For years it was impossible to even mention the phrase “American Empire” without being labeled a “left wing extremist,” a term that Bill O’Reilly now throws around to smear more cautious pro-empire liberals like Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama who speaks of the need for more diplomacy and a less aggressive and unilateralist foreign policy. In 2008, numerous books are being published with the phrase “American Empire” in their title such as Chalmers Johnson’s THE SORROWS OF EMPIRE.
The concept now has a legitimacy in academic and publishing circles that was inconceivable 20 years ago, so something has changed in the realm of perception. America now has close to 800 military bases around the world and is involved in a permanent “war against terror” and claims unilaterally a right to intervene anywhere in the world for the rest of time. But time may not be so kind. Time has also made possible what seemed impossible thirty years ago –that a black man named Barack Obama could be chosen as the Democratic nominee for the American Presidency. So much for the silly myth about the end of history!
Many excellent writers and intellectuals on the left” who focus on foreign policy issues and international relations like John Pilger, Joshua Holland, Stephen Lendman, the editors of COUNTERPUNCH, writers who I deeply respect and generally agree with, are now arguing forcefully that there is not a bit of difference between Obama and McCain, and that progressives should vote either for Nader or a socialist candidate that has no chance to win. I call this the pure land zero impact option which offers no prospect for change.
While I would agree that either Obama or McCain will inherit a tottering and overextended American Empire which they will be asked to manage, there is a difference in how it will be managed by the two candidates. For example, Obama has promised to withdraw American troops from Iraq in 16 months, while Mc Cain has insisted they will stay there “until victory.” Additionally, Obama has attacked Senator McCain and the Bush Administration for supporting a long-term US military presence in Iraq stating he opposed permanent military bases in Iraq. That at least is one difference that matters to me as an American citizen.
The Historical Context Is Important
It is important to examine how much real power has been consolidated by the far right in American society during the last 40 years, from Nixon’s withdrawal from Vietnam to the 9/11 Presidency of George W. Bush. We need to consider, as Naomi Wolf has in her book THE END OF AMERICA, just how close to fascism we have come, how much of a potentially fascist police , military, and a massive national intelligence infrastructure and homeland national security bureaucracy has already been built under our very noses in the name of the “war on terror,” a Crusading war with contradictory symbolic elements of a spectacular clash between a fundamentalist atavism and a destructive high tech Christianized modernism embodied in the American war machine and its bombing culture.
While every state has the responsibility to protect its citizens, the Bush administration has enacted policies that go way beyond protection and are unnecessarily invasive of American privacy. The Patriot Act, the violations of FISA and the surveillance and spying on peaceful American citizens and opponents of the war, the elimination of habeas corpus, the Bush signing statements, and the general pattern of the subversion of the rule of law are serious and troubling. We need to be cognizant of how the globalization of military intervention and neoliberal militarization of an ecologically unsustainable American society is anathema to the continuation of our democratic institutions and human well being. We Americans need to learn to share this earth with others in a fair and just manner, We need to see and reflect on the aggression and violence of our own government, otherwise we ourselves will continue to be seen by others around the world as we indeed are seen – as "the major threat to world peace.”
The social and historical context of this 2008 election must also be examined in its specificity, particularly with a view to how the election results could affect future Supreme Court decisions, environmental legislation , domestic civil liberties and habeas corpus rights, women’s rights, gay rights, the union’s right to organize, and the overall economic policies effecting the welfare of the American people. Here I believe progressive democrats which support an Obama Presidency trump the pure land leftists who refuse to compromise, preferring airy and clean theoretical conceptualizations disconnected from the specific historical reality of the present.
Overcoming The Vietnam Syndrome: War on the Installment Plan
During the 60s, elements of the left and the peace movement articulated a critique of “American imperialism” that went beyond anything found or discussed in liberal venues. The Vietnam war was correctly perceived as an imperialist war. The notion behind it that the US could monopolize the legitimate use of violence around the globe was imperialist in its very essence. Yet, in the pages of the established press and on the airwaves of network news, the terms “empire” and “American imperialism” were and are still strictly forbidden and an insult to good taste and manners.
It was said daily that our military was in Vietnam as a benefactor, to bring freedom and democracy to people and liberate them from communist tyranny. If America was becoming an aggressive and highly militarized imperial social formation, it remained unknown, unspeakable, and invisible to the vast majority of the American people. Vietnam, the second major war fought by Americans (Korea being the first) in Asia since the end of World War Two, was defined as an aberration and a mistake, another defensive proxy war against the Soviet Union. The pattern was clear. All American interventions on every continent around the globe were to be blessed with the impeccable label of defense. And so it is.
As we know now, the sixties social movements, the civil rights and anti-war movements, the counter-culture youth movement, and the women’s movement, sent shivers down the spines of established power elites in America and forced them to run to their snuff boxes. A preventative counter-revolution with an anti-modernist edge began to emerge with the aim of restoring the organic community of conservative Christian values and realities in America, rebuilding its economic and military strength, and burying “the Vietnam syndrome” – the American people’s reluctance to send military troops into foreign countries where they can get bogged down in a protracted conflict. What occurred subsequently was a gradual testing of the Vietnam syndrome in Panama , Grenada, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc, and on to the historical treadmill of what I call “war on the installment plan.
The Preventative Counter Revolution in the 1970s
After the end of the Vietnam War in 1973, three significant shockwaves hit the American foreign policy establishment in 1979. In February 1979 , an Islamic revolutionary movement gained power in Iran and expelled the dreaded Shah, a once powerful brutal dictator supported by the United States. Then in November of 1979 Iranian militants seized the American embassy in Iran just after the Shah was admitted into the US for medical treatment.
Another shock. In America’s back yard in Central America, a Sandinista inspired revolution expelled the Nicaraguan strongman, Anastasio Somosa. The Sandinista experiment immediately started addressing the needs of the Nicaraguan people through various social programs, but the experiment was soon sabotaged by the “contra war” and US threats of an invasion. Nevertheless, two client states, props of American imperialism in different parts of the world, had been deposed in one year. Loud and shrill lamentations from the right claimed “we lost Nicaragua and Iran” due to the weak leadership of the Carter administration. Finally, in December of 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistsan.
In the late 70s, while Jimmy Carter was still in office, his Secretary of State Brezinski developed a program to provide aid via a CIA covert operation to undermine the Soviet puppet state in Kabul, Afghanistan. He came up with a plan to provoke a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan by sending money and CIA aid to Islamic militants fighting the Kabul government. The plan worked and the Soviets launched a massive invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 to counter the efforts of the Islamic fighters and their US supporters. The movie “Charlie Wilson’s War” gets the chronology wrong –the US covert operations and ties with Islamic militants were actually developed before the Soviet invasion. Documentation for this can be found in Peter Dale Scott’s stimulating book THE ROAD TO 9/11: WEALTH, EMPIRE, AND THE FUTURE OF AMERICA.
After the Soviet invasion, the CIA expanded the war in Afghanistan by training , arming (with stinger missiles), and providing greater amounts of money to Islamic fundamentalist warriors. “Blowback” soon followed. Out of these groups emerged two future American enemies that the US would later militarily attack, the Taliban and Al Qaeda, the terrorist organization responsible for planning the 9/11 attacks on America.
The Conservative Counter-Revolution of the 1980s
Some argue that the 1980 election was essentially stolen. There is evidence that the CIA who preferred the presidential candidacy of former CIA Director George H. Bush and worked with agents in the Republican Party to undermine a deal where the hostages would be released to Jimmy Carter before the 1980 Presidential election. The plot offered to release Iranian assets held in Rockefellers Chase Manhattan Bank if the militants would wait until after the elections to release the American hostages. Critics argue that the failure to get the hostage crisis resolved weakened the Carter administration in the American public’s eyes and benefited Reagan, who promised he would be tougher on foreign enemies. Yet before his departure Carter had articulated the “Persian Gulf doctrine” claiming the Persian Gulf was an American lake, and threatening military force if necessary to repel “an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region.”
Internationally, the Reagan Presidency instituted a new wave a state organized terror around the world, but especially in Central America where massacres were organized against social change in El Salvador and Nicaragua. This was the time of Iran/Contra and notorious death squads in El Salvador.
Domestically, America under Reaganism started rebuilding its powerful capitalist machine by attacking liberals, the welfare state, environmental reforms, and privatizing what were formerly public sectors of the American economy. “Privatize everything” became the model of fast “shock” capitalism. We saw the rise of the HMOs and a privatized health care system that left tens of millions of Americans without medical benefits. Administrators in higher education began imposing privatization and corporatization schemes on the universities as well. Union membership in the private sector declined dramatically.
The Reagan revolution had begun. The gap between rich and poor grew both at home and abroad. Under “compassionate conservatism,” homeless people were thrown out into the streets and forced to fend for themselves. Money became scare for education, health and welfare programs as budget cuts became the word of the day.
Yuppification, consumerism, superficiality, and conformist careerism ran rampant through American society. The dumbing down of public discourse dominated network news. The environment was perceived as a large toilet, and concerns raised about global warming were dismissed in spite of the vigorous efforts of the environmental movement at the time of the Exxon Valdez to raise issues of our addiction to foreign oil.
The rise of the Christian right with theocratic tendencies to get involved in politics (with the Republican party), and a proliferation of conservative press and media, began to influence the ideological climate. Network news proved to be a weak counterweight, often selling the imperial cause. Finally, the warfare state and military industrial complex, which the neo-cons and Scoop Jackson democrats argued had been undernourished under the reign of the hated détente liberals like Kissinger, would now be attended to and nurtured in order to win the Cold War against the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union. Once this occurred, America could rule the world via its military supremacy and aggressively spread democracy and freedom everywhere without resistance. America Over All, absolute American military supremacy, became their war cry!
The implosion of the Soviet Union and the dismantling of its system was the major event of the early 90’s. This fed neo-con triumphalism as the US remained the world’s only super-power. Reagan was credited with winning the Cold War. But there would be no peace dividend. The Gulf War against Iraq in 1990 invoking the Carter doctrine, silenced the environmental movement as over 500,000 troops were placed in the Middle East to push Saddam and his armies out of Kuwait. Many suspected that the US would never again completely remove itself military forces from the oil rich region. The conquest of Iraq had begun.
Continued over-flights, devastating sanctions, and numerous accusations alleging Saddam’s attempt to fool inspectors from gaining access to alleged WMDs dominated the political discourse in the late 90s with Clinton essentially continuing the trajectory of the senior Bush’s policies.
Many felt that the Olso agreements of 1993 would begin to bring peace to the Israel and the Palestinians via a two state solution, but that hope soon evaporated. The Clinton bombing of Kosovo following the Monica Lewinsky scandal was called a “humanitarian intervention,” but the Russian Federation suspected the US was trying to extend its influence into former Soviet Republics. A more aggressive and unilateral imperialism was on the agenda as George W. Bush beat out Gore in the 2000 Presidential elections. Gore won the popular vote but was denied the election as the Supreme Court intervened to stop a recount of the disputed Florida vote. Many have speculated that a Gore Presidency would have been more cautious and would not have launched an invasion and occupation of Iraq.
9/11 and the “War on Terror”
We now know that in 1998 before the 2000 elections, the neo-cons sent Clinton a letter suggesting he launch a military invasion of Iraq. Clinton refused the request saying it was “over the top.” Many of the neo-cons who signed the statement – Robert Kagan, Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, R. James Woolsey, William Kristol, Elliot Abrams, Richard Perle, John Bolton, Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Armitage, were soon comfortably placed in neocon think tanks and the Bush administration when the horrifying 9/11 attack on the twin towers occurred. Revelations in the Downing Street memos, Richard Clark’s book AGAINST ALL ENEMIES, and more recently Scott McLellan ‘s book WHAT HAPPENED provide plenty of evidence to suggest that the Bush administration deliberately manipulated the American people to get support from Congress for the the war on Iraq. Operation “shock and awe” would soon begin.
Manipulating the climate of fear generated by 9/11, George W. Bush “the decider” implemented the plans formulated earlier in the neocon policy document PNAC (PROJECT FOR THE NEW AMERICAN CENTURY) and invaded and occupied two Muslim countries in two years, creating the impression that the US was involved in a Crusade against Islam itself. Bush’s own words supported such a notion. At the beginning of the pre-emptive “shock and awe” war on Iraq, he introduced it as: “This Crusade, this war on terror.” Truer words were never spoken. Bush later said that he had talked to God and got God’s authorization to do what he did.
In the process of waging this crusade, the Bush administration instituted a repressive Gulag consisting of torture, rendition, and the endless terror bombing of civilians (not shown on television) in the two counterinsurgency wars that followed. Currently, the US is threatening to launch military strikes against a third Muslin country in Iran, urged on by the likes of zealots such as Christopher Hitchens, Normon Podhoretz, and the Israelis. The neocons just can’t seem to get enough war to satisfy their atavistic thirst for blood and oil.
Obama: A More Rational “Realpolitick” Imperial Policy?
The current historical conjuncture is fraught with danger for humanity and for the American people. McCain clearly represents a continuation of the disastrous interventionist and adventurous colonialist policies of Bush administration with an eye to victory and the probability of a deeper more dangerous quagmire. Like Bush , McCain seems to be deaf to what was disparaged as the “reality crowd.” Obama represents factions in the American and European ruling class and among the American people desiring a more cautious and rational approach to foreign policy.
While an Obama administration could not be called “anti-imperialist,” it is nevertheless true that an Obama administration would be less likely to attack Iran and would more likely implement a strategic withdrawal from Iraq while providing hope on the domestic front in the area of civil liberties, women’s rights, .and the rights of unions and communities to organize. An Obama administration, in spite of its recent tough campaign rhetoric supporting Israel, would also work harder to find a bridge to the crucial Palestinian and Israeli conflict. Finally, an Obama administration would negotiate an understanding with Hugo Chavez and would be less likely to engage in a unilateral military intervention in Venezuela.
If elected, Obama will be expected to manage and stabilize an empire that’s overextended, running out of control, and facing a legitimacy crisis around the world. Our job as progressives will be to build a social movement that will push for greater progressive change no matter who wins, and to break the cycle of permanent war and empire, the dualistic and diabolical dialectic of atavism and modernism, of threat and fear, of state terror and jihadist terror, and deconstruct the assumptions behind the “war on terror.” It will not be easy. But the promise of a climate of greater openness to dialogue that an Obama Presidency could bring might be a first step in that direction.
In November I will vote for Barack Obama in spite of the eloquent talking heads on the left who tell me “it won’t make a difference.” I am open to the possibility that they are right, but I do hope they are wrong. If Obama wins the Presidency, it will certainly make history and offer a ray of hope to a worried human planet.