The Forbidden Word
Is This Country Heading for the Exit?
It was all so long ago, in a world seemingly without challengers. Do you even remember when we Americans lived on a planet with a recumbent Russia, a barely rising China, and no obvious foes except what later came to be known as an "axis of evil," three countries then incapable of endangering this one? Oh, and, as it turned out, a rich young Saudi former ally, Osama bin Laden, and 19 hijackers, mostly of them also Saudis, from a tiny group called al-Qaeda that briefly possessed an "air force" of four commercial jets. No wonder this country was then touted as the greatest force, the superest superpower ever, sporting a military that left all others in the dust.
And then, of course, came the launching of the Global War on Terror, which soon would be normalized as the plain-old, uncapitalized "war on terror." Yes, that very war even if nobody's called it that for years began on September 11, 2001. At a Pentagon partially in ruins, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, already aware that the destruction around him was probably Osama bin Laden's responsibility, ordered his aides to begin planning for a retaliatory strike against" Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Rumsfeld's exact words (an aide wrote them down) were: "Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not."
Things related and not. Sit with that phrase for a moment. In their own strange way, those four words, uttered in the initial hours after the destruction of New York's World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon, still seem to capture the twenty-first-century American experience.
Within days of 9/11, Rumsfeld, who served four presidents before recently stepping off this world at 88, and the president he then worked for, George W. Bush, would officially launch that Global War on Terror. They would ambitiously target supposed terror networks in no less than 60 countries. (Yep, that was Rumsfeld's number!) They would invade Afghanistan and, less than a year and a half later, do the same on a far grander scale in Iraq to take down its autocratic ruler, Saddam Hussein, who had once been a hand-shaking buddy of the secretary of defense.
Despite rumors passed around at the time by supporters of such an invasion, Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11; nor, despite Bush administration claims, was his regime then developing or in possession of weapons of mass destruction; nor, if we didn't act, would an Iraqi mushroom cloud have one day risen over New York or some other American city. And mind you, both of those invasions and so much more would be done in the name of "liberating" peoples and spreading American-style democracy across the Greater Middle East. Or, put another way, in response to that devastating attack by those 19 hijackers armed with knives, the U.S. was preparing to invade and dominate the oil-rich Middle East until the end of time. In 2021, almost two decades later, doesn't that seem like another lifetime to you?
By the way, you'll note that there's one word missing in action in all of the above. Believe me, if what I just described had related to Soviet plans during the Cold War, you can bet your bottom dollar that word would have been all over Washington. I'm thinking, of course, of "empire" or, in its adjectival form, "imperial." Had the Soviet Union planned similar acts to "liberate" peoples by "spreading communism," it would have been seen in Washington as the most imperial project ever. In the early years of this century, however, with the Soviet Union long gone and America's leaders imagining that they might reign supreme globally until the end of time, those two words were banished to history.
It was obvious that, despite the unprecedented 800 or so military bases this country possessed around the world, imperial powers were distinctly a thing of the past.
"Empires Have Gone There and Not Done It"
Now, keep that thought in abeyance for a moment, while I take you on a quick tour of the long-forgotten Global War on Terror. Almost two decades later, it does seem to be drawing to some kind of lingering close. Yes, there are still those 650 American troops guarding our embassy in the Afghan capital, Kabul, and there is still that "over-the-horizon capacity" the president cites for U.S. aircraft to strike Taliban forces, even if American troops only recently abandoned their last air base in Afghanistan; and yes, there are still about 2,500 American troops stationed in Iraq (and hundreds more at bases across the border in Syria), regularly being attacked by Iraqi militia groups.
Similarly, despite the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Somalia as the Trump years ended, over-the-horizon airstrikes against the terror group al-Shabaab, halted when Joe Biden entered the Oval Office, have just been started again, assumedly from bases in Kenya or Djibouti; and yes, the horrendous war in Yemen continues with the U.S. still supporting the Saudis, even if by offering "defensive," not "offensive" aid; and yes, American special operators are also stationed in staggering numbers of countries around the globe; and yes, prisoners are still being held in Guantanamo, that offshore Bermuda Triangle of injustice created by the Bush administration so long ago. Admittedly, officials in the new Biden Justice Department are at least debating, however indecisively, whether those detainees might have any due process rights under the Constitution (yes, that's the U.S. Constitution!) and their numbers are at a historic low since 2002 of 39.
Still, let's face it, this isn't the set of conflicts that, once upon a time, involved invasions, massive air strikes, occupations, the killing of staggering numbers of civilians, widespread drone attacks, the disruption of whole countries, the uprooting and displacement of more than 37 million people, the deployment at one point of 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan alone, and the spending of untold trillions of American taxpayer dollars, all in the name of fighting terror and spreading democracy. And think of it as mission (un)accomplished in the truest sense imaginable.
In fact, that idea of spreading of democracy didn't really outlast the Bush years. Ever since, there's been remarkably little discussion in official Washington about what this country was really doing as it warred across significant parts of the planet. Yes, those two decades of conflict, those "forever wars," as they came to be called first by critics and then by anyone in sight, are at least winding, or perhaps spiraling, down and yet, here's the strange thing: Wouldn't you think that, as they ended in visible failure, the Pentagon's stock might also be falling? Oddly enough, though, in the wake of all those years of losing wars, it's still rising. The Pentagon budget only heads ever more for the stratosphere as foreign policy "pivots" from the Greater Middle East to Asia (and Russia and the Arctic and, well, anywhere but those places where terror groups still roam).
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