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A Matter of Empire

Why this refusal to use the “E-word”? America is not a republic. It is an empire. To be sure, an empire in a relatively early stage of decline—precisely because it is overextended. And while empire and republic never live happily together, this is all the more the case during an imperial sunset. In Washington politics and government are less and less democratic and more and more dysfunctional and corrupt. To boot, on Capitol Hill, in the media, and in the think tanks the talk is all about the national interest and national security, without even a passing mention of America’s imperial interest.

The United States no longer has the means of its imperial ambitions and its addiction to overseas interventions. Of course, Washington still appears to have plenty of military wherewithal. But it maintains this ace in the hole at the expense of the commonweal—except of Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, . . . Indeed, the weapons industry is one of the very few manufacturing growth sectors in America’s deindustrializing economy. For complicated reasons conscript –adverse America lacks “boots on the ground.”

However, it still manages to partially make up for this deficit with “contractors,” heretofore commonly known as mercenaries: there were close to 200,000 contractors in Iraq and nearly 100,000 in Afghanistan, or substantially more than the regular military personnel. Needless to say, Private Military Companies—another economic growth sector—provide this “service” for profits, which soar partly because they recruit some of these boots for the ground in low-wage Latin American countries. Incidentally, one reason for pillorying Colonel Qaddafi is that he recruits mercenaries in the Heart of Darkness, though most likely he does not have recourse to the services of Blackwater or a Libyan equivalent.

Indeed, the moral imperative for the U. S. intervention is to prevent innocent civilians—tomorrow’s armed rebels–from being massacred or slaughtered “on a horrific scale” by Qaddafi, especially by his “primitive” African mercenaries. In fact America and its “allies and partners” are intervening in a civil war. Civil wars are, of course, intrinsically ferocious, which is not to say that one ought to shrug off or spurn Montesquieu’s postulate that “civil war is a milder evil than foreign war.” Actually Americans know or should know a thing or two about their Civil War sans mercenaries. It consumed the lives of at least 600,000 fighting men, or 2 percent out of a population of 30 million, making for about 500 killed every day. In the Battle of Gettysburg alone the opposing armies suffered between 45,000 and 50,000 casualties. One might also want to recall the legions of wounded whose chances for survival were not all that great, especially not on the Confederate side. In any event, the War Between the States took a greater toll than all of America’s foreign conflicts from Independence practically down to this day.

But of course Washington claims that it is not alone and does not do the heaviest lifting in the Libyan intervention. In particular America’s major European allies are expected and invited, not to say begged, to help the U. S. manage its imperial devolution. This reach for a multinational assist and U. N. mandate along with a banner other than Old Glory marks a radical reversal.

In late 1942, when Winston Churchill saw an improvement in Allied military fortunes and took stock of Great Britain’s overseas overstretch he famously vowed that he had “not become the King’s Prime Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.” Unlike Churchill and the Tories, his successor Clement Attlee and Labour did just that, leaving large spheres of the Empire to the care of the United States at the same time that they looked to Washington for financial transfusions. They put the Beveridge Plan ahead of fighting to hold on to overseas possessions.

While Washington agrees to establish and sustain the no-fly zone with practically “risk-free” if expensive Tomahawk cruise missiles and UAVs, the European allies, under the aegis of NATO, in which the U. S. remains dominant, are expected to support embattled and outgunned rebel ground forces, in extremis with boots on the ground. It is the least they can do since now they can financially afford such operations better than America. In doing so, with Turkey—the only non-Christian member of NATO—taking a grudging pass, they will carry with them their own variants of a heavy repressive colonial past—especially Italy which, determined to join the imperial club, in 1911 bombed Libyan tribesmen from the air—a historic first—before occupying and annexing their largely desert land.

There is, however, another side to this military handoff to Washington’s major European allies. In America the talk is all about France, Great Britain, and Italy picking up their share of the democratic-Christian man’s burden, especially with Libya and the Mediterranean part of their “co-prosperity sphere.” Not a word is said about the conservative governments of Nicolas Sarkozy, David Cameron, and Silvio Berlusconi pursuing willfully discriminatory policies toward their Muslim minorities.

Meanwhile not France’s one and only nuclear-powered aircraft carrier—the Charles de Gaulle—nor Britain’s and Italy’s flotillas of frigates are patrolling the high seas, canals, and energy chokepoints of the Greater Middle East. The as yet unequalled American Navy and Air Force, operating out of a vast archipelago of naval and air bases, do so, directed by the Defense Department’s U. S. Africa Command (AFRICOM). Bolstered by this raw power not only President Obama but Secretary of State Clinton, Secretary of Defense Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen—like peripatetic proconsuls—do not hesitate to wag their fingers, selectively, at authoritarian rulers, if need be enjoining them to clear out to allow for regime change or risk being overthrown, killed, or tried for war crimes or crimes against humanity by an international tribunal.

Washington stands tall and strong since AFRICOM, combined with the 17th Air Force, is merely one of nine of the Defense Department’s Unified Combatant Commands, and the Fifth Fleet, headquartered in Bahrain, is only one of six active battle fleets. As for the Air Force, it has some 80 overseas bases. It is literally child’s play for the U. S. Navy to position a small flotilla of assault ships, submarines, and destroyers off the Libyan coast and the U. S. Air Force to enforce a no-fly zone in Libya’s skies. There are, in addition, several U. S. nuclear-powered attack aircraft carriers in the greater neighborhood to provide additional capabilities. Just as there are—thus far—no American soldiers in harm’s way on the ground so sailors and pilots run relatively little risk as they engage America’s sea-based and air power.

While the endgame of Operation Odyssey Dawn remains, of necessity, indeterminate, its overarching if unspoken near-term military assignment is to help the rebels oust Qaddafi from power and prepare the ground for some obscure regime change á la Iraq—and Egypt? Meanwhile the politico-diplomatic aim is to forewarn other hostile autocrats and admonish friendly ones of the likely costs and consequences of digging in their heels. Obviously, Washington will use a double standard as it calibrates its finger-wagging according to its world-strategic military, diplomatic, and economic interests. Certainly it will be less severe with the sovereigns and ruling elites of Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and Syria than those of Yemen, Iran, Sudan, and Ivory Coast.

One dare not mention either oil or neo-mercantilist considerations in moments when ritualistic and empty ravings about democracy, freedom, human rights, and free-market economics drown out any serious and critical discussion in the mainline media, think-tank grinds, and corridors of power. This travesty of open and consequential democratic debate goes hand in hand with the all but unanimous self-congratulatory hype about the Arab League and Arab countries like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates supporting Security Council Resolution 1973 and Operation Odyssey Dawn. Nay, the pilots of a couple of congenial Persian Gulf nations are said to join Allied planes in patrolling the no-fly zone with state-of-the-art jets made in the U. S. and France. And of course the African Union, without putting in the air F-20s or Mirages, also ostensibly approves of what is hailed as a broad international effort—not just an American or Western effort—to make yet another region of the world “safe for democracy” and corporate capitalism. Self-evidently, Israel, America’s most beholden, half democratic, and super-armed regional ally, is not being invited—officially—to join this new-model “coalition of the willing.”

The emergent narrative is all but silent about Brazil, China, India, and Russia sitting on the fence pending the development of their own mega navies and air forces—and land armies?—which in the not too distant future will force and symbolize the radical refiguration of the international balance of military, economic, and soft power which is certain to continue eroding the Pax Americana. Honi soit qui mal y pense.

ARNO J. MAYER is emeritus professor of history at Princeton University. He is the author of The Furies: Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions.and Plowshares Into Swords: From Zionism to Israel (Verso).



More articles by:

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

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