Failing to Succeed
ANGLO AMERICA, 29 Jun 2020
28 Jun 2020 – Widespread social disorder can be the expression of various conditions: civil war, sectarian strife, economic collapse, natural disasters, external incursions, etc. All of these situations are explicable by the application of some kind of causal logic. On rare occasions, disorder is less easily comprehensible – reasons, dynamic and paths of development are obscure. Its striking features are the randomness of behaviors – particularly but not limited to asocial actions; their simultaneous manifestations in multiple spheres of collective life: cultural, intellectual, political, economic; incoherence of thought and action; and erratic, rapid shifts in attitude, behavior and allegiance. Those are the singular characteristics of the United States at present. In short, it’s nihilism. That in itself adds to confused behavior and the complexities encountered in trying to make sense of what is going on.
An oddity of today’s USA is that very few of the hypothetical catalysts originate from the country’s external environment. Rather, what we observe is a transposition onto our foreign dealings of our domestic disarray. Our policies, such as they are, are tactically incoherent. They also are impulsive and liable to sudden changes of tack. That stems in good part from the dissociated mind of the President. Yet, the broad trends also demonstrate a remarkable continuity relative to the kaleidoscopic scene internally. When we look beneath the surface of Trump’s impulsive, erratic actions (the most radical of which never seem to get implemented) the pattern is noticeably unchanged. The underlying conceptions of USA’s role in the world are especially enduring. Understandably so since they are rooted in the country’s self-identity that was formed at its inception, and given its present shape 75 years ago in the aftermath of WW II. What the current turmoil at home has done is to strengthen and accentuate some of those underlying attitudes. It has inserted a large measure of tactical irrationality into a policy stream already off course. The common denominator of both phenomena is the intensification of gnawing anxieties about national exceptionalism, the personal insecurities it exacerbates and the compulsive desire to restore and reconfirm a mythical birthright.
To begin unravelling this puzzle, let’s scrutinize the widely-held proposition that Trump in fact has departed from the consensual (and conventional) view as what constitutes a sound foreign policy. During the 2016 campaign, he did declare his intention to make some drastic changes. Most prominent, and politically effective, was a pledge to bring down the curtain on our endless wars in the Middle East. The record of the past 3+ years provides little evidence that he did so. There was rhetoric for sure, some loud proclamations, even the setting of nominal deadlines for troop withdrawals. Actions were scant.
In Syria, the United States continued to provide material and diplomatic support to the coalition of jihadist forces controlled by al-Qaeda/al Nusra which was dedicated to toppling the Assad regime. We do so to this day in the bastion of Idlib. Their defeats at the hands of the government backed by Russia and Iran put paid to that ambition; however, the US and its European allies remain committed to keeping them alive to harass the Damascus government and to prevent reintegration of the country. In addition, we have fostered the alliance with the YPG Kurds in order to prevent the government from reopening its border with Iraq. They also help secure the oil wells in the Eastern desert that we have seized as spoils of war.
The much ballyhooed decision to reduce USA forces that had allied with the YPG to block Turkish incursions cost us a measure of goodwill, but Washington skillfully has managed to maintain a tactical alliance. In short, we have not abandoned our audacious goals in Syria, nor have we evacuated Syrian territory. Whatever shift that has occurred is division-of-labor between the Army and Special Forces/CIA irregulars/mercenaries.
In Iraq, our force presence remains large, our base complex expands our interference in Iraqi politics relentless and our ambitions are constant – unchanged since 2003. That means reducing Iraq to a dependent state, forcing it to cut all ties to neighboring Iran, and using the country as a hub for USA operations throughout the region. Indeed, we bluntly told the Baghdad government that we will not obey the dictate voted by Parliament that the United States withdraw its forces. In effect, we officially deny Iraqi territorial sovereignty.
The foundation stone of everything the United States does in the Middle East is its unqualified fidelity to Israel. What Jerusalem wants from Washington, Jerusalem gets. That includes vociferous USA backing for its abuses of the Palestinians, moving the Embassy to Jerusalem, and now the contemplated outright annexation of the West Bank. Moreover, the Trump administration has been even more aggressive than its predecessors in pressuring allies and others to toe the Israeli line.
Kow-towing to Israel in now bound to our embrace of Saudi Arabia under its homicidal, volatile de facto leader Mohammed bin-Salman. We are the third party in what amounts to a tripartite axis cemented by a passionate hatred of Iran seen as a mortal enemy and their common national interest in keeping other Arab states weak and unstable. This is the reason for USA’s participation in the brutal war against the Houthis of Yemen (begun under Obama) which serves no tangible USA interests and makes a mockery of our already shredded image as the tribune of human rights worldwide.
Afghanistan seems an exception. Long, arduous negotiations with the Taliban led to an accord earlier this year that foresaw the United States withdrawing its military and allowing the Afghans to decide their own political future. The talks were strictly bilateral – leaving the Kabul government, which we have propped up for 19 years, as sideline observers. That lack of communication led unavoidably to serious frictions over the terms and implementation of the agreement. Vexed at being kept totally in the dark, the Ghani government immediately threw a stumbling block onto the ‘peace path’ by refusing to release all Taliban prisoners as a first step in the process. The ensuing messy compromise left more crucial matters unresolved. The principal issue concerned the provision that USA forces would not assist Afghan army in combat with the Taliban – only our own troops were they to come under attack.
Kabul saw this as a betrayal. Its vociferous protests that this signaled their death knell fell on sympathetic ears at Central Command whose generals don’t want the blemish of yet another failed war on their historical record. Within days, the Air Force was back flying close support for the Afghan units. Vehement Taliban protests prompted the unvarnished declaration from Washington that simply contradicted the wording of the accord in saying that it never meant to preclude support for government forces. This kind of volte-face has been a feature of Trumpian diplomacy; exactly the same action was taken in regard to the Singapore declaration with North Korea. (see below)
A further impediment to actual compliance with the pledge to withdraw from Afghanistan concerns the status of the CIA contingents. The Agency has been fighting its own war using semi-autonomous units for many years. It comprises Agency operatives, Afghan commando units, large contingents of mercenaries, drones and helicopters, etc. Washington is ambivalent on the question as to their future presence and role. Against this background, the standard Pentagon foot-dragging about retreating from any of these Middle Eastern engagements might well lead to an indefinite postponement of the announced departure from Afghanistan.
In other regions, the signs of a speculative lowering of the USA security profile are mixed. In Latin America, the U.S. has grown more assertive than at any time since the Reagan era. It is particularly active in assisting in the overthrow of governments it finds uncongenial on economic and/or philosophical grounds. Venezuela heads the list. The Trump people have dramatically escalated the Bush/Obama campaigns to get rid of its leftist presidents (Chavez, Maduro). It has added para-military means to a draconian campaign of sanctions to starve Caracas into submission. As with Iran and Syria, it has mobilized its allies and dependents around the world to join in tightening the screws. Three interventions by insurgents have been organized by the CIA – two from Colombia and one from Brazil. The latest was led by an ex-Special Forces major. All ended as fiascos.
Elsewhere, the U.S. has been instrumental in promoting the neo-Fascist coup Bolivia, rigging the election in Honduras to keep in place the junta that came to power with our backing in the Obama days, in celebrating avowed Fascist Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil to the point of arranging his invitation as keynote speaker at Davos, and in giving aid and comfort to far Right elements across the continent from Nicaragua to Colombia to Paraguay to Ecuador. All of this has taken place in an environment free of any threat to self-defined USA interests as in the Cold War era.
Elsewhere, too, the wave of military engagements in Africa, the Middle East and beyond propelled by the WAR ON TERROR has yet to ebb. USA Special Forces advisers and bases are now present in over 100 countries. Their purpose has expanded from rooting out Islamic terrorist groups to fostering influence within local security establishments to serve as leverage points in national politics. This proliferation is the antithesis of the vague principle implicit in Trump circa 2016 that the country should limit its deployments and commitments. Recently, the White House did announce that it would scale back missions in Africa and reduce aggregate force levels on the continent. There is reason for skepticism, e.g. at the moment it is pressing Tunisia to accept the emplacement of a permanent unit to “assist’ Tunisian security forces.
What we have observed over the life of the Trump presidency is the clash between the man’s primitive instinct, and his innate belligerence on the one hand, and a combination of unaccommodating realities and organizational resistance on the other. Trump has been unable to “work his impulse’ for two reasons: it is not grounded in any conception of how the world works and the U.S.’ place in it, and his total inability to concentrate on anything for more than minutes. Trump’s negative feelings about our pointless Middle East wars were similar to those of an alien from space. Knowing little if anything about the background, looking at the bare facts, the natural reaction is: “what the Hell are we doing there? it makes no sense.” That was the extent of Trump’s geostrategic vision. Similarly on Putin. The man heads a big and militarily powerful country, he is in full command, he makes no threats against us – so why shouldn’t I talk to the guy? I get along with Russians; they’re tough and straightforward like I am. Working with the Russo-Israeli mafia on laundering their money through my properties was a fabulous, win-win situation. Felix Sater was a terrific partner. It should be the same with Putin. That attitude probable explains 90% of his approach to Putin personally. In practice, however, he has employed every means available short of war to isolate and weaken Russia. More on this seeming contradiction below.
Trump’s questioning of the United States’ readiness to maintain high force levels in Europe has sown doubt as to the USA commitment to underwrite continental defense via NATO. The White House announcement a few weeks back that it would withdraw 9,000 troops from contingents currently deployed in Germany has given a sharp edge to that rhetorical threat. What exactly is the administration thinking? Well, in fact it is not doing much thinking at all – certainly not strategic thinking. Furthermore, the ‘administration’ is actually a pronoun with multiple antecedent nouns. There is no consensus on the desirability or feasibility of actually drawing down forces. This is a personal Trump idea, one that’s been buzzing around his mind since 2016. As usual, a volte-face came quickly. Those USA troops may eventually leave German soil – but to be redeployed in Poland some hundreds of miles closer to the Russian border. The Washington consensus tells us that Putin leads Trump by the nose; so, why would he want USA military bases in his very backyard? Stop one in six around Dupont Circle and ask.
Trump operates on feeling and impulse – not systematic analysis. The man sees everything in cost-benefit terms. How much am I investing; how much am I getting in return; and the guy I’m dealing with, what are his cost benefits? So he looks at the crude numbers. What does he see? The U.S. spends more on defense as a fraction of GDP than its allies. It keeps large, expensive forces in Europe. Those countries spend less; they’re rich – and, moreover, they cheat us when it comes to trade. Also, they’re closer to any conceivable security threat than we are. Hence, they’re taking us for chumps – have been for a long time. I hate being cheated. All my life, I’ve struck a hard bargain to get my share – usually, more than my share. Beat the unions, beat the sub-contractors, beat the creditors, beat the IRS, beat the New York regulators. I’m not going to have my pocket picked by those free-loading European wimps. That’s it. The readiness to act on these feelings is enabled by the dim awareness that there really is no serious danger out there in any case. There are no Nazis, no Commies.
Nobody is ready to accept this simple, if discomforting, truth. So, in European capitals as well as USA foreign policy circles, there is much hand-wringing, pearl-clutching, exclamations of shock, and other signs of panic. The Americans are reverting to their historical isolationism, we no longer have a reliable ally across the Atlantic, we’re on our own in this scary world, etc., etc. There are more sensible possible reactions.
One is to grow up, gather the political will to assume your proper responsibilities, stop being USA’s poodle who barks when Uncle Sam says bark, remains silent when he commands you to, and follow him over the cliff when he has a fit. The other, complementary approach is to take initiatives to address thorny problems and troubled relationships re. Russia, Iran, Syria inter alia. Germany and France mediated the Minsk II accords between Kiev and Moscow, yet allowed them to founder thanks mainly to Ukrainian obstinacy about enforcing the key provisions, and then dutifully abandoned any involvement other than to echo Washington’s bellicose anti-Russian rhetoric. On Iran, it makes no serious effort to mitigate the deleterious effects of Trump’s arbitrary withdrawal from the nuclear deal, JPOA, and instead became de facto collaborators in his all-out economic warfare against Tehran. On Syria, they allowed themselves to be sucked into an internecine conflict on the side of al-Qaeda & Assoc. even while their cities were being attacked by jihadi extremists who, in turn, are the spawn of the USA invasion/occupation of Iraq in which they became willing participants.
Were Trump forced out of the White House, there would be a return to the status quo ante which produced all of the above disasters along with a few others. That return will be celebrated by 90% of the USA foreign policy establishment. Indeed, then there would be an intensification of its most unsavory features. Those include:
- vilification of Putin’s Russia as the cause of instability from Eastern Europe to the Libya; a rethinking of the abandoned nuclear Arms Control Agreements (how can you trust a ‘despicable’ man like that); extension of the measures taken by Trump (in contrast to his rhetoric) that advanced NATO physically and diplomatically eastwards; a further hardening of economic sanctions along with an attack on Russian energy commerce, etc.
- vilification of Iran as the source of all troubles in the Middle East and the foremost state supporter of terrorism. Any move to restore the JPOA will entail an effort to tighten its terms in the context of persistent economic warfare
- no change in the unabashed support of all and any actions taken by Israel or Saudi Arabia
- CHINA: the big one. The growing vilification of China as an imperial minded great power, a serial human rights abuser, a manifest threat to USA prosperity via theft of intellectual property, currency manipulations, unfair trade practices, and exploitation of advantageous supply chain networks. The COVID-19 crisis demonstrates how Beijing can weaponize its economic assets, and its unreliability. The Trump shifting of weights in an older strategy of containment and collaboration toward the former would be accelerated.
- the browbeating of allies and partners to enforce obedience to USA direction and deference to it as the indispensable nation
USA’s mode of address to the rest of the world reflects the national state of mind as much as does its actions. Through the past four presidencies, it has become increasingly
- ignoring of international rules, norms and customs
- ready to deny – explicitly or implicitly – other states’ right to use methods for defending their interests which are employed routinely by the United States
- ready to play fast-and-loose with factual reality
- hyper-sensitive to any perceived challenge to USA privilege and prerogative
- reverting to avoidance strategies to elide the dissonance between USA myths and reality
In these proclivities, we discern the extension into international affairs of “USA Exceptionalism.” Their intensification, extremism and expanded scope compose a phenomenon that goes beyond the coarseness and insolence of Trump and his people. For they are visible, too, in the attitudes of politicos, pundits and media, i.e. the country’s political class. Something noteworthy has been happening.
As a first step toward getting a grip on it, let’s highlight what makes that singular style distinctive: obsession, exaggeration, stereotyping, and brutality.
Obsession – or an emotional state quite like it – is normal and logical reaction when faced with a persistent, dangerous menace to one’s well-being. Yet, today, the United States faces no such threat. True, the trauma of 9/11 did create feelings of dread – free-floating anxiety. Fear is provoked by imminent danger; dread by what might be. It was fed by cynical leaders and a mindless media even when it became obvious that it was a unique event, that there was no horde of terrorists scaling the walls of the Republic. It became an undercurrent in the USA psyche but less than a obsession. However, it likely has left a residue of doubt about USA vulnerability and destiny. The one place where it wells up to aggravate sentiments about a current protagonist is Iran – whatever little basis in fact there is to the cartoon images of the mullahs’ bent on doing us in. Among the matters that keep the popular USA psyche in a fraught state, though, Iran figures well down the list.
Our main obsessions nowadays are Russia and China. Those are our fixations. The two countries are officially declared to hold the top spots as security threats. They justify the bloated Defense/Intelligence budgets. They generate the active war plans. They get the lion’s share of anxious attention on the rare occasions that foreign policy emerges in a presidential debate. They drive Congressional investigations and impeachment proceedings. They stir passion. They unbalance the minds of news media executives and think-tankers.
Consider one example. The New York Times consistently publishes stories, essays and opinion pieces that cast the two countries in a harshly negative light. For some years now, the editors have followed a practice of having a major news report critical of each in at least 4 or 5 issues a week. China has now surpassed Russia in this demonology by having scored a negative story for 8 straight days, on two of which an additional slamming article appeared in the Business Section. This record was set during the Coronavirus crisis when space for International coverage was restricted. No topic is too trivial to escape the probing searchlight: be it the condition of plumbing in housing estates around Beijing or the threat posed to the country’s fashion industry by the (alleged) shift in the tastes of China’s newly wealthy youth or the ban on dog meat sales (vs ‘prairie oysters?’). They serve as fillers for days when big news about military build-ups, tensions in the Politburo, or the latest aggressive commercial ploy as conjured by the paper’s all-knowing reporters is not immediately available.
Last week, at a time of multiple economic crises, the Times editors saw fit to devote valuable space to an alarmist account of how the country’s 12,000 movie theaters face bankruptcy due to the COVID-19 lockdown. This despite the discomforting fact that the Chinese economy is making a robust recovery while the US. founders in depression. NYT International Section June 20, total of 3 pages: 2 slam China, 1 slams Russia, 1 slams Venezuela,1 slams Iran + a long slam of China in the Business Section. This is a dictionary example of obsession. This is not journalism, not informing the public. It is leading the congregation in incantation.
This pattern of denigrating China is widespread. It is puzzling insofar as it serves no rational purpose. It changes nothing tangible in the objective realities of China’s capabilities – absolute or relative. The Chinese doubtless view it as a sign of USA insecurity and defensiveness. If the goal is to prepare USAs for a titanic Cold War battle with China, it is counter-indicated. The one sensible interpretation is this is a pathological reaction by an elite that cannot handle the deeply troubling truth that the United States may be on the road toward losing its superiority, dominance and exceptionalism.
Exaggeration is companion to obsession. An inflated version of what disturbs us seizes our attention and hardens it. It gets under our skin, it irritates us and the more we scratch it the more that occupies our consciousness. Russia has that effect. The entire Russia-gate saga was an exercise in exaggeration – of which the Kremlin did, of its importance, of the stakes, and of the personalities. The absence of concrete evidence, the lack of motive, the marginality of the alleged activities, the absurdity of some of the accusations – none of this detracted from the image we conjured of a giant conspiracy against the USA Republic directed by a vile leader heading an historically hostile and aggressive country.
Reports of Russia’s malign influence come from every direction. It seems omnipresence – lurking in our computers, the antechambers of power, our laboratories (where they jostle with the Chinese), NATO conclaves. Like the ‘evil one’ of medieval imagination their scent can be detected by those who follow the course of virtue. Nothing bad that happens occurs by happenstance; it all emanates from Him. Think of Moriarty’s elaborate network in Holmes’ London whose presence could be felt at the very extremity of the spider’s web he had woven. The epitome of this febrile exaggeration was the jailing of a young Russian woman, Maria Butina, whose ‘crime’ was to join the NRA (whose Russian chapter she already belonged), to attend the annual Prayer Breakfast extravaganza at the Hilton and to have an affair with an insignificant government employee. In the fevered minds of the FBI, the Department of Justice, Congress and the media she was the spies infiltrating the Manhattan Project and Rudolph Abel rolled into one.
All of this Russian evil is concentrated in the persona of Vladimir Putin. Hillary Clinton called him “the incarnation of Hitler.” Last week, Susan Rice – who may well be our future Vice-President, saw Putin’s hand behind the chaotic protest scene: “It’s right out of the Kremlin playbook.” Joe Biden:
“We need a President who will stand up to the Kremlin, push back against Putin, and take immediate steps to ensure the security of our elections.”*
The real, flesh-and-blood Vladimir Putin is a thoughtful, sober man measured in word and deed. Whatever one might think of his government, he is destined to go down in history as a great leader who restored the Russian state, made it into a ‘normal’ country, and who, as a statesman, towered above his contemporaries in the West. Still, distinguished intellectuals in distinguished journals feel no inhibition in referring to him casually as “repulsive.” Compared to whom? the mad butcher of Riyadh – Mohammed bin-Salman; Tayyip Recep Erdogan; Abdel el-Sisi; Aung San Suu Kyi; Avigdor Lieberman; Jair Bolsonaro; the conquistador Fascists of Bolivia; the Honduran junta we imposed who have turned the country into the world’s murder capital; Boris Johnson; – or how about Donald Trump/ Mike Pompeo/ William Barr?
Stereotyping fits this pattern. Above all, it is a thought economizer. Reflective thinking has become abnormal in the USA foreign policy community. There is herd immunity to critical thought. Uniformity, simple-mindedness and dogmatism prevail. The absurdist attitudes toward Russia, China, Iran and places like Venezuela are assimilated as gospel truth for loyal believers in a literal Scripture. The world is reduced to a static gameboard whose pieces have readily understood natures, who move within a very range of options, and whose interests are fixed. It is a conception of foreign relations that squeezes out diplomacy. Shrill pronunciamientos replace dialogue. Bluster is the coin of the realm. And any notion of common norms is subordinated to USA want, will and whim.
That unnatural uniformity of intellectual maps of our elites itself is a sure sign of a deformed discourse. Their disconnect from reality points to a deeper pathology.
Brutality is an inevitable complement to such a mentality. The arrogant political personality sketched here breeds coercion. It feeds the impulse to impose yourself on others, to subordinate them, to get whatever you want by whatever means. It recognizes no legitimate interests of anyone else, no communality, no collective norms. It is the universe occupied by the clinical narcissist. Led by a clinical narcissist, we have in sense become a narcissistic state. Only two things hold us in check. First is a powerful aversion to suffering the human costs of war – the public cannot tolerate heavy casualties. As for financial costs, they can be obscured or hidden or wrapped in the flag. The United States has racked up a bill of 2-3 trillion dollars in pursuing its madcap wars on ‘terror.’ Yet, the public barely bats a eye. By contrast, 14 soldiers dying in Niger or 4 in Benghazi make a big stink – now that the populace has erased Iraq and Afghanistan from their shallow memory bank. The second factor at work is the cowardice of our Commanders-in-Chief. For all his bluster and bullying, Trump doesn’t have the intestinal fortitude to face a real war – like attacking Iran. Neither did Barack Obama, for that matter.
Still, this psychology leaves us largely untroubled about taking violent actions which are risk free. The most striking case in point is Yemen. There, we have participated physically over the past five years in inflicting carnage among the general populace. Attacks on civilians by our allies, and our collaboration in an inhumane embargo of food and medicines, are war crimes by any standard definition. Moreover, there never was as much as a feeble public explanation of what raison d’état motivated us – no justification. The unstated truth is that Obama and then Trump were dedicated to staying on the right side of Saudi Arabia’s tyrannical new de facto ruler: Mohammed bin Salman at any price. Even secure access to oil was secondary since we are now a net exporter. We simply decided that the USA priority in the region is to confront and contain Iran, Saudi Arabia’s sectarian and geopolitical rival. Hence, we became a full member of the Saudi-led Sunni bloc committed to put the Shi’a in their subordinate place. That sentiment also contributed mightily to our intervention in Syria hand-in-hand with Sunni terrorist organizations like al-Nusra. Needless to say, all of these interventions were strongly encouraged by Israel.
Let us bear in mind that we are responsible for the enormous casualties and human suffering in Iraq (and indirectly Syria) that stem directly from our invasion and occupation. Never, over the past twenty years, has there been the slightest expression of remorse – whether official or unofficial. On Yemen, there was a brief bout of hand-wringing by Congressional Democrats in early 2019 when the unrelenting assaults on the Houthis produced a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. Even then there was no critical focus on the USA role. It since has faded into the background to join the shades of atrocities past.
It is the casualness of this brutality along with the ease by which its slips from consciousness that is revealing and puzzling. Moreover, it has domestic analogues. The salient examples are: the official practice of kidnapping children at the border, incarcerating them and exposing them to vile forms of abuse; the authorities tolerance of, and probable collaboration in the Epstein/Ghislaine human trafficking operation (and the open sharing of the spoils by a cross-section of the national elite); the crude exploitation of Puerto Ricans after the hurricane that reduced those Americans to Haitian status; and the maltreatment of millions of our elderly in care facilities – 50,000 of whom are now victims of the Corona virus. Yes, some attention is given, albeit fleetingly, to all three – no serious, even halfway effort is made to deal with any of them, though. They are destined soon to have no more saliency in the national memory than Wounded Knee or My Lai.
There surely is some relationship between these phenomena at home and those abroad. Exactly what it is, and in which direction the reciprocating influences move, is less obvious.
The cavalier, almost blasé readiness to treat other peoples brutally does have historical antecedents: slavery above all; the continental ethnic cleansing of indigenous peoples; suppression of the Filipinos. In war, civilians all too often were considered collateral damage – leading to the ultimate mass killing of civilians in Dresden, Tokyo, Hamburg, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. These last has become the norm in the total wars of the 20th century, a norm that the U.S. felt no qualms about observing. The earlier actions were committed out of clear self-interest: plantation economics for slavery, Manifest Destiny across Anglo America, land-grabbing of valuable real estate in the war against Mexico. Conquest merely for the sake of subjugating other nations did not fit the USA creed – however hypocritical it might be. Nor was there much passion in these enterprises. They were more in the nature of self-seeking pursuit of gain. Only in the South did a genuine culture of brutalization take shape. The USA troops fighting Germany in North Africa, Italy and then Northwest Europe felt very little antipathy toward Germans as such until they encountered the death camps.
Here is a passage from Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer which makes the point cogently:
As Hoffer says,
“We cannot hate those we despise. The Japanese in WW II had an advantage over us as in that they admired us more than we admired them. They could hate us more fervently than we hated them. The [Anglo] Americans are poor haters in international affairs because of their innate feeling of superiority over all foreigners. An Anglo American’s hatred for a fellow Anglo American is far more virulent than the antipathy that he can work up against foreigners. Should Anglo Americans begin to hate foreigners wholeheartedly, it will be an indication that they have lost confidence in their own [superior] way of life.”
Welcome to USA circa 2020.
Have we arrived at that watershed? These days, we do find it easy to hate: Arabs, Iranians, Russians, Chinese (who inflicted CVID-19 on us as well as surpass us in so many respects), just about anyone who gets in our way readily becomes an object of intense distaste – if not pure hatred. Personalizing it encourages that impulse – be it Nicolas Maduro, Kim Jung-un, Bashir Assad, Mullah Omar or Vladimir Putin – none of whom have done the USA any direct, intentional harm (the Omar case being somewhat ambiguous).
“Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents.” An intense sense of unity in a cause can arise from belief in a god or a utopia, but never without a belief in a devil….
The enemy—the indispensable devil of every [passionate community]—is omnipresent. He plots both outside and inside the ranks of the faithful. It is his voice that speaks through the mouth of the dissenter, and the deviationists are his stooges. If anything goes wrong …., it is his doing. It is our duty to be suspicious. We must be constantly on the lookout for saboteurs, spies and traitors.” (Hoffer)
For the first time in history we suffer feelings of vulnerability – less in a physical sense than in some more basic psychic sense. The very foundation of USA self-esteem – individual as well as communal – is that we are a Providential nation different from and superior to every other. Superior in terms of strength, material well-being, opportunity, and humanism. Our unquestioned belief is that the United States was born in a state of Original Virtue. Begin doubting that core article of faith and insecurities of all kinds proliferate. It is the insecure, the self-doubting, those desperate to fill shriveled lives with meaning who are candidates for the Tea Party, apocalyptic Evangelicals, the MAGA chauvinists are attracted by any would-be Messiah on whose caravan they can thumb a road. They also are the same who draw sustenance from the empathetic thrill of abusing the weaklings and inferiors who challenge USA abroad and deny us the inborn right to lord it over them.
Until very recently, the losers/victims of our ruthless contemporary everyone-for-himself society and economy have kept hope alive by embracing the dogmatic creed of opportunity, self-reliance and the nation’s pageant of progress. Moreover, they were “kept dazed and out of breath by the incessant hustling” for a living and the incessant barrage of pop culture centered on the hustlers who did make it big. All of that was fading when COVID-19 came along to hit like a cold bucket of icy water. The virus has added nothing crucial to the situation; it merely is putting in stark relief features that already were there. For Anglo Americans, today always has been a prelude to tomorrow. Present well-being a steppingstone from which to glimpse the glimmering vision of true happiness. Almost within reach, always just eluding us. The hope of that ultimate if undefined fulfillment sustained us through all manner of adversity and failure. It infused us with a nervy energy. It served as a torsion spring for the collective USA psyche. Now, that delicate balance is upset. Productive tension has given way to anxious tension. So, Anglo Americans are adrift, disoriented and alienated. Fertile ground for demagogues. What is unique about the current crop of demagogues who exploit our frustrations and emptiness is that they do not hold before the anxious and confused the vision of a utopian future but rather a glorified, mythologized past that stresses its optimism and leaves out its strains. Why shouldn’t it work – an important part of us has lived with, and clung onto that fanciful world all their lives.
What are the international implications? Two – two partly contradictory ones. First is an aspiration to revert to the days when an USA born against History kept its distance from the rest of the world. The other is to be bellicose and aggressive in pressing every other country to acknowledge the United States’ superior status, unique prerogatives and freedom of action. They can be reconciled by withdrawing from all commitments and formal obligations while reserving the privilege to act where and how it wants to advance our own self-defined interests. That translates into a loud f… you not only to Russia, China, Iran, Venezuela et al but also directed at our NATO & other allies who don’t pay their fair share and have the temerity to occasionally obstruct or ignore our judgment and will.
“The quality of ideas seems to play a minor role…. What counts is the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard of the opinion of others, the singlehanded defiance of the world.” (Hoffer)
“In short, there is a feedback loop between the dispirited mood of the country at home and its erratic aggressiveness abroad. The former impels the grasping for lost mastery through self-assertion externally; the latter pays few dividends while providing fresh evidence of our declining prowess and respect in the eyes of others.”
“There is no loneliness greater than the loneliness of a failure [whether in foreign ventures or close to home]. That failure is a stranger in the minds of a people born to believe in a destiny to succeed”.
“Only the [society] that comes to terms with itself can have a dispassionate attitude toward the world once the harmony within itself is upset….Otherwise, it turns into a highly reactive entity. Like an unstable chemical radical it hungers to combine with whatever comes within reach.”
Racism. Evangelical Revelations, hyper-nationalism, or Trump & the Tea Party.
“I would not be surprised to learn that they have fomented some of these extremists on both sides using social media. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they are funding it in some way, shape, or form.” National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien warned about foreign incitement.”
“In the lead up to this fall’s election, Russian intelligence agencies have upped the ante. They’ve encouraged & spread hateful rhetoric by extremist groups, and played up allegations of police abuse in USA.” @standUSAow https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/10/us/politics/russian-interference-race.html …
“One of Russia’s goals is weakening institutions and the weaponization of race is a way they can do that,” said Laura Rosenberger, the director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy. “A divided USA is a weaker USA. When we are unable to solve our challenges together, Russia is more able to flex its power around the world.”
One could extend the proposition about the value of enemies by arguing that the erosion of the great civilizational compact that established social democracy throughout the Western world (and as far as Japan) has been made possible by the absence of an enemy – or, at least, a threat – that kept us conscious of the historic achievement that it represented. It had the intrinsic flaw of never being ensconced in a doctrine that permeated the collective consciousness. ‘Democracy’ did – but ‘democracy’s connotation of social justice was too oblique. And certainly, the attraction of ‘Capitalism’ as a concept lay mainly in its apposition to Communism and its association with ‘democracy.’
The enemies of social democracy lay within. Not invisible – but cleverly camouflaged. Of course, at the outset there was a vivid enemy: the exploitative, repressive industrialists and bankers. It is illuminating to go back and read FDR’s rhetoric. Defeated, they retreated to their country clubs where they licked their wounds – like the Taliban after 2001 – and then began to plot a comeback. It took shape only gradually. For decades they kept a low profile before moving into an action phase in the 1970s. The Powell Memorandum, composed by Supreme Court Justice to be Lewis Powell in 1971, provided a blueprint for the campaign. The Memorandum laid out a strategy for the rise of the USA conservative movement and the formation of a network of influential right-wing think tanks and lobbying organizations, such as The Heritage Foundation. Their goal has been to reverse a century of socio-economic reform and replace it with a contemporary version of the gaslight era’s plutocracy.
A financialized economy that dictated to a financialized political system. A monetarized culture based on fool’s gold. The outcome: drastic wealth inequality, decades of stagnant wages for workers, evaporated benefits, institutionalized insecurities, heavy indebtedness, unaffordable housing, stymied mobility. Those dispiriting conditions have produced a pervasive feeling of ‘failure’ that is dissonant with the Anglo Americans’ admonitive pursuit of success. The latter was not the explicit goal – but the inevitable consequence – of the plutocrats’ restoration plan.
The plutocratic design of a multi-pronged strategy was carefully drawn and its implementation skillful. The key to their historic success was to make everything seem to be the same (institutions, procedures, the creed of individual opportunity, nominal freedom), so that the most valuable and fundamental things could change. The custodians of the social democratic order were asleep, some were bought off, and others were too craven to engage in battle. Most important, they had neither a clear doctrine, a unifying set of principles, collective identity – nor a stark enemy.
Michael Brenner is professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh; a senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, SAIS-Johns Hopkins (Washington, D.C.), contributor to research and consulting projects on Euro-USA security and economic issues. Publishes and teaches in the fields of USA foreign policy, Euro-USA relations, and the European Union. firstname.lastname@example.org – More…
Tags: Anglo America, USA
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 29 Jun 2020.
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