Tom Dispatch

How Washington lost its moral compass in Iraq

Who remembers anymore that, in 2003, we were Vladimir Putin? Today, our cable and social-media news feeds are blanketed with denunciations of the president of the Russian Federation for his lawless and brutal invasion of Ukraine. When Secretary of State Antony Blinken met briefly with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in New Delhi on March 2nd, he told him in no uncertain terms, “End this war of aggression.”

Putin himself, however, has a longer memory. In the speech that launched his “special operation,” he pointedly denounced the U.S. for “the invasion of Iraq without any legal grounds.” Then he added, “We witnessed lies made at the highest state level and voiced from the high U.N. rostrum. As a result, we see a tremendous loss in human life, damage, destruction, and a colossal upsurge of terrorism.”

Yes, it’s true, on the 20th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, that war is long forgotten here. No one in the Biden administration today cares that it ruined what credibility America had as a pillar of international order in the global south and gave Putin cover for his own atrocity. So, sit back for a moment and let me take you on a little trip into a long-lost all-American world.

Mission (Un)Accomplished

On May 1, 2003, arrayed in Top Gun gear, President George W. Bush sat in the co-pilot’s seat of a fighter jet and was flown to the USS Abraham Lincoln, the aircraft carrier then stationed just off the coast of San Diego. No rationale drove this high-priced jaunt save the visuals his propaganda team hoped to generate.

Then, from that ship’s deck beneath a banner that proclaimed, “Mission Accomplished,” he made a televised speech about the invasion of Iraq he had ordered less than two months earlier. Bush proudly announced that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.” Of course, neither assertion would prove faintly true. In fact, some 2,500 U.S. troops are still stationed in Iraq to this day, aiding in the fight against leaders of that country’s former Baath Party government who have now become fundamentalist guerrillas. And keep in mind that those troops remain there even though the Iraqi parliament has asked them to leave.

The rest of Bush’s speech deserves more infamy than it’s attained. The president declared, “Today, we have the greater power to free a nation by breaking a dangerous and aggressive regime. With new tactics and precision weapons, we can achieve military objectives without directing violence against civilians.” Dream on, but of course Bush gave that “Mission Accomplished” speech to whitewash a war of aggression as a routine instrument of presidential policy. Describing the ramshackle, fourth-world country of Iraq then as “dangerous” and “aggressive” was as hyperbolic as Putin’s categorization of Volodomyr Zelenksy’s Ukraine as a “Nazi” state.

Note, however, that one phrase was missing from Bush’s Napoleonic screed about forcibly spreading “democracy” and “freedom” with that new tool, “precision warfare,” and that was, of course, “international law.” At the Nuremberg trials after World War II, the International Military Tribunal had observed,

“War is essentially an evil thing. Its consequences are not confined to the belligerent states alone but affect the whole world. To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

And, of course, the United Nations charter forbids military aggression. It allows war only in self-defense or if the Security Council authorizes it.

On the deck of that aircraft carrier, however, Bush had the nerve to say: “When Iraqi civilians looked into the faces of our servicemen and women, they saw strength and kindness and goodwill.”

In fact, Iraqis had spent a significant part of the twentieth century trying to get British colonialists out of their country and it was hardly surprising that, in 2003, so many of them didn’t see such virtues in the forces that had invaded their land. The U.S. military personnel on the ground I talked to, then or later, often spoke of the sullen, angry gazes of the Iraqis they encountered. One acquaintance of mine, Lieutenant Kylan Jones-Huffman, sent me a message that very summer in which he described sitting in the back of a troop transport with other American forces on a road in southern Iraq and being passed by a truckload of armed Iraqis. One of them squinted sourly at them and lifted his rifle menacingly. Kylan said he just patted his M1 rifle, returning the threat.

A Navy reservist and Middle East specialist, he planned on a post-military academic career, having completed a Ph.D. in history. Insightful and easy-going, a crafter of exquisite haiku poetry, Kylan promised to be an exciting colleague for me. He told me he was being sent from Bahrain to brief the military brass in the city of Hillah in southern Iraq. On the evening of August 21, 2003, as I was watching CNN, on the scroll at the bottom of the screen I noticed an American had been shot dead in Hillah and that left me uneasy. The next day I learned that Kylan had indeed been the victim, killed by a young Iraqi as he waited in a jeep at an intersection. It was an elbow to the gut that left me in tears — and it still hurts to tell the story.

He was, in fact, one of more than 7,000 U.S. military personnel to die in Iraq, Afghanistan, or other “War on Terror” locales, along with 8,000 Pentagon contractors. And that’s not even to mention the more than 30,000 veterans of those conflicts who later committed suicide. One of them took my class on the modern Middle East at the University of Michigan. Well-informed and good-natured, he nevertheless couldn’t survive to the end of the semester, given whatever demons his experiences over there had burdened him with. In fact, for those still thinking about Iraq, the gut-punches of that war never stop.

And don’t forget the more than 53,000 American military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan who were injured badly enough in battle to end up in a hospital. About 10% of them had wounds on an injury severity scale of nine or greater, suffering, according to one National Institutes of Health study, from horrors that included traumatic brain damage, open wounds, chronic blood-clotting, and burns.

Corpse Patrols

And all of that was nothing compared to what the U.S. military did to Iraqis.

It should come as no surprise that President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Under Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, and the other architects of one of America’s biggest foreign-policy fiascos in its 246 years of existence could support the bald-faced lie that they had invented a new kind of warfare that didn’t produce significant civilian deaths or casualties. Mind you, they also told serial whoppers about Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent ties to the al-Qaeda terror group and his supposedly active biological and nuclear weapons programs.

Contrary to President Bush’s glib assertions, the death toll in Iraq only burgeoned as the fighting went on. American planes routinely struck targets in densely populated Iraqi cities. Some American troops committed massacres, as did Blackwater mercenaries working for the U.S. military. During the civil war of 2006-2007 that emerged from the American occupation of the country, the Baghdad police had to establish a regular corpse patrol dispatched at the beginning of each workday to load up carts with human remains tossed in the streets overnight by rival sectarian militias.

In the years just after the Bush invasion, one Iraqi widow from the southern port city of Basra told me that her family barely avoided being attacked by members of a destitute, displaced Marsh Arab tribe then running a protection racket in the city. The family’s escape cost them all the cash they had on hand and required them to provide a feast for the tribesmen. Determined to try to improve the situation, the man of the household ran for public office. One day, he had just gotten into his car to go campaigning when a masked assailant suddenly appeared and shot him point blank in the head. His tearful widow told me that she could never get over the sight. And such events were hardly uncommon then.

By the time the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the terrorist cult that emerged from the U.S. occupation of the country, finally went down to defeat in 2019, Brown University’s Costs of War Project estimates that some 300,000 Iraqis had died “from direct war-related violence caused by the U.S., its allies, the Iraqi military and police, and opposition forces.” Several times that number were wounded or crippled. Hundreds of thousands of widows lost their family breadwinners and some of them were reduced to a lifetime as beggars. Even larger numbers of children lost one or both parents. And keep in mind that such figures don’t include Iraqis who died from indirect but war-related causes like the breakdown of the provision of potable water and electricity thanks to U.S. bombing raids and damage to the country’s infrastructure.

The American Example in Iraq

In the first phase of the war, during the Bush years, four million Iraqis were displaced, some 1.5 million leaving the country and the rest internally. Many could never return home. One evening in the summer of 2008, while interviewing Iraqi refugees in Amman, Jordan, I had dinner with a professional couple, an architect and a physician. I mentioned that the worst of the civil war seemed to be over and asked if they planned to return to Baghdad. The man was a Sunni, his wife a Shiite. She explained that their home had been in an upscale Shiite district and they feared returning since so many neighborhoods had been ethnically cleansed of the rival sect.

Another man — call him “Mustafa” — was then in exile in the slums of East Amman. The members of his Sunni Iraqi family, denied work permits, were living off their dwindling savings. His wife was thinking of taking in sewing to make ends meet. Mustafa explained that he had gotten an envelope in the mailbox of his old Baghdad apartment from a militant Shiite militia, saying that if he and his family were still there in 24 hours, they would be dead. So, he and his wife had immediately packed everything they could fit into their car, awakened the children, and driven the nine hours to Amman. Mustafa hesitated. He looked around and lowered his voice. He had, he said, gotten threatening mail even in Jordan and moved to another apartment. The militia still had its eyes on him and had likely penetrated the expatriate Iraqi community. So, no, he and his wife couldn’t, he assured me, go home to Baghdad.

Under the Americans, there was no security for anyone. Two decades ago, Bush appointees dissolved the old Iraqi army and failed to train an effective new one or institute professional policing. I visited Baghdad in May 2013 during the interregnum between the two American campaigns in Iraq, to attend an international conference. We were taken by our kind Iraqi hosts to the National Museum and out to nice restaurants. To do so, however, we had to pile into white vans surrounded by Iraqi army vehicles, which strong-armed all the other traffic out of the way and ensured that our convoy never came to a standstill and so wouldn’t be the target of an ambush.

Bush’s disastrous war of aggression was a gift that just keeps giving. The disruption of Iraqi society and its government by that invasion ultimately paved the way for ISIL to take over 40% of that country’s territory in 2014. Six million Iraqis fled the brutal cultists and a million and a half of them are still displaced. Some fled to Turkey, where their lives were only recently devastated by the February 2023 earthquakes.

Today, the coffers of the Iraqi state treasury are empty, even though the country should have earned $500 billion in oil revenues since 2003. Corruption and inefficiency have become a hallmark of the new order. The unstable government installed by the U.S., dominated by Shiite religious parties, has gone through three prime ministers since 2018. Journalist Jonah Goldberg’s confidence that Iraqis would come to love the new constitution crafted under American rule in 2005 was woefully misplaced. He exemplified the pro-war intellectuals who insisted that their right-wing politics endowed them with superior judgment when it came to a country about which they, in fact, knew next to nothing.

In Iraq itself in recent years, young crowds have repeatedly gone into the streets to demand that the government once again provide basic services. The current prime minister, Mohammad Shia al-Sudani, is close to the Iran-backed militias that now play an outsized role in Iraqi politics. If anyone won the Iraq War, in fact, it was Iran.

Economists had estimated that the cost of the Iraq War to the United States, once you added in care for wounded veterans for the rest of their lives, had already reached $6 trillion even before the ISIL campaign of 2014-2019. Without the sums squandered in Iraq, our national debt would still be below our annual gross national product, putting us in a much more favorable economic position in 2023. As in today’s Russia, in the zeros of this century a war mentality fostered a fierce intolerance of dissent and of difference on the right, which is still unfolding.

One of the mantras of the U.S. government today, facing Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, is the championing of “the United Nations Charter” and a “rules-based international order.” That stands in contrast, of course, to what Washington now sees as the true international outlaw on Planet Earth, Putin’s Russian Federation. The Russian economy has been treated as the Iranian one was, subjected to relentless sanctions and boycotts. A Senate resolution sponsored by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) called on the International Criminal Court, the authority of which the U.S. doesn’t even recognize, to put Russian officials on trial for war crimes.

Graham was one of the chief cheerleaders of the equally illegal Iraq War. Hypocrisy on such a scale is hardly impressive for a country still seeking to be the global power on this planet. In retrospect, on the 20th anniversary of the nightmarish decision to invade Iraq, we’ve lost more than our credibility in the Global South or a true commitment to international law. As a country, we lost our moral compass and now, amid Russian crimes in Ukraine, it seems that we have also lost all memory of the path we paved and the example we set in Iraq, as well as the crimes that went with it.

Professor explains how Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine is rewriting the 'very nature of geopolitics'

Welcome to an ever more dangerous world. By the way, while you’re reading this, if you happen to be at your desk, you might consider diving under it to practice one of those duck-and-cover drills of my childhood (just in case). After all, it wasn’t enough for Russian President Vladimir Putin to send 150,000 or more troops, as well as planes, tanks, artillery, missiles, and god knows what else into the bravely resistant, ever more devastated neighboring country of Ukraine. He also had to declare the Russian nuclear arsenal on “high alert,” while personally and all-too-publicly overseeing the testing of a hypersonic ballistic missile. Then he made sure that his military captured first the wrecked Chernobyl nuclear plant — a 1986 disaster that spread radiation over significant parts of Ukraine, Russia, and Europe — and next the largest active nuclear power plant on that continent, which those troops set partially on fire. Consider that apt indeed on a planet that’s already displaying far too much wear without an incipient nuclear crisis added in.

Keep in mind that there are three more nuclear power plants in Ukraine still potentially to be fought over, any one of which could, under the right (i.e., wrong) circumstances, be turned into the next Chernobyl. This is, sadly, the hair-raising world that Vladimir Putin has decided to usher us into — and, in the months (not to say years) before it happened, no less sadly, the U.S. and NATO showed no give or urge to bargain at all when it came to Ukraine’s future or the possibility, which so disturbs the Russian president, that it could end up in a military alliance against his own land. Face it, it’s a tough imperial planet we’re living on and who should know better than historian and TomDispatch regular Alfred McCoy, whose latest book, To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change, focuses on the last 400 years of hair-raising imperial politics in Eurasia and the 50 years to come. Tom

The Geopolitics of the Ukraine War

Just as the relentless grinding of the earth’s tectonic plates produces earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, so the endless superpower struggle for dominance over Eurasia is fraught with tensions and armed conflict. Beneath the visible outbreak of war in Ukraine and the U.S.-Chinese naval standoff in the South China Sea, there is now an underlying shift in geopolitical power in process across the vast Eurasian landmass — the epicenter of global power on a fast-changing, overheating planet. Take a moment to step back with me to try to understand what’s now happening on this increasingly embattled globe of ours.

If geology explains the earth’s eruptions, geopolitics is the tool we need to grasp the deeper meaning of the devastating war in Ukraine and the events that led to this crisis. As I explain in my recent book, To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change, geopolitics is essentially a method for the management of empire through the use of geography (air, land, and sea) to maximize military and economic advantage. Unlike conventional nations, whose peoples can be readily mobilized for self-defense, empires are, by dint of their extraterritorial reach and the perils inherent in any foreign military deployment, a surprisingly fragile form of government. To give an empire a fighting chance of survival against formidable odds requires a resilient geopolitical architecture.

For nearly 100 years, the geopolitical theories of an obscure Victorian geographer, Sir Halford Mackinder, have had a profound influence on a succession of leaders who sought to build or break empires in Eurasia — including Adolf Hitler, U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, and, most recently, Vladimir Putin. In an academic essay published in 1904, when the Trans-Siberian Railway was completing its 5,700-mile crawl from Moscow to Vladivostok, Mackinder argued that future rails would knit Eurasia into a unitary landmass that, along with Africa, he dubbed the tri-continental “world island.” When that day came, Russia, in alliance with another land power like Germany — and, in our time, we might add China — could expand across Eurasia’s endless central “heartland,” allowing, he predicted, “the use of vast continental resources for fleet-building, and the empire of the world would be in sight.”

As the Versailles Peace Conference opened in 1919 at the end of World War I, Mackinder turned that seminal essay into a memorable maxim about the relationship between East European regions like Ukraine, the Central Asian heartland, and global power. “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland,” he wrote. “Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island. Who rules the World-Island commands the World.”

At the core of recent conflicts at both ends of Eurasia is an entente between China and Russia that the world hasn’t seen since the Sino-Soviet alliance at the start of the Cold War. To grasp the import of this development, let’s freeze-frame two key moments in world history — Communist Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s Moscow meeting with the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin in December 1949 and Vladimir Putin’s summit in Beijing with Xi Jinping just last month.

To avoid facile comparisons, the historical context for each of those meetings must be kept in mind. When Mao came to Moscow just weeks after proclaiming the People’s Republic in October 1949, China had been ravaged by a nine-year war against Japan that killed 20 million people and a five-year civil war that left seven million more dead.

In contrast, having defeated Hitler, seized an empire in eastern Europe, rebuilt his socialist economy, and tested an atomic bomb, making the Soviet Union a superpower, Stalin was at the peak of his strength. In contrast to China’s army of ill-equipped infantry, the Soviet Union had a modern military with the world’s best tanks, jet fighters, and missiles. As the globe’s top communist, Stalin was “the boss” and Mao came to Moscow as essentially a supplicant.

When Mao Met Stalin

During his two-month trip to Moscow starting in December 1949, Mao sought desperately needed economic aid to rebuild his ravaged land and military support for the liberation of the island of Taiwan. In a seemingly euphoric telegram sent to his comrades in Beijing, Mao wrote:

Arrived in Moscow on the 16th and met with Stalin for two hours at 10 p.m. His attitude was really sincere. The questions involved included the possibility of peace, the treaty, loan, Taiwan, and the publication of my selected works.

But Stalin surprised Mao by refusing to give up the territorial concessions in northern China that Moscow had won at the 1945 Yalta conference, saying the issue couldn’t even be discussed until their subsequent meeting. For the next 17 days, Mao literally cooled his heels waiting during a freezing Moscow winter inside a drafty dacha where, as he later recalled, “I got so angry that I once pounded the table.”

Finally, on January 2, 1950, Mao cabled the communist leadership in Beijing:

Our work here has achieved an important breakthrough in the past two days. Comrade Stalin has finally agreed to… sign a new Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship.

With Russia giving up its territorial claims in exchange for assurances about demilitarizing the long border between the two countries, its leaders signed a Treaty of Friendship and Alliance in February 1950. It, in turn, sparked a sudden flow of Soviet aid to China whose new constitution hailed its “indestructible friendship” with the Soviet Union.

But Stalin had already planted the seeds for the Sino-Soviet split to come, embittering Mao, who later said Russians “have never had faith in the Chinese people and Stalin was among the worst.”

At first, the China alliance proved a major Cold War asset for Moscow. After all, it now had a useful Asian surrogate capable of dragging the U.S. into a costly conflict in Korea without the Soviets suffering any casualties at all. In October 1950, Chinese troops crossed the Yalu River into a Korean maelstrom that would drag on for three years and cost China 208,000 dead troops as well as 40% of its budget.

Following Stalin’s death in May 1953 and the Korean armistice two months later, the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev tried to repair relations by presiding over a massive, yet distinctly inequitable program of economic aid to China. However, he also refused to help that country build an atomic bomb. It would be a “huge waste,” he said, since China was safe under the Soviet nuclear umbrella. At the same time, he demanded the joint development of uranium mines Soviet scientists had discovered in southwest China.

Over the next four years, those initial nuclear tensions grew into an open Sino-Soviet split. In September 1959, Khrushchev visited Beijing for a disastrous seven-hour meeting with Mao. In 1962, Mao finally ended diplomatic relations entirely, blaming Moscow for failing to launch a nuclear strike on the U.S. during that year’s Cuban missile crisis.

In October 1964, China’s successful test of a 22-kiloton nuclear bomb marked its arrival as a major player on the world stage. That bomb not only made it an independent world power but transformed the Sino-Soviet split from a war of words into a massive military confrontation. By 1968, the Soviet Union had 16 divisions, 1,200 jet aircraft, and 120 medium-range missiles arrayed along the Sino-Soviet border. Meanwhile, China was planning for a Soviet attack by building a nuclear-hardened “underground city” that spread for 30 square miles beneath Beijing.

Washington’s Cold War Strategy

More than any other event since World War II, the short-lived Sino-Soviet alliance changed the course of world history, transforming the Cold War from a regional power struggle over Eastern Europe into a volatile global conflict. Not only was China the world’s largest nation with 550 million people, or 20% of all humanity, but its new communist government was determined to reverse a half-century of imperialist exploitation and internal chaos that had crippled its international influence.

The rise of China and the conflict in Korea forced Washington to radically revise its strategy for fighting the Cold War. Instead of focusing on NATO and Europe to contain the Soviet Union behind the Iron Curtain, Washington now forged mutual defense pacts from Japan to Australia to secure the offshore Pacific littoral. For the past 70 years, that fortified island rim has been the fulcrum of Washington’s global power, allowing it to defend one continent (North America) while dominating another (Eurasia).

To tie those two axial ends of Eurasia into a strategic perimeter, Cold War Washington ringed the Eurasian continent’s southern rim with chains of steel -– including three navy fleets, hundreds of combat aircraft, and a string of mutual-defense pacts stretching from NATO in Europe to ANZUS in the South Pacific. It took a decade, but once Washington accepted that the Sino-Soviet split was the real thing, it belatedly began to cultivate an entente with Beijing that would leave the Soviet Union ever more geopolitically isolated, contributing to its ultimate implosion and the end of the Cold War in 1991.

That left the U.S. as the world’s dominant power. Nonetheless, even without a near-peer rival on the planet, Washington refused to cash in its “peace dividend.” Instead, it maintained its chains of steel ringing Eurasia — including those three naval fleets and hundreds of military bases while making multiple military forays into the Middle East (some disastrous) and even recently forming a new Quadrilateral alliance with Australia, India, and Japan in the Indian Ocean. For 15 years following Beijing’s admission to the World Trade Organization in 2001, a de facto economic alliance with China also allowed the U.S. sustained economic growth.

When Putin Met Xi

Last month, when Vladimir Putin met Xi Jinping in Beijing at the start of the Winter Olympics, it proved a stunning reversal of the Stalin-Mao moment 70 years earlier. While Russia’s post-Soviet economy remains smaller than Canada’s and overly dependent on petroleum exports, China has become the planet’s industrial powerhouse with the world’s largest economy (as measured in purchasing power) and 10 times the population of Russia. Moscow’s heavy-metal military still relies on Soviet-style tanks and its nuclear arsenal. China, on the other hand, has built the world’s largest navy, its most secure global satellite system, and its most agile missile armada, capped by cutting-edge hypersonic missiles whose 4,000 miles-per-hour speed can defeat any defense.

This time, therefore, it was the Russian leader who came to China’s capital as the supplicant. With Russian troops massing at Ukraine’s borders and U.S. economic sanctions looming, Putin desperately needed Beijing’s diplomatic backing. After years of cultivating China by offering shared petroleum and natural-gas pipelines and joint military maneuvers in the Pacific, Putin was now cashing in his political chips.

At their February 4th meeting, Putin and Xi drew on 37 prior encounters to proclaim nothing less than an ad-hoc alliance meant to shake the world. As the foundation for their new “global governance system,” they promised to “enhance transport infrastructure connectivity to keep logistics on the Eurasian continent smooth and… make steady progress on major oil and gas cooperation projects.” These words gained weight with the announcement that Russia would spend another $118 billion on new oil and gas pipelines to China. (Four hundred billion dollars had already been invested in 2014 when Russia faced European sanctions over its seizure of Crimea from Ukraine.) The result: an integrated Sino-Russian oil-and-gas infrastructure is being built from the North Sea to the South China Sea.

In a landmark 5,300-word statement, Xi and Putin proclaimed the “world is going through momentous changes,” creating a “redistribution of power” and “a growing demand for… leadership” (which Beijing and Moscow clearly intended to provide). After denouncing Washington’s ill-concealed “attempts at hegemony,” the two sides agreed to “oppose the… interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states under the pretext of protecting democracy and human rights.”

To build an alternative system for global economic growth in Eurasia, the leaders planned to merge Putin’s projected “Eurasian Economic Union” with Xi’s already ongoing trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative to promote “greater interconnectedness between the Asia Pacific and Eurasian regions.” Proclaiming their relations “superior to political and military alliances of the Cold War era,” an oblique reference to the tense Mao-Stalin relationship, the two leaders asserted that their entente has “no limits… no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.” On strategic issues, the two parties were adamantly opposed to the expansion of NATO, any move toward independence for Taiwan, and “color revolutions” such as the one that had ousted Moscow’s Ukrainian client in 2014.

Given the Ukraine invasion just three weeks later, Putin got what he so desperately needed. In exchange for feeding China’s voracious appetite for energy (on a planet already in a climate crisis of the first order), Putin got a condemnation of U.S. interference in “his” sphere. In addition, he won Beijing’s diplomatic support — however hesitant China’s leadership might actually be about events in Ukraine — once the invasion started. Although China has been Ukraine’s main trading partner since 2019, Beijing set aside those ties and its own advocacy of inviolable sovereignty to avoid calling Putin’s intervention an “invasion.”

A Planet Mackinder Would Hardly Recognize

In fact, even before the invasion of Ukraine, Russia and China were pursuing a strategy of ratcheting up slow, relentless pressure at both ends of Eurasia, hoping the U.S. chains of steel ringing that vast continent would sooner or later snap. Think of it as a strategy of push-push-punch.

For the past 15 years, Putin has been responding to NATO in just that manner. First, through surveillance and economic leverage, Moscow has tried to keep client states in its orbit, something Putin learned from his four years as a KGB agent working with East Germany’s Stasi secret police in the late 1980s. Next, if a favored autocrat is challenged by pro-democracy demonstrators or a regional rival, a few thousand Russian special forces are sent in to stabilize the situation. Should a client state try to escape Moscow’s orbit, however, Putin promptly moves to massive military intervention and the expropriation of buffer enclaves, as he did first in Georgia and now in Ukraine. Through this strategy, he may be well on his way to reclaiming significant parts of the old Soviet sphere of influence in East Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East.

Due south of Moscow in the ever-volatile Caucasus Mountains, Putin crushed NATO’s brief flirtation with Georgia in 2008, thanks to a massive invasion and the expropriation of the provinces of North Ossetia and Abkhazia. After decades of fighting between the former Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Russia recently sent in thousands of “peace-keeping” forces to resolve the conflict in favor of the loyal, pro-Moscow regime in Azerbaijan. Further east, when democratic protesters challenged Moscow’s local ally in Kazakhstan in January, thousands of Russian troops — under the rubric of Moscow’s version of NATO — flew into the former capital, Almaty, where they helped crush the protests, killing dozens and wounding hundreds.

In the Middle East where Washington backed the ill-fated Arab spring rebels who tried to topple Syria’s ruler, Bashar al-Assad, Moscow operates a massive airbase at Latakia in that country’s northwest from which it has bombed rebel cities like Aleppo to rubble while serving as a strategic counterweight to U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf.

But Moscow’s main push has been in Eastern Europe. There, Putin backed Belarus’s strongman, Alexander Lukashenko, in crushing the democratic opposition after he had rigged the 2020 elections, and so making Minsk a virtual client state. Meanwhile, he’s been pressing relentlessly against Ukraine since his loyal client there was ousted in the 2014 Maidan “color revolution.” First, he seized Crimea in 2014, and then he armed separatist rebels in that country’s eastern region adjacent to Russia. Last month, after proclaiming that “modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia,” Putin recognized the “independence” of those two separatist enclaves, much as he had done years before in Georgia.

On February 24th, the Russian president sent nearly 200,000 troops across Ukraine’s borders to seize much of the country and its capital, Kyiv, as well as replace its feisty president with a pliable puppet. As international sanctions mounted and Europe considered providing Ukraine with jet fighters, Putin ominously put his nuclear forces on high alert to make it clear he would brook no interference with his invasion.

Meanwhile, at the eastern end of Eurasia, China has pursued a somewhat similar, if more subtle push-push strategy, with the punch yet to come. Starting in 2014, Beijing began dredging a half-dozen military bases from atolls in the South China Sea, slowly ramping up their role from fishing ports to full-fledged military bases that now challenge any passing U.S. naval patrol. Then came swarming fighter squadrons over the Taiwan Strait and East China Sea, followed, last October, by a joint Chinese-Russian fleet of 10 ships that steamed provocatively around Japan in what had previously been considered unchallenged U.S. waters.

If Xi follows Putin’s playbook, then all that push/push could indeed lead to a punch — possibly an invasion of Taiwan to reclaim lands Beijing sees as an integral part of China, much as Putin sees Ukraine as a former Russian imperial province that should never have been given away.

Should Beijing attack Taiwan, Washington might find itself hamstrung to do anything militarily except express admiration for the island’s heroic yet futile resistance. Should Washington send its aircraft carriers into the Taiwan Straits, they would be sunk within hours by China’s formidable DF-21D “carrier-killer” missiles or its unstoppable hypersonic ones. And once Taiwan was gone, Washington’s position on the Pacific littoral could be effectively broken and a retreat to the mid-Pacific preordained.

All of this looks possible on paper. However, in the grim reality of actual invasions and military clashes, amid the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians, and on a planet that’s seen better days, the very nature of geopolitics is likely to be up for grabs. Yes, it’s possible that, if Washington is whipsawed between the eastern and western edges of Eurasia with periodic eruptions of armed combat from the Xi-Putin entente, its chains of steel could strain and finally snap, effectively evicting it from that strategic landmass.

As it happens, though, given a Sino-Russian alliance so heavily based on the trade in fossil fuels, even if Vladimir Putin doesn’t himself go down thanks to his potentially disastrous invasion of Ukraine, both Beijing and Moscow may find themselves whipsawed in the years to come by a troubled energy transition and climate change. The ghost of Sir Halford Mackinder might then point out to us not just that U.S. power will fade with the loss of Eurasia, but that so much other power may fade as well on an ever hotter, ever more endangered planet he couldn’t in his lifetime have truly imagined.

Joe Manchin is leading a war on poor Americans

As if killing the Child Tax Credit, blocking voting rights, gutting key climate legislation, and refusing living wages wasn’t enough, West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin is now promoting legislation that further punishes the poor and marginalized. Along with Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, he’s introduced the PIPES Act, which undercuts key harm-reduction funding from the Department of Health and Human Services. It arrives with a media campaign launched by Fox News and other conservative outlets pushing bogus claims that the Biden administration is using government funds to buy “crack pipes,” tapping into a decades-long campaign to scapegoat vulnerable populations rather than address the root causes of the unconscionable conditions under which they live.

This article was authored by Liz Theoharis.

Paired with Manchin’s moralizing and obstruction when it comes to President Biden’s Build Back Better Bill because he “cannot accept our economy, or basically our society, moving towards an entitlement mentality,” his new legislation is more evidence that he privileges rich donors over actual constituents in West Virginia and is truly willing to punish the poor. He’s claimed that families in his state would use money from the Child Tax Credit to buy drugs, that work requirements rather than more resources will lift poor kids out of poverty, and that, as the Huffington Post reported, “Americans would fraudulently use the proposed paid sick leave policy, specifically saying people would feign being sick and go on hunting trips.”

All of this represents a painful return to the “culture of poverty” debates of the 1960s. Indeed, despite being discredited by scholars and poverty experts over and over since its invention, such anti-poor propaganda seems to rear its head whenever popular opinion and public action might actually lead to improvements in the lives of poor and low-income people.

The Culture of Poverty

American anthropologist Oscar Lewis first suggested there was a culture of poverty in the mid-1960s, an idea quickly championed by the political right. Republican administrations from President Ronald Reagan on, buttressed by right-wing groups like the Moral Majority, claimed that the true origins of poverty lay in immoral personal choices and ways of life that led to broken families and terrible life decisions.

Such ideas were particularly appealing to politicians and the wealthy since they identified the causes of poverty not as a problem of society at large, but of the poor themselves. It was, as they saw it, one that lay deep in an “autonomous subculture [that] exists among the poor, one that is self-perpetuating and self-defeating.” To encourage such thinking, they invented and endlessly publicized hyper-racialized caricatures of the poor like the “welfare queen,” while pushing the idea that poor people were lazy, crazy, and stupid. Then they criminalized poverty while cutting government programs like welfare and public housing — legislative acts guaranteed to harm millions of Americans across multiple generations.

This culture-of-poverty debate and the legislative action to uphold it have become deeply ingrained in this country and not just among conservatives. In 1996, after all, it was the administration of Democratic President Bill Clinton that ended “welfare as we know it,” its officials having armed themselves with tales about the backwardness of the poor and their need to finally take “personal responsibility” for their lives.

A neoliberal approach to governing has had a hold on significant parts of both parties ever since, while structural poverty and inequality have only deepened. The poor have been pathologized so effectively that culture-of-poverty distortions have even made their way into more progressive media and scholarly accounts of their lives. There, too, poor people are often depicted as incapable of analyzing their own situations or understanding the dilemmas they face, let alone engaging in the sort of strategic thinking that might begin to overcome inequality.

Even, for example, those heralded scholars of poor people’s movements, Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, argued that the history of organizing the poor did not originate among the poor themselves. Instead, they suggested that, in the twentieth century, such organizing efforts were “largely stimulated by the federal government through its Great Society programs” and through anti-poverty agencies, civil-rights activists, and student groups. What such a perspective cut out were the struggles of poor and low-income organizers like Johnnie Tillmon of Arkansas and Annie Smart of Louisiana, both poor mothers and important initiators of the welfare rights movement, as well as other twentieth-century campaigns led by the poor to lift the load of poverty.

Leaders like Tillmon and Smart, in fact, helped build organizations that, in the twentieth century, mobilized tens of thousands of the very people whom those in power and the media all too often blamed for society’s deepest problems. Slogans used decades later by the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, the National Welfare Rights Union, and the National Union of the Homeless, to mobilize the poor, like “no housing, no peace,” “you only get what you’re organized to take,” and “each one, teach one, so we can reach one more,” highlighted the latent but all-too-real power found within poor communities, as well as the idea that the poor are themselves capable of being agents of positive social change.

Yes, there had been rich American presidents before, but never a billionaire. And it wasn’t a mistake either that this country — already in a nosedive of inequality — elected Donald Trump president in 2016 (though who knows how much he’s really worth). Nor was it a mistake that he and the Republican Congress that arrived with him moved decisively in an all-too-striking, if expectable, direction. They passed a staggering tax cut that mainly benefited the richest Americans (including you-know-who), slashed the corporate tax rate, and, in the long run, added an estimated $1.9 trillion dollars to the U.S. deficit. Consider that a trickle-down bonanza for the wealthy that simply never trickled down.

We are, of course, in the age of the billionaire, both globally and in the United States. Their numbers jumped by 30% across the planet in just the first year-plus of the pandemic. It’s no small indicator of our moment that, while so many Americans have suffered and more than a million extra of us have died during the pandemic years, this country’s billionaires had the time of their lives. They made money hand over fist, even taking it into space with them. Their wealth rose by an estimated 62% or $1.8 trillion between March 2020 and August 2021, as inequality in the United States grew.

Meanwhile, as TomDispatch regular and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign Liz Theoharis makes clear today, poor Americans suffered terribly in that same period (and were only blamed for it). Just the other day, for instance, the news came in that another 3.7 million children — yes, you read that figure right! — fell into poverty this January as Congress refused to renew the Child Tax Credit. Give Joe Manchin and all those Trumpist Republicans a little credit for that and then let Theoharis fill you in on our country’s ongoing crisis and why those who are going to suffer the most from it will be blamed the most for it, too.

This last point is especially important because, historically speaking, poor people have struggled over and over again to create a better country not just for themselves, but for everyone. Far from being imprisoned in a culture of poverty and so helpless to act to change their own conditions, the poor throughout U.S. history have shown an ability, often under the worst imaginable conditions, to transform society for the better by fighting for everyone’s right to healthcare, housing, clean water, an adequate education, and so much more.

Nonetheless, victim-blaming narratives that divert attention from the social structures and interests that have created ever more poverty in this century continue to serve a political purpose for the defenders of the status quo. In today’s America, consider Joe Manchin, one among many necromancers who have reanimated the corpse of the long-discredited culture of poverty. In the process, they’ve given a veneer of sophistication to hateful rhetoric and acts against the poor, including the nearly half of West Virginians who are today in poverty or one emergency from economic ruin.

The Death-Dealing Culture of the Rich

In America, instead of recognizing the political agency and moral vision of poor people, it’s generally believed that the rich, entrepreneurial, and powerful have the solutions to our social ills. Indeed, as I’ve written previously at TomDispatch, this society has long suffered from a kind of Stockholm syndrome: we look to the rich for answers to the very problems they’re all-too-often responsible for creating and from which, of course, they benefit immeasurably.

Even as Americans begin to question the ever more enormous divide between the rich and the rest of us, the media narrative lionizes the wealthy. For example, contrast the many pieces celebrating the Gates Foundation’s work around global health with its decision early in the pandemic to pressure Oxford University and AstraZeneca to keep exclusive property rights to their Covid-19 vaccine rather than making it widely available for manufacture around the world. That decision and so many more like it by other wealthy individuals, private corporations, and countries played a significant part in creating the vaccine apartheid that continues to divide the Global North and South (and so prepared the groundwork for new variations of the pandemic among the unvaccinated).

Moreover, our society continues to treat the grievances of the rich as public crises requiring government action, but wounds to the rest of us as the unfortunate result of bad luck or personal failures. This dynamic has been seen during both the Trump and Biden presidencies. In the early weeks of lockdown in 2020, the Federal Reserve, under President Trump, funneled billions of dollars into the coffers of the wealthy. Meanwhile, significant parts of the CARES Act, like the Paycheck Protection Program, directed significant sums to high-income households, while millions were left in the lurch.

A year and a half later, bad-faith arguments about inflation and scarcity have been used by Manchin and other “moderate” Democrats to sink the Build Back Better agenda and allow major antipoverty programs like the Child Tax Credit to expire, to the detriment of nearly 75% of its recipients. I say bad faith because you need only look at the $2.1 trillion that America’s billionaires have made during these two pandemic years or the $770 billion Congress had no hesitation allocating for the 2022 Pentagon budget and related expenses to see that such scarcity arguments simply don’t hold water. In reality, the resources are at hand to solve our nation’s most burning crises, if only we had the political will.

Those in power maintain their hold on our collective imagination in part due to the pervasive ideological belief that an economy that benefits the rich will, in a trickle-down fashion, benefit the rest of us. This belief is at the core of the curriculum of most university economics departments across the country. In fact, in America today, it’s largely accepted that a rising economic tide will lift all boats rather than just the yachts of the well-to-do, as many of the rest of us sink all around them.

When, however, nearly half of the U.S. population is already poor or lives one lost paycheck, storm, or medical emergency away from poverty, a national reckoning with the core values and political priorities of our society is an increasing necessity. How sad, then, that the poor continue to be pitted against each other, blamed for their poverty (and many of the country’s other problems), and fed the lie of scarcity in a time of unprecedented abundance.

Poverty Amid Plenty

According to the Supplemental Poverty Measure of the U.S. Census, there are 140 million people of different races, genders, and ages from all over this county who are poor or low-income. It’s not that those 140 million Americans all lack the cultural attributes for success or that most refuse to work or don’t understand how to spend or save money. And they certainly aren’t poor because they haven’t prayed hard enough or God simply ordained it. Rather, it’s time to hear some of the real reasons why people are poor or low-income rather than fall prey to the misrepresentations and falsifications of the culture of poverty.

One reason is that the cost of living in this country has, for decades, outpaced household earnings. As the Poor People’s Campaign (which I co-chair with Reverend William J. Barber II) pointed out in a 2018 report, American workers have seen little or no real growth in their weekly wages for the past 40 years, even as economic productivity has shot up exponentially. Tens of millions of Americans work for less than $15 an hour and so can’t afford basic necessities, including housing, childcare, health care, education, food, and gas — the prices of all of which have outpaced wage growth. Believe it or not, there is no state, metropolitan area, or county in the country today where a full-time, minimum-wage job can support a two-bedroom rental apartment.

One-hundred-and-forty-million people are impoverished, in part because racialized voter suppression and gerrymandering have created unfair elections that keep the poor — especially Black, Latinx, and Native American people — largely out of the democratic process. Between 2010 and 2020, more than 27 states passed racist voter suppression laws and, in 2021, 19 states passed an additional 33 of them. As a consequence, elections are rigged from the start and many extremist politicians essentially smuggled into office, then govern by suppressing wages while cutting health care and critical social services for the poor of all walks of life. (This is something that leaders, especially Reverend William Barber and the Forward Together Moral Mondays Movement, have been pointing out for years.)

Such widespread deep poverty exists in this country because of ongoing and intensifying attacks on social programs, on full display in recent months. At a moment whenever more people need a strong social safety net, there have been dramatic cuts in federal housing assistance, the public-housing stock, food stamps, and other critical social programs. Today, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program supports less than one in four poor families with children, while federal assistance to local water systems has decreased by 74% over the past 40 years, leading to a crisis of water quality and affordability impacting at least 14 million mostly poor people. Add to this, in the midst of a pandemic, the reality that states are sending back monies set aside to help needy people, even as 3.7 million kids were pushed below the poverty line in January alone.

In addition, more and more Americans are struggling because we have become a debtor nation. With wages stagnating and the cost of living rising, there has been an explosion of debt across the country. And given the already described circumstances, you undoubtedly won’t be surprised to discover that the bottom 90% of Americans hold more than 70% of it, including $1.34 trillion in student debt. In 2016, 24 million American families were living “underwater” (meaning they owed more on their houses than those structures were even worth).

The reality of poverty amid plenty has also grown more widespread and evident because our national priorities have increasingly shifted ever more toward a militarized and toxic war economy. Today, out of every federal discretionary dollar, 53 cents go to our military, while only 15 cents go to anti-poverty programs. This sort of spending has been mirrored in our communities, too, where there has been a tenfold increase in spending on prisons and deportations over the past 40 years. In other words, the criminalization of the poor that began in earnest half a century ago is now in full bloom. To cite one indicative figure that sums this up: since 2000, 95% of the rise in the incarcerated population has been made up of people who can’t afford bail.

In 1967, the year before he was assassinated, while organizing the poor across the country for the Poor People’s Campaign, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., offered a powerful insight that couldn’t be more relevant today. “We are called upon,” he said:

To help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the oil?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the iron ore?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?’ These are the words that must be said.

Indeed, when it comes to who are the poor and why they are poor, it’s time to reject the hateful theories of old and instead answer questions like those.

Historian details how China is 'digging its own grave and ours as well'

Consider us at the edge of the sort of epochal change not seen for centuries, even millennia. By the middle of this century, we will be living under such radically altered circumstances that the present decade, the 2020s, will undoubtedly seem like another era entirely, akin perhaps to the Middle Ages. And I’m not talking about the future development of flying cars, cryogenics, or even as-yet-unimaginable versions of space travel.

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.

After leading the world for the past 75 years, the United States is ever so fitfully losing its grip on global hegemony. As Washington’s power begins to fade, the liberal international system it created by founding the United Nations in 1945 is facing potentially fatal challenges.

After more than 180 years of Western global dominion, leadership is beginning to move from West to East, where Beijing is likely to become the epicenter of a new world order that could indeed rupture longstanding Western traditions of law and human rights.

More crucially, however, after two centuries of propelling the world economy to unprecedented prosperity, the use of fossil fuels — especially coal and oil — will undoubtedly fade away within the next couple of decades. Meanwhile, for the first time since the last Ice Age ended 11,000 years ago, thanks to the greenhouse gases those fossil fuels are emitting into the atmosphere, the world’s climate is changing in ways that will, by the middle of this century, start to render significant parts of the planet uninhabitable for a quarter, even possibly half, of humanity.

For the first time in 800,000 years, the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has blown past earlier highs of 280 parts per million to reach 410 parts. That, in turn, is unleashing climate feedback loops that, by century’s end, if not well before, will aridify the globe’s middle latitudes, partly melt the polar ice caps, and raise sea levels drastically. (Don’t even think about a future Miami or Shanghai!)

In trying to imagine how such changes will affect an evolving world order, is it possible to chart the future with something better than mere guesswork? My own field, history, generally performs poorly when trying to track the past into the future, while social sciences like economics and political science are loath to project much beyond medium-term trends (say, the next recession or election). Uniquely among the disciplines, however, environmental science has developed diverse analytical tools for predicting the effects of climate change all the way to this century’s end.

Those predictions have become so sophisticated that world leaders in finance, politics, and science are now beginning to think about how to reorganize whole societies and their economies to accommodate the projected disastrous upheavals to come. Yet surprisingly few of us have started to think about the likely impact of climate change upon global power. By combining political projections with already carefully plotted trajectories for climate change, it may, however, be possible to see something of the likely course of governance for the next half century or so.

To begin with the most immediate changes, social-science analysis has long predicted the end of U.S. global power. Using economic projections, the U.S. National Intelligence Council, for instance, stated that, by 2030, “Asia will have surpassed North America and Europe combined in terms of global power,” while “China alone will probably have the largest economy, surpassing that of the United States a few years before 2030.” Using similar methods, the accounting firm PwC calculated that China’s economy would become 60% larger than that of the United States by 2030.

If climate science proves accurate, however, the hegemony Beijing could achieve by perhaps 2030 will last, at best, only a couple of decades or less before unchecked global warming ensures that the very concept of world dominance, as we’ve known it historically since the sixteenth century, may be relegated to a past age like so much else in our world.

Considering that likelihood as we peer dimly into the decades between 2030 and 2050 and beyond, the international community will surely have good reason to forge a new kind of world order — one made for a planet truly in danger and unlike any that has come before.

The Rise of Chinese Global Hegemony

China’s rise to world power could be considered not just the result of its own initiative but also of American inattention. While Washington was mired in endless wars in the Greater Middle East in the decade following the September 2001 terrorist attacks, Beijing began using a trillion dollars of its swelling dollar reserves to build a tricontinental economic infrastructure it called the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that would shake the foundations of Washington’s world order. Not only has this scheme already gone a long way toward incorporating much of Africa and Asia into Beijing’s version of the world economy, but it has simultaneously lifted many millions out of poverty.

During the early years of the Cold War, Washington funded the reconstruction of a ravaged Europe and the development of 100 new nations emerging from colonial rule. But as the Cold War ended in 1991, more than a third of humanity was still living in extreme poverty, abandoned by Washington’s then-reigning neo-liberal ideology that consigned social change to the whims of the free market. By 2018, nearly half the world’s population, or about 3.4 billion people, were simply struggling to survive on the equivalent of five dollars a day, creating a vast global constituency for Beijing’s economic leadership.

For China, social change began at home. Starting in the 1980s, the Communist Party presided over the transformation of an impoverished agricultural society into an urban industrial powerhouse. Propelled by the greatest mass migration in history, as millions moved from country to city, its economy grew nearly 10% annually for 40 years and lifted 800 million people out of poverty — the fastest sustained rate ever recorded by any country. Meanwhile, between 2006 and 2016 alone, its industrial output increased from $1.2 trillion to $3.2 trillion, leaving the U.S. in the dust at $2.2 trillion and making China the workshop of the world.

By the time Washington awoke to China’s challenge and tried to respond with what President Barack Obama called a “strategic pivot” to Asia, it was too late. With foreign reserves already at $4 trillion in 2014, Beijing launched its Belt and Road Initiative, while establishing an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, with 56 member nations and an impressive $100 billion in capital. When a Belt and Road Forum of 29 world leaders convened in Beijing in May 2017, President Xi Jinping hailed the initiative as the “project of the century,” aimed both at promoting growth and improving “people’s well-being” through “poverty alleviation.” Indeed, two years later a World Bank study found that BRI transportation projects had already increased the gross domestic product in 55 recipient nations by a solid 3.4%.

Amid this flurry of flying dirt and flowing concrete, Beijing seems to have an underlying design for transcending the vast distances that have historically separated Asia from Europe. Its goal: to forge a unitary market that will soon cover the vast Eurasian land mass. This scheme will consolidate China’s control over a continent that is home to 70% of the world’s population and productivity. In the end, it could also break the U.S. geopolitical grip over a region that has long been the core of, and key to, its global power. The foundation for such an ambitious transnational scheme is a monumental construction effort that, in just two decades, has already covered China and much of Central Asia with a massive triad of energy pipelines, high-speed rail lines, and highways.

To break that down, start with this: Beijing is building a transcontinental network of natural gas and oil pipelines that will, in alliance with Russia, extend for 6,000 miles from the North Atlantic Ocean to the South China Sea.

For the second arm in that triad, Beijing has built the world’s largest high-speed rail system, with more than 15,000 miles already operational in 2018 and plans for a network of nearly 24,000 miles by 2025. All this, in turn, is just a partial step toward what’s expected to be a full-scale transcontinental rail system that started with the “Eurasian Land Bridge” track running from China through Kazakhstan to Europe. In addition to its transcontinental trunk lines, Beijing plans branch-lines heading due south toward Singapore, southwest through Pakistan, and then from Pakistan through Iran to Turkey.

To complete its transport triad, China has also constructed an impressive set of highways, representing (like those pipelines) a problematic continuation of Washington’s current petrol-powered world order. In 1990, that country lacked a single expressway. By 2017, it had built 87,000 miles of highways, nearly double the size of the U.S. interstate system. Even that breathtaking number can’t begin to capture the extraordinary engineering feats necessary — the tunneling through steep mountains, the spanning of wide rivers, the crossing of deep gorges on towering pillars, and the spinning of concrete webs around massive cities.

Simultaneously, China was also becoming the world’s largest auto manufacturer as the number of vehicles on its roads soared to 340 million in 2019, exceeding America’s 276 million. However, all of this impressive news is depressing news as well. After all, by clinging to coal production on a major scale, while reaching for a bigger slice of the world’s oil imports for its transportation triad, China’s greenhouse-gas emissions doubled from just 14% of the world’s total in 2000 to 30% in 2019, far surpassing that of the United States, previously the planet’s leading emitter. With only 150 vehicles per thousand people, compared to 850 in America, its auto industry still has ample growth potential — good news for its economy, but terrible news for the global climate (even if China remains in the forefront of the development and use of electric cars).

To power such headlong development, China has, in fact, raised its domestic coal production more than a thousand-fold, from just 32 million metric tons in 1949 to a mind-boggling record of 4.1 billion tons by 2021. Even if you take into account those massive natural-gas pipelines it is building, its enormous hydropower dams, and its world leadership in wind power, as of 2020 China still depended on coal for a startling 57% of its total energy use, even as its share of total global coal-fired power climbed relentlessly to a record 53%. In other words, nothing, it seems, can break that country’s leadership of its insatiable hunger for the dirtiest of all fossil fuels.

On the global stage, Beijing has been similarly obsessed with economic growth above all else. Despite its promises to curb greenhouse-gas emissions at recent U.N. climate conferences, China is still promoting coal-fired power at home and abroad. In 2020, the Institute of International Finance reported that 85% of all projects under Beijing’s BRI entailed high greenhouse-gas emissions, particularly the 63 coal-fired electrical plants the project was financing worldwide.

When the 2019 U.N. climate conference opened, China itself was actively constructing new coal-fueled electrical plants with a combined capacity of 121 gigawatts — substantially more than the 105 gigawatts being built by the rest of the world combined. By 2019, China was the largest single source of pollution on the planet, accounting for nearly one-third of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres was warning that such emissions were “putting billions of people at immediate risk.” With an impassioned urgency, he demanded “a death knell for coal and fossil fuels before they destroy our planet” by banning all new coal-fired power plants and phasing them out of developed nations by 2030.

Together, the planet’s two great imperial powers, China and the United States, accounted for 44% of total CO2 emissions in 2019 and so far both have made painfully slow progress toward renewable energy. In a joint declaration at the November 2021 Glasgow climate conference, the U.S. agreed “to reach 100% carbon-pollution-free electricity by 2035,” while China promised to “phase down” (but note, not “phase out”) coal starting with its “15th Five-Year Plan.”

The U.S. commitment soon died a quiet death in Congress, where President Biden’s own party killed his green-energy initiative. Amid all the applause at Glasgow, nobody paid much attention to the fact that China’s next five-year plan doesn’t even start until 2026, just as President Xi Jinping’s promise of carbon neutrality by 2060 is a perfect formula for not averting the climate disaster that awaits us all.

In its hell-bent drive for development, in other words, China is digging its own grave (and ours as well).

Climate Catastrophe Circa 2050

Even if China were to become the preeminent world power around 2030, the accelerating pace of climate change will likely curtail its hegemony within decades. As global warming batters the country by mid-century, Beijing will be forced to retreat from its projection of global power to address urgent domestic concerns.

In 2017, scientists at the nonprofit group Climate Central calculated, for instance, that rising seas and storm surges could, by 2060 or 2070, flood areas inhabited by 275 million people worldwide, with Shanghai deemed “the most vulnerable major city in the world to serious flooding.” In that sprawling metropolis, 17.5 million people are likely to be displaced as most of the city “could eventually be submerged in water, including much of the downtown area.”

Advancing the date of this disaster by at least a decade, a 2019 report on rising sea levels in Nature Communications found that 150 million people worldwide are now living on land that will be submerged by 2050 and Shanghai was, once again, found to be facing serious risk. There, rising waters “threaten to consume the heart” of the metropolis and its surrounding cities, crippling one of China’s main economic engines. Dredged from sea and swamp since the fifteenth century, much of that city is likely to return to the waters from whence it came in the next three decades.

Simultaneously, soaring temperatures are expected to devastate the North China Plain between Beijing and Shanghai, one of that country’s prime agricultural regions currently inhabited by 400 million people, nearly a third of that country’s population. It could, in fact, potentially become one of the most lethal places on the planet.

“This spot is going to be the hottest spot for deadly heat waves in the future,” said Professor Elfatih Eltahir, a climate specialist at MIT who published his findings in the journal Nature Communications. Between 2070 and 2100, he estimates, the region could face hundreds of periods of “extreme danger” and perhaps five lethal periods of 35° Wet Bulb Temperature (where a combination of heat and high humidity prevents the evaporation of the sweat that cools the human body). After just six hours under such conditions, a healthy person at rest will die.

Rather than sudden and catastrophic, the impact of climate change in North China is likely to be incremental and cumulative, escalating relentlessly with each passing decade. If the “Chinese century” does indeed start around 2030, it’s unlikely to last long once its main financial center at Shanghai is flooded out and its agricultural heartland is baking in insufferable heat.

A Democratic World Order

After 2050, the international community will face a growing contradiction, even a head-on collision, between the two foundational principles of the current world order: national sovereignty and human rights. As long as nations have the sovereign right to seal their borders, the world will have no way of protecting the human rights of the 200 million to 1.2 billion climate-change refugees expected to be created by 2050, both within their own borders and beyond. Faced with such extreme disorder, it is just possible that the nations of this planet might agree to cede some small portion of their sovereignty to a global government set up to cope with the climate crisis.

To meet the extraordinary mid-century challenges to come, a supranational body like the U.N. would need sovereign authority over at least three significant priorities — emission controls, refugee resettlement, and environmental reconstruction. First, a reformed U.N. would need the power to compel nations to end their emissions if the transition to renewable energy is still not complete by, at the latest, 2050. Second, an empowered U.N. high commissioner for refugees would have to be authorized to supersede national sovereignty by requiring temperate northern countries to deal with the tidal flows of humanity from the tropical and subtropical regions most impacted and made least inhabitable by climate change. Finally, the voluntary transfer of funds like the $100 billion promised poor nations at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference would have to become mandatory to keep afflicted communities, and especially the world’s poor, relatively safe.

In the crisis to come, such initiatives would by their very nature change the idea of what constitutes a world order from the amorphous imperial ethos of the past five centuries to a new form of global governance. To exercise effective sovereignty over the global commons, the U.N. would have to enact some long overdue reforms, notably by creating an elective Security Council without either permanent members or the present great-power prerogative of unilaterally vetoing measures. Instead of superpower strength serving as the ultimate guarantor for U.N. decisions, a democratized Security Council could reach climate decisions by majority vote and enforce them through the moral authority, as well as the self-interest, of a more representative international body.

If a U.N. of this sort were indeed in existence by at least 2050, such a framework of democratic world governance could well be complemented by a globally decentralized system of energy. For five centuries now, energy and imperial hegemony have been deeply intertwined. In the transition to alternative energy, however, households will, sooner or later, be able to control their own solar power everywhere the sun shines, while communities will be able to supplement that variable source with a mix of wind turbines, biomass, hydro, and mini-reactors.

Just as the demands of petroleum production shaped the steep hierarchy of Washington’s world order, so decentralized access to energy could foster a more inclusive global governance. After five centuries of Iberian, British, American, and Chinese hegemony, it’s at least possible that humanity, even under the increasingly stressful conditions of climate change, could finally experience a more democratic world order.

The question, of course, is: How do we get from here to there? As in ages past, civil society will be critical to such changes. For the past five centuries, social reformers have struggled against powerful empires to advance the principle of human rights. In the sixteenth century, Dominican friars, then the embodiment of civil society, pressed the Spanish empire to recognize the humanity of Amerindians and end their enslavement. Similarly, in the mid-twentieth century activists lobbied diplomats drafting the U.N. charter to change it from a closed imperial club into the far more open organization we have today.

Just as reformers moderated the harshness of Spanish, British, and U.S. imperial hegemony, so, on a climate-pressured planet of an almost unimaginable sort, civil society will certainly play an essential role in finally putting in place the sort of limitations on national sovereignty (and imperial ambitions) that the U.N. will need to cope with our endangered world. Perhaps the key force in this change will be a growing environmental movement that, in the future, will expand its agenda from capping and radically reducing emissions to pressuring powers, including an increasingly devastated China, to reform the very structure of world governance.

A planet ever more battered by climate change, one in which neither an American nor a Chinese “century” will have any meaning, will certainly need a newly empowered world order that can supersede national sovereignty to protect the most fundamental and transcendent of all human rights: survival. The environmental changes in the offing are so profound that anything less than a new form of democratic global governance will mean not just incessant conflicts but, in all likelihood, disaster of an almost-unimaginable kind. And no surprise there, since we’ll be dealing with a planet all too literally on the brink.

The terrifying world of 2025: Is a coming MAGA Cultural Revolution on the horizon?

’ve just wrapped up my shift at BurgerBoy and I don’t have much time before the weekly self-criticism session at town hall. This hour with my diary is precious, especially when I have to make a big decision. Writing used to be my job, but it’s so much more difficult after eight straight hours on my feet. It’s been more than a year since the disastrous 2024 election and I can’t overestimate how much I miss my old life.

This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.

But I shouldn’t complain. Some of my former colleagues from the newspaper have it so much worse. My editor, for instance, is picking tomatoes not far from here under the hot Florida sun, which isn’t easy for a 45-year-old with bad knees. One of our former White House pool reporters is at a nearby chicken-processing plant. The few times we’ve met for a cup of coffee, I can’t bear to look at her hands.

If I had a choice, I wouldn’t be slinging burgers and dumping shoestring potatoes into a fryer 55 hours a week, breathing in that oil-clogged air and barely keeping up with the lunchtime rush. But it’s not as physically demanding as working in the fields or chopping up chickens on a frigid factory floor.

We’ve been at these jobs for six months, which is how long the new Civilian Conservation Corps — a name borrowed from President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal but with none of the social-democratic content — has been up and running. At the newspaper, we all thought the new president was joking when he promised to revive the old Biden administration idea of a youth climate corps. Of course, he did so with a grim focus all his own and a new slogan that “everyone has to pitch in to make America great again!”

Left unsaid was the administration’s plan to deport millions of undocumented workers and plunge the country into a desperate labor crisis. What’s more, the president blocked all new immigrants from what he called “shithole countries” and somehow expected incoming Scandinavians to fill the vacuum, though Swedes and Norwegians were clearly uninterested in moving to America en masse to cut lawns and build skyscrapers at non-Scandinavian wages.

So, that left us, the former “expert class,” newly unemployed, to do the work.

“We’re going to send those reporters and other freeloaders down to the countryside to get a real education,” the president insisted when he signed the Civilian Conservation Corps into law. “This is the first step in really draining the swamp.”

After a lifetime dedicated to exposing the corruption, legislative double-dealing, and bureaucratic insanities of Washington, my journalistic colleagues and I never thought of ourselves as actual inhabitants of the swamp. We were the zoologists. We developed the taxonomies and performed the autopsies. So, we dutifully reported on the president’s speech, never thinking it applied to us.

It’s not as if we missed the early warning signs of this war on expertise: the reporters attacked during campaign rallies, the death threats against public health officials, the storming of school-board meetings. It’s just that we didn’t expect those rabid but scattered incidents to morph into an official presidential initiative after the 2024 elections.

On his first day in office, the president signaled his new policy by authorizing a memorial on the Capitol grounds to the “patriots” of January 6th and commissioning a statue of the QAnon shaman for the Rotunda. He then appointed people to his cabinet who not only lacked the expertise to manage their departments but were singularly devoted to destroying the bureaucracies beneath them, not to speak of the country itself. He put militia leaders in key Defense Department roles and similarly filled the courts with extremists more suited to playing reality-show judges than real life ones. In all of this, the president has been aided by a new crop of his very own legislators, men and women who know nothing about Congress and actively flouted its rules and traditions even as they made the MAGA caucus the dominant voting bloc.

We laughed bitterly as we reported on each of these acts of political surrealism. Soon enough, however, those laughs died in our throats.

The joke, we learned, was on us.

Bashing China, Emulating China

The president’s supporters started bringing up China during the protests following George Floyd’s murder in 2020 when activists began pulling down monuments to slaveholders and Confederate generals.

This was an American-style “Cultural Revolution,” right-wing pundits insisted, referring to the tumultuous period of Chinese history from 1965 to 1975 when young revolutionaries, encouraged by leader Mao Zedong, tortured and killed “reactionary” elements, destroyed cultural treasures, and fought for control of institutions like universities and factories. At the behest of the Communist Party, those Red Guards also supervised the expulsion of intellectuals and civil servants to the countryside for “reeducation.”

America’s racial-justice activists bore no resemblance to those Red Guards. Unlike the young Chinese radicals of the 1960s, America’s activists didn’t kill anyone or subject even the worst racists to beatings and public humiliations. They pressed their demands for the removal of statues through democratic channels.

With that false Cultural Revolution analogy, the president’s supporters were able to portray Democrats as communists, while they engaged in the kind of China-bashing they’d perfected on pandemic, trade, and security issues. Meanwhile, having learned just enough about the Cultural Revolution to advance their far-fetched comparisons, the president’s team also clearly gathered tips on what to do with intellectuals and other “running dog lackeys” of the “globalists.”

Early on in the current administration, “expertise” became the new Communism, with doctorates as suspect as Party membership cards. Scientists who insisted on “promoting the false religion” of climate change found themselves without funding and then without jobs. Witch-hunting committees were established to pin all the failures of the last several decades — the pandemic, the trade deficit, the immigration “crisis” — on the expert class, their attacks becoming the cornerstone for a new, all-American version of class warfare.

The discrediting of experts and their ouster from positions of authority allowed the president’s supporters to move into the recently vacated positions. Credentials now being unnecessary, they became university professors, top officials in federal agencies, and newspaper pundits. The newly created Civilian Conservation Corps became the “solution” to the “problem” of the newly dispossessed expert class. The president introduced it as a “big, beautiful job retraining program.” In reality, the CCC was little different from the vagrancy laws of an earlier era that press-ganged the poor into prison labor.

We initially thought this revamped Civilian Conservation Corps would be voluntary and somehow, despite our reportorial skills, failed to grasp how the machinery of coercion was being constructed behind the scenes. Soon enough, though, with the assistance of its deep-pocketed financial supporters, the government began orchestrating hostile takeovers of media outlets critical of government policy — just as the right-wing government of Viktor Orbán had done in Hungary. School boards, newly dominated by Three Percenters, Family Firsters, and other presidential allies, changed the rules of employment to oust superintendents, principals, and teachers. A coordinated attack on the “Deep State” purged “radicals” from civil service jobs. Laws were passed to make union organizing essentially illegal.

There were some scattered demonstrations against the CCC registrations. The Corps, however, was initially popular at the polls — a reflection of how much anger had built up against the “experts,” the “functionaries,” and all the teachers who were supposedly pushing “critical race theory” in their classrooms. The same people who vociferously attacked vaccine mandates as government overreach had no problem with a new federal agency registering 5% of the population for “job retraining” and “employment relocation.”

Even with pandemic travel restrictions still in place throughout much of the world, the wealthy and famous critics of the president managed to leave the country. A few eccentrics disappeared into the internal exile of mountain shacks and survivalist shelters. The rest of us, with our wishful thinking and slender means, were caught up in the dragnet.

Good, honest work, the president promised as part of the CCC. Well, I’m not in a concentration camp and I can just about live within my stipend as long as I eat most of my meals at BurgerBoy. (The grilled chicken sandwich with avocado isn’t bad.) It’s the first time in my life that I’m grateful to be unmarried and childless. Many of my former colleagues have to pull double or even triple shifts to feed their families on the meager CCC pay.

I can get by. But I’m really worried about what comes next.


Once a week, as a requirement of the CCC system, we “volunteers” gather in a town hall committee room to report on our “progress” at work and confess any “crimes” of “action, intent, or thought.” Over time, the 25 of us in this mid-sized town in central Florida have found a way to get through the proceedings in a relatively speedy three hours.

Actually, there’s even some truth to the self-criticisms I make. With important exceptions, we in the media did largely ignore the plight of working America, the people we now labor alongside in fast-food restaurants, on road-construction crews, and at hotel-cleaning services. We never truly grasped the difficulty of making a living at such unlivable wages. Nor did we understand the challenges of the jobs themselves until our new colleagues had to teach us repeatedly how to avoid burning ourselves at a fryer or pick tomatoes fast enough to make a decent piece rate.

Perhaps most importantly, we failed to understand the justifiable anger of the working class at how, in recent decades, this country’s economy had skewed so wildly in favor of the wealthy, a tipping of the playing field abetted by the political mainstream. I suppose there’s some poetic justice in sending us on these “assignments” to see how the other 95% live.

But last week, just as I was getting used to those self-criticism sessions, the rules changed. That’s when Karen, the local CCC director (who’d previously headed up the president’s reelection campaign in this town), informed us of a new directive from the administration.

“Saboteurs have infiltrated the CCC,” Karen told us solemnly. “We need to weed out and punish them.”

She painted a picture of wrecked factories and uprooted seedlings on farms. The “resistance” was apparently attempting to undermine “our president’s super-great plans and this has to stop.”

Therefore, Karen needed us to rat on our fellow “volunteers.”

There are four of us — an astrophysicist, a classics professor, a nutritionist, and me — embedded with the local BurgerBoy staff. We four like each other well enough, though I find it difficult to put up with how slowly the astrophysicist assembles the burger orders and I bristle at the little jokes the classicist cracks under her breath in Greek and Latin. After some initial suspiciousness, we now get along with the local staff, too. When Aishah, the longest-serving employee, lobbied for higher wages, we supported her campaign even though the salary increases don’t apply to us.

There isn’t much we can sabotage here at BurgerBoy, unless you consider over-salted fries and poorly mixed shakes acts of resistance. Even if we managed to shut down the whole place, the town would hardly grind to a halt. Customers would just migrate to the fried chicken joint where three other CCC “volunteers” work.

In fact, we’ve all pulled together. Thanks to the nutritionist, we’ve made a few fixes to improve the taste and quality of the food and I’ve rewritten the descriptions of the meals to make them sound more appealing. Aishah suggested changes to better meet local needs around hours of operation and family discounts. Our restaurant is now making money instead of consistently losing it.

Even as we’ve turned our BurgerBoy around, however, the rest of the country is failing, big time. The economy is a mess, despite all the conscript labor working to keep supply chains functioning. The shelves are only half-full at the local supermarket. Prices are skyrocketing. Yet another wave of Covid-19 has filled the local hospital’s ICU to the brim in a now officially maskless, vaccine-mandate-less country, which only aggravates the labor shortage.

The new administration needs scapegoats.

Of course, the fears of sabotage are not completely unfounded. There’s resistance all right. It’s just not coming from us.


It started with a customer who overheard the former classics professor calling the chocolate shake theobroma — “food of the Gods” in Greek. The rest of us groaned, as usual.

“Hey,” the customer whispered to the professor over the counter. “That’s Greek, isn’t it?”

The professor, decked out in her BurgerBoy apron and cap, was all smiles. “That’s right.”

“I’m looking for a tutor for my girl,” the woman said. “Are you available?”

That’s when we first found out about how upset the locals had become over the changes in the schools. Almost everyone in town has been grumbling about the incompetence of the new teachers and the principal’s refusal to meet with any but the wealthiest of the parents. According to local gossip, the students aren’t learning a thing. As word of mouth spread and more customers began asking about our hidden specialties, my CCC colleagues started moonlighting.

And that was just the beginning. We soon found out from our customers that the healthcare system was falling apart because of a lack of competent administrators and dedicated public health officials. Social Security checks and Medicare benefits have been delayed because the federal bureaucracy has shrunk to near invisibility. Even with the addition of CCCers, there still aren’t enough pickers for the crops or enough experienced kill-room operators for the slaughterhouses.

Who needs saboteurs when the system set up by the new government is sabotaging itself? The leaders implemented their new laws on behalf of the People. But the actual people are beginning to have second thoughts.

I know this nightmare won’t end overnight. China’s Cultural Revolution stretched on for nearly a decade and resulted in as many as two million dead. Our now-captive media doesn’t report on the growing violence in this country, but we’ve heard rumors about mobs attacking a courageous podcaster in Georgia and vigilantes targeting a lone abortion provider in Texas. Things might get a lot worse before they get better.

Still, this former reporter needs to decide what part he’s going to play in dealing with autocratic rule in our town and the country at large.

Until now, I haven’t gotten any moonlighting gigs. It speaks volumes about my employability when a professor of dead languages gets more requests for tutoring than I do. But today, one of our customers, a secretary in Town Hall, passed me an envelope. She’d heard I was a journalist, so she took the risk of giving me this information.

According to the documents she slipped me, Karen has been siphoning off money meant for public infrastructure like roads and bridges into meeting her own private infrastructure needs like a remodeled kitchen, a new sports car, and a luxury sailboat. The envelope contains bank records, store receipts, and full-color photos that nail it all down.

So, Karen wants us to rat on saboteurs? I’ve got just the answer: if I have enough courage to confront her or somehow get this information written up and into the world. After all, she has the power to get me reassigned to a coal mine in West Virginia or a prison in South Carolina, if she wants.

I don’t know much about China’s Cultural Revolution, but I do know this: when Communist Party official Deng Xiaoping returned from cleaning out pig pens in the countryside, he didn’t just work to reverse the Cultural Revolution. When he became premier, he began a thorough transformation of the Chinese system.

I’m not a fan of a lot that has happened in China since, but I do know that we, too, need a thorough transformation here in America. If I ever survive the wrath of Karen and make it out of this BurgerBoy, that’s going to be my life’s mission. To exit this current mess, America needs its experts, but it also needs its pickers and cleaners and burger-flippers making livable wages and participating in rebuilding our country.

Drawing on our different skills, we turned around our little BurgerBoy. One day maybe we can bring our all-in-it-together revolution to the rest of this polarized, violent, desperately unequal, and ultimately failing country.

Americans are suffering from 2 pandemics — COVID, and the sinister right-wing plague that fuels it

Imagine that you were experiencing all of this (and by this, I mean our lives right now) as if it were a novel, à la Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. The famed author of Robinson Crusoe — Defoe claimed it had been written by the fictional Crusoe himself — was five years old in 1665. That was when a year-long visitation of the bubonic plague decimated London. It probably killed more than 100,000 of that city’s residents or 15% of its population. As for Defoe, he published his “journal” in 1722, 57 years later. He wrote it, however, as if he (or his unidentified protagonist) had recorded events as they were happening in the way that all of us, whatever our ages, have been witnessing the ravages of the many variants of Covid-19 in our own all-too-dismantled lives.

This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.

Still, give Defoe credit. As a grown-up, he may not have lived through the worst version of a plague to hit that capital city since the Black Death of 1348. He did, however, capture much that, four centuries later, will seem unnervingly familiar to us, living as we are in a country savaged by a pandemic all our own. We can only hope that, 57 years from now, on a calmer planet, some twenty-first-century version of Defoe will turn our disaster into a memorable work of fiction (not that Louise Erdrich hasn’t already taken a shot at it in her new novel, The Sentence). Sadly, given so much that’s happening right now from the mad confrontation over Ukraine to the inability to stop this world from heating to the boiling point, that calmer future planet seems unlikely indeed.

Call me a masochist, but at 77, in relative isolation in New York City as the omicron variant of Covid-19 ran wild — hitting a peak here of 50,000 cases a day — I read Defoe’s novel. All too much of it seemed eerily familiar: stores shutting down, nightlife curtailed, people locked in their houses, others looking desperately to none-too-wise figures for any explanation but a reasonable one about what was happening to them. And so it went then and so it’s largely gone now.

I mean, a passage like this one on the way so many Londoners reacted to the plague should still ring a bell, no?

“…[N]ow led by their fright to extremes of folly… they ran to conjurers and witches, and all sorts of deceivers to know what should become of them (who fed their fears, and kept them always alarmed and awake on purpose to delude them and pick their pockets)… running after quacks and montebanks… for medicines and remedies; storing themselves with such multitudes of pills, potions, and preservatives, as they were called, that they not only spent their money but even poisoned themselves beforehand for fear of the poison of the infection.”

Hey, in our time, from key figures on the right we’ve heard far too much about what Defoe referred to, so many centuries ago and all too ironically, as “infallible preventive pills against the plague.” After all, our previous president recommended that Americans use the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine against Covid-19. (“‘I think people should [take hydroxychloroquine],’ he told reporters at a White House press briefing on Saturday. ‘If it were me, in fact, I might do it anyway. I may take it… I have to ask my doctors about that. But I may take it.'”) Similarly, Fox News and various Republicans continued to plug the use of the anti-parasitic drug Ivermectin, normally given to livestock, as a miracle cure. (Neither of those drugs was anything of the sort, of course.)

In a way, in these last two years, so many of us have felt almost Robinson Crusoe-like, stranded on our own islands in the middle of a hell on Earth. We are, it seems, whatever our ages, the Covid generation, living either in painful isolation or in shoulder-to-shoulder danger of the scariest kind. But here’s the even stranger thing: Defoe and his compatriots suffered only one terrifying illness, the bubonic plague, known in earlier years as the Black Death for the black sores or “buboes” it caused on necks, in armpits, and in the groin.

To my mind, there is one thing that makes us different. We’ve been suffering through not one, but two plagues or pandemics in this country. Anyone in a Defoe-like mood would, I suspect, have to write two journals of the plague years to cover this painfully all-American moment of ours.

In one, as in Defoe, a spreading, shape-shifting disease would be our common enemy. After all — and we may be anything but done — Covid-19 in all its variants has so far killed, by my rough estimate, one of every 300 Americans and, according to the New York Times, one of every 100 of us who is 65 or older. Though the official figure for deaths stands at a staggering 886,000 Americans and continues to rise by a couple of thousand a day, the real total is undoubtedly well over a million by now, in itself a stunning disaster.

And yet, in this same period, we’ve been living through another kind of pandemic as well. Think of it as a rabid political pandemic also ravaging the country and, worse yet, using the first pandemic as a kind of growth hormone.

Pandemic Two

Here’s the strange thing: Covid-19 has gotten in the way of so much that matters in our individual lives — from school to socializing to making a living — and yet, all too bizarrely, it’s changed so little that mattered, politically speaking, especially to the Trumpian part of America. Yes, sometimes it’s shut down much and shut off much else. Yet, ravaged by illness, the political world has, if anything, revved up in a remarkably disastrous fashion.

And for that, you can’t only blame the Republicans or the Trumpists among them. After all, it’s eerily true at the international level as well, with the Biden administration acting as if, in the midst of both that global pandemic and a round of unprecedented climate-change disasters, we were still on an all-too-familiar Cold War planet. The crisis in Ukraine? Honestly, you’d think we were back in the literal Cold War and that no pandemic had ever hit this world, as the Biden administration threatens to send more U.S. troops, ships, and planes to the very edges of the Soviet Union… whoops, sorry, I meant Vladimir Putin’s Russia. No matter that we’re no longer talking about possible war in distant Afghanistan or even Iraq, but in the European heartland and between nuclear-armed powers still being devastated by a disease whose ability to slaughter has, in this country, left the casualties of the Civil War in the dust of history.

Of course, after a fashion, we’ve experienced something like this before. To put this aspect of our lives in perspective, it’s worth remembering that, in a world long after Daniel Defoe’s but significantly earlier than ours, parts of humanity fought their way through the end of World War I undaunted by the great influenza, the pandemic of that moment, then sweeping the planet. It got its name, the “Spanish Flu,” ironically enough, from a country in Europe that remained neutral during that disastrous conflict and so was the first not to experience the plague, but to openly publish information about it which would, in the end, kill an estimated 50 million people worldwide!

Meanwhile, the America that delivered con man and bankuptee Donald Trump to the White House in 2016 has seemingly only been energized by the Covid disaster. So, think of the ongoing Trumpian movement as this country’s second pandemic. After all, the Republicans of the Trump era and their “base” seem all too ready to rather literally tear this country apart. That, over these last two years, has meant among other things fighting anyone who might try to deal in a reasonable fashion with the first pandemic (even, in an armed and dangerous fashion, with the governor of Michigan in response to her Covid lockdown measures).

From unmasking to refusing to be vaccinated, from ignoring social distancing to denouncing vaccine mandates, Trumpian America has taken up the pandemic as its issue du jour and run madly (and I do mean madly) with it, often followed by significant parts of the population. And mind you, it’s no happenstance that, during these Covid years, gun sales in this country, already high, soared to record levels, while gun violence seemed to reach pandemic heights all its own. Meanwhile, in the White House was a president who himself was a Covid superspreader, a leader who, on returning from a Covid-19 hospital stay, proudly ripped his mask off on a White House balcony. Meanwhile, increasingly armed right-wing militias and white nationalist groups like the Oath Keepers and the Boogaloo Boys are seeking to speed the way to a societal collapse.

Politically, as became clear indeed on January 6, 2021, our second pandemic has only continued to grow ever fiercer, ravaging this country in its own fashion. After all, in the wake of that striking attempt by militia members, white nationalists, and Trumpian supporters to destroy the U.S. Capitol (and most of those inside it), polls suggest that ever more Republicans have come to believe violence is a reasonable means, if not the only one, to make this country their own. Wild talk of everything from insurrection to civil war has only grown as the Republican Party in these years increasingly became, both in Congress and outside it, a cult of no.

Are More Variants on the Way?

And here’s the strangest thing of all, our two pandemics continue to mix and match ever more deeply and bizarrely at ever more levels. In the process, they’ve fed voraciously off each other. To see the way Covid-19 has all-too-literally fed off Trumpian America, you only have to check out the death rates in areas that voted for The Donald in 2020 versus those that voted for Joe Biden. On average, they’re almost three times as high. Worse yet, in the Trumpiest — that is, reddest — parts of the country, that figure is nearly six times as high. Keep in mind that we’re talking about dead Americans here. And in that context, I’m sure you won’t be surprised to know that, among Democrats, vaccination rates are far higher than among Republicans. Duh!

Meanwhile, on pandemic-related issues ranging from masking to social distancing, misinformation about Covid-19 to violent opposition to vaccine mandates, the second pandemic, the Trumpian one, has fed off the first in its own version of infecting America. The new Republican Party, its legislators and governors, have come to rely on issues like forbidding mask mandates in schools or vaccine mandates in businesses (or simply refusing to wear masks at all), while opposing almost any kind of shutdown vis-a-vis the pandemic to gain strength. And their power has increasingly been built on acts meant to enhance the lethal effects of Covid-19, which means that functionally they’ve been murderers. In other words, when it comes to the Republican Party and ever more of its followers, we’re talking about a violent cult of no that seems intent on taking this country apart at the seams.

In that context, there’s one obvious question to ask about either of the pandemics plaguing the United States right now: Do new variants lurk in our future? When it comes to Covid-19, we simply don’t know if omicron will sweep everything else away and, like the Spanish flu, become a milder ongoing endemic disease. Unfortunately, on a planet where the inhabitants of significant regions are still remarkably unvaccinated, the spawning of deadly new variants remains a real possibility and living in an ongoing pandemic world remains an all-too-conceivable future reality.

If only one could hope that the equivalent of the first option above was a significant possibility for our other pandemic — that it might recede into the national woodwork, becoming an endemic but relatively minor strain of American politics. However, there, as well, new variants seem all too imaginable. Of course, the present strain of it, whose heartland now lies in Mar-a-Lago, Florida, remains remarkably alive and well, heading into the elections of 2022 and 2024. It’s true that an aging Donald Trump, already booed at one of his own rallies last year for his position on vaccines, could end up ceding or losing election ground to a fiercer, younger version of himself like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, or some other variant we have yet to see.

All of this remains unknown. The only thing we can be sure of right now is that we live in an America ever more divided and devastated by those two pandemics. On an increasingly sickly planet, our future, in other words, remains up for grabs.

How the FBI ignored white radicals while spying 24/7 on Muslim Americans

Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson excused one of the leaders of the extremist Oath Keepers organization implicated in the January 6th insurrection by describing him as “a devout Christian.” It’s safe to surmise that he wouldn’t have offered a similar defense for a Muslim American. Since September 11th, and even before that ominous date, they have suffered bitterly from discrimination and hate crimes in this country, while their religion has been demonized. During the first year of the Trump administration, about half of Muslim Americans polled said that they had personally experienced some type of discrimination.

This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.

No matter that this group resides comfortably in the American mainstream, it remains under intensive, often unconstitutional, surveillance. In contrast, during the past two decades, the Department of Justice for the most part gave a pass to violent white supremacists. No matter that they generated more terrorist attacks on U.S. soil than any other group. The benign insouciance of the white American elite toward such dangerous fanatics also allowed them to organize freely for the January 6th assault on the Capitol and the potential violent overthrow of the government.

Donell Harvin was the chief of homeland security and intelligence for the government of the District of Columbia in the period leading up to January 6th. He assured NBC News’s Ken Dilanian that the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security seemed completely oblivious about the plans of white supremacist hate groups to violently halt the certification of Joe Biden’s presidential victory, despite plentiful evidence on social media that they were preparing to bring weaponry to the Capitol.

Consider now the treatment that the very same agencies offered distinctly inoffensive Muslim Americans. Rutgers law professor Sahar Aziz has argued that many white Americans see Muslims not merely as a religious group but as a racial one and have placed them on the nethermost rung of this country’s ethnic hierarchy. Muslim Americans are regularly, for instance, profiled at airports and subjected to long interrogations. Over many years, the New York City Police Department gathered intelligence on more than 250 mosques and student groups. The FBI even put field officers in mosques not only to spy on, but also to entrap worshipers who, alarmed by their wild talk, sometimes reported them to… the FBI.

Aziz notes that Donald Trump campaigned in 2016 to register all Muslim Americans in a database, institute widespread surveillance of mosques, and possibly exclude Muslims from the country. Even non-governmental far-right groups like discredited ex-journalist Steve Emerson’s “Investigative Project on Terrorism” have spied on Muslim Americans. As with everything else in the contemporary U.S., a partisan divide has emerged regarding them, with 72% of Republicans holding the self-evidently false belief that Muslims are more likely to commit violence than adherents of other faiths, while only 32% of Democrats say this.

Apparently, though, our concern over the potential commission of violence in this country should actually focus on Republicans. A recent Washington Post-University of Maryland poll found that 34% of Americans now believe that violence against the government is sometimes justified, a statistic that rises to an alarming 40% among Republicans. In other words, this country’s worries about violence should be focused most on the right-wing extremist fringe, exemplified by groups like the Oath Keepers, 11 of whose leaders were arrested by the FBI in mid-January for “seditious conspiracy” in their paramilitary invasion of the Capitol in 2021. More people have perished in political killings in the past 20 years here at the hands of far-right radicals than those of any other group, including extremists of Muslim heritage. Still, this country’s security agencies continue their laser focus on monitoring Muslim Americans, even as they grossly underestimate the threat from white supremacists.

Collectively Punishing Muslim Americans

What most characterizes the American Muslim community, which at nearly four million strong makes up more than 1% of the population, is diversity. It includes white and Hispanic converts, African Americans, Arab Americans, and South-Asian Americans whose families hailed from the Indian subcontinent. Three American Muslims are serving in Congress and even President Trump appointed a Moroccan-born American immunologist, Moncef Slaoui, to head Operation Warp Speed that produced the Moderna vaccine for Covid-19. Last summer saw the confirmation of the first Muslim-American federal judge and President Biden has just nominated the first Muslim-American woman to the federal bench. There are also striking numbers of Muslim-American peace activists, either with their own organizations or involved at interfaith centers, as well as many environmentalists and community organizers, but the media and academics seldom focus on this dimension of the religion.

In my new book, Peace Movements in Islam, my colleagues and I did something remarkably rare in these years: we explored this peaceful dimension of the faith of a fifth of humankind. We focused, for instance, on the Muslims active alongside Mahatma Gandhi in nonviolent noncooperation to end British colonial domination of India. Closer to home, contributor Grace Yukich explores the Muslim-American reaction to the rise of the virulently Islamophobic Trump administration and finds that many responded by promoting the progressive dimensions of their faith, while working against racism and for the rights of immigrants and the poor.

Polling supports her findings, with 69% of Muslim-American respondents saying that working for justice forms an essential part of their identity, nearly the same as the 72% who say that loving the Prophet Muhammad is essential to being a Muslim. In addition, 62% see protecting the natural environment as a key to Muslim identity. The majority of them, in other words, are religiously open-minded. Some 56% of Muslim Americans, for instance, believe that other religions can be a path to salvation. In contrast, only a third of evangelical Christians take a similar position when it comes to religions outside the Judeo-Christian tradition.

And here’s a seldom-recognized reality in this country: Muslims form a longstanding and important thread in the American tapestry, having been in North America for centuries. Rabbinical Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all arose on the fringes of the Roman Empire between the first and seventh centuries of the common era. All believe in the one God of Abraham, as well as in the biblical patriarchs and prophets. All forbid murder, robbery, and other violent crimes. There are no objective grounds for a United States that recognizes the first two to deny legitimacy to the third.

Muslim-American numbers have increased dramatically since, in 1965, Congress changed formerly racist immigration laws to abolish country quotas that favored northern Europeans. Some 75% of the Muslim Americans here are now citizens. The 9/11 attacks, however, turbocharged hatred of this group, unfairly associating them in the minds of many Americans with violence and terrorism, even though all the hijackers were foreigners and differed starkly in their political and ethnic backgrounds from those of most Muslim Americans. Unlike whites, who suffer no reputational damage from being of the same race as violent white supremacists, Muslim Americans have been collectively punished for bad behavior by any of them or even by foreign coreligionists. While a small number of Muslim Americans have succumbed to the blandishments of radical Muslim ideologies, it has been vigorously rejected by all but a few.

The same cannot be said of white nationalists for whom radicalism stands at the core of their identity, while a disturbing strain of poisonous racism runs through their activities. The 11 leaders of the Oath Keepers arrested in mid-January for seditious conspiracy had stockpiled heavy weapons and coordinated with rapid-response teams pre-positioned outside Washington, D.C., whom they hoped to call on, apparently after they invaded the halls of Congress. According to the indictment, the leader of that 5,000-strong organization, Elmer “Stewart” Rhodes, wrote on its website on December 23, 2020, “Tens of thousands of patriot Americans, both veterans and non-veterans, will already be in Washington, D.C., and many of us will have our mission-critical gear stowed nearby, just outside D.C.”

Rhodes, who spent thousands of dollars on weaponry in December and January, said in an open letter that he and others may have to “take to arms in defense of our God given liberty.” Oath Keeper chapters around the country conducted military training exercises with rifles. Indicted Alabaman Oath Keeper Joshua James, 33, texted on the Signal messaging app, “We have a shitload of QRF [Quick Reaction Forces] on standby with an arsenal.” They were concerned, though, that during the planned civil disturbance, authorities could close the bridges from Virginia (where they had holed up in motels with their assault rifles) into D.C. A QRF team leader from North Carolina wrote, “My sources DC working on procuring Boat transportation as we speak.” Kelly Meggs of Florida, another Oath Keeper leader, sent messages worrying about running out of ammunition: “Ammo situation. I am checking on as far as what they will have for us if SHTF [the shit hits the fan]. I’m gonna have a few thousand just in case. If you’ve got it doesn’t hurt to have it. No one ever said shit I brought too much.”

On the morning of January 6th, one of the organization’s leaders, 63-year-old Edward Vallejo of Phoenix, Arizona, discussed the possibility of “armed conflict” and “guerrilla war” on a podcast. On the day itself, members of the Oath Keepers formed paramilitary “stacks” in front of the Capitol to invade it in formation. They were, however, foiled when some Capitol police delayed them by holding the line against thousands of angry, determined fanatics, while others whisked most members of Congress away to secure locations inaccessible to the mob. Before they were rescued, some representatives lay on the floor, weeping or praying. In other words, the American far right came much closer to overthrowing the U.S. government than al-Qaeda ever did and, at the same time, resembles al-Qaeda far more than Republican lawmakers are ever likely to admit.

Ignoring White Nationalists

The Oath Keepers, like the Boogaloo Bois and other far-right groups central to the insurrection, do not so much have an ideology as a mental cesspool of conspiracy theories and imaginary grievances. Typically, in December 2018, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Oath Keeper founder Stewart Rhodes spoke of asylum-seekers at the border with Mexico as a “military invasion” by “cartels” and part of a “political coup” by the domestic Marxist left. He also managed to blame Muslims and the late Senator John McCain for provoking crises that would leave this country’s borders “undefended.”

Extremists on the white nationalist right have been a known quantity to American law enforcement for decades and have committed horrific acts of violence like Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 truck-bombing of the Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people and wounded more than 800. Unlike Muslim Americans, however, they have been cut remarkable slack.

The Republican Party has had a longstanding and chillingly effective policy of downplaying the dangers of extremist white nationalists. No surprise there, since the GOP depends on the far-right vote in elections and on financial contributions from well-off white supremacists who hate the multiracial Democrats. In 2009, analyst Daryl Johnson of the Department of Homeland Security in the newly installed Obama administration produced a confidential report for law enforcement suggesting that right-wing extremism posed the biggest domestic threat of terrorism to this country. Republicans in Congress leaked it and then, along with right-wing media like Fox News, went ballistic.

House minority leader John Boehner (R-OH) said at the time:

“[T]he Secretary of Homeland Security owes the American people an explanation for why she has abandoned using the term ‘terrorist’ to describe those, such as al-Qaeda, who are plotting overseas to kill innocent Americans, while her own Department is using the same term to describe American citizens who disagree with the direction Washington Democrats are taking our nation.”

According to Johnson, the Obama administration caved to this campaign:

“Work related to violent right-wing extremism was halted. Law enforcement training also stopped. My unit was disbanded. And, one-by-one, my team of analysts left for other employment. By 2010, there were no intelligence analysts at DHS working domestic terrorism threats.”

One can imagine that under Trump such groups received even less government scrutiny, since one of their fellow travelers had ascended to the White House.

The refusal of the Washington establishment to take the menace of far-right white nationalist movements seriously has been among the biggest security failures in this country’s history. The collusion of mainstream Republicans who have, in essence, run interference for such dangerous, well-armed conspiracy theorists has stained the party of Lincoln indelibly, while the participation of active-duty military and police personnel in these groups poses a dire threat to the Republic.

At the same time, this country’s security agencies failed epically in their treatment of Muslim Americans after the 9/11 attacks by infringing on their civil liberties, while abridging or disregarding constitutional protections for millions of innocent people. Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, points to congressional reports that question the value of all this monitoring of an American minority, not to speak of the absurdities it has entailed. As she put it, “Often, the reports singled out Muslims engaged in normal activities for suspicion: a [Department of Homeland Security] officer flagged as suspicious a seminar on marriage held at a mosque, while a north Texas fusion center advised keeping an eye out for Muslim civil liberties groups and sympathetic individuals and organizations.” In such a world, even Muslim Americans active in peace centers become inherently suspicious, but heavily armed white nationalists in motels just outside Washington aren’t.

Copyright 2022 Juan Cole

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

Juan Cole

Juan Cole, a TomDispatch regular, is the Richard P. Mitchell collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He is the author of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: A New Translation From the Persian and Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires. His latest book is Peace Movements in Islam. His award-winning blog isInformed Comment.

Leaders want us to 'look forward' — never backwards — on Afghanistan. Without accountability, that’s impossible

The anniversary of the 9/11 attacks was marked by days of remembrances — for the courageous rescue workers of that moment, for the thousands murdered as the Twin Towers collapsed, for those who died in the Pentagon, or in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, fighting off the hijackers of the commercial jet they were in, as well as for those who fought in the forever wars that were America's response to those al-Qaeda attacks.

For some, the memory of that horrific day included headshaking over the mistakes this country made in responding to it, mistakes we live with to this moment.

Among the more prominent heads being shaken over the wrongdoing that followed 9/11, and the failure to correct any of it, was that of Jane Harman, a Democrat from California, who was then in the House of Representatives. She would join all but one member of Congress — fellow California representative Barbara Lee — in voting for the remarkably vague Authorization for the Use of Force, or AUMF, which paved the way for the invasion of Afghanistan and so much else. It would, in fact, put Congress in cold storage from then on, allowing the president to bypass it in deciding for years to come whom to attack and where, as long as he justified whatever he did by alluding to a distinctly imprecise term: terrorism. So, too, Harman would vote for the Patriot Act, which would later be used to put in place massive warrantless surveillance policies, and then, a year later, for the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq (based on the lie that Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction).

But on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the attacks, Harman offered a different message, one that couldn't have been more appropriate or, generally speaking, rarer in this country — a message laced through and through with regret. "[W]e went beyond the carefully tailored use of military force authorized by Congress," she wrote remorsefully, referring to that 2001 authorization to use force against al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. So, too, Harman railed against the decision, based on "cherry-picked intelligence," to go to war in Iraq; the eternal use of drone strikes in the forever wars; as well as the creation of an offshore prison of injustice at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and of CIA black sites around the world meant for the torture of prisoners from the war on terror. The upshot, she concluded, was to create "more enemies than we destroyed."

Such regrets and even apologies, while scarce, have not been utterly unknown in post-9/11-era Washington. In March 2004, for example, Richard Clarke, the counterterrorism chief for the Bush White House, would publicly apologize to the American people for the administration's failure to stop the 9/11 attacks. "Your government failed you," the former official told Congress and then proceeded to criticize the decision to go to war in Iraq as well. Similarly, after years of staunchly defending the Iraq War, Senator John McCain would, in 2018, finally term it "a mistake, a very serious one," adding, "I have to accept my share of the blame for it." A year later, a PEW poll would find that a majority of veterans regretted their service in Afghanistan and Iraq, feeling that both wars were "not worth fighting."

Recently, some more minor players in the post-9/11 era have apologized in unique ways for the roles they played. For instance, Terry Albury, an FBI agent, would be convicted under the Espionage Act for leaking documents to the media, exposing the bureau's policies of racial and religious profiling, as well as the staggering range of surveillance measures it conducted in the name of the war on terror. Sent to prison for four years, Albury recently completed his sentence. As Janet Reitman reported in the New York Times Magazine, feelings of guilt over the "human cost" of what he was involved in led to his act of revelation. It was, in other words, an apology in action.

As was the similar act of Daniel Hale, a former National Security Agency analyst who had worked at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan helping to identify human targets for drone attacks. He would receive a 45-month sentence under the Espionage Act for his leaks— documents he had obtained on such strikes while working as a private contractor after his government service.

As Hale would explain, he acted out of a feeling of intense remorse. In his sentencing statement, he described watching "through a computer monitor when a sudden, terrifying flurry of Hellfire missiles came crashing down, splattering purple-colored crystal guts." His version of an apology-in-action came from his regret that he had continued on at his post even after witnessing the horrors of those endless killings, often of civilians. "Nevertheless, in spite of my better instinct, I continued to follow orders." Eventually, a drone attack on a woman and her two daughters led him over the brink. "How could I possibly continue to believe that I am a good person, deserving of my life and the right to pursue happiness" was the way he put it and so he leaked his apology and is now serving his time.

"We Were Wrong, Plain and Simple"

Outside of government and the national security state, there have been others who struck a chord of atonement as well. On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, for instance, Jameel Jaffer, once Deputy Legal Director of the ACLU and now head of the Knight First Amendment Institute, took "the opportunity to look inward." With some remorse, he reflected on the choices human-rights organizations had made in campaigning against the abuse and torture of war-on-terror prisoners.

Jaffer argued that their emphasis should have been less on the degradation of American "traditions and values" and more on the costs in terms of human suffering, on the "experience of the individuals harmed." In taking up the cases of individuals whose civil liberties had often been egregiously violated in the name of the war on terror, the ACLU revealed much about the damage to their clients. Still, the desire to have done even more clearly haunts Jaffer. Concluding that we "substituted a debate about abstractions for a debate about prisoners' specific experiences," Jaffer asks, "[I]s it possible" that the chosen course of the NGOs "did something more than just bracket prisoners' human rights — that it might have, even if only in a small way, contributed to their dehumanization as well?"

Jonathan Greenblatt, now head of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), spoke in a similarly rueful fashion about that organization's decision to oppose plans for a Muslim community center in lower Manhattan, near Ground Zero — a plan that became known popularly as the "Ground Zero Mosque." As the 20th anniversary approached, he said bluntly, "We owe the Muslim community an apology." The intended center fell apart under intense public pressure that Greenblatt feels the ADL contributed to. "[T]hrough deep reflection and conversation with many friends within the Muslim community," he adds, "the real lesson is a simple one: we were wrong, plain and simple." The ADL had recommended that the center be built in a different location. Now, as Greenblatt sees it, an institution that "could have helped to heal our country as we nursed the wounds from the horror of 9/11" never came into being.

The irony here is that while a number of those Americans least responsible for the horrors of the last two decades have directly or indirectly placed a critical lens on their own actions (or lack thereof), the figures truly responsible said not an apologetic word. Instead, there was what Jaffer has called an utter lack of "critical self-reflection" among those who launched, oversaw, commanded, or supported America's forever wars.

Just ask yourself: When have any of the public officials who ensured the excesses of the war on terror reflected publicly on their mistakes or expressed the least sense of regret about them (no less offering actual apologies for them)? Where are the generals whose reflections could help forestall future failed attempts at "nation-building" in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, or Somalia? Where are the military contractors whose remorse led them to forsake profits for humanity? Where are any voices of reflection or apology from the military-industrial complex including from the CEOs of the giant weapons makers who raked in fortunes off those two decades of war? Have any of them joined the small chorus of voices reflecting on the wrongs that we've done to ourselves as a nation and to others globally? Not on the recent 9/11 anniversary, that's for sure.

Looking Over Your Shoulder or Into Your Heart?

What we still normally continue to hear instead is little short of a full-throated defense of their actions in overseeing those disastrous wars and other conflicts. To this day, for instance, former Afghan and Iraq War commander David Petraeus speaks of this country's "enormous accomplishments" in Afghanistan and continues to double down on the notion of nation-building. He still insists that, globally speaking, Washington "generally has to lead" due to its "enormous preponderance of military capabilities," including its skill in "advising, assisting, and enabling host nations' forces with the armada of drones we now have, and an unequal[ed] ability to fuse intelligence."

Similarly, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, national security advisor to Donald Trump, had a virtual melt down on MSNBC days before the anniversary, railing against what he considered President Biden's mistaken decision to actually withdraw all American forces from Afghanistan. "After we left Iraq," he complained, "al-Qaeda morphed into ISIS, and we had to return." But it didn't seem to cross his mind to question the initial ill-advised and falsely justified decision to invade and occupy that country in the first place.

And none of this is atypical. We have repeatedly seen those who created the disastrous post-9/11 policies defend them no matter what the facts tell us. As a lawyer in the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel, John Yoo, who wrote the infamous memos authorizing the torture of war-on-terror detainees under interrogation, followed up the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan with a call for President Obama to "restart the interrogation program that helped lead us to bin Laden." As the Senate Torture Report on Interrogation would conclude several years later, the use of such brutal techniques of torture did not in fact lead the U.S. to bin Laden. On the contrary, as NPR has summed it up, "The Senate Intelligence Committee came to the conclusion that those claims are overblown or downright lies."

Among the unrepentant, of course, is George W. Bush, the man in the White House on 9/11 and the president who oversaw the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the securitization of key American institutions and policies. Bush proved defiant on the 20th anniversary. The optics told it all. Speaking to a crowd at Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where that hijacked plane with 40 passengers and four terrorists crashed on 9/11, the former president was flanked by former Vice President Dick Cheney. His Machiavellian oversight of the worst excesses of the war on terror had, in fact, led directly to era-defining abrogations of laws and norms. But no apologies were forthcoming.

Instead, in his speech that day, Bush highlighted in a purely positive fashion the very policies his partnership with Cheney had spawned. "The security measures incorporated into our lives are both sources of comfort and reminders of our vulnerability," he said, giving a quiet nod of approval to policies that, if they were "comforting" in his estimation, also defied the rule of law, constitutional protections, and previously sacrosanct norms limiting presidential power.

Over the course of these 20 years, this country has had to face the hard lesson that accountability for the mistakes, miscalculations, and lawless policies of the war on terror has proven not just elusive, but inconceivable. Typically, for instance, the Senate Torture Report, which documented in 6,000 mostly still-classified pages the brutal treatment of detainees at CIA black sites, did not lead to any officials involved being held accountable. Nor has there been any accountability for going to war based upon that lie about Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction.

Instead, for the most part, Washington has decided all these years later to continue in the direction outlined by President Obama during the week leading up to his 2009 inauguration. "I don't believe that anybody is above the law," he said. "On the other hand, I also have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards… I don't want [CIA personnel and others to] suddenly feel like they've got to spend all their time looking over their shoulders and lawyering."

Looking over their shoulders is one thing, looking into their own hearts quite another.

The recent deaths of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who, among other horrors, supervised the building of Guantanamo and the use of brutal interrogation techniques there and elsewhere and of former CIA General Counsel John Rizzo, who accepted the reasoning of Department of Justice lawyers when it came to authorizing torture for his agency, should remind us of one thing: America's leaders, civilian and military, are unlikely to rethink their actions that were so very wrong in the war on terror. Apologies are seemingly out of the question.

So, we should be thankful for the few figures who courageously breached the divide between self-righteous defensiveness when it came to the erosion of once-hallowed laws and norms and the kind of healing that the passage of time and the opportunity to reflect can yield. Perhaps history, through the stories left behind, will prove more competent when it comes to acknowledging wrongdoing as the best way of looking forward.

Have we entered America's third era of reconstruction?

West Virginia, a state first established in defiance of slavery, has recently become ground zero in the fight for voting rights. In an early June op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin vowed to maintain the Senate filibuster, while opposing the For the People Act, a bill to expand voting rights. Last week, after mounting pressure and a leaked Zoom recording with billionaire donors, he showed potential willingness to move on the filibuster and proposed a "compromise" on voting rights. Nonetheless, his claim that the filibuster had been critical to protecting the "rights of Democrats in the past" and his pushback on important voting-rights protections requires scrutiny.

This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.

After all, the modern use of the filibuster first emerged in the 1920s and 1930s as a response to civil rights and anti-lynching legislation. In 1949, senator and southern Democrat Richard Russell, then a chief defender of the filibuster, unabashedly explained that "nobody mentions any other legislation in connection with it."

Manchin's apathy toward democracy actively harms millions of West Virginians in a state where 40% of the population is poor or low-income and voter turn-out rates remain dismally low. Indeed, that filibuster potentially stands directly in the way of billions of dollars in infrastructure and job-development funding that would buoy the Mountaineer State, as well as many other states across the country. At the same time,the protection and expansion of voting rights would benefit poor and low-income West Virginians significantly.

The debate on protecting voting rights and on the filibuster in Congress is only part of an assault on democracy underway nationally. Halfway through 2021, the very Republican extremists who continue to cry wolf about a "stolen" presidential election have introduced close to 400 voter suppression bills in 48 states (including West Virginia), 20 of which have already been signed into law. As journalist Ari Berman recently tweeted all too accurately, this wave of reactionary legislation is the "greatest assault on voting rights since the end of Reconstruction in the late 1870s."

When history circles back on itself like this, it's worth paying attention, especially since the years following the Civil War represented the most significant wave of democracy this country had ever seen. For almost a decade during that First Reconstruction, formerly enslaved men and women forged fragile but powerful political coalitions with poor whites across the South, leading state governments to advance the rights of dispossessed millions, while securing key federal legislation and constitutional amendments that would forever change the country.

The racist and violent backlash to Reconstruction was more than a reaction to the enfranchisement of former slaves and the empowerment of propertyless whites. It was a response to the threat a multiracial democracy from below posed to the still all-too-powerful remnants of the southern Slavocracy and the barons of Wall Street some thousand miles to the north. Today, the stirrings of a similarly transformative era are palpable and the growing antidemocratic counterattack suggests that the modern equivalent of those Slavocrats and the billionaire barons of this moment feel it, too.

As inequality and poverty continue to deepen, poll after poll shows that the majority of Americans favors commonsense policies like universal healthcare, wage increases, affordable housing, and voting rights. And from the multiracial Black Lives Matter uprisings last summer, which pulled in tens of millions of Americans, to the historic electorate that voted in the Biden-Harris administration, it may soon be increasingly clear that this majority is willing to act to make its needs and demands the order of the day.

In the wake of that First Reconstruction and what might be called the Second Reconstruction of the Civil Rights era from the 1940s to 1970s, we may now be in the early days of a Third Reconstruction. Still, no one should ignore another reality as well: those who would stop such a moment still wield enormous power and will continue to use every imaginable tool of division and subterfuge, from suppressing the vote and maintaining the filibuster to limiting wages and supporting highly militarized police forces.

The first two Reconstructions have much to teach us about the possibilities and dangers that abound today.

A Tale of Two Reconstructions

The First Reconstruction emerged in the bloody wake of the Civil War and 250 years of slavery. For roughly eight years, 1865-1877, formerly enslaved people were joined by poor white southern farmers who saw that they shared certain political aspirations and economic interests. Within just a few years, such cross-racial alliances controlled state houses in the South, passing some of the most progressive education, civil rights, and labor laws in this country's history.

In several states, new constitutions granted the right to public education (to this day, still not federally enshrined). Such fusion coalitions, often led by the formerly enslaved, knew that their freedom depended on a vibrant democracy, so they expanded access to the ballot. At the federal level, these new Southern governments in conjunction with their Northern counterparts, helped advance the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, later known as the Reconstruction amendments.

For too brief a time, there was a historic redistribution of political and economic power that offered a glimpse of what true democracy could look like on American soil. But from the start, such a program faced enormous opposition. Not surprisingly, many former Confederates saw Black citizenship, as well as any kind of interracial working-class alliance, as inherently illegitimate. As a result, old slave-holding politicians fought the use of taxes to support public education, especially for Black children, while working ceaselessly to suppress the Black vote.

In the process, violence and terror quickly came into use. It was within the crucible of Reconstruction that the Ku Klux Klan first took shape, with the goal of terrorizing Black and white leaders alike. White-led mob violence and outright race massacres in both the North and South shook this budding interracial democracy to the core and, after the federal government abandoned the effort, white extremists across the South wrested back power. In place of Reconstruction, they formulated a Jim Crow system that would again codify a strict racial hierarchy and stand until the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were passed deep into the next century.

That Second Reconstruction began quietly in the 1940s, gaining steam and strength in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, it's better known than the first, though its currents are more complex than the conventional narrative suggests. For much of the first half of the twentieth century, community leaders and political organizers, Black and white, in the North and the South, continued to fight for the civil and economic rights that had briefly flourished after the Civil War. Through the Great Depression, the New Deal, and World War II, Black leaders in particular focused on establishing an expansive vision of human rights amid the squalor of deeply entrenched inequality.

At the same time, using everything from race-baiting to anti-communism, the federal government worked diligently to suppress the very idea that political and civil rights might in any way be linked with economic rights (as physical and sexual violence continued to be directed at Blacks). In 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education the Supreme Court declared that segregation in education was unconstitutional, a ruling that helped fuel grassroots efforts to challenge its legitimacy in all public and private institutions. Following that ruling, the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 would prove a catalyst for the continued growth of Black freedom struggles. Soon enough, a massive reconstruction movement arose across the country demanding justice and equality.

That Second Reconstruction ushered in the end of legal segregation and Jim Crow. In its place, major democratic reforms were implemented; voting rights expanded; and, in some Southern states, Black politicians were elected to office for the first time in a century. As with the First Reconstruction, the impact of such breakthroughs were felt not just in the South nor in relation to a narrow set of issues, but by poor and dispossessed people nationwide. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson launched his War on Poverty, creating significant new federal programs of social uplift. Sadly enough, however, by the late 1960s, as ever more government funding and attention was squandered on an increasingly disastrous war in Vietnam, government action still failed to meet the needs of millions of Americans and some of the new anti-poverty programs, starved for funds, began to falter.

Recognizing that this reconstruction moment might be lost, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many others called for the launch of the Poor People's Campaign in 1968. Combining the energies of the Black freedom, antiwar, welfare rights, and farm worker movements, the Poor People's Campaign made plans to camp out on the Washington Mall until its demands for social justice were met. That encampment, called Resurrection City, was constructed in the late spring of 1968, just months after King's assassination. Only six weeks later, it would be razed by the police, a sign of the times amid a growing wave of racist and anti-poor actions that had already begun to sweep the nation.

This counterattack on the Second Reconstruction to come would be encoded in politics as the Southern Strategy – a conscious effort by extremist elites in the Republican Party to win back power across the South by rebuilding a regressive form of cross-class white solidarity. Having grasped American history, including the rise and fall of the First Reconstruction era, they knew that controlling the South was key to controlling the country. Using a new vocabulary of racist dog-whistles, they set out to undermine the gains of the previous decade, while rolling back the rights of the poor and people of color. In many ways, half a century later, the United States is still living through the fallout from that moment.

The Stirrings of a Third Reconstruction

In 2013, 17 people were arrested outside the General Assembly building in Raleigh, North Carolina. They were protesting the rise to power of extremists in all three branches of the state's government. The result, in the previous decades, had been a full-spectrum assault on democracy and the rights of everyday North Carolinians, especially the poor and people of color. This had included attacks on public-school funding and public healthcare, as well as immigrant and LGBTQ rights. To tie it all together, the state politicians of that moment had used thinly veiled racist claims of voter fraud (sound familiar?) to pass the worst voter-suppression laws in a generation.

What began as a small action, however, quickly grew into the largest state-government-focused civil-disobedience campaign in American history. The architect of that campaign and the animating visionary for the Third Reconstruction was Reverend William J. Barber II. He and other leaders of what became known as the Forward Together Moral Movement had studied the history of the two Reconstructions in North Carolina and recognized the historic possibilities in their growing movement. Thanks to sustained organizing, they broke through the silos of single-issue politics and so flipped the governor's house and, in the longer run, shifted the balance of power in the state supreme court. In the process, they overturned a monster voter-suppression law that, according to a federal court, targeted African-Americans "with almost surgical precision."

This movement, which I first connected with in 2013, is a shining example of what might be called modern reconstruction politics. The trauma of the 2007-2008 recession and the brief rise of the Occupy movement helped transform a generation who found themselves with worse economic prospects than their parents. Many of them and the generation that followed have joined people from every walk of life to sustain movements ranging from Black Lives Matter and the Poor People's Campaign (of which I'm the co-chair) to Indigenous people's struggles and a rising wave of climate-justice activism on an ever more endangered planet.

These intersecting movements are, notably enough, generally multiracial in character and often led by poor people. Better yet, as the polls tell us, their calls for sweeping reforms have been backed by popular opinion — and even have growing support in Congress. In late May, for instance, Democratic congressional representatives Barbara Lee and Pramila Jayapal (backed by other representatives) sponsored a congressional resolution aptly entitled "Third Reconstruction: Fully Addressing Poverty and Low Wages From the Bottom Up." It called on the nation to raise the minimum wage, enact comprehensive and just immigration reform, and expand voting rights.

The First and Second Reconstructions both emerged during moments of significant political turmoil and socioeconomic change, similar to what we're living through today. Hourly wages for most workers have essentially stagnated since the 1970s, while income and wealth inequality have skyrocketed. Meanwhile, technological innovation has made increasing numbers of people superfluous to the economy, while producing a historic shift in downward mobility for middle-income earners. In the richest country in world history, poverty, joblessness, and homelessness have become permanent fixtures of American life, with at least 140 million people living in poverty, often just a $400 emergency away from utter ruin.

They represent a sleeping giant that, amid much upheaval, may be waking up to the injustice of voter suppression, the denial of healthcare, the suppression of wages, the state-sanctioned murder of people of color and the poor, the poisoning of America's waters and air, and so much more.

When I think about the possibilities of this social awakening, I'm reminded of the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., just months before he launched the Poor People's Campaign and was then murdered: "There are millions of poor people in this country who have very little, or even nothing, to lose. If they can be helped to take action together, they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life."

Exactly such a force is possible today. Onwards to a Third Reconstruction!

Copyright 2021 Liz Theoharis

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

How infrastructure could be the great economic equalizer in America

During the Trump years, the phrase "Infrastructure Week" rang out as a sort of Groundhog Day-style punchline. What began in June 2017 as a failed effort by The Donald's White House and a Republican Senate to focus on the desperately needed rebuilding of American infrastructure morphed into a meme and a running joke in Washington.

This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.

Despite the focus in recent years on President Trump's failure to do anything for the country's crumbling infrastructure, here's a sad reality: considered over a longer period of time, Washington's political failure to fund the repairing, modernizing, or in some cases simply the building of that national infrastructure has proven a remarkably bipartisan "effort." After all, the same grand unfulfilled ambitions for infrastructure were part and parcel of the Obama White House from 2009 on and could well typify the Biden years, if Congress doesn't get its act together (or the filibuster doesn't go down in flames). The disastrous electric grid power outages that occurred during the recent deep freeze in Texas are but the latest example of the pressing need for infrastructure upgrades and investments of every sort. If nothing is done, more people will suffer, more jobs will be lost, and the economy will face drastic consequences.

Since the mid-twentieth century, when most of this country's modern infrastructure systems were first established, the population has doubled. Not only are American roads, airports, electric grids, waterways, railways and more distinctly outdated, but today's crucial telecommunications sector hasn't ever been subjected to a comprehensive broadband strategy.

Worse yet, what's known as America's "infrastructure gap" only continues to widen. The cost of what we need but haven't done to modernize our infrastructure has expanded to $5.6 trillion over the last 20 years ($3 trillion in the last decade alone), according to a report by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). Some estimates now even run as high as $7 trillion.

In other words, as old infrastructure deteriorates and new infrastructure and technology are needed, the cost of addressing this ongoing problem only escalates. Currently, there is a $1-trillion backlog of (yet unapproved) deferred-maintenance funding floating around Capitol Hill. Without action in the reasonable future, certain kinds of American infrastructure could, like that Texas energy grid, soon be deemed unsafe.

Now, it's true that the U.S. continues to battle Covid-19 with more than half a million lives already lost and significant parts of the economy struggling to make ends meet. Even before the pandemic, however, America's failing infrastructure system was already costing the average household nearly $3,300 a year.

According to ASCE, "The nation's economy could see the loss of $10 trillion in GDP [gross domestic product] and a decline of more than $23 trillion in business productivity cumulatively over the next two decades if current investment trends continue." Whatever a post-pandemic economy looks like, our country is already starved for policies that offer safe, reliable, efficient, and sustainable future infrastructure systems. Such a down payment on our future is crucial not just for us, but for generations to come.

As early as 2016, ASCE researchers found that the overall number of dams with potential high-hazard status had already climbed to nearly 15,500. At the time, the organization also discovered that nearly four out of every 10 bridges in America were 50 years old or more and identified 56,007 of them as already structurally deficient. Those numbers would obviously be even higher today.

And yet, in 2021, what Americans face is hardly just a transportation crisis. The country's energy system largely predates the twenty-first century. The majority of American electric transmission and distribution systems were established in the 1950s and 1960s with only a 50-year life cycle. ASCE reports that, "More than 640,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines in the lower 48 states' power grids are at full capacity." That means our systems weren't and aren't equipped to handle excess needs — especially in emergencies.

The country is critically overdue for infrastructure development in which the government and the private sector would collaborate with intention and urgency. Infrastructure could be the great equalizer in our economy, if only the Biden administration and a now-dogmatically partisan Congress had the fortitude and foresight to make it happen.

American History Offers a Roadmap for Infrastructure Success

It wasn't always like this. Over the course of American history, building infrastructure has not only had a powerful economic impact, but regularly garnered bipartisan political support for the public good.

In July 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act. That landmark bill provided federal support to an already ongoing private effort to build the first transcontinental railroad. Though at the time all its ramifications weren't positive — notably escalating conflicts between Native Americans and settlers pushing westward — the effort did connect the country's coastal markets, provided jobs for thousands, and helped jumpstart commerce in the West. Believe it or not, most of that transcontinental railroad line is still in use today.

In December 1928, President Calvin Coolidge signed a bill authorizing the construction of a dam in the Black Canyon of the Colorado River in the American Southwest, a region that had faced unpredictable flooding and lacked reliable electricity. Despite the stock market crash of 1929 and the start of the Great Depression, by early 1931, the private sector, with government support, had begun constructing a structure of unprecedented magnitude, known today as the Hoover Dam. As an infrastructure project, it would eventually pay for itself through the sale of the electricity that it generated. Today, that dam still provides electricity and water to tens of millions of people.

Having grasped the power of the German system of autobahns while a general in World War II, President Dwight D. Eisenhower would, under the guise of "national security," launch the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, with bipartisan support, creating the interstate highway system. In its time, that system would be considered one of the "greatest public works projects in history."

In the end, that act would lead to the creation of more than 47,000 miles of roads across all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. It would have a powerful effect on commercial business activity, national defense planning, and personal travel, helping to launch whole new sectors of the economy, ranging from roadside fast-food restaurants to theme parks. According to estimates, it would return more than six dollars in economic productivity for every dollar it cost to build and support, a result any investor would be happy with.

Equivalent efforts today would undoubtedly prove to be similar economic drivers. Domestically, such investments in infrastructure have always proven beneficial. New efforts to create sustainable green energy businesses, reconfigure energy grids, and rebuild crippled transit systems for a new age would help guarantee U.S global economic competitiveness deep into the twenty-first century.

Infrastructure as an International Race for Influence

In an interview with CNBC in February 2021, after being confirmed as the first female treasury secretary, Janet Yellen stressed the crucial need not just for a Covid-19 stimulus relief but for a sustainable infrastructure one as well.

As part of what the Biden administration has labeled its "Build Back Better" agenda, she underscored the "long-term structural problems in the U.S. economy that have resulted in inequality [and] slow productivity growth." She also highlighted how a major new focus on clean-energy investments could make the economy more competitive globally.

When it comes to infrastructure and sustainable development efforts, the U.S. is being left in the dust by its primary economic rivals. Following his first phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, President Biden noted to a group of senators on the Environment and Public Works Committee that, "if we don't get moving, they are going to eat our lunch." He went on to say, "They're investing billions of dollars dealing with a whole range of issues that relate to transportation, the environment, and a whole range of other things. We just have to step up."

As this country, deep in partisan gridlock, stalls on infrastructure measures of any sort, its global competitors are proceeding full speed ahead. Having helped to jumpstart its economy with projects like high-speed railways and massive new bridges, China is now accelerating its efforts to further develop its technological infrastructure. As Bloomberg reported, the Chinese are focused on supporting the build-up of "everything from wireless networks to artificial intelligence. In the master plan backed by President Jinping himself, China will invest an estimated $1.4 trillion over six years" in such projects.

And it's not just that Asian giant leaving the U.S. behind. Major trading partners like Australia, India, and Japan are projected to significantly out-invest the United States. The World Economic Forum's 2019 Global Competitiveness Report typically listed this country in 13th place among the world's nations when it came to its infrastructure quality. (It had been ranked 5th in 2002.) In 2020, that organization ranked the U.S. 32nd out of 115 countries on its Energy Transition Index.

Despite the multiple stimulus packages that Congress has passed in the Covid-19 era, no funding — not a cent — has been designated for capital-building projects. In contrast, China, Japan, and the European Union have all crafted stimulus programs in which infrastructure spending was a core component.

Infrastructure Development as a Political Equalizer

Infrastructure could be the engine for the most advantageous kinds of growth in this country. An optimal combination of federal and private funds, strategic partnerships, targeted infrastructure bonds, and even the creation of an infrastructure bank could help jumpstart a range of sustainable and ultimately revenue-generating businesses.

Such investment is a matter of economics, of cost versus benefit. These days, however, such calculations are both obstructed and obfuscated by politics. In the end, however, political economics comes down to getting creative about sources of funding and how to allocate them. To launch a meaningful infrastructure program would mean deciding who will produce it, who will consume it, and what kinds of transfer of wealth would be involved in the short and long run. Though the private sector certainly would help drive such a new set of programs, government funding would, as in the past, be crucial, whether under the rubric of national security, competitive innovation, sustainable clean energy, or creating a carbon-neutral future America. Any effort, no matter the label, would undoubtedly generate sustainable public and private jobs for the future.

On both the domestic and international fronts, infrastructure is big business. Wall Street, as well as the energy and construction sectors, are all eager to learn more about Biden's Build Back Better infrastructure plan, which he is expected to take up in his already delayed first joint address to Congress. Actions, not just words, are needed.

Expectations are running high about what might prove to be a multitrillion-dollar infrastructure initiative. Such anticipation has already elevated the stock prices of construction companies, as well as shares in the sustainable energy sector.

There are concerns, to be sure. A big infrastructure package might never make it through an evenly split Senate, where partisanship is the name of the game. Some economists also fear that it could bring on inflation. There is, of course, debate over the role of the private sector in any such plan, as well as horse-trading about what kinds of projects should get priority. But the reality is that this country desperately needs infrastructure that, in turn, can secure a sustainable and green future. Someday this will have to be done, and the longer the delay, the more those costs are likely to rise. The future revenues and economic benefits from a solid infrastructure package should be key drivers in any post-pandemic economy.

The biggest asset managers in the country are already seeing more money flowing into their infrastructure and sustainable-energy funds. Financing for such deals in the private sector is also increasing. Any significant funding on the public side will only spur and augment that financing. Such projects could drive the economy for years to come. They would run the gamut from establishing smart grids and expanding broadband reach to building electric transmission systems that run off more sustainable energy sources, while manufacturing cleaner vehicles and ways to use them. Going big with futuristic transit projects like Virgin's Hyperloop, a high-speed variant of a vacuum train, or Elon Musk's initiative for the development of carbon-capture technology, could even be included in a joint drive to create the necessary clean-energy infrastructure and economy of the future.

Polling also shows that such infrastructure spending has broad public support, even if, in Congress, much-needed bipartisan backing for such a program remains distinctly in question. Still, in February, the ranking Republican senator on the environment and public works committee, West Virginia's Shelley Moore Capito, said that "transportation infrastructure is the platform that can drive economic growth — all-American jobs, right there, right on the ground — now and in the future, and improve the quality of life for everyone on the safety aspects." Meanwhile, the committee's chairman, Democratic Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, stressed that "the burdens of poor road conditions are disproportionately shouldered by marginalized communities." He pointed out that "low-income families and peoples of color are frequently left behind or left out by our investments in infrastructure, blocking their access to jobs and education opportunities."

Sadly, given the way leadership in Washington wasted endless months dithering over the merits of supporting American workers during a pandemic, it may be too much to hope that a transformative bipartisan infrastructure deal will materialize.

Infrastructure as the Great Economic Equalizer

Here's a simple reality: a strong American economy is dependent on infrastructure. That means more than just a "big umbrella" effort focused on transportation and electricity. Yes, airports, railroads, electrical grids, and roadways are all-important economic drivers, but in the twenty-first-century world, high-capacity communications systems are also essential to economic prosperity, as are distribution channels of various sorts. At the moment, there's a water main break every two minutes in the U.S. Nearly six billion gallons of treated water are lost daily thanks to such breaks. Situations like the one in Flint, Michigan, in which economic pressure and bankruptcy eventually led a city to expose thousands of its children to poisonous drinking water, will become increasingly unavoidable in a country with an ever-deteriorating infrastructure.

The great economic equalizer is this: the more efficient our infrastructure systems become, the less they cost, and the more they can be readily used by those across the income spectrum. What American history shows since the time of Abraham Lincoln is that, in periods of economic turmoil, major infrastructure building or rebuilding will not only pay for itself but support the economy for generations to come.

For the next generation, it's already clear that clean and sustainable energy will be crucial to achieving a more equal, economically prosperous, and less climate-challenged future. A renewables-based rebuilding of the economy and the creation of the jobs to go with it would be anything but some niche set of activities in the usual infrastructure spectrum. It would be the future. High-paying jobs within the sustainable energy sector are already booming. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that among the occupations projected to have the fastest employment growth from 2016 to 2026 will be those in "green" work.

Wall Street and big tech companies are also paying attention. Amazon, Google, and Facebook have become the world's biggest corporate purchasers of clean energy and are now planning for some of the world's most transformational climate targets. That will mean smaller companies will also be able to enter that workspace as innovation and infrastructure drive economic incentives.

The Next Generation

It may be ambitious to expect that we've left the Groundhog Day vortex of "infrastructure week" behind us, but the critical demand for a new Infrastructure Age confronts us now. From Main Street to Wall Street, the need and the growing market for a sustainable, efficient, and clean future couldn't be more real. An abundance of avenues to finance such a future are available and it makes logical business sense to pursue them.

It's obvious enough what should be done. The only question, given American politics in 2021, is: Can it be done?

The economy of tomorrow will be built upon the infrastructure measures of today. You can't see the value of stocks from space, nor can you see the physical value of what you've left to the next generation from stat sheets. But from the International Space Station you can see the Hoover Dam and even San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. What will future generations see that we've left behind? If the answer is nothing, that will be a tragedy of our age.

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.

Copyright 2021 Nomi Prins

Nomi Prins

Nomi Prins, a former Wall Street executive, is a TomDispatch regular. Her latest book is Collusion: How Central Bankers Rigged the World. She is currently working on her new book, Permanent Distortion. She is also the author of All the Presidents' Bankers: The Hidden Alliances That Drive American Power and five other books. Special thanks go to researcher Craig Wilson for his superb assistance.

The United States is visibly in an early stage of disintegration

Like Gregor Samsa, the never-to-be-forgotten character in Franz Kafka's story "The Metamorphosis," we awoke on January 7th to discover that we, too, were "a giant insect" with "a domelike brown belly divided into stiff arched segments" and numerous "pitifully thin" legs that "waved helplessly" before our eyes. If you prefer, though, you can just say it: we opened our eyes and found that, somehow, we had become a giant roach of a country.

Yes, I know, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are now in charge and waving their own little limbs wildly, trying to do some of what needs to be done for this sad land of the disturbed, over-armed, sick, and dying. But anyone who watched the scenes of Floridians celebrating a Super Bowl victory, largely unmasked and cheering, shoulder to shoulder in the streets of Tampa, can't help but realize that we are now indeed a roach nation, the still-wealthiest, most pandemically unmasked one on Planet Earth.

But don't just blame Donald Trump. Admittedly, we've just passed through the Senate trial and acquittal of the largest political cockroach around. I'm talking about the president who, upon discovering that his vice president was in danger of being "executed" ("Hang Mike Pence!") and was being rushed out of the Senate as a mob bore down on him, promptly tweeted: "Mike Pence didn't have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution."

Just imagine. The veep who had — if you don't mind my mixing my creature metaphors here — toadied up to the president for four endless years was then given a functional death sentence by that same man. You can't fall much deeper into personal roachdom than that. My point here, though, is that our all-American version of roacherie was a long time in coming.

Or put another way: unimaginable as The Donald might have seemed when he descended that Trump Tower escalator in June 2015 to hail his future "great, great wall," denounce Mexican "rapists," and bid to make a whole country into his apprentices, he didn't end up in the Oval Office for no reason. He was the symptom, not the disease, though what a symptom he would prove to be — and when it came to diseases, what a nightmare beyond all imagining.

Let's face it, whether we fully grasp the fact or not, we now live in a system, as well as a country, that's visibly in an early stage of disintegration. And there lies a remarkable tale of history happening at warp speed, of how, in not quite three decades, the USS Enterprise of imperial powers was transformed into the USS Roach.

Once Upon a Time on Earth…

Return for a moment to 1991, almost two years after the Berlin Wall fell, when the Soviet Union finally imploded and the Cold War officially ended. Imagine that you had been able to show Americans then — especially the political class in Washington — that 13-minute video of Trump statements and tweets interlarded with mob actions in the Capitol that the Democratic House impeachment managers used in their opening salvo against the former president. Americans — just about any of us — would have thought we were watching the most absurd science fiction or perhaps the single least reality-based bit of black comedy imaginable.

In the thoroughly self-satisfied (if somewhat surprised) Washington of 1991, the triumphalist capital of "the last superpower," that video would have portrayed a president, an insurrectionary mob, and an endangered Congress no one could have imagined possible — not in another nearly 30 years, not in a century, not in any American future. Then again, if in 1991 you had tried to convince anyone in this country that a walking Ponzi scheme(r) like Donald Trump could become president, no less be impeached twice, you would have been laughed out of the room.

After all, this country had just become the ultimate superpower in history, the last one ever. Left alone on this planet, it had a military beyond compare and an economy that was the heartland of a globalized system and the envy of the world. The Earth was — or at least to the political class of that moment seemed to be — ours for the taking, but certainly not for the losing, not in any imaginable future. The question then wasn't keeping them out but keeping us in. No "big, fat, beautiful walls" were needed. After all, Russia was a wreck. China was still emerging economically from the hell of the Maoist years. Europe was dependent on the U.S. and, when it came to the rest of world, what else need be said?

This was an American planet, pure and simple.

In retrospect, consider the irony. There had been talk then about a post-Cold War "peace dividend." Who would have guessed, though, that dividends of any sort would increasingly go to the top 1% and that almost 30 years later this country would functionally be a plutocracy overseen until a month ago by a self-professed multibillionaire? Who would have imagined that the American version of a peace dividend would have been siphoned off by more billionaires than anyplace else on earth and that, in those same years, inequality would reach historic heights, while poverty and hunger only grew? Who woulda guessed that whatever peace dividend didn't go to the ultra-wealthy would go to an ever-larger national security state and the industrial complex of weapons makers that surrounded it? Who woulda guessed that, in official post-Cold War Washington, peace would turn out to be the last thing on anyone's mind, even though this country seemed almost disarmingly enemy-less? (Remember when the worst imaginable combination of enemies, a dreaded "axis of evil," would prove to be Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, all embattled, distinctly tertiary powers?)Who woulda guessed that a military considered beyond compare (and funded to this day like no other) would proceed to fight war after war, literally decades of conflict, and yet — except for the quasi-triumph of the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein's Iraq — achieve victory in none of them? Staggering trillions of taxpayer dollars would be spent on them, while those billionaires were given untold tax breaks. Honestly, who would have guessed then that, on a planet lacking significant enemies, Washington, even six presidents later, would prove incapable of stopping fighting?

Who woulda guessed that, in September 2001, not Russia or Communist China, but a tiny group of Islamic militants led by a rich Saudi extremist the U.S. had once backed would send 19 (mostly Saudi) hijackers to directly attack the United States? They would, of course, cause death and mayhem, allowing President George W. Bush to launch an almost 20-year "global war on terror," which still shows no sign of ending. Who woulda guessed that, in the wake of those 9/11 terror attacks, the son of the man who had presided over the first Gulf War (but stopped short of felling Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein) and the top officials of his administration would come to believe that the world was his oyster and that the U.S. should dominate the Greater Middle East and possibly the planet in a way previously unimaginable? Who would have imagined that he would invade Iraq (having done the same in Afghanistan a year and a half earlier), effectively helping to spread Islamic extremism far and wide, while creating a never-ending disaster for this country?

Who woulda guessed that, in 2009, in the wake of a Great Recession at home, the next president, Barack Obama, would order a massive "surge" of forces into Afghanistan, a war already eight years old? Tens of thousands of new troops, not to speak of contractors, CIA operatives, and others would be sent there without faintly settling things.

By November 2016, when an antiquated electoral system gave the popular vote to Hillary Clinton but put Donald Trump, a man who promised to end this country's "endless wars" (he didn't) in the Oval Office, it should have been obvious that something was awry on the yellow brick road to imperial glory. By then, in fact, for a surprising number of Americans, this had become a land of grotesque inequality and lack of opportunity. And many of them would prove ready indeed to use their votes to send a message to the country about their desire to Trump that very reality.

From there, of course, with no Wizard of Oz in sight, it would be anything but a yellow brick road to January 6, 2021, when, the president having rejected the results of the 2020 election, a mob would storm the Capitol. All of it and the impeachment fiasco to follow would reveal the functional definition of a failing democracy, one in which the old rules no longer held.

Exiting the Superpower Stage of History

And, of course, I have yet to even mention the obvious — the still-unending nightmare that engulfed the country early in 2020 and that, I suspect, will someday be seen as the true ending point for a strikingly foreshortened American century. I'm thinking, of course, of Covid-19, the pandemic disease that swept the country, infecting tens of millions of Americans and killing hundreds of thousands in a fashion unmatched anywhere else on the planet. It would even for a time fell a president, while creating mayhem and ever more fierce division in unmasked parts of the country filled with civilians armed to the teeth, swept up in conspiracy theories, and at the edge of who knew what.

Call it a sign from the gods or anything you want, but call it startling. Imagine a disease that the last superpower handled so much more poorly than countries with remarkably fewer resources. Think of it as a kind of judgment, if not epitaph, on that very superpower.

Or put another way: not quite 30 years after the Soviet Union exited the stage of history, we're living in a land that was itself strangely intent on heading for that same exit — a crippled country led by a 78-year-old president, its system under startling pressure and evidently beginning to come apart at the seams. One of its political parties is unrecognizable; its presidency has been stripped of a fully functioning Congress and is increasingly imperial in nature; its economic system plutocratic; its military still struggling across significant parts of the planet, while a possible new cold war with a rising China is evidently on the horizon; and all of this on a planet that itself, even putting aside that global pandemic, is visibly in the deepest of trouble.

At the end of Franz Kafka's classic tale, Gregor Samsa, now a giant insect with a rotting apple embedded in its back, dies in roach hell, even if also in his very own room with his parents and sisters nearby. Is the same fate in store, after a fashion, for the American superpower?

In some sense, in the Trump and Covid-19 years, the United States has indeed been unmasked as a roach superpower on a planet going to — again, excuse the mixed animal metaphors — the dogs. The expected all-American age of power and glory hasn't been faintly what was imagined in 1991, not in a country that has shown remarkably few signs of coming to grips with what these years have truly meant.

Centuries after the modern imperial age began, it's evidently coming to an end in a hell that Joe Biden and crew won't be able to stop, even if, unlike the previous president, they're anything but intent on thoroughly despoiling this land. Still, Trump or Biden, at this point it couldn't be clearer that we need some new way of thinking about and being on this increasingly roach-infested planet of ours.

Copyright 2021 Tom Engelhardt

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.

Tom Engelhardt created and runs the website He is also a co-founder of theAmerican Empire Project and the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. A fellow of the Type Media Center, his sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.

President Biden will face a vexing conundrum in China

Soon-to-be President Joe Biden will instantly face a set of extraordinary domestic crises — a runaway pandemic, a stalled economy, and raw political wounds, especially from the recent Trumpian assault on the Capitol — but few challenges are likely to prove more severe than managing U.S. relations with China. While generally viewed as a distant foreign-policy concern, that relationship actually looms over nearly everything, including the economy, the coronavirus, climate change, science and technology, popular culture, and cyberspace. If the new administration follows the course set by the preceding one, you can count on one thing: the United States will be drawn into an insidious new Cold War with that country, impeding progress in almost every significant field. To achieve any true breakthroughs in the present global mess, the Biden team must, above all else, avert that future conflict and find ways to collaborate with its powerful challenger. Count on one thing: discovering a way to navigate this already mine-laden path will prove demanding beyond words for the most experienced policymakers in Biden's leadership ensemble.

Even without the corrosive impacts of Donald Trump's hostile diplomacy of recent years, China would pose an enormous challenge to any new administration. It boasts the world's second-largest economy and, some analysts say, will soon overtake the United States to become number one. Though there are many reasons to condemn Beijing's handling of the coronavirus, its tough nationwide clampdown (following its initial failure to acknowledge the very existence of the virus, no less the extent of its spread) allowed the country to recover from Covid-19 faster than most other nations. As a result, Beijing has already reported strong economic growth in the second half of the year, the only major economy on the planet to do so. This means that China is in a more powerful position than ever to dictate the rules of the world economy, a situation confirmed by the European Union's recent decision to sign a major trade and investment deal with Beijing, symbolically sidelining the United States just before the Biden administration enters office.

After years of increasing its defense expenditures, China now also possesses the second most powerful military in the world, replete with modern weaponry of every sort. Although not capable of confronting the United States on the high seas or in far-flung locales, its military — the People's Liberation Army, or PLA — is now in a position to challenge America's longstanding supremacy in areas closer to home like the far western Pacific. Not since Japan's imperial expansion in the 1930s and early 1940s has Washington faced such a formidable foe in that part of the world.

In critical areas — scientific and technological prowess, diplomatic outreach, and international finance, among others — China is already challenging, if not overtaking America's long-assumed global primacy. On so many fronts, in other words, dealing with China poses an enormous conundrum for America's new leadership team. Worse yet, the destructive China policies of the Trump administration, combined with the authoritarian and militaristic policies of Chinese President Xi Jinping, pose immediate challenges to Biden when it comes to managing U.S.-China relations.

Trump's Toxic Legacy

Donald Trump campaigned for office pledging to punish China for what he claimed was its systemic drive to build its economy by looting the American one. In 2016, he vowed that, if elected president, he would use the power of trade to halt that country's nefarious practices and restore American global primacy. Once ensconced in the White House, he did indeed impose a series of tariffs on what now amounts to about $360 billion in Chinese imports — a significant barrier to improved relations with Beijing that Biden must decide whether to retain, loosen, or eliminate altogether.

Even more threatening to future cordial relations are the restrictions Trump placed on the access of Chinese companies to U.S. technology, especially the advanced software and computer chips needed for future developments in fifth generation (5G) telecommunications. In May 2019, claiming that leading Chinese telecom firms like Huawei and ZTE Corporation had links to the PLA and so represented a threat to American national security, Trump issued an executive order effectively barring those companies from purchasing American computer chips and other high-tech equipment. A series of further executive orders and other moves followed that were aimed at restricting Chinese companies from gaining access to U.S. technology.

In these and related actions, President Trump and his senior associates, notably Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and top trade adviser Peter Navarro, claimed that they were acting to protect national security from the risk of intelligence operations by the PLA. From their statements at the time, however, it was evident that their real intent was to impede China's technological progress in order to weaken its long-term economic competitiveness. Here, too, Biden and his team will have to decide whether to retain the restrictions imposed by Trump, further straining Sino-American ties, or to reverse course in an effort to enhance relations.

The China Crisis: Military and Diplomatic Dimensions

An even greater challenge for President Biden will be the aggressive military and diplomatic initiatives undertaken by the Trump administration. In 2018, his secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, issued a new military doctrine under the label "great power competition" that was meant to govern future planning by the Department of Defense. As spelled out in the Pentagon's official National Defense Policy of that year, the doctrine held that U.S. forces should now switch their focus from combatting Islamic terrorists in remote Third World locations to combatting China and Russia in Eurasia. "Although the Department continues to prosecute the campaign against terrorists," Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee that April, "long-term strategic competition — not terrorism — is now the primary focus of U.S. national security."

In line with this policy, in the years that followed, the entire military establishment has been substantially refocused and reengineered from acting as a counterterror and counterinsurgency force into one armed, equipped, and focused on fighting the Chinese and Russian militaries on the peripheries of those very countries. "Today, in this era of great power competition, the Department of Defense has prioritized China, then Russia, as our top strategic competitors," Secretary of Defense Mark Esper declared this past September, shortly before he was ousted by the president for, among other things, supporting a call to redub U.S. military bases now named after Confederate Civil War generals. Significantly, while still in power, Esper identified China as America's number one strategic competitor — a distinction Mattis had failed to make.

To ensure Washington's primacy in that competition, Esper highlighted three main strategic priorities: the weaponization of advanced technologies, the further "modernization" and enhancement of the country's nuclear arsenal, and the strengthening of military ties with friendly nations surrounding China. "To modernize our capabilities," he declared, "we have successfully secured funding for game-changing technologies such as artificial intelligence, hypersonics, directed energy, and 5G networks." Significant progress, he claimed, had also been made in "recapitalizing our strategic nuclear triad," this country's vast, redundant arsenal of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and long-range nuclear bombers. In addition, with the goal of encircling China with a hostile U.S.-oriented alliance system, he bragged that "we are implementing a coordinated plan, the first of its kind, to strengthen allies and build partners."

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For Chinese leaders, the fact that Washington's military policy now called for just such a tripartite program of non-nuclear weapons modernization, nuclear weapons modernization, and military encirclement meant one obvious thing: they now face a long-term strategic threat that will require a major mobilization of military, economic, and technological capabilities in response — which is, of course, the very definition of a new Cold War competition. And the Chinese leadership made it all too clear that they would resist any such U.S. initiatives by taking whatever steps they deemed necessary to defend China's sovereignty and national interests. You undoubtedly won't be surprised to learn then, that, like the U.S., they are in the process of acquiring a wide array of modern nuclear and non-nuclear weaponry, while weaponizing emerging technologies to ensure success or at least some semblance of parity in any future encounters with American forces.

Alongside such military initiatives, the Trump administration sought to hobble China and curb its rise through a coordinated strategy of diplomatic warfare — efforts that most notably included increased support for the island of Taiwan (claimed by China as a breakaway province), ever closer military ties with India, and the promotion of joint Australian, Indian, Japanese, and U.S. military ties, an arrangement known as "the Quad."

An upgrade in ties with Taiwan was a particular objective of the Trump administration (and a particular provocation to Beijing). Ever since President Jimmy Carter agreed to recognize the Communist regime in Beijing in 1978, and not the Taiwanese, as the legitimate government of China, U.S. administrations of every sort have sought to avoid the appearance of engaging in a high-level official relationship with that island's leadership in Taipei, even as it continued to sell them arms and conduct other forms of intergovernmental relations.

In the Trump years, however, Washington has engaged in a number of high-profile actions specifically intended to show support for the Taiwanese government and, in the process, rile the Chinese leadership. These included a visit to Taipei this past August by Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar II, the first of its kind by a cabinet secretary since 1979. In yet another provocative move, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Kelly Craft, has just met with top Taiwanese officials in Taipei. The administration also sought to secure Taiwan observer status at the World Health Organization and other international bodies to help bolster its image as a nation unto itself. Of equal concern to Beijing, the administration authorized $16.6 billion in new top-grade arms sales to Taiwan over the past two years, including a record-breaking $8-billion sale of 66 advanced F-16C/D fighter planes.

Enhanced U.S. ties with India and other members of the Quad proved to be a top Trump administration foreign-policy priority as well. In October 2020, Mike Pompeo traveled to India for the third time as secretary of state and used the occasion to denounce China while promoting closer Indo-American military ties. He pointedly referred to the 20 Indian soldiers killed in a border clash with Chinese forces last June, insisting that, "the United States will stand with the people of India as they confront threats to their sovereignty and to their liberty." Defense Secretary Esper, who accompanied Pompeo on that trip to New Delhi, spoke of increasing defense cooperation with India, including prospective sales of fighter aircraft and unmanned aerial systems.

Both officials praised the country for its future participation in "Malabar," the Quad's joint naval exercises to be held that November in the Bay of Bengal. Without anyone saying so explicitly, that exercise was widely viewed as the debut performance of the burgeoning military alliance aimed at containing China. "A collaborative approach toward regional security and stability is important now more than ever, to deter all who challenge a free and open Indo-Pacific," commented Ryan Easterday, commanding officer of the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain, one of the participating vessels.

Needless to say, all this represents a complex and formidable legacy for President Biden to overcome as he seeks to establish a less hostile relationship with the Chinese.

President Biden's Xi Jinping Problem

Clearly, Trump's disruptive legacy will make it hard for President Biden to halt the downward slide in Sino-American relations and the Xi Jinping regime in Beijing will make it no easier for him. This is not the place for a detailed analysis of Xi's turn towards authoritarianism over the past few years or his growing reliance on a militaristic outlook to ensure loyalty (or submission) from the Chinese people. Much has been written about the suppression of civil liberties in China and the silencing of all forms of dissent. Equally disturbing is the adoption of a new national security law for Hong Kong, now being used to round up critics of the mainland government and independent political voices of all sorts. And nothing quite compares to the attempted brutal extinction of Uighur Muslim identity in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region in China's far west, involving the incarceration of a million or more people in what amounts to concentration camps.

The suppression of civil liberties and human rights in China will make it particularly difficult for the Biden administration to mend ties with Beijing, as he has long been a strong advocate of civil rights in the U.S., as has Vice President Kamala Harris and many of their close associates. It will be almost impossible for them to negotiate with the Xi regime on any issue without raising the matter of human rights — and that, in turn, is bound to elicit hostility from the Chinese leadership.

Xi has also recentralized economic power in the hands of the state, reversing a trend towards greater economic liberalization under his immediate predecessors. State-owned enterprises continue to receive the lion's share of government loans and other financial benefits, putting private firms at a disadvantage. In addition, Xi has sought to hobble large private firms like the Ant Group, the hugely successful digital-payments enterprise founded by Jack Ma, China's most celebrated private entrepreneur.

While consolidating economic power at home, the Chinese president has scored considerable success in building economic and trade ties with other countries. In November, China and 14 nations, including Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea (but not the United States), signed one of the world's largest free-trade pacts, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP. Largely viewed as a successor to the ill-fated Trans-Pacific Partnership from which President Trump withdrew soon after taking office, the RCEP will facilitate trade among countries representing more of humanity (some 2.2 billion people) than any previous agreement of its kind. And then there's that just-initialed investment agreement between the European Union and China, another mega-deal that excludes the United States, as does China's ambitious trillion-dollar-plus Belt and Road Initiative, meant to link the economies of countries in Eurasia and Africa ever more closely to Beijing.

In other words, it will be that much more difficult for the Biden administration to bring economic leverage to bear on China or enable large American companies to act as partners in pressing for change in that country, as they might have in the past.

President Biden's Options

Biden himself has not said a great deal about what he has in mind for U.S.-China relations, but the little he has suggests a great deal of ambivalence about his top priorities. In his most explicit statement on foreign policy, an article that appeared in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs, he spoke about "getting tough" on China when it comes to trade and human rights, while seeking common ground on key issues like North Korea and climate change.

While criticizing the Trump administration for alienating U.S. allies like Canada and the NATO powers, he affirmed that "the United States does need to get tough with China." If China has its way, he continued, "it will keep robbing the United States and American companies of their technology and intellectual property [and] keep using subsidies to give its state-owned enterprises an unfair advantage." The most effective approach to meet that challenge, he wrote, "is to build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China's abusive behaviors and human rights violations, even as we seek to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge, such as climate change, [nuclear] nonproliferation, and global health security."

That makes for a good sound bite, but it's an inherently contradictory posture. If there's anything that the Chinese leadership dreads — and will resist with the full weight of its powers — it's the formation of a "united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China's abusive behaviors." That, more or less, is what the Trump administration tried to do without producing any significant benefits for the United States. Biden will have to decide where his main priority lies. Is it in curbing China's abusive behaviors and human-rights violations or in gaining cooperation from the planet's other great power on the most pressing and potentially devastating issues on the global agenda at the moment: climate change before the planet desperately overheats; the nonproliferation of nuclear, hypersonic, and other kinds of advanced weaponry before they spiral out of control; and health security in a pandemic world?

As in so many other areas he will have to deal with after January 20th, to make progress on any issue, Biden will first have to overcome the destabilizing legacies of his predecessor. This will mean, above all, scaling back punitive and self-defeating tariffs and technological barriers, slowing the arms race with China, and abandoning efforts to encircle the mainland with a hostile ring of military alliances. Short of that, progress of any sort is likely to prove next to impossible and the twenty-first-century world could find itself drawn into a Cold War even more intractable than the one that dominated the second half of the last century. If so, god save us all, we could end up facing nuclear hot war or the climate-change version of the same on a failing planet.

Copyright 2021 Michael T. Klare

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.

Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is the five-college professor emeritus of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and a senior visiting fellow at the Arms Control Association. He is the author of 15 books, the latest of which is All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon's Perspective on Climate Change.

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