THE CARTHAGE SYNDROME (III): The New American Century

(*) César Vidal

     Whereas the 1970’s ended with considerable frustration, the following decade would end with extraordinary exuberance. The fundamental reason behind this huge shift in mood was the unexpected demise of the USSR, the archenemy of the Cold War.  People can say what they want these days, but this collapse was not foreseen by anyone, including the CIA and the MI6.  In truth, except for some Russian dissidents such as Andrei Amalrik, who predicted that in 1984 the USSR would cease to exist - he was assassinated in Spain, almost certainly at the hands of the KGB - and the brilliant Solzhenitsyn, no one saw the collapse coming.  In one case for example, university professor Javier Tusell went to the ridiculous extreme of declaring that the USSR would survive throughout the next millennium, truly an exercise in asinine hubris. Yet the Soviet Union crumbled and the truth is, almost no one expected it


      Moreover, there is a popular myth today that the end of the Soviet Union can be attributed to a kind of Holy Trinity, consisting of Pope John Paul II, President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.  However, this myth does not correspond to reality.  Documents published after his death make it clear that John Paul II did not contemplate the dissolution of the USSR.  In fact, what he feared was that the USSR would strike at his beloved Poland, and that is why he did not try to curb the Polish resistance against Communism.  On the other hand, though John Paul II may have been unsympathetic towards Communism, he found it more acceptable than some other political systems.  This was evident in the way he behaved toward Fidel Castro - whom he treated with great courtesy on his visit to Cuba - in contrast to how he behaved toward Pinochet - whom he treated with considerable coolness and even disdain, upon his arrival in Chile.  No, John Paul II did not topple the USSR, essentially because he believed it was neither possible nor desirable to do so.

       Margaret Thatcher, on the other hand, was indeed a strong opponent of Communism, but Great Britain could do little to face up to the USSR except take refuge under the protective umbrella of the United States.

      As for Ronald Reagan, he did take steps to confront the Soviet Union.  In fact his attempts to lower the price of gasoline, thereby impairing the Soviet Union - a strategy copied by President Obama in recent years toward Russia - and his well-known military plan, commonly known as Star Wars, were two such steps in this direction.  Nevertheless, neither these initiatives nor fighting the last battle of the Cold War in Central America brought about the fall of the USSR.  In reality, despite the undeniable faults in the system, it’s possible the USSR could have survived in accordance with the social and economic parameters it set forth.  Its collapse can be ascribed most of all to its leaders, but whatever theory one accepts, this enemy of many decades - three quarters of a century - came crashing down rapidly and resoundingly.  The Cold War came to an end, with a victory that was no less gratifying for being so swift and unexpected.

       A sensible response to this situation would have been to objectively examine the mistakes of the past, analyze the present and formulate plans for the future. Sadly this is not take place.  On the contrary, the world was drowning in complacency.  A well-known author rushed to declare the end of History, where capitalism and western-style democracies would be the unequivocal paradigms.  Regrettably, it’s obvious today that this prediction was terribly wrong, despite changes in Eastern Europe.

      Nevertheless, some of the greatest mistakes in judgment, resulting from a Carthage Syndrome that shouted victory “urbi et orbi”, were generated in think tanks that influenced the foreign policy of the White House for the ensuing decades.The idea that anything was possible now that the Soviet Union was vanquished was enthusiastically embraced.  Given that Russia couldn’t prevent being split into an array of republics, let alone being plundered during the 1990’s, this idea seemed to be validated.

       It is worthwhile to examine how time and again the triumphalism typical of the Carthage Syndrome shaped plans for the future.  One of the quintessential, though by no means only, examples is given by the Project for the New American Century (PNAC).  A think tank founded by William Kristol and Robert Kagan in 1997, its purpose was to promote American global leadership.  The PNAC started from the premise that “American leadership is good both for America and the world” and defined its policy as a “Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity”.  That a strong United States would be good for the country and the world is entirely reasonable.  Likewise a reference to Ronald Reagan could be expected.  But the PNAC was very different from Reagan, who didn't hesitate to pull out of Lebanon to avert a dangerous U.S. military involvement in the Middle East.  And he carried out only a few extremely modest military operations, such as the bombing of Libya and the invasion of Granada.

      In reality, the PNAC helped to develop a foreign policy that had much more in common with the Carthage Syndrome than with Ronald Reagan, however much they referred to him.  It was able to do so because, of the twenty-five people who signed the statement of principles of the PNAC, ten would serve under George W. Bush, among them Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz.

        Even though Kristol and Kagan believed the Republican Party should adopt a program they referred to as benevolent global hegemony, the truth is that their program was openly imperialistic and ignored lessons of history, such as the fact that even supposedly benevolent hegemonies have fallen apart as a result of overextended goals, allies who became wearied and an inability to anticipate enemies.  Indeed, this is what caused the fall of ancient Athens.

     The manner in which the PNAC advocated for military intervention in Iraq is very telling.  It pointed to Saddam Hussein as a danger to the United States and claimed that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, which Tony Blair refuted only a few days ago.  The PNAC also stressed that the U.S. should dissociate itself from decisions made by the Security Council of the UN.  Even with all that, possibly the PNAC’s most revealing document was called Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategies, Forces, and Resources For a New Century.  Even though it recognized that the previous decade had been one of peace and stability, which had permitted widespread economic growth and “the spread of American principles of liberty and democracy”, the report argued for a policy of military expansion that included fighting “multiple, simultaneous theater wars” and exploiting “the revolution in military affairs”.  In order to reach this goal, other than quite reasonably maintaining a nuclear superiority - a superiority that the United States has unwaveringly maintained since 1945 - the PNAC called for an increase in military personnel from 1.4 million to 1.6 million, the redeployment of U.S. troops to southeast Europe and Asia and control of space and cyberspace, among other things.  The military budget would rise to somewhere between 3.5 and 3.8 percent of the Gross Domestic Product, costing $15 to $20 billion more a year for defense.  They proposed all of this at a moment when the United States had emerged as the unrivaled winner in the Cold War, the world - by the PNAC’s own admission - was peaceful and prosperous, and the attacks of September 11 had yet to take place.

      The PNAC’s report was not unusual for its time, but it had some striking elements, such as its recommendation and justification of preemptive attacks, the delineation of a series of possible conflicts, beginning with Iraq, and the mention of the resistance the American people might have to its main proposals, something that would disappear were they to experience a “new Pearl Harbor”.  Looking back, there were other disquieting shortcomings with the document.  Without any intention of making an exhaustive inventory, some of them should nevertheless be pointed out.  The first was the conviction, clearly evident in the writing, that there was no possibility of any significant reaction from an enemy.  The United States could jump from one military conflict to another, starting with Afghanistan and continuing through Iraq, Iran, Syria and Lebanon and there would be no one able to counter these successive interventions.  From this one gathers that not only would Muslim populations be easily subdued but also that they lacked even the capacity to respond.  Russia wouldn’t be able to react either - an idea that seemed plausible during the Yeltsin era - because it would never recover from its prostration after losing the Cold War.  Neither would China present an obstacle - And why was that? Was it because it was becoming capitalist?  As for Latin America, it didn’t exist for the people of PNAC, at least as a possible trouble spot.  Like the suffets (kings) of ancient Carthage after the crushing victories of Hannibal, the thinkers of PNAC and others like them could not conceive of any serious opposition in the entire planet to its project of unilateral hegemony.  After all, hadn’t the Cold War ended in a clear victory?

       Precisely because they had such an optimistic - and unrealistic - view, actions that showed a lack of respect for international law, such as preemptive strikes and contempt for the UN, were not seen as problematic.  This was understandable.  If they couldn’t envisage any opposition on the battlefield, why would there be any in the diplomatic arena?  It was all going to be so easy; they would merely have to set the plan for unilateral control in motion.

    Nevertheless, this vision, so typical of the Carthage Syndrome, had to wait to be put in practice.  President Clinton - quite dedicated to domestic policy, though certainly not lacking in the area of foreign policy - balked at accepting the PNAC’s views, but George W. Bush took them as an acceptable agenda and put several of its designers in positions of responsibility.  This was while the American people were experiencing the terrible attacks of September 11 as their new Pearl Harbor.  Victory in the Cold War and the apparent absence of enemies had created enough of a Carthage Syndrome for them to believe in the feasibility of establishing a world with only one point of reference: the United States.  From that point on, mistakes accumulated one on top of another, but that will be the subject of upcoming installments.


(*) Cesar Vidal is a historian, writer, PhD in History, Law, Philosophy and Theology; Member of the Interamerican Institute for Democracy's Council and of the North American Academy of Spanish Language.