The Decline of the American Empire
by Gabriel Kolko
www.counterpunch.org, Dec 17,
The dilemma the US has had for a half-century
is that the priorities it must impose on its budget and its imperial
plans have never guided its actual behavior and action. It has
always believed, as well it should, that Europe and its control
would determine the future of world power. But it has fought
in Korea, Vietnam, and now Iraq--the so-called "Third World"
in general--where the stakes of power were much smaller.
The American priorities were specific,
focused on individual nations, but they also set the United States
the task of guiding or controlling the entire world--which is
a very big place and has proven time and again to be far beyond
American resources and imperial power. In most of those places
in the Third World where the US massively employed its power
directly it has lost, and its military might has been ineffective.
The US's local proxies have been corrupt and venal in most nations
where it has relied upon them. The cost, both in financial terms
and in the eventual alienation of the American public, has been
The Pentagon developed strategic airpower
and nuclear weapons with the USSR as its primary target, and
equipped itself to fight a massive land war in Eastern Europe.
Arms makers much preferred this expensive approach, and they
remain very powerful voices in shaping US foreign and budgetary
But the Soviet enemy no longer exists.
The US dilemma, and it is a fundamental contradiction, is that
its expensive military power is largely useless as an instrument
of foreign policy. It lost the war in Vietnam, and while it managed
to overthrow popular regimes in Brazil, Chile, and elsewhere
in Latin America, its military power is useless in dealing with
the effects of larger social and political problems--and Latin
America, the Middle East, and East Asia are more independent
of American-control than ever.
Strategically, also, the US is far worse
off in the oil-rich Middle East because it made every mistake
possible. It supported Islamic fundamentalism against Communism
but also against secular nationalism, Iraq against Iran in the
1980s, and it is not simply losing the war in Iraq militarily
but also alienating most of its former friends in the region.
And Iran is emerging as the decisive power in the area.
The basic problem the world today confronts
is American ambition, an ambition based on the illusion that
its great military power allows it to define political and social
trends everywhere it chooses to do so. When the USSR existed
it was somewhat more inhibited because Soviet military power neutralized
American military might and there was a partial equilibrium-a
deterring balance of terror-- in Europe. Moreover, the USSR always
advised its friends and nations in its orbit to move carefully
not to provoke the US, an inhibition that no longer exists.
On the other hand, just as the Warsaw
Pact has disappeared, NATO is well along in the process of breaking
up and going the way of SEATO, CENTO, etc. The 1999 war against
Serbia made its demise much more likely but the US-led alliance
disagreed profoundly over the Iraq War and now is likely to dissolve
in fact, if not formally. The Bush Administration produced a
crisis with its alliance and has created profound instability
in Iraq, which was always an artificial state since the British
created it after World War One resulted in the end of the Ottoman
Eight nations have nuclear weapons already,
but the UN says another 30 or so have the skill and resources
to become nuclear powers. The world is escaping the US, but it
is also escaping the forms of control which were in place when
the USSR existed and states were too poor to build nuclear weapons.
The world is more dangerous now, in large part because the US
refuses to recognize the limits of its power and retains the
ambitions it had 50 years ago. But the spread of all kinds of
weapons also has its own momentum-one that US arms exports aids
Iraq was not at the top of the Bush Administration's
agenda when it came to power in 2001. Bush was committed, however,
to a "forward-leaning" foreign policy, to use Rumsfeld's
words, and greater military activism. Had September 11 not occurred,
it is more likely that the Bush administration would have confronted
China, which has nuclear weapons. This administration deems China
a peer competitor in the vast East Asia region. It still may
do so, although Iraq has been a total disaster for the administration--militarily
and geopolitically--and greatly alienated the US public (faster
than Vietnam did).
The US military is falling apart: its
weapons have been ineffective, politically Iraq is likely to
break up into regional fiefdoms (as Afghanistan has), and perhaps
civil war--no one knows. From the Iraqi viewpoint the war was
a disaster, but it also repeated the failures the Americans confronted
in Korea, Vietnam, and elsewhere.
That the Iraq resistance is divided will
not save the US from defeat. Few believe Iraq will be spared
great trauma. In fact, many American officials predicted this
before the war began and they were ignored--just as they were
ignored when they predicted disaster in Vietnam in the 1960s.
We live in a tragic world and war is
considered more virtuous than peace--and since arms-makers profit
from wars and not peace, conventional wisdom is reinforced by
their lobbies and by preaching the cult of weaponry.
The US may explore how to end its predicament
in Iraq but only Iran can help it. Ironically, Iran has gained
most geopolitically from Saddam Hussein's defeat and has no incentive
to save the Bush Administration from the defeat now staring at
it--both in Iraq and in future elections in the US.
The world is escaping American control,
and Soviet prudence no longer inhibits many movements and nations.
World opposition is becoming decentralized to a much greater
extent and the US is less than ever able to control it--although
it may go financially bankrupt and break up its alliances in
the process of seeking to be hegemonic.
This is cause for a certain optimism,
based on a realistic assessment of the balance-of-power in the
world. I think we must avoid the pessimism-optimism trap but
be realistic. Although the Americans are very destructive, they
are also losing wars and wrecking themselves economically and
politically. But for a century the world has fought wars, and
while the US has been the leading power by far-in making wars
since 1946, it has no monopoly on folly.
But it is crucial to remember that the
US is only a reflection of the militarism and irrationality that
has blinded many leaders of mankind for over a century.
The task is not only to prevent the US
from inflicting more damage on the hapless world--Iraq at this
moment--but to root out the historic, global illusions that led
to its aggression.
Gabriel Kolko is the leading historian
of modern warfare. He is the author of the classic Century of
War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914 and Another
Century of War?. He has also written the best history of the Vietnam
War, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the US and the Modern Historical
Experience. His latest book, The Age of War, will be published
in March 2006. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.