The Empire’s Dilemma

The dilemma the U.S. has had for a half-century is that the priorities it must impose on its budget and its plans have never guided its actual behavior and action. It has always believed, as well it should, that Europe and its control would determine the future of world power. But it has fought in Korea, Vietnam, and now Iraq – the so-called "Third World" in general – where the stakes of power were much smaller. Its priorities were specific, focused on specific nations, but they also set the United States the task of guiding or controlling the entire world – which is a very big place and has proven time and again to be far beyond American resources and power. In most of those places in the Third World where it massively employed its power directly, it has lost, and its military might has been ineffective. Local proxies have been corrupt and venal in most nations where the U.S. has relied upon them. The cost, both in financial terms and the eventual alienation of the American public, has been monumental.

The Pentagon developed strategic air power and nuclear weapons with the USSR as its primary target, and it equipped itself to fight a land war in Eastern Europe. Arms-makers much preferred this expensive approach, and they still are very powerful. The Soviet enemy no longer exists. The U.S. dilemma, and it is a fundamental contradiction, is that its expensive military power is largely useless as an instrument of foreign policy. It lost the war in Vietnam, and while it managed to overthrow popular regimes in Brazil, Chile, and elsewhere in Latin America, its military power is useless in dealing with the effects of larger social and political problems – and Latin America, the Middle East, and East Asia are more independent of American control than ever.

Strategically, also, the U.S. is far worse off in the oil-rich Middle East because it made every mistake possible. It supported Islamic fundamentalism against Communism but also against secular nationalism, Iraq against Iran in the 1980s, and it is not simply losing the war in Iraq militarily but also alienating most of its former friends in the region. And Iran is emerging as the decisive power in the area.

The basic problem the world today confronts is American ambition, an ambition based on the illusion that its great military power allows the U.S. to define political and social trends everywhere it chooses to do so. When the USSR existed, it was somewhat more inhibited because Soviet military power neutralized American military might and there was a partial equilibrium – a deterring balance of terror– in Europe. Moreover, the USSR always advised its friends and nations in its orbit to move carefully so as not to provoke the U.S., an inhibition that no longer exists.

On the other hand, just as the Warsaw Pact has disappeared, NATO is well along in the process of breaking up and going the way of SEATO, CENTO, etc. The 1999 war against Serbia made its demise much more likely, but the U.S.-led alliance disagreed profoundly over the Iraq war and now is likely to dissolve in fact, if not formally. The Bush administration produced a crisis with its alliance and has created profound instability in Iraq, which was always an artificial state, as the British created it after World War One resulted in the end of the Ottoman Empire. Eight nations have nuclear weapons already, but the UN says another 30 or so have the skill and resources to become nuclear powers. The world is escaping the U.S., but it is also escaping the forms of control that existed when the USSR existed and states were too poor to build nuclear weapons. The world is more dangerous, in large part because the U.S. refuses to recognize the limits of its power and retains the ambitions it had 50 years ago, but the spread of all kinds of weapons also has its own momentum – one the U.S.’ arms exports aids immeasurably.

Iraq was not at the top of the Bush administration’s agenda when it came to power in 2001. It was committed, however, to a "forward-leaning" foreign policy, to use Rumsfeld’s words, and greater military activism. Had Sept. 11 not occurred, it is more likely that it would have confronted China, which has nuclear weapons but which this administration deems a peer competitor in the vast East Asia region. It still may do so, although Iraq has been a total disaster for it – militarily and geopolitically – and has greatly alienated the U.S. public (faster than Vietnam did). The U.S. military is falling apart, its weapons have been ineffective, politically Iraq is likely to break up into regional fiefdoms (as Afghanistan has), civil war – no one knows. From the Iraqi viewpoint, the war has been a disaster, but it has also repeated the failures the Americans confronted in Korea, Vietnam, and elsewhere.

That the Iraq resistance is divided will not save the U.S. from defeat. Few believe Iraq will be spared great trauma. In fact, official American experts predicted this before the war began, and they were ignored – just as they were ignored when they predicted disaster in Vietnam in the 1960s. We live in a tragic world, and war is considered more virtuous than peace – and since arms-makers profit from wars and not peace, conventional wisdom is reinforced by their lobbies preaching the cult of weaponry. The U.S. may explore how to end its predicament in Iraq but only Iran can help it, and Iran has gained the most geopolitically from Saddam Hussein’s defeat and has no incentive to save the Bush administration from the defeat now staring at it – both in Iraq and in future elections in the U.S.

The world is escaping American control, and Soviet caution no longer inhibits many movements and nations. World opposition is becoming decentralized to a much greater extent, and the U.S. is less able than ever to control it – although it may go financially bankrupt and break up its alliances in the process of seeking hegemony. This is cause for a certain optimism, based on a realistic assessment of the balance of power in the world. I think we must avoid the pessimism-optimism trap but be realistic, and although the Americans are very destructive, they are also losing wars and wrecking themselves economically and politically. But for a century, the world has fought wars, and while the U.S. has been the leading power – by far – in making wars since 1946, it has no monopoly on folly.

But it is crucial to remember that the U.S. is only a reflection of the militarism and irrationality that has blinded many leaders of mankind for over a century. The task is not only to prevent the U.S. from inflicting more damage on the hapless world – Iraq at this moment – but to root out the historic, global illusions that led to its aggression.

This is a revised version of a Dec. 16 interview with L’Unita on Gabriel Kolko’s Century of War, soon to be released in an extended translation.

Author: Gabriel Kolko

Gabriel Kolko, a historian, is the author of The Age of War: The United States Confronts the World and The Anatomy of War.