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Tomgram: Engelhardt, The Superpower as Victim

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Three exceptional facts about America.
Three exceptional facts about America.
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Three Exceptional Facts About America
It's Safe to Be Paranoid in the U.S.
By Tom Engelhardt

Given the cluttered landscape of the last 14 years, can you even faintly remember the moment when the Berlin Wall came down, the Cold War ended in a stunned silence of shock and triumph in Washington, Eastern Europe was freed, Germany unified, and the Soviet Union vanished from the face of the Earth? At that epochal moment, six centuries of imperial rivalries ended. Only one mighty power was left.

There hadn't been a moment like it in historical memory: a single "hyperpower" with a military force beyond compare looming over a planet without rivals. Under the circumstances, what couldn't Washington hope for? The eternal domination of the Middle East and all that oil? A planetary Pax Americana for generations to come? Why not? After all, not even the Romans and the British at the height of their empires had experienced a world quite like this one.

Now, leap a quarter of a century to the present and note the rising tide of paranoia in this country and the litany of predictions of doom and disaster. Consider the extremity of fear and gloom in the party of Ronald "It's Morning Again in America" Reagan in what are called "debates" among its presidential candidates, and it's hard not to imagine that we aren't at the precipice of the decline and fall of just about everything. The American Century? So much sawdust on the floor of history.

If, however, you look at the country that its top politicians can now hardly mention without defensively wielding the words "exceptional" or "indispensable," the truly exceptional thing is this: as a great power, the United States still stands alone on planet Earth and Americans can exhibit all the paranoia they want in remarkable safety and security.

Here, then, are three exceptional facts of our moment.

Exceptional Fact #1: Failure Is Success, or the U.S. Remains the Sole Superpower

If you were to isolate the single most striking, if little discussed, aspect of American foreign policy in the first 15 years of this century, it might be that Washington's inability to apply its power successfully just about anywhere confirms that very power; in other words, failure is a marker of success. Let me explain.

In the post-9/11 years, American power in various highly militarized forms has been let loose repeatedly across a vast swath of the planet from the Chinese border to deep in Africa -- and nowhere in those 14 years, despite dreams of glory and global dominion, has the U.S. succeeded in any of its strategic goals. That should qualify as exceptional in itself. After all, what are the odds that, in all that time, nothing should turn out as planned or positively by Washington's standards? It could not win its war in Afghanistan; nor its two wars, one ongoing, in Iraq; nor has it had success in its present one in Syria; it failed to cow Iran; its intervention in Libya proved catastrophic; its various special ops and drone campaigns in Yemen have led to chaos in that country; and so, as novelist Kurt Vonnegut used to say, it goes.

Though there was much talk in the early years of this century of "nation building" abroad, American power has been able to build nothing. Its effect everywhere has been purely disintegrative (unless you count the creation of a terror "caliphate" in parts of collapsed Syria and Iraq as a non-disintegrative act). Under the pressure of American power, there have been no victories, nor even in any traditional sense successes, while whole countries have collapsed, populations have been uprooted, and peoples put into flight by the millions. No matter how you measure it, American power has, in other words, been a tempest of failure.

Where, then, does success lie? The answer: despite 15 years bouncing from one militaristic disaster to another, can there be any question that, signs of decline or not, the United States remains the uncontested sole superpower of planet Earth? Consider that a testimony to the wealth and strength of the country. In many ways -- certainly, in military terms (despite the hue and cry at the recent Republican debates) -- there is no power that could or would contest it.

If you listen to the Republicans, Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, now seems to stand in almost alone for the former Soviet Union. He and his country are, so Republicans , neocons, and t op military figures agree, hands down the country's greatest enemy, a genuine "existential threat" to the U.S. But looked at in a clear-eyed fashion, this monstrous (yet strangely familiar) enemy is in many ways a house of cards. Or put another way, Putin as a leader has managed to do a remarkable amount (much of it grim indeed, from Ukraine to Syria) with remarkably little. To compare him, no less his country, to the former Soviet Union in its heyday is, however, simply a bad joke (except perhaps when it comes to its still superpower-sized nuclear arsenal). He is, in fact, the head of a rickety, embattled energy state at a time when the price of oil seems to be headed for the sub-basement.

As for China, always assumed to be the coming superpower of the later twenty-first century, don't count on it. As recent economic events there have reminded us, it's a country on the edge. Despite more than four "to get rich is glorious" decades and remarkable economic growth, it remains a relatively poor land whose leadership doesn't know what might happen if, as in any capitalist economy, bubbles were to burst, things went south, and the economy began to tank. Yes, its military budget, though still modest by Pentagon standards, is rising and it's growing increasingly aggressive in the neighborhood, but its leaders still show no sign of wanting to garrison the planet or become a true military competitor to the U.S. in anything but the most local terms.

And China aside, a quarter-century after the Soviet Union imploded, there are still no other potential rivals anywhere on Earth, just strapped regional powers of various sorts and, of course, a set of interlinked extremist terror outfits, constantly morphing and growing under the pressure of U.S. bombing runs, special ops raids, and drone assassination campaigns.

No question about it, if you're a big fan of Washington's exceptional superpowerdom, the news isn't exactly cheery. Nothing works the way it did, say, in Iran in 1953 when the CIA-instigated a coup that overthrew a democratically elected government and put its own man on the "Peacock Throne." There, it took 26 years for blowback to occur and the Shah to flee. In 2015, it seems to take only 26 days or maybe 26 minutes.

Still, the good news is that, however crippled U.S. power may be in practice, like the cheese of nursery rhyme fame, it still stands alone. How exceptional is that?

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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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