With the United States on the verge of another Great Depression, the Know-Nothing opposition to the Obama administration should be worried that we are about to slip into the Third World. Instead, it’s fretting about the United States becoming an annex of Western Europe.
TV pundit Sean Hannity has called the stimulus package the “European Socialist Act of 2009.” Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer has declared Obama on a “Brussels-bound path.” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who spent $10,000 on a five-day trip to Venice in 2004, is worried that we might all soon suffer the travails of European life if Obama gets his way (This prompted New Yorker commentator Hedrick Herzberg to wonder “whether or not greater income equality, better health, and fewer prisons would really be a dystopian nightmare.”).
For this Know-Nothing opposition — I’m borrowing the name from the mid-19th century nativist political faction — Europe is a codeword for socialism. With their references to the Old World, the Know Nothings are rather desperately trying to update red-baiting for the 21st century. We are a country with no viable socialist party or labor party. Except for the courageous Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), to declare oneself a socialist in this country is to buy a one-way ticket to the political hinterlands. We are so fearful of the word that we changed the “social sciences” to the “behavioral sciences” just in case someone might get the wrong idea. But whereas red-baiting was once a mainstream conceit, it now has the whiff of antiquity to it. It’s perhaps a sign of how far out into the wilderness the Know Nothings have been cast by the recent elections that they are resorting to what one commentator has called the “bold color concept” of anti-socialist invective.
The Know Nothings may also be expressing a deeper anxiety. They are explicitly worried about social(ist) programs. Deep down, however, they fear that the United States may become, like Europe, post-colonial. They believe, particularly after eight years of surges in Iraq, in Pentagon spending, and in Washington testosterone levels, that cutting back on empire is downright un-American. They fear that Obama wants the full European monty.
True, several European states still maintain large militaries. They contribute to NATO operations. The French behave toward their overseas “departments” like Guadeloupe in a rather high-handed manner, and the Spanish anachronistically maintain control of two cities, Ceuta and Melilla, on the Mediterranean coast of Morocco. But in general, Europe has given up its pretensions to world military dominance, stood up (in part) to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and has shown increasing reluctance to support the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan. Napoleon once disparaged England as a “nation of shopkeepers.” U.S. Know Nothings similarly like to bait Europeans for their lack of martial spirit.
At first glance, the Know Nothings shouldn’t worry that the Obama administration will bury the U.S. empire any time soon. The new administration released its first budget figures last week and, despite the economic crisis, the Pentagon is still slated to get a raise. For 2010, the Obama administration is requesting $20 billion more in military spending than Congress has allocated for 2009. “While the new administration has slowed the rate of increase in the base military budget,” write Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) research fellow Miriam Pemberton and FPIF contributor Suzanne Smith, “it has still requested more money for the Pentagon than the Bush administration ever did.” Pentagon chief Robert Gates was overjoyed. He had expected the budget to grow “only at the pace of inflation,” according to The Washington Post, and instead, “we’ve done somewhat better than that.”
On other imperial fronts, the administration is surging in Afghanistan and continuing the not-so-secret war in Pakistan. And Washington is showing no signs of scaling back the nearly 1,000 overseas U.S. military bases. “Among the installations considered critical to our national security are a ski center in the Bavarian Alps, resorts in Seoul and Tokyo, and 234 golf courses the Pentagon runs worldwide,” writes FPIF contributor David Vine in Too Many Overseas Bases.
In Iraq, which Obama addressed in a speech last week, the administration plans to pull out all “combat troops” within 18 months or so. As FPIF contributor Phyllis Bennis points out, however, as many as 50,000 U.S. “non-combat” soldiers will remain behind. “Those tens of thousands of troops will still be occupying Iraq,” she writes. “Doing what? Very likely, just what combat troops do — they would walk and talk and bomb and shoot like combat troops, but they’d be called something else.”
Our imperial mindset extends to the very bedrock of our language. This week, to kick off our new Strategic Focus on empire, FPIF contributor Tom Engelhardt looks at the language of empire. “We don’t find it strange to have 16 intelligence agencies, some devoted to listening in on, and spying on, the planet, or capable of running ‘covert wars’ in tribal borderlands thousands of miles distant, or of flying unmanned drones over those same borderlands destroying those who come into camera view,” he writes in The Imperial Unconscious. “We’re inured to the bizarreness of it all and of the language (and pretensions) that go with it.”
(Tom knows empire. He’s co-founder of the American Empire project, which has published a number of books by FPIF regulars like Michael Klare and Walden Bello. And he puts out TomDispatch, an imperial watchdog site that’s an indispensable guide to our economic and military overstretch. You can subscribe to it here.)
So, what will we see over the next four years? Is the Obama administration going to maintain the U.S. empire through elevated military spending, maintenance of overseas bases, prosecution of several wars, and widespread use of imperial language? Will he go down in history as the man who turned America into Europe by humanizing our society and putting the “post” into post-colonial? Or, bipartisan to a fault, will he steer the middle course and settle on a kinder, gentler empire? Stay tuned over the next several weeks to FPIF’s Strategic Focus on empire for the answers.
Rome couldn’t do it alone. It relied on the support of a multicultural army of soldiers, emperors like Trajan who were born in distant lands, and allies in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.
So, too, does the United States need alliances. In general, we have ruled through hegemony – whereby our allies cooperate in doing our bidding — rather than through naked imperial force. That has certainly been the case in Canada. We tried to seize Canada during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 — and, believe it or not, we even developed plans to invade in the 1920s. But generally, U.S.-Canadian relations have been pretty tight.
It’s no surprise, then, that Obama made his first foreign trip by heading north. The Know Nothings no doubt fear that Obama is eyeing Canada’s European-style social programs. But as FPIF contributor Anthony Fenton points out in his annotation of the press conference between Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the influence has recently gone in the other direction.
“Following 9/11, Canada immediately committed to the Global War on Terror,” Fenton writes in Obama in Canada. “Since then, Canada has spent unprecedented amounts on defense, intelligence, policing, and other security measures. Canada’s 3D policies mirror those of the United States. Domestically, this has included the creation of a Canadian department of homeland security, known as Public Safety Canada; the drafting of Canada’s first ever National Security Strategy; Canadian anti-terror laws that share similarities with the Patriot Act; and new capabilities that allow for domestic spying and intelligence-sharing with their U.S. counterparts.”
Contrast Obama’s lovefest with Harper with the U.S. approach to its southern neighbor, Mexico, which is more like an S & M relationship than an alliance. “On the one hand are those, including the U.S. military, who claim that Mexico is at risk of becoming a ‘failed state,’ a label typically reserved for truly ‘ungoverned spaces.’ Think Somalia,” writes FPIF contributor Manuel Pérez-Rocha in Mexico: Neither a Failed State nor a Model. “At the other extreme are those, like the members of the Washington Post editorial board, who hold up the country as an economic model for the rest of Latin America. Both views are wildly off-base, shaped less by facts than a desire to justify — and perpetuate — mistaken Bush-era policies.”
Then there’s Pakistan, a curious ally if there ever was one. The United States pumped military aid into the hands of Pakistani strongman Pervez Musharraf in the hopes of solidifying the front against the Taliban. Earlier, we missed opportunities to shut down the notorious proliferation network of Pakistani nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan because we wanted Pakistani help against the Soviets. Recently the Pakistani government released Khan from house arrest. FPIF columnist Zia Mian provides the background to this development.
“Pakistan’s government would not have released Khan if it had believed that the United States would respond forcefully,” Mian writes in Pakistan, Proliferation, and U.S. Priorities. “Pakistani decision-makers have a keen sense of how the United States has blown hot and cold about Pakistan’s nuclear program over the last 30 years. They know that nuclear weapons proliferation only matters when the United States doesn’t have other important interests to pursue. Today, U.S. support for Pakistan’s weak government and the war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban take precedence.”
South Korea, too, is a key ally. It has been engaged in a rather substantial modernization of its military, first under Kim Dae-Jung and then under Roh Moo-Hyun. It might seem that South Korea was upgrading its military to counter the only country it publicly identifies as a threat in the region, North Korea. But this modernization began at a time of unprecedented rapprochement between the two countries and when South Korea was already outspending North Korea by about 40 to one.
The real reason for the uptick in military spending was the United States. “In this most recent modernization, the drawdown of U.S. troops, the relocation of U.S. bases, the removal of the U.S. tripwire, and the handover of wartime military control — changes largely planned since the 1990s but accelerated during the tenure of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld — all contributed to intensifying fears of entanglement prominent among Roh Moo-hyun supporters and raising fears of abandonment,” I write in Ploughshares into Swords. “South Korean officials began to look into acquiring many, if not all, of the high-tech capabilities provided by the United States in order to fill the anticipated gap.”
North Korea, meanwhile, has been feeling rather neglected. It has threatened to launch a satellite — what we prefer to call a missile — to remind the world that it’s still around and hungry to negotiate. “From its standpoint, North Korea did not get enough from the recent agreements,” I write in a recent op-ed for the Progressive Media Project. “While it received some heavy fuel oil and some food aid, and while the United States removed it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, most economic sanctions remain in place. The normalization of diplomatic relations is a carrot dangling in the far distance. And North Korea hasn’t received any substantial development assistance or potential trade deals.”
Finally, Obama gave a speech last week on the economic crisis. FPIF contributor Sam Gardiner was surprised at the narrowness of the president’s focus. “Obama spoke much about the responsibilities of bankers, individuals, and government in this current fiscal crisis,” he writes in It’s a Global Economic Crisis. “But the lack of focus about the vast global responsibilities we have as a nation, especially from a president who campaigned on a new type of global engagement was shocking.”
That’s the trick of it: to transform empire into cooperative global engagement without detouring into dangerous isolationism. With the twin crises of economy and climate bearing down on us, can we pull it off?