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 Committee:

“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 issuethey 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 weapons ...

“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, the (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 “Iran 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, atually 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.

Vietnam 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 inVietnam, 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 Iraqwhere 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 Statesthe 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