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Overwrought Empire

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Posted on Oct 10, 2012
pasukaru76 (CC BY 2.0)

By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch

(Page 2)

The president now has at his command not one, but two private armies.  The first is the CIA, which in recent years has been heavily militarized, is overseen by a former four-star general (who calls the job “living the dream”), and is running its own private assassination campaigns and drone air wars throughout the Greater Middle East.  The second is an expanding elite, the Joint Special Operations Command, cocooned inside the U.S. military, members of whom are now deployed to hot spots around the globe.

The U.S. Navy, with its 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carrier task forces, is dominant on the global waves in a way that only the British Navy might once have been; and the U.S. Air Force controls the global skies in much of the world in a totally uncontested fashion.  (Despite numerous wars and conflicts, the last American plane possibly downed in aerial combat was in the first Gulf War in 1991.)  Across much of the global south, there is no sovereign space Washington’s drones can’t penetrate to kill those judged by the White House to be threats.

In sum, the U.S. is now the sole planetary Top Gun in a way that empire-builders once undoubtedly fantasized about, but that none from Genghis Khan on have ever achieved: alone and essentially uncontested on the planet.  In fact, by every measure (except success), the likes of it has never been seen.

Blindsided by Predictably Unintended Consequences

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By all the usual measuring sticks, the U.S. should be supreme in a historically unprecedented way.  And yet it couldn’t be more obvious that it’s not, that despite all the bases, elite forces, private armies, drones, aircraft carriers, wars, conflicts, strikes, interventions, and clandestine operations, despite a labyrinthine intelligence bureaucracy that never seems to stop growing and into which we pour a minimum of $80 billion a year, nothing seems to work out in an imperially satisfying way.  It couldn’t be more obvious that this is not a glorious dream, but some kind of ever-expanding imperial nightmare.

This should, of course, have been self-evident since at least early 2004, less than a year after the Bush administration invaded and occupied Iraq, when the roadside bombs started to explode and the suicide bombings to mount, while the comparisons of the United States to Rome and of a prospective Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East to the Pax Romana vanished like a morning mist on a blazing day.  Still, the wars against relatively small, ill-armed sets of insurgents dragged toward their dismally predictable ends.  (It says the world that, after almost 11 years of war, the 2,000th U.S. military death in Afghanistan occurred at the hands of an Afghan “ally” in an “insider attack.”)  In those years, Washington continued to be regularly blindsided by the unintended consequences of its military moves. Surprises—none pleasant—became the order of the day and victories proved vanishingly rare.

One thing seems obvious: a superpower military with unparalleled capabilities for one-way destruction no longer has the more basic ability to impose its will anywhere on the planet.  Quite the opposite, U.S. military power has been remarkably discredited globally by the most pitiful of forces.  From Pakistan to Honduras, just about anywhere it goes in the old colonial or neocolonial world, in those regions known in the contested Cold War era as the Third World, resistance of one unexpected sort or another arises and failure ensues in some often long-drawn-out and spectacular fashion.

Given the lack of enemies—a few thousand jihadis, a small set of minority insurgencies, a couple of feeble regional powers—why this is so, what exactly the force is that prevents Washington’s success, remains mysterious.  Certainly, it’s in some way related to the more than half-century of decolonization movements, rebellions, and insurgencies that were a feature of the previous century.

It also has something to do with the way economic heft has spread beyond the U.S., Europe, and Japan—with the rise of the “tigers” in Asia, the explosion of the Chinese and Indian economies, the advances of Brazil and Turkey, and the movement of the planet toward some kind of genuine economic multipolarity.  It may also have something to do with the end of the Cold War, which put an end as well to several centuries of imperial or great power competition and left the sole “victor,” it now seems clear, heading toward the exits wreathed in self-congratulation.

Explain it as you will, it’s as if the planet itself, or humanity, had somehow been inoculated against the imposition of imperial power, as if it now rejected it whenever and wherever applied.  In the previous century, it took a half-nation, North Korea, backed by Russian supplies and Chinese troops to fight the U.S. to a draw, or a popular insurgent movement backed by a local power, North Vietnam, backed in turn by the Soviet Union and China to defeat American power.  Now, small-scale minority insurgencies, largely using roadside bombs and suicide bombers, are fighting American power to a draw (or worse) with no great power behind them at all.

Think of the growing force that resists such military might as the equivalent of the “dark matter” in the universe.  The evidence is in.  We now know (or should know) that it’s there, even if we can’t see it.


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