It was all so long ago, in a world seemingly without challengers. Do you even remember when we Americans lived on a planet with a recumbent Russia, a barely rising China, and no obvious foes except what later came to be known as an “axis of evil,” three countries then incapable of endangering this one? Oh, and, as it turned out, a rich young Saudi former ally, Osama bin Laden, and 19 hijackers, mostly of them also Saudis, from a tiny group called al-Qaeda that briefly possessed an “air force” of four commercial jets. No wonder this country was then touted as the greatest force, the superest superpower ever, sporting a military that left all others in the dust.
And then, of course, came the launching of the Global War on Terror, which soon would be normalized as the plain-old, uncapitalized “war on terror.” Yes, that very war — even if nobody’s called it that for years — began on September 11, 2001. At a Pentagon partially in ruins, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, already aware that the destruction around him was probably Osama bin Laden’s responsibility, ordered his aides to begin planning for a retaliatory strike against… Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Rumsfeld’s exact words (an aide wrote them down) were: “Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not.”
Things related and not. Sit with that phrase for a moment. In their own strange way, those four words, uttered in the initial hours after the destruction of New York’s World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon, still seem to capture the twenty-first-century American experience.
Within days of 9/11, Rumsfeld, who served four presidents before recently stepping off this world at 88, and the president he then worked for, George W. Bush, would officially launch that Global War on Terror. They would ambitiously target supposed terror networks in no less than 60 countries. (Yep, that was Rumsfeld’s number!) They would invade Afghanistan and, less than a year and a half later, do the same on a far grander scale in Iraq to take down its autocratic ruler, Saddam Hussein, who had once been a hand-shaking buddy of the secretary of defense.
Despite rumors passed around at the time by supporters of such an invasion, Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11; nor, despite Bush administration claims, was his regime then developing or in possession of weapons of mass destruction; nor, if we didn’t act, would an Iraqi mushroom cloud have one day risen over New York or some other American city. And mind you, both of those invasions and so much more would be done in the name of “liberating” peoples and spreading American-style democracy across the Greater Middle East. Or, put another way, in response to that devastating attack by those 19 hijackers armed with knives, the U.S. was preparing to invade and dominate the oil-rich Middle East until the end of time. In 2021, almost two decades later, doesn’t that seem like another lifetime to you?
By the way, you’ll note that there’s one word missing in action in all of the above. Believe me, if what I just described had related to Soviet plans during the Cold War, you can bet your bottom dollar that word would have been all over Washington. I’m thinking, of course, of “empire” or, in its adjectival form, “imperial.” Had the Soviet Union planned similar acts to “liberate” peoples by “spreading communism,” it would have been seen in Washington as the most imperial project ever. In the early years of this century, however, with the Soviet Union long gone and America’s leaders imagining that they might reign supreme globally until the end of time, those two words were banished to history.
It was obvious that, despite the unprecedented 800 or so military bases this country possessed around the world, imperial powers were distinctly a thing of the past.
“Empires Have Gone There and Not Done It”
Now, keep that thought in abeyance for a moment, while I take you on a quick tour of the long-forgotten Global War on Terror. Almost two decades later, it does seem to be drawing to some kind of lingering close. Yes, there are still those 650 American troops guarding our embassy in the Afghan capital, Kabul, and there is still that “over-the-horizon capacity” the president cites for U.S. aircraft to strike Taliban forces, even if American troops only recently abandoned their last air base in Afghanistan; and yes, there are still about 2,500 American troops stationed in Iraq (and hundreds more at bases across the border in Syria), regularly being attacked by Iraqi militia groups.
Similarly, despite the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Somalia as the Trump years ended, over-the-horizon airstrikes against the terror group al-Shabaab, halted when Joe Biden entered the Oval Office, have just been started again, assumedly from bases in Kenya or Djibouti; and yes, the horrendous war in Yemen continues with the U.S. still supporting the Saudis, even if by offering “defensive,” not “offensive” aid; and yes, American special operators are also stationed in staggering numbers of countries around the globe; and yes, prisoners are still being held in Guantanamo, that offshore Bermuda Triangle of injustice created by the Bush administration so long ago. Admittedly, officials in the new Biden Justice Department are at least debating, however indecisively, whether those detainees might have any due process rights under the Constitution (yes, that’s the U.S. Constitution!) and their numbers are at a historic low since 2002 of 39.
Still, let’s face it, this isn’t the set of conflicts that, once upon a time, involved invasions, massive air strikes, occupations, the killing of staggering numbers of civilians, widespread drone attacks, the disruption of whole countries, the uprooting and displacement of more than 37 million people, the deployment at one point of 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan alone, and the spending of untold trillions of American taxpayer dollars, all in the name of fighting terror and spreading democracy. And think of it as mission (un)accomplished in the truest sense imaginable.
In fact, that idea of spreading of democracy didn’t really outlast the Bush years. Ever since, there’s been remarkably little discussion in official Washington about what this country was really doing as it warred across significant parts of the planet. Yes, those two decades of conflict, those “forever wars,” as they came to be called first by critics and then by anyone in sight, are at least winding, or perhaps spiraling, down — and yet, here’s the strange thing: Wouldn’t you think that, as they ended in visible failure, the Pentagon’s stock might also be falling? Oddly enough, though, in the wake of all those years of losing wars, it’s still rising. The Pentagon budget only heads ever more for the stratosphere as foreign policy “pivots” from the Greater Middle East to Asia (and Russia and the Arctic and, well, anywhere but those places where terror groups still roam).
In other words, when it comes to the U.S. military as it tries to leave its forever wars in someone else’s ditch, failure is the new success story. Perhaps not so surprisingly, then, the losing generals who fought those wars, while eternally promising that “corners” were being turned and “progress” made, have almost all either continued to rise in the ranks or gotten golden parachutes into other parts of the military-industrial complex. That should shock Americans, but really never seems to. Yes, striking percentages of us support leaving Afghanistan and the Afghans in a ditch somewhere and moving on, but it’s still generally a big “thank you for your service” to our military commanders and the Pentagon.
Looking back, however, isn’t the real question — not that anyone’s asking — this: What was America’s mission during all those years? In reality, I don’t think it’s possible to answer that or explain any of it without using the forbidden noun and adjective I mentioned earlier. And, to my surprise, after all these years when it never crossed the lips of an American president, Joe Biden, the guy who’s been insisting that “America is back” on this failing planet of ours, actually used that very word!
In a recent news conference, irritated to find himself endlessly discussing his decision to pull U.S. forces out of Afghanistan, he fielded this question from a reporter: “Given the amount of money that has been spent and the number of lives that have been lost, in your view, with making this decision, were the last 20 years worth it?”
His response: “I argued, from the beginning [in the Obama years], as you may recall — it came to light after the administration was over… No nation has ever unified Afghanistan, no nation. Empires have gone there and not done it.”
So, there! Yes, it was vague and could simply have been a reference to the fate in Afghanistan, that famed “graveyard of empires,” of the British empire in the nineteenth century and the Soviet one in the twentieth century. But I can’t help thinking that a president, however minimally, however indirectly, however much without even meaning to, finally acknowledged that this country, too, was on an imperial mission there and globally as well, a mission not of spreading democracy or of liberation but of domination. Otherwise, how the hell do you explain those 800 military bases on every continent but Antarctica? Is that really spreading democracy? Is that really liberating humanity? It’s not a subject discussed in this country, but believe me, if it were any other place, the words “empire” and “imperial” would be on all too many lips in Washington and the urge to dominate in such a fashion would have been roundly denounced in our nation’s capital.
A Failing Empire with a Flailing Military?
Here’s a question for you: If the U.S. is “back,” as our president has been claiming, what exactly is it back as? What could it be, now that it’s proven itself incapable of dominating the planet in the fashion its political leaders once dreamed of? Could this country, which in these years dumped trillions of taxpayer dollars into its forever wars, now perhaps be reclassified as a failing empire with a flailing military?
Of course, such a possibility isn’t generally acknowledged here. If, for instance, Kabul falls to the Taliban months from now and U.S. diplomats need to be rescued from the roof of our embassy there, as happened in Saigon in 1975 — something the president has vehemently denied is even possible — count on one thing: a bunch of Republicans and right-wing pundits will instantly be down his throat for leaving “too fast.” (Of course, some of them already are, including, as it happens, the very president who launched the 2001 invasion, only to almost instantly refocus his attention on invading Iraq.)
Even domestically, when you think about where our money truly goes, inequality of every sort is only growing more profound, with America’s billionaires ever wealthier and more numerous, while the Pentagon and those weapons-making corporations float ever higher on taxpayer dollars, and the bills elsewhere go unpaid. In that sense, perhaps it’s time to start thinking about the United States as a failing imperial system at home as well as abroad. Sadly, whether globally or domestically, all of this seems hard for Americans to take in or truly describe (hence, perhaps, the madness of Donald Trump’s America). After all, if you can’t even use the words “imperial” and “empire,” then how are you going to understand what’s happening to you?
Still, forget any fantasies about us spreading democracy abroad. We’re now in a country that’s visibly threatening to lose democracy at home. Forget Afghanistan. From the January 6th assault on the Capitol to the latest (anti-)voting laws in Texas and elsewhere, there’s a flailing, failing system right here in the U.S. of A. And unlike Afghanistan, it’s not one that a president can withdraw from.
Yes, globally, the Biden administration has seemed remarkably eager to enter a new Cold War with China and “pivot” to Asia, as the Pentagon continues to build up its forces, from naval to nuclear, as if this country were indeed still the reigning imperial power on the planet. But it’s not.
The real question may be this: Three decades after the Soviet empire headed for the exit, is it possible that the far more powerful American one is ever so chaotically heading in the same direction? And if so, what does that mean for the rest of us?
Tom Engelhardt created and runs the website TomDispatch.com. He is also a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. A fellow of the Type Media Center, his sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.