Problems of Empire

"We’re within an inch of war almost every day," said Leon Panetta at a recent congressional hearing: he was talking about war with North Korea, but then went on to speak about other regions where the threat of conflict keeps him up at night, naming Iran, Syria, and indeed the entire Middle East as the source of his insomnia.

Which raises the question: what are we gaining from all this? What benefits do we derive from our troop presence in South Korea, and our interference in its internal affairs? What are we getting out of provoking Iran beyond the limits of human endurance? Why are we even thinking about intervening in Syria, when we can see the horrendous results of our support for the Libyan rebels – and the Iraqi exile groups who tricked us into supporting a disastrous invasion and occupation?

Even if we weren’t bankrupt, it is hard to see how a cost-benefit analysis can justify this level of US intervention abroad. We spend more on the military than all other nations on earth combined, and the only thing it’s gotten us has been some pretty consequential blowback and a mountain of unsustainable debt. So what’s the upside?

Well, there isn’t any – unless you’re a military contractor, or a politician on the take from the military-industrial complex. If you’re an "analyst" who works for one of the pro-militarist Washington thinktanks, you have a lot [.pdf] to gain from this "forward stance" foreign policy: however, if you’re an ordinary American – not so much.

Let’s look at the North Korean example, which provoked Panetta’s revealing comment in the first place. Here is a country that is still technically at war with the US and its South Korean neighbor, after more than sixty years, and can hardly feed its own people. The food aid we regularly ship to them has been cut off, in part due to the recent missile launch. Sure, the launch was a failure, but that doesn’t matter: the point being that only the US and its allies have the right to needlessly provoke the rest of the world by saber-rattling as loudly as possible. We still have to punish them – even though they have no capacity to attack the US mainland, and are unlikely to acquire the technology to do so. Sure, they can always attack South Korea, where we – still! – have some 20,000 troops stationed. Yet what is the real purpose of our troop presence there? These soldiers are for all intents and purposes being held hostage by the North Koreans, whose periodic antics cause Panetta so much heartburn. So why keep them there?

We have more troops in Western Europe, including nuclear weapons – to what purpose? Are we expecting Joe Stalin to rise from the grave and lead the Red Army in a ghostly attack on the Free World?

The US presence in these regions was originally justified on the grounds of "defense": we had to defend South Korea against the North and the Chinese, who were supposedly intent on extending the Communist empire into the entire peninsula. Likewise in Europe, the threat of an ever-expanding Soviet empire, which has already swallowed up Eastern Europe, cast its dark shadow over the Western half of the continent. Never mind that in both cases, we practically handed our enemies the means and the motivation to expand their fiefdoms: history buffs might recall that during the Second World War we were allied with the Communists, not only in the European theater but also in the Far East, where our diplomats were friendly to Mao and hostile to the Kuomintang. After getting rid of Japanese imperialism by means of a few well-placed nukes, we found ourselves confronted by another even more threatening menace from our former "allies," the Chinese and the Russians. In Europe, no sooner had FDR handed over the Eastern half of the continent to Stalin at Yalta then his successor, a Kansas City haberdasher, launched an all-out effort to stop the threat we ourselves had unleashed.

Another fact to remember: all these supposedly "defensive" actions inevitably took on an offensive character. NATO, which still exists in spite of the non-existence of the Soviet enemy it was designed to fight, is not only fighting in Afghanistan, it is now trying to expand into Georgia, and the Caucasus region, with "partnerships" for the ex-Soviet "republics" deemed sufficiently anti-Russian. The US troop presence in South Korea is viewed not just as a check on the North but also on China, which looks askance at the presence of so many American troops so close to their homeland.

This is what it means to be an empire, as opposed to a republic: when the latter is forced to go to war in order to defend itself, it withdraws after the battle is over and the peace is won. Not so with the former, which is always pushing the frontiers of empire outward.

Like all government programs, imperialism never lets go: it never retreats, not even to retrench. Ending the vast outlay of funds and other resources we dispatch to our overseas clients is just as impossible – unthinkable! – as ending, say, Social Security or the Export-Import Bank. Too many jobs, livelihoods, and careers are at stake, and the constituency for keeping the gravy train flowing is far louder and more militant than those few who point out that not only does the emperor have no clothes but his empire has no money.

A day hardly passes without the threat of war casting its dark shadow over Washington, D.C. But look at it this way: for the Beltway boys, war is not a threat but an opportunity – a means to expand the empire, line their pockets and the pockets of their friends, and bask in the momentary elation of a very short-lived "victory."

Doesn’t that make it all worth it?

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, 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].