When John Lee Hooker died three years ago, my friend Joe said, “I KNEW the heroin would get to him sooner or later!” It was a good joke, because John Lee Hooker died at the age of 83. It’s like the joke about how Osama Bin Laden and the Mullah Omar ‘can run, but they can’t hide’. It’s three years now, and it looks like both of them have done much more hiding than running.
This simple fact is more important than whether or not the US is winning its nebulous war on it abstract enemy, ‘terror’. No amount of pith-helmet frothing about the ‘criminals’ or ‘murderers’ responsible for 9-11 can obscure the political nova they created. In one morning they turned the pride of New York into poisonous, smoking dust and savaged the military centre of the United States. They provoked the greatest rage the most powerful country in the world had ever felt, and have evaded the intelligence services of the entire Western world for three years: not cowering, but hitting back, all the time. If that isn’t being able to hide, then what is?
Though this failure is widely recognized, many don’t take it very seriously. Some trivialize the attacks, saying that more were killed in America’s wars. By this token the number of really significant events in American history reduces to a half-dozen, and Pearl Harbor by itself was trivial. Robert Fisk invokes his dead mother: “There was one thing she would, I feel sure, have agreed with me: That we should not allow 19 murderers to change our world. George Bush and Tony Blair are doing their best to make sure the murderers DO change our world.” Others speak of ‘bringing the criminals to justice’, as if this shattering conflagration were an ordinary police matter. That September 11th changed the world has become a cliché. It does not occur to these people that, if Bin Laden and the Mullah Omar could get away with *that*, the world must have changed already. A lot.
Yet this is staring us in the face. Iraq: could the world have conceived, in 1947, that US troops could not hold Hamburg, Frankfurt and Munich? That American leaders could only sneak into Germany on furtive, unscheduled peek-a-boo missions? That the American occupation officials, hardly daring to emerge from their fortified ghetto, could not control most of Berlin? Afghanistan: could anyone have imagined an America as feckless in its response to Pearl Harbor as to the even greater humiliation is suffered on September 11th? The very country that was supposed to feel the full weight of American wrath now houses a puppet semi-government which cannot even control its own capital, and a scattering of American troops bring no results other than their own occasional deaths. The United States has fallen far. The inability to see the significance of the change is almost as spectacular as the change itself.
On the left as well as on the right, Americans are full of excuses. Of course, we are told, no one is a match of American might. It’s just that we didn’t really want to go after the Mullah Omar and Bin Laden. It’s just that we didn’t really deploy the forces the military said we needed. It’s just that our intelligence was bad. It’s just that we didn’t listen to our intelligence people. It’s just that we alienated the local population. It’s just that we alienated the Muslim world. It’s just that the neocons, or Israel, or the Christian fundamentalists messed with our heads.
All this is reminiscent of nothing so much as the excuses about why Liston or Frazier or Foreman or the reincarnation of Rocky Marciano didn’t cream Mohammed Ali. There are always reasons why you fail or you lose, but in the world as in the boxing ring, it all counts: bad strategy, bad training, overconfidence, stupidity, ignorance, laziness, delusional thinking, weakness of will. It is pathetic to insist: well, but for these things, he coulda been a contender. Yes, but there were these things, and you’re a loser.
I don’t know why America is in decline. I assume that there is a reason, that this is not somehow the whim of a giant who decides to wither away. In part, no doubt, it is just that the US has become weaker relative to other countries who have become stronger. But this does not explain why the US cannot conquer crippled states like Afghanistan or Iraq. So deeper sickness is at work. To me, it first showed itself with the election of Ronald Reagan.
There is debate over whether Reagan somehow caused the collapse of the Soviet Union, or whether he merely presided over its collapse from within. This debate is itself wrong-headed, because the idea of Reagan actually having a strategy is absurd. The most elementary grasp of reality requires recognition that Reagan was an idiot, was known to be an idiot, and was elected because the American people either actively wanted an idiot, or thought it didn’t mattered that their country was run by an idiot. Whether or not the Soviet Union collapsed from within, it was apparent that America had started to collapse, at least partly from within.
The tendency to collapse, like the same tendency in Rome, has not been relentless. Carter, Clinton, and Bush the First, whatever their faults, were not idiots, and Bush the First delivered impressive military and diplomatic achievements. But his son, despite occasional flashes of cunning, is an idiot. His neocon advisers are third-raters. His intelligence services know nothing. His Secretary of Defense is an overconfident amateur, who thinks he can root out guerrillas from twenty thousand feet in the air. His army is terribly impressed with its own courage and expertise, but wouldn’t dream of incurring losses on the scale its enemies accept as a matter of course, and cannot muster enough troops to attain its objectives in the style to which it has become accustomed. Americans generally cannot even conceive what is in military terms a truism: that when you attack, you should be prepared to lose three times as many men as the defenders.
Yes, in other words, America ‘could’ subdue Iraq and Afghanistan if it was prepared to lose 90,000 soldiers in each country. In 1945, when America really was a colossus, it was prepared to do this. But it *can* no longer be prepared to do this, because Americans would never dream of tolerating such losses. Americans for years have seen their armed forces as a career opportunity, not a road to death, nor can they really grasp that funny-talking, funny-dressing foreigners so far away could require such suffering on America’s part. Their ignorance, arrogance and love of ideological fantasy preclude such notions.
These are no mere accidents of American history. They have roots in many twentieth century developments: the American victories in two world wars, the emergence of a baby boomer generation weaned on TV and its fantasies, increasing dependence on and infatuation with technology, deteriorating government services including education and consequently the civil service, and so on. So the ‘could’ is imaginary. America cannot suddenly stop being what it has become. It therefore cannot simply, by some act of a will it does not possess, stop being ignorant, arrogant, overconfident, or any of the other things that underlie its shocking failures. Excuses mean nothing when it comes to America’s inability to wield effectively its panoply of nerd-wet-dream technologies, its mountains of military hardware, and the millions of draft-age human beings at its disposal. That’s how things are and, with allowance made for the same fits of efficiency and determination that marked the decline of Rome, that’s how they will stay. That America’s weakness lies partly in its psychology does not make it any less weak.
America’s weakness is not a problem; the problem is that it acts as if it were strong. This is pretty well understood; it is no news that the US has overreached itself, or that it needs allies. There is another problem, less well understood: the left also approaches its objectives as if America were strong.
Sometimes this results in mere failures of perspective. For example, religious fundamentalism in America is seen as powerful cause of America’s policy aberrations. This is a half truth. Fundamentalism, we are often told, is the reaction of a threatened culture or failed society to international challenges it cannot meet. This fits America’s Christian fundamentalism very nicely. America, with its minority of participating voters and its completely aberrant choices of leaders, is as much a ‘failed state’ as any Islamic fundamentalist nation. Christian fundamentalism is a reaction to the quite correct perception that American society is in deep trouble: it is a consequence, not a cause of that trouble. Rather than worrying about how to counter Christian fundamentalists, we should worry about how to deal with the trouble in the first place.
It is in dealing with American decline as it reflects on foreign policy that the left goes further astray. The left still sees its central problem as containing American aggression, just as it did in the 1970s. In fact, the Iraqis and Afghans do a very good job of containing American aggression. It is a safe bet that America will never take on a functioning country not crippled by years of internationally imposed sanctions: the idea that, having been humiliated in Iraq, it could tackle Iran is simply ludicrous. This is not only because of America’s own military weakness – the inability to conduct successful military operations, even for pure psychological reasons, is military weakness – but because, since the first Gulf War, there has been a decisive change in the world’s willingness to humour American fantasies. If the US seems isolated in Iraq, where the UN had already authorized one war and kept a pariah label on the country, imagine how it will seem attacking anywhere else. It is not only anachronistic but offensive to suppose – unlike the rest of the world – that non-Americans are little people who can’t handle America’s ‘invincible military might’.
Nowhere is the left’s obsolete attitude more apparent and more damaging than in its approach to the Israel/Palestine conflict. The left tends to see this as a tale of another brutal American client, crushing the Palestinians to secure American dominance in the Middle East. Israel, it is supposed, intimidates the Arab world and enables America to secure its oil supplies.
This is nonsense. Control of Middle East oil is one of the few things American can easily secure on its own: it takes next to nothing to occupy oil fields, and it has been done many times. As for the oil-producing countries themselves, Israel doesn’t seem to have been much help in controlling the Iranian oil fields, and the Gulf States régimes have always been helpless American clients. The only relevant effect of US support for Israel is that it makes people in the Middle East furious at the very idea of alliance with or subordination to the United States: Israel is no help but a huge hinderance to America’s oil security. And one needn’t qualify this with ‘oil’: Israel, by making bitter enemies for America everywhere, is an enormous hinderance to America’s security, period.
America once supported Israel because Israel was a buffer against Nasser’s enormously popular Arab nationalism and against Soviet influence. This made a little bit of sense: against the Soviet Union, at least, America found Israel very handy as a stationary aircraft carrier. But now, America supports Israel for no good reason: out of inertia and out of respect for the maudlin absurdity which somehow pulls the Israeli rabbit out of the holocaust-remembrance hat. The Israel lobby is so successful, not because America can’t resist it, but because it doesn’t want to: it thinks Israel is its good buddy and it doesn’t mind the lobbying, which after all has become as American as cherry pie. As for the spying, no big deal: friends do spy on one another from time to time, and it has been rightly said that the US gives Israel much more sensitive information than Israel ever gets from its operatives.
Why then does the oil story persist? First, because the left can’t get its head around the idea that America might do something out of sheer stupidity. Why not? Is it that the country which elects such brilliant leaders couldn’t possibly stoop so low? Second, the story persists because the left is wedded to the notion of a strong country whose alliances cannot be harmful, but must on the contrary extend and manifest that strength. But the US is harming itself, greatly, by its alliance with Israel, even as it is being humiliated all over the world, even as its weakness grows more apparent day by day. Americans may never give a damn about the Palestinians, but they do quite rightly worry about their security: with the hatred they incur, they certainly ought to fear the rest of the world, which is quite capable of dealing them devastating defeats. That is why the US needs friends. That it is why it ought to dump Israel.
MICHAEL NEUMANN is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. Professor Neumann’s views are not to be taken as those of his university. His book What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche has just been republished by Broadview Press. He can be reached at: email@example.com.