Just recently, I was accused by a writer for the ultra-Right Washington Times of being a “defeatist” when it comes to America’s expansionist military policy abroad. The giveaway, it seems, is that I penned a book for the American Empire Project — a series of critical volumes published by Metropolitan Books. Contributors to the series, the article claimed, want “a retreat from Iraq to be the prelude to a larger collapse of American preeminence worldwide.” My initial response on reading this was to insist — like so many anxious liberals — that no, I am not opposed to American preeminence in the world, only to continued U.S. involvement in Iraq. But then, considering the charge some more, I thought, well, yes, I am in favor of abandoning the U.S. imperial role worldwide. The United States, I’m convinced, would be a whole lot better off — and its military personnel a whole lot safer — if we repudiated the global-dominance project of the Bush administration and its neo-conservative boosters.
Supposedly, the U.S. military has expanded its presence and combat role around the world to foster democracy and prevail in the President’s War on Terror; and, without a doubt, many brave Americans have risked their lives — and some have died — in the pursuit of these noble objectives. But this is not, I believe, what has motivated Messrs. Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld in their pursuit of global supremacy. Rather, they appear driven by a messianic determination to impose American dominance on large swaths of the planet and to employ this hegemonic presence to gain control over global energy supplies. In attempting to do so, they are bankrupting the nation and exposing American citizens to a higher, not lower, risk of terrorist attack.
Take a look at U.S. policy in the greater Persian Gulf/Caspian Sea region — the main site of American military activism and home to seven-tenths of the world’s remaining petroleum reserves. Bush and Cheney have spoken eloquently of their determination to promote democracy in this troubled region, but what they have largely done, in practice, is to continue to prop up the kings, sheikhs, and dictators who rule the local petro-states.
Remember the President’s touching moment of hand-holding with Saudi Prince Abdullah a year ago at his ranch in Texas? Abdullah (now King) may be a tad more moderate than his pro-jihadist brothers and cousins, but he is no advocate of democracy. More recently, Bush gave Ilham Aliyev, the dictator of pipeline-cluttered Azerbaijan, a gala White House reception; while, at about the same time, Cheney lauded the democratic aspirations of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the dictator of Kazakhstan, during a visit to that energy-rich country. These moves are consistent with a neo-imperial strategy not even faintly aimed at “democracy,” but rather at the procurement of energy sources — or the control over the distribution of oil and natural gas to other energy-hungry nations.
What about the U.S. invasion Iraq? This was not about oil, we were assured at the time. We invaded to do away with weapons of mass destruction said to be controlled by Saddam Hussein, or because of Hussein’s alleged ties to Al Qaeda, or to spread democracy in Iraq and the surrounding region — in other words, for anything you can name, except oil. But there were no WMD stockpiles in Iraq, no ties to Al Qaeda, and few signs of an incipient democracy.
Why, then, are we squandering so many lives and so much treasure in a desperate effort to hold on in Iraq? Only one answer makes any sense from a Washington policymaker’s point of view — to remain the dominant military power in the Persian Gulf and thereby control the global flow of oil. This is the only interpretation that fits with the Pentagon’s admission that it plans to retain at least some bases in Iraq indefinitely, no matter what sort of future government emerges in Baghdad (or whether such a government approves of our presence or not).
The striking expansion of the U.S. military presence in Central Asia, Southwest Asia, and Africa in recent months reveals a similar geopolitical impulse. All of these areas are becoming increasingly important to the United States as sources of oil and natural gas, and in none of them can it be said that we are setting up our bases to serve as beacons for the further advance of freedom and democracy, not given the nature of most of the governments we support in those places. Because many of our leading energy suppliers in these regions are subject to internal unrest and ethnic conflict — a reaction, in most cases, to despotic regimes that remain in power with Washington’s blessing — the United States is becoming ever more deeply involved in their defense, whether through the delivery of arms and military aid (as in Angola, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Nigeria) or via a direct U.S. military presence (as in Iraq, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates).
This is not likely to be a passing phenomenon. The United States is becoming ever more dependent on imported energy — most of which will have to come from what the neoconservatives of the Bush administration term the “arc of instability” — and our military strategy is being reshaped accordingly. At present, we obtain nearly 60% of our petroleum from foreign sources; before long, it will be 70% or more. To ensure that these imported supplies safely reach our shores, the Department of Defense is devoting an ever increasing share of its troops and resources to the defense of foreign pipelines, refineries, loading platforms, and tanker routes. Essentially, the U.S. military is being converted into a global oil-protection service — at great risk to the lives of American servicemen and women.
In response to all this, I say: repudiate empire, overcome our oil addiction, and bring the troops back home. This will save lives, save money, and restore America’s democratic credentials. Even more significant, it will help us prevail in any long-term struggle with small, stateless groups that employ terror as their weapon of choice.
Let’s be very clear: the pursuit of empire and success in what the President calls “the global war on terrorism” are mutually incompatible. The more we seek to dominate the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa, the more we will provoke anti-American fury and the very violent extremism with which we claim to be at war.
Recent polling data suggests that hostility toward the United States is on the rise in all of these areas and that our hegemonic policies and hypocritical stance on the spread of democracy are largely responsible for this. Only by repudiating the unilateralist military doctrine of the Bush administration and withdrawing most of our forces from these areas can we hope to achieve a reduction in militant anti-Americanism. By rejecting unilateralism, moreover, we can secure the assistance of local officials whose help is desperately needed to identify and root out hidden terror cells.
Indeed, success in the global struggle against terrorist movements can only be achieved by a multilateral effort entailing the vigorous application of police-type investigative methods and a moral campaign designed to invalidate the legitimacy of indiscriminate violence against innocent people. The unilateralist, shoot-first-ask-questions-later approach of the Bush administration has demonstrably undermined such efforts. The upshot is bound to be but more terrorism and a greater risk to American lives. Only by cooperating with other countries on an equitable basis can we diminish this risk.
A retreat from empire would also force us to use oil more sparingly and this, in turn, would enable us to address another critical threat to American security: the danger of catastrophic environmental damage caused by global climate change. As Hurricane Katrina demonstrated, our shores are highly vulnerable to powerful hurricanes; and higher ocean temperatures, caused by global warming, are producing increasingly violent ones. Global warming is also contributing to the extreme drought and susceptibility to voracious forest fires in many areas of the American West. By reducing our petroleum consumption and relying more on ethanol, bio-diesel, wind power, solar, and other domestically-produced, alternative sources of energy — but especially by putting our money into the development of such alternatives rather than to imperial expansion around the globe — we can, in the long run, reduce our exposure to violence abroad and to environmental catastrophe at home.
So yes, I’m a “defeatist” when it comes to imperial expansion. But I’m a hawk when it comes to overcoming terrorism, saving American lives, averting environmental collapse, and promoting core American values. This is the only truly patriotic course that any of us can espouse.
Michael T. Klare is the Professor of Peace and World Security Studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America‘s Growing Dependence on Imported Petroleum (Owl Books) as well as Resource Wars, The New Landscape of Global Conflict.
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, and of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing.]