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Friday, January 24, 2020

Endless War and Political Collapse

18 years after 9/11, American foreign policy in the Middle East lies in tatters.  In Afghanistan, the US government is searching for a way to end its military involvement that will not result in the immediate victory of the Taliban, which we invaded the country in 2001 to overthrow.  Iraq, which the Bush Administration saw as the keystone of a new Middle East, remains wracked by civil war, and its government, for the second time, is trying to force the withdrawal of American forces from its territory.  President Trump, we have just learned, is about to issue a Middle East peace plan that will give the Israelis more concessions than they have ever dared to ask for in public.  The Arab spring overthrew the authoritarian government of Egypt with US encouragement, only to see a democratic experiment end in a military coup just a few years later.  The US decision to help bring down the Libyan government created chaos in yet another state, and triggered a destabilizing flood of refugees into Europe.  A similar attempt in Syria has failed completely.  Russian influence in the region has substantially increased, the US abandoned its Kurdish allies on the Turkish-Syrian border, and the Trump Administration foolishly abandoned the nuclear agreement with Iran, a significant step towards peaceful coexistence in the region.  Now Iran and the US stand on the brink of armed conflict.

Yet for all that, the foreign policy consequences of the Bush Administration’s decision to reshape the Middle East—which the Obama Administration in many ways adopted for itself—are no more significant, I think, than its domestic consequences.  The election of 2016 marked the collapse the American political system.  Neither major party could field a candidate who could defeat an oft-bankrupted businessman and reality television star who obviously lacked both the intellectual and temperamental qualifications to be President.  At least 50% of the voting-age population had evidently lost all confidence in our governing elite.  One reason, undoubtedly, was the complete failure of the US government’s major enterprise in the new century, our attempt to subdue or influence large areas of the Middle East.

About 25 years ago, William Strauss and Neil Howe, two amateur historians, discovered an 80-year rhythm in American history in two books, Generations(1991) and The Fourth Turning(1997).  The great crisis of 1774-1794 had thrown off British rule, written the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution, and given the nation a new government.  About 80 years later, in 1860-65, the Civil War had restored the union, ended slavery, and changed the relationship between the federal government and the states forever.  80 years after that, Franklin Roosevelt once again transformed the government’s role both at home and abroad during the Depression and the Second World War.  Each of these crises had created a new order and established a new ideological and social consensus.  That consensus, in each case, had begun to erode 20-40 years after the crisis, and the erosion accelerated when the generation that had lived through it as young adults aged, lost power, and died off.   One of the many things I learned from their books is that no government wins the support of its people simply because of the design of its institutions: it must win their trust by accomplishing great things and mobilizing resources for common aims.  That is what Washington, Hamilton and Jefferson had done in the first crisis, Lincoln and Grant in the second, and Roosevelt and Marshall and many others in the third.  But this was not all. Doing the math back in the 1990s, Strauss (who died in 2007) and Howe observed the decline of the post-1945 order that went along with the aging of the GI (or “greatest”) generation, and predicted a new great crisis that would once again reshape the United States during the first 15 years of the 21st century.  That prediction has now come true, but with disastrous consequences they did not predict.  This time our luck ran out and our leaders embarked upon a hopeless crusade.

2001 was only 72 years after the stock market crash had kicked off the last great crisis, but the new Administration of George W. Bush had big plans in both foreign and domestic policy which it eagerly moved to implement after 9/11.  Specifically, they wanted to take down hostile dictatorships in at least three countries—Iraq, Iran, and North Korea—under a new doctrine that asserted the right to move unilaterally against any regime that sought weapons that the United States did not think it should have.  That was, among other things, a risky strategy domestically.   During the preceding 60 years American military power had first defeated Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, and then held the line, on many fronts, in the Cold War.  The tragic decision to deploy hundreds of thousands of Americans in Southeast Asia—which failed to achieve its objective—had dealt the first huge blow to the postwar consensus.  The foreign policy elite, as Andrew Bacevich showed in Washington Rules, had not abandoned its belief in the utility of American force around the world, but our political and military leadership had stayed out of any major conflict during the rest of the 1970s and 1980s, allowing them to maintain their prestige.  George. H. W. Bush had fought a limited war against Iraq in 1991, but he had done so only as the leader of a very broad coalition, and with the limited objective of restoring the independence of Kuwait.  After 9/11, however, the new Bush Administration cast caution to the winds, defining a new generational task of spreading democracy through the Muslim world, largely by eliminating hostile regimes.  To do so, they took advantage of an outburst of national feeling after 9/11, which, like Fort Sumer and Pearl Harbor, created a bipartisan consensus behind new wars.  At the same time, they embarked upon a crusade for energy independence, one that drew little notice at the time, but which has now succeeded—in its own terms, at least—with other huge economic, environmental and political consequences. And the decision to combine new wars with tax cuts instead of tax increases turned a budget surplus into a huge permanent deficit that has made it much harder for the government to deal with domestic problems.

Karl Rove and George W. Bush clearly hoped to create a new Republican majority based in part on successes overseas.  This they failed to do when the war in Iraq went badly, and other failures at home, culminating in the financial crisis, reduced the Republican Party to minority status once again from 2006 to 2010.  Barack Obama could probably have reversed key Bush policies both at home and abroad, but for the most part, he declined to do so.  He did eventually withdraw our troops from Iraq, but he increased them in Afghanistan.  As we have seen, he too adopted regime change as a Middle East policy in Egypt, Libya, and Syria, with similarly disastrous results.  He had to put US troops back into Iraq to cope with ISIS.  He continued the spread of the “war on terror” into more continents, and it has now become business as usual in the US military establishment.  In 2016 the Democratic Party fielded former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a frequent supporter of military action abroad and the architect of the Libyan disaster. 

Tens of millions of American voters have lost confidence in our political leadership for domestic reasons as well.  Both parties embraced and pushed globalization without regard to its impact on many American communities.  Both deregulated the economy in ways that have allowed inequality to increase.  Both are more responsive to special interests of one kind or another than to the needs of average Americans.  Yet the decision of both parties to pursue endless, worse than useless wars in distant lands has surely contributed a great deal to the fraying of their relationships with the electorate.  These wars have turned out to be a political luxury that the nation could not afford.


Energyflow said...

It seems to me that the sheer logic of endless expansion which started when we first landed settlers from England has met its end. After the colonists took over their own affairs bolstered by enlightenment philosophy of the natural rights of man against the God given rights of kings from ancient times in the 'Old World' the mindset subconsciously assumed upon our original landing was dxpresed in concrete form in the pages of our constitution, the concept of rational human governance over self, country, environment which was similar in scope and intent to Genesis. Adam was God's representative on earth. Due to science and growing education superstition had slowly receded since the bubonic plague, italian renaissance and reformation had thrown off the Roman yoke. Now in America tabula rasa was made. We had the chance, as reformed sinners, to start as a New Adam, without sin, having learned better from all our predeccessors in those corrupted old countries, similar to European thought about Middle Eastern corruption from the Greeks and Romans forward. Now, we Americans, like the Greco-Roman experiment, have learned anew that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. So history has repeated itself. Ironically the last straw on the camel's back of decline was laid in the imperialistic expansion of the naivling New Rome in just that civilizational graveyard once derided by the Founding Father's own role model as decadent. Long before Islam or Christianity saw the light of day and as Judaic culture was in its baby shoes, here in the fertile crescent, idealism over the human condition was gone upon being weaned from mother's breasts. The more things change the more they stay the same. The question of decline being now merely one of speed and depth. Do we, in our madness, try to take the whole edifice of humanity down with us as Samson of old, but using the last planetary resources, warring against the awakened ancients of the Far East and the primitive Eastern Slavic mongol invasion survivors parallel New Eastern Rome, like to our New Western Rome, and allied with the original corrupt Persians, whom both of our role model's greco-roman precedent as decadent presumed or do we show insight and realize that we too are part of a greater humanity, starting from much earlier settlers from the Dark Continent tens of thousands of years ago. When we gain true deeper human perspective of who we are beyond our limited cultural stand point we might acheive smething of significance but too often we stumble over old school time stories, fairy tales, biblical concepts and scientific 'facts' outdated all thrown together in our minds in a jumble creating prejudice, arrogance, animosity.

Shelterdog said...

I agree. But, instead the US should have. . . .?

Bozon said...

Re foreign policy:
The next to last endgame discussion. Or the next to next to last.

We had partially and belatedly set the stage for the fall out now at hand, long ago, dispensing with the imperial system.
Certainly by around 1945, but also as well as before.

Yet, few realize it, but Britain and other powers themselves had already begun to waver on keeping what I would still prefer to call benevolent control of their empires, back long before America forced their hand, at a time of European weakness.

Michael Howard makes the point nicely, but of course does not get into all the intramural British dirty linen of wavering that had gone before....

Anyway, now there is little choice of staying out of the Middle East, yet seemingly little to be gained by staying in. Sending or keeping regular troops there is self defeating unless one wants to rule by martial law. It might come to that.

The Spectres of Russia and China taking over there are now in play very much, especially with China's belt and road push across the Eurasian land mass into South Asia and Africa.

It is a situation that Western policy has made for itself since WWI really.
I have no easy answer for how to address it.
But trust me, deals will not be successful for long, or as a strategy.
All the best

SDW said...

There is one presidential candidate whose main talking point is ending regime change wars. This is Tulsi Gabbard. She has been effectively blacked out by the main stream media except when they get a chance to attack her. The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, quincyinst.org, is a new think tank also trying to make a dent in the military indutrial complex that runs our disastrous foreign policy.

Bozon said...


i do not believe Trump is under the sway of a military industrial complex.

He is, however, under the sway of some other complexes.

But then, aren't we all.

All the best

idotter said...

I don't think the Crisis has peaked yet. It may well be that one or more of the events suggested by Strauss and Howe (world war, US civil war, economic collapse) will happen in the next very few years. I still have hope that we will come through the Crisis transformed, but better. Of course that's not guaranteed and we could very well see the American experiment end in failure. But whatever will happen,I think will happen soon.

Anthony Mugan said...

Dear Professor.

Thanks for yet another interesting article. Whilst I agree with much of what you have said I would challenge this concept of an 80 year cycle in history on several grounds (but also offer a slightly different perspective that may be helpful).

The first concern is that three data points is in no way adequate to define a pattern with any degree of statistical validity.
The second concern is that this is a very USA-centric view of what is or is not significant. World War 1 and the Russian revolution are two highly significant events that do not seem to fit neatly into this cycle. The French revolution and Napoleonic wars also sit uncomfortably in the time line.

In many ways of course the American revolution influenced the French revolution and the European order that emerged after 1815 was then fundamentally altered by Bismarck in his various wars of German unification around fifty years later. The instability of that model was a major factor leading to WWI just over 40 years after the Franco-Prussian war. The impact of WWI on Russia was a key factor in precipitating the Russian revolution and the flaws in the Treaty of Versaille a major factor paving the way for the emergence of Nazism and its ascension to power in Germany after the Wall Street Crash undermined the German economy leading to WWII just twenty years after WWI.
In some ways the fundamental economic shifts of the 1970s, with the collapse of the Gold Standard and the subsequent oil crises could also be considered a fundamental crisis, leading to the shift away from a Keynsian approach to the so called 'neo-liberal model' that has led to the increasing inequality and instability we see today, some 40-50 years later.

In complexity theory, complex systems display a 'power law' distribution of disturbances, with many smaller disturbances and fewer larger ones. This is statistically robust but does not follow rigid time intervals, instead displaying chaotic features. It would be reasonable to expect large numbers of relatively minor crises and less frequent, but irregularly spaced larger ones. A more global perspective of crises does seem to show something along those lines and it may be worth doing the work to quantify it (% death toll, % GDP impact etc might be possible measures). It is predictable that it will not follow a set pattern of time intervals, however.

My other worry with a historically deterministic model such as an 80 year cycle is that it is being used by extremists to predict a 'fourth turning' as a way of influencing people to think their intentions in some way reflect an inevitable outcome. This is extremely dangerous and should be resisted instead of encouraged.

As always, very open to persuasion...