Back to Cleopatra’s Nose

Bush-bashing has become not only a national but international sport — and a diversion.

Although Caligula, the third Roman emperor, was despotic and brutal, he is rumored to have entertained a self-deprecating idea: to appoint his favorite horse, Incitatus, first to a seat in the Senate and then to the position of Consul. This may have been Caligula’s perverse way of suggesting that the Roman Empire had a dynamic of its own, largely independent of its cascade of caesars.

Today, with the disaster in Iraq and a ticking time bomb in the Greater Middle East, the problem is less the person of President George W. Bush than the nature of the American imperium — born of the Spanish-American War, and transformed after the Second World War into the Pax Americana.
Just as the U.S. not only easily survived the Vietnam misadventure (and actually emerged strengthened from it), so it is apt to surmount the Iraq fiasco virtually unscathed. Though momentarily disconcerted, the empire is bound to continue on its way, under bipartisan and corporate direction, and sanctified by evangelical blessings.

It is a defining characteristic of the mature imperial state that it can afford costly failures, paid for not by its elites but by the lower orders at home and abroad. To be sure, like all others, the American empire will decline. But it will not fall or collapse overnight: like old soldiers, empires “do not die, they just fade away.” Even rumors of its imminent decline are greatly exaggerated, especially since for the foreseeable future it remains the sole superpower.

But while they endure, vainglorious and overextended, empires suffer injuries to their power and prestige. In such moments they have a tendency to lash out ferociously and randomly, to avoid being taken for paper tigers. Given Washington’s predicament in Baghdad and its fallout regionally, will the U.S. strike Iran or Syria, Cuba or Venezuela? Will it intervene militarily in Lebanon? The wounded beast can still do unthinkable damage, what with an arsenal of 10,000 nuclear warheads as its ultima ratio.

The U.S. military is the strongest the world has ever known. This befits the most far-flung empire in recorded history. Preponderant on sea, in the air, and in space, it has the capacity to project its power over enormous distances with uncommon speed, as behooves a self-appointed policeman rushing to master or exploit putative crises anywhere on earth. In the words of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, “no corner of the world is remote enough, no mountain high enough, no cave or bunker deep enough, no SUV fast enough to protectour enemies from our reach.” With 25 per cent of its yearly budget, the U.S. spends almost as much on “defense” as the rest of the world combined. Even if bad for society as a whole, what is good for the American military is good for the economy, including the flourishing arms industry and lucrative weapons exports. With the arms race heating up in the Greater Middle East alone the Persian Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, will spend $60 billion on state-of-the-art weapons, the bulk of them from the U.S.

Instead of establishing classic territorial colonies, the U.S. secures its hegemony by way of some 700 military, naval, air, and intelligence bases overseas, in about 100 countries and counting, notably those established only yesterday in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Rumania, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Ethiopia, and Kenya. It is an unprecedented non-territorial, hyper-interventionist empire without borders, which, in addition to at least 16 “intelligence” agencies, requires and commands a giant-size navy and air force.

Today the U.S. has 12 aircraft carriers. All but three are nuclear-powered, designed to carry some 80 state-of-the-art planes and helicopters as well as sizable contingents of marines, sailors, and pilots. A task force centered around a supercarrier includes cruisers, destroyers, and submarines, many of them atomic-driven and with offensive and defensive missiles ready to be used anywhere. Prepositioned in forward bases and constantly patrolling critical sea lanes, the U.S. Navy provides the new-model empire’s spinal cord and arteries.

The entire world is America’s stamping ground. And at least since Woodrow Wilson’s presidency the hegemon’s perennially abortive aim has been to spread far and wide the values and principles of representative government combined with free-market capitalism.

The 2006-07 American military presence in the Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean, and surrounding waters is emblematic of its power. The deployment is meant to leave no doubt as to Washington’s ability to flex its muscles half way around the globe. Operating out of Bahrain, Qatar, and Djibouti, at least two carrier battle groups complete with landing craft, amphibious vehicles, and thousands of sailors and marines, along with Special Operations teams, serve notice that-in the words of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, speaking in Kabul in mid-January, 2007-the U.S. will continue to have “a strong presence in the Gulf for a long time into the future,” a resolve America was simply reaffirming “with the current naval and military build-up throughout the region.” A week later, speaking in Dubai, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns declared that “the Middle East isn’t a region to be dominated by Iran. The Gulf isn’t a body of water to be controlled by Iran. That’s why we’ve seen the U.S. station two carrier battle groups in the region.” Or, as he said in plain English: “Iran is going to have to understand that the U.S. will protect its interests if Iran seeks to confront us.”

Gates and Burns did not say anything that could not have been said by any secretary of defense or state, any CIA director, or any president during the past 50 years. Whereas the crucial geostrategic interest and the quintessential oil factor are constants in the Greater Middle East, the changing regimes and government leaders in Tehran are variables: Mossadegh, Pahlavi, Khomeini, Ahmadinejad. In Baghdad, the same.

Of course ultra-modern conventional armed forces and weapons are ill-suited to fight the new-fangled war against non-state actors resorting, so far, to simple arms and tactics. But supercarriers, supersonic aircraft, anti-missile missiles, military satellites, surveillance robots, and unmanned vehicles and boats are not yet out of season. They keep their pride of place in the imperial armory.

Besides, since 1945 interference in the internal affairs of other states has been the coin of the realm, one nation’s benign foreign “intervention” or “assistance” constituting another nation’s iniquitous “meddling.” For this new international politics, America is particularly well-situated, and has seen fit to interfere in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Bolivia, etc.

As the sway of the American empire’s military is unrivaled, so are its runaway economy, syncretic culture, and big science. Notwithstanding gigantic budget and trade deficits, which endanger its financial structure, overall the economy remains robust and pace-setting in “creative destruction,” never mind the domestic and foreign social costs. The U.S. holds a substantial research lead in cybernetics, molecular biology, and neuroscience, significantly facilitated by research universities and institutes that are publicly, privately, and corporately funded. They are the envy of the rest of the world, which, despite itself, contributes its share of brainpower and cash to America’s peerless universe of research and development.

Unsurprisingly, the country reaps disproportionate harvests of Nobel Prizes in the natural sciences and in economics, as well as patents in scores of fields. No less revealing of imperial reach and energy, American English has become the closest ever to a global lingua franca. This phenomenon is at once cause and effect of the enormous leverage of government-supported and U.S.-dominated or -affiliated business and financial multinationals. Nurtured by Wall Street, American consumer and popular culture invades even the most remote precincts of the planet, for good and ill. In the imperial center, Wal-Mart and McDonald’s, Hollywood and Rock serve to propitiate the plebs with bread and circuses to the benefit of the ruling and governing classes.

The empire has extraordinary reserves of hard and soft power for persisting in its polymorphous interventionism. However dire its involvement in Iraq, it is likely to have the wherewithal and will to stay its arrogant and perfidious course. Granted, there is a troop deficit and a strategic dissonance in the face of the unexpected surge of the latest irregular warfare not only in Iraq but throughout the Greater Middle East and Eastern Africa. But the deficit is sure to be remedied by an increase in ground forces, partly by having private firms raise soldiers and civil missionaries as well as by mustering foreign mercenaries and legionnaires. Even today thousands of Latin American mercenaries are serving in Iraq. As for the strategy, it will be updated from the counterinsurgency doctrine that was tailored to fit, imperfectly, the Vietnam era’s “internal” warfare.

Naturally Washington masks its self-interest with proclamations about the selfless promotion of security, human rights, welfare, and democracy for all humankind. However-and regardless of party-for the elites there is an absolute necessitude and priority: until the implosion of the Soviet Union it was to lay the specter of communism; since September 11 it is to slay the serpent of terrorist and jihadist “Islamo-fascism.” In the one case the head of the hydra was said to be in Moscow, in the other it is said to be-for the moment-in Tehran. The prerogatives of empire take precedence over reform in both the epicenter and the provinces, thus fostering the growth of what Arnold Toynbee termed an “internal” and “external” proletariat.
The Iraq Study Group’s report of December 6, 2006, is not so much concerned with the turmoil on the Tigris per se as it is with its impact on the empire’s momentum and position.

Iraq is vital to regional and even global stability, and is critical to US interests. It runs along the sectarian fault lines of Shiite and Sunni Islam, and of Kurdish and Arab populations. It has the world’s second-largest known oil reserves. It is now a base of operations for international terrorism, including Al-Qaeda. Iraq is a centerpiece of American foreign policy, influencing how the United States is viewed in the region and around the world. Because of the gravity of Iraq’s condition and the country’s vital importance, the United States is facing one of its most difficult and significant international challenges.

Iraq matters because, should it “descend further into chaos,” it risks diminishing “the global standing of the United Statesand Americans could become more polarized.”

James A. Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton, as much as Robert Gates and Brent Scowcroft, take it as given that the U.S. will continue to make the law in the Greater Middle East, as it has during the last half century. The report is straightforward:

Even after the United States has moved all combat brigades out of Iraq, we would maintain a considerable military presence in the region, with our still significant force in Iraq and with our powerful air, ground, and naval deployments in Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar, as well as an increased presence in Afghanistan.

The Iraq report offers further proof that support for the imperial imperative-for now centered on and perplexed by Iraq and Iran-is thoroughly consensual. Predictably, the Baker-Hamilton tandem turned for help to the best and the brightest of the so-called non- or bipartisan organizations and the think tanks that have proliferated since the short Vietnam winter. Wielding considerable influence, the two combined have become a sort of fifth estate. Their patrons, boards, administrators, and in-house intellectuals are an integral part of the Imperial Establishment. Several of these institutions, some of whose staff prepared questions, submitted position papers, and helped draft the Iraq report, make no secret of their engagement.

The United States Institute of Peace, for example, the Baker-Hamilton Commission’s chief facilitator, “is an independent, nonpartisan, national institution established and funded by Congress[whose] goals are to help prevent and resolve violent international conflicts, promote post-conflict stability and democratic transformations, and increase peacebuilding capacity, tools, and intellectual capital worldwide,[inclusive of] direct involvement in peace-building efforts around the globe.”

Drawing trustees and counselors “equally from the worlds of public policy and the private sector,” the “bipartisan” Center for Strategic and International Study was another major consultant. Its aim is to “advance global security and prosperity in an era of economic and political transformation by providing strategic insights and practical solutions to decision makers[as they] look into the future and anticipate change.” Among its members figure acting or former CEOs of Time Inc., Coca-Cola, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers, Exxon Mobil, Morgan Stanley, and Professor Joseph S. Nye of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. The panel of counselors includes Harold Brown, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Frank Carlucci, Carla Hills, Henry Kissinger, James Schlesinger, and Brent Scowcroft. The chairs of six insider, revolving-door, global consultant and investment corporations are part of this coterie.

Privately funded organizations work the same territory. The “nonpartisan” International Republican Institute, chaired by Senator John McCain, professes to “advance freedom and democracy worldwide by developing political parties, civic institutions, open elections, good governance, and the rule of law.” In like manner the “nonprofit” National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, chaired by Madeleine Albright, works “to strengthen and expand democracy worldwide” by providing “practical assistance to civic and political leaders advancing democratic values, practices, and institutionsin every region of the world.” With a narrower compass the self-advertised “bipartisan” but far-right Washington Institute for Near East Policy is chartered “to advance a balanced and realistic understanding of American interests in the Middle East[and to] promote an American engagement in the Middle East committed to strengthening alliances, nurturing friendships, and promoting security, peace, prosperity, and democracy for the people of the region.”

As a matter of course, the Commission also took counsel with thinkers, ex-officials, and pundits of certified research and policy institutes like the Council on Foreign Relations, the Brookings Institution, the Rand Corporation, and the American Enterprise Institute. Whatever their political proclivities, very few, if any, of these policy centers and wonks question the political, economic, and social costs and benefits of empire for the U.S. and the world. By force of habit, they proffer conflicting strategic and tactical advice, but their disagreements and debates are about the means and ends of decision-making rather than its underlying values and ethical norms, spoken and unspoken.

Whereas the neo-conservatives brazenly preach the credo of America’s brand of the mission civilisatrice, the bipartisan “vital” centrists do so sotto voce, as have all administrations since 1945. Even the most ardent centrist critics of the neoconservatives’ hubris are most definitely not anti-imperials.

Nor are they critics of Washington’s all but unconditional support of Israel. Indeed, although the centrists approve the Iraq Study Group’s recommendation to temper ideological politics with realpolitik in the Middle East, they, like the neocons, oppose any linkage between the Iraqi and Israel-Palestinian deadends. Both balk at the report’s suggestion that the U.S. “cannot achieve its goals in the Middle East unless it deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict and regional instability.” The study group recommends that Washington meet the moderate Sunni Arab countries’ demand for a genuine push for comprehensive and equitable peace negotiations in exchange for their help in calming the waters in Iraq and its environs, broadly conceived, including the Persian Gulf. Concerning Israel and Iran, Democrats and Republicans tend to be of one mind.

Transparently the crux of the imperial matter is not Bush; nor will it be, tomorrow, John McCain or Sam Brownback, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. Pascal mused that if Cleopatra’s nose had been shorter, “the whole face of the world would have been changed.” No doubt Mark Antony’s passion for his queen had less to do with his defeat in the Battle of Actium than the strength, tactics, and morale of the naval forces Octavian arrayed against him.

ARNO J. MAYER is Professor of History, Emeritus Princeton University. Among his books is The Furies: Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolution.


Arno Mayer is the Dayton-Stockton Professor of History, Emeritus, at Princeton. He can be reached at