The lessons of history? Who needs them? Certainly not Washington’s present cast of characters, a crew in flight from history, the past, or knowledge of more or less any sort. Still, just for the hell of it, let’s take a few moments to think about what some of the lessons of the last years of the previous century and the first years of this one might be for the world’s most exceptional and indispensable nation, the planet’s sole superpower, the globe’s only sheriff. Those were, of course, commonplace descriptions from the pre-Trump era and yet, in the age of MAGA, already as moldy and cold as the dust in some pharaonic tomb.
Let’s start this way: you could think of the post–Cold War era, the years after the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, as the moment of America’s first opioid crisis. The country’s politicians and would-be politicians were, then, taking street drugs (K-Street and military-industrial-complex ones, to be exact) and having remarkable visions of a planet available for the taking, as well as the keeping, forever and ever, amen.
On a globe without another superpower—pre-Putin Russia was a shattered, impoverished shell of the former Soviet Union, while China was still entering the capitalist world, Communist party in tow—history’s ultimate opportunity had obviously presented itself. And about to ascend to the holodeck of the USS America (beam me up, Dick Cheney!) were history’s ultimate opportunists, the men (and woman) who would, in January 2001, occupy the top posts in the administration of President George W. Bush. That, of course, included Cheney who, after overseeing a wide-ranging search for the best candidate for vice president, had appointed himself to the job. As a group, they couldn’t have been more ready for America’s ultimate moment in the sun. They had been preparing for it for years and largely came out of the first think tank—the Project for the New American Century —ever to enter the Oval Office. They had long been in favor of ensuring this country’s “unchallenged supremacy” by building its already staggering military into a force beyond compare. In doing so, they had no doubt that they would achieve the previously inconceivable: an “American geopolitical preeminence,” as they politely put it, that would be like no other great power’s ever.
A Power “Beyond Challenge”
As it happened, their moment came with blinding, thoroughly unexpected speed on September 11, 2001. Their response would be captured perfectly only five hours after the attacks of that day. From the partially devastated Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, already certain that Al Qaeda was behind the strikes, ordered his aides (as one of them scribbled down) to “go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not.” And so they did. What followed would be not just the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, but of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, a country completely unconnected to the attacks of 9/11. And not just Iraq either, not in their fevered imaginations anyway (as once again today in the fever dreams of newly appointed National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo), but Iran, too. Not far behind in the sweep-it-up category would come, they were convinced, the rest of the Greater Middle East (still being called in those days “the arc of instability”—little did they know!). In the end, they had no doubt that the rest of the planet would fall in line, too (or pay the price). It was to be a Pax Americana planet for the ages.
In the carnage that followed, it was easy to forget just how expansive those fever dreams were. But give them credit: whatever else they did (or didn’t do), geopolitically speaking, George W. Bush’s crew thought big. Just consider their seminal document of the post-9/11 moment, the 2002 National Security Strategy. Their goal, it stated, was to ensure that the United States would “build and maintain” the country’s “defenses” (that is, military power) “beyond challenge.” And keep in mind that they were already talking about a country in, as that document put it, “a position of unparalleled military strength.”
Let that roll around in your head for a second so many years later: on this planet a single, unparalleled military power “beyond challenge.” That was a dream of dominion that once would have been left to “Evil Empires” or madmen (or the truly, truly bad guys in Hollywood movies). But in the world as they imagined it then, the one in which only that “sole” superpower stood tall, how easy it proved to imagine a Great Game with just a single player and an eternal arms race of one.
The top officials of the Bush administration were, as I wrote back then, pure fundamentalists when it came to US military power. As President Bush later put it, they considered that military “the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known.” Under such circumstances, why would anyone be shy about loosing it to “liberate” the rest of the planet? In that 2002 document, the Bush administration essentially called for a world in which no other great power or bloc of powers would ever again be allowed to challenge this country’s supremacy. As the president put it in an address at West Point that same year, “America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge, thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace.”
The National Security Strategy put the same thought this way: “Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States.” And the president and his men promptly began to hike the Pentagon budget to fit their oversized fantasies of what an American planetary “footprint” should look like (a process that, despite everything that followed, has never ended).
The Lessons of American War
So much of this has, of course, already been buried in the sands of history, but that’s no reason for it to be forgotten. Almost 17 years after 9/11, the parts of the planet that “the greatest force, etc., etc.” was loosed upon remain in remarkable upheaval and disarray, while failed states and terror groups multiply, producing more displaced people and refugees than at any time since the end of World War II. Another great power, China, is rising, and an economically less than great Russia continues to hang in there militarily and strategically by force of Putinian chutzpah. Not surprisingly, American decline has become a topic of the moment.
What conclusions, then, might be drawn from the era of folly that led us to this Trumpian moment? Here are my suggestions for five possible lessons from the American experience of war in the 21st century:
Lesson one: It should have been too obvious to say, but wasn’t: Earth can’t be conquered by a single power, no matter how strong. Try to do so and you’ll end up taking yourself down in some fashion.
Shakespeare would have been fascinated by the hubris of America’s leaders in these years (and that was before Mr. Hubris Himself even hit the White House). It couldn’t be clearer today that the military-first grab for an all-American planet proved strikingly too much for the United States to swallow by an Iraqi mile. It never even came close to happening. When the history of American decline is written, perhaps it will be said that never was there a great power whose leaders so effectively took it down themselves simply by wanting too much too badly and by woefully misunderstanding the nature of power on this planet. For Washington, the urge to make Earth into its imperium proved the equivalent of a submarine putting a torpedo into its own bow.
Lesson two: In the 21st century, military power, even that of the “finest fighting force in the history of the world” (another presidential descriptor of these years), isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It doesn’t matter how many hundreds of billions of dollars you put into building up and maintaining that military yearly or how many trillions of dollars you sink into its wars and the mayhem they produce.
In 2018, the greatest military on Earth turned out to be incapable of ultimately defeating forces that were producing roadside bombs for the cost of a pizza. If you want to measure the effectiveness of the US military, note, for instance, that more than a decade and a half after its “Global War on Terror” was launched there are Al Qaeda affiliates in far more places than on September 12, 2001; the original Al Qaeda still exists; other Al Qaeda crews are fighting with reasonable success from Yemen to Syria to North Africa; ISIS, while destroyed as a state or “caliphate,” continues as a guerrilla movement in parts of Syria and Iraq and its branded affiliates have spread across that former “arc of instability” from Niger and Libya to Afghanistan and the Philippines. Washington’s war on terror, in other words, turned into a war for the spread of terror.
Lesson three: Military power is now a force for chaos. Historically, in the imperial ages that preceded this one, such power, while applied brutally and devastatingly, could also be a way of imposing order on conquered and colonized areas. (Hence, say, the British Raj in India or the French military hold on Indochina.) No longer, it seems, not in the wake of the 20th century wars of liberation and independence in the formerly colonized world. We’re now on a planet that simply doesn’t accept military-first conquest and occupation, no matter under what guise it arrives (including the spread of “democracy”). So beware of unleashing modern military power. It turns out to contain within it striking disintegrative forces on a planet that can ill afford such chaos.
Lesson four: At least at the imperial level, victory turns out to be a concept from another century. In its wars of recent years, the American military has moved from dreams of victory to an acceptance that its conflicts might be “generational” in nature to, most recently, the idea of “infinite war” (that is, war without hope of end or ultimate success). In this way, its top commanders have admitted that, by their own definition, they now live in a victory-less world.
Lesson five: Imperial wars do come home, even if in ways often hard to spot or grasp. Indeed, America’s wars of the 21st century have been returning to the homeland not as victory but as a kind of defeat, however hard that may be to see.
Donald Trump is proof of that. His slogan “Make America Great Again”—implying, as no other politician of his moment dared do, that the country was no longer great—rang a bell in the heartland and helped win him the 2016 election. His America First campaign similarly embodied a declinist sensibility, even if not recognized as such.
In promoting a presidency that would (again) put American first, Trump reflected what, for so many Americans, was a distinctly 21st-century message. Despite those soaring Washington dreams of an all-American planet, this century has proved anything but an America First one in the white American heartland. While citizen tax dollars poured down the drain of those distant wars (and the scams linked to them), the country’s unparalleled global corporate power helped generate profits and wealth beyond compare—but mainly for a single gilded class of one percenters. And so the numbers of multimillionaires and billionaires multiplied impressively, creating an ever-widening inequality gap. In those same years, with a helping hand from the Supreme Court, the American political system was turned over, lock, stock, and barrel, to those very billionaires and multimillionaires and their Super PACs. Meanwhile, actual investment in this country’s basic infrastructure, in everything that had once made it the most advanced of first world countries, went off a cliff.
All of this was felt particularly deeply by the inhabitants of the country’s white heartland, as the future seemed to close in on so many of them. In their own fashion, they had absorbed some intuitive version of the above “lessons” of recent history, as had Donald Trump. As a result, in election 2016, along with all his tweets, insults, and nicknames, which became the heart and soul of media coverage, he did something far more crucial. He reassured Americans who felt that their lives and those of their children (going into debt for their very educations in ways that once would have been unimaginable) were turning third world on them. This they blamed on both the “swamp” of Washington and people of color of every sort. In his own distinctive way, Trump reassured them that life in America didn’t have to be like this, repeatedly sending them messages of firstness and greatness, as well as anti-immigrant-ness, with convincing fire and fury.
Of course, upon entering the Oval Office, our first billionaire president promptly chose a cabinet of billionaires and multimillionaires, while the great achievement of his initial year as president would be to free both corporate America and that same gilded class of yet more financial responsibility for the nation, thanks to his tax “reform” bill. Meanwhile, he oversaw the expansion of America’s wars in distant lands.
None of this should have been slightly surprising. After all, whatever reassurance he may have offered, his campaign was always a The Donald First one. And whatever they thought they were doing, his voters were electing a man whose deepest expertise lay in how to emerge from bankruptcy proceedings smelling like a rose. Now, he seems intent on applying those special skills to peace, war, and the economy.
That means, in another year or two, you can count on lessons of American war six through 10 from me. In the meantime, hold on to your hats.