Summer ends on Labor Day, the first Monday in September each year. Yes, summer doesn’t end until the autumnal equinox, on 22 September this year, but that’s celestial mechanics. Everyone knows all about the Tuesday morning right after Labor Day. The summer vacations are just a memory. Everyone has to go back to work. Kids have to go back to school. And women may no longer wear white. That’s a rule. And men have put away their seersucker suits and snazzy straw hats.
And that’s nonsense. Women will still wear white, and there are no seersucker suits and snazzy straw hats anywhere anymore. And few are going back to work this year. That delta variant of the coronavirus has brought a massive new wave of Covid infections, and hospitalizations, and deaths. And a third of the nation still refuses any kind of vaccination at all. They hate tyranny! But the risks are high. Those who have been working from home probably will still do so. Employers many have no choice. Any yes, kids are going back to school, and then being sent home again. Another outbreak. But mask mandates have everyone angry at everyone else. No mandates! The kids won’t die! And a few more kids die. And parents then keep their kids home from school, and receive death threats from those who claim they’re ruining everything, because masks are tyranny, just like that untested vaccine poison! And so on and so forth, so this Labor Day is a bit strange. Summer isn’t ending and the daily grind of life beginning again. This year something is different. Maybe everything is falling apart.
The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd was the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary but now may have given up on making sense of this all:
One coast is burning. The other is under water. In between, anti-abortion vigilantes may soon rampage across gunslinging territory.
What has happened to this country?
America is reeling backward, strangled by the past, nasty and uncaring, with everyone at one another’s throats.
She is now writing about the end of the world as we know it:
Post-Trump, we let ourselves hope that the new president could heal and soothe, restore a sense of rationality, decency and sanity. But the light at the end of the tunnel turned out to be just a firefly.
We feel the return of dread: We’re rattled by the catastrophic exit from Afghanistan; the coming abortion war sparked by Texas; the Trumpian Supreme Court dragging us into the past; the confounding nature of this plague; the way Mother Nature is throttling us, leaving New Yorkers to drown in their basements. And now comes Donald Trump, tromping toward another presidential run.
It feels as if nothing can be overcome. Everything is being relitigated.
And government has become useless:
We’re choking on enlightened climate proposals but the disparity between the disasters we see, and what’s being done in Washington, makes it feel as though nothing is happening except climate change. We’re so far from getting a handle on the problem, the discussions around it seem almost theoretical.
Joe Manchin, tied to the energy industry, balks at climate change provisions in the reconciliation bill. He should be looking for ways to get West Virginia in touch with reality rather than living in the past.
“Manchin’s claim that climate pollution would be worsened by the elimination of fossil fuels – or by the resolution’s actual, more incremental climate provisions – is highly dubious, if not outright false,” The Intercept reported, noting that the truth is that Manchin’s personal wealth would “be impacted.” Since he joined the Senate, The Intercept said, he has grossed some $4.5 million from coal companies he founded.
That’s all here but Dowd sees more:
With its new abortion law, sending women back to the back alley and encouraging Stasi-like participation from the citizenry, Texas now becomes the capital of American unreason. The law “essentially delegated enforcement of that prohibition to the populace at large,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts, so between putting women in danger by pushing that law and putting children in danger by imposing his anti-mask mania on school districts that want to mask up, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas has become a scourge of the first rank.
A cynical slice of the Republican Party – and this includes Trump – privately denigrates anti-abortion activists as wackos, but publicly moves in lock-step with them in order to cling to that base and keep power.
But the anti-abortion forces were somehow clever enough to hijack the Supreme Court and Republicans will have to contend with the backlash when the court tosses Roe v. Wade aside.
Most of the women in America probably will turn on them, and then they’ll do their mansplaining and dismiss them all as silly little girls, and then this gets nasty, almost as nasty as this:
As botched as the withdrawal from Afghanistan was, at least Joe Biden was trying to move into the future and do triage on one of America’s worst mistakes.
And unlike other presidents – JFK. with the Bay of Pigs, LBJ with the Vietnam War and Barack Obama with the Afghanistan surge – Biden did not allow himself to be suckered by the generals, the overweening Ivy Leaguers and the Blob, the expense account monsters who keep Washington whirring and always have a seat at the table, no matter how wrong they were, and are.
The Afghanistan tragedy, as James Risen wrote in The Intercept, was just two decades of Americans lying to one another, and it “brought out in Americans the same imperial arrogance that doomed the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.”
That’s all here but Dowd sees more:
Unlike his three predecessors, Biden risked Saudi ire by directing the Justice Department and other agencies on Friday to review and declassify documents related to the FBI’s investigation into 9/11. Families of 9/11 victims had been pushing for the release of the secret files to learn more about the role the Saudis played in the attacks.
Biden will not protect the Saudis any longer, and he’ll undo what a few others had done:
Biden knew enough not to spend more lives and treasure to prop up a kleptocracy. He oversaw some bad weeks in Afghanistan but George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld should be blamed for twenty bad years.
Remarkably, the word “Bush” was not mentioned once on any of the Sunday news shows the weekend Kabul was falling.
“He looks like the Babe Ruth of presidents when you compare him to Trump,” Harry Reid, the former Democratic Senate majority leader, told the Washington Post’s Ben Terris, for a story this past week on Bush nostalgia.
Yes. Bush nostalgia is a real thing now, and Dowd adds this:
With a memory like a goldfish, America circles its bowl, returning to where we have been, unable to move forward, condemned to repeat a past we should escape.
That’s an odd metaphor for thew end of the world as we know it. Her colleague at the Times, Ross Douthat, is a bit more scholarly:
In one of the more arresting videos that circulated after the fall of Kabul, a journalist follows a collection of Taliban fighters into a hangar containing abandoned, disabled U.S. helicopters. Except that the fighters don’t look like our idea of the Taliban: In their gear and guns and helmets (presumably pilfered), they look exactly like the American soldiers their long insurgency defeated.
As someone swiftly pointed out on Twitter, the hangar scene had a strong end-of-the-Roman Empire vibe, with the Taliban fighters standing for the Visigoths or Vandals who adopted bits and pieces of Roman culture even as they overthrew the empire.
But perhaps we should get used to this:
For a moment it offered a glimpse of what a world after the American imperium might look like: Not the disappearance of all our pomp and works, any more than Roman culture suddenly disappeared in 476 A.D., but a world of people confusedly playacting American-ness in the ruins of our major exports, the military base and the shopping mall.
Or maybe it’s more like this:
Our failure in Afghanistan more closely resembles Roman failures that took place far from Rome itself – the defeats that Roman generals suffered in the Mesopotamian deserts or the German forests, when the empire’s reach outstripped its grasp.
Or at least that’s how I suspect it will be seen in the cold light of hindsight, when some future Edward Gibbon sets out to tell the story of the American imperium in full.
But the we aren’t exactly Ancient Rome:
That cold-eyed view, taken from somewhere centuries hence, might describe three American empires, not just one. First there is the inner empire, the continental USA with its Pacific and Caribbean satellites.
Then there is the outer empire, consisting of the regions that Americans occupied and rebuilt after World War II and placed under our military umbrella: basically, Western Europe and the Pacific Rim.
Finally, there is the American world empire, which exists spiritually wherever our commercial and cultural power reaches, and more practically in our patchwork of client states and military installations. In a way this third empire is our most remarkable achievement. But its vastness inevitably resists a fuller integration, a more direct kind of American control.
In short, this American world empire has taken on a life of its own, complicating everything:
Seen from this perspective, the clearest American defeats of our imperial era, first in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and then in the Middle East and Central Asia after 9/11, have followed from the hubristic idea that we could make the world empire a simple extension of the outer empire, making NATO-style arrangements universal and applying the model of post-World War II Japan and Germany to South Vietnam or Iraq or the Hindu Kush.
We have experienced similar failures, with less bloodshed but more significant strategic consequences, in our recent efforts to Americanize potential rivals. Our disastrous development efforts in Russia in the 1990s led to a Putinist reaction, not the German- or Japanese-style relationship we’d imagined. The unwise “Chimerican” special relationship of the last two decades seems to have only smoothed China’s path to becoming a true rival, not a junior partner in a peaceful world order.
Both kinds of failures and their consequences – Russian revanchism and growing Chinese power combined with quagmire in Iraq and defeat in Afghanistan – have meaningfully weakened the American world empire, and extinguished our post-9/11 fantasy of truly dominating the globe.
But wait, there’s more:
Defeats on distant frontiers can also have consequences closer to the imperial core. The American imperium can’t be toppled by the Taliban. But in our outer empire, in Western Europe and East Asia, perceived U.S. weakness could accelerate developments that genuinely do threaten the American system as it has existed since 1945 – from German-Russian entente to Japanese rearmament to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
Inevitably those developments would affect the inner empire, too, where a sense of accelerating imperial decline would bleed into all our domestic arguments, widen our already yawning ideological divides, encourage the feeling of crackup and looming civil war.
That is how things end, and Douthat sees this:
t’s a good thing that we finally ended our futile engagement in Afghanistan and still fear some of the possible consequences of the weakness and incompetence exposed in that retreat.
And applied to the American empire as a whole, this fear points to a hard truth: You might think that our country would be better off without an imperium entirely, but there are very few paths back from empire, back to just being an ordinary nation, that don’t involve a truly wrenching fall.
That seems to be happening now, and there’s Jon Lee Anderson. He wrote Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life and Guerrillas: Journeys in the Insurgent World and The Fall of Baghdad and The Lion’s Grave: Dispatches from Afghanistan – books on how things end these days – and now he offers this:
How does an empire die? Often, it seems, there is a growing sense of decay, and then something happens, a single event that provides the tipping point. After the Second World War, Great Britain was all but bankrupt and its Empire was in shreds, but it soldiered on thanks to a U.S. government loan and the new Cold War exigencies that allowed it to maintain the outward appearance of a global player. It wasn’t until the 1956 Suez debacle, when Britain was pressured by the U.S., the Soviet Union, and the United Nations, to withdraw its forces from Egypt – which it had invaded along with Israel and France following Gamal Abdel Nasser’s seizure of the Suez Canal – that it became clear that its imperial days were over. The floodgates to decolonization soon opened.’
That’s one ending, and then there’s this:
In February, 1989, when the Soviet Union withdrew its military from Afghanistan after a failed nine-year attempt to pacify the country, it did so in a carefully choreographed ceremony that telegraphed solemnity and dignity. An orderly procession of tanks moved north across the Friendship Bridge, which spans the Amu Darya River, between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan – then a Soviet republic. The Soviet commander, Lieutenant-General Boris Gromov, walked across with his teen-age son, carrying a bouquet of flowers and smiling for the cameras. Behind him, he declared, no Soviet soldiers remained in the country. “The day that millions of Soviet people have waited for has come,” he said at a military rally later that day. “In spite of our sacrifices and losses, we have totally fulfilled our internationalist duty.”
That does sound familiar:
The message that it was intended to relay, at least to people inside the Soviet Union, was a reassuring one: the Red Army was leaving Afghanistan because it wanted to, not because it had been defeated. The Kremlin had installed an ironfisted Afghan loyalist who was left to run things in its absence, a former secret-police chief named Najibullah; there was also a combat-tested Afghan Army, equipped and trained by the Soviets.
But all that was bullshit:
Meanwhile, the mujahideen guerrilla armies that had been subsidized and armed by the United States and its partners Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were in a celebratory mood. Their combat units were massed outside Afghanistan’s regime-held cities, and there was an expectation that it would not be long before Najibullah succumbed, too, and Kabul would be theirs. In the end, he held out for another three years, with his downfall merely leading to a new civil war.
For all the talk of internationalist duty, the Afghanistan that the Soviets left behind was a charnel ground. Out of its population of twelve million people, as many as two million civilians had been killed in the war, more than five million had fled the country, and another two million were internally displaced. Many of the country’s towns and cities lay in ruins, and half of Afghanistan’s rural villages and hamlets had been destroyed.
Officially, only fifteen thousand or so Soviet troops had been killed – although the real figure may be much higher – and fifty thousand more soldiers were wounded. But hundreds of aircraft, tanks, and artillery pieces were destroyed or lost, and countless billions of dollars diverted from the hard-pressed Soviet economy to pay for it all. However much the Kremlin tried to gloss it over, the average Soviet citizen understood that the Afghanistan intervention had been a costly fiasco.
But maybe that’s not us, maybe:
For the time being, America retains its military prowess and its economic strength. But, for two decades now, it has seemed increasingly unable to effectively harness either of them to its advantage. Instead of enhancing its hegemony by deploying its strengths wisely, it has repeatedly squandered its efforts, diminishing both its aura of invincibility and its standing in the eyes of other nations.
That’s obvious now:
The vaunted global war on terror – which included Bush’s invasion of Iraq for the purpose of finding weapons of mass destruction that did not exist, Barack Obama’s decision to intervene in Libya and his indecisiveness about a “red line” in Syria, and Donald Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds in the same country and his 2020 deal with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan – has effectively caused terrorism to metastasize across the planet. Al Qaeda may no longer be as prominent as it was on 9/11, but it still exists and has a branch in North Africa; ISIS has affiliates there, too, and in Mozambique, and, of course, as the horrific attacks last Thursday at Kabul airport underscored, in Afghanistan. And the Taliban have returned to power, right where it all began twenty years ago.
This is bad. Just ask around:
Rory Stewart, a former British government minister who served on Prime Minister Theresa May’s National Security Council, told me that he has observed the events in Afghanistan with “horror” and said this:
“Throughout the Cold War, the United States had a consistent world view. Administrations came and went, but the world view didn’t change that much. And then, following 9/11, we – America’s allies – went along with the new theories it came up with to explain its response to the terrorist threat in Afghanistan and elsewhere. But there’s been a total lack of continuity since then; the way the United States viewed the world in 2006 is night and day to how it views it today. Afghanistan has gone from being the center of the world to one in which we are told that such places pose no threat at all. What that suggests is that all of the former theorizing now means nothing. To see this lurch to isolationism that is so sudden that it practically destroys everything we’ve fought for together for twenty years is deeply disturbing.”
Anderson notes this too:
Stewart, who co-founded the Turquoise Mountain Foundation – which has supported cultural heritage projects, health, and education in Afghanistan for fifteen years – and is now a senior fellow at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, was skeptical of Joe Biden’s assertion that the strategic priorities of the United States no longer lie in places like Afghanistan, but in countering China’s expansion. “If this were true,” he said, “then clearly part of the logic of the American confrontation with China would be to say, ‘We’re going to demonstrate our values with our presence across the world,’ just as it did in the Cold War with the U.S.S.R. And one way you’d do that is to continue your presence in the Middle East and other places, because removing yourself is counterproductive. In the end, I think all of this talk about a China pivot is really just an excuse for American isolationism.”
And that raises the key question now:
Does the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan represent the end of the American era?
On the heels of what appears to have been a disastrous decision by Biden to adhere to a U.S. troop drawdown that was set in motion by his feckless predecessor, it can certainly be said that the international image of the United States has been damaged. It seems a valid question to ask whether the United States can claim much moral authority internationally after handing Afghanistan, and its millions of hapless citizens, back to the custody of the Taliban.
But it remains unclear whether he retreat from Afghanistan represents part of a larger inward turn, or whether the U.S. may soon reassert itself somewhere else to show the world that it still has muscle.
Right now, it feels as if the American era isn’t quite over, but it isn’t what it once was, either.
But all things end. America is ending.