Andrew Bacevich

American democracy just staved off Trumpism. Will it last?

Andrew Bacevich: The Unasked Questions of 2022

Admittedly, it’s dangerous to quote yourself. Still, I wrote this line in June of election season 2016, a moment when only one politician in America, sporting an acronymic MAGA he had trademarked in the wake of Mitt Romney’s election loss in 2012, seemed to think that this country was no longer “great.” His winning fantasy was that he and he alone could make it great again. “Perhaps it would be better,” I said then, “to see Donald Trump as a symptom, not the problem itself, to think of him not as the Zika Virus but as the first infectious mosquito to hit the shores of this country.”

More than six years later, in the wake of another disastrous election, the Trumpification of America is indeed an eerie reality, leaving our country somewhere in the weeds (as is our planet, which has just experienced its hottest eight years on record). And count on one thing, there’s much more to come on every imaginable score. Our political system is in chaos and guaranteed, with the Republicans in control of the House of Representatives, to remain there or worse for at least the next two years and possibly much longer; our judicial system, thanks to the Trumpification (or perhaps McConnellization) of the Supreme Court, is increasingly a menace, not a solace; and our national security state, which eats our taxpayer dollars alive, is triumphant in every way except the one for which it was built. After all, war in this increasingly un-American century has proven a global disaster for this country and — as Vladimir Putin is proving right now — for whatever country has launched one, not to speak of the planet as well. As Peter Maass pointed out recently, increasing violence here at home has been fed, in part, by the unnerved and disturbed veterans of our disastrous foreign conflicts of this century.

TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich, author of the must-read new book On Shedding an Obsolete Past: Bidding Farewell to the American Century suggests today that the very questions we’ve been asking about this country and the world are at best thoroughly out of date. It’s even possible that the very language we use is lacking when it comes to the crisis our country and world is plunging into, and you can thank, in part, the continuing Trumpification of America for that. Tom

Deaf to History’s Questions: A Tale of Two Elizabeths, One Joe, One Donald, and Us

Britons mourned the recent passing of Queen Elizabeth II, and understandably so. The outpouring of affection for their long-serving monarch was more than commendable, it was touching. Yet count me among those mystified that so many Americans also professed to care. With all due respect to Queen Latifah, we decided way back in 1776 that we’d had our fill of royalty.

Mere weeks after the death of Elizabeth II came the demise of another Elizabeth, better known as Liz, whose tenure as British prime minister shattered all previous records for brevity. Forty-four days after Her Majesty had asked her to form a government, Liz Truss announced her decision to step down. Cries of “No, Liz, stay on!” were muted indeed, while she herself seemed to feel a sense of relief that her moment at the pinnacle of British politics had ended so swiftly.

As a general rule, I no more care who resides at 10 Downing Street than who lives in Buckingham Palace, since neither bears more than the most marginal relevance to the well-being of the United States. Even so, I confess that I found the made-for-tabloids tale of Truss’s rise and fall riveting — not a Shakespearean tragedy perhaps but a compelling dramedy offering raw material — most memorably in the form of lettuce — sufficient to supply stand-up comics the world over.

That Truss was manifestly unsuited to serve as prime minister should count as the understatement of the month. Her perpetually wide-eyed look seemingly expressed her own amazement at having high office thrust upon her and gave the game away. Along with the entire Tory party leadership, she was, it seemed, in on the caper — a huge joke at the expense of the British people.

Here was so-called liberal democracy in action. And not just any democracy, mind you, but an ancient and hallowed one. In American political circles, the notion persists that our own system of government somehow derives from that of Great Britain, that despite the many historical and substantive differences between the way Washington and Westminster work, we both share the same political space.

We and they are exemplars, models of popular government for the rest of the world. We and they stand arm-in-arm against autocrats and authoritarians. The legitimacy of the British democratic system affirms the legitimacy of our own. To others around the world aspiring to liberty, it proclaims: This is how it’s done. Now, go and do likewise.

In this particular instance, passing the torch in that ostensibly great democracy occurred in a matter of days. Notably, however, the British people played no part whatsoever in deciding who should succeed Truss. Of course, neither had they played any role in installing her as prime minister in the first place. Roughly 172,000 dues-paying members of the Conservative Party had made that decision on their behalf. And when her government abruptly imploded, even party members found themselves consigned to the role of spectators. In a nation of some 46 million registered voters, a grand total of 357 Conservative members of parliament decided who would form the next government — the equivalent of the Democratic caucus in the House of Representatives deciding it had had enough of Joe Biden and choosing his successor.

British Conservatives dismissed out of hand suggestions that a general election might be in order, that ordinary Britons should have some say in who would govern them. They did so for the most understandable of reasons: opinion polls indicated that in any election the Tory party would suffer catastrophic losses. It turns out that, in the hierarchy of values to which members of Parliament adhere, self-preservation ranks first. Students of American politics should not find that surprising.

To be clear, all of this falls completely within the rules of the game. Were the situation reversed, Britain’s Labour Party would surely have done likewise.

In the United Kingdom, this is how democracy works. “The People” play the role allotted to them. That role expands or contracts to suit the convenience of those who actually call the shots. In practice, liberal democracy thereby becomes a euphemism for cynical manipulation. While the results may entertain, as the saga of Liz Truss surely did, they offer little to admire or emulate.

The entire spectacle should, however, give Americans food for thought. If extreme partisanship, greed, and hunger for power displace any recognizable conception of the common good, this is where we’re liable to end up.

Charles to the Rescue

But give the Brits this: when faced with a crisis at the heart of their politics, their politicians dealt with it expeditiously, even ruthlessly. In announcing economic policies to which their financial markets objected, Truss had seemingly forgotten whom she was actually working for. Because of that, she was promptly sacked and then just as quickly dispatched to the political wilderness.

Credit the sovereign with saving the day. Advised to invite Conservative MP Rishi Sunak to form a new government, Charles III did just that and then returned to Windsor or Balmoral or whichever royal property he and the queen consort are currently using.

Granted, the action by the new-to-the-job king was purely symbolic. Yet its importance can hardly be overestimated. Charles affirmed the legitimacy of what otherwise might have looked suspiciously like a bloodless coup engineered by panicky MPs less interested in governance than saving their own skins. He thereby more than earned his generous paycheck, just as his mother had over the course of seven decades when inviting pols of varying distinction to form governments.

Of course, little of this has anything to do with democratic practice per se. After all, no one elected Charles king, just as no one had elected his mum queen. And while Charles inherits the title “Defender of the Faith,” no one has ever looked to a British monarch to serve as a “Defender of Democracy.” The role of the monarch is to sustain a political order that keeps at bay the forces of anarchy, thereby enabling some version of representative government, however flawed, to survive.

By that measure, Britons have good cause to proclaim, “God Save the King.”

Still Legit?

All of which should invite us Americans to consider this long-taken-for-granted question: When it comes to the legitimacy of our own political system, how are we doing? Given the startling proliferation of illiberal and antidemocratic tendencies in the American polity, how should we rate the health of our own liberal democracy? Indeed, does the phrase “liberal democracy” even accurately describe what goes on in Washington and in several dozen state capitals?

That such a question has acquired genuine urgency speaks volumes about American politics in our time. Nor does that urgency derive entirely – perhaps not even primarily — from the malignant presence of Donald Trump on the national scene, regardless of what panicky reporting in mainstream media outlets may suggest.

On all matters related to Trump, our fellow citizens — those who are sentient anyway — tend to fall into two camps. In one are those who see the former president as a transformational figure, whether for good (Make America Great Again) or ill (paving the way for fascism). In the other are those who view him less as cause than effect, his lingering prominence stemming from pathologies he’s skillfully exploited but had little role in creating.

I happen to inhabit that second camp. I loathe Donald Trump. But I fear a political, intellectual, and cultural elite that appears incapable of responding effectively to the crisis presently engulfing the United States.

Innumerable writers (including me) have attempted to lay out the origins and scope of that crisis and propose antidotes. None in my estimation (myself again included) have fully succeeded. Or at least none have persuaded Americans as to the true source of our collective malaise and discontent.

The resulting void explains the inclination to view Trump as the root cause of the nation’s troubles — or alternatively as our last best hope of salvation. Yet despite the palpable hunger in some quarters to imagine him locked up and in others to return him to the White House, Trump is neither a demon nor a wizard. He is instead a physical manifestation of the collective fears and fantasies to which Americans of all political persuasions have in recent years become susceptible.

Should Trump regain the presidency in 2024 — admittedly, a dreadful prospect — the crisis gripping our country would undoubtedly deepen. But were a benign storm to sweep the Master of Mar-a-Lago into the vast ocean depths never to be seen again, that crisis would persist.

Factors contributing to that crisis are not difficult to identify. They include:

Collectively, these add up to a Bigger Truth that easily eclipses in importance the Big Lie that presently dominates so much of American political discourse. While obsessing over the false claim that Trump won reelection in 2020 may be understandable, it diverts attention from the real meaning of that Bigger Truth, namely that liberal democracy no longer describes the bizarrely elaborate, increasingly disfunctional system of governance that prevails in the United States.

Reducing the existing system to a single phrase is a daunting proposition. It is sui generis, mixing myth, greed, rank dishonesty, and a refusal to face the music. But this much is for sure: It’s anything but governance by elected representatives chosen by an informed electorate who deliberate and decide in the interests of the American people as a whole.

Siri, Where Are We?

In my estimation, Joe Biden is a man of goodwill but limited abilities. In ousting Donald Trump from the White House, he performed a vitally important service to the nation. But President Biden is not just very old. His entire outlook is as stale as a week-old bagel.

Biden clearly believes that he has a firm grasp on what our times require. He regularly insists that we have arrived at an “inflection point.” Drawing on the familiar narrative of the twentieth century, he believes that he has deciphered the meaning of that inflection point. His interpretation, shared by many others among the current crop of the Best and Brightest, centers on a conviction that a global competition between freedom and unfreedom, democracy and autocracy defines the overarching challenge of our time. It’s us against them — the United States (with accommodating allies holding Uncle Sam’s coat) pitted against China and Russia, the outcome of this competition guaranteed to determine the fate of humankind.

Forty years ago, dealing with the array of concerns that defined the late Cold War era — avoiding World War III, outcompeting the Soviets, and keeping the gas pumps from running dry — Biden might have been an effective president. Today, he’s as clueless as Liz Truss self-evidently was, spouting bromides and advocating for programs left over from the heyday of American liberalism.

As Biden stumbles wearily from one verbal gaffe to the next, he embodies the exhaustion of that earlier political era. If reinvigorating the American political order defines the urgent calling of our present moment, he hasn’t the least idea where to begin.

At the risk of violating the prevailing canons of political correctness, let me suggest that we turn for counsel to Russia. No, not Vladimir Putin, but Leo Tolstoy. In the conclusion to his novel War and Peace, Tolstoy wrote that “modern history, like a deaf man, answers questions no one has asked.” That pithy observation captures the essence of our own predicament: It’s the questions that go unasked that are likely to do us in.

Consider, for example, these: What if the vaunted “American way of life” doesn’t define the destiny of humankind? What if true freedom means something different than the conception promoted in Washington or New York, Hollywood or Silicon Valley? What if Biden’s inflection point — should it exist — doesn’t come with a Made-in-the-U.S.A. label?

The first step toward enlightenment is to ask the right questions. Joe Biden and the American political establishment seem remarkably blind to the need to do just that. So are the tens of millions of Americans, whether angry or simply baffled, who vainly stare at their smartphones in search of answers or who look at the results of the midterm elections and ask: Is that the best we can do?

As a nation, we are adrift in uncharted waters — and we can’t look to King Charles to save us.

An inconvenient lesson: Will the United States learn from Russia's blunderous war in Ukraine?

Andrew Bacevich, Will the U.S. Learn Anything from Putin's Disastrous Invasion?

The figures stagger the imagination. The latest Pentagon budget will come in at about $850 billion (while the full national security budget will undoubtedly once again be in the $1.4-trillion range). Consider that a stunning sum to invest in a U.S. military that, as TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich points out today, has proven a first-class failure in every one of its wars in this century. Consider it a remarkable fact of our world that the military which has a budget the size of the next nine countries combined couldn’t win a single one of the conflicts it took on globally in these years. (As last August’s tumultuous withdrawal from Afghanistan showed, it generally couldn’t even come close.)

If you want an explanation for why such an overfunded military underperforms so radically, the answer might perhaps be found in one devastating reality on this planet: nuclear weapons. After all, our military has built itself up in a mind-boggling fashion largely to engage in future wars that, in the end, can’t truly be fought against enemies (think Russia and China) that, like us, are nuclear powers. Yes, Washington can indirectly fight such enemies — in the case of Russia by giving billions of dollars in arms aid to Ukraine. But directly, without potentially endangering all life on this planet? Not likely. In fact, though the U.S. has been facing off against Russia and China (with rare exceptions) for almost three-quarters of a century, from Korea to Vietnam to Ukraine, it has only been able to fight either of them in the most indirect fashion.

And yet the American taxpayer endlessly pours money needed here at home into the military-industrial-congressional complex as if, without such a global military on the verge of… well, who knows what, but nothing good… we would be in desperate straits — and I’m not thinking about the Taiwan Strait, even though our warships regularly venture down it in a distinctly provocative fashion. (Just imagine for a moment the reaction here if the Chinese navy regularly sailed its warships along the coast of California!) But let Bacevich, whose new Dispatch book, On Shedding an Obsolete Past: Bidding Farewell to the American Century, is due out in November — you’ll hear more about it here soon enough — fill you in on the financial and military nightmare that has been and continues to be us. Tom

Russia’s Underperforming Military (and Ours): Convenient Lessons to Impede Learning

In Washington, wide agreement exists that the Russian army’s performance in the Kremlin’s ongoing Ukraine “special military operation” ranks somewhere between lousy and truly abysmal. The question is: Why? The answer in American policy circles, both civilian and military, appears all but self-evident. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has stubbornly insisted on ignoring the principles, practices, and methods identified as necessary for success in war and perfected in this century by the armed forces of the United States. Put simply, by refusing to do things the American way, the Russians are failing badly against a far weaker foe.

Granted, American analysts — especially the retired military officers who opine on national news shows — concede that other factors have contributed to Russia’s sorry predicament. Yes, heroic Ukrainian resistance, reminiscent of the Winter War of 1939-1940 when Finland tenaciously defended itself against the Soviet Union’s more powerful military, caught the Russians by surprise. Expectations that Ukrainians would stand by while the invaders swept across their country proved wildly misplaced. In addition, comprehensive economic sanctions imposed by the West in response to the invasion have complicated the Russian war effort. By no means least of all, the flood of modern weaponry provided by the United States and its allies — God bless the military-industrial-congressional complex — have appreciably enhanced Ukrainian fighting power.

Still, in the view of American military figures, all of those factors take a backseat to Russia’s manifest inability (or refusal) to grasp the basic prerequisites of modern warfare. The fact that Western observers possess a limited understanding of how that country’s military leadership functions makes it all the easier to render such definitive judgments. It’s like speculating about Donald Trump’s innermost convictions. Since nobody really knows, any forcefully expressed opinion acquires at least passing credibility.

The prevailing self-referential American explanation for Russian military ineptitude emphasizes at least four key points:

* First, the Russians don’t understand jointness, the military doctrine that provides for the seamless integration of ground, air, and maritime operations, not only on Planet Earth but in cyberspace and outer space;

* Second, Russia’s land forces haven’t adhered to the principles of combined arms warfare, first perfected by the Germans in World War II, that emphasizes the close tactical collaboration of tanks, infantry, and artillery;

* Third, Russia’s longstanding tradition of top-down leadership inhibits flexibility at the front, leaving junior officers and noncommissioned officers to relay orders from on high without demonstrating any capacity to, or instinct for, exercising initiative on their own;

* Finally, the Russians appear to lack even the most rudimentary understanding of battlefield logistics — the mechanisms that provide a steady and reliable supply of the fuel, food, munitions, medical support, and spare parts needed to sustain a campaign.

Implicit in this critique, voiced by self-proclaimed American experts, is the suggestion that, if the Russian army had paid more attention to how U.S. forces deal with such matters, they would have fared better in Ukraine. That they don’t — and perhaps can’t — comes as good news for Russia’s enemies, of course. By implication, Russian military ineptitude obliquely affirms the military mastery of the United States. We define the standard of excellence to which others can only aspire.

Reducing War to a Formula

All of which begs a larger question the national security establishment remains steadfastly oblivious to: If jointness, combined arms tactics, flexible leadership, and responsive logistics hold the keys to victory, why haven’t American forces — supposedly possessing such qualities in abundance — been able to win their own equivalents of the Ukraine War? After all, Russia has only been stuck in Ukraine for six months, while the U.S. was stuck in Afghanistan for 20 years and still has troops in Iraq almost two decades after its disastrous invasion of that country.

To rephrase the question: Why does explaining the Russian underperformance in Ukraine attract so much smug commentary here, while American military underperformance gets written off?

Perhaps written off is too harsh. After all, when the U.S. military fails to meet expectations, there are always some who will hasten to point the finger at civilian leaders for screwing up. Certainly, this was the case with the chaotic U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021. Critics were quick to pin the blame on President Biden for that debacle, while the commanders who had presided over the war there for those 20 years escaped largely unscathed. Indeed, some of those former commanders like retired general and ex-CIA Director David Petraeus, aka “King David,” were eagerly sought after by the media as Kabul fell.

So, if the U.S. military performance since the Global War on Terror was launched more than two decades ago rates as, to put it politely, a disappointment — and that would be my view — it might be tempting to lay responsibility at the feet of the four presidents, eight secretaries of defense (including two former four-star generals), and the various deputy secretaries, undersecretaries, assistant secretaries, and ambassadors who designed and implemented American policy in those years. In essence, this becomes an argument for sustained generational incompetence.

There’s a flipside to that argument, however. It would tag the parade of generals who presided over the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (and lesser conflicts like those in Libya, Somalia, and Syria) as uniformly not up to the job — another argument for generational incompetence. Members of the once-dominant Petraeus fan club might cite him as a notable exception. Yet, with the passage of time, King David’s achievements as general-in-chief first in Baghdad and then in Kabul have lost much of their luster. The late “Stormin’ Norman” Schwarzkopf and General Tommy Franks, their own “victories” diminished by subsequent events, might sympathize.

Allow me to suggest another explanation, however, for the performance gap that afflicts the twenty-first-century U.S. military establishment. The real problem hasn’t been arrogant, ill-informed civilians or generals who lack the right stuff or suffer from bad luck. It’s the way Americans, especially those wielding influence in national security circles, including journalists, think tankers, lobbyists, corporate officials in the military-industrial complex, and members of Congress, have come to think of war as an attractive, affordable means of solving problems.

Military theorists have long emphasized that by its very nature, war is fluid, elusive, capricious, and permeated with chance and uncertainty. Practitioners tend to respond by suggesting that, though true, such descriptions are not helpful. They prefer to conceive of war as essentially knowable, predictable, and eminently useful — the Swiss Army knife of international politics.

Hence, the tendency, among both civilian and military officials in Washington, not to mention journalists and policy intellectuals, to reduce war to a phrase or formula (or better yet to a set of acronyms), so that the entire subject can be summarized in a slick 30-minute slide presentation. That urge to simplify — to boil things down to their essence — is anything but incidental. In Washington, the avoidance of complexity and ambiguity facilitates marketing (that is, shaking down Congress for money).

To cite one small example of this, consider a recent military document entitled

Army Readiness and Modernization in 2022,” produced by propagandists at the Association of the United States Army, purports to describe where the U.S. Army is headed. It identifies “eight cross-functional teams” meant to focus on “six priorities.” If properly resourced and vigorously pursued, these teams and priorities will ensure, it claims, that “the army maintains all-domain overmatch against all adversaries in future fights.”

Set aside the uncomfortable fact that, when it counted last year in Kabul, American forces demonstrated anything but all-domain overmatch. Still, what the Army’s leadership aims to do between now and 2035 is create “a transformed multi-domain army” by fielding a plethora of new systems, described in a blizzard of acronyms: ERCA, PrSM, LRHW, OMVF, MPF, RCV, AMPV, FVL, FLRAA, FARA, BLADE, CROWS, MMHEL, and so on, more or less ad infinitum.

Perhaps you won’t be surprised to learn that the Army’s plan, or rather vision, for its future avoids the slightest mention of costs. Nor does it consider potential complications — adversaries equipped with nuclear weapons, for example — that might interfere with its aspirations to all-domain overmatch.

Yet the document deserves our attention as an exquisite example of Pentagon-think. It provides the Army’s preferred answer to a question of nearly existential importance — not “How can the Army help keep Americans safe?” but “How can the Army maintain, and ideally increase, its budget?”

Hidden inside that question is an implicit assumption that sustaining even the pretense of keeping Americans safe requires a military of global reach that maintains a massive global presence. Given the spectacular findings of the James Webb Telescope, perhaps galactic will one day replace global in the Pentagon’s lexicon. In the meantime, while maintaining perhaps 750 military bases on every continent except Antarctica, that military rejects out of hand the proposition that defending Americans where they live — that is, within the boundaries of the 50 states comprising the United States — can suffice to define its overarching purpose.

And here we arrive at the crux of the matter: militarized globalism, the Pentagon’s preferred paradigm for basic policy, has become increasingly unaffordable. With the passage of time, it’s also become beside the point. Americans simply don’t have the wallet to satisfy budgetary claims concocted in the Pentagon, especially those that ignore the most elemental concerns we face, including disease, drought, fire, floods, and sea-level rise, not to mention averting the potential collapse of our constitutional order. All-domain overmatch is of doubtful relevance to such threats.

To provide for the safety and well-being of our republic, we don’t need further enhancements to jointness, combined arms tactics, flexible leadership, and responsive logistics. Instead, we need an entirely different approach to national security.

Come Home, America, Before It’s Too Late

Given the precarious state of American democracy, aptly described by President Biden in his recent address in Philadelphia, our most pressing priority is repairing the damage to our domestic political fabric, not engaging in another round of “great power competition” dreamed up by fevered minds in Washington. Put simply, the Constitution is more important than the fate of Taiwan.

I apologize: I know that I have blasphemed. But the times suggest that we weigh the pros and cons of blasphemy. With serious people publicly warning about the possible approach of civil war and many of our far-too-well armed fellow citizens welcoming the prospect, perhaps the moment has come to reconsider the taken-for-granted premises that have sustained U.S. national security policy since the immediate aftermath of World War II.

More blasphemy! Did I just advocate a policy of isolationism?

Heaven forfend! What I would settle for instead is a modicum of modesty and prudence, along with a lively respect for (rather than infatuation with) war.

Here is the unacknowledged bind in which the Pentagon has placed itself — and the rest of us: by gearing up to fight (however ineffectively) anywhere against any foe in any kind of conflict, it finds itself prepared to fight nowhere in particular. Hence, the urge to extemporize on the fly, as has been the pattern in every conflict of ours since the Vietnam War. On occasion, things work out, as in the long-forgotten, essentially meaningless 1983 invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada. More often than not, however, they don’t, no matter how vigorously our generals and our troops apply the principles of jointness, combined arms, leadership, and logistics.

Americans spend a lot of time these days trying to figure out what makes Vladimir Putin tick. I don’t pretend to know, nor do I really much care. I would say this, however: Putin’s plunge into Ukraine confirms that he learned nothing from the folly of post-9/11 U.S. military policy.

Will we, in our turn, learn anything from Putin’s folly? Don’t count on it.

'Stunningly incompetent or simply mad as hatters': How America's ruling class ruined everything

Andrew Bacevich, After the American Century

In my home in the early 1950s, we lived Life to the fullest (with the Saturday Evening Post and Look thrown in for good measure). In fact, from those largely print media years — we got our first black-and-white TV in 1953 — I can still remember a Life cover photo showing the pained face of an American soldier caught up in the Korean War. (Perhaps he was awaiting a Chinese attack during the retreat from Chosin Reservoir. It must have been one of photographer David Douglas Duncan’s grim and moving wartime shots and, of all the far cheerier covers of that magazine, it’s the one that stays in my mind, however faintly, so many years later. I couldn’t even tell you why, but I think of that as my personal introduction to “the American Century.”

That phrase, as TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich reminds us today, came from a 1941 Life editorial by its owner, media mogul Henry Luce. My father, like so many Americans, had played his own small role in the launching of that century. He was operations officer for the First Air Commandos in Burma in World War II. In Terry and the Pirates, a popular comic strip of the time — cartoonists of every sort “mobilized” for that war — his unit’s co-commander, Phil Cochran, became the character “Flip Corkin.” Strip creator Milton Caniff even put my father jokingly into a May 1944 strip using his nickname, “Englewillie.”

However, my own true introduction to that all-American century, which has, sadly enough, proven anything but comic, came in the Vietnam War years. I wasn’t in the U.S. military, but a tiny part of the huge antiwar movement of that nightmarish era of American war-making. It was a response to a disastrous conflict in which millions of Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians, as well as 58,000 Americans, would die. Consider it the catastrophic follow-up to the Korean War. (Everything lost, nothing learned, you might say.) Asia, in fact, should have been the burial site for that century. (Of course, if we truly end up in a deeply cold or even hot war with a rising China in this century, it may still be that and perhaps take the rest of the planet down with us.)

Sadly enough, no lessons were drawn from those disasters or there never would have been the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. And now, here we are on a planet heating to the boiling point in a country coming apart at the seams and 81 years into that American century of ours, in our own deeply disturbing way, it looks like we might be saying goodbye to all that. But let Bacevich explain. Tom

Imperial Detritus: Henry Luce's Dream Comes Undone

“The American Century Is Over.” So claims the July 2022 cover of Harper’s Magazine, adding an all-too-pertinent question: “What’s Next?”

What, indeed? Eighty years after the United States embarked upon the Great Crusade of World War II, a generation after it laid claim to the status of sole superpower following the fall of the Berlin Wall, and two decades after the Global War on Terror was to remove any lingering doubts about who calls the shots on Planet Earth, the question could hardly be more timely.

Empire Burlesque,” Daniel Bessner’s Harper’s cover story, provides a useful, if preliminary, answer to a question most members of our political class, preoccupied with other matters, would prefer to ignore. Yet the title of the essay contains a touch of genius, capturing as it does in a single concise phrase the essence of the American Century in its waning days.

On the one hand, given Washington’s freewheeling penchant for using force to impose its claimed prerogatives abroad, the imperial nature of the American project has become self-evident. When the U.S. invades and occupies distant lands or subjects them to punishment, concepts like freedom, democracy, and human rights rarely figure as more than afterthoughts. Submission, not liberation defines the underlying, if rarely acknowledged, motivation behind Washington’s military actions, actual or threatened, direct or through proxies.

American power in recent decades suggests that those who preside over the American imperium are either stunningly incompetent or simply mad as hatters. Intent on perpetuating some form of global hegemony, they have accelerated trends toward national decline, while seemingly oblivious to the actual results of their handiwork.

Consider the January 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol. It has rightly prompted a thorough congressional investigation aimed at establishing accountability. All of us should be grateful for the conscientious efforts of the House Select Committee to expose the criminality of the Trump presidency. Meanwhile, however, the trillions of dollars wasted and the hundreds of thousands of lives lost during our post-9/11 wars have been essentially written off as the cost of doing business. Here we glimpse the essence of twenty-first-century bipartisanship, both parties colluding to ignore disasters for which they share joint responsibility, while effectively consigning the vast majority of ordinary citizens to the status of passive accomplices.

Bessner, who teaches at the University of Washington, is appropriately tough on the (mis)managers of the contemporary American empire. And he does a good job of tracing the ideological underpinnings of that empire back to their point of origin. On that score, the key date is not 1776, but 1941. That was the year when the case for American global primacy swept into the marketplace of ideas, making a mark that persists to the present day.

God on Our Side

The marketing began with the February 17, 1941, issue of Life magazine, which contained a simply and elegantly titled essay by Henry Luce, its founder and publisher. With the American public then sharply divided over the question of whether to intervene on behalf of Great Britain in its war against Nazi Germany — this was 10 months before Pearl Harbor — Luce weighed in with a definitive answer: he was all in for war. Through war, he believed, the United States would not only overcome evil but inaugurate a golden age of American global dominion.

Life was then, in the heyday of the print media, the most influential mass-circulation publication in the United States. As the impresario who presided over the rapidly expanding Time-Life publishing empire, Luce himself was perhaps the most influential press baron of his age. Less colorful than his flamboyant contemporary William Randolph Hearst, he was politically more astute. And yet nothing Luce would say or do over the course of a long career promoting causes (mostly conservative) and candidates (mostly Republican) would come close to matching the legacy left by that one perfectly timed editorial in Life’s pages.

When it hit the newsstands, “The American Century” did nothing to resolve public ambivalence about how to deal with Adolf Hitler. Events did that, above all Japan’s December 7th attack on Pearl Harbor. Yet once the United States did enter the war, the evocative title of Luce’s essay formed the basis for expectations destined to transcend World War II and become a fixture in American political discourse.

During the war years, government propaganda offered copious instruction on “Why We Fight.” So, too, did a torrent of posters, books, radio programs, hit songs, and Hollywood movies, not to speak of publications produced by Luce’s fellow press moguls. Yet when it came to crispness, durability, and poignancy, none held a candle to “The American Century.” Before the age was fully launched, Luce had named it.

Even today, in attenuated form, expectations Luce articulated in 1941 persist. Peel back the cliched phrases that senior officials in the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon routinely utter in the Biden years — “American global leadership” and “the rules-based international order” are favorites — and you encounter their unspoken purpose: to perpetuate unchallengeable American global primacy until the end of time.

To put it another way, whatever the ”rules” of global life, the United States will devise them. And if ensuring compliance with those rules should entail a resort to violence, justifications articulated in Washington will suffice to legitimize the use of force.

In other words, Luce’s essay marks the point of departure for what was, in remarkably short order, to become an era when American primacy would be a birthright. It stands in relation to the American empire as the Declaration of Independence once did to the American republic. It remains the urtext, even if some of its breathtakingly bombastic passages are now difficult to read with a straight face.

Using that 1941 issue of Life as his bully pulpit, Luce summoned his fellow citizens to “accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world” to assert “the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.” (Emphasis added.) For the United States duty, opportunity, and destiny aligned. That American purposes and the means employed to fulfill them were benign, indeed enlightened, was simply self-evident. How could they be otherwise?

Crucially — and this point Bessner overlooks — the duty and opportunity to which Luce alluded expressed God’s will. Born in China where his parents were serving as Protestant missionaries and himself a convert to Roman Catholicism, Luce saw America’s imperial calling as a Judeo-Christian religious obligation. God, he wrote, had summoned the United States to become “the Good Samaritan to the entire world.” Here was the nation’s true vocation: to fulfill the “mysterious work of lifting the life of mankind from the level of the beasts to what the Psalmist called a little lower than the angels.”

In the present day, such towering ambition, drenched in religious imagery, invites mockery. Yet it actually offers a reasonably accurate (if overripe) depiction of how American elites have conceived of the nation’s purpose in the decades since.

Today, the explicitly religious frame has largely faded from view. Even so, the insistence on American singularity persists. Indeed, in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary — did someone mention China? — it may be stronger than ever.

In no way should my reference to a moral consensus imply moral superiority. Indeed, the list of sins to which Americans were susceptible, even at the outset of the American Century, was long. With the passage of time, it has only evolved, even as our awareness of our nation’s historical flaws, particularly in the realm of race, gender, and ethnicity, has grown more acute. Still, the religiosity inherent in Luce’s initial call to arms resonated then and survives today, even if in subdued form.

While anything but an original thinker, Luce possessed a notable gift for packaging and promotion. Life’s unspoken purpose was to sell a way of life based on values that he believed his fellow citizens should embrace, even if his own personal adherence to those values was, at best, spotty.

The American Century was the ultimate expression of that ambitious undertaking. So even as growing numbers of citizens in subsequent decades concluded that God might be otherwise occupied, something of a killjoy, or simply dead, the conviction that U.S. global primacy grew out of a divinely inspired covenant took deep root. Our presence at the top of the heap testified to some cosmic purpose. It was meant to be. In that regard, imbuing the American Century with a sacred veneer was a stroke of pure genius.

In God We Trust?

By the time Life ended its run as a weekly magazine in 1972, the American Century, as a phrase and as an expectation, had etched itself into the nation’s collective consciousness. Yet today, Luce’s America — the America that once cast itself as the protagonist in a Christian parable — has ceased to exist. And it’s not likely to return anytime soon.

At the outset of that American Century, Luce could confidently expound on the nation’s role in furthering God’s purposes, taking for granted a generic religious sensibility to which the vast majority of Americans subscribed. Back then, especially during the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, most of those not personally endorsing that consensus at least found it expedient to play along. After all, except among hipsters, beatniks, dropouts, and other renegades, doing so was a precondition for getting by or getting ahead.

As Eisenhower famously declared shortly after being elected president, “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” Today, however, Ike’s ecumenical 11th commandment no longer garners anything like universal assent, whether authentic or feigned. As defining elements of the American way of life, consumption, lifestyle, and expectations of unhindered mobility persist, much as they did when he occupied the White House. But a deeply felt religious faith melded with a similarly deep faith in an open-ended American Century has become, at best, optional. Those nursing the hope that the American Century may yet make a comeback are more likely to put their trust in AI than in God.

Occurring in tandem with this country’s global decline has been a fracturing of the contemporary moral landscape. For evidence, look no further than the furies unleashed by recent Supreme Court decisions related to guns and abortion. Or contemplate Donald Trump’s place in the American political landscape — twice impeached, yet adored by tens of millions, even while held in utter contempt by tens of millions more. That Trump or another similarly divisive figure could succeed Joe Biden in the White House looms as a real, if baffling, possibility.

More broadly still, take stock of the prevailing American conception of personal freedom, big on privileges, disdainful of obligations, awash with self-indulgence, and tinged with nihilism. If you think our collective culture is healthy, you haven’t been paying attention.

For “a nation with the soul of a church,” to cite British writer G.K. Chesterton’s famed description of the United States, Luce’s proposal of a marriage between a generic Judeo-Christianity and national purpose seemed eminently plausible. But plausible is not inevitable, nor irreversible. A union rocked by recurring quarrels and trial separations has today ended in divorce. The full implications of that divorce for American policy abroad remain to be seen, but at a minimum suggest that anyone proposing to unveil a “New American Century” is living in a dreamworld.

Bessner concludes his essay by suggesting that the American Century should give way to a “Global Century… in which U.S. power is not only restrained but reduced, and in which every nation is dedicated to solving the problems that threaten us all.” Such a proposal strikes me as broadly appealing, assuming that the world’s other 190-plus nations, especially the richer, more powerful ones, sign on. That, of course, is a very large assumption, indeed. Negotiating the terms that will define such a Global Century, including reapportioning wealth and privileges between haves and have-nots, promises to be a daunting proposition.

Meanwhile, what fate awaits the American Century itself? Some in the upper reaches of the establishment will, of course, exert themselves to avert its passing by advocating more bouts of military muscle-flexing, as if a repetition of Afghanistan and Iraq or deepening involvement in Ukraine will impart to our threadbare empire a new lease on life. That Americans in significant numbers will more willingly die for Kyiv than they did for Kabul seems improbable.

Better in my estimation to give up entirely the pretensions Henry Luce articulated back in 1941. Rather than attempting to resurrect the American Century, perhaps it’s time to focus on the more modest goal of salvaging a unified American republic. One glance at the contemporary political landscape suggests that such a goal alone is a tall order. On that score, however, reconstituting a common moral framework would surely be the place to begin.

How the F-word (the other one) is repurposed and misapplied

Andrew Bacevich, Trapped in the 1930s

Let’s face it, we’re on a different planet, even if you might not know it most of the time living here in the United States. After the old Cold War ended, it turned out that it wasn’t as easy as our leaders imagined to be the “sole superpower,” “the indispensable nation” on Planet Earth. And you can see the results of that even now, when so many of those in Washington yearn to be on an all-too-old globe, as TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich suggests today. Our leaders seem to feel comfortable opposing the Russians as if we were still in the Cold War or the “fascists” as if we were in World War II (as does Vladimir Putin who claimed from the first moments of his invasion of Ukraine that he was doing so to “denazify” the country).

The Republicans would, of course, prefer to live in a wildly Second Amendment-ized universe, as interpreted by the National Rifle Association and carried out by mad 18-year-olds with legally purchased military-style weaponry. Meanwhile, the Democrats of the Biden administration now inhabit a new (or perhaps very old) version of the Cold War and yet it turns out that even Russia isn’t enough of a repeat to make them happy. Joe Biden and crew are also working hard to recreate a similar dynamic with China. Add to that a Supreme Court unlike any in recent memory and a Congress in utter gridlock (if you’re not talking about appropriating more money for weaponry for the Ukrainians), and I could go on.

Worse yet, I understand why few enough of us really want to be on the planet we happen to inhabit right now. You know, the one that’s heating to the brink of… well, who really knows what; the one where a figure not previously from our political history at all, a billionaire grifter with a knack for self-pity, could possibly win the White House a second time and preside over a country and a system in the sort of disarray that would once have been unimaginable. But let me stop here and turn you over to Andrew Bacevich to consider the moment in history we actually inhabit. Tom

The F-Word (The Other One): Repurposed and Misapplied

Timothy Snyder, Levin Professor of History at Yale University, is a scholar of surpassing brilliance. His 2010 book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin chronicles in harrowing detail the de facto collaboration of the Third Reich and the Soviet Union that resulted in the murder of millions of innocents. On any bookshelf reserved for accounts that reveal essential truths of our past, Bloodlands deserves a place of honor. It’s a towering achievement.

I just wish Professor Snyder would stick to history.

According to an old chestnut, the past is a foreign country. Even so, similarities between then and now frequently interest historians more than differences. Few, it seems, can resist the temptation to press their particular piece of the past into service as a vehicle for interpreting the here-and-now, even when doing so means oversimplifying and distorting the present. Historians of twentieth-century Europe, Snyder among them, seem particularly susceptible to this temptation. Synder’s mid-May op-ed in the New York Times offers a case in point. “We Should Say It,” the title advises. “Russia Is Fascist.”

Introducing the F-word into any conversation is intended to connote moral seriousness. Yet all too often, as with its first cousin “genocide,” it serves less to enlighten than to convey a sense of repugnance combined with condemnation. Such is the case here.

Depicting Vladimir Putin as a fascist all but explicitly puts today’s Russia in the same category as the murderous totalitarian regimes that Snyder indicts in Bloodlands. Doing so, in effect, summons the United States and its NATO allies to wage something akin to total war in Europe. After all, this country should no more compromise with the evil of present-day Russia than it did with the evil of Hitler’s Germany during World War II or Stalin’s Soviet Union during the Cold War.

For Snyder, therefore, the job immediately at hand is not just the honorable one of assisting the Ukrainians in defending themselves. The real task — the obligation, even — is to decisively defeat Russia, ensuring nothing less than democracy’s very survival. “As in the 1930s,” he writes, “democracy is in retreat around the world and fascists have moved to make war on their neighbors.”

As a consequence, “if Russia wins in Ukraine,” he insists, the result won’t simply be the brutal destruction of one imperfect democracy, but “a demoralization for democracies everywhere.” A Kremlin victory would affirm “that might makes right, that reason is for the losers, that democracies must fail.” If Russia prevails, in other words, “fascists around the world will be comforted.” And “if Ukraine does not win” — and winning, Snyder implies, will require regime change in Moscow — then “we can expect decades of darkness.”

So once again, as in the 1930s, it’s time to choose sides. To paraphrase a recent American president, you are either with us or you’re with the fascists.

Who Are You Calling Fascist?

Allow me to confess that I was once susceptible to this sort of either/or binary thinking as an organizing principle of global politics. I grew up during the Cold War, when bipolarity — a U.S.-led Free World pitted against a Soviet-controlled communist bloc — offered a conceptual framework that any patriotic adolescent could grasp. Emphasizing clarity at the expense of empirical precision, such an us-against-them approach allowed little room for nuance. And as it happened, Americans paid dearly for the misjudgments that ensued thanks to just such thinking, the disastrous war in Vietnam being an especially vivid example. Ultimately, of course, our country did indeed “win” the Cold War, even if we have yet to tally up the cumulative costs of victory.

With an ample display of moral outrage, Professor Snyder appears intent on resurrecting that framework. By greenlighting this piece for their op-ed pages, the editors of the New YorkTimes implicitly endowed it with establishment-approved respectability. In this way, the remembered politics of Europe in the 1930s finds renewed relevance as a source of instruction for the present moment.

How Americans responded then offers a model for how the United States should respond today, albeit with a sense of urgency rather than the foot-dragging that characterized U.S. policy prior to Pearl Harbor. Put simply, stopping fascism has once again emerged as an imperative surpassing all others in importance. The climate crisis? That can surely wait. Problems on the border with Mexico? Talk to me later. A never-ending pandemic? Just roll up your sleeve and follow Dr. Fauci’s orders. Recurring school massacres? Blame the Second Amendment.

“Russia Is Fascist” offers a definitive rebuttal to the Trump-promoted revival of “America First.” It’s a call to action, with a prospective anti-fascist crusade serving as an antidote to the setbacks, disappointments, and sense of decline that have haunted Washington’s foreign-policy establishment since the United States invaded Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11.

In a broader sense, targeting fascism may fill a vacuum that dates from the very end of the Cold War, one that the subsequent Global War on Terror never adequately addressed. Finally, America again has an Enemy Worthy of the Name. Vladimir Putin’s criminal aggression in Ukraine seemingly validates the idea that “great-power competition” defines the emerging world order, even if including Putin’s Russia in the ranks of legitimate great powers requires a distinctly elastic definition of that term. Nonetheless, given the complications that the United States encountered when taking on Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milošević, Osama bin Laden, Muammar Gaddafi, and sundry other villains, a rivalry with Russia appears not only familiar and straightforward, but almost welcome.

On that score, the issue immediately at hand is as much psychological as geopolitical. After all, if the course of the war in Ukraine has made one thing abundantly clear, it’s that Russia’s heavily armed but strikingly inept armed forces pose no more than a negligible conventional threat to the rest of Europe. Military effectiveness requires more than a capacity to reduce cities to rubble. So if Putin represents the latest reincarnation of Adolf Hitler, he’s a Hitler saddled with Benito Mussolini’s maladroit legions.

Yet declaring Russia to be the embodiment of fascism revises the stakes. For Professor Snyder, Russia’s lack of military prowess matters less than Vladimir Putin’s twisted worldview. Centered on a “cult of the dead,” a “myth of a past golden age,” and a belief in the “healing violence” of war, Putin’s outlook expresses the essence of Russian-style fascism. Exposing that outlook as false is a precondition for destroying the Putin mystique. Only then, Snyder writes, will the myths he has perpetrated “come crashing down.”

This, for Professor Snyder and for many Washington insiders, describes the actual stakes in Ukraine. Rather than merely regional, they are nothing short of cosmic. Defeating Putin will enable the United States to refurbish its own tarnished myths, while safely tucking away our own sanctification of violence as an instrument of liberation. It will restore America to the pinnacle of global power.

There are, however, at least two problems with this optimistic scenario. The first relates to our own ostensible susceptibility to a homegrown variant of fascism, the second to tagging Putinism as an existential threat. Both divert attention from more pressing issues that ought to command the attention of the American people.

To the Barricades?

Is Donald Trump a fascist? My own inclination is to see him as a narcissistic fraud and swindler. That said, from the very moment he emerged as a major political figure, critics cited the f-word to describe him. Let the testimony of New York Times columnist Paul Krugman stand in for similar commentary offered by so many others. Donald Trump “is indeed a fascist,” Krugman wrote in January 2021, “an authoritarian willing to use violence to achieve his racial nationalist goals.” It was obviously incumbent upon Americans to resist him as “appeasement is what got us to where we are. It has to stop, now.”

While Krugman’s counsel is crystal clear, let us consider the possibility that it may already be too late. That Trump or some Trump clone could win the presidency in 2024 looms as a real, if depressing, prospect. Indeed, his supporters may well gain control of Congress (and several statehouses) in this year’s elections as well.

Should that occur, will Krugman (and Snyder) find that the United States has followed Russia in succumbing to 1930s-style fascism? If so, with what implications for the legitimacy of the existing political order? Will resistance to Trumpism then become a civic obligation for righteous citizens intent on exercising their own right to bear arms? Paul Krugman’s reference to the dangers of further appeasement would suggest that the answer to that question must be yes. After all, in the American political lexicon few sins are more heinous than appeasement.

Yet down that road lies revolution, counterrevolution, and the end of the American republic. Recklessly unleashing charges of fascism could inadvertently pave the way for just such an outcome.

As an epithet, fascism retains considerable emotional appeal. As a term of analysis applied to contemporary American politics, however, it possesses limited utility. Talk may be cheap, but baseless talk can also be dangerously subversive — a concern equally applicable to those who level preposterous charges about communists and socialists overrunning the halls of government in Washington.

The truth is that we don’t live in the 1930s. Our world is not that world. Whether for good or ill, the United States of that era has long since vanished.

Professor Snyder’s assertion that “democracy is in retreat around the world” posits a model of history that has two gears: forward and reverse. In fact, history has multiple gears and moves in various directions, many of them unanticipated and unrelated to the prospects of democracy. So far at least, no algorithm exists to forecast where it will head next.

What threatens the United States today is not fascism but the continuing erosion of a domestic political consensus without which democratic governance becomes difficult, if not impossible. Surprisingly few politicians appear willing to acknowledge the extent of that danger. Instead, passions unleashed by issues like critical race theory or guaranteed access to assault rifles take over center stage, shrinking the space left for mutual understanding and accommodation.

Considered in this light, embarking on an anti-fascist crusade on the eastern fringes of Europe is unlikely to restore a sense of the common good at home. Waging war on behalf of Ukrainian democracy is more likely to serve as a diversion, an excuse to avoid matters of more immediate relevance to the waning health of our democracy. On that score, the tens of billions of dollars that an otherwise gridlocked Congress has appropriated to arm Ukraine speak volumes about the nation’s actual political priorities.

Ukrainians need, want, and deserve U.S. support in ejecting the Russian invader. But the fate of the American experiment will not be determined in Kyiv. It will be decided right here in the United States of America. When Joe Biden first announced his intention to oust Donald Trump from office, he seemed to understand that. He presented himself as someone voters could count on to bring Americans together and reverse our all-too-obvious decline. With this country having arrived at an “inflection point,” he vowed to guide it along “a path of hope and light” enabling it “to heal, to be reborn, and to unite.”

At some level, Biden surely meant those words, which implied that repairing the domestic disarray Trump had fostered should receive priority attention. But the Biden presidency has not yielded healing, rebirth, and unity – far from it. Now facing the prospect of major losses in this year’s congressional elections and long odds in the 2024 presidential contest, Biden appears intent on employing a familiar tactic in a desperate effort to salvage his political fortunes: using problems abroad to distract attention from challenges at home.

Russia poses one such problem, even if one that policymakers and pundits join in exaggerating, as if criminal misconduct automatically connotes existential threat. Hovering in the background is a much larger problem: China. Given a sufficiently loose definition, it, too, can be described as fascist. So the Biden administration’s confrontational attitude regarding Russia finds its counterpart in an equally hard-nosed policy toward China.

Downplaying the realities of Sino-American mutual interdependence and the imperative of cooperation on issues of common concern such as climate change, the administration appears hellbent on conjuring up yet another axis of evil as a rationale for a fresh round of U.S. muscle-flexing. Once again, as when 9/11 provided a spurious rationale for concocting the previous axis (not to speak of invading Afghanistan and then Iraq), the urge to ignore complexity and downplay risk is sadly apparent.

In Washington, the conviction that military might adroitly applied will restore the United States to a position of global primacy has tacitly found renewed favor. The ostensible lessons of an ongoing conflict in which U.S. forces are participating on a proxy basis superseded any lessons of the recently concluded Afghan War where the United States failed outright. Rarely has the selective memory of the national security apparatus been so vividly on display. Much the same can be said about the Congress, where a no-questions-asked enthusiasm for underwriting the Ukraine War has provided a handy excuse for simply writing off the entire 20-year misadventure in Afghanistan.

The truth is that neither Russian “fascism” nor its Chinese variant poses a significant danger to American democracy, which is actually threatened from within. Joe Biden once appeared to grasp this reality, even if he now finds it politically expedient to pretend otherwise.

Our salvation lies not in flinging around the f-word to justify more wars, but in rediscovering a different lexicon. To start with, consider this precept to which Americans were once devoted: Charity begins at home. Charity, as in tolerance, compassion, generosity, and understanding: that’s where the preservation of our democracy ought to begin.

The US is still struggling with MLK's 'triplets' – racism, materialism, and militarism – a half-century later

Andrew Bacevich, American Militarism, A Persistent Malady

I have to admit that, as I read the nightmarish front-page stories daily — and yes, I’m old enough to still read the New York Times in print every morning — and absorb the latest news about Vladimir Putin’s egregious war in Ukraine, I can’t help thinking: how strange that our own nightmarish wars, involving the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, two countries nowhere near our borders, and a set of other conflicts across the Greater Middle East and Africa, never got this kind of attention. It mattered not at all that, according to the Costs of War Project, they would result in close to a million dead (hundreds of thousands of them civilians) and at least another 38 million of us (or, being American, perhaps I should say them) displaced from their homes. Our wars never got covered like this, front-page-style, day after day, week after week, and by now, sadly enough, we can nearly say month after month, often to the near-exclusion of anything else, including the ongoing destruction of this planet. Today, unbearably little of what once was known as America’s “Global War on Terror” is remembered, no less memorialized. In fact, I can’t remember anything quite like the coverage of the ongoing Ukraine horror since at least the days right after 9/11.

That, I suppose, is the difference between wars started by the good guys on Planet Earth (us, naturally) and those started by the bad guys (the Vlad and crew). And Vladimir Putin is indeed a brutal autocrat, not to speak of a genuinely unnerving and disturbing human being.

It’s sad indeed that, in these years, as TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich, author most recently of After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed, reminds us today, we’ve not had someone like Martin Luther King to speak out against the devastation we (and yes, in this case, I do mean we Americans) have been causing on this planet in this century. I have no doubt that, if he had been alive, King would indeed have spoken out strongly against our wars, as well as the present Russian horror in Ukraine. With that in mind, consider for a moment the world that he might have wished for us, instead of the one we have. Tom

Putin Changed the Subject – But Confronting Martin Luther King’s "Giant Triplets" Is More Urgent Than Ever

I recently participated in a commemoration of Martin Luther King’s address “Beyond Vietnam — A Time to Break Silence,” originally delivered on April 2, 1967, at New York City’s Riverside Church. King used the occasion to announce his opposition to the ongoing war in Vietnam. Although a long time coming in the eyes of some in the antiwar movement, his decision was one for which he was roundly criticized, even by supporters of the Civil Rights Movement. He was straying out of his prescribed lane, they charged, and needed to get back where he belonged.

This year’s 55th anniversary event, also held in Riverside Church’s magnificent sanctuary, featured inspiring Christian music and a thoughtful discussion of King’s remarks. Most powerful of all, however, was a public reading of the address itself. “Beyond Vietnam” contains many famously moving passages. King, for example, cited “the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools” and would not allow them to live “on the same block in Chicago.” And he reflected on the incongruity of young Black men being sent “eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”

For me, at least, what that commemorative moment brought into sharp focus was his lacerating critique of American freedom. And there, to my mind, lies its lasting value.

Between theory and practice — between the aspirations expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, on the one hand, and the pervasive presence of what King labeled the “giant triplets” of racism, materialism, and militarism on the other — there still looms, even in our own day, a massive gap. His address eloquently reflected on that gap, which, with the passage of time, has not appreciably narrowed.

King was neither the first nor the last observer to note the debased and shoddy nature of American-style freedom as actually practiced. Nor was he unique in pointing out the hypocrisy pervading our politics. Yet because of the moral heights to which he had ascended, his critique had a particular bite.

In 2022, we have arrived at a moment, however belatedly and reluctantly, when most (though by no means all) Americans at least acknowledge that racism forms an ugly thread that runs through our nation’s history, mocking our professed devotion to liberty and equality for all. Of course, acknowledgment alone hardly entails remedy. At best, it makes remedies plausible. At worst, it offers an excuse for inaction, as if merely confessing to sin suffices to expunge it.

The attention given to racism of late has had exactly that unintended effect — relieving Americans of any obligation even to acknowledge the insidious implications of materialism and militarism. In that sense, even now, two of King’s giant triplets barely qualify for lip-service. In the political sphere, they are either ignored or, at best, treated as afterthoughts.

Presidents typically have lots to say about lots of things and Joe Biden has very much adhered to that tradition. Rarely indeed — Jimmy Carter being the only exception I can think of — do they train their sights on the impact of materialism and militarism on American life. On those two subjects the otherwise garrulous Biden has been silent.

Speaking in a prophetic register in his address, King had described the Vietnam War as “but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit.” And although that war ended half a century ago, the deeper malady still persists. It can be seen in the widespread inequality and crippling poverty that pervade what is still the world’s richest nation, as well as in our country’s continuing appetite for war, whether waged directly or through proxies. Above all, we see it in a stubborn refusal to recognize the kinship of lingering racism, ubiquitous materialism, and corrosive militarism, each drawing on and sustaining the others.

At Riverside Church, King charged that while the U.S. government might profess a principled commitment to peace, it had become “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” Given the crescendo of death and destruction still building in Vietnam, the truth of that statement in 1967 was — or ought to have been — indisputable. Even taking into account the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing destruction and slaughter there, it still remains true today. Tally up the consequences of the various misbegotten post-9/11 campaigns undertaken pursuant to the “Global War on Terror” and the facts speak for themselves.

In 1967, King laid down this challenge: “We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.” In the decades that followed, no such revolution occurred. Indeed, those who wield power, whether in Washington or Hollywood, on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley, generally exert themselves to suppress any such inclination, except perhaps when there is money to be made. So today, materialism and militarism remain hidden in plain sight.

Reloading for the Next War

For those proponents of the status quo intent on sustaining an American proclivity for materialism and militarism, the Russo-Ukraine War could not have happened at a better time. Indeed, it comes as if a gift from the gods.

In terms of immediate impact, that war has affected the American polity in two ways. First, it is diverting attention from Washington’s manifest inability to deal effectively with an accumulation of problems to which our profligate conception of freedom has given rise, preeminently the climate crisis. The horrifying news out of Kharkiv or Mariupol buried the latest report warning that ongoing climate mitigation efforts are almost certain to fall short, with catastrophic consequences.

Meanwhile, naked Russian aggression in Ukraine has also offered an excuse for Washington to treat as old news or no news the embarrassing debacle of the U.S. withdrawal from Kabul in August 2021. The Pentagon thereby effectively shrugs off a humiliating episode that capped 20 years of misguided and mismanaged military efforts in Afghanistan. Among the proponents of American militarism, few things are more important than forgetting — no, obliterating — those two decades of dismal failure and disappointment. In essence, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has enabled Washington to do just that. As if by magic, Putin has changed the subject.

As an illustration of how this works consider a recent essay in Foreign Affairs, the flagship journal of the foreign-policy establishment. It carries the title “The Return of the Pax Americana?

The question mark is misleading. An exclamation point would more accurately have captured the aims of its authors. Michael Beckley and Hal Brands teach at Tufts and Johns Hopkins, respectively. Both are also senior fellows at the hawkish American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. And both welcome the Ukraine War as the medium that will reignite an American commitment to the sort of assertive and muscular approach to global policy favored in militaristic quarters. Russian President Vladimir Putin, they write, has handed the United States “a historic opportunity to regroup and reload for an era of intense competition” — with not only Russia but also China meant to be in our crosshairs. The call to reload is central to their message.

The authors blame a “prevailing public apathy” and “strategic lethargy” for reducing the U.S. to a position of weakness. Notably, their essay contains only a single passing reference to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and no mention whatsoever of what two decades of post-9/11 U.S. war-making yielded and at what cost. At least implicitly, Beckley and Brands deem such conflicts irrelevant.

Considered from this perspective, the war in Ukraine could hardly have come at a better moment. According to Beckley and Brands, it opens “a window of strategic opportunity” to deal with “the coming wave of autocratic aggression” the authors see lurking just over the horizon. Seizing that opportunity will require the United States — its military budget already far and away the world’s largest — to undertake “massive investments in military forces geared for high-intensity combat,” while displaying a “willingness to confront adversaries and even risk war” in the process. That prospect is one they welcome.

From any perspective, in my judgment, the Ukraine War is proving to be a disaster for all parties involved (weapons manufacturers excluded). Whenever and however that conflict finally ends, there will be no victors, just victims. Even so, Beckley and Brands celebrate the war as the occasion for a great awakening in Washington — the moment when policymakers rediscovered “the value of hard power.”

What Would Martin Say?

I cite the views of Beckley and Brands not because they are original or even particularly interesting, but because they capture the essence of the conventional wisdom in Washington. Unapologetic and unembarrassed by its string of recent failures, the war party — the sole surviving expression of Congressional bipartisanship — is once again climbing back into the saddle.

Just as the foreign-policy establishment once absolved itself of responsibility for Vietnam and labored to ignore its lessons, so, too, the current generation of that establishment is palpably eager to move on. Its members welcome the prospect of a “New Cold War” that would enable the United States to relive the ostensible glory days of the last one, which included, of course, not only the Vietnam War but also Korea, a nuclear arms race, and a pattern of CIA “dirty tricks” among other abominations. Beckley and Brands have functionally volunteered to serve as scribes for this diabolical project. Should Washington heed their call to action, they will leave to others the infamies that will inevitably ensue.

Although there’s no way to know with certainty what Martin Luther King would have made of this undertaking, it’s not hard to guess. In all likelihood, he would have condemned it without reservation. He would have rejected any propagandistic effort to disguise the imperial underpinnings of the latest emerging version of a Pax Americana. He would have demanded an honest accounting of our just-concluded wars before embarking upon what Beckley and Brands misleadingly characterize as another “long twilight struggle.” He would have reiterated his call for a radical revolution in values, leading to a society in which people matter more than things. He would almost certainly have cited the impending climate crisis (which Beckley and Brands ignore) to drive home the point that the United States of 2022 has more important priorities than embarking on a new great-power competition likely to yield nothing but tears.

“We are now faced with the fact,” King said, concluding his speech at Riverside Church in April 1967:

that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood — it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, ‘Too late.'

This has become the question of our time: Is it already too late? We must hope not. But if sufficient time remains to save the planet and ourselves — not to mention our troubled democracy — it is likely to prove, at best, barely enough. Certainly, we have no time to waste on further militarized fecklessness of the sort that has, in recent years, cost our country and others all too dearly. We can ill afford to defer King’s revolution in values further.

Historian pens letter from JFK to Joe Biden on how to defuse nuclear tensions with Russia

Dear Mr. President:

I send greetings from the other side — and no, I don’t mean the other side of the aisle. I refer to the place where old politicians go to make amends for their sins.

Apart from our shared Catholicism and affinity for sunglasses, I suspect you and I don’t have a lot in common. Actually, that may not quite be true. After all, your family and mine have both experienced more than our share of tragedy and you and I both did make it to the top rung of American politics.

Forgive me for being blunt, Joe — may I call you Joe? — but after more than a year in office, your administration clearly needs help. Having had ample time to reflect on my own abbreviated stay in the White House, I thought I might share some things I learned, especially regarding foreign policy. Sadly, you seem intent on repeating some of my own worst mistakes. A course change is still possible, but there’s no time to waste. So please listen up.

I’m guessing that you may be familiar with this timeless text: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

I no longer have any idea what prompted my aide and speechwriter Ted Sorensen to pen those immortal words or how exactly they found their way into my inaugural address. No matter, though. People then thought it expressed some profound truth — a Zen-like aphorism with an Ivy League pedigree.

Its implicit subtext, though, totally escaped attention: If negotiations don’t yield the desired results, it’s time to get tough. And that turned out to be problematic.

Fearing Fear Itself?

Candor obliges me to admit that, politically speaking, my administration made good use of fear itself. If my run for the White House had an overarching theme, it was to scare the bejesus out of the American people. And once in office, fearmongering formed an essential part of my presidency. The famous Jack Kennedy wit and charisma was no more than a side dish meant to make the panic-inducing main course more palatable.

Here’s me at the National Press Club early in the 1960 campaign, sounding the alarm about “increasingly dangerous, unsolved, long-postponed problems” that would “inevitably explode” during the next president’s watch. KABOOM! Chief among those problems, I warned, was “the growing missile gap, the rise of Communist China, the despair of the underdeveloped nations, the explosive situations in Berlin and in the Formosa [i.e., Taiwan] Strait, [and] the deterioration of NATO.”

Note the sequencing. Item number one is that nuclear “missile gap,” with its implications of an Armageddon lurking just around the corner. It was my own invention and, if I do say so myself, a stroke of pure political genius. Of course, like the “bomber gap” that preceded it by a few years, no such missile gap actually existed. When it came to nukes and the means to deliver them, we were actually way ahead of the Soviets.

President Eisenhower knew that the missile gap was a load of malarky. So did his vice president, Dick Nixon, the poor sap. But they couldn’t say so out loud without compromising classified intelligence.

Even today, people still treat my inaugural address — “The torch has been passed,” etc. — as if it were sacred scripture. But when it came to putting the nation on notice, the Kennedy-Sorensen fright machine really hit its stride barely a week later during my appearance before a joint session of Congress.

“No man entering upon this office,” I said with a carefully calibrated mixture of grace and gravitas, “could fail to be staggered upon learning — even in this brief 10-day period — the harsh enormity of the trials through which we must pass in the next four years.” Then came a generous dose of Sorensen’s speechwriting magic:

Each day the crises multiply. Each day their solution grows more difficult. Each day we draw nearer the hour of maximum danger, as weapons spread and hostile forces grow stronger. I feel I must inform the Congress that our analyses over the last ten days make it clear that — in each of the principal areas of crisis — the tide of events has been running out and time has not been our friend.

For eight years, Ike had been asleep at the switch. Now, in a mere 10 days as chief executive, I had grasped the harrowing magnitude of the dangers facing the nation. Time running out! The enemy growing stronger! The hour of maximum danger is approaching like a runaway freight train!

But not to worry. With a former PT-boat skipper at the helm, assisted by the likes of Mac Bundy, Bob McNamara, Max Taylor, brother Bobby, and a whole crew of Harvard graduates, the Republic was in good hands. That was my message, anyway.

Okay, Joe, now let me come clean. In the months after that, we hit a few bumps in the road. Having promised action, we did act with vigor, but in ways that may not have been particularly judicious. (Had I lived long enough to finish my term and win a second one — that was the plan, after all — things might have been put right.)

So, yes, the CIA’s Bay of Pigs Cuban debacle of April 1961 was an epic snafu, although as much Ike’s fault as my own. Viewed in hindsight, my escalation of our military involvement in Vietnam, that distant “frontier” of the Cold War — thousands of U.S. troops test-driving the latest counterinsurgency theories — wasn’t exactly the Best and Brightest’s best idea. And the less said about my administration’s complicity in the murder of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem the better. That was not our best day either.

You didn’t know Bobby, but when my brother got a bit in his mouth, he was unstoppable. So I will admit that he got more than slightly carried away with Operation Mongoose, the failed CIA program aimed at assassinating Fidel Castro and sabotaging the Cuban Revolution.

If given the chance to do it over again, I also might think twice about ordering the deployment of 1,000 Minuteman land-based ICBMs, a classic illustration of Cold War “overkill,” driven more by domestic politics than any strategic calculus. Mind you, the Air Force’s Strategic Air Command was lobbying for 10,000 ICBMs so it could have been worse! (In the things-never-change category, I hear that your administration is quietly pursuing a $1.7-trillion upgrade of the U.S. nuclear strike force. Does that form part of your intended legacy?)

The Limits of Fear

Learn from our mistakes, Joe, but pay special attention to what we got right. Yes, fear led us to do some mighty stupid things. On occasion, though, fear became a spur to prudence and even wisdom. In fact, on two occasions overcoming fear enabled me to avert World War III. And that’s not bragging, that’s fact.

The first occurred in August 1961 when the East German government, with the approval of the Kremlin, began erecting the barrier that would become known as the Berlin Wall. The second took place in October 1962 during the famous Cuban Missile Crisis.

On the first occasion, I did nothing, which was exactly the right thing to do. Doing nothing kept the peace.

As long as East Berliners (and by extension all East Germans) could enter West Berlin and so flee to the West, that city would remain, in Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s words, “a bone in the throat” of the Communist bloc. Dividing Berlin dislodged that bone. Problem solved. Khrushchev got what he wanted and so did I. As a result, the likelihood that Berlin-induced tensions could trigger a great power conflagration eased markedly. True, the outcome might not have pleased East Berliners, but they weren’t my chief concern.

On the second occasion, I employed skills I learned from my father Joe. Whatever his reputation as an appeasement-inclined isolationist before World War II, my dad knew how to cut a deal. So while Mac, Bob, Max and the rest of the so-called ExComm were debating whether to just bomb Cuba or bomb and then invade the island, I called an end-around.

Using Bobby to open a back-channel to Khrushchev, I negotiated a secret compromise. I promised to pull U.S. nuclear missiles out of Turkey and Italy and pledged that the United States would not invade Cuba. In return, Khrushchev committed to removing Soviet offensive weapons from that island. As a result, both sides (along with the rest of humanity) got a rain check on a possible nuclear holocaust.

Let me emphasize, Joe, that the theme common to both episodes wasn’t toughness. Both times, I set aside the question of fault — the U.S. not exactly being an innocent party in either instance — in favor of identifying the terms of a resolution. That meant conceding their side had legitimate concerns we could ill-afford to ignore.

This crucially important fact got lost in the grandstanding that followed. I’ll bet you remember this comment, reputedly from my secretary of state Dean Rusk, about the negotiations with the Soviets over Cuba: “We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.” That invented quote supposedly captured the essence of the showdown over Cuba. The truth, however, was that Khrushchev and I both stared into the abyss and jointly decided to back away.

As for Berlin, Ted Sorensen wrote me a great speech to give there (“Ich bin ein Berliner,” etc.). In it, I pretended to be unhappy with the Wall, when in truth that structure allowed me to sleep well at night. And, of course, my memorable star-turn in Berlin created a precedent for several of my successors to stage their own photo-ops with the Brandenburg Gate as a backdrop. (Don’t count on Kyiv offering a similar opportunity, Joe.)

You’ll never get me to acknowledge this on the record, but in both Berlin and Cuba, I opted for “appeasement” — a derogatory term for avoiding war — over confrontation. Not for a second have I ever regretted doing so.

Just Say No

You may be wondering by now what any of this has to do with you and the fix you find yourself in today. Quite a lot, I think. Hear me out.

I inherited a Cold War in full swing. You seem to be on the verge of embarking on a new cold war, with China and Russia filling in for, well, the Soviet Union and China.

I urge you to think carefully before making the leap into such an unmourned past. Whatever your political advisers may imagine, displays of presidential toughness aren’t what our nation needs right now. You’ve extricated us from the longest war in U.S. history — a courageous and necessary decision, even if abysmally implemented. The last thing the United States needs is a new war, whether centered on Ukraine, the island of Taiwan, or anyplace in between. Military confrontation will drive a stake through the heart of your “Build Back Better” bill and kill any hopes for meaningful domestic reform. And it may also boost your predecessor’s prospects for making a comeback, a depressing thought if ever there was one.

You probably caught this recent headline in the Washington Post: “With or without war, Ukraine gives Biden a new lease on leadership.” The implication: perceived toughness on your part will pay political dividends.

Don’t believe it for a second, Joe. An armed conflict stemming from the Ukraine crisis is likely to destroy your presidency and much else besides. The same can be said about a prospective war with China. Let me be blunt: the leadership we need today is akin to what the nation needed when I steered a course away from war in Berlin and Cuba.

And please don’t fall for the latest propaganda about growing “gaps” between our own military capabilities and those of potential enemies. Take it from me, when it comes to endangering our security both China and Russia trail well behind our military-industrial-congressional complex.

“Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” A nice turn of phrase that. Damned if it doesn’t turn out to be a sentiment to govern by as well.

Joe, if I can be of any further help in these tough times, don’t hesitate to call. You know where to find me.



American Exceptionalism: Why it’s time to dismantle misguided claims to global primacy — and the militarism that sustains it

In the long and storied history of the United States Army, many young officers have served in many war zones. Few, I suspect, were as sublimely ignorant as I was in the summer of 1970 upon my arrival at Cam Ranh Bay in the Republic of Vietnam.

This article first appeared on TomDispatch.

Granted, during the years of schooling that preceded my deployment there, I had amassed all sorts of facts, some of them at least marginally relevant to the matter at hand. Yet despite the earnest efforts of some excellent teachers, I had managed to avoid acquiring anything that could be dignified with the term education. Now, however haltingly, that began to change. A year later, when my tour of duty ended, I carried home from Vietnam the barest inkling of a question: How had this massive cockup occurred and what did it signify?

Since that question implied rendering judgment on a war in which I had (however inconsequentially) participated, it wasn’t one that I welcomed. Even so, the question dogged me. During the ensuing decades, while expending considerable effort reflecting on America’s war in Vietnam, I never quite arrived at a fully satisfactory answer. At some level, the entire episode remained incomprehensible to me.

On that score, I suspect that I was hardly alone. No doubt many members of my generation, both those who served and those who protested (or those, like several recent U.S. presidents, who contrived to remain on the sidelines), have long since arrived at fixed conclusions about Vietnam. Yet, for others of us, that war has remained genuinely baffling — a puzzle that defies solution.

Déjà Vu All Over Again

In history, context is everything. Revise that context and the entire story changes, with the 1619 Project a timely but by no means unique example of that phenomenon.

For the successive administrations that took the United States to war in Vietnam, beginning with Harry Truman’s and culminating with Lyndon Johnson’s, the relevant context that justified our involvement in Southeast Asia was self-evident: the Cold War.

From the late 1940s on, the advertised purpose of basic American policy was to contain the spread of global communism. Across the ranks of the political establishment, anticommunism was tantamount to a religious obligation. For years, that alone sufficed to legitimize our military involvement in Vietnam. Whatever the immediate issue — whether supporting France against the communist Viet Minh there after World War II or midwifing an anticommunist Republic of Vietnam following the French defeat in 1954 — stopping the Red Menace rated as a national security priority of paramount importance. In Washington, just about everyone who was anyone agreed.

The actual course of events in Vietnam, however, played havoc with this interpretive framework. Once U.S. combat troops arrived in South Vietnam in 1965, while American bombers tried to pound the communist North into submission, the original rationale for the war became increasingly difficult to sustain. True, the enemy’s peasant army displayed a fondness for red flags and uniform accouterments. But so what? The threat posed to the United States itself was nonexistent.

When President Richard Nixon visited “Red” China in 1972, the Cold War morphed into something quite different. With the nation’s most prominent anticommunist taking obvious delight in shaking hands with Chairman Mao Zedong in Beijing, the war effort in Vietnam became utterly inexplicable — and so it has remained ever since.

When the Cold War subsequently ended in what was ostensibly a victory of cosmic proportions, any urge to reckon with Vietnam disappeared entirely. After all, in comparison with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, how much did the fall of Saigon in 1975 matter? In Washington, the answer was clear: not all that much. On an issue that far exceeded the Vietnam War in importance, history had rendered a definitive verdict. Only the churlish would disagree.

Then, quite literally out of the blue, came the events of 9/11. In an instant, the “end of history,” inaugurated by the passing of the Cold War, itself abruptly ended. Rather than pausing to consider the possibility that they might have again misconstrued the signs of the times, descendants of the political elite that had contrived the Vietnam War — including several who had found ways to sit out that conflict — devised a new framework for basic U.S. policy. The Global War on Terror now became the organizing principle for American statecraft, serving a function comparable to the Cold War during the second half of the prior century.

As had been the case during the early phases of the Cold War, the Manichean mood of that post-9/11 moment favored action over deliberation. So, within weeks of those attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, the United States embarked on a new shooting war in — of all places — landlocked, impoverished Afghanistan, famous for being the “graveyard of empires” (including the Soviet one) but not much else.

That war was destined to continue for 20 years. By the time it ended, many observers had long since begun to compare it to Vietnam. The similarities were impossible to miss. Both were wars of doubtful strategic necessity. Both dragged on endlessly. Both concluded in mortifying failure. To capture the essence of the war in Afghanistan, it didn’t take long for critics to revive a term that had been widely used to describe Vietnam: each was a quagmire. Here was all you needed to know.

So based on outward appearances, the two wars seemed to be siblings. Yet when it came to substance, any relationship between the two rated as incidental. After all, the Vietnam and Afghan Wars occurred in entirely different periods of contemporary history, the one preceding the annus mirabilis of 1989 when that wall in Berlin came down and the other occurring in its wake.

But here’s the thing: in reality, the fall of the Berlin Wall didn’t change everything. Among the things it left fully intact was a stubborn resistance to learning in Washington that poses a greater threat to the wellbeing of the American people than communism or terrorism ever did. To confirm that assertion, look no further than… well, yes, the U.S. wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan.

Changing the Frame

You can learn a lot by studying the origins, conduct, and consequences of World War I (1914-1918). And you can learn a lot by studying the origins, conduct, and consequences of World War II (1939-1945). But to arrive at some approximation of definitive historical truth when it comes to twentieth-century Europe, you need to think of those two events as the Thirty Years War of 1914-1945. Only then is the connective tissue between the “Guns of August” and the horrors that were to befall Western civilization three decades later revealed.

Something similar applies to America’s wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan. In ways that may not be easily appreciated, the two are intimately related. Bringing to light their kinship — and, by extension, their true significance — requires situating them in a single historical framework. Classifying Vietnam as an episode in the Cold War and Afghanistan as an unrelated part of the Global War on Terror confers a certain superficial narrative order on the recent past. But doing so is like pretending that World War I and World War II were unrelated events. It overlooks essential connective tissue.

Instead, to identify a historical frame that encompasses both Vietnam and Afghanistan, consider this proposition: however momentous they were for Europeans, the events of 1989-1991, when the Soviet Union imploded, left the American way of life all but untouched. True, the end of the Cold War had enormous implications for Western and Eastern Europe (soon to merge), for the states of the former Soviet Union (cut loose to pursue their own destinies), and for Russia itself (diminished and humiliated, but still a mammoth successor state to the USSR).

While these events unleashed a torrent of self-congratulation in the U.S., the passing of the Cold War did not substantively modify the aspirations or expectations of the American people. For decades, the United States had exerted itself to uphold and enhance the advantageous position it gained in 1945. Its tacit goal was not only to hold the communist world in check but to achieve ideological, economic, political, and military primacy on a global scale, with all but the most cynical American leaders genuinely persuaded that U.S. supremacy served the interests of humankind.

Attach to this outlook whatever label you like: innocence, intractable ignorance, megalomania, naked imperialism, historical myopia, divine will, or destiny. Subsuming them, however, was the concept of American exceptionalism. Whatever your preferred term, here we come to the essence of the American project.

The fall of the Berlin Wall did nothing to dislodge or even modify this strategy. Indeed, the collapse of communism seemingly affirmed the plausibility of pre-existing American aspirations and expectations. So, too, did the events of 9/11. Bizarrely but crucially, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon only imparted to American exceptionalism a renewed sense that here was the very foundation of the nation’s identity. Beginning with the administration of President George W. Bush but continuing to the present moment, the United States regularly doubled down on its quest for a global primacy that was to be achieved largely, though by no means entirely, through the use or threatened use of military power.

We’re now in a position to assess the consequences of such an approach. An essential preliminary step toward doing so is to discard the narrative of contemporary history that centers on the Cold War, succeeded, after a brief but blissful interval, by an unrelated Global War on Terror. It’s time to substitute a narrative describing an American military enterprise that began when the first U.S. combat troops came ashore in South Vietnam and persisted until the last American soldier departed Kabul in defeat some 56 years later. While thinking of this conflict as the Fifty-Six Year War may be accurate, it lacks a certain ring to it. So, let’s call it the Very Long War (1965-2021), or VLW, instead.

At the outset of the VLW, this country’s global preeminence was, of course, self-evident. At home, the constitutional order, however imperfect, appeared sacrosanct. By the time that Very Long War had reached its climax, however, informed observers were debating the international implications of American decline, while speculating anxiously about whether the domestic political order, as it had existed since at least the end of the Civil War, would even survive.

As the episodes that launched, concluded, and defined the essential character of the VLW, the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan hold the key to understanding its dismal outcome. Whether considered separately or together, they exhibit with unmistakable clarity the grotesque military malpractice that forms the VLW’s abiding theme.

Why did the United States fail so ignominiously in Vietnam? Why did it fail again in Afghanistan? The answers to these two questions turn out to be similar.

Begin with the fact that neither the survival of the Republic of Vietnam in the 1960s nor the ouster of the Taliban regime after 9/11 qualified as in any way vital to this country’s national interest. Both were wars of choice undertaken in places of (at best) tangential importance to the United States.

Then, add into the mix a near total absence of competent political oversight; deficient generalship, with senior officers struggling to comprehend the nature of the wars they were charged with waging; unwarranted confidence in the utility of advanced military technology; an excessive reliance on firepower that killed, maimed, and displaced noncombatants in striking numbers, thereby alienating the local population; nation-building efforts that succeeded chiefly in spawning widespread corruption; an inability to inculcate in local militaries the capacity and motivation to defend their country; and not least of all, determined enemies who made up for their material shortcomings by outpacing their adversaries in a willingness to fight and die for the cause.

Each one of these factors informed the way the United States fought in Vietnam. A half-century later, each reappeared in Afghanistan.

In terms of their conduct, the two campaigns differed only in one important respect: the role allotted to the American people. Reliance on conscription to raise the force that fought in Vietnam spurred widespread popular opposition to that war. Reliance on a so-called volunteer military to carry the burden of waging the Afghan War allowed ordinary Americans to ignore what was being done in their name, especially when field commanders devised methods for keeping a lid on U.S. casualties.


The Very Long War has, in fact, exacted an immense toll, essentially without benefits. Bookended by Vietnam and Afghanistan, the entire enterprise yielded almost nothing of value and contributed significantly tothe rise to power of Donald Trump and the wounding of this country’s political system. Yet even today, too few Americans are willing to confront the disaster that has befallen the United States as a consequence of our serial misuse of military power.

This represents a grievous failure of imagination.

On that score, just consider for a moment if this country had neither intervened in Vietnam nor responded to 9/11 by invading Afghanistan. What would have happened?

Almost certainly, the North Vietnamese would have succeeded in uniting their divided country with much less bloodshed. And Taliban control of Afghanistan would in all likelihood have continued without interruption in the years following 2001, with the Afghan people left to sort out their own destiny. Yet, despite immense sacrifices by U.S. troops, a vast expenditure of treasure, and quite literally millions of dead in Southeast Asia and Afghanistan, that’s exactly how things turned out anyway.

Would the United States be worse off had it chosen not to engage in those twin wars of choice? Would the Soviet Union back in the 1960s and the People’s Republic of China more recently have interpreted such self-restraint as evidence of weakness? Or might this country’s adversaries have seen the avoidance of needless war as an indication of prudence and sound judgment by a powerful country? And had the follies of war in Vietnam and Afghanistan been avoided, might it not have been possible to avert, or at least diminish, the pathologies currently afflicting this country, including Trumpism and our deepening culture wars? Certainly, that possibility should haunt us all.

Of one thing only can we be certain: it’s past time to be done with the Very Long War and the misguided aspirations to global primacy that inspired it. Only if Americans abandon their fealty to the idea of American Exceptionalism and the militarism that has sustained it, might it be possible to conclude that the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan served some faintly useful purpose.

The colossal failures of the American military demand accountability

Professional sports is a cutthroat business. Succeed and the people running the show reap rich rewards. Fail to meet expectations and you get handed your walking papers. American-style war in the twenty-first century is quite a different matter.

Of course, war is not a game. The stakes on the battlefield are infinitely higher than on the playing field. When wars go wrong, “We’ll show ’em next year — just you wait!” is seldom a satisfactory response.

At least, it shouldn’t be. Yet somehow, the American people, our political establishment, and our military have all fallen into the habit of shrugging off or simply ignoring disappointing outcomes. A few years ago, a serving army officer of unusual courage published an essay — in Armed Forces Journal no less — in which he charged that “a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.”

The charge stung because it was irrefutably true then and it remains so today.

As American politics has become increasingly contentious, the range of issues on which citizens agree has narrowed to the point of invisibility. For Democrats, promoting diversity has become akin to a sacred obligation. For Republicans, the very term is synonymous with political correctness run amok. Meanwhile, GOP supporters treat the Second Amendment as if it were a text Moses carried down from Mount Sinai, while Democrats blame the so-called right to bear arms for a plague of school shootings in this country.

On one point, however, an unshakable consensus prevails: the U.S. military is tops. No less august a figure than General David Petraeus described our armed forces as “the best military in the world today, by far.” Nor, in his judgment, was “this situation likely to change anytime soon.” His one-word characterization for the military establishment: “awesome.”

The claim was anything but controversial. Indeed, Petraeus was merely echoing the views of politicians, pundits, and countless other senior officers. Praising the awesomeness of that military has become twenty-first-century America’s can’t miss applause line.

As it happens, though, a yawning gap looms between that military’s agreed upon reputation here and its actual performance. That the troops are dutiful, seasoned, and hardworking is indisputably so. Once upon a time, “soldiering” was a slang term for shirking or laziness. No longer. Today, America’s troops more than earn their pay.

And whether individually or collectively, they also lead the world in expenditures. Even a decade ago, it cost more than $2 million a year to keep a G.I. in a war zone like Afghanistan. And, of course, no other military on the planet — in fact, not even the militaries of the next 11 countries combined — can match Pentagon spending from one year to the next.

Is it impolite, then, to ask if the nation is getting an adequate return on its investment in military power? Simply put, are we getting our money’s worth? And what standard should we use in answering that question?

Let me suggest using the military’s own standard.

Demanding Victory

According to the United States Army’s 2021 “Posture Statement,” for example, that service exists to “fight and win the nation’s wars.” The mission of the Air Force complements the Army’s: “to fly, fight, and win.” The Navy’s mission statement has three components, the first of which aligns neatly with that of the Army and Air Force: “winning wars.”

As for the Marine Corps, it foresees “looming battles” that “come in many forms and occur on many fronts,” each posing “a critical choice: to demand victory or accept defeat.” No one even slightly familiar with the Marines will have any doubt on which side of that formulation the Corps situates itself.

In other words, the common theme uniting these statements of institutional purpose is self-evident. The armed forces of the United States define their purpose as winning. Staving off defeat is not enough, nor is fighting to a draw, waging gallant Bataan-like last stands, or handing off wars-in-progress to pliant understudies whom American forces have tutored.

Mission accomplishment necessarily entails defeating the enemy.In General Douglas MacArthur’s famously succinct formulation, “There is no substitute for victory.” But victory, properly understood, necessarily entails more than just besting the enemy in battle. It requires achieving the political purposes for which the war is being fought.

So when it comes to winning, both operationally and politically, how well have the U.S. armed forces performed since embarking upon the Global War on Terror in the autumn of 2001? Do the results achieved, whether in the principal theaters of Afghanistan and Iraq or in lesser ones like Libya, Somalia, Syria, and West Africa qualify as “awesome”? And if not, why not?

A proposed Afghanistan War Commission now approved by Congress and awaiting President Biden’s signature could subject our military’s self-proclaimed reputation for awesomeness to critical scrutiny. That assumes, however that such a commission would forego the temptation to whitewash a conflict that even General Mark Milley, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged ended in a “strategic failure.” As a bonus, examining the conduct of America’s longest war might well serve as a proxy for assessing the military’s overall performance since 9/11.

The commission would necessarily pursue multiple avenues of inquiry. Among them should be: the oversight offered by senior civilian officials; the quality of leadership provided by commanders in the field; and the adequacy of the military’s training, doctrine, and equipment. It should also assess the “fighting spirit” of the troops and the complex question of whether there were ever enough “boots on the ground” to accomplish the mission. And the commission would be remiss if it did not take into account the capacity, skills, and determination of the enemy as well.

But there is another matter that the commission will be obliged to address head-on: the quality of American generalship throughout this longest-ever U.S. war. Unless the commission agenda includes that issue, it will fall short. The essential question is obvious: Did the three- and four-star officers who presided over the Afghanistan War in the Pentagon, at U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), and in Kabul possess the “right stuff”? Or rather than contributing to a favorable resolution of the war, did they themselves constitute a significant part of the problem?

These are not questions that the senior ranks of the officer corps are eager to pursue. As with those who reach the top in any hierarchical institution, generals and admirals are disinclined to see anything fundamentally amiss with a system that has elevated them to positions of authority. From their perspective, that system works just fine and should be perpetuated — no outside tampering required. Much like tenured faculty at a college or university, senior officers are intent on preserving the prerogatives they already enjoy. As a consequence, they will unite in resisting any demands for reform that may jeopardize those very prerogatives.

A Necessary Purge

President Biden habitually concludes formal presentations by petitioning God to “protect our troops.” While not doubting his sincerity in praying for divine intervention, Biden might give the Lord a hand by employing his own authority as commander-in-chief to set the table for a post-Afghanistan military-reform effort. In that regard, a first step should entail removing anyone inclined to obstruct change or (more likely) incapable of recognizing the need to alter a system that has worked so well for them.

On that score, Dwight D. Eisenhower offers Biden an example of how to proceed. When Ike became president in 1953, he was intent on implementing major changes in U.S. defense priorities. As a preliminary step, he purged the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which then included his West Point classmate General Omar Bradley, replacing them with officers he expected to be more sympathetic to what came to be known as his “New Look.” (Eisenhower badly misjudged his ability to get the Army, his own former service, to cooperate, but that’s a story for another day.)

A similar purge is needed now. Commander-in-chief Biden should remove certain active-duty senior officers from their posts without further ado. General Mark Milley, the discredited chair of the Joint Chiefs, would be an obvious example. General Kenneth McKenzie, who oversaw the embarrassing conclusion of the Afghanistan War as head of Central Command, is another. Requiring both of those prominent officers to retire would signal that unsatisfactory performance does indeed have consequences, a principle from which neither the private who loses a rifle nor the four stars who lose wars should be exempt.

However, when it comes to a third figure, our political moment would create complications that didn’t exist when Ike was president. When he decided which generals and admirals to fire and whom to hire in their place, Eisenhower didn’t have to worry about identity politics. Top commanders were of a single skin tone in 1950s America. Today, however, any chief executive who ignores identity-related issues does so at their peril, laying themselves open to the charge of bigotry.

Which brings us to the case of retired four-star general Lloyd Austin, former Iraq War and CENTCOM commander. As a freshly minted civilian, Austin presides as the first Black defense secretary, a notable distinction given that senior Pentagon officials have tended to be white or male (and usually both). And while, by all reports, General Austin is an upright citizen and decent human being, it’s become increasingly clear that he lacks qualities the nation needs when critically examining this country’s less-than-awesome military performance, which should be the order of the day. Whatever suit he may wear to the office, he remains a general — and that is a problem.

Austin also lacks imagination, drive, and charisma. Nor is he a creative thinker. Rather than an agent of change, he’s a cheerleader for the status quo — or perhaps more accurately, for a status quo defined by a Pentagon budget that never stops rising.

A speech Austin made earlier this month at the Reagan Library illustrates the point. While he threw the expected bouquets to the troops, praising their “optimism, and pragmatism, and patriotism” and “can-do attitude,” he devoted the preponderance of his remarks to touting Pentagon plans for dealing with “an increasingly assertive and autocratic China.” The overarching theme of Austin’s address centered on confrontation. “We made the Department’s largest-ever budget request for research, development, testing, and evaluation,” he boasted. “And we’re investing in new capabilities that will make us more lethal from greater distances, and more capable of operating stealthy and unmanned platforms, and more resilient under the seas and in space and in cyberspace.”

Nowhere in Austin’s presentation or his undisguised eagerness for a Cold War-style confrontation with China was there any mention of the Afghanistan War, which had ended just weeks before. That the less-than-awesome U.S. military performance there — 20 years of exertions ending in defeat — might have some relevance to any forthcoming competition with China did not seemingly occur to the defense secretary.

Austin’s patently obvious eagerness to move on — to put this country’s disastrous “forever wars” in the Pentagon’s rearview mirror — no doubt coincides with the preferences of the active-duty senior officers he presides over at the Pentagon. He clearly shares their eagerness to forget.

As if to affirm that the Pentagon is done with Afghanistan once and for all, Austin soon after decided to hold no U.S. military personnel accountable for a disastrous August 29th drone strike in Kabul that killed 10 noncombatants, including seven children. In fact, since 9/11, the United States had killed thousands of civilians in several theaters of operations, with the media either in the dark or, until very recently, largely indifferent. This incident, however, provoked a rare storm of attention and seemingly cried out for disciplinary action of some sort.

But Austin was having none of it. As John Kirby, his press spokesperson, put it, “What we saw here was a breakdown in process, and execution in procedural events, not the result of negligence, not the result of misconduct, not the result of poor leadership.” Blame the process and the procedures but give the responsible commanders a pass.

That decision describes Lloyd Austin’s approach to leading the Defense Department. Whether the problem is a lack of daring or a lack of gumption, he won’t be rocking any boats.

Will the U.S. military under his leadership recover its long-lost awesomeness? My guess is no. In the meantime, don’t expect his increasingly beleaguered boss in the White House to notice or, for that matter, care. With a load of other problems on his desk, he’s counting on the Lord to prevent his generals from subjecting the troops and civilians elsewhere on the planet to further abuse.

Copyright 2021 Andrew Bacevich

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel, Songlands(the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book, After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed, has just been published.

Joe Biden and illusions of 'normalcy': Does the US risk entering a terminal tailspin?

In a provocative recent essay in the New York Times, the political historian Jon Grinspan places the distemper currently afflicting American politics in a broader context. In essence, he contends that we've been here before.

Grinspan describes the period from the 1860s to 1900 as an "age of acrimony," with the nation as a whole "embroiled in a generation-long, culturewide war over democracy." Today, we find ourselves well into round two of that very war. But Grinspan urges his fellow citizens not to give up hope. A return to normalcy — boring perhaps, but tolerable — might well be right around the corner.

Mark me down as skeptical.

Party politics during the decades following the Civil War were notably raucous and contentious, Grinspan writes, with Election Day turnout "higher than in any other period in American history." Yet, despite all the commotion, not a lot got done. "The more demands Americans put on their democracy, the less they got."

Then sometime around the turn of the twentieth century, "Americans decided to simmer down." Popular interest in national politics declined. So, too, did voter turnout. Rather than a participatory sport, politics became something like an insiders' game. Yet "American lives improved more in this period than in any other," he contends. What many today remember, fondly or not, as "normal politics," dominated by once prominent but now forgotten white male pols, prevailed. Making this possible, according to Grinspan, was "the unusually calmed twentieth century."

By what standard does the twentieth century qualify as unusually calm? Grinspan doesn't say. Given that it encompassed two horrific world wars, the Great Depression, a Cold War, at least one brush with Armageddon, multiple genocides, the collapse of several empires, and the rise and fall of various revolutionary ideologies, calm hardly seems an appropriate description.

Even so, Grinspan finds in that century reason for optimism. "We're not the first generation to worry about the death of our democracy," he observes.

"Our deep history shows that reform is possible, that previous generations identified flaws in their politics and made deliberate changes to correct them. We're not just helplessly hurtling toward inevitable civil war; we can be actors in this story… To move forward, we should look backward and see that we're struggling not with a collapse but with a relapse."

So, fretting about the possible death of democracy turns out to be a recurring phenomenon. Our impoverished political imagination misleads us into thinking that our own version of those worries is particularly daunting. If we were to peer a bit further into our own past, we'd recognize that lowering the political temperature might once more enable us to get things done.

So Grinspan would have us believe.

Kissing Normalcy Goodbye

A century ago, in 1920, Americans did indeed elect a president who vowed to lower the political temperature. Warren G. Harding promised a "return to normalcy." Alas, the congenial Harding didn't manage to live out his term and his promise, along with his presidency, was soon forgotten.

Precisely 100 years later, Americans terrified at the prospect of Donald Trump remaining in the White House for another four years turned to a Harding-like professional pol in hopes that he might simmer things down. As the New York Times recently put it, voters vaguely expected that electing Joe Biden and removing "former President Donald J. Trump from their television screens" would "make American life ordinary again."

In fact, that was never going to happen. Like Harding, Joe Biden appears to be a most amiable fellow. Thus far, however, he's demonstrated negligible aptitude for restoring even an approximation of ordinariness to American life.

Hysterical rightwing critics denounce the president as a socialist or even a Marxist. He is neither, of course. No evidence exists to suggest that the White House intends to collectivize American agriculture, nationalize the means of production, or convert the FBI into a homegrown version of the KGB or the Stasi.

Instead, Biden has merely offered anodyne promises to "Build Back Better." A more accurate slogan might be "Spend More and Hope for the Best."

Ten months into Biden's term, his achievements remain few in number, even given the recent passage of a long-awaited infrastructure bill. To say that his administration is still finding its feet is no longer persuasive. An obituary of his presidency written today would highlight supply-chain problems, rising gas prices, a spike in inflation, a fumbling response to the southern border crisis, and a humiliating conclusion to the Afghanistan War. Meanwhile, Covid-19 continues to claim a disturbingly large number of American lives.

On the global stage, despite various highly publicized overseas trips, the president has yet to score a notable success. As a party leader, his struggles to impose discipline on the fractious rank-and-file of the Democrats elicit from the chattering classes continuous chatter. And while Biden obviously relishes the opportunity to preach from behind the White House bully pulpit, he has failed to rally the nation, as the never-ending controversies over vaccinations and vaccine mandates amply demonstrate.

What are we to make of this disappointing record? Biden cut his eyeteeth on the conviction that government activism can solve fundamental problems affecting the lives of ordinary Americans. In that regard, he is indeed the heir to the progressive tradition pioneered by the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson.

Yet Joe Biden may well be fated to bring down the curtain on progressivism as a force in national politics. With American conservatism substantively defunct, Donald Trump having drained it of any lingering pretense of principle, the stage behind that curtain will then be left bare. That a mediocre Democratic senator from West Virginia and an even more obscure one from Arizona will have collaborated in sucking the last vestiges of substance from our political system should rank as one of the larger ironies of our age.

Progressivism Runs Out of Gas

The dizzying pace of contemporary history finds many Americans out of breath, angry, disgusted, or verging on despair. The magnitude of the catastrophe that befell the United States in Afghanistan and the staggering toll Americans have endured throughout the Covid pandemic await an honest examination. So, too, does last January's assault on the Capitol, which exposed the fragility of the Constitutional order in a new way. Meanwhile, with the Lord of Mar-a-Lago and his lieutenants continuing to conspire, the possibility of the United States falling into a potentially terminal tailspin can hardly be excluded. So what is to be done?

Don't look to the Biden White House for answers to that question. Depending on what news network you choose to watch, you'll hear partisans describing the progressive tradition as either imperiling the Republic or offering the prospect of salvation. Neither judgment is correct. It's more accurate to say that progressivism is now increasingly beside the point.

So, if Professor Grinspan counts on Americans to follow Biden's lead and simmer down, he's headed for a disappointment. The likelihood of the president easing our present distress, embodied by Trumpism but including a panoply of complaints, appears remote. The normalcy to which he hopefully alludes lurks nowhere over the horizon. If anything, the opposite is true: for the foreseeable future, normalcy will be defined mainly by its absence.

And that just might turn out to be a good thing.

To understand why this might be the case, you have to begin by acknowledging the exhaustion of the reformist heritage to which Biden adheres. That tradition emerged from an identifiable historical context, simultaneously deriving from and expressing an identifiable cultural consensus. True, in the heyday of progressivism, the voices heard tended to be mostly white and mostly male. Yet the narrow basis of American democratic practice in that era made agreement on certain fundamentals possible. However flawed and subject to recurring challenge, the resulting consensus persisted through the twentieth century, imparting not only a measure of predictability but also a modicum of cohesion to American politics.

Even today, progressives tout the altruistic component of their tradition, with its emphasis on equality, justice, and sympathy for the downtrodden. Yet high ideals rarely suffice to win elections. In practice, the progressive agenda has centered less on admirable intangibles than on concrete deliverables. On that score, progressives have sought to satisfy an all but insatiable American appetite for consumption, convenience, and mobility.

Here we come to the beating heart of contemporary American politics. As that system evolved toward its mature state — a mammoth enterprise that annually burns through trillions of dollars — uninhibited consumption and convenience, along with unbridled mobility came to define what citizens expected it to deliver. Hence, the outrage when store shelves are even momentarily empty and gas prices temporarily shoot up.

At root, the ultimate purpose of American politics in the modern era, seldom acknowledged but universally understood, has been to provide for more and better, quicker and easier, and faster and further. The very pursuit proved endless — the American political lexicon in those years did not include the word enough — and therefore, in the end, proved inherently disruptive.

Properly understood, in other words, the progressive project was never especially high-minded. Yet it was never anything other than deadly realistic.

Two cherished but spurious claims have helped camouflage its essential tawdriness. According to the first, what the American people really care about is not getting and going but a conception of freedom worth fighting for. As my neighbors in nearby New Hampshire like to put it, "Live Free or Die."

According to the second, along with this love of freedom, what distinguishes Americans is their pronounced religiosity. "In God," Americans insist, "We Trust." A profound love of freedom and a conviction that the American experiment expresses the workings of divine (implicitly Christian) providence have ostensibly elevated the United States above other nations. Together, they imbued American crassness with a visible sheen of idealism.

Of course, in the century of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden, neither of these claims withstand even casual scrutiny. In the present United States, freedom has become indistinguishable from the casting off of constraints. If advancing the cause of freedom entails sacrifice, citizens spare themselves the slightest inconvenience by hiring out fighting to specialists known collectively as "the troops."

As for God, an increasingly secular society consigns him to the margins of public life. To an extent that a century ago would have been unfathomable, religion has become more or less a matter of personal taste, of no more significance than one's preferences for movies or cuisine. In the New York Times and the Washington Post, race, gender, and sexuality command continuous attention. For the latest in theological insights, however, the curious should look elsewhere.

As a believer, a conservative, and a long-ago soldier, I may not personally endorse such trends, but it makes no sense to deny their existence. So, however much I might want to agree with Grinspan's contention that "reform is possible" — full-out despondency being the sole alternative — more-is-better American progressivism is unlikely to provide a meaningful template for change.

Sharpening the Contradictions

The imperative of the present moment requires not reverting to some mythic normalcy, but facing the actual contradictions afflicting the American way of life. Any such reckoning will necessarily entail political risk. For proof, recall the price that President Jimmy Carter paid when he called for just such a reckoning in his famously derided "Malaise" speech of 1979. Americans responded the following year by revoking his lease on the White House.

Even so, what Carter proposed then may well be what we need now. With the nation mired in what he termed a "crisis of confidence," Carter declared that "we are at a turning point in our history," obliged to choose between one of "two paths." One path, he said, pointed toward "a mistaken idea of freedom" centered on "constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility." The other, based on "common purpose and the restoration of American values," pointed toward what he called "true freedom."

No one has ever accused the Georgia peanut-farmer-turned-politician of being a deep thinker, so Carter was vague on what actually constituted true freedom. But his instincts were sound and his analysis prescient. Indeed, others since have rounded out his critique, even if with little more success than Carter had in persuading Americans to contemplate the true meaning of freedom more than four decades ago.

Perhaps our innate ability to "see further into the future," as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright so unforgettably put it in 1998, renders any such second thoughts unnecessary. Of course, when Albright made her own stab at deep thinking, the future seemed all too clear. The end of the Cold War had left the United States in a position of political, economic, technological, cultural, and above all, military primacy. What could possibly go wrong?

By now, we know the answer: just about everything. To allow the promises contained within Biden-esque progressivism to conceal the extent of the debacle we have suffered would, in my view, be a profound mistake.

President Biden contends that as a nation and a species we have today arrived at an "inflection point" — a favorite phrase of his. Yet even if fully implemented (a doubtful prospect), the Biden program has no chance of curing our present disorders. A warmed over, if pricier, version of FDR's New Deal and LBJ's Great Society, it's too timid and too derivative. Progressivism once looked to the future; today, it's stuck in the past.

So, the Biden version of progressivism may ameliorate, but it will never resolve a multi-dimensional crisis fed by soulless materialism, a deepening climate emergency, a perverse addiction to dehumanizing technology, and a bizarre conviction that military power, amassed and endlessly employed, holds the key to stemming the tide of national decline.

With the passage of time, Carter's challenge to define true freedom has become more urgent. Time is short and global disaster looming. Yet arriving at a clearer understanding of what true freedom should entail will require more than simmering. To repurpose a phrase from an earlier era, "burn, baby, burn" may be the order of the day. At least metaphorically, identifying an antidote to our own malaise might begin not with reducing the heat, but turning it up.

Copyright 2021 Andrew Bacevich

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands(the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book, After the Apocalypse: America's Role in a World Transformed, has just been published.

The Pentagon's ultimate 'horrible mistake' — when the American empire began to come undone

The bad news stemming from the ill-planned and ill-managed U.S. evacuation of the Afghan capital just kept coming in. The Washington Post put it this way in blowing the whistle on the culminating disaster: "U.S. military admits 'horrible mistake' in Kabul drone strike that killed 10 Afghans."

Following the August 26th terrorist attack outside Hamid Karzai International Airport that took the lives of 13 American troops and dozens of Afghan bystanders, U.S. forces set out to preempt any repetition. Alas, efforts to prevent further U.S. casualties resulted in the killing of innocents, including seven Afghan children. "Horrible mistake" was Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's characterization of their deaths.

The result was not what General Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr., head of United States Central Command (CENTCOM), intended. To his credit, McKenzie did acknowledge that he was "fully responsible for this strike and its tragic outcome." The four-star Marine general went a step further. In a recorded video statement, he offered his "profound condolences to the family and friends of those who were killed."

It's easy enough to understand McKenzie's sense of remorse. Who wouldn't have felt dismayed — bummed out, even — that such a humiliating blunder should mark the conclusion of a failed twenty-year war? And just as Uncle Sam was limping toward the exit, hoping to leave with a modicum of dignity intact, Fortune itself seemingly let loose one last gratuitous kick, one final insult to the self-proclaimed greatest military on the planet.

But in this particular context, what does the phrase "fully responsible" even signify? Should McKenzie's acknowledgment prompt him to offer his resignation? Should he be fired? Would his ouster suffice to make amends for those seven dead children?

Given recent events in their country, it's hard to imagine Afghans even taking notice of the general's professed feelings or, for that matter, his fate. As for the American people, most of us have moved on. Afghanistan is already so yesterday.

And that, let me suggest, is a problem. Given our notoriously short national attention span, Americans are overlooking a "horrible mistake" of far greater consequence. I refer to the very existence of CENTCOM.

Created by Ronald Reagan in 1983, it's presently one of 11 Pentagon "combatant commands" that quite literally span the globe, even extending into the great beyond of outer space and cyberspace. CENTCOM'S earthly area of responsibility (AOR) encompasses 20 nations stretching across the Greater Middle East (and only recently came to include Israel as well). The command's website spells out the specifics: four million square miles inhabited by more than 560 million people from 25 ethnic groups adhering to myriad religious traditions and speaking 20 languages along with a host of local dialects. In itself, though only one of those 11 commands, it's already a realm of impressively imperial dimensions.

According to its mission statement, the command "directs and enables military operations and activities with allies and partners to increase regional security and stability in support of enduring U.S. interests" throughout that vast area. Yet while security and stability may describe CENTCOM's nominal aspirations, its true purpose is quite different. Indeed, the implicit purpose of the entire constellation of combatant commands is to affirm American primacy. CENTCOM exists to demonstrate the enduring necessity of American global "leadership," expressed in straightforwardly military terms via security commitments, a far-flung network of foreign bases, contingency plans and capabilities, muscle-flexing, and the ever-present possibility of what the Pentagon evasively refers to as a "kinetic action."

In recent decades, this particular combatant command has garnered more attention than any of the others — and with good reason. Its AOR defines the arena in which American primacy has been most hotly contested. Within CENTCOM's capacious boundaries, the fate of the post-Cold War American imperium is being decided — indeed, may already have been decided.

Someday, probably decades from now, an ambitious historian will publish a critical history of U.S. Central Command during this era. It will be a big book and it will tell an important tale. One thing is certain, however. Whatever that author decides to title her book, it won't contain the phrase "Security and Stability." That it may contain some reference to "Decline and Fall" is a distinct possibility. After all, CENTCOM is where the American empire began to come undone.

The Edsel of Pentagon Commands

Since its creation, 14 generals and admirals have presided over CENTCOM, 10 of them since 9/11, with General McKenzie's appointment dating to March 2019. I have no doubt whatsoever that each of these officers — intelligent, hardworking, and patriotic — did his level best to accomplish CENTCOM's mission. With a single exception, not one of them came anywhere close.

That exception proved the rule: General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who commanded CENTCOM during the Gulf War of 1991. As soon as the shooting in that brief campaign stopped, Schwarzkopf wasted no time in stepping down and putting in his retirement papers. The decision proved to be a shrewd one. He thereby dodged the messy aftermath that transformed Operation Desert Storm into something other than the decisive victory it initially appeared to be.

For a brief moment enshrined alongside Gettysburg in a pantheon of American military triumphs, today Desert Storm ranks with the once-celebrated and now long-forgotten Battle of Manila Bay in 1898. True, Commodore Dewey made short work of the Spanish fleet there, just as Schwarzkopf did with the Iraqi army of Saddam Hussein. Yet the ensuing "long war" that eventually pacified the Philippines stuck the United States with a prize of dubious strategic value. Much the same verdict applied to Desert Storm. Liberating Iraqi-occupied Kuwait in 1991 produced little in the way of tangible benefits for the United States.

Painful as it may be for former CENTCOM commanders to admit, the organization's very existence has coincided with an almost staggering deterioration in regional security and stability throughout the Greater Middle East. The mortifying collapse of the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan 20 years after it began has only served to emphasize the point. Whether things have gone badly due to or in spite ofU.S. efforts may be debatable. Nonetheless, whatever Washington's intentions or those of the Pentagon, the situation in the CENTCOM AOR has become radically more precarious since 1983.

Indeed, CENTCOM is to Pentagon combatant commands what Ford's 1950s "car of the future," the Edsel, was to automobiles. Can there be any question that if CENTCOM were a profit-oriented enterprise, it would have gone belly up long ago?

So as members of Congress and the media try to unearth the roots of the Afghanistan debacle, they might consider this proposition: perhaps the problem lies not with General McKenzie or his long train of predecessors but with what those commanders were charged with doing in the first place. They should consider the possibility that, from the very outset, CENTCOM's chiefs were engaged in an entirely misbegotten enterprise. If indeed that's the case, then corrective action should involve something more than replacing McKenzie with another officer inevitably cut from the same cloth.

Simply put, the first "horrible mistake" was creating CENTCOM and thereby militarizing American policy in the Greater Middle East. By extension, a necessary step toward preventing further Afghan-style disasters is apparent: Washington should simply abolish that combatant command altogether.

In other words, CENTCOM should go the way of the Edsel. Retire the logo and the patch. Bequeath the motto — "Persistent Excellence" — to some other federal agency (the Postal Service?) desperately in need of inspiration. Send the command's collection of plaques, trophies, and other tchotchkes to the National Archives to be catalogued, warehoused, and forgotten. Convert CENTCOM's headquarters complex, located in Tampa, Florida, several time zones away from the AOR, into something of more immediate use — perhaps a facility to assess worsening regional weather patterns.

Ford managed just fine without the Edsel. That the United States and the entire Greater Middle East can get along quite nicely without CENTCOM is a hypothesis worth testing. But step number one must be to abolish the command itself.

Giving Peace — or Something Like It — a Chance

CENTCOM's creation expressed a conviction that the United States has interests in the Persian Gulf that are worth fighting for. Arguably understandable in the context of the times — the latter part of the Cold War found the American economy dependent on imported oil — this proved to be a misjudgment of epic proportions.

Today, the United States is no longer dependent on foreign oil. Instead, it faces an urgent need to wean itself from fossil fuels altogether. None of that is to suggest that Washington no longer retains any interests in the CENTCOM AOR. Yet while certain interests still do exist, one thing should be increasingly clear: they are not worth fighting for. Instead, they are worth talking about. In other words, securing those interests should be the subject of diplomacy, with military action only considered in the most extreme circumstances.

"Regional security and stability," the phrase found in CENTCOM's mission statement, neatly describes those interests. Making the State Department rather than the Pentagon the lead agency in pursuing those goals would bring an entirely different approach to the forefront.

For too long, U.S. policy in the Greater Middle East has been characterized by reckless miscalculation. Henceforth, in a post-CENTCOM era, its hallmarks should be prudence, patience, and restraint.

What might that imply?

Rather than picking sides in regional disputes — Saudi Arabia vs. Iran, Israel vs. Hamas and Hezbollah — the United States should reposition itself as a genuinely honest broker. Rather than chiding some nations for violating human rights and giving others a pass, it should hold all of them (and itself) to a common standard. Rather than flooding the region with advanced weaponry, it should use its influence to reduce arms transfers. Rather than selectively opposing nuclear proliferation, it should do so consistently across the board. Rather than scattering U.S. forces across the region, it should drastically reduce the number of bases it maintains there. At most, two should suffice: an air base in Qatar and a naval facility in Bahrain.

All in all, the United States should lower its regional military profile to approximately what it had been before CENTCOM was created. Going forward, it should be Washington's policy to defuse conflicts, not fuel them and certainly not to become party to then.

I'm not suggesting that the prescriptions detailed above offer a comprehensive blueprint for "peace in our times." I am suggesting that it's past time to stop reinforcing failure. With its implied reliance on coercion as the default expression of U.S. policy in the Greater Middle East, CENTCOM has failed irrevocably.

If policymakers — beginning with President Biden — fancy that the United States has some sort of obligation to "lead," then they'll have to reimagine what leading really means. On that score, the lessons of recent decades are unambiguous and undeniable. Invading and occupying countries hasn't worked. Nor have assassinations, torture, and indefinite detention without trial. As for regime change and nation-building: both have exacted enormous costs (more than $2.3 trillion for the Afghan War alone), while neither has yielded anything faintly like the outcomes promised.

The ultimate "horrible mistake," to repurpose Secretary of Defense Austin's phrase, dates from the immediate aftermath of the Cold War when the United States succumbed to a form of auto-intoxication: imperial delusions fueled by an infatuation with military power.

The opportunity now presents itself to change course. Recognizing that the safety and well-being of the American people do not require sustaining a regional U.S. military command that fancies itself called upon to determine the fate of 560 million inhabitants in 21 different countries might just offer a path toward regaining sobriety. After all, recovery begins with taking that first step.

Copyright 2021 Andrew Bacevich

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands(the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book, After the Apocalypse: America's Role in a World Transformed, has just been published.

The defining lie at the heart of American foreign policy

"The thirty-year interregnum of U.S. global hegemony," writes David Bromwich in the journal Raritan, "has been exposed as a fraud, a decoy, a cheat, [and] a sell." Today, he continues, "the armies of the cheated are struggling to find the word for something that happened and happened wrong."

In fact, the armies of the cheated know exactly what happened, even if they haven't yet settled on precisely the right term to describe the disaster that has befallen this nation.

What happened was this: shortly after the end of the Cold War, virtually the entire American foreign-policy establishment succumbed to a monumentally self-destructive ideological fever.

Call it INS, shorthand for Indispensable Nation Syndrome. Like Covid-19, INS exacts a painful toll of victims. Unlike Covid, we await the vaccine that can prevent its spread. We know that preexisting medical conditions can increase a person's susceptibility to the coronavirus. The preexisting condition that increases someone's vulnerability to INS is the worship of power.

Back in 1998, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright not only identified INS, but also captured its essence. Appearing on national TV, she famously declared, "If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future."

Now, allow me to be blunt: this is simply not true. It's malarkey, hogwash, bunkum, and baloney. Bullshit, in short.

The United States does not see further into the future than Ireland, Indonesia, or any other country, regardless of how ancient or freshly minted it may be. Albright's assertion was then and is now no more worthy of being taken seriously than Donald Trump's claim that the "deep state" engineered the coronavirus pandemic. Also bullshit.

Some of us (but by no means all Americans) have long since concluded that Trump was and remains a congenital liar. To charge Albright with lying, however, somehow rates as bad form, impolite, even rude. She is, after all, a distinguished former official and the recipient of many honors.

Trump's lies have made him persona non grata in polite society. Albright has not suffered a similar fate. And to be fair, Albright herself is not solely or even mainly responsible for the havoc that INS has caused. While the former secretary of state promoted the syndrome in notably expansive language, the substance of her remark was anything but novel. She was merely reiterating what, in Washington, still passes for a self-evident truism: America must lead. No conceivable alternative exists. Leadership implies responsibilities and, by extension, confers prerogatives. Put crudely — more crudely than Albright would have expressed it to a television audience — we make the rules.

More specifically, Albright was alluding to a particular prerogative that a succession of post-Cold War presidents, including Donald Trump and now Joe Biden, have exercised. Our political leaders routinely authorize the elimination, with extreme prejudice, of persons unwilling to acknowledge our indispensability.

Should Irish or Indonesian leaders assert such a prerogative, American officials would roundly condemn them. Indeed, when Russia's president and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia each had the temerity to bump off an opponent, U.S. officials (in the former case) and the American media (in the latter case) professed profound shock. How could such things be permitted to occur in a civilized world? When an American president does such things, however, it's simply part of the job description.

Three Strikes and You're Out!

Now, allow me to acknowledge the allure of exercising privileges. I once flew on a private jet — very cool, indeed.

Today, however, David Bromwich's armies of the cheated have good reason to feel cheated. Their disappointment is not without justification. The bullshit has lost its mojo. Since the promulgation of the Albright Doctrine, U.S. forces have bombed, invaded, and occupied various countries across the Greater Middle East and Africa with elan. They've killed lots of people, unsettling millions more. And our divided, dysfunctional country is the poorer for it, as the cheated themselves have belatedly discovered.

Blame Donald Trump for that division and dysfunction? Not me. I hold the militant purveyors of INS principally responsible. However contemptible, Trump was little more than an accessory after the fact.

To understand how we got here, recall the narrative that ostensibly validates our indispensability. It consists of sequential binaries, pitting freedom and democracy against all manner of evils. In World War I, we fought militarism; in World War II, we destroyed fascism; during the Cold War, we resisted and "contained" communism. And after 9/11, of course, came the Global War on Terrorism, now approaching its 20th anniversary.

Good versus evil, us against them, over and over again. That recurring theme of American statecraft has endowed INS with its historical context.

Today, in Washington, a foreign-policy establishment afflicted with rigor mortis reflexively reverts to the logic of 1917, 1941, 1947, and 2001, even though those past binaries are about as instructive today as the religious conflicts touched off by the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s.

Confronting evil is no longer the name of the game. Understanding the game's actual nature, however, would require jettisoning a past that purportedly illuminates but actually imprisons Americans in an ongoing disaster.

Today, race dominates the national conversation. And few Americans would deny that we have a race problem. But the United States also has a war problem. And just about no one is keen to talk about that problem.

More specifically, we actually have three problems with war.

Our first is that we have too many of them. Our second is that our wars drag on way too long and cost way too much. Our third is that they lack purpose: when our wars do eventually more or less end, America's declared political objectives all too often remain unmet. U.S. forces don't necessarily suffer defeat. They merely fail. For proof, look no further than the conduct and outcomes of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Two trips to the plate. Two whiffs. How could that have happened? In Washington, the question not only goes unanswered but totally unasked, which, of course, leaves open the possibility of yet another similar failure in the future.

As a long-ago soldier of no particular distinction, I'm mystified at the apparent absence of curiosity regarding the inability of the world's most generously supported military to accomplish its assigned missions. If the January 6th assault on the Capitol deserves a thorough investigation — as surely it does — then how can this nation pass over a succession of failed wars as if they were mere annoyances? Shouldn't our collective commitment to "supporting the troops" include a modicum of curiosity about why they have been so badly misused, even if the resulting inquiry should prove embarrassing to senior civilian and military officials?

Liberal media outlets characterize Trump's claim to have won the 2020 election as the Big Lie, as indeed it is. But it's hardly the only one. Indispensable Nation Syndrome, along with the militarism that it's spawned in this century, should certainly qualify as — at the very least — the Other Big Lie. Curbing Washington's susceptibility to INS requires acknowledging that the proximate challenges facing this country are in no way amenable to even the most creative military solutions. Giving yet more taxpayer dollars to the Pentagon helps sustain the military-industrial complex, but otherwise solves nothing.

Think about it. The defining reality of our moment is the ever-worsening climate chaos that so many of us are now experiencing personally. That threat, after all, has potentially existential implications. Yet in Washington's hierarchy of national security concerns, climate takes a back seat to gearing up for a new round of "great power competition." In effect, a foreign-policy establishment devoid of imagination has tagged Xi Jinping's China to fill the role once assigned to Kaiser Wilhelm's Germany, Adolf Hitler's Germany, Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union, and Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

That China and the United States must make common cause in addressing the climate crisis seems to count for little. Nor does the fact that the People's Republic ranks as America's biggest trading partner and holds more than a trillion dollars in U.S. debt. Sustaining the good-vs-evil binary as a basis for policy requires a major enemy. It hardly matters that the most basic assumptions about the continuity between past and present are not only illusory but distinctly counterproductive.

So, here's the deal: history didn't end when the Cold War did. At most, it paused briefly to catch its breath. Now, it's resumed and is darting off in directions we've barely begun to identify. The past that we've been conditioned to cherish, that's supposed to make sense of everything, makes sense of more or less nothing at all. As a result, it won't work as either map or compass. Indispensable Nation? Spare me.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not expecting Madeleine Albright to offer an apology, but it would be helpful if she at least issued a retraction. She might think of it as her parting gift to the nation.

Copyright 2021 Andrew Bacevich

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands(the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book, After the Apocalypse: America's Role in a World Transformed, has just been published.

The passing of the present and the decline of America

"I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep."
— Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

Kurt Vonnegut's famous novel about the World War II bombing of the German city of Dresden appeared the year I graduated from West Point. While dimly aware that its publication qualified as a literary event, I felt no urge to read it. At that moment, I had more immediate priorities to attend to, chief among them: preparing for my upcoming deployment to Vietnam.

Had I reflected on Vonnegut's question then, my guess is that I would have judged the present to be both very wide and very deep and, as a white American male, mine to possess indefinitely. Life, of course, was by no means perfect. The Vietnam War had obviously not gone exactly as expected. The cacophonous upheaval known as "the Sixties" had produced considerable unease and consternation. Yet a majority of Americans — especially those with their hands on the levers of political, corporate, and military power — saw little reason to doubt that history remained on its proper course and that was good enough for me.

In other words, despite the occasional setbacks and disappointments of the recent past, this country's global preeminence remained indisputable, not just in theory but in fact. That the United States would enjoy such a status for the foreseeable future seemed a foregone conclusion. After all, if any single nation prefigured the destiny of humankind, it was ours. Among the lessons taught by history itself, nothing ranked higher or seemed more obvious. Primacy, in other words, defined our calling.

Any number of motives, most of them utterly wrong-headed, had prompted the United States to go to war in Vietnam. Yet, in retrospect, I've come to believe that one motive took precedence over all others: Washington's fierce determination to deflect any doubt about this country's status as history's sole chosen agent. By definition, once U.S. officials had declared that preserving a non-communist South Vietnam constituted a vital national security interest, it became one, ipso facto. Saying it made it so, even if, by any rational calculation, the fate of South Vietnam had negligible implications for the wellbeing of the average American.

As it happened, the so-called lessons of the Vietnam War were soon forgotten. Although that conflict ended in humiliating defeat, the reliance on force to squelch doubts about American dominion persisted. And once the Cold War ended, taking with it any apparent need for the United States to exercise self-restraint, the militarization of American policy reached full flood. Using force became little short of a compulsion. Affirming American "global leadership" provided an overarching rationale for the sundry saber-rattling demonstrations, skirmishes, interventions, bombing campaigns, and large-scale wars in which U.S. forces have continuously engaged ever since.

Simultaneously, however, that wide, deep, and taken-for-granted present of my youth was slipping away. As our wars became longer and more numerous, the problems besetting the nation only multiplied, while the solutions on offer proved ever flimsier.

The possibility that a penchant for war might correlate with mounting evidence of national distress largely escaped notice. This was especially the case in Washington where establishment elites clung to the illusion that military might testifies to national greatness.

Somewhere along the way — perhaps midway between Donald Trump's election as president in November 2016 and the assault on the Capitol in January of this year — it dawned on me that the present that I once knew and took as a given is now gone for good. A conclusion that I would have deemed sacrilegious half a century ago now strikes me as self-evident: The American experiment in dictating the course of history has reached a dead-end.

How could that have happened over the course of just a few decades? And where does the demise of that reassuring present — arrangements that I and most other Americans once took to be fixed and true — leave us today? What comes next?

Inflection Point

"So it goes." As Vonnegut recounts the journey of his time-traveling protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, in Slaughterhouse-Five, that terse phrase serves as a recurring motif. It defines Vonnegut's worldview: fate is arbitrary, destiny inexplicable, history a random affair. There is no why. Whatever happens, happens. So it goes.

Such sentiments are deeply at odds with the way Americans are accustomed to thinking about past, present, and future. Since the founding of our republic, if not before, we have habitually imputed to history a clearly identifiable purpose, usually connected to the spread of freedom and democracy as we understand those concepts.

Yet as crises without easy solutions continue to accumulate, Vonnegut's cynicism – tantamount to civic blasphemy — might warrant fresh consideration. "So it goes" admits to severe limits on human agency. While offering little in terms of remedies, it just might offer a first step toward recovering a collective sense of modesty and self-awareness.

Because he's president, Joe Biden must necessarily profess to believe otherwise. By any objective measure, Biden is a long-in-the-tooth career politician of no particular distinction. He is clearly a decent and well-meaning fellow. Yet his prior record of substantive achievement, whether as a long-serving senator from Delaware or as vice president, is thin. He is the Democratic Party's equivalent of a B-list movie actor honored with his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in tribute to his sheer doggedness and longevity.

That said, some Americans entertain high hopes for the Biden presidency. Especially in quarters where Trump Derangement Syndrome remains acute, expectations of Biden single-handedly charting a course back from the abyss toward which his predecessor had allowed the nation to drift are palpable. So, too, is the belief that he will thereby reconstitute some version of American political, economic, and military primacy, even in a world of Covid-19, climate change, a rising China, and a host of other daunting challenges. Despite this very tall order, "so it goes" can have no place in Biden's lexicon.

During its decades-long interval of apparent global dominion, American expectations about the role presidents were to play grew appreciably. Commentators fell into the habit of referring to the occupant of the Oval Office as "the most powerful man in the world," presiding over the planet's most powerful nation. The duties prescribed by the U.S. Constitution came nowhere near to defining the responsibilities and prerogatives of the chief executive. Prophet, seer, source of inspiration, interpreter of the zeitgeist, and war-maker par excellence: presidents were expected to function as each of these.

In 1936, Franklin Roosevelt boosted the morale of Depression-era Americans by assuring them that they had a "rendezvous with destiny." At the very moment when he entered the White House in 1961, John F. Kennedy thrilled his countrymen with a pledge to "pay any price, bear any burden, [and] meet any hardship" to prevent the extinction of liberty itself globally. In his second inaugural address, delivered in the midst of two protracted wars, George W. Bush announced to his fellow citizens that "ending tyranny in our world" had become "the calling of our time." Even today, tyranny shows no signs of disappearing. Even so — and notwithstanding four years of Donald Trump — the delusion that presidents possess visionary gifts persists. And so it goes.

As a result, whether he likes it or not — and he probably likes it quite a lot — observers are looking to Biden to demonstrate similarly prophetic gifts. Even though expressing himself in less than soaring terms, he's sought to oblige. According to the president, the United States — and by implication the world as a whole — has today arrived at an "inflection point," a technocratic tagline that's become a recurring motif for both him and his administration.

That "inflection point" conveys little by way of poetry in no way diminishes its significance. Quite the opposite, it expresses Biden's own sense of the historical moment. Implicit in the phrase is a sense of urgency. Also implicit is a call to action: "Here we are. There is where we need to go. Follow me." Consider it the very inverse of "so it goes."

Three Vectors

Given both Biden's advanced age and his party's precarious majority in Congress, not to mention the legions of Americans hankering to return Donald Trump to the White House, the opportunity to act on this imagined inflection point may well prove fleeting at best, nonexistent at worst. If Republicans gain control of the Senate or House of Representatives next year, "so it goes" may become the mournful refrain of a lame-duck presidency. Hence, Biden's understandable determination to seize the moment, before rising inequality at home, a rising China abroad, rising seas everywhere, and a potentially resurgent Trumpism swamp his administration.

So even though the Biden team is not yet fully in place, the inflection point already finds expression in three distinct commitments. Together, they give us a sense of what to expect from this administration — and what we should worry about.

The first commitment bears the imprint of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. It assumes that vigorous government action under Washington's benign and watchful eye can indeed repair a battered and broken economy, restoring prosperity, while redressing deep inequities. Given the necessary resources, that government can solve problems, even big ones, has for more than a century been a central precept of American liberalism. To demonstrate liberalism's continued viability, Biden proposes to spend trillions of dollars to "build back better," while curbing the excesses of a neoliberalism to which his own party contributed mightily. The spending and the curbs inevitably elicit charges that Biden has embraced socialism or something worse. So it goes in American politics these days.

The second commitment that derives from Biden's inflection point centers on the culture wars. Its progressive purpose is to supplant a social order in which white heterosexual males (like Biden and me) have enjoyed a privileged place with a new order that prizes diversity. Creating such a new order implies expunging the non-trivial vestiges of American racism, sexism, and homophobia. Given trends within late modernity that emphasize autonomy and choice over tradition and obligation, this effort may eventually succeed, but rest assured, such success will not come anytime soon. In the meantime, Biden will catch all kinds of grief from those professing to cherish a set of received values that ostensibly formed the foundation of the American Experiment. So it goes.

The third commitment deriving from that inflection point relates to America's once-and-future role in the world. Suffused with nostalgia, this commitment seeks to return the planet to the heyday of American dominion, putting the United States once more in history's driver's seat. Reduced to a Bidenesque bumper sticker, it insists that "America is back." With decades of foreign policy experience to draw on, the president appears committed to making good on that assertion.

His much ballyhooed first trip abroad put this aspiration on vivid display, while also revealing its remarkable hollowness. As a start, Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson issued a vapid revision of the 1941 Atlantic Charter, in essence posing as ersatz versions of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Few who witnessed the charade were fooled.

Then Air Force One delivered the president to Brussels where he cajoled the members of NATO into tagging China as a looming threat. Doing so meant ignoring the ignominious failure of NATO's mission in Afghanistan and disregarding French President Emmanuel Macron's reminder that "NATO is an organization that concerns the North Atlantic," whereas China just happens to be located on the other side of the world.

The pièce derésistance came when Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin held a nearly substance-free "summit" in Geneva. Possessing neither the drama of Kennedy vs. Nikita Khrushchev in 1961, nor the substance of Ronald Reagan's encounter with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, it proved an empty show, even if it did play to a full theater.

Still, the entire trip and the bloated media coverage it generated were instructive. They illuminated what Biden's inflection point truly signifies for America's role in the world. The Biden administration yearns to reinstall familiar verities dating from World War II and the Cold War as the basis of U.S. policy. Many members of the press corps share that yearning. Hence the inclination to define the present age in terms of a new Cold War version of great-power competition, while paying little more than lip service to the need for fresh thinking and vigorous action on matters like climate change, environmental degradation, refugee flows, and nuclear proliferation.

Modeled at least in part on a New Deal that Americans remember fondly but inaccurately, Biden's economic policies will in all likelihood promote growth and reduce unemployment. Even taking into account the risk of unintended consequences such as inflation, the effort is probably worth undertaking.

By wading into the culture wars, Biden might also bring the country closer to fulfilling the aspirations expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. No doubt arguments about the proper meaning of freedom and equality will continue. But the correct goal is not utopia. Merely reducing the gap between professed ideals and prevailing practice will suffice. Here, too, the effort is at least worth undertaking.

When it comes to America's role in the world, however, it becomes difficult to profess even modest optimism. If Biden clings to a calcified and militarized conception of national security — as he appears intent on doing — he will put his entire presidency at risk. Rather than restoring American primacy, he will accelerate American decline.

Harkening back to where the nation was when I received my commission in 1969, I'm struck today by how little we Americans learned from our Vietnam misadventure. Pain did not translate into wisdom. That we have learned even less from our various armed conflicts since appears only too obvious. When it comes to war, Americans remain willfully and incorrigibly ignorant. We have paid dearly for that ignorance and will likely pay even more in the years ahead. So it goes.

Copyright 2021 Andrew Bacevich

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands(the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book, After the Apocalypse: America's Role in a World Transformed, has just been published.

Biden has a chance at greatness — if he can avoid repeating LBJ's biggest mistake

Is President Biden afflicted with the political equivalent of a split personality? His first several months in office suggest just that possibility. On the home front, the president's inclination is clearly to Go Big. When it comes to America's role in the world, however, Biden largely hews to pre-Trumpian precedent. So far at least, the administration's overarching foreign-policy theme is Take It Slow.

"Joe Biden Is Electrifying America Like F.D.R." So proclaimed the headline of a recent Nicholas Kristof column in the New York Times. Even allowing for a smidgen of hyperbole, the comparison is not without merit. Much like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during his famous First Hundred Days in office in the midst of the Great Depression, Biden has launched a flurry of impressively ambitious domestic initiatives in the midst of the Great Pandemic — an American Rescue Plan, an American Jobs Plan, an American Families Plan, and most recently an environmental restoration program marketed as America the Beautiful.

Biden's Build Back Better domestic campaign qualifies as a first cousin once removed of Roosevelt's famed New Deal. To fix an ailing nation, FDR promoted unprecedented federal intervention in the economy combined with a willingness to spend lots of money. As then, so today, details and specifics took a back seat to action, vigorous and sustained, not sooner or later but right now.

Of course, FDR's Hundred Days did not actually end the Great Depression, which lingered on for the remainder of the 1930s. From the outset, however, the New Deal captured imaginations, especially among progressives. It invested national politics with a sense of hope and excitement. As historians subsequently came to appreciate, the New Deal was also rife with internal contradictions. Nevertheless, in terms of both style and substance, Roosevelt became and remains the beau ideal of the activist president. As press depictions of Joe Biden as our latest FDR proliferate, one can easily imagine the president happily filling his scrapbook with newspaper clippings.

That said, any political leader who embarks on an aggressive domestic reform program has to prevent the outside world from getting in the way. Roosevelt largely succeeded in doing so through his first two terms. Activism at home did not translate into activism abroad. Eventually, however, the outbreak of war in Europe and in the Far East famously prompted FDR to retire "Dr. New Deal" and don the mantle of "Dr. Win-the-War." In doing so, he was bowing to the inevitable. The New Deal was already running out of gas when the danger posed by a global struggle against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan brought it to a screeching halt. FDR wisely chose to accommodate himself to that reality.

In the ultimate irony, defeating those enemies made good on various unfulfilled New Deal aspirations, restoring both American prosperity and self-confidence. Yet war inevitably imposes its own priorities and creates its own legacies. World War II did so in spades. If postwar America bore the imprint of the New Deal, it also differed substantially from what New Dealers back in the 1930s had envisioned as the purpose of their enterprise.

Not least of all, during the ensuing Cold War, standing in immediate over-armed, over-funded readiness for the next war became a permanent priority. As a consequence, domestic matters took a backseat to a fundamentally militarized conception of what keeping Americans safe and guaranteeing their freedoms required. As the self-designated guardian of the "Free World," the United States became a garrison state.

"That Bitch of a War"

A generation later, a reform-minded president fancying himself FDR's rightful heir faced a variant of Roosevelt's dilemma, but demonstrated far less skill in adapting to it.

In the mid-1960s, Lyndon Baines Johnson conceived of a domestic reform plan that would, he believed, out-do the New Deal. His vision of a Great Society would guarantee "abundance and liberty for all," while ensuring "an end to poverty and racial injustice." And that, Johnson insisted, would be "just the beginning":

"The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community."

Here was a promise of nothing less than a federally designed and federally funded utopia. And for a brief moment, it even seemed plausible.

Winning the presidency in his own right in 1964 — he had first gained it as vice-president when John F. Kennedy was assassinated — elevated LBJ to a position in American politics not unlike FDR's 30 years earlier. Senator Barry Goldwater's abysmal showing as the Republican presidential candidate that year left his party in disarray. Democrats enjoyed clear majorities in both houses of Congress. Assuming he could steer clear of complications related to the ongoing Cold War, the way seemed clear for LBJ to Go Big as a domestic reformer.

As it turned out, this was not to be. Within a year of unveiling his Great Society, Johnson made a fateful decision to escalate U.S. military involvement in an ongoing war in Vietnam. In effect, LBJ laid down a huge bet, calculating that Going Big on the home front would prove compatible with fighting a major war in Southeast Asia. He wagered that "Dr. Great Society" could simultaneously serve as "Dr. Win-the-War," so long as that war remained manageable.

Over the course of several agonizing years, Johnson discovered that the two roles were incompatible. The conflict he came to call "that bitch of a war" doomed his Great Society, destroyed his presidency, and left a legacy of bitterness and division from which the nation has yet to fully recover. Rather than ranking alongside his hero FDR, Johnson ended up being roundly despised by conservatives and liberals alike, by those who had served in Vietnam and those who had opposed the war. In the estimation of many, "Dr. Great Society" ended up as "Dr. Callous and Cruel."

Recall, however, that Johnson chose to go to war in Vietnam, even while persuading himself that politically he had little choice but to do so. The trivial Tonkin Gulf Incident of August 1964 did not even faintly replay Pearl Harbor, yet LBJ pretended otherwise. His misguided decision to use that pseudo-event as a pretext for armed intervention stemmed from a wildly ill-advised reading of contemporary politics. An ostensibly savvy pol, Johnson backed himself into a corner from which he could find no escape.

The imperatives of the Cold War seemingly dictated that, if the United States allowed Vietnam to "go Communist," the sitting commander-in-chief and his party would incur unacceptable political damage. In Washington and across much of the country, the prevailing mood demanded toughness in confronting the Red Threat. Better to fight them in the jungles of Indochina than in the suburbs of San Francisco — so went the thinking at the time.

That a conflict between two recently minted Southeast Asian nations, neither of them democratic but each claiming to represent the Vietnamese people, could determine the fate of the entire Free World will strike most readers today (schooled by more recent debacles like the invasion and occupation of Iraq) as preposterous. In the mid-1960s, however, Lyndon Johnson judged the risks of saying so out loud too great for him to chance. So he sent hundreds of thousands of G.I.s off to fight an unwinnable war and put the torch to his own presidency.

Will Joe Biden Be Dr. Build Back Better?

To most Americans today the Vietnam War has become a distant memory. Let me suggest that its lessons remain notably relevant to our reform-minded administration of the present moment.

Johnson's mistake was to defer to an entrenched but deeply defective national security paradigm when the success of his domestic reforms demanded that he reject it. President Biden should take heed. To preserve his status as the latest reincarnation of FDR, Biden will have to avoid the errors in judgment that consigned LBJ's Great Society to history's junkheap.

On the foreign-policy front, the Biden team can already claim some modest, if tentative achievements. President Biden has indeed preserved the New Start nuclear agreement with Russia. Unlike his predecessor, he acknowledges that climate change is an urgent threat requiring concerted action. He has signaled his interest in salvaging the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal. Perhaps most notably, he has ordered the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, ending the longest war in American history. Implicit in that decision is the possibility of further reductions in the U.S. military footprint across the Greater Middle East and much of Africa, all undertaken pursuant to a misguided post-9/11 Global War on Terror.

That said, so far President Biden has left essentially untouched the core assumptions that justify the vast (and vastly well funded) national security apparatus created in the wake of World War II. Central to those assumptions is the conviction that global power projection, rather than national defense per se, defines the U.S. military establishment's core mission. Washington's insistence on asserting global primacy (typically expressed using euphemisms like "global leadership") finds concrete expression in a determination to remain militarily dominant everywhere.

So far at least, Biden shows no inclination to renounce, or even reassess, the practices that have evolved to pursue such global military dominion. These include Pentagon expenditures easily exceeding those of any adversary or even plausible combination of adversaries; an arms industry that corrupts American politics and openly subverts democracy; a massive, essentially unusable nuclear strike force presently undergoing a comprehensive $1.7 trillion "modernization"; a network of hundreds of bases hosting U.S. troop contingents in dozens of countries around the world; and, of course, an inclination to use force unmatched by any nation with the possible exception of Israel.

Military leaders like to say that the armed services exist to "fight and win the nation's wars," a misleading claim on two counts. First, based on the results achieved since 9/11, they rarely win. Second, their actual purpose is to satisfy various bureaucratic and corporate interests, not to mention ideological fantasies, all captured in the awkward but substantively accurate phrase military-industrial-congressional-think-tank complex.

Put simply, ours is a nation in which various powerful and influential institutions are deeply invested in war. If President Biden genuinely aspires to be "Dr. Build Back Better," he would do well to contemplate the implications of that fact, lest he willy-nilly find himself sharing LBJ's sad fate.

In Washington and various quarters of the commentariat, an eagerness to get tough with China and/or Russia and/or Iran — a veritable Axis of Evil! — is palpable. Biden ignores these tendencies at his peril. Indeed, if genuinely committed to prioritizing domestic reforms, he should actively resist those intent on diverting him onto a path pointing to military confrontation.

Jake Sullivan, Biden's national security adviser, says that his boss has "tasked us with reimagining our national security." Of course, reimagining presumes a high level of creativity along with an ability to cast aside obsolete habits of mind. Whether Sullivan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Pentagon chief General Lloyd Austin, or Biden himself possesses the requisite level of imagination remains, at best, an open question. Little in their collective backgrounds suggests that they do. In the meantime, somewhere out there in the South China Sea, the Donbas region of Ukraine, or the Persian Gulf, some variant of a Tonkin Gulf event lurks, ready to sink the administration's domestic agenda.

If Biden wants to be "Dr. Build Back Better," he should assume the additional role of "Dr. Curb the War Habit." That means rejecting once and for all the illusions of military dominion to which too many in Washington still pay tribute, whether cynically or out of misguided conviction. Doing so will require not only imagination but gumption. Still, if President Biden intends to Go Big at home, he will need to Go Big in changing U.S. policies abroad as well.

Copyright 2021 Andrew Bacevich

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands(the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His most recent book is The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory. His new book, After the Apocalypse: America's Role in a World Transformed, is due out in June.

A requiem for the American century: Biden faces the remnants of a quest for global primacy

"Ours is the cause of freedom.
We've defeated freedom's enemies before, and we will defeat them again…
[W]e know our cause is just and our ultimate victory is assured…
My fellow Americans, let's roll."

— George W. Bush, November 8, 2001

In the immediate wake of 9/11, it fell to President George W. Bush to explain to his fellow citizens what had occurred and frame the nation's response to that singular catastrophe. Bush fulfilled that duty by inaugurating the Global War on Terror, or GWOT. Both in terms of what was at stake and what the United States intended to do, the president explicitly compared that new conflict to the defining struggles of the twentieth century. However great the sacrifices and exertions that awaited, one thing was certain: the GWOT would ensure the triumph of freedom, as had World War II and the Cold War. It would also affirm American global primacy and the superiority of the American way of life.

The twentieth anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon now approaches. On September 11, 2021, Americans will mark the occasion with solemn remembrances, perhaps even setting aside, at least momentarily, the various trials that, in recent years, have beset the nation.

Twenty years to the minute after the first hijacked airliner slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, bells will toll. In the ensuing hours, officials will lay wreathes and make predictable speeches. Priests, rabbis, and imams will recite prayers. Columnists and TV commentators will pontificate. If only for a moment, the nation will come together.

It's less likely that the occasion will prompt Americans to reflect on the sequence of military campaigns over the two decades that followed 9/11. This is unfortunate. Although barely noticed, those campaigns — the term GWOT long ago fell out of favor — give every sign of finally winding down, ending not with a promised victory but with something more like a shrug. On that score, the Afghanistan War serves as Exhibit A.

President Bush's assurances of ultimate triumph now seem almost quaint — the equivalent of pretending that the American Century remains alive and well by waving a foam finger and chanting "We're number one!" In Washington, the sleeping dog of military failure snoozes undisturbed. Senior field commanders long ago gave up on expectations of vanquishing the enemy.

While politicians ceaselessly proclaim their admiration for "the troops," in a rare show of bipartisanship they steer clear of actually inquiring about what U.S. forces have achieved and at what cost. As for distracted and beleaguered ordinary Americans, they have more pressing things to worry about than distant wars that never panned out as promised.

Into the Graveyard of Empires

In his January 2001 farewell address, welcoming the dawn of the Third Millennium, President Bill Clinton asserted with sublime assurance that, during his eight years in office, the United States had completed its "passage into the global information age, an era of great American renewal." In fact, that new century would bring not renewal but a cascade of crises that have left the average citizen reeling.

First came 9/11 itself, demolishing assurances that history had rendered a decisive verdict in America's favor. The several wars that followed were alike in this sense: once begun, they dragged on and on. More or less contemporaneously, the "rise" of China seemingly signaled that a centuries-old era of Western global dominion was ending. After all, while the United States was expending vast sums on futile military endeavors, the People's Republic was accumulating global market share at a striking rate. Meanwhile, on the domestic front, a populist backlash against neoliberal and postmodern nostrums vaulted an incompetent demagogue into the White House.

As the worst pandemic in a century then swept across the planet, killing more Americans than died fighting World War II, the nation's chosen leader dithered and dissembled, depicting himself as the real victim of the crisis. Astonishingly, that bogus claim found favor with tens of millions of voters. In a desperate attempt to keep their hero in office for another four (or more) years, the president's most avid supporters mounted a violent effort to overturn the constitutional order. Add to the mix recurring economic cataclysms and worries about the implications of climate change and Americans have good reason to feel punch drunk.

It's hardly surprising that they have little bandwidth left for reflecting on the war in Afghanistan as it enters what may be its final phase. After all, overlapping with the more violent and costly occupation of Iraq, the conflict in Afghanistan never possessed a clear narrative arc. Lacking dramatic duels or decisive battles, it was the military equivalent of white noise, droning in the background all but unnoticed. Sheer endlessness emerged as its defining characteristic.

The second President Bush launched the Afghan War less than a month after 9/11. Despite what seemed like a promising start, he all but abandoned that effort in his haste to pursue bigger prey, namely Saddam Hussein. In 2009, Barack Obama inherited that by-now-stalemated Afghan conflict and vowed to win and get out. He would do neither. Succeeding Obama in 2017, Donald Trump doubled down on the promise to end the war completely, only to come up short himself.

Now, taking up where Trump left off, Joe Biden has signaled his desire to ring down the curtain on America's longest-ever armed conflict and so succeed where his three immediate predecessors failed. Doing so won't be easy. As the war dragged on, it accumulated complications, both within Afghanistan and regionally. The situation remains fraught with potential snags.

While in office, Trump committed to a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan by May 1st of this year. Although Biden recently acknowledged that meeting such a deadline would be "tough," he also promised that any further delay will extend no more than a few months. So it appears increasingly likely that a conclusion of some sort may finally be in the offing. Prospects for a happy ending, however, range between slim and nonexistent.

One thing seems clear: whether Washington's ongoing efforts to broker a peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government succeed, or whether the warring parties opt to continue fighting, time is running out on the U.S. military mission there. In Washington, the will to win is long gone, while patience with the side we profess to support wastes away and determination to achieve the minimalist goal of avoiding outright defeat is fading fast. Accustomed to seeing itself as history's author, the United States finds itself in the position of a supplicant, hoping to salvage some tiny sliver of grace.

What then does this longest war in our history signify? Even if the issue isn't one that Americans now view as particularly urgent, at least a preliminary answer seems in order, if only because the U.S. troops who served there — more than three-quarters of a million in all — deserve one.

And there's also this: A war that drags on inconclusively for 20 years is not like a ballgame that goes into extra innings. It's a failure of the first order that those who govern and those who are governed should face squarely. To simply walk away, as Americans may be tempted to do, would be worse than irresponsible. It would be obscene.

A Fresh Bite of a Poisonous Imperial Apple

Assessing the significance of Afghanistan requires placing it in a larger context. As the first war of the post-9/11 era, it represents a particularly instructive example of imperialism packaged as uplift.

The European powers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries pioneered a line of self-regarding propaganda that imparted a moral gloss to their colonial exploitation throughout much of Asia and Africa. When the United States invaded and occupied Cuba in 1898 and soon after annexed the entire Philippine archipelago, its leaders devised similar justifications for their self-aggrandizing actions.

The aim of the American project in the Philippines, for example, was "benevolent assimilation," with Filipino submission promising eventual redemption. The proconsuls and colonial administrators Washington dispatched to implement that project may even have believed those premises. The recipients of such benefactions, however, tended to be unpersuaded. As Filipino leader Manuel Quezon famously put it, "Better a government run like hell by the Filipinos than one run like heaven by the Americans." A patriotic nationalist, Quezon preferred to take his chances with self-determination, as did many other Filipinos unimpressed with American professions of benign intentions.

This gets to the core of the problem, which remains relevant to the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan in the present century. In 2001, American invaders arrived in that country bearing a gift labeled "Enduring Freedom" — an updated version of benign assimilation — only to find that substantial numbers of Afghans had their own ideas about the nature of freedom or refused to countenance infidels telling them how to run their affairs. Certainly, efforts to disguise Washington's imperial purposes by installing Hamid Karzai, a photogenic, English-speaking Afghan, as the nominal head of a nominally sovereign government in Kabul fooled almost no one. And once Karzai, the West's chosen agent, himself turned against the entire project, the jig should have been up.

The U.S. war in Afghanistan has to date claimed the lives of more than 2,300 U.S. troops, while wounding another 20,000. Staggeringly larger numbers of Afghans have been killed, injured, or displaced. The total cost of that American war long ago exceeded $2 trillion. Yet, as documented by the "Afghanistan Papers" published last year by the Washington Post, the United States and its allies haven't defeated the Taliban, created competent Afghan security forces, or put in place a state apparatus with the capacity to govern effectively. Despite almost 20 years of effort, they haven't come close. Neither have the U.S. and its NATO coalition partners persuaded the majority of Afghans to embrace the West's vision of a suitable political order. When it comes to the minimum preconditions for mission accomplishment, in other words, the United States and its allies are batting 0 for 4.

Intensive and highly publicized American attempts to curb Afghan corruption have failed abysmally. So, too, have well-funded efforts to reduce opium production. With the former a precondition for effective governance and the latter essential to achieving some semblance of aboveboard economic viability, make that 0 for 6, even as the momentum of events at this moment distinctly favors the Taliban. With 75% of government revenues coming from foreign donors, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is effectively on the international dole and has no prospect of becoming self-sufficient anytime soon.

Whether the U.S.-led effort to align Afghanistan with Western values was doomed from the start is impossible to say. At the very least, however, that effort was informed by remarkable naïveté. Assessing the war a decade ago — 10 years after it began — General Stanley McChrystal, former commander of all coalition forces there, lamented that "we didn't know enough and we still don't know enough" about Afghanistan and its people. "Most of us — me included — had a very superficial understanding of the situation and history, and we had a frighteningly simplistic view of recent history, the last 50 years." Implicit in that seemingly candid admission is the suggestion that knowing more would have yielded a better outcome, that Afghanistan should have been "winnable."

For the thwarted but unreconstructed imperialist, consider this the last line of retreat: success could have been ours if only decision makers had done things differently. Anyone familiar with the should-have-beens trotted out following the Vietnam War in the previous century — the U.S. should have bombed more (or less), invaded the North, done more to win hearts-and-minds, etc. — will recognize those claims for what they are: dodges. As with Vietnam, to apply this if-only line of reasoning to Afghanistan is to miss that war's actual significance.

Minor War, Major Implications

As American wars go, Afghanistan ranks as a minor one. Yet this relatively small but very long conflict stands at the center of a distinctive and deeply problematic era in American history that dates from the end of the Cold War some 40 years ago. Two convictions defined that era. According to the first, by 1991 the United States had achieved something akin to unquestioned global military supremacy. Once the Soviets left the playing field, no opponent worthy of the name remained. That appeared self-evident.

According to the second conviction, circumstances now allowed — even cried out for — putting the U.S. military to work. Reticence, whether defined as deterrence, defense, or containment, was for wusses. In Washington, the temptation to employ armed force to overthrow "evil" became irresistible. Not so incidentally, periodic demonstrations of U.S. military might would also warn potential competitors against even contemplating a challenge to American global primacy.

Lurking in the background was this seldom acknowledged conviction: in a world chockablock full of impoverished, ineptly led nations, most inhabited by people implicitly classified as backward, someone needed to take charge, enforce discipline, and provide at least a modicum of decency. That the United States alone possessed the power and magnanimity to play such a role was taken for granted. After all, who was left to say nay?

So, with the passing of the Cold War, a new chapter in the history of American imperialism commenced, even if in policy circles that I-word was strictly verboten. Among the preferred euphemisms, humanitarian intervention, sometimes justified by a recently discovered "responsibility to protect," found particular favor. But this was mostly theater, an updating of Philippine-style benevolent assimilation designed to mollify twenty-first-century sensibilities.

In actual practice, it fell to the president of the United States, commonly and without irony referred to as "the most powerful man in the world," to decide where U.S. bombs were to fall and U.S. troops arrive. When American forces flexed their muscles in faraway places, ranging from Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia, Afghanistan, Sudan, and the Philippines to Afghanistan (again), Iraq (again), Libya, various West African countries, Somalia (again), Iraq (for a third time), or Syria, authorization by the United Nations Security Council or Congress ranked as somewhere between incidental and unnecessary. For military actions that ranged from full-scale invasions to assassinations to a mere show of force, whatever justification the "leader of the Free World" chose to offer was deemed sufficient.

Military action undertaken at the behest of the commander-in-chief became the unspoken but definitive expression of American global leadership. That Bush the father, Clinton, Bush the son, Obama, and Trump would all wield extra-constitutional authority to — so the justification went — advance the cause of peace and freedom worldwide only testified to the singularity of the United States. In this way, an imperial presidency went hand-in-hand with imperial responsibilities and prerogatives.

At first imperceptibly, but more overtly with the passage of time, military adventurism undertaken by imperial presidents fostered a pattern of hypocrisy, dishonesty, cynicism, waste, brutality, and malaise that have today become pervasive. In certain quarters, the tendency persists to blame former President Trump for just about everything that ails this nation, including racism, sexism, inequality, public-health crises, and the coarsening of public discourse, not to speak of inattention to environmental degradation and our crumbling infrastructure. Without letting him off the hook, let me suggest that Washington's post-Cold War imperial turn contributed more to our present discontent and disarray than anything Trump did in his four years in the White House.

On that score, the Afghan War made a pivotal and particularly mournful contribution, definitively exposing as delusionary claims of U.S. military supremacy. Even in late 2001, only weeks after President George W. Bush had promised "ultimate victory," the war there had already gone off script. From early on, in other words, there was unmistakable evidence that military activism pursuant to neo-imperial ambitions entailed considerable risk, while exacting costs far outweighing any plausible benefits.

The longest war in U.S. history should by now have led Americans to reflect on the consequences that stem from succumbing to imperial temptations in a world where empire has long since become obsolete. Some might insist that present-day Americans have imbibed that lesson. In Washington, hawks appear chastened, with few calling for President Biden to dispatch U.S. troops to Yemen or Myanmar or even Venezuela, our oil-rich "neighbor," to put things right. For now, the nation's appetite for military intervention abroad appears to be sated.

But mark me down as skeptical. Only when Americans openly acknowledge their imperial transgressions will genuine repentance become possible. And only with repentance will avoiding further occasions to sin become a habit. In other words, only when Americans call imperialism by its name will vows of "never again" deserve to be taken seriously.

In the meantime, our collective obligation is to remember. The siege of ancient Troy, which lasted a decade, inspired Homer to write the Iliad. Although the American war in Afghanistan has now gone on almost twice as long, don't expect it to be memorialized in an epic poem. Yet with such poetry out of fashion, perhaps a musical composition of some sort might act as a substitute. Call it — just to suggest a title — "Requiem for the American Century." For one thing should be clear by now: over the course of the nation's longest war, the American Century breathed its last.

Copyright 2021 Andrew Bacevich

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands(the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His most recent book is The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory. His new book, After the Apocalypse: America's Role in a World Transformed, is due out in June.

Under the guise of correcting Trump's failures, Biden's team is destined to perpetuate itd own

You may have noticed: the Blob is back. Beneath a veneer of gender and racial diversity, the Biden national security team consists of seasoned operatives who earned their spurs in Washington long before Donald Trump showed up to spoil the party. So, if you're looking for fresh faces at the departments of state or defense, the National Security Council or the various intelligence agencies, you'll have to search pretty hard. Ditto, if you're looking for fresh insights. In Washington, members of the foreign policy establishment recite stale bromides, even as they divert attention from a dead past to which they remain devoted.

The boss shows them how it's done.

Just two weeks into his presidency, Joe Biden visited the State Department to give American diplomats their marching orders. In his formal remarks, the president committed his administration to "diplomacy rooted in America's most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity."

His language allowed no room for quibbles or exemptions. In our world, some things can be waived — SAT scores for blue-chip athletes being recruited to play big-time college ball, for example. Yet cherished values presumably qualify as sacrosanct. To take Biden at his word, his administration will honor this commitment not some of the time, but consistently; not just when it's convenient to do so, but without exception.

Less than a month later, the president received a ready-made opportunity to demonstrate his fealty to those very values. The matter at hand concerned Saudi Arabia, more specifically the release of an intelligence report fingering Mohammad bin Salman, a.k.a. MBS, the Saudi crown prince and de facto ruler of that country, for ordering the 2018 murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist employed by the Washington Post. The contents of the report surprised no one. The interesting question was how the new president would respond.

Months earlier, during the election campaign, Biden had described Saudi Arabia, a longtime U.S. ally, as a "pariah state" that possessed "no redeeming value." Previously, Donald Trump had cozied up to the Saudi royals — they were his kind of people. As far as candidate Biden was concerned, the time for romancing Riyadh had ended. Never again, he vowed, would Washington "check its principles at the door just to buy oil or sell weapons."

Let it be said that a preference for lucre rather than principles succinctly describes traditional U.S.-Saudi relations going back several decades. While President Trump treated the "friendship" between the two countries as cause for celebration, other American leaders gingerly tip-toed around the role allotted to arms and oil. In diplomacy, some things were better left unsaid. So, to hear candidate Biden publicly acknowledge the relationship's tawdry essence was little short of astonishing.

While a member of the Senate and during his eight years as vice president, he had hardly gone out of his way to pick fights with the Kingdom. Were Biden to replace Trump, however, things were going to change. Big time.

Threading the Needle

As it turned out, not so much. Once inaugurated, Biden found ample reason for checking American principles at the door. Shelving further references to Saudi Arabia as a pariah, he tweaked Washington's relationship with the Kingdom, while preserving its essence.

The term chosen to describe the process is recalibrate. In practical terms, recalibration means that the U.S. government is sanctioning a few dozen Saudi functionaries for their involvement in the Khashoggi assassination, while giving Mohammad Bin Salman himself a pass. MBS's sanctioned henchmen would do well to cancel any planned flights into New York's JFK airport or Washington's Dulles, where the FBI will undoubtedly be waiting to take them into custody. That said, unless they fall out of favor with the crown prince himself, the assassins will literally get away with murder.

Recalibration also means that the United States is "pausing" — not terminating — further arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The purpose of the pause, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has explained, is "to make sure that what is being considered is something that advances our strategic objectives and advances our foreign policy." Translation? Don't expect much to happen.

Inside the Beltway, lobbyists for U.S. arms merchants are undoubtedly touching base with members of Congress whose constituencies benefit from exporting weapons to that very country. Said lobbyists need not burn the midnight oil, however. Mr. Khashoggi's demise has complicated but will not derail the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Given time, some version of the status quo will be restored.

Just one more example of American hypocrisy? Within the Blob, a different view pertains. Consider the perspective of former senior official and longtime Middle Eastern hand Dennis Ross. "This is the classic example of where you have to balance your values and your interests," Mr. Ross told the New York Times. Biden, he added approvingly, is now "trying to thread the needle." Mustering the wisdom acquired from decades of service deep inside the Blob, Ross pointed out that "there isn't an issue in the Middle East where we don't need them to play a role — on Iran, on competing with the Chinese." Ultimately, it's that simple: The United States needs Saudi Arabia.

As a respected member of the foreign policy establishment, Ross speaks with the authority that gets you quoted in the Times. Informing his perspective is a certain iron logic, time-tested and seemingly endorsed by history itself. Take that logic at face value and Washington needs Saudi Arabia because it needs to police the Persian Gulf and its environs, as required by the decades-old, never-to-be-questioned Carter Doctrine. The United States needs Saudi Arabia because the Kingdom already plays a not-inconsequential role in the drama accompanying energy-hungry China's emergence as a great power. And let's face it: the United States also needs Saudi Arabia because of all that oil (even though this country no longer actually uses that oil itself) and because MBS's insatiable appetite for arms helps to sustain the military-industrial complex.

So the pieces all fit into a coherent whole, thereby validating a particular conception of history itself. The United States needs Saudi Arabia for the same reason that it needs to remain part of NATO, needs to defend various other allies, needs to maintain a sprawling worldwide constellation of bases, needs to annually export billions of dollars worth of weaponry, needs to engage in endless wars, and needs to spend a trillion-plus dollars annually pursuant to what is usually described as "national security." More broadly, the United States needs to do all these things because it needs to lead a world that cannot do without its leadership. The trajectory of events going back more than a century now, encompassing two world wars, the Cold War, and the forever wars of the post-Cold War era, proves as much. End of discussion.

Second Thoughts?

Not all historians bow to the iron logic to which the Blob subscribes, however. Recent events are prompting a few dissenters to entertain second thoughts. Among them is Professor Martin Conway of Oxford University. Now, Professor Conway is anything but a household name. When it comes to name recognition, he doesn't hold a candle to Dennis Ross, nor is he someone the New York Times consults on issues of the day.

So should we attend to Professor Conway's contrarian perspective? Very much so and here's why: Compared to Ross or the sundry Blobbers now in Joe Biden's employ, Conway is not a prisoner of a curated past. He's open to the possibility that the sell-by date attached to that taken-for-granted past may well have expired.

Consider his provocative essay "Making Trump History," recently published online in H-Diplo. (A more accurate title would have been "History as Illuminated by Trump.")

By and large, Conway writes, scholars deem Trump to have been "an insult to the historical narrative," a living, breathing "refutation of deeply held assumptions among historians about how the democratic politics of the U.S. are supposed to work." Their reflexive response is to classify Trump as an outlier, a one-off intruder, a conviction seemingly affirmed by his failure to win a second term. With his departure from the White House, the resumption of normalcy (or at least what passed for the same in Washington) has theoretically become possible. Biden's job is to hasten its return.

Conway entertains another view. He speculates that normalcy may, in fact, be gone for good. And the sooner the rest of us grasp that, he believes, the better.

Conway boldly rejects the media's preferred Manichean account of the so-called Age of Trump. Rather than insulting the traditional Washington narrative, he suggests, Trump simply supplanted it. Wittingly or not, the new president acted in concert with political opportunists in Great Britain, Hungary, Poland, and elsewhere who, in advancing their own ambitions, trampled all over the familiar storyline devised and refined to make sense of our age.

As a first step toward grasping what's now underway, Conway urges his fellow historians to "bury their narratives of the twentieth century" — on a par with asking Ohio State or the University of Alabama to give up football. Conway then suggests that a new past he calls a "history of the present" is emerging. And he identifies "three trig points" to begin mapping the "uncharted landscape" that lies ahead.

The first relates to the collapse of barriers that had long confined politics to familiar channels. Today, democratic politics has "burst its banks," Conway writes. The people once assumed to be in charge no longer really are. Presidents, prime ministers, and parliamentarians compete with (and frequently court) "footballers, TV celebrities, and rap artists" who "communicate more directly and effectively with the public." Who do you trust? Mitch McConnell or George Clooney? Who has your ear? Nancy Pelosi or Oprah Winfrey?

Conway's second trig point references the bond between citizens and the state. The old contract — individual duties performed in exchange for collective benefits — no longer applies. Instead, the "new politics of the bazaar" shortchange the many while benefiting the few (like the mega-wealthy Americans who, during the coronavirus pandemic, have so far raked in an estimated extra $1.3 trillion). Egged on by politicians like Trump or British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the less privileged have figured this out. Biden's efforts to pass yet another Covid-19-related relief bill responded to but could not conceal the real story: the emergence of an anti-establishment populism.

His final trig point wipes out the old-fashioned "political frontiers of the left and right." In the History of the Present, politics emphasize "identity and grievance." Citizens lend their support to causes centered on "emotions, group identity, or aspirations," while rendering once-accepted notions of class and party all but irrelevant. "Institutional structures, ideological traditions, and indeed democratic norms" are being "replaced by a less disciplined and more open politics." Passions govern, imparting to the History of the Present unprecedented levels of volatility.

Conway doesn't pretend to know where all this will lead, other than suggesting that the implications are likely to be striking and persistent. But let me suggest the following: For all their rote references to new challenges in a new era, President Biden and the members of his crew are clueless as to what the onset of Conway's History of the Present portends. Throughout the ranks of the establishment, the reassuringly familiar narratives of the twentieth century retain their allure. Among other things, they obviate the need to think.

Wrong Thread, Wrong Needle

Nowhere is this more emphatically the case than in quarters where members of the Blob congregate and where the implications of Conway's analysis may well have the most profound impact. Conway's primary concern is with developments within what used to be called the West. That said, the History of the Present will profoundly impact relations between the West (which, these days, really means the United States) and the rest of the world. And that brings us right back to President Biden's awkward effort to "thread the needle" regarding Saudi Arabia.

Someday, when a successor to Buzzfeed posts an official ranking of twenty-first century crimes, the vicious murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul won't even make it anywhere near the first tier. His assassination will, for instance, certainly trail well behind the George W. Bush administration's disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq, not to speak of various other U.S. military actions from Afghanistan to Somalia undertaken as part of the so-called Global War on Terror.

Whether explicitly or implicitly, President Bush and his successors cited those very "narratives of the twentieth century" to which Professor Conway refers to justify their interventions across the Greater Middle East. The most important — indeed beloved — narrative celebrates the U.S. role in ensuring freedom's triumph over evil in the form of various totalitarian ideologies.

Attach all the caveats and exceptions you want: Hiroshima, Vietnam, CIA-engineered coups, the Bay of Pigs, the Iran-Contra scandal, and so on and so forth. Yet even today, most Americans believe and virtually anyone responsible for formulating and implementing basic U.S. global policy affirms that the United States is a force for good in the world. As such, America is irreplaceable, indispensable, and essential. Hence, the unique prerogatives that it confers on itself are justified. Such thinking, of course, sustains the conviction that, even today, alone among nations, the United States is able to keep its interests and "its most cherished democratic values" in neat alignment.

By discarding the narratives of the twentieth century, Conway's History of the Present invites us to see this claim for what it is — a falsehood of Trumpian dimensions, one that, in recent decades, has wreaked untold havoc while distracting policymakers from concerns far more urgent than engaging in damage control on behalf of Mohammad Bin Salman. A proper appreciation of the History of the Present will only begin with the realization that the United States needs neither MBS, nor Saudi Arabia, nor for that matter a sprawling and expensive national security apparatus to police the Persian Gulf.

What this country does need is to recognize that the twentieth century is gone for good. Developments ranging from the worsening threat posed by climate change to the shifting power balance in East Asia, not to mention the transformation of American politics ushered in by Donald Trump, should have made this patently obvious. If Professor Conway is right — and I'm convinced that he is — then it's past time to give the narratives of the twentieth century a decent burial. Doing so may be a precondition for our very survival.

Sadly, Joe Biden and his associates appear demonstrably incapable of exchanging the history that they know for a history on which our future may well depend. As a result, they will cling to an increasingly irrelevant past. Under the guise of correcting Trump's failures, they will perpetuate their own.

Copyright 2021 Andrew Bacevich

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands(the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His most recent book is The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory. His new book, After the Apocalypse: America's Role in a World Transformed, is due out in June.

These evils afflicting our nation lie beyond the power of any president to remedy

When Martin Luther King preached his famous sermon "Beyond Vietnam" at Riverside Church in New York City in April 1967, I don't recall giving his words a second thought. Although at the time I was just up the Hudson River attending West Point, his call for a "radical revolution in values" did not resonate with me. By upbringing and given my status as a soldier-in-the-making, radical revolutions were not my thing. To grasp the profound significance of "the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism" to which he called his listeners' attention was beyond my intellectual capacity. I didn't even try to unpack their meaning.

In that regard, the ensuing decades have filled a void in my education. I long ago concluded that Dr. King was then offering the essential interpretive key to understanding our contemporary American dilemma. The predicament in which we find ourselves today stems from our reluctance to admit to the crippling interaction among the components of the giant triplets he described in that speech. True, racism, extreme materialism, and militarism each deserve — and separately sometimes receive — condemnation. But it's the way that the three of them sustain one another that accounts for our nation's present parlous condition.

Let me suggest that King's prescription remains as valid today as when he issued it more than half a century ago — hence, my excuse for returning to it so soon after citing it in a previous TomDispatch. Sadly, however, neither the American people nor the American ruling class seem any more inclined to take that prescription seriously today than I was in 1967. We persist in rejecting Dr. King's message.

Martin Luther King is enshrined in American memory as a great civil rights leader and rightly so. Yet as his Riverside Church Address made plain, his life's mission went far beyond fighting racial discrimination. His real purpose was to save America's soul, a self-assigned mission that was either wildly presumptuous or deeply prophetic.

In either case, his Riverside Church presentation was not well received at the time. Even in quarters generally supportive of the civil rights movement, press criticism was widespread. King's detractors chastised him for straying out of his lane. "To divert the energies of the civil rights movement to the Vietnam issue is both wasteful and self-defeating," the New York Times insisted. Its editorial board assured their readers that racism and the ongoing war were distinct and unrelated: "Linking these hard, complex problems will lead not to solutions but to deeper confusion." King needed to stick to race and let others more qualified tend to war.

The Washington Post agreed. King's ill-timed and ill-tempered presentation had "diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people." According to the Post's editorial board, King had "done a grave injury to those who are his natural allies" and "an even greater injury to himself." His reputation had suffered permanent damage. "Many who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same respect."

Life magazine weighed in with its own editorial slap on the wrist. To suggest any connection between the war in Vietnam and the condition of Black citizens at home, according to Life, was little more than "demagogic slander." The ongoing conflict in Southeast Asia had "nothing to do with the legitimate battle for equal rights here in America."

How could King not have seen that? In retrospect, we may wonder how ostensibly sophisticated observers could have overlooked the connection between racism, war, and a perverse value system that obsessively elevated and celebrated the acquisition and consumption of mere things.

More Than the Sum of Its Parts

In recent months, more than a few stressed-out observers of the American scene have described 2020 as this nation's Worst. Year. Ever. Only those with exceedingly short memories will buy such hyperbole.

As recently as the 1960s, dissent and disorder occurred on a far larger scale and a more sustained basis than anything that Americans have endured of late. No doubt Covid-19 and Donald Trump collaborated to make 2020 a year of genuine misery and death, with last month's assault on the Capitol adding a disconcerting exclamation point to the nightmare.

But recall the headline events following King's Riverside Church presentation. The year 1968 began with the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, which obliterated official claims that the United States was "winning" the war there. Next came North Korea's audacious seizure of a U.S. Navy ship, the USS Pueblo, a national humiliation. Soon after, President Lyndon Johnson's surprise decision not to run for reelection turned the race for the presidency upside down.

In April, an assassin murdered Dr. King, an event that triggered rioting on a scale dwarfing 2020's disturbances in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Portland, Oregon, and Kenosha, Wisconsin. (Mere days after the assassination, as I arrived in Washington for — of all things — a rugby tournament, fires were still burning and the skies were still black with smoke.) That June, not five years after his brother was shot and killed, Senator Robert Kennedy, his effort to win the Democratic presidential nomination just then gaining momentum, fell to an assassin's bullet, his death stunning the nation and the world. The chaotic and violent Democratic National Convention, held in Chicago that August and broadcast live, suggested that the country was on the verge of coming apart at the seams. By year's end, Richard Nixon, back from the political wilderness, was preparing to assume the reins as president — a prospect that left intact the anger and division that had been accumulating over the preceding 12 months.

True enough, the total number of American deaths caused by Covid-19 in 2020 greatly exceeds those from a distant war and domestic violence in 1968. Even so — and even without the menacing presence of Donald Trump looming over the political scene — the stress to which the nation was subjected in 1968 was at least as great as what occurred last year.

The point of making such a been-there/done-that comparison is not to suggest that, with Trump exiled to Mar-a-Lago, Americans can finally begin to relax, counting on Joe Biden to "build back better" and restore a semblance of normalcy to the country. Rather the point is that the evils afflicting our nation are deep-seated, persistent, and lie beyond the power of any mere president to remedy.

America's Twenty-First-Century Racist Wars

A devotion to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness defines the essence of the American way of life. So the Founders declared and so we are schooled to believe. Well, yes, replied Dr. King in 1967, but racism, materialism, and militarism have likewise woven themselves into the fabric of American life. As much as we may prefer to pretend otherwise, those giant triplets define who we are as much as Jefferson's Declaration or the Framers' Constitution do.

For various reasons, Donald Trump not least among them, racism today again ranks atop the hierarchy of issues commanding national attention. Political progressives, champions of diversity, cultural elites, and even multinational corporations attentive to the bottom line profess their commitment to ending racism (as they define it) finally and forever. Some not-trivial portion of the rest of the population — the white nationalists chanting "You will not replace us," for example — hold to another view. The elimination of racism, assuming such a goal is even plausible, will surely entail a further protracted struggle.

By 1967, King had concluded that winning that fight required expanding the scope of analysis. Hence, the imperative of speaking out against the Vietnam War, which until that moment he had hesitated to do. For King, it had become "incandescently clear" that the ongoing war was poisoning "America's soul." Racism and war were intertwined. They fed upon one another.

By now, it should be incandescently clear that our own forever wars of the twenty-first century, fought on a distinctly lesser scale than Vietnam, though over an even longer period of time, have had a similar effect. The places that the United States bombs, invades, and/or occupies typically fall into the category of what President Trump once disparaged as "shithole countries." The inhabitants tend to be impoverished, non-white, non-English speaking, and, by American standards, often not especially well-educated. They subscribe to customs and religious traditions that many Americans view as primitive if not altogether alien.

That the average G.I. should deem the lives of Afghans or Iraqis of lesser value than the life of an American may be regrettable, but given our history it can hardly be surprising. A persistent theme of American wars going back to the colonial era is that, once the shooting starts, difference signifies inferiority.

Although no high-ranking government official and no senior military officer will admit it, racism permeates our post-9/11 wars. And as is so often the case, poisons generated abroad have a curious knack for finding their way home.

With few exceptions, Americans prefer to ignore this reality. Implicit in the thank-you-for-your-service air kisses so regularly lofted toward the troops is an illusion that wartime service correlates with virtue, as if combat were a great builder of character. Last month's assault on the Capitol should finally have made it impossible to sustain that illusion.

In fact, as a consequence of our post-9/11 "forever wars," the virus of militarism has infected many quarters of American society, perhaps even more so in our day than in King's. Among the evident results: the spread of racist and extreme right-wing ideologies within the ranks of the armed services; the conversion of police forces into quasi-military entities with a penchant for using excessive force against people of color; and the emergence of well-armed militia groups posing as "patriots" while conspiring to overturn the constitutional order.

It's important, of course, not to paint such a picture with too broad a brush. Not every soldier is a neo-Nazi — not even close. Not every cop is a shoot-first, then-knock racist thug. Not every defender of the Second Amendment conspires to "stop the steal" and reinstall Donald Trump in the Oval Office. But bad soldiers, bad cops, and traitors who wrap themselves in the flag exist in disturbingly large numbers. Certainly, were he alive today, Martin Luther King would not flinch from pointing out that the American penchant for war in recent decades has yielded a host of perverse results here at home.

Then there's King's third triplet, hidden in plain sight: the "extreme materialism" of a people intent on satisfying appetites that are quite literally limitless in a society that has become ever more economically unequal. Americans have always been the people of more. Enough is never enough. True in 1776, this remains true today.

A nation in which "machines and computers, profit motives and property rights" take precedence over people, King warned in 1967, courts something akin to spiritual death. King's primary concern was not the distribution of material wealth, but the obsessive importance attributed to accumulating and possessing it.

Embracing equity as a major theme, the Biden administration holds to a different view. Its stated aim is to enable the "underserved and left behind" to catch up, with priority attention given to "communities of color and other underserved Americans." In short: more for some, but not for others.

Such an effort will inevitably produce a backlash. Given a culture that deems billionaires the ultimate fulfillment of the American dream, the only politically acceptable program is one that holds out the promise of more for all. Since its very first days, the purpose of the American Experiment has been to satisfy this demand for more, even if perpetuating that effort today inflicts untold damage on the natural environment.

Prophetic Deficit

In his Riverside Church sermon, King mused that "the world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve." In the decades since, has our nation "matured" in any meaningful sense? Or have the habits of consumption that defined our way of life in 1967 only become more entrenched, even as Information Age manipulations to which Americans willingly submit reinforce those habits further?

Maturity suggests wisdom and judgment. It implies experience put to good use. Does that describe the America of our time? Again, it's important to avoid painting with too broad a brushstroke. But ours is a country in which 74 million Americans voted to give Donald Trump a second term, a larger total than any prior presidential candidate ever received. And ours is a country in which millions believe that a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles controls the apparatus of government.

Whether wittingly or not, when Joe Biden committed himself in 2020 to saving "the soul of America," he was echoing Martin Luther King in 1967. But saving the nation's soul requires more than simply replacing Trump in the Oval Office, issuing a steady stream of executive orders, and reciting speeches off a teleprompter (something that Biden does with evident difficulty).

Saving that soul requires moral imagination, a quality not commonly found in American politics. George Washington probably possessed it. Abraham Lincoln surely did. For a brief moment when delivering his Farewell Address, President Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke in a prophetic voice. So, too, did Jimmy Carter in his widely derided but enduringly profound "Malaise Speech" of 1979. But as this mere handful of examples suggests, the rough and tumble of political life only rarely accommodates prophets.

While Joe Biden may be a decent enough fellow, at no point in his long but not especially distinguished political career has he ever been mistaken for possessing prophetic gifts. Much the same can be said about the highly credentialed political veterans with whom he has surrounded himself: Kamala Harris, Antony Blinken, Lloyd Austin, Jake Sullivan, Janet Yellen, and the rest. When it comes to diversity, they check all the necessary boxes. Yet none of them gives even the slightest indication of grasping the plight of a nation held in the grip of King's giant triplets.

As a devout Christian and a preacher of surpassing eloquence, King knew that salvation begins with an admission of sinfulness, followed by repentance. Only then does redemption become a possibility.

Only by acknowledging the evil caused by the simultaneous presence of racism and materialism and militarism at the heart of this country will it be remotely possible for the United States to take even the first few halting steps toward redemption. We await the prophetic voice that will awaken the American people to this imperative.

Copyright 2021 Andrew Bacevich

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands(the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His most recent book is The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory. His new book, After the Apocalypse: America's Role in a World Transformed, will be published in 2021.

The lessons of two failed wars

In choosing a title for his final, posthumously published book, the prominent public intellectual Tony Judt turned to a poem by Oliver Goldsmith, The Deserted Village, published in 1770. Judt found his book's titlein the first words of this couplet:

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay

A poignant sentiment but let me acknowledge that I'm not a big Goldsmith fan. My own preferences in verse run more toward Merle Haggard, whose country music hits include the following lyric from his 1982 song "Are the Good Times Really Over?":

Is the best of the free life behind us now
And are the good times really over for good?

I wonder, though: Is it possible that the insights of an eighteenth-century Anglo-Irish novelist-poet and a twentieth-century American singer-songwriter, each reflecting on a common theme of decadence and each served up with a dollop of nostalgia, just might intersect?

Allow me to try the reader's patience with a bit more ofGoldsmith:

O luxury! thou curst by Heaven's decree,
How ill exchanged are things like these for thee!
How do thy potions, with insidious joy,
Diffuse their pleasures only to destroy!
Kingdoms, by thee, to sickly greatness grown,
Boast of a florid vigour not their own;
At every draught more large and large they grow
A bloated mass of rank unwieldy woe.
Down, down they sink, and spread a ruin round.

Powerful stuff, but here's Haggard making a similar point without frills:

I wish a buck was still silver
It was back when the country was strong
Back before Elvis
Before the Vietnam War came along...
Are we rolling down hill
Like a snowball headed for Hell?
With no kind of chance
For the Flag or the Liberty Bell

Let me concede from the outset that these laments emerge directly from the heart of the patriarchy. In our present moment, some will discount the complaints of Messrs. Goldsmith and Haggard as not to be taken seriously. As the second decade of the twenty-first century draws to a close, bellyaching white guys tend not to command a lot of sympathy.

Still, with this abysmal year finally ending, the melancholy notes sounded by Goldsmith and Haggard strike me as apt. The Age of Biden -- or given our preference for faux intimacy, the Age of Joe and Kamala -- beckons. Yet I'm anything but certain that 2021 will inaugurate a happier time.

That said, for those who believe history has its own rhymes and rhythms, the election of Biden and Harris just might herald a turning point of sorts. After all, for more than a century now, presidential elections occurring in even numbered years ending in zero have resulted in big changes.

Don't take my word for it. Check the record.

Thanks to the assassin who prematurely terminated William McKinley's presidency, the election of 1900 inaugurated the reformist Progressive Era. Two decades later, Americans yearning for a return to "normalcy" voted for Warren G. Harding. Instead of normalcy, they got the splashy upheaval of the Twenties and the ensuing Great Depression.

Once the balloting in 1940 handed Franklin Roosevelt an unprecedented third term, hopes entertained by some Americans of staying out of World War II were doomed. Global war vaulted the United States to a position of global primacy -- and soon gave rise to new challenges. John F. Kennedy's election in 1960 empowered a generation "born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace" to address those challenges. Unanticipated complications ensued, as they did again in 1980 and 2000, the former initiating the Reagan Revolution, the latter election of George W. Bush setting the stage for the Global War on Terror and, by extension, Donald Trump.

The challenges awaiting Biden and Harris arguably outweigh those that confronted any of those past administrations, Roosevelt's excepted. In a recent New York Times column, the man who lost that disputed 2000 election, Al Gore, inventoried the most pressing problems that Biden's team will confront. In addition to the coronavirus pandemic, they include:

"40 years of economic stagnation for middle-income families; hyper-inequality of incomes and wealth, with high levels of poverty; horrific structural racism; toxic partisanship; the impending collapse of nuclear arms control agreements; an epistemological crisis undermining the authority of knowledge; recklessly unprincipled behavior by social media companies; and, most dangerous of all, the climate crisis."

That makes for quite a daunting catalog. Yet note this one striking omission: Gore makes no mention of America's seemingly never-ending penchant for war and military adventurism.

Before the Vietnam War Came Along

Surely, though, war has contributed in no small way to "the bloated mass of rank unwieldy woe" besetting our nation today. And were Merle Haggard to update "Are the Good Times Really Over?" he would doubtlessinclude the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq alongside Vietnam as prominent among the factors that have sent this country caroming downward.

In the evening of my life, as I reflect on the events of our time that ended up mattering most, the wars in Vietnam and Iraq top my list. Together, they define the poles around which much of my professional life has revolved, whether as a soldier, teacher, or writer. It would be fair to say that I'm haunted by those two conflicts.

I could write pages and pages on how Vietnam and Iraqdiffer from each other, beginning with the fact that they are separated in timeby nearly a half-century. Locale, the contours of the battlefields, the character of combat, the casualties inflicted and sustained, the sheer quantity of ordnance expended -- when it comes to such measures and others, Vietnam and Iraq differ greatly. Yet while those differences are worth noting, it's the unappreciated similarities between them that are truly instructive.

Seven such similarities stand out:

First, Vietnam and Iraq were both avoidable: For the United States, they were wars of choice. No one pushed us. We dove in headfirst.

Second, both turned out to be superfluous, undertaken in response to threats -- monolithic Communism and Iraqi weapons of mass destruction -- that were figments of fevered imaginations. In both cases, cynicism and moral cowardice played a role in paving the way toward war. Dissenting voices were ignored.

Third, both conflicts proved to be costly distractions. Each devoured on a prodigious scale resources that might have been used so much more productively elsewhere. Each diverted attention from matters of far more immediate importance to Americans. Each, in other words, triggered a massive hemorrhage of blood, treasure, and influence to no purpose whatsoever.

Fourth, in each instance, political leaders in Washington and senior commanders in the field collaborated in committing grievous blunders. War is complicated. All wars see their share of mistakes and misjudgments. But those two featured a level of incompetence unmatched since Custer's Last Stand.

Fifth, thanks to that incompetence, both devolved into self-inflicted quagmires. In Washington, in Saigon, and in Baghdad's "Green Zone," baffled authorities watched as the control of events slipped from their grasp. Meanwhile, in the field, U.S. troops flailed about for years in futile pursuit of a satisfactory outcome.

Sixth, on the home front, both conflicts left behind a poisonous legacy of unrest, rancor, and bitterness. Members of the Baby Boom generation (to which I belong) have chosen to enshrine Vietnam-era protest as high-minded and admirable. Many Americans then held and still hold a different opinion. As for the Iraq War, it contributed mightily to yawning political cleavages that appear unlikely to heal anytime soon.

And finally, with both political and military elites alike preferring simply to move on, neither war has received a proper accounting. Their place in the larger narrative of American history is still unsettled. This may be the most important similarity of all. Both Vietnam and Iraq remain bizarrely undigested, their true meaning yet to be discerned and acknowledged. Too recent to forget, too confounding to ignore, they remain anomalous.

The American wars in Vietnam and Iraq are contradictions that await resolution.

Jaw, Jaw, Not War, War

For that very reason, when politicians (including Joe Biden) talk about war, they talk about others, their all-time favorite being the one fought against Nazi Germany between December 1941 and May 1945. There -- and not in Vietnam or Iraq -- do members of the establishment find the lessons that they have enshrined as permanently relevant.

The first American war against Germany in 1917-1918 doesn't carry much weight at all. Just a couple of years ago, its centennial came and went virtually unnoticed. Likewise, the war against Japan that occurred in tandem with the second war against Germany seldom gets much attention either. We "remember Pearl Harbor" and that's about it.

The war against the Nazis, however, is a gift that never stops giving. It yields a great bounty of lessons: never appease; never hesitate to call evil by its name; never back down; and never flinch from the challenges of leadership, which necessarily implies a willingness to use force. And in moments of distress, channel your inner Winston Churchill circa 1940: "Never surrender!"

The problem with clinging to such ostensibly canonical lessons today is that we are no longer the nation that defeated Nazi Germany. The United States was establishing itself as the dominant industrial power on the planet then, while Washington still had the capacity to mobilize the American people pursuant to what was described at the time as a "Great Crusade." A taken-for-granted tradition of white supremacy underwrote a cultural unity that lent more than a modicum of substance to the claims of e pluribus unum. None of this remains faintly relevant today.

When it comes to present-day policy, the relevant fact is that we are the nation that failed in both Vietnam and Iraq. Along the way, we lost our status as the planet's dominant industrial power. Meanwhile, Washington forfeited its authority to mobilize the American people for war. More recently, cleavages stemming from class, race, religion, gender, and ethnicity, split the country into antagonistic factions. Al Gore was merely premature when, as vice president, he famously mistranslated the nation's motto as "out of one, many."

Now, if you prioritize Vietnam and Iraq over the war against Nazi Germany, you'll come face-to-face with a very different set of lessons. Here are four that the Biden administration might do well to contemplate.

First, situating the United States within a larger entity called the West -- a notion dating from the time when America and Great Britain (with plentiful help from the Soviet Union) rallied to defeat Hitler -- no longer works. The West doesn't exist. These days when the United States opts for war, it must expect to fight alone or with only nominal allied assistance. This was true in Vietnam and again in Iraq. No grand coalition will form.

Second, however gussied up or camouflaged, imperialism no longer retains the slightest legitimacy. Peoples once classified as inferior, usually on the basis of skin color, no longer tolerate outsiders telling them how to govern themselves. Few Americans are willing to acknowledge the imperial motives that have long shaped this country's global policies. The Vietnamese and Iraqis opposing the U.S. military presence in their midst entertained few doubts on that score; hence, the fierceness with which they defended their right to self-determination.

Third, if the United States remains intent on exporting its version of freedom and democracy, it will have to devise far less coercive ways of doing so. Rather than using armed force to alter the political landscape in faraway places, elites should acknowledge the limited utility of military power. Calling on the troops to defend, deter, and contain works far better than charging them to invade, occupy, and transform.

Fourth, dumb wars deplete. Vietnam and Iraq both inflicted untold damage on the American economy. With the U.S. government currently running an annual deficit of some $3 trillion, we can't afford to squander any more money on ill-advised military campaigns. A less known quote attributed to Churchill commends itself in our present situation: "Jaw, jaw, jaw is better than war, war, war."

As it enters the third decade of the twenty-first century, the United States is badly in need of more jaw, jaw and less war, war -- more fix, fix, and less fight, fight.

Over to You, Joe

I am not enamored of presidents. I'm even less of a fan of "presidentialism" -- the belief, firmly held by American elites, that the fate of the planet turns on what the president of the United States says or does (or doesn't do). For that reason, I have learned not to expect much of whoever happens to occupy the Oval Office.

In practice, the Most Powerful Man in the World usually turns out to be not all that powerful. Rather than directing History with a capital H, he (not yet she), like the rest of us, is pretty much just along for the ride. In their own ways, Goldsmith and Haggard implicitly endorsed such a fatalistic perspective.

In political circles, a different view tends to prevail. Today, virtually all Democrats and many in the media ascribe to Donald Trump full blame for the mess in which this country finds itself. Yet Americans would do well to temper their expectations of what supplanting Trumpism with Bidenism is likely to produce.

On January 20, 2021, the "torch" to which John F. Kennedy memorably referred in his inaugural address will once again be passed. Let's hope that, in grasping it, Biden and Harris will heed one of the principal lessons of the Kennedy era: no more Vietnams. To which I would simply add: no more Iraqs (or Afghanistans, or Yemens, or... well, you know the list). Only then might it become possible to undertake the daunting task of repairing our country.

Good luck, Joe. You, too, Kamala. In the coming days, you're both going to need a truckful of it.

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His most recent book is The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory. His new book After the Apocalypse: America's Role in a World Transformed will be published in 2021.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Centuy: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Andrew Bacevich

Yes — it's time to finally leave Afghanistan

Let's open up and sing, and ring the bells out

Ding-dong! the merry-oh sing it high, sing it low

Let them know the wicked witch is dead!Within establishment circles, Donald Trump's failure to win re-election has prompted merry singing and bell-ringing galore. If you read the New York Times or watch MSNBC, the song featured in the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oznicely captures the mood of the moment.

As a consequence, expectations for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to put America back on the path to the Emerald City after a dispiriting four-year detour are sky high. The new administration will defeat Covid-19, restore prosperity, vanquish racism, reform education, expand healthcare coverage, tackle climate change, and provide an effective and humane solution to the problem of undocumented migrants. Oh, and Biden will also return the United States to its accustomed position of global leadership. And save America's soul to boot.

So we are told.

That these expectations are deemed even faintly credible qualifies as passing strange. After all, the outcome of the 2020 presidential election turned less on competing approaches to governance than on the character of the incumbent. It wasn't Joe Biden as principled standard-bearer of enlightened twenty-first-century liberalism who prevailed. It was Joe Biden, a retread centrist pol who emerged as the last line of defense shielding America and the world from four more years of Donald Trump.

So the balloting definitively resolved only a single question: by 80 million to 74 million votes, a margin of six million, Americans signaled their desire to terminate Trump's lease on the White House. Yet even if repudiating the president, voters hardly repudiated Trumpism. Republicans actually gained seats in the House of Representatives and appear likely to retain control of the Senate.

On November 3rd, a twofold transfer of power commenced. A rapt public has fixed its attention on the first of those transfers: Biden's succession to the presidency (and Trump's desperate resistance to the inevitable outcome). But a second, hardly less important transfer of power is also occurring. Once it became clear that Trump was not going to win a second term, control of the Republican Party began reverting from the president to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The implications of that shift are immense, as Biden, himself a longtime member of the Senate, no doubt appreciates.

Consider this telling anecdote from former President Barack Obama's just published memoir. Obama had tasked then-Vice President Biden with cajoling McConnell into supporting a piece of legislation favored by the administration. After Biden made his pitch, the hyper-partisan McConnell dourly replied, "You must be under the mistaken impression that I care." End of negotiation.

Perhaps the Democrats will miraculously win both Senate seats in Georgia's January runoff elections and so consign McConnell to the status of minority leader. If they don't, let us not labor under the mistaken impression that he'll support Biden's efforts to defeat Covid-19, restore prosperity, vanquish racism, reform education, expand healthcare coverage, tackle climate change, or provide an effective and humane solution to the problem of undocumented migrants.

It's a given that McConnell isn't any more interested in saving souls than he is in passing legislation favored by Democrats. That leaves restoring American global leadership as the sole remaining arena where President Biden might elicit from a McConnell-controlled GOP something other than unremitting obstructionism.

And that, in turn, brings us face to face with the issue Democrats and Republicans alike would prefer to ignore: the U.S. penchant for war. Since the end of the Cold War and especially since the terror attacks of 9/11, successive administrations have relied on armed force to assert, affirm, or at least shore up America's claim to global leadership. The results have not been pretty. A series of needless and badly mismanaged wars have contributed appreciably -- more even than Donald Trump's zany ineptitude -- to the growing perception that the United States is now a declining power. That perception is not without validity. Over the past two decades, wars have depleted America's strength and undermined its global influence.

So, as the U.S. embarks on the post-Trump era, what are the prospects that a deeply divided government presiding over a deeply divided polity will come to a more reasoned and prudent attitude toward war? A lot hinges on whether Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell can agree on an answer to that question.

An Unexpected Gift for "Sleepy Joe"

As his inevitable exit from the White House approaches, President Trump himself may be forcing the issue.

One of the distinctive attributes of our 45th president is that he never seemed terribly interested in actually tending to the duties of his office. He does not, in fact, possess a work ethic in any traditional sense. He prefers to swagger and strut rather than deliberate and decide. Once it became clear that he wasn't going to win a second term, he visibly gave up even the pretense of governing. Today, he golfs, tweets, and rails. According to news reports, he no longer even bothers to set aside time for the daily presidential intelligence briefing.

As the clock runs out, however, certain Trumpian impulses remain in play. The war in Afghanistan, now in its 19th year, offers a notable example. In 2001, President George W. Bush ordered U.S. forces to invade the country, but prematurely turned his attention to a bigger and more disastrous misadventure in Iraq. Barack Obama inherited the Afghanistan War, promised to win it, and ordered a large-scale surge in the U.S. troop presence there. Yet the conflict stubbornly dragged on through his two terms. As for candidate Trump, during campaign 2016, he vowed to end it once and for all. In office, however, he never managed to pull the plug -- until now, that is.

Soon after losing the election, the president ousted several senior Pentagon civilians, including Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, and replaced them (for a couple of months anyway) with loyalists sharing his oft-stated commitment to "ending endless wars." Within days of taking office, new Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller issued a letter to the troops, signaling his own commitment to that task.

"We are not a people of perpetual war," he wrote, describing endless war as "the antithesis of everything for which we stand and for which our ancestors fought." The time for accepting the inevitable had now arrived. "All wars must end," he continued, adding that trying harder was not going to produce a better outcome. "We gave it our all," he concluded. "Now, it's time to come home."

Miller avoided using terms like victory or defeat, success or failure, and did not specify an actual timetable for a full-scale withdrawal. Yet Trump had already made his intentions clear: he wanted all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the year and preferably by Christmas. Having forgotten or punted on innumerable other promises, Trump appeared determined to make good on this one. It's likely, in fact, that Miller's primary -- perhaps only -- charge during his abbreviated tour of duty as Pentagon chief is to enable Trump to claim success in terminating at least one war.

So during this peculiar betwixt-and-between moment of ours, with one administration packing its bags and the next one trying to get its bearings, a question of immense significance to the future course of American statecraft presents itself: Will the United States at long last ring down the curtain on the most endless of its endless wars? Or, under the guise of seeking a "responsible end," will it pursue the irresponsible course of prolonging a demonstrably futile enterprise through another presidency?

As Miller will soon discover, if he hasn't already, his generals don't concur with the commander-in-chief's determination to "come home." Whether in Afghanistan or Somalia, Iraq, Syria, or Europe, they have demonstrated great skill in foiling his occasional gestures aimed at reducing the U.S. military's overseas profile.

The available evidence suggests that Joe Biden's views align with those of the generals. True, the conduct and legacy of recent wars played next to no role in deciding the outcome of the 2020 presidential election (suggesting that many Americans have made their peace with endless war). Still, given expectations that anyone aspiring to high office these days must stake out a position on every conceivable issue and promise something for everyone, candidate Biden spelled out his intentions regarding Afghanistan.

Basically, he wants to have it both ways. So he is on record insisting that "these 'forever wars' have to end," while simultaneously proposing to maintain a contingent of American troops in Afghanistan to "take out terrorist groups who are going to continue to emerge." In other words, Biden proposes to declare that the longest war in U.S. history has ended, while simultaneously underwriting its perpetuation.

Such a prospect will find favor with the generals, members of the foreign policy establishment, and media hawks. Yet hanging on in Afghanistan (or other active theaters of war) will contribute nothing to Biden's larger promise to "build back better." Indeed, the staggering expenses that accompany protracted wars will undermine his prospects of making good on his domestic reform agenda. It's the dilemma that Lyndon Johnson faced in the mid-1960s: You can have your Great Society, Mr. President, or you can have your war in Vietnam, but you can't have both.

Biden will face an analogous problem. Put simply, his stated position on Afghanistan is at odds with the larger aspirations of his presidency.

At Long Last an Exit Strategy?

As a practical matter, the odds of Trump actually ending the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan between now and his departure from office are nil. The logistical challenges are daunting, especially given that the pick-up team now running the Pentagon is made up of something other than all-stars. And the generals will surely drag their feet, while mobilizing allies not just in the punditocracy but in the Republican Party itself.

As a practical matter, Acting Secretary Miller has already bowed to reality. The definition of success now is, it seems, to cut the force there roughly in half, from 4,500 to 2,500, by Inauguration Day, with the remainder of U.S. troops supposedly coming out of Afghanistan by May 2021 (months after both Trump and Miller will be out of a job).

So call it Operation Half a Loaf. But half is better than none. Even if Trump won't succeed in reducing U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan to zero, I'm rooting for him anyway. As, indeed, Joe Biden should be -- because if Trump makes headway in shutting down America's war there, Biden will be among the principal beneficiaries.

Whatever his actual motives, Trump has cracked open a previously shut door to an exit strategy. Through that door lies the opportunity of turning the page on a disastrous era of American statecraft dominated by a misplaced obsession with events in the Greater Middle East.

Twin convictions shaped basic U.S. policy during this period: the first was that the United States has vital interests at stake in this region, even in utterly remote parts of it like Afghanistan; the second, that the United States can best advance those interests by amassing and employing military power. The first of those convictions turned out to be wildly misplaced, the second tragically wrong-headed. Yet pursuant to those very mistaken beliefs, successive administrations have flung away lives, treasure, and influence with complete abandon. The American people have gained less than nothing in return. In fact, in terms of where taxpayer dollars were invested, they've lost their shirts.

Acting Secretary Miller's charge to the troops plainly acknowledges a bitter truth to which too few members of the Washington establishment have been willing to admit: the time to move on from this misguided project is now. To the extent that Donald Trump's lame-duck administration begins the process of extricating the United States from Afghanistan, he will demonstrate the feasibility of doing so elsewhere as well. Tired arguments for staying the course could then lose their persuasive power.

Doubtless, after all these disastrous years, there will be negative consequences to leaving Afghanistan. Ill-considered and mismanaged wars inevitably yield poisonous fruit. There will be further bills to pay. Still, ending the U.S. war there will establish a precedent for ending our military involvement in Iraq, Syria, and Somalia as well. Terminating direct U.S. military involvement across the Greater Middle East and much of Africa will create an opportunity to reconfigure U.S. policy in a world that has changed dramatically since the United States recklessly embarked upon its crusade to transform great swathes of the Islamic world.

Biden himself should welcome such an opportunity. Admittedly, Mitch McConnell, no longer fully subservient to President Trump, predicts that withdrawing from Afghanistan will produce an outcome "reminiscent of the humiliating American departure from Saigon in 1975." In reality, of course, failure in Vietnam stemmed not from the decision to leave, but from an erroneous conviction that it was incumbent upon Americans to decide the destiny of the Vietnamese people. The big mistake occurred not in 1975 when American troops finally departed, but a decade earlier when President Johnson decided that it was incumbent upon the United States to Americanize the war.

As Americans learned in Vietnam, the only way to end a war gone wrong is to leave the field of battle. If that describes Trump's intentions in Afghanistan, then we may finally have some reason to be grateful for his service to our nation. With time, Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell might even come to see the wisdom of doing so.

And then, of course, they can bicker about the shortest path to the Emerald City.

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His most recent book is The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Andrew Bacevich

The birth of American supremacy — and the carefully constructed myth of 'isolationism'

The so-called Age of Trump is also an age of instantly forgotten bestselling books, especially ones purporting to provide the inside scoop on what goes on within Donald Trump's haphazard and continuously shifting orbit. With metronomic regularity, such gossipy volumes appear, make a splash, and almost as quickly vanish, leaving a mark no more lasting than a trout breaking the surface in a pond.

Remember when Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House was all the rage? It's now available in hardcover for $0.99 from online used booksellers. James Comey's Higher Loyaltyalso sells for a penny less than a buck.

An additional forty-six cents will get you Omarosa Manigault Newman's "insider's account" of her short-lived tenure in that very White House. For the same price, you can acquire Sean Spicer's memoir as Trump's press secretary, Anthony Scaramucci's rendering of his tumultuous 11-day stint as White House communications director, and Corey Lewandowski's "inside story" of the 2016 presidential campaign.

Bibliophiles intent on assembling a complete library of Trumpiana will not have long to wait before the tell-all accounts of John Bolton, Michael Cohen, Mary Trump, and that journalistic amaneusis Bob Woodward will surely be available at similar bargain basement prices.

All that said, even in these dismal times genuinely important books do occasionally make their appearance. My friend and colleague Stephen Wertheim is about to publish one. It's called Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacyand if you'll forgive me for being direct, you really ought to read it. Let me explain why.

The "Turn"

Wertheim and I are co-founders of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a small Washington, D.C.-based think tank. That Quincy refers to John Quincy Adams who, as secretary of state nearly two centuries ago, warned his fellow citizens against venturing abroad "in search of monsters to destroy." Were the United States to do so, Adams predicted, its defining trait -- its very essence -- "would insensibly change from liberty to force." By resorting to force, America "might become the dictatress of the world," he wrote, but "she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit." While his gendered punchline might rankle contemporary sensibilities, it remains apt.

A privileged man of his times, Adams took it for granted that a WASP male elite was meant to run the country. Women were to occupy their own separate sphere. And while he would eventually become an ardent opponent of slavery, in 1821 race did not rank high on his agenda either. His immediate priority as secretary of state was to situate the young republic globally so that Americans might enjoy both safety and prosperity. That meant avoiding unnecessary trouble. We had already had our revolution. In his view, it wasn't this country's purpose to promote revolution elsewhere or to dictate history's future course.

Adams was to secretaries of state what Tom Brady is to NFL quarterbacks: the Greatest Of All Time. As the consensus GOAT in the estimation of diplomatic historians, he brought to maturity a pragmatic tradition of statecraft originated by a prior generation of New Englanders and various slaveholding Virginians with names like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison. That tradition emphasized opportunistically ruthless expansionism on this continent, avid commercial engagement, and the avoidance of great power rivalries abroad. Adhering to such a template, the United States had, by the beginning of the twentieth century, become the wealthiest, most secure nation on the planet -- at which point Europeans spoiled the party.

The disastrous consequences of one European world war fought between 1914 and 1918 and the onset of a second in 1939 rendered that pragmatic tradition untenable -- so at least a subsequent generation of WASPs concluded. This is where Wertheim takes up the story. Prompted by the German army's lightning victory in the battle of France in May and June 1940, members of that WASP elite set about creating -- and promoting -- an alternative policy paradigm, one he describes as pursuing "dominance in the name of internationalism," with U.S. military supremacy deemed "the prerequisite of a decent world."

The new elite that devised this paradigm did not consist of lawyers from Massachusetts or planters from Virginia. Its key members held tenured positions at Yale and Princeton, wrote columns for leading New York newspapers, staffed Henry Luce's Time-Life press empire, and distributed philanthropic largesse to fund worthy causes (grasping the baton of global primacy being anything but least among them). Most importantly, just about every member of this Eastern establishment cadre was also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). As such, they had a direct line to the State Department, which in those days actually played a large role in formulating basic foreign policy.

While Tomorrow, The World is not a long book -- fewer than 200 pages of text -- it is a tour de force. In it, Wertheim describes the new narrative framework that the foreign-policy elite formulated in the months following the fall of France. He shows how Americans with an antipathy for war now found themselves castigated as "isolationists," a derogatory term created to suggest provincialism or selfishness. Those favoring armed intervention, meanwhile, became "internationalists," a term connoting enlightenment and generosity. Even today, members of the foreign-policy establishment pledge undying fealty to the same narrative framework, which still warns against the bugaboo of "isolationism" that threatens to prevent high-minded policymakers from exercising "global leadership."

Wertheim persuasively describes the "turn" toward militarized globalism engineered from above by that self-selected, unelected crew. Crucially, their efforts achieved success prior to Pearl Harbor. The Japanese attack of December 7, 1941, may have thrust the United States into the ongoing world war, but the essential transformation of policy had already occurred, even if ordinary Americans had yet to be notified as to what it meant. Its future implications -- permanently high levels of military spending, a vast network of foreign bases stretching across the globe, a penchant for armed intervention abroad, a sprawling "national security" apparatus, and a politically subversive arms industry -- would only become apparent in the years ahead.

While Wertheim is not the first to expose isolationism as a carefully constructed myth, he does so with devastating effect. Most of all, he helps his readers understand that "so long as the phantom of isolationism is held to be the most grievous sin, all is permitted."

Contained within that all is a cavalcade of forceful actions and grotesque miscalculations, successes and failures, notable achievements and immense tragedies both during World War II and in the decades that followed. While beyond the scope of Wertheim's book, casting the Cold War as a de facto extension of the war against Nazi Germany, with Soviet dictator Josef Stalin as a stand-in for Adolf Hitler, represented an equally significant triumph for the foreign policy establishment.

At the outset of World War II, ominous changes in the global distribution of power prompted a basic reorientation of U.S. policy. Today, fundamental alterations in the global distribution of power -- did someone say "the rise of China"? -- are once again occurring right before our eyes. Yet the foreign-policy establishment's response is simply to double down.

So, even now, staggering levels of military spending, a vast network of foreign bases, a penchant for armed intervention abroad, a sprawling "national security" apparatus, and a politically subversive arms industry remain the taken-for-granted signatures of U.S. policy. And even now, the establishment employs the specter of isolationism as a convenient mechanism for self-forgiveness and expedient amnesia, as well as a means to enforce discipline.

Frozen Compass

The fall of France was indeed an epic disaster. Yet implicit in Tomorrow, The World is this question: If the disaster that befell Europe in 1940 could prompt the United States to abandon a hitherto successfulpolicy paradigm, then why have the serial disasters befalling the nation in the present century not produced a comparable willingness to reexamine an approach to policy that is obviously failing today?

To pose that question is to posit an equivalence between the French army's sudden collapse in the face of the Wehrmacht's assault and the accumulation of U.S. military disappointments dating from 9/11. From a tactical or operational perspective, many will find such a comparison unpersuasive. After all, the present-day armed forces of the United States have not succumbed to outright defeat, nor is the government of the United States petitioning for a cessation of hostilities as the French authorities did in 1940.

Yet what matters in war are political outcomes. Time and again since 9/11, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, or lesser theaters of conflict, the United States has failed to achieve the political purposes for which it went to war. From a strategic and political perspective, therefore, the comparison with France is instructive, even if failure need not entail abject surrender.

The French people and other supporters of the 1930s European status quo (including Americans who bothered to pay attention) were counting on that country's soldiers to thwart further Nazi aggression once and for all. Defeat came as a profound shock. Similarly, after the Cold War, most Americans (and various beneficiaries of a supposed Pax Americana) counted on U.S. troops to maintain an agreeable and orderly global status quo. Instead, the profound shock of 9/11 induced Washington to embark upon what became a series of "endless wars" that U.S. forces proved incapable of bringing to a successful conclusion.

Crucially, however, no reevaluation of U.S. policy comparable to the "turn" that Wertheim describes has occurred. An exceedingly generous reading of President Trump's promise to put "America First" might credit him with attempting such a turn. In practice, however, his incompetence and inconsistency, not to mention his naked dishonesty, produced a series of bizarre and random zigzags. Threats of "fire and fury" alternated with expressions of high regard for dictators ("we fell in love"). Troop withdrawals were announced and then modified or forgotten. Trump abandoned a global environmental agreement, massively rolled back environmental regulations domestically, and then took credit for providing Americans with "the very cleanest air and cleanest water on the planet." Little of this was to be taken seriously.

Trump's legacy as a statesman will undoubtedly amount to the diplomatic equivalent of Mulligan stew. Examine the contents closely enough and you'll be able to find just about anything. Yet taken as a whole, the concoction falls well short of being nutritious, much less appetizing.

On the eve of the upcoming presidential election, the entire national security apparatus and its supporters assume that Trump's departure from office will restore some version of normalcy. Every component of that apparatus from the Pentagon and the State Department to the CIA and the Council on Foreign Relations to the editorial boards of the New York Times and Washington Post yearns for that moment.

To a very considerable degree, a Biden presidency will satisfy that yearning. Nothing if not a creature of the establishment, Biden himself will conform to its requirements. For proof, look no further than his vote in favor of invading Iraq in 2003. (No isolationist he.) Count on a Biden administration, therefore, to perpetuate the entire obsolete retinue of standard practices.

As Peter Beinart puts it, "When it comes to defense, a Biden presidency is likely to look very much like an Obama presidency, and that's going to look not so different from a Trump presidency when you really look at the numbers." Biden will increase the Pentagon budget, keep U.S. troops in the Middle East, and get tough with China. The United States will remain the world's number-one arms merchant, accelerate efforts to militarize outer space, and continue the ongoing modernization of the entire U.S. nuclear strike force. Biden will stack his team with CFR notables looking for jobs on the "inside."

Above all, Biden will recite with practiced sincerity the mantras of American exceptionalism as a summons to exercise global leadership. "The triumph of democracy and liberalism over fascism and autocracy created the free world. But this contest does not just define our past. It will define our future, as well." Those uplifting sentiments are, of course, his from a recent Foreign Affairs essay.

So if you liked U.S. national security policy before Trump mucked things up, then Biden is probably your kind of guy. Install him in the Oval Office and the mindless pursuit of "dominance in the name of internationalism" will resume. And the United States will revert to the policies that prevailed during the presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama -- policies, we should note, that paved the way for Donald Trump to win the White House.

The Voices That Count

What explains the persistence of this pattern despite an abundance of evidence showing that it's not working to the benefit of the American people? Why is it so difficult to shed a policy paradigm that dates from Hitler's assault on France, now a full 80 years in the past?

I hope that in a subsequent book Stephen Wertheim will address that essential question. In the meantime, however, allow me to make a stab at offering the most preliminary of answers.

Setting aside factors like bureaucratic inertia and the machinations of the military-industrial complex -- the Pentagon, arms manufacturers, and their advocates in Congress share an obvious interest in discovering new "threats" -- one likely explanation relates to a policy elite increasingly unable to distinguish between self-interest and the national interest. As secretary of state, John Quincy Adams never confused the two. His latter-day successors have done far less well.

As an actual basis for policy, the turn that Stephen Wertheim describes in Tomorrow, The World has proven to be nowhere near as enlightened or farseeing as its architects imagined or its latter day proponents still purport to believe it to be. The paradigm produced in 1940-1941 was, at best, merely serviceable. It responded to the nightmarish needs of that moment. It justified U.S. participation in efforts to defeat Nazi Germany, a necessary undertaking.

After 1945, except as a device for affirming the authority of foreign-policy elites, the pursuit of "dominance in the name of internationalism" proved to be problematic. Yet even as conditions changed, basic U.S. policy stayed the same: high levels of military spending, a network of foreign bases, a penchant for armed intervention abroad, a sprawling "national security" apparatus, and a politically subversive arms industry. Even after the Cold War and 9/11, these remain remarkably sacrosanct.

My own retrospective judgment of the Cold War tends toward an attitude of: well, I guess it could have been worse. When it comes to the U.S. response to 9/11, however, it's difficult to imagine what worse could have been.

Within the present-day foreign-policy establishment, however, a different interpretation prevails: the long, twilight struggle of the Cold War ended in a world historic victory, unsullied by any unfortunate post-9/11 missteps. The effect of this perspective is to affirm the wisdom of American statecraft now eight decades old and therefore justify its perpetuation long after both Hitler and Stalin, not to mention Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, are dead and gone.

This paradigm persists for one reason only: it ensures that statecraft will remain a realm that resolutely excludes the popular will. Elites decide, while the job of ordinary Americans is to foot the bill. In that regard, the allocation of privileges and obligations now 80 years old still prevails today.

Only by genuinely democratizing the formulation of foreign policy will real change become possible. The turn in U.S. policy described in Tomorrow, The World came from the top. The turn needed today will have to come from below and will require Americans to rid themselves of their habit of deference when it comes to determining what this nation's role in the world will be. Those on top will do all in their power to avert any such loss of status.

The United States today suffers from illnesses both literal and metaphorical. Restoring the nation to good health and repairing our democracy must necessarily rate as paramount concerns. While Americans cannot ignore the world beyond their borders, the last thing they need is to embark upon a fresh round of searching for distant monsters to destroy. Heeding the counsel of John Quincy Adams might just offer an essential first step toward recovery.

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His most recent book is The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Andrew Bacevic

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