Friday, 10 January 2020

American Empire

The New York Times report that advisors to the US President only included the assassination of Qassim Suleimani to pad out and flatter the other, more sensible options strikes me as suspiciously self-serving. As the newspaper with arguably the best access to senior personnel in the US government and military put it: "In the wars waged since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Pentagon officials have often offered improbable options to presidents to make other possibilities appear more palatable." In other words, their defence plea is that they were blindsided by an idiot. The flaw in this excuse is that senior US officials in particular have had over three years of first-hand evidence that Trump either lacks the intelligence or the desire to respond to such subtle prompting. His erratic behaviour and love of cheap spectacle means that you would no more give him such an option than you would let a child play with a knife. Of course, that very framing - Trump as a wilful child - merely reinforces the idea that what we are seeing is a rogue President rather than the inexorable logic of America's foreign policy.

The subsequent reports casting doubt on the "clear and unambiguous" evidence of an "imminent attack" by Iranian proxies on American interests, not to mention the bewilderment of allies, have reinforced the impression that this is not the "real America", but against this must be put a long history of the US's employment of targeted assassination to enforce its often petulant will, from the at-times comical attempts on the life of Fidel Castro to Barack Obama's routine use of drone strikes. It should also be seen in the context of a post-Cold War stance in which the US reserves the right to act irrationally. This was laid out by the Department of Defense in 1995: "The fact that some elements may appear to be potentially 'out of control' can be beneficial to creating and reinforcing fears and doubts in the minds of an adversary's decision makers. This essential sense of fear is the working force of deterrence. That the U.S. may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be part of the national persona we project to all adversaries."

Any nation could adopt a policy of irrationality and vindictiveness. What makes America unique is it overwhelming military dominance. In other words, it's ability to act irrationally and vindictively without any constraint. The US accounts for a little under 40% of global military spending, which is roughly as much as the next 9 biggest spending countries put together. If you include America's core military allies (the UK, Saudia Arabia and Israel), it can probably count on half of the world's military resource. In practice, no other country comes close. Despite its steady build-up in recent years, China, which is the second largest country by expenditure, has only about one-third of the US's individual capability. That gap may well narrow in future, but from a Chinese perspective it will remain daunting, not least because the top-10 also includes its near-neighbours India, Japan and South Korea, none of whom are realistic allies and some of whom would undoubtedly side with the US in a conflict.

Writing between the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Ellen Meiksens-Wood described the military logic of the empire of capitalism created after 1989: "It is an imperialism that seeks no territorial expansion or physical dominance of trade routes. Yet it has produced this enormous and disproportionate military capability with an unprecedented global reach. It may be because the new imperialism has no clear and finite objectives that it requires such massive military force. Boundless domination of a global economy, and of the multiple states to administer it, requires military action without end, in purpose or time" [Empire of Capital, 2003]. To this we might add that it requires force to be used spectacularly, as in the "shock and awe" of the invasion of Iraq, and that its interests are just as well-served by salutary destruction as by regime change, which is perhaps a better explanation for the outcome in Iraq than the claim that it was due to incompetence or hubris.

In its punitiveness and impunity, US foreign policy, and in particular the use of military intervention, is reminiscent of the Roman Republic and early Empire, from Scipio's destruction of Carthage to the "wasteland" of Agricola's incursion into Caledonia. The United Kingdom's gunboat diplomacy in the nineteenth century doesn't come close (as Meiksens-Wood makes clear, this was because of the different imperatives of a trade-based empire. The spectacular destruction would occur in those parts of empire run on the older model of extraction, such as Ireland and India). Trump's language, far from being an aberration in US foreign policy terms, or even the foible of someone who has spent too much time in the company of Mafia associates, is actually consistent with this tradition. His threat to destroy Iranian cultural sites is probably groundless, but it provided an echo of that older empire and its punitive modus operandi.

The infamous quote attributed to George W Bush's senior advisor, Karl Rove, in 2004 has long been held up as evidence of America's retreat from reason in its criticism of the "reality-based community" - i.e those who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality". For many liberals this is evidence that neoconservativism inevitably leads to irrationalism and hubris, and that this brings fake news and a severe lack of tone in its train. But the important part of the statement is the justification: "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality". In other words, what is being claimed is not that America can enjoy its own facts but that it has the power to alter facts on the ground to suit its current worldview and that it can do this wherever and whenever it pleases.

The emblematic value of Suleimani's killing is that the US could do it simply because it chose to, and with little worry about the consequences. The Iranian response has been rhetorically robust but practically timid, and it's unlikely they will want to escalate further given their relative weakness. It's also worth bearing in mind that Tehran remains "ahead" of Washington in terms of tit-for-tat insults simply because nothing the US has managed to do since 1979 has eclipsed the coup de theatre of the Iran hostage crisis. The flimsy justification for Suleimani's assassination is part of the message: we don't need reasons, we simply need the will. Where Obama fretted about ensuring spurious legal cover for his drone attack orders, Trump has the nerve (or lack of self-awareness, if you prefer) to make this clear.


  1. Herbie Destroys the Environment14 January 2020 at 17:50

    “the assassination of Qassim Suleimani”

    They dropped bombs from planes by the way, that isn’t an assassination, it’s a massacre. Let’s be consistent, if ISIS blew up a score of people to get one person they would be called terrorists.

    Incidentally the previous week the US dropped bombs, killing scores, after one of their contractors was killed. When Nazi officials were killed in say Serbia the Nazi would respond by killing scores of villagers.

    The US has some 800+ military bases around the world, Russia have around 8 that could in any way be compared with the US’s and China have even less. Incidentally all of Russia and China’s bases are what by any measure can be described as in the local vicinity. The US bases are literally all over the globe.

    “It is an imperialism that seeks no territorial expansion or physical dominance of trade routes. “

    Then why does the US have aircraft carriers, destroyers in almost every strategically important region on Earth which can be deployed at a moment’s notice? For example straits of hormuz. But literally everywhere. Whoever says it is an imperialism that does not want to dominate trade routes is so fucking dishonest they should never ever be quoted!

    1. Re "Then why does the US have aircraft carriers, destroyers in almost every strategically important region on Earth". The disproportion and ubiquity of US military power is intended to prevent the rise of a competitor, not to control trade routes. For example, the US is not dependent on Middle East oil, but a lot of other countries are, such as Japan. They in turn are beholden to the US for maintaining supply. The quid pro quo for the US is Japanese cleavage to US economic imperialism.

      The US isn't trying to impose a monopoly on extraction in key areas of the globe, as Britain did during its imperial heyday in the 19th century, rather it is trying to universalise its own model of capitalism. The extraction comes through the absence of capital controls, the preferential access for US exports and the global dependence on finance institutions (from commercial banks to the World Bank) that are de facto controlled by Washington.

    2. Herbie Destroys the Environment14 January 2020 at 19:00

      It isn't just oil that they control, it is all the key resources that go into every mobile phone, every bath product, such as lithium and palm oil. The US is the global protector of the major, mostly US, monopolised corporations to loot and pillage the world and control these key resources.

      These US controlled ships, full of looted bounty, are not headed for the ports of Somalia or Syria, they are headed for the ports of the US and its major allies.

      "disproportion and ubiquity of US military power is intended to prevent the rise of a competitor, not to control trade routes"

      For christs sake its both, that is why they named it full spectrum dominance!

      All you are discussing are their constraints, which you have mistakenly linked to intent!