Now About That Big Stick

“Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

Theodore Roosevelt

“When you pick up a stick at one end, you pick up the other end too.”

Indiana, mid-20th century

Theodore Roosevelt coined a new proverb at the 1902 Minnesota State Fair. “Speak softly and carry a big stick” summarized the foreign policy of the day, and moved into oral circulation. It meant the U.S. had enough military force that it didn’t need to threaten. It could exercise its power and still look gentlemanly, graceful and cool. After all, by 1902 the Philippines and Cuba were squared away.

The proverb is now out of date, at least in foreign policy circles, as the United States sees no need to talk softly, although it still talks behind the scenes. The saying might be changed to “Yell as much as you want, and whack a few countries whenever you feel like it.” And we feel like it. As Frank Bardacke wrote recently in Counterpunch, it’s now a naked empire.

The purpose of the coming, already unfolding war is to secure and advance an empire. This is not a war about a nasty dictator, and it is not caused by American consumer greed, whether or not you can afford to gas up your sport utility vehicle. This is a war about extending imperial control around the globe — and Central Asia and the Middle East are critically important to that control. That’s what an empire is — controlling basic resources and making decisions about their use worldwide, unchallenged, long-term.

If we use this framework to understand a war on Iraq, it is clear that there’s a good chance this will not be the only war, but others will follow to bring the rest of these regions under U.S. control. U.S. military bases and access agreements in the Gulf and Central Asia have been growing quickly, especially in the last year. As one friend put it, anywhere there is an oil rig or platform, there’s a U.S. military base or landing strip. American troops are already moving very quickly into Djibouti in the Horn of Africa (New York Times, November 17, 2002); a few weeks ago the New York Times reported that about one-third of Kuwait has been sealed off so it will be accessible to the U.S. troops being deployed there. This buildup is not for military convenience; it is intended as permanent, as are all the new bases in the Central Asian “stans”: Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Kazakhstan.

Even before the 2000 presidential election future Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney developed a document that explains U.S. foreign policy goals: the document is called “Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century.” As Glenn Ford has written in The Black Commentator (, this plan was policy the moment Bush and Cheney assumed office. “The Project for the New American Century” calls for U.S. engagement in as many as four simultaneous wars at any given time for the foreseeable future. These wars would be initiated by the U.S. to eliminate threats from any quarter. The document raised concerns about preparation for four simultaneous fronts. Would this be possible, the Joint Chiefs of Staff worried? Are we prepared enough to fight four simultaneous wars? What about two? The Joint Chiefs have reassured us, yes, two we can handle. More, well, we’ll see.

Ford notes that in the document the word “threat” has been redefined to mean the capability of any state to resist American intervention anywhere on the globe. In other words, any country which dares to act like it ought to be making its own decisions about its territorial integrity and natural resources is a threat to the United States security. Threat means resistance to American and multinational imperial ambitions. Of course Cuba has been treated this way for decades. We can argue whether the empire is truly American, or whether Americans are simply playing, as the folksinger Phil Ochs put it, “cops of the world” for multinational corporations.

In this framework, if the United States attacks Iraq, it will likely follow up by attacking any state which feels threatened by or is seriously destabilized by the assault — that may include Iran — Dick Cheney has said that Iran will follow Iraq as a target. Maybe Syria, perhaps North Korea. The axis of evil changes week by week, but when asked recently what he wanted Americans know about the war, Cheney replied “it will be long.”

Speaking softly is now pass?. The citizens of the United States are being told to think of themselves as imperial, as running the world — the citizens of the U.S. are also being asked to think of themselves as at war more or less all the time. Simultaneous ongoing war mobilization and propagandizing will be the normal state affairs domestically. As Glenn Ford points out, “no nation in human history has ever spoken words that remotely sounded like this.”

So what are the domestic effects of this? Here’s what we know about empires. They are expensive. They keep expanding until strain on their centers is intolerable. They must constantly be shored up, not only by tribute from abroad but by tribute at home. This tribute is money, but of course it is also human lives, quality of life, and liberty.

When I mentioned that empires are expensive, I’m thinking first about the economy. I don’t want you to think that I am a crude materialist, so let me also say that the effects will be social, cultural, and racial. I think our social infrastructure will take a hard hit and our civil and political rights will be drastically eroded as we come to terms with implications of the USA Patriot Act. Our culture will become narrower and more militaristic than it already is. We will learn less of our own history, and less about other countries than we already do because to justify controlling other people’s worlds we must be ignorant of their pasts and their aspirations, and of our own pasts. Our race relations will likely to become worse, because it is very important for Citizens of an Imperial Nation to believe in their own superiority. On November 17, we learned from the New York Times that Iraqis in the US and Iraqi American citizens are now under surveillance and being pressured to inform on each other. Since the world we wish to control has become part of us through immigration, we’ll see a lot more of this and it will exacerbate racial and ethnic divisions. Already our military adventures are justified by racism. That can’t not have an effect at home.

Back to my crude materialism. Bill Moyers recently said that no one ever discussed the economic costs of the Vietnam War in the early years because no one wanted to bring it up. No one had any real idea. Four years later, as young men were coming home in body bags, Johnson took to his bed, pulled the covers up over his head, realizing it was too late to make a true accounting. Today no one is saying, and no one has any real idea. It’s liars poker. Even if the war is limited to Iraq, unfolding over about six or eight months, with a six to eight year occupation and reconstruction following, this will be very costly. And as their document show, the Bush Cheney plan is much more extensive than this six-month scenario.

The most conservative estimates, not including any occupation to contain the hostile parties in the civil war that will follow in Iraq, ring up at about $100 billion for a one year war, this from Harvard University. But a White House economist guesses $278 billion for a six-month war. Needless to say, those estimates are very vague and wildly out of line with each other. no-one has any idea what will happen.

But let’s accept $278 billion over six months, a tiny fraction of the U.S. economy but still a lot of money. Follow that with the same amount over a ten-year occupation, not including reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan. There are two schools of thought about how to think about the social effects of this kind of military spending. Our economic thinkers and political leaders, such as they are, are by no means agreed on this.

The first view, probably dominant in public debate, is that the economy is very vulnerable. Unemployment is up to nearly six percent in the last several years, consumer debt is high, consumer confidence is low, savings are in the negative, the airlines are going under, the telecommunications industry has tanked, major accounting and computer corporations have folded in the last year, the stock market has been sinking drastically for the better part of the last year. The only bright point is housing starts, and they may have peaked.

An oil shock — that is any rise above current prices of about $27 per barrel — would be a direct consequence of an attack on Iraq and the chain reaction of upheaval and disruption in the Middle East. Such a price rise could throw the U.S. economy into a deeper longer recession, one we might actually have to call a depression. Rising oil prices would lead to higher prices and higher costs of doing business, which usually leads to more unemployment, or at least downward pressure on wages, which leads to less spending — all this would be loaded onto a wagon that is already missing at least one wheel.

The stock market clearly does not like the war news for these reasons, among others. The United States situation vis-?-vis the balance of payments is terrible. If foreign banks and investors holding dollars decide the U.S. economy is in trouble, and begin to trade for a stronger currency, the value of the dollar could decline sharply. There is also the question of how the U.S. economy, if it takes a nosedive, affects the rest of the world. If we sneeze and cut back on our imports of cheap goods, as the saying goes the rest of the world catches pneumonia. So, even in a short-term sense, an attack on Iraq could be very destabilizing far beyond the boundaries of the U.S. That is a cost of imperial ambition, and it might not be short-term.

There’s another school of thought on this, and that is that war is good for the economy — military spending generates profits, it generates new jobs in some sectors. Wages might go up. From this point of view a war would prime the economic pump. Wouldn’t all this Empire-provisioning and arming stimulate other spending? Maybe, for some technical and professional sectors, but not for everyone. War spending is generally unproductive spending. We hear a lot about the benefits to our economy of military research and development. In places like Southern California lots of professional and technical people work at their computers on problems like heat seeking missiles,. But not everybody can do that. I think these benefits are overstated. The military tends to invest in high technology equipment with very narrow uses — surveillance, intelligence, command and control, and killing people — and it builds equipment which does not last long and needs continually to be replaced. Bombs, chemical weapons, ammunition, guidance systems, Predator drones. It mobilizes tremendous numbers of people in support of this non-productive investment. If you think replacing bombs and ammunition and gas masks over and over is productive, I suppose this is a kind of productivity. But it’s also worth remembering that the United States already has huge stockpiles of these materials.

We all know that military contractors are notoriously corrupt and charge hundreds of times the real cost for supplying ashtrays and helicopters — and we know that often this vaunted equipment doesn’t do what it claims to. This turned out to be the case with the Patriot missile. Apparently the Patriot could hardly hit anything, despite the grandiose claims of both Raytheon and the “scud-studs” of CNN. But even if military contractors were not corrupt or inept, production for war does not benefit the entire population in a way that is farsighted — it is investment that is not going into the larger society. It doesn’t build nursing homes, it doesn’t build day-care centers or schools. It does subsidize college tuition and classrooms and labs if your professor does war-related research, but it doesn’t ensure people’s health, it doesn’t invest in public transportation. But it certainly does invest in highly dangerous and polluting technologies, like hardened missile shells made of depleted uranium, that are very damaging to the health of American service people. And others. According to William Hughes in Counterpunch (Oct. 25, 2002) ” During the Gulf War alone, the United States left 600,000 pounds of radioactive waste containing depleted uranium from its use of… dirty bombs.” Tens of thousands of veterans of the first Gulf War are still trying to find out what strange combination of radiation, experimental vaccinations and toxic chemicals caused their intractable illnesses, another cost of war. And of course, production for war is a heavy investment in the maiming and death of civilians on the other side. It’s investment in total defeat.

As we found out through the experience of Vietnam, wars are generally inflationary. The government either takes on huge debt to finance them, or prints money (increases the money supply) to pay for them, or both. One way or another, a war must be paid for, and people are generally reluctant to pay for it through taxes. The deficit increases, interest rates rise, and people’s money is worth less. This is why a sector of the business community eventually opposed the Vietnam War, and why a sector of the U.S. business leaders opposes an attack on Iraq. It isn’t just that their sons might come home in body bags — those are mostly poor people’s sons. Business resistance to the Vietnam War was resistance to the inflation ruining the U.S. economy.

We are not in nearly as good economic shape today as when we ventured into Vietnam. One thing that’s different is that the current recession follows on two decades of slashing funding for the public sector. People born in the 1980s have heard the word “budget cuts” and “budget deficit” and ” austerity” their whole lives. The general idea that this language conveys is “there’s not enough wealth in this society to meet everybody’s basic needs.”

I grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, in a very prosperous time. Until the effects of the Vietnam War were really felt, the economy was expanding. Many people’s lives got better. But for today’s military-age generation, “budget cuts” have always been part of the political landscape. But this “shortage” of wealth is military capitalism’s own creation. Because, since the late 1970s, public funds have been sucked from the public sector into the heavily militarized private sector as a matter of public policy, through the massive inflation of the military budget since the first Reagan administration in 1980 and through tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations. That’s why Amtrak barely runs, and why there’s lousy public transportation in poor neighborhoods, and no decent housing for millions of people, and poor public schools, and no universal health insurance in this country, and that’s why college students are paying more tuition and working harder at outside jobs to make ends meet. It’s not that there’s not enough money to go around, it’s that a huge portion of it has been shifted to the military part of the federal budget. At the same time, this has been the greatest and longest period of wealth creation in U.S. history.

So this is where we are starting from as we contemplate expanding our Empire — we are starting from what is on many dimensions the worst record in the industrialized world. In terms of health care, literacy, education, infant mortality, and nutrition the U.S. is a laggard, even at the bottom of the rankings — and we are being asked to pour more of our own resources into the bottomless project of controlling the resources of the rest of the world. A world which we are well aware is not at all happy to have the United States step into this role and will resist. Or, at least the ordinary people of this world are not so happy about it. A lot of small sticks can kindle a great fire. We may win cleanly with our snappy technology, but no war stays won forever. No occupying power is completely invulnerable. We may see uncontrolled social banditry, or we may see one, two, three, many Vietnams.

I view the effects of the war at home as pushing us faster and harder into the downward economic, social, and environmental spiral that we have been spinning in for 20 years now. So, you can’t pick up just one end of this stick. You have to pick up the whole stick.

What would some of the other costs of this empire be? An empire depends on a lot of people defending it at its borders and, and it needs the acquiescence of the population on the home front to being taxed more heavily — through a declining quality of life — to support it. There may be a draft, and that would absorb some of the young unemployed, forget about the middle-aged unemployed. If there is a draft, it will come as a shock. Americans have gotten used to the idea that they could hire other people to fight for them, either with promises of education after completion of service — a promise that is not as good as it is made to sound — or simply because it’s the best job going, which is sometimes called the economic draft. This would be a new draft for which we are already completely prepared through Social Security registration at birth, and selective service registration at age 18 for men. So another cost would be a generation of young people, although it may be possible for privileged Americans to insulate their sons from a draft. This wasn’t entirely possible in Vietnam, although combat casualties were heavily poor, black and brown. During the first Gulf War in 1991 students asked me if I thought it made sense to go to Canada if the draft were revived. As far as I know, there is now an extradition agreement between Canada and the U.S. for draft evaders. Some young men who resisted registration on grounds of conscience in recent years have received heavy prison terms. A draft resistance movement would certainly arise, but penalties will be harsh and swift. But it’s a good bet American leaders will do anything to avoid a draft, because it helps bring the war home to the middle class. That was one of the lessons of Vietnam.

Empires usually become unpopular at home pretty fast. So they require repression and censorship. Another domestic consequence of this war will be increased surveillance, repression, cutbacks in our rights and liberties, and censorship. It is very important that the domestic supporters of wars not know what their empire is doing in their name. Already we are seeing overt censorship of films and filmmakers from Iraq and Iran in this country, their directors (who are censored at home) are refused visas to enter the U.S., that we might not see the people in their films as human beings suffering under U.S. policies. This is a sort of cultural blockade in a country that is already ignorant of the rest of the world. There will also be, is already, repression and censorship of criticism of our new empire — and of course such censorship is already well in place in the USA Patriot Act of 2001. Web sites are being scrubbed, books and CDs are being removed from federal depository libraries; people on my campus are being called “anti-American” for criticizing American policy towards Israel. Green political activists are being classified as terrorists and prevented from boarding international flights. Admiral John Poindexter, a convicted though subsequently pardoned felon, is back in government, in charge of breaking down the barriers between private, commercial, and government information on individuals. For some reason, Adm. Poindexter calls these barriers “stovepipes” which gives me hope that he knows very little about the problems of information management. Anyway, he’s hoping to harmonize us all into a giant database in the service of Homeland Security. These are just a few examples. We have been through a lot of “love it or leave it” before in this country and I think are in for another heavy round. This time, it may be love it or get locked down.

There’s also the question of violence coming home. There is an argument to be made that war with its accompanying military training and service does great damage to the psychology of the men who survive it. We can think of Timothy McVeigh. We can think of John Mohammed. We can think of the wife murderers and wife beaters of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, men who are just back from Afghanistan. There’s a blowback of violence into the home society when people witness or are asked to commit horrific violence on other human beings. During the first Gulf War I knew commercial pilots who knew military pilots who had been debriefed on returning from the Gulf. They were told to say nothing of what they had seen to anyone, and they suffered greatly, according to my friends. Later, the news leaked out about the “turkey shoot” on the road to Basra; the news leaked out about the hundred thousand retreating, surrendering Iraqis killed or buried alive by U.S. super tanks. General Colin Powell said he was indifferent to the number of Iraqi soldiers killed in 1991. All these kinds of events, and Powell’s comments, reveal a culture accepting of extreme violence.

High schools around the country report increasing pressure to reinstitute junior ROTC training, and pressure to extend military studies down into middle and elementary schools. All of this weaves militarism deeper into everyday life. I think of schools having patriotic assemblies on Veterans Day, and my kindergarten-age daughter being asked to sing “Johnny Got His Gun” a few years back. (The principal wasn’t taking any protests from outraged mommies, either). And I think of watching reruns of Saturday Night Live the other night with my son. We saw a Sony PlayStation ad for a “teen level” game called Attack Iraq. It has been designed by Special Forces who served in the Gulf in 1991, and it’s very realistic. It’s almost a training program. We had to see the ad twice before we realized it was not a joke. It’s being offered for the Christmas season.

Finally, but not finally at all, since it is central, there’s the question of race. A lot of people our empire is deployed against are not white, and for historical reasons, powerful Americans find it easy to make them less than human on the basis of skin color. Sadly, a lot of black and brown people will be fighting a lot of other non-white people in this war, but I imagine that the dominant images will be of whites against people of color. You remember the phrase “nuke the sand gooks” from 1991? A lot propagandistic pressure is going to have to be applied to get people to buy into the empire for the long haul. Racism will grease the wheels of a machine that will not otherwise run by itself. Racial division may be one of the lubricants. Again, Glenn Ford has made this point eloquently. And he also points out that much of the empire — or our future empire — is here at home, too. We already know how Iraqi-Americans are being treated. How will Arab-Americans, Pakistani-Americans, and Iranian-Americans be treated? How will they be expected to act? Will they be able to fade into the woodwork in fear, as German-Americans did here during World War I? Will they be interned like the Italian-Americans and Japanese-Americans? Will they be deported? Will they have any rights of dissent at all? After what has happened in Lackawanna NY, with the secret and summary arrests of 12 Arab-Americans, I would imagine that recent immigrants are very frightened indeed. You can’t pick up just one end of this very dirty stick.

SUSAN DAVIS teaches at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign. This column was adapted from a teach-in there on Nov. 12. She can be reached at