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Getting Beyond the Either / Or Choice

A Kinder, Gentler Imperialism?

by COREY D. B. WALKER

“Even those who do not share the views of the old generals and proconsuls of the U.S. world empire (which were those of Democratic as well as Republican administrations) will agree that there can be no rational justification of current Washington policy in terms of the interests of America’s imperial ambitions. . . ."

Eric Hobsbawm

Both major party presidential candidates have been sparring over the focus, scope, and reach of the Bush Administration’s self-proclaimed “War on Terrorism.”  Each, in their own way, look to tweak the grand designs of imperial power to properly and correctly align it with their particular ideological proclivities and vision of American global hegemony.  

Whether it is Senator McCain’s continuation of the war in Iraq or Senator Obama’s intense focus on the theatre of conflict in Afghanistan (and extending into Pakistan), both candidates have chosen not to challenge the underlying foundational assumptions that have informed American foreign policy and national security policy since the events of 11 September 2001. 

Both candidates agree with the deeply flawed language and logic that our nation is at “war.”  As military historian Sir Michael Howard opined almost seven years ago, “[T]o use, or rather to misuse the term ‘war’ is not simply a matter of legality, or pedantic semantics. It has deeper and more dangerous consequences. To declare that one is ‘at war’ is immediately to create a war psychosis that may be totally counter-productive for the objective that we seek. It will arouse an immediate expectation, and demand, for spectacular military action against some easily identifiable adversary, preferably a hostile state; action leading to decisive results.”  In this respect, Senator McCain will have us “win” in Iraq and Senator Obama will have us “win” in Afghanistan. 

While both campaigns have given lip service to the need for increased diplomacy – Senator Obama much more so than his republican counterpart – neither campaign has decided to make a decisive break with the fundamentally flawed logic that has governed and continues to reign supreme in American foreign policy circles.  Indeed, neither candidate is prepared to repudiate the flawed doctrine of massive military action as a primary response to the challenges of rogue networks of stateless actors who employ terroristic measures to achieve their ideological aims and objectives.

In several significant ways, the foreign policy differences between the two candidates can best be understood as two competing visions for the enhancement and perpetuation of American imperialism.

After the events of 11 September 2001, the Bush regime decided to formulate and implement a foreign policy that placed a premium on unilateral military action in imposing the dictates of a renewed American imperialism.  Deliberation, debate, and diplomacy were jettisoned in pursuing a global vision of unquestioned American supremacy that would ensure the safety and security of the “homeland.”  Rehearsing the discourse of impending threat, the current regime strategically reoriented the American state – consolidated considerable power within the Executive branch, deepened the politicization of the governmental bureaucracy, significantly shifted and militarized foreign assistance, realigned corporate interests with foreign military policy, among other things – to domesticate and disseminate a “benign” imperialism always and already in our own interests.

Initially supported by a majority of the American public and given legitimacy by the mainstream intellectual class, the Bush regime’s imperialist vision no longer claims majority support or sufficient legitimacy.  But despite this loss of legitimacy and support, the underlying principles continue to inform discussions of the proper aims and goals of American foreign policy in this election cycle.

Whether war in Iraq or Afghanistan, whether the will to win or the dedication to lead, whether little discussion or considered diplomacy, this presidential election cycle reminds us that while the bellicose imperialism of the Bush regime is entering its final days, American imperialism will continue, albeit with a different set of actors.

And it is this imperialism that marginalizes alternative visions of relations between sovereign nations and that imperils the prospects for a global peace. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. famously stated, “I want to say one other challenge that we face is simply that we must find an alternative to war and bloodshed. Anyone who feels, and there are still a lot of people who feel that way, that war can solve the social problems facing mankind is sleeping through a great revolution.” 

If we are to move beyond perpetual war to a planetary peace, we must realistically recognize not only the limitations of military actions in achieving social and political goals, but, more importantly begin to critically examine and systematically disavow the imperialistic principles and doctrines that guide and govern American foreign policy.

The challenge Americans face is not simply an either/or choice in that grand low intensity spectator sport of national presidential elections.    Rather, the true challenge is not to remain asleep and complicit with the further escalation of America’s imperial ambitions in its new guise – either reconfigured or with a velvet cover –, but to wake up and continue that great revolution that calls us to become more human and struggle for a more humane existence.

COREY D. B. WALKER is an assistant professor of Africana studies at Brown University and the author of A Noble Fight:  African American Freemasons and the Struggle for Democracy in America, which will be published in October.