Look at 2008 symbolically! Some 60 years ago, the United States emerged as the world power. Henry Luce formally announced the arrival of “The American Century” even before the country entered World War II. Luce thought the United States should become the world’s missionary, spreading Christian values and democracy. US history had woven together a people with noble purpose, Luce argued, and had “the most exciting flag of all the world and of all history,” blowing toward the “triumphal purpose of freedom.”
Luce, owner of the publishing empire (Time, Life and Fortune), waxed eloquent, calling on all Americans “each to his own measure of capacity, and each in the widest horizon of his vision, to create the first great American Century. (February 1941 Life; see also Philip S Golub’s October 2007 essay in Le Monde Diplomatique.)`
It happened. After World War II, Luce’s dream conditions became reality. The United States possessed more than 50% of the world’s manufacturing capacity. The powers of Europe and Asia lay in ruins. But politicians and media eschewed the word “empire” to describe the nation that used its dollar as world currency base, set up vast military alliances (NATO, CENTO and SEATO) and, by the early 1950s, had established military bases in scores of other countries and begun to stockpile nuclear weapons.
US leaders used the Soviet “threat” — the wicked commies would overrun all other countries — to justify such an extension of might. As they “checked” Soviet desires of expansion US corporations and banks moved quickly into much of the non-Soviet world. (The media did not make public the fact that Soviet railroad gauges did not coincide with those in their East European colonies, thus making the supply of a potential invasion nearly impossible.)
Washington invented a Marshall Plan and other popular schemes to help rebuild a thriving capitalism in and a junior partnership with Western Europe. Such behavior did frighten a defensive Soviet Premier Stalin who, in the immediate post war period, refused support comrades in Greece and Iran apparently in response to threats by President Truman.
The Cold War posited a good West against an evil East. Stalin’s behavior helped meet that stereotype, but the Soviets never built a rival economy. Indeed, they possessed no corporations or banks to loot Eastern Europe. Without them, the Soviets had few means with which to transfer wealth from their supposed colonies.
No matter. Facts did not intrude on the political axioms developed by the Cold Warriors. The United States became the protector of the free world. Then, around 1990, the Soviets imploded. But the institutions designed to protect the West from the threat of that wickedness not only remained but grew. NATO, for example expanded. Indeed, in 2002, Washington even sponsored a NATO-Russia council. The number of US bases abroad grew to some 800.
At home, politicians’ rhetoric denied the existence of empire as the very context of US life even as the military consumed giant hunks of the budget (some $700 billion) at a time when no nation even remotely threatened US security militarily.
Leading presidential aspirants and Congressional leaders continue to ignore this issue lest the public get a glimpse of the empire without a wardrobe. They enable the naked miscreants of power Bush, Cheney and the neo cons to continue to bleed the treasury through a capricious war and occupation.
In the 2008 election over whom shall run the empire, Republicans and Democrats ignore the lingering toxicity of US defeat in Vietnam. “Patriotism” still entails chanting slogans (support our troops) and rejecting the syndrome that followed the Vietnam War don’t fight anyone who can fight back. The Republicans still want to revive the US reputation as a “winner.” (The last time the US actually won a war where the enemy fought back — was 1945)
The Iraq invasion and subsequent occupation has proven beyond unpopular with the public. Upper national security bureaucrats have begun to express their deep unease about the predicament. In 2006, retired generals, senior intelligence, diplomatic and security officials also made public attacks on the Bush policy, led by General William Odom and Colonel Larry Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former chief of staff. Odom, who headed the NSA under Reagan, called the invasion of Iraq the “greatest strategic disaster in United States history.” (Associated Press, Oct. 5 2005.
Wilkerson labeled it a “blunder of historic proportions.” (Washington Post, Jan. 19 2006) Former Carter National Security Council boss Zbigniew Brzezinski described Iraq as a “historic, strategic and moral calamity.” (Senate Foreign Relations Committee, February 1, 2007)
These establishment attacks stress Bush mismanagement, arrogance and incompetence as well as his straying from the traditional alliance system — for losing US hegemony in the Middle East and Gulf. The critics of Bush’s policy fear that Iraq may have seriously weakened the US military, the entity that stands as central enforcer of empire. Brzezinski told Congress that Bush’s Iraq and Afghanistan wars had undermined “America’s global legitimacy.”
After the United States left Vietnam with its proverbial tail between its legs, revolutions won power in Nicaragua and Grenada traditional back yard areas. Similarly, the travails of the US military have gone hand in glove with left gains in Latin America. Voters in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, and even Guatemala and Paraguay indicated not only their disgust with US economic policies, but showed their lack of respect for US power as well.
In 1959, only Cuba dared act disobediently; other nations knew the price of such rebellion: invasion or CIA destabilization. Similarly, Bush’s 2002 “Axis of Evil” threat did not work on North Korea or Iran. Bush had to negotiate with a regime he had declared “off limits.” Moreover, China, which now holds the power of being a major US creditor, has also emerged as a big time Asian player.
Sixty years ago, Washington made plans to install a primitive defense system in Western Europe. Bush wants to extend that system to Poland and other newly “freed” countries. But some of the old allies take exception. Indeed, ass kissing regimes like Saudi Arabia even dare to object to some US policies. In the once monopolized sphere of the UN and other world financial institutions, Washington cannot dictate terms so easily.
The world has watched George W. Bush lead the United States from a bright dream toward an incipient nightmare. Under his rule, the dollar has dropped in value. His Homeland Security goons have mistreated potential tourists hoping to use the cheap dollar to get “bargains.” A young Icelandic woman trying to enter the United States once symbolized by the Statue of Liberty was imprisoned for more than 24 hours, treated inhospitably, and rudely deported. HS claimed she had overstayed a visa by three days more than a decade earlier.
This kind of story mixes with reports and images of US behavior in Iraq the Abu Ghraib torture photos circulated widely — around the world. For the US power elite, George W. Bush and his neo con partners have made the world deeply unsettling.
US leaders have assumed for sixty years that they had replaced their British cousins as the world’s elite, that as movers and shakers of the new dominant power they had a mandate from God or history to maintain stability, to make the rules for the economy.
My late professor, William Appleman Williams, lectured about how US leaders suffered from “visions of omnipotence.” Because they had overwhelming economic and military power they believed they would forever prevail. But they did not in Korea in 1953; nor in Vietnam in 1975. In 2008, a daily drain saps the Treasury as US military forces in Afghanistan and Iraq fail expensively — to overcome adverse conditions that no military could hope to achieve.
Soviet collapse in 1990 led to the rise of the neo cons, demanding that Washington become the new Rome. By starting with the conquest of Iraq, they would spread the US order throughout the Middle East. It has not worked and democracy is not what the United States wants to bring.
Presidential aspirants of both Parties ignore this fact. None address the issue of what role a weakened United States should play in the emerging world of the 21st Century when the US economy no longer provides the pillar of economic stability; when its technologically omnipotent military failed to defeat less equipped foes. As global warming intensifies and UN rules, created by the United States for other nations to follow, have lost prestige, what should Washington do?
Republicans save for Libertarian Ron Paul want more military. They have become a sick joke. But Hillary? Barack? John? Is it premature to ask them after only 60 years of the American Century? Or, in lieu of US political imagination and courage, will the answers come from abroad?
SAUL LANDAU writes a regular column for CounterPunch and progresoweekly.com. His new Counterpunch Press book is A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD. His new film, WE DON’T PLAY GOLF HERE (on globalization in Mexico) won the VIDEOFEST 2007 Award for best activist video. The event was held in October at the Roxie Theater. The film is available through firstname.lastname@example.org