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So Long, American Imperial Dream

Our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan haven't turned out the way the Bush administration expected. Is it time to admit defeat?

| Tue Nov. 8, 2011 3:52 PM EST

Cold Sweats at Dawn

Yes, we've lost in Iraq and yes, we're losing in Afghanistan, but if you want a little geopolitical turn of the screw that captures the zeitgeist of the moment, check out one of the first statements of Almazbek Atambayev after his recent election as president of Kyrgyzstan, a country you've probably never spent a second thinking about.

Keep in mind that Bushian urge to roll back the Russians to the outskirts of Moscow. Kyrgyzstan is, of course, one of the former Central Asian SSRs of the Soviet Union, and under cover of the Afghan War, the US moved in, renting out a major air base at Manas airport near Bishtek, the capital. It became a significant resupply station for the war, but also an American military foothold in the region.

Now Atambayev has announced that the US will have to leave Manas when its lease is up in 2014. The last time a Kyrgyz president made such a threat, he was trying to extort an extra $40 million in rent from the globe's richest power. This time, though, Atambayev has evidently weighed regional realities, taken a good hard look at his resurgent neighbor and the waning influence of Washington, and placed his bet—on the Russians. Consider it a telling little gauge of who is now being rolled back where.

Isolated from reality? How about the Obama administration and its generals? Of course, Washington officials prefer not to take all this in. They're willing to opt for isolation over reality. They prefer to talk about withdrawing troops from Iraq, but only to bolster the already powerful American garrisons throughout the Persian Gulf and so free the region, as our secretary of state put it, "from outside interference" by alien Iran. (Why, one wonders, is it even called the Persian Gulf, instead of the American Gulf?)

They prefer to talk about strengthening US power and bolstering its bases in the Pacific so as to save Asia from... America's largest creditor, the Chinese. They prefer to suggest that the US will be a greater, not a lesser, power in the years to come. They prefer to "reassure allies" and talk big—or big enough anyway.

Not too big, of course, not now that those American dreamers—or mad visionaries, if you prefer—are off making up to $150,000 a pop giving inspirational speeches and raking in millions for churning out their memoirs. In their place, the Obama administration is stocked with dreamless managers who inherited an expanded imperial presidency, an American-garrisoned globe, and an emptying treasury. And they then chose, on each score, to play a recognizable version of the same game, though without the soaring confidence, deep faith in armed American exceptionalism or the military solutions that went with it (which they nonetheless continue to pursue doggedly), or even the vision of global energy flows that animated their predecessors. In a rapidly changing situation, they have proven incapable of asking any questions that would take them beyond what might be called the usual tactics (drones vs. counterinsurgency, say).

In this way, Washington, though visibly diminished, remains an airless and eerily familiar place. No one there could afford to ask, for instance, what a Middle East, being transformed before our eyes, might be like without its American shadow, without the bases and fleets and drones and all the operatives that go with them.

As a result, they simply keep on keeping on, especially with Bush's global war on terror and with the protection in financial tough times of the Pentagon (and so of the militarization of this country).

Think of it all as a form of armed denial that, in the end, is likely to drive the US down. It would be salutary for the denizens of Washington to begin to mouth the word "defeat." It's not yet, of course, a permissible part of the American vocabulary, though the more decorous "decline"—"the relative decline of the United States as an international force"—has crept ever more comfortably into our lives since mid-decade. When it comes to decline, for instance, ordinary Americans are voting with the opinion poll version of their feet. In one recent poll, 69 percent of them declared the US to be in that state. (How they might answer a question about American defeat we don't know.)

If you are a critic of Washington, "defeat" is increasingly becoming an acceptable word, as long as you attach it to a specific war or event. But defeat outright? The full-scale thing? Not yet.

You can, of course, say many times over that the US remains, as it does, an immensely wealthy and powerful country; that it has the wherewithal to right itself and deal with the disasters of these last years, which it also undoubtedly does. But take a glance at Washington, Wall Street, and the coming 2012 elections, and tell me with a straight face that that will happen. Not likely.

If you go on a march with the folks from Occupy Wall Street, you'll hear the young chanting, "This is what democracy looks like!" It's infectious. But here's another chant, hardly less appropriate, if distinctly grimmer: "This is what defeat looks like!" Admittedly, it's not as rhythmic, but it's something that the spreading Occupy Wall Street movement, and the un- and underemployed, and those whose houses are foreclosed or "underwater," and the millions of kids getting a subprime education and graduating, on average, more than $25,000 in hock, and the increasing numbers of poor are coming to feel in their bones, even if they haven't put a name to it yet.

And events in the Greater Middle East played no small role in that. Think of it this way: if de-industrialization and financialization have, over the last decades, hollowed out the United States, so has the American way of war. It's the usually ignored third part of the triad. When our wars finally fully come home, there's no telling what the scope of this imperial defeat will prove to be like.

Bush's American Dream was a kind of apotheosis of this country's global power as well as its crowning catastrophe, thanks to a crew of mad visionaries who mistook military might for global strength and acted accordingly. What they and their neocon allies had was the magic formula for turning the slow landing of a declining but still immensely powerful imperial state into a self-inflicted rout, even if who the victors are is less than clear.

Despite our panoply of bases around the world, despite an arsenal of weaponry beyond anything ever seen (and with more on its way), despite a national security budget the size of the Ritz, it's not too early to start etching something appropriately sepulchral onto the gravestone that will someday stand over the pretensions of the leaders of this country when they thought that they might truly rule the world.

I know my own nominee. Back in 2002, journalist Ron Suskind had a meeting with a "senior advisor" to George W. Bush and what that advisor told him seems appropriate for any such gravestone or future memorial to American defeat:

"The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality... That's not the way the world really works anymore… We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'''

We're now, it seems, in a new era in which reality is making us. Many Americans—witness the Occupy Wall Street movement—are attempting to adjust, to imagine other ways of living in the world. Defeat has a bad rep, but sometimes it's just what the doctor ordered.

Still, reality is a bear, so if you just woke up in a cold sweat, feel free to call it a nightmare.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books), is being published this month.

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