The Empire at Bay
Iraq – high tide of the American Imperium?
Sunday's headlines on Antiwar.com pretty much summed up the looming defeat of America's imperial ambitions, detailing in descending order the series of setbacks that have stunned the architects of our would-be "benevolent global hegemony" and stopped them in their tracks:
* "A Deadly Week: 16 GIs Killed in Iraq" – Casualties are up, there is no decline (or even a lull) in the insurgency, and it turns out that the death of Zarqawi was just a blip on the screen.
* "PM's Plan Calls For U.S. Pullout Timetable" – Our Iraqi allies are inviting us to leave, proving Richard Armitage's week-old prediction right.
* "Security Chiefs Anxious Over Iraq Amnesty" – Deprived of their "kill at will" rules of engagement, and faced with the prospect of a general amnesty for the insurgents, the occupation authorities are worried that their military position will be further weakened. This signifies a growing rift between the Shi'ite government and the American occupiers, one that can only widen, and must end either in withdrawal or America taking on the sleeping giant of militant Shi'ism – which their invasion so foolishly awakened.
* "Key Insurgents Vow to Reject Iraq Peace Plan" – Lest we be fooled into believing that peace is about to break out.
* "U.S. General Outlines Possible Iraq Troop Cuts" – We're cutting and running.
* "Warnings on WMD Fabricator Were Ignored, Ex-CIA Aide Says" – The lies kept bouncing back into presidential speeches and official pronouncements, says one who knows, as fast as they were debunked.
* "Indictment Reveals Little Evidence of Terrorist Plot" – Never mind that we're losing in Iraq, what about all those glorious "victories" on the home front? Or maybe not…
* "Nearly 150 Afghan Rebels Killed in Two Weeks" – Hey, weren't we supposed to have "won" this one already?
* "Can the U.S. Shoot Down Korea's Taepodong 2?" – Does a Republican administration really care all that much if Kim Jong Il takes out San Francisco?
These are lean times for the War Party. Their glorious "victories" have turned to dust. Their lies are the subject of front-page coverage and grand jury indictments. Their mission, far from being "accomplished," is further from success than ever, and the administration is in full retreat. Forced to negotiate with the Iranians over Tehran's nascent nuclear program, the full-bore neocon militarism once dominant in D.C. has been replaced by the centrist sensibility of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whose influence is largely credited with the new moderation. Dick Cheney and his cronies are on the outs.
The War Party always hibernates during the election season, and it's that time. No party runs on a platform of "we want war" – no, not even the Republicans. As I noted in a column last week, Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt both campaigned as champions of peace, and, after the election, dragged us into a couple of world wars. Taking this new façade of moderation at face value, however, there are good reasons why Team Bush is putting on the brakes in its headlong rush to Empire.
To begin with, the American military is being chewed up on the ground in Iraq. Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), generally understood to be speaking for a significant group of senior U.S. military officers, avers: "The future of our military is at risk if the U.S. stays in Iraq much longer." They've had to cut back on expenditures in other parts of the world and divert resources to the Iraqi sinkhole, creating a potentially dangerous scenario in which, say, Kim Jong Il decides to test that Taepodong 2. "We don't want there to be a misperception that we're not prepared to fight a war," Murtha told PBS. "We don't want somebody miscalculating like they did in Korea."
Such a miscalculation would have incalculably horrific consequences: millions of South Koreans, along with thousands of American soldiers currently stationed on the peninsula, incinerated by the North's nukes. Tokyo aflame, China siding with Pyongyang, the launch of an East Asian theater in our mad campaign to assert military and political hegemony on every continent – all this is bound to be just the beginning of the fallout from a nuclear showdown with the Hermit Kingdom.
Secondly, virtually every prediction of inevitable disaster from war critics has been confirmed, and in spades. We predicted the growth of the insurgency, deriding Rummy's happy-talk of a few isolated "dead-enders"; we predicted the rise of a Shi'ite theocracy aligned with Iran; we predicted civil war; we predicted the regionalization of the conflict, and what a millstone this would become around Republican necks.
On the other hand, the neocons, who foretold showers of rose petals flung in the path of U.S. troops and hailed the advent of a new era of capital-D Democracy for the Middle East, were dead wrong. As Pat Buchanan put it back in the summer of '03:
"The salad days of the neoconservatives, which began with the president's Axis-of-Evil address in January 2002 and lasted until the fall of Baghdad may be coming to an end. Indeed, it is likely the neoconservatives will never again enjoy the celebrity and cachet in which they reveled in their romp to war on Iraq."
Richard Perle and his friends can write all the op-eds for the Washington Post they want, but it'll be a cold day in Hell before anyone in this administration takes heed of their counsels. In response, the neocons have dropped their former host, retreated to the dark recesses of the Office of the Vice President, or back to their Washington think tanks, and taken to denouncing their former Lider Maximo as a sellout.
No doubt – as predicted in this space long ago – this migratory flock of cowbirds will find another nest to alight in and despoil (McCain, Warner, or some other front man, or front woman). From now on, however, they'll be running from their record of inciting the worst strategic disaster in American military history – a reputation that, rather than fade with the years, will only become more vivid and closely associated with the neoconservative creed.
Like the inventor of the Edsel and the guiding lights of phrenology, the would-be court intellectuals of a rising American Empire will go down in history as losers, so wrong that their names become synonymous with error. I propose a new antonym for the phrase "pearl of wisdom" – "Perle of wisdom."
The economic burden of Empire is what will sink the imperial project in the long run – or, perhaps, it won't be that long after all. The great untold story of how the Napoleonic delusions of the Bush administration have impacted this country to its detriment is the spiraling price of oil. Recent price hikes are generally understood – on the Left, surely, but also in the popular consciousness – as due to a conspiracy by Big Oil, which somehow manipulates the world market. What is manipulating the market, however, is not a corporate cabal, but another sort entirely.
It is the threat of another Middle East war that has been ratcheting up the price of the West's most essential commodity. With each presidential pronouncement that "nothing is off the table" as far as dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions is concerned, oil prices skyrocket. It remains for some canny antiwar politician to make the connection between a belligerent foreign policy and prices at the pump.
In the meantime, however, economic discontent endangers the War Party in and of itself, because it makes people question the entire system, including our neo-Jacobin foreign policy of militarism and perpetual war – and that is what they fear most.
Empires cost money, and the peculiar feature of the American version is that, as Garet Garrett put it in his classic essay "Ex America," "everything goes out and nothing comes in." Imperialism, as a business venture, is a complete non-starter: the costs always exceed the benefits by several degrees of magnitude, albeit not for certain privileged individuals and corporate entities. "Benevolent global hegemony," as William Kristol and Robert Kagan memorably put it in their 1996 foreign policy manifesto, is just a fancy phrase for bankruptcy. By the time our indubitable "benevolence" is globalized, the costs of hegemony will have driven us into complete insolvency.
What is happening, in short, is that we are fast reaching the limits of American power, and even the neocons must recognize this to some extent. The problem is they don't care, because preserving America is not what they're all about. As revolutionaries, they don't want to preserve anything. What the world needs, as neocon polemicist Michael Ledeen avers, is a little "creative destruction." And if what's being destroyed is our old Republic, well, then, so be it.
Pat Buchanan, writing in the May 10, 2004, issue of The American Conservative, predicted that the battle of Fallujah, and a contemporaneous Shi'ite rebellion, would mark the "high tide of the American empire." American troops, he said, are "on the way out." A year earlier, he wrote:
"The high tide of neoconservatism may have passed because the high tide of American empire may have passed. 'World War IV,' the empire project, the great cause of the neocons, seems to have been suspended by the president of the United States."
The president, however, is soon to be a lame duck, and the neocons, as we have seen, have a tremendous capacity for reinvention. As I wrote at the time:
"It's a nice thought, but I don't believe it for a moment. Not when the same propaganda campaign once directed at Iraq is now being launched against Iran; not when leading politicians declare that U.S. troops may have to go after Hamas – and certainly not as long as the president of the United States reserves the 'right' to carry out a policy of 'regime change' as a means of preemptive 'defense.' The empire project may or may not be temporarily suspended: perhaps stalled is the right word. We can be sure, however, that the War Party isn't going away."
Yes, the Empire is at bay: and, yes, the Bush administration is showing signs of bowing to reality – in spite of their reported contempt for the "reality-based community." But, no, we aren't safe from fresh disasters. Just as the last war was clearly not in American interests, and its consequences were fully mapped out in advance by critics, so the next war will occur because our real national interests were overriden in favor of other considerations. I don't have the space to get much more specific than this, other than to give you two links – this one, and this one [.pdf] – which, taken together, sufficiently describe what replaced the national interest in our policymakers' calculations.
Suffice to say that those who brought us to the brink of ruination are still at large, and that evil never sleeps. The Empire is at bay, but it shows no signs of receding. Not even Russ Feingold believes – or says – U.S. troops ought to get out of the region entirely. Speaking on Meet the Press Sunday, an otherwise admirable performance by Sen. Feingold, a putative presidential candidate, was marred when he assured Tim Russert that he had no objection to leaving a substantial force of American soldiers behind in Iraq, and that of course we would have to go back in force at the first sign of real instability. Having established, at least, the foundations of an American Imperium, the architects of our aggressive foreign policy have not abandoned their building project. They have merely begun to consider whether or not to scale down the original plans and get away with somehow doing it on the cheap.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
The response to my June 21 column, "Odyssey to America," has been very gratifying, and overwhelmingly favorable. I received many letters expressing heartfelt support, and I just want to let everyone know how deeply I appreciate it. Both Adil and I want to thank you for your contributions – which far surpassed my expectations – from the very bottom of our hearts.