My colleague David P. Goldman (a.k.a. Spengler) has a must-read article in PJ Media this weekend in which he explains that which I’ve been writing in these pages, at American Greatness, and more recently in The Asia Times: the United States is governed by dumb people who are fabulously wealthy and powerful. Here’s a snapshot of Goldman’s analysis:
Over dinner, in 2015, Admiral Luo Yuan told me that “General Petraeus created ISIS in order to destabilize China.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I said.
“It is not ridiculous in the least,” Luo continued, in the benevolent tone in which one instructs especially slow students. “There are ISIS leaders whom we have identified and tracked, who were trained by Petraeus during the ‘Surge,’” the counter-insurgency campaign that Petraeus conducted in 2008–2009 to contain a Sunni rebellion against the majority Shi’ite government that the United States had helped bring to power in 2007.
I took a deep breath and explained: “This was a comedy of errors. The neo-conservatives in the Bush administration believed in majority rule as a matter of dogma, so the US held elections in 2007 and the Shi’ite minority won. Then the Sunnis who used to run Iraq under Saddam Hussein resisted with guerilla war and terrorist attacks. Petraeus was just a careerist looking for another star, and he told the Bush Administration that he could fix the Sunni problem by paying off the Sunni tribal leaders. He handed out hundreds of millions of dollars to the Sunnis and gave them weapons and training through the ‘Sons of Iraq’ and the ‘Sunni Awakening.’” When Obama took US forces out of Iraq, a lot of the same Sunnis who took money from Petraeus faced the same Shi’ite state, and became non-state actors, that is ISIS. And the CIA’s support for Sunni jihadist opponents of the Assad government in Syria made matters worse, as the Defense Intelligence Agency warned in a notorious 2012 report.”
Of course, I wasn’t quite that coherent, but that was the gist of my reply.
My Chinese interlocutor was not impressed. “You’re trying to tell me that the people who run the world’s great superpower are complete idiots who don’t think about the consequences of their actions?”
This reminds me of an exchange I once had with a foreign official from Colombia who was helping to coordinate counterinsurgency training between Colombia’s excellent military and Nigeria’s (who needed help countering Boko Haram). The Colombian general explained that he was confused as to why the Americans couldn’t do it (the Colombians often refer to us as their “Big Brothers” in the North). I shook my head and said, “that’s because we don’t know what the fuck we’re doing.”
The Colombian general laughed heartily and stared at me after he saw that I wasn’t laughing. He shrugged and said, “I don’t know how much we could do for [the Nigerians].”
I stared intently at the general and said, “More than we can do.”
The Colombian general stared at me in bafflement. “But you’ve been at war [with Islamists] for decades now!” He replied incredulously.
I nodded. “Yep.”
The Colombian became somewhat apoplectic. “You mean there’s nothing your government can do?”
I rolled my eyes, after all I was merely a private citizen who occasionally consulted the US government on certain issues at this point. Counterinsurgency and counterterrorism were not my bailiwicks either, though I did have some working knowledge of the matter.
“Just look at it this way,” I began, “Since we began fighting Islamists in earnest after 9/11, we’ve watched the ideology spread from Afghanistan to Pakistan to Iraq, now to Syria, and down into Africa.” At this point in time, as well, ISIS was propagating itself in Southern Asia. “The ideology has spread like wildfire since we started our ‘War on Terror’ and it has metastasized all over the Greater Middle East. Whatever we’ve done isn’t helping.” I concluded.
For the record, the Colombian version of counterinsurgency (COIN) used against the Marxist guerrilla groups, the ELN and FARC, have been wildly successful in tamping down the radical groups and working some of these groups back into the Colombian political system. It has not been perfect and there is much work to be done, but back then there was some thought that maybe the Colombians could advise and assist the Nigerians on COIN in ways that the Yanks, who were notoriously ham-fisted and ineffectual, could not.
The key takeaway for this seasoned Colombian officer, though, was that the United States was incompetent. He did not say anything like that, but I could see his view of the US had changed. I had several similar encounters with foreign military officers or diplomats in Washington, D.C. who had this notion that the United States was the great puppet master of global events. Even those who knew we were only human, given our size, power, and prestige, they simply assumed we were greater than other powers (after all, how else could we have become the dominant–only remaining–superpower?)
This image of the United States as the great bogeyman of world affairs; of America as the perpetrator of vast, grand evil designs–being possessed of plans within plans–has traditionally been a view shared both by America’s friends and rivals. It’s a view reflected in the dismay from the Colombian general as to why we’d possibly want his government to interface with Nigeria’s over counterinsurgency. It’s a view reflected in the disbelief by China’s Admiral Luo Yuan to David Goldman in 2015.
Our enemies cannot fathom how such a large, powerful nation could possibly be run by such abject fools. Surely, they think, this is part of some grand ruse designed to lull their enemies into a sense of false security. If only that were the case. No, our outward stupidity is true. We’ve no idea what we’re doing most of the time. We tend to make it all up as we go along. Even when we try to plan for something grand, we end up improvising. This can be a great strength if it were backed up by real intelligence. When it is backed up with political grandstanding, empty virtue-signaling, and a complete lack of beliefs, it is self-destructive.
That we were the only superpower in the world today was a huge boon to America’s “soft power” attraction. We were apparently free, mostly stable, prosperous, and secure in our own land. Our democracy and capitalist market were seen as the reasons for this. America was viewed by friend and foe alike as a special place. Since the end of the Cold War, though, and certainly since the start of the ill-fated “Global War on Terror” the image of the liberated-yet-competent US has been irreparably damaged.
A succession of imbecilic presidents from both parties coupled with the succession of domestic political crises have given breathe to Chinese and Russian claims to the inefficiency of the “Washington Consensus” that formed after the Cold War which called for the expansion of democracy and capitalism abroad. In its place has arisen the so-called “Beijing Consensus” which seeks to create a new world order predicated upon the concepts of political authoritarianism plus state capitalism (Neo-mercantilism), the sort of system that controls China today.
Whereas in 2015 men like Admiral Luo or the Colombian general I spoke with merely thought we Americans were being coy in our strategic capabilities and intentions, in 2021, it is obvious that both America’s friends and foes alike are starting to at least question whether we really are the evil geniuses they used to believe we were or if we are actually stupid. While they were incorrect about our evil genius level, that so many believed that about our leaders for so long gave us much needed wiggle room at the strategic level. Even our mistakes could be imputed as part of a grand plot to ensnare the world. Thus, we were feared.
After two decades of unmitigated failures, from the security failures that led to 9/11 to the failure to capture Bin Laden at Tora Bora in 2001 to the WMD intelligence in Iraq to the disastrous showing during the 2008 Great Recession to the numerous government crises in the 2010s all the way through the controversial presidency of Donald Trump to the pathetic showing during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 to the ongoing debacle in Afghanistan today, there are few countries any longer who fear the United States. We’ve been upstaged by the Taliban, a group who wear the robes of seventh century Islamic crusaders, drive around in old 1980s Toyota Tacomas, and carry Kalishnikovs and RPGs rather than possessing any real advanced weaponry to take on the sole remaining superpower.
If you cannot be loved at least be feared by your rivals was the old axiom. Now that American stupidity, or more appropriately, the abject stupidity of America’s elite has been on display for twenty years, other powers are starting to question the wisdom of kowtowing to the Americans on a variety of issues. China now taunts the Americans as they flee Kabul and routinely engage in provocative flyovers of Taiwanese airspace, reminding the Taiwanese that the Americans got their asses kicked in Afghanistan and won’t come rushing to Taiwan’s defense, should Beijing decide to invade.
Russia has coopted Germany, the hub of the European Union and a key NATO ally, with its Nord Stream II pipeline while threatening Eastern Europe–the Baltic states–with invasion. Meanwhile, both Russia and China have officially embraced Iran as a key partner in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), long viewed by Eurasian autocrats as their answer to NATO. As that occurs, the American withdrawal from Afghanistan is seen from Moscow and Beijing as the end of America’s “empire.” Traditional American allies are having second-thoughts about the longevity of their alliance with the US or the wisdom of that alliance, as the autocrats apparently rise to prominence.
Then there is the ongoing, sad spectacle of Joe Biden’s presidency. It is patently obvious to any foreign intelligence service that Mr. Biden is cognitively compromised and because of this Mr. Biden is merely a figurehead sitting atop a very divided presidential administration (to say nothing of an overall divided government and nation). Thus, the ability for the US to maneuver or respond to constantly changing events on the ground is hampered (as evidenced by the enduring failure in Afghanistan today), which only compounds the image of the United States as a nation in terminal decline, like the Ottoman Empire or the Austro-Hungarian Empire in their final years.
America today is the butt of all jokes. Everyone from the Taliban to China no longer fears us and likely no longer buys our deterrent threats against their larger ambitions for territorial revanchism. This is dangerous and it means that the world order is ripe for a fundamental shift from US power to something far less savory to us.
It is one thing for Americans to complain about the stupidity and short-sightedness of their government. It is an entirely different thing for America’s rivals and allies to believe the same thing (and to have that belief reaffirmed with each presidential burbling that occurs). If we can’t be loved we’d best be feared. The absolute worst thing for a great power is to be viewed as dumb and incompetent. That’s when real challenges happen. And they already are. The only way to disabuse people of this belief will be to engage in a far riskier, bloodier show of force which could precipitate a world war.
The first thing that must be done is for Mr. Biden to be removed from office either through the 25th Amendment or impeachment. While his successor, Vice-President Kamala Harris isn’t much better, she is at least not mentally compromised. From there, the Republican Party needs to start thinking about creating a real platform that appeals to real Americans (and they need to avoid the cult of personality for any one particular candidate). The path to our nation’s restoration lies at home, not abroad. Thus, real organization from political opponents to the neoliberal or neoconservative elite who have ruled us is key.
America is in decline today. But that decline is not terminal. We can be saved…but changes must be soon and they must be drastic–something that the Usual Suspects in Washington, D.C. are incapable of doing, from either party.