America’s Kingdom of Heaven

On Oct. 18, President George W. Bush signed an executive order creating a new national policy which loudly proclaims that the U.S. will brook no restraint of any kind on its "rights, capabilities, and freedom of action" in space, and that it has the right to deny space "access" to any power deemed hostile to U.S. "national interests." The report did not elaborate on how the U.S would restrict this access, but Air Force officers have written position papers calling for an "active military posture" in space that may include "deception, disruption, denial, degradation, and destruction" by "hunter-killer microsatellites" and "spaced-based weapons platform[s]." Essentially, Bush has declared outer space an American colony with the stroke of a pen.

In the increasingly delusional world of the president and his advisers, America is not just a superpower but an imperial state without precedent in history. Walter C. Opello and Stephen J. Rosow define a traditional empire as essentially borderless:

“A traditional empire was, theoretically, expandable to encompass the entire globe because empires did not have fixed borders. Imperial borders were merely frontiers that marked the empire’s temporary outer limits where its army happens to have stopped and could be moved outward at will. In other words the boundaries of a traditional empire did not demarcate an area of exclusive territorial jurisdiction based on a shared national identity, but defined a flexible zone of military and economic contact between the empire and the peoples outside of it.” (9)

The "zone of contact" provides a useful framework for evaluating a traditional empire, and America during the early years of the Bush administration fit such a paradigm. Bush gave himself the right to use unilateral and preemptive force to "pursue" nations that "harbor or support terrorism." Bush also committed to using force to spread “liberty and prosperity," i.e., capitalist democracy. Although those steps seemed radical at the time, they weren’t.

The United States did not ask for the approval of anyone when it invaded Mexico to catch Pancho Villa, considered as much of a terrorist at the time as bin Laden and his cohorts are now. Subverting and directly overthrowing governments is a policy that dates back long before the Bush administration. The 700 bases the United States maintains in 130 countries were not all constructed after 2000. The real significance of Bush’s space policy eludes a traditional classification. A traditional empire’s reach is still limited by where its soldiers can march. Yet to the president and his advisers, the reach of the American empire is limitless. The 2001 invasion of Afghanistan was not originally called "Infinite Justice" for nothing. By declaring America will act without restraint in space and has the right to deny access to space, Bush claims custody of outer space itself. Thus, the United States claims custody of everything outside of the Earth.

This is a breathtaking act of delusion. In Bush’s increasingly fanciful world, it is not enough for the United States to have the most powerful military force in the world, control the world economy through the IMF, World Bank, and WTO, and maintain a hegemony that rivals that of Rome and Victorian England. The soldiers of the empire must march across heaven itself. When a White House staffer declared that "We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality," he was not boasting but expressing an official administration position. When one believes that they control reality itself, there is not a big conceptual leap to believing that one’s borders reach beyond the stars.

This fantasy is all the more dangerous because the United States’ hegemony is fast eroding. The debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with the many other ruinous blunders of the Bush administration, have exposed American weakness and reduced American influence across the world. Between the two wars and America’s various security commitments, the U.S. military is stretched to the breaking point. North Korea’s testing of nuclear arms is an ominous undermining of the most powerful of American deterrents and a foreboding of a future in which 30 new states may gain nuclear capabilities.

Lastly, China’s influence is rapidly growing all over the world. It sells military hardware, secures energy deals, and cements alliances with nations tired of American dominance. In Africa, China is the third-largest trading partner, investing heavily in infrastructure and engaging in the once exclusively American pastime of propping up brutal dictators for oil. In the Middle East, China cultivates Iran as a counterweight to U.S. hegemony through investment and missile sales. Even America’s own backyard has been won over by Chinese guile. Sao Paulo’s Chinese language classes are packed, a humiliating sight for a superpower whose hegemony over Latin America has stretched back to the Monroe Doctrine.

America feels a deep-seated anxiety about China, and Bush’s new space policy is almost explicitly aimed at the Chinese. What other power "hostile" to American "national interests" has the capability to go into space? NASA head Michael Griffin put this anxiety into words when he addressed a conference in Spain, asking, "Will my language be passed down over the generations to future lunar colonies? Or will another, bolder, or more persistent culture surpass our efforts and put their own stamp on the predominant lunar society of the far future?" On a less utopian level, a key element of U.S. military dominance is its array of satellites that allow it to organize military communications and survey the world’s battlefields with near omniscience. The Chinese space program makes the Pentagon fearful that its military satellites could one day be knocked out of commission.

But ostentatious muscle-flexing will do little to solve the problem, one that America bears responsibility for creating. Last October, the United States vetoed a resolution calling for the banning of weapons in space, rejecting the opportunity to turn space into a demilitarized zone and setting the stage for a dangerous arms race. China increasingly sees itself as the target of U.S. military policies, most notably U.S-Taiwanese missile-defense plans and war games by U.S. Space Command that simulate a future war with China involving space assets. Since October 2005, China has committed itself to developing technologies to blind America’s all-seeing eyes. And it has made remarkable progress in closing the gap. The Pentagon reported in early October that China had tested its anti-satellite laser and jammed a U.S. satellite. As China’s technological prowess grows, its capability to inflict harm on a complacent and arrogant America will also. Adolescent saber-rattling and increasingly fantastic declarations of control over space itself will neither stop China’s rise nor make America more secure.

Bush is completely ignorant of all of these risks, just as he is ignorant of the total collapse of the U.S. war effort in Iraq. It is easy to blame the space policy on the reviled neoconservatives, but they could not have gained influence if they did not play to beliefs and prejudices the president already had, chief among them the delusional fantasy of infinite U.S. reach. As Hampshire College Professor Michael T. Klare notes, falling empires do not take kindly to their fates:

“The decline of an empire can be a hard and painful thing for the affected imperial elites. Those who are used to commanding subservience and respect from their subjects and from lesser powers are often ill-prepared to deal with their indifference and contempt. Even harder is overcoming the long-inbred assumption that one’s vassals are inferior – mentally, morally, and otherwise. The first malady makes the declining elites extraordinarily sensitive to perceived slights or insults from their former subjects; the second often leads elites to overestimate their own capabilities and to underestimate those of their former subjects – an often fatal error. The two misjudgments often combine to produce an extreme readiness to strike back when a perceived insult coincides with a (possibly deceptive) military superiority.”

As the sun sets on the American empire in the bloody sands of Iraq, George W. Bush looks into the night sky and sees only a gap that U.S. power must fill. Yet if Bush’s dangerous and destructive obsessions are realized, that power will face a brutal reckoning in both heaven and on Earth.