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 TeasersTom Engelhardt Blogview

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Here’s a strange reality of the last 17 years of the American way of war: in the spring of 2003, before the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, millions of people took to the streets, hundreds of thousands in the United States, to protest a coming war that was likely to lead to disaster. Ever since, unlike in the Vietnam years, Washington has fought its never-ending, ever-spreading wars without significant opposition or protest. Undoubtedly, this is at least in part because the country’s all-volunteer military let much of the population off the hook when it came to easy-to-ignore conflicts in distant lands. Stranger yet, however, has been the remarkable lack of opposition to those wars, as well as to the soaring funding of the national security state that goes with them, in the halls of Congress (with the rarest of exceptions).

It wasn’t always so. In 1966, for instance, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, J. William Fulbright, a former friend of Lyndon Johnson’s, came to feel that he “had been taken” by the president’s Vietnam War policies. In response, he convened televised public hearings to dissect that conflict and, in doing so, validated opposition to it, which was already in the streets. Today, you couldn’t find a congressional committee chairman who would stand in opposition to our permanent wars across the Greater Middle East and Africa or to the ever-vaster sums of money being poured into the Pentagon. I mean, can you imagine any major figure in Washington today, Republican or Democrat, writing a book about American foreign policy titled, as Fulbright’s was, The Arrogance of Power? Dream on!

Remember that, in the days after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration’s open-ended resolution authorizing the use of military force (which led to the invasion of Afghanistan and so much that followed) was opposed by only one member of Congress, Representative Barbara Lee. In explaining her vote, she made it clear that she was “convinced military action would not prevent further acts of international terrorism” and feared giving “a blank check to the president to attack anyone involved in the September 11th events — anywhere, in any country, without regard to our nation’s long-term foreign policy, economic, and national security interests, and without time limit.” How right she turned out to be. And the thanks she got for it? Death threats, of course.

Still, late as it is, something is finally beginning to shift. Only recently, for instance, Senator Bernie Sanders gave a foreign policy address that felt genuinely Fulbrightian, speaking truths that, obvious as they may be, are anything but commonplace in Washington. “As an organizing framework,” he said, “the Global War on Terror has been a disaster for the American people and for American leadership. Orienting U.S. national security strategy around terrorism essentially allowed a few thousand violent extremists to dictate policy for the most powerful nation on earth. It responds to terrorists by giving them exactly what they want.”

Similarly, as part of a growing congressional movement to abrogate or end the U.S. role in the grim Saudi war in Yemen, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Ro Khanna recently pointed out that “the Yemeni people are suffering. Instead of supporting more bombing, the United States can help bring peace to the region. Congress has an urgent responsibility to act.” So perhaps it’s particularly timely that, today, TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich, author of the new book Twilight of the American Century, offers a sweeping set of suggestions to possible 2020 presidential candidate Warren for what a more reasonable, less-warlike but not less involved set of American global policies might look like.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Military 
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You want the nitty-gritty on the Bermuda Triangle of injustice that the U.S. created at the CIA’s global black sites and its detention center in Guantánamo, Cuba? Well, here’s a true story about an American National Guardsman at Gitmo who was only pretending to be a recalcitrant prisoner being “extracted” from a cell for training purposes and was beaten almost senseless. As I wrote long ago, this “happened to 35 year-old ‘model soldier’ Sean Baker, who had been in Gulf War I and signed on again immediately after the World Trade Center went down. His unit was assigned to Guantánamo and he volunteered to be just such a ‘prisoner,’ donning the requisite orange uniform on January 24, 2003. As a result of his ‘extraction’ and brutal beating, he was left experiencing regular epileptic-style seizures ten to twelve times a day. (And remember the Immediate Reaction Force team of MPs that seized him, on finally realizing that he wasn’t a genuine prisoner, broke off their assault before finishing the job.)” So just imagine what was done to actual detainees there and in those black sites.

TomDispatch regular Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law and author of The Least Worst Place: Guantánamo’s First 100 Days, has written about that grim prison and American torture techniques there and elsewhere for TomDispatch since 2005. Recently, she’s begun tracking the ways in which the Guantánamo mentality has left that island and headed for the mainland. However unattended, this is a development that should have been expected and is ominous. Of course, any country that creates a system of injustice offshore of its system of justice should expect the former to infect the latter sooner or later. Greenberg recently followed that Gitmo mentality to the U.S.-Mexico border where undocumented immigrant children were turned into a set of junior “detainees” and given a dose of offshore treatment. Today, she follows it into the heart of Washington and the Kavanaugh hearings. However, in a country that elected a president who put his stamp of approval on the idea of torturing prisoners (“I would bring back waterboarding, and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding…”) and possibly slaughtering their relatives (“The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families…”), no one should be surprised to find aspects of the Guantánamo mentality taking a bow, as Greenberg suggests today, in the nation’s capital during the recent Kavanaugh imbroglio.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Guantanamo 
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The other day as I was passing through a waiting room in my gym, I suddenly saw — well, who else in 2018? — Donald Trump on a giant TV screen. He was trying on a specially made hardhat and preparing to address the National Electrical Contractors Association Convention. (“We are truly grateful to our electricians, our wiremen, linemen, engineers, technicians, journeymen, contractors, and apprentices — oh, I love that word. That was a great — I love the word ‘apprentice.’ [Applause.] I love that word. You know, I did that show 14 seasons, and then I left. They wanted to sign me for three more seasons. I said, ‘No, I’m going to run for president.’ [Laughter.] It’s true.”) And one thing struck me from watching his face, something we never cease to do these days: he’s having the time of his life. No kidding. He’s the center of everything, the beau of every ball. He’s historic! Yes, he truly is! No one has ever… no, never… been faintly attended to this way in the history of the media… in the history of anything. Period. Exclamation point!

Why would he want to do one thing differently? I can’t imagine. And any moment he’s feeling even slightly down, all he has to do is hold a rally and be buoyed and cheered (in both senses of the word). Really, it’s his world and welcome to it. Yes, as the New York Times revealed recently, so much about the story that got him elected president was a con. He wasn’t a self-made man, or rather a self-made billionaire, but a daddy’s boy, a “self-made sham.” He was already pulling in $200,000 a year (in today’s dollars) by age three and a millionaire, thanks to daddy, by age eight. And he and his family, the Times suggested, cut corners and cheated on their taxes to give themselves money galore from their dad’s businesses even as The Donald himself bounced from one disaster to another. (Who even remembers the Trump Shuttle or the moment the Trump-owned Plaza Hotel went bankrupt, not to speak of those five Atlantic City casinos that went down in a heap?)

But here’s the thing: none of it really matters. As Hillary Clinton and crew didn’t understand when it came to The Donald’s unreleased tax returns in 2016, Americans love a con man. It’s in the American tradition to admire someone who beats the system (even if you can’t). And that applies to taking daddy’s money, too, and claiming otherwise. Don’t think for a second that it will shake his adoring base. The catch, of course, is that while Donald Trump can get away with being a self-made sham, most Americans can’t and when the fat hits the fire — and it will sooner or later — he’ll undoubtedly escape with the dollars, as he has in the past, but his base and so many other Americans won’t (any more than they did in the 2008-2010 Great Recession).

Right now, the checks on him are so minimal that he can live it up until hell freezes over, which is why the coming midterms are undoubtedly an election for the ages. Whether it’s a blue wave or an orange one will matter bigly, which is why those who are working to ensure that the oranging of America won’t go on forever may be the unsung heroes of our moment. Here, then, is a report from TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon, who usually brings us news about American torture practices and our never-ending wars, but in these months has found herself on another kind of front line entirely — in Nevada and deep in the mid-term moment.

• Category: Ideology • Tags: Donald Trump 
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Here’s a story that’s never left my mind. Back in 2011, Secretary of Defense James “Mad Dog” Mattis was the head of U.S. Central Command, which oversaw the war on terror across the Greater Middle East, and he was obsessed with Iran. He cooked up a scheme to launch a strike to take out either an Iranian oil refinery or power plant in the “dead of night,” an act of war meant to pay that country back for supplying mortars to Iraqi insurgents killing American troops. And in those years, when asked by President Obama to “spell out his top priorities” in the region, the general reportedly replied: “Number one: Iran. Number two: Iran. Number three: Iran.” His Iranophobic obsession finally unnerved the Obama administration enough that, in 2013, he was removed from his CENTCOM post five months early.

I bring up this ancient history only because these days Mattis, reportedly in danger of being ditched by the president after the mid-term elections, has proven to be just about the only “adult in the room” in Washington when it comes to Iran — and doesn’t that just speak worlds about the Trump administration? After all, the president’s National Security Advisor John Bolton, who has wanted to bomb that country since something like the dawn of time, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are both Iranophobes (as well as Islamophobes) of the first order, as is the president who has already torn up the nuclear pact the Obama administration negotiated with Iran and seems to be careening toward some kind of a conflict there. If so, given the American experience of the last 17 years in the region, what could possibly go wrong? As British journalist Patrick Cockburn ominously pointed out recently, “The exaggeration of ‘the Iranian threat’ by the Trump administration this week at the U.N. General Assembly in New York was very like what was being said about Iraq 15 years earlier.”

As the redoubtable Juan Cole, whose iconoclastic new book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires, has just been published, makes clear today, Donald Trump and the congressional Republicans have wielded Islamophobia domestically the way the anticommunists of my childhood once did McCarthyism. When you stop to think about it for a moment, they might be considered addicts on the subject: they just can’t keep away from it or get enough of it. And here’s the weirdest thing of all: yes, their Islamophobic program is to keep you know who out of this country, and that’s often noted, but it seems, as well, to have another goal: to keep us in the Greater Middle East, militarily, until hell freezes over. After all, even under a president who once decried the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we’ve never made it out of either place. We’re now more or less permanently in Syria as well and seemingly no less permanently enmeshed in the Saudi war in Yemen. Next stop: Iran?

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Military, Donald Trump 
Star Wars, G.I. Joe, Rambo, Red Dawn, and How a Tale of American Triumphalism Was Returned to the Child’s World
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[The following excerpt from Tom Engelhardt’s book The End of Victory Culture is posted with permission from the University of Massachusetts Press.]

1. “Hey, How Come They Got All the Fun?”

Now that Darth Vader’s breathy techno-voice is a staple of our culture, it’s hard to remember how empty was the particular sector of space Star Wars blasted into. The very day the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973, Richard Nixon also signed a decree ending the draft. It was an admission of the obvious: war, American-style, had lost its hold on young minds. As an activity, it was now to be officially turned over to the poor and nonwhite.

Those in a position to produce movies, TV shows, comics, novels, or memoirs about Vietnam were convinced that Americans felt badly enough without such reminders. It was simpler to consider the war film and war toy casualties of Vietnam than to create cultural products with the wrong heroes, victims, and villains. In Star Wars, George Lucas successfully challenged this view, decontaminating war of its recent history through a series of inspired cinematic decisions that rescued crucial material from the wreckage of Vietnam.

To start with, he embraced the storylessness of the period, creating his own self-enclosed universe in deepest space and in an amorphous movie past, “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Beginning with “Episode IV” of a projected nonology, he offered only the flimsiest of historical frameworks — an era of civil war, an evil empire, rebels, an ultimate weapon, a struggle for freedom.

Mobilizing a new world of special effects and computer graphics, he then made the high-tech weaponry of the recent war exotic, bloodless, and sleekly unrecognizable. At the same time, he uncoupled the audience from a legacy of massacre and atrocity. The blond, young Luke Skywalker is barely introduced before his adoptive family — high-tech peasants on an obscure planet — suffers its own My Lai. Imperial storm troopers led by Darth Vader descend upon their homestead and turn it into a smoking ruin (thus returning fire to its rightful owners). Luke — and the audience — can now set off on an anti-imperial venture as the victimized, not as victimizers. Others in space will torture, maim, and destroy. Others will put “us” in high-tech tiger cages; and our revenge, whatever it may be, will be justified.

In this way, Star Wars denied the enemy a role “they” had monopolized for a decade — that of brave rebel. It was the first cultural product to ask of recent history, “Hey! How come theygot all the fun?” And to respond, “Let’s give them the burden of empire! Let’s bog them down and be the plucky underdogs ourselves!”

Like Green Berets or Peace Corps members, Lucas’s white teenage rebels would glide effortlessly among the natives. They would learn from value-superior Third World mystics like the Ho-Chi-Minh-ish Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back and be protected by ecological fuzzballs like the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi. In deepest space, anything was possible, including returning history to its previous owners. Once again, we could have it all: freedom and victory, captivity and rescue, underdog status and the spectacle of slaughter. As with the Indian fighter of old, advanced weaponry and the spiritual powers of the guerrilla might be ours.

Left to the enemy would be a Nazi-like capacity for destroying life, a desire to perform search-and-destroy missions on the universe, and the breathy machine voice of Darth Vader (as if evil were a dirty phone call from the Darkside). The Tao of the Chinese, the “life force” of Yaqui mystic Don Juan, even the political will of the Vietnamese would rally to “our” side as the Force and be applied to a crucial technical problem; for having the Force “with you” meant learning to merge with your high-tech weaponry in such a way as to assure the enemy’s destruction. Looked at today, the last part of Star Wars concentrates on a problem that might have been invented after, not 14 years before, the 1991 Persian Gulf War: how to fly a computerized, one-man jet fighter down a narrow corridor under heavy antiaircraft fire and drop a missile into an impossibly small air shaft, the sole vulnerable spot in the Emperor’s Death Star.

Here, Lucas even appropriated the kamikaze-like fusion of human and machine. In Vietnam, there had been two such man-machine meldings. The first, the bombing campaign, had the machinelike impersonality of the production line. Lifting off from distant spots of relative comfort like Guam, B-52 crews delivered their bombs to coordinates stripped of place or people and left the war zone for another day. The crew member symbolically regained humanity only when the enemy’s technology stripped him of his machinery — and, alone, he fluttered to earth and captivity.

At the same time, from Secretary of Defense McNamara’s “electronic battlefield” to the first “smart bombs,” Vietnam proved an experimental testing ground for machine-guided war. Unlike the B-52 or napalm, the smart bomb, the computer, the electronic sensor, and the video camera were not discredited by the war; and it was these machines of wonder that Lucas rescued through the innocence of special effects.

In James Bond films, high-tech had been a display category like fine wines, and techno-weaponry just another consumer item for 007. For Lucas, however, technology in the right hands actually solved problems, offering — whether as laser sword or X-wing fighter — not status but potential spiritualization. This elevation of technology made possible the return of slaughter to the screen as a triumphal and cleansing pleasure (especially since dying “imperial storm troopers,” encased in full body carapaces, looked like so many bugs).

The World as a Star Wars Theme Park

Not only would George Lucas put “war” back into a movie title, he would almost single-handedly reconstitute war play as a feel-good activity for children. With G.I. Joe’s demise, the world of child-sized war play stood empty. The toy soldier had long ago moved into history, an object for adult collectors. However, some months before Star Wars opened, Fox reached an agreement with Kenner Products, a toy company, to create action figures and fantasy vehicles geared to the movie. Kenner president Bernard Loomis decided that these would be inexpensive, new-style figures, only 3 ¾-inch high. Each design was to be approved by Lucas himself.

Since Kenner could not produce the figures quickly enough for the 1977 Christmas season, Loomis offered an “Early Bird Certificate Package” — essentially an empty box — that promised the child the first four figures when produced. The result was toy history. In 1978, Kenner sold over 26 million figures; by 1985, 250 million. All 111 figures and other Star Wars paraphernalia, ranging from lunch boxes and watches to video games, would ring up $2.5 billion in sales.

By the early 1980s, children’s TV had become a Star Wars-like battle zone. Outnumbered rebels daily transformed themselves from teenagers into mighty robots “loved by good, feared by evil” (Voltron) or “heroic teams of armed machines” (M.A.S.K.) in order to fight Lotar and his evil, blue-faced father from Planet Doom (Voltron), General Spidrax, master of the Dark Domain’s mighty armies (Sectaurs), or the evil red-eyed Darkseid of the Planet Apokolips (Superfriends).

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Media, American Military 
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If you were sleeping in 2010 when the Supreme Court — you know, the perfectly reasonable one that didn’t yet have Brett Kavanaugh on it — made political spending a form of free speech with its Citizens United case, you may not yet know that American politics is increasingly a possession of the 1%. In fact, for the first time in American history, there’s even a billionaire in the Oval Office showering tax perks on every other billionaire in sight. During the last eight years, not so surprisingly, “outside spending” in election campaigns has headed for the stratosphere. According to Open Secrets, “During the 2016 election cycle, the top 20 individual donors (whose contributions were disclosed) gave more than $500 million combined to political organizations. The 20 largest organizational donors also gave a total of more than $500 million, and more than $1 billion came from the top 40 donors.” Think about that for a moment and also consider this: in the 2016 campaign season, hardline pro-Israeli casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, gave millions of dollars to President Trump’s campaign and nearly $83 million in all to Republicans. Now, according to the New York Times, Adelson has a “direct line to the president,” a reality reflected in The Donald’s decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. In addition, in this mid-term election season, the couple has already invested a staggering $55 million in efforts to keep Congress in Republican hands.

And don’t think of this new reality as a purely all-American one either. There are some distinctly un-American deep pockets out there on our planet that are also pouring money into this country’s politics in order to get their own direct lines buzzing to Washington. In fact, speaking about the Middle East, as TomDispatch’s Ben Freeman, director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy, points out today, right at the top of that list are the royals of Saudi Arabia. That includes, of course, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, now the power behind the throne in that country. He’s wooed President Trump with the promise of massive future Saudi arms deals and, earlier this year, reportedly bragged that he had the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a key adviser on the Middle East, “in his pocket.” And what a pocket that’s proven to be! Given the disastrous Saudi war in Yemen that the prince launched in 2015 and that Washington has supported ever since, believe me, that’s no small thing. Today, Freeman offers an unprecedented look at just how a set of foreign Sheldon Adelsons have opened their deep, oil-rich pockets and put American politicians of all sorts in them. It’s a story that needs to be told.

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One genuine joy in my life is spending time with my grandson. He’s six, like TomDispatchregular Frida Berrigan’s son Seamus, and he reminds me constantly of just how remarkable — how clever, quick, quirky, inquisitive, and ready to absorb the world — we human beings are. Unlike a new-born foal that, on arrival, struggles to its feet almost instantly and stumbles into its life, we’re slow to fully enter this world of ours, but once we’re truly here: wow! Seeing a life, a mind, unfold is certainly a small but never-ending wonder. And yet in any afternoon we spend together there’s always what I think of as that moment. I mean the one when I suddenly find myself thinking about the planet I’ll leave to him, the planet I won’t be on, and my heart sinks — not because I won’t be there but because he will and it’s increasingly clear that it will be an ever more extreme place.

Just the other day, for instance, Drew Shindell, a Duke University climate scientist, indicated that an upcoming report he co-authored from the prestigious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will suggest that the world’s governments are now “nowhere near on track” to keep the planet’s temperature from passing the 1.5 degrees Centigrade mark (above the pre-industrial moment). That was the aspirational goal of the Paris climate accord before Donald Trump insisted that he would take the globe’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases out of it.

While few are going to be shocked by such a report on such a planet, it’s bad news nonetheless — and keeping that rise under 2 degrees Centigrade seems unlikely, too, or even possibly under 4 degrees. As anyone paying any attention at all to last summer’s heat waves or the havoc recently wrought by Hurricane Florence in the Carolinas would know, we’re already living on a new (and degraded) planet. This is no longer a prospective matter. It’s here — now — and if certain feedback loops kick in, it could prove even worse than most of us imagine in that future my grandson will inherit.

I must admit that such thoughts, and a certain feeling of helplessness, weigh me down sometimes when I’m with him. On the other hand, being there to see firsthand the ingenuity of humanity in a single being also gives me a certain hope that somehow, somewhere along the line, in some way, we’ll pull it off, which brings me to Frida Berrigan, her son, Seamus, and the cheetahs…

• Category: Ideology • Tags: Global Warming 
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In July 1999, Chalmers Johnson began the prologue to Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire this way: “Instead of demobilizing after the Cold War, the United States imprudently committed itself to maintaining a global empire. This book is an account of the resentments our policies have built up and of the kinds of economic and political retribution that, particularly in Asia, may be their harvest in the twenty-first century.” The book (which I edited) was published in 2000 and only modestly attended to until… you know perfectly well until what… until, on September 11, 2001, a terror group by the name of al-Qaeda that had emerged from the American proxy war against the Soviet Union in the South Asian country of Afghanistan sent three hijacked American commercial jets crashing into iconic buildings in New York and Washington.

To use the term of CIA tradecraft for “the unintended consequences of policies that were kept secret from the American people” that Johnson put in our everyday vocabulary, it was “blowback” of the most stunning kind. Not surprisingly, his book suddenly hit the bestseller list. Unfortunately, popular as it became — as U.S. Army Major and TomDispatch regular Danny Sjursen points out today — Americans have thought all too little about the role that blowback has played in all our lives since 9/11. Now, Sjursen takes Johnson’s concept and gives it a new, even more sweeping meaning in a world in which Washington’s war on terror has become a war of and for terror, as countries are destabilized across the Greater Middle East and Africa and terror groups only spread. Consider it the story from hell — and its repercussions, its blowback, what Sjursen calls its “insider attacks,” may only have begun.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Military 
The Adolts in the Room (and No, That Is Not a Typo!)
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When you think about it, the Earth is a relatively modest-sized planet — about 25,000 miles in circumference at the Equator, with a total surface area of 197 million square miles, almost three-quarters of which is water. It’s not so hard, if you’re in a certain frame of mind (as American officials were after 1991), to imagine that a single truly great nation — a “sole superpower” with a high-tech military, its capabilities unparalleled in history — might in some fashion control it all.

Think back to that year when the other superpower, the lesser one of that era, so unbelievably went down for the count. Try to recall that moment when the Soviet Union, its economy imploding, suddenly was no more, its various imperial parts — from Eastern Europe to Central Asia — having largely spun free. It’s hard now to remember just how those months after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and that final moment in 1991 stunned the Washington establishment. Untold sums of money had been poured into “intelligence” during the almost half-century of what became known as the Cold War (because a hot war between two nuclear-armed superpowers seemed unimaginable — even if it almost happened). Nonetheless, key figures in Washington were remarkably unprepared for it all to end. They were stunned. It simply hadn’t occurred to them that the global standoff between the last two great powers on this planet could or would ever truly be over.

And when you think about it, that wasn’t so illogical. Imperial rivalries had been the name of the game for so many centuries. A world without some version of such rivalries seemed genuinely unimaginable — until, of course, it happened. After the shock began to wear off, what followed was triumphalism of a soaring sort. Think of that moment as the geopolitical equivalent of a drug high.

Imagine! After so many centuries of rivalries between great powers and that final showdown between just two superpowers, it was all over (except for the bragging). Only one power, the — by definition — greatest of all, was left on a planet obviously there for the taking.

Yes, Russia still existed with its nuclear arsenal intact, but it was otherwise a husk of its former imperial self. (Vladimir Putin’s sleight-of-hand brilliance has been to give what remains a rickety petro-state the look of a great power, as in MRGA, or Make Russia Great Again.) In 1991, China had only relatively recently emerged from the chaos of the Maoist era and was beginning its rise as a capitalist powerhouse overseen by a communist party — and, until that moment, who would have believed that either? Its military was modest and its leaders not faintly ready to challenge the U.S. It was far more intent on becoming a cog in the global economic machinery that would produce endless products for American store shelves.

In fact, the only obvious challenges that remained came from a set of states so unimpressive that no one would have thought to call them “great,” no less “super” powers. They had already come to be known instead by the ragtag term “rogue states.” Think theocratic Iran, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and Kim Il-sung’s (soon to be Kim Jong-il’s) North Korea, none then nuclear armed. A disparate crew — the Iraqis and Iranians had been at war for eight years in the 1980s — they looked like a pushover for… well, you know who.

And the early results of American global preeminence couldn’t have been more promising. Its corporate power initially seemed to “level” every playing field in sight, while conquering markets across the planet. Its thoroughly high-tech military crushed the armed forces of one rogue power, Iraq, in a 100-hour storm of a war in 1991. Amid a blizzard of ticker tape and briefly soaring approval ratings for President George H.W. Bush, this was seen by those in the know as a preview of the world that was to be.

So what a perfect time — I’m talking about January 2000 — for some of the greatest geopolitical dreamers of all, a crew that saw an “unprecedented strategic opportunity” in the new century to organize not half the planet, as in the Cold War, but the whole damn thing. They took power by a chad that year, already fearing that the process of creating the kind of military that could truly do their bidding might be a slow one without “some catastrophic and catalyzing event — like a new Pearl Harbor.” On September 11, 2001, thanks to Osama bin Laden’s precision air assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, they got their wish — what screaming newspaper headlines promptly called “a new day of infamy” or “the Pearl Harbor of the twenty-first century.” Like their confreres in 1991, the top officials of George W. Bush’s administration were initially stunned by the event, but soon found themselves swept up in a mood of soaring optimism about the future of both the Republican Party and American power. Their dream, as they launched what they called the Global War on Terror, would be nothing short of creating an eternal Pax Republicana in the U.S. and a similarly never-ending Pax Americana first in the Greater Middle East and then on a potentially planetary scale.

As their 2002 national security strategy put it, the U.S. was to “build and maintain” military power “beyond challenge” so that no country or even bloc of countries could ever again come close to matching it. For them, this was the functional definition of global dominance. It gave the phrase of that moment, “shock and awe,” new meaning.

A Smash-Up on the Horizon?

Of course, you remember this history as well as I do, so it shouldn’t be hard for you to jump into the future with me and land in September 2018, some 17 years later, when all those plans to create a truly American planet had come to fruition and the U.S. was dominant in a way no other country had ever been.

Whoops… my mistake.

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Like many in my generation, undoubtedly including Donald Trump, I went into space early (and I’m not even counting all those hours in my early teens I spent reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy or H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds by flashlight under the covers while supposedly asleep). I’m thinking of 1966 and 1967, when I crossed the Great Barrier (in Star Trek episode three), landed on Alpha 177 (in episode five), and traveled with Mr. Spock to Talos IV (in episode 12). And yes, I still remember those cloaked Romulan ships and that close encounter with the Klingon Empire. In fact, on July 20, 1969 (my birthday, no less!), when Neil Armstrong first set foot upon the moon and then raised the American flag there, saying (in the era before women existed), “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” I have to admit that I was a little disappointed. On my small black-and-white TV, at least, the moon with Armstrong on it looked (as I remember thinking at the time) a bit like the blurry inside of a working washing machine through its small glass window. What it sure didn’t look like was any part of the galaxy in which James T. Kirk, commander of the USS Enterprise, touched down weekly.

Now, Donald Trump is clearly, if I can coin a word, a nostalgiac. He longs for the 1950s and 1960s, the years of his youth, and since entering the Oval Office he’s been trying to take us all back — lock, stock, and barrel — to that highly fossil-fueled, deeply polluted age when you didn’t have to put “again” after “great” while mentioning this country. Having already done his best, in a globally warming world, to burn yet more fossil fuels, he’s now adding to his nostalgia for that ancient era of American preeminence by proposing that we all revisit Star Trek (with him, of course, as Captain Kirk). He’s ordered the creation of a sixth branch of the U.S. military, a Space Force, for which, in language redolent of that distant age, he invoked “our destiny beyond the Earth.” As TomDispatch regular and expert on Pentagon spending William Hartung points out today, that means one thing: money, money, money, and yet more money. I think it’s clear what his once-vaunted plan for funding the rebuilding of this country’s failing infrastructure will have meant on his departure from office: nothing built or rebuilt on this small planet of ours — not a mile of new high-speed rail, for instance — but plenty of new weaponry in outer space. Let Hartung fill you in on the future according to our own Captain Kirk.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Donald Trump, Space Program 
Tom Engelhardt
About Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt created and runs the website, a project of The Nation Institute where he is a Fellow. He is the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture, and of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing, as well as a collection of his Tomdispatch interviews, Mission Unaccomplished. Each spring he is a Teaching Fellow at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. is the sideline that ate his life. Before that he worked as an editor at Pacific News Service in the early 1970s, and, these last three decades, as an editor in book publishing. For 15 years, he was Senior Editor at Pantheon Books where he edited and published award-winning works ranging from Art Spiegelman's Maus and John Dower's War Without Mercy to Eduardo Galeano's Memory of Fire trilogy. He is now Consulting Editor at Metropolitan Books, as well as co-founder and co-editor of Metropolitan's The American Empire Project. Many of the authors whose books he has edited and published over the years now write for He is married to Nancy J. Garrity, a therapist, and has two children, Maggie and Will.

His new book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (Haymarket Books), has just been published.

Personal Classics
Eight Exceptional(ly Dumb) American Achievements of the Twenty-First Century
How the Security State’s Mania for Secrecy Will Create You
Delusional Thinking in the Age of the Single Superpower