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The Fall of the American Empire (Writ Small)

History, farce, and David Petraeus.

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In all of this, they proved both masters of public relations and staggeringly wrong.  As such, they would be the progenitors of an imperial tragedy -- a deflating set of disasters that would take the pop out of American power and turn the planet’s “lone superpower” into a lonely superpower presiding over an unraveling global system, especially in the Greater Middle East. Blinded by their fantasies, they would ensure a more precipitous than necessary American decline in the first decade of the new century.

Not that they cared, but they would also generate a set of wrenching human tragedies: first for the Iraqis,  hundreds of thousands of whom became casualties of war, insurgency, and sectarian strife, while millions more  fled into exile; then there were the Afghans, who died attending  weddingsfunerals, even baby-naming ceremonies; and, of course, tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers and contractors, who died or were injured, often grievously, in those dismal wars; and don’t forget the inhabitants of post-Katrina New Orleans left to rot in their flooded city; or the millions of Americans who lost jobs, houses, even lives in the economic meltdown of 2008, a disaster that emerged from a set of globe-spanning financial fantasies and snow jobs that Bush and his crew encouraged and facilitated.

They were the ones, in other words, who took a mighty imperial power already in slow decline, grabbed the wheel of the car of state, put the peddle to the metal, and like a group of drunken revelers promptly headed for the nearest cliff. In the process -- they were nothing if not great salesmen -- they sold Americans a bill of goods, even as they fostered their own dreams of establishing a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East and a Pax Republicana at home. All now, of course, down in flames.

In his 1987 Princeton dissertation, David Petraeus  wrote thison perception: "What policymakers believe to have taken place in any particular case is what matters -- more than what actually occurred." On this and other subjects, he was certainly no dope, but he was a huckster -- for himself (given his particular version of self-love), and for a dream already going down in Iraq and Afghanistan. And he was just one of many promoters out there in those years pushing product (including himself): the top officials of the Bush administration, gaggles of neocons, gangs of  military intellectuals, hordes of think tanks linked to serried ranks of pundits. All of them imagining Washington as a battlefield for the ages, all assuming that the struggle for “perception” was on the home front alone.

Producing a Bedside Manual

You could say that Petraeus fully arrived on the scene, in Washington at least, in that classic rollout month of September (2004). It was then that the three-star general, in charge of training Iraq’s security forces, gave a president in a tight race for reelection a little extra firepower in the domestic perception wars.  Stepping blithely across a classic no-no line for the military, he  wrote a well-placed op-ed in the Washington Post as General Johnnie-on-the-spot, plugging “tangible progress” in Iraq and touting “reasons for optimism.”

Given George W. Bush’s increasingly dismal and unpopular mission-unaccomplished war and occupation, it was like the cavalry riding to the rescue. It shouldn’t have been surprising, then, that the general, backed and promoted in the years to come by various neocon warriors, would be the military man the president would fall for. Over the first half of the “surge” year of 2007, Bush would  publicly cite the general more than 150 times, 53 in May alone.  (And Petraeus, a man particularly prone toward those who idolized him -- see: Broadwell, Paula -- returned the favor.)

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