Imperial Overkill and the Death of U.S. Empire

Source: Foreign Policy in Focus

The oft-cited reference to Afghanistan as the “graveyard of empires” haunts the increasingly desperate military measures of the United States in that beleaguered country. However, beyond Afghanistan and the hydrocarbon-rich Caspian basin region, the imperial projects of the United States are, more and more, a commitment to Pentagon aggression and profligacy. Imperial overstretch has transmogrified into imperial overkill.

While all empires have had to contend with imperial overstretch, the particular historical situation confronting the United States after the fall of the Soviet Union led to an asymmetrical hyper-power, reliant especially on the reach of the Pentagon. The compulsion to rely even more heavily on the military to compensate for a waning hegemony in other domains — and to contend with shrinking resources (especially hydrocarbons), rising adversaries (especially China) and growing resistance (especially non-state Islamic militants and Latin American national-popular governments) — led to a record number of direct U. S. interventions. In turn, two of the most massive interventions, those in Iraq and Afghanistan, underscored the inability of Washington to realize all of its imperial goals.

In effect, out of frustration with unfulfilled geostrategic results, the United States has turned to expanded and deadly military imperial overkill.

The McChrystal Debacle

Consider first the recent flap around the replacement of General Stanley McChrystal as the commander of U. S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Instead of reassessing the military surge that has led to 140,000 U. S. troops in Afghanistan at a cost of $17 billion a month, President Obama and the Senate obsessed over “winning” the war, even if this meant more lethal rules of engagement.  After replacing McChrystal with General David Patraeus, his Iraq ethnic-cleansing and bribe-dispensing buddy, Obama gave the job vacated by Petraeus, head of U. S. Central Command, to General James N. Mattis. From overseeing the notorious assault on Fallujah to informing his troops to “be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet,” Mattis perfectly symbolizes both military madness and imperial overkill.

Beyond the public theatricality of rearranging the military commanders’ deck chairs on the Pentagon’s Titanic operations in Central Asia, there is an even more insidious escalation of imperial overkill behind the scenes. The Obama administration has expanded the role of Special Operations forces from 60 to 75 countries, and given these forces the go-ahead to “get more aggressive much more quickly.” In the process, the Obama administration has ramped up the extrajudicial assassinations first approved by the previous administration and added on a nearly 6 percent increase in the Special Operations budget.

Defense Secretary Gates is also ordering the Pentagon to identify spending cuts from waste and redundancy in order to “guarantee 3 percent real growth each year beyond inflation in the accounts that pay for combat operations.” In other words, with special operations planting the seeds for eventually larger military engagements, the Pentagon has to plan for permanent war. This doctrine of “Long War” has bipartisan support in Washington, and is key to the forms of disaster capitalism that enrich the military-industrial complex and private contractors like Halliburton, Blackwater, and DynCorp, among many others. The objective of the “Long War” doctrine, according to former military officer and now critic Andrew Bacevich, is “to extend the American imperium (centered on dreams of a world re-made in America’s image).”

Garrisoning the Globe

In the face of enormous budget constraints, the Pentagon still manages to receive the equivalent of what all of the other nations around the globe spend on their militaries. While the United States remains the overwhelming leader in military exports to the tune of 70 percent of the weapons market, it also continues to flout international treaties, such as those on cluster bombs. By ignoring these accords, the United States thereby erodes international legal standards. To project its forward-basing power, the Pentagon garrisons the globe with what Chalmers Johnson calls an “empire of bases.” This land presence — massive permanent bases like those in Germany and Okinawa, smaller “lily-pads” that now dot Central Asia, seven new bases in Colombia — is complimented by naval flotillas, particularly evident in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean.

This imperium is under attack not only by adversaries, but also by those who no longer accept U. S. economic and ideological models, especially in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2007.  Continuing resistance in Okinawa has roiled Japanese politics. In Latin America, leftist leaders from Rafael Correa in Ecuador to Hugo Chavez in Venezuela have challenged the United States. In the aftermath of his election in 2006, Correa declared his intention not to renew the U. S. lease on the Eloy Alfaro Air Base near the Pacific seaport of Manta when it expired in 2009, unless Washington offered Quito the right to establish its own military base in Miami. Correa’s decision was made even more urgent as a consequence of the Columbian military’s March 2008 attack on Colombian insurgents in Ecuador, probably assisted by the Eloy Alfaro Air Base.

Other so-called provocative moves have been undertaken by Chavez. Beyond terminating all Venezuelan military connections with the United States, including further training at the notorious former School of the Americas, Chavez has replaced U.S. military contracts with those of Russian and Chinese companies, and created a new military alliance with Russia that brought Russian naval vessels to Venezuela. In turn, the United States has very recently expanded its military operations in Curaçao, under the cover of so-called drug interdiction. With its eventual support of the Honduran coup against President Zelaya and military exercises in Costa Rica and other Latin American sites, the United States is reverting to a big-stick policy. Yet it no longer can bully its way in Latin America.

The End of Indispensability

The United States appears to be nothing more than a pitiless and punitive giant, to paraphrase and revise Richard Nixon’s famous reference. Foreign critics of the declining U. S. global hegemony, such as Emmanuel Todd, decry the “theatrical micromilitarism” that “is pretending to remain the world’s indispensable superpower by attacking insignificant adversaries.” Todd claims that “this America — a militaristic, agitated, uncertain, anxious country projecting its own disorder around the globe — is hardly the indispensable nation it claims to be and is certainly not what the rest of the world really needs now.”

Even as Todd’s perspectives on decline are repeated in the 2008 National Intelligence Council’s report on “Global Trends 2025,” other U. S. intelligence officials darkly hint at a U. S. foreign policy that “will excite hatreds without precedent (and)…do a fair amount of killing.” In turn, U. S. critics of that policy, such as Carl Boggs in his Imperial Delusions, denounce the “deadly cycle of militarism and terrorism, involving perpetual war waged from the White House and Pentagon.” Such perpetual war is no longer about achieving victory, whatever that means, but perpetrating military imperialism. Although that imperialism is anchored in protecting economic prerogatives, it’s also an obsession with a matrix of control and destruction, resulting in imperial overkill.

That matrix of control and destruction is bound to what psychologist-historian Robert Jay Lifton calls a “superpower syndrome.” In the case of the United States, the insistence of its “ownership of history” projects a fantasy of “infinite power and control…that is as self-destructive as it is dazzling.” Contending that the “American superpower is an artificial construct, widely perceived as illegitimate,” Lifton also asserts that its “reign is…inherently unstable…and its reach for full-scale domination marks the beginning of its decline.” Hence, whether represented by the Bush Doctrine of “full-spectrum dominance” or the “smart power” of counterinsurgency by the Obama administration, the United States is a dying empire in denial of its perilous condition.

Addicted to War

As resources are stretched to the limit and permanent war becomes the defining feature of the empire, the selection for imperial overkill gains prominence as the modus operandi for U. S. foreign policy. Among the stretched resources are the $1 trillion in expenditures for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Using a multiplier effect, the economist Joseph Stiglitz has estimated the long-term expenses for those wars to be in excess of three times the expended amount. This is all part of a growing debt of $13 trillion dollars. Moreover, with U. S. casualties rising in Afghanistan and with a record number of closed head injuries among American soldiers, the costs in human terms are enormous. And still, the Pentagon is seeding future wars by the extensive operations of Special Forces.

Given this seeming addiction to war, perhaps the reference to imperial overstretch is not elastic enough to contain the contradictions and absurdities in these war-making policies. Among the most absurd, reminiscent of the antics of the fictional operator Milo Minderbinder from Joseph Heller’s satirical antiwar novel Catch 22, is the $2.2 billion Host Nation Trucking contract underwritten by the Pentagon for security companies in Afghanistan. These same companies, in turn, contribute money to Taliban warlords in order to guarantee safe delivery of U. S. supplies over Afghan routes. These payoffs also allow an unending cycle of violence that stokes the military machine and its imperial enablers.

It’s hard to imagine the persistence of a U. S. empire that relies on imperial overkill.  In fact, much evidence of a dying empire can be found on the blood-soaked landscapes invaded by the U. S. military and the mad mindscapes of imperial policymakers. From the “shock and awe” bombing campaigns unleashed on Iraq by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, to the death squads fostered by the Bush and Obama administrations in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the drone attacks in Pakistan, the U. S. political elite seems committed to what C. Wright Mills called “crackpot realism.” Such policies can only lead to increased resistance to U. S. hegemony.

Perhaps if the terminal crisis of U. S. empire isn’t evident to the political elite, the absurdity of its operation and trajectory is all too apparent to those with any historical sensibility. The Afghanistan invasion clearly put the finishing touches to the overextended and military-heavy Soviet empire, even with the last-ditch efforts of Gorbachev to withdraw and reorganize the Soviet system. Many voices on the left and the right are calling for Washington to admit it cannot “win” in Afghanistan. However, like other empires of the past, those in power remain convinced that they have a global mission to perform, even if it leads to self-destructive imperial overkill.

Francis Shor teaches history at Wayne State University. A contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus, he is the author of Dying Empire: U. S. Imperialism and Global Resistance (Routledge 2010).