by Lawrence Wilkerson
Today, those of us who have labored for many years within some part of the U.S. government may well ask: How is it that America has allowed the degradation of that government we witness today? Which begs a further question: will the ultimate outcome of such a savaged governance process precipitate a profound domestic crisis, even—at its worst—blood in the streets?
The immediate response to both questions from a majority of our citizens—though they see “as through a glass, darkly” Hong Kong, Caracas, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and a host of other conflicts around the globe—is not here, not in America. Sadly, these Americans ignore not only this global turmoil—turmoil that has already generated a record-breaking 70 million refugees—but their own country’s history. And we need not go all the way back to the Civil War to find bloodshed. The Anacostia Flats, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, Mississippi, Idaho, and a number of other locations have seen bloodshed or potential bloodshed in the years since that awful war.
A large part of how today’s situation came about draws its generative power from the enormous tension among the three major influences on U.S. governance and politics since the Civil War.
First, the influence of predatory capitalism, consolidated by that very war and given a huge boost by the two presidencies of Ulysses S. Grant.
Second, the influence of the welfare state largely created when predatory capitalism reached its inevitable climax, bringing about the Great Depression. Or as Frances Perkins, FDR’s brilliant secretary of labor, described it as she set out her initial goals: “We must work together with this idea in mind, that it is human life and happiness which we are trying to save, and that this is the most important thing, the most valuable social and spiritual asset in any community.” Sounds a great deal like well-functioning democracy. But democracy, alas, is pitted eternally against the barons of that predatory capitalist state.
Third, the influence of the National Security State (NSS), created by the sweeping U.S. victory in the Second World War, a victory that, as some have said, left America “the new Rome.” The new Rome needed a new strategic rationale, so some of its smartest people crafted the 1947 National Security Act. Over the years of the Cold War, fulfillment of that Act institutionalized the NSS and its concomitant phenomenon—endless war.
Today, predatory capitalism, democracy, and the NSS battle it out every day, draining the national treasury, alienating most of the people, and creating brutally inequitable circumstances, such as recruiting soldiers for our endless wars from less than one per cent of the total U.S. population or creating the greatest maldistribution of wealth in American history, where less than one percent of American families possesses wealth equal to the GDP of Brazil.
To complicate an already complex situation, many members of the NSS are fully-fledged predatory capitalists, such as Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and Boeing. They give awesome strength and lasting power to both influences and distract powerfully from democracy. Exxon Mobil, the ultimate predatory capitalist, feeds precious fuel to the NSS—the Department of Defense is the largest consumer of fossil fuels in America—and thus enables the endless wars in addition to motivating some of them, particularly in the Middle East and in South America. Among such relationships, the merciless assault on democracy seems inevitably bound for success.
Putting in the Oval Office a man who has a foot in both camps and a strong desire to eliminate democracy has brought this seething tension to a dangerous denouement: the possible elimination of all three influences as coherent forces and their replacement with political chaos. Such chaos will lead inevitably to the precipitous decline of empire. Unlike the British, who tiptoed from their imperial pinnacle over the course of two generations, from the Charge of the Light Brigade in Crimea to the ignominious withdrawal from Suez, the American empire might—like the Soviet empire—simply cease to function and retreat swiftly from a world it once dominated like no other power in history. While some might long for such a total withdrawal, its impact on the rest of the world might well be far less than sanguine, not to mention its dreadful impact on America.
In other words, a precipitous decline in American power could be just around the corner. Our fiscal profligacy alone seems ominously to foreshadow such a decline. Printing trillions of dollars with nothing more behind them than our guns, oil, and our rapidly deteriorating national assets is not a healthy situation. But the catalyst for sudden decline might originate elsewhere too, for example from a place we seem to see only obscurely right now.
Vladimir Putin, a student of the war theorist Karl von Clausewitz as well as very likely one of the best NKVD/GRU/KGB/FSB minds Russia ever produced, was angered to the core of his Russian soul by U.S. actions in the wake of the Cold War, particularly the “rape of Moscow” by largely American investment bankers and financiers who, for a killing in quick profits, orchestrated the fire-sale of Soviet assets in the 1990s in league with certain Russians whose sole objective was money. But Putin knew how to react: he corralled many of the resulting Russian monopolies and the oligarchs who oversaw them.
Fueling Putin’s already smoldering anger, the U.S. then violated word-of-mouth promises to respect Russia’s interests after the unification of its historic enemy, Germany, and that country’s retention in the NATO Alliance. Instead, the U.S. began strategic moves to hem in the new Russia as swiftly as possible. The predatory capitalist members of the NSS rejoiced as now they had a number of new states to whom they could sell their exorbitantly priced weaponry, from F-16s to ballistic missile defense systems. They also had new prospects for their endless wars—perhaps even Russia itself.
In reaction, Putin set out to implement his interpretation of Clausewitz. Where was America’s schwerpunkt, her center of gravity? And how could he, in reduced military and strategic circumstances, deliver the killing blow (der Todliche Schalt) to that point? Further, how could he create a set of circumstances that would favor Russia in the run-up to delivering that blow as well as disguise his ultimate strategic move among a barrage of more traditional ones?
Crimea, Ukraine, Syria, Iran, the Baltics, and other lesser areas gave Putin the setup material. He probably could not believe how each situation, in its turn, was advantageously set up for him by America’s own strategic mistakes, starting with the ruinous and destabilizing invasion of Iraq in 2003. But locating and identifying the vulnerabilities associated with America’s center of gravity would be a true stroke of genius.
Winston Churchill might have helped Putin.
On Armistice Day in 1947, Churchill had said that democracy might be, as some had called it, “the worst form of government—except for all those other forms that had been tried from time to time.” It’s argued that in private conversation the great British statesman further maintained that a benevolent dictatorship might seem better, but its problem was transition. In short, how does one move from one benevolent dictator to another? The strong hint was that the aspect of democratic government that made it ultimately a better form was that it had devised a method to make the transition from government to government without major problems. While many factors composed the ultimate strength of democracies—the rule of law, the institutions, the civil society—at the heart of that method of transition was elections.
If an enemy of democracy wanted to bring it down swiftly by attacking its center of gravity, this is where it should aim, at its elections. That Putin believes democracy is a threat is indisputable simply from following his public speeches. Writing in The New York Times on October 8th of this year, in an article entitled “Top Secret Russian Unit Seeks to Destabilize Europe,” Michael Schwirtz asserts: “The Kremlin sees Russia as being at war with a Western liberal order that it views as an existential threat.” Each time Putin either directly or obliquely touches the subject, that assessment seems a sound one.
But historically, with some limited exceptions (carried out ironically enough by the U.S. and the USSR during the Cold War), external state actors have found this election-shaping very hard to accomplish on a scale that was truly effective. CIA efforts to manipulate the Italian elections in 1948 and its very heavy-handed actions in Chilean elections in the late 1960s and early 1970s afford examples of limited exceptions.
Today, though, computers have dramatically changed that situation. If a country has computerized its election processes, it is vulnerable not only to domestic manipulation but to external state actors. The Internet knows no borders.
Like a Pavlovian dog, Putin has leapt upon this vulnerability.
The Russians experimented in 2016 and succeeded even beyond their wildest expectations. The after-action sessions in Moscow must have been truly jubilant. With very little expenditure of resources, Russia had succeeded in penetrating individual state and then national elections to the extent that it convinced the Kremlin leadership that a devastating attack on national elections was not only possible, it was likely to produce the level of disruption, confusion, and chaos Putin desired—conditions that would set back his major state opponent for several years, if not longer.
The Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, succeeded recently in blocking all major efforts to provide the states with adequate funding and guidance to deal with such a threat. Grudgingly, sensing he was in some political danger as the sobriquet “Moscow Mitch” caught on a little more than he was content to accept, McConnell relented and authorized debate over and then approval of some $250 million for such election security. That amount of money constitutes arming the states with a BB-gun to combat a charging rhinoceros.
And that is where we are at this moment. Putin can even expect that in addition to disruption, confusion, and chaos confounded, indeed, there just might be blood in the streets of America as well.
And he might be right.
Lawrence Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army, retiring as a colonel. He is the Distinguished Visiting Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William & Mary.