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A Pitiless, Punitive Giant

It is clear that the U.S. military operations in the Af-Pak war have been increasing in number and lethal significance during the month of February. Now, in its pursuit of a demonstrable victory over the Taliban, an offensive is being mounted in the heart of Helmand province. As reported by Patrick Cockburn, the battle for Marjah will be another in a long line of punitive campaigns that will not spare civilian lives. While paying lip-service to “winning the hearts and minds” of the Afghan population, the U.S. military seems bent on exacting as much death and destruction as possible

In the aftermath of the December 30th suicide bombing in Afghanistan that killed seven CIA employees, US drone assaults in Pakistan’s northwest border region increased in number with the resultant “collateral damage.” Seventeen such missile launchings occurred on February 2, the largest number in a single day. We may never know how many innocent people were killed, especially since Pakistan’s ruling party and the military are complicit in trying to cover up civilian deaths. On the other hand, the outrage of the Pakistani people over these pre-emptive attacks keeps growing. A recent poll of Pakistan citizens resulted in over 90% opposed to the drones.

Given the growing criticism of the use of such technology, it may seem surprising that the Quadrennial Defense Review, released as part of the Pentagon budget request for 2011, calls for even great reliance on drones and special counterinsurgency forces for myriad projected threats. In fact, no longer is the Pentagon focused on just a two-war strategy; rather, the Review contemplates multiple campaigns in the future. One has to wonder about this deep denial of imperial overstretch represented in the Review.

To pay for such military operations, the Pentagon budget continues to grow like a cancer. Since 2001 Pentagon spending has risen by 70%. The 2011 budget submitted by the Obama Administration proposes a record 708 billion, excluding the 33 billion it will be asking additionally for 2010 military operations in Afghanistan.

This insatiable military machine appears to be sapping the very life-blood of the nation, recalling in the process Dr. King’s warning that spending more on military than social programs opens up the possibility of “spiritual death.” With the economic meltdown and spending freezes, it appears that such forecasted death is as much material as spiritual.

It has been almost 40 years since Richard Nixon’s national address announcing the invasion of Cambodia. Although four decades have passed and different circumstances now confront a dying US empire, one of the key articulations in that speech still resonates among the political class. “If, when the chips are down,” Nixon intoned, “ the world’s most powerful nation, the USA, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout this world.”

It is clear that the ruling elite in Washington continue to rely on such rhetoric to reassert their right to determine the fate of others. Irrespective of the touting of “smart power” by Barack Obama, the US is acting with brute dumb power as a rather pitiless, punitive giant. Can the fall of this Goliath be close at hand?

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