Presenting the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States on Friday at the Johns Hopkins University, Secretary of Defense James Mattis painted a picture of a dangerous world in which U.S. power – and all of the supposed “good” that it does around the world – is on the decline.
“Our competitive edge has eroded in every domain of warfare – air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace,” he said. “And it is continually eroding.”
What he could have said instead is that the United States military is overextended in every domain, and that much of the chaos seen around the world is the direct result of past and current military adventurism. Further, he could have acknowledged, perhaps, that the erosion of US influence has been the result of a series of self-inflicted blows to American credibility through foreign policy disasters such as 2003 invasion of Iraq.
There were also two important words hidden between the lines, but never mentioned by name, in the new US National Defense Strategy: “empire” and “imperialism.”
It has long been taboo for US officials and corporate media to speak of US foreign policy as “imperialism,” or of the US’s global military occupations and network of hundreds of military bases as an “empire.” These words are on a long-standing blacklist of “banned topics” that US official statements and mainstream US media reports must never mention.
The streams of Orwellian euphemisms with which US officials and media instead discuss US foreign policy do more to obscure the reality of the US role in the world than to describe or explain it, “hiding imperial interests behind ever more elaborate fig leaves,” as British historian A.J.P. Taylor described European imperialists doing the same a century ago.
As topics like empire, imperialism, and even war and peace, are censored and excised from political debate, US officials, subservient media and the rest of the US political class conjure up an illusion of peace for domestic consumption by simply not mentioning our country’s 291,000 occupation troops in 183 other countries or the 39,000 bombs and missiles dropped on our neighbors in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan since Trump took office.
The 100,000 bombs and missiles dropped on these and other countries by Obama and the 70,000 dropped on them by Bush II have likewise been swept down a kind of real time “memory hole,” leaving America’s collective conscience untroubled by what the public was never told in the first place.
But in reality, it’s been a long time since US leaders of either party resisted the temptation to threaten anyone anywhere, or to follow through on their threats with “fire and fury” bombing campaigns, coups and invasions. This is how empires maintain a “credible threat” to undergird their power and discourage other countries from challenging them.
But far from establishing the “Pax Americana” promised by policymakers and military strategists in the 1990s, from Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney to Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton, the results have been consistently catastrophic, producing what the new National Defense Strategy calls, “increased global disorder, characterized by decline in the long-standing, rules-based international order.”
Of course the drafters of this US strategy document dare not admit that US policy is almost single-handedly responsible for this global chaos, after successive US administrations have worked to marginalize the institutions and rules of international law and to establish illegal US threats and uses of force that international law defines as crimes of aggression as the ultimate arbiter of international affairs.
Nor do they dare acknowledge that the CIA’s politicized intelligence and covert operations, which generate a steady stream of political pretexts for US military intervention, are designed to create and exacerbate international crises, not to solve them. For US officials to admit such hard truths would shake the very foundations of US imperialism.
Opposition to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran – the so-called nuclear deal – from Republicans and Democratic hawks alike seems to stem from the fear that it might validate the use of diplomacy over sanctions, coups and war, and set a dangerous precedent for resolving other crises – from Afghanistan and Korea to future crises in Africa and Latin America. Iran’s success at bringing the US to the negotiating table, instead of falling victim to the endless violence and chaos of U.S.-backed regime change, may already be encouraging North Korea and other targets of US aggression to try to pull off the same trick.
But how will the US justify its global military occupation, illegal threats and uses of force, and trillion-dollar war budget once serious diplomacy is seen to be more effective at resolving international crises than the endless violence and chaos of US sanctions, coups, wars and occupations?
From Bhurtpoor to Baghdad
Major Danny Sjursen, who has fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and taught history at West Point, is a rare voice of sanity from within the US military. In a poignant article in Truthdig, Major Sjursen eloquently described the horrors he has witnessed and the sadness he expects to live with for the rest of his life. “The truth is,” he wrote, “I fought for next to nothing, for a country that, in recent conflicts, has made the world a deadlier, more chaotic place.”
Danny Sjursen’s life as a soldier of the US Empire reminds me of another soldier of Empire, my great-great-great grandfather, Samuel Goddard. Samuel was born in Norfolk in England in 1793, and joined the 14th Regiment of Foot as a teenager. He was a Sergeant at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. During 14 years in India, his battalion led the assault on the fortress of Bhurtpoor in 1826, which ended the last resistance of the Maratha dynasty to British rule. He spent 3 years in the Caribbean, 6 years in Canada, and retired as Commandant of Dublin Castle in 1853 after a lifetime of service to Empire.
Danny’s and Samuel’s lives have much in common. They would probably have a lot to talk about if they could ever meet. But there are critical differences. At Bhurtpoor, the two British regiments who led the attack were followed through the breech in the walls by 15 regiments of Indian “Native Infantry.” After Bhurtpoor, Britain ruled India (including Pakistan and Bangladesh) for 120 years, with only a thousand British officials in the Indian Civil Service and a few thousand British officers in command of up to 2.5 million Indian troops.
The British brutally put down the Indian Mutiny in 1857-8 with massacres in Delhi, Allahabad, Kanpur and Lucknow. Then, as up to 30 million Indians died in famines in 1876-9 and 1896-1902, the British government of India explicitly prohibited relief efforts or actions that might reduce exports from India to the U.K. or interfere with the operation of the “free market.”
As Mike Davis wrote in his 2001 book, Late Victorian Holocausts, “What seemed from a metropolitan perspective the nineteenth century’s final blaze of imperial glory was, from an Asian or African viewpoint, only the hideous light of a giant funeral pyre.”
And yet Britain kept control of India by commanding such loyalty and subservience from millions of Indians that, in every crisis, Indian troops obeyed orders from British officers to massacre their own people.
Danny Sjursen and US troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and other post-Cold War US war zones are having a very different experience. In Afghanistan, as the Taliban and its allies have taken control of more of the country than at any time since the US invasion, the U.S.-backed Afghan National Army has 25,000 fewer troops under its command than it did five years ago, while ten years of training by US special operations forces has produced only 21,000 trained Afghan Commandos, the elite troops who do 70-80% of the killing and dying for the corrupt U.S.-backed Afghan government.
But the US has not completely failed to win the loyalty of its imperial subjects. The first US soldier killed in action in Afghanistan in 2018 was Sergeant 1st Class Mihail Golin, originally from Latvia. Mihail arrived in the US in November 2004, enlisted in the US Army three months later and has now given his life for the US Empire and for whatever his service to it meant to him. At least 127 other Eastern Europeans have died in occupied Afghanistan, along with 455 British troops, 158 Canadians and 396 soldiers from 17 other countries. But 2,402 – or 68%, over two-thirds – of the occupation troops who have died in Afghanistan since 2001, were Americans.
When Ben Griffin, who later founded the UK branch of Veterans for Peace, told his superiors in the UK’s elite SAS (Special Air Service) that he could no longer take part in murderous house raids in Baghdad with US special operations forces, he was surprised to find that his entire chain of command understood and accepted his decision. The only officer who tried to change his mind was the chaplain.
The Future of Empire
The US Joint Chiefs of Staff have explicitly told Congress that war with North Korea would require a ground invasion, and the same would likely be true of a US war on Iran. South Korea wants to avoid war at all costs, but may be unavoidably drawn into a U.S.-led Second Korean War.
But besides South Korea, the level of support the US could expect from its allies in a Second Korean War or other wars of aggression in the future would probably be more like Iraq than Afghanistan, with significant international opposition, even from traditional US allies. US troops would therefore make up nearly all of the invasion and occupation forces – and take nearly all of the casualties.
Compared to past empires, the cost in blood and treasure of policing the US Empire and the blame for its catastrophic failures fall disproportionately – and rightly – on Americans. Even Donald Trump recognizes this problem, but his demands for allied countries to spend more on their militaries and buy more US weapons will not change their people’s unwillingness to die in America’s wars.
This reality has created political pressure on US leaders to wage war in ways that cost fewer American lives but inevitably kill many more people in countries being punished for resistance to US imperialism, using air strikes and locally recruited death squads instead of US“boots on the ground” wherever possible.
The US conducts a sophisticated propaganda campaign to pretend that US air-launched weapons are so accurate that they can be used safely without killing large numbers of civilians. Actual miss rates and blast radii are on the “banned topics” blacklist, along with realistic estimates of civilian deaths.
When former Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari told Patrick Cockburn of the UK’s Independent newspaper that he had seen Iraqi Kurdish intelligence reports which estimated that the US and Iraqi-led destruction of Mosul had killed 40,000 civilians, the only remotely realistic estimate so far from an official source, no other mainstream Western media followed up on the story.
But America’s wars are killing millions of innocent people: people defending themselves, their families, their communities and countries against US imperialism and aggression; and many more who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time under the onslaught of over 210,000 American bombs and missiles dropped on at least 7 countries since 2001.
According to a growing body of research (for example, see the UN Development Program study, Journey to Extremism in Africa: Drivers, Incentives and the Tipping-Point for Recruitment), most people who join armed resistance or “terrorist” groups do so mainly to protect themselves and their families from the dangers of wars that others have inflicted on them. The UNDP survey found that the final “tipping point” that pushes over 70% of them to take the fateful step of joining an armed group is the killing or detention of a close friend or family member by foreign or local security forces.
So the reliance on airstrikes and locally recruited death squads, the very strategies that make US imperialism palatable to the American public, are in fact the main “drivers” spreading armed resistance and terrorism to country after country, placing the US Empire on a collision course with itself.
The US effort to delegate war in the Middle East to Saudi Arabia is turning it into a target of global condemnation as it tries to mimic the US model of warfare by bombing and starving millions of innocent people in Yemen while blaming the victims for their plight. The slaughter by poorly trained and undisciplined Saudi and Emirati pilots is even more indiscriminate than US bombing campaigns, and the Saudis lack the full protection of the Western propaganda system to minimize international outrage at tens of thousands of civilian casualties and an ever-worsening humanitarian crisis.
The need to win the loyalty of imperial subjects by some combination of fear and respect is a basic requirement of Empire. But it appears to be unattainable in the 21st century, certainly by the kind of murderous policies the US has embraced since the end of the Cold War. As Richard Barnet already observed 45 years ago, at the end of the American War in Vietnam, “At the very moment the number one nation has perfected the science of killing, it has become an impractical instrument of political domination.”
Obama’s sugarcoated charm offensive won US imperialism a reprieve from global public opinion and provided political cover for allied leaders to actively rejoin U.S.-led alliances. But it was dishonest. Under cover of Obama’s iconic image, the US spread the violence and chaos of its wars and regime changes and the armed resistance and terrorism they provoke farther and wider, affecting tens of millions more people from Syria and Libya to Nigeria and Ukraine.
Now Trump has taken the mask off and the world is once again confronting the unvarnished, brutal reality of US imperialism and aggression.
China’s approach to the world based on trade and infrastructure development has been more successful than US imperialism. The US share of the global economy has declined from 40% to 22% since the 1960s, while China is expected to overtake the US as the world’s largest economy in the next decade or two – by some measures, it already has.
While China has become the manufacturing and trading hub of the global economy, the US economy has been financialized and hollowed out, hardly a solid basis for future growth. The neoliberal model of politics and economics that the US adopted a generation ago has created even greater wealth for people who already owned disproportionate shares of everything, but it has left working people in the US and across the US Empire worse off than before.
Like the “next to nothing” that Danny Sjursen came to realize he was fighting for in Iraq and Afghanistan, the prospects for the US economy seem ephemeral and highly vulnerable to the changing tides of economic history.
The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers
In his 1987 book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000, historian Paul Kennedy examined the relationship between economic and military power in the histories of the Western empires who colonized the world in the past 500 years. He described how rising powers enjoy significant competitive advantages over established ones, and how every once-dominant power sooner or later has to adjust to the tides of economic history and find a new place in a world it can no longer dominate.
Kennedy explained that military power is only a secondary form of power that wealthy nations develop to protect and support their expanding economic interests. An economically dominant power can quickly convert some of its resources into military power, as the US did during the Second World War or as China is doing today. But once formerly dominant powers have lost ground to new, rising powers, using military power more aggressively has never been a successful way to restore their economic dominance. On the contrary, it has typically been a way to squander the critical years and scarce resources they could otherwise have used to manage a peaceful transition to a prosperous future.
As the UK found in the 1950s, using military force to try to hold on to its empire proved counterproductive, as Kennedy described, and peaceful transitions to independence proved to be a more profitable basis for future relations with its former colonies. The drawdown of its global military commitments was an essential part of its transition to a viable post-imperial future.
The transition from hegemony to coexistence has never been easy for any great power, and there is nothing exceptional about the temptation to use military force to try to preserve and prolong the old order. This has often led to catastrophic wars and it has always failed.
It is difficult for any political or military leader to preside over a diminution of his or her country’s power in the world. Military leaders are rewarded for military strategies that win wars and expand their country’s power, not for dismantling it. Mid-level staff officers who tell their superiors that their weapons and armies cannot solve their country’s problems do not win promotion to decision-making positions.
As Gabriel Kolko noted in Century of War in 1994, this marginalization of critical voices leads to an “inherent, even unavoidable institutional myopia,” under which, “options and decisions that are intrinsically dangerous and irrational become not merely plausible but the only form of reasoning about war and diplomacy that is possible in official circles.”
After two world wars and the independence of India, the Suez crisis of 1956 was the final nail in the coffin of the British Empire, and the Eisenhower administration burnished its own anti-colonial credentials by refusing to support the British-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt. British Prime Minister Anthony Eden was forced to resign, and he was replaced by Harold Macmillan, who had been a close aide to Eisenhower during the Second World War.
Macmillan dismantled the remains of the British Empire behind the backs of his Conservative Party’s supporters, winning reelection in 1959 on the slogan, “You’ve never had it so good,” while the US supported a relatively peaceful transition that preserved Western international business interests and military power.
As the US faces a similar transition from empire to a post-imperial future, its leaders have been seduced by the chimera of the post-Cold War “power dividend” to try to use military force to preserve and expand the US Empire, even as the relative economic position of the US declines.
In 1987, Paul Kennedy ended The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers with a prescient analysis of the US position in the world. He concluded,
“In all of the discussions about the erosion of American leadership, it needs to be repeated again and again that the decline referred to is relative not absolute, and is therefore perfectly natural; and that the only serious threat to the real interests of the United States can come from a failure to adjust sensibly to the newer world order.”
But after Kennedy wrote that in 1987, instead of accepting the future of peace and disarmament that the whole world hoped for at the end of the Cold War, a generation of American leaders made a fateful bid for “superpower.” Their delusions were exactly the kind of failure to adjust to a changing world that Kennedy warned against.
The results have been catastrophic for millions of victims of US wars, but they have also been corrosive and debilitating for American society, as the perverted priorities of militarism and Empire squander our country’s resources and leave working Americans poorer, sicker, less educated and more isolated from the rest of the world.
When I began writing Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq in 2008, I hoped that the catastrophes in Afghanistan and Iraq might bring US leaders to their senses, as the Suez crisis did to British leaders in 1956.
Instead, eight more years of carefully disguised savagery under Obama have squandered more precious time and good will and spread the violence and chaos of US war-making even farther and wider. The new National Defense Strategy’s implicit threats against Russia and China reveal that 20 years of disastrous imperial wars have done nothing to disabuse US leaders of their delusions of “superpower status” or to restore any kind of sanity to US foreign policy.
Trump is not even pretending to respect diplomacy or international law, as he escalates Bush’s and Obama’s wars and threatens new ones of his own. But maybe Trump’s nakedly aggressive policies will force the world to finally confront the dangers of US imperialism. A coming together of the international community to stop further US aggression may be the only way to prevent an even greater catastrophe than the ones that have already befallen the people of Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Honduras, Libya, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen.
Or will it actually take a new and even more catastrophic war in Korea, Iran or somewhere else to finally force the United States to “adjust sensibly to the new world order,” as Paul Kennedy put it in 1987? The world has already paid a terrible price for our leaders’ failure to take his sound advice a generation ago. But what will be the final cost if they keep ignoring it even now?
Nicolas J. S. Davies is the author of Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq. He also wrote the chapters on “Obama at War” in Grading the 44th President: a Report Card on Barack Obama’s First Term as a Progressive Leader. Reprinted with the author’s permission from Consortium News.