To say that the events of September 11, 2001, had a distorting effect on American foreign policy is to seriously understate the case. What happened in the wake of that catastrophe, in the highest councils of the US government, has been called a coup by none other than Washington insider Bob Woodward. Citing Colin Powell, Woodward wrote:
“Powell felt Cheney and his allies – his chief aide, I. Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith and what Powell called Feith’s ‘Gestapo’ office – had established what amounted to a separate government.”
A few scant months after 9/11, having decided on invading Iraq,and initiating a "Freedom Agenda" of serial regime change in the Middle East, the neoconservatives embedded in the administration of George W. Bush bypassed the national security bureaucracy and the diplomatic and military corps. They set up their own rogue agencies, which proceeded to gin up a war with forged "evidence" of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. In short: they lied us into war.
We are still living with the consequences of that highly successful deception, not only because of the many thousands of dead and wounded it produced, but also because American foreign policy became unhinged, both literally and figuratively. Unhinged from its traditional moorings in a responsible realism, but also in psychological terms: 9/11 drove American policymakers into a deadly madness.
We are only just beginning to recover from the effects of our post-9/11 craziness, and we’ll be coming down with periodic bouts of feverish recurrence for quite a long time to come – but the worst, I believe, is over. There are many reasons to be optimistic, but first we have to understand where we are coming from in order to understand where we are headed.
The neocon coup started out as a palace revolution, but the coup leaders were quick to mount a propaganda campaign out in flyover country, smearing anyone who opposed the militaristic frenzy. Few stood up to the war hysteria, and those who did had zero access to the media, as "news" anchors sported American flag lapel pins and Fox News gave a platform to Bill Kristol’s neocon cadre to push their agenda of perpetual war. In our Twitter-driven range-of-the-moment world, where last week is like last year, it is easy to forget the atmosphere in the immediate aftermath of the worst terrorist attack on our nation’s history. It’s easy to forget Andrew Sullivan calling the loyalty of "decadent coastal elites" into question, and how even the most liberal Democrats were intimidated into silence by the neocons and their political police in the media.
The neocon Inquisition was set up in the public square, while neocon pundits engaged in a friendly competition to see who could drag the most victims to the dock. Who now recalls how Andy Sullivan accused some harmless poet of treason, how the triumphant braying of the Sean Hannity types drowned out any and all questions about the course we were taking, at home and abroad? Yet the echoes of that time still resound through our discourse, and we are hearing them today in the debate over the Chuck Hagel nomination. The big difference is that today, we here at Antiwar.com are no longer a lone voice decrying the mindless militarism and brazen destructionism that has dominated US foreign policy for the past decade or so.
It’s as if a poisonous wind had swept across this country in the wake of 9/11, emanating from Washington and New York, and rippling outward until it scorched the very air with its coruscating vapors. Time and nature – human nature – have healed the political landscape, but the poisonous vapors persist – leached into the very soil, contaminating the discourse with the neoconservative narrative.
That narrative – that anyone who questions our foreign policy of belligerent entitlement and untrammeled militarism is a traitor and appeaser of "terrorism" – is being repeated verbatim in the fit of vituperation aimed at Hagel. His assailants are the very same neoconservative pundits who have been spectacularly wrong about everything, from the existence of alleged Iraqi WMD to their goofy idea that they would somehow "export democracy" to the wild of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The neocons, from their perches on the editorial page of the Washington Post, and the studios of Fox News, drummed up popular support for the Washington coup-leaders and their war plans. They provided the theoretical framework within which the worst military and diplomatic disasters in our history as a country were wrought.
At the height of their power and towering arrogance, it was Max Boot, the neocons’ token ex-CIA guy, who gave the most full-throated expression to the dizzy triumphalism of the times. His classic essay "The Case for an American Empire," which got the cover of the Weekly Standard, argued that it was time for America to explicitly take up the White Man’s Burden as our British forebears had. "Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets," declared Boot, heady with excitement at the prospect of going after Iraq after conquering Afghanistan. It was a time when Niall Ferguson and one Kagan or another could engage in a spirited debate about whether or not we ought to call America an empire – not, mind you, whether we are in fact one, but whether we ought to openly acknowledge it. There was no debate about whether we had reached what neocon wise man Charles Krauthammer exulted in as the "unipolar moment." All were agreed that moment had arrived – and would not soon pass. As far as the Serious People in Washington were concerned, the American Empire was apparently here to stay – except it wasn’t.
Indeed, our duration as an imperial power is setting a record for brevity: in spite of the Henry Luce-inspired conceit of an "American Century," there’s the little detail of the cold war to consider. If we measure the length of the Unipolar Moment beginning in the mid-1980s, when the first big cracks began to appear in the Warsaw Pact and in the Soviet Union itself, and ending with the crash of ’08, we have a grand total of barely 20 years. This hardly puts a candle to the Brits, never mind the Romans, or even Alexander the Great – whose successors, the Seleucids, persisted in what is now Persia and Iraq for hundreds of years after his death.
Those of us who said our policy of imperialism was economically and politically unsustainable were right: what we are seeing now is the contraction of the American empire, which is retrenching, albeit not surrendering its hegemonic designs and reverting to what is disdained as "isolationism." Having drained the private economy of trillions of dollars in value, and exhausted both the Treasury and the populace with endless wars, the Washington elites are faced with a word that is on everyone’s lips these days: the prospect of austerity.
Just as the bubble of reckless financial speculation that fueled the Fed-driven "prosperity" of the pre-Crash years has popped, so has the bubble of overseas expansionism that led to reckless wars and dreams of empire. Coming into office, President Obama had to deal with these two major deflations, one in the realm of economics and the other in the realm of foreign affairs. I won’t comment on his success in the former, because this essay is already overlong. As for the latter, however, there are some indications he is moving toward a policy of retrenchment, out of necessity rather than conviction – but we’ll take what we can get.
The Hagel appointment is one indication of this new direction in our foreign policy. Hagel’s position as one of the leading Republican "realists" is well-known. He is a part of the same group which was briefly known as the Committee for the Republic – Brent Scowcroft, Richard Armitage, C. Boyden Gray, and, and other old foreign policy hands from the days of Bush Senior – which is in loose alliance with Democratic foreign policy honchos like Zbigniew Brzezinski and Lee Hamilton. They aren’t anti-interventionists, but rather cautious internationalists, as John Judis explains here: they are, however, our invaluable allies in the present context. What they seek, after the madness of the Bush Doctrine, is to impose some sense of limits on a dangerously over-extended empire, in order to redirect our resources to the project of "nation-building" at home, rather than in the wilds of Central Asia.
They are, in short, tired of the neocons and their continued dominance in determining the foreign policy consensus in Washington, and they have mounted – in league with the President – an ambitious campaign to get rid of them once and for all. Hagel is their man, and his views – a reluctance to engage in military action, a willingness to engage our traditional enemies, and a desire to draw the thorn from the festering wound of the Middle East and finally settle the Palestinian question – reflect the emerging policy consensus, the “new normal” of what Brezinski calls the “post-imperial” era.
The lingering Palestinian conundrum has been a particular sore point with the US military, starting with Gen. Petraeus, who issued a report to Congress stating that failure to resolve this question poses a continuing military threat to our forces in the area. In addition, Admiral Fallon’s unusually vocal opposition to the war talk surrounding Iran indicates a widespread sentiment in the officers corps against this latest neocon scheme.
The Hagel nomination is a direct challenge to several foreign policy orthodoxies: 1) That Iran, which supposedly represents a dire and imminent military threat, cannot be dealt with diplomatically, and a military solution is our chief option, 2) That Israel must be supported unconditionally, and always, no matter how many of their neighbors they invade or dispossess, and 3) That our bloated-beyond-belief military budget cannot be cut without endangering our national security interests.
These three pillars of interventionist orthodoxy are under direct attack at the present moment, with Hagel in the role of Samson about to bring down the edifice on his head. The neocons’ wrath knows no bounds, with each polemic issuing forth from the pages of the Weekly Standard and the Washington Post like a terrible shriek of pain. The neocons know they’re cornered, and vulnerable, the soft underbelly of their discreditable reputations as inveterate warmongers and failed prophets fully exposed. That’s why they’re mobilizing all their forces in a frantic Stop Hagel movement – and in the process have only underscored their pathetic weakness.
In a laughably futile attempt to bring back the post-9/11 neocon Inquisition, they have hurled the same epithets at Hagel they once hurled at the tiny and beleaguered antiwar opposition as the ruins of the World Trade Tower continued to smoke: Anti-Semite! Appeaser! Soft on
Iraq Iran! Instead of endangering the Hagel nomination, they have only put into question their remaining power and influence. I smell blood – and victory. Don’t you?
As the shortest-lived world empire in history begins the painful process of contraction, there will be fits and starts along the bumpy road returning us to sanity, but there is no question about the direction we are headed. Neocons decry this as "decline," but in reality we are merely reverting to our natural and rightful size and place in the community of nations. Realists understand this, and hope to make the transition as pain-free as possible. Anti-interventionists can only rejoice at the prospect, while ceaselessly pushing for more radical cutbacks both in the scope of our overseas commitments and the military budget that makes the empire possible.
There are many entrenched interests who profit, in one way or another, from the Warfare State, and they are most assuredly mobilizing their resources and allies in order to keep the gravy train flowing. Yet the iron law of the Age of Austerity will make short work of their feeble protestations, as the American people are increasingly forced to choose between overseas glory and comfort on the home front. A public tired of constant warfare, and increasingly educated about foreign affairs, is overwhelmingly opposed to the neocons’ latest project of provoking war with Iran. They feel similarly about the proposals of do-gooders, left and right, to "do something" about Syria. When the Washington Post editorial board issued its diktat denouncing Hagel as being "out of the mainstream," one needed an interpreter conversant in the lingo of Bizarro World to translate it into proper English: Hagel is out of sync with the Washington "mainstream," and in sync with the rest of the country.
The poisonous fog that invaded our country and ate away at the very foundations of our republic has lifted, and, although there are clouds still hanging about here and there, it looks like they are about to be dispersed by a strong wind from the Western plains of Nebraska – where tornados and other atmospheric disturbances are common. As the storm breaks over Washington, D.C., we can sit back, enjoy the spectacle – and look forward to the coming of Spring.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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Buy my biography of the great libertarian thinker, An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard, here.