The Cold War and Long War are over—it’s time to return to reality.
The tide of war is receding. … It is time to focus on nation building here at home.
—President Obama, June 22
Ideology makes people stupid. Employing ideology as the basis for policy is a recipe for disaster. Surviving in a complex, uncertain environment requires flexibility, pragmatism, and perhaps above all self-awareness. That’s true if you’re in the business of making cars or selling donuts. It’s truer still for those whose business is statecraft.
When the Cold War ended 20 years ago, Americans chose to view the outcome through the lens of ideology. We congratulated ourselves on winning an unqualified victory, to which we attributed transcendent significance. The outcome had ostensibly rendered a great historical judgment, testifying to the manifest superiority of democratic capitalism—that is, to the American way of doing things. The universal embrace of liberal values, democratic politics, and market economics seemed sure to follow, sealing our triumph and extending the American Century for centuries to come.
In Washington, such expectations qualified as advanced thinking, finding expression in the expansive claims that became a hallmark of the 1990s. “We stand tall. We see further into the future.” Thus did Madeleine Albright elaborate on the attributes accruing to the world’s “indispensable nation.” Meanwhile, her boss Bill Clinton was wagging his finger at China. Beijing needed to align itself with the “right side of history,” the president counseled, which meant that the Chinese should take their cues from America.
Expanding on or embroidering these themes got your books on bestseller lists, your columns in all the best newspapers, and your smiling face on the Sunday talk shows. My favorite artifact of this era remains the New York Times Magazine dated March 28, 1999. The cover story excerpted The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Tom Friedman’s just-released paean to globalization-as-Americanization. The cover itself purported to illustrate “What the World Needs Now.” Alongside a photograph of a clenched fist adorned with the Stars and Stripes in brilliant red, white, and blue appeared this text: “For globalism to work, America can’t be afraid to act like the almighty superpower that it is.”
That globalization was transforming the world into a global village had become self-evident, with the United States serving as lord mayor, guidance counselor, and purveyor of entertainments. More importantly still, America occupied the office of police chief. So we wished to believe.
A mere decade after the end of the Cold War had delivered history to a neat and satisfying conclusion the 9/11 attacks occurred. Along with horror and heartbreak came humiliation. How could 19 thugs armed with nothing more than box cutters have caught the indispensable nation so completely off-guard? Many factors contributed to the United States being surprised. Prominent among them was the self-congratulatory mindset to which Washington had succumbed during the 1990s, manifesting itself in a sense of privilege and dominion appropriate to an almighty superpower. Like the song says, “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape.” Was not America history’s anointed Superman?
Remarkably, the events of September 11, 2001 served not to overturn such thinking, but to affirm it. Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld did not disagree with the claims of American prescience and prerogatives expressed by Clinton and Albright. Sharing in the view that the United States was indeed an almighty superpower, they merely wanted to assert that power more aggressively. After 9/11, they had little difficulty converting George W. Bush—hitherto proponent of a humble foreign policy—to their view. If the results achieved from winning the Cold War had turned out to be less conclusive than first thought, then surely one more big push would deliver history to its intended destination. So the ideologues in power, now Republicans rather than Democrats, and those cheering from the sidelines, neoconservative voices now ascendant, determined to pull out all the stops. As Richard Perle and David Frum, co-authors of the agitprop classic An End to Evil, put it, “There is no middle way for Americans: It is victory or holocaust.”
Yet the crusade that Perle, Frum, and their confrères so vigorously promoted did not unfold as expected. Launched with high expectations of victories won with Superman-style ease, the Global War on Terror turned out to be a long, hard slog and soon enough lost its luster. Over the course of his two terms as president, George W. Bush succeeded chiefly in running the United States military into the ground and the American economy off the rails. Along with victory or holocaust there turned out to be a third possibility that Perle and Frum had overlooked: exhaustion resulting from our own folly and malfeasance.
With the meter still running, the enterprise launched by Bush a decade ago has taken the lives of over 6,000 U.S. troops, wounded many thousands more, and consumed trillions of dollars, while undermining America’s standing around the world. (There is little point in citing the vastly larger number of Afghans, Iraqis, and the like who have had their lives torn apart—in Washington, that number doesn’t count). Rather than peering deep into the future, the United States is demonstrably unable to see even into next week, with major events—the Arab Spring being the most recent example—catching Washington asleep at the switch. No longer instructing the Chinese on how to manage their affairs, we now routinely tap them for loans so that we can pay our bills. And needless to say, the New York Times no longer proclaims the United States to be an almighty superpower. Meanwhile, what was once advertised as a single coherent war has fragmented into several only vaguely related “overseas contingency operations” in locales as far afield as the Persian Gulf, Central Asia, and the Horn of Africa. Were that not enough, we’re broke and stuck with an unemployment rate above 9 percent.
The years 1991 and 2001 are commonly treated as breakpoints, markers that inaugurate distinctive chapters of history, the first labeled “Post-Cold War,” the second “Post-9/11.” Yet there is a strong case to be made for amalgamating the two decades into a single period: call it the “era of ideological fantasy,” when U.S. self-regard and Washington’s confidence in its ability to remake the world in America’s image reached unprecedented heights.
To survey the past 20 years from our present, much reduced vantage point is to be struck above all by the once cherished, now discarded illusions littering the landscape. Prominent among those shattered illusions are the following:
- The insistence that history has a discernible purpose, made manifest by the evolving American experiment that is destined to prevail universally
- The conviction that the United States is called upon to exercise “global leadership” and that our governing elites possess the capacity to do so effectively
- The assurance that U.S.-promoted globalization will produce unprecedented wealth while simultaneously contributing to global peace and harmony, with the American people thereby assured of both greater prosperity and greater security
- The notion that a self-regulated or minimally regulated market produces the greatest good for the greatest number of citizens
- The belief that America’s privileged place in the international order relieves the United States of any obligation to live within its means
- The expectation that in times of crisis, the American people and their leaders will selflessly unite, setting aside partisan differences to act in the common good
- The claim, for too long indulged by conservatives, that the Republican Party takes seriously the preservation of traditional values
- Perhaps above all, the belief that the United States, having mastered the art of war, can quickly and economically overcome any foe, high-tech precision weapons and superior professionalism offering a surefire recipe for victory.
Not one of these is true. No amount of recalibration or reformulation or trying harder next time will make any of them true. To pretend otherwise serves no purpose. To escape from our era of ideological fantasy requires acknowledging this reality—facing the dismal consequences that 20 years of American arrogance and misjudgment have yielded. Seldom has a nation relinquished a position of advantage as quickly and recklessly as has the United States in just the past two decades.
What this means for the so-called conservative movement today is this: it’s time to face the music, assess the damage—much of it to be laid at the feet of the faux-conservative Republican Party—and begin the hard work of recovery and restoration.
The most urgent priority is to staunch the hemorrhaging of American power. In this regard, two facts stand out. The first is the federal deficit, hovering around $1.6 trillion for the current fiscal year. The United States government borrows 40 cents for every dollar it spends. The second is the war for Afghanistan, nearing its tenth anniversary. There the United States is spending $10 billion per month in hope of pacifying a country with a total annual gross domestic product of perhaps $27 billion.
Together the deficit and the Afghanistan war exemplify the chronic imbalances that unless corrected will accelerate American decline. But correction will occur not through pledges or posturing or citing the memory of Ronald Reagan, but by reviving a sense of modesty lost when the Soviet empire collapsed and a capacity for self-restraint flung away when terrorists brought down the World Trade Center.
A pox on ideology. Let’s try reality for a change.
Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His most recent book is
Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War.