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Alone and Delusional on Planet Earth

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Posted on Sep 6, 2013
The National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center (CC BY 2.0)

By Tom Engehardt, TomDispatch

(Page 2)

From that moment on, the imperial powers of this planet—super, great, prospectively great, and near great—came in contending or warring pairs, if not triplets or quadruplets.  Portugal, Spain, and Holland; England, France, and Imperial Russia; the United States, Germany, Japan, and Italy (as well as Great Britain and France), and after World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union.  Five centuries in which one thing had never occurred, the thing that even George Orwell, with his prodigious political imagination, couldn’t conceive of, the thing that makes 1984 a dated work and his future a past that never was: a one-superpower world.  To give birth to such a creature on such a planet—as indeed occurred in 1991—was to be at the end of history, at least as it had long been known.

The Decade of the Stunned Superpower

Only in Hollywood fantasies about evil super-enemies was “world domination” by a single power imaginable.  No wonder that, more than two decades into our one-superpower present, we still find it hard to take in this new reality and what it means.

At least two aspects of such a world seem, however, to be coming into focus.  The evidence of the last decades suggests that the ability of even the greatest of imperial powers to shape global events may always have been somewhat exaggerated.  The reason: power itself may never have been as centrally located in imperial or national entities as was once imagined.  Certainly, with all rivals removed, the frustration of Washington at its inability to control events in the Greater Middle East and elsewhere could hardly be more evident.  Still, Washington has proven incapable of grasping the idea that there might be forms of power, and so of resistance to American desires, not embodied in competitive states.

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Evidence also seems to indicate that the leaders of a superpower, when not countered by another major power, when lacking an arms race to run or territory and influence to contest, may be particularly susceptible to the growth of delusional thinking, and in particular to fantasies of omnipotence.

Though Great Britain far outstripped any competitor or potential enemy at the height of its imperial glory, as did the United States at the height of the Cold War (the Soviet Union was always a junior superpower), there were at least rivals around to keep the leading power “honest” in its thinking.  From December 1991, when the Soviet Union declared itself no more, there were none and, despite the dubious assumption by many in Washington that a rising China will someday be a major competitor, there remain none.  Even if economic power has become more “multipolar,” no actual state contests the American role on the planet in a serious way.

Just as still water is a breeding ground for mosquitos, so single-superpowerdom seems to be a breeding ground for delusion.  This is a phenomenon about which we have to be cautious, since we know little enough about it and are, of course, in its midst.  But so far, there seem to have been three stages to the development of whatever delusional process is underway.

Stage one stretched from December 1991 through September 10, 2001.  Think of it as the decade of the stunned superpower.  After all, the collapse of the Soviet Union went unpredicted in Washington and when it happened, the George H. W. Bush administration seemed almost incapable of taking it in.  In the years that followed, there was the equivalent of a stunned silence in the corridors of power.

After a brief flurry of debate about a post-Cold War “peace dividend,” that subject dropped into the void, while, for example, U.S. nuclear forces, lacking their major enemy of the previous several decades, remained more or less in place, strategically disoriented but ready for action.  In those years, Washington launched modest and halting discussions of the dangers of “rogue states” (think “Axis of Evil” in the post-9/11 era), but the U.S. military had a hard time finding a suitable enemy other than its former ally in the Persian Gulf, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.  Its ventures into the world of war in Somalia and the former Yugoslavia were modest and not exactly greeted with rounds of patriotic fervor at home.  Even the brief glow of popularity the elder Bush gained from his 1990-1991 war against Saddam evaporated so quickly that, by the time he geared up for his reelection campaign barely a year later, it was gone.

In the shadows, however, a government-to-be was forming under the guise of a think tank.  It was filled with figures like future Vice President Dick Cheney, future Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, future Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, future U.N. Ambassador John Bolten, and future ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, all of whom firmly believed that the United States, with its staggering military advantage and lack of enemies, now had an unparalleled opportunity to control and reorganize the planet.  In January 2001, they came to power under the presidency of George W. Bush, anxious for the opportunity to turn the U.S. into the kind of global dominator that would put the British and even Roman empires to shame.

Pax Americana Dreams

Stage two in the march into single-superpower delusion began on September 11, 2001, only five hours after hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 smashed into the Pentagon.  It was then that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, already convinced that al-Qaeda was behind the attacks, nonetheless began dreaming about completing the First Gulf War by taking out Saddam Hussein.  Of Iraq, he instructed an aide to “go massive… Sweep it all up. Things related and not.”

And go massive he and his colleagues did, beginning the process that led to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, itself considered only a precursor to transforming the Greater Middle East into an American protectorate.  From the fertile soil of 9/11—itself something of a phantasmagoric event in which Osama bin Laden and his relatively feeble organization spent a piddling $400,000-$500,000 to create the look of an apocalyptic moment—sprang full-blown a sense of American global omnipotence.


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