Page 2 of 2 DISPATCHES FROM AMERICA And then there was one
By Tom Engelhardt
And go massive he and his colleagues did, beginning the process that led to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, itself considered only a precursor to transforming the Greater Middle East into an American protectorate. From the fertile soil of 9/11 - itself something of a phantasmagoric event in which Osama bin Laden and his relatively feeble organization spent a piddling US$400,000-$500,000 to create the look of an apocalyptic moment - sprang full-blown a sense of American global omnipotence.
It had taken a decade to mature. Now, within days of the toppling of those towers in lower Manhattan, the Bush administration was already talking about launching a "war on terror", soon to become
the "Global War on Terror" (no exaggeration intended). The CIA would label it no less grandiosely a "Worldwide Attack Matrix". And none of them were kidding. Finding "terror" groups of various sorts in up to 80 countries, they were planning, in the phrase of the moment, to "drain the swamp" - everywhere.
In the early Bush years, dreams of domination bred like rabbits in the hothouse of single-superpower Washington. Such grandiose thinking quickly invaded administration and Pentagon planning documents as the Bush administration prepared to prevent potentially oppositional powers or blocs of powers from arising in the foreseeable future. No one, as its top officials and their neocon supporters saw it, could stand in the way of their planetary Pax Americana.
Nor, as they invaded Afghanistan, did they have any doubt that they would soon take down Iraq. It was all going to be so easy. Such an invasion, as one supporter wrote in the Washington Post, would be a "cakewalk". By the time American troops entered Iraq, the Pentagon already had plans on the drawing board to build a series of permanent bases - they preferred to call them "enduring camps" - and garrison that assumedly grateful country at the center of the planet's oil lands for generations to come.
Nobody in Washington was thinking about the possibility that an American invasion might create chaos in Iraq and surrounding lands, sparking a set of Sunni-Shiite religious wars across the region. They assumed that Iran and Syria would be forced to bend their national knees to American power or that we would simply impose submission on them. (As a neoconservative quip of the moment had it, "Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.") And that, of course would only be the beginning. Soon enough, no one would challenge American power. Nowhere. Never.
Such soaring dreams of - quite literally - world domination met no significant opposition in mainstream Washington. After all, how could they fail? Who on Earth could possibly oppose them or the US military? The answer seemed too obvious to need to be stated - not until, at least, their all-conquering armies bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan and the greatest power on the planet faced the possibility of defeat at the hands of... well, whom?
The dark matter of global power
Until things went sour in Iraq, theirs would be a vision of the Goliath tale in which David (or various ragtag Sunni, Shiite, and Pashtun versions of the same) didn't even have a walk-on role. All other Goliaths were gone and the thought that a set of minor Davids might pose problems for the planet's giant was beyond imagining, despite what the previous century's history of decolonization and resistance might have taught them.
Above all, the idea that, at this juncture in history, power might not be located overwhelmingly and decisively in the most obvious place - in, that is, "the finest fighting force that the world has ever known," as American presidents of this era came to call it - seemed illogical in the extreme.
Who in the Washington of that moment could have imagined that other kinds of power might, like so much dark matter in the universe, be mysteriously distributed elsewhere on the planet? Such was their sense of American omnipotence, such was the level of delusional thinking inside the Washington bubble.
Despite two treasury-draining disasters in Afghanistan and Iraq that should have been sobering when it came to the hidden sources of global power, especially the power to resist American wishes, such thinking showed only minimal signs of diminishing even as the Bush administration pulled back from the Iraq War, and a few years later, after a set of misbegotten "surges", the Obama administration decided to do the same in Afghanistan.
Instead, Washington entered stage three of delusional life in a single-superpower world. Its main symptom: the belief in the possibility of controlling the planet not just through staggering military might but also through informational and surveillance omniscience and omnipotence. In these years, the urge to declare a global war on communications, create a force capable of launching wars in cyberspace, and storm the e-beaches of the Internet and the global information system proved overwhelming. The idea was to make it impossible for anyone to write, say, or do anything to which Washington might not be privy.
For most Americans, the Edward Snowden revelations would pull back the curtain on the way the National Security Agency, in particular, has been building a global network for surveillance of a kind never before imagined, not even by the totalitarian regimes of the previous century. From domestic phone calls to international emails, from the bugging of UN headquarters and the European Union to 80 embassies around the world, from enemies to frenemies to allies, the system by 2013 was already remarkably all-encompassing. It had, in fact, the same aura of grandiosity about it, of overblown self-regard, that went with the launching of the Global War on Terror - the feeling that if Washington did it or built it, they would come.
I'm 69 years old and, in technological terms, I've barely emerged from the 20th century. In a conversation with NSA director Keith Alexander, known somewhat derisively in the trade as "Alexander the Geek", I have no doubt that I'd be lost. In truth, I can barely grasp the difference between what the NSA's Prism and XKeyscore programs do.
So call me technologically senseless, but I can still recognize a deeper senselessness when I see it. And I can see that Washington is building something conceptually quite monstrous that will change our country for the worse, and the world as well, and is - perhaps worst of all - essentially nonsensical.
So let me offer those in Washington a guarantee: I have no idea what the equivalents of the Afghan and Iraq wars will be in the surveillance world, but continue to build such a global system, ignoring the anger of allies and enemies alike, and "they" indeed will come.
Such delusional grandiosity, such dreams of omnipotence and omniscience cannot help but generate resistance and blowback in a perfectly real world that, whatever Washington thinks, maintains a grasp on perfectly real power, even without another imperial state on any horizon.
Today, almost 12 years after 9/11, the US position in the world seems even more singular. Militarily speaking, the Global War on Terror continues, however namelessly, in the Obama era in places as distant as Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. The US military remains heavily deployed in the Greater Middle East, though it has pulled out of Iraq and is drawing down in Afghanistan. In recent years, US power has, in an exceedingly public manner, been "pivoting" to Asia, where the building of new bases, as well as the deployment of new troops and weaponry, to "contain" that imagined future superpower China has been proceeding apace.
At the same time, the US military has been ever-so-quietly pivoting to Africa where, as TomDispatch's Nick Turse reports, its presence is spreading continent-wide. American military bases still dot the planet in remarkable profusion, numbering perhaps 1,000 at a moment when no other nation has more than a handful outside its territory.
The reach of Washington's surveillance and intelligence networks is unique in the history of the planet. The ability of its drone air fleet to assassinate enemies almost anywhere is unparalleled. Europe and Japan remain so deeply integrated into the American global system as to be essentially a part of its power-projection capabilities.
This should be the dream formula for a world dominator and yet no one can look at Planet Earth today and not see that the single superpower, while capable of creating instability and chaos, is limited indeed in its ability to control developments. Its president can't even form a "coalition of the willing" to launch a limited series of missile attacks on the military facilities of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. From Latin America to the Greater Middle East, the American system is visibly weakening, while at home, inequality and poverty are on the rise, infrastructure crumbles, and national politics is in a state of permanent "gridlock".
Such a world should be fantastical enough for the wildest sort of dystopian fiction, for perhaps a novel titled 2014. What, after all, are we to make of a planet with a single superpower that lacks genuine enemies of any significance and that, to all appearances, has nonetheless been fighting a permanent global war with ... well, itself - and appears to be losing?
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture (recently published in a Kindle edition), runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.
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