In a sense, human history could be seen as an endless tale of the rise and fall of empires. In the last century alone, from the Hapsburgs and Imperial Japan to Great Britain and the Soviet Union, the stage was crowded with such entities heading for the nearest exit. By 1991, with the implosion of the USSR, it seemed as if Earth’s imperial history was more or less over. After all, only one great imperial power was left. The Russians were, by then, a shadow of their former Soviet self (despite their nuclear arsenal) and, though on the rise, the Chinese were, in military terms at least, no more than a growing regional power. Left essentially unchallenged was the United States, the last empire standing. Even though its people rejected the word “imperial” as a descriptive term for their “exceptional” country—just as, until oh-so-recently, they rejected the word “nationalist” for themselves—the world’s “sole superpower” was visibly the only game in town.
Its military, which already garrisoned much of the planet, was funded at levels no other country or even groups of them combined could touch and had destructive capabilities beyond compare. And yet, with the mightiest military on the planet, the United States would never again win a significant war or conflict. Though its forces would be quite capable of taking the island of Grenada or briefly invading Panama, in the conflicts that mattered—Korea and Vietnam—victory would never come into sight. And it only got worse in the twenty-first century as that military fought an endless series of conflicts (under the rubric of “the war on terror”) across the Greater Middle East and Africa. In those years, it left in its wake a series of brutal sectarian struggles, ascendant terror movements, and failed or failing states and yet, despite its stunning destructive power and its modestly armed enemies, it was nowhere victorious. Never perhaps had an empire at its seeming height attempted to control more while winning less. (The power of its economy was, of course, another matter.)
Now, its losing generals—under the circumstances, there could be no other kind—are, as TomDispatch regular retired Lieutenant Colonel William Astore points out in his latest column, “Too Many Generals Spoil the Democracy,” being elevated to positions of power. The man doing so only recently derided their skills, claiming that American generalship had been “reduced to rubble” and was “embarrassing for our country.” At the moment, his chosen generals are preparing themselves to take over key civilian positions in the country’s ever more powerful national security state, now essentially its fourth branch of government.
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And let’s add to this one more curious aspect of the coming age of Trump: a phenomenon until now restricted to the military and its distant wars seems about to spread to what’s left of the civilian part of our government. By the look of things, Trump's cabinet is being assembled along eerily familiar lines. Its members are unlikely to have the power to “win” (despite the president-elect’s deification of that concept), but they will indeed have an unprecedented power to destroy.
They seem, in fact, to have been chosen largely for their desire to dismantle whatever agency or department will be in their care or to undermine the major tasks it is to carry out. Former Texas governor Rick Perry, recently picked to head the Energy Department, an agency he previously wanted to eliminate (and whose name he infamously forgot in a televised presidential debate), is typical. See also Scott Pruitt, prospective head of the Environmental Protection Agency; Betsy DeVos, the Department of Education; and Tom Price, Health and Human Services. The question, of course, is: Will the civilian part of our future government, in the end, add another country to the count of failed states the U.S. military has already chalked up?
As our first declinist candidate, Donald Trump seems determined to ensure that the once sole superpower will join that endless human tale of felled empires. He’s already working hard to make certain that its government will be hollowed out or simply dynamited in the coming years, while his covey of retired generals will undoubtedly do their damnedest to create further havoc on planet Earth, as they give new meaning to the latest American "principle" being put in place (see Astore): military control over the military (and much else).