The Superpower Conundrum: The Rise and Fall of Just About Everything

(Image: Hawaii Independent)

By Tom Engelhardt

The rise and fall of great powers and their imperial domains has been a central fact of history for centuries. It’s been a sensible, repeatedly validated framework for thinking about the fate of the planet. So it’s hardly surprising, when faced with a country once regularly labeled the “sole superpower,” “the last superpower,” or even the global “hyperpower” and now, curiously, called nothing whatsoever, that the “decline” question should come up. Is the U.S. or isn’t it? Might it or might it not now be on the downhill side of imperial greatness?

Take a slow train — that is, any train — anywhere in America, as I did recently in the northeast, and then take a high-speed train anywhere else on Earth, as I also did recently, and it’s not hard to imagine the U.S. in decline. The greatest power in history, the “unipolar power,” can’t build a single mile of high-speed rail? Really? And its Congress is now mired in an argument about whether funds can even be raised to keep America’s highways more or less pothole-free.

Sometimes, I imagine myself talking to my long-dead parents because I know how such things would have astonished two people who lived through the Great Depression, World War II, and a can-do post-war era in which the staggering wealth and power of this country were indisputable. What if I could tell them how the crucial infrastructure of such a still-wealthy nation — bridges, pipelines, roads, and the like — is now grossly underfunded, in an increasing state of disrepair, and beginning to crumble? That would definitely shock them.

And what would they think upon learning that, with the Soviet Union a quarter-century in the trash bin of history, the U.S., alone in triumph, has been incapable of applying its overwhelming military and economic power effectively? I’m sure they would be dumbstruck to discover that, since the moment the Soviet Union imploded, the U.S. has been at war continuously with another country (three conflicts and endless strife); that I was talking about, of all places, Iraq; and that the mission there was never faintly accomplished. How improbable is that? And what would they think if I mentioned that the other great conflicts of the post-Cold-War era were with Afghanistan (two wars with a decade off in-between) and the relatively small groups of non-state actors we now call terrorists? And how would they react on discovering that the results were: failure in Iraq, failure in Afghanistan, and the proliferation of terror groups across much of the Greater Middle East (including the establishment of an actual terror caliphate) and increasing parts of Africa?

They would, I think, conclude that the U.S. was over the hill and set on the sort of decline that, sooner or later, has been the fate of every great power. And what if I told them that, in this new century, not a single action of the military that U.S. presidents now call “the finest fighting force the world has ever known” has, in the end, been anything but a dismal failure? Or that presidents, presidential candidates, and politicians in Washington are required to insist on something no one would have had to say in their day: that the United States is both an “exceptional” and an “indispensible” nation? Or that they would also have to endlessly thank our troops (as would the citizenry) for… well… never success, but just being there and getting maimed, physically or mentally, or dying while we went about our lives? Or that those soldiers must always be referred to as “heroes.”

In their day, when the obligation to serve in a citizens’ army was a given, none of this would have made much sense, while the endless defensive insistence on American greatness would have stood out like a sore thumb. Today, its repetitive presence marks the moment of doubt. Are we really so “exceptional”? Is this country truly “indispensible” to the rest of the planet and if so, in what way exactly? Are those troops genuinely our heroes and if so, just what was it they did that we’re so darn proud of?

Return my amazed parents to their graves, put all of this together, and you have the beginnings of a description of a uniquely great power in decline. It’s a classic vision, but one with a problem.

A God-Like Power to Destroy (more…)

Yemeni Whose Family Was Killed by Signature Drone Strike Sues US Government

Faisal bin Ali JaberA Yemeni civil engineer has filed a lawsuit in a United States federal court requesting that a judge declare that a drone strike was unlawful and resulted in the wrongful deaths of two members of his family.

On August 29, 2012, Faisal bin Ali Jaber’s brother-in-law, Salem, and his nephew, Waleed, were killed. The drone strike was reportedly a “signature strike,” which means based on patterns of life an attack team decided to carry out the strike that killed his family.

Salem, according to the complaint filed by Reprieve, was “an imam known locally for his sermons against terrorist violence.” Days before Salem’s death, “he had preached in Khashamir against al Qaeda and its methods.”

“Faisal’s nephew Waleed was the village’s local traffic policeman, who accompanied Salem as protection to an evening meeting with three youths who had driven into the village earlier in the day and had asked to meet with Salem. These three young men were the apparent targets of the drone strike,” the complaint claims.

“While the drone operators fixed on the visitors as their principal targets, Salem and Waleed were anonymously—but deliberately—attacked simply for having spoken to them.”

The complaint argues that Khashamir was not nearby “any battlefield” and, therefore, there was no “urgent military purpose or other emergency” to justify exterminating Salem and Waleed.

“The strike plainly violated the Torture Victim Prevention Act’s ban on extrajudicial killings,” the complaint further suggests. “Even if the strikes were taken as part of the United States’ war on al Qaeda, the strike violated the principles of distinction and proportionality. These are established norms of the laws of war, which are elements of customary international law that the United States explicitly acknowledges bind this country and apply to its drone warfare operations.”

An unnamed Yemeni official contacted family to offer condolences, which could be viewed as a tacit admission that wrongful deaths occurred.

Faisal bin ali Jaber pursued avenues of justice in Yemen but was met with “official silence.” He traveled to the US in late 2013 to meet with members of Congress and representatives of President Barack Obama’s National Security Council.

“Do they approve of such a policy? Do they approve of the killing of innocent civilians in a very far country?” Jaber wanted to find out. Or, are they people who believe Yemen means them no harm? “What is their reaction? Are they a peaceful society which really doesn’t mean any harm to other people?”

While officials were willing to offer “personal condolences” for his loss of family, “they could not or would not explain the reason for the attack or acknowledge officially that a US drone killed” his relatives.

Obama acknowledged weeks ago that a US drone had killed two hostages, an Italian and an American, who were being held hostage by al Qaeda. He stated that victims’ “families deserve to know the truth” and maintained that his apology demonstrated how the US is willing to “confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes.”

In the filed complaint, Reprieve asks, “The President has now admitted to killing innocent Americans and Italians with drones; why are the bereaved families of innocent Yemenis less entitled to the truth?” (more…)