Where Empires Go to Die
by Tom Engelhardt
It is now a commonplace — as a lead article in the New York Times’s Week in Review pointed out recently — that Afghanistan is “the graveyard of empires.” Given Barack Obama’s call for a greater focus on the Afghan War (“we took our eye off the ball when we invaded Iraq…”), and given indications that a “surge” of U.S. troops is about to get underway there, Afghanistan’s dangers have been much in the news lately. Some of the writing on this subject, including recent essays by Juan Cole at Salon.com, Robert Dreyfuss at the Nation, and John Robertson at the War in Context website, has been incisive on just how the new administration’s policy initiatives might transform Afghanistan and the increasingly unhinged Pakistani tribal borderlands into “Obama’s War.”
In other words, “the graveyard” has been getting its due. Far less attention has been paid to the “empire” part of the equation. And there’s a good reason for that — at least in Washington. Despite escalating worries about the deteriorating situation, no one in our nation’s capital is ready to believe that Afghanistan could actually be the “graveyard” for the American role as the dominant hegemon on this planet.
In truth, to give “empire” its due you would have to start with a reassessment of how the Cold War ended. In 1989, which now seems centuries ago, the Berlin Wall came down; in 1991, to the amazement of the U.S. intelligence community, influential pundits, inside-the-Beltway think-tankers, and Washington’s politicians, the Soviet Union, that “evil empire,” that colossus of repression, that mortal enemy through nearly half a century of threatened nuclear MADness — as in “mutually assured destruction” — simply evaporated, almost without violence. (Soviet troops, camped out in the relatively cushy outposts of Eastern Europe, especially the former East Germany, were in no more hurry to come home to the economic misery of a collapsed empire than U.S. troops stationed in Okinawa, Japan, are likely to be in the future.)
In Washington where, in 1991, everything was visibly still standing, a stunned silence and a certain unwillingness to believe that the enemy of almost half a century was no more would quickly be overtaken by a sense of triumphalism. A multigenerational struggle had ended with only one of its super-participants still on its feet.
The conclusion seemed too obvious to belabor. Right before our eyes, the USSR had miraculously disappeared into the dustbin of history with only a desperate, impoverished Russia, shorn of its “near abroad,” to replace it; ergo, we were the victors; we were, as everyone began to say with relish, the planet’s “sole superpower.” Huzzah!
Masters of the Universe
The Greeks, of course, had a word for it: “hubris.” The ancient Greek playwrights would have assumed that we were in for a fall from the heights. But that thought crossed few minds in Washington (or on Wall Street) in those years.
Instead, our political and financial movers and shakers began to act as if the planet were truly ours (and other powers, including the Europeans and the Japanese, sometimes seemed to agree). To suggest at the time, as the odd scholar of imperial decline did, that there might have been no winners and two losers in the Cold War, that the weaker superpower had simply left the scene first, while the stronger, less hollowed out superpower was inching its way toward the same exit, was to speak to the deaf.
In the 1990s, “globalization” — the worldwide spread of the Golden Arches, the Swoosh, and Mickey Mouse — was on all lips in Washington, while the men who ran Wall Street were regularly referred to, and came to refer to themselves, as “masters of the universe.”
The phrase was originally used by Tom Wolfe. It was the brand name of the superhero action figures his protagonist’s daughter plays with in his 1987 novel Bonfire of the Vanities. (“On Wall Street he and a few others — how many? three hundred, four hundred, five hundred? had become precisely that… Masters of the Universe…”) As a result, the label initially had something of Wolfe’s cheekiness about it. In the post-Cold War world, however, it soon enough became purely self-congratulatory.
In those years, when the economies of other countries suddenly cratered, Washington sent in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to “discipline” them. That was the actual term of tradecraft. To the immense pain of whole societies, the IMF regularly used local or regional disaster to pry open countries to the deregulatory wonders of “the Washington consensus.” (Just imagine how Americans would react if, today, the IMF arrived at our battered doors with a similar menu of must-dos!)
Now, as the planet totters financially, while from Germany to Russia and China, world leaders blame the Bush administration’s deregulatory blindness and Wall Street’s derivative shenanigans for the financial hollowing out of the global economy, it’s far more apparent that those titans of finance were actually masters of a flim-flam universe. Retrospectively, it’s clearer that, in those post-Cold War years, Wall Street was already heading for the exits, that it was less a planetary economic tiger than a monstrously lucrative paper tiger. Someday, it might be a commonplace to say the same of Washington.
Almost twenty years later, in fact, it may finally be growing more acceptable to suggest that certain comparisons between the two Cold War superpowers were apt. As David Leonhardt of the New York Times pointed out recently:
“Richard Freeman, a Harvard economist, argues that the U.S. bubble economy had something in common with the old Soviet economy. The Soviet Union’s growth was artificially raised by huge industrial output that ended up having little use. America’s was artificially raised by mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations and even the occasional Ponzi scheme.”
Today, when it comes to Wall Street, you can feel the anger rising on Main Street as Americans grasp that those supposed masters of the universe actually hollowed out their world and brought immense suffering down on them. They understand what those former masters of financial firms, who handed out $18.4 billion in bonuses to their employees at the end of 2008, clearly don’t. John Thain, former CEO of Merrill Lynch, for instance, still continues to defend his purchase of a $35,000 antique commode for his office, as well as the $4 billion in bonuses he dealt out to the mini-masters under him in a quarter in which his group racked up more than $15 billion in losses, in a year in which his firm’s losses reached $27 billion.
At least now, however, no one — except perhaps Thain himself — would mistake the Thains for masters rather than charlatans, or the U.S. for a financial superpower riding high rather than a hollowed out economic powerhouse laid low.
As it happens, however, there was another set of all-American “masters of the universe,” even if never given that label. I’m speaking of the top officials of our national security state, the key players in foreign and military policy. They, too, came to believe that the planet was their oyster. They came to believe as well that, uniquely in the history of empires, global domination might be theirs. They began to dream that they might oversee a new Rome or imperial Great Britain, but of a kind never before encountered, and that the competitive Great Game played by previous rivalrous Great Powers had been reduced to solitaire.
For them, the very idea that the U.S. might be the other loser in the Cold War was beyond the pale. And that was hardly surprising. Ahead of them, after all, they thought they saw clear sailing, not graveyards. Hence, Afghanistan.
Twice in the Same Graveyard
It’s here, of course, that things get eerie. I mean, not just a graveyard, but the same two superpowers and the very same graveyard. In November 2001, knowing intimately what had happened to the USSR in Afghanistan, the Bush administration invaded anyway — and with a clear intent to build bases, occupy the country, and install a government of its choice.
When it comes to the neocon architects of global Bushism, hubris remains a weak word. Breathless at the thought of the supposed power of the U.S. military to crush anything in its path, they were blind to other power realities and to history. They equated power with the power to destroy.
Believing that the military force at their bidding was nothing short of invincible, and that whatever had happened to the Soviets couldn’t possibly happen to them, they launched their invasion. They came, they saw, they conquered, they celebrated, they settled in, and then they invaded again — this time in Iraq. A trillion dollars in wasted taxpayer funds later, we look a lot more like the Russians.
What made this whole process so remarkable was that there was no other superpower to ambush them in Afghanistan, as the U.S. had once done to the Soviet Union. George W. Bush’s crew, it turned out, didn’t need another superpower, not when they were perfectly capable of driving themselves off that Afghan cliff and into the graveyard below with no more help than Osama bin Laden could muster.
They promoted a convenient all-purpose fantasy explanation for their global actions, but also gave in to it, and it has yet to be dispelled, even now that the American economy has gone over its own cliff. Under the rubric of the Global War on Terror, they insisted that the greatest danger to the planet’s “sole superpower” came from a ragtag group of fanatics backed by the relatively modest moneys a rich Saudi could get his hands on. Indeed, while the Bush administration paid no attention whatsoever, bin Laden had launched a devastating and televisually spectacular set of assaults on major American landmarks of power — financial, military, and (except for the crash of Flight 93 in a field in Pennsylvania) political. Keep in mind, however, that those attacks had been launched as much from Hamburg and Florida as from the Afghan backlands.
Given the history of the graveyard, Americans should probably have locked their plane doors, put in some reasonable protections domestically, and taken their time going after bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was certainly capable of doing real harm every couple of years, but their strength remained minimal, their “caliphate” a joke, and Afghanistan — for anyone but Afghans — truly represented the backlands of the planet. Even now, we could undoubtedly go home and, disastrous as the situation there (and in Pakistan) has become under our ministrations, do less harm than we’re going to do with our prospective surges in the years to come.
The irony is that, had they not been so blinded by triumphalism, Bush’s people really wouldn’t have needed to know much to avoid catastrophe. This wasn’t atomic science or brain surgery. They needn’t have been experts on Central Asia, or mastered Pashto or Dari, or recalled the history of the anti-Soviet War that had ended barely a decade earlier, or even read the prophetic November 2001 essay in Foreign Affairs magazine, “Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires,” by former CIA station chief in Pakistan Milton Bearden, which concluded: “The United States must proceed with caution — or end up on the ash heap of Afghan history.”
They could simply have visited a local Barnes & Noble, grabbed a paperback copy of George MacDonald Fraser’s rollicking novel Flashman, and followed his blackguard of an anti-hero through England’s disastrous Afghan War of 1839-1842 from which only one Englishman returned alive. In addition to a night’s reading pleasure, that would have provided any neocon national security manager with all he needed to know when it came to getting in and out of Afghanistan fast.
Or subsequently, they could have spent a little time with the Russian ambassador to Kabul, a KGB veteran of the Soviet Union’s Afghan catastrophe. He complained to John Burns of the New York Times last year that neither Americans nor NATO representatives were willing to listen to him, even though the U.S. had repeated “all of our mistakes,” which he carefully enumerated. “Now,” he added, “they’re making mistakes of their own, ones for which we do not own the copyright.”
True, the Obama crew at the White House, the National Security Council, the State Department, the Pentagon, and in the U.S. military, even holdovers like Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Centcom Commander David Petraeus, are not the ones who got us into this. Yes, they are more realistic about the world. Yes, they believe — and say so — that we’re, at best, in a stalemate in Afghanistan and Pakistan, that it’s going to be truly tough sledding, that it probably will take years and years, and that the end result won’t be victory. Yes, they want some “new thinking,” some actual negotiations with factions of the Taliban, some kind of a grand regional bargain, and above all, they want to “lower expectations.”
As Gates summed things up in congressional testimony recently:
“This is going to be a long slog, and frankly, my view is that we need to be very careful about the nature of the goals we set for ourselves in Afghanistan… If we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose, because nobody in the world has that kind of time, patience and money.”
Okay, in Norse mythology, Valhalla may be the great hall for dead warriors and the Secretary of Defense may have meant an “Asian Eden,” but cut him a little slack: at least he acknowledged that there were financial limits to the American role in the world. That’s a new note in official Washington, where global military and diplomatic policy have, until now, existed in splendid isolation from the economic meltdown sweeping the country and the planet.
Similarly, official Washington is increasingly willing to talk about a “multi-polar world,” rather than the unipolar fantasy planet on which the first-term Bush presidency dwelled. Its denizens are even ready to imagine a relatively distant moment when the U.S. will have “reduced dominance,” as Global Trends 2025, a futuristic report produced for the new President by the National Intelligence Council, put it. Or as Thomas Fingar, the U.S. intelligence community’s “top analyst,” suggested of the same moment:
“[T]he U.S. will remain the preeminent power, but that American dominance will be much diminished over this period of time… [T]he overwhelming dominance that the United States has enjoyed in the international system in military, political, economic, and arguably, cultural arenas is eroding and will erode at an accelerating pace with the partial exception of military.”
Still, it’s a long way from fretting about finances, while calling for more dollars for the Pentagon, to imagining that we already might be something less than the dominant hegemon on this planet, or that the urge to tame the backlands of Afghanistan, half a world from home, makes no sense at all. Not for us, not for the Afghans, not for anybody (except maybe al-Qaeda).
For all their differences with Bush’s first-term neocons, here’s what the Obama team still has in common with them — and it’s no small thing: they still think the U.S. won the Cold War. They still haven’t accepted that they can’t, even if in a subtler fashion than the Busheviks, control how this world spins; they still can’t imagine that the United States of America, as an imperial power, could possibly be heading for the exits.
Whistling Past the Graveyard
Back in 1979, National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, plotting to draw the Soviets into a quagmire in Afghanistan, wrote President Jimmy Carter: “We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War.”
In fact, the CIA-backed anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan that lasted through the 1980s would give the Soviets far worse. After all, while the Vietnam War was a defeat for the U.S., it was by no means a bankrupting one.
In 1986, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev vividly described the Afghan War as a “bleeding wound.” Three years later, by which time it had long been obvious that transfusions were hopeless, the Soviets withdrew. It turned out, however, that the bleeding still couldn’t be staunched, and so the Soviet Union, with its sclerotic economy collapsing and “people power” rising on its peripheries, went down the tubes.
Hand it to the Bush administration, in the last seven-plus years the U.S. has essentially inflicted a version of the Soviets’ “Afghanistan” on itself. Now the Obama team is attempting to remedy this disaster, but what new thinking there is remains, as far as we can tell, essentially tactical. Whether the new team’s plans are more or less “successful” in Afghanistan and on the Pakistani border may, in the end, prove somewhat beside the point. The term Pyrrhic victory, meaning a triumph more costly than a loss, was made for just such moments.
After all, more than a trillion dollars later, with essentially nothing to show except an unbroken record of destruction, corruption, and an inability to build anything of value, the U.S. is only slowly drawing down its 140,000-plus troops in Iraq to a “mere” 40,000 or so, while surging yet more troops into Afghanistan to fight a counterinsurgency war, possibly for years to come. At the same time, the U.S. continues to expand its armed forces and to garrison the globe, even as it attempts to bail out an economy and banking system evidently at the edge of collapse. This is a sure-fire formula for further disaster — unless the new administration took the unlikely decision to downsize the U.S. global mission in a major way.
Right now, Washington is whistling past the graveyard. In Afghanistan and Pakistan the question is no longer whether the U.S. is in command, but whether it can get out in time. If not, when the moment for a bailout comes, don’t expect the other pressed powers of the planet to do for Washington what it has been willing to do for the John Thains of our world. The Europeans are already itching to get out of town. The Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians, the Indians… who exactly will ride to our rescue?
Perhaps it would be more prudent to stop hanging out in graveyards. They are, after all, meant for burials, not resurrections.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the American Age of Denial. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), a collection of some of the best pieces from his site and an alternative history of the mad Bush years.
Copyright 2009 Tom Engelhardt