Empire or Solvency?

You know something is up when Republicans start taking the lead in questioning our decade-long war in Afghanistan, and, indeed, something is up: a propitious confluence of circumstances and events, the most dramatic of which is the assassination of Osama bin Laden by US Special Forces. In hearings held the other day, Senator Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) said he thinks the Afghan occupation is no longer justified: 

"With al Qaeda largely displaced from the country, but franchised in other locations, Afghanistan does not carry a strategic value that justifies 100,000 American troops and a $100 billion per year cost, especially given current fiscal restraints." 

Now that the iconic leader of the jihadists has been put out of commission – and, perhaps just as significantly, a huge treasure trove of material confiscated from his hideaway has been seized — the pressure to fundamentally change our conception of this allegedly "generational" conflict is well nigh irresistible. Sen. Lugar is the senior Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, and has long been the GOP’s point man on overseas matters: for him to make a near-unequivocal case for rapid withdrawal is a sign of the sea change that has occurred in conservative thinking on foreign policy, a shift that has already happened at the grassroots level and is now percolating up through the ranks of the GOP congressional caucus. The death of bin Laden has triggered a turning point on the right. Here‘s Larry Kudlow – formerly a reliable neocon, who nonetheless knows something about economics (unlike most of his comrades) – on why we need to get out: 

"With the killing of Osama, is the Afghan mission complete? The original post-9/11 goal was to kill bin Laden and wipe out al-Qaeda. Now that we’ve killed bin Laden and dismantled so much of al-Qaeda., do we really need to trudge through an even longer war in Afghanistan? … 

"I am no military or foreign-policy expert. But I do know the cost of supporting a corrupt regime like Hamid Karzai’s in terms of blood and treasure. The cost is steep. I speak here as a hawk, not a dove. … 

"Thus far, nearly 1,600 U.S. troops have been killed in action in Afghanistan. To me, this is the most tragic part. Of course, I wholeheartedly support our troops. But is this blood really necessary? Are the projected future costs really necessary? 

"Again, I ask myself: All this to support Karzai? Isn’t this the sort of nation-building that the late William F. Buckley Jr. opposed? Are American national-security interests really tied up in Afghanistan? Is now not the time to contemplate a much more rapid troop withdrawal from Afghanistan?" [Hat tip: Lewis McCrary

To answer Kudlow’s last question: not if your military goal is only peripherally and incidentally concerned with fighting "terrorism," and is actually focused on subduing and colonizing [.pdf] the Middle East.  

It was, you’ll recall, Team Bush that sunk us deep in the Middle Eastern mire, and Afghanistan wasn’t their first target: Iraq bore the brunt of America’s post-9/11 fury because the neoconservative agenda is focused not on defense but on conquest as the proper goal of US foreign policy: what Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan characterized as "benevolent global hegemony" in their famous foreign policy manifesto. If our own territory should be attacked in the course of this protracted war of conquest, well then, Rome, too, was besieged many times in the early years of the Empire, and them’s the breaks on the road to glory.  

Kudlow is an economist with some understanding of the fiscal crisis we face: he sees the choice between empire and solvency and the necessity of making it sooner rather than later. As this sense of urgency gains traction and spreads, from the libertarian and "paleoconservative" precincts in which it has previously flourished, the GOP establishment will be forced to deal with the rising insurgency in their own ranks. A recent CNN poll shows that of the declared Republican candidates for President, Ron Paul – an anti-interventionist of a sort who often makes me look moderate – unveils the new political reality: 

"Who does best against Obama? Paul. The congressman from Texas, who also ran as a libertarian candidate for president in 1988 and who is well liked by many in the tea party movement, trails the president by only seven points (52 to 45 percent) in a hypothetical general election showdown. Huckabee trails by eight points, with Romney down 11 points to Obama."  

Paul appeals to both hardcore Tea Party types and independents who viscerally distrust the GOP, and this is in large part due to his emphasis – even when he’s talking about economic matters – on the foreign policy factor, what he calls "the Empire" with a quintessentially American hint of disdain for all things imperial. He has spent the last decade or so telling Americans we’re a bankrupt empire, and now that the reality of this has dawned Paul is getting a Strange New Respect. The neocons and professional Paul-haters (or do I repeat myself?) will no doubt focus on the Strangeness aspect of this, but they are living in the past.  

It was easy to ignore Paul’s jeremiads against the Empire in the heyday of the financial bubble, and the concomitant bubble of American supremacy. Now that the bubble has burst – as Paul said it would – Americans are coming face to face with something they’ve so far assiduously evaded: reality. The economic and social reality of a bloated, over-extended colossus, an empire rotting at its metropolitan core and besieged on every far-flung frontier.  

The capture and summary execution of bin Laden has ushered in a new awareness when it comes to foreign policy matters, one that will almost certainly doom the very policy the terrorist leader’s executioner insists on maintaining, virtually unchanged. With bin Laden’s death, the rationale for the occupation of Afghanistan, and even the escalating war in Pakistan, has been pulled out from under this administration. Obama’s wars have always been wildly unpopular: now they will exact a political cost that may become unsustainable.

In spite of this, every suggestion that the Afghan conflict is yesterday’s war, no longer relevant to the goal of destroying al-Qaeda and its allies, is met by the administration with the alleged threat of a takeover by the Taliban and/or bin Laden’s forces. Yet the latter is in decline, if not outright defeated, and the former don’t have the reach to pose an effective threat to US territory – as the complete failure of the Times Square bomber to inflict any damage underscores. However, the war drags on, mired in the neo-neocon counterinsurgency strategy championed by newly-appointed CIA chief Gen. David Petraeus – a nation-building campaign that, after ten years, we are being told is today "fragile and reversible."  

Is this really supposed to be an argument in favor of staying? Anywhere else but in the Bizarro World we seem to inhabit, such a statement would indicate that – after ten years of failure – the strategy isn’t working because it cannot work.  

One would think the Obama administration, which prides itself on its alleged "pragmatism," would learn the lesson of their great success, instead of just capitalizing on it politically. And that lesson is this: targeted, al-Qaeda-specific military action – essentially highly militarized police work – is the only efficient method of going after those who want to see more 9/11’s. Invading an entire region, and transforming its political culture – precisely the theoretical basis of the administration’s current counterinsurgency strategy – is the road to failure, and national bankruptcy. 

As we approach the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the foreign policy legacy of that singularly significant event will be up for review. In retrospect, I don’t think there can be any doubt that Americans overreacted – and, in the process, fell into bin Laden’s trap. The founder of al-Qaeda openly declared his strategy of luring us as deeply into the Middle East as possible, and gloated over America’s impending bankruptcy.  

As we hurtle into bankruptcy, that cackling you hear is Osama laughing at us from beyond the grave. Just as the Vietnam war drained American resources and led to an economic downturn, so America’s post-9/11 rampage through the Middle East similarly depleted our reserves, and on a much grander scale. 

9/11 radically distorted our foreign policy, and handed it over to a cabal of neoconservative ideologues whose policies, however much they damaged America, are being faithfully carried out today under a Democratic administration. The war of conquest started in Iraq has been extended to Pakistan and taken on new forms in Libya: the "multilateralist" NATO operation is John McCain’s "concert of democracies" in action. No wonder the old warmonger is over there cheering them on and posing for the cameras.  

The debate over Afghanistan – and our continued presence in Iraq, for that matter – is really about a larger issue: what kind of country are we? Are we a republic, where the power of government is constrained by a written Constitution, which fights only in self-defense — and only against those who initiate coercion? Or are we an empire, the guarantor of peace and order in the world, the final arbiter and global hegemon whose "responsibility" and "destiny" is to establish a New Rome?  

One reason Paul is doing so well so early in the polls is due to his well-known views in favor of restoring our old republic, and dismantling an expensive and otherwise troublesome overseas domain. When will the other GOP hopefuls understand that the war question hits at the soft underbelly of the Obama administration – and how long before they decide to go for it?

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].