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Welcome to the American Century
Even If It Is a Hell on Earth
On February 17, 1941, less than 10 months before the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor and the U.S. found itself in a global war, Henry Luce, in an editorial in Life magazine (which he founded along with Time and Fortune), declared the years to come "the American Century." He then urged this country's leaders to "exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit."
And he wasn't wrong, was he? Eight decades later, who would deny that we've lived through something like an American century? After all, in 1945, the U.S. emerged triumphant from World War II, a rare nation remarkably unravaged by that war (despite the 400,000 casualties it had suffered). With Great Britain heading for the imperial sub-basement, Washington found itself instantly the military and economic powerhouse on the planet.
As it turned out, however, to "exert upon the world the full impact of our influence," one other thing was necessary and, fortunately, at hand: an enemy. From then on, America's global stature and power would, in fact, be eternally based on facing down enemies. Fortunately, in 1945, there was that other potential, if war-ravaged, powerhouse, the Soviet Union. That future "superpower" had been an ally in World War II, but no longer. It would thereafter be the necessary enemy in a "cold war" that sometimes threatened to turn all too hot. And it would, of course, ensure that what later came to be known as the military-industrial complex (and a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying many planets like this one) would be funded in a way once historically inconceivable in what might still have passed for peacetime.
In 1991, however, after a disastrous war in Afghanistan, the Soviet empire finally collapsed in economic ruin. As it went down, hosannas of triumph rang out in a surprised Washington. Henry Luce, by then dead almost a quarter of a century, would undoubtedly have been thrilled.
The Indispensable Superpower
In the meantime, in those cold-verging-on-hot-war years, the U.S. ruled the roost in what came to be known as "the free world," while its corporations came to economically dominate much of the planet. Though it would be a true global imperial power with hundreds of military bases scattered across every continent but Antarctica, there would prove to be significant limits to that power and I'm not just thinking of the Soviet Union or its communist ally (later opponent), Mao Zedong's China.
At the edges of what was then called "the Third World" whether in Southeast Asia during and after the disastrous Vietnam War or in Iran after 1979 American power often enough came a cropper in memorable ways. Still, in those years, on a planet some 25,000 miles in circumference, Washington certainly had a remarkable reach and, in 1991, when the Soviet Union disappeared, it seemed as if Luce had been a prophet of the first order. After all, the United States as the ultimate imperial power had or so, at least, it appeared at that moment been left without even a major power, no less another superpower, as an enemy on a planet that looked, at least to those in Washington, like it was ours for the taking. And indeed, take it we soon enough would try to do.
No wonder, in those years, American politicians and key officials filled the airwaves with self-congratulation and self-praise for what they liked to think of as the most "exceptional," "indispensable," "greatest" power on the planet and sure to remain so forever and a day.
In another sense, however, problems loomed instantly. Things were so desperate for the military-industrial complex in a country promised a cut in "defense" spending, then known as a "peace dividend," thanks to the triumph over the Soviets, that enemies had to be created out of whole cloth. They were, it turned out, fundamental to the organization of American global power. A world without them was essentially inconceivable or, at least, inconvenient beyond imagining. Hence, the usefulness of Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein who would be not-quite-taken-down in the first Gulf War of 1991.
Perhaps the classic example of the desperate need to create enemies, however, would occur early in the next century. Remember the "Axis of Evil" announced (and denounced) by President George W. Bush in his January 2002 State of the Union address? He called out three states Iran, Iraq, and North Korea that then had not the slightest way of injuring the U.S. ("States like these, and their terrorist allies," insisted the president, "constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.") Of course, this was, in part, based on the claim that Iraq might have just such weapons of mass destruction (it didn't!) and that it would, in turn, be willing to give them to terror groups to attack the U.S. That lie would become part of the basis for the invasion of that country the next year.
Think of all this as the strangest kind of imperial desperation from a superpower that seemed to have it all. And the result, of course, after Osama bin Laden launched his air force and those 19 mostly Saudi hijackers against New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, was the Global War on Terror, which would soon prove a self-imposed, self-created disaster.
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