So here’s my next question: If you’re parceling out blame on this planet of ours, why just dump it on the evil doers? What about us? What about the sole superpower, its changing leadership, and the finest fighting force in the history of the universe? Don’t we have any responsibility for the situation we now face globally, from North Korea to the Greater Middle East, Ukraine to Venezuela? Didn’t the actions of America’s leaders and its national security state have anything to do with the world that called forth the Trumpian wave, which could now swamp so many ships of state? Maybe President Trump can indeed pardon himself (an issue being debated at the moment by constitutional scholars), but who pardoned everyone else who lent a hand, large or small, to the creation of what increasingly looks like a failed world?
Are there no high crimes and misdemeanors for which we Americans are responsible on a planet of the otherwise guilty?
Here’s one thing I think about sometimes on bleak nights. I’m sure you remember the way the Bush administration used fraudulent claims about weapons of mass destruction, or WMDs, as an excuse to launch an invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and occupy his country. In fact, there was indeed a weapon of mass destruction in Iraq and no one needed to search for it. I’m talking about the U.S. military.
It was also a weapon of destructive creation. It cracked Iraq open, set Shia and Sunni at each others’ throats, loosed a grim process of religious “cleansing” there and across the region, and so provided fertile ground for the worst of the worst. Its “successful” invasion was the crucial factor in preparing the way for the birth of al-Qaeda in Iraq and then of the Islamic State in a country where no such organizations had previously existed.
In truth, in every land across the Greater Middle East and Africa where that military has gotten involved in hostilities, from Libya to Iraq, Yemen to Afghanistan, it has left in its wake shaken or failed states, untold numbers of desperate refugees, and spreading terror movements. It has been a major player in a decade and a half of disaster that has helped destabilize significant parts of the planet. And yet when it comes to apportioning blame, the main people tarred with the disaster that’s been the war on terror are those who have been made into refugees in its wake, those who, we are told, would be a mortal danger to us, were we to welcome them here.
And while we’re at it, it might be worth mentioning one other weapon of mass destruction in our world: the rise to glory of the 1% and the widening inequality chasm that’s accompanied their successes. From Ronald Reagan’s presidency on, a series of administrations, Republican and Democratic, have presided over a country and a world growing ever more disastrously unequal, as the rich make staggering gains in income and wealth while the poor and working classes labor ever harder for, relatively speaking, ever less. Consider that but another story of devastation on what reputedly was once an American planet.
In such a global context, our Congress has been eager indeed to sanction the Russians, the Iranians, and the North Koreans for their roles in spreading misery, but who’s going to sanction us? Honestly, don’t you wonder how we got off the hook so easily for the world we swore that we alone would create? Isn’t the U.S. responsible for anything? Doesn’t anyone even remember?
We now have a president with the strangest demeanor imaginable, a narcissistic bully spouting a kind of rhetoric that eerily echoes the bellicose threats of North Korea. However, like the spreading terror movements and failed states of the Greater Middle East, he should be seen as a spawn of the actions, programs, and dreams of the sole superpower in its self-proclaimed glory and of its plans for a military-enforced global Pax Americana. By the time he’s done, President Trump may be responsible for high crimes, including nuclear ones, of a sort that even impeachment wouldn’t cover and who, these days, could ever miss his demeanor?
Blame the evil doers for the devastation visiting this planet? Sure thing. But us? Not for a second.
And while you’re at it, welcome to the post-American world.
In its own inside-out, upside-down way, it’s almost wondrous to behold. As befits our president’s wildest dreams, it may even prove to be a record for the ages, one for the history books. He was, after all, the candidate who sensed it first. When those he was running against, like the rest of Washington’s politicians, were still insisting that the United States remained at the top of its game, not an — but the — “indispensable nation,” the only truly “exceptional” one on the face of the Earth, he said nothing of the sort. He campaigned on America’s decline, on this country’s increasing lack of exceptionality, its potential dispensability. He ran on the single word “again” — as in “make America great again” — because (the implication was) it just isn’t anymore. And he swore that he and he alone was the best shot Americans, or at least non-immigrant white Americans, had at ever seeing the best of days again.
In that sense, he was our first declinist candidate for president and if that didn’t tell you something during the election season, it should have. No question about it, he hit a chord, rang a bell, because out in the heartland it was possible to sense a deepening reality that wasn’t evident in Washington. The wealthiest country on the planet, the most militarily powerful in the history of… well, anybody, anywhere, anytime (or so we were repeatedly told)… couldn’t win a war, not even with the investment of trillions of taxpayer dollars, couldn’t do anything but spread chaos by force of arms.
Meanwhile, at home, despite all that wealth, despite billionaires galore, including the one running for president, despite the transnational corporate heaven inhabited by Google and Facebook and Apple and the rest of the crew, parts of this country and its infrastructure were starting to feel distinctly (to use a word from another universe) Third Worldish. He sensed that, too. He regularly said things like this: “We spent six trillion dollars in the Middle East, we got nothing… And we have an obsolete plane system. We have obsolete airports. We have obsolete trains. We have bad roads. Airports.” And this: “Our airports are like from a third-world country.” And on the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, he couldn’t have been more on the mark.
In parts of the U.S., white working-class and middle-class Americans could sense that the future was no longer theirs, that their children would not have a shot at what they had had, that they themselves increasingly didn’t have a shot at what they had had. The American Dream seemed to be gaining an almost nightmarish sheen, given that the real value of the average wage of a worker hadn’t increased since the 1970s; that the cost of a college education had gone through the roof and the educational debt burden for children with dreams of getting ahead was now staggering; that unions were cratering; that income inequality was at a historic high; and… well, you know the story, really you do. In essence, for them the famed American Dream seemed ever more like someone else’s trademarked property.
Indispensable? Exceptional? This country? Not anymore. Not as they were experiencing it.
And because of that, Donald Trump won the lottery. He answered the $64,000 question. (If you’re not of a certain age, Google it, but believe me it’s a reference in our president’s memory book.) He entered the Oval Office with almost 50% of the vote and a fervent base of support for his promised program of doing it all over again, 1950s-style.
It had been one hell of a pitch from the businessman billionaire. He had promised a future of stratospheric terrificness, of greatness on an historic scale. He promised to keep the evil ones — the rapists, job thieves, and terrorists — away, to wall them out or toss them out or ban them from ever traveling here. He also promised to set incredible records, as only a mega-businessman like him could conceivably do, the sort of all-American records this country hadn’t seen in a long, long time.
And early as it is in the Trump era, it seems as if, on one score at least, he could deliver something for the record books going back to the times when those recording the acts of rulers were still scratching them out in clay or wax. At this point, there’s at least a chance that Donald Trump might preside over the most precipitous decline of a truly dominant power in history, one only recently considered at the height of its glory. It could prove to be a fall for the ages. Admittedly, that other superpower of the Cold War era, the Soviet Union, imploded in 1991, which was about the fastest way imaginable to leave the global stage. Still, despite the “evil empire” talk of that era, the USSR was always the secondary, the weaker of the two superpowers. It was never Rome, or Spain, or Great Britain.
When it comes to the United States, we’re talking about a country that not so long ago saw itself as the only great power left on planet Earth, “the lone superpower.” It was the one still standing, triumphant, at the end of a history of great power rivalry that went back to a time when the wooden warships of various European states first broke out into a larger world and began to conquer it. It stood by itself at, as its proponents liked to claim at the time, the end of history.
Applying Hard Power to a Failing World
As we watch, it seems almost possible to see President Trump, in real time, tweet by tweet, speech by speech, sword dance by sword dance, intervention by intervention, act by act, in the process of dismantling the system of global power — of “soft power,” in particular, and of alliances of every sort — by which the U.S. made its will felt, made itself a truly global hegemon. Whether his “America first” policies are aimed at creating a future order of autocrats, or petro-states, or are nothing more than the expression of his libidinous urges and secret hatreds, he may already be succeeding in taking down that world order in record fashion.
Despite the mainstream pieties of the moment about the nature of the system Donald Trump appears to be dismantling in Europe and elsewhere, it was anything but either terribly “liberal” or particularly peaceable. Wars, invasions, occupations, the undermining or overthrow of governments, brutal acts and conflicts of every sort succeeded one another in the years of American glory. Past administrations in Washington had a notorious weakness for autocrats, just as Donald Trump does today. They regularly had less than no respect for democracy if, from Iran to Guatemala to Chile, the will of the people seemed to stand in Washington’s way. (It is, as Vladimir Putin has been only too happy to point out of late, an irony of our moment that the country that has undermined or overthrown or meddled in more electoral systems than any other is in a total snit over the possibility that one of its own elections was meddled with.) To enforce their global system, Americans never shied away from torture, black sites, death squads, assassinations, and other grim practices. In those years, the U.S. planted its military on close to 1,000 overseas military bases, garrisoning the planet as no other country ever had.
Nonetheless, the cancelling of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal, the withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, threats against NAFTA, the undermining of NATO, the promise of protective tariffs on foreign goods (and the possible trade wars that might go with them) could go a long way toward dismantling the American global system of soft power and economic dominance as it has existed in these last decades. If such acts and others like them prove effective in the months and years to come, they will leave only one kind of power in the American global quiver: hard military power, and its handmaiden, the kind of covert power Washington, through the CIA in particular, has long specialized in. If America’s alliances crack open and its soft power becomes too angry or edgy to pass for dominant power anymore, its massive machinery of destruction will still be left, including its vast nuclear arsenal. While, in the Trump era, a drive to cut domestic spending of every sort is evident, more money is still slated to go to the military, already funded at levels not reached by combinations of other major powers.
Given the last 15 years of history, it’s not hard to imagine what’s likely to result from the further elevation of military power: disaster. This is especially true because Donald Trump has appointed to key positions in his administration a crew of generals who spent the last decade and a half fighting America’s catastrophic wars across the Greater Middle East. They are not only notoriously incapable of thinking outside the box about the application of military power, but faced with the crisis of failed wars and failing states, of spreading terror movements and a growing refugee crisis across that crucial region, they can evidently only imagine one solution to just about any problem: more of the same. More troops, more mini-surges, more military trainers and advisers, more air strikes, more drone strikes… more.
After a decade and a half of such thinking we already know perfectly well where this ends — in further failure, more chaos and suffering, but above all in an inability of the U.S. to effectively apply its hard power anywhere in any way that doesn’t make matters worse. Since, in addition, the Trump administration is filled with Iranophobes, including a president who has only recently fused himself to the Saudi royal family in an attempt to further isolate and undermine Iran, the possibility that a military-first version of American foreign policy will spread further is only growing.
Such “more” thinking is typical as well of much of the rest of the cast of characters now in key positions in the Trump administration. Take the CIA, for instance. Under its new director, Mike Pompeo (distinctly a “more” kind of guy and an Iranophobe of the first order), two key positions have reportedly been filled: a new chief of counterterrorism and a new head of Iran operations (recently identified as Michael D’Andrea, an Agency hardliner with the nickname “the Dark Prince”). Here’s how Matthew Rosenberg and Adam Goldman of the New York Times recently described their similar approaches to their jobs (my emphasis added):
“Mr. D’Andrea’s new role is one of a number of moves inside the spy agency that signal a more muscular approach to covert operations under the leadership of Mike Pompeo, the conservative Republican and former congressman, the officials said. The agency also recently named a new chief of counterterrorism, who has begun pushing for greater latitude to strike militants.”
In other words, more!
Rest assured of one thing, whatever Donald Trump accomplishes in the way of dismantling America’s version of soft power, “his” generals and intelligence operatives will handle the hard-power part of the equation just as “ably.”
The First American Laster?
If a Trump presidency achieves a record for the ages when it comes to the precipitous decline of the American global system, little as The Donald ever cares to share credit for anything, he will undoubtedly have to share it for such an achievement. It’s true that kings, emperors, and autocrats, the top dogs of any moment, prefer to take all the credit for the “records” set in their time. When we look back, however, it’s likely that President Trump will be seen as having given a tottering system that necessary push. It will undoubtedly be clear enough by then that the U.S., seemingly at the height of any power’s power in 1991 when the Soviet Union disappeared, began heading for the exits soon thereafter, still enwreathed in self-congratulation and triumphalism.
Had this not been so, Donald Trump would never have won the 2016 election. It wasn’t he, after all, who gave the U.S. heartland an increasingly Third World feel. It wasn’t he who spent those trillions of dollars so disastrously on invasions and occupations, dead-end wars, drone strikes and special ops raids, reconstruction and deconstruction in a never-ending war on terror that today looks more like a war for the spread of terror. It wasn’t he who created the growing inequality gap in this country or produced all those billionaires amid a population that increasingly felt left in the lurch. It wasn’t he who hiked college tuitions or increased the debt levels of the young or set roads and bridges to crumbling and created the conditions for Third World-style airports.
If both the American global and domestic systems hadn’t been rotting out before Donald Trump arrived on the scene, that “again” of his wouldn’t have worked. Thought of another way, when the U.S. was truly at the height of its economic clout and power, American leaders felt no need to speak incessantly of how “indispensable” or “exceptional” the country was. It seemed too self-evident to mention. Someday, some historian may use those very words in the mouths of American presidents and other politicians (and their claims, for instance, that the U.S. military was “the finest fighting force that the world has ever known”) as a set of increasingly defensive markers for measuring the decline of American power.
So here’s the question: When the Trump years (months?) come to an end, will the U.S. be not the planet’s most exceptional land, but a pariah nation? Will that “again” still be the story of the year, the decade, the century? Will the last American Firster turn out to have been the first American Laster? Will it truly be one for the record books?
He’s huge. Outsized. He fills the news hole at any moment of any day. His over-tanned face glows unceasingly in living rooms across America. Never has a president been quite so big. So absolutely monstrous. Or quite so small.
He’s our Little Big Man.
I know, I know… he induces panic, fear, anxiety, insomnia. Shrinks in liberal America will tell you that, since November 2016, their patients are more heavily medicated and in worse shape. He’s a nightmare, a unique monster. It’s been almost two years since he first entered the presidential race and in all that time I doubt there’s been a moment when the cameras haven’t been trained on him, when he wasn’t “breaking news.” (By May 2016, he had already reportedly received the equivalent in “earned media” of nearly $3 billion in free advertising.) He and his endless controversial statements, flubs, tweets, lies, insults, boasts, tales from outer space, and over-the-moon adjectives are covered daily the way, once upon a time, only Pearl Harbor or the Kennedy assassination was.
Think of him as the end of the world as we, or maybe anyone, including Vladimir Putin, knew it. To me, that means one thing, even though most of you won’t agree: I think we owe Donald Trump a small bow of thanks and a genuine debt of gratitude. He’s teaching us something invaluable, something we probably wouldn’t have grasped without him. He’s teaching us just how deeply disturbed our American world actually is, or he wouldn’t be where he is.
A Quagmire Country
Think of him as a messenger from the gods, the deities of empire gone astray. They sent us a man without a center, undoubtedly because 17 years into the twenty-first century our country lacks a center, and a man without a fixed opinion or a single conviction, except about himself and his family, because this country is now a swirling mess of contradictory beliefs and groups at each other’s throats. They sent us our first billionaire president who left countless people holding the bag in his various, often failed, business dealings. He brings to mind that classic phrase “those that sow the wind, shall reap the whirlwind” just as we’re now reaping the results of the 1% politics that gained such traction in recent years; and of a kind of war-making, American style, that initially seemed aimed at global supremacy, but now seems to have no conceivable goal. We’re evidently destined to go on killing ever more people, producing ever more refugees, cracking open ever more nations, and spreading ever more terror movements until the end of time. They sent a man ready to build a vanity wall on the Mexican border and pour more money into the U.S. military at a time when it’s becoming harder for Americans to imagine investing in anything but an ever-more powerful national security state, even as the country’s infrastructure begins to crumble. They sent a billionaire who once deep-sixed a startling number of his businesses to save a country that couldn’t be more powerful and yet has proven incapable of building a single mile of high-speed rail.
Into this quagmire, the gods dispatched the man who loves MOAB, who drools over “my generals,” who wants to build a “big, fat, beautiful wall” on our southern border, but was beyond clueless about where power actually lay in Washington.
He’s a man with a history but without a sense of history, a man for whom anything is imaginable and everything is mutable, including the past. In this, too, he’s symptomatic of the nation he now “leads.” Who among us even remembers the set of Washington officials who, only a decade and a half ago, had such glorious dreams about establishing a global Pax Americana and who led us so unerringly into an unending hell in the Greater Middle East? Who remembers that those officials of the George W. Bush administration had another dream as well — of a Pax Republicana, a one-party imperial state that would stretch across the American South deep into the Midwest, Southwest, and parts of the West, kneecapping the Democratic Party for an eternity and leaving that artifact of a two-party past confined to the country’s coastal areas. Their dream — and it couldn’t have been more immodest — was to rule the world and its great remaining superpower for… well… more or less ever.
They were to dominate America and America was to dominate everything else in a way no country in history — not the Romans, not the British — had ever done. As they saw it, in the wake of the implosion of the Soviet Union, there would be no other superpower, nor even a bloc of great powers, capable of obstructing America’s destined future. They and their successors would see to that.
The United States would be the land of wealth and power in a previously unimaginable fashion. It would be the land that made everything that went bang in the night — and in that (and perhaps that alone) their dreams would be fulfilled. To this day, Hollywood and its action films dominate planetary screens, while American arms merchants have a near monopoly on selling the world their dangerous toys. As our new president recently put it, their energies and those of the U.S. government should remain focused on getting countries across the globe to engage in “the purchase of lots of beautiful military equipment.” Indeed.
As for the rest of their dream of geopolitical dominance, it began to come a cropper remarkably quickly. As it turned out, the military that American presidents regularly hailed in these years as the “greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known” or “the finest fighting force in the history of the world” couldn’t even win wars against lightly armed insurgents or deal with enemies employing roadside bombs that could be built off the Internet for the price of a pizza. The U.S. military (and its allied warrior corporations) turned out not to be a force for eternal order and triumph but, at least across the Greater Middle East and Africa, for eternal chaos and the spread of terror movements. They were the whirlwind, which meant that neither that “pax” nor that “Americana” would come to pass.
While Rome Burned…
Meanwhile, back at home, a gerrymandered, near-one-party state did indeed come into existence as the Republicans swept most governorships, gained control of a significant majority of state legislatures, nailed down the House and the Senate, and finally, when Little Big Man entered the Oval Office, took it all. It was a feat for the history books — or so it briefly seemed. Instead, the result has been chaos, thanks in part to a Republican Party that is actually three or four parties and a president barely associated with it, as a war of all against all broke out. None of this should have been surprising, given a congressional party that had honed its skills not on ruling but on blocking rule. In the last months, it has largely proved incapable even of ruling itself, no less the wild man and his unpredictable team of advisers in the White House.
From his “big, fat, beautiful wall” to his “big league,” “phenomenal” tax plan to his “insurance for everybody” healthcare program, the president promises to be the living proof that the long dreamed of Pax Republicana is just another form of war without end on the domestic front.
His victory was, in a sense, a revelation that both political parties had been hollowed out, as every Republican presidential candidate except him was swept unceremoniously off stage and out of contention in a hail of insults. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party, by now a remarkably mindless (and spineless) political machine without much to underpin it, came to seem ever more like the domestic equivalent of those failed states the war on terror was creating in the Greater Middle East. In short, American politics was visibly faltering and, in the whirlwind that deposited Little Big Man in office, a far wider range of Americans seemed in danger of going down, too, including Medicaid users, Obamacare enrollees, meals-on-wheels seniors, and food stamp recipients in what could become a slow-motion collapse of livable lives amid a proliferation of billionaires. Think of us as a nation in the process of consuming itself, even as our president turns the White House into a private business. If this is imperial “decline,” it’s certainly a curious version of it.
It was into the growing hell that passed for the planet’s “sole superpower” that those gods dispatched Little Big Man — not a shape-shifting creature but a man without shape and lacking all fixed ideas (except about himself). He was perfectly capable of saying anything in any situation, and then, in altered circumstances, of saying the opposite without blinking or evidently even noticing. His recent trip to Saudi Arabia was a classic case of just that. Gone were the election campaign denunciations of the Saudis for their human rights record and for possibly being behind the 9/11 attacks, as well as of Islam as a religion that “hates us”; gone was his criticism of Michelle Obama for not wearing a headscarf on her visit to Riyadh (Melania and Ivanka did the same), and of Barack Obama for bowing to a Saudi king (he did, too). Out the window went his previous insistence that any self-respecting American politician must use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” which he carefully avoided. And none of this was different from, say, swearing on the campaign trail that he would never touch Medicaid and then, in his first budget, offering plans to slash $880 billion from that program over the next decade.
Admittedly, Donald Trump — and yes, that’s the first time I’ve used his name, but there was no need, was there? — has yet to appoint his horse (or perhaps his golf cart) as a senator or, as far as we know, commit acts of incest in the tradition of Caligula, the first mad Roman emperor. Yet in many ways, doesn’t he feel something like an updated version of that figure or perhaps of Nero who so famously fiddled — actually, according to historian Mary Beard in her book SPQR, played the lyre — while Rome burned?
Fortunately, unlike every psychiatrist in town, I’m not bound by the “Goldwater Rule,” which prohibits a diagnosis of a public figure you haven’t personally examined. While I have no expertise in whether Donald Trump has a “narcissistic personality disorder,” I see no reason not to say the obvious: he’s a distinctly disturbed individual. That he was nonetheless elected president tells us a good deal about where we are as a country today. As Tony Schwartz, who actually wrote his bestselling book The Art of the Deal, put it recently, “Trump was equally clear with me that he didn’t value — nor even necessarily recognize — the qualities that tend to emerge as people grow more secure, such as empathy, generosity, reflectiveness, the capacity to delay gratification or, above all, a conscience, an inner sense of right and wrong.”
Now, that should be frightening. After all, given who he is, given his fear of “losing,” of rejection, of not being loved (or more accurately, adulated), of in short being obliterated, who knows what such a man might do in a crisis, including obliterating the rest of us. After all, he already lives in a world without fixed boundaries, definitions, or history, which is why nothing he says has real meaning. And yet he couldn’t be more meaningful. He’s a message, a warning of the first order, and if that were all he were, he would just be an inadvertent teacher about the nature of our American world and we could indeed thank him and do our best to move on.
Unfortunately, there’s another factor to take into account. Humanity had, in the years before his arrival, come up with two quite different and devastating ways of doing ourselves in, one an instant Armageddon, the other a slow-motion trip to hell. Each of them threatens to cripple or destroy the very planet that has nurtured us these tens of thousands of years. It was not, of course, Donald Trump who put us in this peril. He’s just a particularly grim reminder of how dangerous our world has truly become.
After all, Little Big Man now has unparalleled access to the most “beautiful” weapons of all and he’s eager to update and expand an already vast U.S. arsenal of them. I’m talking, of course, about nuclear weapons. Any president we elect has, since the 1950s, had the power to take out the planet. Only once have we come truly close. Nonetheless, for the control over such weaponry to be in the hands of a deeply unpredictable and visibly disturbed president is obviously a danger to us all.
It could be assumed that the gods who sent him into the Oval Office at such a moment have a perverse sense of humor. Certainly, on the second of those deadly dangers, climate change, he’s already taken action based on another of his fantasies: that making America great again means taking it back to the fossil-fueled 1950s. His ignorance about, and actions to increase the effects of, climate change have already taken the U.S., the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet, out of the climate change sweepstakes and into uncharted territory. These acts and the desire to promote fossil fuels in every way imaginable will someday undoubtedly be seen as crimes against humanity. But by then they will already have done their dirty deed.
If luck doesn’t hold, Donald Trump may end up making Caligula and Nero look like statesmen. If luck doesn’t hold he may be the Littlest Big Man of all.