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Tomgram: Andrew Bacevich, War Fever Subsides in Washington

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Imagine yourself in a typical "Twilight Zone" episode.  You've been tossing and turning in delirium for some time and now, to your astonishment, you wake up to find yourself in an almost unrecognizable world.  Your country, the former "sole superpower" on planet Earth, is in domestic gridlock, a financial hole, and can't win a war anywhere anytime.  The United States is looking strangely like what a past American president once called "a pitiful, helpless giant." The Democratic peace president is presiding over numerous wars and sending American planes and pilotless drones off to bomb and missile countries you didn't even know existed, and yet when he speaks to the world, when he tells other countries and other leaders what they "must" do, no one seems to be listening.

Befuddlingly enough, a number of the politicians who were war hawks not so long ago are now demanding that funding for American wars be cut off or that American troops be brought home at a faster pace; some are even suggesting that the Pentagon budget should be cut.  The ranks of the miniscule antiwar camp in Washington have swelled remarkably and with an array of unexpected faces.  The usual political alliances seem to be cracking open.  And above all, though you can see that America's wars are likely to grind on haplessly for years, it's also increasingly evident that once familiar political ground is shifting uneasily, and that something is happening here, even if you don't know what it is. (Do you, Mr. Jones?)

This being our state today, TomDispatch has taken the prudent step of calling in the doctor.  So today, Andrew Bacevich, author most recently of the bestselling Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War, takes America's temperature, prescribing rest and a lot less activity abroad in hopes that the patient will actually recover.  (To catch Timothy MacBain's latest TomCast audio interview in which Bacevich discusses voices of dissent within the military, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

On the Mend?
America Comes to Its Senses
By Andrew J. Bacevich

At periodic intervals, the American body politic has shown a marked susceptibility to messianic fevers.  Whenever an especially acute attack occurs, a sort of delirium ensues, manifesting itself in delusions of grandeur and demented behavior. 

By the time the condition passes and a semblance of health is restored, recollection of what occurred during the illness tends to be hazy.  What happened?  How'd we get here?  Most Americans prefer not to know.  No sense dwelling on what's behind us.  Feeling much better now!  Thanks!

Gripped by such a fever in 1898, Americans evinced an irrepressible impulse to liberate oppressed Cubans.  By the time they'd returned to their senses, having acquired various parcels of real estate between Puerto Rico and the Philippines, no one could quite explain what had happened or why.  (The Cubans meanwhile had merely exchanged one set of overseers for another.)

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In 1917, the fever suddenly returned.  Amid wild ravings about waging a war to end war, Americans lurched off to France.  This time the affliction passed quickly, although the course of treatment proved painful: confinement to the charnel house of the Western Front, followed by bitter medicine administered at Versailles.

The 1960s brought another bout (and so yet more disappointment).  An overwhelming urge to pay any price, bear any burden landed Americans in Vietnam.  The fall of Saigon in 1975 seemed, for a brief interval, to inoculate the body politic against any further recurrence.  Yet the salutary effects of this "Vietnam syndrome" proved fleeting.  By the time the Cold War ended, Americans were running another temperature, their self-regard reaching impressive new heights.  Out of Washington came all sorts of embarrassing gibberish about permanent global supremacy and history's purpose finding fulfillment in the American way of life.

Give Me Fever

Then came 9/11 and the fever simply soared off the charts.  The messiah-nation was really pissed and was going to fix things once and for all.

Nearly 10 years have passed since Washington set out to redeem the Greater Middle East.  The crusades have not gone especially well.  In fact, in the pursuit of its saving mission, the American messiah has pretty much worn itself out.

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Today, the post-9/11 fever finally shows signs of abating.  The evidence is partial and preliminary.  The sickness has by no means passed.  Oddly, it lingers most strongly in the Obama White House, of all places, where a keenness to express American ideals by dropping bombs seems strangely undiminished.

Yet despite the urges of some in the Obama administration, after nearly a decade of self-destructive flailing about, American recovery has become a distinct possibility.  Here's some of the evidence:

In Washington, it's no longer considered a sin to question American omnipotence.  Take the case of Robert Gates.  The outgoing secretary of defense may well be the one senior U.S. official of the past decade to leave office with his reputation not only intact, but actually enhanced.  (Note to President Obama: think about naming an aircraft carrier after the guy).  Yet along with restoring a modicum of competence and accountability to the Pentagon, the Gates legacy is likely to be found in his willingness -- however belated -- to acknowledge the limits of American power.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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