‘Statesmen will invent cheap lies, putting blame upon the nation that is attacked, and every man will be glad of those conscience-soothing falsities, and will diligently study them, and refuse to examine any refutations of them; and thus he will by and by convince himself that the war is just, and will thank God for the better sleep he enjoys after this process of grotesque self-deception.’
— From: The Chronicle of Young Satan, Mark Twain
‘There was no corner of the known world where some interest was not alleged to be in danger or under actual attack. If the interests were not Roman, they were of Rome’s allies; and if Rome had no allies, the allies would be invented.’
— From: The Sociology of Imperialism, Joseph Schumpeter, Meridian Books, 1951.
‘Auferre, trucidare, rapere, falsis nominibus imperium; atque, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.’ — [Trans: To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a wasteland, they call it peace.]
— From: De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae, Publius Tacitus, Roman senator, orator, and one of antiquity’s great historians.
‘……we’re all hegemons now.’
— From: “Doctrine of [the] Big Enchilada”, Max Boot, Council of Foreign Relations, October 15, 2002.
Brief: With the empire du jour embarking on one “Groundhog Day” military adventure after another, in this the first of two essays on the post-9/11 geopolitical milieu, and with pre-9/11 context and perspective in mind, we reflect on how America arrived at this point, what insights might be gained by looking back in time, and ponder what might have been and what could be. Oh, and who the real enemy might be after all. Depending on your viewpoint, a brave and/or foolish undertaking. But 50 years after America’s final retreat from Vietnam, over 25 years after the Fall of the Wall signalling the end of the Cold War, as we like to opine here, Uncle Sam needs all the help he can muster.
— The Empire Peculiar —
Although most people of a more modern liberal bent might disdain his purported social-Darwinist views, one suspects many folks—along with some of conservative predisposition—would agree with the American sociologist and classical liberal William Graham Sumner‘s following observation in respect of imperialism, to which he was implacably opposed:
“The thirst for glory is an epidemic which robs people of their judgment, seduces their vanity, cheats them of their interests, and corrupts their consciences.”
With Sumner’s assessment of empire in mind, by history’s chronological benchmarks alone, and scarcely before it even got into top gear, the demise of American Empire is imminent—the imperial equivalent of the dead man walking.
By any objective measure America’s position in the current geopolitical firmament, and the pathways it has traversed to get there, along with the rationale used to justify the ‘journey’ taken, can rightly be described as an insatiable “thirst for glory”.
Like all previous empires, America was and is a nation founded on, sustained, and even ‘nurtured’ by, conflict, savagery, war, corruption, disenfranchisement, profit, expropriation, oppression, and exploitation of, and dominion over, others. All of which is to say, the ‘robbing’, ‘seducing’, ‘cheating’, and ‘corrupting’ bit.
And in America’s case, that’s not just on, from, and of its indigenous peoples, its imported black slaves, or its own ‘poor, tired and hungry’ masses. That such a reality has been something of a work in progress since the ‘invention’ of Thanksgiving Day makes it all the more ironic, albeit in the bleakest, blackest sense of the word.
Indeed we might go so far as to suggest that this “reality” provides us all a wholly new perspective on Thanksgiving itself as America’s most cherished day of celebration, to wit: giving thanks that it has been immeasurably successful in sustaining its collective self-belief as the only exceptional nation deserving of such a description, despite its history, and not because of it. That “self-belief”—or delusion—might have been stretched to its breaking point, may be considered one of the main points of this exercise herein.
There can then only be one outcome for a nation so “exceptional” and, indeed, so manifestly destined—the inevitability of which even those with a passing knowledge of history will have difficulty refuting. That a nation so considered greater than the sum of its parts and supposedly more resilient and durable than any of history’s earlier examples has turned out to be much less than that “sum”, is something to behold!
That it might be much less enduring than the elusive, chimerical construct known as the “American Dream” has long suggested, will be for those who believed in this most cherished of the nation’s myths—a heavy cross to bear once that realisation reaches critical mass.
Which is to say that all signs point to the American Dream having gone the way of the American Republic.
Abraham Lincoln—arguably America’s most lionized president—in one sense may have been right after all, yet in another, dead wrong. In 1865, Senator Charles Sumner had the following to say about the Gettysburg Address—Lincoln’s (and many would say, America’s) most enduring and endearing oration. In his eulogy to the fallen president, after calling the speech a “monumental act”, [Sumner] said Lincoln was mistaken that “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.” Rather, the Senator remarked,
‘The world noted at once what he said, and will never cease to remember it. The battle itself was less important than the speech.’
Sadly, like so many of its more recognisable fabled myths, America has been dining out on this collective self-belief at its own expense and at the expense of those who have invested in them the most faith. For the “new nation” wasn’t so much “conceived in liberty” as it was conceived in the ‘economics of conflict’; it is now both sustained and blood-stained by those same “economics”.
Of course it was hardly ever genuinely dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal” either, this being another of America’s enduring, plentiful myths, deriving as it does from the wording of the nation’s birth certificate, the Declaration of Independence. The event that inspired Lincoln’s immortal Gettysburg oration, The Civil War, seems clear evidence of this. That the Civil War was fought more so over economics (again), and over states’ rights than any awakening antebellum recognition of the ‘morality’ of abolishing slavery and any belated acknowledgement of human rights (liberty, equality, dignity, freedom etc.) is a reality not lost on those resistant to the Empire’s less tenable and less legitimate mythologies.
More to the point, according to Thomas DiLorenzo, the War itself was all about empire. Lincoln is on record as saying that for the continued right of the Confederacy to maintain their ‘peculiar institution’ of slavery, he would gladly have traded the return of the prodigal states to the Union so as to preserve what one now suspects was, and remains, an even more “peculiar institution”.
In the Grand American Narrative though, then as now, the “battle”, was and remains almost always more important than the “speech”. It in fact is more often the ‘speech’ that fuels the “battle”—specifically the prospect thereof—that in turn fuels the engine of American Empire. Always has done.
And as we will see, increasingly so.
But although we might say that Lincoln was right, as indicated, in another context he was off the mark. His “you can fool some of the people all of the time, [you can] fool all of the people some of the time, [but you can’t] fool all of the people all of the time” diktat has not weathered the storm of history as well. That is, even if there was any semblance of truth in it from the off. That the overarching American Narrative is a ‘case study’ that all but defies this conviction has become self-evident for those looking. For those who remain unconvinced (or simply haven’t been looking), I hope only that the explorations herein open up possibilities for interpreting the larger narrative through a different prism.
— “A Nation of Savages” —
Of course I’m not alone in my attempts to re-assess the conventionally accepted narrative of American empire. In a piece titled “American Exceptionalism in the New Gilded Age”, author Paul Street name checks the former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, citing his 1852 summation of American national pride and presumption of greatness, in this instance referring to its unbridled celebration of Independence Day.
In Douglass’ view, the Fourth of July for the slaves represented a “sham”. After noting that its “boasted liberty [was] an unholy license, and its national greatness, [nothing more than] a swelling vanity”, Douglass was unsparing in his vitriol:
‘… your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages……There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States…’
With Douglass’ views ringing in our ears, it seems the True American Narrative is more a compendium of amorality tales, one where capriciousness, deception, venality, avarice, violence, brutality and utterly self-serving ambition, of the collective and individual variety, both characterises and ‘inspires’ the modus operandi of those in whose interests it has been to at once preserve, and then expand to its geographical and physical limits, the Empire at all costs. In fact, we might say they are stretching the boundaries of the imagined imperial domain beyond the limits of sustainability and acceptability, and way beyond the reasonable expectations and wildest imaginations of those in whose interests they purport to govern. One even suspects also “way beyond” that of some of the foremost proselytes of American empire from the past.
All this is not to suggest we should take a literal interpretation of Lincoln’s “all the people” and “all the time”. Or that even Douglass might’ve literally viewed “all” Americans “guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody”. But we get the drift; the proof is in the status quo. If ‘Honest Abe’ was resurrected for a day and invited to take in the zeitgeist at his leisure just in the ‘Homeland’ itself, doubtless even he would agree his faith in his fellow Americans and their descendants to remember in sufficient numbers the things he saw as important to remember so as not to be fooled “all the time” (or even at all), may have been a bit misplaced after all. In the same vein one imagines the former slave Douglass would see little reason to revisit his earlier assessment after being similarly apprised of America’s more recent, less auspicious history since his passing.
For his part Lincoln’s unreserved faith in the future durability of the Republic and the ideals it notionally embodied and still claims to exemplify, rested almost solely on his faith in the political perspicacity of his fellow Americans. Unless of course he was telling his fellow Americans what he thought they wanted to hear, a predisposition not completely foreign to presidents. Either way, “perspicacity” aside, remembering is the key it seems. Acting on such remembrances is quite another. For it is here that Americans appear to have a very big problem.
And therein of course lies the critical difference in the course on any nation—empire or republic. In the words of the estimable Gore Vidal, the much-touted United States of America long ago morphed into the United States of Amnesia, and it may not even be that “united” any more. As for Empire, right up until his demise the curmudgeonly ‘conscience of America’ and one of the U.S.’s great men of letters was having none of it. With this in mind given that he’s now sadly deceased—he’s presumably having less of it now, something that might otherwise leave him with decidedly mixed ‘feelings’ in his eternally designated bolt-hole.
If not an epitaph then, the following will do as a dress rehearsal for the ‘opening night’.
— We Have Met the Enemy (Deja Vu all Over Again) —
As a metaphor for the current state of the American empire, the indelible refrain from Pogo, Walt Kelly‘s iconic, satirical comic strip that enjoyed its heyday throughout the 50s and 60s, is irresistible. Even taken out of context, the eponymous character Pogo’s lament, “we have met the enemy, and he is us” still stands as a compelling, shorthand summary of both contemporary and historical America. It is especially useful to keep in mind for those wishing to more fully understand the political psychopathology of this latter-day empire, along with what its ultimate fate might be, and what ours might look like as a consequence.
Further to that, there are some other ‘tools’ that might prove handy in this endeavour. The concept of deja vu, that unsettling synaptic dislocation we all have from time to time of previously experiencing or witnessing some event or situation but can’t quite make sense of, should be kept in mind. Of course the deja vu phenomenon is inextricably linked with one of history’s most indelible truisms—what we might call the Groundhog Day Theory of History. This is George Santayana‘s widely parroted—but seldom observed—dictum, [that] those who forget history are “condemned” to reliving it.
Deja vu, for those familiar with the book, will recall was used as a very effective narrative device by Joseph Heller in one of the Great American Novels, Catch-22. The term “Catch -22” immediately entered the popular vernacular and collective consciousness and became shorthand for a no-win situation, itself possibly a fitting metaphor for the place many Americans might find themselves now.
“Catch-22” herein becomes something of a by-word, albeit accidental, for the absurd(ist) rationalism that permeates the discourse for the foundation, rationale and justification—along with the implementation and enactment—of much of US economic, military, national security and foreign policy.
And whether looking at the past or present, or contemplating what could or might be, another key reference point may well be the immutable Law of Unintended Consequences (LUC), or as the CIA folks call it, ‘blowback’. In this context it is more or less the geopolitical equivalent of Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion—for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction.
As for the LUC though, and especially how it usually manifests itself throughout the American narrative, the “equal and opposite” part is invariably not just “unintended” and unexpected, it is also unwelcome and unsightly, and often decidedly unequal. And in the cause of promoting liberty, democracy, freedom, human rights, the rule of law, or genuine political self-determination and/or economic and social equality, counterproductive. Which is to say, the number of times that America’s often uninvited, unwelcome, and unhelpful interference in the affairs of other countries via the perpetual-motion machinations of its foreign policies—official and unofficial—have come back to bite it on its collective ass, are legion. Some of these episodes are well-known; others are not. And it seemed the more this result transpired, to the extent they were even aware of the reality of events and the outcomes, the less Americans were inclined to learn from the experience.
An appreciation of moral causation (better known by its ‘trade name’, karma) is also a useful ‘bit of kit’ to have in our reflective ‘travel bag’. Not entirely unrelated to the LUC (it is sometimes known as the Law of Cause and Effect), we are referring generally to the ‘what goes around comes around’ edict, and it is more likely to apply at the collective level. Where it does apply at an individual level, it will often be at the expense of ordinary Americans—that is, the least deserving—even if such individuals aren’t always immediately or consciously aware of that reality. We might simply recall the events of 9/11 to underscore this.
And last but not least, as hinted, there is plain, simple, good old-fashioned irony. There is so much we’ll need a foot-long Thanksgiving Day carving knife to slice through it before the side dishes get cold! The truism that America doesn’t ‘do irony’ has always been suspect. It does grand irony on a sweeping, cosmic scale; it has mastered the art and created its own unique brand. It will occasionally be of the sublime and surreal kind, quite often ridiculous, and frequently tragic! Either way any irony should be obvious to most without being dragged kicking and screaming to it. The ‘double irony’ of course being that maybe America does not realize just how well it does ‘do’ irony. For any reader with a passing knowledge of, and general interest in, the American historical narrative and the great power politics that drive it (if you’re reached this far it’s a fair assumption you have a degree of both), all these motifs should be viewed as not just appropriate, but taken as a given.
And though I’ll concede many Americans (and for that matter, non-Americans), might have trouble with what is presented herein, given the stakes as they reveal themselves in the here and now, they are very much a vital part of that narrative. In reality, the “no-win situation” seems an ideal metaphor for the empire as a whole—if Americans dared to look long and hard enough. The irony of course is that by trying to ‘win’—economically, militarily, politically—seemingly at all costs, it has ended up in this “no-win situation”, its future pathway options as a consequence something of a Hobson’s Choice.
Time then for our first trip down memory lane.
— The Empire in a Quagmire —
Throughout the Cold War from 1945-1991, by any measure George Kennan was a towering figure in the geopolitical firmament, a crucial player in the rarefied realm of post-World War II American foreign and national security policymaking.
Born in 1904 in Minnesota and educated at Princeton University, Kennan was the original ‘Sovietologist’ and Cold War intellectual and policy wonk, and one of the so-called Wise Men of U.S. foreign policy.
Most notably, he was the acknowledged architect of the ‘containment’ principle, the cornerstone of the ‘rules of engagement’ by which America sought to manage (that is ‘contain’ rather than directly confront) the purported Soviet ‘menace’.
Loosely perceived and defined, the “menace” was Communist-inspired, ‘full-spectrum domination’ (hegemony) of the Big Blue Ball, accompanied by the overthrow of capitalism and the purging of the “bourgeoisie” represented by the ruling and much-reviled capitalist power elites.
It was of course this much-touted existential Soviet threat that both inspired and defined the Cold War itself. It both justified and precipitated the establishment of the apparatus of the National Security and Surveillance State, the so-called ‘military-industrial complex’.
This “apparatus” included the creation and implementation of the not-entirely benign nor magnanimous Marshall Plan, along with the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the National Security Agency (NSA).
That the Cold War was, like the Civil War before it, possibly more about economics (and empire) than ideology (or good guys v bad guys) is also a theme to which we will return.
Two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and four years before the eventual pear-shaped implosion of the Soviet Union, in a foreword to Norman Cousins‘ classic tome The Pathology of Power, Kennan—presumably after having reflected long and hard on how his containment doctrine had played out in the preceding years since its inception and the implications this might have for America’s future national interest—had this to say:
‘Were the Soviet Union to sink tomorrow under the waters of the ocean, the American military-industrial establishment would have to go on, substantially unchanged, until some other adversary could be invented. Anything else would be an unacceptable shock to the American economy.’
As for Kennan, who passed away in 2005 at the ripe old age of 101 and four long years after 9/11, we might instinctively marvel at how prescient his ruminations were—on all counts. Given the widely unanticipated, yet game-changing nature of the event he hypothesised and the historical trajectory from that point onwards, it is tempting to assume he knew something few others did. Moreover we might contemplate whether anyone of note at the time placed any credence in his remarks for future reference.
As it turned out, even Kennan by his own admission was caught napping. According to one writer, Leon Aron, in a 2011 Foreign Policy essay, aptly titled “Everything You Think You Know About the Collapse of the Soviet Union is Wrong”, Kennan’s response after reviewing the entire “history of international affairs in the modern era,” went like this: he (Kennan) found it [was],
‘hard to think of any event more strange and startling, and at first glance inexplicable, than the sudden and total disintegration and disappearance…of the great power known successively as the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union.’
It is both interesting and pertinent to consider who else apart from Kennan did not ‘foresee’, speculate on, or imagine the collapse of the Soviet empire. Although many people it appears variously pondered or mused on—albeit with wildly varying degrees of accuracy, insight and prescience—the shape, timing and prospect of, and the reasons for, a Soviet implosion, one who did come close is worth mentioning. In 1979 American journalist James O’Donnell, penned an article called “The Ghost Train to Berlin” in the German edition of Readers’ Digest. In this obscure piece, O’Donnell envisioned “in a dream” the fall of the Berlin Wall exactly ten years later.
Moreover, he also envisaged that—in true entrepreneurial, capitalistic, free-market spirit—souvenirs, including pieces of the dismantled edifice—would be sold in situ to commemorate the event, one that when it become a reality, doubtless would have caused some of the old-school comrades of the ancien regime that was collapsing around them to collapse themselves in disbelief, shock, and despair.
Yet as conservative, establishment historian Niall Ferguson—insofar as we know someone who himself apparently did not have any inkling of what was to come either—both wryly and ruefully muses in his engaging, albeit Western-centric, 2011 tome Civilization: The West and the Rest, the
‘…rewards for such foresight are paltry, as were the penalties that should have been paid by a generation of clueless Sovietologists. [T]he business of political prognostication remains a highly inefficient market.’
— Interlude —
An interview with Norman Cousins, author of The Pathology of Power
(Interviewer: Richard Heffner, March, 1987)
— Meet the New World Order (Same as the Old New One) —
We should also note that U.S. president Ronald Reagan (sort of) ‘predicted’ the collapse of the USSR in his first term. He then seemingly went to great lengths to make that ‘prediction’ a self-fulfilling prophecy via his version of “Star Wars”, the so-called Strategic Defense Initiative, arguably one of the biggest, most expensive dog ‘n pony styled shell-games of the Cold War.
But to then claim bragging rights for a Soviet demise was stretching it a bit, even for an old-school Hollywood ham like him. And being a big-picture man, whether providing it or receiving it, by most accounts Number 40 was rarely fond of minutiae. Thus in true Gipper form he was a bit vague on key details, in this case the timeframes and reasons for when and why this prediction might eventuate.
In simple terms, it was hard to know if Reagan was indulging in some misty-eyed wishful thinking—to which the man was no stranger—or he simply got lucky.
Either way, when the Berlin Wall crumbled into dust and rubble in 1989, and the notorious Stasi in East Germany began the long, mad and partially successful scramble to shred its warehouse-sized quantities of secret files, Ronnie’s neo-con seconds in the corner wasted little time in claiming the biggest knockout in the ‘ring of history’ for their man. To this day, they would doubtless gag on any suggestion that ‘The Teflon Man’ might have, in fact, just been a bit ‘tinny’.
According to more nuanced, less ideological observers, at best it would appear that it was a TKO. To put it more aptly, the Soviets lost the Cold War, The Gipper and Co., didn’t actually win it. Seems for the Soviets themselves, the real enemy—a la shades of “Pogo”—might’ve been lurking within their own ranks after all.
Yet in eagerly claiming bragging rights for the ‘defeat’ of the Soviet Union, neither The Gipper nor his devoted cadre were as keen to take ‘credit’ for the Iran-Contra Scandal that had previously consumed his presidency with quite the same enthusiasm as he/they did for ‘winning’ the Cold War.
For his part Reagan may have vehemently denied any knowledge of wrongdoing and/or recollection of having authorised any of the murky black ops and cloak ‘n dagger deeds that constituted the criminal, byzantine intrigues of the Iran-Contra quagmire—making the whole Watergate Thing look like a political hiccup and the fallout and blowback from it a media beat-up by comparison. Which in effect, at least on the surface, it was!
But doubtless Reagan did recollect telling “Mr Gorbachev” to “tear down” the Berlin Wall and claimed bragging rights for ‘inspiring’ regime change in Moscow as a direct result of his forceful foreign policies, “force” of course being—at least according to the hard-core neocons and “clueless Sovietologists”—the only language the Soviets purportedly understood.
In the Reagan worldview, in the face of his administration’s hardline Cold War post-containment stance the hapless Soviets simply threw in the geopolitical towel before the bell rang. Let’s face it: How could they ever hope to compete with life, liberty, democracy, freedom, truth, justice, the pursuit of happiness and the all-American way?
Regardless then, the Soviet Union had barely sunk, Titanic like, “under the waters of the [geopolitical] ocean” when a group of folks in the U.S. began busying themselves inventing new adversaries, devising new threats and drafting commensurate doctrines to meet and challenge them so as to pre-empt the “unacceptable shock” Kennan hinted at.
Throughout the nineties and in the lead-up to 9/11 and beyond then, it was this not-so-loose ‘confederacy of hegemons’ that would go on to profoundly alter the direction and focus of American strategic policy, if not exactly its purpose, which may have already been defined.
Either way, they would do all this in ways and by means in which it is hard to see how Kennan and his ilk might have contemplated in their wildest dreams and wisest imaginings, with or without a Soviet-style threat to contend with.
That this ‘rehabilitated’ “direction” and “focus” in strategic policy still plays out today is a given, despite the disasters it has engendered, despite the enormous cost in blood, treasure, economic stability and geopolitical credibility, and most importantly of all, despite the genuinely existential risks posed by its unfettered continuance.
Yet one suspects even Kennan and many of his old-school Cold Warrior chums would have also observed supreme irony in the way this post-Soviet reimagining and subsequent rearranging of the world order (and America’s subsequent place and part in it) played out.
As noted, for the duration of the Cold War itself, this was ostensibly the great fear Kennan and his contemporaries had of the Soviet Union itself, which was that the USSR was positioning itself to do same. After all this was the basic premise of ‘containment’—that is, to keep a lid on the gremlins in the Kremlin and curb their presumed gusto for Third World exploitation, saber-rattling destabilisation, geopolitical mischief, proxy war mongering and “inevitable” global hegemony.
And although this fear of Soviet imperial ambition we can now say with reasonable certainty was never founded on anything resembling a viable prospect or indeed plausible ambition, nonetheless it dictated the course of geopolitics and history—along with the balance of world power, and we might add, the global financial system and world economic order—for almost half a century.
It seems safe to say then that without the Cold War, there would have been no Military/Industrial Complex, no Nuclear Arms Race avec the prospect of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), no Cuban Missile Crisis, no Kennedy assassination, no Third World proxy wars a la Korea or Vietnam, and almost certainly no Dr Strangelove, James Bond or Spy v Spy, the latter three for many being maybe the only lamentable outcomes.
And considering the nuclear standoff between the U.S. and the USSR throughout the Cold War, all geopolitical bluff and bluster aside, we can now say with reasonable assurance that given nuclear Armageddon did not eventuate between the superpowers, it had as much, if not more, to do with Soviet caution than it had to do with any reticence—or common sense—upon the part of the U.S. war planners and political leaders.
Documents recently released by the U.S. National Security archives that featured interviews with former senior Soviet military leaders, strategic planners and other key decision makers seem to bear this out. Moreover, the same documents clearly point to U.S. analysts “exaggerating Soviet aggressiveness” whilst downplaying Moscow’s fears “of a U.S. first [nuclear] strike”.
The following anecdote taken from these documents provides a darkly chilling—and if one likes, an equally darkly humorous—insight into the “Dr Strangelove” mindset that prevailed on both sides throughout the Cold War:
‘During a 1972 command post exercise, leaders of the Kremlin listened to a briefing on the results of a hypothetical war with the United States. A U.S. attack would kill 80 million Soviet citizens and destroy 85 percent of the country’s industrial capacity. According to the recollections of a Soviet general who was present, [Soviet] General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev trembled when he was asked to push a button, gingerly enquiring of his then defense minister [Andrei] Grechko ‘this is definitely an exercise (isn’t it)?'”
— Standing Taller, Seeing Further —
Yet with the collapse of the USSR and the threat of nuclear warfare to all intents and purposes abated, America remained the only superpower standing, resulting in the great “unipolar moment” at the ‘end of history’. It was here that Kennan’s aforementioned geopolitically inclined speculative tendencies really came into their own.
There was to be sure never any real question as to whether America would downsize its “military-industrial establishment”; and abandoning it was unthinkable. It would in reality “have to go on” ‘bigger and better’ than ever, and a new enemy would have to be found, although this reality was not one widely publicised. So no peace dividend then? Such an imperative was after all in America’s ‘national interest’, another of the Great Moving Feasts of U.S. foreign policy, and one to which we shall return shortly.
And again, putting aside the ‘reality’ that “no-one saw this coming”, not the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, not the Pentagon, not the “clueless Sovietologists” in the U.S. State Department; that is of course all those whose job it was to know.
With the crumbling of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the eventual fall of the ‘evil empire’ the USSR in 1991, and the epochal, albeit slow-mo ‘triumph’ of capitalism over communism, America was suddenly poised to become—in the later words of Madeleine Albright, president Bill Clinton‘s Secretary of State—the “indispensable” nation, [to] “see[ing] further” and “stand[ing] taller” than the rest.
Whilst not everyone may have recognized it, the demise of communism and the hindsight-laden “we told you so” triumphalism of the West—both ideological and nationalistic in character and embodied in Albright’s musings above—that inevitably resulted, created an imperially flavoured existential crisis of sorts, a geopolitical vacuum, and a ‘psycho-political’ quandary for the U.S. polity.
Herein America was arguably at/in one of its most pivotal of crossroads moments in its ever-evolving imperial history: what or who was going to take the place of the best possible enemy an empire could hope to have if it was going to sustain itself into the future?
Again in this context, we might paraphrase the redoubtable Albright, a woman who—in that grand realpolitik tradition exemplified by Henry Kissinger, so much so we might say “Maddy” was channeling her inner “Hank”—is seemingly quite comfortable here and there expending the lives of a few hundred thousand kids, women and old people in order to advance the interests of U.S. foreign policy and keep its own empire from crumbling, USSR-like, into rubble, dust and anarchy:
‘[I mean, after all], [w]hat’s the point of having this superb military that [we’re] always talking about if we are not going to use it?’
In some aspects, if we take a realistic (realist) worldview, in terms of where it saw its future in the geopolitical firmament, America’s response in the wake of the Soviet collapse was to be both expected and understandable. Herein we might ponder John Mearsheimer‘s observations from his book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics.
After noting that “only a misguided state would pass up an opportunity to be the hegemon… because it thought it already had sufficient power to survive”, he then adds,
‘[But] even if a great power does not have the wherewithal to achieve hegemony (and that is usually the case), it will still act offensively to amass as much power as it can, because states are almost always better off with more rather than less power. In short, states do not become status quo powers until they completely dominate the system.’
In Mearsheimer’s summation then, such circumstances “inexorably lead[s] to a world of constant security competition”, where nations willingly “lie, cheat, and use brute force” as a matter of course and as the means to the ends. “Peace”, he notes somewhat drolly, “if one defines that concept as a state of tranquillity or mutual concord, is not likely to break out in this world.”
We should also observe the following here: whilst the designation “military-industrial complex” may have become a bit redundant and hackneyed, the reality that it originally described is very much just that, a “reality”, and a stark one at that. The National Security State is a term increasingly used now with the relatively simplistic MIC to some degree being something of an anachronism.
Moreover, C Wright Mills’ enduring “Power Elite” appears though to be relevant and useful as a suitably economical, all-encompassing, generic term. But to the extent that a “complex” of sorts is an accurate descriptor, such as it now exists it is more accurately the military, industrial, scientific, security, academic, business, media, intelligence, finance, technological, congressional, judicial, executive, and economic complex.
In this respect, Sheldon Wolin‘s view of the systems of power and power structures in the US, as delineated in his book Democracy Incorporated — Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, are instructive.
As the book’s sub-title suggests, he invokes/invents the term ‘inverted totalitarianism’ to describe the state of play in American power politics. Unlike its more ‘popular’ and better-known cousin, traditional or classical totalitarianism—exemplified by the Fascists in Italy and Spain, and the Nazis in Germany—the inverted variety is less obvious and therefore less distinguishable, but no less democracy defying and insidious, indeed, probably even moreso.
According to Wolin, the inverted type of totalitarianism is not personified by Il Duce or Fuehrer Type-A alpha-male personalities. Instead the ‘dictators’—whether corporate, military, financial, congressional, media, intelligence etc.—that embody, embrace and wield power are numerous, they are an amorphous collective who act collusively and arbitrarily across and within their mutually familiar domains, and above all they are anonymous. We might say they are hidden, but at best they “hidden” in plain sight, and only in “plain sight” for those who know where—and are inclined—to look.
The folk who comprise the inverted-totalitarian regime hierarchy publicly promote the values of democracy, freedom, the Bill of Rights, habeas corpus, the rule of law and the principles of the US Constitution from without all the while undermining and thwarting them from within.
For them privately the “national interest” is an irrelevant, possibly even redundant concept (even less so one suspects, the ‘public interest’).
That is of course unless invoking or shilling the “national interest” is simpatico with their own interests and/or the interests of the elite groupings of which they are a part or represent, or it is a means of engaging the rank and file citizens to their own ends and who themselves aren’t able to discern the difference between what is in their own interests and what is in their country’s interests, either out of ignorance, intellectual laziness, or because they have succumbed to the shill.
Or simply don’t want to rock the boat.
— The National Interest —
A word about the aforementioned “national interest” here is also apposite before continuing. The concept is a frequently invoked yet slippery one that is used to both rationalise and prescribe foreign policy. It plays a crucial role in diplomacy, national security, statecraft, and international relations, where the national interest is employed as the foundation of the Realist school.
To understand the abstraction that is the “national interest” is to “view it through the prism of a country’s defined goals and ambitions”, whether they are economic, military, (geo)political or cultural, and it is a ‘multi-faceted notion’. The state’s survival and security “are the key common elements though”.
Through the prism of the national interest, seen as equally important by many in the US is the pursuit of wealth, prosperity, and, in many cases, undue influence and power, along with unfettered economic growth for the country. Increasingly, in modern times, the ‘preservation and dispersal of the nation’s culture to other cultures and societies’ is also seen as being important.
It’s notable that John Foster Dulles, secretary of state under President Dwight (Ike) Eisenhower, described American allies not so much as “friends”, [but] as “interests”, revealing a less than diplomatic, yet nonetheless candid, realpolitik sentiment.
It’s also notable that for several years his brother Allen Dulles presided over the one institution that from its formative days was and remains the all-time great champion of the U.S. national interest, the CIA. Given that the CIA is sometimes referred to as [the] Corporate Interests of America, or Capitalism’s Invisible Army, it seems reasonable to view these designations as perhaps providing the most accurate—if somewhat mischievous—definition of what the U.S. “national interest” has always been about.
Yet when invoked in international relations, often in a prescriptive role, the concept of “national interest” is used by political Realists in order to distinguish their policies from more “idealistic” policies and those who might espouse them. According to the political Realist school, the ‘idealists’ attempt to either inject—even codify—morality into foreign policy or to promote solutions relying on multilateral institutions that could weaken the independence of the state.
It probably goes without saying then that within political discourse, there often exists considerable disagreement over what is and what is not in the “national interest.” In contexts such as this one, the term is as frequently invoked to justify isolationist policies, as it is to justify interventionism, militarism, and von Clausewitzian “war is politics by other means” solutions to ‘protecting’ and ‘preserving’ the ever-moving smorgasbord of said “national interest”.
Peter Trubowitz is one researcher who has studied American definitions of national interest. After looking at the 1890s, 1930s, and 1980s, he concluded,
‘…. there is no single national interest. Analysts who assume that America has a discernible national interest whose defense should determine its relations with other nations are unable to explain the persistent failure to achieve domestic consensus on international objectives.”
Another view of the ‘power elite’ or ‘invisible government’ comes from Peter Dale Scott, in his book, The Road to 9/11: Wealth, Empire, and the Future of America. Here he talks about the ‘deep state’, a term he uses to refer to closed networks, which are said to be more powerful than the public state.
The deep state engages in false-flag violence (phony, inflated or bogus national security scares or threats). They are themselves planned and organised by the military and intelligence apparatus, and often involve links to organised crime (the Cuban/Castro problem being a prime example, along with the notoriously subversive Operation Gladio), and certainly to the bureaucratic, finance, business and industry elites. Much of this activity of course is invoked in the “national interest”, however it is defined at the time.
Scott classifies these groups as cabals, with sub-groupings called cliques. He also defines the meta group, which are private groups collaborating with government entities and capable of not merely influencing but “modifying official government policy”.
And when we consider that it is increasingly industry and special-interest lobbyists, along with their legal hacks and legislative mercenaries that play a major role in the drafting of legislation, regulations and laws related to their industry, we’re going way beyond “influencing” or “modifying”. We are talking cloistered, exclusively self-interested groups with private, self-serving agendas who actually create policy around and in support of those interests and agendas, thereby trashing any semblance of the democratic process at work.
In something of an understatement as we will see, he says that over time ‘meta groups have tended to become more powerful, more highly organized, and more independent of their government connections’. Put simply, although they will frequently invoke the “national interest” as justification for their actions, patriotic altruism is not something that is an intuitive predisposition to these folk.
Although the concept had been around for a while—and putting aside the fact that Ike and especially his breast beating, Ultra Hawk, Commie-hating, Cold Warrior Secretary of State (John Foster) Dulles did as much as anyone to midwife the birth and growth of this ‘invisible government’—it was arguably Ike’s reference that brought it to the fore in such a way that most everyone knew what he was talking about, and it henceforth entered the political vernacular and the ‘popular’ idiom.
The irony though of Ike stressing the inherent dangers of these trends and developments that he both wittingly and unwittingly facilitated during his time as POTUS is almost too much to bear.
As hinted at earlier, that the Power Elite—and the various cliques, cabals and meta-groups that comprise that network—throughout its evolution and up to its current incarnation as described above went on to become even more powerful and prone to subterfuge than Ike could have ever dreamed possible, is axiomatic. It didn’t just endanger the liberties and democratic freedoms—not to mention the lives—of Americans citizens, but those of millions of others throughout the Western Hemisphere and way beyond. And it acted as if the Constitution didn’t exist, which explains to a great degree the status quo in this regard. The precedent was established long ago.
In reality, almost as a matter of course, this ‘shadow’ or invisible government’ (or cryptocracy) frequently subverted, malevolently thwarted, blithely undermined and routinely destroyed said “liberties and democratic freedoms” along with the economic and social well-being of all concerned if and when it saw it was in its own collective (as distinct from America’s or anyone else’s for that matter) interests to do so. Which for most of the time, it was.
It is with this mind that one might be tempted to paraphrase Vietnam era journalist Peter Arnett‘s immortal phrase—attributed to an unidentified US Army senior officer during the Vietnam War—about the tactics used to ferret out Viet Cong guerrillas thought to be hiding out in Ben Tre, that it was a case of, ‘in order to save democracy, we have to destroy it’. “Might be tempted” that is if “it” was actually about “democracy” in the first instance, which, for most of the time, it didn’t appear to be.
With the preceding context and perspective as a guide then, and with the words of Immanuel Kant in mind going forward, “It is the desire of every state, or of its ruler, to arrive at a condition of perpetual peace by conquering the whole world, if that were possible”, it was in this post-Cold War milieu and to this end that we saw the birth of the historically game-changing Project of the New American Century (PNAC).
With the competition having consigned itself to the dustbin of history, it was time for America to step up the imperial project a notch or three.
Greg Maybury, 2014-2015
End of Episode One.