Tom Engelhardt: We Have Become What We Accused the Soviets of Being

Roundup: Historians' Take

Tom Engelhardt, in, a weblog of the Nation Institute (May 9, 2004):

Novelist and former British intelligence officer John Le Carré wrote a series of Cold War thrillers, of which the most famous were The Spy Who Came In from the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. All of them cumulatively offered an essential insight for that era. Although the Russian KGB, British intelligence, and our own CIA had all plunged"into the shadows" to play the deadly game of spy vs. spy, it turned out, in that underground realm, where each side believed itself to be blocking the other's crucial advances, something strange was happening. Their spies and our spies were coming to feel they had more in common with each other than with either of the societies they were ostensibly defending. Underground, their ways of life began to merge. Le Carré's was an essential insight and he was the first to bring it back from the intelligence netherworld in novels that are still striking to read.

But here's the strange thing -- as he makes clear in his latest thriller Absolute Friends -- when the Soviet Union collapsed, instead of folding its tent, the last standing global superpower simply absorbed much from the other side and soon plunged further into the shadows. And in doing so, our own system -- out there in the imperium (and increasingly at home as well) -- became more"absolute," more oppressive, more -- in short -- Russian.

We see the grim results of that in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. We see it in the continuous growth of the Pentagon despite the loss of all major military enemies. We see it in the grim, helter-skelter way the Bush administration has been replaying its own primal experiences -- the Cold War and Vietnam. In particular, though it's hardly been noted, we see it in the way this administration is acting out the one policy that, in the era of two superpowers, remained a fantasy.

Given the power of the Russian military, especially once it nuclearized, the American position in the Cold War was generally considered one of" containment." But particularly in the early years, another policy was discussed with fervor. John Foster Dulles, President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Secretary or State (and brother of then-CIA Director Allen Dulles) called it"rollback." We were to rollback the borders of the Soviet empire by subversion and by military power. Never practiced (except in a few heady Korean-War months), it was much dreamt about.

Now, in the post-Soviet era, our government has taken aspects of the worst Cold War dreams of both sides. It wants to dominate the world. (Remember when this is what we swore they wanted to do?) It wants to control an extrajudicial penal system for its enemies, a kind of global Siberia shielded from prying eyes of any sort; and it wants rollback of the now pathetically impoverished remnants of the Soviet Union, Putin's Russia (still dangerously nuclear armed). So as NATO has, with our enthusiastic support pushed deep into the western borderlands of the old Soviet Union, the U.S. military has driven its own bases deep into the former Yugoslavia, the former Islamic SSRs, those ‘stans of Central Asia, into Afghanistan (where the Soviet Union essentially expired in a brutal lost war that also gave birth to al Qaeda), and prospectively into the former SSR of Georgia which sits on a crucial oil pipeline meant to bring Caspian oil to Europe and beyond.

This then is the world according to Bush, the world from which those photos emerged.

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