For decades, Washington had a habit of using the Central Intelligence Agency to deep-six governments of the people, by the people, and for the people that weren’t to its taste and replacing them with governments of the [take your choice: military junta, shah, autocrat, dictator] across the planet. There was the infamous 1953 CIA- and British-organized coup that toppled the democratic Iranian government of Mohammad Mosadegh and put the Shah (and his secret police, the SAVAK) in power. There was the 1954 CIA coup against the government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala that installed the military dictatorship of Carlos Castillo Armas; there was the CIA’s move to make Ngo Dinh Diem the head of South Vietnam, also in 1954, and the CIA-Belgian plot to assassinate the Congo’s first elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, in 1961 that led, in the end, to the military dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko; there was the 1964 CIA-backed military coup in Brazil that overthrew elected president Jango Goulart and brought to power a military junta; and, of course, the first 9/11 (September 11, 1973) when the democratically elected socialist president of Chile, Salvador Allende, was overthrown and killed in a U.S.-backed military coup. Well, you get the idea.
In this way, Washington repeatedly worked its will as the leader of what was then called “the Free World.” Although such operations were carried out on the sly, when they were revealed, Americans, proud of their own democratic traditions, generally remained unfazed by what the CIA had done to democracies (and other kinds of governments) abroad in their name. If Washington repeatedly empowered regimes of a sort Americans would have found unacceptable for ourselves, it wasn’t something that most of us spent a whole lot of time fretting about in the context of the Cold War.
At least those acts remained largely covert, undoubtedly reflecting a sense that this wasn’t the sort of thing you should proudly broadcast in the light of day. In the early years of the twenty-first century, however, a new mindset emerged. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, “regime change” became the phrase du jour. As a course of action, there was no longer anything to be covert about. Instead, the process was debated openly and carried out in the full glare of media attention.
No longer would Washington set the CIA plotting in the shadows to rid it of detested governments and put in their place more malleable client states. Instead, as the “sole superpower” of Planet Earth, with a military believed to be beyond compare or challenge, the Bush administration would claim the right to dislodge governments it disdained directly, bluntly, and openly with the straightforward use of military force. Later, the Obama administration would take the same tack under the rubric of “humanitarian intervention” or R2P (“responsibility to protect”). In this sense, regime change and R2P would become shorthand for Washington’s right to topple governments in the full light of day by cruise missile, drone, and Apache helicopter, not to mention troops, if needed. (Saddam Hussein’s Iraq would, of course, be exhibit A in this process and Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, exhibit B.)
With this history in mind and in the wake of the recent election, a question came to me recently: In 2016, did the American people leave the CIA in a ditch and potentially do to themselves what the Agency (and more recently the U.S. military) had done to others? In other words, in the strangest election of our lifetimes, have we just seen something like a slow-motion democratic coup d’état or some form of domestic regime change?
Only time will tell, but one sign of that possibility: for the first time, part of the national security state directly intervened in an American election. In this case, not the CIA, but our leading domestic investigative outfit, the FBI. Inside it, as we now know, fulminating and plotting had been ongoing against one of the two candidates for president before its director, James Comey, openly, even brazenly, entered the fray with 11 days to go. He did so on grounds that, even at the time, seemed shaky at best, if not simply bogus, and ran against firm department traditions for such election periods. In the process, his intervention may indeed have changed the trajectory of the election, a commonplace in the rest of the world, but a unique moment in this country.
Donald Trump’s administration, now filling up with racists, Islamophobes, Iranophobes, and assorted fellow billionaires, already has the feel of an increasingly militarized, autocratic government-in-the-making, favoring short-tempered, militaristic white guys who don’t take criticism lightly or react to speed bumps well. In addition, on January 20th, they will find themselves with immense repressive powers of every sort at their fingertips, powers ranging from torture to surveillance that were institutionalized in remarkable ways in the post-9/11 years with the rise of the national security state as a fourth branch of government, powers which some of them are clearly eager to test out.
Blowback and Blowforward as the History of Our Times
It took 22 years — in the wake of Washington’s 1979 decision to use the CIA to arm, fund, and train the most extreme Afghan (and other) Muslim fundamentalists and so give the Soviet Union a Vietnam-style bloody nose — for the initial American investment in radical Islam to come home big time. On that blowback path, there would be American military housing in Saudi Arabia blown sky high, two U.S. embassies bombed in Africa, and a U.S. destroyer ripped apart in a harbor in Aden. But it was 9/11 that truly put blowback on the map in this country (and, appropriately enough, turned Chalmers Johnson’s book with that title, published in 2000, into a bestseller). Those al-Qaeda attacks, estimated to cost only $400,000, were aimed at three iconic structures: the World Trade Center in Manhattan (representing American financial power), the Pentagon in Washington (military power), and assumedly either the White House or the Capitol (political power) — as United Airlines Flight 93 was undoubtedly headed there when it crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. Those strikes by 19 mainly Saudi hijackers were meant to deliver a devastating blow to American amour propre, and so they did.
In response, the Bush administration launched the Global War on Terror, or GWOT (one of the worst acronyms ever), also known to its rabid promoters as “the Long War” or “World War IV.” Think of that “war,” including the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, as a kind of “blowforward,” or a second vast, long-term investment of time, money, and lives in Islamic extremism that only entrenched the phenomenon further in our world, helped recruit more supporters for it, and spread it ever more widely.
In other words, Osama bin Laden’s relatively modest $400,000 investment would lead Washington to squander literally trillions more dollars in ever-expanding wars and insurgencies, and on the targeting of growing, morphing terror outfits in the Greater Middle East and Africa. The resulting years of military effort that spiraled out of control and into disaster in that vast region led to what I’ve called an “empire of chaos” and set a new kind of blowback on a path home, blowback that would change and distort the nature of American governance and society.
Now, 37 years after the first Afghan intervention and 15 years after the second one, in the wake of an American election, blowback from the war on terror — its generals, its mindset, its manias, its urge to militarize everything — has come home in a significant way. In fact, we just held what may someday be seen as our first 9/11-style election. And with it, with the various mad proposals to ban or register Muslims and the like, the literal war on terror is threatening to come home big time, too. Based on the last decade and a half of “results” in distant lands, that can’t be good news. (According to the latest report, for instance, fears of persecution are growing even among Muslims in the Pentagon, the CIA, and the Department of Homeland Security, and with Islamophobic sentiments already rampant inside the newly forming Trump administration, you can conclude that this won’t end well either.)
On September 12, 2001, you would have been hard put to guess just how the shock of the attacks of the previous day would play out in the U.S. and the world, so perhaps it’s idle to speculate on what the events of 11/8/16 will lead to in the years to come. Prediction’s a dicey business in the best of times, and the future ordinarily is a black hole. But one thing does seem likely amid the murk: with the generals (and other officials) who ran America’s failed wars these last years potentially dominating the national security structure of a future Trump administration, our empire of chaos (including perhaps regime change) will indeed have come home. It’s reasonable to think of the victory of Donald Trump and his brand of right-wing corporatist or billionaire “populism” and of the rising tide of white racism that has accompanied it as a 9/11-style shock to the body politic, even if it proves a slo-mo version of the original event.
As with 9/11, a long, blowback-ridden history preceded 11/8 and Donald Trump’s triumph. That history included the institutionalization of permanent war as a way of life in Washington, the growing independent power and preeminence of the national security state, the accompanying growth and institutionalization of the most oppressive powers of that state, including intrusive surveillance of almost every imaginable sort, the return from distant battlefields of the technology and mindset of permanent war, and the ability to assassinate whomever the White House chooses to kill (even an American citizen). In addition, in blowback terms, domestically you would need to include the results of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision of 2010, which helped release staggering amounts of corporate and 1%er funds from the engorged top of an increasingly unequal society into the political system (without which a billionaire running for president and a cabinet of billionaires and multimillionaires would have been inconceivable).
As I wrote in early October, “a significant part of the white working class… feels as if, whether economically or psychologically, its back is up against the wall and there’s nowhere left to go… many of these voters have evidently decided that they’re ready to send a literal loose cannon into the White House; they’re willing, that is, to take a chance on the roof collapsing, even if it collapses on them.” Think of Donald Trump’s election, then, as the victory of the suicide bomber the white working class dispatched to the Oval Office to, as people now say politely, “shake things up.”
In a moment that, in so many senses, is filling with extremism and in which the jihadists of the national security state are clearly going to be riding high, it’s at least possible that election 2016 will prove the equivalent of a slow-motion coup in America. Donald Trump, like right-wing populists before him, has a temperament that could lend itself not only to demagoguery (as in the recent election campaign), but to an American version of authoritarianism, especially since in recent years, in terms of a loss of rights and the strengthening of government powers, the country has already moved in an autocratic direction, even if that’s been a little noted reality.
Whatever Americans may have ushered in with the events of 11/8, one thing is increasingly certain about the country that Donald Trump will govern. Forget Vladimir Putin and his rickety petro-state: the most dangerous nation on the planet will now be ours. Led by a man who knows remarkably little, other than how to manipulate the media (on which he’s a natural-born genius) and, at least in part, by the frustrated generals from America’s war on terror, the United States is likely to be more extreme, belligerent, irrational, filled with manias, and heavily armed, its military funded to even greater levels no other country could come close to, and with staggering powers to intervene, interfere, and repress.
It’s not a pretty picture. And yet it’s just a lead-in to what, undoubtedly, should be considered the ultimate question in Donald Trump’s America: With both the CIA’s coup-making and the military’s regime-change traditions in mind, could the United States also overthrow a planet? If, as the head of what’s already the world’s second largest greenhouse gas emitter, Trump carries out the future energy policies he promised during the election campaign — climate-science funding torn up, climate agreements denounced or ignored, alternative energy development downplayed, pipelines green-lighted, fracking and other forms of fossil-fuel extraction further encouraged, and the U.S. fully reimagined as the Saudi Arabia of North America — he will, in effect, be launching a regime-change action against Planet Earth.
All the rest of what a Trump administration might do, including ushering in a period of American autocracy, would be just part and parcel of human history. Autocracies come and go. Autocrats rise and die. Rebellions break out and fail. Democracies work and then don’t. Life goes on. Climate change is, however, none of that. It may be part of planetary history, but not of human history. It is instead history’s potential deal-breaker. What the Trump administration does to us in the years to come could prove a grim period to live through but a passing matter, at least when compared to the possible full-scale destabilization of life on Earth and of history as we’ve known it these last thousands of years.
This would, of course, put 9/11 in the shade. The election victory of 11/8 might ultimately prove the shock of a lifetime, of any lifetime, for eons to come. That’s the danger we’ve faced since 11/8, and make no mistake, it could be devastating.
Was 11/8 a New 9/11?
The one thing you could say about empires is that, at or near their height, they have always represented a principle of order as well as domination. So here’s the confounding thing about the American version of empire in the years when this country was often referred to as “the sole superpower,” when it was putting more money into its military than the next 10 nations combined: it’s been an empire of chaos.
Back in September 2002, Amr Moussa, then head of the Arab League, offered a warning I’ve never forgotten. The Bush administration’s intention to invade Iraq and topple its ruler, Saddam Hussein, was already obvious. Were they to take such a step, Moussa insisted, it would “open the gates of hell.” His prediction turned out to be anything but hyperbole — and those gates have never again closed.
The Wars Come Home
From the moment of the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, in fact, everything the U.S. military touched in these years has turned to dust. Nations across the Greater Middle East and Africa collapsed under the weight of American interventions or those of its allies, and terror movements, one grimmer than the next, spread in a remarkably unchecked fashion. Afghanistan is now a disaster zone; Yemen, wracked by civil war, a brutal U.S.-backed Saudi air campaign, and various ascendant terror groups, is essentially no more; Iraq, at best, is a riven sectarian nation; Syria barely exists; Libya, too, is hardly a state these days; and Somalia is a set of fiefdoms and terror movements. All in all, it’s quite a record for the mightiest power on the planet, which, in a distinctly un-imperial fashion, has been unable to impose its military will or order of any sort on any state or even group, no matter where it chose to act in these years. It’s hard to think of a historical precedent for this.
Meanwhile, from the shattered lands of the empire of chaos stream refugees by the millions,numbers not seen since vast swaths of the globe were left in rubble at the end of World War II. Startling percentages of the populations of various failed and failing states, including stunning numbers of children, have been driven into internal exile or sent fleeing across borders and, fromAfghanistan to North Africa to Europe, they are shaking up the planet in unsettling ways (as theirfantasy versions shook up the election here in the U.S.).
It’s something of a cliché to say that, sooner or later, the frontier wars of empires come home to haunt the imperial heartland in curious ways. Certainly, such has been the case for our wars on the peripheries. In various forms — from the militarization of the police to the loosing of spy drones in American skies and of surveillance technology tested on distant battlefields — it’s obvious that America’s post-9/11 conflicts have returned to “the homeland,” even if, most of the time, we have paid remarkably little attention to this phenomena.
And that, I suspect, is the least significant way in which our wars have been repatriated. What Election 2016 made clear was that the empire of chaos has not remained a phenomenon of the planet’s backlands. It’s with us in the United States, right here, right now. And it’s come home in a fashion that no one has yet truly tried to make sense of. Can’t you feel the deep and spreading sense of disorder that lay at the heart of the bizarre election campaign that roiled this country, brought the most extreme kinds of racism and xenophobia back into the mainstream, and with Donald Trump’s election, may never really end? Using the term of tradecraft that Chalmers Johnson borrowed from the CIA and popularized, think of this as, in some strange fashion, the ultimate in imperial blowback.
There’s a history to be written of how such disorder came home, of how it warped the American system and our democratic form of governance, of how a process that began decades ago not in the stew of defeat or disaster but in a moment of unparalleled imperial triumph undermined so much. If I had to choose a date to begin that history, I think I would start in 1979 in Afghanistan, a country that, if you were an American but not a hippie backpacker, you might then have had trouble locating on a map. And if someone had told you at the time that, over the next nearly four decades, your country would be involved in at least a quarter-century of wars there, you would undoubtedly have considered him mad.
Thought of a certain way, the empire of chaos began in a victory so stunning, so complete, so imperial that it essentially helped drive the other superpower, that “Evil Empire” the Soviet Union, to implode. It began, in fact, with the desire of Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, to give the Soviets a bloody nose, or to be more precise, a taste of America’s Vietnam experience, to trap the Red Army in an Afghan quagmire. In that light, the CIA would run a massive, decade-long covert program to fund, arm, and train fundamentalist opponents of the leftwing Afghan government in Kabul and of the occupying Red Army. To do so, it fatefully buddied up with two unsavory “allies”: the Saudis, who were ready to sink their oil money into support for Afghan mujahedeen fighters of the most extreme sort, and the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, which was intent on controlling events in that land, no matter the nature of the cast of characters it found available.
In the fashion of Vietnam for the Americans, Afghanistan would prove to be what Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev called “the bleeding wound” for the Russians. A decade later, the Red Army would limp home in defeat and within two years a hollowed-out Soviet Union, never as strong as Washington imagined, would implode, a triumph so stunning that the American political elite initially couldn’t take it in. After almost half a century, the Cold War was over; one of the two remaining “superpowers” had left the global stage in defeat; and for the first time since Europeans set out on wooden ships to conquer distant parts of the globe, only a single great power was left standing on the planet.
Given the history of those centuries past, the dreams of Bush-Cheney & Co. about how the U.S. would dominate the world as no power, not even the Romans or the British, had ever done seemed to make a certain sense. But in that triumph of 1989 lay the seeds as well of future chaos. To take down the Soviets, the CIA, in tandem with the Saudis and the Pakistanis, had armed and built up groups of extreme Islamists, who, it turned out, had no intention of going away once the Soviets were driven from Afghanistan. It won’t exactly shock you if I add that, in those decisions, in that triumphant moment, lay the genesis of the future 9/11 attacks and in some curious fashion, even perhaps the future rise of a presidential candidate, and now president-elect, so bizarre that, despite the billions of words expended on him, he remains a phenomenon beyond understanding.
As our first declinist candidate for president, Donald J. Trump did at least express something new and true about the nature of our country. In the phrase that he tried to trademark in 2012 and with which he launched his presidential campaign in 2015 — “Make America Great Again” — he caught a deeply felt sense among millions of Americans that the empire of chaos had indeed arrived on our shores and that, like the Soviet Union a quarter-century ago, the U.S. might ever so slowly be heading into an era in which (minus him, naturally) “greatness” was a goner.
Imperial Overreach and the Rise of the National Security State
In the end, those seeds, first planted in Afghan and Pakistani soil in 1979, led to the attacks of September 11, 2001. That day was the very definition of chaos brought to the imperial heartland, and spurred the emergence of a new, post-Constitutional governing structure, through the expansion of the national security state to monumental proportions and a staggering version of imperial overreach. On the basis of the supposed need to keep Americans safe from terrorism (and essentially nothing else), the national security state would balloon into a dominant — and dominantly funded — set of institutions at the heart of American political life (without which, rest assured, FBI Director James Comey’s public interventions in an American election would have been inconceivable). In these years, that state-within-a-state became the unofficial fourth branch of government, at a moment when two of the others — Congress and the courts, or at least the Supreme Court — were faltering.
The 9/11 attacks also unleashed the Bush administration’s stunningly ambitious, ultimately disastrous Global War on Terror, and over-the-top fantasies about establishing a military-enforced Pax Americana, first in the Middle East and then perhaps globally. They also unleashed its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. drone assassination program across significant parts of the planet, the building of an unprecedented global surveillance state, the spread of a kind of secrecy so all-encompassing that much of government activity became unknowable to “the People,” and a kind of imperial overreach that sent literally trillions of dollars (often via warrior corporations) tumbling into the abyss. All of these were chaos-creating factors.
At the same time, the basic needs of many Americans went increasingly unattended, of those at least who weren’t part of a Gilded Age 1% sucking up American wealth in an extraordinary fashion. The one-percenters then repurposed some of those trickle-up funds for the buying and selling of politicians, again in an atmosphere of remarkable secrecy. (It was often impossible to know who had given money to whom for what.) In turn, that stream of Supreme Court-approved funds changed the nature of, and perhaps the very idea of, what an election was.
Meanwhile, parts of the heartland were being hollowed out, while — even as the military continued to produce trillion-dollar boondoggle weapons systems — the country’s inadequately funded infrastructure began to crumble in a way that once would have been inconceivable. Similarly, the non-security-state part of the government — Congress in particular — began to falter and wither. Meanwhile, one of the country’s two great political parties launched a scorched-earth campaign against governing representatives of the other and against the very idea of governing in a reasonably democratic fashion or getting much of anything done at all. At the same time, that party shattered into disorderly, competing factions that grew ever more extreme and produced what is likely to become a unique celebrity presidency of chaos.
The United States with all its wealth and power is, of course, hardly an Afghanistan or a Libya or a Yemen or a Somalia. It still remains a genuinely great power, and one with remarkable resources to wield and fall back on. Nonetheless, the recent election offered striking evidence that the empire of chaos had indeed made the trip homeward. It’s now with us big time, all the time. Get used to it.
Count on it to be an essential part of the Trump presidency. Domestically, for instance, if you thought the definition of American political dysfunction was a Congress that would essentially pass nothing, just wait until a fully Republican-controlled Congress actually begins to pass bills in 2017. Abroad, Trump’s unexpected success will only encourage the rise of right-wing nationalist movements and the further fragmention of this planet of increasing disorder. Meanwhile, the American military (promised a vast further infusion of funds by The Donald during the election campaign) will still be trying to impose its version of order in distant lands and, so many years later, you know perfectly well what that will mean. All of this should shock no one in our new post-November 8th world.
Here, however, is a potentially shocking question that has to be asked: With Donald Trump’s election, has the American “experiment” run its course?
Empire of Chaos
To say that this is the election from hell is to insult hell.
There’s been nothing like this since Washington forded the Rubicon or Trump crossed the Delaware or delivered the Gettysburg Address (you know, the one that began “Four score and eleven women ago…”) — or pick your own seminal moment in American history.
Billions of words, that face, those gestures, the endless insults, the abused women and the emails, the 24/7 spectacle of it all… Whatever happens on Election Day, let’s accept one reality: we’re in a new political era in this country. We just haven’t quite taken it in. Not really.
Forget Donald Trump.
Doh! Why did I write that? Who could possibly forget the first presidential candidate in our history preemptively unwilling to accept election results? (Even the South in 1860 accepted the election of Abraham Lincoln before trying to wave goodbye to the Union.) Who could forget the man who claimed that abortions could take place on the day of or the day before actual birth? Who could forget the man who claimed in front of an audience of nearly 72 million Americans that he had never met the women who accused him of sexual aggression and abuse, including the People magazine reporter who interviewed him? Who could forget the candidate who proudly cited his positive polling results at rallies and in tweets, month after month, before (when those same polls turned against him) discovering that they were all “rigged”?
Whatever you think of The Donald, who in the world — and I mean the whole wide world (including the Iranians) — could possibly forget him or the election he’s stalked so ominously? When you think of him, however, don’t make him the cause of American political dysfunction. He’s just the bizarre, disturbed, and disturbing symptom of the transformation of the American political system.
Admittedly, he is a one-of-a-kind “politician,” even among his associates in surging right-wing nationalist and anti-whatever movements globally. He makes France’s Marine Le Pen seem like the soul of rationality and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte look like a master tactician of our age. But what truly makes Donald Trump and this election season fascinating and confounding is that we’re not just talking about the presidency of a country, but of the country. The United States remains the great imperial state on Planet Earth in terms of the reach of its military and the power of its economy and culture to influence the workings of everything just about everywhere. And yet, based on the last strange year of election campaigning, it’s hard not to think that something — and not just The Donald — is unnervingly amiss on Planet America.
The World War II Generation in 2016
Sometimes, in my fantasies (as while watching the final presidential debate), I perform a private miracle and bring my parents back from the dead to observe our American world. With them in the room, I try to imagine the disbelief many from that World War II generation would surely express about our present moment. Of course, they lived through a devastating depression, light years beyond anything we experienced in the Great Recession of 2007-2008, as well as a global conflagration of a sort that had never been experienced and — short of nuclear war — is not likely to be again.
Despite this, I have no doubt that they would be boggled by our world and the particular version of chaos we now live with. To start at a global level, both my mother (who died in 1977) and my father (who died in 1983) spent decades in the nuclear age, the era of humanity’s greatest — for want of a better word — achievement. After all, for the first time in history, we humans took the apocalypse out of the hands of God (or the gods), where it had resided for thousands of years, and placed it directly in our own. What they didn’t live to experience, however, was history’s second potential deal-breaker, climate change, already bringing upheaval to the planet, and threatening a slow-motion apocalypse of an unprecedented sort.
While nuclear weapons have not been used since August 9, 1945, even if they have spread to the arsenals of numerous countries, climate change should be seen as a snail-paced version of nuclear war — and keep in mind that humanity is still pumping near-record levels of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. I imagine my parents’ amazement that the most dangerous and confounding issue on the planet didn’t get a single question, not to speak of an answer, in the three presidential debates of 2016, the four and a half hours of charges, insults, and interruptions just past. Neither a moderator, nor evidently an undecided voter (in the town hall second debate), nor either presidential candidate — each ready to change the subject on a moment’s notice from embarrassing questions about sexual aggression, emails, or anything else — thought it worth the slightest attention. It was, in short, a problem too large to discuss, one whose existence Donald Trump (like just about every other Republican) denies, or rather, in his case, labels a “hoax” that he uniquely blames on a Chinese plot to sink America.
So much for insanity (and inanity) when it comes to the largest question of all. On a somewhat more modest scale, my mom and dad wouldn’t have recognized our political world as American, and not just because of Donald Trump. They would have been staggered by the money pouring into our political system — at least $6.6 billion in this election cycle according to the latest estimate, more than 10% of that from only 100 families. They would have been stunned by our 1% elections; by our new Gilded Age; by a billionaire TV celebrity running as a “populist” by riling up once Democratic working-class whites immiserated by the likes of him and his “brand” of casino capitalism, scam, and spectacle; by all those other billionaires pouring money into the Republican Party to create a gerrymandered Congress that will do their obstructionist bidding; and by just how much money can be “invested” in our political system in perfectly legal ways these days. And I haven’t even mentioned the Other Candidate, who spent all of August on the true “campaign trail,” hobnobbing not with ordinary Americans but with millionaires and billionaires (and assorted celebrities) to build up her phenomenal “war chest.”
I would have to take a deep breath and explain to my parents that, in twenty-first-century America, by Supreme Court decree, money has become the equivalent of speech, even if it’s anything but “free.” And let’s not forget that other financial lodestone for an American election these days: the television news, not to speak of the rest of the media. How could I begin to lay out for my parents, for whom presidential elections were limited fall events, the bizarre nature of an election season that starts with media speculation about the next-in-line just as the previous season is ending, and continues more or less nonstop thereafter? Or the spectacle of talking heads discussing just about nothing but that election 24/7 on cable television for something like a full year, or the billions of ad dollars that have fueled this never-ending Super Bowl of campaigns, filling the coffers of the owners of cable and network news?
We’ve grown strangely used to it all, but my mom and dad would undoubtedly think they were in another country — and that would be before they were even introduced to the American system as it now exists, the one for which Donald Trump is such a bizarre front man.
What Planet Is This Anyway?
I wish I still had my high school civics text. If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember it: the one in which a man from Mars lands on Main Street, USA, to be lectured on the glories of American democracy and our carefully constructed, checked-and-balanced tripartite form of governance. I’m sure knowledge of that system changed life on Mars for the better, even if it was already something of a fantasy here on Earth in my parents’ time. After all, Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower — my mom and dad voted for Democrat Adlai Stevenson — was the one who, in his farewell address in 1961, first brought “the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power” and “the military-industrial complex” to the attention of the American people.
Yes, all of that was already changing then, as a peacetime war state of unparalleled size developed in this country. Still, 30-odd years after my father’s death, surveying the American landscape, my parents might believe themselves on Mars. They would undoubtedly wonder what exactly had happened to the country they knew. After all, thanks to the Republican Party’s scorched-earth tactics in these last years in bipolar Washington, Congress, that collection of putative representatives of the people (now a crew of well-paid, well-financed representatives of the country’s special interests in a capital overrun with corporate lobbyists), hardly functions anymore. Little of significance makes it through the porticos of the Capitol. Recently, for instance, John McCain (usually considered a relatively “moderate” Republican senator) suggested — before walking his comments part way back — that if Hillary Clinton were elected president, his fellow Republican senators might decide a priori not to confirm a single Supreme Court justice she nominated during her tenure in office. That, of course, would mean a court now down to what looks like a permanent crew of eight would shrink accordingly. And his comments, which once would have shocked Americans to the core, caused hardly a ripple of upset or protest.
On my tour of this new world, I might start by pointing out to my mom and dad that the U.S. is now in a state of permanent war, its military at the moment involved in conflicts in at least six countries in the Greater Middle East and Africa. These are all purely presidential conflicts, as Congress no longer has a real role in American war-making (other than ponying up the money for it and beating the drums to support it). The executive branch stands alone when it comes to the war powers once checked and balanced in the Constitution.
And I wouldn’t want my parents to simply look abroad. The militarization of this country has proceeded apace and in ways that, I have not the slightest doubt, would shock them to their core. I could take my parents, for instance, to Grand Central Station in midtown Manhattan, their hometown and still mine, and on any day of the week they would see the once-inconceivable: actual armed soldiers on guard in full camo. I could mention that, at my local subway stop, I’ve several times noted a New York police department counterterror squad that could be mistaken for a military Special Ops team, assault rifles slung across their chests, and no one even stops and gawks anymore. I could point out that the police across the country increasingly have the look of military units and are supplied by the Pentagon with actual weaponry and equipment directly off distant U.S. battlefields, including armored vehicles of various sorts. I could mention that military surveillance drones, those precursors of future robotic warfare (and, for my parents, right out of the childhood sci-fi novels I used to read), are now regularly in American skies; that advanced surveillance equipment developed in far-off war zones is now being used by the police here at home; and that, though political assassination was officially banned in the post-Watergate 1970s, the president now commands a formidable CIA drone force that regularly carries out such assassinations across large swaths of the planet, even against U.S. citizens, and without the say-so of anyone outside the White House, including the courts. I could mention that the president who, in my parents’ time, commanded one modest-sized secret army, the CIA’s paramilitaries, now essentially presides over a full-scale secret military, the Special Operations Command: 70,000 elite troops cocooned inside the larger U.S. military, including elite teams ready to be deployed on what are essentially executive missions across the planet.
I could point out that, in the twenty-first century, U.S. intelligence has set up a global surveillance state that would have shamed the totalitarian powers of the previous century and that American citizens, en masse, are included in it; that our emails (a new concept for my parents) have been collected by the millions and our phone records made available to the state; that privacy, in short, has essentially been declared un-American. I would also point out that, on the basis of one tragic day and what otherwise has been the most modest of threats to Americans, a single fear — of Islamic terrorism — has been the pretext for the building of the already existing national security state into an edifice of almost unbelievable proportions that has been given once unimaginable powers, funded in ways that should amaze anyone (not just visitors from the American past), and has become the unofficial fourth branch of the U.S. government without either discussion or a vote.
Little that it does — and it does a lot — is open to public scrutiny. For their own “safety,” “the People” are to know nothing of its workings (except what it wants them to know). Meanwhile, secrecy of a claustrophobic sort has spread across significant parts of the government. The government classified 92 million documents in 2011 and things seem not to have gotten much better since. In addition, the national security state has been elaborating a body of “secret law” — including classified rules, regulations, and interpretations of already existing law — kept from the public and, in some cases, even from congressional oversight committees.
Americans, in other words, know ever less about what their government does in their name at home and abroad.
I might suggest to my parents that they simply imagine the Constitution of the United States being rewritten and amended in secrecy and on the fly in these years without as much as a nod to “We, the People.” In this way, as our elections became elaborate spectacles, democracy was sucked dry and ditched in all but name — and that name is undoubtedly Donald J. Trump.
Consider that, then, a brief version of how I might describe our new American world to my amazed parents.
America as a National Security State
None of this is The Donald’s responsibility. In the years in which a new American system was developing, he was firing people on TV. You could, of course, think of him as the poster boy for an America in which spectacle, celebrity, the gilded class of One Percenters, and the national security state have melded into a narcissistic, self-referential brew of remarkable toxicity.
Whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump is elected president, one thing is obvious: the vast edifice that is the national security state, with its 17 intelligence agencies and enormous imperial military, will continue to elaborate itself and expand its power in our American world. Both candidates have sworn to pour yet more money into that military and the intelligence and Homeland Security apparatus that goes with it. None of this, of course, has much of anything to do with American democracy as it was once imagined.
Someday perhaps, like my parents, “I” will be called back from the dead by one of my children to view with awe or horror whatever world exists. Long after the America of an unimaginable Donald J. Trump presidency or a far-more-imaginable Hillary Clinton version of the same has been folded into some god-awful, half-forgotten chapter in our history, I wonder what will surprise or confound “me” then. What version of our country and planet will “I” face in 2045?
Creating a National Security State “Democracy”
This is not about Donald Trump. And I mean it.
From the moment the first scribe etched a paean of praise to Nebuchadnezzar into a stone tablet, it’s reasonable to conclude that never in history has the media covered a single human being as it has Donald Trump. For more than a year now, unless a terror attack roiled American life, he’s been the news cycle, essentially the only one, morning, noon, and night, day after day, week after week, month after month. His every word, phrase, move, insult, passing comment, off-the-cuff remark, claim, boast, brazen lie, shout, or shout-out has been ours as well. In this period, he’s praised his secret plan to destroy ISIS and take Iraqi oil. He’s thumped that “big, fat, beautiful wall” again and again. He’s birthered a campaign that could indeed transport him, improbably enough, into the Oval Office. He’s fought it out with 17 political rivals, among others, including “lyin’ Ted,” “low-energy Jeb,” Carly (“Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?”) Fiorini, “crooked Hillary,” a Miss Universe (“Miss Piggy”), the “highly overrated” Megyn Kelly’s menstrual cycle (“You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever”), always Rosie O’Donnell (“a slob [with] a fat, ugly face”), and so many others. He’s made veiled assassination threats; lauded the desire to punch someone in the face; talked about shooting “somebody” in “the middle of Fifth Avenue”; defended the size of his hands and his you-know-what; retweeted neo-Nazis and a quote from Mussolini; denounced the outsourcing of American manufacturing jobs and products while outsourcing his own jobs and products; excoriated immigrants and foreign labor while hiring the same; advertised the Trump brand in every way imaginable; had a bromance with Vladimir Putin; threatened to let nuclear weapons proliferate; complained bitterly about a rigged election, rigged debates, a rigged moderator, and a rigged microphone; swore that he and he alone was capable of again making America, and so the world, a place of the sort of greatness only he himself could match, and that’s just to begin a list on the subject of The Donald.
In other words, thanks to the media attention he garners incessantly, he is the living embodiment of our American moment. No matter what you think of him, his has been a journey of a sort we’ve never seen before, a triumph of the first order, whatever happens on November 8th. He’s burnished his own brand; opened a new hotel on — yes — Pennsylvania Avenue (which he’s used his election run to promote and publicize); sold his products mercilessly; promoted his children; funneled dollars to his family and businesses; and in an unspoken alliance (pact, entente, détente) of the first order, kept the nightly news and the cable networks rolling in dough and in the spotlight (as long as they kept yakking about him), despite the fact that younger viewers were in flight to the universe of social media, streaming services, and their smartphones. Thanks to the millions, billions, perhaps trillions of words expended on him by nonstop commentators, pundits, talking heads, retired generals and admirals, former intelligence chiefs, ex-Bush administration officials, and god knows who else that have kept the cable channels churning with Trump on a nearly 24/7 basis, he and his remarkable ego, and his now familiar gestures — that jut-jawed look, that orange hair, that overly tanned face, that eternally raised voice — have become the wallpaper of our lives, something close to our reality. If he were an action film, some Hollywood studio would be swooning, because never has a single act gotten such nonstop publicity. We’ve never seen anything like him or it, and yet, strange as the Trump phenomenon may be, if you think about it for a moment, you’ll realize that there’s also something eerily familiar about him, and not just because of The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice.
In a world where so many things deserve our attention and don’t get it, rest assured that this is not about Donald Trump. It really isn’t.
In terms of any presidential candidate from George Washington to Barack Obama, Trump is little short of a freak of nature. There’s really no one to compare him to (other, perhaps, than George Wallace). Sometimes his pitch about America — and a return to greatness — has a faintly Reaganesque quality (but without any of Ronald Reagan’s sunniness or charm). Otherwise, I dare you to make such a comparison.
Still, don’t be fooled. As a phenomenon, Donald Trump couldn’t be more American — as American, in fact, as a piece of McDonald’s baked apple pie. What could be more American, after all, than his two major roles: salesman (or pitchman) and con artist? From P.T. Barnum (who, by the way, became the mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut, late in life) to Willy Loman, selling has long been an iconic American way to go. A man who sells his life and brand as the ultimate American life and brand… come on, what’s not familiar about that?
As for being a conman, since at least Mark Twain (remember the Duke of Bridgewater and the Dauphin, who join Huck and Jim on their raft?) and Herman Melville (The Confidence Man), the charm of the — excuse the phrase under the circumstances — huckster in American life can’t be denied. It’s something Donald Trump knows in his bones, even if all those pundits and commentators and pollsters (and for that matter Hillary Clinton’s advisers) don’t: Americans love a conman. Historically, we’ve often admired, if not identified with, someone intent on playing and successfully beating the system, whether at a confidence game or through criminal activity.
After the first presidential debate, when Trump essentially admitted that in some years he paid no taxes (“that makes me smart”) and that he had played the tax system for everything it was worth, there was all that professional tsk-tsking and the suggestion that such an admission would deeply disturb ordinary voters who pay up when the IRS comes knocking. Don’t believe it for a second. I guarantee you that Trump senses he’s deep in the Mississippi of American politics with such statements and that a surprising number of voters will admire him for it (whether they admit it or not). After all, he beat the system, even if they didn’t.
Whenever I see Trump and read accounts of his business dealings, I’m reminded of what 1920s Chicago crime boss Al Capone told British journalist Claud Cockburn: “Listen, don’t get the idea I’m one of those goddamn radicals… Don’t get the idea I’m knocking the American system. My rackets are run on strictly American lines. Capitalism, call it what you like, gives to each and every one of us a great opportunity if only we seize it with both hands and make the most of it.” Trump’s “rackets” are similarly “run on strictly American lines.” He’s the Tony Soprano of casino capitalism and so couldn’t be more American.
My father was a salesman. I grew up watching him make his preparations to sell. I existed at the edge of his selling universe and, though I thought I rejected his world, the truth is that, given the chance and under the right circumstances, I still love to sell myself. It’s addictive in the most American way. There was as well another aspect of that commonplace world of fathers I once knew and that I now recognize in Trump’s overwhelming persona: the bully. That jut-jawed stance, the pugnacious approach to the world, that way of carrying both one’s body and face that seems inbuilt and offers the constant possibility of threat — it was the norm of the world I grew up in. It was what fathers looked like (and must still in so many families). It was, in short, an essential part of the pre-Trumpian world, a manner, a way of being that The Donald has distilled into an iconically brutal version of itself, into not the commonplace bully — schoolyard variety — but The Bully. Still, at least to me, and I think to many Americans, it couldn’t be more recognizable and, I suspect, for people raised among the bullies, the thought of having such a bully in the Oval Office and speaking for you for once is strangely appealing.
Just in case you were wondering at this point, I’m serious: this is not about Donald Trump.
And yet, don’t believe that everything about The Donald is old hat and familiarly American. In this strange election season, there are aspects of his role that are so new they should startle us all. Begin with the fact that he’s the first declinist candidate for president of our era. Put another way, he’s the only politician in the country who refuses to engage in a ritual — until now a virtual necessity for American presidential wannabes, candidates, and presidents: affirming repeatedly that the United States is the greatest, most exceptional, most indispensable nation of all time and that it possesses the “finest fighting force in the history of the world.”
Undoubtedly, that by-now-kneejerk urge to repeat such formulaic sentiments reflects creeping self-doubts about America’s future imperial role. It has the quality of a magic mantra being used to ward off reality. After all, when a great power truly is at its height, as the United States was in my youth, no one feels the need to continually, defensively insist that it’s so.
Trump broke decisively with this version of political orthodoxy and it tells us much about our moment that he is now in the final round of election 2016, not in the trash heap of American history. His claim, unique to our moment, is that America is not great at all, even if he (and only he) can — feel free to chant it with me — make America great again! Add to that his insistence that the U.S. military in the Obama era is anything but the finest fighting machine in history. According to him, it’s now a hollowed-out force, a “disaster” and “in shambles,” whose generals have been “reduced to rubble.” Not so long ago, such claims would have automatically disqualified anyone as a candidate for president (or much of anything else). That he can continually make them, and make the first of them his t-shirt-and-cap campaign slogan, tells you that we are indeed in a new American world.
In relation to his Republican rivals, and now Hillary Clinton, he stands alone in accepting and highlighting what increasing numbers of Americans, especially white Americans, have evidently come to feel: that this country is in decline, its greatness a thing of the past, or as pollsters like to put it, that America is no longer “heading in the right direction” but is now “on the wrong track.” In this way, he has mainlined into a deep, economically induced mindset, especially among white working class men facing a situation in which so many good jobs have headed elsewhere, that the world has turned sour.
Or think of it another way (and it may be the newest way of all): a significant part of the white working class, at least, feels as if, whether economically or psychologically, its back is up against the wall and there’s nowhere left to go. Under such circumstances, many of these voters have evidently decided that they’re ready to send a literal loose cannon into the White House; they’re willing, that is, to take a chance on the roof collapsing, even if it collapses on them.
That is the new and unrecognizable role that Donald Trump has filled. It’s hard to conjure up another example of it in our recent past. The Donald represents, as a friend of mine likes to say, the suicide bomber in us all. And voting for him, among other things, will be an act of nihilism, a mood that fits well with imperial decline.
Think of him as a message in a bottle washing up on our shore. After all…
This is not about Donald Trump. It’s about us.
The Age of Decline, Apple Pie, and America’s Chosen Suicide Bomber
Recently, sorting through a pile of old children’s books, I came across a volume, That Makes Me Mad!, which brought back memories. Written by Steve Kroll, a long-dead friend, it focused on the eternally frustrating everyday adventures of Nina, a little girl whose life regularly meets commonplace roadblocks, at which point she always says… well, you can guess from the title! Vivid parental memories of another age instantly flooded back — of my daughter (now reading such books to her own son) sitting beside me at age five and hitting that repeated line with such mind-blowing, ear-crushing gusto that you knew it spoke to the everyday frustrations of her life, to what made her mad.
Three decades later, in an almost unimaginably different America, on picking up that book I suddenly realized that, whenever I follow the news online, on TV, or — and forgive me for this but I’m 72 and still trapped in another era — on paper, I have a similarly Nina-esque urge. Only the line I’ve come up with for it is (with a tip of the hat to Steve Kroll) “You must be kidding!”
Here are a few recent examples from the world of American-style war and peace. Consider these as random illustrations, given that, in the age of Trump, just about everything that happens is out-of-this-world absurd and would serve perfectly well. If you’re in the mood, feel free to shout out that line with me as we go.
Nuking the Planet: I’m sure you remember Barack Obama, the guy who entered the Oval Office pledging to work toward “a nuclear-free world.” You know, the president who traveled to Prague in 2009 to say stirringly: “So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons… To put an end to Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, and urge others to do the same.” That same year, he was awarded the Nobel Prize largely for what he might still do, particularly in the nuclear realm. Of course, that was all so 2009!
Almost two terms in the Oval Office later, our peace president, the only one who has ever called for nuclear “abolition” — and whose administration has retired fewer weapons in our nuclear arsenal than any other in the post-Cold War era — is now presiding over the early stages of a trillion-dollar modernization of that very arsenal. (And that trillion-dollar price tag comes, of course, before the inevitable cost overruns even begin.) It includes full-scale work on the creation of a “precision-guided” nuclear weapon with a “dial-back” lower yield option. Such a weapon would potentially bring nukes to the battlefield in a first-use way, something the U.S. is proudly pioneering.
And that brings me to the September 6th front-page story in the New York Times that caught my eye. Think of it as the icing on the Obama era nuclear cake. Its headline: “Obama Unlikely to Vow No First Use of Nuclear Weapons.” Admittedly, if made, such a vow could be reversed by any future president. Still, reportedly for fear that a pledge not to initiate a nuclear war would “undermine allies and embolden Russia and China… while Russia is running practice bombing runs over Europe and China is expanding its reach in the South China Sea,” the president has backed down on issuing such a vow. In translation: the only country that has ever used such weaponry will remain on the record as ready and willing to do so again without nuclear provocation, an act that, it is now believed in Washington, would create a calmer planet.
You must be kidding!
Plain Old Bombing: Recall that in October 2001, when the Bush administration launched its invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. was bombing no other largely Islamic country. In fact, it was bombing no other country at all. Afghanistan was quickly “liberated,” the Taliban crushed, al-Qaeda put to flight, and that was that, or so it then seemed.
On September 8th, almost 15 years later, the Washington Post reported that, over a single weekend and in a “flurry” of activity, the U.S. had dropped bombs on, or fired missiles at, six largely Islamic countries: Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia. (And it might have been seven if the CIA hadn’t grown a little rusty when it comes to the drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal borderlands that it’s launched repeatedly throughout these years.) In the same spirit, the president who swore he would end the U.S. war in Iraq and, by the time he left office, do the same in Afghanistan, is now overseeing American bombing campaigns in Iraq and Syria which are loosing close to 25,000 weapons a year on those countries. Only recently, in order to facilitate the further prosecution of the longest war in our history, the president who announced that his country had ended its “combat mission” in Afghanistan in 2014, has once again deployed the U.S. military in a combat role and has done the same with the U.S. Air Force. For that, B-52s (of Vietnam infamy) were returned to action there, as well as in Iraq and Syria, after a decade of retirement. In the Pentagon, military figures are now talking about “generational” war in Afghanistan — well into the 2020s.
Meanwhile, President Obama has personally helped pioneer a new form of warfare that will not long remain a largely American possession. It involves missile-armed drones, high-tech weapons that promise a world of no-casualty-conflict (for the American military and the CIA), and adds up to a permanent global killing machine for taking out terror leaders, “lieutenants,” and “militants.” Well beyond official American war zones, U.S. drones regularly cross borders, infringing on national sovereignty throughout the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa, to assassinate anyone the president and his colleagues decide needs to die, American citizen or otherwise (plus, of course, anyone who happens to be in the vicinity). With its White House “kill list” and its “terror Tuesday” meetings, the drone program, promising “surgical” hunting-and-killing action, has blurred the line between war and peace, while being normalized in these years. A president is now not just commander-in-chief but assassin-in-chief, a role that no imaginable future president is likely to reject. Assassination, previously an illegal act, has become the heart and soul of Washington’s way of life and of a way of war that only seems to spread conflict further.
You must be kidding!
The Well-Oiled Machinery of Privatized War: And speaking of drones, as the New York Times reported on September 5th, the U.S. drone program does have one problem: a lack of pilots. It has ramped up quickly in these years and, in the process, the pressures on its pilots and other personnel have only grown, including post-traumatic stress over killing civilians thousands of miles away via computer screen. As a result, the Air Force has been losing those pilots fast. Fortunately, a solution is on the horizon. That service has begun filling its pilot gap by going the route of the rest of the military in these years — turning to private contractors for help. Such pilots and other personnel are, however, paid higher salaries and cost more money. The contractors, in turn, have been hiring the only available personnel around, the ones trained by… yep, you guessed it, the Air Force. The result may be an even greater drain on Air Force drone pilots eager for increased pay for grim work and… well, I think you can see just how the well-oiled machinery of privatized war is likely to work here and who’s going to pay for it.
You must be kidding!
Selling Arms As If There Were No Tomorrow: In a recent report for the Center for International Policy, arms expert William Hartung offered a stunning figure on U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia. “Since taking office in January 2009,” he wrote, “the Obama administration has offered over $115 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia in 42 separate deals, more than any U.S. administration in the history of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. The majority of this equipment is still in the pipeline, and could tie the United States to the Saudi military for years to come.” Think about that for a moment: $115 billion for everything from small arms to tanks, combat aircraft, cluster bombs, and air-to-ground missiles (weaponry now being used to slaughter civilians in neighboring Yemen).
Of course, how else can the U.S. keep its near monopoly on the global arms trade and ensure that two sets of products — Hollywood movies and U.S. weaponry — will dominate the world’s business in things that go boom in the night? It’s a record to be proud of, especially since putting every advanced weapon imaginable in the hands of the Saudis will obviously help bring peace to a roiled region of the planet. (And if you arm the Saudis, you better do no less for the Israelis, hence the mind-boggling $38 billion in military aid the Obama administration recently signed on to for the next decade, the most Washington has ever offered any country, ensuring that arms will be flying into the Middle East, literally and figuratively, for years to come.)
Blessed indeed are the peacemakers — and of course you know that by “peacemaker” I mean the classic revolver that “won the West.”
Put another way…
You must be kidding!
The Race for the Generals: I mean, who’s got the biggest…
…list of retired generals and admirals? Does it surprise you that there are at least 198 retired commanders floating around in their golden parachutes, many undoubtedly still embedded in the military-industrial complex on corporate boards and the like, eager to enroll in the Trump and Clinton campaigns? Trump went first, releasing an “open letter” signed by 88 generals and admirals who were bravely standing up to reverse the “hollowing out of our military” and to “secure our borders, to defeat our Islamic supremacist adversaries, and restore law and order domestically.” (Partial translation: pour yet more money into our military as The Donald has promised to do.) They included such household names as Major General Joe Arbuckle, Rear Admiral James H. Flatley III, and Brigadier General Mark D. Scraba — or, hey!, one guy you might even remember: Lieutenant General William (“Jerry”) Boykin, the evangelical crusader who made the news in 2003 by claiming of a former Somali opponent, “I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God, and his was an idol.”
Somehow, those 88 Trumpian military types assumedly crawled out of “the rubble” under which, as The Donald informed us recently, the Obama administration has left the American high command. His crew, however, is undoubtedly not the “embarrassment” he refers to when talking about American generalship in these years.
Meanwhile, the Clintonites struck back with a list of 95, “including a number of 4-star generals,” many directly from under that rubble, and within the week had added 15 more to hit 110. Meanwhile, members of the intelligence community and the rest of the national security state, former presidential advisers and other officials, drum-beating neocons, and strategists of every sort from America’s disastrous wars of the last 15 years hustled to line up behind Hillary or The Donald.
If nothing else, all of it was a reminder of the bloated size and ever-increasing centrality of the post-9/11 national security state and the military-industrial complex that goes with it. The question is: Does it inspire you with confidence in our candidates, or leave you saying…
You must be kidding!
Conflicts of Interest and Access to the Oval Office: Let’s put aside a possible preemptive $25,000 bribe to Florida’s attorney general from the Donald J. Trump Foundation to prevent an investigation of a scam operation, Trump “University.” If that “donation” to a political action committee does turn out to have been a bribe, no one should be surprised, given that The Donald has long been a walking Ponzi scheme. Thanks to a recent superb investigative report by Kurt Eichenwald of Newsweek, consider instead what it might mean for him to enter the Oval Office when it comes to conflicts of interest and the “national security” of the country. Eichenwald concludes that Trump would be “the most conflicted president in American history,” since the Trump Organization has “deep ties to global financiers, foreign politicians, and even criminals” in both allied and enemy countries. Almost any foreign policy decision he might make could hurt or enrich his own businesses. There would, in essence, be no way to divest himself and his family from the international Trump branding machine. (Think Trump U. writ large.) And you hardly need ask yourself whether The Donald would “act in the interests of the United States or his wallet,” given his prior single-minded pursuit of self-enrichment.
So much for conflicts of interest, what about access? That, of course, brings up the Clintons, who, between 2001 and the moment Hillary announced her candidacy for president, managed to take in $153 million dollars (yes, that is not a misprint) for a combined 729 speeches at an average fee of $210,795. That includes Hillary’s 20-minute speech to eBay’s Women’s Initiative Network Summit in March 2015 for a reported $315,000 just a month before she made her announcement. It’s obviously not Hillary’s (or Bill’s) golden words that corporate executives truly care about and are willing to pay the big bucks for, but the hope of accessibility to both a past and a possible future president. After all, in the world of business, no one ever thinks they’re paying good money for nothing.
Do I need to say more than…
You must be kidding!
Of course, I could go on. I could bring up a Congress seemingly incapable of passing a bill to fund a government effort to prevent the Zika virus from spreading wildly in parts of this country. (You must be kidding!) I could discuss how the media fell face first into an SUV — NBC Nightly News, which I watch, used the video of Hillary Clinton stumbling and almost falling into that van, by my rough count, 15 times over four nights — and what it tells us about news “coverage” these days. (You must be kidding!) I could start in on the constant polls that flood our lives by confessing that I’m an addict and plan on joining Pollers Anonymous on November 9th, and then consider what it means to have such polls, and polls of polls, inundate us daily, teaching us about favorable/unfavorable splits, and offering endlessly varying snapshots of how we might or might not vote and which of us might or might not do it day so long before we ever hit a voting booth. (You must be kidding!) Or I could bring up the way, after five years of assiduous “research,” Donald Trump grudgingly acknowledged that Barack Obama was born in the United States and then essentially blamed the birther movement on Hillary Clinton. (You must be kidding!)
I could, in other words, continue welcoming you into an increasingly bizarre American landscape of war and peace (without a Tolstoy in sight).
Still, enough is enough, don’t you think? So let me stop here and, just for the hell of it, join me one last time in chanting: You must be kidding!
You Must Be Kidding!
I recently dug my mother’s childhood photo album out of the depths of my bedroom closet. When I opened it, I found that the glue she had used as a girl to paste her life in place had given way, and on many pages the photos were now in a jumble.
My mother was born early in the last century. Today, for most of that ancient collection of photos and memorabilia — drawings (undoubtedly hers), a Caruthers School of Piano program, a Camp Weewan-Eeta brochure, a Hyde Park High School junior prom “senior ticket,” and photos of unknown boys, girls, and adults — there’s no one left to tell me who was who or what was what.
In some of them, I can still recognize my mother’s youthful face, and that of her brother who died so long ago but remains quite recognizable (even so many decades before I knew him). As for the rest — the girl in what looks like a gym outfit doing a headstand, all those young women lined up on a beach in what must then have been risqué bathing suits, the boy kneeling with his arms outstretched toward my perhaps nine-year-old mother — they’ve all been swept away by the tides of time.
And so it goes, of course. For all of us, sooner or later.
My mother was never much for talking about the past. Intent on becoming a professional caricaturist, she lit out from her hometown, Chicago, for the city of her dreams, New York, and essentially never looked back. For whatever reason, looking back frightened her.
And in all those years when I might have pressed her for so much more about herself, her family, her youthful years, I was too young to give a damn. Now, I can’t tell you what I’d give to ask those questions and find out what I can never know. Her mother and father, my grandparents who died before I was born, her sister whom I met once at perhaps age six, her friends and neighbors, swains and sidekicks, they’re all now the dust of history in an album that is disintegrating into a pile of black flakes at the slightest touch. Even for me, most of the photos in it are as meaningless (if strangely moving) as ones you’d pick up in an antique store or at a garage sale.
Lost Children on a Destabilizing Planet
I just had — I won’t say celebrated — my 72nd birthday. It was a natural moment to think about both the past that stretches behind me and the truncated future ahead. Recently, in fact, I’ve had the dead on my mind. I’m about to recopy my ancient address book for what undoubtedly will be the last time. (Yes, I’m old enough to prefer all that information on paper, not in the ether.) And of course when I flip through those fading pages, I see, as befits my age, something like a book of the dead and realize that the next iteration will be so much shorter.
It’s sometimes said of the dead that they’ve “crossed over.” In the context of our present world, I’ve started thinking of them as refugees of a sort — every one of them uprooted from their lives (as we all will be one day) and sent across some unknown frontier into a truly foreign land. But if our fate is, in the end, to be the ultimate refugees, heading into a place where there will be no resettlement camps, assumedly nothing at all, I wonder, too, about the world after me, the one I’ll leave behind when I finally cross that border.
I wonder, too — how could I not with my future life as a “refugee” in mind? — about the 65 million human beings uprooted from their homes in 2015 alone, largely in places where we Americans have been fighting our wars for this last decade and a half. And it’s hard not to notice how many more have followed in their path this year, including at least 80,000 of the Sunni inhabitants of Iraq’s recently “liberated” and partially destroyed city of Fallujah. In the process, tens of millions of them have remained internal exiles in their own country (or what is left of it), while tens of millions have officially become refugees by crossing borders into Turkey, Lebanon, or Jordan, by taking to the seas in flimsy, overcrowded craft heading for Greece (from Turkey) or Italy (from Libya) moving onward in waves of desperation, hope, and despair, and drowning in alarming numbers. At the end of their journeys, they have sometimes found help and succor, but often enough only hostility and loathing, as if they were the ones who had committed a crime, done something wrong.
I think as well about the nearly 10% of Iraqi children, 1.5 million of them in a country gripped by chaos, war, ethnic conflict, insurgency, and terror who, according to a recent UNICEF report, have had to flee their homes since 2014, or the 20% of Iraqi kids (kids!) who are “at serious risk of death, injury, sexual violence, and recruitment into armed groups.” I think about the 51% of all those refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and elsewhere who were children, many separated from their parents and alone on Planet Earth.
No child deserves such a fate. Ever. Each uprooted child who has lost his or her parents, and perhaps access to education or any childhood at all, represents a crime against the future.
And I think often enough about our response to all this, the one we’ve practiced for the last 15 years: more bombs, more missiles, more drone strikes, more advisers, more special ops raids, more weapons deals, and with it all not success or victory by any imaginable standard, but only the further destabilization of increasing regions of the planet, the further spread of terror movements, and the generation of yet more uprooted human beings, lost children, refugees — ever more, that is, of the terrorized and the terrorists. If this represents the formula from hell, it’s also been a proven one over this last decade and a half. It works, as long as what you mean to do is bring chaos to significant swathes of the planet and force yet more children in ever more unimaginable situations.
If you live in the United States, it’s easy enough to be shocked (unless, of course, you’re a supporter) when Donald Trump calls for the banning of Muslims from this country, or Newt Gingrich advocates the testing of “every person here who is of a Muslim background and if they believe in sharia they should be deported,” or various Republican governors fight to keep a pitiful few Syrian refugees out of their states. It’s easy enough to tsk-tsk over such sentiments, cite a long tradition of American xenophobia and racism, and so on. In truth, however, most of this (however hair-raising) remains bluster at this point. The real “xenophobic” action has taken place in distant lands where the U.S. Air Force reigns supreme, where a country that once created the Marshall Plan to raise a continent leveled by war can no longer imagine investing in or creating anything but further vistas of destruction and destabilization.
The Muslims that Donald Trump wants to ban are, after all, the very ones his country has played such a part in uprooting and setting in motion. And how can the few who might ever make it to this country compare to the millions who have flooded Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, among other places, further destabilizing the Middle East (which, in case you forgot, remains the oil heartland of the planet)? Where is the Marshall Plan for them or for the rest of a region that the U.S. and its allies are now in the process of dismantling (with the eager assistance of the Islamic State, various extremist outfits, Bashar al-Assad, and quite a crew of others)?
What Bombs Can’t Build
We Americans think well of ourselves. From our presidents on down, we seldom hesitate to imagine our country as a singularly “exceptional” nation — and also as an exceptionally generous one. In recent years, however, that generosity has been little in evidence at home or abroad (except where the U.S. military is concerned). Domestically, the country has split between a rising 1% (and their handlers and enablers) and parts of the other 99% who feel themselves on the path to hell. Helped along by Donald Trump’s political circus, this has given the U.S. the look of a land spinning into something like Third World-ism, even though it remains the globe’s “sole superpower” and wealthiest country.
Meanwhile, our professed streak of generosity hasn’t extended to our own infrastructure, which — speaking of worlds swept away by the tides of time — would have boggled the minds of my parents and other Americans of their era. The idea that the country’s highways, byways, bridges, levees, pipelines, and so on could be decaying in significant ways and starved for dollars without a response from the political class would have been inconceivable to them. And it does represent a strikingly ungenerous message sent from that class to the children of some future America: you and the world you’ll inhabit aren’t worth our investment.
In these years — thank you, Osama bin Laden, ISIS, and endless American politicians, officials, military figures, and terror “experts” — fear has gripped the body politic over a phenomenon, terrorism, that, while dangerous, represents one of the lesser perils of American life. No matter. There’s a constant drumbeat of discussion about how to keep ourselves “safe” from terrorism in a world in which freelance lunatics with an assault rifle or a truck can indeed kill startling numbers of people in suicidal acts. The problem is that, in this era, preserving our “safety” always turns out to involve yet more bombs and missiles dropped in distant lands, more troops and special operators sent into action, greater surveillance of ourselves and everyone else. In other words, we’re talking about everything that further militarizes American foreign policy, puts the national security state in command, and assures the continued demobilization of a scared and rattled citizenry, even as, elsewhere, it creates yet more uprooted souls, more children without childhoods, more refugees.
Our leaders — and we, too — have grown accustomed to our particular version of eternal “wartime,” and to wars without end, wars guaranteed to go on and on as more parts of the planet plunge into hell. In all of this, any sense of American generosity, either of the spirit or of funds, seems to be missing in action. There isn’t the faintest understanding here that if you really don’t want to create generations of terrorists amid a growing population loosed from all the boundaries of normal life, you’d better have a Marshall Plan for the Greater Middle East.
It should be obvious (but isn’t in our American world) that bombs, whatever they may do, can never build anything. You’d better be ready instead to lend a genuine hand, a major one, in making half-decent lives possible for millions and millions of people now in turmoil. You’d better know that war isn’t actually the answer to any of this, that if ISIS is destroyed in a region reduced to rubble and without hope of better, a few years from now that brutal organization could look good in comparison to whatever comes down the pike. You’d better know that peaceful acts — peace being a word that, even rhetorically, has gone out of style in “wartime” Washington — are still possible in this world.
Lost to the Future
Before those tides wash us away, there’s always the urge to ensure that you’ll leave something behind. I fear that I’m already catching glimpses of what that might be, of the world after me, an American world that I would never have wanted to turn over to my own children or grandchildren, or anyone else’s. My country, the United States, is hardly the only one involved in what looks like a growing global debacle of destabilization: a tip of the hat is necessary to the Pakistanis, the Saudis, our European allies, the Brexit British, the Russians, and so many others.
I have to admit, however, that my own focus — my sense of duty, you might say — is to this country. I’ve never liked the all-American words “patriot” and “super-patriot,” which we only apply to ourselves — or those alternatives, “nationalist” and “ultranationalist,” which we reserve pejoratively for gung-ho foreigners. But if I can’t quite call myself either an American patriot or an American nationalist, I do care, above all, about what this country chooses to be, what it wants to become. I feel some responsibility for that and it pains me to see what’s happening to us, to the country and the people we seem to be preparing to be. We, too, are perhaps beginning to show the strains of the global destabilization now evidently underway and, unnerved, we are undoubtedly continuing to damage the future in ways still hard to assess.
Perhaps someday, someone will have one of my own childhood photo albums in their hands. The glue will have worn off, the photos will be heading toward the central crease, the pages will be flaking away, and the cast of characters, myself included, will be lost to the past, as so many of those children we had such a hand in uprooting and making into refugees will be lost to the future. At that moment, my fate will be the norm and there will be nothing to mourn about it. The fate of those lost children, if they become the norm, will however be the scandal of the century, and will represent genuine crimes against the future.
Copyright 2016 Tom Engelhardt
The World After Me
Vladimir Putin recently manned up and admitted it. The United States remains the planet’s sole superpower, as it has been since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. “America,” the Russian president said, “is a great power. Today, probably, the only superpower. We accept that.”
Think of us, in fact, as the default superpower in an ever more recalcitrant world.
Seventy-five years ago, at the edge of a global conflagration among rival great powers and empires, Henry Luce first suggested that the next century could be ours. In February 1941, in his magazine LIFE, he wrote a famous essay entitled “The American Century.” In it, he proclaimed that if only Americans would think internationally, surge into the world, and accept that they were already at war, the next hundred years would be theirs. Just over nine months later, the Japanese attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, plunging the country into World War II. At the time, however, Americans were still riven and confused about how to deal with spreading regional conflicts in Europe and Asia, as well as the rise of fascism and the Nazis.
That moment was indeed a horrific one, and yet it was also just a heightened version of what had gone before. For the previous half-millennium, there had seldom been a moment when at least two (and often three or more) European powers had not been in contention, often armed and violent, for domination and for control of significant parts of the planet. In those many centuries, great powers rose and fell and new ones, including Germany and Japan, came on the scene girded for imperial battle. In the process, a modern global arms race was launched to create ever more advanced and devastating weaponry based on the latest breakthroughs in the science of war. By August 1945, this had led to the release of an awesome form of primal energy in the first (and thus far only) use of nuclear weapons in wartime.
In the years that followed, the United States and the Soviet Union grew ever more “super” and took possession of destructive capabilities once left, at least in the human imagination, to the gods: the power to annihilate not just one enemy on one battlefield or one armada on one sea but everything. In the nearly half-century of the Cold War, the rivalry between them became apocalyptic in nature as their nuclear arsenals grew to monstrous proportions. As a result, with the exception of the Cuban Missile Crisis, they faced off against each other indirectly in “limited” proxy wars that, especially in Korea and Indochina, were of unparalleled technological ferocity.
Then, in 1991, the Soviet Union imploded and, for the first time in historical memory, there was only one power that mattered. This was a reality even Henry Luce might have found farfetched. Previously, the idea of a single power so mighty that it alone loomed over the planet was essentially relegated to fictional fantasies about extraordinary evil. And yet so it was — or at least so it seemed, especially to the leadership that took power in Washington in the year 2000 and soon enough were dreaming of a planetary Pax Americana.
In a strange way, something similarly unimaginable happened in Europe. On that continent laid waste by two devastating twentieth-century wars, a single “union” was formed, something that not so long before would have been categorized as a madly utopian project. The idea that centuries of national rivalries and the rabid nationalism that often went with it could somehow be tamed and that former great powers and imperial contenders could be subsumed in a single peaceful organization (even if under the aegis of American global power) would once have seemed like the most absurd of fictions. And yet so it would be — or so it seemed, at least until recently.
A Planetary Brexit?
We seldom take in the strangeness of what’s happened on this curious planet of ours. In the years after 1991, we became so inured to the idea of a single superpower globe and a single European economic and political union that both, once utterly inconceivable, came to seem too mundane to spend a lot of time thinking about. And yet who would have believed that 75 years after Luce urged his country into that American Century, there would, in military terms, be no genuine rivals, no other truly great powers (only regional ones) on Planet Earth?
So many taken-for-granted things about our world were considered utterly improbable before they happened. Take China. I recall well the day in 1972 when, after decades of non-contact and raging hostility, we learned that President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, were in Beijing meeting congenially with Communist leader Mao Zedong. A friend called to tell me the news. I thought he was joking and it struck me as a ridiculously lame joke at that.
There’s almost no way now to capture how improbable this seemed at the time — the leading communist revolutionary on the planet chatting cheerily with the prime representative of anti-communism. If, however, you had told me then that, in the decades to come, China would undergo a full-scale capitalist revolution and become the economic powerhouse of the planet, and that this would be done under the leadership of Mao’s still regnant communist party, I would have considered you mad.
And mind you, that’s just to begin to mention the improbabilities of the present moment. After all, in what fantasies — ever — about a globe with a single dominant power, would anyone have imagined that it might fail so utterly to bring the world to anything approximating heel? If you had told Henry Luce, or me, or anyone else, including the masters of the universe in Washington in 1991, that the only superpower left on Earth, with the best-funded, mightiest, most technologically destructive and advanced military imaginable, would, on September 11, 2001, be goaded by a group so modest in size and power as to be barely noticeable into a series of never-ending wars across the Greater Middle East and Africa, we would have found that beyond improbable.
Who would have believed a movie or novel in which that same power, without national enemies of any significance in any of the regions where the fighting was taking place, would struggle unsuccessfully, year after year, to subdue scattered, lightly armed insurgents (aka “terrorists”) across a disintegrating region? Who could have imagined that every measure Washington took to assert its might only seemed to blow back (or blow somewhere, anyway)? Who would have believed that its full-scale invasion of one weak Middle Eastern country, its “mission accomplished” moment, would in the end prove a trip through “the gates of hell”? Who would have imagined that such an invasion could punch a hole in the oil heartlands of the region that, 13 years later, is still a bleeding wound, now seemingly beyond repair, or that it would set loose a principle of chaos and disintegration that seems to be spreading like a planetary Brexit?
And what if I told you that, after 15 years of such behavior, the only thing the leaders of that superpower can now imagine doing in the increasingly wrecked lands where they carry on their struggles is yet more of everything that hasn’t worked in all that time? Meanwhile — how improbable is this? — in its “homeland,” there is essentially no one, neither a movement in the streets, nor critical voices in the corridors of power protesting what’s happening or even exploring or suggesting other paths into the future.
Imagine that, wherever you looked, except in the borderlands of (and waters off) Russia and China, that single superpower was essentially unopposed and yet its ability to apply its unique status effectively in these years has been in eternal free-fall — even in perfectly peaceable areas to which it was closely allied. As an example, consider this: the president of that sole superpower flies to London and, in an England that (like much of Europe) hasn’t said no to Washington about anything of genuine significance in decades, strongly urges the British not to exit (or “Brexit”) the European Union (EU). He backs up his suggestion with a clearly stated threat. If they do so, he says, our closest trans-Atlantic partner will find itself at “the back of the queue” when it comes to future trade deals with Washington.
Remember, we’re talking about a country that has, in these years, seconded the U.S. endlessly. As David Sanger of the New York Times recently (and delicately) put it:
“No country shares Washington’s worldview quite the way Britain does, [American officials] say; it has long been the United States’ most willing security ally, most effective intelligence partner and greatest enthusiast of the free-trade mantras that have been a keystone of America’s internationalist approach. And few nations were as willing to put a thumb as firmly on the scales of European debates in ways that benefit the United States.”
By now, of course, we all know how the populace of our most loyal ally, the other side of that “special relationship,” reacted — with anger at the president’s intervention and with a vote to exit the European Union not long after. In its wake, fears are rising of further Frexits and Nexits that might crack the EU open and usher in a new era of nationalist feeling in Europe.
As goes Britain, so, it seems, goes the world. Give Washington real credit for much of this. Those post-9/11 dreams of global domination shared by the top leadership of the Bush administration proved wildly destructive and it’s gotten no better since. Consider the vast swath of the planet where the devastation is most obvious: the Greater Middle East and North Africa. Then ask yourself: Are we still in the American Century? And if not, whose (or what) century are we in?
If you had told me in 1975, when the Vietnam War finally ended some 34 years after Luce wrote that essay and 28 years before the U.S. invaded Iraq that, in 1979, Washington would become involved in a decade-long war in Afghanistan, I would have been stunned. If you had told me in 1975 that, in 2001, it would invade that same country and launch a second Afghan War, still underway 15 years later with no end in sight, I wouldn’t have believed you. A quarter-century of American wars and still counting in a country that, in 1975, most Americans might not have been able to locate on a map. If you had added that, starting in 1990, the U.S. would be involved in three successive wars in Iraq, the third of which is still ongoing, I might have been speechless. And that’s not to mention interventions of various sorts, also ongoing, in Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, and Syria — none, by the way, by any normal standards successful.
If you were to do a little tabulation of the results of these years of American Century-ism across the Greater Middle East, you would discover a signature kind of chaos. In the early years of this century, officials of the Bush administration often referred to the region from China’s western border to northern Africa as an “arc of instability.” That phrase was meant to embody their explanation for letting the U.S. military loose there: to bring order and, of course, democracy to those lands. And with modest exceptions, it was indeed true that most of the Greater Middle East was then ruled by repressive, autocratic, or regressive regimes of various sorts. It was, however, still a reasonably orderly region. Now, it actually is an arc of instability filled with states that are collapsing left and right, cities and towns that are being leveled, and terror outfits, each worse than the last, that are spreading in the regional rubble. Religious and ethnic divisions of every sort are sharpening and conflicts within countries, or what’s left of them, are on the rise.
Most of the places where the U.S. has let its military and its air power loose — Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Syria – are now either failed or failing states. Under the circumstances, it might be reasonable to suggest that the very term “failed state” is outdated, and not just because it places all the blame for what’s happened on the indigenous people of a country. After all, if the arc of instability is now in any way “united,” it’s mainly thanks to spreading terror groups and perhaps the Islamic State brand.
Moreover, in the stunted imagination of present-day Washington, the only policies imaginable in response to all this are highly militarized and call for more of the same: more air power in the skies over distant battlefields, more boots on the ground, more private contractors and hired guns, more munitions and weaponry (surprising amounts of which have, in these years, ended up in the hands not of allied forces, but of Washington’s enemies), more special operations raids, more drone assassination campaigns, and at home, more surveillance, more powers for the national security state, more… well, you know the story.
For such a world, a new term is needed. Perhaps something like failed region. This, it seems, is one thing that the American Century has come to mean 75 years after Henry Luce urged it into existence. And perhaps lurking in the undergrowth as well is another phrase, one not quite yet imaginable but thoroughly chilling: failed world.
With this in mind, imagine what the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia could mean in the long run, or the recent U.S.-NATO pivot to the Baltics and Eastern Europe. If huge swaths of the planet have begun to disintegrate in an era when the worst the U.S. faced in the way of opponents has been minority insurgencies and terror outfits, or more recently a terror caliphate, consider for a moment what kinds of chaos could come to regions where a potentially hostile power remains. And by the way, don’t for a second think that, even if the Islamic State is finally defeated, worse can’t emerge from the chaos and rubble of the failed region that it will leave behind. It can and, odds on, it will.
All of this gives the very idea of an American Century new meaning. Can there be any question that this is not the century of Henry Luce, nor the one that American political and military leaders dreamed of when the Soviet Union collapsed? What comes to mind instead is the sentiment the Roman historian Tacitus put in the mouth of Calgacus, a chieftain in what is now Scotland, speaking of the Roman conquests of his time: “They make a desert and call it peace.”
Perhaps this is no longer really the American century at all, despite the continuing status of the U.S. as the planet’s sole superpower. A recent U.N. report estimates that, in 2015, a record 65 million people were uprooted, mainly in the Greater Middle East. Tens of millions of them crossed borders and became refugees, including staggering numbers of children, many separated from their parents. So perhaps this really is the century of the lost child.
What could be sadder?
Copyright 2016 Tom Engelhardt
Whose Century Is It?
Graduates of 2016, don’t be fooled by this glorious day. As you leave campus for the last time, many of you already deeply in debt and with a lifetime of payments to look forward to, you head into a world that’s anything but sunny. In fact, through those gates that have done little enough to protect you is the sort of fog bank that results in traffic pile-ups on any highway.
And if you imagine that I’m here to sweep that fog away and tell you what truly lies behind it, think again. My only consolation is that, if I can’t adequately explain our American world to you or your path through it, I doubt any other speaker could either.
Of course, it’s not exactly a fog-lifter to say that, like it or not, you’re about to graduate onto Planet Donald — and I don’t mean, for all but a few of you, a future round of golf at Mar-a-Lago. Our increasingly unnerved and disturbed world is his circus right now (whether he wins the coming election or not), just as in the Philippines, it’s the circus of new president Rodrigo Duterte; in Hungary, of right-wing populist Viktor Orbán; in Austria, of Norbert Hofer, the extremist anti-immigrant presidential candidate who just lost a squeaker by .6% of the vote; in Israel, of new defense minister Avigdor Lieberman; in Russia, of the autocratic Vladimir Putin; in France, of Marine le Pen, leader of the right-wing National Front party, who has sometimes led in polls for the next presidential election; and so on. And if you don’t think that’s a less than pretty political picture of our changing planet, then don’t wait for the rest of this speech, just hustle out those gates. You’ve got a treat ahead of you.
For the rest of us lingerers, it says something about where we all are that, once through those gates, you’ll still find yourself in the richest, most powerful country around, the planet’s “sole superpower.” (USA! USA!) It is, however, a superpower distinctly in decline on — and this is a historic first — a planet similarly in decline.
How Trumpian Is American Authoritarianism?
In its halcyon days, Washington could overthrow governments, install Shahs or other rulers, do more or less what it wanted across significant parts of the globe and reap rewards, while (as in the case of Iran) not paying any price, blowback-style, for decades, if at all. That was imperial power in the blaze of the noonday sun. These days, in case you hadn’t noticed, blowback for our imperial actions seems to arrive as if by high-speed rail (of which by the way, the greatest power on the planet has yet to build a single mile, if you want a quick measure of decline).
Despite having a more massive, technologically advanced, and better funded military than any other power or even group of powers on the planet, in the last decade and a half of constant war across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa, the U.S. has won nothing, nada, zilch. Its unending wars have, in fact, led nowhere in a world growing more chaotic by the second. Its militarized “milestones,” like the recent drone-killing in Pakistan of the leader of the Taliban, have proven repetitive signposts on what, even in the present fog, is surely the road to hell.
It’s been relatively easy, if you live here, to notice little enough of all this and — at least until Donald Trump arrived to the stunned fascination of the country (not to speak of the rest of the planet) — to imagine that we live in a peaceable land with most of its familiar markers still reassuringly in place. We still have elections, our tripartite form of government (as well as the other accoutrements of a democracy), our reverential view of our Constitution and the rights it endows us with, and so on. In truth, however, the American world is coming to bear ever less resemblance to the one we still claim as ours, or rather that older America looks increasingly like a hollowed-out shell within which something new and quite different has been gestating.
After all, can anyone really doubt that representative democracy as it once existed has been eviscerated and is now — consider Congress exhibit A — in a state of advanced paralysis, or that just about every aspect of the country’s infrastructure, is slowly fraying or crumbling and that little is being done about it? Can anyone doubt that the constitutional system — take war powers as a prime example or, for that matter, American liberties — has also been fraying? Can anyone doubt that the country’s classic tripartite form of government, from a Supreme Court missing a member by choice of Congress to a national security state that mocks the law, is ever less checked and balanced and increasingly more than “tri”?
In the Vietnam era, people first began talking about an “imperial presidency.” Today, in areas of overwhelming importance, the White House is, if anything, somewhat less imperial, but only because it’s more in thrall to the ever-expanding national security state. Though that unofficial fourth branch of government is seldom seriously considered when the ways in which our American world works are being described and though it has no place in the Constitution, it is increasingly the first branch of government in Washington, the one before which all the others kneel down.
There has, in this endless election season, been much discussion of Donald Trump’s potential for “authoritarianism” (or incipient “fascism,” or worse). It’s a subject generally treated as if it were some tendency or property unique to the man who rode a Trump Tower escalator into the presidential race to Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” or perhaps something from the 1930s that he carries in his jacket pocket and that his enthusiastic white working class followers are naturally drawn to and responsible for.
Few bother to consider the ways in which the foundations of authoritarianism have already been laid in this society — and not by disaffected working class white men either. Few bother to consider what it means to have a national security state and a massive military machine deeply embedded in our ruling city and our American world. Few think about the (count ’em!) 17 significant intelligence agencies that eat close to $70 billion annually or the trillion dollars or more a year that disappears into our national security world, or what it means for that state within a state, that shadow government, to become ever more powerful and autonomous in the name of American “safety,” especially from “terrorism” (though terrorism represents the most microscopic of dangers for most Americans).
In this long election season, amid all the charges leveled at Donald Trump, where have you seen serious discussion of what it means for the Pentagon’s spy drones to be flying missions over the “homeland” or for “intelligence” agencies to be wielding the kind of blanket surveillance of everyone’s communications — from foreign leaders to peasants in Afghanistan to American citizens — that, technologically speaking, put the totalitarian regimes of the previous century to shame? Is there nothing of the authoritarian lurking in all this? Could that urge really be the property of The Donald and his followers alone?
Perhaps it would be better to see Donald Trump as a symptom, not the problem itself, to think of him not as the Zika Virus but as the first infectious mosquito to hit the shores of this country. If you need proof that he’s at worst a potential aider and abettor of authoritarianism, just take a look at the rest of our world, where the mosquitoes are many and the virus of right-wing authoritarianism spreading rapidly with the rise of a new nationalism (that often goes hand in hand with anti-immigrant fervor of a Trumpian sort). He is, in other words, just one particularly bizarre figure in an increasingly crowded room.
Bursting Bubbles and Melting Ice Caps
If, as the first openly declinist presidential candidate, it’s The Donald’s job to make America great again, and if, despite its obvious wealth and military strength, the heartlands of the U.S. do look ever more Third World-ish, then consider the rest of the planet. Is there any place that doesn’t look at least a little, and in a remarkable number of cases, a lot the worse for wear? Leave aside those parts of the world from Afghanistan to Syria, Yemen to Libya, Nigeria to Venezuela that increasingly have the look of incipient or completely failed states. Consider instead that former Cold War enemy, that “Evil Empire” of a previous incarnation, the once-upon-a-time Soviet Union, now Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
It has made it to the top of the American military’s list of enemies. And yet, despite its rebuilt military and still massive nuclear arsenal, the superpower of yesterday is now a rickety petro-state with a restive population, a country that is neither great, nor rising, and may in fact be in genuine trouble. Yes, it has been aggressive in its borderlands (though largely in response to a sense of, or fear of, being aggressed upon) and yes, it is an authoritarian land, but no longer is it the planet’s second superpower or anything remotely like it. Its future looks, at best, insecure, at worst bleak indeed.
Even China, the only obvious rising power on the planet (now that countries like Brazil and South Africa are falling by the wayside), that genuine economic powerhouse of the last decade, has seen its economy slow significantly. In such a moment, who knows what one burst bubble, real estate or otherwise, might do there? An economic meltdown in the People’s Republic, with an expanding middle class that still remains small compared to its peasant masses, and an unparalleled record of peasant revolts extending back centuries, could prove an ominous event.
And mind you, graduates of 2016, that’s just to begin a discussion of the stresses on a planet whose ice caps are melting, sea levels rising, waters warming, forests drying, fire seasons expanding, storms intensifying, and temperatures rising (while petro-states, frackers, and giant oil companies keep pumping fossil fuels in ever more inventive ways as if there were — and don’t just think of it as a figure of speech — no tomorrow). In such a situation, no place, including this country, is too big to fail. And on such a helter-skelter planet, who will be there to bail out the too-big-to-fail states or anyone else? Judging by none-too-big-to-fail countries like Libya, Yemen, and Syria that have already essentially collapsed, the answer might be no one.
Decades ago, in the mid-1970s, in the first book I ever wrote, I labeled our American world “beyond our control.” Little did I know!
American Magical Realism
Now, let’s turn to you, graduates of 2016, and while we’re at it, to what we’re still calling an “election.” I’m talking about the roiling, ever-expanding phenomenon that now fills our TV screens and the “news” more or less 24/7 and for which, whatever he’s done and whomever he’s insulted, Donald Trump cannot all by himself be held to blame.
There is, to my mind, one question that makes what we call “election 2016” of paramount interest, even if we seldom bother to think about it: What the hell is it? We still refer to it as an “election,” of course, and on November 4th millions of us will indeed enter voting booths and opt for a candidate. Still, don’t tell me that, in any normal sense, this is an election, this weird money machine pouring billions and billions of dollars into the coffers of media barons, this endless, overblown, onrushing event with its “debates” and insults and anger and minute-by-minute polling results and squadrons of talking heads yammering away about nothing in particular, this bizarre stage set for an utterly unfiltered narcissist and reality-show host and casino owner and bankruptee and braggart and liar and fantasist and womanizer and… well, you know the list better than I do. Yes, it will put someone in the Oval Office next January and fill Congress with the usual set of clashing deadheads, but in any past sense of the word, an election? I don’t think so.
Don’t tell me it isn’t something new and different. Everyone knows it is. But what, exactly? I have no idea. It’s clear enough, however, that our American system is morphing in ways for which we have no names, no adequate descriptive vocabulary. Perhaps it’s not just that we have no clear bead on what’s going on, but that we prefer not to know.
Whether Donald Trump wins or not, rest assured that we all have an education ahead of us. This, after all, is our world now. You have no choice but to leave these grounds and neither, in a sense, do your parents, grandparents, siblings, friends, the whole lot of us. Whether we like it or not, we’re all being shoved unceremoniously into an American world that’s changing in unnerving ways on a planet itself in transformation.
Which brings me to the task ahead of your generation (not mine), as I imagine it. After all, I’m almost 72 years old. I’m superannuated. When something goes wrong on my computer I genuinely believe myself doomed, grieve for the lost days of the typewriter, and then, in despair, call my daughter. And if I can’t even grasp the basics of the machine I now live on much of the time, how likely is it that I — and my ilk — can grasp the world in which it’s implanted?
As I see it, you’ve been attending classes, studying, and preparing all these years for just this moment. Now, it’s your job to step into the fog-bound landscape beyond these gates where the pile-ups are already happening and make sense of it for the rest of us. Soon, graduates of 2016, you will leave this campus. The question is: What can you do for yourself and the rest of us then?
Here’s my thought: to change this world of ours, you first have to name (or rename) it, as any magical realist novelist from Gabriel Garcia Márquez on has long known. The world is only yours when you’ve given it and its component parts names.
If there’s one thing that the Occupy Wall Street movement reminded us of, it was this: that the first task in changing our world is to find new words to describe it. In 2011, that movement arrived at Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan calling the masters of our universe “the 1%” and the rest of us “the 99%.” Simply wielding those two phrases brought to the fore a set of previously half-seen realities — the growing inequality gap in this country and the world — and so briefly electrified the country and changed the conversation. By relabeling the mental map of our world, those protesters cleared some of the fog away, allowing us to begin to imagine paths through it and so ways to act.
Right now, we need you to take these last four hard years and everything you know, including what you weren’t taught in any classroom but learned on your own — your experience, for instance, of your education as a financial rip-off — and tell those of us in desperate need of fresh eyes just how our world should be described.
In order to act, in order to change much of anything, you first need to give that world the names, the labels, it deserves, and they may not be “election” or “democracy” or so many of the other commonplace words of our past and our present moment. Otherwise, we’ll all continue to spend our time struggling to grasp ghostly shapes in that fog.
Now, all you graduates, form up your serried ranks, muster the words you’ve taken four years to master, and prepare to march out of those gates and begin to apply them in ways that your elders are incapable of doing.
Class of 2016, tell us who we are and where we are.
Copyright 2016 Tom Engelhardt
Class of 2016, Tell Us Who We Are
There are the news stories that genuinely surprise you, and then there are the ones that you could write in your sleep before they happen. Let me concoct an example for you:
“Top American and European military leaders are weighing options to step up the fight against the Islamic State in the Mideast, including possibly sending more U.S. forces into Iraq, Syria, and Libya, just as Washington confirmed the second American combat casualty in Iraq in as many months.”
Oh wait, that was actually the lead sentence in a May 3rd Washington Times piece by Carlo Muñoz. Honestly, though, it could have been written anytime in the last few months by just about anyone paying any attention whatsoever, and it surely will prove reusable in the months to come (with casualty figures altered, of course). The sad truth is that across the Greater Middle East and expanding parts of Africa, a similar set of lines could be written ahead of time about the use of Special Operations forces, drones, advisers, whatever, as could the sorry results of making such moves in [add the name of your country of choice here].
Put another way, in a Washington that seems incapable of doing anything but worshiping at the temple of the U.S. military, global policymaking has become a remarkably mindless military-first process of repetition. It’s as if, as problems built up in your life, you looked in the closet marked “solutions” and the only thing you could ever see was one hulking, over-armed soldier, whom you obsessively let loose, causing yet more damage.
How Much, How Many, How Often, and How Destructively
In Iraq and Syria, it’s been mission creep all the way. The B-52s barely made it to the battle zone for the first time and were almost instantaneously in the air, attacking Islamic State militants. U.S. firebases are built ever closer to the front lines. The number of special ops forces continues to edge up. American weapons flow in (ending up in god knows whose hands). American trainers and advisers follow in ever increasing numbers, and those numbers are repeatedly fiddled with to deemphasize how many of them are actually there. The private contractors begin to arrive in numbers never to be counted. The local forces being trained or retrained have their usual problems in battle. American troops and advisers who were never, never going to be “in combat” or “boots on the ground” themselves now have their boots distinctly on the ground in combat situations. The first American casualties are dribbling in. Meanwhile, conditions in tottering Iraq and the former nation of Syria grow ever murkier, more chaotic, and less amenable by the week to any solution American officials might care for.
And the response to all this in present-day Washington?
You know perfectly well what the sole imaginable response can be: sending in yet more weapons, boots, air power, special ops types, trainers, advisers, private contractors, drones, and funds to increasingly chaotic conflict zones across significant swaths of the planet. Above all, there can be no serious thought, discussion, or debate about how such a militarized approach to our world might have contributed to, and continues to contribute to, the very problems it was meant to solve. Not in our nation’s capital, anyway.
The only questions to be argued about are how much, how many, how often, and how destructively. In other words, the only “antiwar” position imaginable in Washington, where accusations of weakness or wimpishness are a dime a dozen and considered lethal to a political career, is how much less of more we can afford, militarily speaking, or how much more of somewhat less we can settle for when it comes to militarized death and destruction. Never, of course, is a genuine version of less or a none-at-all option really on that “table” where, it’s said, all policy options are kept.
Think of this as Washington’s military addiction in action. We’ve been watching it for almost 15 years without drawing any of the obvious conclusions. And lest you imagine that “addiction” is just a figure of speech, it isn’t. Washington’s attachment — financial, tactical, and strategic — to the U.S. military and its supposed solutions to more or less all problems in what used to be called “foreign policy” should by now be categorized as addictive. Otherwise, how can you explain the last decade and a half in which no military action from Afghanistan to Iraq, Yemen to Libya worked out half-well in the long run (or even, often enough, in the short run), and yet the U.S. military remains the option of first, not last, resort in just about any imaginable situation? All this in a vast region in which failed states are piling up, nations are disintegrating, terror insurgencies are spreading, humongous population upheavals are becoming the norm, and there are refugee flows of a sort not seen since significant parts of the planet were destroyed during World War II.
Either we’re talking addictive behavior or failure is the new success.
Keep in mind, for instance, that the president who came into office swearing he would end a disastrous war and occupation in Iraq is now overseeing a new war in an even wider region that includes Iraq, a country that is no longer quite a country, and Syria, a country that is now officially kaput. Meanwhile, in the other war he inherited, Barack Obama almost immediately launched a military-backed “surge” of U.S. forces, the only real argument being over whether 40,000 (or even as many as 80,000) new U.S. troops would be sent into Afghanistan or, as the “antiwar” president finally decided, a mere 30,000 (which made him an absolute wimp to his opponents). That was 2009. Part of that surge involved an announcement that the withdrawal of American combat forces would begin in 2011. Seven years later, that withdrawal has once again been halted in favor of what the military has taken to privately calling a “generational approach” — that is, U.S. forces remaining in Afghanistan into at least the 2020s.
The military term “withdrawal” may, however, still be appropriate even if the troops are staying in place. After all, as with addicts of any sort, the military ones in Washington can’t go cold turkey without experiencing painful symptoms of withdrawal. In American political culture, these manifest themselves in charges of “weakness” when it comes to “national security” that could prove devastating in the next election. That’s why those running for office compete with one another in over-the-top descriptions of what they will do to enemies and terrorists (from acts of torture to carpet-bombing) and in even more over-the-top promises of “rebuilding” or “strengthening” what’s already the largest, most expensive military on the planet, a force better funded at present than those of at least the next seven nations combined.
Such promises, the bigger the better, are now a necessity if you happen to be a Republican candidate for president. The Democrats have a lesser but similar set of options available, which is why even Bernie Sanders only calls for holding the Pentagon budget at its present staggering level or for the most modest of cuts, not for reducing it significantly. And even when, for instance, the urge to rein in military expenses did sweep Washington as part of an overall urge to cut back government expenses, it only resulted in a half-secret slush fund or “war budget” that kept the goodies flowing in.
These should all be taken as symptoms of Washington’s military addiction and of what happens when the slightest signs of withdrawal set in. The U.S. military is visibly the drug of choice in the American political arena and, as is only appropriate for the force that has, since 2002, funded, armed, and propped up the planet’s largest supplier of opium, once you’re hooked, there’s no shaking it.
Recently, in the New York Times Magazine, journalist Mark Landler offered a political portrait entitled “How Hillary Clinton Became a Hawk.” He laid out just how the senator and later secretary of state remade herself as, essentially, a military groupie, fawning over commanders or former commanders ranging from then-General David Petraeus to Fox analyst and retired general Jack Keane; how, that is, she became a figure, even on the present political landscape, notable for her “appetite for military engagement abroad” (and as a consequence, well-defended against Republican charges of “weakness”).
There’s no reason, however, to pin the war-lover or “last true hawk” label on her alone, not in present-day Washington. After all, just about everyone there wants a piece of the action. During their primary season debates, for instance, a number of the Republican candidates spoke repeatedly about building up the U.S. Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, while making that already growing force sound like a set of decrepit barges.
To offer another example, no presidential candidate these days could afford to reject the White House-run drone assassination program. To be assassin-in-chief is now considered as much a part of the presidential job description as commander-in-chief, even though the drone program, like so many other militarized foreign policy operations these days, shows little sign of reining in terrorism despite the number of “bad guys” and terror “leaders” it kills (along with significant numbers of civilian bystanders). To take Bernie Sanders as an example — because he’s as close to an antiwar candidate as you’ll find in the present election season — he recently put something like his stamp of approval on the White House drone assassination project and the “kill list” that goes with it.
Mind you, there is simply no compelling evidence that the usual military solutions have worked or are likely to work in any imaginable sense in the present conflicts across the Greater Middle East and Africa. They have clearly, in fact, played a major role in the creation of the present disaster, and yet there is no place at all in our political system for genuinely antiwar figures (as there was in the Vietnam era, when a massive antiwar movement created space for such politics). Antiwar opinions and activities have now been driven to the peripheries of the political system along with a word like, say, “peace,” which you will be hard-pressed to find, even rhetorically, in the language of “wartime” Washington.
The Look of “Victory”
If a history were to be written of how the U.S. military became Washington’s drug of choice, it would undoubtedly have to begin in the Cold War era. It was, however, in the prolonged moment of triumphalism that followed the Soviet Union’s implosion in 1991 that the military gained its present position of unquestioned dominance.
In those days, people were still speculating about whether the country would reap a “peace dividend” from the end of the Cold War. If there was ever a moment when the diversion of money from the U.S. military and the national security state to domestic concerns might have seemed like a no-brainer, that was it. After all, except for a couple of rickety “rogue states” like North Korea or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, where exactly were this country’s enemies to be found? And why should such a muscle-bound military continue to gobble up tax dollars at such a staggering rate in a reasonably peaceable world?
In the decade or so that followed, however, Washington’s dreams turned out to run in a very different direction — toward a “war dividend” at a moment when the U.S. had, by more or less universal agreement, become the planet’s “sole superpower.” The crew who entered the White House with George W. Bush in a deeply contested election in 2000 had already been mainlining the military drug for years. To them, this seemed a planet ripe for the taking. When 9/11 hit, it loosed their dreams of conquest and control, and their faith in a military that they believed to be unstoppable. Of course, given the previous century of successful anti-imperial and national independence movements, anyone should have known that, no matter the armaments at hand, resistance was an inescapable reality on Planet Earth.
Thanks to such predictable resistance, the drug-induced imperial dreamscape of the Busheviks would prove a fantasy of the first order, even if, in that post-9/11 moment, it passed for bedrock (neo)realism. If you remember, the U.S. was to “take the gloves off” and release a military machine so beyond compare that nothing would be capable of standing in its path. So the dream went, so the drug spoke. Don’t forget that the greatest military blunder (and crime) of this century, the invasion of Iraq, wasn’t supposed to be the end of something, but merely its beginning. With Iraq in hand and garrisoned, Washington was to take down Iran and sweep up what Russian property from the Cold War era still remained in the Middle East. (Think: Syria.)
A decade and a half later, those dreams have been shattered, and yet the drug still courses through the bloodstream, the military bands play on, and the march to… well, who knows where… continues. In a way, of course, we do know where (to the extent that we humans, with our limited sense of the future, can know anything). In a way, we’ve already been shown a spectacle of what “victory” might look like once the Greater Middle East is finally “liberated” from the Islamic State.
The descriptions of one widely hailed victory over that brutal crew in Iraq — the liberation of the city of Ramadi by a U.S.-trained elite Iraqi counterterrorism force backed by artillery and American air power — are devastating. Aided and abetted by Islamic State militants igniting or demolishing whole neighborhoods of that city, the look of Ramadi retaken should give us a grim sense of where the region is heading. Here’s how the Associated Press recently described the scene, four months after the city fell:
“This is what victory looks like…: in the once thriving Haji Ziad Square, not a single structure still stands. Turning in every direction yields a picture of devastation. A building that housed a pool hall and ice cream shops — reduced to rubble. A row of money changers and motorcycle repair garages — obliterated, a giant bomb crater in its place. The square’s Haji Ziad Restaurant, beloved for years by Ramadi residents for its grilled meats — flattened. The restaurant was so popular its owner built a larger, fancier branch across the street three years ago. That, too, is now a pile of concrete and twisted iron rods.
“The destruction extends to nearly every part of Ramadi, once home to 1 million people and now virtually empty.”
Keep in mind that, with oil prices still deeply depressed, Iraq essentially has no money to rebuild Ramadi or anyplace else. Now imagine, as such “victories” multiply, versions of similar devastation spreading across the region.
In other words, one likely end result of the thoroughly militarized process that began with the invasion of Iraq (if not of Afghanistan) is already visible: a region shattered and in ruins, filled with uprooted and impoverished people. In such circumstances, it may not even matter if the Islamic State is defeated. Just imagine what Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and still in the Islamic State’s hands, will be like if, someday, the long-promised offensive to liberate it is ever truly launched. Now, try to imagine that movement itself destroyed, with its “capital,” Raqqa, turned into another set of ruins, and remind me: What exactly is likely to emerge from such a future nightmare? Nothing, I suspect, that is likely to cheer up anyone in Washington.
And what should be done about all this? You already know Washington’s solution — more of the same — and breaking such a cycle of addiction is difficult even under the best of circumstances. Unfortunately, at the moment there is no force, no movement on the American scene that could open up space for such a possibility. No matter who is elected president, you already know more or less what American “policy” is going to be.
But don’t bother to blame the politicians and national security nabobs in Washington for this. They’re addicts. They can’t help themselves. What they need is rehab. Instead, they continue to run our world. Be suitably scared for the ruins still to come.
Washington’s Military Addiction
“Low-energy Jeb.” “Little Marco.” “Lyin’ Ted.” “Crooked Hillary.” Give Donald Trump credit. He has a memorable way with insults. His have a way of etching themselves on the brain. And they’ve garnered media coverage, analysis, and commentary almost beyond imagining. Memorable as they might be, however, they won’t be what last of Trump’s 2016 election run. That’s surely reserved for a single slogan that will sum up his candidacy when it’s all over (no matter how it ends). He arrived with it on that Trump Tower escalator in the first moments of his campaign and it now headlines his website, where it’s also emblazoned on an array of products from hats to t-shirts.
You already know which line I mean: “Make America Great Again!” With that exclamation point ensuring that you won’t miss the hyperbolic, Trumpian nature of its promise to return the country to its former glory days. In it lies the essence of his campaign, of what he’s promising his followers and Americans generally — and yet, strangely enough, of all his lines, it’s the one most taken for granted, the one that’s been given the least thought and analysis. And that’s a shame, because it represents something new in our American age. The problem, I suspect, is that what first catches the eye is the phrase “Make America Great” and then, of course, the exclamation point, while the single most important word in the slogan, historically speaking, is barely noted: “again.”
With that “again,” Donald Trump crossed a line in American politics that, until his escalator moment, represented a kind of psychological taboo for politicians of any stripe, of either party, including presidents and potential candidates for that position. He is the first American leader or potential leader of recent times not to feel the need or obligation to insist that the United States, the “sole” superpower of Planet Earth, is an “exceptional” nation, an “indispensable” country, or even in an unqualified sense a “great” one. His claim is the opposite. That, at present, America is anything but exceptional, indispensable, or great, though he alone could make it “great again.” In that claim lies a curiosity that, in a court of law, might be considered an admission of guilt. Yes, it says, if one man is allowed to enter the White House in January 2017, this could be a different country, but — and in this lies the originality of the slogan — it is not great now, and in that admission-that-hasn’t-been-seen-as-an-admission lies something new on the American landscape.
Donald Trump, in other words, is the first person to run openly and without apology on a platform of American decline. Think about that for a moment. “Make America Great Again!” is indeed an admission in the form of a boast. As he tells his audiences repeatedly, America, the formerly great, is today a punching bag for China, Mexico… well, you know the pitch. You don’t have to agree with him on the specifics. What’s interesting is the overall vision of a country lacking in its former greatness.
Perhaps a little history of American greatness and presidents (as well as presidential candidates) is in order here.
“City Upon a Hill”
Once upon a time, in a distant America, the words “greatest,” “exceptional,” and “indispensable” weren’t even part of the political vocabulary. American presidents didn’t bother to claim any of them for this country, largely because American wealth and global preeminence were so indisputable. We’re talking about the 1950s and early 1960s, the post-World War II and pre-Vietnam “golden” years of American power. Despite a certain hysteria about the supposed dangers of domestic communists, few Americans then doubted the singularly unchallengeable power and greatness of the country. It was such a given, in fact, that it was simply too self-evident for presidents to cite, hail, or praise.
So if you look, for instance, at the speeches of John F. Kennedy, you won’t find them littered with exceptionals, indispensables, or their equivalents. In a pre-inaugural speech he gave in January 1961 on the kind of government he planned to bring to Washington, for instance, he did cite the birth of a “great republic,” the United States, and quoted Puritan John Winthrop on the desirability of creating a country that would be “a city upon a hill” to the rest of the world, with all of humanity’s eyes upon us. In his inaugural address (“Ask not what your country can do for you…”), he invoked a kind of unspoken greatness, saying, “We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” It was then common to speak of the U.S. with pride as a “free nation” (as opposed to the “enslaved” ones of the communist bloc) rather than an exceptional one. His only use of “great” was to invoke the U.S.-led and Soviet Union-led blocs as “two great and powerful groups of nations.”
Kennedy could even fall back on a certain modesty in describing the U.S. role in the world (that, in those years, from Guatemala to Iran to Cuba, all too often did not carry over into actual policy), saying in one speech, “we must face the fact that the United States is neither omnipotent or omniscient — that we are only six percent of the world’s population — that we cannot impose our will upon the other 94 percent of mankind — that we cannot right every wrong or reverse each adversity — and that therefore there cannot be an American solution to every world problem.” In that same speech, he typically spoke of America as “a great power” — but not “the greatest power.”
If you didn’t grow up in that era, you may not grasp that none of this in any way implied a lack of national self-esteem. Quite the opposite, it implied a deep and abiding confidence in the overwhelming power and presence of this country, a confidence so unshakeable that there was no need to speak of it.
If you want a pop cultural equivalent for this, consider America’s movie heroes of that time, actors like John Wayne and Gary Cooper, whose Westerns and in the case of Wayne, war movies, were iconic. What’s striking when you look back at them from the present moment is this: while neither of those actors was anything but an imposing figure, they were also remarkably ordinary looking. They were in no way over-muscled nor in their films were they over-armed in the modern fashion. It was only in the years after the Vietnam War, when the country had absorbed what felt like a grim defeat, been wracked by oppositional movements, riots, and assassinations, when a general sense of loss had swept over the polity, that the over-muscled hero, the exceptional killing machine, made the scene. (Think: Rambo.)
Consider this, then, if you want a definition of decline: when you have to state openly (and repeatedly) what previously had been too obvious to say, you’re heading, as the opinion polls always like to phrase it, in the wrong direction; in other words, once you have to say it, especially in an overemphatic way, you no longer have it.
The Reagan Reboot
That note of defensiveness first crept into the American political lexicon with the unlikeliest of politicians: Ronald Reagan, the man who seemed like the least defensive, most genial guy on the planet. On this subject at least, think of him as Trumpian before the advent of The Donald, or at least as the man who (thanks to his ad writers) invented the political use of the word “again.” It was, after all, employed in 1984 in the seminal ad of his political run for a second term in office. While that bucolic-looking TV commercial was entitled “Prouder, Stronger, Better,” its first line ever so memorably went, “It’s morning again in America.” (“Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?”)
Think of this as part of a post-Vietnam Reagan reboot, a time when the U.S. in Rambo-esque fashion was quite literally muscling up and over-arming in a major way. Reagan presided over “the biggest peacetime defense build-up in history” against what, referencing Star Wars, he called an “evil empire” — the Soviet Union. In those years, he also worked to rid the country of what was then termed “the Vietnam Syndrome” in part by rebranding that war a “noble cause.” In a time when loss and decline were much on the American brain, he dismissed them both, even as he set the country on a path toward the present moment of 1% dysfunction in a country that no longer invests fully in its own infrastructure, whose wages are stagnant, whose poor are a growth industry, whose wealth now flows eternally upward in a political environment awash in the money of the ultra-wealthy, and whose over-armed military continues to pursue a path of endless failure in the Greater Middle East.
Reagan, who spoke directly about American declinist thinking in his time — “Let’s reject the nonsense that America is doomed to decline” — was hardly shy about his superlatives when it came to this country. He didn’t hesitate to re-channel classic American rhetoric ranging from Winthop’s “shining city upon a hill” (perhaps cribbed from Kennedy) in his farewell address to Lincoln-esque (“the last best hope of man on Earth”) invocations like “here in the heartland of America lives the hope of the world” or “in a world wracked by hatred, economic crisis, and political tension, America remains mankind’s best hope.”
And yet, in the 1980s, there were still limits to what needed to be said about America. Surveying the planet, you didn’t yet have to refer to us as the “greatest” country of all or as the planet’s sole truly “exceptional” country. Think of such repeated superlatives of our own moment as defensive markers on the declinist slope. The now commonplace adjective “indispensable” as a stand-in for American greatness globally, for instance, didn’t even arrive until Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright began using it in 1996. It only became an indispensable part of the rhetorical arsenal of American politicians, from President Obama on down, a decade-plus into the twenty-first century when the country’s eerie dispensability (unless you were a junkie for failed states and regional chaos) became ever more apparent.
As for the U.S. being the planet’s “exceptional” nation, a phrase that now seems indelibly in the American grain and that no president or presidential candidate has avoided, it’s surprising how late that entered the presidential lexicon. As John Gans Jr. wrote in the Atlantic in 2011, “Obama has talked more about American exceptionalism than Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush combined: a search on UC Santa Barbara’s exhaustive presidential records library finds that no president from 1981 to today uttered the phrase ‘American exceptionalism’ except Obama. As U.S. News‘ Robert Schlesinger wrote, ‘American exceptionalism’ is not a traditional part of presidential vocabulary. According to Schlesinger’s search of public records, Obama is the only president in 82 years to use the term.”
And yet in recent years it has become a commonplace of Republicans and Democrats alike. In other words, as the country has become politically shakier, the rhetoric about its greatness has only escalated in an American version of “the lady doth protest too much.” Such descriptors have become the political equivalent of litmus tests: you couldn’t be president or much of anything else without eternally testifying to your unwavering belief in American greatness.
This, of course, is the line that Trump crossed in a curiously unnoticed fashion in this election campaign. He did so by initially upping the rhetorical ante, adding that exclamation point (which even Reagan avoided). Yet in the process of being more patriotically correct than thou, he somehow also waded straight into American decline so bluntly that his own audience could hardly miss it (even if his critics did).
Think of it as an irony, if you wish, but the ultimate American narcissist, in promoting his own rise, has also openly promoted a version of decline and fall to striking numbers of Americans. For his followers, a major political figure has quit with the defensive BS and started saying it the way it is.
Of course, don’t furl the flag or shut down those offshore accounts or start writing the complete history of American decline quite yet. After all, the United States still looms “lone” on an ever more chaotic planet. Its wealth remains stunning, its economic clout something to behold, its tycoons the envy of the Earth, and its military beyond compare when it comes to how much and how destructively, even if not how successfully. Still, make no mistake about it, Donald Trump is a harbinger, however bizarre, of a new American century in which this country will indeed no longer be (with a bow to Muhammad Ali) “the Greatest” or, for all but a shrinking crew, exceptional.
So mark your calendars: 2016 is the official year the U.S. first went public as a declinist power and for that you can thank Donald — or rather Donald! — Trump.
The Real Meaning of Donald Trump
Think of the 2016 presidential campaign as the political equivalent of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. It’s loud; there are plenty of abusive special effects; the critics hate it, but the crowds turn out; a media company or three rake in the dough; and foreigners can’t get enough of this new vision of the American way of life — or is it of a Bizarro world?
If you prefer, you could think of Campaign 2016, the never-ending blockbuster, as an affirmation that, whatever the hell this country is, it’s still, like Hollywood, at the top of the heap. When it comes to gluing eyeballs, it remains the “sole superpower” on Planet Earth. Think of it, in fact, any way you like, but just notice that the only thing you can’t do is not think about it.
This came to my mind recently on my daily trip to the gym. A TV is always on in the anteroom you pass through to reach the men’s locker room. A couple of weeks ago, I started to jot down what was onscreen. So let me give you a rundown of one week’s worth of my comings and goings.
Monday: This proved the oddball news day of my exercise week. As I arrived, CNN was reporting from a “locked down” Capitol — shots of people running hither and yon — and it was still doing so with remarkably similar shots an hour and 40 minutes later when I left. It turned out that some madman — and I mean that quite literally since, on an earlier occasion, the same fellow was arrested for shouting that he was “a prophet of God” from the gallery of the House of Representatives — had pulled out a pellet gun in the Capitol’s visiting area and been shot by the police. In the new American media world in which 24/7 obsession is the definition of news, that minor story played nonstop for the rest of the day and I caught it again leading NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt (“Gunman at U.S. Capitol Shot by Police”).
Tuesday, as I walked in, CNN was focused on the arrest of Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, for an “assault” on Breitbart News reporter Michelle Fields in Jupiter, Florida (the American version of outer space). As I left, Governor John Kasich on MSNBC was just “weighing in” on — you guessed it — Lewandowski’s “alleged battery,” with a Washington Post reporter on deck, ready to offer crucial analysis on the same subject, while a Donald Trump tweet was also under discussion.
Wednesday as I arrived, MSNBC was reporting that a new Hillary Clinton ad had just blasted — you guessed it again — Donald Trump for “xenophobia” and that she was four percentage points behind Bernie Sanders in the latest Wisconsin poll. On the crawler at the bottom of the screen, Trump’s campaign manager was said to have declared himself “absolutely innocent” of the battery charge. On my way out, I found correspondent Katy Tur “awaiting” Trump’s arrival at a stop in Wisconsin. And oh yes, women, I learned, disliked Trump for his “some form of punishment” abortion comment.
Thursday as I came in, MSNBC was showing a Jimmy Kimmel Live! clip in which Ted Cruz half-jokingly told the nighttime host that, were he to see — yes, you guessed it yet again! — The Donald through his rearview mirror in a parking lot as he was backing up, he wasn’t quite sure which pedal he’d hit, the gas or the brake. On leaving, I wandered past a crew of Washington Post writers discussing — yep! — Donald Trump’s first meeting with his foreign policy advisers in Washington. He was, I was fascinated to learn, “huddling” with them.
Friday, I arrived just as the CNN Newsroom with Brooke Baldwin was revving up under the logo “America’s Choice 2016.” “Wisconsin,” Baldwin was saying, “is the next big primary for both Democrats and Republicans, but on the GOP side frontrunner Donald Trump is also focusing his attention on the party’s convention in July and how the delegate process will play out.” As I left, she was still yakking away, this time over a caption that read: “Backing off pledge could cost Trump delegates.” On a split screen with her was a Republican National Committee member — “an expert on GOP nominating processing,” she told us — discussing the significance of Trump’s recent meeting with Republican Party head Reince Priebus. (Not much, it turned out.)
And that was one week’s exercising news for me. I can’t for a second claim it didn’t keep me in decent shape, but the rest of America?
Now, let me try to sum up that week in American “news” glimpsed in passing at the gym and then watched as it repeated itself at dinner time and other moments. Here goes: Donald Trump. Donald Trump. Donald Trump. Ted Cruz. Donald Trump. Donald Trump. Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump. Donald Trump. Donald Trump. (Bernie Sanders.) The previous week, it would, of course, have been Brussels, Brussels, Brussels, Donald Trump, Brussels, Brussels, Brussels, Donald Trump, etc., etc.
There. Satisfied? Now, turn off that TV, put down that screen in your hand, I’ve got something to tell you about the news.
It goes without saying that I’m not talking about the news as it once was. Think of it now as a kind of obsessive onscreen activity, sometimes humdrum, remarkably repetitive, yet often riveting. Think of it mainly as something most of us live with but have yet to come to grips with or really define. With the ever-present screens in all our lives, no one can help but tune in these days in one way or another to various versions of what we still call “the news.” In doing so, we largely leave the real world and any sense of balance or perspective behind. Otherwise a startling percentage of Americans wouldn’t be convinced that terrorism of the Islamic variety — yes, terrorism! — is America’s number one problem; this in a country in which you’re more likely to be killed or wounded by a toddler with a gun than an Islamic terrorist with the same.
In other words, from Brussels, Brussels, Brussels to Trump, Trump, Trump, this is not in any previously understood sense news at all. It may actually be the opposite of news. Believe it or not, there is still a world out there filled with problems that we know so much less about than we should because we’re all immersed in the same Trump soup.
Here’s what often dominates the news zone these days:
* The Donald, The Hillary, and the others crisscrossing the country, shouting at and insulting each other, and giving more or less the same speeches (or, in the case of Trump, narcissistic rambles).
* Blood-curdling accounts of the latest terror attacks in Europe or the U.S.
* Photogenically weepy or stoic Americans bemoaning the loss of houses, schools, and lives in what the news now regularly refers to as “extreme weather” (without a hint — 99% of the time — of why that weather might be increasingly extreme).
* And let’s not forget those remarkably ever-present American “lone wolf” killers who take out their fellow citizens with numbing regularity in workplaces, movie theaters, military bases, schools, etc.
All of this and more, of course, becomes the essential adrenalizing fodder of the 24/7 attention machine. Sometimes, when the story’s just right, its drumbeat lasts nonstop for days, or even weeks (see: San Bernadino), with whole corps of “experts” mobilized by the network news and cable outfits to… well, you know… say whatever it is experts say.
As newspapers shrink and collapse, as local investigative reporting all but disappears, the above has become the repetitive norm for the paperless world most of us inhabit. And keep in mind that, in an age of shrinking reportorial staffs, on TV as well as in print, it’s of obvious economic advantage to pool your resources and focus audience attention on just one (or a few) magnetic events/horrors/nightmares — stories guaranteed to glue eyeballs. Some of these stories have become so common in our onscreen lives that, as with a mass killing or “violence” at a Trump rally, a formulaic way of reporting them has fallen comfortably into place, making the all-hands-on-deck moment so much easier to organize and handle. So, for instance, from the initial shock of a terror attack in Europe or the U.S. (but not, say, Iraq or Libya) to the funerals of the victims, from the early parade of counterterrorism “experts” to the last grief counselors, there is now a pattern of coverage that normalizes such events for the news zone.
The Comb-Over in the Mirror
So much of this, of course, is about money, ratings, and the coffers of those who own TV networks. Gluing eyeballs to screens (and ads) is, of course, the real news about the news.
CBS CEO Leslie Moonves couldn’t have been blunter on how the present system works. At a Morgan Stanley investors’ conference last month, speaking of the Trump campaign, he said, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” And then he added, “The money’s rolling in and this is fun. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this [is] going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
We know, roughly speaking, what Moonves and his ilk make of the frenetic onscreen world their employees present us with — a world of relative inconsequence that is often, at one and the same moment, horrifying, fascinating, stupefying, shocking, terrifying, enervating, saddening, and even, if you happen to like Donald or Ted or Hillary or Bernie, sometimes uplifting or hopeful. The question is: What are we to make of it?
The most obvious thing that can be said is that it leaves us painfully unprepared to face, or grasp, or begin to deal with the actual world as it actually is. What’s left out? Well, more or less everything that truly matters much of the time: any large, generally unphotogenic process, for instance, like the crumbling of America’s infrastructure (unless cameras can fortuitously zoom in on a bridge collapsing or a natural gas pipeline in the process of blowing up in a neighborhood — all so much more likely in an age in which no imaginable situation lacks its amateur video); poverty (who the hell cares?); the growing inequality gap locally or globally (a no-interest barrier the WikiLeaks-style Panama Papers recently managed to break through); almost anything that happens in the places where most of the people on this planet actually live (Asia and Africa); the rise of the national security state and of militarism in an era of permanent war and permanent (in)security in the “homeland”; and don’t even get me started on climate change…
But why should I go on when you can do this perfectly well yourself? After all, just about everything that matters much of the time means… well, just about everything that really makes a difference in your life, or national life, or planetary life. What you can see on your screen right now is plenty of Donald Trump, but what you can’t see when it comes to the United States is, for example, the increasingly undemocratic, unrepresentative, semi-demobilized country with a new, informal constitution and new power centers that he — or some other candidate — will head in 2017. It’s largely MIA.
The menu of the news, as presently defined, lowers your chance of understanding the world. It is, however, likely to raise your blood pressure and your fears on a planet in which there is plenty of reason to be afraid, but seldom of what’s on screen. In a sense, at its best, what the all-day obsession that’s still called “the news” really provides is the kind of rush that we might normally associate with a drug or an addiction rather than reportage or analysis.
The news — no matter your screen of choice — increasingly does several things:
* It creates its own heightened, insular world to replace the world we actually live in.
* At its most effective, it’s like a recurrent floodtide washing over you.
* It has an obsessional quality, with single stories engulfing everything else, inducing a deeply skewed view of the world, no matter what event or events are being followed.
Who can doubt that the Internet, social media, email, and the rest of the package are the signature addictive activities of our age? Anyone who can put away that iPhone without resistance, or not check one last time to see if the email you weren’t expecting has arrived, should join the short line now forming at the exit. For the rest of us, let’s face it, we’re trapped here.
The “news” is a key part of this addictive package. In a sense, in an age of electronic obsession, onscreen news purveyors like Moonves may have little choice but to make it so. It’s that or, assumedly, watch your cable network or key news programs die a grim financial death.
And of course Donald Trump, he of the trademark bouffant comb-over — yes, I’m back to him — is certainly sui generis and regularly admired for the deft way he plays the news and the media. He’s less commonly thought of as the creature of the news and the media. In a sense, though, he’s their ultimate creation of this moment, the top-of-the-line drug on offer so far. If he’s also the ultimate narcissist without filters, then perhaps what we still call “the news” is itself a new form of narcissism. When you look in the mirror it holds up, it’s not you or the world that’s reflected. Just tell me, I’m curious: Whose hairdo do you see?
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.
Copyright 2016 Tom Engelhardt
This Article Is Not About Donald Trump
The other week, feeling sick, I spent a day on my couch with the TV on and was reminded of an odd fact of American life. More than seven months before Election Day, you can watch the 2016 campaign for the presidency at any moment of your choosing, and that’s been true since at least late last year. There is essentially never a time when some network or news channel isn’t reporting on, discussing, debating, analyzing, speculating about, or simply drooling over some aspect of the primary campaign, of Hillary, Bernie, Ted, and above all — a million times above all — The Donald (from the violence at his rallies to the size of his hands). In case you’re young and think this is more or less the American norm, it isn’t. Or wasn’t.
Truly, there is something new under the sun. Of course, in 1994 with O.J. Simpson’s white Ford Bronco chase (95 million viewers!), the 24/7 media event arrived full blown in American life and something changed when it came to the way we focused on our world and the media focused on us. But you can be sure of one thing: never in the history of television, or any other form of media, has a single figure garnered the amount of attention — hour after hour, day after day, week after week — as Donald Trump. If he’s the O.J. Simpson of twenty-first-century American politics and his run for the presidency is the eternal white Ford Bronco chase of our moment, then we’re in a truly strange world.
Or let me put it another way: this is not an election. I know the word “election” is being used every five seconds and somewhere along the line significant numbers of Americans (particularly, this season, Republicans) continue to enter voting booths or in the case of primary caucuses, school gyms and the like, to choose among various candidates, so it’s all still election-like. But take my word for it as a 71-year-old guy who’s been watching our politics for decades: this is not an election of the kind the textbooks once taught us was so crucial to American democracy. If, however, you’re sitting there waiting for me to tell you what it is, take a breath and don’t be too disappointed. I have no idea, though it’s certainly part bread-and-circuses spectacle, part celebrity obsession, and part media money machine.
Actually, before we go further, let me hedge my bets on the idea that Donald Trump is a twenty-first-century O.J. Simpson. It’s certainly a reasonable enough comparison, but I’ve begun to wonder about the usefulness of just about any comparison in our present situation. Even the most nightmarish of them — Donald Trump is Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, or any past extreme demagogue of your choice — may actually prove to be covert gestures of consolation, reassurance, and comfort. Yes, what’s happening in our world is increasingly extreme and could hardly be weirder, we seem to have the urge to say, but it’s still recognizable. It’s something we’ve encountered before, something we’ve made sense of in the past and, in the process, overcome.
Round Up the Usual Suspects
But what if that’s not true? In some ways, the most frightening, least acceptable thing to say about our American world right now — even if Donald Trump’s overwhelming presence all but begs us to say it — is that we’ve entered uncharted territory and, under the circumstances, comparisons might actually impair our ability to come to grips with our new reality. My own suspicion: Donald Trump is only the most obvious instance of this, the example no one can miss.
In these first years of the twenty-first century, we may be witnessing a new world being born inside the hollowed-out shell of the American system. As yet, though we live with this reality every day, we evidently just can’t bear to recognize it for what it might be. When we survey the landscape, what we tend to focus on is that shell — the usual elections (in somewhat heightened form), the usual governmental bodies (a little tarnished) with the usual governmental powers (a little diminished or redistributed), including the usual checks and balances (a little out of whack), and the same old Constitution (much praised in its absence), and yes, we know that none of this is working particularly well, or sometimes at all, but it still feels comfortable to view what we have as a reduced, shabbier, and more dysfunctional version of the known.
Perhaps, however, it’s increasingly a version of the unknown. We say, for instance, that Congress is “paralyzed,” and that little can be done in a country where politics has become so “polarized,” and we wait for something to shake us loose from that “paralysis,” to return us to a Washington closer to what we remember and recognize. But maybe this is it. Maybe even if the Republicans somehow lost control of the House of Representatives and the Senate, we would still be in a situation something like what we’re now labeling paralysis. Maybe in our new American reality, Congress is actually some kind of glorified, well-lobbied, and well-financed version of a peanut gallery.
Of course, I don’t want to deny that much of what is “new” in our world has a long history. The present yawning inequality gap between the 1% and ordinary Americans first began to widen in the 1970s and — as Thomas Frank explains so brilliantly in his new book, Listen, Liberal — was already a powerful and much-discussed reality in the early 1990s, when Bill Clinton ran for president. Yes, that gap is now more like an abyss and looks ever more permanently embedded in the American system, but it has a genuine history, as for instance do 1% elections and the rise and self-organization of the “billionaire class,” even if no one, until this second, imagined that government of the billionaires, by the billionaires, and for the billionaires might devolve into government of the billionaire, by the billionaire, and for the billionaire — that is, just one of them.
Indeed, much of our shape-shifting world can be written about as a set of comparisons and in terms of historical reference points. Inequality has a history. The military-industrial complex and the all-volunteer military, like the warrior corporation, weren’t born yesterday; neither was our state of perpetual war, nor the national security state that now looms over Washington, nor its surveilling urge, the desire to know far too much about the private lives of Americans. (A little bow of remembrance to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover is in order here.)
And yet, true as all that may be, Washington increasingly seems like a new land, sporting something like a new system in the midst of our much-described polarized and paralyzed politics. The national security state doesn’t seem faintly paralyzed or polarized to me. Nor does the Pentagon. On certain days when I catch the news, I can’t believe how strange and yet humdrum this uncharted new territory is. Remind me, for instance, where in the Constitution the Founding Fathers wrote about that national security state? And yet there it is in all its glory, all its powers, an ever more independent force in our nation’s capital. In what way, for instance, did those men of the revolutionary era prepare the ground for the Pentagon to loose its spy drones from our distant war zones over the United States? And yet, so it has. And no one even seems disturbed by the development. The news, barely noticed or noted, was instantly absorbed into what’s becoming the new normal.
Graduation Ceremonies in the Imperium
Let me mention here the almost random piece of news that recently made me wonder just what planet I was actually on. And I know you won’t believe it, but it had absolutely nothing to do with Donald Trump.
Given the carnage of America’s wars and conflicts across the Greater Middle East and Africa, which I’ve been following closely these last years, I’m unsure why this particular moment even got to me. Best guess? Maybe that, of all the once-obscure places — from Afghanistan to Yemen to Libya — in which the U.S. has been fighting recently, Somalia, where this particular little slaughter took place, seems to me like the most obscure of all. Yes, I’ve been half-attending to events there from the 1993 Blackhawk Down moment to the disastrous U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion of 2006 to the hardly less disastrous invasion of that country by Kenyan and other African forces. Still, Somalia?
Recently, U.S. Reaper drones and manned aircraft launched a set of strikes against what the Pentagon claimed was a graduation ceremony for “low-level” foot soldiers in the Somali terror group al-Shabab. It was proudly announced that more than 150 Somalis had died in this attack. In a country where, in recent years, U.S. drones and special ops forces had carried out a modest number of strikes against individual al-Shabab leaders, this might be thought of as a distinct escalation of Washington’s endless low-level conflict there (with a raid involving U.S. special ops forces following soon after).
Now, let me try to put this in some personal context. Since I was a kid, I’ve always liked globes and maps. I have a reasonable sense of where most countries on this planet are. Still, Somalia? I have to stop and give that one some thought to truly locate it on a mental map of eastern Africa. Most Americans? Honestly, I doubt they’d have a clue. So the other day, when this news came out, I stopped a moment to take it in. If accurate, we killed 150 more or less nobodies (except to those who knew them) and maybe even a top leader or two in a country most Americans couldn’t locate on a map.
I mean, don’t you find that just a little odd, no matter how horrible the organization they were preparing to fight for? 150 Somalis? Blam!
Remind me: On just what basis was this modest massacre carried out? After all, the U.S. isn’t at war with Somalia or with al-Shabab. Of course, Congress no longer plays any real role in decisions about American war making. It no longer declares war on any group or country we fight. (Paralysis!) War is now purely a matter of executive power or, in reality, the collective power of the national security state and the White House. The essential explanation offered for the Somali strike, for instance, is that the U.S. had a small set of advisers stationed with African Union forces in that country and it was just faintly possible that those guerrilla graduates might soon prepare to attack some of those forces (and hence U.S. military personnel). It seems that if the U.S. puts advisers in place anywhere on the planet — and any day of any year they are now in scores of countries — that’s excuse enough to validate acts of war based on the “imminent” threat of their attack.
Or just think of it this way: a new, informal constitution is being written in these years in Washington. No need for a convention or a new bill of rights. It’s a constitution focused on the use of power, especially military power, and it’s being written in blood.
These days, our government (the unparalyzed one) acts regularly on the basis of that informal constitution-in-the-making, committing Somalia-like acts across significant swathes of the planet. In these years, we’ve been marrying the latest in wonder technology, our Hellfire-missile-armed drones, to executive power and slaughtering people we don’t much like in majority Muslim countries with a certain alacrity. By now, it’s simply accepted that any commander-in-chief is also our assassin-in-chief, and that all of this is part of a wartime-that-isn’t-wartime system, spreading the principle of chaos and dissolution to whole areas of the planet, leaving failed states and terror movements in its wake.
When was it, by the way, that “the people” agreed that the president could appoint himself assassin-in-chief, muster his legal beagles to write new “law” that covered any future acts of his (including the killing of American citizens), and year after year dispatch what essentially is his own private fleet of killer drones to knock off thousands of people across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa? Weirdly enough, after almost 14 years of this sort of behavior, with ample evidence that such strikes don’t suppress the movements Washington loathes (and often only fan the flames of resentment and revenge that help them spread), neither the current president and his top officials, nor any of the candidates for his office have the slightest intention of ever grounding those drones.
And when exactly did the people say that, within the country’s vast standing military, which now garrisons much of the planet, a force of nearly 70,000 Special Operations personnel should be birthed, or that it should conduct covert missions globally, essentially accountable only to the president (if him)? And what I find strangest of all is that few in our world find such developments strange at all.
A Planet in Decline?
In some way, all of this could be said to work. At the very least, it is a functioning new system-in-the-making that we have yet to truly come to grips with, just as we haven’t come to grips with a national security state that surveils the world in a way that even science fiction writers (no less totalitarian rulers) of a previous era could never have imagined, or the strange version of media overkill that we still call an election. All of this is by now both old news and mind-bogglingly new.
Do I understand it? Not for a second.
This is not war as we knew it, nor government as we once understood it, nor are these elections as we once imagined them, nor is this democracy as it used to be conceived of, nor is this journalism of a kind ever taught in a journalism school. This is the definition of uncharted territory. It’s a genuine American terra incognita and yet in some fashion that unknown landscape is already part of our sense of ourselves and our world. In this “election” season, many remain shocked that a leading candidate for the presidency is a demagogue with a visible authoritarian side and what looks like an autocratic bent. All such labels are pinned on Donald Trump, but the new American system that’s been emerging from its chrysalis in these years already has just those tendencies. So don’t blame it all on Donald Trump. He should be far less of a shock to this country than he continues to be. After all, a Trumpian world-in-formation has paved the way for him.
Who knows? Perhaps what we’re watching is the new iteration of a very old story: a twenty-first-century version of an ancient tale of a great imperial power, perhaps the greatest ever — the “lone superpower” — sinking into decline. It’s a tale humanity has experienced often enough in the course of our long history. But lest you think once again that there’s nothing new under the sun, the context for all of this, for everything now happening in our world, is so new as to be quite literally outside of thousands of years of human experience. As the latest heat records indicate, we are, for the first time, on a planet in decline. And if that isn’t uncharted territory, what is?
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.
Copyright 2016 Tom Engelhardt
Entering Uncharted Territory in Washington
It may be hard to believe now, but in 1970 the protest song “War,” sung by Edwin Starr, hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. That was at the height of the Vietnam antiwar movement and the song, written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, became something of a sensation. Even so many years later, who could forget its famed chorus? “War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.” Not me. And yet heartfelt as the song was then — “War, it ain’t nothing but a heartbreaker. War, it’s got one friend, that’s the undertaker…” — it has little resonance in America today.
But here’s the strange thing: in a way its authors and singer could hardly have imagined, in a way we still can’t quite absorb, that chorus has proven eerily prophetic — in fact, accurate beyond measure in the most literal possible sense. War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing. You could think of American war in the twenty-first century as an ongoing experiment in proving just that point.
Looking back on almost 15 years in which the United States has been engaged in something like permanent war in the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa, one thing couldn’t be clearer: the planet’s sole superpower with a military funded and armed like none other and a “defense” budget larger than the next seven countries combined (three times as large as number two spender, China) has managed to accomplish — again, quite literally — absolutely nothing, or perhaps (if a slight rewrite of that classic song were allowed) less than nothing.
Unless, of course, you consider an expanding series of failed states, spreading terror movements, wrecked cities, countries hemorrhaging refugees, and the like as accomplishments. In these years, no goal of Washington — not a single one — has been accomplished by war. This has proven true even when, in the first flush of death and destruction, victory or at least success was hailed, as in Afghanistan in 2001 (“You helped Afghanistan liberate itself — for a second time,” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to U.S. special operations forces), Iraq in 2003 (“Mission accomplished“), or Libya in 2011 (“We came, we saw, he died,” Hillary Clinton on the death of autocrat Muammar Gaddafi).
Of all forms of American military might in this period, none may have been more destructive or less effective than air power. U.S. drones, for instance, have killed incessantly in these years, racking up thousands of dead Pakistanis, Afghans, Iraqis, Yemenis, Syrians, and others, including top terror leaders and their lieutenants as well as significant numbers of civilians and even children, and yet the movements they were sent to destroy from the top down have only proliferated. In a region in which those on the ground are quite literally helpless against air power, the U.S. Air Force has been repeatedly loosed, from Afghanistan in 2001 to Syria and Iraq today, without challenge and with utter freedom of the skies. Yet, other than dead civilians and militants and a great deal of rubble, the long-term results have been remarkably pitiful.
From all of this no conclusions ever seem to be drawn. Only last week, the Obama administration and the Pentagon again widened their air war against Islamic State militants (as they had for weeks been suggesting they would), striking a “suspected Islamic State training camp” in Libya and reportedly killing nearly 50 people, including two kidnapped Serbian embassy staff members and possibly “a militant connected to two deadly attacks last year in neighboring Tunisia.” Again, after almost 15 years of this, we know just where such “successes” lead: to even grimmer, more brutal, more effective terror movements. And yet, the military approach remains the American approach du jour on any day of the week, any month of the year, in the twenty-first century.
Put another way, for the country that has, like no other on the planet in these years, unleashed its military again and again thousands of miles from its “homeland” in actions ranging from large-scale invasions and occupations to small-scale raids and drone assassination strikes, absolutely nothing has come up roses. From China’s Central Asian border to north Africa, the region that Washington officials began referring to as an “arc of instability” soon after 9/11 and that they hoped to garrison and dominate forever has only become more unstable, less amenable to American power, and ever more chaotic.
By its very nature, war produces chaos, but in other eras, particularly for great powers, it has also meant influence or dominance and created the basis for reshaping or controlling whole regions. None of this seems in the cards today. It would be reasonable to conclude, however provisionally, from America’s grand military experiment of this century that, no matter the military strength at your command, war no longer translates into power. For Washington, war has somehow been decoupled from its once expected results, no matter what weaponry has been brought to bear or what kind of generalship was exercised.
An Arms Race of One
Given that, sooner or later, the results of any experiment should be taken into account and actions recalibrated accordingly, here’s what’s curious. Just listen to the fervent pledges of the presidential candidates in the Republican debates to “rebuild” the U.S. military and you’ll sense the immense pressure in Washington not to recalibrate anything. If you want the definition of a Trumpian bad deal, consider that all of them are eager to pour further staggering sums into preparing for future military endeavors not so different from the present ones. And don’t just blame the Republicans. Such behavior is now hardwired into Washington’s entire political class.
The essential failure of air power in these years has yielded the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a plane once expected to cost in the $200 billion range whose price tag is now estimated at a trillion dollars or more over the course of its lifetime. It will, that is, be the most expensive weapons system in history. Air power’s powerlessness to achieve Washington’s ends has also yielded the newly unveiled Long-Range Strike Bomber for which the Pentagon has already made a down payment to Northrop Grumman of $55 billion. (Add in the usual future cost overruns and that sum is expected to crest the $100 billion mark long before the plane is actually built.) Or at the level of planetary destruction, consider the three-decade, trillion-dollar upgrading of the U.S. nuclear arsenal now underway and scheduled to include, among other things, smaller, more accurate “smart” nukes — that is, first-use weaponry that might indeed be brought to future battlefields.
That none of this fits our world of war today should be — but isn’t — obvious, at least in Washington. In 2016, not only has military action of just about any sort been decoupled from success of just about any sort, but the unbelievably profitable system of weapons production woven into the fabric of the capital, the political process, and the country has also been detached from the results of war; the worse we do militarily, that is, the more frenetically and expensively we build.
For the conspiratorial-minded (and I get letters like this regularly at TomDispatch), it’s easy enough to see the growing chaos and collapse in the Greater Middle East as purposeful, as what the military-industrial complex desires; nothing, in other words, succeeds (for weapons makers) like failure. The more failed states, the more widespread the terror groups, the greater the need to arm ourselves and, as the planet’s leading arms dealer, others. This is, however, the thinking of outsiders. For the weapons makers and the rest of that complex, failure or success may increasingly be beside the point.
Count on this: were the U.S. now triumphant in an orderly Greater Middle East, the same Republican candidates would still be calling for a build-up of the U.S. military to maintain our victorious stance globally. If you want proof of this, you need only step into your time machine and travel back a quarter-century to the moment the Soviet Union collapsed. Thought of a certain way, that should have been the finale for a long history of arms races among competing great powers. What seemed like the last arms race of all between the two superpowers of the Cold War, the one that brought the planet to the brink of annihilation, had just ended.
When the Soviet Union imploded and Washington dissolved in a riot of shock and triumphalism, only one imperial force — “the sole superpower” — remained. And yet, despite a brief flurry of talk about Americans harvesting a “peace dividend” in a world bereft of major enemies, what continued to be harvested were new weapons systems. An arms race of one rolled right along.
And of course, it goes right on today in an almost unimaginably different world. A quarter century later, militarily speaking, two other nations might be considered great powers. One of them, China, is indeed building up its military and acting in more provocative ways in nearby seas. However, not since its disastrous 1979 border war with Vietnam has it used its military outside its own borders in a conflict of any kind.
The Russians are obviously another matter and they alone at this moment seem to be making an imperial success of warfare — translating, that is, war making into power, prestige, and dominance. In Syria (and possibly also Ukraine), think of that country as experiencing its version of America’s December 2001 Afghanistan or April 2003 Iraq moments, but don’t for a second imagine that it will last. The Russians in Syria have essentially followed the path Washington pioneered in this century, loosing air power, advisers, and proxy forces on an embattled country. Their bombing campaign and that of the allied Syrian air force have been doing in spades what air power generally does: blow away stuff on the ground, including hospitals, schools, and the like.
Right now, with the Syrian Army and its Iranian and Lebanese helpers advancing around the city of Aleppo and elsewhere, everything looks relatively sunny for the Russians (as long as your view is an airborne one), but give it a year, or two or three. Or just ask yourself, what exactly will such “success” translate into, even if a Bashar al-Assad regime regains significant power in a country that, in most senses, has simply ceased to exist? Its cities, after all, are in varying states of destruction, a startling 11.5% of its people are estimated to have been killed or injured, and a significant portion of the rest transformed into exiles and refugees (with more being produced all the time).
Even if the Islamic State and other rebel and insurgent groups, ranging from those backed by the U.S. to those linked to al-Qaeda, can be “defeated,” what is Russia likely to inherit in the Middle East? What, in far better circumstances, did the U.S. inherit in Afghanistan or Iraq? What horrendous new movements will be born from such a “victory”? It’s a nightmare just to think about.
Keep in mind as well that, unlike the United States, Vladimir Putin’s Russia is no superpower. Despite its superpower-style nuclear arsenal and its great power-ish military, it’s a rickety energy state shaken by bargain-basement oil prices. Economically, it doesn’t have the luxury of waste that the U.S. has when it comes to military experimentation.
Generally speaking, in these last years, war has meant destruction and nothing but destruction. It’s true that, from the point of view of movements like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, the chaos of great power war is a godsend. Even if such groups never win a victory in the traditional sense (as the Islamic State has), they can’t lose, no matter how many of their leaders and followers are wiped out. In the same way, no matter how many immediate successes Washington has in pursuit of its war on terror, it can’t win (and in the end neither, I suspect, can Russia).
Has War Outlived Its Usefulness?
Relatively early in the post-9/11 presidency of George W. Bush, it became apparent that his top officials had confused military power with power itself. They had come to venerate force and its possible uses in a way that only men who had never been to war possibly could. (Secretary of State Colin Powell was the sole exception to this rule of thumb.) On the U.S. military, they were fundamentalists and true believers, convinced that unleashing its uniquely destructive capabilities would open the royal road to control of the Greater Middle East and possibly the planet as well.
About this — and themselves — they were supremely confident. As an unnamed “senior adviser” to the president (later identified as Bush confidant Karl Rove) told journalist Ron Suskind, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
Ever since then, no small thanks to the military-industrial complex, military power has remained the option of choice even when it became clear that it could not produce a minimalist version of what the Bush crew hoped for. Consider it something of an irony, then, that the U.S. may still be the lone superpower on the planet. In a period when military power of the first order doesn’t seem to translate into a thing of value, American economic (and cultural) power still does. The realm of the dollar, not the F-35, still rules the planet.
So here’s a thought for the songwriters among you: Could it be that war has in the most literal sense outlived its usefulness, at least for the United States? Could it be that the nature of war — possibly any war, but certainly the highly mechanized, high-tech, top-dollar form that the United States fights — is now all unintended and no intended consequences? Do we need another Edwin Starr singing a new song about what war isn’t good for, but with the same punch line?
In fact, give it a try yourself. Say it with me: Absolutely nothing.
One more time and really hit that “nothing”: Absolutely nothing!
Now, could someone in Washington act accordingly?
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.
[Note: Let me offer a deep bow of thanks to TomDispatch Managing Editor Nick Turse for helping, as he so often does, to talk me through this one! Tom]
Copyright 2016 Tom Engelhardt
War, What Is It Good For? Absolutely Nothing.
It’s time to panic!
As 2015 ended, this country was certifiably terror-stricken. It had the Islamic State (IS) on the brain. Hoax terror threats or terror imbroglios shut down school systems from Los Angeles to New Hampshire, Indiana to a rural county in Virginia. The Dallas Symphony Orchestra, citing terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, cancelled a prospective tour of Europe thanks to terror fears, issuing a statement that “orchestra management believes there is an elevated risk to the safety of musicians and their families, guest artists, DSO personnel, and travelling patrons.” By year’s end, the Justice Department had charged an ”unprecedented” 60 people with terrorism-related crimes (often linked to social media exchanges).
While just north of the border Canada’s new government and its citizens were embracing the first of 25,000 Syrian refugees in an atmosphere of near celebration, citizens and government officials in the lower 48 were squabbling and panicking about the few who had made it here. (“Sid Miller, the Texas agriculture commissioner, compared Syrian refugees to rattlesnakes, posting on Facebook images of snakes and refugees and asking, ‘Can you tell me which of these rattlers won’t bite you?’”)
In the two presidential debates that ended the year, focusing in whole or part on “national security,” the only global subject worthy of discussion was — you guessed it — the Islamic State and secondarily immigration and related issues. Media panelists didn’t ask a single question in either debate about China or Russia (other than on the IS-related issue of who might shoot down Russian planes over Syria) or about the relative success of the French right-wing, anti-Islamist National Front Party and its presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen (even though her American analog, Donald Trump, was on stage in one debate and a significant subject of the other). And that just begins a long list of national security issues that no one felt it worth bringing up, including the fact that in Paris 195 countries had agreed on a potentially path-breaking climate change deal.
As the Dallas Symphony Orchestra signaled, “Paris” now means only one thing in this country: the bloody terror attack on the Eagles of Death Metal concert at the Bataclan theater and related assaults. In fact, if you were following the “news” here as 2015 ended, you might be forgiven for thinking that we Americans lived in a land beset by, and under siege from, Islamic terror and the Islamic State. The latest polls indicate that striking numbers of Americans now view the threat of terrorism as the country’s number one danger, see it as a (if not the) critical issue facing us, believe that it and national security should be the government’s top priorities, and are convinced that the terrorists are at present “winning.”
You would never know that, if you left out what might be called self-inflicted pain like death by vehicle (more than 33,000 deaths annually), suicide by gun (more than 21,000 annually) or total gun deaths (30,000 annually), and fatal drug overdoses (more than 47,000 annually), this is undoubtedly one of the safest countries on the planet. Over these years, the American dead from Islamic terror outfits or the “lone wolves” they inspire have added up to the most modest of figures, even if you include that single great day of horror, September 11, 2001. Include deaths from non-Islamic right-wing acts of terror (including, for instance, Dylann Roof’s murders in a black church in Charleston), a slightly more impressive figure in recent years, and you still have next to nothing. Even if you add in relatively commonplace mass shootings, from school campuses to malls to workplaces, that are not defined as “terror,” and accept the broadest possible definition of such shootings (a minimum of four killed or injured), you would still have the sort of danger that couldn’t be more modest compared to death by vehicle, suicide, or drugs — phenomena that obsess few Americans.
The Islamic State in Perspective
Still, as 2016 begins, terror remains the 800-pound gorilla (in reality, a marmoset) in the American room and just about the only national security issue that truly matters. So why shouldn’t I join the crowd? Who wants to be left in the lurch? But first, I think it makes sense to put the Islamic State in perspective.
Yes, it’s a brutal, extreme religious-cum-political outfit, the sort of movement that probably could only arise on a shattered landscape in a shattered region filled with desperate souls looking for any explanation for, or solution to, nightmarish lives. There can be no question that it’s had remarkable success. Its self-proclaimed “caliphate” now controls territory the size of (to choose a common comparison) Great Britain with a population of perhaps a few million people. Since there are seldom reporters on the scene (for obvious reasons of health and well-being), we have no idea whether IS has 20,000, 30,000, 40,000, or 50,000 fighters and potential suicide bombers under arms. We do know that those arms (despite a couple of captured tanks) are generally light and the bombs largely of the homemade variety.
The Islamic State has shown quite a knack for generating a stream of revenue from black market oil sales, ransoms from kidnappings, the ransacking of the region’s archeological heritage, and wealthy Sunnis elsewhere in the region. In addition, it’s been skilled at promoting its “brand” in other parts of the Greater Middle East and Africa, from Afghanistan to Libya, Yemen to Nigeria, where local populations are also facing shattered landscapes, failed states, oppressive governments, and desperation. Finally, thanks to the talents of its social media militants, it’s shown a facility for attracting disaffected (and sometimes whacked-out) young Muslims from Europe and even the United States, as well as for inspiring “lone wolves” to acts meant to unnerve its enemies in Europe, the U.S., and elsewhere.
So give credit where it’s due. Compared to a few training camps in Afghanistan — the al-Qaeda model before 2001 (and again recently) — this is no small thing. But the Islamic State should also be put in some perspective. It’s not Nazi Germany. It’s not the Soviet Union. It’s not an existential threat to the United States. It’s a distinctly self-limited movement, probably only capable of expanding its reach if even more of the region is laid to waste (as is, for instance, happening in Yemen right now, thanks in large part to a U.S.-backed Saudi war on the Iranian-inclined Houthi rebels).
IS is so deeply sectarian that it can never gain the support of a single Shia, Christian, Alawite, or Yazidi. Its practices, religious and political, are too extreme for many of the Sunnis it might want to appeal to. It is also an embattled movement. It has already lost some of the lands it captured to U.S.-backed Kurds in both Syria and Iraq and to the U.S.-backed, U.S.-equipped, and U.S.-trained Iraqi Army as well as Shiite militias. Its extremity has clearly alienated some of the Sunnis under its control. It’s unlikely to take seven decades, as in the case of the Soviet Union, to implode and disappear.
On the other hand, if the Islamic State, at least in its present form, is crushed or driven into some corner and the region is “liberated,” one thing is guaranteed — as images of the rubble and landscapes of skeletal buildings left behind at the “victorious” battle sites of Kobane, Sinjar, Homs, and Ramadi will tell you. Combine the massively bomb-laden, booby-trapped urban areas under Islamic State control, American air power (or, in parts of Syria, the barrel-bombing air force of the government of Bashar al-Assad and now the firepower of Russia), and fierce urban combat, and what may be left in the moment of “victory” could be a region in utter ruins. One expert suggests that it may take decades and cost $200 billion — three times Syria’s prewar gross domestic product — to rebuild that country, bringing to mind the famed line from Tacitus: “They make a desert and call it peace.”
And just remind me, who’s going to help with the reconstruction of that shattered land? Donald Trump? Don’t count on it. And don’t for a second believe that from such devastated worlds nothing worse than the Islamic State can arise.
While we may be talking about a terror machine, IS represents a far more modest and embattled one than its social media propaganda would indicate. Its ability to threaten the U.S. bears little relation to the bogeyman version of it that at present occupies the American imagination. The sole advantage the Islamic State has when it comes to this country is that it turns out to be so easy to spook us.
“A Republic of Insects and Grass”
Still, don’t for a second think that terror isn’t on the American agenda. You really want terror? Let me tell you about terror. And I’m not talking about 14 dead (San Bernardino) or 130 dead (Paris). What about up to 140,000 dead? (The toll from Hiroshima.) What about 285 million dead? (The official estimate of the dead, had the U.S. military’s Single Integrated Operational Plan, or SIOP, of 1960 been carried out via more than 3,200 nuclear weapons delivered to 1,060 targets in the Communist world, including at least 130 cities — and that didn’t include casualty figures from whatever the Soviet Union might have been able to launch in response.)
Or what about — to move from past slaughters and projected slaughters to future ones — a billion dead? Despite the recent surprise visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to his Pakistani counterpart, that remains a perfectly “reasonable” possibility, were a nuclear war ever to develop in South Asia. India and Pakistan, after all, face each other across a heavily armed and fortified 1,800 mile border, having fought three major wars since 1947. Small armed incidents are commonplace. Imagine that — to take just one possible scenario — extreme elements in the Pakistani military (or other extremist elements) got their hands on some part of that country’s ever-expanding nuclear arsenal, now believed to be at about 130 weapons, and loosed one or more of them on India, starting a nuclear exchange over issues that no one else on Earth gives a damn about.
Imagine that, in the course of the war that followed, each side released “only” 50 Hiroshima-sized weapons on the other’s cities and industrial areas (“0.4% of the world’s more than 25,000 warheads”). One study suggests that, along with the 20 million or so inhabitants of South Asia who would die in such an exchange, this “modest” local nuclear conflagration would send enough smoke and particulates into the stratosphere to cause a planetary “nuclear winter” lasting perhaps a decade. The ensuing failure of agricultural systems globally could, according to experts, lead a billion or more people to starve to death. (And once you’re talking about a crisis of that magnitude, one humanity has never experienced, god knows what other systems might fail at the same time.)
I hope by now you’re feeling a little shudder of fear or at least anxiety. Perhaps not, though, since we’re remarkably well protected from thinking about the deeper terrors of our planet. And mind you, if you’re talking terror, that South Asian war is penny ante compared to the sort of event that would be associated with the thousands of nuclear weapons in the arsenals of the United States and Russia. Since the Cold War ended, they have more or less been hidden in plain sight. Call it an irony of sorts, then, that nuclear weapons have loomed large on the American landscape in these years, just not the ones that could truly harm us. Instead, Americans have largely focused in the usual semi-hysterical fashion on a nuclear weapon — the Iranian bomb — that never existed, while Russian and American arsenals undoubtedly capable of destroying more than one Earth-sized planet have remained in place, heavily funded and largely unnoted.
When you look at what might be posssible under unknown future conditions, there is no reason to stop with mere millions or even a billion dead human beings. A major nuclear exchange, it is believed, could lead to the shredding of the planetary environment and a literal liquidation of humanity: the wiping out, that is, of ourselves and the turning of this country into, in the phrase of Jonathan Schell, “a republic of insects and grass.” As he explained so famously in his international bestseller of 1982, The Fate of the Earth, this became a genuine possibility in the post-Hiroshima decades and it remains so today, though given scant attention in a world in which tensions between the U.S. and Russia have been on the rise.
Apocalypses, Fast or Slow-Mo
It’s not that we don’t live on an increasingly terrifying planet. We do. It’s that terror fears, at least in our American world, are regularly displaced onto relatively minor threats.
If you want to be scared, consider this unlikelihood: in the course of just a few centuries, humanity has stumbled upon two uniquely different ways of unleashing energy — the burning of fossil fuels and the splitting of the atom — that have made the sort of apocalypse that was once the property of the gods into a human possession. The splitting of the atom and its application to war was, of course, a conscious scientific discovery. Its apocalyptic possibilities were grasped almost immediately by some of its own creators, including physicist Robert Oppenheimer who played a key role in the Manhattan Project that produced the atomic bomb during World War II. As he witnessed its awesome power in its initial test in the New Mexican desert, this line from the Bhagavad Gita came to his mind: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
The destroyer of worlds indeed — or at least, potentially, of the one world that matters to humanity.
The other method of wrecking the planet was developed without the intent to destroy: the discovery that coal, oil, and later natural gas could motor economies. It was not known until the final decades of the last century that the release of greenhouse gases from the burning of such forms of energy could heat the planet in startling ways and undermine the very processes that promoted life as we had always experienced it. It’s worth adding, however, that the executives of the giant oil companies knew a great deal about the dangers their products posed to Earth way before most of the rest of us did, suppressed that information for a surprisingly long time, and then invested prodigious sums in promoting the public denial of those very dangers. (In the process, they left the Republican Party wrapped in a straightjacket of climate change denial unique on the planet.) Someday, this will undoubtedly be seen as one of the great crimes of history, unless of course there are no historians left to write about it.
In other words, if enough fossil fuels continue to be burned in the many decades to come, another kind of potential extinction event can be imagined, a slow-motion apocalypse of extreme weather — melting, burning, flooding, sea-level rise, storming, and who knows what else.
And if humanity has already managed to discover two such paths of utter destruction, what else, at present unimagined, might someday come into focus?
In this context, think of the Islamic State as the minor leagues of terror, though at the moment you wouldn’t know it. If we are all now the children of the holocaust — of, that is, our own possible extinction — and if this is the inheritance we are to leave to our own children and grandchildren, perhaps it’s understandable that it feels better to fear the Islamic State. Its evil is so specific, so “other,” so utterly alien and strangely distant. It’s almost comforting to focus on its depredations, ignoring, of course, the grotesquely large hand our country had in its creation and in the more general spread of terror movements across the Greater Middle East.
It’s so much more comfortable to fear extreme Islamist movements than to take in two apocalyptic terrors that are clearly part of our own patrimony — and, to make matters harder, one of which is likely to unfold over a time period that’s hard to grasp, and the other under as yet difficult to imagine political circumstances.
It’s clear that neither of these true terrors of our planet and our age has to happen (or at least, in the case of climate change, come to full fruition). To ensure that, however, we and our children and grandchildren would have to decide that the fate of our Earth was indeed at stake and act accordingly. We would have to change the world.
Copyright 2016 Tom Engelhardt
Why the Islamic State Is the Minor Leagues of Terror
For six centuries or more, history was, above all, the story of the great game of empires. From the time the first wooden ships mounted with cannons left Europe’s shores, they began to compete for global power and control. Three, four, even five empires, rising and falling, on an increasingly commandeered and colonized planet. The story, as usually told, is a tale of concentration and of destruction until, in the wake of the second great bloodletting of the twentieth century, there were just two imperial powers left standing: the United States and the Soviet Union. Where the other empires, European and Japanese, had been, little remained but the dead, rubble, refugees, and scenes that today would be associated only with a place like Syria.
The result was the ultimate imperial stand-off that we called the Cold War. The two great empires still in existence duked it out for supremacy on “the peripheries” of the planet and “in the shadows.” Because the conflicts being fought were distant indeed, at least from Washington, and because (despite threats) both powers refrained from using nuclear weapons, these were termed “limited wars.” They did not, however, seem limited to the Koreans or Vietnamese whose homes and lives were swept up in them, resulting as they did in more rubble, more refugees, and the deaths of millions.
Those two rivals, one a giant, land-based, contiguous imperial entity and the other a distinctly non-traditional empire of military bases, were so enormous and so unlike previous “great powers” — they were, after all, capable of what had once been left to the gods, quite literally destroying every habitable spot on the planet — that they were given a new moniker. They were “superpowers.”
And then, of course, that six-century process of rivalry and consolidation was over and there was only one: the “sole superpower.” That was 1991 when the Soviet Union suddenly imploded. At age 71, it disappeared from the face of the Earth, and history, at least as some then imagined it, was briefly said to be over.
The Shatter Effect
There was another story lurking beneath the tale of imperial concentration, and it was a tale of imperial fragmentation. It began, perhaps, with the American Revolution and the armed establishment of a new country free of its British king and colonial overlord. In the twentieth century, the movement to “decolonize” the planet gained remarkable strength. From the Dutch East Indies to French Indochina, the British Raj to European colonies across Africa and the Middle East, “independence” was in the air. Liberation movements were launched or strengthened, guerrillas took up arms, and insurgencies spread across what came to be called the Third World. Imperial power collapsed or ceded control, often after bloody struggles and, for a while, the results looked glorious indeed: the coming of freedom and national independence to nation after nation (even if many of those newly liberated peoples found themselves under the thumbs of autocrats, dictators, or repressive communist regimes).
That this was a tale of global fragmentation was not, at first, particularly apparent. It should be by now. After all, those insurgent armies, the tactics of guerrilla warfare, and the urge for “liberation” are today the property not of left-wing national liberation movements but of Islamic terror outfits. Think of them as the armed grandchildren of decolonization and who wouldn’t agree that theirs is a story of the fragmentation of whole regions. It seems, in fact, that they can only thrive in places that have, in some fashion, already been shattered and are failed states, or are on the verge of becoming so. (All of this, naturally, comes with a distinct helping hand from the planet’s last empire).
That their global brand is fragmentation should be evident enough now that, in Paris, Libya, Yemen, and other places yet to be named, they’re exporting that product in a big way. In a long-distance fashion, they may, for instance, be helping to turn Europe into a set of splinterlands, aborting the last great attempt at an epic tale of concentration, the turning of the European Union into a United States of Europe.
When it comes to fragmentation, the last empire and the first terror caliphate have much in common and may in some sense even be in league with each other. In the twenty-first century, both have proven to be machines for the fracturing of the Greater Middle East and increasingly Africa. And let’s never forget that, without the last empire, the first caliphate of terror would never have been born.
Both have extended their power to shake whole societies by wielding advanced technology in forward-looking ways. Two American administrations have employed remote-controlled drones to target terror leaders and their followers across the Greater Middle East and Africa, causing much “collateral damage” and creating a sense of constant fear and terror among those in the backlands of the planet whom drone pilots refer to as potential “bugsplat.” In its robotic manhunting efforts Washington continues to engage in a war on terror that functionally promotes both terror and terror outfits.
The Islamic State has similarly used remote-controlled technology — in their case, social media in its various forms — to promote terror and stoke fear in distant lands. And of course they have their own low-tech version of Washington’s drones: their suicide bombers and suicidal killers who can be directed at distant individual targets and are engines for collateral damage. In other words, while the U.S. is focused on remote-controlled counterinsurgency, the Islamic State has been promoting a remarkably effective version of remote-controlled insurgency. In tandem, the effect of the two has been devastating.
Planet of the Imperial Apocalypse
Between those epic tales of concentration and fragmentation lies history as we’ve known it in these last centuries. But it turns out that, unsuspected until relatively recently, a third tale lurked behind the other two, one not yet fully written that could prove to be the actual end of history. Everything else — the rise and fall of empires, the power to suppress and the urge to revolt, dictatorship and democracy — remains the normal stuff of history. Prospectively, this is the deal-breaker.
It promises a concentration of power of a sort never before imagined and fragmentation of a similarly inconceivable kind. At this moment when the leaders of just about all the nations on Earth have been in Paris working out a deal to rein in greenhouse gas emissions and slow the heating of the planet, what else could I be speaking of than Emperor Weather? Think of his future realm, should it ever come to be, as the planet of the imperial apocalypse.
In the last imperial age, the two superpowers made “end times” a human possession for the first time in history. The U.S. and then the USSR took the super power of the atom and built nuclear arsenals capable of destroying the planet several times over. (These days, even a relatively modest exchange of such weapons between India and Pakistan might plunge the world into a version of nuclear winter in which a billion people might die of hunger.) And yet while an instant apocalypse loomed, a slow-motion version of the same, also human-made, was approaching, unrecognized by anyone. That is, of course, what the Paris Summit is all about: what the exploitation of fossil fuels has been doing to this planet.
Keep in mind that since the industrial revolution we’ve already warmed the Earth by about 1 degree Celsius. Climate scientists have generally suggested that, if temperatures rise above 2 degrees Celsius, a potentially devastating set of changes could occur in our environment. Some climate scientists, however, believe that even a 2-degree rise would prove devastating to human life. In either case, even if the Paris pledges from 183 nations to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions are agreed upon and carried out, they would only limit the rise in global temperatures to between an estimated 2.7 and 3.7 degrees Celsius. If no agreement is reached or little of it is actually carried out, the rise could be in the 5-degree range, which would be devastating. Over the coming decades, this could indeed give Emperor Weather his global realm.
Of course, his air power — his bombers, jets, and drones — would be superstorms; his invading armies would be mega-droughts and mega-floods; and his navy, with the total or partial melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, would be the rising seas of the planet, which would rob humanity of its coastlines and many of its great cities. His forces would occupy not just one or two countries in the Greater Middle East or elsewhere, but the entire planet, lock, stock, and barrel.
Emperor Weather’s imperial realms would be global on an awe-inspiring scale and the assaults of his forces would fragment the present planet in ways that could make much of it, in human terms, look like Syria. Moreover, given how long it takes greenhouse gases to leave the atmosphere, his global rule would be guaranteed to last an inhumanly long period of time unchallenged.
Heat (think burning Australia today, only far worse) would be the coin of the realm. While humanity will undoubtedly survive in some fashion, whether human civilization as we now know it can similarly survive on a planet that is no longer the welcoming home that it has been these last thousands of years we have no way of knowing.
Keep in mind, though, that like history itself, this is a story we are still writing — even though Emperor Weather couldn’t care less about writing, history, or us. If he truly comes to power, history will certainly end in some sense. There will be no hope of democracy under his rule because he won’t care a whit about what we think or do or say, nor of revolt — that staple of our history — because (to adapt something Bill McKibben has long pointed out) you can’t revolt against physics.
This story is not yet engraved in… well, if not stone, then melting ice. Sooner or later, it may indeed be a tale unfolding in environmental feedback loops that can no longer be stopped or altered. But for the moment, it seems, humanity still has the chance to write its own history in a fashion that would allow for a perhaps less welcoming but still reasonably palatable world for our children and grandchildren to live in. And be glad of that.
For that to happen, however, successful negotiations in Paris can only be the start of something far more sweeping when it comes to the forms of energy we use and how we live on this planet. Fortunately, experiments are underway in the world of alternative energy, funding is beginning to appear, and a global environmental movement is expanding and could someday, on a planet growing ever less comfortable, put the heat on governments globally before Emperor Weather can turn up the heat on history.
Copyright 2015 Tom Engelhardt