America Has a Lot to Learn From the Roman Empire's Fall
What dreamers they were! They imagined a kind of global power that would leave even Rome at its Augustan height in the shade. They imagined a world made for one, a planet that could be swallowed by a single great power. No, not just great, but beyond anything ever seen before — one that would build (as its National Security Strategy put it in 2002) a military “beyond challenge.” Let’s be clear on that: no future power, or even bloc of powers, would ever be allowed to challenge it again.
And, in retrospect, can you completely blame them? I mean, it seemed so obvious then that we — the United States of America — were the best and the last. We had, after all, outclassed and outlasted every imperial power since the beginning of time. Even that other menacing superpower of the Cold War era, the Soviet Union, the “Evil Empire” that refused to stand down for almost half a century, had gone up in a puff of smoke.
Imagine that moment so many years later and consider the crew of neoconservatives who, under the aegis of George W. Bush, the son of the man who had “won” the Cold War, came to power in January 2001. Not surprisingly, on viewing the planet, they could see nothing — not a single damn thing — in their way. There was a desperately weakened and impoverished Russia (still with its nuclear arsenal more or less intact) that, as far as they were concerned, had been mollycoddled by President Bill Clinton’s administration. There was a Communist-gone-capitalist China focused on its own growth and little else. And there were a set of other potential enemies, “rogue powers” as they were dubbed, so pathetic that not one of them could, under any circumstances, be called “great.”
In 2002, in fact, three of them — Iraq, Iran, and North Korea — had to be cobbled together into an “axis of evil” to create a faintly adequate enemy, a minimalist excuse for the Bush administration to act preemptively. It couldn’t have been more obvious then that all three of them would go down before the unprecedented military and economic power of us (even if, as it happened, two of them didn’t).
It was as clear as glass that the world — the whole shebang — was there for the taking. And it couldn’t have been headier, even after a tiny Islamist terror outfit hijacked four American jets and took out New York’s World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. As President Bush would put it in an address at West Point in 2002, “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.” In other words, jihadists aside, it was all over. From now on, there would be an arms race of one and it was obvious who that one would be. The National Security Strategy of that year 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.” Again, anywhere on the planet ever.
Look at more or less any document from the period and you’ll sense that they weren’t shy about touting the unprecedented greatness of a future global Pax Americana. Take, for instance, columnist Charles Krauthammer who, in February 2001, six months before the terror attacks of September 11th, wrote a piece swooning over the new Bush administration’s “unilateralism” to come and the “Bush Doctrine” which would go with it. In the process, he gave that administration a green light to put the pathetic Russians in their nuclear place and summed the situation up this way: “America is no mere international citizen. It is the dominant power in the world, more dominant than any since Rome. Accordingly, America is in a position to reshape norms, alter expectations, and create new realities. How? By unapologetic and implacable demonstrations of will.
“How Did USA’s Oil Get Under Iraq’s Sand?”
And soon enough after September 11th, those unapologetic, implacable demonstrations of will did, in fact, begin — first in Afghanistan and then, a year and a half later, in Iraq. Goaded by Osama bin Laden, the new Rome went into action.
Of course, in 2019 we have the benefit of hindsight, which Charles Krauthammer, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, and the rest of that crew didn’t have as they applied their Roman-style vision of an imperial America to the actual world. It should be added, however, that the millions of people who hit the streets globally to protest the coming invasion of Iraq in the winter of 2003 — “How did USA’s oil get under Iraq’s sand?” said a typical protest sign (which Donald Trump would have understood in his own way) — had a far better sense of the world than did their American rulers-to-be. Like the Soviets before them, in fact, they would grievously confuse military power with power on this planet.
More than 17 years later, the U.S. military remains stuck in Afghanistan, bedeviled in Iraq, and floundering across much of the Greater Middle East and Africa on a planet with a resurgent Russia, and an impressively rising China. One-third of the former axis of evil, Iran, is, remarkably enough, still in Washington’s gunsights, while another third (North Korea) sits uncomfortably in a presidential bear hug. It’s no exaggeration to say that none of the dreams of a new Rome were ever faintly fulfilled. In fact, if you want to think about what’s been truly exceptional in these years, it might be this: never in history has such a great power, at its height, seemed quite so incapable of effectively applying force, military or otherwise, to achieve its imperial ends or bring its targets to heel.
And yet, wrong as they may have been on such subjects, don’t sell Krauthammer and the rest of that neocon crew short. They were, in their own way, also prophets, at least domestically speaking. After all, Rome, like the United States, had been an imperial republic. That republic was replaced, as its empire grew, by autocratic rule, first by the self-anointed emperor Augustus and then by his successors. Arguably, 18 years after Krauthammer wrote that column, the American republic might be heading down the same path. After all, so many years later, the neocons, triumphantly risen yet again in Washington (both in the administration and as its critics), finally have their Caesar.
Hail, Donald J. Trump, we who are about to read your latest tweet salute you!
A Rogue State of One
Let’s note some other passing parallels between the new Rome and the old one. As a start, it’s certainly accurate to say that our new American Caesar has much gall (divided into at least three parts). Admittedly, he’s no Augustus, the first of a line of emperors, but more likely a Nero, fiddling while, in his case, the world quite literally burns. Still, he could certainly say of campaign 2016 and what followed: Veni, Vidi, Tweeti (I came, I saw, I tweeted). And don’t forget the classic line that might someday be applied to his presidency, “Et tu, Mueller?” — or depending on who turns on him, you can fill in your name of choice.
One day, it might also be said that, in a country in which executive power has become ever more imperial (as has the power of the Senate’s majority leader), blowback from imperial acts abroad has had a significant, if largely hidden, hand in crippling the American republic, as was once true of Rome. In fact, it seems clear enough that the first republican institution to go was the citizen’s army. In the wake of the Vietnam War, the draft was thrown out and replaced by an “all-volunteer” force, one which would, as it came to fight on ever more distant battlefields, morph into a home-grown version of an imperial police force or foreign legion. With it went the staggering sums that, in this century, would be invested — if that’s even the word for it — in what’s still called “defense,” as well as in a vast empire of bases abroad and the national security state, a rising locus of power at home. And then, of course, there were the never-ending wars across much of the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa that went with all of that. Meanwhile, so much else, domestically speaking, was put on the equivalent of austerity rations. And all of that, in turn, helped provoke the crisis that brought Donald Trump to power and might, in the end, even sink the American system as we’ve known it.
The Donald’s victory in the 2016 election was always a sign of a deep disturbance at the heart of an increasingly unequal and unfair system of wealth and power. But it was those trillions of dollars — The Donald claims seven trillion of them — that the neocons began sinking into America’s “infinite” wars, which cost Americans big time in ways they hardly tracked or noticed. Those trillions didn’t go into shoring up American infrastructure or health care or education or job-training programs or anything else that might have mattered to most people here, even as untold tax dollars — one estimate: $15,000 per middle-class family per year — went into the pockets of the rich. And some of those dollars, in turn, poured back into the American political system (with a helping hand from the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision) and, in the end, helped put the first billionaire in the Oval Office. By the 2020 election campaign, we may achieve another all-American first: two or even three of the candidates could be billionaires.
All of this not only gave Americans a visibly unhinged president — think of him, in axis-of-evil terms, as a rogue state of one — but an increasingly unhinged country. You can feel so much of this in President Trump’s confused and confusing attempts to both end American wars and ratchet them up, 17-and-a-half — he always claims “almost 19” — years after the invasion of Afghanistan. You can feel it in his gut-level urge to attack the “deep state” and yet fund it beyond its wildest dreams. You can feel it in his attempts to create a corps of “my generals” and then fire them all. You can feel the unhinged nature of events in a world in which, after so many years of war, America’s enemies still seem to have the formula for staying afloat, no matter what Washington does. The Taliban in Afghanistan is on the rise; al-Shabaab in Somalia, is still going strong; the Houthis in Yemen remain functional in a sea of horror and starvation; ISIS, now without its caliphate, has from Syria to the Philippines, Africa to Afghanistan, become a distinctly global brand; al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula thrives, while terror groups more generally continue to spread.
You can feel it in the president’s confused and confusing explanations for his urges to withdraw American troops in days or four months or whenever from Syria and do the same or maybe not exactly in Afghanistan. (As he said in his State of the Union address, American troops would both withdraw and “focus” on “counterterrorism” in that country.) You can feel it in the way, after so many years of visible failure, the neocons are once again riding high in Washington, ascendant both in his administration and as critics of its global and military policies.
These days, who even remembers that classic early Cold War question — who lost China? — that rattled American domestic politics for years, or later, the similar one about Vietnam? Still, if Donald Trump ever truly does withdraw American forces from Afghanistan (undoubtedly leaving this country’s allies in a Vietnam-style ditch), count on foreign policy establishmentarians in Washington and pundits around the country to ask an updated version of the same question: Did Donald Trump lose Afghanistan?
But no matter what happens, don’t make the mistake of blaming him. It’s true that he tweeted endlessly while the world burned, but he won’t be the one who “lost” Afghanistan. It was “lost” in the grisly dreams of the neocons as the century began and it’s never truly been found again.
Of course, we no more know what’s going to happen in the years ahead than the neocons did in 2001. If history has taught us anything, it’s that prediction is the diciest of human predilections. Still, think of this piece as an obituary of sorts. You know, the kind major newspapers write about those still living and then continually update until death finally occurs.
Think of it not as an obituary for a single loopy president, a man who, with his “great, great wall,” has indeed been an opiate of the masses (for his famed base, at least) in the midst of an opioid crisis hitting them hard. Yes, Donald J. Trump, reality TV star and bankruptee, he of the golden letters, was elevated to a strange version of power by a troubled republic showing signs of wear and tear. It was a republic feeling the pressure of all that money flowing into only half-noticed distant wars and into the pockets of billionaires and corporate entities in a way that turned the very idea of democracy into a bad joke.
Someday, if people ask the obvious question — not who lost Afghanistan, but who lost America? — keep all those failed imperial wars and the national security state that went with them in mind when you try to answer. Cumulatively, they had a far more disruptive role than is now imagined in toppling the dominos that sent us all careening on a path to nowhere here at home. And keep in mind that, whatever Donald Trump does, the Caesarian die was cast early in this century as the neocons crossed their own Rubicon.
Hail, Caesar, we who are about to die salute you!