A Tale of American Hubris
Or Five Lessons in the History of American Defeat
By Tom Engelhardt
The lessons of history? Who needs them? Certainly not Washington's present cast of characters, a crew in flight from history, the past, or knowledge of more or less any sort. Still, just for the hell of it, let's take a few moments to think about what some of the lessons of the last years of the previous century and the first years of this one might be for the world's most exceptional and indispensable nation, the planet's sole superpower, the globe's only sheriff. Those were, of course, commonplace descriptions from the pre-Trump era and yet, in the age of MAGA, already as moldy and cold as the dust in some pharaonic tomb.
Let's start this way: you could think of the post-Cold War era, the years after the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, as the moment of America's first opioid crisis. The country's politicians and would-be politicians were, then, taking street drugs (K-Street and military-industrial-complex ones, to be exact) and having remarkable visions of a planet available for the taking, as well as the keeping, forever and ever, amen.
On a globe without another superpower -- pre-Putin Russia was a shattered, impoverished shell of the former Soviet Union, while China was still entering the capitalist world, Communist party in tow -- history's ultimate opportunity had obviously presented itself. And about to ascend to the holodeck of the USS America (beam me up, Dick Cheney!) were history's ultimate opportunists, the men (and woman) who would, in January 2001, occupy the top posts in the administration of President George W. Bush. That, of course, included Cheney who, after overseeing a wide-ranging search for the best candidate for vice president, had appointed himself to the job. As a group, they couldn't have been more ready for America's ultimate moment in the sun. They had been preparing for it for years and largely came out of the first think tank -- the Project for the New American Century -- ever to enter the Oval Office. They had long been in favor of ensuring this country's "unchallenged supremacy" by building its already staggering military into a force beyond compare. In doing so, they had no doubt that they would achieve the previously inconceivable: an "American geopolitical preeminence," as they politely put it, that would be like no other great power's ever.
A Power "Beyond Challenge"
As it happened, their moment came with blinding, thoroughly unexpected speed on September 11, 2001. Their response would be captured perfectly only five hours after the attacks of that day. From the partially devastated Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, already certain that al-Qaeda was behind the strikes, ordered his aides (as one of them scribbled down) to "go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not." And so they did. What followed would be not just the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, but of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, a country completely unconnected to the attacks of 9/11. And not just Iraq either, not in their fevered imaginations anyway (as once again today in the fever dreams of newly appointed National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo), but Iran, too. Not far behind in the sweep-it-up category would come, they were convinced, the rest of the Greater Middle East (still being called in those days "the arc of instability" -- little did they know!). In the end, they had no doubt that the rest of the planet would fall in line, too (or pay the price). It was to be a Pax Americana planet for the ages.
In the carnage that followed, it was easy to forget just how expansive those fever dreams were. But give them credit: whatever else they did (or didn't do), geopolitically speaking, George W. Bush's crew thought big. Just consider their seminal document of the post-9/11 moment, the 2002 National Security Strategy. Their goal, it stated, was to ensure that the U.S. would "build and maintain" the country's "defenses" (that is, military power) "beyond challenge." And keep in mind that they were already talking about a country in, as that document put it, "a position of unparalleled military strength."
Let that roll around in your head for a second so many years later: on this planet a single, unparalleled military power "beyond challenge." That was a dream of dominion that once would have been left to "Evil Empires" or madmen (or the truly, truly bad guys in Hollywood movies). But in the world as they imagined it then, the one in which only that "sole" superpower stood tall, how easy it proved to imagine a Great Game with just a single player and an eternal arms race of one.
The top officials of the Bush administration were, as I wrote back then, pure fundamentalists when it came to U.S. military power. As President Bush later put it, they considered that military "the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known." Under such circumstances, why would anyone be shy about loosing it to "liberate" the rest of the planet? In that 2002 document, the Bush administration essentially called for a world in which no other great power or bloc of powers would ever again be allowed to challenge this country's supremacy. As the president put it in an address at West Point that same year, "America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge, thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace."
The National Security Strategy put the same thought this way: "Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States." And the president and his men promptly began to hike the Pentagon budget to fit their oversized fantasies of what an American planetary "footprint" should look like (a process that, despite everything that followed, has never ended).
The Lessons of American War
So much of this has, of course, already been buried in the sands of history, but that's no reason for it to be forgotten. Almost 17 years after 9/11, the parts of the planet that "the greatest force, etc., etc." was loosed upon remain in remarkable upheaval and disarray, while failed states and terror groups multiply, producing more displaced people and refugees than at any time since the end of World War II. Another great power, China, is rising, and an economically less than great Russia continues to hang in there militarily and strategically by force of Putinian c hutzpah. Not surprisingly, American decline has become a topic of the moment.
What conclusions, then, might be drawn from the era of folly that led us to this Trumpian moment? Here are my suggestions for five possible lessons from the American experience of war in the twenty-first century:
Lesson one: It should have been too obvious to say, but wasn't: Earth can't be conquered by a single power, no matter how strong. Try to do so and you'll end up taking yourself down in some fashion.
Shakespeare would have been fascinated by the hubris of America's leaders in these years (and that was before Mr. Hubris Himself even hit the White House). It couldn't be clearer today that the military-first grab for an all-American planet proved strikingly too much for the U.S. to swallow by an Iraqi mile. It never even came close to happening. When the history of American decline is written, perhaps it will be said that never was there a great power whose leaders so effectively took it down themselves simply by wanting too much too badly and by woefully misunderstanding the nature of power on this planet. For Washington, the urge to make Earth into its imperium proved the equivalent of a submarine putting a torpedo into its own bow.