Empire of Dread

If you stepped back and viewed the situation without preconceptions, you would think that the United States would be the least fearful nation in the history of the world. The U.S. spends more on military power than the rest of the world combined. Geopolitically speaking, the U.S. has no major rival, as it did during the days of the Cold War. China is still a rising power, but since it is the major purchaser of U.S. government debt, its economic fate is so intertwined with that of the United States that there is no reason but utter stupidity (which one shouldn’t count out) for the U.S. and China to engage in military conflict.

Even with a financial crisis, and perhaps even with the overwrought, excessive, and often misdirected response to it, the U.S. economy is hardly a basket case yet. People are feeling insecure and less inclined to spend lavishly than a couple of years ago, but that’s probably not a bad impulse. Historically speaking, and in comparison with most of the rest of the world, most people in the U.S. are still doing reasonably well economically. Economists may be predicting an "L-shaped" recovery – bottoming out and staying at a low level of economic growth for some time before there’s a substantial pickup – but the bottom of a U.S. "L" is a more prosperous place than the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants have ever experienced.

And yet this is a nation of many fears, some encouraged by politicians, who have known since the dawn of time that a fearful population demanding protection is an important key to increasing governmental and political power, at home and abroad. Just now we are justifiably fearful about our economic future, especially since the chief remedy for our credit binge seems to be more credit and more consolidation of power. But judging by the actions of our politicians in recent weeks, we also seem to be fearful about detainees from the Guantanamo Bay prison even setting foot on U.S. soil – even when some detainees were designated by the Bush administration as no threat to the U.S. and the rest are slated to be stored in maximum-security prisons until their ultimate destinations are determined.

Many of us seem to be dreadfully fearful that a failed nation halfway around the world, with virtually no natural resources, has tested rudimentary nuclear weapons and fired off a few missiles. The notion that a North Korean nuke might be able to hit somewhere in Alaska next week or next year is patently absurd. Like a petulant child, North Korea does provocative things when it wants to garner the attention of the world, or – more likely in this instance – to secure the support of the military for a succession plan that is still being improvised. Its recent tests haven’t altered its strategic position, which is still that of a pip-squeak. While it does have lots of conventional missiles and artillery aimed at the South Korean capital of Seoul, North Korea is impoverished and isolated. It can barely threaten its neighbors, let alone the United States.

Yet Barack Obama overreacts and calls it "a great threat to the peace and security of the world." Hillary huffs and puffs about "consequences" and trots off to get the UN to pass a tougher tut-tut resolution than the last one that North Korea ignored and the world forgot. It’s all fuss and feathers and overreaction to what is essentially a non-event.

In a recent piece for Consortium News titled "Scaredy-Cat Nation Risks U.S. Security," Robert Parry cites the New York Times‘ highlighting of a Pentagon study suggesting that up to one in seven of the 534 detainees already released from Guantanamo had "returned" to militant activities. You had to read deep into the story to understand how broad that definition was. As Parry put it, "only a handful of the supposed recidivists had actually done more than talk tough or associate with undesirables." Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann, who have some long-standing credentials as students of terrorism, also debunked the one-in-seven hypothesis. No doubt some former Gitmo residents have undertaken terrorist activities, but not enough to put us in as much of a fright as we are supposed to be in – or as our betters at the Times and the Pentagon seem to want us to be in.

We are fearful of Mexican gardeners taking our jobs, of having our jobs shipped overseas, of exporting too much, of exporting too little, of importing too much, of importing too little, of China buying up the government’s debt, of China deciding to stop buying the government’s debt, of globalization continuing, of globalization coming to a screeching halt, of an end to affluence, of the return of mindless consumerist sensitivity-destroying affluence. Some of us worry that the president is a socialist, and some of us worry that he isn’t. We are worried about the continuation of stateless terrorism, and worried that if it ends nothing will be left to conjure up a sense of American unity. We worry about Middle East war and Middle East lack of war.

One is reminded of H.L. Mencken’s injunction: "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." The fact that not all the hobgoblins are entirely imaginary does not deprive the statement of its essential truth.

You might think that if the American populace were really as fearful of pip-squeak powers like North Korea or al-Qaeda that it would begin to demand, a bit more forcefully than has been the case so far, at least the beginnings of disengagement from some of the imperial overextensions that make us a particular target of enraged pip-squeaks. Why do we still have troops in South Korea more than 50 years after the non-armistice? What purpose do our troops in Europe serve? Why do we cling to NATO when its ostensible purpose disappeared with the death of the Soviet Union? What makes us think we have any special competence at determining the best mode of governance for Muslim countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, et al.? All of these commitments create resentments of various kinds and insert us into squabbles that are none of our business and that we lack the knowledge and/or cultural sensitivity to solve. Why do we persist?

Years ago the political scientist James Kurth did something of a morphology of empires based on the age of people who were generally admired or who defined the cultures of the Roman, British, French, Austro-Hungarian, and other empires. He dubbed the American the "adolescent empire" – and this was before American Idol, Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, and Hannah Montana came along to reinforce his impression of what defines American culture. I’m not sure we actually worship youth in this country, but most of us spend considerable energy during the course of our lifetimes trying to deny that it will ever fade and evolve into anything resembling wisdom.

Adolescents are simultaneously adventurous and fearful – eager to test their growing independence but still expecting that if anything goes wrong Mommy and Daddy will be there to make sure nothing really terrible happens, or to pay for any damage done in the process of limits-testing. Americans still seem to be ready to embrace the notion – absurd to anyone with much reflectiveness and experience but attractive perhaps to the still-forming adolescent mind – that the cure for blowback from imperial overstretch is more imperial overstretch, just as the cure for too much loose money is more loose money.

Thus our fearfulness, at least at this stage of the decline of the American Empire, leads all too many Americans to be suckers for the idea that we can get this imperial intervention thing right if we just respect our allies, embrace multilateralism, and put the right people in charge rather than those dreadful neocons. I wouldn’t lay any bets as to whether we will outgrow this cast of mind any time soon.

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Author: Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).