My harsh title is not based on the belief that U.S. leaders are the most
vicious ever, although they are amply arrogant, ruthless, and even vicious,
rendered more hypocritical by the veneer of self-righteousness and “godly”
service. Rather it rests, first, on the fact that they have far more destructive
power than any predecessors, have already used it, threaten to escalate
their violence, and are not only subject to inadequate constraints, but
operate in a political culture that is volatile, manipulable, and contains
threatening irrational elements. The rise of U.S. destructive power, far
beyond anything related to national “defense,” and far beyond the capabilities
of any potential rivals, was clearly purposeful and designed to serve both
the transnational business and financial interests of the U.S. elite and
the contractor-Pentagon-politician vested interests of mili- tarization—the
military-industrial complex (MIC).
The so-called “defense budget” should properly be called an “offense budget.”
This budget—of enormous size and now exceeding the total for the rest of
the world taken together—and the increasing aggressiveness of the U.S.
elite in using its military superiority to “project power” by threats and
violence in distant places, has put great pressure on other countries to
build up their own arms. They need the arms not only to defend themselves
against possible U.S. attack, but also against the use of its military
superiority to establish threatening alliances and bases on their borders.
Such alliance building and basing has been carried out against substantial
powers such as Russia and China, as well as lesser regional powers such
as Iran. With imperialist arrogance, U.S. officials and pundits have found
the arms budget increases and weapons-testing responses of these lesser
powers to be “provocative” and “challenging.” But these responses are absolutely
inevitable and the U.S. offense budget and power projection promotes the
advance of an already emerging new arms race.
The arms race is also helped along by an array of U.S. policies that stymie
arms control, such as:
withdrawing from the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty in 2001
sabotaging the 1972 Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention by refusing
to agree to on-site inspections, also in 2001
opposing the UN Agreement to Curb the International Flow of Small Arms
in 2001, the only nation to do so
refusing to sign the Land Mine Treaty (Clinton in 1997)
refusing to join 123 nations pledged to ban the use and production of anti-personnel
bombs in 2001
rejecting the Comprehensive [Nuclear] Test Ban Treaty in 1999
refusing to recognize the International Court of Justice’s jurisdiction
over this country’s “unlawful use of force” against Nicaragua in 1986
failing to carry out its promise, made in signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation
Treaty, that it would work toward the elimination of nuclear weapons
This refusal to abide by international law and adhere to international
agreements is regular prac- tice where these may interfere with U.S. plans
to project power.
The U.S. military buildup has its own internal momentum, as the huge vested
interests in weapons and war constantly search for technical advances and
new missions that will justify larger budgets. It has been persuasively
argued that the United States goads other states into defensive responses
in order to justify increasing “defense” expenditures (e.g., Robert A.
Pape, “Soft Balancing Against the United States,” International Security,
Summer 2005). Furthermore, the military superiority and desire to test
and prove the efficacy of the advancing military—and deplete stocks that
will then need replenishing—make for provocative behavior and a willingness
to take risks that lead more readily to war. It also makes the country
more willing to attack defenseless small countries, in part because it
is so easy and in Madeleine Albright’s words, “What’s the point of having
this marvelous military…if we don’t use it?” It impels U.S. leaders to
overestimate how easily they can bully or beat into submission smaller
countries, like Vietnam and Iraq.
Both the external and internal constraints on militarization and war are
weak. U.S. military and economic power have allowed it to engage in three
wars of aggression in violation of the UN Charter in the last decade without
any serious opposition by the UN or “international community” (i.e., governments
capable of any effective opposition to hegemonic power). Even earlier,
it was able to kill millions and virtually destroy Indo- china, ravage
Central America via murderous proxies and support South Africa’s rampages
against the frontline states and Israel’s invasions of Lebanon, without
any UN or international community obstruction. In the case of its attack
on Iraq, the United States even received from the UN ex-post facto recognition
of its occupation and pacification rights—which helps explain the August
19, 2003 bombing of UN offices in Baghdad. The UN is also busily engaged
in providing the United States and Israel with some kind of quasi-legal
sanction for the next phase of U.S. serial aggressions.
Global citizens have disapproved of these aggressions and protests have
grown in breadth and size, but thus far they have not been able to stop
the onslaughts. Democracy is not working well across the globe, as elite
rulers have regularly ignored public antiwar sentiment as expressed in
elections as well as polls. Where they have not, as in France and Turkey
in 2003, those rulers have been vilified in the United States and have
struggled to compensate for their democratic excesses. In the United States,
not only has the ruling elite been able to ignore poll majorities favoring
an exit from Iraq, the 2006 election victory of the Democrats—widely seen
to have been a reflection of the public’s interest in withdrawal—has not
prevented a further Bush escalation of the war, with only nominal Democratic
Party resistance. In another mark of democratic failure, the Democrats
agreed to remove a funding bill requirement that Bush seek congressional
approval before launching an attack on Iran.
It should also be noted that in the United States executive power has been
so centralized and the checks and balances system so weakened that a single
person or clique is now capable of taking the country into war (which they
have already done in the case of Iraq, based on brazen lies). That single
person or clique also has the power to use nuclear weapons, which the United
States has used before (uniquely), and which the U.S. leadership is reportedly
willing and even eager to use against Iran to end another (fraudulent)
“mushroom cloud” threat and to teach the world a lesson about who is boss.
In short, the world’s most urgent and real “mushroom cloud” threat is located
in the hands of a few proven irresponsibles with executive power in the
A second reason why the United States poses such a major threat to civilization
is that, while the impending climate and environmental crisis is rooted
in unrestrained economic growth, instead of leading the world toward a
reorientation and restraint, the United States continues to oppose these
and instead pursue short-term economic advantage. As the leader of the
neoliberal revolution, it presses for opening up more Third World markets
and more blind growth, and actively opposes collective and meaningful actions
that might constrain or reduce the human contribution to global warming.
It is a beautiful illustration of the triumph of immediate gratification
and the higher irresponsibility of the dominant business and MIC elite.
A third reason why this country poses such a serious threat is that the
world cannot afford either the waste of an arms race or the social costs
of the neoliberal revolution, both of which the United States presses.
Global inequalities have increased, billions of people are short of water,
food, adequate medical care, and decent educational resources. These, plus
the Western wars of domination, have increased ethnic tensions, crime,
clientelism, and mass migrations, thereby causing more conflict, terrorism,
and wars, as well as vast human suffering.
The world needs leadership in resolving these real problems, but what it
has been getting from the United States are policies that waste resources,
stoke conflict, kill and destroy, and literally fight against a constructive
dealing with threatening environmental disasters. The “end times” folks
that have close links to the Bush administration may be getting their Armageddon
without any divine aid, merely by Bush-U.S. policy as usual.
Edward S. Herman is an economist, media critic, and author of numerous
articles and books, including The Washington Connection and Third World
Facism, Manufacturing Consent (with Noam Chomsky) and Triumph of the Market.