It amounts to a matter of taste; how you prefer the emperor to behave. Such is political life in the late-stage American Empire. Both major parties offer nothing but the same – hyper-military interventionism and the quest for global hegemony – in the charade of choice each election cycle. The question, as 2020 approaches, is whether we can expect more of the same from the Democratic and Republican candidates for president. Of course, the use of this label, emperor, will undoubtedly make many a reader squirm and/or dismiss this piece.
Only let me explain myself. Ever since Congress abdicated its constitutional responsibility for declaring and providing oversight of wars, the U.S. president has had near dictatorial, limitless power over foreign affairs. Since the last time the US Congress declared war, during World War II, somewhere north of 100,000 American troops have died in foreign wars. Hundreds of thousands more have been injured, and, though it barely registers on Americans’ radar, several million foreigners have died during the unending cycle of US military intervention.
This should be a big story, the elephant in the room, the ultimate national scandal, but of course it is not. Precious few Americans bear the burden of waging Uncle Sam’s forever wars, and, as a result, the populace has quit caring what’s done in its name overseas. Consider this paradox: presidential elections are won based on domestic, "kitchen table" issues – not foreign policy – yet it is precisely in world affairs that the executive possesses the most influence. Congress can and does block presidents’ agendas at home, but hardly raise a peep about the minor matters of war and peace.
So let us consider the outcome of this apathy and presidential unilateralism here at the twilight of American Empire. Neither "liberal" Democratic or "conservative" Republican presidents take any real action to dismantle the imperial superstructure. Indeed, quite often, supposed "liberal" executives felt even more pressure to flex military muscle and avoid looking soft on whatever ism the US is supposedly threatened by – communism, Islamism, take your pick. Democrats started, or waged, the Korean War, Vietnam, the clandestine CIA war in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Syria, and Libya. These mostly ill-advised conflicts certainly account for the majority of American and foreign casualties inflicted by the US war machine. The Republicans are responsible for plenty of doozies too – Cambodia, Laos, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq – but you sort of expect it from them.
The point is that mainstream figures and the leadership of both parties perpetually prop up the American Imperium. Take the "transformative," "liberal," and supposedly "socialist" Barack Obama. For all the fear-mongering of the Republicans, how did Obama actually run the empire? Like a polite, cultivated emperor, that’s how. Sure he got the US military out of Iraq, but he also sent it right back some three years later. He also doubled down in Afghanistan, toppled Ghadafi and thereby shattered Libya, exponentially increased drone strikes, sent troops into Syria, and loaded Africa up with US military "advisers."
More telling is what he – and all other past supposed liberal executives didn’t do, or undo. Obama and his Democratic predecessors didn’t meaningfully trim the out-of-control US"Defense" – I prefer war – budget. Obama didn’t shrink America’s world record empire of bases, which now clocks in at some 800 military installations in 80 countries. He didn’t stop the worldwide bombing campaign; in fact, on any given day Obama’s military and CIA were bombing some seven countries. He didn’t (though he sort of tried) close the Guantanamo purgatory-like, extralegal detention center. He didn’t question the snake oil doctrine of American exceptionalism; he didn’t even repudiate America’s first-strike doctrine regarding the use of world-ending nuclear weapons.
Look, Obama spoke eloquently, was certainly preferable to George W. Bush or Donald Trump, and scored a few limited successes – one thinks of expanded healthcare and the hard-fought Iran nuclear deal, for starters. Nevertheless, Obama – just like Clinton, Carter, LBJ, and Truman before him – served as little more than a polite emperor. And, while Bush II was a buffoonish emperor, and Trump is a rather coarse – if not unhinged – emperor, the foreign policy differentiations were more about manners than substance. As a personal anecdote, consider this too: three of my soldiers were killed and one committed suicide under Bush II; three more were killed and two more took their own lives under Obama – now there’s a balanced scorecard!
As the 2020 presidential election approaches and candidate after candidate throws his or her hat in the ring, its important to keep bipartisan imperialism in mind and accept an inconvenient truth about the last hundred years: you’ve had no real choices. You have owners; a corporate, political, and media elite charged with maintaining the military-industrial behemoth. And your owners have only allowed you the illusion of choice, of democracy. For at least a century, Americans have only been exposed to candidates falling within the narrow bounds of a very imperial political spectrum.
So it is, has been, and will remain, until Americans take to the streets, demand a third-party, or hijack the Democratic primary – as George McGovern sort of managed to do in 1972 – and insist on a more radical, insurgent, nominee from the left (or libertarian right). Only that’s quite difficult to do, seeing as the Democratic Party machine responded to McGovern’s unorthodox candidacy by altering the primary rules in a less democratic direction. That’s how we got the now ubiquitous, if nefarious, "super delegates," and how Democrats ended up with the uninspiring, hawkish Hillary Clinton instead of the genuine enthusiasm and energy of a Bernie Sanders. And more’s the pity.
So it is that America turned from Bush-the-ridiculous, to Obama-the-disappointer, to Trump-the-who knows what! In fact, Trump’s embrace of the empire, his imperial honesty – if not vaguely fascist – would be somewhat refreshing. Alas, its almost presidential primary time. What will it be America? More of the same or an insistence on someone transformative. God let it be the later…but I won’t be holding my breath.
Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer and regular contributor to antiwar.com. His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.
[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]
Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen