Page 1 of 2 Whistling past the Afghan graveyard By Tom Engelhardt
It is now a commonplace - as a lead article in the New York Times's Week in
Review pointed out recently - that Afghanistan is "the graveyard of empires".
Given US President Barack Obama's call for a greater focus on the Afghan War
("We took our eye off the ball when we invaded Iraq ... "), and given
indications that a "surge" of United States troops is about to get underway
there, Afghanistan's dangers have been much in the news lately.
Some of the writing on this subject, including recent essays by Juan Cole at
Salon.com, Robert Dreyfuss at the Nation and John Robertson at the War in
Context website, has been incisive on
just how the new administration's policy initiatives might transform
Afghanistan and the increasingly unhinged Pakistani tribal borderlands into
In other words, "the graveyard" has been getting its due. Far less attention
has been paid to the "empire" part of the equation. And there's a good reason
for that - at least in Washington. Despite escalating worries about the
deteriorating situation, no one in our nation's capital is ready to believe
that Afghanistan could actually be the "graveyard" for the American role as the
dominant hegemon on this planet.
In truth, to give "empire" its due you would have to start with a reassessment
of how the Cold War ended. In 1989, which now seems centuries ago, the Berlin
Wall came down; in 1991, to the amazement of the US intelligence community,
influential pundits, inside-the-Beltway think-tankers, and Washington's
politicians, the Soviet Union, that "evil empire", that colossus of repression,
that mortal enemy through nearly half a century of threatened nuclear MADness -
as in "mutually assured destruction" - simply evaporated, almost without
(Soviet troops, camped out in the relatively cushy outposts of Eastern Europe,
especially the former East Germany, were in no more hurry to come home to the
economic misery of a collapsed empire than US troops stationed in Okinawa,
Japan, are likely to be in the future.)
In Washington where, in 1991, everything was visibly still standing, a stunned
silence and a certain unwillingness to believe that the enemy of almost half a
century was no more would quickly be overtaken by a sense of triumphalism. A
multigenerational struggle had ended with only one of its super-participants
still on its feet.
The conclusion seemed too obvious to belabor. Right before our eyes, the USSR
had miraculously disappeared into the dustbin of history with only a desperate,
impoverished Russia, shorn of its "near abroad," to replace it; ergo, we were
the victors; we were, as everyone began to say with relish, the planet's "sole
Masters of the universe
The Greeks, of course, had a word for it: "hubris". The ancient Greek
playwrights would have assumed that we were in for a fall from the heights. But
that thought crossed few minds in Washington (or on Wall Street) in those
Instead, our political and financial movers and shakers began to act as if the
planet were truly ours (and other powers, including the Europeans and the
Japanese, sometimes seemed to agree). To suggest at the time, as the odd
scholar of imperial decline did, that there might have been no winners and two
losers in the Cold War, that the weaker superpower had simply left the scene
first, while the stronger, less-hollowed-out superpower was inching its way
toward the same exit, was to speak to the deaf.
In the 1990s, "globalization" - the worldwide spread of the Golden Arches, the
Swoosh, and Mickey Mouse - was on all lips in Washington, while the men who ran
Wall Street were regularly referred to, and came to refer to themselves, as
"masters of the universe".
The phrase was originally used by Tom Wolfe. It was the brand name of the
superhero action figures his protagonist's daughter plays with in his 1987
novel Bonfire of the Vanities. ("On Wall Street he and a few others -
how many? three hundred, four hundred, five hundred? had become precisely that
... Masters of the Universe ... ".) As a result, the label initially had
something of Wolfe's cheekiness about it. In the post-Cold War world, however,
it soon enough became purely self-congratulatory.
In those years, when the economies of other countries suddenly cratered,
Washington sent in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to "discipline" them.
That was the actual term of tradecraft. To the immense pain of whole societies,
the IMF regularly used local or regional disaster to pry open countries to the
deregulatory wonders of "the Washington consensus". (Just imagine how Americans
would react if, today, the IMF arrived at our battered doors with a similar
menu of must-dos!)
Now, as the planet totters financially, while from Germany to Russia and China,
world leaders blame the Bush administration's deregulatory blindness and Wall
Street's derivative shenanigans for the financial hollowing out of the global
economy, it's far more apparent that those titans of finance were actually
masters of a flim-flam universe. Retrospectively, it's clearer that, in those
post-Cold War years, Wall Street was already heading for the exits, that it was
less a planetary economic tiger than a monstrously lucrative paper tiger.
Someday, it might be a commonplace to say the same of Washington.
Almost 20 years later, in fact, it may finally be growing more acceptable to
suggest that certain comparisons between the two Cold War superpowers were apt.
As David Leonhardt of the New York Times pointed out recently:
Freeman, a Harvard economist, argues that the US bubble economy had something
in common with the old Soviet economy. The Soviet Union's growth was
artificially raised by huge industrial output that ended up having little use.
America's was artificially raised by mortgage-backed securities, collateralized
debt obligations and even the occasional Ponzi scheme.
when it comes to Wall Street, you can feel the anger rising on Main Street as
Americans grasp that those supposed masters of the universe actually hollowed
out their world and brought immense suffering down on them. They understand
what those former masters of financial firms, who handed out $18.4 billion in
bonuses to their employees at the end of 2008, clearly don't. John Thain,
former CEO of Merrill Lynch, for instance, still continues to defend his
purchase of a $35,000 antique commode for his office, as well as the $4 billion
in bonuses he dealt out to the mini-masters under him in a quarter in which his
group racked up more than $15 billion in losses, in a year in which his firm's
losses reached $27 billion.
At least now, however, no one - except perhaps Thain himself - would mistake
the Thains for masters rather than charlatans, or the US for a financial
superpower riding high rather than a hollowed out economic powerhouse laid low.
As it happens, however, there was another set of all-American "masters of the
universe", even if never given that label. I'm speaking of the top officials of
our national security state, the key players in foreign and military policy.
They, too, came to believe that the planet was their oyster. They came to
believe as well that, uniquely in the history of empires, global domination
might be theirs. They began to dream that they might oversee a new Rome or
imperial Great Britain, but of a kind never before encountered, and that the
competitive Great Game played by previous rivalrous Great Powers had been
reduced to solitaire.
For them, the very idea that the US might be the other loser in the Cold War
was beyond the pale. And that was hardly surprising. Ahead of them, after all,
they thought they saw clear sailing, not graveyards. Hence, Afghanistan.
Twice in the same graveyard
It's here, of course, that things get eerie. I mean, not just a graveyard, but
the same two superpowers and the very same graveyard. In November 2001, knowing
intimately what had happened to the USSR in Afghanistan, the Bush
administration invaded anyway - and with a clear intent to build bases, occupy
the country, and install a government of its choice.
When it comes to the neo-con architects of global Bushism, hubris remains a
weak word. Breathless at the thought of the supposed power of the US military
to crush anything in its path, they were blind to other power realities and to
history. They equated power with the power to destroy.
Believing that the military force at their bidding was nothing short of
invincible, and that whatever had happened to the Soviets couldn't possibly
happen to them, they launched their invasion. They came, they saw, they
conquered, they celebrated, they settled in, and then they invaded again - this
time in Iraq. A trillion dollars in wasted taxpayer funds later, we look a lot
more like the Russians.
What made this whole process so remarkable was that there was no other
superpower to ambush them in Afghanistan, as the US had once done to the Soviet
Union. George W Bush's crew, it turned out, didn't need another superpower, not
when they were perfectly capable of driving themselves off that Afghan cliff
and into the graveyard below with no more help than Osama bin Laden could
They promoted a convenient all-purpose fantasy explanation for their global
actions, but also gave in to it, and it has yet to be