One and a Half Cheers for American Decline
This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.
Compare two assessments of the American future:
In the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in which 61 percent of Americans interviewed considered "things in the nation" to be "on the wrong track," 66 percent 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 percent "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 US 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 thirty 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 nine or ten years doing more of the same.
After thirty years, it might almost seem logical. Why not ten 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 United States is an imperial power in decline—and not just the sort of decline that is going to affect your children or grandchildren someday. We're talking about massive unemployment that's going nowhere and an economy that 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.