Hell in a Handbasket

Five books on America’s declining place in a chaotic world

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

Books reviewed:
Andrew Bacevich, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, Metropolitan Books, 2008
Fred Kaplan, Daydream Believers: How A Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power, John Wiley and Sons, 2008
Richard Haas, A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order, Penguin, 2017
Pankaj Mishra, Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2017
Chris Hedges, America: The Farewell Tour, Simon and Schuster, 2018

“Everyone has a home,” wrote Philip Roth in the novel American Pastoral; “that’s where the troubles begin.” Americans have always been inclined to believe the opposite–that home is a safe, tidy place and threats come mostly from abroad. These days, though, the suspicion is creeping up on us that the chaotic, warring world is not so much going to hell around us as it is following our lead or repaying our crimes. Once seen as a city on a hill, our homeland is actually host to the darkest pathologies that can afflict a free people, and they are bringing our country down.

There have been other powerful, visionary empires before the United States, and  they all managed to die slow, deliberate deaths that seem, in retrospect, entirely avoidable. From Athens and Rome to the Ottomans and Hapsburgs, the great powers of history brought on their own ruin, step by step.

Chris Hedges, author of the 2018 book America: The Farewell Tour, believes there are lessons to be learned from the demise of past empires. “There is a familiar checklist for extinction,” he writes. “We are ticking off every item on it.”

What is the lay of the land that Hedges surveys? Hieronymus Bosch might have painted it himself:

The idiots take over in the final days of crumbling civilizations. Idiot generals wage endless, unwinnable wars that bankrupt the nation. Idiot economists call for reducing taxes for the rich and cutting social service programs for the poor, and project economic growth on the basis of myth. Idiot industrialists poison the water, the soil and the air, slash jobs and depress wages. Idiot bankers gamble on self-created financial bubbles and impose crippling debt peonage on the citizens. Idiot journalists and public intellectuals pretend despotism is democracy. Idiot intelligence operatives orchestrate the overthrow of foreign governments to create lawless enclaves that give rise to enraged fanatics. Idiot professors, “experts” and “specialists” busy themselves with unintelligible jargon and arcane theory that buttresses the policies of the rulers. Idiot entertainers and producers create lurid spectacles of sex, gore and fantasy.

Is it really as bad as all this? Isn’t Hedges being slightly hysterical? I’m not sure. He certainly tends toward pessimism. The inspiration for his book was, he notes, On Suicide, by Emile Durkheim. But in addition to Hedges’ book, I’ve read four others recently on the decline of American power, and they all provide sound, sober arguments that make America: The Farewell Tour sound plausible.

I


The first is from the Boston College historian and former U.S. Army officer Andrew Bacevich. In The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, Bacevich argues that the United States has committed three strategic errors of overreach, and unless we retrench behind more realistic goals, our power will fade into terminal decline.

First, our people are addicted to limitless consumer power, which commits us to an expansionist foreign policy aimed at extracting maximum resources and labor from all parts of the globe. Second, we have accepted the lopsided expansion of executive power that comes when an expansionist foreign policy causes a permanent national security crisis. Put briefly, we have normalized the institution of a wartime presidency, which hollows out our democracy. Third, we valorize military power as the best means of achieving our national goals.

The American people have fallen in love with military force as the ultimate arbiter of greatness. In 2010 the Pentagon cooked up a wonderful phrase for the kind of power we seek to wield: “‘full spectrum dominance’–unambiguous supremacy in all forms of warfare.” In other words, Bacevich points out, “Sustaining American global preeminence, rather than mere national security, became [the DoD’s] explicit function.”

I think when the Pentagon starts pushing out slogans begging to be affirmed by the line from the movie Team America–“America, fuck yeah!”–it is time to pause and listen to critics  like Bacevich. If you wish to learn more about his analysis of our infatuation with military power, you can read my review of his 2013 book The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War.

II


Veteran journalist Fred Kaplan narrates his tale of American decline–Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power–from what he believes should have been a chastening moment in history–the depth of the Iraqi insurgency in 2007.

After our Blitzkrieg rout of Saddam’s third-rate army wrested control of Iraq from the Baathists in 2003, a scruffy collection of insurgents managed to defy the expectations of Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz that peace, law and order would magically follow our military victory in Iraq. There was no need for an occupation plan, they reasoned, because, once the Mesopotamian landscape was cleared of Baathism, the blessings of American democracy would descend like rain.

Iraq went to hell, as we all know, and when the United States pulled out its combat troops in 2011, it left behind a divided, unstable country that in no way met the criteria we explicitly sought to establish in troublesome countries in waging the War on Terror. Yes, we deposed Saddam and stopped Iraq’s development of WMD, but in so doing we greatly empowered Iran, a significant backer of terrorist groups and sponsor of Iraq’s liberated Shia majority, and helped create a whole new Sunni terrorist organization, ISIS, whose goals and capabilities largely align with al-Qaeda’s. (ISIS has become the only Islamic terrorist organization to attack the United States since 9/11.)

We also aggrieved our main regional ally and second-largest NATO member, Turkey, by enticing Iraq’s Kurds to pursue independence. Turkey has been fighting a bloody counterinsurgency against its own restive Kurds (who live next to Iraq’s) since 1985, a war that has cost 40,000 lives.

How did we crown Iraq and its neighborhood with such peace and security? By believing our own propaganda, Kaplan argues. This is the main thrust of Daydream Believers. Specifically, Kaplan writes that U.S. leaders distorted and vastly overvalued the lessons we promoted about our military success in the First Gulf War of 1991. Coming as that war did on the heels of decades of defense research advocating the efficacy of “systems warfare”–the use of speed and precision to collapse an adversary’s centers of war-fighting power–American generals and statesmen suddenly thought they had a means for achieving “instant victory” under a variety of war-fighting circumstances.

But every war is different (Kaplan has reported on many of them), and one of the main factors contributing to the success of the Gulf War was the United States’ application of the Powell Doctrine. The Powell Doctrine, developed by then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell, is the axiom that military power should be used only  (1) in overwhelming measure, (2) for clearly defined war objectives that are (3) tied to a clear exit strategy.

So, the stunning technological success of the Gulf War was only half the story; the other half was that the United States had taken care to define such clear, modest war termination criteria that our chances for success were greatly enhanced before we even fired the first shot. It also helped immensely that we led a multinational coalition that was acting with the legitimacy that only a UN Security Council resolution can confer. Plus, Iraq was far from a military peer. In other words, it was almost the perfect war.

Our new image of invincibility was, then, one fatal daydream. We thought we were sitting unchallenged atop what President George H.W. Bush called the “New World Order.”

The other fatal daydream was that when 9/11 steeled our determination to defend ourselves, we presumed we had the moral prerogative to wage war anywhere in the world against any foe, with or without international backing. The delusion of military supremacy fed our righteous anger, resulting in our invasion of Iraq, the first (and so far only) time we have waged “preventive” war.

Kaplan’s book documents in excruciating detail how dissimilar the global War on Terror has been from the Gulf War, the conflict that gave rise to America’s ambition of launching military adventures across the globe that would achieve “instant victory.” Our military power is still substantial, but we wrecked it, Kaplan argues, by trying to apply it to unachievable war objectives. As a consequence, we now face a host of potential adversaries emboldened by perceptions of how easy it can be to stretch us beyond the breaking point.

III


For Richard Haass, a former senior State Department official, all the bad news Kaplan delivers is true, plus there is this: The unipolar New World Order has given way to a chaotic multipolar system in which America is speeding toward its own decline rather than buttressing policies that might preserve our position as a world leader. This is the message of Haass’s 2017 book A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order.

Before I offer a precis of Haas’s main idea, let me make a painful confession, which I believe sheds light on Haas’s argument. It has to do with Vladimir Putin. Putin is a lying, thuggish autocrat who has very likely ordered the cruel assassination of several of his opponents. He goes on TV to smirk about the enemies he has killed. It pains me to give him credit of any kind. Yet I believe Putin offered a deeply compelling diagnosis of the U.S. role in the increasingly chaotic world order when he addressed the UN General Assembly in September 2015.

At that time, a new wing of ISIS was springing up in Libya, a country NATO had forcefully  “liberated” from Muamar Qaddafi. Qaddafi thought he had made himself right with the world’s power order when he gave up his WMD program in 2002, but NATO still went after him in 2011. It had something to do with protecting civilians in what looked to be the next episode of the Arab Spring. You’d have to ask them. In any case, thousands of Libyan civilians have died since the NATO intervention, and the killing remains “rampant.”

Meanwhile, Iraq was a failed state, ruined by the U.S invasion. Syria was dying, killed off by a horrific civil war. ISIS was born in the bloody security vacuums of these two former countries. A whole generation of people’s lives had been ruined. They had no hope for jobs, schools, health care, or in many places, adequate food, shelter or water. Millions of refugees flooded the region. The vast scale of this chaos and misery would not have been possible without the United States’ actuating belief that it was (1) morally legitimized and (2) sufficiently militarily powerful to invade Iraq and cow its neighbors into accepting democratic “reform,” which was the distal cause of the Arab Spring. Recall that Washington’s explicit goal in invading Iraq was to transform the entire Middle East region. Some transformation, said Putin before the UN:

“Instead of the triumph of democracy and progress, we got violence, poverty and social disaster — and nobody cares a bit about human rights, including the right to life,” Putin said through a translator. “I cannot help asking those who have forced that situation: Do you realize what you have done?”

I wish these words had come from the mouth of a decent, sincere statesman. But the fact that they came from Putin makes them no less true. The United States has played an outsized role in destabilizing the world order and immiserating millions of human beings. All because we thought we were right enough and strong enough to spread our “way of life” through the use of military force, often unilaterally.

Haass’s book provides the cautionary tale that U.S. officials should have borne in mind before they chose to invade Iraq or spread democracy by force around the world.

Although Haas catalogues a great variety of security challenges that have sprung up since the United States began to squander its power, there is a single bright line of argumentation that runs through most of the book. It is that, under the United States’ leadership after World War Two, the world’s democratic powers abandoned the Westphalian principle of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs, to everyone’s peril.

It started, of course, with the best of intentions. After World War Two, Europe formed a political alliance that sought to guarantee peace by giving each member state a stake in its neighbors’ domestic affairs. This became the European Union. The founding act of the EU was a move made voluntarily by France and Germany to erase the conditions that had chronically led to war by guaranteeing each had access to the other’s (long coveted) natural resources.

Haas argues persuasively that this well-intentioned move eventually evolved under U.S. leadership into a doctrine enshrined by the UN in 2005 as the “responsibility to protect,” or R2P. R2P basically says that should a state flagrantly abandon its responsibility to protect its own citizens, a UN-backed coalition may intervene to do so. This is the ultimate form of interference in a country’s domestic affairs. I argued in a clumsily written 2005 paper that this doctrine justified NATO’s 1999 military intervention in Serbia and Kosovo.

By constructing a liberal justification for attacking morally delinquent countries, however, the West has opened a Pandora’s box of potential military adventurism. Even the most idealistic countries will sometimes use the chivalrous doctrine of R2P as a screen for pursuing their own interests.

Worse, R2P scares Vladimir Putin to death, and he is determined not to be overthrown by the West’s armed crusade for democracy. Since Georgia’s “Rose Revolution” of 2003 and Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution” of 2004, Putin has viewed every “color revolution” in the making as the thin end of a Western wedge to unseat him from power under the guise of protecting universal democratic rights and norms. He has since fashioned his own bastardized version of R2P as a deterrent to the West. Under Putin, the Kremlin reserves the right to intervene abroad to protect the rights of any and all ethnic Russians. (Millions live in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, NATO members all.)

A highly salient point that Haass illuminates in passing but does not quite underline is the nature of Russia’s war aims in Syria. Russia has been fighting alongside the (highly repressive) Syrian regime since 2015 openly and expressly to defeat the concept of R2P. If the United States and its pro-democracy allies cannot be persuaded through diplomacy or by witnessing the painful consequences of their military adventures to stop breaking functioning countries–repressive as they may be–Putin has decided to defy their military power with his own. There are lots of reasons Russia is fighting in Syria, but the main one is to contain America’s ambitions for widespread regime change and military democratization.

IV


The most fascinating book I’ve read this year, on the present topic or any other, is Age of Anger: A History of the Present, by Pankaj Mishra. It is a stunningly insightful book that explores the roots and various forms of existential resentment people around the world feel at the unmet expectations of liberal globalism.

Look at the nationalist, authoritarian movements of today, says Mishra, and notice this about the relationship between those movements’ leaders and their loyalists: “[D]emagogues of all kinds, from Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan to India’s Narendra Modi, France’s Marine La Pen and America’s Donald Trump, have tapped into the simmering reservoirs of cynicism, boredom and discontent” that mark the hopeless and the alienated.

Thanks to mass culture and mass communication, the world is now populated with an inordinate number of individuals who feel superfluous to the very systems that shaped their dreams of comfort, order and prosperity. Mishra sees this disaffected class as an echo of the 19th century’s romantics and anarchists, of whom he notes:

The most commonplace and potent accusation these spokesmen of the disgruntled levelled against their rulers was hypocrisy: this much-advertised promise of happiness through material comforts was deceitful since only a small minority can achieve it, at great expense to the majority.

Almost everyone under 50, including the great majority of Americans, is now a prime candidate to be “a young man educated into the sense of hope and entitlement but rendered adrift by his limited circumstances, and exposed to feelings of weakness, inferiority and envy while coerced into hectic national emulation.”

The world is undergoing a crisis of vastly diminished expectations. No one has done nearly as well out of the New World Order, the End of History, or the Information Revolution as we’d been led to believe we would. Rather than wealth proliferation through the Invisible Hand, we have McJobs and the miserly accumulation of capital in international tax havens by the .01 percent. Rather than the rational end of totalitarianism, we have nominally free, democratic people following and admiring nationalist strongmen. Rather than information setting us free–because it so passionately “wants to be free”–we find big data recruited faithfully into the service of our corporate masters, special interest ideologues, trolls, pranksters, and ad men whose only scrutable motive is to manipulate our perceptions of reality. Truth is now up for grabs in a way postmodernist philosophers of the 1980s and -90s could only have dreamed of.

Mishra’s unique contribution to the ideas I’ve read in the last few books is to document the ways we Americans are of this grim, chaotic, underperforming world, not set above it by our enlightened politics or superior military strength. Read it, twice, to discover the fascinating intellectual history of our predicament.

V

All of which brings us back to Chris Hedges’ jeremiad, America: The Farewell Tour. Hedges’s thesis is that the United States has suffered a corporate coup d’etat, which has debased our political culture and thrown our society into a death spiral.

America: The Farewell Tour catalogues the symptoms of our Kierkegaardian sickness unto death in unflinching terms. We are a society marked by mass incarceration; senseless, routine gun violence; lethal drug addiction; record-high suicide rates; falling wages and the evaporation of meaningful work; pornography-driven sadomasochism; gape-faced illiteracy and celebrity worship; junk food mania; wanton, irreversible pillage of the natural world; life-ruining gambling addiction; and, as Bacevich also highlights, a sick infatuation with military power and conquest.

Bosch
“Christ in Limbo,” by Hieronymus Bosch (Image: movieplayer.it)

All of this is enabled and underwritten, Hedges argues, by two magical beliefs that are now woven into the fabric of our society: (1) that anything is okay as long as someone is making money off it, and (2) that a religion of personal salvation can instantaneously transform an individual life and remove it from the hell we have allowed our society to become. Everything is okay because our lives are safely in the hands of profitable corporations and a saving God. The corporate state survives, indeed thrives, Hedges writes, because of these profane magical beliefs. And when the power of the truth is displaced by the power of such “higher” beliefs–things we believe in steadfastly no matter what the evidence against them–we create a world in which, as Dostoevsky observed, anything is possible.

 

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