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Tomgram: Andrew Bacevich, American Paths, Chosen and Not (1989-2018)

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

If I were to pick a single decision by an American president and his team in this century as our own August 1914, I would choose the invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003. Of course, in that era of the "sole superpower," there were no other great powers (as in the World War I moment) ready to leap into the fray, so the unraveling that followed across a significant part of the planet would prove not to be a world war but a one-power hell on Earth. And it's continued to unfold over nearly a decade and a half. That invasion, which the geopolitical dreamers and supporters of the administration of George W. Bush guaranteed would be a "cakewalk," cost next to nothing, and leave the United States forever dominant in the Middle East, that moment when Iraqis were sure to greet their American "liberators" with flowers and hosannas, that moment when hubris would gain new meaning proved an unmitigated disaster. The U.S. would punch a hole directly through the oil heartlands of the region and from that there would be no turning back.

Occupation, civil war, ethnic cleansing, terror movements, abuses of every sort -- and as far as we know, we may still not be near the end of its effects. Parts of the Middle East already lie in ruins, city after city reduced to rubble, whole populations in flight. In 2017, for instance, the Syrian city of Raqqa, the former "capital" of the Islamic State, was subjected, among so many other things, to 20,000 "coalition" (i.e. American) bombs. The U.N. has now declared 80% of it "uninhabitable." In the wake of what passes for "victory" over the "caliphate" of the Islamic State (itself born in an American military prison camp) -- one of a number of similar "victories" in these years, starting with the U.S. military's taking of Baghdad in April 2003 -- ISIS has gone underground, but not disappeared. Meanwhile, all the resentments, grudges, and conflicts that invasion and occupation released are still festering; the money for rebuilding is nowhere in sight; and the next iteration of the ongoing wars in the region has already been launched by NATO ally Turkey against U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in northern Syria. So now, the Turks, the Kurds, Syrian and Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites, local militias of every sort, the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, ISIS guerillas, various al-Qaeda-linked groups, Russia, and Iran are all in the mix. And the Trump administration has committed its military to remaining in both Iraq and Syria until, it seems, the end of time. What could possibly go wrong?

And keep in mind that one other nightmare lurks just offshore (so to speak): Iran. The top officials of the Trump administration, Iranophobes all, are eager to finish the job started by the Bush administration so long ago by taking down Iran. It tells you something about the mood in Washington today that Defense Secretary James Mattis, who as CENTCOM commander in 2011 essentially lost his job thanks to his urge to go after Iran, is now considered the voice of reason on the subject in Washington.

In February 2003, I marched with vast crowds protesting the coming invasion of Iraq and the devastation it might bring. We knew that such an invasion couldn't turn out well -- and so many more reasonable choices were available that would have left us in a better world. And keep in mind that Iraq was just one decision on the road to Donald Trump. Today, TomDispatchregular Andrew Bacevich looks back over that past world of choices and picks 11 all-American moments between the fall of the Berlin Wall and election 2016 that might have given us a different world and assumedly a different president. Tom

How We Got Donald Trump
(And How We Might Have Avoided Him)
By Andrew J. Bacevich

The present arrives out of a past that we are too quick to forget, misremember, or enshroud in myth. Yet like it or not, the present is the product of past choices. Different decisions back then might have yielded very different outcomes in the here-and-now. Donald Trump ascended to the presidency as a consequence of myriad choices that Americans made (or had made for them) over the course of decades. Although few of those were made with Trump in mind, he is the result.

Where exactly did Trump come from? How are we to account for his noxious presence as commander-in-chief and putative Leader of the Free World? The explanations currently on offer are legion. Some blame the nefarious Steve Bannon, others Hillary Clinton and her lackluster campaign. Or perhaps the fault lies with the Bernie Sanders insurgency, which robbed Clinton of the momentum she needed to win, or with Little Marco, Lyin' Ted, and Low Energy Jeb, and the other pathetic Republicans whom Trump trampled underfoot en route to claiming the nomination. Or perhaps the real villains are all those "deplorables" -- the angry and ignorant white males whose disdain for immigrants, feminists, gays, and people of color Trump stoked and manipulated to great effect.

All such explanations, however, suggest that the relevant story began somewhere around June 2015 when Donald Trump astonished the political world by announcing his intention to seek the presidency. My aim here is to suggest that the origins of the real story are to be found much earlier. The conditions that enabled Trump to capture the presidency stemmed from acts of commission and omission that occurred well before he rode down that escalator at Trump Tower to offer his services to the nation.

Here's the sad part: at each step along the way, other alternatives were available. Had those alternatives been exercised, a Trump presidency would have remained an absurd fantasy rather than becoming an absurd and dangerous reality. Like the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Vietnam War or 9/11, Trump qualifies as a completely avoidable catastrophe with roots deep in the past.

So who's at fault? Ultimately, we -- the American people -- must accept a considerable share of the responsibility. This is one buck that can't be passed.

Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda

So what follows is a review of roads taken (and not) ultimately leading to the demoralizing presidency of Donald Trump, along with a little speculation on how different choices might have resulted in a decidedly different present.

1989: The Fall of the Berlin Wall. As the Cold War wound down, members of Washington's smart set, Republicans and Democrats alike, declared that the opportunities now presenting themselves went beyond the merely stupendous. Indeed, history itself had ended. With the United States as the planet's sole superpower, liberal democratic capitalism was destined to prevail everywhere. There would be no way except the American Way. In fact, however, the passing of the Cold War should have occasioned a moment of reflection regarding the sundry mistakes and moral compromises that marred U.S. policy from the 1940s through the 1980s. Unfortunately, policy elites had no interest in second thoughts -- and certainly not in remorse or contrition. In the 1990s, rampant victory disease fueled extraordinary hubris and a pattern of reckless behavior informed by an assumption that the world would ultimately conform to the wishes of the "indispensable nation." In the years to come, an endless sequence of costly mishaps would ensue from Mogadishu to Mosul. When, in due time, Donald Trump announced his intention to dismantle the establishment that had presided over those failures, many Americans liked what he had to say, even if he spoke from a position of total ignorance.

1992: President H. Ross Perot. In the first post-Cold War presidential election, H. Ross Perot, a wealthy entrepreneur and political novice, mounted an independent challenge to the Republican and Democratic nominees. Both parties, Perot charged, were in bed with lobbyists, insiders, and special interests. Both were enthusiastically presiding over the deindustrialization of a once dominant American economy. The rich were getting richer, the national debt was growing, and ordinary citizens were getting screwed, he contended. His charges were not without merit. Yet when Perot lost, Washington was back to business as usual. We cannot know what a Perot presidency would have produced. Yet such a victory -- the American electorate, in effect, repudiating the two established parties -- might have created powerful incentives for both Republicans and Democrats to clean up their acts and find ways of governing more effectively. Had they done so, Trump's later vow to "drain the swamp" of corruption and self-dealing would have been beside the point.

1993: Gays in the Military. Bill Clinton ran for the presidency as a centrist. Even so, once elected, he immediately announced his intention to remove restrictions on gays serving in the armed forces. This was, to put it mildly, anything but the act of a centrist. Outraged senior military officers made clear their intention to defy the new commander-in-chief. Although Clinton quickly backpedalled, the episode infuriated both cultural traditionalists and progressives. Within 20 years, a different generation of senior officers decided that gays serving in the military was no big deal. The issue instantly vanished. Yet the controversy left behind a residue of bitterness, especially on the right, that worked in Trump's favor. Had the generals of 1993 suppressed their insubordinate inclinations, they might have ever so slightly turned down the heat on the culture wars. When the heat is high, it's the tub-thumpers and noisy haranguers who benefit.

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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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