The State of the Empire

Not so good

by , January 29, 2010

Well, I see the President read and took to heart my suggestion, made Wednesday, that he minimize mentions of the two wars we are currently fighting: either that, or else we’re just on the same wave-length. There was very little foreign policy talk in this SOTU, and that was the usual disingenuous happy-talk.  

The President claimed "all" of our troops are coming home from Iraq – this in spite of repeated statements by military commanders and other US officials that at least 50,000 will be staying indefinitely, and will furthermore be engaged in combat operations alongside the Iraqis.  

Oh, but there was never any chance of a Republican yelling out "You lie!" – not this time. Although I had some hope that Dennis Kucinich might be up for it – but, alas, no…. 

The President’s brief Afghanistan spiel was but a rehash of his escalation speech, complete with a reiteration of his pledge to "begin" withdrawing by next summer – a promise universally derided as less than sincere.  

Focusing on the economy, the President blamed his predecessor for "not paying for wars" – after having declared his vaunted spending "freeze" would exclude military appropriations. Given that our war-spending is now totaling $1 trillion and rising since 2001, this huge exception reduces all talk of a "freeze" to mere rhetorical posturing.  

The President has no time for foreign policy: he’s too busy campaigning, in spite of his protest last night that he doesn’t want to engage in a "permanent campaign." That’s one reason why he’s ceded the foreign policy realm to his secretary of state. You’ll note Hillary wasn’t there last night: that’s because she was in London, cajoling our allies to help with the burden of occupying and policing Afghanistan and environs.  

Barack Obama shows every sign he’ll share the fate of another US chief executive with an ambitious domestic agenda who was effectively undermined by foreign policy disasters: Lyndon Baines Johnson, a one-term president whose "Great Society" was fatally subverted by the Vietnam war.  

The very lack of attention paid to foreign policy in the president’s peroration, at a time when we’re fighting two wars (and threatening a third), was itself a significant comment on the state of the American hegemon. In the Imperial metropolis, they’re too consumed with their own internal problems to care much about the far frontiers of the empire. This turning inward presages a radical contraction, similar in scope and origins to the one currently squeezing the life out of the US economy.

The American sphere of influence – the structure of which is comprised an "empire of bases," in Chalmers Johnson’s phrase – has reached the outer limits of its possible expansion. We now preside over a network of 737 known US bases that rings the globe, each a possible launching pad for the projection of American military power anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice. The sustainability of this project, however, has always been challenged by anti-interventionists on the right as well as the left, and today we are seeing the direst of their predictions fulfilled on a daily basis.  

Economically ruinous, culturally poisonous, socially disruptive, and subversive of the Constitution, the very idea of imperialism is antithetical to our traditions and alien [.pdf] to the American character. That is why our more recent wars of conquest (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan) have been so wrenching, domestically, and the cause of such bitter controversy: they required the sort of self-violation that is usually restricted to mental patients who maim themselves habitually.  

It wasn’t so long ago that the post-cold war triumphalism of certain neocons led them to proclaim "the end of history" and hail the advent of "the unipolar moment." How wrong they were! Today, of course, multi-polarity is everywhere apparent, and the would-be world policeman finds himself on the brink of bankruptcy. The American "hyperpower," which once aspired to global hegemony – "benevolent global hegemony," was the soaring phrase neocons William Kristol and Robert Kagan used – shows every indication of going into irreversible decline.  

The state of the empire, in short, isn’t so good – and no wonder Obama didn’t want to talk about foreign policy the other night!  

At least he can make some pretense at being able to do something about the domestic economic crisis: when it comes to our declining influence abroad, however, objective factors conspire to take the fate of the empire out of the President’s hands, and Obama is smart enough to know it. 

Garet Garrett, the Old Right author and skeptical chronicler of the rise of empire, once remarked that the American Imperium is unlike any other in history in that "everything goes out and nothing comes in." While it’s true that a certain class of "entrepreneurs," i.e. the arms industry, profit from war, the country and the economy suffer a net loss. The American system of empire cannot sustain itself.  

The diversion of so much wealth to maintain the mightiest military machine in the history of the world has been a tremendous drain that has depleted our savings and thrown us into an abyss of debt. We have mortgaged the future of our nation in order to "save" the world from itself – but there’s no payoff, except the emotional rewards of extreme nationalism and militarism.  

Yet even these decadent joys wane in the face of looming bankruptcy. Not even the expert warmongering of Fox News chatterboxes can drown out the protests of the American people as they hear tidings of bridge-building and school construction – in Afghanistan – while their own bridges are decaying, and nearly as unsafe as their schools.  

It isn’t just economics, however, that has defeated the idea of an American empire. Imperialism has been intellectually and morally defeated by the events of the past eight years, and in the end its own cultural exhaustion will bury it, as it buried all our predecessors in imperial folly.  

Everyone is always so quick to attribute the national distemper to pure economics, and there is no doubt that’s the primary cause, but other factors enter into it. Surely our barbaric foreign policy, which has lately been reduced to a war for revenge instead of a noble crusade to impose democracy at gunpoint, is a contributing factor to the general air of anomie and disaffection that pervades the American scene like a poisonous fog. The specter of Abu Ghraib haunts our nightmares, as the hint of a sadistic streak shows up in the national character – or, at least, in the Republicans’ rush to identify themselves as the party of torture.  

If there was a low point to Wednesday night’s events, then it wasn’t to be found in the President’s address, but in the Republican response, which combined a fulsome embrace of torture alongside a supposed belief in the virtues of "limited government." Limited government and a regime of unlimited torture would seem to be antipodal concepts, but not in the Bizarro World of Fox News and the Republican leadership.  

The state of the empire is bad, and getting worse. All around the world, the American position is simply untenable, and the economic basis of it all is eroding with such rapidity that the structure is bound to come crashing down in one fell swoop, rather than falling to the ground piecemeal, like Rome. Americans have good cause to be concerned, and even panicked, that when the hegemon goes down it’s going to take all of us with it.

Read more by Justin Raimondo