You remember the Soviet Union, now almost 20 years in its grave. But who gives it a second thought today? Even in its glory years that "evil empire" was sometimes referred to as "the second superpower." In 1991, after seven decades, it suddenly disintegrated and disappeared, leaving the United States -- the "sole superpower," even the "hyperpower," on planet Earth -- surprised but triumphant.
The USSR had been heading for the exits for quite a while, not that official Washington had a clue. At the moment it happened, Soviet "experts" like Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (then director of the CIA) still expected the Cold War to go on and on. In Washington, eyes were trained on the might of the Soviet military, which the Soviet leadership had never stopped feeding, even as its sclerotic bureaucracy was rotting, its economy (which had ceased to grow in the late 1970s) was tanking, budget deficits were soaring, indebtedness to other countries was growing, and social welfare payments were eating into what funds remained. Not even a vigorous, reformist leader like Mikhail Gorbachev could staunch the rot, especially when, in the late 1980s, the price of Russian oil fell drastically.
Looking back, the most distinctive feature of the last years of the Soviet Union may have been the way it continued to pour money into its military -- and its military adventure in Afghanistan -- when it was already going bankrupt and the society it had built was beginning to collapse around it. In the end, its aging leaders made a devastating miscalculation.
They mistook military power for power on this planet. Armed to the teeth and possessing a nuclear force capable of destroying the Earth many times over, the Soviets nonetheless remained the vastly poorer, weaker, and (except when it came to the arms race) far less technologically innovative of the two superpowers.
In December 1979, perhaps taking the bait of the Carter administration whose national security advisor was eager to see the Soviets bloodied by a "Vietnam" of their own, the Red Army invaded Afghanistan to support a weak communist government in Kabul. When resistance in the countryside, led by Islamic fundamentalist guerrillas and backed by the other superpower, only grew, the Soviets sent in more troops, launched major offensives, called in air power, and fought on brutally and futilely for a decade until, in 1989, long after they had been whipped, they withdrew in defeat.
Gorbachev had dubbed Afghanistan "the bleeding wound," and when the wounded Red Army finally limped home, it was to a country that would soon cease to exist. For the Soviet Union, Afghanistan had literally proven "the graveyard of empires." If, at the end, its military remained standing, the empire didn't. (And if you don't already find this description just a tad eerie, given the present moment in the U.S., you should.)
In Washington, the Bush administration -- G.H.W.'s, not G.W.'s -- declared victory and then left the much ballyhooed "peace dividend" in the nearest ditch. Caught off guard by the collapse of the Soviet Union, Washington's consensus policymakers drew no meaningful lessons from it (just as they had drawn few that mattered from their Vietnam defeat 16 years earlier).
Quite the opposite, successive American administrations would blindly head down the very path that had led the Soviets to ruin. They would serially agree that, in a world without significant enemies, the key to U.S. global power still was the care and feeding of the American military and the military-industrial complex that went with it. As the years passed, that military would be sent ever more regularly into the far reaches of the planet to fight frontier wars, establish military bases, and finally impose a global Pax Americana on the planet.
This urge, delusional in retrospect, seemed to reach its ultimate expression in the second Bush administration, whose infamous "unilateralism" rested on a belief that no country or even bloc of countries should ever again be allowed to come close to matching U.S. military power. (As its National Security Strategy of 2002 put the matter -- and it couldn't have been blunter on the subject -- the U.S. was to "build and maintain" its military power "beyond challenge.") Bush's military fundamentalists firmly believed that, in the face of the most technologically advanced, bulked-up, destructive force around, hostile states would be "shocked and awed" by a simple demonstration of its power and friendly ones would have little choice but to come to heel as well. After all, as the president said in front of a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in 2007, the U.S. military was "the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known."
In this way, far more than the Soviets, the top officials of the Bush administration mistook military power for power, a gargantuan misreading of the U.S. economic position in the world and of their moment.