Empire at the End of Its Rope

It is difficult to avoid the perception, as the U.S. (and world) economy continues to melt down, that our political leaders are suffering something resembling a mass delusion or even a group psychosis. One may hope that the insertion of 17,000 more U.S. troops into Afghanistan, for example, is what some Obama aides have told various reporters it is – a holding action done with the hope that the country can be modestly stabilized while the grand strategists come up with a plan that just might match objectives with resources. As various sofa samurai come up with elaborate plans for "victory," however, it’s hard to resist the notion that the plan is to stay there in large numbers for years, perhaps decades, whether the mission is doable or the U.S. has the resources to sustain it or not.

Keep doing what you’ve been doing and hope for different results.

Around my office I’m snickered at as the eternal optimist, able to see in every dire development some evidence that the mega-state is beginning to wither away. So if I descry signs that the U.S. empire is possibly in the first throes of what I think has to be an inevitable pulling back from our stance of having military installations worldwide and the idea that we need to use military force to incessantly "stabilize" the outcome of various intramural feuds, take it with whatever rations of salt you deem appropriate. But I do think it’s possible we’re close to something of a tipping point.

One of the reasons, independent of recent developments regarding Afghanistan, is that I’ve just finished reading Andrew Bacevich’s recent book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, which places our current status in historical perspective. The fact that it was written and published before last fall’s financial meltdown, which raises questions about just how much empire-maintenance the U.S. can afford, makes Bacevich’s argument that our empire is approaching its final stages all the more compelling.

The Boston University professor of history and international relations, as most Antiwar.com readers are likely to know, watches the progress of empire from a detached yet involved perspective. Before repairing to the groves of academe, he had a full 20-year stint in the U.S. Army, serving in Vietnam and retiring as a colonel. He thinks of himself (at least I think he still does) as a traditional conservative. Although he opposed the Iraq war as a strategic blunder, his son followed his footsteps into the Army and was killed in Iraq. This experience no doubt has something to do with the sense of urgency that sometimes surfaces in this short book, yet at the same time he has a capacity, rare enough in academia or anywhere else, to step back and offer an informed perspective on the broad sweep of history that has led to our own time on this beleaguered planet.

While the book has much to say about foreign policy, Bacevich begins with something of a cultural comment and makes a case for its implications for foreign policy, rather a pioneering approach. "If one were to choose a single word to characterize that [American] identity, it would have to be more. For the majority of contemporary Americans, the essence of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness centers on a relentless personal quest to acquire, to consume, to indulge, and to shed whatever constraints might interfere with these endeavors." Those "intent on curbing the American penchant for consumption and self-indulgence are fighting a rearguard action. … The point is neither to deplore nor to celebrate this fact, but simply to acknowledge it."

While any number of people have used a similar insight (which I think is roughly accurate but may not have quite the explanatory power Bacevich attributes to it) to discuss American culture, Bacevich argues that it has implications for foreign policy. From the beginning of our history, the penchant for "more" fed continental expansion and a sense of Manifest Destiny. Continental expansion enlarged the U.S. market and opened access to various resources, contributing to growing prosperity. Prosperity bred freedom, but also ambition, and we turned our eyes to the rest of the world both as a larger market and a source of resources – and as a place to establish ourselves geopolitically in a way that our abundance seemed to make inevitable, to befit our status as a Great Power. Our view of Manifest Destiny (as noted early on by some) was not confined to the continent.

Sometime after World War II, however, the U.S. transitioned from an "empire of production" into an "empire of consumption." Awareness of this at some level contributed to the conviction that we needed to have troops all over to ensure access to resources, that a little "whiff of the grape" from time to time was needed to ensure that important resource-bearing regimes remained friendly.

I wish Bacevich had addressed the argument, made by economists such as David Henderson (and to which I generally subscribe), that having military forces in the Persian Gulf, for example, is not necessary to ensure access to petroleum. The mostly single-resource regimes there need to sell their oil at least as urgently as we need to buy it, and if anything keeping military forces there, far from ensuring access to "cheap" oil, as some argue, makes the oil more expensive, if we factor in not only the direct cost of keeping all those forces deployed in physically and politically challenging places, but also the fact that the resentment our meddling induces is more likely to destabilize than to stabilize the flow of oil. To me, this makes the argument that core U.S. interests demand a reduction in our military deployment abroad even more compelling.

But that is a minor quibble. This is a very learned and wise book. It averages a quotable paragraph or remarkable insight remarkably stated every two pages or so, an extremely rich content quotient. So I think I’ll just close with a few more direct quotations:

“Beginning with the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, the occupant of the White House has become a combination of demigod, father figure, and, inevitably, the betrayer of inflated hopes. Pope, pop star, scold, scapegoat, crisis manager, commander in chief, agenda setter, moral philosopher, interpreter of the nation’s charisma, object of veneration, and the butt of jokes – regardless of personal attributes and qualifications, the president is perforce all these rolled into one.”

Just in case you thought it started with The One.

Remarking on the all-but-forgotten Persian Gulf "tanker war" late in the Reagan administration:

"The president’s real achievement in the Persian Gulf was to make a down payment on an enterprise destined to consume tens of thousands of lives, many American, many others, along with hundreds of billions of dollars – to date at least, the ultimate expression of American profligacy."

Just in case you thought it started with Dubya.

"The ineptitude of the federal government is especially acute when it comes to national security – the very issue that, since 1940, has provided the chief rationale for finishing off the Old Republic. The national security state that evolved during World War II and through the long decades of the Cold War endangers the nation it was created to protect. It undermines rather than enhances security. To substantiate that judgment, one need only recall the events of the present decade, including the failure to anticipate and avert 9/11; the failure to bring to justice its chief architects; the failure to devise a realistic and strategically coherent response to the threat posed by Islamic extremism; and above all the egregious failures associated with the Iraq and Afghan wars.

"Any one of these four failures ought to raise serious questions about the competence of those charged with responsibility for the nation’s security. That all four should have occurred in half the span of a single decade surely constitutes something of a definitive judgment."

Regarding the size of the armed forces:

"America doesn’t need a bigger army. It needs a smaller – that is, more modest – foreign policy, one that assigns soldiers missions that are consistent with their capabilities. Modesty implies that we give up on illusions of grandeur to which the end of the Cold War and then 9/11 gave rise. It also means reining in the imperial presidents who expect the army to make good on those illusions. When it comes to supporting the troops, here lies the essence of a citizen’s obligation."

Andrew Bacevich hardly exudes optimism: "Thus does the tragedy of our age move inexorably toward its conclusion. ‘To the end of history,’ our prophet [theologian Reinhold Niebuhr] wrote, ‘social orders will probably destroy themselves in the effort to prove that they are indestructible.’" I don’t know if our future has to be quite so grim. If more policymakers read this book, it might even help to alleviate some of the suffering that seems likely as we move beyond empire.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).