One day, it might also be said that, in a country in which executive power has become ever more imperial (as has the power of the Senate's majority leader), blowback from imperial acts abroad has had a significant, if largely hidden, hand in crippling the American republic, as was once true of Rome. In fact, it seems clear enough that the first republican institution to go was the citizen's army. In the wake of the Vietnam War, the draft was thrown out and replaced by an "all-volunteer" force, one which would, as it came to fight on ever more distant battlefields, morph into a home-grown version of an imperial police force or foreign legion. With it went the staggering sums that, in this century, would be invested -- if that's even the word for it -- in what's still called "defense," as well as in a vast empire of bases abroad and the national security state, a rising locus of power at home. And then, of course, there were the never-ending wars across much of the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa that went with all of that. Meanwhile, so much else, domestically speaking, was put on the equivalent of austerity rations. And all of that, in turn, helped provoke the crisis that brought Donald Trump to power and might, in the end, even sink the American system as we've known it.
The Donald's victory in the 2016 election was always a sign of a deep disturbance at the heart of an increasingly unequal and unfair system of wealth and power. But it was those trillions of dollars -- The Donald claims seven trillion of them -- that the neocons began sinking into America's "infinite" wars, which cost Americans big time in ways they hardly tracked or noticed. Those trillions didn't go into shoring up American infrastructure or health care or education or job-training programs or anything else that might have mattered to most people here, even as untold tax dollars -- one estimate: $15,000 per middle-class family per year -- went into the pockets of the rich. And some of those dollars, in turn, poured back into the American political system (with a helping hand from the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision) and, in the end, helped put the first billionaire in the Oval Office. By the 2020 election campaign, we may achieve another all-American first: two or even three of the candidates could be billionaires.
All of this not only gave Americans a visibly unhinged president -- think of him, in axis-of-evil terms, as a rogue state of one -- but an increasingly unhinged country. You can feel so much of this in President Trump's confused and confusing attempts to both end American wars and ratchet them up, 17-and-a-half -- he always claims "almost 19" -- years after the invasion of Afghanistan. You can feel it in his gut-level urge to attack the "deep state" and yet fund it beyond its wildest dreams. You can feel it in his attempts to create a corps of "my generals" and then fire them all. You can feel the unhinged nature of events in a world in which, after so many years of war, America's enemies still seem to have the formula for staying afloat, no matter what Washington does. The Taliban in Afghanistan is on the rise; al-Shabaab in Somalia, is still going strong; the Houthis in Yemen remain functional in a sea of horror and starvation; ISIS, now without its caliphate, has from Syria to the Philippines, Africa to Afghanistan, become a distinctly global brand; al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula thrives, while terror groups more generally continue to spread.
You can feel it in the president's confused and confusing explanations for his urges to withdraw American troops in days or four months or whenever from Syria and do the same or maybe not exactly in Afghanistan. (As he said in his State of the Union address, American troops would both withdraw and "focus" on "counterterrorism" in that country.) You can feel it in the way, after so many years of visible failure, the neocons are once again riding high in Washington, ascendant both in his administration and as critics of its global and military policies.
These days, who even remembers that classic early Cold War question -- who lost China? -- that rattled American domestic politics for years, or later, the similar one about Vietnam? Still, if Donald Trump ever truly does withdraw American forces from Afghanistan (undoubtedly leaving this country's allies in a Vietnam-style ditch), count on foreign policy establishmentarians in Washington and pundits around the country to ask an updated version of the same question: Did Donald Trump lose Afghanistan?
But no matter what happens, don't make the mistake of blaming him. It's true that he tweeted endlessly while the world burned, but he won't be the one who "lost" Afghanistan. It was "lost" in the grisly dreams of the neocons as the century began and it's never truly been found again.
Of course, we no more know what's going to happen in the years ahead than the neocons did in 2001. If history has taught us anything, it's that prediction is the diciest of human predilections. Still, think of this piece as an obituary of sorts. You know, the kind major newspapers write about those still living and then continually update until death finally occurs.
Think of it not as an obituary for a single loopy president, a man who, with his "great, great wall," has indeed been an opiate of the masses (for his famed base, at least) in the midst of an opioid crisis hitting them hard. Yes, Donald J. Trump, reality TV star and bankruptee, he of the golden letters, was elevated to a strange version of power by a troubled republic showing signs of wear and tear. It was a republic feeling the pressure of all that money flowing into only half-noticed distant wars and into the pockets of billionaires and corporate entities in a way that turned the very idea of democracy into a bad joke.
Someday, if people ask the obvious question -- not who lost Afghanistan, but who lost America? -- keep all those failed imperial wars and the national security state that went with them in mind when you try to answer. Cumulatively, they had a far more disruptive role than is now imagined in toppling the dominos that sent us all careening on a path to nowhere here at home. And keep in mind that, whatever Donald Trump does, the Caesarian die was cast early in this century as the neocons crossed their own Rubicon.
Hail, Caesar, we who are about to die salute you!
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 runs TomDispatch.com and is a fellow of the Type Media Center. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War (Dispatch Books).
[ Note: A bow of thanks to Jonathan Cobb whose sharp thoughts are an invaluable resource for me -- and another to the late, great Chalmers Johnson who was already writing about such subjects as this century began! Tom]
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.
Copyright 2019 Tom Engelhardt