Today, the U.S. looks less like a functioning and effective empire than an imperial basket case, unable to bring its massive power to bear effectively from Germany to Syria, Iraq to Afghanistan, Libya to the South China Sea, the Crimea to Africa.
If you survey our planet, the situation is remarkably unsettled and confusing. But at least two things stand out, and whatever you make of them, they could be the real news of the first decades of this century. Both are right before our eyes, yet largely unseen.
Over the years, mad Ahab in Herman Melville's most famous novel, Moby-Dick, has been used as an exemplar of unhinged American power, most recently of George W. Bush's disastrous invasion of Iraq. But what's really frightening isn't our Ahabs.
Will the U.S. still be meddling in Afghanistan 30 years from now? If history is any guide, the answer is yes. And if history is any guide, three decades from now most Americans will have only the haziest idea why.
"Chal" was Chalmers Johnson, who died in November 2010. I've regularly wished that I could just pick up the phone and get his mordant take on the vast global surveillance state Washington is building, another instance of what he called "military Keynesianism" run amok.
If the United States were to change its global behavior, it might discover that the calls for early retirement fade. Then, as a more cooperative international player, America could truly enjoy its imperial twilight in the sure knowledge that the deluge is not imminent.
Certainly Edward Snowden's crime is one of public relations. What he did by outing the NSA and its gargantuan surveillance operation was mess hugely with the American image -- the American brand -- with its irresistible combination of might and right.
We were an outsider civilization that was going to calm and shape the Arab Middle East. Today our enterprise is in ruin. The Ottoman metaphor is relevant because we tried, however unconsciously, to be like them.
Beyond the spectacle of the presidential race, the Washington consensus pursues business as usual. This is the season in which I wonder, with an ever-intensifying sense of urgency, what it would take to turn our political system into a democracy.
There's no guarantee that drones are a replacement for industrial-scale warfare. Meanwhile, we've endorsed a new expansion of presidential power, green-lighting unilateral and unaccountable authority over who should live and who should die.
The war is over, sort of, but the Big Lie marches on: that democracy is flowering in Iraq, that America is stronger and more secure than ever, that doing what's right is the prime motivator of all our military action.
Is there a democracy at either end of the missiles, warships or troop deployments? Suddenly I'm back on the sidewalk with the Occupy movement, which has arisen to confront the corporatocracy and its subservient media.
I can't remember a time when the U.S. military has been stuck in so many war quagmires at once. Some political leaders must recognize that an empire enforced by war is counterproductive to economic and national security.