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Old habits die hard, especially imperialist ones. Imperial imperatives, whether economic, geopolitical, or ideological, persist because the ruling elites are dependent on them. In order to conceal imperialist objectives, presidents and other leaders of the US political class rely on the rhetoric of national security and America’s supposed benevolent global purpose.
And, so, with President Obama’s announcement of sending 30,000 more US troops to Afghanistan, the cadets at West Point and the viewing public once more heard that our national security was at stake. A spreading “cancer,” threatening to metastasize throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan, had to be militarily extirpated. Conveniently overlooking the correlation between the growth of a Pashtun insurgency and US occupation, Obama tried to wrap his rhetoric in the resonances of 9/11 and the longer shadow of US-sponsored global security. No mention of the politics of pipelines, only the “noble struggle for freedom.”
Once more an imperial mission was hidden behind an ideological smokescreen. Yet, this continuing military intervention, even with a well-timed exit strategy, cannot stop the inexorable march of declining US global hegemony. It is proving more difficult to round-up an international posse for this so-called “reluctant sheriff.” Although Obama made obtuse allusions to NATO allies in Afghanistan, many countries are pulling out, the most recent being Canada and the Netherlands.
In Afghanistan and Pakistan, civilian casualties from US drone attacks continue, even in the face of universal condemnation by human rights organizations. All of Obama’s rhetorical skills cannot hide these hideous facts on the ground. Added to these egregious war crimes are other instances of on-going US arrogance from refusing to sign the landmine treaty to expanding military bases in Colombia.
When Obama cites, as he did in his West Point address, US criticism of tyranny, he pointedly neglects Colombia’s abysmal human rights record. Alluding briefly to the “fraud” of the recent Afghanistan presidential election, Obama ignores the endemic corruption and tyranny of US allies among Tajik warlords. In Honduras, while Obama seemed to signal opposition to the brutal coup against Zelaya, he eventually reconciled US policy with support for an illegitimate presidential election there.
From Latin America to the Middle East and South Asia, the US is more and more a declining and isolated power, alienated from the aspirations of people throughout these regions. Beyond the growing geopolitical isolation, the Obama Administration’s Wall Street economic orientation is on the defensive against erstwhile allies like England and France and major investors like China. Even the 2008 US National Intelligence Council’s report on Global Trends in 2025 predicted declining US power and constrained leverage.
For all Obama’s efforts to use “smart” power to navigate during this period of decline, he cannot, as a member of the political class, acknowledge that decline and eschew, in the process, an imperial agenda. At best, he may try to find ways to bargain with the inevitable death of the empire. But bargaining, as psychologist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross noted in her classic study of death and dying, is a temporary and last-ditch effort to escape the inevitable. For historian Eric Hobsbawm, “the age of empires is dead. We shall have to find another way of organizing the globalized world of the twenty-first century.” And we will have to do it against those elite forces, whether neo-conservative or neo-liberal, that are incapable of ending their self-appointed imperial missions.
FRAN SHOR teaches at Wayne State University and is the author of the recently published Routledge Press book, Dying Empire: U.S. Imperialism and Global Resistance