The Pentagon's new warning means World War III may arrive sooner than you think

When the Department of Defense released its annual report on Chinese military strength in early November, one claim generated headlines around the world. By 2030, it suggested, China would probably have 1,000 nuclear warheads — three times more than at present and enough to pose a substantial threat to the United States. As a Washington Post headline put it, typically enough: “China accelerates nuclear weapons expansion, seeks 1,000 warheads or more, Pentagon says.”

The media, however, largely ignored a far more significant claim in that same report: that China would be ready to conduct “intelligentized” warfare by 2027, enabling the Chinese to effectively resist any U.S. military response should it decide to invade the island of Taiwan, which they view as a renegade province. To the newsmakers of this moment, that might have seemed like far less of a headline-grabber than those future warheads, but the implications couldn’t be more consequential. Let me, then, offer you a basic translation of that finding: as the Pentagon sees things, be prepared for World War III to break out any time after January 1, 2027.

To appreciate just how terrifying that calculation is, four key questions have to be answered. What does the Pentagon mean by “intelligentized” warfare? Why would it be so significant if China achieved it? Why do U.S. military officials assume that a war over Taiwan could erupt the moment China masters such warfare? And why would such a war over Taiwan almost certainly turn into World War III, with every likelihood of going nuclear?

Why “Intelligentization” Matters

First, let’s consider “intelligentized” warfare. Pentagon officials routinely assert that China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), already outmatches the U.S. in sheer numbers — more troops, more tanks, more planes, and especially more ships. Certainly, numbers do matter, but in the sort of high-paced “multi-domain” warfare American strategists envision for the future, “information dominance” — in the form of superior intelligence, communications, and battlefield coordination — is expected to matter more. Only when the PLA is “intelligentized” in this fashion, so the thinking goes, will it be able to engage U.S. forces with any confidence of success.

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The naval aspect of the military balance between the two global powers is considered especially critical since any conflict between them is expected to erupt either in the South China Sea or in the waters around Taiwan. Washington analysts regularly emphasize the PLA’s superiority in sheer numbers of combat naval “platforms.” A Congressional Research Service (CRS) report released in October, for instance, noted that “China’s navy is, by far, the largest of any country in East Asia, and within the past few years it has surpassed the U.S. Navy in numbers of battle force ships, making China’s navy the numerically largest in the world.” Statements like these are routinely cited by Congressional hawks to secure more naval funding to close the “gap” in strength between the two countries.

As it happens, though, a careful review of comparative naval analyses suggests that the U.S. still enjoys a commanding lead in critical areas like intelligence collection, target acquisition, anti-submarine warfare, and data-sharing among myriad combat platforms — sometimes called C4ISR (for command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), or to use the Chinese terms, “informationized” and “intelligentized” warfare.

“Although China’s naval modernization effort has substantially improved China’s naval capabilities in recent years,” the CRS report noted, “China’s navy currently is assessed as having limitations or weaknesses in certain areas, including joint operations with other parts of China’s military, antisubmarine warfare, [and] long-range targeting.”

This means that, at the moment, the Chinese would be at a severe disadvantage in any significant encounter with American forces over Taiwan, where mastery of surveillance and targeting data would be essential for victory. Overcoming its C4ISR limitations has, therefore, become a major priority for the Chinese military, superseding the quest for superiority in numbers alone. According to the 2021 Pentagon report, this task was made a top-level priority in 2020 when the 5th Plenum of the 19th Central Committee established “a new milestone for modernization in 2027, to accelerate the integrated development of mechanization, informatization, and intelligentization of the PRC’s armed forces.” The achievement of such advances, the Pentagon added, “would provide Beijing with more credible military options in a Taiwan contingency.”

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Five years is not a lot of time in which to acquire mastery over such diverse and technically challenging military capabilities, but American analysts nonetheless believe that the PLA is well on its way to achieving that 2027 milestone. To overcome its “capability gap” in C4ISR, the Pentagon report noted, “the PLA is investing in joint reconnaissance, surveillance, command, control, and communications systems at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels.”

If, as predicted, China succeeds by 2027, it will then be able to engage the U.S. Navy in the seas around Taiwan and potentially defeat it. This, in turn, would allow Beijing to bully the Taiwanese without fear of intervention from Washington. As suggested by the Defense Department in its 2021 report, China’s leadership has “connected the PLA’s 2027 goals to developing the capabilities to counter the U.S. military in the Indo-Pacific region and compel Taiwan’s leadership to the negotiation table on Beijing’s terms.”

Beijing’s Taiwan Nightmare

Ever since Chiang Kai-shek and the remnants of his Chinese Nationalist Party (the Kuomintang, or KMT) fled to Taiwan after the Communist takeover of China in 1949, establishing the Republic of China (ROC) on that island, the Communist Party leadership in Beijing has sought Taiwan’s “reunification” with the mainland. Initially, Taiwanese leaders also dreamed of reconquering the mainland (with U.S. help, of course) and extending the ROC’s sway to all of China. But after Chiang died in 1975 and Taiwan transitioned to democratic rule, the KMT lost ground to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which eschews integration with the mainland, seeking instead to establish an independent Taiwanese state.

As talk of independence has gained favor there, Chinese officials have sought to coax the Taiwanese public into accepting peaceful reunification by promoting cross-Strait trade and tourism, among other measures. But the appeal of independence appears to be growing, especially among younger Taiwanese who have recoiled at Beijing’s clampdown on civil liberties and democratic rule in Hong Kong — a fate they fear awaits them, should Taiwan ever fall under mainland rule. This, in turn, has made the leadership in Beijing increasingly anxious, as any opportunity for the peaceful reunification of Taiwan appears to be slipping away, leaving military action as their only conceivable option.

President Xi Jinping expressed the conundrum Beijing faces well in his November 15th Zoom interchange with President Biden. “Achieving China’s complete reunification is an aspiration shared by all sons and daughters of the Chinese nation,” he stated. “We have patience and will strive for the prospect of peaceful reunification with utmost sincerity and efforts. That said, should the separatist forces for Taiwan independence provoke us, force our hands, or even cross the red line, we will be compelled to take resolute measures.”

In fact, what Xi calls the “separatist forces for Taiwan independence” have already gone far beyond provocation, affirming that Taiwan is indeed an independent state in all but name and that it will never voluntarily fall under mainland rule. This was evident, for example, in an October 10th address by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. The island, she declared, must “resist annexation or encroachment upon our sovereignty,” directly rejecting Beijing’s right to ever rule Taiwan.

But if China does use force — or is “compelled to take resolute measures,” as Xi put it — Beijing would likely have to contend with a U.S. counterstroke. Under existing legislation, notably the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the United States is under no obligation to aid Taiwan in such circumstances. However, that act also states that any use of force to alter Taiwan’s status will be viewed as a matter “of grave concern to the United States” — a stance known as “strategic ambiguity” as it neither commits this country to a military response, nor rules it out.

Recently, however, prominent figures in Washington have begun calling for “strategic clarity” instead, all but guaranteeing a military response to any Chinese strike against the island. “The United States needs to be clear that we will not allow China to invade Taiwan and subjugate it,” Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton typically said in a February 2021 address at the Ronald Reagan Institute. “I think the time has come to be clear: Replace strategic ambiguity with strategic clarity that the United States will come to the aid of Taiwan if China was to forcefully invade Taiwan or otherwise change the status quo across the [Taiwan] Strait.”

President Biden, too, seemed to embrace just such a position recently. When asked during an October CNN “town hall” whether the United States would protect Taiwan, he answered bluntly, “Yes, we have a commitment to do that.” The White House would later walk that statement back, insisting that Washington still adheres to the Taiwan Relations Act and a “One China” policy that identifies both Taiwan and mainland China as part of a single nation. Nonetheless, the administration has continued to conduct massive air and sea maneuvers in the waters off Taiwan, suggesting an inclination to defend Taiwan against any future invasion.

Clearly, then, Chinese policymakers must count on at least the possibility of U.S. military intervention should they order an invasion of Taiwan. And from their perspective, this means it won’t be safe to undertake such an invasion until the PLA has been fully intelligentized — a milestone it will achieve in 2027, if the Pentagon analysis is correct.

The Road to World War III

Nobody can be sure what the world will look like in 2027 or just how severe tensions over Taiwan could be by then. To take but one example, the DPP could lose to the KMT in that island’s 2024 presidential elections, reversing its march toward independence. Alternatively, China’s leadership could decide that a long-term accommodation with a quasi-independent Taiwan was the best possible recourse for maintaining its significant global economic status.

If, however, you stick with the Pentagon’s way of thinking, things look grim. You would have to assume that Taiwan will continue its present course and that Beijing’s urge to secure the island’s integration with the mainland will only intensify. Likewise, you would have to assume that the inclination of Washington policymakers to support an ever-more-independent Taiwan in the face of Chinese military action will only grow, as relations with Beijing continue to spiral downward.

From this circumscribed perspective, all that’s holding China’s leaders back from using force to take Taiwan right now is their concern over the PLA’s inferiority in intelligentized warfare. Once that’s overcome — in 2027, by the Pentagon’s reckoning — nothing will stand in the way of a Chinese invasion or possibly World War III.

Under such circumstances, it’s all too imaginable that Washington might move from a stance of “strategic stability” to one of “strategic clarity,” providing Taiwan’s leadership with an ironclad guarantee of military support in the face of any future attack. While this wouldn’t alter Chinese military planning significantly — PLA strategists undoubtedly assume that the U.S. would intervene, pledge or not — it could lead to complaisance in Washington, to a conviction that Beijing would automatically be deterred by such a guarantee (as Senator Cotton and many others seem to think). In the process, both sides could instead find themselves on the path to war.

And take my word for it, a conflict between them, however it began, could prove hard indeed to confine to the immediate neighborhood of Taiwan. In any such engagement, the principal job of Chinese forces would be to degrade American air and naval forces in the western Pacific. This could end up involving the widespread use of cruise and ballistic missiles to strike U.S. ships, as well as its bases in Japan, South Korea, and on various Pacific islands. Similarly, the principal job of the U.S. military would be to degrade Chinese air and naval forces, as well as its missile-launching facilities on the mainland. The result could be instant escalation, including relentless air and missile attacks, possibly even the use of the most advanced hypersonic missiles then in the U.S. and Chinese arsenals.

The result would undoubtedly be tens of thousands of combat casualties on both sides, as well as the loss of major assets like aircraft carriers and port facilities. Such a set of calamities might, of course, prompt one side or the other to cut its losses and pull back, if not surrender. The likelier possibility, however, would be a greater escalation in violence, including strikes ever farther afield with ever more powerful weaponry. Heavily populated cities could come under attack in China, Taiwan, Japan, or possibly elsewhere, producing hundreds of thousands of casualties.

Unless one side or the other surrendered — and which of these two proud nations is likely to do that? — such a conflict would continue to expand with each side calling for support from its allies. China would undoubtedly turn to Russia and Iran, the U.S. to Australia, India, and Japan. (Perhaps anticipating just such a future, the Biden administration only recently forged a new military alliance with Australia and the United Kingdom called AUKUS, while beefing up its “Quad” security arrangement with Australia, India, and Japan.)

In this way, however haltingly, a new “world war” could emerge and, worse yet, could easily escalate. Both the U.S. and China are already working hard to deploy hypersonic missiles and more conventional weaponry meant to target the other side’s vital defense nodes, including early-warning radars, missile batteries, and command-and-control centers, only increasing the risk that either side could misconstrue such a “conventional” attack as the prelude to a nuclear strike and, out of desperation, decide to strike first. Then we’re really talking about World War III.

Today, this must seem highly speculative to most of us, but to war planners in the Department of Defense and the Chinese Ministry of Defense, there’s nothing speculative about it. Pentagon officials are convinced that China is indeed determined to ensure Taiwan’s integration with the mainland, by force if necessary, and believe that there’s a good chance they’ll be called upon to help defend the island should that occur. As history suggests — think of the years leading up to World War I — planning of this sort can all too easily turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, however speculative all of this may seem, it should be taken seriously by any of us who dread the very idea of a major future outbreak of war, let alone a catastrophe on the scale of World Wars I and II, or with nuclear weapons on a scale as yet unknown. If such a fate is to be avoided, far more effort will have to go into solving the Taiwan dilemma and finding a peaceful resolution to the island’s status.

As a first step (though don’t count on it these days), Washington and Beijing could agree to curtail their military maneuvers in the waters and airspace around Taiwan and consult with each other, as well as Taiwan’s representatives, on tension-reducing measures of various sorts. Talks could also be held on steps to limit the deployment of especially destabilizing weapons of any kind, including hypersonic missiles.

If the Pentagon is right, however, the time for such action is already running out. After all, 2027, and the possible onset of World War III, is only five years away.

Copyright 2021 Michael T. Klare

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is the five-college professor emeritus of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and a senior visiting fellow at the Arms Control Association. He is the author of 15 books, the latest of which is All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change. He is a founder of the Committee for a Sane U.S.-China Policy.

The American Century has been a disaster of the first order

On February 17, 1941, less than 10 months before the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor and the U.S. found itself in a global war, Henry Luce, in an editorial in Life magazine (which he founded along with Time and Fortune), declared the years to come "the American Century." He then urged this country's leaders to "exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit."

And he wasn't wrong, was he? Eight decades later, who would deny that we've lived through something like an American century? After all, in 1945, the U.S. emerged triumphant from World War II, a rare nation remarkably unravaged by that war (despite the 400,000 casualties it had suffered). With Great Britain heading for the imperial sub-basement, Washington found itself instantly the military and economic powerhouse on the planet.

As it turned out, however, to "exert upon the world the full impact of our influence," one other thing was necessary and, fortunately, at hand: an enemy. From then on, America's global stature and power would, in fact, be eternally based on facing down enemies. Fortunately, in 1945, there was that other potential, if war-ravaged, powerhouse, the Soviet Union. That future "superpower" had been an ally in World War II, but no longer. It would thereafter be the necessary enemy in a "cold war" that sometimes threatened to turn all too hot. And it would, of course, ensure that what later came to be known as the military-industrial complex (and a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying many planets like this one) would be funded in a way once historically inconceivable in what might still have passed for peacetime.

In 1991, however, after a disastrous war in Afghanistan, the Soviet empire finally collapsed in economic ruin. As it went down, hosannas of triumph rang out in a surprised Washington. Henry Luce, by then dead almost a quarter of a century, would undoubtedly have been thrilled.

The Indispensable Superpower

In the meantime, in those cold-verging-on-hot-war years, the U.S. ruled the roost in what came to be known as "the free world," while its corporations came to economically dominate much of the planet. Though it would be a true global imperial power with hundreds of military bases scattered across every continent but Antarctica, there would prove to be significant limits to that power — and I'm not just thinking of the Soviet Union or its communist ally (later opponent), Mao Zedong's China.

At the edges of what was then called "the Third World" — whether in Southeast Asia during and after the disastrous Vietnam War or in Iran after 1979 — American power often enough came a cropper in memorable ways. Still, in those years, on a planet some 25,000 miles in circumference, Washington certainly had a remarkable reach and, in 1991, when the Soviet Union disappeared, it seemed as if Luce had been a prophet of the first order. After all, the United States as the ultimate imperial power had — or so, at least, it appeared at that moment — been left without even a major power, no less another superpower, as an enemy on a planet that looked, at least to those in Washington, like it was ours for the taking. And indeed, take it we soon enough would try to do.

No wonder, in those years, American politicians and key officials filled the airwaves with self-congratulation and self-praise for what they liked to think of as the most "exceptional," "indispensable," "greatest" power on the planet and sure to remain so forever and a day.

In another sense, however, problems loomed instantly. Things were so desperate for the military-industrial complex in a country promised a cut in "defense" spending, then known as a "peace dividend," thanks to the triumph over the Soviets, that enemies had to be created out of whole cloth. They were, it turned out, fundamental to the organization of American global power. A world without them was essentially inconceivable or, at least, inconvenient beyond imagining. Hence, the usefulness of Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein who would be not-quite-taken-down in the first Gulf War of 1991.

Perhaps the classic example of the desperate need to create enemies, however, would occur early in the next century. Remember the "Axis of Evil" announced (and denounced) by President George W. Bush in his January 2002 State of the Union address? He called out three states — Iran, Iraq, and North Korea — that then had not the slightest way of injuring the U.S. ("States like these, and their terrorist allies," insisted the president, "constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.") Of course, this was, in part, based on the claim that Iraq might have just such weapons of mass destruction (it didn't!) and that it would, in turn, be willing to give them to terror groups to attack the U.S. That lie would become part of the basis for the invasion of that country the next year.

Think of all this as the strangest kind of imperial desperation from a superpower that seemed to have it all. And the result, of course, after Osama bin Laden launched his air force and those 19 mostly Saudi hijackers against New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, was the Global War on Terror, which would soon prove a self-imposed, self-created disaster.

Or think of it another way, when considering the imperial fate of America and this planet: the crew who ran Washington (and the U.S. military) then proved — as would be true throughout the first two decades of the twenty-first century — incapable of learning even the most basic lessons history had to offer. After all, only a decade after the Soviet Union collapsed, thanks in significant part to what its leader called its "bleeding wound," a disastrous war in Afghanistan in which the Red Army became endlessly mired, the Bush administration would launch its own disastrous war in Afghanistan in which it would become — yep, endlessly mired. It was as if this country, in its moment of triumph, couldn't help but take the Soviet path into the future, the one heading for the exits.

Cold Wars and Hot Wars

In November 2021, just three decades after the implosion of the Soviet Union, no one could imagine any longer that such a vision of victory and success-to-come caught the underlying realities of this country or this century. The arrival of Donald Trump in the White House five years earlier had been the most visible proof of that.

It's hard to imagine today that he wasn't the truest of all products of that very American Century, a genuine message from it to us and the rest of the world. He was, after all, the man who, in his key slogan in 2016 as this country's first declinist candidate for president — "Make America Great Again" (MAGA) — suggested that it had been all over for a while when it came to this country being the first player in history. He had, in fact, been coughed up by an authoritarian system already in formation. He vaulted into office not just claiming that the American system was a fraud, but that it had lost its firstness and its greatness. In response to that message, so many Americans who felt that they, too, had lost their way, that they were, in fact, being crushed by history, voted for him. In a mere four years in the Oval Office, he would bring a true sense of enemy-ness home in a new and shattering way, creating a world in which the enemy was distinctly American and needed to be overthrown.

The topsy-turvy nature of the Trumpian version of the American century is something this country — and certainly the Biden administration — still hasn't fully come to grips with. For decades, we had indeed led the rest of the world and this is what we had led them into: the conspiracy theory of history (almost any conspiracy theory you want to mention), the "fraudulent" election now being eternally denounced by Donald Trump, the coup attempt of January 6th, a Republican Party that's become the opposition from hell, a planet on which fossil-fuel companies (often American) knew decades ago just what was happening with the climate and invested their extra funds in making sure that other Americans didn't, and… but why go on? If you don't sense the depth and truth of this tale of the American Century, just ask Joe Manchin.

Its final decades seem to be a time when this country's politicians can hardly agree on a thing, including how to keep Americans safe in a pandemic moment. Check out the New York Times Covid-19 "global hotspots" map and, in these last months, it's looked like a replay of the Cold War, since the U.S. and Russia are the two largest "hotspots" of death and destruction on the planet, each colored a wild red. Think of it as a new kind of hot war.

And little wonder at the confusion of it all. I mean, talk about a superpower that proved incapable of learning from history! In response to the slaughter of 3,000 Americans on 9/11 — and mind you, something like 3,000 Americans were being slaughtered every two days most of this year thanks, in part, to the murderous leadership of various Trumpian figures in this pandemic moment — the greatest power ever decided that the only response imaginable to 9/11 was to launch its own war in Afghanistan. Thank you, Soviet Union, for your example (not to speak of our own example in Vietnam back when)! And yes, 20 years later, on a planet far more filled with Islamist terror groups than might have seemed even faintly imaginable on September 11, 2001, failure is just another word for a "new cold war."

Oh, yes, in 2021, there is indeed another power rising on this planet, one it's necessary to organize against with all due haste — or so the Biden administration and the U.S. military would like us to believe. And no, I'm not thinking about the power of a fast-heating climate, which threatens to take down anyone's century. I'm thinking, of course, about China.

An Upside-Down Version of 1991

As we head into the final two decades of the all-American era that Luce predicted, think about this: the American Century has been a disaster of the first order. In the wake of the implosion of the Soviet Union, the U.S. decided to remake the world and did so — at least in the sense of allowing climate change to run riot on Planet Earth — while, in the process, unmaking itself.

So, 80 years after Henry Luce proclaimed its existence, welcome indeed to the American Century, or rather to the increasingly nightmarish planet it's left us on. Welcome to an age of billionaires (that could even one day see its first trillionaire); to levels of desperate inequality that would once have been unimaginable here; to large-scale death due to a pandemic from hell mismanaged by men who were functionally murderers; and to a literally hellish future that, without the kind of war-style mobilization Joe Manchin among others is ensuring will never happen, will sooner rather than later envelop this country and the planet it meant to rule in a climate disaster.

Honestly, could the Chinese century — not that it's likely, given how the world is trending — be worse? You don't even have to leave this country and go to Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, or Yemen to judge that question anymore.

And sadly, the one thing the triumphalists of 1991 agreed on — and American politicians have never changed their minds about, no matter the course of our wars — was funding the military-industrial complex in a way that they never would have funded either the bolstering of human health or the halting of climate change. That urge to dump taxpayer dollars into the American war machine, despite failure after failure in war after war, has never been stanched. It remains more or less the only thing congressional Democrats and Republicans can still agree on — that and the need for an enemy to endlessly prepare to fight.

And now, of course, the imperial power that simply couldn't exist without such enemies and has left Afghanistan and much of the rest of its War on Terror (despite the odd drone strike) largely in the lurch, is in the process of creating its newest enemy for a new age: China. Think of the new cold war that the Biden administration (like the Trump administration before it) has been promoting as 1991 turned upside down when it comes to enemy-ness. The ultimate moment of American triumph and then of despair both needed their distant enemies, an ever-more well financed military-industrial-congressional complex, and an ever more "modernized" nuclear arsenal.

Oh, the hubris of it all. We were the country that would remake the world in our image. We would bring "liberation" and "democracy" to the Afghans and the Iraqis, among others, and glory to this land. In the end, of course, we brought them little but pain, displacement, and death, while bringing American democracy itself, with all its failings, to the autocratic edge of hell in a world of "fraudulent" elections and coupsters galore.

Now, it seems, we are truly living out the end of the American Century in the world it created. Who woulda thunk it?


Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Tom Engelhardt created and runs the website TomDispatch.com. He is also a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. A fellow of the Type Media Center, his sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.

The United States is visibly in an early stage of disintegration

Like Gregor Samsa, the never-to-be-forgotten character in Franz Kafka's story "The Metamorphosis," we awoke on January 7th to discover that we, too, were "a giant insect" with "a domelike brown belly divided into stiff arched segments" and numerous "pitifully thin" legs that "waved helplessly" before our eyes. If you prefer, though, you can just say it: we opened our eyes and found that, somehow, we had become a giant roach of a country.

Yes, I know, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are now in charge and waving their own little limbs wildly, trying to do some of what needs to be done for this sad land of the disturbed, over-armed, sick, and dying. But anyone who watched the scenes of Floridians celebrating a Super Bowl victory, largely unmasked and cheering, shoulder to shoulder in the streets of Tampa, can't help but realize that we are now indeed a roach nation, the still-wealthiest, most pandemically unmasked one on Planet Earth.

But don't just blame Donald Trump. Admittedly, we've just passed through the Senate trial and acquittal of the largest political cockroach around. I'm talking about the president who, upon discovering that his vice president was in danger of being "executed" ("Hang Mike Pence!") and was being rushed out of the Senate as a mob bore down on him, promptly tweeted: "Mike Pence didn't have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution."

Just imagine. The veep who had — if you don't mind my mixing my creature metaphors here — toadied up to the president for four endless years was then given a functional death sentence by that same man. You can't fall much deeper into personal roachdom than that. My point here, though, is that our all-American version of roacherie was a long time in coming.

Or put another way: unimaginable as The Donald might have seemed when he descended that Trump Tower escalator in June 2015 to hail his future "great, great wall," denounce Mexican "rapists," and bid to make a whole country into his apprentices, he didn't end up in the Oval Office for no reason. He was the symptom, not the disease, though what a symptom he would prove to be — and when it came to diseases, what a nightmare beyond all imagining.

Let's face it, whether we fully grasp the fact or not, we now live in a system, as well as a country, that's visibly in an early stage of disintegration. And there lies a remarkable tale of history happening at warp speed, of how, in not quite three decades, the USS Enterprise of imperial powers was transformed into the USS Roach.

Once Upon a Time on Earth…

Return for a moment to 1991, almost two years after the Berlin Wall fell, when the Soviet Union finally imploded and the Cold War officially ended. Imagine that you had been able to show Americans then — especially the political class in Washington — that 13-minute video of Trump statements and tweets interlarded with mob actions in the Capitol that the Democratic House impeachment managers used in their opening salvo against the former president. Americans — just about any of us — would have thought we were watching the most absurd science fiction or perhaps the single least reality-based bit of black comedy imaginable.

In the thoroughly self-satisfied (if somewhat surprised) Washington of 1991, the triumphalist capital of "the last superpower," that video would have portrayed a president, an insurrectionary mob, and an endangered Congress no one could have imagined possible — not in another nearly 30 years, not in a century, not in any American future. Then again, if in 1991 you had tried to convince anyone in this country that a walking Ponzi scheme(r) like Donald Trump could become president, no less be impeached twice, you would have been laughed out of the room.

After all, this country had just become the ultimate superpower in history, the last one ever. Left alone on this planet, it had a military beyond compare and an economy that was the heartland of a globalized system and the envy of the world. The Earth was — or at least to the political class of that moment seemed to be — ours for the taking, but certainly not for the losing, not in any imaginable future. The question then wasn't keeping them out but keeping us in. No "big, fat, beautiful walls" were needed. After all, Russia was a wreck. China was still emerging economically from the hell of the Maoist years. Europe was dependent on the U.S. and, when it came to the rest of world, what else need be said?

This was an American planet, pure and simple.

In retrospect, consider the irony. There had been talk then about a post-Cold War "peace dividend." Who would have guessed, though, that dividends of any sort would increasingly go to the top 1% and that almost 30 years later this country would functionally be a plutocracy overseen until a month ago by a self-professed multibillionaire? Who would have imagined that the American version of a peace dividend would have been siphoned off by more billionaires than anyplace else on earth and that, in those same years, inequality would reach historic heights, while poverty and hunger only grew? Who woulda guessed that whatever peace dividend didn't go to the ultra-wealthy would go to an ever-larger national security state and the industrial complex of weapons makers that surrounded it? Who woulda guessed that, in official post-Cold War Washington, peace would turn out to be the last thing on anyone's mind, even though this country seemed almost disarmingly enemy-less? (Remember when the worst imaginable combination of enemies, a dreaded "axis of evil," would prove to be Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, all embattled, distinctly tertiary powers?)Who woulda guessed that a military considered beyond compare (and funded to this day like no other) would proceed to fight war after war, literally decades of conflict, and yet — except for the quasi-triumph of the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein's Iraq — achieve victory in none of them? Staggering trillions of taxpayer dollars would be spent on them, while those billionaires were given untold tax breaks. Honestly, who would have guessed then that, on a planet lacking significant enemies, Washington, even six presidents later, would prove incapable of stopping fighting?

Who woulda guessed that, in September 2001, not Russia or Communist China, but a tiny group of Islamic militants led by a rich Saudi extremist the U.S. had once backed would send 19 (mostly Saudi) hijackers to directly attack the United States? They would, of course, cause death and mayhem, allowing President George W. Bush to launch an almost 20-year "global war on terror," which still shows no sign of ending. Who woulda guessed that, in the wake of those 9/11 terror attacks, the son of the man who had presided over the first Gulf War (but stopped short of felling Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein) and the top officials of his administration would come to believe that the world was his oyster and that the U.S. should dominate the Greater Middle East and possibly the planet in a way previously unimaginable? Who would have imagined that he would invade Iraq (having done the same in Afghanistan a year and a half earlier), effectively helping to spread Islamic extremism far and wide, while creating a never-ending disaster for this country?

Who woulda guessed that, in 2009, in the wake of a Great Recession at home, the next president, Barack Obama, would order a massive "surge" of forces into Afghanistan, a war already eight years old? Tens of thousands of new troops, not to speak of contractors, CIA operatives, and others would be sent there without faintly settling things.

By November 2016, when an antiquated electoral system gave the popular vote to Hillary Clinton but put Donald Trump, a man who promised to end this country's "endless wars" (he didn't) in the Oval Office, it should have been obvious that something was awry on the yellow brick road to imperial glory. By then, in fact, for a surprising number of Americans, this had become a land of grotesque inequality and lack of opportunity. And many of them would prove ready indeed to use their votes to send a message to the country about their desire to Trump that very reality.

From there, of course, with no Wizard of Oz in sight, it would be anything but a yellow brick road to January 6, 2021, when, the president having rejected the results of the 2020 election, a mob would storm the Capitol. All of it and the impeachment fiasco to follow would reveal the functional definition of a failing democracy, one in which the old rules no longer held.

Exiting the Superpower Stage of History

And, of course, I have yet to even mention the obvious — the still-unending nightmare that engulfed the country early in 2020 and that, I suspect, will someday be seen as the true ending point for a strikingly foreshortened American century. I'm thinking, of course, of Covid-19, the pandemic disease that swept the country, infecting tens of millions of Americans and killing hundreds of thousands in a fashion unmatched anywhere else on the planet. It would even for a time fell a president, while creating mayhem and ever more fierce division in unmasked parts of the country filled with civilians armed to the teeth, swept up in conspiracy theories, and at the edge of who knew what.

Call it a sign from the gods or anything you want, but call it startling. Imagine a disease that the last superpower handled so much more poorly than countries with remarkably fewer resources. Think of it as a kind of judgment, if not epitaph, on that very superpower.

Or put another way: not quite 30 years after the Soviet Union exited the stage of history, we're living in a land that was itself strangely intent on heading for that same exit — a crippled country led by a 78-year-old president, its system under startling pressure and evidently beginning to come apart at the seams. One of its political parties is unrecognizable; its presidency has been stripped of a fully functioning Congress and is increasingly imperial in nature; its economic system plutocratic; its military still struggling across significant parts of the planet, while a possible new cold war with a rising China is evidently on the horizon; and all of this on a planet that itself, even putting aside that global pandemic, is visibly in the deepest of trouble.

At the end of Franz Kafka's classic tale, Gregor Samsa, now a giant insect with a rotting apple embedded in its back, dies in roach hell, even if also in his very own room with his parents and sisters nearby. Is the same fate in store, after a fashion, for the American superpower?

In some sense, in the Trump and Covid-19 years, the United States has indeed been unmasked as a roach superpower on a planet going to — again, excuse the mixed animal metaphors — the dogs. The expected all-American age of power and glory hasn't been faintly what was imagined in 1991, not in a country that has shown remarkably few signs of coming to grips with what these years have truly meant.

Centuries after the modern imperial age began, it's evidently coming to an end in a hell that Joe Biden and crew won't be able to stop, even if, unlike the previous president, they're anything but intent on thoroughly despoiling this land. Still, Trump or Biden, at this point it couldn't be clearer that we need some new way of thinking about and being on this increasingly roach-infested planet of ours.

Copyright 2021 Tom Engelhardt

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Tom Engelhardt created and runs the website TomDispatch.com. He is also a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. A fellow of the Type Media Center, his sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.

What If, after 9/11, George W. Bush had just thrown a bunch of parties?

'Tis the season to be folly
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la
Don(ald) we now our gay apparel,
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la!...

It's party time in the nation's capital and the Christmas spirit reigns supreme, even if the Texas Republican Party does want to secede from the Union. I mean, who doesn't?

And hey, don't you want to attend a party? After all, it'll be at the White House, masks purely optional, social distancing not particularly necessary. Too bad you already missed the Congressional Ball (redubbed the "Covid Ball") that The Donald and Melania so graciously hosted. Still, if you make it to one of the others, be sure to check out Melania's decorations, not to speak of her just-unveiled new White House tennis pavilion of which she should be proud, despite all the criticism. After all, unlike you-know-who, she used the moment to welcome non-Trumpian presidents to come! ("It is my hope that this private space will function as both a place of leisure and gathering for future first families.")

Meanwhile, even though more than 50 people in his circle have already been infected with Covid-19, her husband has been hosting up to 24 parties and celebrations of every sort at the White House this month. In other words, top-notch super-spreader Christmas fun until more or less the end of time. (If you're well over 65, like I am, it may quite literally be your last chance to have a blast.) And whatever you do, when you're freely wandering the White House, don't miss that tribute to essential workers in the Red Room!

If, however, you're of a slightly more serious frame of mind, how about cocktails and hors d'oeuvres at Mike Pompeo's State Department? Hurry it up because one thing is guaranteed: it's not going to be anywhere near as much fun in the Biden years. (I mean, so been-there, done-that, right?) And don't worry, since the State Department building has been deep-cleaned repeatedly due to reported Covid-19 infections there and pay no attention to the fact that State Department personnel are being urged to work from home. I guarantee you that it'll be a blast — and I don't mean a bombing-Iran sort of blast either, though for all any of us knows, that might be in the works, too! After all, you could already have run into a bevy of foreign ambassadors and up to 900 guests (actually, fewer than 70 appeared) in rooms on the eighth floor of that building (but socially distanced, I swear) at gatherings that were supposed to go on until Christmas.

Whoa, rein in that sleigh, Santa! Sorry to disappoint, but Mike canceled his final superspreader party and went into quarantine last week after — big shock! — coming into contact with someone who had the coronavirus while hosting those "diplomats and dignitaries" at close quarters!

Deck the halls with boughs of folly indeed!

A historical switcheroo

And 2020! What a year to celebrate, right? The very year when Donald Trump won his second term as president in a landslide — or am I confused? Did I mean lost the presidency in a landslide of pandemic deaths? Still, if in this "holiday" season, and in the true spirit of Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo, I were to be offered the chance to remake the history of this century, here's the switcheroo I might choose to pull.

Let's start with this simple fact: on December 9th, more people died in a single day from Covid-19 (3,124) than died on September 11, 2001, in the ruins of the Twin Towers and part of the Pentagon (2,977). Or cumulatively speaking, think of it this way: more Americans have died in less than a year from the coronavirus than the 301,000 civilians that Brown University's Costs of War Project estimates have died in America's forever wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, and Yemen since 2001.

Donald Trump's response to the pandemic has, of course, been to give awful advice, hold super-spreader rallies galore, and most recently host those ongoing, largely unmasked festivities at the White House; he has, that is, responded to the arrival of Covid-19 on our shores by committing murder big time. (Estimates are that, by February 2021, 450,000 Americans could be dead from the pandemic even as vaccines to prevent it begin to arrive. By the time this country is more or less safe — if it ever truly is — that number might be 600,000 (or almost in the range of the American toll in the "Spanish Flu" of 1918).

Now, to step back just a few years, consider the response of President George W. Bush to that one day of horrific death caused by 19 mostly Saudi hijackers aboard four commercial jets. In response to those 9/11 attacks, he launched what quickly became known as the Global War on Terror, promptly invaded Afghanistan, and a year and a half later did the same thing in Iraq. (That was, of course, something he and his top officials had begun thinking about — quite literally, in the case of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld — in the rubble of the Pentagon, even though that country's ruler, Saddam Hussein, had nothing whatsoever to do either with al-Qaeda or those terror attacks.) Of course, 19 years later, despite a president who swore he would end this country's "forever wars," the war on terror is still ongoingwithout a lasting victory or true success in sight.

Now, as this mad Trumpian Christmas of ours approaches with increasing parts of the country in lockdown and Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths eternally rising into record-breaking territory, here's my fantasy proposition, my imagined historical switcheroo: What if, in response to 9/11, George W. Bush had, irresponsibly enough, simply thrown parties at the White House in high Trumpian-style; and what if, in response to the coronavirus crisis, Donald Trump had, responsibly enough, launched a global war on Covid-19 in true Bushian fashion? How differently history might have turned out.

The blazing fool before us

Instead, of course, Bush did launch those disastrous invasions and Trump did launch his own personal war on truth when it came to the pandemic (and so much else). The result, in both cases: crimes and deaths galore. Though it's seldom thought of that way, both of those twenty-first-century presidents of "ours" were, in a rather literal sense, mass murderers. In addition, thanks to the two of them and the cast of characters that accompanied them, we now live in a world of remarkable lies and self-delusion, whether we're talking about the U.S. military or our health and well-being.

After all, if you don't think this country is delusional when it comes to what still passes for "national security" consider this: just the other day, the Democrats and Republicans in Congress, who can evidently agree on so little else, passed a record veto-proof defense bill giving the Pentagon a staggering $740 billion dollars for the next fiscal year. (Talk about inequality in this country with so many Americans at the edge of eviction or even hunger and Congress doing next to nothing for them!) In fact, together they actually agreed to offer more money than the Pentagon even asked for when it came to purchasing new arms, including extra Lockheed Martin F-35 jet fighters, already the most expensive and possibly least effective warplanes in history. Meanwhile, across the planet, the weaponry into which all that "national security" money has been poured is still killing people, including startling numbers of civilians, in never-ending unsuccessful wars that have turned millions of people in distant countries into displaced persons and refugees.

Considering such funding to be for "national security" isn't just a joke, but a lie of the first order. It has, as a start, produced both global and national insecurity (while aiding the rise of what's now called right-wing populism). Those disastrous but disastrously well-funded wars launched by George W. Bush proved to be, above all else, acts of mass murder abroad, even as they also led to the deaths, injuries, or PTSD misery of significant numbers of Americans. Think of them, in fact, as, in the most literal sense imaginable, war crimes.

Of course, those acts of mass murder all took place in distant lands far from most American eyes, even as, in an ever more unequal society, they deprived so many here of needed assistance. In part, Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 presidential campaign was a product of that mass murder abroad. And now, without ever actually ending those wars as he promised so vociferously, he's become a mass murderer at home in his own striking fashion. In this pandemic year, think of him, whether in relation to Covid-19 itself or the election that took place in its midst, as launching a kind of war on terror on both Americans and our political system.

In the process, he's helped create a world of staggering folly that should be eternally unmasked. (Whoops! Well, you know what I mean.) The America he's played such a part in producing has created a kind of mental chaos that's hard to take in. One nurse in unmasked South Dakota caught its sad spirit in this series of tweets:

"I have a night off from the hospital. As I'm on my couch with my dog I can't help but think of the Covid patients the last few days. The ones that stick out are those who still don't believe the virus is real. The ones who scream at you for a magic medicine and that Joe Biden is going to ruin the USA. All while gasping for breath on 100% Vapotherm. They tell you there must be another reason they are sick. They call you names and ask why you have to wear all that 'stuff' because they don't have Covid because it's not real... These people really think this isn't going to happen to them. And then they stop yelling at you when they get intubated. It's like a fucking horror movie that never ends. There's no credits that roll. You just go back and do it all over again."

She's right. No credits roll and yet the president and his men, as well as Republican governors like South Dakota's Kristi Noem who refuse to mandate masks are, in an obvious sense, aiding and abetting murders. Take, for instance, the president's lawyer, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani who traveled the country unmasked, ignoring social distancing guidelines wherever he went, to beat the post-election drums for Donald Trump. He then fell ill with Covid-19, was hospitalized, got special medications that most Americans could never receive thanks to his pal, and called into his own radio show from his hospital room to essentially denounce masking and social distancing and assure his listeners that Covid-19 was "curable." (Tell that to the more than 300,000 Americans who have already died from it.)

Now, don't such acts, multiplied many times over, qualify as part of what might be considered a homegrown war of (not on) terror in a world not of holly but folly this Christmas season? And I haven't even mentioned the crimes this president and his administration have committed against the environment or President Trump's criminal urge to torch the planet itself in a fashion that, given what we already know about climate change, will potentially result in so much more death, destruction, and displacement.

We live in a land of vast crimes against others and increasingly against ourselves. We also await a new president whose greatest ad line is simply that he is not Donald J. Trump (thank god!), though in all honesty that "new" has to be taken under advisement. Let's hope for the best, especially when it comes to climate change, but Joe Biden will, after all, be 78 years old — by far the oldest president in our history — on entering the Oval Office. He's the been-there, done-that man of our moment and, Obama appointee by Obama appointee, he seems largely intent on recreating a familiar past that helped create the very future we're now mired in.

As we await him in a country on edge, armed, angry, and in a conspiratorial frame of mind, as we face a Mitch McConnell Republican Party that would rather take down the future than negotiate much of anything, Donald Trump, the murderer, continues to prove himself the ultimate, possibly all-time, sore loser, even as he parties away at the White House. He gives a pandemic version of Christmas true meaning.

See the blazing fool before us,
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la

Copyright 2020 Tom Engelhardt

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