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Given the cluttered landscape of the last 14 years, can you even faintly remember the moment when the Berlin Wall came down, the Cold War ended in a stunned silence of shock and triumph in Washington, Eastern Europe was freed, Germany unified, and the Soviet Union vanished from the face of the Earth? At that epochal moment, six centuries of imperial rivalries ended. Only one mighty power was left.
There hadn’t been a moment like it in historical memory: a single “hyperpower” with a military force beyond compare looming over a planet without rivals. Under the circumstances, what couldn’t Washington hope for? The eternal domination of the Middle East and all that oil? A planetary Pax Americana for generations to come? Why not? After all, not even the Romans and the British at the height of their empires had experienced a world quite like this one.
Now, leap a quarter of a century to the present and note the rising tide of paranoia in this country and the litany of predictions of doom and disaster. Consider the extremity of fear and gloom in the party of Ronald “It’s Morning Again in America” Reagan in what are called “debates” among its presidential candidates, and it’s hard not to imagine that we aren’t at the precipice of the decline and fall of just about everything. The American Century? So much sawdust on the floor of history.
If, however, you look at the country that its top politicians can now hardly mention without defensively wielding the words “exceptional” or “indispensable,” the truly exceptional thing is this: as a great power, the United States still stands alone on planet Earth and Americans can exhibit all the paranoia they want in remarkable safety and security.
Here, then, are three exceptional facts of our moment.
Exceptional Fact #1: Failure Is Success, or the U.S. Remains the Sole Superpower
If you were to isolate the single most striking, if little discussed, aspect of American foreign policy in the first 15 years of this century, it might be that Washington’s inability to apply its power successfully just about anywhere confirms that very power; in other words, failure is a marker of success. Let me explain.
In the post-9/11 years, American power in various highly militarized forms has been let loose repeatedly across a vast swath of the planet from the Chinese border to deep in Africa — and nowhere in those 14 years, despite dreams of glory and global dominion, has the U.S. succeeded in any of its strategic goals. That should qualify as exceptional in itself. After all, what are the odds that, in all that time, nothing should turn out as planned or positively by Washington’s standards? It could not win its war in Afghanistan; nor its two wars, one ongoing, in Iraq; nor has it had success in its present one in Syria; it failed to cow Iran; its intervention in Libya proved catastrophic; its various special ops and drone campaigns in Yemen have led to chaos in that country; and so, as novelist Kurt Vonnegut used to say, it goes.
Though there was much talk in the early years of this century of “nation building” abroad, American power has been able to build nothing. Its effect everywhere has been purely disintegrative (unless you count the creation of a terror “caliphate” in parts of collapsed Syria and Iraq as a non-disintegrative act). Under the pressure of American power, there have been no victories, nor even in any traditional sense successes, while whole countries have collapsed, populations have been uprooted, and peoples put into flight by the millions. No matter how you measure it, American power has, in other words, been a tempest of failure.
Where, then, does success lie? The answer: despite 15 years bouncing from one militaristic disaster to another, can there be any question that, signs of decline or not, the United States remains the uncontested sole superpower of planet Earth? Consider that a testimony to the wealth and strength of the country. In many ways — certainly, in military terms (despite the hue and cry at the recent Republican debates) — there is no power that could or would contest it.
If you listen to the Republicans, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, now seems to stand in almost alone for the former Soviet Union. He and his country are, so Republicans, neocons, and t op military figures agree, hands down the country’s greatest enemy, a genuine “existential threat” to the U.S. But looked at in a clear-eyed fashion, this monstrous (yet strangely familiar) enemy is in many ways a house of cards. Or put another way, Putin as a leader has managed to do a remarkable amount (much of it grim indeed, from Ukraine to Syria) with remarkably little. To compare him, no less his country, to the former Soviet Union in its heyday is, however, simply a bad joke (except perhaps when it comes to its still superpower-sized nuclear arsenal). He is, in fact, the head of a rickety, embattled energy state at a time when the price of oil seems to be headed for the sub-basement.
As for China, always assumed to be the coming superpower of the later twenty-first century,don’t count on it. As recent economic events there have reminded us, it’s a country on the edge. Despite more than four “to get rich is glorious” decades and remarkable economic growth, it remains a relatively poor land whose leadership doesn’t know what might happen if, as in any capitalist economy, bubbles were to burst, things went south, and the economy began to tank. Yes, its military budget, though still modest by Pentagon standards, is rising and it’s growing increasingly aggressive in the neighborhood, but its leaders still show no sign of wanting to garrison the planet or become a true military competitor to the U.S. in anything but the most local terms.
And China aside, a quarter-century after the Soviet Union imploded, there are still no other potential rivals anywhere on Earth, just strapped regional powers of various sorts and, of course, a set of interlinked extremist terror outfits, constantly morphing and growing under the pressure of U.S. bombing runs, special ops raids, and drone assassination campaigns.
No question about it, if you’re a big fan of Washington’s exceptional superpowerdom, the news isn’t exactly cheery. Nothing works the way it did, say, in Iran in 1953 when the CIA-instigated a coup that overthrew a democratically elected government and put its own man on the “Peacock Throne.” There, it took 26 years for blowback to occur and the Shah to flee. In 2015, it seems to take only 26 days or maybe 26 minutes.
Still, the good news is that, however crippled U.S. power may be in practice, like the cheese of nursery rhyme fame, it still stands alone. How exceptional is that?
Exceptional Fact #2: Americans Are Actually Safe and Secure
Think of exceptional fact two as the don’t-believe-your-ears one. In the post-9/11 era, a national security and global surveillance state of historic proportions has been built and funded on one proposition: that without its 17 intelligence agencies, the Homeland Security Department, and the military, as well as a spreading penumbra of secrecy and classification(that is, its ability not to let citizens know much of anything about what’s being done in their name), the American people would be in almost unimaginable danger from a single phenomenon, “terrorism” (with the adjective “Muslim” or “Islamic” implied if not tacked on).
With its talk over the years of sleeper cells, lone wolves, and plots to kill Americans, this message has been a constant of our world. As the handcuffing and arrest of a ninth grader in Irving, Texas, for bringing a clock he cobbled together to school shows, it’s now in the American bloodstream. It’s also provided the largely unquestioned rationale for the growth of secretive agencies of every sort, for the careers of a vast range of top officials, for the extraordinary powers granted to what is increasingly a secretive state within a state (as the U.S. military now has a secret military of ever expanding proportions in its midst). Were it to be put in doubt, that state and much else might be put in doubt, too. A great deal depends on news of and alarms about endless possible terror plots, which often turn out to have been promoted or instigated by FBI informants.
The message manifests itself in a kind of hysteria over possible future plots, claims (largely unsubstantiated or untrue) of past ones that were broken up by agencies of the national security state, and endless stories about how the Islamic State is using the Internet to rouse individuals in this country to commit mayhem here.
And yet — exceptional fact two — despite 9/11, the record clearly indicates that Americans are in next to no danger. If you’re living in Baghdad, the possibility of terror attacks couldn’t be more real or horrific. If you’re living in Irving, Texas, Toledo, Ohio, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, or even New York City, they are close to nil. A country bounded by two oceans and friendly neighbors remains a formula for security, with no credit whatsoever to the national security state. In few places on the planet is anyone likelier to be safer when it comes to Islamic terror attacks than this one. It is, of course, quite true that the U.S. has helped spread insecurity and fear in significant areas of the world. It is also true that even Europe is no longer untouched by that insecurity and by violence. In this way, too, it could be said that the United States stands alone (not that you would know it living inside the American terrordome).
Let me, then, offer anyone reading this a practical guarantee. You will not be killed in the continental United States by an Islamic terrorist or someone in sympathy with the Islamic State — or rather your chances of that happening are infinitesimally small. The odds of almost anything else disastrous happening to you, no matter how obscure, is at least as great, and in almost every case staggeringly greater, including being crushed beneath falling furniture, shot by a tot who has found a stray loaded weapon, murdered in a mass killing incident (not by a terrorist), struck by lightning (or done in by weather events of almost any sort), knocked off by food poisoning, or killed in your own car.
As has always been true — the British burning of Washington in 1814, Pearl Harbor in 1941, and 9/11 being the exceptions — the United States has been a remarkably protected place (except, of course, when it came to internal strife of various sorts). That sense of invulnerability explains why the 9/11 attacks had an impact beyond compare, and why it was so easy to build a vast structure meant to oversee the “homeland” in all sorts of historically intrusive ways.
The other side of this — consider it exceptional fact two-and-a-half — is that, at this point, American taxpayers have invested trillions of dollars in what can only be called a scam.
Exceptional Fact #3: A Culture of Victimhood Is Developing Among the Inhabitants of the Planet’s Sole Superpower
Given exceptional facts one and two, what could be more exceptional than significant numbers of Americans living in a fear-based culture of victimhood laced with paranoia and extremism that seems to have captured one of the two major political parties?
In it, Americans are always at the mercy of the evil doers everywhere, including those distinctly in our midst with mayhem in mind. Our military is an underfinanced wreck, our Navy practically a set of dinghies, a Muslim is even in the White House, a malign climate-change movement is eager to destroy capitalism as we know it, women’s bodies are enough of a danger to shut the government down, immigrants are potential terrorists or rapists, and so on and so forth through a litany of strangely woven fantasies and factoids.
This mood was highlighted in the media recently after a man at a Donald Trump rally in New Hampshire in the wake of the second Republican debate rose in a question period and said, “We have a problem in this country, it’s called Muslims. We know our current president is one — you know he’s not even an American. But anyway, we have training camps growing where they want to kill us. That’s my question, when can we get rid of them?” Media coverage generally focused on the presidential or “birther” part of the man’s statement, ignoring those fantasy “training camps” for terrorists assumedly here in the USA. Largely ignored as well were the two other audience members called on by Trump who were no less bizarre. The first, a man, said, “I applaud the gentleman who stood and said Obama is a Muslim born abroad and about the military camps, everyone knows that.” (“Right,” Trump responded and moved on.)
The second, a woman, according to the Hill, “told him that there is a ‘new holocaust’ in New Hampshire and that people are being loaded into boxcars and beheaded by members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. ‘I just wanted you to know that.’”
Consider it a small, off-center measure of the sense of fear, persecution, and fantasy now embedded in what’s often referred to as the Republican “base.” Such paranoia is, of course, nothing new in this country, particularly in moments of economic stress. Still, given the years of fear mongering since 9/11 and the building up of a right-wing media universe that’s both echo chamber and megaphone, this is dangerous stuff. And we’re not talking about just a weird set of fringe lunatics here. After all, as the Washington Post reported recently, “54 percent of Trump supporters and some 43 percent of Republicans believe that Obama is a Muslim.”
In this context, while the U.S. military pursues its failing wars, interventions, and raids abroad, while the national security state develops ever more mechanisms for snooping, surveilling, and controlling populaces at home (as in the recent essentially unprecedented security lockdowns of major American cities “for” the Pope), many of the country’s citizens are increasingly living inside a fact-challenged fantasy of a country, a victimized superpower. Boogiemen lurk around every corner, as do high crimes and dark conspiracies, and any sense of responsibility for what the U.S. has done in the world in these last years is missing in action.
In the meantime, we live on an increasingly disturbed planet in which the basics of drought,fire and flood, melting and freezing, are gaining new meaning, in which power seems not to be expressing or displaying itself in the normal, reasonably predictable ways. The sun may be setting, albeit slowly indeed, on American imperial power, but perhaps it is also setting on imperial power as we’ve known it. And if so, that would truly be exceptional.
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.