May 25, 2013
The Fall of the American Empire (Writ Small)
Posted on Nov 21, 2012
By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch
Where, once upon a time, victorious commanders had to take an enemy capital or accept the surrender of an opposing army, David Petraeus conquered Washington, something even Robert E. Lee couldn’t do. Until he made the mistake of recruiting his own “biographer” (and lover), he proved a PR prodigy. He was, in a sense, the real life military version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay (“the Great”) Gatsby, a man who made himself into the image of what he wanted to be and then convinced others that it was so.
In the field, his successes were transitory, his failures all too real, and because he proved infinitely adaptable, none of it really mattered or stanched the flood of adjectives from admirers of every political stripe. In Washington, at least, he seemed invincible, even immortal, until it all ended in a military version of Dallas or perhaps previews for Revenge, season three.
His “fall from grace,” as ABC’s nightly news labeled it, was a fall from Washington’s grace, and his tale, like that of the president who first fell in love with him, might be summarized as all-American to fall-American.
Turning the Lone Superpower Into the Lonely Superpower
They were the original smoke-and-mirrors crew. From the moment, just five hours after the 9/11 attacks, that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld—in the presence of a note-taking aide—urged planning to begin against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (“Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not…”), the selling of an invasion and various other over-the-top fantasies was underway.
First, in the heat of 9/12, the president and top administration officials sold their “war” on terror. Then, after “liberating” Afghanistan and deciding to stay for the long run, they launched a massive publicity campaign to flog the idea that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was linked to al-Qaeda. In doing so, they would push the image of mushroom clouds rising over American cities from the Iraqi dictator’s nonexistent nuclear program, and chemical or biological weapons being sprayed over the U.S. East Coast by phantasmal Iraqi drones.
Cheney and Rice, among others, would make the rounds of the talk shows, putting the heat on Congress. Administration figures leaked useful (mis)information, pressed the CIA to cherry-pick the intelligence they wanted, and even formed their own secret intel outfit to give them what they needed. They considered just when they should roll out their plans for their much-desired invasion and decided on September 2002. As White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card infamously explained, “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.”
They were, by then, at war—in Washington. Initially, they hardly worried about the actual war to come. They were so confident of what the U.S. military could do that, like the premature Petraeuses they were, they concentrated their efforts on the homeland. Romantics about U.S. military power, convinced that it would trump any other kind of power on the planet, they assumed that Iraq would be, in the words of one of their supporters, a “cakewalk.” They convinced themselves and then others that the Iraqis would greet the advancing invaders as liberators, that the cost of the war (especially given Iraq’s oil wealth) would be next to nothing, and that there was no need to create a serious plan for a post-invasion occupation.
In all of this, they proved both masters of public relations and staggeringly wrong. As such, they would be the progenitors of an imperial tragedy—a deflating set of disasters that would take the pop out of American power and turn the planet’s “lone superpower” into a lonely superpower presiding over an unraveling global system, especially in the Greater Middle East. Blinded by their fantasies, they would ensure a more precipitous than necessary American decline in the first decade of the new century.
Not that they cared, but they would also generate a set of wrenching human tragedies: first for the Iraqis, hundreds of thousands of whom became casualties of war, insurgency, and sectarian strife, while millions more fled into exile; then there were the Afghans, who died attending weddings, funerals, even baby-naming ceremonies; and, of course, tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers and contractors, who died or were injured, often grievously, in those dismal wars; and don’t forget the inhabitants of post-Katrina New Orleans left to rot in their flooded city; or the millions of Americans who lost jobs, houses, even lives in the economic meltdown of 2008, a disaster that emerged from a set of globe-spanning financial fantasies and snow jobs that Bush and his crew encouraged and facilitated.
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