The Real Costs of Empire

The Editors

VIETNAM ALL OVER again? Yes, it is. The massacres by United States military
forces of unarmed civilians in Haditha and, as is
finally being revealed despite official lies and coverup,
numerous other Iraqi towns, are showing tens of millions of Americans what
this war is, and part of what it really costs. The highest costs obviously
are borne by the ordinary people of Iraq;
but American society will pay for decades as well for this dirty conflict
— and worse is yet to come.

Keep Haditha in mind as you read this editorial
statement. And remember it, too, during the coming midterm election season;
because we predict right now that neither party will utter that word during
the campaign, just as neither — particularly the Democrats — spoke the words
“Abu Ghraib” during the Kerry-Bush presidential
debacle in 2004. That obscene bipartisan silence covers up the fact that torture
was mandated by Justice Department memos, and by Pentagon and White House
orders. Even now, the U.S.
military’s crimes at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo are blamed on low-level dog handlers and “unsupervised rogue
soldiers on the night shift.”

On the surface, two questions hang over the November elections: the status
of the Bush administration for the final two years of this wretched presidency,
and whether the imperial-messianic ambitions of this regime can be checked.
In particular, will the U.S. government be restrained from “going all the
way” in its war drive against Iran — a project which could take down (along
with its perpetrators) the Middle East, the world economy and the prospects
for stopping global nuclear weapons proliferation?

Admittedly that’s not how the issue will be discussed in what passes for
American political debate, where the contrived crisis over “an Iranian bomb”
will mask the real and horrible dangers of another U.S.-initiated “regime
change” military operation. Neither party will openly discuss the plans for
this next war. The fate of the Bush regime may be answered by voters in November
— along with the number and extent of indictments of administration officials
and allies in assorted corrupt and criminal enterprises — but as to stopping
the drive to a war with Iran, the prospects would look somewhat better if
the Democrats actually opposed it.

But there’s a deeper question largely ignored in what passes for debate in
the U.S.
political system: the real and broader costs of empire, which we believe the
antiwar movement needs to bring to the fore.

We’ll analyze election prospects in our next issue, but right now we want
to point out a paradox. Significant Republican losses in the House of Representatives
seem likely, even with gerrymandered districts. Stir in the retired generals’
attack on Donald Rumsfeld — which represents, in
fact, a statement from military elites that Iraq is a lost war and the entire
administration a failure — and vast public disillusionment not only over the
war but $3.00 a dollar gas, vanishing decent jobs and assorted other outrages,
and you have all the ingredients for a crippled presidency.

Yet even if there’s an electoral debacle in which Republicans actually lose
Congress, a disintegrating Republican presidency might find targeting Iran
a project to cement a new “bipartisan” consensus. If anyone imagines an empowered
Democratic leadership blocking the road to war, consider this report from
Shmuel Rosner, chief U.S. correspondent
for the prestigious and generally liberal Israeli daily paper Haaretz, from the annual convention of the American Jewish

“Representatives from both Left and Right promised the audience that the
[Iranian nuclear] threat will not be ignored. Not by a Republican administration
— as was emphasized by Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon — nor by a Democratic
one, as Senator Barack Obama of Illinois and Democratic National Committee Chairman
Howard Dean promised in terms not at all different from those used by Bush,
Cheney and Rice.

“And Dean — wearing the badge of a leftist Democrat — was actually the one
going into details in regard to Iran…. He was not going to leave any room for
doubt or interpretation on this issue…. And this is interesting, because if
you take the Democrats by their words, one can argue that on the Iranian issue
they have been even more forceful than the Republicans. Senator Hillary Rodham
Clinton, Senator Evan Bye [sic — actually Bayh]
and many others were criticizing the administration from the right on Iran,
claiming it was not acting fast enough as to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear

Iran, (Dean) said, is
not Iraq.
We are talking here about a ‘totally different situation.’ Dean was against
the war and still is — as were many Democratic leaders, and many more Democratic
rank and file activists. And because of that, it was important for him to
make the distinction: We are not necessarily against all wars — just against
those we perceive as unjustified.” (Rosner’s Blog,”, May 5, 2006)

The spectacle of Hillary Clinton as a beneficiary of fundraising by Rupert
Murdoch of the Fox War Network says it all about the prowar Democrats. As to the present war, rather than stopping
the carnage in Iraq,
they prefer that the Bush administration absorb the blame for “bungling” the
war, and they also want enough of the action in promoting the anti-Iran campaign
to share the “credit” for lining up support for that coming disaster. And
the unraveling in Afghanistan,
where “our” (good) coalition of warlords and fundamentalists is challenged
by the reviving “terrorist” (bad) Taliban warlord fundamentalists, is accompanied
by the sound of bipartisan silence all around.

All this poses some serious challenges for the antiwar movement. How much
of the U.S. population
would believe the Bush administration, on its own, putting out the line that
is an immediate threat to our security” requiring urgent military action?
Very few; for as our president himself so eloquently put it, “Fool me twice
— you can’t get fooled again.” But how many more people will swallow that
same fable peddled in unison not only by the Bush used-war salesmen but also
Democratic leaders Dean and Clinton,
and fresh-faced types like Senator Obama?

To turn the disgust of the majority of the American people with this war
into an overwhelming demand to “Bring the Troops Home Now!,” our antiwar movement
must break the taboo on discussing the buried question — what the war, and
maintaining the empire of U.S. corporate and military power, actually costs
our society as well as the world.

Open and Hidden Costs

The fate of our society cannot be separated from the question of — call it
what it is — imperialism. If there was a time, especially between World Wars
I and II and during the 1950s, when Democrats could be both “New Dealers”
and imperialists — when U.S. power trampling on nations and peoples in Latin
America and the Caribbean, the Middle East and Africa was relatively low in
cost and helped make the United States a rich country — the cost-benefit ratios
of intervention began to change in late 1960s.

produced not only mass military casualties but also war-induced inflation
coinciding with the end of the post-World War II extended capitalist boom.
The liberal imperialists of the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson administrations,
who presided over the disastrous escalation in Vietnam, promised “guns and butter” at the same
time. It was this big lie that began the unraveling and ultimate collapse
of liberal political power in the United States.

Today, with the U.S. right wing in power, overwhelming military
power is deployed by an imperial-messianic presidency which envisions its
post-9/11 mission to control the world under the rubric of a “global war on
terror.” But the difficulties of maintaining the empire are more evident,
as U.S. power faces a continental
revolt in Latin America. It’s also worth noting a highly
unusual recent event, in that the United States failed in an attempt to steal an
election in an impoverished small country: Haiti,
where the masses poured into the streets to enforce the victory, over Washington’s opposition, of their presidential
candidate Rene Preval.

Without a doubt, though, it’s in Iraq
where most obviously the war makes the United States measurably poorer, as well as internationally
reviled and disrespected. The idea that the United States can rule the
world and meet its own people’s needs at the same time was never morally acceptable,
but today it is an absurdity in material terms as well. War enriches the military
machine, to be sure, but it starves basic human needs in order to pay Halliburton.

The raw fact of war profiteering and cronyism is not esoteric knowledge;
it is widely known and bitterly resented in the U.S. population,
and indeed the Democrats seek to exploit it without addressing the underlying
reasons for it. But many other aspects of the real costs of empire for people
at home, which remain hidden from the view of the majority, need to be dragged
into the light. It’s not just direct military spending that kills the possibility
of rebuilding a decaying society.

* Begin with “the border,” the issue on everyone’s mind nowadays. What every
knowledgeable observer in Mexico predicted in advance remains a mystery
to most North Americans: the reason for the mass migration from the Mexican
countryside. The secret: Under the North American Free Trade Agreement and
the pre-NAFTA U.S.-Canada-Mexico accord, Mexico opened up wide for U.S. agricultural
exports — mainly the heavily subsidized products of agribusiness, not the
struggling small U.S. farmers — wiping out Mexico’s farmers, who cannot compete
with them.

The corporate plan, to be sure, called for the uprooted Mexican rural poor
to be market-conscripted into the industrial jobs of the maquiladoras — the multinational-owned factories replacing
what used-to-be-high-paid U.S.
labor. But under the wonders of global free trade, many of those jobs have
gone away to lower-paying economies in Asia. As the Mexican
rural economy dies, Wal-Mart becomes the country’s largest employer (sound
familiar?) and a dangerous journey to the United States the only survival strategy.

At this writing Bush and the Congress are moving toward a bloody-sausage
political “compromise” on immigration, which will include militarizing the
border — yet another burden on the over-stretched National Guard — and massive
fence construction to keep out “those people.” Who will reap the contracts
and profits from that project? Can you say “Halliburton and other cronies
again”? Just like Iraq,
just like the Gulf Coast.

* Wiretapping, domestic surveillance and data mining are running amok under
the pretext of “monitoring terror suspects.” What’s been publicly revealed
is surely the tip of the iceberg. Civil liberties, basic privacy and democratic
rights are disappearing species for one reason above all. It’s not fundamentally
because a vicious anti-democratic administration is in power, although it
is; nor is it because the U.S. political system and social order are under
a powerful assault from working class and oppressed people’s movements, which
(we regret to say) at the moment they’re not.

The basic reason for these atrocities is that trying to police the world
necessarily requires policing the population at home. This goes far beyond
enhancing technical security against the threats of actual terrorist attacks
or of retaliation against imperialism’s global rampage — a job which the agencies
in charge of protecting the country’s ports and vital economic targets are
doing, in the opinion of many experts, very poorly indeed. More important,
from the standpoint of the security of empire, the “homeland” has to be kept
in line.

Dissent has to be intimidated and tightly leashed, lest the population get
the idea that its shrinking economic security and prospects are inextricably
connected to the bloating of the war machine. Most important of all, maintaining
the myth of the “global war on terror” requires a perpetual climate of fear.
Fear of immigrants crossing the border. Fear of “Saddam Hussein’s weapons
of mass destruction,” which never existed after 1995. Fear of “the Iranian
nuclear bomb,” which is mythically projected to become “a real threat” just
in time for the U.S.
bombing to start. Fear of another 9/11 terrorist attack, which conveniently
enough becomes more of a real threat as American attacks on Muslim and Arab
countries escalate.

In narrow terms, the electoral outcome in November will probably rest on
whether gasoline prices are over $3 a gallon, whether the previous month’s
economic news looks good, whether there’s been another Katrina-type horror,
whether voter rolls are rigged to keep Black and Latino voters away and electronic
voting machines programmed to lose their votes. Bigger questions will be fought
out afterward, by other means.

ATC 123, July-August 2006