Investigative Journalism that is as
Radical as Reality Itself.

Empire of Denial

by MIKE MARQUSEE

During the heyday of British, French, Belgian or Portuguese colonialism, if you asked the citizens of London, Paris, Brussels or Lisbon whether their countries were the seats of great transcontinental empires, they would have answered ‘yes’, unhesitatingly, and most would have taken pride in the fact. But stop an American in the street today, and ask the same question, and you’re most likely to get a quizzical look.

The US maintains military bases in 140 foreign countries (needless to say, there are no foreign military bases on US territory). Thanks to exorbitant military spending more than the combined total of the 32 next most well-armed nations – the US enjoys a unique and coercive global reach, a monopoly which it intends to preserve at all costs, as the current National Security Strategy makes clear. The US claims and exercises a prerogative to topple other regimes and occupy other countries that it denies to all other nation-states. Through the IMF, WTO and World Bank, it shapes the economic destinies of most people on the planet. The fact is that the fate of billions living beyond US borders is determined by decisions made in Washington.

Yet, we are told, this is not an empire. True, the US prefers indirect over direct rule; its domination is exercised, for the most part, through military and commercial alliances, rather than outright conquest. But empires of the past have also used these methods. What really makes the US different is the persistence and in most cases the sincerity of its imperial denial.

Shortly after the invasion of Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld insisted to Aljazeera: "We’re not a colonial power. We’ve never been a colonial power." Colin Powell agreed: "We have never been imperialists. We seek a world in which liberty, prosperity and peace can become the heritage of all peoples." They seemed astonished and offended that anyone could think otherwise.

The litany of disclaimers echoes down the years. Sandy Berger, Clinton’s national security advisor, described the US as "the first global power in history that is not an imperial power." Nixon wrote in his memoirs that the US was "the only great power without a history of imperialistic claims." When Johnson sent troops to topple an elected government in the Dominican Republic in 1965, he insisted: "Over the years of our history our forces have gone forth into many lands, but always they returned when they were no longer needed. For the purpose of America is never to suppress liberty, but always to save it."

The history of denial is as long as the history of intervention and that goes back to the first decades of the republic, when US forces engaged in military action to protect US shipping in the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, Sumatra and Peru. In US foreign policy, respect for the sovereignty of others has always come second to commercial interests. By the end of the 19th century, the US had annexed Hawaii, along with dozens of smaller islands across the Pacific, and used military force to secure a foothold in the markets of China and Japan.

When it prised the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico from the dying Spanish empire in 1898, the US declared "a new day of freedom" in these "liberated" lands. Filipinos took the rhetoric seriously and rebelled against the imposition of US rule. After more than a decade of brutal counter-insurgency, a quarter of a million Filipinos had been killed, and 4200 Americans. This was ten times the number of Americans killed in the brief Spanish-American War. Yet US history textbooks routinely assign far more space to the latter than the former.

America, Woodrow Wilson declared, was "the only idealistic nation in the world". He proclaimed "national self-determination" as the cornerstone of a new world order, but deployed US military forces overseas more frequently than any of his predecessors: against Mexico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Panama, Nicaragua and the nascent Soviet Union.

Thanks to history textbooks, Hollywood, television and politicians (Democrat and Republican), the US people are kept in ignorance of their imperial past. Each intervention is presented as an altruistic response to a crisis. Since there is no American empire, no pattern, habit or system of extra-territorial domination, the motive for each intervention is assessed at face value. Somehow the principles of liberty and human happiness always seem magically to coincide with American national self-interest or, more precisely, the economic interests of the US elite.

In recent years, the fact that America is an empire has become less of a secret, even to Americans. Commentators such as Robert Kaplan and Niall Fergusson have urged the US to abandon its blushes and face up to its imperial responsibilities. In a new twist on "the white man’s burden" (which Kipling urged on the US at the time of the Philippine War), they argue that empires have been and can be benign, and that the US is a liberal empire, or, in the words of Michael Ignatieff, "an empire lite, a global hegemony whose grace notes are free markets, human rights and democracy".

The appeal of this new imperial rhetoric seems largely restricted to sections of the intelligentsia – both liberal and conservative. Bush and US spokespersons are careful to avoid or refute it, most Americans are uncomfortable or bewildered by it, and it is simply unacceptable to those in Asia, Africa and Latin America whose lives and consciousness have been shaped by anti-colonial movements.

Opposition to foreign domination is not an emotional spasm. It is grounded in history and experience and the balance of probabilities (not least the probability that the imperial power will place its own interests before those of the people it rules). The rationalisations and even the forms of empire change but the underlying reality does not. Decisive power, military and economic, remains in the hands of a distant elite.

Whether it’s talk of "empire lite" or Bush-style unilateralism, you can hear the drumbeat of the old American exceptionalism, the claim that the US has a unique destiny and that this destiny embodies the fate of humankind. History has taught peoples in many lands to fear the USA’s altruism. In a poem from the early 1920s entitled ‘The Evening Land’, DH Lawrence wrote:

I am so terrified, America,
Of the iron click of your human contact.
And after this
The winding-sheet of your selfless ideal love.
Boundless love
Like a poison gas.

MIKE MARQUSEE is the author of Wicked Messenger: Dylan in the 1960s and Redemption Song: Muhammed Ali and the Sixties. He can be reach through his website: www.mikemarqusee.com

This column originally ran in The Hindu.

 

July 07, 2015
ANDRE VLTCHEK
In Ecuador, Fight for Mankind; In Greece, Fight for Greece!
Nile Bowie
Obama’s Pacific Trade Deal Trails Behind China’s Development Vision
Binoy Kampmark
Warrior Economist: the Varoufakis Legacy
Shamus Cooke
Unions Must Act Now to Survive Supreme Court Deathblow
Dave Lindorff
The Greek People Have Voted ‘No!’ to Austerity and Economic Blackmail
Bruce K. Gagnon
Sanders Bullshit Meter Goes Off the Charts in Portland, Maine
Mateo Pimentel
The Pope’s Letter: Neoliberalism and Fukushima
Raouf Halaby
Beware Those Who Speak With Forked Tongues
Ron Jacobs
The Grateful Dead: The Ship of the Sun Bids Farewell
Jonathan Cook
Hasbara Industry: Why Israel’s Army of Spin-Doctors is Doomed to Defeat
Rev. William Alberts
Charleston: a Reality Check on Racism in America
Ellen Brown
A Franciscan Alternative: the People’s Pope and a People’s Bank?
Colin Todhunter
The Warped World of the GMO Lobbyist
John Wight
Who Will Join With Greece?
W. T. Whitney
Colombia’s Fensuagro Union is Revolutionary, Persecuted, and Undaunted
Mel Gurtov
Keep It in the Ground, Obama
July 06, 2015
MICHAEL HUDSON
Greece Rejects the Troika
Steve Hendricks
Will FIFA’s World Cup Sexism Ever Die?
Binoy Kampmark
Oxi in Greece
Gareth Porter
How US Spin on Access to Iranian Sites has Distorted the Issue
Peter Bach
ISIL and Ramadan in the Rag
Paul Craig Roberts
A Rebuke to EU-Imposed Austerity
Quincy Saul
The View from Mount Olympus
Robert Hunziker
Looking Inside Fukushima Prefecture
Norman Pollack
Capitalism’s Self-Revealing Practices
ADRIENNE PINE, RICHARD JOHNSTON, FIONA WILMOT, et al.
Seven Reasons to Scrap the USA’s $1 Billion Aid Package to Central America
David Macaray
Could Justice Scalia Be the One to Rescue Labor?
Linn Washington Jr.
Storm Smashes Chris Christie’s Presidential Candidacy
Benjamin Willis
US and Cuba: What Remains to be Done?
Robert David Steele
The National Military Strategy: Dishonest Platitudes
Joan Roelofs
Whatever Happened to Eastern European Communism?
Weekend Edition
July 3-5, 2015
Mike Whitney
The Pentagon’s “2015 Strategy” For Ruling the World
Jason Hirthler
Going Off-Script in St. Petersburg
Rob Urie
Greece and Global Class War
DIMITRIS KONSTANTAKOPOULOS
The Future of Greece Without Illusions
David Rosen
White Skin Crisis
Jerry Lembcke
Nobody Spat on American GIs!
Stavros Mavroudeas
The Greek Referendum and the Tasks of the Left
ANDRE VLTCHEK
Ecuador Fights for Survival – Against its Elites
Andrew Levine
Dumping on Dixie Again
Richard Pithouse
Charleston (It’s Not Over)
Arun Gupta
What Does It Mean to Call Dylann Roof a “Terrorist”?
Michael Welton
The Tragedy of Harper’s Canada
Brendan McQuade
The Right Wing Resurgence and the Problem of Terrorism
Chris Floyd
Heritage and Hokum in Rebel Banner Row