The one thing you could say about empires is that, at or near their height, they have always represented a principle of order as well as domination. So here’s the confounding thing about the American version of empire in the years when this country was often referred to as “the sole superpower,” when it was putting more money into its military than the next 10 nations combined: it’s been an empire of chaos.
Back in September 2002, Amr Moussa, then head of the Arab League, offered a warning I’ve never forgotten. The Bush administration’s intention to invade Iraq and topple its ruler, Saddam Hussein, was already obvious. Were they to take such a step, Moussa insisted, it would “open the gates of hell.” His prediction turned out to be anything but hyperbole — and those gates have never again closed.
The Wars Come Home
From the moment of the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, in fact, everything the U.S. military touched in these years has turned to dust. Nations across the Greater Middle East and Africa collapsed under the weight of American interventions or those of its allies, and terror movements, one grimmer than the next, spread in a remarkably unchecked fashion. Afghanistan is now a disaster zone; Yemen, wracked by civil war, a brutal U.S.-backed Saudi air campaign, and various ascendant terror groups, is essentially no more; Iraq, at best, is a riven sectarian nation; Syria barely exists; Libya, too, is hardly a state these days; and Somalia is a set of fiefdoms and terror movements. All in all, it’s quite a record for the mightiest power on the planet, which, in a distinctly un-imperial fashion, has been unable to impose its military will or order of any sort on any state or even group, no matter where it chose to act in these years. It’s hard to think of a historical precedent for this.
Meanwhile, from the shattered lands of the empire of chaos stream refugees by the millions,numbers not seen since vast swaths of the globe were left in rubble at the end of World War II. Startling percentages of the populations of various failed and failing states, including stunning numbers of children, have been driven into internal exile or sent fleeing across borders and, fromAfghanistan to North Africa to Europe, they are shaking up the planet in unsettling ways (as theirfantasy versions shook up the election here in the U.S.).
It’s something of a cliché to say that, sooner or later, the frontier wars of empires come home to haunt the imperial heartland in curious ways. Certainly, such has been the case for our wars on the peripheries. In various forms — from the militarization of the police to the loosing of spy drones in American skies and of surveillance technology tested on distant battlefields — it’s obvious that America’s post-9/11 conflicts have returned to “the homeland,” even if, most of the time, we have paid remarkably little attention to this phenomena.
And that, I suspect, is the least significant way in which our wars have been repatriated. What Election 2016 made clear was that the empire of chaos has not remained a phenomenon of the planet’s backlands. It’s with us in the United States, right here, right now. And it’s come home in a fashion that no one has yet truly tried to make sense of. Can’t you feel the deep and spreading sense of disorder that lay at the heart of the bizarre election campaign that roiled this country, brought the most extreme kinds of racism and xenophobia back into the mainstream, and with Donald Trump’s election, may never really end? Using the term of tradecraft that Chalmers Johnson borrowed from the CIA and popularized, think of this as, in some strange fashion, the ultimate in imperial blowback.
There’s a history to be written of how such disorder came home, of how it warped the American system and our democratic form of governance, of how a process that began decades ago not in the stew of defeat or disaster but in a moment of unparalleled imperial triumph undermined so much. If I had to choose a date to begin that history, I think I would start in 1979 in Afghanistan, a country that, if you were an American but not a hippie backpacker, you might then have had trouble locating on a map. And if someone had told you at the time that, over the next nearly four decades, your country would be involved in at least a quarter-century of wars there, you would undoubtedly have considered him mad.
Thought of a certain way, the empire of chaos began in a victory so stunning, so complete, so imperial that it essentially helped drive the other superpower, that “Evil Empire” the Soviet Union, to implode. It began, in fact, with the desire of Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, to give the Soviets a bloody nose, or to be more precise, a taste of America’s Vietnam experience, to trap the Red Army in an Afghan quagmire. In that light, the CIA would run a massive, decade-long covert program to fund, arm, and train fundamentalist opponents of the leftwing Afghan government in Kabul and of the occupying Red Army. To do so, it fatefully buddied up with two unsavory “allies”: the Saudis, who were ready to sink their oil money into support for Afghan mujahedeen fighters of the most extreme sort, and the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, which was intent on controlling events in that land, no matter the nature of the cast of characters it found available.
In the fashion of Vietnam for the Americans, Afghanistan would prove to be what Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev called “the bleeding wound” for the Russians. A decade later, the Red Army would limp home in defeat and within two years a hollowed-out Soviet Union, never as strong as Washington imagined, would implode, a triumph so stunning that the American political elite initially couldn’t take it in. After almost half a century, the Cold War was over; one of the two remaining “superpowers” had left the global stage in defeat; and for the first time since Europeans set out on wooden ships to conquer distant parts of the globe, only a single great power was left standing on the planet.
Given the history of those centuries past, the dreams of Bush-Cheney & Co. about how the U.S. would dominate the world as no power, not even the Romans or the British, had ever done seemed to make a certain sense. But in that triumph of 1989 lay the seeds as well of future chaos. To take down the Soviets, the CIA, in tandem with the Saudis and the Pakistanis, had armed and built up groups of extreme Islamists, who, it turned out, had no intention of going away once the Soviets were driven from Afghanistan. It won’t exactly shock you if I add that, in those decisions, in that triumphant moment, lay the genesis of the future 9/11 attacks and in some curious fashion, even perhaps the future rise of a presidential candidate, and now president-elect, so bizarre that, despite the billions of words expended on him, he remains a phenomenon beyond understanding.
As our first declinist candidate for president, Donald J. Trump did at least express something new and true about the nature of our country. In the phrase that he tried to trademark in 2012 and with which he launched his presidential campaign in 2015 — “Make America Great Again” — he caught a deeply felt sense among millions of Americans that the empire of chaos had indeed arrived on our shores and that, like the Soviet Union a quarter-century ago, the U.S. might ever so slowly be heading into an era in which (minus him, naturally) “greatness” was a goner.
Imperial Overreach and the Rise of the National Security State
In the end, those seeds, first planted in Afghan and Pakistani soil in 1979, led to the attacks of September 11, 2001. That day was the very definition of chaos brought to the imperial heartland, and spurred the emergence of a new, post-Constitutional governing structure, through the expansion of the national security state to monumental proportions and a staggering version of imperial overreach. On the basis of the supposed need to keep Americans safe from terrorism (and essentially nothing else), the national security state would balloon into a dominant — and dominantly funded — set of institutions at the heart of American political life (without which, rest assured, FBI Director James Comey’s public interventions in an American election would have been inconceivable). In these years, that state-within-a-state became the unofficial fourth branch of government, at a moment when two of the others — Congress and the courts, or at least the Supreme Court — were faltering.
The 9/11 attacks also unleashed the Bush administration’s stunningly ambitious, ultimately disastrous Global War on Terror, and over-the-top fantasies about establishing a military-enforced Pax Americana, first in the Middle East and then perhaps globally. They also unleashed its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. drone assassination program across significant parts of the planet, the building of an unprecedented global surveillance state, the spread of a kind of secrecy so all-encompassing that much of government activity became unknowable to “the People,” and a kind of imperial overreach that sent literally trillions of dollars (often via warrior corporations) tumbling into the abyss. All of these were chaos-creating factors.
At the same time, the basic needs of many Americans went increasingly unattended, of those at least who weren’t part of a Gilded Age 1% sucking up American wealth in an extraordinary fashion. The one-percenters then repurposed some of those trickle-up funds for the buying and selling of politicians, again in an atmosphere of remarkable secrecy. (It was often impossible to know who had given money to whom for what.) In turn, that stream of Supreme Court-approved funds changed the nature of, and perhaps the very idea of, what an election was.
Meanwhile, parts of the heartland were being hollowed out, while — even as the military continued to produce trillion-dollar boondoggle weapons systems — the country’s inadequately funded infrastructure began to crumble in a way that once would have been inconceivable. Similarly, the non-security-state part of the government — Congress in particular — began to falter and wither. Meanwhile, one of the country’s two great political parties launched a scorched-earth campaign against governing representatives of the other and against the very idea of governing in a reasonably democratic fashion or getting much of anything done at all. At the same time, that party shattered into disorderly, competing factions that grew ever more extreme and produced what is likely to become a unique celebrity presidency of chaos.
The United States with all its wealth and power is, of course, hardly an Afghanistan or a Libya or a Yemen or a Somalia. It still remains a genuinely great power, and one with remarkable resources to wield and fall back on. Nonetheless, the recent election offered striking evidence that the empire of chaos had indeed made the trip homeward. It’s now with us big time, all the time. Get used to it.
Count on it to be an essential part of the Trump presidency. Domestically, for instance, if you thought the definition of American political dysfunction was a Congress that would essentially pass nothing, just wait until a fully Republican-controlled Congress actually begins to pass bills in 2017. Abroad, Trump’s unexpected success will only encourage the rise of right-wing nationalist movements and the further fragmention of this planet of increasing disorder. Meanwhile, the American military (promised a vast further infusion of funds by The Donald during the election campaign) will still be trying to impose its version of order in distant lands and, so many years later, you know perfectly well what that will mean. All of this should shock no one in our new post-November 8th world.
Here, however, is a potentially shocking question that has to be asked: With Donald Trump’s election, has the American “experiment” run its course?
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book is, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (with an introduction by Glenn Greenwald). Previous books include Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050 (co-authored with Nick Turse), The United States of Fear, The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s, The End of Victory Culture: a History of the Cold War and Beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.