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Sleepwalking into the Imperial Dark

What it feels like when the American superpower runs off the tracks.

| Tue Apr. 19, 2011 7:25 PM EDT

The Uses of Fear

From time to time, the US government's "Intelligence Community" or IC musters its collective savvy and plants its flag in the future in periodic reports that go under the generic rubric of "Global Trends." The last of these, Global Trends 2025, was prepared for a new administration taking office in January 2009, and it was typical.

In a field once left to utopian or dystopian thinkers, pulp-fiction writers, oddballs, visionaries, and even outright cranks, these compromise bureaucratic documents break little ground and rock no boats, nor do they predict global tsunamis. Better to forecast what the people you brief already believe, and skip the oddballs with their strange hunches, the sorts who might actually have a knack for recognizing the shock of the future lurking in the present.

As group efforts, then, these reports tend to project the trends of the present moment relatively seamlessly and reasonably reassuringly into the future. For example, the last time around they daringly predicted a gradual, 15-year soft landing for a modestly declining America. ("Although the United States is likely to remain the single most powerful actor, [the country's] relative strength—even in the military realm—will decline and US leverage will become more constrained.")

Even though it was assumedly being finished amid the global meltdown of 2008, nothing in it would have kept you up at night, sleepless and fretting. More than 15 years into the future, our IC could imagine no wheels falling off the American juggernaut, nothing that would make you wonder if this country could someday topple off the nearest cliff. Twists, unpleasant surprises, unhappy endings? Not for this empire, according to its corps of intelligence analysts.

And the future being what it is, if you read that document now, you'd find none of the more stunning events that have disrupted and radically altered our world since late 2008: no Arab lands boiling with revolt, no Hosni Mubarak under arrest with his sons in jail, no mass demonstrations in Syria, no economies of peripheral European countries imploding down one by one, nor a cluster of nuclear plants in Japan melting down.

You won't find once subservient semi-client states thumbing their noses at Washington, not even in 2025. You won't, for example, find the Saudis in, say 2011, openly exploring deeper relations with Russia and China as a screw-you response to Washington's belated decision that Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak should leave office, or Pakistani demands that the CIA and American special operations forces start scaling back activities on their turf, or American officials practically pleading with an Iraqi government it once helped put in power (and now moving ever closer to Iran) to please, please, please let US troops stay past an agreed-upon withdrawal deadline of December 31, 2011, or Afghan President Hamid Karzai publicly blaming the Americans for the near collapse of his country's major bank in a cesspool of corruption (in which his own administration was, of course, deeply implicated).

Only two-plus years after Global Trends 2025 appeared, it doesn't take the combined powers of the IC to know that American decline looks an awful lot more precipitous and bumpier than imagined. But let's not just blame our intelligence functionaries for not divining the future we're already in. After all, they, too, were in the goldfish bowl, and when you're there, it's always hard to describe the nearest cats.

Nor should we be surprised that, like so many other Americans, they too were in denial.

After all, our leaders spent years organizing their version of the world around a "Global War on Terror," when (despite the 9/11 attacks) terror was hardly America's most obvious challenge. It proved largely a "war" against phantoms and fantasies, or against modest-sized ragtag bands of enemies—even though it resulted in perfectly real conflicts, absolutely genuine new bases abroad, significant numbers of civilian dead, and the expansion of a secret army of operatives inside the US military into a force of 13,000 or more operating in 75 countries.

The spasms of fear that coursed through our society in the near-decade after September 11, 2001, and the enemy, "Islamic terrorism," to which those spasms were attached are likely to look far different to us in retrospect. Yes, many factors—including the terrifyingly apocalyptic look of 9/11 in New York City—contributed to what happened. There was fear's usefulness in prosecuting wars in the Greater Middle East that President Bush and his top officials found appealing. There was the way it ensured soaring budgets for the Pentagon and the national security state. There was the way it helped the politicians, lobbyists, and corporations hooked into a developing homeland-security complex. There was the handy-dandy way it glued eyeballs to a one-event-fits-all-sizes version of the world that made the media happy, and there was the way it justified ever increasing powers for our national security managers and ever lessening liberties for Americans.

But think of all that as only the icing on the cake. Looking back, those terror fears coursing through the body politic will undoubtedly seem like Rambo's muscles: a deflection from the country's deepest fears. They were, in that sense, consoling. They allowed us to go on with our lives, to visit Disney World, as George W. Bush urged in the wake of 9/11 in order to prove our all-American steadfastness.

Above all, even as our imperial wars in the oil heartlands of the planet went desperately wrong, they allowed us not to think about empire or, until the economy melted down in 2008, decline. They allowed us to focus our fears on "them," not us. They ensured that, like the other great imperial power of the Cold War era, when things began to spiral out of control we would indeed sleepwalk right into the imperial darkness.

Now that we're so obviously there, the confusion is greater than ever. Theoretically, none of this should necessarily be considered bad news, not if you don't love empires and what they do. A post-imperial US could, of course, be open to all sorts of possibilities for change that might be exciting indeed.

Right now, though, it doesn't feel that way, does it? It makes me wonder: Could this be how it's always felt inside a great imperial power on the downhill slide? Could this be what it's like to watch, paralyzed, as a country on autopilot begins to come apart at the seams while still proclaiming itself "the greatest nation on Earth"?

I don't know. But I do know one thing: this can't end well.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's His latest book is The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's (Haymarket Books).

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