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.
It is indeed 17 years later. Remarkably enough, though, the last superpower, the one with the military that was, as President George W. Bush put it, “the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known,” is still fruitlessly fighting — and still losing ground — in the very first country it took on and supposedly “liberated”: poor Afghanistan. The Taliban is again on the rise there. Elsewhere, al-Qaeda, stronger than ever, has franchised itself, multiplied, and in Iraq given birth to another terror outfit, ISIS, whose own franchises are now multiplying across parts of the planet. In no country in which the U.S. military intervened in this century or in which it simply supported allied forces in a conflict against seemingly weaker, less-well-armed enemies has there been an obvious, lasting victory of the kind that seemed so self-evidently an American right and legacy after 1991 and again 2001.
In fact, there may not be another example of a truly great power, seemingly at the height of its strength and glory, so unable to impose its will, no matter the brutality and destructive force employed. The United States had, of course, been able to do exactly that, often with striking success (at least for a while), from Guatemala to Iran in the Cold War years, but “alone” on the planet, it came up cold. Of those three rogue powers of the 1990s, for instance, Iran and North Korea are now stronger (one of them even nuclear-armed) and neither, despite the desires and plans of so many American officials, has been toppled. Meanwhile, Iraq, after a U.S. invasion and occupation in 2003, has proven a never-ending disaster area.
Not that anyone’s drawing lessons from any of this at the moment, perhaps because there’s that orange-haired guy in the Oval Office taking up so much of our time and attention or because there’s an understandable desire to duck the most obvious conclusion: that Planet Earth, however small, is evidently still too big for one power, however economically overwhelming or militarily dominant, to control. Think of the last 27 years of American history as a demo for that old idiom: biting off more than you can chew.
In 2016, in what came to be known as the “homeland,” American voters responded to that reality in a visceral way. They elected as president a truly strange figure, a man who alone among the country’s politicians was peddling the idea that the U.S. was no longer great but, like Putin’s Russia, would have to be made great again. Donald Trump, as I wrote during that campaign season, was the first presidential candidate to promote the idea that the United States was in decline at a moment when politicians generally felt obliged to affirm that the U.S. was the greatest, most exceptional, most indispensable place on the planet. And, of course, he won.
Admittedly, despite a near collapse a decade earlier, the economy is seemingly soaring, while the stock market remains ebullient. In fact, it couldn’t look sunnier, could it? I mean, put aside the usual Trumpian tweets and the rest of the Washington sideshow, including those Chinese (and Canadian) tariffs and the bluster and bombast of the leakiest administration this side of the Titanic, and, as the president so often says, things couldn’t look rosier. The Dow Jones average has left past versions of the same in the dust. The unemployment rate is somewhere near the bottom of the barrel (if you don’t count the actual unemployed). The economy is just booming along.
But tell me the truth: Can’t you just feel it? Honestly, can’t you?
You know as well as I do that there’s something rotten in… well, let’s not blame Denmark… but you know perfectly well that something’s not right here. You know that it’s the wallets and pocketbooks of the 1% that are really booming, expanding, exploding at the moment; that the rich have inherited, if not the Earth, then at least American politics; that the wealth possessed by that 1% is now at levels not seen since the eve of the Great Depression of 1929. And, honestly, can you doubt that the next crash is somewhere just over the horizon?
Meet the Empire Burners
Donald Trump is in the White House exactly because, in these years, so many Americans felt instinctively that something was going off the tracks. (That shouldn’t be a surprise, given the striking lack of investment in, or upkeep of, the infrastructure of the greatest of all powers.) He’s there largely thanks to the crew that’s now proudly referred to — for supposedly keeping him in line — as “the adults in the room.” Let me suggest a small correction to that phrase to better reflect the 16 years in this not-so-new century before he entered the Oval Office. How about “the adolts in the room”?
After all, from National Security Advisor John Bolton (the invasion of Iraq) and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (a longtime regime-change advocate) to CIA Director Gina Haspel (black sites and torture), Secretary of Defense James “Mad Dog” Mattis (former Marine general and CENTCOM commander), and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (former Marine general and a commander in Iraq), those adolts and so many like them remain deeply implicated in the path the country took in those years of geopolitical dreaming. They were especially responsible for the decision to invest in the U.S. military (and little else), as well as in endless wars, in the years before Donald Trump came to power. And worse yet, they seem to have learned absolutely nothing from the process.
Take a recent example we know something about — Afghanistan — thanks to Fear: Trump in the White House, Bob Woodward’s bestselling new book. Only recently, an American sergeant major, an adviser to Afghan troops, was gunned down at a base near the Afghan capital, Kabul, in an “insider” or “green-on-blue” attack, a commonplace of that war. He was killed (and another American adviser wounded) by two allied Afghan police officers in the wake of an American air strike in the same area in which more than a dozen of their compatriots died. Forty-two years old and on the eve of retirement, the sergeant was on his seventh combat tour of duty of this century and, had he had an eighth, he might have served with an American born after the 9/11 attacks.
In his book, Woodward describes a National Security Council meeting in August 2017, in which the adolts in the room saved the president from his worst impulses. He describes how an impatient Donald Trump “exploded, most particularly at his generals. You guys have created this situation. It’s been a disaster. You’re the architects of this mess in Afghanistan… You’re smart guys, but I have to tell you, you’re part of the problem. And you haven’t been able to fix it, and you’re making it worse… I was against this from the beginning. He folded his arms. ‘I want to get out… and you’re telling me the answer is to get deeper in.’”
And indeed almost 16 years later that is exactly what Pompeo, Mattis, former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and the rest of them were telling him. According to Woodward, Mattis, for instance, argued forcefully “that if they pulled out, they would create another ISIS-style upheaval… What happened in Iraq under Obama with the emergence of ISIS will happen under you, Mattis told Trump, in one of his sharpest declarations.”
The reported presidential response: “‘You are all telling me that I have to do this,’ Trump said grudgingly, ‘and I guess that’s fine and we’ll do it, but I still think you’re wrong. I don’t know what this is for. It hasn’t gotten us anything. We’ve spent trillions,’ he exaggerated. ‘We’ve lost all these lives.’ Yet, he acknowledged, they probably could not cut and run and leave a vacuum for al-Qaeda, Iran, and other terrorists.”
And so Donald Trump became the latest surge president, authorizing, however grudgingly, the dispatching of yet more American troops and air power to Afghanistan (just as he recently authorized an “indefinite military effort” in Syria in the wake of what we can only imagine was another such exchange). Of Mattis himself, in response to reports that he might be on the way out after the midterm elections, the president recently responded, “He’ll stay… we’re very happy with him, we’re having a lot of victories, we’re having victories that people don’t even know about.”
Perhaps that should be considered definitional for the Trump presidency, which is likely to increasingly find itself in a world of “victories that people don’t even know about.” But don’t for a second think that The Donald was the one who brought us to this state, though someday he will undoubtedly be seen as the personification of it and of the decline that swept him into power. And for all that, for the victories that people won’t know about and the defeats that they will, he’ll have the adolts in the room to thank. They proved to be neither the empire builders of their dreams, nor even empire preservers, but a crew of potential empire burners.
Believe me, folks, it’s going to be anything but pretty. Welcome to that most unpredictable and dangerous of entities, a dying empire. Only 27 years after the bells of triumph tolled across Washington, it looks like those bells are now preparing to toll in mourning for it.
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War (Dispatch Books).
[Note: My special thanks go to two old friends, Jim Peck, author of Ideal Illusions, How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights, and Nancy Milton for their thoughts and contributions to this piece. Tom]