If you are powerful enough, you don’t have to be smart.
This truism explains a lot about American military history. It explains how the North beat the South, and how the West was won, or rather taken, along with the rest of the continent, from the peoples who inhabited it. It also explains many of America’s military successes.
When the United States doesn’t actually win the wars it fights, as has been happening a lot lately, it nevertheless lays its enemies waste and emerges comparatively unscathed. Overwhelming might explains this too.
It also explains how a few European countries, while still at their peak, made a mess of the rest of the world.
For example, it explains how they were able to carve up and take over much of sub-Saharan Africa late in the nineteenth century, establishing borders that took little heed of ethnic, linguistic, cultural, religious or even geographical conditions.
They couldn’t be bothered by fine points such as these, and they could afford to ignore them. They therefore put in place a recipe for disaster – for ethnic strife and civil war.
Wisely, Africans took pains to avoid these dangers as they struggled for independence. They left the borders established during the colonial period intact, and proceeded with nation building on this basis.
The first generation of African leaders was especially keen on this principle; later generations, not so much. And so, there is ample cause for worry – now.
With the United States and China vying for economic advantage throughout the African continent, and with the American military expanding its presence there, strife is all but inevitable.
In its efforts to divide and rule, the United States is especially adept at exacerbating ethnic tensions. It has had a lot of practice in recent decades; Ukraine is only the latest example.
When Washington takes an interest – when it sends advisors and NGOs – it is always prudent to beware.
A generation after the scramble for colonies in Africa, Europeans were still at it – with the focus, this time, on the Near East. When, after World War I, the British and French assigned large swathes of the former Ottoman Empire to themselves, they were acting true to form.
True to form as well, they concocted a world historical mess with consequences that continue to reverberate.
In retrospect, their machinations look like cluelessness run amok. But there was logic behind it.
If you took European (plus North American and Australasian) supremacy for granted and supposed that what mattered most was keeping Germany weak and Bolshevik Russia at bay, their way of carving up the Middle East almost makes sense.
No doubt, the European leaders who dismembered the Ottoman Empire were arrogant, racist, Orientalist and so on. But in view of their priorities and their understanding of the world, they were not unreasonable.
They never doubted that they had the right to move around titles to lands inhabited by “natives”; and that if any of them took exception, they could be easily put down.
They did this because they could; they held all the cards.
The world has been paying for their shenanigans ever since, and at no time more than the present.
The burden has been, and still is, born mainly by the peoples whose passions and interests – and demands for dignity — the West never tried to comprehend, much less take into account.
Nothing else in the twentieth century rivals the cluelessness and ineptitude of the great European powers of that period — nothing in the years leading up to World War II, and nothing during the Cold War. After the fall of Communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, American diplomacy was arguably as inept, but it wasn’t clueless; the U.S. knew what it was doing.
Bush the Father and Clinton the Husband were hardly up to the challenges they faced, but for sheer arrogance and insensitivity to local conditions, their missteps don’t even begin to compete.
The saving grace of our first two post-Cold War presidents was caution. They both worried that Americans were not yet over the so-called Vietnam Syndrome, and therefore that they would not tolerate significant casualties. They understood too that that without significant casualties, “regime change” anywhere was out of the question.
Bush the Son, on the other hand, took it for granted that he had a get-out-of-jail free card for everything he did. Why wouldn’t he? Bush family fixers had always been around when he got himself in trouble. He was used to getting away with anything, and doing whatever he wanted.
But when he became President, he hadn’t any idea what he wanted to do – except to further enrich his class brothers and sisters at everyone else’s expense. For that, he didn’t need to be smart; the formula is disturbingly familiar — lower the taxes high-flyers pay, cut back on programs that benefit the vast majority, and deregulate everything in sight.
From his first days in the White House, Bush set out on this course; he pursued it to the best of his (very limited) ability.
However, when it came to making over the world outside America’s borders, he didn’t have a clue; indeed, he barely had an interest.
But the neocons had a very lively interest, and they also had the power behind the throne, Dick Cheney, in their pocket. When Al Qaida was kind enough to provide them with a pretext, they jumped right in and never looked back.
Thus the twenty-first century began with efforts to change the world that were as ill-informed and dangerous as the best – or rather the worst – the twentieth century had offered up.
The difference, however, is that these days sheer force is seldom enough.
The destructive power of the American military is without peer or precedent; and there is presently no other world power or combination of world powers able to threaten its dominance; not China or Russia and certainly not the European Union.
But in today’s world, the kind of might the U.S. has at its disposal is largely irrelevant for accomplishing what its leaders want to do.
The descendants of yesterday’s “natives” now have the means to defeat the global hegemon – not to inflict serious pain upon it, much less to lay it waste, but to thwart its aims and deflect its plans. These days, even non-state actors able to do this.
Also, the American economy is not what it used to be. The rich still get richer – outrageously so. But with everyone else worse off and with both major parties unwilling to raise taxes, the state is in a condition of permanent fiscal crisis.
The fact that the United States can no longer afford the wars it wages is therefore finally beginning to register. This may be the one good thing to come out of the Bush-Obama wars.
In the twenty-first century, the high and mighty no longer get a free ride.
In a sense, this has always been the case; when world powers set out to change the world by insinuating themselves into situations they barely comprehend, there is no way, in the end, to evade the consequences.
However, a century ago, entire lifetimes could separate the arrogant and inept machinations of clueless world leaders from the consequences of their follies. These days, the consequences become evident sooner – in years or months, not generations.
Some of the proverbial chickens the Bush family, father and son, let loose upon the world are already coming home to roost. Lucky for them that is it happening on Obama’s watch.
In Africa, the perils of cluelessness and ineptitude are only now beginning to unfold. The Near East is another story; Syria and Iraq are well on their way to becoming failed states.
They are turning into what Bush cynically – or what it ignorantly? — claimed Iraq had been a decade earlier; a base for Al Qaida – or worse.
This couldn’t have happened had the West dealt with the remains of the Ottoman Empire more sensitively. But dead British and French diplomats hardly deserve all the blame.
George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and the posse of neocons and foreign policy charlatans they empowered are far more culpable. For cluelessness, arrogance, ineptitude and outright stupidity, Bush and his crew were without rival. Nothing the British and French did a century ago holds a candle.
Had they not started wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and continued them long after it had become clear that their adventures were hopelessly lost, we would not now be in the fix we are.
Barack Obama has much to answer for as well.
Like his predecessor, in the months before he ceded power to the neocons, Obama seems to have no grand design in mind. He only wants to serve the powers that be by stewarding America’s imperial project well.
But, unlike his predecessor, Obama never had the luxury of a grace period in which he could neglect foreign affairs. By the time Bush left the White House, it wasn’t just the prospect of an impending economic catastrophe that demanded the new president’s attention; the mess Bush had made in Iraq and Afghanistan did too.
A task Obama therefore set for himself was to clean up the mess Bush and his people had made with their wars of choice. But, since he and Bush served the same masters, he set out to do it without fundamentally changing course and in a way that would not cause the empire to lose face.
Insofar as the idea is to maintain continuity, this makes obvious sense; even a playground bully must always save face – especially if the kids he bullies are capable of fighting back.
These days, however, even just doing that right takes smarts.
Obama, however, preferred muddling along to using his mind. And he seems horrified at the prospect of not acting on advice proffered by the Pentagon and the foreign policy establishment. No matter that those sources have been proven wrong countless times. For a politician in too far over his head, going with the establishment is always the safest option.
Perhaps that is all it was; perhaps he was fearful of going out on a limb. In any case, the advice Obama got was uniformly bad.
He listened to military blowhards like David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal who wanted to revive Vietnam-era nostrums for winning over “hearts and minds.” Then there were the advisors who promoted “surging,” then un-surging, then surging again — with no apparent rhyme or reason.
He may have been obliged to hear them out, but only a fool would take their advice seriously. One might as well put the likes of John McCain or Lindsay Graham in charge.
Worse still, he entrusted the administration of the empires’ predations to the likes of Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, Joe Biden, John Kerry and the many lesser “humanitarian interventionists” they empowered.
Maybe some of them mean well; if they don’t, they put on a good show. But they are as clueless – and dangerous – as their neocon counterparts. Like them, they are in beyond their depth; and like them too, they don’t seem to realize it.
Evidently, Obama never quite caught on to the fact that, in today’s world, even great powers have to be at least somewhat smart.
This is why Obama’s machinations in Syria, and his guileful but inept repackaging of the Iraq War, are coming back to bite him. The result is likely to be worse than anything Bush and Cheney stirred up while they were still in office.
At least the mess for which Obama himself is culpable has a deliciously ironic aspect: the United States now finds itself obliged to make nice with Iran. The two countries may even work together, or at least coordinate efforts, to contain the Sunni militants in ISIS, the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant.
One can almost feel the hissy fits breaking out all over Israel as their BFF now makes common cause with their longstanding “existential threat.”
Unfortunately, for this, it is the Palestinians who will pay. Indeed, they are already paying as Israel ratchets up the level of oppression in the Occupied Territories – on the pretext of searching for three kidnapped settler teens. The Israeli Right is acting out, for a change; and there is no one else around that they – or their government — can bully with impunity.
Meanwhile, as the sky falls in the Middle East, there is always, lurking, the even greater danger that Team Obama’s ineptitude has conjured into being: the prospect of new wars – cold ones, but always with a chance of turning hot – with Russia and China.
These are enemies far more formidable than Al Qaida or any or its offshoots like ISIS could ever become.
The perils Obama et. al. are concocting are therefore the most dangerous of all.
Bush’s excuse was that he was spoiled and dumb. This explains a lot, but, in the final analysis, it excuses nothing. Then there is Obama. What could his excuse be?
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).