Editor’s note: Antiwar.com Assistant Editor Scott Horton wrote the following essay for the Oxford Forum, whose editors asked him to contribute a piece on the Anglo-American role in international conflict. Unfortunately, the Forum‘s editors rewrote the essay without Horton’s permission, distorting its thesis beyond all recognition. It appears here in its full, original version.
Most Americans can’t believe that their government maintains an overseas empire of as many as 1,000 military bases. U.S. interventions are always portrayed to us as defensive in nature, and for one simple reason: Americans don’t want empire. Our country was founded in revolution from the clutches of empire, and our culture celebrates those who oppose it, from George Washington to Luke Skywalker.
We don’t want empire, but we have one. Since the end of the second World War, the people of the United States and of the world have had to deal with the terrible consequences of our country’s involvement. It turns out it’s nearly impossible to turn a limited constitutional republic into a globe-spanning, war-making leviathan and then go back again.
The Battle of Britain was won. The Germans had no ability to mount a successful land invasion of England or even an unsuccessful one. If they had, certainly the English would have stashed the queen away somewhere and fought an insurgency as ruthlessly as the French, Russians, and Serbs, among others. The British empire may have been lost without U.S. help, but in the end, it was anyway.
However, the USSR was preserved by American intervention. The U.S.-UK invasion of Europe simply popped the lid off the jar wherein the two most despicable regimes in the world were stuck fighting each other. Had America not helped, the Soviets would likely have met defeat, with the vastly overextended Nazi empire on course for the same fate soon after. Instead, Stalin enslaved half of Europe, helped Communists seize power in China, killed millions more, and ultimately provided the pretext for America’s dominion over the Old World’s empires for the next half-century.
(The Holocaust was never a reason for American intervention. Indeed, Roosevelt delayed doing anything about the death camps for as long as he could.)
The consequences of American intervention for the Eastern Europeans were summed up by former President Herbert Hoover in terms that also foreshadowed the coming propaganda model for the new enemy:
"In June 1941, when Britain was safe from German invasion due to Hitler’s diversion to attack Stalin, I urged that the gargantuan jest of all history would be our giving aid to the Soviet government. I urged that we should allow those two dictators to exhaust each other. I stated that the result of our assistance would be to spread Communism over the whole world. The consequences have proved that I was right."
For a short time after World War II, as after every previous war, the U.S. began to demilitarize, but the inheritance of so many foreign empires demanded a permanent state of military readiness and deployment and an excuse. The only way to gain consent to secure this world empire would be to "scare the hell out of the American people" that is, lie as Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenberg advised President Harry Truman. Suddenly, the Soviet Union, despite having just lost 20 million people fighting the Germans and with blind devotion to a system that had been proved not to work a generation before, was going to take over "the whole world" if we didn’t stop it. Millions of Americans trusted this new crusade to be "containment," not world empire.
The "Cold War," however, was merely a ruse, as former CIA adviser, ardent Cold Warrior, and self-described "spear carrier for empire" Chalmers Johnson now realizes and admits. Today’s neoconservative doctrine of "benevolent global hegemony" is merely the newest stage in an empire made permanent long ago. The role the national government took in the society and economy could not be more than partially scaled back after World War II; there was just too much money in it. Companies who prospered during the war wanted their newfound access to the U.S. Treasury preserved. America has since employed Pearl Harbor-style attacks against populations in dozens of countries as a matter of course, often, it seems, just so it can keep buying more bombs.
And all along the American people have internalized these policies, believing even that they had come up with them. As Randolph Bourne wrote back in 1918:
"War is the health of the state. [In wartime,] the State thus becomes an instrument by which the power of the whole herd is wielded for the benefit of a class. The rulers soon learn to capitalize the reverence which the State produces in the majority, and turn it into a general resistance toward a lessening of their privileges."
The American people are a captive market of 300 million for many of the world’s wealthiest corporations particularly when it comes to raiding the Pentagon vault, what military strategist William S. Lind calls "the largest honey pot in the world." Lobbyists representing the munitions industries have multi-million dollar budgets to spend on niceties for congressmen, military officials, and anyone else crucial for access to hundreds of billions of dollars. For those in the right position, it’s the best investment in the world.
Former USAID attorney and international law professor Richard Cummings, in his explosive article for Playboy magazine in March, "Lockheed Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," documented the decisive role played by the military industries in setting the policy of the United States. Indeed, as Cummings shows, many of the biggest players in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq were closely connected to Lockheed, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman. Neoconservative ringleader Richard Perle’s firm Trireme Partners famously cashed in on the Terror War for over $20 million. In 2002, Lockheed executives actually set up an "advisory board" to come up with excuses for invading Iraq. (They mostly settled on crimes committed by Saddam back when he was working for the U.S., since there were no weapons of mass destruction.)
But American Cold War policy created the best enemy the War Party could have ever hoped for in the modern Sunni jihadist movement.
As Professor John Mueller points out in his book Overblown, after the defeat in Vietnam, "containment" lost favor, and the U.S. even turned to encouraging the Russians. Near the end of the 1970s the United States began a massive covert operation to lure the Soviet Union into invading Afghanistan in order to give them their own "Vietnam War." So ceasing to contain the USSR broke their economy, while the training and weapons given to the mujahedeen by the U.S. provided the experience needed for some to coalesce into what is now known as al-Qaeda whose enemy is no longer Russia.
President Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski admitted as much with a shrug to the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur in 1998:
"What is most important to the history of the world the Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?"
The Cold War did end, and it was the perfect opportunity for President George H.W. Bush to show the world what it means to abdicate power for the sake of liberty by abolishing NATO, but he didn’t. In fact, when informed of the USSR’s imminent collapse, Brent Scowcroft and James Baker attempted to intervene and find a way to save the evil empire to no avail.
Anyone who believed they would get their "peace dividend" by that point was a fool. The American empire was here to stay. The first chance George Bush Sr. had, he invaded Panama, killing thousands. Soon thereafter, with a determined Prime Minister Thatcher as a backbone, he sent the U.S. Army to the Middle East to stay for good.
Osama bin Laden issued his "Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places" in 1996. And even though the Clinton administration backed the Muslim Kosovo Liberation Army during the bombing of Serbia in 1999 and paid the Taliban millions of dollars, bin Laden remained hostile.
In his book Dying to Win, Robert A. Pape shows that suicide terrorism has only one cause: foreign occupation. So the invasion of Iraq has certainly compounded a serious problem. In 2005, the Royal Institute of International Affairs wrote:
"There is no doubt that the situation over Iraq has imposed particular difficulties for the UK, and for the wider coalition against terrorism. It gave a boost to the al-Qaeda network’s propaganda, recruitment, and fundraising, caused a major split in the coalition, provided an ideal targeting and training area for al-Qaeda-linked terrorists. Riding pillion with a powerful ally has proved costly in terms of British and U.S. military lives, Iraqi lives, military expenditure, and the damage caused to the counter-terrorism campaign."
That’s the kind of thing that keeps BAE Systems on the American dole for the long haul a perfect setup for all war parties involved. Osama seems a farsighted hero to radicalized millions, and those who lurk around the U.S. government till have an enemy vague enough to last, according to Vice President Cheney, "decades."
The Terror War has already spread to Africa, and a new military command, AFRICOM, has been set up there. The recent U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in the name of catching three al-Qaeda "commanders" is only the beginning, as bin Laden predicted in an audio tape in the summer of 2006. Many liberals who oppose the invasion and occupation of Iraq are pushing hard for an invasion of Sudan next on bin Laden’s wish list.
In his newest book, Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, Chalmers Johnson explains that following World War II the English were left with a choice between becoming the subjects of their own empire or abandoning it, and they chose the latter.
So while the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia suffer, the Bill of Rights burns, the U.S. government condones and uses torture, local police become more dependent on the national government, the president’s lawyers argue for a "unitary executive" with "plenary powers," the national debt tops $9 trillion, and important provisions of the Posse Comitatus Act of 1876 and the Insurrection Act of 1807 are scrapped, very serious questions emerge: Are these the last days of the American republic? Can we never turn back? Must we implode like the USSR or be carpet-bombed like the British?
Peace preserves liberty. America’s founders knew this. They advised the likes of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, and indeed the American people, to stay out of political entanglements with the Old World and to be friends with everyone, allies with none.
America would be much better served if we gave up "global hegemony" and fought only in defense of our own liberty our true legacy as a country born in revolution and secession from empire.