US in decline? Yay!
Source Jim Devine
Date 10/09/24/07:30

[from tomdispatch]
One and a Half Cheers for American Decline
The Future’s Not Ours -- and That’s Good News
By Tom Engelhardt

COMPARE TWO assessments of the American future:

In the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in which 61% of
Americans interviewed considered “things in the nation” to be “on the
wrong track,” 66% did “not feel confident that life for our children’s
generation will be better than it has been for us.” (Seven percent
were “not sure,” and only 27% “felt confident.”) But here was the
polling question you’re least likely to see discussed in your local
newspaper or by Washington-based pundits: “Do you think America is in
a state of decline, or do you feel that this is not the case?”
Sixty-five percent of respondents chose as their answer: “in a state
of decline.”

Meanwhile, Afghan war commander General David Petraeus was interviewed
last week by Martha Raddatz of ABC News. Asked whether the American
war in Afghanistan, almost a decade old, was finally on the right
counterinsurgency track and could go on for another nine or ten years,
Petraeus agreed that we were just at the beginning of the process,
that the “clock” was only now ticking, and that we needed “realistic
expectations” about what could happen and how fast. “Progress” in
Afghanistan, he commented, was often so slow that it could feel like
“watching grass grow or paint dry.”

Now, I’m not a betting man, but I’d head for Vegas tomorrow and put my
money down against the general and on Americans generally when it
comes to assessing the future. I’d put money on the fact that the
United States is indeed “in a state of decline” and I’d make a wager
at odds that U.S. troops won’t be in Afghanistan in nine or ten years.
And I’d venture to suggest as well that the two bets would be
intimately connected, and that the American people understand at a
visceral level far more than Washington cares to know about our real
situation in the world. And I’d put my money on one more thing:
however lousy it may feel, it’s not all bad news, not by a long shot.

Decline Today, Not Tomorrow

Let’s start with Afghanistan. Yes, we’ve been “in,” or intimately
involved with, Afghanistan not just for almost a decade, but for a
significant chunk of the last 30 years. And for much of that time
we’ve poured our wealth into creating chaos and mayhem there in the
name of “freedom,” “liberation,” “reconstruction,” and
“nation-building.” We started in the distant days of the Reagan
administration with the CIA funneling vast sums of money and advanced
weaponry into the anti-Soviet jihad. At that time, we happily
supported outright terror tactics, including car-bomb and even
camel-bomb attacks on the Soviets in Afghan cities and bomb attacks on
movie theaters as well. These acts were committed by Islamic
fundamentalists of the most extreme sort, and our officials, labeling
them “freedom fighters,” couldn’t say enough nice things about them.

That was our expensive first decade in Afghanistan. In 1989, when the
Russians withdrew in defeat, we departed in triumph. You know the
next round well enough: we returned in 2001, armed and eager, carrying
suitcases full of cash, and ready to fight many of the same
fundamentalists we (or our allies the Pakistanis) had set loose,
funded, and armed in the previous two decades.

If, back in 1979, you had told a polling group of Americans that their
country would soon embark on a never-ending war that would involve
spending hundreds of billions of dollars, building staggering numbers
of military bases, squandering startling sums (including at least $27
billion to train Afghan military and police forces whose most striking
trait is desertion), losing significant numbers of American lives (and
huge numbers of Afghan ones), and launching the first robot air war in
history, and then asked them to pick the likely country, not one in a
million would have chosen Afghani-where(?). And yet, today, our
leading general (“perhaps the greatest general of his generation”)
doesn’t blink at the mention of another 9 or 10 years doing more of
the same.

After 30 years, it might almost seem logical. Why not 10 more? The
answer is that you have to be the Washington equivalent of blind,
deaf, and dumb not to know why not, and Americans aren’t any of those.
They know what Washington is in denial about, because they’re living
American decline in the flesh, even if Washington isn’t. Not yet
anyway. And they know they’re living it not in some distant future,
but right now.

Here’s a simple reality: the U.S. is an imperial power in decline --
and not just the sort of decline which is going to affect your
children or grandchildren someday. We’re talking about massive
unemployment that’s going nowhere and an economy which shows no sign
of ever returning good jobs to this country on a significant scale,
even if “good times” do come back sooner or later. We’re talking
about an aging, fraying infrastructure -- with its collapsing bridges
and exploding gas pipelines -- that a little cosmetic surgery isn’t
going to help.

And whatever the underlying historical trends, George W. Bush, Dick
Cheney, and company accelerated this process immeasurably. You can
thank their two mad wars, their all-planet-all-the-time Global War on
Terror, their dumping of almost unlimited taxpayer dollars into the
Pentagon and war planning for the distant future, and their scheme to
privatize the military and mind-meld it with a small group of crony
capitalist privateers, not to speak of ramping up an already
impressively over-muscled national security state into a national
state of fear, while leaving the financial community to turn the
country into a giant, mortgaged Ponzi scheme. It was the equivalent
of driving a car in need of a major tune-up directly off the nearest
cliff -- and the rest, including the economic meltdown of 2008, is, as
they say, history, which we’re all now experiencing in real time.
Then, thank the Obama administration for not having the nerve to
reverse course while it might still have mattered.

Public Opinion and Elite Opinion

The problem in all this isn’t the American people. They already know
the score. The problem is Afghan war commander Petraeus. It’s
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. It’s Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton. It’s National Security Adviser James Jones. It’s all those
sober official types, military and civilian, who pass for “realists,”
and are now managing “America’s global military presence,” its vast
garrisons, its wars and alarums. All of them are living in Cloud
Cuckoo Land.

Ordinary Americans aren’t. They know what's going down, and to judge
by polls, they have a perfectly realistic assessment of what needs to
be done. Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service recently reported on the
release of a major biennial survey, "Constrained Internationalism:
Adapting to New Realities," by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs
(CCGA). Here’s the heart of it, as Lobe describes it:

“The survey’s main message, however, was that the U.S. public is
looking increasingly toward reducing Washington’s role in world
affairs, especially in conflicts that do not directly concern it.
While two-thirds of citizens believe Washington should take an ‘active
part in world affairs,’ 49% -- by far the highest percentage since the
CCGA first started asking the question in the mid-1970s -- agreed with
the proposition that the U.S. should ‘mind its own business
internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on
their own.’

“Moreover, 91% of respondents agreed that it was ‘more important
at this time for the [U.S.] to fix problems at home’ than to address
challenges to the (U.S.) abroad -- up from 82% who responded to that
question in CCGA’s last survey in 2008.”

That striking 49% figure is no isolated outlier. As Charles Kupchan
and Peter Trubowitz point out in an article in the journal
International Security, a December 2009 Pew poll got the same 49%
response to the same “mind its own business” question. It was, they
comment, “the highest response ever recorded, far surpassing the 32%
expressing that attitude in 1972, during the height of opposition to
the Vietnam War.”

Along the same lines, the CCGA survey found significant majorities
expressing an urge for their government to cooperate with China, but
not actively work to limit the growth of its power, and not to support
Israel if it were to attack Iran. Similarly, they opted for a
“lighter military footprint” and a lessening in the U.S. role as
“world policeman.” When it comes to the Afghan War specifically, the
latest polls and reporting indicate that skepticism about it continues
to rise. All of this adds up not to traditional “isolationism,” but
to a realistic foreign policy, one appropriate to a nation not
garrisoning the planet or dreaming of global hegemony.

This may simply reflect a visceral sense of imperial decline under the
pressure of two unpopular wars. Explain it as you will, it’s exactly
what Washington is incapable of facing. A CCGA survey of elite,
inside-the-Beltway opinion would undoubtedly find much of America’s
leadership class still trapped inside an older global paradigm and so
willing to continue pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into
Afghanistan and elsewhere rather than consider altering the American
posture on the planet.

Imperial Denial Won’t Stop Decline

Despite much planning during and after World War II for a future role
as the planet’s preeminent power, Washington used to act as if its
“responsibilities” as the “leader of the Free World” had been thrust
upon it. That, of course, was before the Soviet Union collapsed.
After 1991, it became commonplace for pundits and officials alike to
refer to the U.S. as the only “sheriff” in town, the “global
policeman,” or the planet’s “sole superpower.”

Whatever the American people might then have thought a post-Cold War
“peace dividend” would mean, elites in Washington already knew, and
acted accordingly. As in any casino when you’re on a roll, they
doubled down their bets, investing the fruits of victory in more of
the same -- especially in the garrisoning and control of the oil-rich
Persian Gulf region. And when the good fortune only seemed to
continue and the sole enemies left in military terms proved to be a
few regional “rogue states” of no great importance and small non-state
groups, it went to their heads in a big way.

In the wake of 9/11, that “twenty-first century Pearl Harbor,” the new
crew in Washington and the pundits and think-tankers surrounding them
saw a planet ripe for the taking. Having already fallen in love with
the U.S. military, they made the mistake of believing that military
power and global power were the same thing and that the U.S. had all
it needed of both. They were convinced that a Pax Americana in the
Greater Middle East was within their grasp if only they acted boldly,
and they didn’t doubt for a moment that they could roll back Russia --
they were, after all, former Cold Warriors -- and put China in its
place at the same time. Their language was memorable. They spoke of
“cakewalks” and a “military lite,” of “shock and awe” aerial blitzes
and missions accomplished. When they joked around, a typical line
went: “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to

And they meant it. They were ready to walk the walk -- or so they
thought. This was the remarkably brief period when the idea of
“empire” or “empire lite” was proudly embraced and friendly pundits
started comparing the United States to the Roman or British empires.
It’s hard to believe how recently that was and how relatively silent
the present crew in Washington has fallen when it comes to the glories
of American power.

Now, they just hope to get by, in itself a sign of decline. That’s
why we’ve entered a period when, except for inanely repetitious,
overblown references to the threat of al-Qaeda, no one in Washington
cares to offer Americans an explanation -- any explanation -- of why
we’re fighting globally. They prefer to manage the pain, while
holding the line. They prefer to leak the news, for example, that in
Afghanistan no policy changes are in the offing any time soon. As the
Washington Post reported recently, “The White House calculus is that
the strategy retains enough public and political support to weather
any near-term objections. Officials do not expect real pressure for
progress and a more precise definition of goals to build until next

It’s not that they don’t see decline at all, but that they prefer to
think of it as a mild, decades-long process, the sort of thing that
might lead to a diminution of American power by 2025. At the edges,
however, you can feel other assessments creeping up -- in, for
instance, former Condoleezza Rice National Security Council deputy
Robert Blackwill’s recent call for the U.S. to pull back its troops to
northern Afghanistan, ceding the Pashtun south to the Taliban.

Sooner or later -- and I doubt it will take as long as many imagine --
you’ll hear far more voices, ever closer to the heartlands of American
power, rising in anxiety or even fear. Don’t think nine or ten years
either. This won’t be a matter of choice. Our leadership may be
delusional, but there will be nothing more to double down with, and so
“America’s global military presence” will begin to crumble. And
whether they want it or not, whether there’s even an antiwar movement
or not, those troops will start coming home, not to a happy nation or
to an upbeat situation, but home in any case.

It may sound terrible, and in Afghanistan and elsewhere, terrible
things will indeed happen in the interim, while at home the economy
will, at best, limp along, the infrastructure will continue to
deteriorate, more jobs will march south, and American finances will
worsen. If we’re not quite heading for what Arianna Huffington, in
her provocative new book, calls “Third World America,” we’re not
heading for further fame and fortune either.

But cheer up. The news isn’t all bad. Truly. We’ve just gotten way
too used to the idea that the United States must be the planet’s
preeminent nation, the global hegemon, the sole superpower, numero
uno. We’ve convinced ourselves that neither we nor the world can
exist without our special management.

So here’s the good news: it’s actually going to feel better to be just
another nation, one more country, even if a large and powerful one, on
this overcrowded planet, rather than the nation. It’s going to feel
better to only arm ourselves to defend our actual borders, rather than
constantly fighting distant wars or skirmishes and endlessly preparing
for more of the same. It’s going to feel better not to be engaged in
an arms race of one or playing the role of the globe’s major arms
dealer. It’s going to feel better to focus on American problems,
maybe experiment a little at home, and offer the world some real
models for a difficult future, instead of talking incessantly about
what a model we are while we bomb and torture and assassinate abroad
with impunity.

So take some pleasure in this: our troops are coming home and you’re
going to see it happen. And in the not so very distant future it
won’t be our job to “police” the world or be the “global sheriff.” And
won’t that be a relief? We can form actual coalitions of equals to do
things worth doing globally and never have to organize another
“coalition of the willing,” twisting arms and bribing others to do our
military bidding.

Since by the time we get anywhere near such a world, our leaders will
have run this country into the ground, it’s hard to offer the
traditional three cheers for such a future. But how about at least
one-and-a-half prospective cheers for the possible return of
perspective to our American world, for a significant lessening, even
if not the decisive ending, of an American imperial role and of the
massive military “footprint” that goes with it.

It’s going to happen. Put your money on it.

And thank you, George W. Bush (though I never thought I’d say that),
you’ve given an old guy a shot at seeing the fruits of American
decline myself. I’m looking forward.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the
Nation Institute's

Copyright 2010 Tom Engelhardt

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