The Anxieties of Empire: The US Hastens Its Own Decline and Israel’s Too

The Age of Obama is an Age of Anxiety, a time for acting out. It is a risky business – picking fights with Russia and China and destabilizing the Muslim ‘East.’ It is foolish too, in countless ways. And the consequences for the [US] ‘Homeland,’ as we now call it, have been deplorable, writes ANDREW LEVINE.


The United States can and does get away with murder – many times over, and with lesser and greater crimes as well – for two main reasons. First: because it has the mightiest military in the history of the world. Keeping that infernal juggernaut up and running costs more than all the rest of the world’s armed forces put together. This does not mean that America can win all the wars it fights.  Quite the contrary – witness the Bush-Obama wars that have, by now, been going on for nearly a decade and a half. Those wars were – or soon turned into — what ‘defense intellectuals’ and their uniformed counterparts call ‘asymmetrical.’  In plain language, this means that they are guerilla wars fought in cities, deserts, and mountain ranges. The Goliaths of the world have always had trouble with guerilla wars.

But the American military also has a problem fighting conventional armies. In a nuclear age, where there is the prospect of mutual annihilation, the wars America fights – or threatens to fight — are necessarily self-limiting. In these circumstances, less can be more; and, beyond a certain threshold, more and less cannot matter at all. Even when the United States does prevail against the armies of other states – as in Iraq at first, before George Bush declared the ‘mission accomplished’ – an enduring victory can still be out of reach.

Since most of the taxpayer money that finds its way into the coffers of the military-industrial-national security state complex goes for weapons, not personnel, the United States doesn’t have enough cannon fodder to police its conquests indefinitely. Therefore, it cannot always prevail when overt hostilities wind down. For that, those “boots on the ground” that we hear so much about are indispensable. But they are hard to come by.  Even in times when, for the vast majority of Americans, economic opportunities are effectively nil, there aren’t enough economic conscripts to keep an occupation going; and money to pay all the troops that would be needed isn’t available in any case. Mercenaries can’t make up for the shortfall; and not just because, again, there aren’t enough of them.  Occupations are not like customer service centers; they are a lot harder to outsource.

What then does the U.S. gain by being the mightiest military power in the history of the world? The short answer is: it gains the ability to wreak havoc wherever it pleases. And it gains opportunities to bring itself to grief, by becoming bogged down in endless wars it can never win. Lately, Obama has been taking full advantage of those opportunities. He ought to know better.  Defeat is all but inevitable in the kinds of asymmetrical wars the United States has lately been fighting. Militias, backed by local populations, fighting on their home turf against a poorly motivated aggressor, punch way beyond their weight. David beats Goliath — time and again. The Biblical David didn’t just defeat Goliath; he annihilated him. The American Goliath doesn’t get annihilated. That is what those get-out-of-jail-free cards are good for.

The troops the Pentagon sends might as well take “born to lose” for a motto, but, with its grotesquely overblown budget, the American war machine has enough depth to withstand defeat time and again, and still to bounce back – effectively undiminished. This is why the fighting doesn’t stop when America loses, and it is why “the coalition of the willing” that Team Obama is now patching together will stay engaged in Syria and Iraq forever – or until the political will to keep the insanity going expires.

America’s role in Iraq had been subsiding, though not as much as Obama, the Peace laureate, would have had the world believe. And, thanks to Russian diplomacy, Obama managed to stay out of Syria last year, even after the “red line” he had mindlessly drawn had apparently been crossed. But that was then – before his disengagement charade in Iraq fell apart, and before Republicans and even more rabid Clintonites than he in his own party began breathing down the Commander-in-Chief’s throat.  In these circumstances, and with elections looming, Obama found it expedient to stoke up the flames. In the short run, only the Congress could have stopped him. But Congress is, and long has been, a national disgrace.

Obama apologists blame Congressional Republicans for impeding each and every milquetoast initiative their man attempts. They have a point. But when the President starts doing “stupid shit,” as he himself called the sort of thing he is now doing, Republicans jump on board. And so, with Syria, Obama finally has what he has been yearning for all these years: a bi-partisan consensus. Shame on Congress, and especially on Congressional Democrats! Hardly any of them have the courage or plain good sense to defy their leader. It is the same everywhere. As global capital’s power grows, the people’s power goes missing. There is now even a name for this phenomenon: it is called a “democracy deficit.”

In such an environment, wars thrive.

The problem is not that wars are always good for business, though they generally are. What matters to the miscreants who call the shots is just that the people, the rulers in genuine democracies, are disempowered and, wherever possible, shut out. Increasingly, they are getting their way. Therefore, voters nowadays everywhere have little say over what their governments do. The economic conscripts whom those governments put in harm’s way have even less. Their victims have none at all. And so, the United States and other Western countries get a pass, and the peoples of the Middle East bear the brunt of the insanity that results. America gets a pass too because (slightly) lesser powers that could cut the superpower down to size – Russia and China, especially – are comfortable with the status quo, at least for the time being. Their governments are OK with it because their leading capitalists like it that way.

It doesn’t help either that the EU has gone invertebrate. How different it now is from the days when LBJ and Nixon were unable to enlist European support for America’s war in Vietnam. Back then, they couldn’t even get the UK to go along. And then there was De Gaulle; a man of many faults, who nevertheless pulled France out of NATO, sort of. Now, in France, there is not even a Jacques Chirac raining on Obama’s parade. How pathetic is that! The reasons they are all so willing to enable America to ride roughshod over the world are mainly economic. But, putting it that way gives the enablers too much credit. Were they to do what is best for themselves, they would be less accommodating.

However, they don’t do what is best; they do what is easiest. In the Age of Obama, cowardice and inertia trump calculations of self-interest. By withholding natural gas and other energy resources from Europe, Russia could bring NATO to its knees. If only it would! Originally, a Cold War concoction, NATO has long been nothing more than a league of the American empire’s vassal states. It outlived the demise of the Soviet Union because it is useful to the empire in ways that the United Nations, with its newly minted and not always properly “aligned” states, can never be. NATO’s abolition should be high on the progressive agenda.

It is no secret too that (formerly Red) China could easily overthrow the (formerly) Almighty Dollar, the main basis for America’s continuing economic supremacy. All it would have to do is dump its holdings of American bonds and currency and other financial instruments. The other BRICS countries – Brazil, India and South Africa – along with other “emerging” economies could do the same, and they would all be better off for it – in due course. Obama has lately joined the chorus that bloviates about “American exceptionalism.”  In other words, he has taken to blathering nonsense. However, there really is something exceptional about the United States.

Were the BRICS countries and others to put the dollar in its rightful place, what is truly exceptional about America would become obvious to anyone who is not willfully blind: it is its ability to print money, virtually without constraint, to fund its wars and to cover its overreaching. This is a gift that the rest of the world bestows.  From an economic point of view, it no longer makes any sense.  The BRICS countries and others could therefore give America its comeuppance at any time.

But this is not about to happen because they too are undemocratic and corrupt, and because in the short run at least, changing the status quo would cost their ruling classes. Will this still be the case if and when U.S. policy makers finally do get their “pivot towards Asia?”  No one can say for sure, but it is not out of the question that the international class solidarities that currently sustain the dollar’s supremacy will collapse.  If and when that happens, watch out Treasury Department, and Wall Street beware!

For the time being, though, America gets to keep its get-out-of-jail-free cards. There is a price for this, however: the economic wellbeing of the United States, and its capacity to dominate the world, now depend upon the kindness and forbearance of America’s potential enemies. Does any of this matter to the policy makers at Foggy Bottom and the White House?  If so, they show little sign of it.  Instead, they play their get-out-of-jail-free cards with reckless abandon, seemingly oblivious to the changing world around them. But even if they truly are in denial about the dangers ahead, the reality registers. This is why the Age of Obama is an Age of Anxiety, a time for acting out. It is a risky business – picking fights with Russia and China and destabilizing the Muslim ‘east.’ It is foolish too, in countless ways. And the consequences for the “homeland,” as we now call it, have been deplorable. America was once among the world’s leading forces working to secure Franklin Roosevelt’s “four freedoms” at home and around the world: freedom of speech and expression, freedom to worship (or not) in whatever way one wants, freedom from want, and, above all, freedom from fear. But as the republic became a worldwide empire and then the world’s only superpower, and as its overripe capitalist economy began to falter, it found that it had to give up on that; not in word — the propaganda has never wavered — but in deed….

(Andrew Levine is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies)

YmD: Read the rest of this intelligently written article at:

About YMD

Past Issues