The other Big Lie: How a self-destructive ideological fever engulfed America's foreign policy establishment
"The thirty-year interregnum of U.S. global hegemony," writes David Bromwich in the journal Raritan, "has been exposed as a fraud, a decoy, a cheat, [and] a sell." Today, he continues, "the armies of the cheated are struggling to find the word for something that happened and happened wrong."
In fact, the armies of the cheated know exactly what happened, even if they haven't yet settled on precisely the right term to describe the disaster that has befallen this nation.
What happened was this: shortly after the end of the Cold War, virtually the entire American foreign-policy establishment succumbed to a monumentally self-destructive ideological fever.
Call it INS, shorthand for Indispensable Nation Syndrome. Like Covid-19, INS exacts a painful toll of victims. Unlike Covid, we await the vaccine that can prevent its spread. We know that preexisting medical conditions can increase a person's susceptibility to the coronavirus. The preexisting condition that increases someone's vulnerability to INS is the worship of power.
Back in 1998, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright not only identified INS, but also captured its essence. Appearing on national TV, she famously declared, "If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future."
Now, allow me to be blunt: this is simply not true. It's malarkey, hogwash, bunkum, and baloney. Bullshit, in short.
The United States does not see further into the future than Ireland, Indonesia, or any other country, regardless of how ancient or freshly minted it may be. Albright's assertion was then and is now no more worthy of being taken seriously than Donald Trump's claim that the "deep state" engineered the coronavirus pandemic. Also bullshit.
Some of us (but by no means all Americans) have long since concluded that Trump was and remains a congenital liar. To charge Albright with lying, however, somehow rates as bad form, impolite, even rude. She is, after all, a distinguished former official and the recipient of many honors.
Trump's lies have made him persona non grata in polite society. Albright has not suffered a similar fate. And to be fair, Albright herself is not solely or even mainly responsible for the havoc that INS has caused. While the former secretary of state promoted the syndrome in notably expansive language, the substance of her remark was anything but novel. She was merely reiterating what, in Washington, still passes for a self-evident truism: America must lead. No conceivable alternative exists. Leadership implies responsibilities and, by extension, confers prerogatives. Put crudely — more crudely than Albright would have expressed it to a television audience — we make the rules.
More specifically, Albright was alluding to a particular prerogative that a succession of post-Cold War presidents, including Donald Trump and now Joe Biden, have exercised. Our political leaders routinely authorize the elimination, with extreme prejudice, of persons unwilling to acknowledge our indispensability.
Should Irish or Indonesian leaders assert such a prerogative, American officials would roundly condemn them. Indeed, when Russia's president and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia each had the temerity to bump off an opponent, U.S. officials (in the former case) and the American media (in the latter case) professed profound shock. How could such things be permitted to occur in a civilized world? When an American president does such things, however, it's simply part of the job description.
Three Strikes and You're Out!
Now, allow me to acknowledge the allure of exercising privileges. I once flew on a private jet — very cool, indeed.
Today, however, David Bromwich's armies of the cheated have good reason to feel cheated. Their disappointment is not without justification. The bullshit has lost its mojo. Since the promulgation of the Albright Doctrine, U.S. forces have bombed, invaded, and occupied various countries across the Greater Middle East and Africa with elan. They've killed lots of people, unsettling millions more. And our divided, dysfunctional country is the poorer for it, as the cheated themselves have belatedly discovered.
Blame Donald Trump for that division and dysfunction? Not me. I hold the militant purveyors of INS principally responsible. However contemptible, Trump was little more than an accessory after the fact.
To understand how we got here, recall the narrative that ostensibly validates our indispensability. It consists of sequential binaries, pitting freedom and democracy against all manner of evils. In World War I, we fought militarism; in World War II, we destroyed fascism; during the Cold War, we resisted and "contained" communism. And after 9/11, of course, came the Global War on Terrorism, now approaching its 20th anniversary.
Good versus evil, us against them, over and over again. That recurring theme of American statecraft has endowed INS with its historical context.
Today, in Washington, a foreign-policy establishment afflicted with rigor mortis reflexively reverts to the logic of 1917, 1941, 1947, and 2001, even though those past binaries are about as instructive today as the religious conflicts touched off by the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s.
Confronting evil is no longer the name of the game. Understanding the game's actual nature, however, would require jettisoning a past that purportedly illuminates but actually imprisons Americans in an ongoing disaster.
Today, race dominates the national conversation. And few Americans would deny that we have a race problem. But the United States also has a war problem. And just about no one is keen to talk about that problem.
More specifically, we actually have three problems with war.
Our first is that we have too many of them. Our second is that our wars drag on way too long and cost way too much. Our third is that they lack purpose: when our wars do eventually more or less end, America's declared political objectives all too often remain unmet. U.S. forces don't necessarily suffer defeat. They merely fail. For proof, look no further than the conduct and outcomes of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Two trips to the plate. Two whiffs. How could that have happened? In Washington, the question not only goes unanswered but totally unasked, which, of course, leaves open the possibility of yet another similar failure in the future.
As a long-ago soldier of no particular distinction, I'm mystified at the apparent absence of curiosity regarding the inability of the world's most generously supported military to accomplish its assigned missions. If the January 6th assault on the Capitol deserves a thorough investigation — as surely it does — then how can this nation pass over a succession of failed wars as if they were mere annoyances? Shouldn't our collective commitment to "supporting the troops" include a modicum of curiosity about why they have been so badly misused, even if the resulting inquiry should prove embarrassing to senior civilian and military officials?
Liberal media outlets characterize Trump's claim to have won the 2020 election as the Big Lie, as indeed it is. But it's hardly the only one. Indispensable Nation Syndrome, along with the militarism that it's spawned in this century, should certainly qualify as — at the very least — the Other Big Lie. Curbing Washington's susceptibility to INS requires acknowledging that the proximate challenges facing this country are in no way amenable to even the most creative military solutions. Giving yet more taxpayer dollars to the Pentagon helps sustain the military-industrial complex, but otherwise solves nothing.
Think about it. The defining reality of our moment is the ever-worsening climate chaos that so many of us are now experiencing personally. That threat, after all, has potentially existential implications. Yet in Washington's hierarchy of national security concerns, climate takes a back seat to gearing up for a new round of "great power competition." In effect, a foreign-policy establishment devoid of imagination has tagged Xi Jinping's China to fill the role once assigned to Kaiser Wilhelm's Germany, Adolf Hitler's Germany, Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union, and Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
That China and the United States must make common cause in addressing the climate crisis seems to count for little. Nor does the fact that the People's Republic ranks as America's biggest trading partner and holds more than a trillion dollars in U.S. debt. Sustaining the good-vs-evil binary as a basis for policy requires a major enemy. It hardly matters that the most basic assumptions about the continuity between past and present are not only illusory but distinctly counterproductive.
So, here's the deal: history didn't end when the Cold War did. At most, it paused briefly to catch its breath. Now, it's resumed and is darting off in directions we've barely begun to identify. The past that we've been conditioned to cherish, that's supposed to make sense of everything, makes sense of more or less nothing at all. As a result, it won't work as either map or compass. Indispensable Nation? Spare me.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not expecting Madeleine Albright to offer an apology, but it would be helpful if she at least issued a retraction. She might think of it as her parting gift to the nation.
Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book, After the Apocalypse: America's Role in a World Transformed, has just been published.
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