Entering the Soviet Era in America
You remember the Soviet Union, now almost 20 years in its grave. But who gives it a second thought today? Even in its glory years that “evil empire” was sometimes referred to as “the second superpower.” In 1991, after seven decades, it suddenly disintegrated and disappeared, leaving the United States — the “sole superpower,” even the “hyperpower,” on planet Earth — surprised but triumphant.
The USSR had been heading for the exits for quite a while, not that official Washington had a clue. At the moment it happened, Soviet “experts” like Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (then director of the CIA) still expected the Cold War to go on and on. In Washington, eyes were trained on the might of the Soviet military, which the Soviet leadership had never stopped feeding, even as its sclerotic bureaucracy was rotting, its economy (which had ceased to grow in the late 1970s) was tanking, budget deficits were soaring, indebtedness to other countries was growing, and social welfare payments were eating into what funds remained. Not even a vigorous, reformist leader like Mikhail Gorbachev could staunch the rot, especially when, in the late 1980s, the price of Russian oil fell drastically.
Looking back, the most distinctive feature of the last years of the Soviet Union may have been the way it continued to pour money into its military — and its military adventure in Afghanistan — when it was already going bankrupt and the society it had built was beginning to collapse around it. In the end, its aging leaders made a devastating miscalculation. They mistook military power for power on this planet. Armed to the teeth and possessing a nuclear force capable of destroying the Earth many times over, the Soviets nonetheless remained the vastly poorer, weaker, and (except when it came to the arms race) far less technologically innovative of the two superpowers.
In December 1979, perhaps taking the bait of the Carter administration whose national security advisor was eager to see the Soviets bloodied by a “Vietnam” of their own, the Red Army invaded Afghanistan to support a weak communist government in Kabul. When resistance in the countryside, led by Islamic fundamentalist guerrillas and backed by the other superpower, only grew, the Soviets sent in more troops, launched major offensives, called in air power, and fought on brutally and futilely for a decade until, in 1989, long after they had been whipped, they withdrew in defeat.
Gorbachev had dubbed Afghanistan “the bleeding wound,” and when the wounded Red Army finally limped home, it was to a country that would soon cease to exist. For the Soviet Union, Afghanistan had literally proven “the graveyard of empires.” If, at the end, its military remained standing, the empire didn’t. (And if you don’t already find this description just a tad eerie, given the present moment in the U.S., you should.)
In Washington, the Bush administration — G.H.W.’s, not G.W.’s — declared victory and then left the much ballyhooed “peace dividend” in the nearest ditch. Caught off guard by the collapse of the Soviet Union, Washington’s consensus policymakers drew no meaningful lessons from it (just as they had drawn few that mattered from their Vietnam defeat 16 years earlier).
Quite the opposite, successive American administrations would blindly head down the very path that had led the Soviets to ruin. They would serially agree that, in a world without significant enemies, the key to U.S. global power still was the care and feeding of the American military and the military-industrial complex that went with it. As the years passed, that military would be sent ever more regularly into the far reaches of the planet to fight frontier wars, establish military bases, and finally impose a global Pax Americana on the planet.
This urge, delusional in retrospect, seemed to reach its ultimate expression in the second Bush administration, whose infamous “unilateralism” rested on a belief that no country or even bloc of countries should ever again be allowed to come close to matching U.S. military power. (As its National Security Strategy of 2002 put the matter — and it couldn’t have been blunter on the subject — the U.S. was to “build and maintain” its military power “beyond challenge.”) Bush’s military fundamentalists firmly believed that, in the face of the most technologically advanced, bulked-up, destructive force around, hostile states would be “shocked and awed” by a simple demonstration of its power and friendly ones would have little choice but to come to heel as well. After all, as the president said in front of a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in 2007, the U.S. military was “the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known.”
In this way, far more than the Soviets, the top officials of the Bush administration mistook military power for power, a gargantuan misreading of the U.S. economic position in the world and of their moment.
Boundless Military Ambitions
The attacks of September 11, 2001, that “Pearl Harbor of the twenty-first century,” clinched the deal. In the space the Soviet Union had deserted, which had been occupied by minor outlaw states like North Korea for years, there was a new shape-shifting enemy, al-Qaeda (aka Islamic extremism, aka the new “totalitarianism”), which could be just as big as you wanted to make it. Suddenly, we were in what the Bush administration instantly dubbed “the Global War on Terror” (GWOT, one of the worst acronyms ever invented) — and this time there would be nothing “cold” about it.
Bush administration officials promptly suggested that they were prepared to use a newly agile American military to “drain the swamp” of global terrorism. (“While we’ll try to find every snake in the swamp, the essence of the strategy is draining the swamp,” insisted Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz two weeks after 9/11.) They were prepared, they made clear, to undertake those draining operations against Islamic “terrorist networks” in no less than 60 countries around the planet.
Their military ambitions, in other words, knew no bounds; nor, it seemed, did the money and resources which began to flow into the Pentagon, the weapons industries, the country’s increasingly militarized intelligence services, mercenary companies like Blackwater and KBR that grew fat on a privatizing administration’s war plans and the multi-billion-dollar no-bid contracts it was eager to proffer, the new Department of Homeland Security, and a ramped-up, ever more powerful national security state.
As the Pentagon expanded, taking on ever newer roles, the numbers would prove staggering. By the end of the Bush years, Washington was doling out almost twice what the next nine nations combined were spending on their militaries, while total U.S. military expenditures came to just under half the world’s total. Similarly, by 2008, the U.S. controlled almost 70% of the global arms market. It also had 11 aircraft carrier battle groups capable of patrolling the world’s seas and oceans at a time when no power that could faintly be considered a possible future enemy had more than one.
By then, private contractors had built for the Pentagon almost 300 military bases in Iraq, ranging from tiny combat outposts to massive“American towns” holding tens of thousands of troops and private contractors, with multiple bus lines, PX’s, fast-food “boardwalks,” massage parlors, water treatment and power plants, barracks, and airfields. They were in the process of doing the same in Afghanistan and, to a lesser extent, in the Persian Gulf region generally. This, too, represented a massive investment in what looked like a permanent occupation of the oil heartlands of the planet. As right-wing pundit Max Boot put it after a recent flying tour of America’s global garrisons, the U.S. possesses military bases that add up to “a virtual American empire of Wal-Mart-style PXs, fast-food restaurants, golf courses, and gyms.”
Depending on just what you counted, there were anywhere from 700 to perhaps 1,200 or more U.S. bases, micro to macro, acknowledged and unacknowledged, around the globe. Meanwhile, the Pentagon was pouring money into the wildest blue-skies thinking at its advanced research arm, DARPA, whose budget grew by 50%. Through DARPA, well-funded scientists experimented with various ways to fight sci-fi-style wars in the near and distant future (at a moment when no one was ready to put significant government money into blue-skies thinking about, for instance, how to improve the education of young Americans). The Pentagon was also pioneering a new form of air power, drone warfare, in which “we” wouldn’t be within thousands of miles of the battlefield, and the battlefield would no longer necessarily be in a country with which we were at war.
It was also embroiled in two disastrous, potentially trillion-dollar wars (and various global skirmishes) — and all this at top dollar at a time when next to no money was being invested in, among other things, the bridges, tunnels, waterworks, and the like that made up an aging American infrastructure. Except when it came to victory, the military stood ever taller, while its many missions expanded exponentially, even as the domestic economy was spinning out of control, budget deficits were increasing rapidly, the governmental bureaucracy was growing ever more sclerotic, and indebtedness to other nations was rising by leaps and bounds.
In other words, in a far wealthier country, another set of leaders, having watched the Soviet Union implode, decisively embarked on the Soviet path to disaster.