Europe’s welfare states, the answer to a half century of bloodshed, reel under political and economic burdens, while crypto-fascists snap at the heels of their social democratic guardians. The continent’s experiment in pan-Europeanism has been wounded, perhaps mortally, by the intertwinement of its elites with transnational financial interests and the British exit.
The best case scenario will see a much more dangerous, unstable, and unequal world. In the worst case, we may be coming over a horizon to witness the final unravelling of the post-war innovations in social democracy, internationalism, and supra-nationalism, if not of the two-hundred year experiment in democracy that most of the world has taken for granted would continue to flourish.
There are clearly many factors--long- and short-term--that can explain these sinister developments. But the speed of the global disintegration has been shocking, and I would argue that if we wanted to identify a single moment that ricocheted through the last thirteen years, inflicting damage on the fibre of individual nations, international norms, and the lives and livelihoods of people around the world, the 2003 invasion of Iraq is the best place to start.
For those who have forgotten, for reasons we still do not entirely understand, in 2003 the Bush administration, with broad bipartisan support, launched a stunningly violent and insensible invasion of a country that posed no discernible threat to U.S. interests. The United States’ campaign of “shock and awe” and the subsequent occupation killed tens if not hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and dismantled the country’s physical infrastructure and civic institutions, the only things standing between the colonial creation of a nation and the civil war which broke out and remains unresolved.
It is difficult to know where to begin in measuring the effects of a war that was illegal, immoral, and ill-conceived, launched in defiance of international law and institutions, and in spite of warnings from intelligence agencies that the conflict would lead to the proliferation of international terrorism and the unravelling of the Middle East.
In the United States, the smear campaigns of the Bush administration cowed most Democrats and media into jumping onto the warmongers’ bandwagon. Even the knowledge that the war was fought based on a set of calculated lies and distortions offered by the President, the Vice-President, the Secretary of State, and the intelligence agencies did not lead to a reckoning in the opposition. The best that Democrats could manage as a collective entity was an admission that the war was poorly managed. This failure to come to terms with the scale of the disaster they helped to unleash was, of course, due to the fact that their nominee in 2004 supported the war, and had his campaign torpedoed more effectively by his own “I was for it before I was against it” mumbling than anything the lying swiftboaters could launch his way.
Things did not improve in the next four years, because the heir apparent to the party’s leadership had not only supported the war, but was refashioning herself as a bloodthirsty neo-con, the better to compete with the Republican Party.
As Iraq was driven into civil war by the American occupation and the Al Qaeda fighters it drew to the country, the American body count grew and the popularity of what had been sold as a feel-good war began to wane.
Americans backed away from the embrace of the leading Democratic neo-con, and pirouetted away from a Republican candidate who improvised war ditties at his rallies and seemed positively senile when fumbling about a dangerous financial crisis.
The public turned to Barack Obama, who represented both opposition to the war in Iraq, but also basic competence. What they did not realize is that the debt-financing of a then nearly six-year-old and incredibly expensive war was partly responsible both for the financial crisis and the state’s difficulty in responding.
Instead of questioning the fundamental logic of the War of Terror, Barack Obama decided to wage it in secret, shielding the public from its immediate consequences. His lethal campaign of terror from the air nonetheless inflicting stunning damage on lives, property, and the national fabric of societies on the receiving end of his bombs. The secrecy of the conflict also necessitated the massive expansion of an already over-mighty security state, which increasingly bridled at the messy notion of legislative oversight, and launched a cold war against the democratic entities that sought to shed light on its machinations and alert the public to its serial abuses.
We felt the long-term consequences of growing mistrust in the security state when in 2016 Donald Trump disingenuously deflected accusations of Russian meddling in an American election by invoking Iraq.
The government’s inability to avert a financial crisis, the effects of austerity, a culture of impunity shielding both financial and national security elites, at both the moment of crisis and in its decade-long aftermath, created an atmosphere of distrust in public federal institutions.
A Republican Party utterly discredited by its role in unleashing war in Iraq and financial chaos in the U.S. identified an opportunity in this climate, and launched a second war, this time a guerrilla conflict from within to sabotage and undermine the state and its capacity to protect its citizens. Their core lies--that public institutions are fundamentally corrupt and that “government” doesn’t work--were built on specks of truth created by their own dangerous and authoritarian instincts in government. An unheralded but long-term consequences of their guerrilla war is the inability of the U.S. to satisfactorily address the growing threat from climate change.
And their campaign to bring down the Obama administration by bringing the work of the state to a grinding halt and bringing their lies to life bear significant responsibility for the rise of Donald Trump. The arrogance of a blinkered Democratic Party also shares some responsibility as the party, in its infinite wisdom, nominated a candidate proven to be badly compromised by her support for the war in Iraq.
While her supporters defended Clinton’s Iraq vote as an aberration, a google search of her public record in the senate and State Department easily proved that her support for destabilizing, violent, and senseless conflict, and for authoritarian regimes that provoked often-dangerous insurgencies was a fundamental part of her international outlook.
Trump’s repudiation of internationalism and its institutions might be particularly virulent and mindless, but he was only building on the work begun by the Bush Administration when it launched a campaign to smear the United Nations and accords banning torture and other war crimes, and continued by Clinton and others from within the Obama Administration as they sold a lawless doctrine of American exceptionalism.
As predicted, the Iraq war proved the boon to Al Qaeda and its ilk that 9/11 never was. International terrorism spread to Iraq, Syria, Libya, and beyond, laying the groundwork for the rise of ISIS years later, and inviting the U.S. to launch superficially “clean” wars like that in Libya, which instead expanded chaos, boosted fundamentalism, and created new links between previously local terrorist organizations.
American lawlessness in its war making also offered a predictable “out” to Russia’s authoritarian leader, who answered criticisms of his expansions into the caucasus, Ukraine, and Syria, with an innocent shrug and a “they did it first” gesture toward his American and British adversaries.
The upheavals in the Middle East caused by the Iraq war--and the expansion of the war in Afghanistan, mulishly initiated by Obama to compensate for his winding down in Iraq--led to a mounting refugee crisis, piling pressure onto a government in Turkey that has marched toward authoritarianism, intolerance, and a break with both the United States and its own democratic and secular heritage.
The refugee crisis was also felt in Europe, which had been rocked by the Iraq war in other ways earlier. Britain’s rush to join the U.S. in invading Iraq in 2003 led to the empowerment of the security state after the predictable terrorist backlash. But it also mortally wounded the Blair government over the long-term, and has badly damaged the standing of the Labour Party, responsible for virtually all of the country’s twentieth century progress.
Labour’s fall from grace led to the rise of a Eurosceptic Conservative Party that pursued crippling austerity, further eroding public trust and creating a climate of fear that helped to propel Britons to vote against membership in the European Union. The Brexit vote was also facilitated by Conservative leader David Cameron’s deal with the devil that was UKIP, putting the country’s place in Europe on the line to satisfy the yapping of nationalist reprobates in his own ranks.
A fear of migrants in the form of Middle Eastern refugees also helped to spur Brexit. Britons ultimately refused to share in the responsibility for picking up the pieces after a conflict they helped to initiate, and are now committing to backing away from the principle of open borders.
In the short term, it appeared that the extent of damage to European states would come from their rupture with the U.S. over the War in Iraq, swiftly repaired after the inauguration of Obama. But Iraq’s role in the financial crisis also reached European shores.
More profoundly, Europe’s proximity to the Middle East, both through the Balkans and across the Mediterranean, meant that those nations on the continent that vociferously opposed the war in Iraq would nonetheless be forced to subsidize American foreign policy as they confronted rafts and columns of displaced families seeking to escape the spiralling consequences of American hubris and bloodlust.
The refugee crisis has impacted European states unevenly, with Germany, Serbia, Sweden, and Hungary most affected. Racism, xenophobia, and frustrated with botched government efforts to absorb hundreds of thousands of people in relatively small countries over an incredibly short period of time has led to the rise of crypto-fascist parties that promise to maintain the welfare state while re-negotiating access along the racial and ethnic lines that defined the fascist approach to welfare in the interwar.
The sudden strain on the welfare state in a continent already wracked with doubts about its ability to make good on the long-term promise of social democracy has also led to the resurgence of some liberal parties on the right who commit to undoing the gains made by workers in the last sixty years. Elections this year in Germany, France, and Norway, and in Italy and Sweden in 2018, will be telling. That Americans and Europeans on the left are looking at a tired and calculating center-right German Chancellor as democracy’s greatest defender is telling.
Retrenchment in Europe, Trump’s mix of imperialism and isolation, and the effects of decades of attacks on international institutions and norms has also marked a threatened withdrawal from the collective security arrangements that while imperfect, provided a security umbrella in parts of the world and made Americans at least partially aware of the consequences of their foreign policy.
The end of collective security is doubly troubling because it accompanies the deepening and rise of authoritarianism in Russia and the United States, the flexing of muscles by an authoritarian state in China, and the addled threats to Indian democracy issued by the country’s economic and religious fundamentalist Prime Minister.
On autopilot, the U.S. war on terror continues to expand into Africa, and has corroded public trust, civil society, and public security in places like Kenya and Mali, while temporarily alienating the U.S. from regional powers like South Africa.
In this sense, the rise of Donald Trump and the destabilizing forces at work in the world are hardly inexplicable. Some of them are long in the making. But most of them have been profoundly shaped if not directly caused by a decision by the Bush Administration, the votes of leading Democrats, the prostration of the American media, the deep ignorance of the American public, and the spectacular failure of will, imagination, and commitment on the part of the country’s leadership when it comes to dealing with the fallout.
That our country and broad swathes of the world are now in the grip of irresponsible economic doctrines, infected by poisonous ethnic nationalism and religious bigotry and conflict, and with profoundly weakened institutions and capacities is utterly predictable. Our inability to come to terms with the consequences of our actions, and the ability of nationalism to blind us to the better worlds that could have awaited help to explain why 2017 is a year of peril.