Andrew Bacevich

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 title in 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 of Goldsmith:

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 doubtless include 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 Iraq differ from each other, beginning with the fact that they are separated in time by 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 Oz nicely 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 Loyalty also 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 Supremacy and 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 successful policy 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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