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Tom Engelhardt, Alone and Delusional on Planet Earth

6:00 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

And Then There Was One 

Delusional Thinking in the Age of the Single Superpower
By Tom Engelhardt

Tattered American Flag

Tom Engelhardt on the madness of the world’s lone superpower.

In an increasingly phantasmagorical world, here’s my present fantasy of choice: someone from General Keith Alexander’s outfit, the National Security Agency, tracks down H.G. Wells’s time machine in the attic of an old house in London. Britain’s subservient Government Communications Headquarters, its version of the NSA, is paid off and the contraption is flown to Fort Meade, Maryland, where it’s put back in working order. Alexander then revs it up and heads not into the future like Wells to see how our world ends, but into the past to offer a warning to Americans about what’s to come.

He arrives in Washington on October 23, 1962, in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a day after President Kennedy has addressed the American people on national television to tell them that this planet might not be theirs — or anyone else’s — for long. (“We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth, but neither will we shrink from the risk at any time it must be faced.”) Greeted with amazement by the Washington elite, Alexander, too, goes on television and informs the same public that, in 2013, the major enemy of the United States will no longer be the Soviet Union, but an outfit called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and that the headquarters of our country’s preeminent foe will be found somewhere in the rural backlands of… Yemen.

Yes, Yemen, a place most Americans, then and now, would be challenged to find on a world map. I guarantee you one thing: had such an announcement actually been made that day, most Americans would undoubtedly have dropped to their knees and thanked God for His blessings on the American nation. Though even then a nonbeliever, I would undoubtedly have been among them. After all, the 18-year-old Tom Engelhardt, on hearing Kennedy’s address, genuinely feared that he and the few pathetic dreams of a future he had been able to conjure up were toast.

Had Alexander added that, in the face of AQAP and similar minor jihadist enemies scattered in the backlands of parts of the planet, the U.S. had built up its military, intelligence, and surveillance powers beyond anything ever conceived of in the Cold War or possibly in the history of the planet, Americans of that time would undoubtedly have considered him delusional and committed him to an asylum.

Such, however, is our world more than two decades after Eastern Europe was liberated, the Berlin Wall came down, the Cold War definitively ended, and the Soviet Union disappeared.

Why Orwell Was Wrong

Now, let me mention another fantasy connected to the two-superpower Cold War era: George Orwell’s 1948 vision of the world of 1984 (or thereabouts, since the inhabitants of his novel of that title were unsure just what year they were living in). When the revelations of NSA contractor Edward Snowden began to hit the news and we suddenly found ourselves knee-deep in stories about Prism, XKeyscore, and other Big Brother-ish programs that make up the massive global surveillance network the National Security Agency has been building, I had a brilliant idea — reread 1984.

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Tom Engelhardt, Can Edward Snowden Be Deterred?

6:48 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

Portrait of Snowden

Edward Snowden: An unstoppable whistleblower?

It’s hard even to know how to take it in.  I mean, what’s really happening?  An employee of a private contractor working for the National Security Agency makes off with unknown numbers of files about America’s developing global security state on a thumb drive and four laptop computers, and jumps the nearest plane to Hong Kong.  His goal: to expose a vast surveillance structure built in the shadows in the post-9/11 years and significantly aimed at Americans.  He leaks some of the documents to a columnist at the British Guardian and to the Washington Post.  The response is unprecedented: an “international manhunt” (or more politely but less accurately, “a diplomatic full court press”) conducted not by Interpol or the United Nations but by the planet’s sole superpower, the very government whose practices the leaker was so intent on exposing.

And that’s just for starters.  Let’s add another factor.  The leaker, a young man with great techno-savvy, lets the world know that he’s picked and chosen among the NSA files in his possession.  He’s releasing only those he thinks the American public needs in order to start a full-scale debate about the unprecedented secret world of surveillance that their taxpayer dollars have created.  In other words, this is no “document dump.”  He wants to spark change without doing harm.

But here’s the kicker: he couldn’t be more aware of previous whistleblower cases, the punitive reaction of his government to them, and the fate that might be his.  As a result, we now know, he has encrypted the full set of files in his possession and left them in one or more safe places for unknown individuals — that is, we don’t know who they are — to access, should he be taken by the U.S.

In other words, from the time Edward Snowden’s first leaked documents came out, it was obvious that he was in control of how much of the NSA’s secret world would be seen.  It would be hard then not to conclude that capturing him, imprisoning him, trying him, and throwing away the key is likely to increase, not decrease, the flow of those documents.  Knowing that, the Obama administration and the representatives of our secret world went after him anyway — after one man on a global scale and in a way that may not have a precedent.  No thought of future embarrassment stopped them, nor, it seems, did they hesitate because of possible resentments engendered by their heavy-handed pressure on numerous foreign governments.

The result has been a global spectacle, as well as a worldwide debate about the spying practices of the U.S. (and its allies).  In these weeks, Washington has proven determined, vengeful, implacable.  It has strong-armed, threatened, and elbowed powers large and small.  It has essentially pledged that the leaker, former Booz Allen employee Edward Snowden, will never be safe on this planet in his lifetime. And yet, to mention the obvious, the greatest power on Earth has, as yet, failed to get its man and is losing the public opinion battle globally.

An Asylum-less World

Highlighted in all this has been a curious fact of our twenty-first-century world.  In the Cold War years, asylum was always potentially available.  If you opposed one of the two superpowers or its allies, the other was usually ready to open its arms to you, as the U.S. famously did for what were once called “Soviet dissidents” in great numbers.  The Soviets did the same for Americans, Brits, and others, often secret communists, sometimes actual spies, who opposed the leading capitalist power and its global order.

Today, if you are a twenty-first-century “dissident” and need asylum/protection from the only superpower left, there is essentially none to be had.  Even after three Latin American countries, enraged at Washington’s actions, extended offers of protection to Snowden, these should be treated as a new category of limited asylum.  After all, the greatest power on the planet has, since 9/11, shown itself perfectly willing to do almost anything in pursuit of its definition of “security” or the security of its security system.  Torture, abuse, the setting up of secret prisons or “black sites,” the kidnapping of terrorist suspects (including perfectly innocent people) off the streets of global cities and in the backlands of the planet, as well as their “rendition” to the torture chambers of complicit allied regimes, and the secret surveillance of anyone anywhere would only start a far longer list.

Nothing about the “international manhunt” for Snowden indicates that the Obama administration would be unwilling to send in the CIA or special operations types to “render” him from Venezuela, Bolivia, or Nicaragua, no matter the cost to hemispheric relations.  Snowden himself brought up this possibility in his first interview with Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald.  “I could,” he said bluntly, “be rendered by the CIA.” This assumes that he can even make it to a land of exile from somewhere in the bowels of the international terminal of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport without being intercepted by Washington.

It’s true that there remain some modest limits on the actions even of a rogue superpower.  It’s hard to imagine Washington dropping its kidnappers into Russia or China to take Snowden, which is perhaps why it has put such pressure on both countries to turn him in or hustle him along.  With smaller, weaker lands, however, non-nuclear allies or enemies or frenemies, don’t doubt the possibility for a second.

If Edward Snowden is proving one thing, it’s this: in 2013, Planet Earth isn’t big enough to protect the American version of dissidents.”  Instead, it looks ever more like a giant prison with a single implacable policeman, judge, jury, and jailer.

Deterrence Theory the Second Time Around

In the Cold War years, the two nuclear-armed superpowers practiced what was called “deterrence theory,” or more aptly MAD, short for “mutually assured destruction.”  Think of it as the particularly grim underside of what might have been but wasn’t called MAA (mutually assured asylum).  The knowledge that no nuclear first strike by one superpower could succeed in preventing the other from striking back with overwhelming force, destroying them both (and possibly the planet) seemed, however barely, to hold their enmity and weaponry at bay.  It forced them to fight their wars, often by proxy, on the global frontiers of empire.

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Pepe Escobar, The Tao of Containing China

6:39 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Chinese President Xi Jinping

China is poised to embrace global capitalism under Xi Jinping.

Yes, the predictions are in.  By 2016 (or 2030?), China will have economically outpaced the U.S.  So say the economic soothsayers.  And behind them lie all those, in the Pentagon and elsewhere in Washington, who secretly fear that, if nothing is done to contain it, China will within decades be dominant in the Pacific, the overlord of Asia, and perhaps later in the century the — to steal a phrase — “sole superpower” of planet Earth.

The first signs of things to come, it’s believed, are already there, including the way China has been building up its military and has started nudging its neighbors about a set of largely uninhabited islands in energy-rich areas of the Pacific, not to speak of recent more informal claims to a large, heavily inhabited, very militarized island in the region — Okinawa.  Like the previous global superpower, China, it is believed, has designs on turning the Pacific into its own “lake” and possibly even setting up military and other bases (“a string of pearls”) through the Indian Ocean all the way to Africa.

It’s a great story, but hold your horses!  As that peripatetic reporter for Asia Times and TomDispatch regular Pepe Escobar indicates in today’s vivid plunge into China’s roiled waters, that country faces potentially staggering problems.  After all, contradictions — to use a classic Marxist word — abound: a Communist Party leading a capitalist revolution with its own stability as a ruling elite dependent, above all, upon ever greater economic growth.  And yet this isn’t the nineteenth century.  China is on an imperiled planet.  Every economic move it makes has potentially long-term negative consequences.  For all we know, there may be no twenty-second-century superpower on planet Earth and if there is, don’t necessarily count on China.

As Escobar explains, to spur the staggering levels of growth that keep the country and the Party afloat, the Chinese leadership is embarking on a kind of forced urbanization program that may have no historical precedent.  It is guaranteed to destabilize the countryside, while yet more peasants flood into the cities.  It’s seldom acknowledged here (though the Chinese leadership is well aware of it) but China has a unique, almost two-thousand-year-long record of massive peasant uprisings (often religiously tinged) sweeping out of the countryside and upsetting established rule.  The last of them was Mao Zedong’s peasant revolution that established the present People’s Republic.

Mass protest in China has been on the rise.  Environmental conditions are disastrous.  Let the Chinese economy falter and who knows what you’ll see.  This is not a formula for an expansive imperial power, no less the next master of planet Earth, whatever Washington’s fears and militarized fantasies may be. Tom

The Chimerica Dream
Two Nations, Two Dreams, One Pacific
By Pepe Escobar

Sun Tzu, the ancient author of The Art of War, must be throwing a rice wine party in his heavenly tomb in the wake of the shirtsleeves California love-in between President Obama and President Xi Jinping. “Know your enemy” was, it seems, the theme of the meeting. Beijing was very much aware of — and had furiously protested — Washington’s deep plunge into China’s computer networks over the past 15 years via a secretive NSA unit, the Office of Tailored Access Operations (with the apt acronym TAO). Yet Xi merrily allowed Obama to pontificate on hacking and cyber-theft as if China were alone on such a stage.

Enter — with perfect timing — Edward Snowden, the spy who came in from Hawaii and who has been holed up in Hong Kong since May 20th. And cut to the wickedly straight-faced, no-commentary-needed take on Obama’s hacker army by Xinhua, the Chinese Communist Party’s official press service. With America’s dark-side-of-the-moon surveillance programs like Prism suddenly in the global spotlight, the Chinese, long blistered by Washington’s charges about hacking American corporate and military websites, were polite enough. They didn’t even bother to mention that Prism was just another node in the Pentagon’s Joint Vision 2020 dream of “full spectrum dominance.”

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Tom Engelhardt: You Are Our Secret

6:54 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

NSA HQ

NSA Headquarters in Ft. Meade. Snowden’s whistleblowing has revealed much about what goes on in places like this.

As happens with so much news these days, the Edward Snowden revelations about National Security Agency (NSA) spying and just how far we’ve come in the building of a surveillance state have swept over us 24/7 — waves of leaks, videos, charges, claims, counterclaims, skullduggery, and government threats.  When a flood sweeps you away, it’s always hard to find a little dry land to survey the extent and nature of the damage.  Here’s my attempt to look beyond the daily drumbeat of this developing story (which, it is promised, will go on for weeks, if not months) and identify five urges essential to understanding the world Edward Snowden has helped us glimpse.

1. The Urge to be Global

Corporately speaking, globalization has been ballyhooed since at least the 1990s, but in governmental terms only in the twenty-first century has that globalizing urge fully infected the workings of the American state itself.  It’s become common since 9/11 to speak of a “national security state.”  But if a week of ongoing revelations about NSA surveillance practices has revealed anything, it’s that the term is already grossly outdated.  Based on what we now know, we should be talking about an American global security state.

Much attention has, understandably enough, been lavished on the phone and other metadata about American citizens that the NSA is now sweeping up and about the ways in which such activities may be abrogating the First and Fourth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.  Far less attention has been paid to the ways in which the NSA (and other U.S. intelligence outfits) are sweeping up global data in part via the just-revealed Prism and other surveillance programs.

Sometimes, naming practices are revealing in themselves, and the National Security Agency’s key data mining tool, capable in March 2013 of gathering “97 billion pieces of intelligence from computer networks worldwide,” has been named “boundless informant.”  If you want a sense of where the U.S. Intelligence Community imagines itself going, you couldn’t ask for a better hint than that word “boundless.”  It seems that for our spooks, there are, conceptually speaking, no limits left on this planet.

Today, that “community” seeks to put not just the U.S., but the world fully under its penetrating gaze.  By now, the first “heat map” has been published showing where such information is being sucked up from monthly: Iran tops the list (14 billion pieces of intelligence); then come Pakistan (13.5 billion), Jordan (12.7 billion), Egypt (7.6 billion), and India (6.3 billion).  Whether you realize this or not, even for a superpower that has unprecedented numbers of military bases scattered across the planet and has divided the world into six military commands, this represents something new under the sun.  The only question is what?

The twentieth century was the century of “totalitarianisms.”  We don’t yet have a name, a term, for the surveillance structures Washington is building in this century, but there can be no question that, whatever the present constraints on the system, “total” has something to do with it and that we are being ushered into a new world. Despite the recent leaks, we still undoubtedly have a very limited picture of just what the present American surveillance world really looks like and what it plans for our future.  One thing is clear, however: the ambitions behind it are staggering and global.

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Michael Klare: A Future in Arms

8:39 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

A mid-air refueling of a fighter plane

Stratotankers, like the one shown here refueling a jet, were recently sold to the Israeli military.

Imagine for a moment that in 2010, China’s leaders had announced a long-term, up to $60 billion arms deal with an extreme Islamic fundamentalist regime in the Middle East, one that was notoriously repressive to women and a well-known supporter of the Taliban.  Imagine as well that the first $30 billion part of that deal, involving 84 advanced jet fighters, was sealed in 2011, and that, since then, the sales have never stopped: several kinds of helicopters, artillery, armored personnel carriers, upgraded tanks, surface-to-air missile systems, even possibly a litoral combat vessel, among other purchases.  Then include one more piece of information in the mix.  In 2013, China added in “an advanced class of precision ‘standoff munitions’” — missiles that could be fired from those previously purchased advanced jet fighters.

Given all this, we would know what to think.  It would be just the sort of thing you might expect from an unscrupulous, retrograde communist regime with no values whatsoever, one willing above all else to keep the production lines of its weapons makers humming.  Washington would long ago have denounced such dealings in no uncertain terms.  In fact, such a scenario is utterly fantastic and essentially unimaginable — for China.  But it happens to be a perfectly accurate description of the lucrative relationship that American arms makers and the Pentagon have with Saudi Arabia, a country Washington has promoted and sold weaponry to as if there were no tomorrow.

And that’s just to dip a toe into the strange world of the global arms “trade,” though in recent years it’s become something closer to a U.S. monopoly in straightforward dollar terms.  Now, TomDispatch regular Michael Klare, author of The Race for What’s Left and an expert on energy and also on that bizarre “trade,” offers a glimpse into its latest grim set of wrinkles — new sales that might signal a twenty-first-century revival of the Cold War. Tom

The Cold War Redux? 
Are Washington, Moscow, and Beijing Using the Global Arms Trade to Create a New Cold War? 
By Michael T. Klare

Did Washington just give Israel the green light for a future attack on Iran via an arms deal?  Did Russia just signal its further support for Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime via an arms deal?  Are the Russians, the Chinese, and the Americans all heightening regional tensions in Asia via arms deals?  Is it possible that we’re witnessing the beginnings of a new Cold War in two key regions of the planet — and that the harbingers of this unnerving development are arms deals?

International weapons sales have proved to be a thriving global business in economically tough times.  According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), such sales reached an impressive $85 billion in 2011, nearly double the figure for 2010.  This surge in military spending reflected efforts by major Middle Eastern powers to bolster their armories with modern jets, tanks, and missiles — a process constantly encouraged by the leading arms manufacturing countries (especially the U.S. and Russia) as it helps keep domestic production lines humming.  However, this familiar if always troubling pattern may soon be overshadowed by a more ominous development in the global arms trade: the revival of far more targeted Cold War-style weapons sales aimed at undermining rivals and destabilizing regional power balances.  The result, inevitably, will be a more precarious world.

Arms sales have always served multiple functions.  Valuable trade commodities, weapons can prove immensely lucrative for companies that specialize in making such products.  Between 2008 and 2011, for example, U.S. firms sold $146 billion worth of military hardware to foreign countries, according to the latest CRS figures.  Crucially, such sales help ensure that domestic production lines remain profitable even when government acquisitions slow down at home.  But arms sales have also served as valuable tools of foreign policy — as enticements for the formation of alliances, expressions of ongoing support, and a way to lure new allies over to one’s side.  Powerful nations, seeking additional allies, use such sales to win the allegiance of weaker states; weaker states, seeking to bolster their defenses, look to arms deals as a way to build ties with stronger countries, or even to play one suitor off another in pursuit of the most sophisticated arms available.

Throughout the Cold War, both superpowers employed weapons transfers as a form of competition, offering advanced arms to entice regional powers to defect from each other’s alliance systems or to counter offers made by the other side.  Egypt, for example, was convinced to join the Soviet sphere in 1955 when provided with arms the West had refused to deliver.  In the late 1970s, it moved back into the American camp after Washington anted up far better weapons systems.

In those years, the Americans and the Soviets also used arms transfers to bolster key allies in areas of strategic confrontation like the Middle East.  Washington armed Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Iran when it was still ruled by the Shah; Russia armed Iraq and Syria. These transfers played a critical role in Cold War diplomacy and sometimes helped tilt the scales in favor of decisions to go to war.  In the Yom Kippur War of 1973, for example, Egypt, emboldened by an expanded arsenal of Soviet antitank missiles, attacked Israeli forces in the Negev desert.

In the wake of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, the commercial aspect of arms sales came to the fore.  Both Washington and Moscow were, by then, far more interested in keeping their military production lines running than in jousting for advantage abroad, so emphasis was placed on scoring contracts from those with the means to pay — mainly the major oil producers of the Middle East and Latin America and the economically expansive “tigers” of Asia.  Between 2008 and 2011, the CRS ranked the leading purchasers of conventional arms in the developing world this way: Saudi Arabia, India, the United Arab Emirates, Brazil, Egypt, and Venezuela.  Together, these six countries ordered $117 billion in new weaponry.

Arms Sales Take a New Path

Only recently has some version of great power dueling and competition started up again, and in the early months of 2013 it seems to be gaining momentum.  Several recent developments highlight this trend:

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Engelhardt: The Cathedral of the Enemy

6:29 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

The Enemy-Industrial Complex

How to Turn a World Lacking in Enemies into the Most Threatening Place in the Universe 

By Tom Engelhardt

DHS Police vehicle

How do you create an atmosphere of fear without real enemies?

The communist enemy, with the “world’s fourth largest military,” has been trundling missiles around and threatening the United States with nuclear obliteration.  Guam, Hawaii, Washington: all, it claims, are targetable.  The coverage in the media has been hair-raising.  The U.S. is rushing an untested missile defense system to Guam, deploying missile-interceptor ships off the South Korean coast, sending “nuclear capable” B-2 Stealth bombers thousands of miles on mock bombing runs, pressuring China, and conducting large-scale war games with its South Korean ally.

Only one small problem: there is as yet little evidence that the enemy with a few nuclear weapons facing off (rhetorically at least) against an American arsenal of 4,650 of them has the ability to miniaturize and mount even one on a missile, no less deliver it accurately, nor does it have a missile capable of reaching Hawaii or Washington, and I wouldn’t count on Guam either.

It also happens to be a desperate country, one possibly without enough fuel to fly a modern air force, whose people, on average, are inches shorter than their southern neighbors thanks to decades of intermittent famine and malnutrition, and who are ruled by a bizarre three-generational family cult.  If that other communist, Karl Marx, hadn’t once famously written that history repeats itself “first as tragedy, then as farce,” we would have had to invent the phrase for this very moment.

In the previous century, there were two devastating global wars, which left significant parts of the planet in ruins.  There was also a “cold war” between two superpowers locked in a system of mutual assured destruction (aptly acronymed as MAD) whose nuclear arsenals were capable of destroying the planet many times over.  Had you woken up any morning in the years between December 7, 1941, and December 26, 1991, and been told that the leading international candidate for America’s Public Enemy Number One was Kim Jong-un’s ramshackle, comic-opera regime in North Korea, you might have gotten down on your hands and knees and sent thanks to pagan gods.

The same would be true for the other candidates for that number one position since September 11, 2001: the original al-Qaeda (largely decimated), al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula located in poverty-stricken areas of poverty-stricken Yemen, the Taliban in poverty-stricken Afghanistan, unnamed jihadis scattered across poverty-stricken areas of North Africa, or Iran, another rickety regional power run by not particularly adept theocrats.

All these years, we’ve been launching wars and pursuing a “global war on terror.”  We’ve poured money into national security as if there were no tomorrow.  From our police to our borders, we’ve up-armored everywhere.  We constantly hear about “threats” to us and to the “homeland.”  And yet, when you knock on the door marked “Enemy,” there’s seldom anyone home.

Few in this country have found this striking.  Few seem to notice any disjuncture between the enemy-ridden, threatening, and deeply dangerous world we have been preparing ourselves for (and fighting in) this last decade-plus and the world as it actually is, even those who lived through significant parts of the last anxiety-producing, bloody century.

You know that feeling when you wake up and realize you’ve had the same recurrent nightmare yet again? Sometimes, there’s an equivalent in waking life, and here’s mine: every now and then, as I read about the next move in the spreading war on terror, the next drone assassination, the next ratcheting up of the surveillance game, the next expansion of the secrecy that envelops our government, the next set of expensive actions taken to guard us — all of this justified by the enormous threats and dangers that we face — I think to myself: Where’s the enemy?  And then I wonder: Just what kind of a dream is this that we’re dreaming?

A Door Marked “Enemy” and No One Home

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Eight Things I Miss About the Cold War: Fifty Years Ago, College Was Cheap, Unions Were Strong, and There Was No Terrorism-Industrial Complex

8:04 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

How We Forgot the Cold War

How We Forgot the Cold War by Jim Wiener looks at Republican's failure to spin the era's history.

It’s hard, so many decades later, to make my way back to my Cold War youth, that time when the history of humanity was, as LIFE magazine so classically put it, “The Epic of Man.”  But hey, that was the era when we still thought dinosaurs were lumbering beasts, an electric typewriter was the leading edge of high-tech, and if, like my wife, you happened to live in El Paso, Texas, in the early 1950s, your TV set had nothing on it because the signal for the programs had yet to make it over the mountains.

It was also, in some ways, the most nightmarish of times.  The old school fire drill had, by then, morphed into a “duck and cover” exercise.  You dove under your desk in a crouch, covering your head with your hands and arms, while sirens screamed outside.  You were, of course, practicing for the end of times, the moment when a Soviet nuclear weapon obliterated your city.  Under the circumstances, your hands and that none-too-sturdy desk weren’t the most reassuring of safety nets.  But like all kids, I didn’t really live in the worst or best of times, I lived in the only time there was, the only time imaginable, and the only place there could be (which happened, in my case, to be New York City).

Still, in a world then brimming with wealth but also riddled with barely expressed fear, there were some especially grim moments to remember.  In October 1962, for instance, John F. Kennedy went on TV and the radio to announce the presence of Soviet nuclear arms in Cuba and say that we risked “the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth, but neither will we shrink from the risk at any time it must be faced.” Listening, 18-year-old Tom Engelhardt feared that nuclear destruction was upon us, that we on the East Coast were toast, and that it had all somehow happened before life had even begun. Later in the 1960s, as the Vietnam War raged, I came to believe that we Americans were barbarians and wondered whether that war and the world that went with it would ever end.

Still, even then, young and old alike lived with a kind of optimism as well, a typically can-do American attitude, a sense of lurking hope, undoubtedly based at least in part on the globally dominant position of the country we all inhabited. And since we were still surfing the crest of a wave of unprecedented postwar wealth, if you chose to “turn on, tune in, and drop out,” you never had a doubt that you could also turn off, tune out, drop back in, and get a job — a good job — any time you wanted.  It’s not a feeling the young would recognize now.

Today, the Cold War era of my youth might as well have been the Neolithic Age, something historian (and radio host) Jon Wiener discovered on a little odyssey through our American world of commemoration, including such magnificent sites you’ve never heard of as the NSA and (online) CIA museums and the Whittaker Chambers “pumpkin patch.” He captures this in his new book, How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey Across America, a splendid tour de farce of the museums and other memory palaces established largely by the American right in honor of the greatest triumph in human history, the winning of the… oh, remind me, what was it?  And what was the name of that “evil empire” that disappeared without a trace in 1991?  As he writes, “Despite an immense effort by conservatives to shape public memory of the Cold War, their monuments weren’t built, their historical sites have had few visitors, and many of their museums have shifted their focus to other topics.”

Still, the urge to commemorate is not to be sniffed at, and so today, to commemorate his new book, Wiener takes TomDispatch readers on an eight-whistle-stop nostalgia tour of what was best about the Cold War era and is worst about our own.  If I could add my own ninth category to his list, here’s what it would be: my nostalgia for the deep-seated sense of optimism and hope basic to that era, something now so missing from our American world that, I suspect, the young don’t even know it’s gone. Tom

Eight Things I Miss About the Cold War
Fifty Years Ago, College Was Cheap, Unions Were Strong, and There Was No Terrorism-Industrial Complex
By Jon Wiener

At a book festival in Los Angeles recently, some writers (myself included) were making the usual arguments about the problems with American politics in the 1950s — until one panelist shocked the audience by declaring, “God, I miss the Cold War.”  His grandmother, he said, had come to California from Oklahoma with a grade-school education, but found a job in an aerospace factory in L.A. during World War II, joined the union, got healthcare and retirement benefits, and prospered in the Cold War years.  She ended up owning a house in the suburbs and sending her kids to UCLA.

Several older people in the audience leaped to their feet shouting, “What about McCarthyism?”  “The bomb?”  “Vietnam?”  “Nixon?”

All good points, of course.  After all, during the Cold War the U.S. did threaten to destroy the world with nuclear weapons, supported brutal dictators globally because they were anti-communist, and was responsible for the deaths of several million people in Korea and Vietnam, all in the name of defending freedom. And yet it’s not hard to join that writer in feeling a certain nostalgia for the Cold War era.  It couldn’t be a sadder thing to admit, given what happened in those years, but — given what’s happened in these years — who can doubt that the America of the 1950s and 1960s was, in some ways, simply a better place than the one we live in now? Here are eight things (from a prospectively longer list) we had then and don’t have now.

1. The president didn’t claim the right to kill American citizens without “the due process of law.

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Noam Chomsky: “The Most Dangerous Moment,” 50 Years Later

6:43 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Surveillance photo of missiles in Cuba (Image: US Govt / Wikimedia Commons)


Here was the oddest thing: within weeks of the United States dropping an atomic bomb on a second Japanese city on August 9, 1945, and so obliterating it, Americans were already immersed in new scenarios of nuclear destruction.  As the late Paul Boyer so vividly described in his classic book By the Bomb’s Early Light, it took no time at all — at a moment when no other nation had such potentially Earth-destroying weaponry — for an America triumphant to begin to imagine itself in ruins, and for its newspapers and magazines to start drawing concentric circles of death and destruction around American cities while consigning their future country to the stewardship of the roaches.

As early as October 1945, the military editor of Reader’s Digest would declare the first atomic bomb “dated,” and write, “It is now in the power of the atom-smashers to blot out New York with a single bomb… Such a bomb can burn up in an instant every creature, can fuse the steel buildings and smash the concrete into flying shrapnel.”  By 1947, in “Mist of Death Over New York,” that staid magazine would have a description in “realistic detail” of an atomic explosion in New York harbor.  (“Within six weeks, 389,101 New Yorkers were dead or missing.”) In November 1945, in the “36-Hour War,” Life would feature a mushroom cloud rising over Washington in a surprise attack slaughtering 10 million Americans.  That December, the Wall Street Journal would run a feature article imagining “an attack by planes and missiles that could wipe out 98% of the population of the United States.”

Radio quickly followed with its own nightmarish nuclear scenarios of all-American disaster as, within years, would TV, while post-nuclear landscapes of horror were a dime a dozen in the world of pulp fiction.  In the movies, mutant and irradiated creatures of every sort — from previously somnolent giant reptiles to monstrous ants — ran wild on screen.  Everything, in a sense, became radioactive.  There were even, as Boyer wrote, “fashion tips for the apocalypse,” as in a government-sponsored pamphlet with an illustration of a man in a fedora, its brim tipped down, captioned, “If you are caught outdoors in a sudden attack, a hat will give you at least some protection from the ‘heat flash.’” This was the “duck and cover” world I grew up in (“you and I don’t have shells to crawl into, like Bert the Turtle, so we have to cover up in our own way…”), one in which, though few spoke of it, everyone sensed that some “red line” had been crossed in the New Mexican desert and then at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  It was a world in which, for the first time, not God but human beings could create their own end times.

We still haven’t taken it all in, but 50 years ago, there was a moment when it looked like all the futuristic fiction might indeed turn into reality, when (at least if you lived on the East Coast of the U.S.) it seemed as if events were drawing a concentric circle around you.  That was, of course, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and anybody my age undoubtedly remembers with particular specificity the night of October 22, 1962, when President John F. Kennedy went on TV and the radio to tell us that we were all potentially toast.  “We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth,” he said grimly, “but neither will we shrink from the risk at any time it must be faced.” At 18, with most of my life still theoretically ahead of me, I believed him.

Fifty years later, in his new TomDispatch post, Noam Chomsky reminds us of just how close we truly got to a self-induced apocalypse and why it came to that.  It’s a chilling tale about the imperial urge to control the world, one that still couldn’t be more relevant. Tom

The Week the World Stood Still
The Cuban Missile Crisis and Ownership of the World
By Noam Chomsky
Read the rest of this entry →

Tomgram: Andrew Bacevich, How Washington Rules

4:18 pm in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers:  Today, to end this site’s summer, we offer a stirring excerpt from Andrew Bacevich’s new book, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (Metropolitan Books).  What follows below is the introduction to the book which stands on its own as a riveting political essay about a personal odyssey into recent history and the realities of our moment, but also offers a powerful sense of the book itself, which is simply a must-read (and also on the New York Times extended bestseller list). To catch Bacevich discussing his book in one of Timothy MacBain’s TomCast audio interviews, click here or, to download to an iPod, here.

With this post, TD hangs out the old “gone fishing” sign until September 7th, when we’ll return with renewed energy and new posts.  In the meantime, my thanks to the amazing crew of TomDispatch readers who recently contributed $150 (or more) to this site in return for a personally autographed copy of Chalmers Johnson’s new book, Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope.  Your dollars make TD’s life a far better one, believe me.  In addition, for anyone who meant to, but didn’t take up the offer, it remains open until we return in September.  You can click here to check out the original offer or here to make your $150 contribution and receive your signed book. 

A further thanks to all of you who, in the last month, used one of the TomDispatch book (or book cover) links to travel to Amazon.com and buy a book (or anything else).  As we get a cut of any purchase you make at Amazon once you’ve arrived via TD, you continue to provide us with a small but growing stream of revenue (at no cost to you).  Your purchases of the Bacevich book, the Johnson book, and my new book, The American Way of War:  How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s, have been prodigious -- and appreciated.  While my own book won’t make any bestseller lists, it is in its second printing thanks, in part, to you.  Those of you who haven’t bought the three books can do so in a single cut-rate package deal at the Amazon page for my book. 

Finally, my thanks and a deep bow of appreciation to the whole TomDispatch crew -- Joe Duax, Nick Turse, Andy Kroll, Christopher Holmes, and Timothy MacBain -- whose hard work makes it all possible. Have a good end of August.  See you after Labor Day.  Tom]

The Unmaking of a Company Man 
An Education Begun in the Shadow of the Brandenburg Gate 

By Andrew Bacevich

Worldly ambition inhibits true learning. Ask me. I know. A young man in a hurry is nearly uneducable: He knows what he wants and where he’s headed; when it comes to looking back or entertaining heretical thoughts, he has neither the time nor the inclination. All that counts is that he is going somewhere. Only as ambition wanes does education become a possibility.

My own education did not commence until I had reached middle age. I can fix its start date with precision: for me, education began in Berlin, on a winter’s evening, at the Brandenburg Gate, not long after the Berlin Wall had fallen.

As an officer in the U.S. Army I had spent considerable time in Germany. Until that moment, however, my family and I had never had occasion to visit this most famous of German cities, still littered with artifacts of a deeply repellent history. At the end of a long day of exploration, we found ourselves in what had, until just months before, been the communist East. It was late and we were hungry, but I insisted on walking the length of the Unter den Linden, from the River Spree to the gate itself. A cold rain was falling and the pavement glistened. The buildings lining the avenue, dating from the era of Prussian kings, were dark, dirty, and pitted. Few people were about. It was hardly a night for sightseeing.

For as long as I could remember, the Brandenburg Gate had been the preeminent symbol of the age and Berlin the epicenter of contemporary history. Yet by the time I made it to the once and future German capital, history was already moving on. The Cold War had abruptly ended. A divided city and a divided nation had reunited.

For Americans who had known Berlin only from a distance, the city existed primarily as a metaphor. Pick a date — 1933, 1942, 1945, 1948, 1961, 1989 — and Berlin becomes an instructive symbol of power, depravity, tragedy, defiance, endurance, or vindication. For those inclined to view the past as a chronicle of parables, the modern history of Berlin offered an abundance of material. The greatest of those parables emerged from the events of 1933 to 1945, an epic tale of evil ascendant, belatedly confronted, then heroically overthrown. A second narrative, woven from events during the intense period immediately following World War II, saw hopes for peace dashed, yielding bitter antagonism but also great resolve. The ensuing stand-off — the “long twilight struggle,” in John Kennedy’s memorable phrase — formed the centerpiece of the third parable, its central theme stubborn courage in the face of looming peril. Finally came the exhilarating events of 1989, with freedom ultimately prevailing, not only in Berlin, but throughout Eastern Europe.

What exactly was I looking for at the Brandenburg Gate? Perhaps confirmation that those parables, which I had absorbed and accepted as true, were just that. Whatever I expected, what I actually found was a cluster of shabby-looking young men, not German, hawking badges, medallions, hats, bits of uniforms, and other artifacts of the mighty Red Army. It was all junk, cheaply made and shoddy. For a handful of deutsche marks, I bought a wristwatch emblazoned with the symbol of the Soviet armored corps. Within days, it ceased to work.

Huddling among the scarred columns, those peddlers — almost certainly off-duty Russian soldiers awaiting redeployment home — constituted a subversive presence. They were loose ends of a story that was supposed to have ended neatly when the Berlin Wall came down. As we hurried off to find warmth and a meal, this disconcerting encounter stuck with me, and I began to entertain this possibility: that the truths I had accumulated over the previous twenty years as a professional soldier — especially truths about the Cold War and U.S. foreign policy — might not be entirely true.

By temperament and upbringing, I had always taken comfort in orthodoxy. In a life spent subject to authority, deference had become a deeply ingrained habit. I found assurance in conventional wisdom. Now, I started, however hesitantly, to suspect that orthodoxy might be a sham. I began to appreciate that authentic truth is never simple and that any version of truth handed down from on high — whether by presidents, prime ministers, or archbishops — is inherently suspect. The powerful, I came to see, reveal truth only to the extent that it suits them. Even then, the truths to which they testify come wrapped in a nearly invisible filament of dissembling, deception, and duplicity. The exercise of power necessarily involves manipulation and is antithetical to candor.

I came to these obvious points embarrassingly late in life. “Nothing is so astonishing in education,” the historian Henry Adams once wrote, “as the amount of ignorance it accumulates in the form of inert facts.” Until that moment I had too often confused education with accumulating and cataloging facts. In Berlin, at the foot of the Brandenburg Gate, I began to realize that I had been a naïf. And so, at age 41, I set out, in a halting and haphazard fashion, to acquire a genuine education.

Twenty years later I’ve made only modest progress. What follows is an accounting of what I have learned thus far.

Visiting a Third-World Version of Germany

In October 1990, I’d gotten a preliminary hint that something might be amiss in my prior education. On October 3rd, communist East Germany — formally the German Democratic Republic (GDR) — ceased to exist and German reunification was officially secured. That very week I accompanied a group of American military officers to the city of Jena in what had been the GDR. Our purpose was self-consciously educational — to study the famous battle of Jena-Auerstädt in which Napoleon Bonaparte and his marshals had inflicted an epic defeat on Prussian forces commanded by the Duke of Brunswick. (The outcome of that 1806 battle inspired the philosopher Hegel, then residing in Jena, to declare that the “end of history” was at hand. The conclusion of the Cold War had only recently elicited a similarly exuberant judgment from the American scholar Francis Fukuyama.)

On this trip we did learn a lot about the conduct of that battle, although mainly inert facts possessing little real educational value. Inadvertently, we also gained insight into the reality of life on the far side of what Americans had habitually called the Iron Curtain, known in U.S. military vernacular as “the trace.” In this regard, the trip proved nothing less than revelatory. The educational content of this excursion would — for me — be difficult to exaggerate.

As soon as our bus crossed the old Inner German Border, we entered a time warp. For U.S. troops garrisoned throughout Bavaria and Hesse, West Germany had for decades served as a sort of theme park — a giant Epcot filled with quaint villages, stunning scenery, and superb highways, along with ample supplies of quite decent food, excellent beer, and accommodating women. Now, we found ourselves face-to-face with an altogether different Germany. Although commonly depicted as the most advanced and successful component of the Soviet Empire, East Germany more closely resembled part of the undeveloped world.

The roads — even the main highways — were narrow and visibly crumbling. Traffic posed little problem. Apart from a few sluggish Trabants and Wartburgs — East German automobiles that tended to a retro primitivism — and an occasional exhaust-spewing truck, the way was clear. The villages through which we passed were forlorn and the small farms down at the heels. For lunch we stopped at a roadside stand. The proprietor happily accepted our D-marks, offering us inedible sausages in exchange. Although the signs assured us that we remained in a land of German speakers, it was a country that had not yet recovered from World War II.

Upon arrival in Jena, we checked into the Hotel Schwarzer Bär, identified by our advance party as the best hostelry in town. It turned out to be a rundown fleabag. As the senior officer present, I was privileged to have a room in which the plumbing functioned. Others were not so lucky.

Jena itself was a midsized university city, with its main academic complex immediately opposite our hotel. A very large bust of Karl Marx, mounted on a granite pedestal and badly in need of cleaning, stood on the edge of the campus. Briquettes of soft coal used for home heating made the air all but unbreathable and coated everything with soot. In the German cities we knew, pastels predominated — houses and apartment blocks painted pale green, muted salmon, and soft yellow. Here everything was brown and gray.

That evening we set out in search of dinner. The restaurants within walking distance were few and unattractive. We chose badly, a drab establishment in which fresh vegetables were unavailable and the wurst inferior. The adequacy of the local beer provided the sole consolation.

The following morning, on the way to the battlefield, we noted a significant Soviet military presence, mostly in the form of trucks passing by — to judge by their appearance, designs that dated from the 1950s. To our surprise, we discovered that the Soviets had established a small training area adjacent to where Napoleon had vanquished the Prussians. Although we had orders to avoid contact with any Russians, the presence of their armored troops going through their paces riveted us. Here was something of far greater immediacy than Bonaparte and the Duke of Brunswick: “the other,” about which we had for so long heard so much but knew so little. Through binoculars, we watched a column of Russian armored vehicles — BMPs, in NATO parlance — traversing what appeared to be a drivers’ training course. Suddenly, one of them began spewing smoke. Soon thereafter, it burst into flames.

Here was education, although at the time I had only the vaguest sense of its significance.

An Ambitious Team Player Assailed by Doubts

These visits to Jena and Berlin offered glimpses of a reality radically at odds with my most fundamental assumptions. Uninvited and unexpected, subversive forces had begun to infiltrate my consciousness. Bit by bit, my worldview started to crumble.

That worldview had derived from this conviction: that American power manifested a commitment to global leadership, and that both together expressed and affirmed the nation’s enduring devotion to its founding ideals. That American power, policies, and purpose were bound together in a neat, internally consistent package, each element drawing strength from and reinforcing the others, was something I took as a given. That, during my adult life, a penchant for interventionism had become a signature of U.S. policy did not — to me, at least — in any way contradict America’s aspirations for peace. Instead, a willingness to expend lives and treasure in distant places testified to the seriousness of those aspirations. That, during this same period, the United States had amassed an arsenal of over 31,000 nuclear weapons, some small number of them assigned to units in which I had served, was not at odds with our belief in the inalienable right to life and liberty; rather, threats to life and liberty had compelled the United States to acquire such an arsenal and maintain it in readiness for instant use.

I was not so naïve as to believe that the American record had been without flaws. Yet I assured myself that any errors or misjudgments had been committed in good faith. Furthermore, circumstances permitted little real choice. In Southeast Asia as in Western Europe, in the Persian Gulf as in the Western Hemisphere, the United States had simply done what needed doing. Viable alternatives did not exist. To consent to any dilution of American power would be to forfeit global leadership, thereby putting at risk safety, prosperity, and freedom, not only our own but also that of our friends and allies.

The choices seemed clear enough. On one side was the status quo: the commitments, customs, and habits that defined American globalism, implemented by the national security apparatus within which I functioned as a small cog. On the other side was the prospect of appeasement, isolationism, and catastrophe. The only responsible course was the one to which every president since Harry Truman had adhered.

For me, the Cold War had played a crucial role in sustaining that worldview. Given my age, upbringing, and professional background, it could hardly have been otherwise. Although the great rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union had contained moments of considerable anxiety — I remember my father, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, stocking our basement with water and canned goods — it served primarily to clarify, not to frighten. The Cold War provided a framework that organized and made sense of contemporary history. It offered a lineup and a scorecard. That there existed bad Germans and good Germans, their Germans and our Germans, totalitarian Germans and Germans who, like Americans, passionately loved freedom was, for example, a proposition I accepted as dogma. Seeing the Cold War as a struggle between good and evil answered many questions, consigned others to the periphery, and rendered still others irrelevant. 

Back in the 1960s, during the Vietnam War, more than a few members of my generation had rejected the conception of the Cold War as a Manichean struggle. Here too, I was admittedly a slow learner. Yet having kept the faith long after others had lost theirs, the doubts that eventually assailed me were all the more disorienting. 

Granted, occasional suspicions had appeared long before Jena and Berlin. My own Vietnam experience had generated its share, which I had done my best to suppress. I was, after all, a serving soldier. Except in the narrowest of terms, the military profession, in those days at least, did not look kindly on nonconformity. Climbing the ladder of career success required curbing maverick tendencies. To get ahead, you needed to be a team player. Later, when studying the history of U.S. foreign relations in graduate school, I was pelted with challenges to orthodoxy, which I vigorously deflected. When it came to education, graduate school proved a complete waste of time — a period of intense study devoted to the further accumulation of facts, while I exerted myself to ensuring that they remained inert.

Now, however, my personal circumstances were changing. Shortly after the passing of the Cold War, my military career ended. Education thereby became not only a possibility, but also a necessity.

In measured doses, mortification cleanses the soul. It’s the perfect antidote for excessive self-regard. After 23 years spent inside the U.S. Army seemingly going somewhere, I now found myself on the outside going nowhere in particular. In the self-contained and cloistered universe of regimental life, I had briefly risen to the status of minor spear carrier. The instant I took off my uniform, that status vanished. I soon came to a proper appreciation of my own insignificance, a salutary lesson that I ought to have absorbed many years earlier.

As I set out on what eventually became a crablike journey toward a new calling as a teacher and writer — a pilgrimage of sorts — ambition in the commonly accepted meaning of the term ebbed. This did not happen all at once. Yet gradually, trying to grab one of life’s shiny brass rings ceased being a major preoccupation. Wealth, power, and celebrity became not aspirations but subjects for critical analysis. History — especially the familiar narrative of the Cold War — no longer offered answers; instead, it posed perplexing riddles. Easily the most nagging was this one: How could I have so profoundly misjudged the reality of what lay on the far side of the Iron Curtain?

Had I been insufficiently attentive? Or was it possible that I had been snookered all along? Contemplating such questions, while simultaneously witnessing the unfolding of the “long 1990s” — the period bookended by two wars with Iraq when American vainglory reached impressive new heights — prompted the realization that I had grossly misinterpreted the threat posed by America’s adversaries. Yet that was the lesser half of the problem. Far worse than misperceiving “them” was the fact that I had misperceived “us.” What I thought I knew best I actually understood least. Here, the need for education appeared especially acute. 

George W. Bush’s decision to launch Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 pushed me fully into opposition. Claims that once seemed elementary — above all, claims relating to the essentially benign purposes of American power — now appeared preposterous. The contradictions that found an ostensibly peace-loving nation committing itself to a doctrine of preventive war became too great to ignore. The folly and hubris of the policy makers who heedlessly thrust the nation into an ill-defined and open-ended “global war on terror” without the foggiest notion of what victory would look like, how it would be won, and what it might cost approached standards hitherto achieved only by slightly mad German warlords. During the era of containment, the United States had at least maintained the pretense of a principled strategy; now, the last vestiges of principle gave way to fantasy and opportunism. With that, the worldview to which I had adhered as a young adult and carried into middle age dissolved completely.

Credo and Trinity

What should stand in the place of such discarded convictions? Simply inverting the conventional wisdom, substituting a new Manichean paradigm for the old discredited version — the United States taking the place of the Soviet Union as the source of the world’s evil — would not suffice. Yet arriving at even an approximation of truth would entail subjecting conventional wisdom, both present and past, to sustained and searching scrutiny. Cautiously at first but with growing confidence, this I vowed to do.

Doing so meant shedding habits of conformity acquired over decades. All of my adult life I had been a company man, only dimly aware of the extent to which institutional loyalties induce myopia. Asserting independence required first recognizing the extent to which I had been socialized to accept certain things as unimpeachable. Here then were the preliminary steps essential to making education accessible. Over a period of years, a considerable store of debris had piled up. Now, it all had to go. Belatedly, I learned that more often than not what passes for conventional wisdom is simply wrong. Adopting fashionable attitudes to demonstrate one’s trustworthiness — the world of politics is flush with such people hoping thereby to qualify for inclusion in some inner circle — is akin to engaging in prostitution in exchange for promissory notes. It’s not only demeaning but downright foolhardy.

Washington Rules aims to take stock of conventional wisdom in its most influential and enduring form, namely the package of assumptions, habits, and precepts that have defined the tradition of statecraft to which the United States has adhered since the end of World War II — the era of global dominance now drawing to a close. This postwar tradition combines two components, each one so deeply embedded in the American collective consciousness as to have all but disappeared from view.

The first component specifies norms according to which the international order ought to work and charges the United States with responsibility for enforcing those norms. Call this the American credo. In the simplest terms, the credo summons the United States — and the United States alone — to lead, save, liberate, and ultimately transform the world. In a celebrated manifesto issued at the dawn of what he termed “The American Century,” Henry R. Luce made the case for this spacious conception of global leadership. Writing in Life magazine in early 1941, the influential publisher exhorted his fellow citizens to “accept wholeheartedly our duty to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.” Luce thereby captured what remains even today the credo’s essence.

Luce’s concept of an American Century, an age of unquestioned American global primacy, resonated, especially in Washington. His evocative phrase found a permanent place in the lexicon of national politics. (Recall that the neoconservatives who, in the 1990s, lobbied for more militant U.S. policies named their enterprise the Project for a New American Century.) So, too, did Luce’s expansive claim of prerogatives to be exercised by the United States. Even today, whenever public figures allude to America’s responsibility to lead, they signal their fidelity to this creed. Along with respectful allusions to God and “the troops,” adherence to Luce’s credo has become a de facto prerequisite for high office. Question its claims and your prospects of being heard in the hubbub of national politics become nil.

Note, however, that the duty Luce ascribed to Americans has two components. It is not only up to Americans, he wrote, to choose the purposes for which they would bring their influence to bear, but to choose the means as well. Here we confront the second component of the postwar tradition of American statecraft.

With regard to means, that tradition has emphasized activism over example, hard power over soft, and coercion (often styled “negotiating from a position of strength”) over suasion. Above all, the exercise of global leadership as prescribed by the credo obliges the United States to maintain military capabilities staggeringly in excess of those required for self-defense. Prior to World War II, Americans by and large viewed military power and institutions with skepticism, if not outright hostility. In the wake of World War II, that changed. An affinity for military might emerged as central to the American identity.

By the midpoint of the twentieth century, “the Pentagon” had ceased to be merely a gigantic five-sided building. Like “Wall Street” at the end of the nineteenth century, it had become Leviathan, its actions veiled in secrecy, its reach extending around the world. Yet while the concentration of power in Wall Street had once evoked deep fear and suspicion, Americans by and large saw the concentration of power in the Pentagon as benign. Most found it reassuring.

A people who had long seen standing armies as a threat to liberty now came to believe that the preservation of liberty required them to lavish resources on the armed forces. During the Cold War, Americans worried ceaselessly about falling behind the Russians, even though the Pentagon consistently maintained a position of overall primacy. Once the Soviet threat disappeared, mere primacy no longer sufficed. With barely a whisper of national debate, unambiguous and perpetual global military supremacy emerged as an essential predicate to global leadership.

Every great military power has its distinctive signature. For Napoleonic France, it was the levée en masse — the people in arms animated by the ideals of the Revolution. For Great Britain in the heyday of empire, it was command of the seas, sustained by a dominant fleet and a network of far-flung outposts from Gibraltar and the Cape of Good Hope to Singapore and Hong Kong. Germany from the 1860s to the 1940s (and Israel from 1948 to 1973) took another approach, relying on a potent blend of tactical flexibility and operational audacity to achieve battlefield superiority.

The abiding signature of American military power since World War II has been of a different order altogether. The United States has not specialized in any particular type of war. It has not adhered to a fixed tactical style. No single service or weapon has enjoyed consistent favor. At times, the armed forces have relied on citizen-soldiers to fill their ranks; at other times, long-service professionals. Yet an examination of the past 60 years of U.S. military policy and practice does reveal important elements of continuity. Call them the sacred trinity: an abiding conviction that the minimum essentials of international peace and order require the United States to maintain a global military presence, to configure its forces for global power projection, and to counter existing or anticipated threats by relying on a policy of global interventionism.

Together, credo and trinity — the one defining purpose, the other practice — constitute the essence of the way that Washington has attempted to govern and police the American Century. The relationship between the two is symbiotic. The trinity lends plausibility to the credo’s vast claims. For its part, the credo justifies the trinity’s vast requirements and exertions. Together they provide the basis for an enduring consensus that imparts a consistency to U.S. policy regardless of which political party may hold the upper hand or who may be occupying the White House. From the era of Harry Truman to the age of Barack Obama, that consensus has remained intact. It defines the rules to which Washington adheres; it determines the precepts by which Washington rules.

As used here, Washington is less a geographic expression than a set of interlocking institutions headed by people who, whether acting officially or unofficially, are able to put a thumb on the helm of state. Washington, in this sense, includes the upper echelons of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the federal government. It encompasses the principal components of the national security state — the departments of Defense, State, and, more recently, Homeland Security, along with various agencies comprising the intelligence and federal law enforcement communities. Its ranks extend to select think tanks and interest groups. Lawyers, lobbyists, fixers, former officials, and retired military officers who still enjoy access are members in good standing. Yet Washington also reaches beyond the Beltway to include big banks and other financial institutions, defense contractors and major corporations, television networks and elite publications like the New York Times, even quasi-academic entities like the Council on Foreign Relations and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. With rare exceptions, acceptance of the Washington rules forms a prerequisite for entry into this world.

My purpose in writing Washiington Rules is fivefold: first, to trace the origins and evolution of the Washington rules — both the credo that inspires consensus and the trinity in which it finds expression; second, to subject the resulting consensus to critical inspection, showing who wins and who loses and also who foots the bill; third, to explain how the Washington rules are perpetuated, with certain views privileged while others are declared disreputable; fourth, to demonstrate that the rules themselves have lost what ever utility they may once have possessed, with their implications increasingly pernicious and their costs increasingly unaffordable; and finally, to argue for readmitting disreputable (or “radical”) views to our national security debate, in effect legitimating alternatives to the status quo. In effect, my aim is to invite readers to share in the process of education on which I embarked two decades ago in Berlin.

The Washington rules were forged at a moment when American influence and power were approaching their acme. That moment has now passed. The United States has drawn down the stores of authority and goodwill it had acquired by 1945. Words uttered in Washington command less respect than once was the case. Americans can ill afford to indulge any longer in dreams of saving the world, much less remaking it in our own image. The curtain is now falling on the American Century.

Similarly, the United States no longer possesses sufficient wherewithal to sustain a national security strategy that relies on global military presence and global power projection to underwrite a policy of global interventionism. Touted as essential to peace, adherence to that strategy has propelled the United States into a condition approximating perpetual war, as the military misadventures of the past decade have demonstrated.

To anyone with eyes to see, the shortcomings inherent in the Washington rules have become plainly evident. Although those most deeply invested in perpetuating its conventions will insist otherwise, the tradition to which Washington remains devoted has begun to unravel. Attempting to prolong its existence might serve Washington’s interests, but it will not serve the interests of the American people.

Devising an alternative to the reigning national security paradigm will pose a daunting challenge — especially if Americans look to “Washington” for fresh thinking. Yet doing so has become essential.

In one sense, the national security policies to which Washington so insistently adheres express what has long been the preferred American approach to engaging the world beyond our borders. That approach plays to America’s presumed strong suit — since World War II, and especially since the end of the Cold War, thought to be military power. In another sense, this reliance on military might creates excuses for the United States to avoid serious engagement: confidence in American arms has made it unnecessary to attend to what others might think or to consider how their aspirations might differ from our own. In this way, the Washington rules reinforce American provincialism — a national trait for which the United States continues to pay dearly.

The persistence of these rules has also provided an excuse to avoid serious self-engagement. From this perspective, confidence that the credo and the trinity will oblige others to accommodate themselves to America’s needs or desires — whether for cheap oil, cheap credit, or cheap consumer goods — has allowed Washington to postpone or ignore problems demanding attention here at home. Fixing Iraq or Afghanistan ends up taking precedence over fixing Cleveland and Detroit. Purporting to support the troops in their crusade to free the world obviates any obligation to assess the implications of how Americans themselves choose to exercise freedom.

When Americans demonstrate a willingness to engage seriously with others, combined with the courage to engage seriously with themselves, then real education just might begin.

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University.  His new book, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (Metropolitan Books)has just been published. This essay is its introduction.  Listen to a TomCast audio interview in which he discusses the book by clicking here, or to download to an iPod, here.

Excerpted from Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War, published this month by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright (c) 2010 by Andrew Bacevich. All rights reserved.