Michael Brenner: Ode to a Dying God
When the history of the past decade gets written by dispassionate analysts, the country’s hyper-anxiety about Islamic terrorism will be given less weight in the explanation for our aggressive attempt to control the affairs of alien lands than it is today. Certainly, 9/11 was the activating factor and the fears it engendered provided political impetus, and political cover. But the relentless pursuit of the unreachable at huge cost to ourselves and those we try to control — despite serial failure of epic proportions — has other, deeper sources.
That is not oblique reference to some conspiracy driven by the unquenchable thirst for oil. Although that surely has been a major factor in the equation, we should be plumbing the depths of the national psyche and the machinations of our leaders. The former will expose our lethal combination of a misplaced sense of superiority and a latent dread that it may be proven an illusion. Quarrying the latter rich lode will yield insight into the conformity of outlook that rules the thinking of officials, pundits, politicians and think-tankers.
Today, Washington is an echo chamber wherein careerism melds with group-think to suck the intellectual air out of what should be serious discussion of matters of grave national consequence. America’s leaders, thinkers and publicists have allowed themselves to be caught in the coils of professional, doctrinal and political conformity.
The net effect is to miss the compelling truth of what we have been doing. The primal reality of the United States’ foreign relations is the audacious, epochal attempt to establish American domination/hegemony across a large swath of Islamic Asia. The havoc and ruin that it has produced are obvious. More insidious is what this ill-conceived project has done to the United States and to our ability to be a constructive force in the world.
The tragedy of the past decade is classic. Hubris and mythologizing have brought us low. Our more imperial minded officials strut even when sitting. We made the fatal error of taking myth for reality so that it became a liability rather than a source of confident strength. The intertwined myths of America the agent of Providence, America the invincible, and America the heroic detached us from reality. We felt our country to be transcendent. Now, what has been noble in us is largely depleted.
Still less edifying, our tragedy has assumed comic overtones. Last week, David Petraeus — ready to be immortalized in bronze by the Old Believers — announced as his next grand strategic innovation: a media blitz. In a pinch, play to your strength. Sunday he assured the world that he sees promising green shoots of success in arid Afghanistan. And the august New York Times chimes in with the upbeat news that “today’s general must politick and do P.R. as well as win wars.” Petraeus took the occasion to contradict his Commander-in-Chief in declaring that there is no fixed date for U.S. troops to begin leaving Afghanistan. Whether such behavior falls in the category of Public Relations or private relations is hard to say. The fact that most take at face value this outrageous and farcical spectacle turns tears of mirth to tears of sorrow.
A fitting coda to our virtual exercise in post-modern empire building.
The bombast, the posturing, the prattling – together they make a mighty sound. Still, listen closely and you hear…. /
The little bells are tinkling. Kneel down/
They are bringing the sacrament to a dying god
~ Heinrich Heine