Official propaganda has always tried to portray superpower conflict as an obvious and inevitable consequence of the irreconcilable differences between the two sides. One's own side was represented as the manifestation of all that is good and just in the world and the other as all that is evil and repressive. There was usually a catchy label to go with the description that tested well with the target audience, such as the "Imperialist Aggressor" or the "Evil Empire." When you switched sides, the orientation of the propaganda you had just heard flipped automatically: it was like stepping through a mirror.
But what is interesting for our purposes is to identify and describe the key elements that made these superpower contestants so evenly matched that their sparring went on for decades. None of these key elements can be sustained forever. The hypothesis I wish to test is that the lack of these same key elements, readily identifiable in the Soviet collapse, likewise spells the demise of America, definitely as a superpower, probably as a major part of the world economy, and possibly as a recognizable entity on the political map.
The Myth of Inclusiveness
Like that of our metaphorical heavyweight champion, a super-power's diet must contain plenty of red meat, in this case, human flesh. A superpower must continually ingest plenty of highly skilled and motivated personnel managers, scientists, engineers, and military officers, who must be willing to endure hardship, give up their best years, ruin their health, perhaps even give their lives, slaving away designing and building things, fighting and doing all the dirty work. Motivating the needed quantities of people with money is out of the question, because that would not leave enough for the ruling elites to siphon off. The upper classes tend to already be highly motivated by both money and status, but they also tend to be allergic to dirty work, and they can never be numerous enough to satisfy a superpower's appetite for flesh. The only thing that can possibly provide the necessary motivating force is an idea: a communal myth powerful enough to cause people to commit their insignificant yet essential selves to the righteousness and glory of the great whole. A superpower's vitality is critically dependent on the sustaining power of this myth. Shortly after it fails, so does the superpower.
Both the Soviet and the American models featured an inclusiveness myth as their centerpiece. In the Soviet case, it was the myth of the classless society. The great revolutionary upheaval was said to have erased class and ethnic distinctions, creating an egalitarian society that provided for everybody's basic needs, curbed excesses of wealth and allowed people from humble origins to become educated and rise to positions of respect and authority. This myth proved to be so powerful that it propelled a poor, industrializing but still mainly agrarian nation on a trajectory to becoming a leading military and industrial power.
As the decades wore on, the myth gradually lost most of its luster. The satisfaction of basic needs gave rise to an insatiable appetite for imported consumer goods, which were either inaccessible or in short supply, except to the elite, and this, in turn, ruined the appearance of egalitarianism. "They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work," went the saying, and morale plummeted. This led to a situation where no new common effort could be organized. As everyone started thinking for themselves, a slow rot set in, and the superpower gradually became enfeebled.
America's belated and half-hearted answer to the classless society of the Soviets is the middle class society. After wallowing through the Great Depression and grasping at straws during the New Deal, the United States reaped a gigantic windfall following World War II, as the only large industrial player left standing. Much of the rest of the world's industrial infrastructure had been bombed to rubble, giving the United States an opening. They used it to put every American within striking distance of achieving a cheap simulacrum of landed gentry, symbolized by a detached house surrounded by a patch of land big enough to accommodate private parking, a patch of grass and some shrubbery, and adorned, as an absolute necessity, by one's own private automobile. American society is classless, at least in theory, since no one wants to admit to being either upper or lower class. There is, supposedly, one large and homogeneous middle class; in fact, though, there is a small upper portion and a large and rapidly expanding lower portion.
The wonderful thing about the American middle class concept is its malleability, because it is almost entirely symbolic. You could be middle class, own an ancestral mansion in an old brick and fieldstone suburb, drive a Mercedes and send your children to an Ivy League school. Or you could be middle class, live in a dolled-up trailer home, drive a souped-up pickup truck, and send your children to a community college that teaches them how to milk hogs.
The least common denominator is that you have to drive a motor vehicle, otherwise you can no longer perform this charade. This is why there is so much denial about it being necessary to give up the car and all the current talk about resorting to bio-fuels to continue feeding the car addiction. Biofuels amount to burning one's food and destroying what is left of the topsoil in order to continue driving. This is also why so many Americans would forgo a healthy diet, a reasonable work schedule, education for their children, needed medical treatment and even give up their house, rather than give up their car. Not having a car makes one, within the American suburban landscape, a non-person.
The universal right to drive a car is the linchpin of the American communal myth. Once a significant portion of the population finds that cars have become inaccessible to them, the effect on the national psyche may be so profound as to make the country ungovernable. Solving the underlying transportation problem, through the reintroduction of public transportation or other means, is beside the point: the image of the automobile is indelibly imprinted on the national psyche and it will not be easily dislodged. For many, their car is a public extension of their persona, a status symbol and even a symbol of sexual potency, and this makes the automobile, along with the gun, a sacred national fetish. Like the gun, the car is also a potent weapon that can be used for murder or for suicide. It is propelling the American communal myth toward a flaming crash with the reality of permanent fuel shortage, compared to which the gradual fading away of the Soviet communal myth will have been gentle and benign.
The arms race is commonly viewed as the key element of the superpower standoff known as the Cold War (one hesitates to call it a conflict or even a confrontation because both sides diligently practiced conflict avoidance through deterrence, détente and arms control negotiations). Military deterrence and parity is seen as the paramount defining factor of the bipolar world that was dominated by the two superpowers. Military primacy between the United States and the Soviet Union was never actively contested and there was quite a lot of inconclusive militaristic preening and posturing. While the Americans feel that they won the Cold War (since the other side forfeited the contest) and are about to start awarding themselves medals for this feat, it is actually something of a success story for Russia.
Beyond the superficial and assumed offensive parity, the historical landscapes that underlie Soviet and American militarisms could not be more different. The United States considers itself a victor country: it goes to war when it wishes and it likes to win. It has not been invaded during any of the major modern conflicts and war, to it, is primarily about victory. Russia is a victim country. It has been invaded several times, but, since the Mongol invasion, never successfully. To Russians, war is not about victory, it is about death. The epithet that Russians like to apply to their country is nepobedimaya, "undefeatable."
The United States is a country that enjoys bombing other countries. The Soviets, having seen much of their country bombed to smithereens during World War II, had a particularly well-developed sense of their vulnerability. To compensate for it, they devoted a large part of their centrally planned economy to defense. They produced a staggering number of nuclear missiles, nuclear submarines, tanks, bombers, fighter jets, warships and other military junk, much of which now sits quietly rusting somewhere and perpetually threatening to wreak havoc on the environment. The nuclear stockpile continues to pose a particularly nasty problem. Much of this war production was a complete waste and even the object of some humor: "I work at a sewing machine factory, but every time I bring the parts home and assemble them, I end up with a machine gun! "
But they did not get bombed by the Americans, hence victory. The list of countries which the US has bombed since the end of World War II is a long one, from "A" for Afghanistan to "Y" for Yemen (that the list does not run "A" to "Z" is presumably explained by the fact that Zambia and Zimbabwe do not present a sufficiently target-rich environment to America's military planners). The Soviet Union did not do nearly as much bombing. Czechoslovakia and Hungary received what amounted to a slap. Afghanistan was the one significant exception, playing host to a sustained and bloody military confrontation. Perhaps one positive effect of having one's homeland extensively bombed is that it makes one think twice about inflicting that experience on others.
And so it is quite a satisfactory outcome that the United States has not been able to bomb a single country within the former Warsaw Pact and to this day has to play careful with Russia and her friends. This is because mutual assured destruction remains in effect: each side has enough nuclear weapons to obliterate the other. Since this is an affront to the American military ego, Americans have continued to preen and posture, announcing a defense doctrine that allows nuclear first strikes and actively pursuing the development of strategic missile defense.
The Russians do not appear to be impressed. "We believe this strategic anti-missile defense system is somewhat chimerical, to put it mildly," said Sergei Ivanov, Russia's first deputy prime minister. "One can find a much cheaper response to any such system." The cheapest response I can think of is simply having Mr. Ivanov periodically stand up and say a few words. Perhaps that is all the response the situation calls for, but Russia sells a lot of weapons, including a new generation of supersonic missiles and torpedoes, against which the US has no adequate defense, and successfully marketing them requires taking a stand in defense of national military prestige. And so we are bound to hear a great deal more about Americans destabilizing the security of Europe, and about Russia countering this threat with some anti-missile chimeras of their own, much cheaper ones.
The United States needs a new Cold War to show itself and the world that it still matters, and Russia, finding the venture not too risky and quite profitable, is willing to hold up a mirror to American militarism. But the whole thing is a farce, and Vladimir Putin was quick to offer an old Russian saying by way of explaining it: "Don't blame the mirror if your face is crooked."
Russia has scaled back defense spending considerably after the Soviet collapse, but the defense budget of the United States has kept growing like a tumor and is on course to match and surpass what the entire rest of the world spends on defense. While one might naively assume that the rest of the world is quivering before such overwhelming military might, nothing of the sort is occurring. There is a little secret that everyone knows: the United States military does not know how to win. It just knows how to blow things up. Blowing things up may be fun, but it cannot be the only element in a winning strategy.
The other key element is winning the peace once major combat operations are over, and here the mighty US military tends to fall squarely on its face and lay prone until political support for the war is withdrawn and the troops are brought back home. The United States could not conquer North Korea, resulting in the world's longest-running cease-fire. It is a stalemate punctuated by crises. The United States could not defeat the North Vietnamese with their underground tunnels and their primarily bicycle-based transportation system.
The first Gulf War was precipitated by a misunderstanding caused by diplomatic incompetence: Saddam Hussein was a generally cooperative and helpful tyrant and all could have been resolved amicably had not April Glaspie, the US ambassador to Iraq, told him: "We have no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait." Saddam took her at her word and thought that he could punish the Kuwaitis for stealing his oil. Bush Senior then proceeded to stand poor April on her head, declaring that "this will not stand! " The ensuing skirmish ended inconclusively, with Iraq humiliated and in stasis for a generation. This was considered a victory, with endless parades and much flag-waving. The US military was said to have recovered from "Vietnam syndrome." But nothing could hide the fact that it was a job left unfinished.
The more recent Iraq war is a full-blown, complete disaster, like Vietnam, or like Afghanistan was for the Soviets, but actually a lot worse, because Iraq is situated in the region which produces most of the oil. The longer US troops stay in Iraq, the worse the situation there becomes. The longer they wait to withdraw, the worse the situation will be once they do. Iraq started out as a war of choice (a startlingly poor choice) but it is now a war of survival, certainly of America's status as a superpower, and quite possibly of its economic survival as well. Moreover, it is a war that appears to have already been lost.
The rest of America's recent military conflicts either consisted of or centered around a bombing campaign, and generally fall into one of two categories: strategic spoiling attacks, and attempts to bolster the presidential manhood. A strategic spoiling attack is a preventive action against a potential enemy who, if left unchecked, might attack you some time in the future. It is more or less a bullying tactic, and, as such, already an admission of defeat on the diplomatic front. One should prefer to live among strong friends, not weakened enemies.
Presidential manhood-bolstering bombing campaigns have come from both sides of the political spectrum (not much of a spectrum, it turns out, since both sides are shades of ultra-violent ). There was the bombing of Panama, ostensibly to punish the apostate CIA asset Manuel Noriega, but really to mitigate against Bush Senior's so-called "wimp factor." There was also Clinton's despondent bombing of an aspirin factory in the Sudan and the bouncing around of some rocks in Afghanistan, ostensibly to punish terrorists for bombing US embassies in East Africa, but really to express frustration over the inordinate difficulties faced by the leader of the free world as a result of procuring oral sex. I feel his pain, but, to paraphrase Freud, sometimes a cruise missile isn't just a cruise missile.
It may appear that the US military is not capable of prevailing over any enemy, no matter how badly armed, demoralized or minuscule. While the Koreans and the Vietnamese were formidable, the US military could not bring to heel even the starving Somalis with their pickup trucks full of narcotic cud-chewing, Kalashnikov- toting youths. Nor could they pacify the Iraqis, even after softening them up with bombs and sanctions for more than a decade. There is one notable exception. If we look at any of the military conflicts that involved the US military since World War II, there is one that stands out as a complete success: the liberation of the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada. There, valiant American troops dislodged an unsavory and frightening Marxist regime which was supported by Cuba and Nicaragua and replaced it with a democratic, pro-American regime, much to the satisfaction of Grenada's Caribbean neighbors and cruising yachtsmen alike.
The Soviets never learned their lesson in Afghanistan. The slow, relentless, senseless carnage of that war did much to tarnish the image of the Red Army, which was until then still regarded as the people's champion for defeating Hitler and for standing up to the Americans. It took the disaster of the two campaigns in Chechnya after the Soviet collapse for the message to finally sink in. Russia eventually got Chechnya under control, through political rather than military means. A military effort alone can never defeat a popular insurgency. The insurgents never have to win, they just have to continue to fight. In fighting them, the military is forced to fight the people of the country, and by perpetuating a state of war it continually thwarts its stated purpose, which is to establish peace. There is no room for victory in this scenario, but only for an ever-widening spiral of murder, hatred and shame.
The lesson that the United States desperately needs to learn is that their trillion-dollar-a-year military is nothing more than a gigantic public money sponge that provokes outrage among friends and enemies alike and puts the country in ill repute. It is useless against its enemies, because they know better than to engage it directly. It can never be used to defeat any of the major, nuclear powers, because sufficient deterrence against it can be maintained for relatively little money. It can never defuse a popular insurgency, because that takes political and diplomatic finesse, not a compulsion to bomb far-away places. Political and diplomatic finesse cannot be procured, even for a trillion dollars, even in a country that believes in extreme makeovers. As Vladimir Putin put it, "If grandmother had testicles, she'd be a grandfather."
The long sequence of American military failures in its many wars of choice may not be significant in and of itself. People throughout the world may cringe, but it is easy for Americans to consign these unhappy adventures to oblivion. They are skilled at rewriting, if not history, then at least their strangely foggy recollections of it. But at some point a key national interest becomes involved and the military adventure becomes more than just a way for the military to justify having an outsized budget. For the Soviets, this point came when they lost Afghanistan. They were in Afghanistan in accordance with the Brezhnev Doctrine, which stated unequivocally that no Socialist country would be allowed to backslide toward barbarous Capitalism. Once they let go of Afghanistan the tide turned, and the Communists had to let go of the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Union, and finally Russia itself.
It is common knowledge that the US forces invaded Iraq for no adequately explained reason. What few people realize is that there is an American counterpart to the Brezhnev Doctrine. It is the Carter Doctrine, which states that the United States would use military force if necessary to defend its national interests in the Persian Gulf region. Carter announced it in a State of the Union speech in January of 1980, in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It is in the national interest of the United States to be able to efficiently exploit the oil resources of Iraq and direct the resulting flow of oil to eager motorists back home. The military failure in Iraq (which as of this writing appears complete) is tantamount to a declaration that the Carter Doctrine is no longer in effect. The ensuing backslide will mean more than just the loss of Iraqi oil production; it may force the US out of the entire region. Coupled with other unhappy developments, such as the ongoing devaluation of the US dollar, widespread oil production shortfalls due to oil field depletion and increasing political instability in several oil-exporting countries, this may cause the US to lose access to oil in other regions as well. This will not make motorists back home happy. Moreover, it will spell the end of the American dream of global dominance and the definitive loss of superpower status.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia faced a dilemma. It had stationed a great many troops abroad in Eastern Europe and particularly in East Germany. These troops were not all Russian: some were recruited from the various Soviet Republics, and their allegiance was to the Red Army ‹ an entity that no longer existed. Repatriating and resettling these troops turned out to be a logistical nightmare. There was no housing and no jobs for the returning troops. But this was nothing compared to the problem that will be faced by the United States, which has over a thousand overseas military bases. The vast majority of these serve no vital purpose and are further examples of massive military bloat. In the coming years, starved of fuel and other resources, they will become worse than useless. Liquidating them and repatriating the troops will pose a far greater challenge than that faced by the Soviets. Amid the general confusion, some of the smaller military installations are likely to be simply forgotten, with the troops left to fend for themselves and their weapons going missing.
The last aspect of the superpower arms race worth mentioning is the arms sales race. The US and the SU both supplied weapons to their client states. The US conducted their arms trade on better terms, by lending the client state money with which to buy the weapons or by forcing the client state to spend its oil export revenue on weapons systems. The Soviets more or less gave their weapons away to the brotherly peoples they held in their sway. Russia, which inherited most of the Soviet defense industry, has updated its business plan, and is now positioned to surpass the United States in weapons sales. Military defeats do not make for successful weapons marketing campaigns.
The jails race once showed the Soviets with a decisive lead, thanks to their innovative Gulag program. Under Lenin, and later under Stalin, millions of people were herded into labor camps to provide slave labor for massive construction projects such as the Belomor Canal, which links the Baltic to the North Sea. Over the years, the inmate population was comprised not only of criminals, who were always plentiful, but also of aristocrats associated with the ancient régime who were not fleet enough to emigrate to a new career of driving taxicabs in Berlin, Paris or New York. The inmates also included ethnic minorities such as the Chechens (who found themselves in disfavor after they welcomed the Nazi invaders), soldiers who had surrendered to the enemy instead of dying heroically (surrender was considered a form of desertion), priests and nuns (to rid the country of unscientific "religious superstitions") and plenty of innocent bystanders, who were swept up by a well-oiled judiciary machine. The arrests often happened in the middle of the night and those arrested simply vanished from society. Their disappearance was studiously ignored and the families of the disappeared were shunned by society. Society was afraid, but since any admission of fear could be misinterpreted as an admission of guilt (of suspecting that the system itself was criminal), even the fear had to remain hidden.
After Stalin's death, a gradual liberalization took place. Many of those falsely accused and imprisoned were rehabilitated, often posthumously. Thereafter, the ranks of the political prisoners shrank steadily. The appearance of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago became a watershed event, lifting the veil on a secret parallel universe, with its own language and customs, yet one that was very recognizably Soviet. It could operate in the shadows, but once thrust into the broad light of day it immediately became obvious for what it was: a world-class abomination, on par with the Nazi holocaust.
A popular movement developed, devoted to keeping track of prisoners of conscience and communicating their names to foreign news sources. The resulting external pressure on the Soviet government made it difficult for the judiciary meat grinder to operate normally. The monsters running this system generally did not crave parading their monstrousness before a world audience, and this gradually starved the system of new blood. Near the end, under General Secretary Andropov, there was an attempt to stem the tide by rounding up a few dissidents, who by this time had grown quite bold in their opposition, but it was futile and died along with Andropov when he, as it were, dropped off. And so the Soviet Union gradually fell behind in the jails race. By the time the Soviet Union fell apart, its worst atrocities had started to recede into history. There were no widespread calls for reprisals against those who had committed them, who were by then either retired or dead.
In the end the jails race has been won by the Americans, who are currently holding the world record for the percentage of population held in jail. Here, the judiciary meat grinder relies less on secrecy than on obscurity, gorging itself on the poor and the defenseless, while being careful around the moneyed and the privileged. To mask its naked aggression against its citizens, the United States has traditionally used the fig leafs of constitutional rights and due process. But the ill winds now blowing across the country have wilted this decorative flora, and not a week seems to go by without some new reports of abuses or atrocities.
The American justice system favors the educated, the corporations and the rich, and takes unfair advantage of the uneducated, the private citizen and the poor. It would seem that almost any legal entanglement can be resolved through the judicious application of money, while almost any tussle with the law can result in financial penalties and even imprisonment for those who are forced to rely on public defenders. In essence, any sufficiently complex system of laws is inherently unjust, favoring those few who have the resources to grapple with its extreme complexity. This is clearly the case in the United States where, in civil disputes, those with more money can almost always prevail over those with less, simply by threatening to sue.
Many people believe that a criminal is someone who commits a criminal act. This is not true, at least not in the American system of justice. Here, a criminal is someone who has been accused of committing a criminal act, tried for it and found guilty. Whether or not that person has in fact committed the act is immaterial: witnesses may lie, evidence can be fabricated, juries can be manipulated. On the other hand, a person who has committed a criminal act but has not been tried for it, or has been tried and exonerated, is not a criminal, and for anyone to call him a criminal is libelous.
It therefore follows that, within the American justice system, committing a crime and getting away with it is substantially identical to not committing a crime at all. Wealthy clients have lawyers who are constantly testing and, whenever possible, expanding the bounds of legality. Corporations have entire armies of lawyers and can almost always win against individuals. Furthermore, corporations use their political influence to promote the use of binding arbitration, which favors them, as the way to resolve disputes.
The US is by no means unique in jailing or executing innocents and in neglecting to punish the guilty. But while in other countries such injustices can be put down to corruption, oppression or other problems with the justice system, in the US they are designed into the justice system itself. This state of affairs makes it hopelessly naive for anyone to confuse legality with morality, ethics or justice. You should always behave in a legal manner, but this will not necessarily save you from going to jail. In what manner you choose to behave legally is between you and your conscience, God or lawyer, if you happen to have one, and may or may not have anything to do with obeying laws. Legality is a property of the justice system, while justice is an ancient virtue. This distinction is lost on very few people: most people possess a sense of justice and, separate from it, an understanding of what is legal and what they can get away with.
The US legal system, as it stands, offers a fine luxury model, but its budget model is manifestly unsafe. It is good for those who can afford it and bad for those who cannot. In recent years, appalling numbers of those awaiting execution have been exonerated as a result of DNA testing. This amounts to an attempted murder rate high enough to condemn the entire criminal justice system that is responsible for it and, at the very least, ban everyone involved in it from further public service. But nothing of the sort is likely to happen, since most of the victims are poor and are therefore of no consequence to the larger system.
As ever-increasing numbers of people find themselves lapsing into poverty, they will also find that they cannot pay what it takes to secure a good legal outcome for themselves. They will start to see the system not as one of justice but as a tool of oppression, and will learn to avoid it rather than look to it for help. As oppression becomes the norm, at some point the pretense to be serving justice will be dispensed with in favor of a much simpler, efficient, streamlined system of social control, perhaps one based on martial law. To some extent, this shift has already occurred. America now has secret jails, indefinite detention, secret tribunals, Soviet-style show trials, torture of prisoners, family detention for those who happen to cross US-controlled territory without the proper papers, and psychiatric imprisonment for both adults and children, where they are subjected to regimens of experimental anti-psychotic drugs.
Those who bemoan the out-of-control American criminal justice system would like to find ways to make it more effective. But perhaps the real problem is that it is too effective, and needs to become much less so. It is obvious that the jails race serves the purposes of the law enforcement class, providing them with employment, status and ample funds. But it bears pointing out that it serves the interests of the criminal class even better. The prison system offers many services to criminals: it allows them to congregate, network and hold seminars on the finer points of criminal technique and new ways to commit bigger and better crimes without getting caught. Furthermore, it gives criminals a periodic sabbatical, making room for two million more criminals than the victim population could otherwise sustain, ensuring that whenever there arises a fruit ful opportunity to commit a crime, an ample supply of well-rested and highly trained specialists is available to make use of it.
The rationale for imprisoning over two million people in the United States, the world's highest rate of incarceration, is that it deters crime. Sociologists slice and dice crime statistics looking for a correlation between increased rates of incarceration and decreased crime rates. The best they seem to be able to find is a correlation of about 0.25 between an increased rate of incarceration and a decrease in the crime rate. That is, the measurable effect of incarceration levels on crime levels is not significant enough to state that an increase in the former causes a decrease in the latter. More evidence would be needed to declare that the mass incarceration program is in any sense functional. It is sometimes possible to find a stronger correlation between, say, rain dances and rainfall amounts.
While the criminal justice system seems like an effective way to promote crime, it may be even more effective in serving the atavistic desire of the population to see punishment doled out, which in more barbaric times brought crowds to gaze up at the sacrificial altar atop a pyramid, or the scaffold, the stake or the guillotine, and which even today brings a strange glint to the eye of American elected leaders when the subject of capital punishment comes up during political debates. It is in the nature of powerless people to vicariously enjoy the exercise of arbitrary power by others.
Whereas the Nazis had to tattoo identification numbers on their concentration camp victims, Americans now have access to more modern technology, such as implantable radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, biometric and face recognition systems, satellite surveillance, ubiquitous surveillance cameras and globally networked databases. These can theoretically enable the United States to turn much of the planet into a single large Gulag, or at least to overextend itself and collapse while trying.
When this system finally collapses (as they all do), its surviving victims, who have no experience of anything better, will likely perpetuate this culture of abuse at an ever lower and more miserable level. At this point, there is really very little to be done about the American culture of crime, except suffer from it, reaping what has already been sown. The long-term effect of perpetuating an unequal and unjust social order, amplified by a program of mass imprisonment, is to create a vast society of victims.
When Ronald Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as the "evil empire," this label, impolitic though it was, made sense to a great number of people and the label stuck. But what a difference two decades can make! Shortly after Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and spoke the words, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!," the Berlin wall was indeed broken down into souvenir-sized pieces, but twenty years later big political walls are again fashionable, except now it is Americans and their clients that are putting them up. There is a wall along the US-Mexican border, countless walls carving up Palestine into a pattern Jimmy Carter accurately labeled as "apartheid," a currently stalled plan to partition Baghdad into Shiite and Sunni ghettos and numerous walls within the US itself around gated communities and exclusive compounds.
For an American, hiding behind a wall is becoming an increasingly good idea. Over the last two decades, memory of the Soviet Union has faded from view, while the United States has taken its place as the symbol of all that is evil throughout much of Europe, the Muslim countries and many other parts of the world. Wherever there is public protest, be it against war, injustice, globalization, violations of human rights, environmental destruction or policies that accelerate catastrophic climate change, it is the United States that offers a conveniently large and easy target. While much of the population throughout the world is dead set against cooperation with the United States, their political leaders have to be careful: the United States is still a little too powerful to oppose directly. On the other hand, any appearance of overt appeasement of American ambitions has come to spell automatic disaster at the polls, so the politicians stall and bide their time.
As the ultimately futile nine-year Soviet occupation of Afghanistan wore on, the economy stagnated and a succession of dour, gray-faced, geriatric General Secretaries succeeded each other atop the Lenin mausoleum, a number of people within the higher echelons of the Communist party started to find their evilness somewhat humiliating. The imperial status was non-negotiable, as was the socialist ideology, but some sort of work-around strategy was clearly required for the evilness bit. Gorbachev gave voice to these official yearnings through his glasnost and perestroika campaigns. A great number of partial excuses, of the "mistakes were made" variety, were offered.
I remember a certain conversation that took place around that time, in the late 80s. The topic of discussion was, "What could these bastards (meaning the Soviet government) possibly want now? " A wizened old lady offered an answer that seemed nonsensical at first, but made a lot of sense upon reflection: they want shame. They are tired of being bad as in "evil"; now they just want to be bad as in "not very good." They are even willing to feel a little bit ashamed about it and to offer some vaguely worded apologies, provided that these fall well short of them actually accepting any responsibility. You see, evil and incompetence do not mix. Our imagination cannot conceive of the Devil who would have your immortal soul in a jiffy, if only he could locate the paperwork. It's one Hell of a mess down there. The demons who handle the paperwork have become so lazy it's a sin. "To hell with them! " the Devil would like to say, but that's where they reside already, plus he can't recall the details of who lost what when, and so there is nothing to be done. As mistakes continue to be made, the sinners can breathe more easily.
Twenty years later, it is the American officials that are making a spectacular show of their incompetence. But rather than mincing words Gorbachev-style, the Americans are able to achieve a wonderful theatrical effect, thanks to their plain-spoken, straight-talking President. From "Mission accomplished," spoken as the Iraqi insurgency takes off, to "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job! " as New Orleans drowns, to many other, similarly preposterous statements, we hear a Presidential clarion call to national incompetence. It is a mistake to view such utterances as gaffes or blunders or flights of whimsy: they are true thought leadership. Other high officials have their own strategies: the Vice President pretends to be delusional, producing a steady stream of strongly worded statements of fiction, while the former Attorney General simulates early onset Alzheimer's with a compelling display of fogged memory. Other administration officials make a show of accidentally destroying important documents but, for added effect, they destroy them incompetently, so that copies are soon retrieved. American officials at all levels should fall in line with this brilliant strategy that has been handed down to them from on high as stone tablets from Mount Sinai. Should they fail to do so, history will remember them as evil. Should they succeed, history will mercifully consign their memory to oblivion, judging them to be merely incompetent.
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