The nuclear physicist Leo Szilard once remarked that the fall of the Soviet system would eventually lead to the fall of the American system. He said that in a two-element structure, the interrelationship and interdependence are such that the one cannot survive without the other.

This comment has been relayed by a friend, and as Szilard has passed to his reward I am in no position to explain his reasoning, but it is possible to restate it in political terms, and we are seeing the result in finance and in war. I think that Szilard was implying what a very intelligent opponent of the United States also said when the Cold War ended. Georgi Arbatov, former head of the U.S.A. and Canada Institute of the Soviet Union, said to an American interlocutor: We are about to do something truly terrible to you. We are going to deprive you of your enemy.

Without the enemy, the machinery of power begins to race, with nothing to resist it; megalomania sets in. The end of the Cold War coincided with the beginning in the United States of globalized finance, launched under the Clinton administration. It operated with ever more dazzling and daring gambles in which the constraints and tension of the Cold War were replaced by the psychology of greed and excess.

The economic crisis that has now overtaken the United States can be interpreted as the logical result of a financial system that reached the point where there was no limit to what you could take out of it even when you were incapable of understanding the transactions taking place.

Less apparent to most people, but just as real, are the signs of an impending crash of an American military system in which, since the end of the Cold War, Pentagon dysfunction has metastasized so uncontrollably as to scandalize both the man who was defense secretary when the so-called war on terror began and the current secretary, Robert M. Gates, the man in charge as that war mutates into the “Long War.”

The war has been renamed the “Long War” because no one has a better name for it, and nearly everyone fears that it may go on forever, since it seems to be a war against disorder, failed nations, rogue states and the collective miseries of all the world beyond the frontiers of the United States and Europe.

On Sept. 10, 2001, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld delivered a speech in which he declared that the greatest threat to the security of the United States was the organization over which he presided, the Pentagon and its bureaucracy. He said that its waste and disorder had to be brought under effective control — an undertaking which he was not sure could succeed, but to which he was dedicating himself.

The next day brought the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Rumsfeld’s planned reforms mostly had to be abandoned. He had a vision of postmodern war in which a limited number of special troops on the ground would control electronic intelligence systems, high-technology air forces and unmanned drones to destroy primitive enemies. Old-fashioned infantry would be obsolete. Rumsfeld kept a news photo in his office of a special forces horseman galloping across the Afghan plain while directing an assault from the air against the Taliban.

More conventional officers opposed Rumsfeld’s ideas, and the luckless Taliban, which had prepared entrenchments against ground assault, found itself decimated (or worse) by high-level B-52 raids coming from bases in the United States, Britain and the Indian Ocean, under whose bombardments peasant soldiers and tribal levees were helpless.

Afghanistan was then turned over to ethnic warlords who previously had been defeated by the Taliban, and Rumsfeld went on to a new shock-and-awe victory in Iraq, which rapidly turned into a fiasco, because there wasn’t enough old-fashioned infantry.

There still isn’t, because the use and abuse of occupation forces have discouraged recruitment in the all-volunteer army. There is a new/old war in Afghanistan, spilling into Pakistan, and commanders are demanding more ground troops. Secretary Gates doesn’t have them in sufficient numbers, unless he takes them from Iraq (and declares victory there, a rash move).

The speech he gave last Monday to the National Defense University in Washington accused the Pentagon bureaucracy of obsession with high-technology weaponry to defeat enemies the United States does not (yet) have, using hypermodern weapons yet to be invented. He accused it of “idealized, triumphalist or ethnocentric notions of future conflict that aspire to upend the immutable principles of war.”

He said that during four decades, the trend line of Pentagon procurement has been toward lower numbers and higher technology, toward weapons systems “that have been ever more baroque, ever more costly, taking longer to build, and fielded in ever dwindling quantities.” There could not be a better description of a bureaucracy in decadence, just as the same phrase must be applied to a financial system for multiplying the apparent value of fundamentally worthless securities. (It was Alan Greenspan who said that American finance had symbolically passed through the sound barrier of the known financial system and now was in an entirely new dimension. So it had, as we see now.)

I think that what Leo Szilard was saying is that a system cut free from the opposition that kept it honest passes into hubris, otherwise known as irrational exuberance, and after hubris comes the fall.

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at

© 2008 Tribune Media Services Inc.

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