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Failing at Success, by Michael Brenner

Friends& Colleagues

Thisessay is unusually long. It also is quite dense. That concerns me. So, I showedit to a connoisseur of commentaries to get a reaction. He replied that it wasperfectly suited to the times – the era of quarantine, isolation and anxiety.  Most literate isolates, he pointed out,already have plowed through Decline & Fall, War & Peace, the completeset of Shakespeare’s dramas, and the Iliad. So, now the choice is between youand Paradise Lost – which is not everybody’s cup of tea.




Widespread social disorder can bethe expression of various conditions: civil war, sectarian strife, economiccollapse, natural disasters, external incursions, etc. All of these situationsare explicable by the application of some kind of causal logic. On rareoccasions, disorder is less easily comprehensible - reasons, dynamic and pathsof development are obscure. Its striking features are the randomness ofbehaviors - particularly but not limited to asocial actions; their simultaneousmanifestations in multiple spheres of collective life: cultural, intellectual,political, economic; incoherence of thought and action; and erratic, rapidshifts in attitude, behavior and allegiance. Those are the singularcharacteristics of the United States at present. In short, it's nihilism. Thatin itself adds to confused behavior and the complexities encountered in tryingto make sense of what is going on.

 An oddity of today's America is that veryfew of the hypothetical catalysts originate from the country’s external environment.Rather, what we observe is a transposition onto our foreign dealings of ourdomestic disarray. Our policies, such as they are, are tactically incoherent.They also are impulsive and liable to sudden changes of tack. That stems ingood part from the dissociated mind of the President. Yet, the broad trendsalso demonstrate a remarkable continuity relative to the kaleidoscopic sceneinternally. When we look beneath the surface of Trump's impulsive, erraticactions (the most radical of which never seem to get implemented) the patternis noticeably unchanged. The underlying conceptions of America's role in theworld are especially enduring. Understandably so since they are rooted in thecountry's self-identity that was formed at its inception, and given its presentshape 75 years ago in the aftermath of WW II. What the current turmoil at homehas done is to strengthen and accentuate some of those underlying attitudes. Ithas inserted a large measure of tactical irrationality into a policy stream alreadyoff course. The common denominator of both phenomena is the intensification ofgnawing anxieties about national exceptionalism, the personal insecurities itexacerbates and the compulsive desire to restore and reconfirm a mythicalbirthright.


To begin unravelling this puzzle, let'sscrutinize the widely-held proposition that Trump in fact has departed from theconsensual (and conventional) view as what constitutes a sound foreign policy.During the 2016 campaign, he did declare his intention to make some drasticchanges. Most prominent, and politically effective, was a pledge to bring downthe curtain on our endless wars in the Middle East. The record of the past 3+years provides little evidence that he did so. There was rhetoric for sure,some loud proclamations, even the setting of nominal deadlines for troopwithdrawals. Actions were scant. In Syria, the United States continued toprovide material and diplomatic support to the coalition of jihadist forcescontrolled by al-Qaeda/al Nusra which was dedicated to toppling the Assadregime. We do so to this day in the bastion of Idlib. Their defeats at thehands of the government backed by Russia and Iran put paid to that ambition;however, the US and its European allies remain committed to keeping them aliveto harass the Damascus government and to prevent reintegration of the country.In addition, we have fostered the alliance with the YPG Kurds in order toprevent the government from reopening its border with Iraq. They also helpsecure the oil wells in the Eastern desert that we have seized as spoils ofwar. The much ballyhooed decision to reduce American forces that had alliedwith the YPG to block Turkish incursions cost us a measure of goodwill, butWashington skillfully has managed to maintain a tactical alliance. In short, wehave not abandoned our audacious goals in Syria, nor have we evacuated Syrianterritory. Whatever shift that has occurred is division-of-labor between theArmy and Special Forces/CIA irregulars/mercenaries. 

In Iraq, our force presence remains large, ourbase complex expands, our interference in Iraqi politics relentless and ourambitions are constant - unchanged since 2003. That means reducing Iraq to adependent state, forcing it to cut all ties to neighboring Iran, and using thecountry as a hub for American operations throughout the region. Indeed, webluntly told the Baghdad government that we will not obey the dictate voted byParliament that the United States withdraw its forces. In effect, we officiallydeny Iraqi territorial sovereignty.

The foundation stone of everything the UnitedStates does in the Middle East is its unqualified fidelity to Israel. WhatJerusalem wants from Washington, Jerusalem gets. That includes vociferousAmerican backing for its abuses of the Palestinians, moving the Embassy toJerusalem, and now the contemplated outright annexation of the West Bank.Moreover, the Trump administration has been even more aggressive than itspredecessors in pressuring allies and others to toe the Israeli line.

Kow-towing to Israel in now bound to ourembrace of Saudi Arabia under its homicidal, volatile de facto leader Mohammedbin-Salman. We are the third party in what amounts to a tripartite axiscemented by a passionate hatred of Iran seen as a mortal enemy and their commonnational interest in keeping other Arab states weak and unstable. This is thereason for America's participation in the brutal war against the Houthis ofYemen (begun under Obama) which serves no tangible American interests and makesa mockery of our already shredded image as the tribune of human rightsworldwide.

Afghanistan seems an exception. Long, arduousnegotiations with the Taliban led to an accord earlier this year that foresawthe United States withdrawing its military and allowing the Afghans to decidetheir own political future. The talks were strictly bilateral - leaving theKabul government, which we have propped up for 19 years, as sideline observers.That lack of communication led unavoidably to serious frictions over the termsand implementation of the agreement. Vexed at being kept totally in the dark,the Ghani government immediately threw a stumbling block onto the 'peace path'by refusing to release all Taliban prisoners as a first step in the process.The ensuing messy compromise left more crucial matters unresolved. Theprincipal issue concerned the provision that American forces would not assistAfghan army in combat with the Taliban - only our own troops were they to comeunder attack. Kabul saw this as a betrayal. Its vociferous protests that thissignaled their death knell fell on sympathetic ears at Central Command whosegenerals don’t want the blemish of yet another failed war on their historicalrecord. Within days, the Air Force was back flying close support for the Afghanunits. Vehement Taliban protests prompted the unvarnished declaration fromWashington that simply contradicted the wording of the accord in saying that itnever meant to preclude support for government forces. This kind of volte-facehas been a feature of Trumpian diplomacy; exactly the same action was taken inregard to the Singapore declaration with North Korea. (see below)

A further impediment to actual compliance withthe pledge to withdraw from Afghanistan concerns the status of the CIAcontingents. The Agency has been fighting its own war using semi-autonomousunits for many years. It comprises Agency operatives, Afghan commando units,large contingents of mercenaries, drones and helicopters, etc. Washington isambivalent on the question as to their future presence and role. Against thisbackground, the standard Pentagon foot-dragging about retreating from any ofthese Middle Eastern engagements might well lead to an indefinite postponementof the announced departure from Afghanistan.

In other regions, the signs of a speculativelowering of the American security profile are mixed. In Latin America, the U.S.has grown more assertive than at any time since the Reagan era. It isparticularly active in assisting in the overthrow of governments it findsuncongenial on economic and/or philosophical grounds. Venezuela heads the list.The Trump people have dramatically escalated the Bush/Obama campaigns to getrid of its leftist presidents (Chavez, Maduro). It has added para-militarymeans to a draconian campaign of sanctions to starve Caracas into submission.As with Iran and Syria, it has mobilized its allies and dependents around theworld to join in tightening the screws. Three interventions by insurgents havebeen organized by the CIA - two from Colombia and one from Brazil. The latestwas led by an ex-Special Forces major. All ended as fiascos.

Elsewhere, the U.S. has been instrumental inpromoting the neo-Fascist coup Bolivia, rigging the election in Honduras tokeep in place the junta that came to power with our backing in the Obama days,in celebrating avowed Fascist Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil to the point ofarranging his invitation as keynote speaker at Davos, and in giving aid andcomfort to far Right elements across the continent from Nicaragua to Colombiato Paraguay to Ecuador. All of this has taken place in an environment free ofany threat to self-defined American interests as in the Cold War era.

Elsewhere, too, the wave of militaryengagements in Africa, the Middle East and beyond propelled by the WAR ONTERROR has yet to ebb. American Special Forces. advisers, and bases are nowpresent in over 100 countries. Their purpose has expanded from rooting outIslamic terrorist groups to fostering influence within local securityestablishments to serve as leverage points in national politics. Thisproliferation is the antithesis of the vague principle implicit in Trump circa2016 that the country should limit its deployments and commitments. Recently,the White House did announce that it would scale back missions in Africa andreduce aggregate force levels on the continent. There is reason for skepticism,e.g. at the moment it is pressing Tunisia to accept the emplacement of apermanent unit to "assist' Tunisian security forces.


What we have observed over the life of theTrump presidency is the clash between the man's primitive instinct, and hisinnate belligerence on the one hand, and  a combination of unaccommodating realities andorganizational resistance on the other. Trump has been unable to "work hisimpulse' for two reasons: it is not grounded in any conception of how the worldworks and the U.S.' place in it, and his total inability to concentrate onanything for more than minutes. Trump's negative feelings about our pointlessMiddle East wars were similar to those of an alien from space. Knowing littleif anything about the background, looking at the bare facts, the natural reactionis: "what the Hell are we doing there? it makes no sense." That wasthe extent of Trump's geostrategic vision. Similarly on Putin. The man heads abig and militarily powerful country, he is in full command, he makes no threatsagainst us - so why shouldn't I talk to the guy? I get along with Russians;they're tough and straightforward like I am. Working with the Russo-Israelimafia on laundering their money through my properties was a fabulous, win-winsituation. Felix Sater was a terrific partner. It should be the same withPutin. That attitude probable explains 90% of his approach to Putin personally.In practice, however, he has employed every means available short of war toisolate and weaken Russia. More on this seeming contradiction below.

Trump's questioning of the United States'readiness to maintain high force levels in Europe has sown doubt as to theAmerican commitment to underwrite continental defense via NATO. The White Houseannouncement a few weeks back that it would withdraw 9,000 troops fromcontingents currently deployed in Germany has given a sharp edge to thatrhetorical threat. What exactly is the administration thinking? Well, in factit is not doing much thinking at all - certainly not strategic thinking.Furthermore, the 'administration' is actually a pronoun with multipleantecedent nouns. there is no consensus on the desirability or feasibility ofactually drawing down forces. This is a personal Trump idea, one that's beenbuzzing around his mind since 2016.  Asusual, a volte-face came quickly. Those American troops may eventuallyleave German soil – but to be redeployed in Poland some hundreds of milescloser to the Russian border. The Washington consensus tells us that Putinleads Trump by the nose; so, why would he want American military bases in hisvery backyard?  Stop one in six aroundDupont Circle and ask.

Trump operates on feeling and impulse - notsystematic analysis. The man sees everything in cost-benefit terms. How much amI investing. how much am I getting in return; and the guy I'm dealing with,what are his cost benefits? So he looks at the crude numbers. What does hesee.  The U.S. spends more on defense as a fraction of GDP than itsallies. It keeps large, expensove forces in Europe. Those countries spend less;they're rich - and, moreover, they cheat us when it comes to trade. Also,they're closer to any conceivable security threat than we are. Hence, they'retaking us for chumps - have been for a long time. I hate being cheated. All mylife, I've struck a hard bargain to get my share - usually, more than my share.Beat the unions, beat the sub-contractors, beat the creditors, beat the IRS,beat the New York regulators. I'm not going to have my pocket picked by thosefree-loading European wimps. That's it. The readiness to act on these feelingsis enabled by the dim awareness that there really is no serious danger outthere in any case. There are no Nazis, no Commies.

Nobody is ready to accept this simple, ifdiscomforting, truth. So, in European capitals as well as American foreignpolicy circles, there is much hand-wringing, pearl-clutching, exclamations ofshock, and other signs of panic. The Americans are reverting to their historicalisolationism, we no longer have a reliable ally across the Atlantic, we're onour own in this scary world, etc., etc. There are more sensible possiblereactions. 

One is to grow up, gather the political willto assume your proper responsibilities, stop being America's poodle who barkswhen Uncle Sam says  bark, remains silent when he commands you to, andfollow him over the cliff when he has a fit. The other, complementary approach isto take initiatives to address thorny problems and troubled relationships re.Russia, Iran, Syria inter alia. Germany and France mediated the Minsk IIaccords between Kiev and Moscow, yet allowed them to founder thanks mainly toUkrainian obstinacy about enforcing the key provisions, and then dutifullyabandoned any involvement other than to echo Washington's bellicoseanti-Russian rhetoric. On Iran, it makes no serious effort to mitigate thedeleterious effects of Trump's arbitrary withdrawal from the nuclear deal,JPOA, and instead became de facto collaborators in his all-out economic warfareagainst Tehran. On Syria, they allowed themselves to be sucked into aninternecine conflict on the side of al-Qaeda & Assoc. even while theircities were being attacked by jihadi extremists who, in turn, are the spawn ofthe American invasion/occupation of Iraq in which they became willingparticipants.

Were Trump forced out of the White House,there would be a return to the status quo ante which produced all of theabove disasters along with a few others. That return will be celebrated by 90%of the American foreign policy establishment. Indeed, then there would be anintensification of its most unsavory features. Those include:

  • vilification of Putin's Russia as the cause of instability from Eastern Europe to the Libya; a rethinking of the abandoned nuclear Arms Control Agreements (how can you trust a 'despicable' man like that); extension of the measures taken by Trump (in contrast to his rhetoric) that advanced NATO physically and diplomatically eastwards; a further hardening of economic sanctions along with an attack on Russian energy commerce, etc.
  •  vilification of Iran as the source of all troubles in the Middle East and the foremost state supporter of terrorism. Any move to restore the JPOA will entail an effort to tighten its terms in the context of persistent economic warfare
  •  no change in the unabashed support of all and any actions taken by Israel or Saudi Arabia
  •  CHINA: the big one. The growing vilification of China as an imperial minded great power, a serial human rights abuser, a manifest threat to American prosperity via theft of intellectual property, currency manipulations, unfair trade practices, and exploitation of advantageous supply chain networks. The COVID-19 crisis demonstrates how Beijing can weaponize its economic assets, and its unreliability. The Trump shifting of weights in an older strategy of containment and collaboration toward the former would be accelerated.
  •  the browbeating of allies and partners to enforce obedience to American direction and deference to it as the indispensable nation


America's mode of address to the rest of theworld reflects the national state of mind as much as does its actions. Throughthe past four presidencies, it has become increasingly

  • unilateral
  • arbitrary
  • self-righteous
  • ignoring of international rules, norms and customs
  • ready to deny - explicitly or implicitly - other states' right to use methods for defending their interests which are employed routinely by the United States
  •  ready to play fast-and-loose with factual reality
  •  hyper-sensitive to any perceived challenge to American privilege and prerogative
  •  reverting to avoidance strategies to elide the dissonance between American myths and reality

In these proclivities, we discern theextension into international affairs of "AmericanExceptionalism."  Their intensification, extremism and expanded scopecompose a phenomenon that goes beyond the coarseness and insolence of Trump andhis people. For they are visible, too, in the attitudes of politicos, punditsand media, i.e. the country's political class. Something noteworthy has beenhappening.

As a first step toward getting a grip on it,let's highlight what makes that singular style distinctive: obsession, exaggeration,stereotyping, and brutality.

Obsession - or an emotional state quite like it- is normal and logical reaction when faced with a persistent, dangerous menaceto one's well-being. Yet, today, the United States faces no such threat. True,the trauma of 9/11 did create feelings of dread - free-floating anxiety. Fearis provoked by imminent danger; dread by what might be. It was fed by cynicalleaders and a mindless media even when it became obvious that it was a uniqueevent, that there was no horde of terrorists scaling the walls of the Republic.It became an undercurrent in the American psyche but less than a obsession.However, it likely has left a residue of doubt about American vulnerability anddestiny. The one place where it wells up to aggravate sentiments about acurrent protagonist is Iran - whatever little basis in fact there is to thecartoon images of the mullahs' bent on doing us in. Among the matters that keepthe popular American psyche in a fraught state, though, Iran figures well downthe list.

Our main obsessions nowadays are Russia andChina. Those are our fixations. The two countries are officially declared tohold the top spots as security threats. They justify the bloatedDefense/Intelligence budgets. They generate the active war plans. They get thelion's share of anxious attention on the rare occasions that foreign policyemerges in a presidential debate. They drive Congressional investigations andimpeachment proceedings. They stir passion. They unbalance the minds of newsmedia executives and think-tankers.

Consider one example. The New York Timesconsistently publishes stories, essays and opinion pieces that cast thetwo countries in a harshly negative light. For some years now, the editors havefollowed a practice of having a major news report critical of each in at least4 or 5 issues a week. China has now surpassed Russia in this demonology byhaving scored a negative story for 8 straight days, on two of which anadditional slamming article appeared in the Business Section. This record wasset during the Coronavirus crisis when space for International coverage wasrestricted. No topic is too trivial to escape the probing searchlight: be itthe condition of plumbing in housing estates around Beijing or the threat posedto the country's fashion industry by the (alleged) shift in the tastes ofChina's newly wealthy youth or the ban on dog meat sales (vs ‘prairie oysters?’).They serve as fillers for days when big news about military build-ups, tensionsin the Politburo, or the latest aggressive commercial ploy as conjured by thepaper's all-knowing reporters is not immediately available.

Last week, at a time of multiple economiccrises, the Times editors saw fit the devote valuable space to analarmist account of how the country's 12,000 movie theaters face bankruptcy dueto the COVID-19 lockdown. This despite the discomforting fact that the Chineseeconomy is making a robust recovery while the US. founders in depression. NYTInternational Section June 20, total of 3 pages: 2 slam China, 1 slams Russia,1 slams Venezuela,1 slams Iran + a long slam of China in the Business Section. Thisis a dictionary example of obsession. This is not journalism, not informing thepublic. It is leading the congregation in incantation.

This pattern of denigrating China iswidespread. It is puzzling insofar as it serves no rational purpose. It changesnothing tangible in the objective realities of China's capabilities - absoluteor relative. The Chinese doubtless view it as a sign of American insecurity anddefensiveness. If the goal is to prepare Americans for a titanic Cold Warbattle with China, it is counter-indicated. The one sensible interpretation isthis is a pathological reaction by an elite that cannot handle the deeplytroubling truth that the United States may be on the road toward losing itssuperiority, dominance and exceptionalism.

Exaggeration is companion to obsession. Aninflated version of what disturbs us seizes our attention and hardens it. Itgets under our skin, it irritates us and the more we scratch it the more thatoccupies our consciousness. Russia has that effect. The entire Russia-gate sagawas an exercise in exaggeration - of which the Kremlin did, of its importance,of the stakes, and of the personalities. The absence of concrete evidence, thelack of motive, the marginality of the alleged activities, the absurdity ofsome of the accusations - none of this detracted from the image we conjured ofa giant conspiracy against the American Republic directed by a vile leaderheading an historically hostile and aggressive country. 

Reports of Russia's malign influence come from every direction. It seemsomnipresence - lurking in our computers, the antechambers of power, ourlaboratories (where they jostle with the Chinese), NATO conclaves. Like the'evil one' of Medieval imagination their scent can be detected by those whofollow the course of virtue. Nothing bad that happens occurs by happenstance;it all emanates from Him. Think of Moriarty's elaborate network in Holmes’London whose presence could be felt at the very extremity of the spider's webhe had woven. The epitome of this febrile exaggeration was the jailing of ayoung Russian woman, Maria Butina, whose 'crime' was to join the NRA (whoseRussian chapter she already belonged), to attend the annual Prayer Breakfastextravaganza at the Hilton and to have an affair with an insignificant governmentemployee. In the fevered minds of the FBI, the Department of Justice, Congressand the media she was the spies infiltrating the Manhattan Project and   Rudolph Abel rolled into one.

All of this Russian evil is concentrated inthe persona of Vladimir Putin. Hillary Clinton called him "the incarnationof Hitler." Last week, Susan Rice - who may well be our futureVice-President, saw Putin's hand behind the chaotic protest scene: "it'sright out of the Kremlin playbook." Joe Biden: ”We need a President whowill stand up to the Kremlin, push back against Putin, and take immediate stepsto ensure the security of our elections.”* The real, flesh-and-blood VladimirPutin is a thoughtful, sober man measured in word and deed. Whatever one mightthink of his government, he is destined to go down in history as a great leaderwho restored the Russian state, made it into a ‘normal’ country, and who, as astatesman, towered above his contemporaries in the West. Still, distinguishedintellectuals in distinguished journals feel no inhibition in referring to himcasually as "repulsive." Compared to whom? the mad butcher of Riyadh- Mohammed bin-Salman; Tayyip Recep Erdogan; Abdel el-Sisi; Aung San SuuKyi; Avigdor Lieberman;   JairBolsonaro; the conquistador Fascists of Bolivia; the Honduran junta weimposed who have turned the country into the world’s murder capital; BorisJohnson; - or how about Donald Trump/ Mike Pompeo/ William Barr?

Stereotyping fits this pattern. Above all,it is a thought economizer. Reflective thinking has become abnormal in theAmerican foreign policy community. There is herd immunity to critical thought.Uniformity, simple-mindedness and dogmatism prevail. The absurdist attitudestoward Russia, China, Iran and places like Venezuela are assimilated as gospeltruth for loyal believers in a literal Scripture. The world is reduced to astatic gameboard whose pieces have readily understood natures, who move withina very range of options, and whose interests are fixed. It is a conception offoreign relations that squeezes out diplomacy. Shrill pronunciamientos replacedialogue. Bluster is the coin of the realm. And any notion of common norms issubordinated to American want, will and whim.

That unnatural uniformity of intellectual maps of our elites itself is a suresign of a deformed discourse. Their disconnect from reality points to a deeperpathology. 

Brutality is an inevitable complement tosuch a mentality. The arrogant political personality sketched here breedscoercion. It feeds the impulse to impose yourself on others, to subordinatethem, to get whatever you want by whatever means. It recognizes no legitimateinterests of anyone else, no communality, no collective norms. It is theuniverse occupied by the clinical narcissist. Led by a clinical narcissist, wehave in sense become a narcissistic state. Only two things hold us in check.First is a powerful aversion to suffering the human costs of war - the publiccannot tolerate heavy casualties. As for financial costs, they can be obscuredor hidden or wrapped in the flag. The United States has racked up a bill of 2-3trillion dollars in pursuing its madcap wars on 'terror.' Yet, the publicbarely bats a eye. By contrast, 14 soldiers dying in Niger or 4 in Benghazimake a big stink - now that the populace has erased Iraq and Afghanistan fromtheir shallow memory bank. The second factor at work is the cowardice of ourCommanders-in-Chief. For all his bluster and bullying, Trump doesn't have theintestinal fortitude to face a real war - like attacking Iran. Neither didBarack Obama, for that matter.

Still, this psychology leaves us largelyuntroubled about taking violent actions which are risk free. The most strikingcase in point is Yemen. There, we have participated physically over the pastfive years in inflicting carnage among the general populace. Attacks oncivilians by our allies, and our collaboration in an inhumane embargo of foodand medicines, is a war crime by any standard definition. Moreover, there neverwas as much as a feeble public explanation of what raison d'état motivated us -no justification. The unstated truth is that Obama and then Trump werededicated to staying on the right side of Saudi Arabia's tyrannical new defacto ruler: Mohammed bin Salman at any price. Even secure access to oil wassecondary since we are now a net exporter. We simply decided that the Americanpriority in the region is to confront and contain Iran, Saudi Arabia'ssectarian and geopolitical rival. Hence, we became a full member of theSaudi-led Sunni bloc committed to put the Shi'a in their subordinate place.That sentiment also contributed mightily to our intervention in Syriahand-in-hand with Sunni terrorist organizations like al-Nusra. Needless to say,all of these interventions were strongly encouraged by Israel.

Let us bear in mind that we are responsible for the enormous casualties andhuman suffering in Iraq (and indirectly Syria) that stem directly from ourinvasion and occupation. Never, over the past twenty years, has there been theslightest expression of remorse - whether official or unofficial. On Yemen,there was a brief bout of hand-wringing by Congressional Democrats in early2019 when the unrelenting assaults on the Houthis produced a humanitariancrisis of epic proportions. Even then there was no critical focus on theAmerican role. It since has faded into the background to join the shades ofatrocities past.

It is the casualness of this brutality alongwith the ease by which its slips from consciousness that is revealing andpuzzling. Moreover, it has domestic analogues. The salient examples are: the officialpractice of kidnapping children at the border, incarcerating them and exposing themto vile forms of abuse; the authorities tolerance of, and probablecollaboration in the Epstein/Ghislaine human trafficking operation (and theopen sharing of the spoils by a cross-section of the national elite); the  crude exploitation of Puerto Ricans after thehurricane that reduced those Americans to Haitian status; and the maltreatmentof millions of our elderly in care facilities – 50,000 of whom are now victimsof the Corona virus. Yes, some attention is given, albeit fleetingly, to allthree – no serious, even halfway effort is made to deal with any of the them,though. They are destined soon to have no more saliency in the national memorythan Wounded Knee or My Lai.

There surely is some relationship betweenthese phenomena at home and those abroad. Exactly what it is, and in whichdirection the reciprocating influences move, is less obvious.

The cavalier, almost blasé readiness to treat otherpeoples brutally does have historical antecedents: slavery above all; thecontinental ethnic cleansing of indigenous peoples; suppression of theFilipinos. In war, civilians all too often were considered collateral damage –leading to the ultimate mass killing of civilians in Dresden, Tokyo, Hamburg,Hiroshima, Nagasaki. These last has become the norm in the total wars of the 20thcentury, a norm that the U.S. felt no qualms about observing. The earlieractions were committed out of clear self-interest: plantation economics forslavery, Manifest Destiny across North America, land-grabbing of valuable realestate in the war against Mexico. Conquest merely for the sake of subjugatingother nations did not fit the American creed – however hypocritical it mightbe. Nor was there much passion in these enterprises. They were more in thenature of self-seeking pursuit of gain. Only in the South did a genuine cultureof brutalization take shape.  TheAmerican troops fighting Germany in North Africa, Italy and then NorthwestEurope felt very little antipathy toward Germans as such until they encounteredthe death camps.


Here is a passage from Eric Hoffer’s TheTrue Believer which makes the point cogently:

As Hoffer says, “We cannot hate those wedespise. The Japanese in WW II had an advantage over us as in that they admiredus more than we admired them. They could hate us more fervently than we hatedthem. The Americans are poor haters in international affairs because of theirinnate feeling of superiority over all foreigners. An American’s hatred for afellow American is far more virulent than the antipathy that he can work upagainst foreigners. Should Americans begin to hate foreigners wholeheartedly,it will be an indication that they have lost confidence in their own [superior]way of life.” Welcome to America circa 2020.

Have we arrived at that watershed? These days,we do find it easy to hate: Arabs, Iranians, Russians, Chinese (who inflictedCVID-19 on us as well as surpass us in so many respects), just about anyone whogets in our way readily becomes an object of intense distaste – if not purehatred. Personalizing it encourages that impulse - be it Nicolas Maduro, Kim Jung-un,Bashir Assad, Mullah Omar or Vladimir Putin – none of whom have done Americaany direct, intentional harm (the Omar case being somewhat ambiguous).

“Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all theunifying agents.” An intense sense of unity in a cause can arise from belief ina god or a utopia, but never without a belief in a devil….The enemy—theindispensable devil of every [passionate community]—is omnipresent. He plotsboth outside and inside the ranks of the faithful. It is his voice that speaksthrough the mouth of the dissenter, and the deviationists are his stooges. Ifanything goes wrong …., it is his doing. It is our duty to be suspicious. Wemust be constantly on the lookout for saboteurs, spies and traitors.” (Hoffer)

For the first time in history we suffer feelingsof vulnerability – less in a physical sense than in some more basic psychicsense. The very foundation of American self-esteem – individual as well ascommunal – is that we are a Providential nation different from and superior toevery other. Superior in terms of strength, material well-being, opportunity,and humanism. Our unquestioned belief is that the United States was born in astate of Original Virtue. Begin doubting that core article of faith and insecuritiesof all kinds proliferate. It is the insecure, the self-doubting, thosedesperate to fill shriveled lives with meaning who are candidates for the TeaParty, apocalyptic Evangelicals, the MAGA chauvinists are attracted by any would-beMessiah on whose caravan they can thumb a road. They also are the same who drawsustenance from the empathetic thrill of abusing the weaklings and inferiorswho challenge America abroad and deny us the inborn right to lord it over them.

Until very recently, the losers/victims of ourruthless contemporary everyone-for-himself society and economy have kept hopealive by embracing the dogmatic creed of opportunity, self-reliance and thenation’s pageant of progress. Moreover, they were “kept dazed and out of breathby the incessant hustling” for a living and the incessant barrage of popculture centered on the hustlers who did make it big. All of that was fadingwhen COVID-19 came along to hit like a cold bucket of icy water. The virus hasadded nothing crucial to the situation; it merely is putting in stark relieffeatures that already were there. For Americans, today always has been aprelude to tomorrow. Present well-being a steppingstone from which to glimpsethe glimmering vision of true happiness. Almost within reach, always justeluding us. The hope of that ultimate if undefined fulfillment sustained usthrough all manner of adversity and failure. It infused us with a nervy energy.It served as a torsion spring for the collective American psyche. Now, that delicatebalance is upset. Productive tension has given way to anxious tension. So,Americans are adrift, disoriented and alienated. Fertile ground for demagogues.What is unique about the current crop of demagogues who exploit ourfrustrations and emptiness is that they do not hold before the anxious andconfused the vision of a utopian future but rather a glorified, mythologizedpast that stresses its optimism and leaves out its strains.  Why shouldn’t it work – an important part ofus has lived with, and clung onto that fanciful world all their lives.

What are the international implications? Two –two partly contradictory ones. First is an aspiration to revert to the dayswhen an America born against History kept its distance from the rest of theworld. The other is to be bellicose and aggressive in pressing every othercountry to acknowledge the United States’ superior status, unique prerogativesand freedom of action. They can be reconciled by withdrawing from allcommitments and formal obligations while reserving the privilege to act whereand how it wants to advance our own self-defined interests. That translatesinto a loud f… you not only to Russia, China, Iran, Venezuela et al butalso directed at our NATO & other allies who don’t pay their fair share andhave the temerity to occasionally obstruct or ignore our judgment and will. “The quality of ideas seems to play a minorrole…. What counts is the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard of theopinion of others, the singlehanded defiance of the world.” (Hoffer)

In short, there is a feedback loop between thedispirited mood of the country at home and its erratic aggressiveness abroad.The former impels the grasping for lost mastery through self-assertion externally;the latter pays few dividends while providing fresh evidence of our decliningprowess and respect in the eyes of others.


“There is noloneliness greater than the loneliness of a failure [whether in foreignventures or close to home]. That failure is a stranger in the minds of a peopleborn to believe in a destiny to succeed”.

“Only the [society] that comes to terms withitself can have a dispassionate attitude toward the world once the harmonywithin itself is upset….Otherwise, it turns into a highly reactive entity. Likean unstable chemical radical it hungers to combine with whatever comes withinreach.” Racism. Evangelical Revelations, hyper-nationalism, or Trump & theTea Party.

*“I would not be surprised to learn that they have fomentedsome of these extremists on both sides using social media. I wouldn’t besurprised to learn that they are funding it in some way, shape, or form.”  National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien warned about foreign incitement.

“In the lead up to this fall’s election,Russian intelligence agencies have upped the ante. They’ve encouraged &spread hateful rhetoric by extremist groups, and played up allegations ofpolice abuse in America.” @standamericanow 

Russia Trying to Stoke U.S. Racial Tensions BeforeElection, Officials Say

Russian intelligence services are trying to inciteviolence by white supremacist groups to sow chaos in the United States,American intelligence

“One of Russia’s goals is weakeninginstitutions and the weaponization of race is a way they can do that,” saidLaura Rosenberger, the director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy. “Adivided America is a weaker America. When we are unable to solve our challengestogether, Russia is more able to flex its power around the world.”

**One could extend the proposition about thevalue of enemies by arguing that the erosion of the great civilizationalcompact that established social democracy throughout the Western world (and asfar as Japan) has been made possible by the absence of an enemy – or, at least,a threat – that kept us conscious of the historic achievement that itrepresented. It had the intrinsic flaw of never being ensconced in a doctrinethat permeated the collective consciousness. ‘Democracy’ did – but ‘democracy’sconnotation of social justice was too oblique. And certainly, the attraction of‘Capitalism’ as a concept lay mainly in its apposition to Communism and itsassociation with ‘democracy.’ The enemies of social democracy lay within. Notinvisible – but cleverly camouflaged. Of course, at the outset there was avivid enemy: the exploitative, repressive industrialists and bankers. It isilluminating to go back and read FDR’s rhetoric. Defeated, they retreated totheir country clubs where they licked their wounds – like the Taliban after2001 - and then began to plot a comeback. It took shape only gradually. Fordecades they kept a low profile before moving into an action phase in the1970s. The Powell Memorandum, composed by Supreme Court Justice to be LewisPowell in 1971, provided a blueprint for the campaign. The  Memorandum laidout a strategy for the rise of the Americanconservative movement and the formation of a network of influentialright-wing think tanks and lobbyingorganizations, such as The Heritage Foundation. Their goal has been to reverse acentury of socio-economic reform and replace it with a contemporary version ofthe gaslight era’s plutocracy. A financialized economy that dictated to afinancialized political system. A monetarized culture based on fool’s gold. Theoutcome: drastic wealth inequality, decades of stagnant wages for workers, evaporatedbenefits, institutionalized insecurities, heavy indebtedness, unaffordablehousing, stymied mobility. Those dispiriting conditions have produced apervasive feeling of ‘failure’ that is dissonant with the Americans’ admonitivepursuit of success. The latter was not the explicit goal – but the inevitable consequence– of the plutocrats’ restoration plan.

The plutocratic design of a multi-prongedstrategy was carefully drawn and its implementation skillful. The key to theirhistoric success was to make everything seem to be the same (institutions,procedures, the creed of individual opportunity, nominal freedom), so that themost valuable and fundamental things could change. The custodians of the socialdemocratic order were asleep, some were bought off, and others were too cravento engage in battle. Most important, they had neither a clear doctrine, aunifying set of principles, collective identity – nor a stark enemy.