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The Fall of the American Empire (Writ Small)

History, farce, and David Petraeus.

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With that, Petraeus left his four stars behind, shed COIN-mode just as his doctrine was collapsing completely, and slipped into the directorship of a  militarizing CIA and its drone wars.  He remained widely known, in the  words of Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution ( praising Broadwell’s biography), as “the finest general of this era and one of the greatest in modern American history.” Unlike George W. Bush and crew who, despite pulling in  staggering speaker's fees and writing memoirs for  millions, now found themselves in a far different set of shadows, he looked like the ultimate survivor -- until, of course, books and “bedsides” resurfaced in unexpected ways.

In the Iraq surge moment, the liberal advocacy group unsuccessfully tried to label him “General Betray Us.”  Now, as his affair with Broadwell unraveled into the reality TV show of our moment, he became General Betray Himself, a figure of derision, an old man with a young babe, the “cloak-and-shag-her” guy (as one New York Post screaming headline  put it).

So here you have it, the two paradigmatic figures of the closing of the “American Century”: the president’s son whose ambitions were stoked by Texas politics after years in the personal wilderness and the man who  married the superintendent’s daughter and rose like a meteor in a military that could  never win a war.  In the end, as the faces of American-disaster-masquerading-as-success, neither made it out of town before shame caught up with them.  It’s a measure of their importance, however, that Bush was finally put to flight by a global economic meltdown, Petraeus by the local sexual version of the same.  Again, it’s history vs. farce.

Or think of the Petraeus version of collapse as a tryout for the fall of the American empire, writ very small, with Jill Kelley and Paula Broadwell as our Gibbons and the volume of email, including military  sexting, taking the place of his six volumes.  A poster general for American decline, David Petraeus will be a footnote to history, a man out for himself who simply went a bridge or a book too far.  George W. and crew were the real thing: genuine mad visionaries who simply mistook their dreams and fantasies for reality.

But wasn’t it fun while it lasted? Wasn’t it a blast to occupy Washington, be treated as a demi-god, go to Pirate-themed parties in Tampa with a  28-motorcycle police escort, and direct your own biography... even if it did end as Fifty Shades of Khaki?

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the  American Empire Project and author of  The United States of Fear as well as  The End of Victory Culture, his history of the Cold War, runs the Nation Institute's His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.  You can see his recent interview with Bill Moyers on supersized politics, drones, and other subjects by  clicking here.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: A small bow to several sites that I always find particularly helpful: my daily companion, Juan Cole’s invaluable  Informed Comment blog, the always provocative  War in Context run by Paul Woodward, and Noah Shachtman’s  Danger Room at Wired magazine.  (At that site, I particularly recommend Spencer Ackerman’s mea culpa for having been drawn into the cult of Petraeus.  Scores of other journalists and pundits had far more reason to write such a piece -- and didn’t.)  By the way, in case you think that, until recently, it wasn’t possible for anyone to see what is now commonly being written about the general, check out a piece I posted in 2008 under the title “ Selling the President’s General.”] 

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