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Tomgram: Andrew Bacevich, On Misreading Victory

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In a way, many of us spent the Cold War years under our school desks. It was there that we kids were taught to "duck and cover," theoretically sheltering ourselves against a Soviet nuclear attack. However, when only a metal and wooden desk stands between you and annihilation, when the message is that the world could blow sky high at any moment, you sense that you're not being told the full story of what's happening on this planet. The wooden-desk version of "there, there, dear, nothing terrible is going to happen if you follow instructions" rang hollow even then. Indeed, in those years, from the Cuban missile crisis to the Vietnam War, so much rang eerily hollow. And yet the world did survive in its own fashion.

As TomDispatchregular Andrew Bacevich, author of the new book The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory makes clear today, that hollow ringing sound extended into the (briefly) triumphalist all-American years after the Cold War ended. It was as if we never actually got out from under those desks, took a genuine look around, and calculated the true damage to this planet. In a world in which Donald Trump, a genuine arsonist, has now been in the Oval Office for three years, while Trumpian-style fanaticism is on the rise, here's something even stranger: today, those desks of the Cold War era are long gone -- or rather, the American classroom itself, even the whole school, has become a desk-equivalent as endless lockdown drills are practiced in preparation for the next mass shooter armed with military-style weaponry.

In other words, in the Cold War years, that feared nuclear cataclysm never happened, but in the world in which the United States momentarily seemed to stand alone and victorious after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the damage would prove all too real. From the unprecedented terror attack that slaughtered almost 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001, to the record mass killings of our moment (including politically inspired extremist slaughters), not to speak of the forever wars the U.S. has been conducting so disastrously in this century across significant parts of the planet (and that may soon include Iran), it's been a far grimmer tale than we like to imagine.

And that's hardly the worst of it. If it weren't for Greta Thunberg and those inspiring kids who have taken a cue from her, few enough Americans would be paying attention to the deepest damage we're doing to this planet of ours. After all, there are neither desks nor air raid sirens, lockdown drills nor warnings when it comes to the brutal heating of this planet. On the whole, significant numbers of Americans would still evidently prefer not to look at all, no less prepare ourselves for the ravages to come (or limit them in any way). In that context, let Andrew Bacevich provide an overview of the post-Cold War years and consider what it is that those leading us in Washington didn't even realize was happening. Tom

A Report Card on the American Project
The "Revolution of '89" Reassessed
By Andrew Bacevich

Thirty years ago this month, President George H.W. Bush appeared before a joint session of Congress to deliver his first State of the Union Address, the first post-Cold War observance of this annual ritual. Just weeks before, the Berlin Wall had fallen. That event, the president declared, "marks the beginning of a new era in the world's affairs." The Cold War, that "long twilight struggle" (as President John F. Kennedy so famously described it), had just come to an abrupt end. A new day was dawning. President Bush seized the opportunity to explain just what that dawning signified.

"There are singular moments in history, dates that divide all that goes before from all that comes after," the president said. The end of World War II had been just such a moment. In the decades that followed, 1945 provided "the common frame of reference, the compass points of the postwar era we've relied upon to understand ourselves." Yet the hopeful developments of the year just concluded -- Bush referred to them collectively as "the Revolution of '89" -- had initiated "a new era in the world's affairs."

While many things were certain to change, the president felt sure that one element of continuity would persist: the United States would determine history's onward course. "America, not just the nation but an idea," he emphasized, is and was sure to remain "alive in the minds of people everywhere."

"As this new world takes shape, America stands at the center of a widening circle of freedom -- today, tomorrow, and into the next century. Our nation is the enduring dream of every immigrant who ever set foot on these shores and the millions still struggling to be free. This nation, this idea called America, was and always will be a new world -- our new world."

Bush had never shown himself to be a particularly original or imaginative thinker. Even so, during a long career in public service, he had at least mastered the art of packaging sentiments deemed appropriate for just about any occasion. The imagery he employed in this instance -- America occupying the center of freedom's widening circle -- did not stake out a new claim devised for fresh circumstances. That history centered on what Americans professed or did expressed a hallowed proposition, one with which his listeners were both familiar and comfortable. Indeed, Bush's description of America as a perpetually self-renewing enterprise engaged in perfecting freedom summarized the essence of the nation's self-assigned purpose.

In his remarks to Congress, the president was asserting a prerogative that his predecessors had long ago appropriated: interpreting the zeitgeist in such a way as to merge past, present, and future into a seamless, self-congratulatory, and reassuring narrative of American power. He was describing history precisely as Americans -- or at least privileged Americans -- wished to see it. He was, in other words, speaking a language in which he was fluent: the idiom of the ruling class.

As the year 1990 began, duty -- destiny, even -- was summoning members of that ruling class to lead not just this country, but the planet itself and not just for a decade or two, or even for an "era," but forever and a day. In January 1990, the way ahead for the last superpower on planet Earth -- the Soviet Union would officially implode in 1991 but its fate already seemed obvious enough -- was clear indeed.

So, How'd We Do?

Thirty years later, perhaps it's time to assess just how well the United States has fulfilled the expectations President Bush articulated in 1990. Personally, I would rate the results somewhere between deeply disappointing and flat-out abysmal.

Bush's "circle of freedom" invoked a planet divided between the free and the unfree. During the Cold War, this distinction had proven useful even if it was never particularly accurate. Today, it retains no value whatsoever as a description of the actually existing world, even though in Washington it persists, as does the conviction that the U.S. has a unique responsibility to expand that circle.

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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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