No other country in the world symbolizes the decline of the American empire as much as Afghanistan.
– Robert Kaplan, New York Times, January 1, 2019
Robert Kaplan is too much of an imperialist-military cheerleader for my taste. His 2005 book, Imperial Grunts, was an account of travels around the world reporting on the US military in all those 700-plus foreign bases. “I wanted to cut myself off from civilians as much as possible.” If one likes that sort of thing, it’s an excellent book about the “grunts” who fight US wars. Personally, after four years in the Army, including a stint in Vietnam, I prefer to prioritize civilian life as much as possible, since in this period of perpetual war, the voluntary military has become more and more elite-minded, to the point we’re grooming a military caste system.
[ Local entrepreneur selling cigarettes to US soldiers in Afghanistan. Photo: Yan Boechat, Free Images ]
Still, Kaplan’s New Years Day Times op-ed — “Time To Get Out of Afghanistan” — suggests a strain of realism has seeped into the man’s mind that it would be wise for the anti-war left to absorb. “When it comes to Afghanistan,” he writes, “Washington has been a city hiding behind its own walls of shame and frustration.” He even concedes he “mistakenly supported” the 2003 Iraq invasion. Not that Kaplan has the right answers about what should be done; he likely wants more of the same delivered more efficiently and ruthlessly. The point is, comments like this from a military cheerleader suggest the wheels may be coming off the empire and the antiwar left needs to be part of the coming dialogue.
Kaplan writes, “downsizing of the Afghan mission was probably inevitable,” and “it may soon be time for the United States to get out of the country altogether.” He would obviously do it differently than Trump. He does not mention Syria or Yemen in the op-ed, the latter a country he visited in the first chapter of his 2005 book. There, he concluded Yemen, a dirt-poor nation at the bottom of the oil-rich Saudi Arabian peninsula, was “one small country” and “vast” at the same time. Imagining other places like Yemen, including Afghanistan, he wonders: “How to manage such an imperium?” Today, he writes that US diplomats in Afghanistan are “trying to broker a diplomatic solution that allows the United States to draw down its forces without the political foundation in Kabul disintegrating immediately.” This reminds one of the rooftop helicopter scene from The End in Vietnam. Reading between the lines, here, this worldly pro-military writer seems to see the challenge for our declining imperium as how to avoid the shame and confusion of that scene in Vietnam. In what’s become a regular story inside the Times, yesterday, 27 members of the Afghan security forces were killed in raids by the Taliban. I’m seeing more and more expression in the mainstream these days on an end-of-empire theme.
It makes one wonder — in a metaphoric frame of mind — whether Donald Trump is our imperium’s Mikhail Gorbachev, a leader known in history for easing an empire through its decline. But, then, that may be insulting to Mikhail Gorbachev, who comes off in history as a reasonably honorable man. Maybe Donald Trump is more like Nero, who, like Trump the reality TV star, was a performer; even as emperor, he acted, sang and played the lyre on international stages, things some at the time said undermined his dignity as emperor. He is, of course, known for “fiddling while Rome burned.” Might Trump someday be known for Tweeting while a self-deluded, “exceptional” US empire ran into a wall of reality?
A recent front-page New York Times news analysis by Mark Landler on the reaction to Trump’s abrupt announcement of US withdrawal from Syria seemed interestingly confused. Headlined “Trump Unites Left and Right Against Troop Plans, but Puts Off Debate on War Aims,” it concluded his order united the left and right against the withdrawal. Steve Bannon is all for the withdrawal, and Kaplan, a center right military booster, seems amendable to the idea. My colleague at This Can’t Be Happening Dave Lindorff is very much on the left and he wrote a piece called “Credit Where Credit’s Due: Trump Does Something Right For Once” that unambiguously endorses Trump’s pull-out from Syria — while disdaining the man himself and his incompetent methods. It seems to me it’s the Liberal Center that most objects to the Trump decision and avoids debate. Landler’s Times analysis concludes, “the president’s move short-circuited what many say is a much-needed national debate.” On the contrary, it should stir up the idea of a national debate. But, then, my idea of a “debate” may be a much more radical thing than the Times writer can even consider.
Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, opens a recent Times op-ed called “The Threat In the White House” about the decision to withdraw from Syria by saying the nation’s security is “more broken than at any time since the National Security Act became law in 1947.” If she’s right in her sweeping statement, then maybe it’s time to go to the source (ie. be constructively radical) and debate the National Security Act of 1947. A housecleaning in this area would be timely and useful, since the 1947 document virtually created the post-WWII Imperial United States, something that may be on the ropes.
[ President Harry Truman signs the National Security Act of 1947 ]
To me, this kind of radicalism is patriotic, because its aim is to Make America Work Again — M.A.W.A. I’d start with Lindorff’s December 12th cover story in The Nation titled “Exposing the Pentagon’s Massive Accounting Fraud.” It’s a must-read for all Americans concerned about the future of their nation. For decades, Lindorff shows, the Pentagon (the enormous, powerful institution at the critical center of the US imperium) has been “deliberately cooking the books to mislead Congress.” The key word, here, is obfuscation — decades of it. Willful, intentional obfuscation aimed at Congress and the American People to obtain funds for military actions and wars. With zero accountability. This is known in less powerful contexts as fraud. Lindorff is talking about the dishonest shifting of tax dollars that would be used for critical infrastructure maintenance, education, improved health-care, criminal justice reform and other much-needed, neglected domestic issues. It’s a national budget as Ponzi scheme. It’s not hyperbole to say this is probably the most important under-reported story of the American Century. Here’s how Joseph Goebbels famously explained this kind of situation:
“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”
It’s a sad fact of life that there are certain things that just cannot be written about in mainstream publications, of which the Times is the flagship. Which explains why an analysis in the Times on Trump’s withdrawal decision can be so off the mark. The Pentagon is an institution so deeply established as elemental to the very idea of modern “America” that it cannot be challenged; it can only be nibbled at like a recalcitrant pilot fish might do to the shark he’s stuck to. In the editorial offices of a publication like the Times anyone with a good argument contrary to this Big Lie is simply not seen; and since these facts and arguments are not seen, they don’t exist and, thus, can’t be considered by a front-page Times analysis. A.J. Liebling put it this way: “Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one.”
The term news analysis is totally subjective. As helpful for busy people to understand the world as they may be, an analysis like this permits a writer with editorial support to create out of the chaos of life whatever “meaning” he or she wishes to attribute to the wriggling mess under purview. It’s also a way to embargo and marginalize certain ideas from the mainstream, so certain writers end up like Robert Duval in Network, who, when he loses his cushy job, moans in horror, “I’m a man without a corporation!”
This kind of thing in one form or another has happened to me too many times in my journalism career. I’m certainly not alone. It’s what one might call a Cassandra Complex. You sometimes wonder if you’re invisible. I’m white, but I understand Ralph Ellison’s metaphor in his classic novel, Invisible Man, about being black in white America. The novel ends with this:
“Being invisible and without substance, a disembodied voice, as it were, what else could I do? What else but try to tell you what was really happening when your eyes were looking through? And it is this which frightens me:
“Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you? “
Cassandra, of course, was a mythic Greek character, a rather headstrong, opinionated woman. The god Apollo wanted to make it with the comely Cassandra, but she rejected him, which angered Apollo, who was a vindictive god. He cursed Cassandra by extending her the gift of accurate prophecy — with a twist: No one would pay any attention to what she said. In this case, the New York Times is a bit like the god Apollo and those of us whose ideas and insights are deemed too radical for the Times and other MSM venues end up like Cassandra, on the margins, scrambling for a freelance buck.
Whether or not pulling out of Syria was a good or bad thing certainly needs to be debated, and all ideas should be considered. My feeling is, the Trump withdrawal order from Syria and Afghanistan — as badly as it was handled — is a good thing in the long run. Why? Because it was such a misguided, bad thing from the beginning, when President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton decided to enter Syria and open up a Pandora’s Box of forces the US could not, in the end, manage, the word Kaplan chose when referring to managing the imperium.
Many Cassandras have for decades pointed out using sane, reasonable arguments that the war decisions made by our leaders fit into the following sad core narrative: A decision to intervene militarily against some perceived threat or some element deemed evil leads to an unmanageable mess or quagmire. By then, combatants and civilians are dying at accelerating rates as the fury of war intensifies, in some cases, as with ISIS, into psychopathic rage. The question then becomes how to extract ourselves with dignity, though by this stage, dignity has become an elusive thing; and since withdrawal necessarily involves betraying local forces we’ve sucked into our war, resentment breeds new enemies. The Kurds are the current example, a people the US has betrayed a couple times already. Now, the Kurds are forced to throw themselves on the mercy of Bashar al-Assad, asking for his protection against the Turks.
The American people need to know more, to hear more, for example, about meetings between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and President Vladimir Putin of Russia; nine such meetings have been reported. According to a Times report, these meetings ended with Netanyahu agreeing to accept Bashar al-Assad as the president of Syria. This smacks of a re-ordering of the Middle East outside the purview of the United States and its traditional security structure as set up by the National Security Act of 1947. Trump’s abrupt, without-consultation withdrawal from Syria fits neatly in such a scheme and suggests a US President who is not leading, but following events in the Middle East, and that allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia are playing the US off of Russia for their own survival. With the US losing its imperial mojo, this makes sense in a forming new world order for the coming cyber age, a time when the imperial-obsessed policeman-of-the-world may ironically be a weaker player. As Kaplan seems to recognize, if inevitable US decline is the new narrative, then it’s wise to face it head-on, which means it’s vital that the antiwar left be part of the debate — and not be relegated to hollering and waving signs in the street.
All this doesn’t have to be bad. But it requires a serious national debate, which is impossible under an anti-democratic, incompetent, narcissistic leader. The upcoming national presidential election is the ideal time for new-wave Democrats to initiate a dialogue on these matters. Liberal, machine Democrats like Joe Biden will never touch this stuff. One concrete thing that might be interesting is the idea of revising or updating the 1947 National Security Act, which was put together at the time of the Marshall Plan and the Cold War. This was, of course, under President Truman, who two years earlier chose to support French re-colonization of Vietnam, which led to 30 years of the most brutal kind of mechanized war against a peasant nation; plus, it was an early, perfect example of how the US betrays an ally, since Ho Chi Minh and his forces had been a valued US ally against the Japanese. But, hey, he’d traveled to Moscow, hadn’t he? The fact he’d also spent time in New York, worked as a cook at a hotel in Boston and that he liked and respected Americans got lost in the Cold War madness at the birth of the National Security State.
The world has changed incredibly since 1947, the year I was born. A lot has been learned. A revision of that 1947 Cold War document could incorporate the changes in the world over the past 71 years and set up a security structure that makes sense for the US in the coming cyber-war age, a structure that relies on much less military intervention and fewer foreign wars. And a bit more bottom-up humility — for our own good.
Again, we might call the campaign Make America Work Again, or M.A.W.A. We could print it on earthy green hats.
CODA: Just so no one gets too giddy over this, remember after 9/11 and after the invasion of Iraq, there was a sort of revision of the NATIONAL SECURITY ACT OF 1947 document. It was called the INTELLIGENCE REFORM AND TERRORISM PREVENTION ACT OF 2004. To do that document justice, it should probably not be called a “revision” but more like a paranoid derangement on methamphetamine. This doesn’t mean that many Americans 15 years later in 2019 aren’t sick-and-tired-of-being-sick-and-tired and ready for some serious reality-checking for their own future good.