Two Parties, One Imperial Mission
The United States may emerge from the Iraq fiasco almost unscathed. Though momentarily disconcerted, the American empire will continue on its way, under bipartisan direction and mega-corporate pressure, and with evangelical blessings.It is a defining characteristic of mature imperial states that they can afford costly blunders, paid for not by the elites but the lower orders. Predictions of the American empire’s imminent decline are exaggerated: without a real military rival, it will continue for some time as the world’s sole hyperpower.
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”.