But though they endure, overextended empires suffer injuries to their power and prestige. In such moments they tend to lash out, to avoid being taken for paper tigers. Given Washington’s predicament in Iraq, will the US escalate its intervention in Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Somalia or Venezuela? The US has the strongest army the world has ever known. Preponderant on sea, in the air and in space (including cyberspace), the US has an awesome capacity to project its power over enormous distances with speed, a self-appointed sheriff rushing to master or exploit real and putative crises anywhere on earth.
In the words of the 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 protect our enemies from our reach."
The US spends more than 20% of its annual budget on defense, nearly half of the spending of the rest of the world put together. It’s good for the big US corporate arms manufacturers and their export sales. The Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, purchase billions of dollars of state-of-the-art ordnance.
Instead of establishing classic territorial colonies, the US secures its hegemony through some 700 military, naval and air bases in over 100 countries, the latest being in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Rumania, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Ethiopia and Kenya. At least 16 intelligence agencies with stations the world over provide the ears and eyes of this borderless empire.
The US has 12 aircraft carriers. All but three are nuclear-powered, designed to carry 80 planes and helicopters, and marines, sailors and pilots. A task force centerd on a supercarrier includes cruisers, destroyers and submarines, many of them atomic-powered and equipped with offensive and defensive guided missiles. Pre-positioned in global bases and constantly patrolling vital sea lanes, the US navy provides the new model empire’s spinal cord and arteries. Ships are displacing planes as chief strategic and tactical suppliers of troops and equipment. The navy is now in the ascendant over the army and the air force in the Pentagon and Washington.
The US military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, Red Sea, Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean from 2006 to 2008 shows how the US can flex its muscles half-way around the globe (and deliver humanitarian relief at gunpoint for political advantage). At least two carrier strike groups with landing craft, amphibious vehicles, and thousands of sailors and marines, along with Special Operations teams, operate out of Bahrain, Qatar and Djibouti. They serve notice that, in the words of the current defense secretary, Robert Gates, speaking in Kabul in January 2007, the US will continue to have "a strong presence in the Gulf for a long time into the future".
A week later the undersecretary of state for political affairs, Nicholas Burns, said in Dubai: "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 US station two carrier battle groups in the region." This is not new. In his farewell address in January 1980, weeks after the start of the hostage standoff in Tehran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter made it "absolutely clear" that an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf will be regarded as an assault on the US, and such an assault will be repelled by any means including military force. He said that the Russian troops in Afghanistan not only threatened a region that "contains more than two-thirds of the world’s exportable oil" but were at the ready "within 300 miles of the Indian Ocean and close to the Strait of Hormuz, a waterway through which most of the world’s oil must flow".
A quarter of a century later, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger updated the Carter Doctrine, displacing the threat from Moscow to Tehran: should Iran "insist on combining the Persian imperial tradition with contemporary Islamic fervour, it simply cannot be permitted to fulfil a dream of imperial rule in a region of such importance to the rest of the world".
Ultra-modern conventional armed forces and weapons are ill-suited to fight today’s asymmetrical wars against non-state actors resorting to sub-conventional arms and tactics. But supercarriers, supersonic aircraft, anti-missile missiles, military satellites, surveillance robots, and unmanned vehicles and boats are not going out of season. Intervention, direct and indirect, open and covert, military and civic, in the internal affairs of other states has been standard US foreign policy since 1945. The US has not hesitated to intervene, mostly unilaterally, in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Bolivia and Colombia, in pursuit of its imperial interest.
Taking the USAID (United States Agency for International Development), Fulbright Programme and Congress for Cultural Freedom of the anti-Communist cold war as their model, the stalwarts of the new global war on terror have created equivalents in the State Department’s Millennial Challenge and Middle East Partnership Initiative. The defense department enlists universities through Project Minerva to help with the new model counterinsurgency warfare and unconventional military state-building operations.
The US economy, syncretic culture and Big Science are unequalled. Despite huge fiscal and trade deficits, and the Wall Street banking and insurance meltdown, which have unhinged its financial system and rippled across the global economy, overall the US economy remains robust and pacesetting in creative destruction. Never mind the social costs at home and abroad. But its shrinking industrial and manufacturing sectors may be the weakest link.
The US still holds a substantial lead in research, development and patents in cybernetics, molecular biology and neuroscience. This is facilitated by publicly, privately and corporately funded research universities and laboratories that establish outposts overseas as they draw in brains from around the globe.
They remain the US model for the rest of the world, as do its globalising museums, corporate architectural idioms and marketing strategies (political and commercial). It is no surprise that the US reaps disproportionate harvests of Nobel Prizes, not only in economics but in the natural sciences; or that American English has become a global language. This is both cause and effect of the immense leverage of US multinationals. US popular and consumer cultures penetrate the most remote places on the planet. Along the shifting periphery Washington and K Street (the Washington street known for its lobbies) join forces with collaborating elites and regimes.
This American empire has significant family resemblances with past empires in its grab for critical natural resources, mass markets and strategic outposts. Americans know they have a considerable stake in the persistence of their imperium. Some social strata benefit more from its spoils than others. Still, it is profitable socially, culturally and psychologically, especially for its intelligentsia, liberal professions and media.
The empire has extraordinary reserves of hard and soft power for persisting in its interventionism. The US has the wherewithal and will to stay a face-saving course in Iraq. There is a deficit of combat troops for large conventional ground operations and a strategic incoherence in the face of irregular warfare against insurgent, guerrilla and terrorist forces. But the deficit of soldiers will be remedied. Private contractors will raise armed and civilian mercenaries, preferably at cut-rate wages from third world dependencies.
Washington masks its imperial self-interest with declamations about the promotion of civil rights, social welfare, women’s liberation, the rule of law and democracy.
However, for US power elites, regardless of party, there is an absolute need and priority: until the implosion of the Soviet Union it was to lay the specter of communism; since 9/11 it is to slay the serpent of radical Islamism.
The Iraq Study Group’s report of December 6, 2006, prepared by the bipartisan Baker-Hamilton Commission, was not so much concerned with the turmoil on the Tigris as with its impact on the US empire: "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-Qaida. Iraq is a centerpiece of American foreign policy, influencing how the United States is viewed in the region and around the world."
Iraq matters because, should it "descend further into chaos," it risks diminishing "the global standing of the United States". James Baker (Republican) and Lee Hamilton (Democrat) take it as given that Washington will continue to make the law in the Greater Middle East, as it has since 1945. The report is clear: "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."
Baker-Hamilton turned for help to the best and the brightest of non- or bi-partisan organisations and think tanks that mushroomed since the Vietnam war. Several of these institutions, some of whose staffers prepared questions, position papers and partial drafts for the Iraq report, make no secret of their engagement.
The "bipartisan" Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), partly funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, was a major contributor to the Commission. Drawing trustees and advisers "equally from the worlds of public policy and the private sector," 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."
The “non-partisan” International Republican Institute is deeply implicated in Iraq and chaired by John McCain; it means to "advance freedom and democracy worldwide by developing political parties, civic institutions, open elections, good governance and the rule of law." And the non-profit National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, chaired by the former secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, works "to strengthen and expand democracy worldwide". The self-advertised bipartisan but far-right Washington Institute for Near East Policy claims "to advance a balanced and realistic understanding of American interests in the Middle East [and to] promote an American engagement in the Middle East".
The Baker-Hamilton Commission also took counsel with ex-officials and pundits of certified research and public 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 of the collaborators, associates and patrons of these policy centers rigorously question the political, economic or social costs and benefits of empire for the US and the world. Their disagreements and debates are about how best to secure, exploit and protect the empire.
Underscoring that the role of the US is unique in a world in which few problems can be resolved without it, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice affirms that "we Americans engage in foreign policy because we have to, not because we want to, and this is a healthy disposition - it is that of a republic, not an empire". Defense Secretary Gates says the US must keep its "freedom of action in the global commons and its strategic access to important regions of the world to meet our national security needs", which entails supporting a global economy contingent on ready access to energy resources.
Even centrist censors do not challenge Washington’s unconditional support of Israel. They, like the neocons, oppose any hard-and-fast linkage between the Iraqi morass and the Israeli-Palestinian impasse. Both baulk at the Baker-Hamilton report’s suggestion that the US "cannot achieve its goals in the Middle East unless it deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict and regional instability". Democrats and Republicans are of one mind in their resolve to step up undercover operations in Iran backed by the threat of a full-scale economic blockade or military action.
Neither presidential candidate proposes an alternative to the imperial charge except perhaps to muffle the moralising and messianic rhetoric in contentious relations with Iran, China and India, and a resurgent Russia - all four driven by untried, nationally conditioned forms of capitalism. Both candidates have used foreign capitals as stages for attesting to their imperial bona fides and determination.
Arno J Mayer is emeritus professor of history at Princeton University.