The Rise and Fall of the American Empire

Imperial decadence: is it inevitable?

by , June 27, 2011

If we look at American foreign policy under Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, what strikes the non-partisan observer is a sense of continuity – and an escalating aggressiveness.

President Clinton moved with force into Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo, the latter two in support of a Muslim minority that was fighting for independence against Serbia. The result: a permanent US “mission” (under NATO auspices) in both Bosnia and Kosovo, and the establishment of a de facto protectorate in Haiti. He also moved against Iraq, bombing constantly during his two terms in office and maintaining draconian sanctions that killed as many as a half a million Iraqis, mostly children and the aged.

In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush launched two major wars – and a worldwide covert “shadow war” – that represented a Great Leap Forward for the American Empire. We invaded Iraq, and occupied it: we invaded Afghanistan, and set up the conditions for the longest war in our history. The Bush presidency also set the stage for future interventions, ratcheting up tensions with Iran, and extending our reach into the former Soviet republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus, taking on Russia in the bargain.

President Obama took office as the “antiwar” candidate, criticizing the Iraq invasion while advocating an escalation of the “neglected” Afghan front. Iraq, he argued, was a “diversion” away from our central task, which was fighting terrorism (and al-Qaeda) in Afghanistan – and in Pakistan, as well. This last was an important addition to our enemies list, one that went little noticed at the time but has since loomed large in this administration’s sights, as the stealthy but steady expansionism of the frontiers of empire pushes forward.

In Iraq, and now in Afghanistan, the US is announcing a “drawdown” – indeed, as far as the former is concerned, we are supposed to be withdrawing entirely. At least that’s what the US-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement, signed by President Bush, stipulates. However, the Americans are trying to get around that by claiming – as newly confirmed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in Senate hearings recently – there are still 1,000 al-Qaeda fighters in Iraq. The country “continues to be a fragile situation,” he averred, “and I believe that we should take whatever steps are necessary to make sure that we protect whatever progress we have made there.” Asked about the Iraqi government’s willingness to let the Americans stay, he testified:

“It’s clear to me that Iraq is considering the possibility of making a request for some kind of [troop] presence to remain there,” he said, adding that he had “every confidence that a request like that will be forthcoming.”

Ever since the Obama administration took office, US officials have been pressuring our Iraqi sock-puppets to cave in to US demands for an extended stay, in defiance of the “radical” Shi’ite leader, Muqtada Sadr, and his followers, who have joined the ruling coalition government. The fiercely nationalistic Sadrists are threatening to withdraw from the coalition, and even take up arms, if the deadline for the US withdrawal passes and the Americans are still there. This would serve the administration’s purposes rather neatly, providing a rationale for an extension of the deadline and marginalizing a troublesome figure who stands in the way of our long range plans.

And what, exactly, are those plans?

It’s clear that what the US envisions in Iraq is an “independent” state entirely dependent on US aid and military assistance: in short, an American protectorate, garrisoned with a “residual force” of several tens of thousands of “non-combat troops.”

The same holds true for Afghanistan, although the process is not as far along. That’s the purpose of announcing this fake “drawdown.” Look at the Afghan pattern: it’s virtually the same as in Iraq – a “surge,” followed by a “drawdown” to previous levels, with the end result being a garrison of US soldiers left behind to police its newly-integrated province. As Bob Woodward related in Obama’s Wars, then defense secretary Robert Gates – at a dinner for Afghan “President” Hamid Karzai – expressed his regret for going along with George H. W. Bush’s decision to “abandon” Afghanistan, and went on to declare:

“We’re not leaving Afghanistan prematurely,” Gates finally said. “In fact, we’re not ever leaving at all.”

Make no mistake: both Iraq and Afghanistan are provinces in an American empire that has rapidly expanded, since the fall of the Soviet Union, to include much of the Middle East – and, now, parts of North Africa, where the Libyan intervention is the tip of the American spear.

In Libya, to be sure, we are going in with our NATO allies, but this is just a stylistic difference with the previous administration: Bush and the neocons preferred to go it alone, while the present gang flies the flag of “multilateralism.” The result, however, is the same: a conquered province in an ever-expanding global empire, totally dependent on Western aid and support to keep afloat.

Back in the cold war era, the US constructed what the late Chalmers Johnson called “an empire of bases,” a series of lily-pads that allowed Washington to project American military power to the four corners of the earth at a moment’s notice. With the implosion of communism, and the end of the US-Soviet global confrontation, the Americans moved rapidly to put flesh on the bare bones of their empire.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, we are making the transition to a more traditional form of imperialism, following the Roman model: setting up protectorates which are allowed to run their own affairs internally – as long as they don’t conflict with US objectives, and permit a contingent of US troops to stand guard over the frontiers of empire.

Those frontiers are being pushed ever onward, and this is clearly the goal of the Obama administration in Pakistan – the next American target – as well as Libya. Yet this is also, for Washington’s empire-builders, an era of consolidation, when the military conquests of the previous administration are to be formalized and “legalized.”

At home, too, the empire is being institutionalized, and given a formal structure, as the President defends his supremacy in the foreign policy and military realm – so far successfully. Although the Founders abhorred imperialism, and are no doubt turning in their graves over the ongoing usurpation of Congress’s authority to make war, the White House has blithely gone about its business, ignoring its congressional critics – and this has been the case since the days of Harry Truman, who sent US troops to Korea without consulting the elected representatives of the people.

A few years ago there was a discussion among foreign policy wonks about whether America should ditch its anti-imperialist heritage entirely and become an empire. I had to laugh at this “debate,” for America has been an empire in fact if not in form since the end of World War II, and is now reaching the pinnacle of its power. Which is to say: it’s downhill all the way from this point.

The American empire may be expanding, but the economic foundations on which it rests are in fatal disrepair. As we contemplate our imminent bankruptcy – moral as well as financial – even as the present administration consolidates the “gains” of empire, I am reminded of one of Robinson Jeffers’s best poems:

While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire,
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the mass hardens,

I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots to make earth.
Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances, ripeness and decadence; and home to the mother.

You making haste haste on decay: not blameworthy; life is good, be it stubbornly long or suddenly
A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than mountains: shine, perishing republic. 

That Jeffers was a pessimist may be a considerable understatement. A major poet during the 1920s, when World War II came ‘round he dissented from the left-liberal enthusiasm for the Great Anti-Fascist Crusade – and went very quickly out of fashion. His vision of empire-building as a natural process of “splendor” and inevitable decay is alluring, because it explains a lot – including our own seeming powerlessness as the process unfolds.

Yet I don’t buy it – not the pessimism, but the “naturalism” of this Spenglerian concept of the American nation-state as a living breathing organism, ruled by the same youth-maturity-senility progression that defines the lives of individuals. States have no separate existence from the human beings that spawned them, and these individuals have free will. The pattern of imperial consolidation – “humanitarian” wars of “liberation,” followed by occupation and the installation of American garrisons in the newly-integrated provinces – is not the inevitable the result of some natural law in the evolution of great nation-states.

We are not mere peaches ripening on a tree, and falling to the ground to rot and “make earth”: we have, at least, the power to determine the circumstances of our ripening. “Shine, perishing republic,” mourned the dark prophet of American decline – but our republic won’t perish as long as there are those willing to fight for it.

Read more by Justin Raimondo