Delusional Thinking in the Age of the Single Superpower
by Tom Engelhardt
In an increasingly phantasmagorical world, here’s my present fantasy of choice: someone from General Keith Alexander’s outfit, the National Security Agency, tracks down H.G. Wells’s time machine in the attic of an old house in London. Britain’s subservient Government Communications Headquarters, its version of the NSA, is paid off and the contraption is flown to Fort Meade, Maryland, where it’s put back in working order. Alexander then revs it up and heads not into the future like Wells to see how our world ends, but into the past to offer a warning to Americans about what’s to come.
He arrives in Washington on October 23, 1962, in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a day after President Kennedy has addressed the American people on national television to tell them that this planet might not be theirs — or anyone else’s — for long. (“We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth, but neither will we shrink from the risk at any time it must be faced.”) Greeted with amazement by the Washington elite, Alexander, too, goes on television and informs the same public that, in 2013, the major enemy of the United States will no longer be the Soviet Union, but an outfit called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and that the headquarters of our country’s preeminent foe will be found somewhere in the rural backlands of… Yemen.
Yes, Yemen, a place most Americans, then and now, would be challenged to find on a world map. I guarantee you one thing: had such an announcement actually been made that day, most Americans would undoubtedly have dropped to their knees and thanked God for His blessings on the American nation. Though even then a nonbeliever, I would undoubtedly have been among them. After all, the 18-year-old Tom Engelhardt, on hearing Kennedy’s address, genuinely feared that he and the few pathetic dreams of a future he had been able to conjure up were toast.
Had Alexander added that, in the face of AQAP and similar minor jihadist enemies scattered in the backlands of parts of the planet, the U.S. had built up its military, intelligence, and surveillance powers beyond anything ever conceived of in the Cold War or possibly in the history of the planet, Americans of that time would undoubtedly have considered him delusional and committed him to an asylum.
Such, however, is our world more than two decades after Eastern Europe was liberated, the Berlin Wall came down, the Cold War definitively ended, and the Soviet Union disappeared.
Why Orwell Was Wrong
Now, let me mention another fantasy connected to the two-superpower Cold War era: George Orwell’s 1948 vision of the world of 1984 (or thereabouts, since the inhabitants of his novel of that title were unsure just what year they were living in). When the revelations of NSA contractor Edward Snowden began to hit the news and we suddenly found ourselves knee-deep in stories about Prism, XKeyscore, and other Big Brother-ish programs that make up the massive global surveillance network the National Security Agency has been building, I had a brilliant idea — reread 1984.
At a moment when Americans were growing uncomfortably aware of the way their government was staring at them and storing what they had previously imagined as their private data, consider my soaring sense of my own originality a delusion of my later life. It lasted only until I read an essay by NSA expert James Bamford in which he mentioned that, “[w]ithin days of Snowden’s documents appearing in the Guardian and the Washington Post…, bookstores reported a sudden spike in the sales of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984. On Amazon.com, the book made the ‘Movers & Shakers’ list and skyrocketed 6,021 percent in a single day.”
Nonetheless, amid a jostling crowd of worried Americans, I did keep reading that novel and found it at least as touching, disturbing, and riveting as I had when I first came across it sometime before Kennedy went on TV in 1962. Even today, it’s hard not to marvel at the vision of a man living at the beginning of the television age who sensed how a whole society could be viewed, tracked, controlled, and surveiled.
But for all his foresight, Orwell had no more power to peer into the future than the rest of us. So it’s no fault of his that, almost three decades after his year of choice, more than six decades after his death, the shape of our world has played havoc with his vision. Like so many others in his time and after, he couldn’t imagine the disappearance of the Soviet Union or at least of Soviet-like totalitarian states. More than anything else, he couldn’t imagine one fact of our world that, in 1948, wasn’t in the human playbook.
In 1984, Orwell imagined a future from what he knew of the Soviet and American (as well as Nazi, Japanese, and British) imperial systems. In imagining three equally powerful, equally baleful superpowers — Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia — balanced for an eternity in an unwinnable global struggle, he conjured up a logical extension of what had been developing on this planet for hundreds of years. His future was a version of the world humanity had lived with since the first European power mounted cannons on a wooden ship and set sail, like so many Mongols of the sea, to assault and conquer foreign realms, coastlines first.
From that moment on, the imperial powers of this planet — super, great, prospectively great, and near great — came in contending or warring pairs, if not triplets or quadruplets. Portugal, Spain, and Holland; England, France, and Imperial Russia; the United States, Germany, Japan, and Italy (as well as Great Britain and France), and after World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union. Five centuries in which one thing had never occurred, the thing that even George Orwell, with his prodigious political imagination, couldn’t conceive of, the thing that makes 1984 a dated work and his future a past that never was: a one-superpower world. To give birth to such a creature on such a planet — as indeed occurred in 1991 — was to be at the end of history, at least as it had long been known.
The Decade of the Stunned Superpower
Only in Hollywood fantasies about evil super-enemies was “world domination” by a single power imaginable. No wonder that, more than two decades into our one-superpower present, we still find it hard to take in this new reality and what it means.
At least two aspects of such a world seem, however, to be coming into focus. The evidence of the last decades suggests that the ability of even the greatest of imperial powers to shape global events may always have been somewhat exaggerated. The reason: power itself may never have been as centrally located in imperial or national entities as was once imagined. Certainly, with all rivals removed, the frustration of Washington at its inability to control events in the Greater Middle East and elsewhere could hardly be more evident. Still, Washington has proven incapable of grasping the idea that there might be forms of power, and so of resistance to American desires, not embodied in competitive states.
Evidence also seems to indicate that the leaders of a superpower, when not countered by another major power, when lacking an arms race to run or territory and influence to contest, may be particularly susceptible to the growth of delusional thinking, and in particular to fantasies of omnipotence.
Though Great Britain far outstripped any competitor or potential enemy at the height of its imperial glory, as did the United States at the height of the Cold War (the Soviet Union was always a junior superpower), there were at least rivals around to keep the leading power “honest” in its thinking. From December 1991, when the Soviet Union declared itself no more, there were none and, despite the dubious assumption by many in Washington that a rising China will someday be a major competitor, there remain none. Even if economic power has become more “multipolar,” no actual state contests the American role on the planet in a serious way.
Just as still water is a breeding ground for mosquitos, so single-superpowerdom seems to be a breeding ground for delusion. This is a phenomenon about which we have to be cautious, since we know little enough about it and are, of course, in its midst. But so far, there seem to have been three stages to the development of whatever delusional process is underway.
Stage one stretched from December 1991 through September 10, 2001. Think of it as the decade of the stunned superpower. After all, the collapse of the Soviet Union went unpredicted in Washington and when it happened, the George H. W. Bush administration seemed almost incapable of taking it in. In the years that followed, there was the equivalent of a stunned silence in the corridors of power.
After a brief flurry of debate about a post-Cold War “peace dividend,” that subject dropped into the void, while, for example, U.S. nuclear forces, lacking their major enemy of the previous several decades, remained more or less in place, strategically disoriented but ready for action. In those years, Washington launched modest and halting discussions of the dangers of “rogue states” (think “Axis of Evil” in the post-9/11 era), but the U.S. military had a hard time finding a suitable enemy other than its former ally in the Persian Gulf, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Its ventures into the world of war in Somalia and the former Yugoslavia were modest and not exactly greeted with rounds of patriotic fervor at home. Even the brief glow of popularity the elder Bush gained from his 1990-1991 war against Saddam evaporated so quickly that, by the time he geared up for his reelection campaign barely a year later, it was gone.
In the shadows, however, a government-to-be was forming under the guise of a think tank. It was filled with figures like future Vice President Dick Cheney, future Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, future Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, future U.N. Ambassador John Bolten, and future ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, all of whom firmly believed that the United States, with its staggering military advantage and lack of enemies, now had an unparalleled opportunity to control and reorganize the planet. In January 2001, they came to power under the presidency of George W. Bush, anxious for the opportunity to turn the U.S. into the kind of global dominator that would put the British and even Roman empires to shame.
Pax Americana Dreams
Stage two in the march into single-superpower delusion began on September 11, 2001, only five hours after hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 smashed into the Pentagon. It was then that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, already convinced that al-Qaeda was behind the attacks, nonetheless began dreaming about completing the First Gulf War by taking out Saddam Hussein. Of Iraq, he instructed an aide to “go massive… Sweep it all up. Things related and not.”
And go massive he and his colleagues did, beginning the process that led to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, itself considered only a precursor to transforming the Greater Middle East into an American protectorate. From the fertile soil of 9/11 — itself something of a phantasmagoric event in which Osama bin Laden and his relatively feeble organization spent a piddling $400,000-$500,000 to create the look of an apocalyptic moment — sprang full-blown a sense of American global omnipotence.
It had taken a decade to mature. Now, within days of the toppling of those towers in lower Manhattan, the Bush administration was already talking about launching a “war on terror,” soon to become the “Global War on Terror” (no exaggeration intended). The CIA would label it no less grandiosly a “Worldwide Attack Matrix.” And none of them were kidding. Finding “terror” groups of various sorts in up to 80 countries, they were planning, in the phrase of the moment, to “drain the swamp” — everywhere.
In the early Bush years, dreams of domination bred like rabbits in the hothouse of single-superpower Washington. Such grandiose thinking quickly invaded administration and Pentagon planning documents as the Bush administration prepared to prevent potentially oppositional powers or blocs of powers from arising in the foreseeable future. No one, as its top officials and their neocon supporters saw it, could stand in the way of their planetary Pax Americana.
Nor, as they invaded Afghanistan, did they have any doubt that they would soon take down Iraq. It was all going to be so easy. Such an invasion, as one supporter wrote in the Washington Post, would be a “cakewalk.” By the time American troops entered Iraq, the Pentagon already had plans on the drawing board to build a series of permanent bases — they preferred to call them “enduring camps” — and garrison that assumedly grateful country at the center of the planet’s oil lands for generations to come.
Nobody in Washington was thinking about the possibility that an American invasion might create chaos in Iraq and surrounding lands, sparking a set of Sunni-Shiite religious wars across the region. They assumed that Iran and Syria would be forced to bend their national knees to American power or that we would simply impose submission on them. (As a neoconservative quip of the moment had it, “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.”) And that, of course would only be the beginning. Soon enough, no one would challenge American power. Nowhere. Never.
Such soaring dreams of — quite literally — world domination met no significant opposition in mainstream Washington. After all, how could they fail? Who on Earth could possibly oppose them or the U.S. military? The answer seemed too obvious to need to be stated — not until, at least, their all-conquering armies bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan and the greatest power on the planet faced the possibility of defeat at the hands of… well, whom?
The Dark Matter of Global Power
Until things went sour in Iraq, theirs would be a vision of the Goliath tale in which David (or various ragtag Sunni, Shiite, and Pashtun versions of the same) didn’t even have a walk-on role. All other Goliaths were gone and the thought that a set of minor Davids might pose problems for the planet’s giant was beyond imagining, despite what the previous century’s history of decolonization and resistance might have taught them. Above all, the idea that, at this juncture in history, power might not be located overwhelmingly and decisively in the most obvious place — in, that is, “the finest fighting force that the world has ever known,” as American presidents of this era came to call it — seemed illogical in the extreme.
Who in the Washington of that moment could have imagined that other kinds of power might, like so much dark matter in the universe, be mysteriously distributed elsewhere on the planet? Such was their sense of American omnipotence, such was the level of delusional thinking inside the Washington bubble.
Despite two treasury-draining disasters in Afghanistan and Iraq that should have been sobering when it came to the hidden sources of global power, especially the power to resist American wishes, such thinking showed only minimal signs of diminishing even as the Bush administration pulled back from the Iraq War, and a few years later, after a set of misbegotten “surges,” the Obama administration decided to do the same in Afghanistan.
Instead, Washington entered stage three of delusional life in a single-superpower world. Its main symptom: the belief in the possibility of controlling the planet not just through staggering military might but also through informational and surveillance omniscience and omnipotence. In these years, the urge to declare a global war on communications, create a force capable of launching wars in cyberspace, and storm the e-beaches of the Internet and the global information system proved overwhelming. The idea was to make it impossible for anyone to write, say, or do anything to which Washington might not be privy.
For most Americans, the Edward Snowden revelations would pull back the curtain on the way the National Security Agency, in particular, has been building a global network for surveillance of a kind never before imagined, not even by the totalitarian regimes of the previous century. From domestic phone calls to international emails, from the bugging of U.N. headquarters and the European Union to 80 embassies around the world, from enemies to frenemies to allies, the system by 2013 was already remarkably all-encompassing. It had, in fact, the same aura of grandiosity about it, of overblown self-regard, that went with the launching of the Global War on Terror — the feeling that if Washington did it or built it, they would come.
I’m 69 years old and, in technological terms, I’ve barely emerged from the twentieth century. In a conversation with NSA Director Keith Alexander, known somewhat derisively in the trade as “Alexander the Geek,” I have no doubt that I’d be lost. In truth, I can barely grasp the difference between what the NSA’s Prism and XKeyscore programs do. So call me technologically senseless, but I can still recognize a deeper senselessness when I see it. And I can see that Washington is building something conceptually quite monstrous that will change our country for the worse, and the world as well, and is — perhaps worst of all — essentially nonsensical.
So let me offer those in Washington a guarantee: I have no idea what the equivalents of the Afghan and Iraq wars will be in the surveillance world, but continue to build such a global system, ignoring the anger of allies and enemies alike, and “they” indeed will come. Such delusional grandiosity, such dreams of omnipotence and omniscience cannot help but generate resistance and blowback in a perfectly real world that, whatever Washington thinks, maintains a grasp on perfectly real power, even without another imperial state on any horizon.
Today, almost 12 years after 9/11, the U.S. position in the world seems even more singular. Militarily speaking, the Global War on Terror continues, however namelessly, in the Obama era in places as distant as Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. The U.S. military remains heavily deployed in the Greater Middle East, though it has pulled out of Iraq and is drawing down in Afghanistan. In recent years, U.S. power has, in an exceedingly public manner, been “pivoting” to Asia, where the building of new bases, as well as the deployment of new troops and weaponry, to “contain” that imagined future superpower China has been proceeding apace.
At the same time, the U.S. military has been ever-so-quietly pivoting to Africa where, as TomDispatch’s Nick Turse reports, its presence is spreading continent-wide. American military bases still dot the planet in remarkable profusion, numbering perhaps 1,000 at a moment when no other nation on Earth has more than a handful outside its territory.
The reach of Washington’s surveillance and intelligence networks is unique in the history of the planet. The ability of its drone air fleet to assassinate enemies almost anywhere is unparalleled. Europe and Japan remain so deeply integrated into the American global system as to be essentially a part of its power-projection capabilities.
This should be the dream formula for a world dominator and yet no one can look at Planet Earth today and not see that the single superpower, while capable of creating instability and chaos, is limited indeed in its ability to control developments. Its president can’t even form a “coalition of the willing” to launch a limited series of missile attacks on the military facilities of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. From Latin America to the Greater Middle East, the American system is visibly weakening, while at home, inequality and poverty are on the rise, infrastructure crumbles, and national politics is in a state of permanent “gridlock.”
Such a world should be fantastical enough for the wildest sort of dystopian fiction, for perhaps a novel titled 2014. What, after all, are we to make of a planet with a single superpower that lacks genuine enemies of any significance and that, to all appearances, has nonetheless been fighting a permanent global war with… well, itself — and appears to be losing?
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.
Copyright 2013 Tom Engelhardt