The Age of Disappointment?
Or How the American Century Ends
By Tom Engelhardt
Let me rant for a moment. I don't do it often, maybe ever. I'm not Donald Trump. Though I'm only two years older than him, I don't even know how to tweet and that tells you everything you really need to know about Tom Engelhardt in a world clearly passing me by. Still, after years in which America's streets were essentially empty, they've suddenly filled, day after day, with youthful protesters, bringing back a version of a moment I remember from my youth and that's a hopeful (if also, given Covid-19, a scary) thing, even if I'm an old man in isolation in this never-ending pandemic moment of ours.
In such isolation, no wonder I have the urge to rant. Our present American world, after all, was both deeply unimaginable -- before 2016, no one could have conjured up President Donald Trump as anything but a joke -- and yet in some sense, all too imaginable. Think of it this way: the president who launched his candidacy by descending a Trump Tower escalator to denounce Mexican "rapists" and hype the "great, great wall" he would build, the man who, in his election campaign, promised to put a "big, fat, beautiful wall" across our southern border to keep out immigrants ("invaders!") -- my grandpa, by the way, was just such an invader -- has, after nearly three and a half years, succeeded only in getting a grotesquely small wall built around the White House; in other words, he's turned the "people's house" into a micro-Green Zone in a Washington that, as it filled with National Guard troops and unidentified but militarized police types, was transformed into a Trumpian version of occupied Baghdad. Then he locked himself inside (except for that one block walk to a church through streets forcibly emptied of protesters). All in all, a single redolent phrase from our recent past comes to mind: mission accomplished!
From the second the Soviet Union imploded in 1991 to the spread of Covid-19, developments on this planet have been remarkably inconceivable and yet strangely predictable. Can you even remember that distant moment, almost three decades ago, when a stunned Washington political establishment (since its members had never imagined a world without the other Cold War superpower) suddenly found themselves alone on Planet Earth, freed to do their damnedest in a world lacking enemies of any sort? The globe seemed to be there for the taking, lock, stock, and barrel.
Their promised post-Cold War "peace dividend," however, would involve arming the U.S. military to the teeth, expanding the country's "intelligence" agencies until there were (count 'em!) 17 of them, bolstering an already vast national security state, and dispatching this country's generals to fight "forever wars" that would unsettle the planet, while conquering nothing at all. The folly of this in such a moment on such a planet should have been obvious. And in fact, it was. In early 2003, facing only one small terrorist group and a completely concocted three-nation "axis of evil," President George W. Bush decided to order the invasion of Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Sensing what was coming, millions of people poured into the streets of cities worldwide to tell him the obvious: don't do it! ("How did USA's oil get under Iraq's sand?" a typical protest sign of that moment read.) Of those millions, however, not one dreamed that, 13 years later, as a result of Bush's decision to ignore them, this country, or at least its Electoral College, would put in the White House a president who would essentially launch the invasion of America.
What else do you need to know about our mad moment than that the president of the land that had, for so long, fought a "war on terror" would call the all-American protesters once again turning out in the streets of hundreds of cities and towns in vast numbers "terrorists"? He would then label a 75-year-old white man shoved over by two cops in Buffalo, New York, and left bleeding on the ground as they walked away an "ANTIFA provocateur." (He's still in the hospital.) In this fashion, with the police armed to the teeth with weaponry and equipment off the battlefields of America's forever wars and George Floyd literally breathless thanks to one of those policemen, the war on terror would come home big time.
Think of it this way: we Americans, the greatest power in history, the ultimate unchallenged victors on this planet as the last century ended, are now living in a disease-ridden parody version of occupied Iraq and my own generation is officially responsible.
A Flattened Planet
Outside that Green Zone in Washington, an age, a system, even a planet as we've known it may all be ending and that shouldn't be taken in without emotion. So many things aren't obvious when they should be. Still, to give myself a tad of credit, in the years after the invasion of Iraq, I did at least sense that this single superpower world of ours was some kind of sham. In October 2012, for instance, I suggested that
"one thing seems obvious: a superpower military with unparalleled capabilities for one-way destruction no longer has the more basic ability to impose its will anywhere on the planet. Quite the opposite, U.S. military power has been remarkably discredited globally by the most pitiful of forces... Given the lack of enemies -- a few thousand jihadis, a small set of minority insurgencies, a couple of feeble regional powers -- why this is so, what exactly the force is that prevents Washington's success, remains mysterious."
I added, however, that "the end of the Cold War, which put an end... to several centuries of imperial or great power competition... left the sole 'victor,' it now seems clear, heading toward the exits wreathed in self-congratulation."
Now, those exits are truly in sight and the self-congratulation that once filled Washington has been ceded to the walled-in occupant of the Oval Office in a country visibly in dismay and disarray. With a regime that not only has autocratic tendencies but also a remarkable urge to take the planet down environmentally (and possibly via nuclear arms as well), it's easier to see just how disastrous the post-1991 "sole superpower's" decisions really were.
Hopeful as the grit and determination of those Black Lives Matter protesters may be in the face of police violence and repression, not to speak of the nastiest virus in memory, we're also at what looks increasingly like one of those moments when worlds do end and it didn't have to be this way.
After all, in a cocoon of seemingly ultimate triumphalism, those who were running the post-1991 American global system did anything -- to steal a word from journalist Thomas Friedman's 2005 book The World Is Flat -- but flatten the world they inherited (as in creating a more level playing field of any sort). In fact, the American powers-that-be promptly put their energy into creating the least level playing field imaginable. In it, a single country, the United States, would invest more money in its military than the next 10 powers combined and, by 2017, three Americans would have more wealth than the bottom half of this society. Meanwhile, the wealth of 162 global billionaires would equal that of half of humanity. It was a world in which, once the coronavirus pandemic struck causing almost unspeakable economic disaster, those billionaires would once again make a rather literal killing -- another half-trillion dollars-plus.
So Friedman was right, but only if by "flat" he meant the four flat tires on the American Humvee.
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