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William Astore, Back in the USSR

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. Back in 2011, thinking about the implosion of the Soviet Union two decades earlier and what followed, I wrote:

"In 1991, when the Soviet Union disappeared and the United States found itself the last superpower standing, Washington mistook that for a victory most rare. In the years that followed, in a paroxysm of self-satisfaction and amid clouds of self-congratulation, its leaders would attempt nothing less than to establish a global Pax Americana. Their breathtaking ambitions would leave hubris in the shade. The results, it's now clear, were no less breathtaking, even if disastrously so. Almost 20 years after the lesser superpower of the Cold War left the world stage, the 'victor' is now lurching down the declinist slope, this time as the other defeated power of the Cold War era.

"So don't mark the end of the Cold War in 1991 as our conventional histories do. Mark it in the early days of 2011, and consider the events of this moment a symbolic goodbye-to-all-that for the planet's 'sole superpower.'"

I had long had a feeling that, of the two superpowers of the Cold War era, one had left the stage in a rush, while the other was slowly inching its way toward the exits enwreathed in self-congratulation and an overwhelming sense of triumphalism. What I hadn't really imagined, what, even in 2011, I couldn't have put into words, was the twist on this strange tale of imperial decline that TomDispatch regular William Astore illuminates today. What if, from its quagmire war in Afghanistan to the surveillance of its own people, that other superpower, the only one left, was not just on the declinist slope but, in an eerie act of mimicry, taking on some of the coloration of the superpower that preceded it to disaster? Tom

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America's Real Red Scare
The Slow-Motion Collapse of the American Empire
By William J. Astore

Jump into your time machine and let me transport you back to another age.

It's May 2001 and the Atlantic Monthly has just arrived in the mail. I'm tantalized by the cover article. "Russia is finished," the magazine announces. The subtitle minces no words: "The unstoppable descent into social catastrophe and strategic irrelevance." Could it be that the country I had worried most about as a military officer during all those grim years of the Cold War, the famed "Evil Empire" that had threatened us with annihilation, was truly kaput, even in its Russian rather than Soviet guise?

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Sixteen years later, the article's message seems just a tad premature. Today's Russia surely has its problems -- from poverty to pollution to prostitution to a rickety petro-economy -- but on the geopolitical world stage it is "finished" no longer. Vladimir Putin's Russia has recently been enjoying heightened influence, largely at the expense of a divided and disputatious superpower that now itself seems to be on an "unstoppable descent."

Sixteen years after Russia was declared irrelevant, a catastrophe, finito, it is once again a colossus -- at least on the American political scene, if nowhere else. And that should disturb you far less than this: more than a generation after defeating the Soviet Union in the Cold War, the United States of 2017 seems to be doing its level best to emulate some of the worst aspects of its former foe and once rival superpower.

Yes, the U.S. has a Soviet problem, and I'm not referring to the allegations of the moment in Washington: that the Trump campaign and Russian officials colluded, that money may have flowed into that campaign via Russian oligarchs tied to Putin, that the Russians hacked the U.S. election to aid Donald Trump, that those close to the president-elect dreamed of setting up a secret back channel to Moscow and suggested to the Russian ambassador that it be done through the Russian embassy, or even that Putin has a genuine hold of some sort on Donald Trump. All of this is, of course, generating attention galore, as well as outrage, in the mainstream media and among the chattering classes, leading some to talk of a new "red scare" in America. All of it is also being investigated, whether by congressional intelligence committees or by former FBI director -- now special counsel -- Robert Mueller.

When it comes to what I'm talking about, though, you don't need a committee or a counsel or a back channel or a leaker from some intelligence agency to ferret it out. Whatever Trump campaign officials, Russian oligarchs, or Vladimir Putin himself did or didn't do, America's Soviet problem is all around us: a creeping (and creepy) version of authoritarianism that anyone who lived through the Cold War years should recognize. It involves an erosion of democratic values; the ever-expanding powers exercised by a national security state operating as a shadow government and defined by militarism, surveillance, secrecy, prisons, and other structures of dominance and control; ever-widening gaps between the richest few and the impoverished many; and, of course, ever more weapons, along with ever more wars.

That's a real red scare, America, and it's right here in the homeland.

In February, if you remember -- and given the deluge of news, half news, rumor, and innuendo, who can remember anything these days? -- Donald Trump memorably compared the U.S. to Russia. When Bill O'Reilly called Vladimir Putin "a killer" in an interview with the new president, he responded that there was little difference between us and them, for -- as he put it -- we had our killers, too, and weren't exactly innocents abroad when it came to world affairs. ("There are a lot of killers. You think our country's so innocent?") The president has said a lot of outlandish things in his first months in office, but here he was on to something.

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My Secret Briefing on the Soviet Union

When I was a young lieutenant in the Air Force, in 1986 if memory serves, I attended a secret briefing on the Soviet Union. Ronald Reagan was president, and we had no clue that we were living through the waning years of the Cold War. Back then, believing that I should know my enemy, I was reading a lot about the Soviets in "open sources"; you know, books, magazines, and newspapers. The "secret" briefing I attended revealed little that was new to me. (Classified information is often overhyped.) I certainly heard no audacious predictions of a Soviet collapse in five years (though the Soviet Union would indeed implode in 1991). Like nearly everyone at the time, the briefers assumed the USSR would be our archenemy for decades to come and it went without saying that the Berlin Wall was a permanent fixture in a divided Europe, a forever symbol of ruthless Communist oppression.

Little did we know that, three years later, the Soviet military would stand aside as East Germans tore down that wall. And who then would have believed that a man might be elected president of the United States a generation later on the promise of building a "big, fat, beautiful wall" on our shared border with Mexico?

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("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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