One and a Half Cheers for American Decline
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 US 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 US 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 [United States] to fix problems at home" than to address challenges to the [United States] abroad—up from 82% who responded to that question in CCGA's last survey in 2008.
That striking 49 percent 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 percent response to the same "mind its own business" question. It was, they comment, "the highest response ever recorded, far surpassing the 32 percent 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 US 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 pre-eminent 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 US 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 US military, they made the mistake of believing that military power and global power were the same thing and that the US 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 Tehran."
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 year…"
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 US 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 billing," 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.
[Note: To view the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll mentioned in paragraph two of this piece, click here (pdf file). My thanks go to two friends, Jim Peck and Jim Lobe, for conversations that made a difference in writing this essay, and to Christopher Holmes and Andy Kroll for keeping me honest. To read more of Lobe's work, check out his blog, Lobelog, filled with energetic pieces by him and especially his young associates and also his archive of articles. Thanks as well go to Antiwar.com (as well as Jason Ditz's daily summaries at that site), Juan Cole's Informed Comment website, and Paul Woodward's the War in Context website, all invaluable to me when it comes to gathering information daily on our various wars. (While you're at it, check out this provocative little piece by Woodward on the way weapons outlive the empires that peddle them.)]