As we close out 2015 with the usual end of year pondering on where we’ve been and where we are headed, I thought I would share this 2011 article by Angelo M. Codevilla that was recently quoted on twitter by @. It is amazingly insightful and offers a much needed perspective for Americans making up their minds on who they want for their next president. It is very long but well worth the time so grab your favorite caffeinated beverage and settle in for a good read!
America’s ruling class lost the “War on Terror.” During the decade that began on September 11, 2001, the U.S. government’s combat operations have resulted in some 6,000 Americans killed and 30,000 crippled, caused hundreds of thousands of foreign casualties, and spent—depending on various estimates of direct and indirect costs—somewhere between 2 and 3 trillion dollars. But nothing our rulers did post-9/11 eliminated the threat from terrorists or made the world significantly less dangerous. Rather, ever-bigger government imposed unprecedented restrictions on the American people and became the arbiter of prosperity for its cronies, as well as the manager of permanent austerity for the rest. Although in 2001 many referred to the United States as “the world’s only superpower,” ten years later the near-universal perception of America is that of a nation declining, perhaps irreversibly. This decade convinced a majority of Americans that the future would be worse than the past and that there is nothing to be done about it. This is the “new normal.” How did this happen?
September 11’s planners could hardly have imagined that their attacks might seriously undermine what Americans had built over two centuries, what millions of immigrants from the world over had come to join and maintain. In fact, our decline happened because the War on Terror—albeit microscopic in size and destructiveness as wars go—forced upon us, as wars do, the most important questions that any society ever faces: Who are we, and who are our enemies? What kind of peace do we want? What does it take to get it? Are we able and willing to do what it takes to secure our preferred way of life, to deserve living the way we prefer? Our bipartisan ruling class’s dysfunctional responses to such questions inflicted the deepest wounds.
Wars in general increase the power of any polity’s ruling class to answer such questions in its way, and to work its will. Hard times force regimes, as they force individuals, to prove what they are made of. That is why regimes are never more themselves, at home and abroad, than during wartime. After 9/11, at home and abroad, our bipartisan ruling class did the characteristic things it had done before—just more of them, and more intensely. In short, the War on Terror empowered this ruling class to show its mettle, and it did so. Ten years later, the results speak for themselves: the terrorists’ force mineure proved to be the occasion for our own ruling elites and their ideas to plunge the country into troubles from which they cannot extricate it.
Most often, wars are won and lost by a faction of a diverse ruling class. Victories validate the winners and what they stand for. Defeats usher in competitors waiting in the wings. So for example, the defeat of Lord North’s cabinet in the American Revolutionary War empowered William Pitt the Younger’s faction, including Adam Smith. When John F. Kennedy’s old-line liberals lost the Vietnam War, their discredit empowered Democratic and Republican successors who embodied an America more collectivist at home and more timid abroad. Such changes, though big, are evolutionary because they simply bring to the fore people and ways that had been gestating within the Establishment.
When, however, the losers are a whole ruling class, and when that class is pervasive enough to have banished to society’s margins any people and ideas that diverge from it, its discredit really does put society in a revolutionary situation. For example, the Soviet regime’s loss of the Cold War plunged that country into a downward spiral because three generations of Communist rule had utterly destroyed living memory of anything but dysfunctional people and ways.
America’s current ruling class, the people who lost the War on Terror, monopolizes the upper reaches of American public life, the ranks of those who make foreign and domestic policy, including the leadership of the Republican and Democratic parties. It is more or less homogeneous socially and intellectually. In foreign affairs, the change from the Bush to the Obama Administrations was barely noticeable. In domestic matters, the differences are more quantitative than qualitative. Dissent from the ruling class is rife among the American people, but occurs mostly on the sidelines of our politics. If there is to be a reversal of the ongoing defeats, both foreign and domestic, that have discredited contemporary America’s bipartisan mainstream, heretofore marginal people will have to generate it, applying ideas and practices recalled from America’s successful past.
The world of 2011 is even less congenial to America and Americans than it was on September 10, 2001. The U.S. government is not responsible for all the ways in which the world was menacing then and is menacing now, of course. Regardless of what America did, China’s challenge to the post-1945 Peace of the Pacific was going to become more serious. Vladimir Putin’s neo-Soviet Russia was not and could not be anything but a major bother. Western Europe would be living off civilizational capital it had lost the will to replenish, irrespective of any American deeds or entreaties. The Muslim world would be choking on the dysfunctions inherent in its government and cultures.
But U.S. policy has made things worse because the liberal internationalists, realists, and neoconservatives who make up America’s foreign policy Establishment have all assumed that Americans should undertake the impossible task of changing such basic facts, rather than confining themselves to the difficult but vital work of guarding U.S. interests against them. For the Establishment, 9/11 meant opportunities to press for doing more of what they had always tried to do.
At home, the American people are less free, less prosperous, more bitterly divided, and much less hopeful in 2011 than in 2001 because a decade of the War on Terror brought a government ever bigger and more burdensome, as well as “security” measures that impede the innocent rather than focusing on wrongdoers. Our ruling class justified its ever-larger role in America’s domestic life by redefining war as a never-ending struggle against unspecified enemies for abstract objectives, and by asserting expertise far above that of ordinary Americans. After 9/11, far from deliberating on the best course to take, our rulers stayed on autopilot and hit the throttles.
We must, then, understand what our bipartisan ruling class wrought in international and domestic affairs during the post-9/11 war, and how differently the decade might have turned out had our rulers pursued the proper ends of domestic and international statecraft.