Tom Engelhardt

It is now a commonplace — as a lead article in the New York Times‘s Week in Review pointed out recently — that Afghanistan is “the graveyard of empires.” Given Barack Obama’s call for a greater focus on the Afghan War (“we took our eye off the ball when we invaded Iraq…”), and given indications that a “surge” of U.S. troops is about to get underway there, Afghanistan’s dangers have been much in the news lately. Some of the writing on this subject, including recent essays by Juan Cole at, Robert Dreyfuss at the Nation, and John Robertson at the War in Context website, has been incisive on just how the new administration’s policy initiatives might transform Afghanistan and the increasingly unhinged Pakistani tribal borderlands into “Obama’s War.”

In other words, “the graveyard” has been getting its due. Far less attention has been paid to the “empire” part of the equation. And there’s a good reason for that — at least in Washington. Despite escalating worries about the deteriorating situation, no one in our nation’s capital is ready to believe that Afghanistan could actually be the “graveyard” for the American role as the dominant hegemon on this planet.

In truth, to give “empire” its due you would have to start with a reassessment of how the Cold War ended. In 1989, which now seems centuries ago, the Berlin Wall came down; in 1991, to the amazement of the U.S. intelligence community, influential pundits, inside-the-Beltway think-tankers, and Washington’s politicians, the Soviet Union, that “evil empire,” that colossus of repression, that mortal enemy through nearly half a century of threatened nuclear MADness — as in “mutually assured destruction” — simply evaporated, almost without violence. (Soviet troops, camped out in the relatively cushy outposts of Eastern Europe, especially the former East Germany, were in no more hurry to come home to the economic misery of a collapsed empire than U.S. troops stationed in Okinawa, Japan, are likely to be in the future.)

In Washington where, in 1991, everything was visibly still standing, a stunned silence and a certain unwillingness to believe that the enemy of almost half a century was no more would quickly be overtaken by a sense of triumphalism. A multigenerational struggle had ended with only one of its super-participants still on its feet.

The conclusion seemed too obvious to belabor. Right before our eyes, the USSR had miraculously disappeared into the dustbin of history with only a desperate, impoverished Russia, shorn of its “near abroad,” to replace it; ergo, we were the victors; we were, as everyone began to say with relish, the planet’s “sole superpower.” Huzzah!

Masters of the Universe

The Greeks, of course, had a word for it: “hubris.” The ancient Greek playwrights would have assumed that we were in for a fall from the heights. But that thought crossed few minds in Washington (or on Wall Street) in those years.

Instead, our political and financial movers and shakers began to act as if the planet were truly ours (and other powers, including the Europeans and the Japanese, sometimes seemed to agree). To suggest at the time, as the odd scholar of imperial decline did, that there might have been no winners and two losers in the Cold War, that the weaker superpower had simply left the scene first, while the stronger, less hollowed out superpower was inching its way toward the same exit, was to speak to the deaf.

In the 1990s, “globalization” — the worldwide spread of the Golden Arches, the Swoosh, and Mickey Mouse — was on all lips in Washington, while the men who ran Wall Street were regularly referred to, and came to refer to themselves, as “masters of the universe.”

The phrase was originally used by Tom Wolfe. It was the brand name of the superhero action figures his protagonist’s daughter plays with in his 1987 novel Bonfire of the Vanities. (“On Wall Street he and a few others — how many? three hundred, four hundred, five hundred? had become precisely that… Masters of the Universe…”) As a result, the label initially had something of Wolfe’s cheekiness about it. In the post-Cold War world, however, it soon enough became purely self-congratulatory.


Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the American Age of Denial. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), a collection of some of the best pieces from his site and an alternative history of the mad Bush years.

Copyright 2009 Tom Engelhardt

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