Page 1 of 2 DISPATCHES FROM AMERICA Call the politburo, we're in trouble
By Tom Engelhardt
Mark it on your calendar. It seems we've finally entered the Soviet era in
You remember the Soviet Union, now almost 20 years in its grave. But who gives
it a second thought today? Even in its glory years that "evil empire" was
sometimes referred to as "the second superpower." In 1991, after seven decades,
it suddenly disintegrated and disappeared, leaving the United States - the
"sole superpower," even the "hyperpower," on planet Earth - surprised but
The USSR had been heading for the exits for quite a while, not that official
Washington had a clue. At the moment it happened, Soviet "experts" like
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (then
director of the Central Intelligence Agency) still expected the Cold War to go
on and on.
In Washington, eyes were trained on the might of the Soviet military, which the
Soviet leadership had never stopped feeding, even as its sclerotic bureaucracy
was rotting, its economy (which had ceased to grow in the late 1970s) was
tanking, budget deficits were soaring, indebtedness to other countries was
growing, and social welfare payments were eating into what funds remained. Not
even a vigorous, reformist leader like Mikhail Gorbachev could staunch the rot,
especially when, in the late 1980s, the price of Russian oil fell drastically.
Looking back, the most distinctive feature of the last years of the Soviet
Union may have been the way it continued to pour money into its military - and
its military adventure in Afghanistan - when it was already going bankrupt and
the society it had built was beginning to collapse around it. In the end, its
aging leaders made a devastating miscalculation. They mistook military power
for power on this planet. Armed to the teeth and possessing a nuclear force
capable of destroying the Earth many times over, the Soviets nonetheless
remained the vastly poorer, weaker, and (except when it came to the arms race)
far less technologically innovative of the two superpowers.
In December 1979, perhaps taking the bait of the Jimmy Carter administration
whose national security adviser was eager to see the Soviets bloodied by a
"Vietnam" of their own, the Red Army invaded Afghanistan to support a weak
communist government in Kabul. When resistance in the countryside, led by
Islamic fundamentalist guerrillas and backed by the other superpower, only
grew, the Soviets sent in more troops, launched major offensives, called in air
power, and fought on brutally and futilely for a decade until, in 1989, long
after they had been whipped, they withdrew in defeat.
Gorbachev had dubbed Afghanistan "the bleeding wound", and when the wounded Red
Army finally limped home it was to a country that would soon cease to exist.
For the Soviet Union, Afghanistan had literally proven "the graveyard of
empires". If, at the end, its military remained standing, the empire didn't.
(And if you don't already find this description just a tad eerie, given the
present moment in the US, you should.)
In Washington, the George H W Bush administration declared victory and then
left the much ballyhooed "peace dividend" in the nearest ditch. Caught off
guard by the collapse of the Soviet Union, Washington's consensus policymakers
drew no meaningful lessons from it (just as they had drawn few that mattered
from their Vietnam defeat 16 years earlier).
Quite the opposite, successive American administrations would blindly head down
the very path that had led the Soviets to ruin. They would serially agree that,
in a world without significant enemies, the key to US global power still was
the care and feeding of the American military and the military-industrial
complex that went with it. As the years passed, that military would be sent
ever more regularly into the far reaches of the planet to fight frontier wars,
establish military bases, and finally impose a global Pax Americana on the
This urge, delusional in retrospect, seemed to reach its ultimate expression in
the George W Bush administration, whose infamous "unilateralism" rested on a
belief that no country or even bloc of countries should ever again be allowed
to come close to matching US military power. (As its National Security Strategy
of 2002 put the matter - and it couldn't have been blunter on the subject - the
US was to "build and maintain" its military power "beyond challenge.")
Bush's military fundamentalists firmly believed that, in the face of the most
technologically advanced, bulked-up, destructive force around, hostile states
would be "shocked and awed" by a simple demonstration of its power and friendly
ones would have little choice but to come to heel as well. After all, as the
president said in front of a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in 2007, the
US military was "the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever
In this way, far more than the Soviets, the top officials of the Bush
administration mistook military power for power, a gargantuan misreading of the
US economic position in the world and of their moment.
Boundless military ambitions
The attacks of September 11, 2001, that "Pearl Harbor of the 21st century",
clinched the deal. In the space the Soviet Union had deserted, which had been
occupied by minor outlaw states like North Korea for years, there was a new
shape-shifting enemy, al-Qaeda (aka Islamic extremism, aka the new
"totalitarianism"), which could be just as big as you wanted to make it.
Suddenly, we were in what the Bush administration instantly dubbed "the global
war on terror" (GWOT, one of the worst acronyms ever invented) - and this time
there would be nothing "cold" about it.
Bush administration officials promptly suggested that they were prepared to use
a newly agile American military to "drain the swamp" of global terrorism.
("While we'll try to find every snake in the swamp, the essence of the strategy
is draining the swamp," insisted deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz two
weeks after 9/11.) They were prepared, they made clear, to undertake those
draining operations against Islamic "terrorist networks" in no less than 60
countries around the planet.
Their military ambitions, in other words, knew no bounds; nor, it seemed, did
the money and resources which began to flow into the Pentagon, the weapons
industries, the country's increasingly militarized intelligence services,
mercenary companies like Blackwater and KBR that grew fat on a privatizing
administration's war plans and the multi-billion-dollar no-bid contracts it was
eager to proffer, the new Department of Homeland Security, and a ramped-up,
ever more powerful national security state.
As the Pentagon expanded, taking on ever newer roles, the numbers would prove
staggering. By the end of the Bush years, Washington was doling out almost
twice what the next nine nations combined were spending on their militaries,
while total US military expenditures came to just under half the world's total.
Similarly, by 2008, the US controlled almost 70% of the global arms market. It
also had 11 aircraft carrier battle groups capable of patrolling the world's
seas and oceans at a time when no power that could faintly be considered a
possible future enemy had more than one.
By then, private contractors had built for the Pentagon almost 300 military
bases in Iraq, ranging from tiny combat outposts to massive "American towns"
holding tens of thousands of troops and private contractors, with multiple bus
lines, PXs, fast-food "boardwalks", massage parlors, water treatment and power
plants, barracks and airfields. They were in the process of doing the same in
Afghanistan and, to a lesser extent, in the Persian Gulf region generally.
This, too, represented a massive investment in what looked like a permanent
occupation of the oil heartlands of the planet. As right-wing pundit Max Boot
put it after a recent flying tour of America's global garrisons, the US
possesses military bases that add up to "a virtual American empire of
Wal-Mart-style PXs, fast-food restaurants, golf courses and gyms".
Depending on just what you counted, there were anywhere from 700 to perhaps
1,200 or more US bases, micro to macro, acknowledged and unacknowledged, around
the globe. Meanwhile, the Pentagon was pouring money into the wildest
blue-skies thinking at its advanced research arm, the Defense Advanced Research
Projects Agency (DARPA), whose budget grew by 50%.
Through DARPA, well-funded scientists experimented with various ways to fight
science-fiction-style wars in the near and distant future (at a moment when no
one was ready to put significant government money into blue-skies thinking
about, for instance, how to improve the education of young Americans). The
Pentagon was also pioneering a new form of air power, drone warfare, in which
"we" wouldn't be within thousands of miles of the battlefield, and the
battlefield would no longer necessarily be in a country with which we were at
It was also embroiled in two disastrous, potentially trillion-dollar wars (and
various global skirmishes) - and all this at top dollar at a time when next to
no money was being invested in, among other things, the bridges, tunnels,
waterworks and the like that made up an aging American infrastructure. Except
when it came to victory, the military stood ever taller, while its many
missions expanded exponentially, even as the domestic economy was spinning out
of control, budget deficits were increasing rapidly, the governmental
bureaucracy was growing ever more sclerotic, and indebtedness to other nations
was rising by leaps and bounds.
In other words, in a far wealthier country, another set of leaders, having
watched the Soviet Union implode, decisively embarked on the Soviet path to
In the autumn of 2008, the abyss opened under the US economy, which the Bush
administration had been blissfully ignoring, and millions of people fell into
it. Giant institutions wobbled or crashed; extended unemployment wouldn't go
away; foreclosures happened on a mind-boggling scale; infrastructure began to
buckle; state budgets were caught in a death grip; teachers' jobs, another kind
of infrastructure, went down the tubes in startling numbers; and the federal