On Shedding an Obsolete Past
Haymarket, 358 pages
The American republic morphed well over a century ago into an empire of many endless wars. With U.S. troops still in Syria, Iraq, Somalia and numerous African countries, with over 800 military bases in more than 70 countries and a war budget of roughly one trillion dollars a year, it's no surprise that one of our main exports is weapons and that arms merchants call the shots in Washington. Presidents come and go, but the wars don't: they drag on. And when a president does manage to extract the country from one of these military quagmires, as Biden did in Afghanistan, he gets nothing but grief.
This only serves to encourage barbarity – like freezing Afghanistan's $7 billion in the bank, while Afghans starve due to the U.S. having bombed their country back almost to the stone age. Afghans need their funds. They have an absolute moral right to them, as most of the world recognizes, because famine kills them in greater numbers without those monies. Indeed, after the U.S. military departure, reparations would have seemed to be in order. But no. Washington just stole their money and walked away.
Critiquing this ongoing, multi-war U.S. fiasco over many years is professor Andrew Bacevich. His new book of essays, On Shedding an Obsolete Past, collected from over the past half decade, hammers it home over and over: the U.S. must change course, because the current one is not only unsustainable, it is wrong. Bacevich has a bone to pick with elite centrists like New York Times columnist David Brooks, former president Bill Clinton, prominent Dem John Kerry and the deceased senator John McCain, all of whom "see a world that needs saving and believe that it's America's calling to do just that…In fact, this conception of America's purpose expresses not the intent of providence, which is inherently ambiguous, but their own arrogance and conceit. Out of that conceit comes much mischief. And in the wake of mischief come charlatans like Donald Trump." With this misbegotten notion having dominated American political life for decades, it is no wonder, as Bacevich writes that "the evils afflicting our nation, lie beyond the power of any mere president to remedy."
So if the president can't, who can? An informed, adult population firmly convinced of the wickedness of racism, war and rampant materialism – Dr. Martin Luther King's trio of American evils, to which Bacevich several times refers. Such people must control the levers of political power, preferably through an unbought congress and media. Unfortunately, they do not. Not even close.
As a result, many Americans still cherish – are indeed utterly blinded by – twentieth century political illusions. The claim that the U.S. "is a force for good in the world…irreplaceable, indispensable and essential," is, Bacevich writes, "a falsehood of Trumpian dimensions…What this country does need to recognize is that the twentieth century is gone for good… It's past time to give the narratives of the twentieth century a decent burial." What, you ask, will replace them? Try recognizing the reality and coming devastation of climate change, and doing something about it. Then there's the problem of gargantuan economic inequality. And there's plenty more. I'm sure we can figure out what these dilemmas are if we put our collective mind to it. But don't hold your breath for the current Washington administration. "Sadly, Joe Biden and his associates appear demonstrably incapable of exchanging the history that they know for the history on which our future may well depend."
To say Bacevich deplores U.S. military adventures is an understatement. He thinks they should never have happened – from Panama to Iraq to "Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia, Afghanistan, Sudan, the Philippines to Afghanistan (again), Iraq (for the third time) or Syria, authorization by the United Nations Security Council or Congress ranked as somewhere between incidental and unnecessary." So they were illegal. Worse – they were imperial. Worse still, they were evil.
Biden did end the Afghan war, but the experience no doubt soured him on other needed military withdrawals, namely from Iraq and Syria. Even if it hadn't, he would face an epic uproar from congress, the media and other elites, if he attempted such departures – and that's before he even approaches the thorny issue of how to leave Syria without stabbing our allies, the Kurds, in the back, as Trump did. Thorny but not impossible. The main threat to the Kurds emanates from jihadists and Turkey – NOT from the Syrian government. But try suggesting a rapprochement between the Kurds and Damascus and see where that gets you in Washington. Persona non grata in short order would be my guess. So no, Biden won't likely bend the rules to save our allies, and since he correctly took Trump to task for his abandonment of those same allies, he's pretty much left with one option: doing nothing.
How long will U.S. soldiers remain in Iraq and Syria? Let's just say that at the current rate of political change, if your grandchildren enlist, they could wind up there. The only real hope is that another president will do there what Biden did in Afghanistan, though maybe without the sanctions. That would be a distinct improvement. Meanwhile Bacevich urges his readers to drop the myth that we are part of an indispensable, exceptional empire. He calls for questioning or even ditching the three propositions that, he says, form the post-cold war "elite consensus": 1) globalization of corporate capitalism; 2) jettisoning norms derived from Judeo-Christian religious traditions and 3) muscular global leadership exercised by the U.S.
Supposedly "winning" the cold war warped the minds of American's political class. "But here's the thing: in reality the fall of the Berlin Wall didn't change everything," Bacevich writes. "Among the things it left fully intact was a stubborn resistance to learning in Washington. That poses a greater threat to the well-being of American people than communism or terrorism ever did." Few have said it better than that.
Communism and terrorism are small potatoes compared to what our rapacious economic system, hyper-militarism and donor-bought government inflicts on Americans and on multitudes of the world's people. From the vantage point of the 2020s, communism and terrorism look more like handy bogeymen, used for the vile purpose of manipulating American public opinion. Communism was thus deployed much longer, because even after the Soviet Union's demise, mass psychosis regarding it continues to percolate through the American nation's bloodstream, most recently causing fevers over China. The anti-communist spirochete appear incurable. Terrorism, on the other hand, only swung into sharp focus after 9-11, but soon achieved status as a national hallucination, revealing its utility as a casus belli in places that had nothing to do with the assault on the World Trade Towers.
So much for our noble wars. The world would be a better place, and so would the U.S., had they never happened.