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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 4)

For most Americans, the Edward Snowden revelations would pull back the curtain on the way the National Security Agency, in particular, has been building a global network for surveillance of a kind never before imagined, not even by the totalitarian regimes of the previous century.  From domestic phone calls to international emails, from the bugging of U.N. headquarters and the European Union to 80 embassies around the world, from enemies to frenemies to allies, the system by 2013 was already remarkably all-encompassing.  It had, in fact, the same aura of grandiosity about it, of overblown self-regard, that went with the launching of the Global War on Terror—the feeling that if Washington did it or built it, they would come.

I’m 69 years old and, in technological terms, I’ve barely emerged from the twentieth century.  In a conversation with NSA Director Keith Alexander, known somewhat derisively in the trade as “Alexander the Geek,” I have no doubt that I’d be lost.  In truth, I can barely grasp the difference between what the NSA’s Prism and XKeyscore programs do.  So call me technologically senseless, but I can still recognize a deeper senselessness when I see it.  And I can see that Washington is building something conceptually quite monstrous that will change our country for the worse, and the world as well, and is—perhaps worst of all—essentially nonsensical.

So let me offer those in Washington a guarantee: I have no idea what the equivalents of the Afghan and Iraq wars will be in the surveillance world, but continue to build such a global system, ignoring the anger of allies and enemies alike, and “they” indeed will come.  Such delusional grandiosity, such dreams of omnipotence and omniscience cannot help but generate resistance and blowback in a perfectly real world that, whatever Washington thinks, maintains a grasp on perfectly real power, even without another imperial state on any horizon.

2014

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Today, almost 12 years after 9/11, the U.S. position in the world seems even more singular.  Militarily speaking, the Global War on Terror continues, however namelessly, in the Obama era in places as distant as Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.  The U.S. military remains heavily deployed in the Greater Middle East, though it has pulled out of Iraq and is drawing down in Afghanistan.  In recent years, U.S. power has, in an exceedingly public manner, been “pivoting” to Asia, where the building of new bases, as well as the deployment of new troops and weaponry, to “contain” that imagined future superpower China has been proceeding apace.

At the same time, the U.S. military has been ever-so-quietly pivoting to Africa where, as TomDispatch’s Nick Turse reports, its presence is spreading continent-wide.  American military bases still dot the planet in remarkable profusion, numbering perhaps 1,000 at a moment when no other nation on Earth has more than a handful outside its territory.

The reach of Washington’s surveillance and intelligence networks is unique in the history of the planet.  The ability of its drone air fleet to assassinate enemies almost anywhere is unparalleled.  Europe and Japan remain so deeply integrated into the American global system as to be essentially a part of its power-projection capabilities.

This should be the dream formula for a world dominator and yet no one can look at Planet Earth today and not see that the single superpower, while capable of creating instability and chaos, is limited indeed in its ability to control developments.  Its president can’t even form a “coalition of the willing” to launch a limited series of missile attacks on the military facilities of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.  From Latin America to the Greater Middle East, the American system is visibly weakening, while at home, inequality and poverty are on the rise, infrastructure crumbles, and national politics is in a state of permanent “gridlock.”

Such a world should be fantastical enough for the wildest sort of dystopian fiction, for perhaps a novel titled 2014.  What, after all, are we to make of a planet with a single superpower that lacks genuine enemies of any significance and that, to all appearances, has nonetheless been fighting a permanent global war with… well, itself—and appears to be losing?

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture (recently published in a Kindle edition), runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.

Copyright 2013 Tom Engelhardt


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