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The Perils of Imperial Indigestion


The United States currently spends more than $400 billion a year on the military. This is nearly one-half of the entire global expenditure on military affairs. Two nearest U.S. rivals in military spending, China and Russia, are not even close: combined, they spend only one-fourth of what the Pentagon does. North Korea spends about 1 percent of the total U.S. figure. U.S. military technology surpasses that of any country in the world. The United States owns or rents over 700 military bases in 130 countries (and that doesn’t include the 6,000 bases in the United States and its territories). In Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. military made quick work of its adversaries, taking the capital cities in a matter of days.

And yet, with all of this mighty power, has the United States bitten off more than it can chew? Empires, Napoleon once said, die of indigestion. The news from Baghdad, Pyongyang, Teheran, Tashkent, and Wall Street suggests impending stomach upset.

The first problem that the Pentagon faces is the declining utility of military power. In Iraq, the war drags on as initial military triumph has not translated into political credibility, economic stability, or even military security. American troops continue to die daily, and the number of Iraqi casualties is much higher. The country threatens to fracture into three or more pieces, and American military power does not provide sufficient military glue to keep it all together.

What America is learning in Iraq – an old lesson, but one that must be relearned with every conflict – is that destructive force is not easily transformed into constructive energy.

In North Korea, meanwhile, the Pentagon is constrained from using any of its shiny new technology. A military attack would likely result in a war with devastating impact on U.S. soldiers in the region as well as the societies of allies South Korea and Japan. Washington has wielded the big stick against Pyongyang for over fifty years and still North Korea has refused to succumb. In Iraq, the Pentagon faces the asymmetric threat of guerrilla warfare; from North Korea, the Pentagon faces a more symmetrical though considerably smaller nuclear and conventional threat. In both cases, however, the U.S. military is unable to assert its will through preponderant strength.

The extension of military power has also generated considerable backlash, even among U.S. allies. The latest complaints come from Uzbekistan, where the U.S. military relies on bases for its operations in Afghanistan. At the end of July, Uzbekistan gave the Pentagon six months to get out. Meanwhile, Russia and China are conducting joint military maneuvers for the first time in history, a sign that U.S. penetration into Central Asia has eliminated the tiny Taliban only to create a much more significant alliance against U.S. interests in the region.

Finally there is the cost of this military expansion. In 1989, historian Paul Kennedy compared the United States to empires of the past and suggested that Washington, too, would soon suffer the consequences of “imperial overstretch.” But then came the end of the Cold War and the economic expansion under the Clinton administration. According to conventional wisdom, Kennedy’s predictions were premature.

But the news from Wall Street indicates that, in the end, Kennedy was probably right. Maintaining military hegemony in the world is eroding America’s global economic status. U.S. trade deficits have ballooned, and the trade gap of $162 billion with China in 2004 was the largest in U.S. history. The U.S. budget deficit, meanwhile, has escalated dangerously, suffering a $600 billion reversal from 2000 to 2004, when a surplus of $236 billion rapidly became a deficit of $412 billion. The U.S. debt – the accumulation of yearly deficits – is now at $7 trillion, and is increasing at a rate of about $1.7 billion a day. Only the fact that the U.S. dollar is still a global reserve currency saves Washington from paying for its profligacy.

For the last several years, Washington has lectured China about the declining importance of military power. Stop putting valuable money into your army, your arms imports, and your military manufacturing, Washington has told Beijing, and concentrate on influencing countries in other ways, such as trade and diplomacy. If Washington doesn’t heed its own words and limit the Pentagon’s reach, then it will suffer the fate of all empires, more quickly and less gently than would happen otherwise.

John Feffer is working on a book about food and globalization.

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