I’ll get to Botox and Iraq in a bit. Let’s start with the Naked Empire. Naked in the sense that those who decide on American policy and those whose job it is to sell that policy to the American people and the world no longer feel a need to camouflage their intentions, to dress up their empire in more respectable clothes. American Empire and imperial ambition are currently respectable enough. They need no ideological cover. And that may turn out to be the longest lasting legacy of September 11.
It was not ever thus.
Although many of the framers of the Constitution believed that their new system of government would work because of the opportunity for expansion beyond the Alleghenies, and although the US conquered the American continent and first moved across the Pacific (to the Philippines) under the openly imperial slogan of Manifest Destiny, in the 20th Century most official US ideology was, at least tokenly, anti-imperial. As the US elites moved from being junior partners in the English Empire to being senior partners in the American one, they tended to play down their imperial intentions. Even in the cold war, as they established military bases around the world, their stated purpose was to control the Russians, not to expand American power. And they told us over and over during the Vietnam war that they had no imperial interests in Southeast Asia — they were merely trying to stop the spread of communism.
Even after the fall of the Soviet Union, only a few policy makers were willing to openly endorse the idea of an American Empire. They called it a New World Order instead, and they went through the motions of carefully building alliances, multilateral decision making, and waiting to wage full-scale war until they had the approval of the UN Security Council. Certainly, it didn’t take much sophistication to see in the policies of Reagan, papa Bush, and Clinton the basic outlines of imperial rule, but it wasn’t until 9/11 that the imperialists fully came out of the closet, and had the courage to say their name.
Harvard Magazine, whose mission is to keep Harvard alumni up to date on recent political and cultural developments — the alumni receive the slick papered, richly colored, classy bimonthly for free — delivered the news to those who may have missed it, seven months after the toppling of the Twin Towers. Professor Stephen Peter Rosen kept it simple.
“Let us start with some basics. The United States has no rival. We are militarily dominant around the world. Our military spending exceeds that of the next six or seven powers combined, and we have a monopoly on many advanced and not so advanced military technologies. We, and only we, form and lead military coalitions into war. We use our military dominance to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries, because the local inhabitants are killing each other, or are harboring enemies of the United States, or developing nuclear and biological weapons.
“A political unit that has overwhelming superiority in military power, and uses that power to influence the internal behavior of other states, is called an empire. Because the United States does not seek to control territory or govern the overseas citizens of the empire, we are an indirect empire, to be sure, but an empire nonetheless. If this is correct, our goal is not combating a rival, but maintaining our imperial position, and maintaining imperial order.”
Rosen went on to discuss the best way to carry out these imperial goals, as did many others who jumped on the band wagon in the wake of the ever-so-easy dislodging of the Taliban from state power. By last summer, Naked Empire had become fashionable, and this fall, six days after the one year anniversary of September 11, it became official US policy, spelled out in a pamphlet called the “National Security Strategy of the United States of America.”
This White House document (supposedly authored by Condoleeza Rice) still has, if not a foot, at least a couple of toes rooted in the past. The word “empire” is never used, and the document includes many references to multilateral action, close cooperation with allies, and old-fashioned balance of power. But this is not meant so much to camouflage the existing empire, as to explain how it will work. Imperial principles dominate: the American way is the one right way for the world (“right and true for every person, in every society”); multilateral action and cooperation with allies will never inhibit America’s right to act alone; the balance of power will leave the US as the world’s unchallenged military master, as “our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries [who in the world is not a potential adversary?] from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States.”
The transformed idea of the “balance of power” is the key to the document. It is usually followed by the phrase “in favor of freedom,” and, thus, has little relationship to anything we might mean by “balance,” and no political roots in what European diplomats tried to establish among competing states in times gone by. It is the balance of power of empire: an overweight adult on one end of the see-saw, securely seated on the ground, and an emaciated child, uprooted from the earth, hanging precariously in the air.
But all that is an argument about ideology: September 11 relieved US ideologists of the burden of masking their imperial intentions. What about an actual description of the empire? What does it look like? How does it extract tribute from its subordinate regions? Where are its points of weakness? What are its corruptions? Where are the regenerative forces? What are the dynamics of its contradictions? How does it compare to the earlier versions — especially the spectacularly successful Romans and Brits? Those are the questions of the moment, for all of us to answer. I have only two statistics and one image to contribute.
The statistics are crude. According to the Defense Department, on any given day before September 11, 60,000 US troops were conducting temporary operations and exercises in about 100 countries, operating out of 40 major bases and more than 700 other military installations. At the same time, according to United Nations figures, the US, with about 5% of the world’s population consumes about 40% of the world’s annual production of goods. I don’t think it is too large an analytical stretch to say that these two facts go together, and provide a very rough description of the size and impact of this empire’s footprint on the earth.
The image is perhaps equally crude. Empires are known not only for the extent of their military power, and the wealth they extract from their subjects, but also for their domestic degeneracy. It seems that those who enjoy a disproportionate amount of the world’s goods can not help but become corrupt. Rome’s vomiting rooms fit perfectly with hunger on the Iberian Peninsula. And now, in perfect step with the unveiling of the Naked Empire, we have botox in Las Vegas and botulism in the rest of the world.
Botulism is caused by a bacteria that paralyses the nerves. It thrives in poorly preserved food. Periodic outbreaks still sicken and kill thousands of people throughout the empire. Botox is a form of the bacteria that has become popular in the United States because it can temporarily reduce wrinkles in the face. The botox is injected into the muscles around the eyes to paralyze the nearby nerves. The paralyzed nerves prevent the muscles from contracting (this is what kills you if the botulism reaches the nerves and muscles of the chest), and thereby wipes away the lines in the face that Americans call “crow’s feet.”
But the bacteria that is injected into the face wears off in about four to six months. People need to get periodic injections in order to maintain the smooth-faced effect. These injections are now given collectively at what are called Botox parties. The favorite place for these parties is Las Vegas. People gather in various casinos, watch entertainers dance and sing, while nurses move among the revelers and inject a form of botulism into their faces.
This hardly needs explication. I hope it stands by itself: botox at home, botulism in the periphery. But I can’t resist pointing out that the desire to cheat time seems particularly imperial. People at the center of the empire, with apparently unlimited temporal power, are highly vulnerable to the temptation of perpetual youth. As is the empire itself. “It is morning in America,” the doddering Reagan said, and stirred the nation. And now the boy emperor struts to the podium, flexes his well-toned pectorals, and proclaims in his every gesture that we are young, a young empire, ruling in the place of the elderly, crow’s-footed British, not only vigorous enough to have outmuscled the Russians, but young enough to rule the world for next millennium.
But I leave you to your own riff. The Las Vegas botox parties do not so much provoke analysis as wonder, bad poetry, and a rhetorical question. Does anything we know about Rome top this?
But why would the young empire make war on Iraq? All agree that such a war involves some risks. Anatol Lieven of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writing in the London Review of Books, puts the odds at five to one in favor of a ‘quick success’ against the current Iraqi regime. (I didn’t know that the Carnegie Endowment kept book on such things, and who knows how they set the odds, but I am sure that the bet that Saddam Hussein can be replaced as easily as the Taliban has been taken off the board.) If we trust Lieven’s bookmaking abilities, there is a 20% chance that war on Iraq will lead to what he calls a “general conflagration” in the Middle East. That seems like a pretty high risk, not the kind of gamble an empire would make. Sure they want the oil; but wouldn’t a young, confident empire be willing to wait? It is the underdogs who have to push their luck. The powerful can afford to play it safe.
The official explanation — that Hussein is an imminent threat to the United States — is backed by neither evidence nor logic, and need not be addressed. I have heard six other explanations. Three of them are trivial: Hussein tried to kill the boy emperor’s daddy; the Republicans want to win the upcoming congressional elections; Bush is trying to divert attention from the current business scandals. Great Empires do not risk “general conflagrations” for such reasons. If future historians discover some presidential tapes that reveal that these were major calculations in the decision to go to war, they will serve only as another measure of the empire’s degeneracy, not of its strength.
The other three make some sense. Let’s look at them one by one. The imperialists, sitting on top of the world, are drunk with power. There is plenty of precedent for that. History is full of powerful men who, like the intoxicated, are blind to the limits that the sober can clearly see. And the core people around the boy emperor who are driving this campaign for war have good reason to be over-confident. They are some of the very same people who engineered Iran-Contra, and miraculously got away with it. But so blind so early in their reign? Although possible, it seems doubtful.
My friend Brian VanArkadie argues that the imperialists see war on Iraq as another opportunity to intimidate the rest of the world. Empires do that. They exert their military might just to maintain credibility. British gunboats firing on some obscure Asian coast; Roman legions conquering some useless piece of real estate — all to remind folks of who’s at the top. But it doesn’t work if the victim is too much of a pushover. Granada made the US look foolish, not strong. Maybe even Afghanistan was too easy a task. But knocking off Saddam would do the trick. And doing it against the wishes and advice of those who have a mistaken view of their own importance would be all to the good. After all, the boy emperor does protest too much. He wants the United Nations to become the League of Nations, as the UN is the empire’s only legitimate competitor as a world authority. And how nice it would be to show the Russians and the French just how insignificant they are. Teach them all what we now mean by the balance of power.
But again, the risk seems too high. Surely, we could find some regime more difficult to obliterate than the Taliban, but easier than Hussein’s, and not located in so dangerous a region. That leaves one last explanation of the war on Iraq, and although still inadequate, it seems the best so far. The US rulers are compelled to go to war because the economy is much worse off than they have dared to admit.
If you travel in some of the same circles I do, you have no doubt heard the arguments. World-wide overcapacity in just about everything that matters — steel, autos, aircraft, chips, fiber-optic cable… Rates of profit dramatically falling. The US as a debtor nation, the dollar insecurely resting on the rest of the world’s forbearance in not calling in its chits. The whole global economy dependent on the wild spending of US consumers, who some day may realize that they are drowning in credit card debt, and might back away from some of their more irrational expenditures. In this view, with the whole shebang about to collapse, the US figures it can’t wait for the Iraqi oil to fall into its hands, we need it now, and if a general conflagration in the Middle East is required, so be it. The empire would be sure to win, and would not only have the oil, but as a side benefit the power to settle the Israeli/Palestine question once and for all.
I have one major problem with this theory. I have spent my whole adult life betting against capitalism, and I haven’t won yet. I would hate to count up the number of times that brilliant Marxists have convinced me that the great crisis was upon us. But every time, capital found some way to regroup and muddle through. I find it hard to believe that this time it’s the real thing, that the direct ownership of Iraqi oil has become an economic necessity, and that the capitalists are willing to risk a major war to get it.
So where does that leave us? I offer two other explanations of what’s going on. First, maybe the boy emperor is not about to make war on Iraq. Maybe it was all a feint to win the congressional elections and to distract us from the business scandals. That’s believable. Those goals don’t explain war, but they could explain war bluster. Maybe, now that Bush has the authority in his pocket, he will hold onto it, and make war on Iraq only if he needs to insure his own re-election. That scale makes more sense. War to hold onto the emperor’s crown, not to win some piddling congressional election between two nearly identical parties in southern Wisconsin.
Or maybe the empire is not young at all, not nearly as powerful as it appears, and therefore prone to adventures. This corollary to the capitalist crisis theory, might postulate that we are going to war not because the empire is strong, but because it is weak. Maybe what we are dealing with is not an empire that came on the scene at the end of World War II, and is still flexing its muscles, but rather the last days of the Anglo-Atlantic Empire, led first by the British and now by its erstwhile colony, whose youth is but a 17th Century memory, and now is befuddled by the infirmities of old age.
The botox can smooth the wrinkles, but can not cure the galloping macular degeneration which mercifully blinds the eyes to the coming abyss.
That’s what I meant by bad poetry.