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Three Good Reasons To Liquidate Our Empire

And Ten Steps to Take to Do So

Chalmers Johnson

 by TomDispatch

However ambitious President Barack Obama's domestic plans, one
unacknowledged issue has the potential to destroy any reform efforts he
might launch. Think of it as the 800-pound gorilla in the American
living room: our longstanding reliance on imperialism and militarism in
our relations with other countries and the vast, potentially ruinous
global empire of bases that goes with it. The failure to begin to deal
with our bloated military establishment and the profligate use of it in
missions for which it is hopelessly inappropriate will, sooner rather
than later, condemn the United States to a devastating trio of
consequences: imperial overstretch, perpetual war, and insolvency,
leading to a likely collapse similar to that of the former Soviet
Union.

According to the 2008 official Pentagon inventory of our military bases around the world, our empire consists of
865 facilities in more than 40 countries and overseas U.S. territories.
We deploy over 190,000 troops in 46 countries and territories. In just
one such country, Japan, at the end of March 2008, we still had 99,295
people connected to U.S. military forces living and working there --
49,364 members of our armed services, 45,753 dependent family members,
and 4,178 civilian employees. Some 13,975 of these were crowded into
the small island of Okinawa, the largest concentration of foreign
troops anywhere in Japan.

These massive concentrations of American military power outside the
United States are not needed for our defense. They are, if anything, a
prime contributor to our numerous conflicts with other countries. They
are also unimaginably expensive. According to Anita Dancs, an analyst
for the website Foreign Policy in Focus, the United States spends
approximately $250 billion each year maintaining its global military
presence. The sole purpose of this is to give us hegemony -- that is,
control or dominance -- over as many nations on the planet as possible.

We are like the British at the end of World War II: desperately
trying to shore up an empire that we never needed and can no longer
afford, using methods that often resemble those of failed empires of
the past -- including the Axis powers of World War II and the former
Soviet Union. There is an important lesson for us in the British
decision, starting in 1945, to liquidate their empire relatively
voluntarily, rather than being forced to do so by defeat in war, as
were Japan and Germany, or by debilitating colonial conflicts, as were
the French and Dutch. We should follow the British example. (Alas, they
are currently backsliding and following our example by assisting us in
the war in Afghanistan.)

Here are three basic reasons why we must liquidate our empire or else watch it liquidate us.

1. We Can No Longer Afford Our Postwar Expansionism

Shortly after his election as president, Barack Obama, in a speech announcing several members of his new cabinet, stated as fact
that "[w]e have to maintain the strongest military on the planet." A
few weeks later, on March 12, 2009, in a speech at the National Defense
University in Washington DC, the president again insisted,
"Now make no mistake, this nation will maintain our military dominance.
We will have the strongest armed forces in the history of the world."
And in a commencement address to the cadets of the U.S. Naval Academy
on May 22nd, Obama stressed that "[w]e will maintain America's military dominance and keep you the finest fighting force the world has ever seen."

What he failed to note is that the United States no longer has the
capability to remain a global hegemon, and to pretend otherwise is to
invite disaster.

According to a growing consensus of economists and political
scientists around the world, it is impossible for the United States to
continue in that role while emerging into full view as a crippled
economic power. No such configuration has ever persisted in the history
of imperialism. The University of Chicago's Robert Pape, author of the
important study Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (Random House, 2005), typically writes:

 

"America is in unprecedented decline. The
self-inflicted wounds of the Iraq war, growing government debt,
increasingly negative current-account balances and other internal
economic weaknesses have cost the United States real power in today's
world of rapidly spreading knowledge and technology. If present trends
continue, we will look back on the Bush years as the death knell of
American hegemony."

There is something absurd, even Kafkaesque, about our military empire. Jay Barr, a bankruptcy attorney, makes this point using an insightful analogy:

 

"Whether liquidating or reorganizing, a debtor who
desires bankruptcy protection must provide a list of expenses, which,
if considered reasonable, are offset against income to show that only
limited funds are available to repay the bankrupted creditors. Now
imagine a person filing for bankruptcy claiming that he could not repay
his debts because he had the astronomical expense of maintaining at
least 737 facilities overseas that provide exactly zero return on the
significant investment required to sustain them... He could not qualify
for liquidation without turning over many of his assets for the benefit
of creditors, including the valuable foreign real estate on which he
placed his bases."

In other words, the United States is not seriously contemplating its
own bankruptcy. It is instead ignoring the meaning of its precipitate
economic decline and flirting with insolvency.

Nick Turse, author of The Complex: How the Military Invades our Everyday Lives (Metropolitan Books, 2008), calculates
that we could clear $2.6 billion if we would sell our base assets at
Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and earn another $2.2 billion if we
did the same with Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. These are only two of our
over 800 overblown military enclaves.

Our unwillingness to retrench, no less liquidate, represents a
striking historical failure of the imagination. In his first official
visit to China since becoming Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner
assured an audience of students at Beijing University, "Chinese assets
[invested in the United States] are very safe." According to press reports, the students responded with loud laughter. Well they might.

In
May 2009, the Office of Management and Budget predicted that in 2010
the United States will be burdened with a budget deficit of at least
$1.75 trillion. This includes neither a projected $640 billion budget
for the Pentagon, nor the costs of waging two remarkably expensive
wars. The sum is so immense that it will take several generations for
American citizens to repay the costs of George W. Bush's imperial
adventures -- if they ever can or will. It represents about 13% of our
current gross domestic product (that is, the value of everything we
produce). It is worth noting that the target demanded of European nations wanting to join the Euro Zone is a deficit no greater than 3% of GDP.

Thus far, President Obama has announced measly cuts of only $8.8
billion in wasteful and worthless weapons spending, including his
cancellation of the F-22 fighter aircraft. The actual Pentagon budget
for next year will, in fact, be larger,
not smaller, than the bloated final budget of the Bush era. Far bolder
cuts in our military expenditures will obviously be required in the
very near future if we intend to maintain any semblance of fiscal
integrity.

2. We Are Going to Lose the War in Afghanistan and It Will Help Bankrupt Us

One of our major strategic blunders in Afghanistan was not to have
recognized that both Great Britain and the Soviet Union attempted to
pacify Afghanistan using the same military methods as ours and failed
disastrously. We seem to have learned nothing from Afghanistan's modern
history -- to the extent that we even know what it is. Between 1849 and
1947, Britain sent almost annual expeditions against the Pashtun tribes
and sub-tribes living in what was then called the North-West Frontier
Territories -- the area along either side of the artificial border
between Afghanistan and Pakistan called the Durand Line. This frontier
was created in 1893 by Britain's foreign secretary for India, Sir
Mortimer Durand.

Neither Britain nor Pakistan has ever managed to establish effective
control over the area. As the eminent historian Louis Dupree put it in
his book Afghanistan
(Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 425): "Pashtun tribes, almost
genetically expert at guerrilla warfare after resisting centuries of
all comers and fighting among themselves when no comers were available,
plagued attempts to extend the Pax Britannica into their mountain
homeland." An estimated 41 million Pashtuns live in an undemarcated
area along the Durand Line and profess no loyalties to the central
governments of either Pakistan or Afghanistan.

The region known today as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas
(FATA) of Pakistan is administered directly by Islamabad, which -- just
as British imperial officials did -- has divided
the territory into seven agencies, each with its own "political agent"
who wields much the same powers as his colonial-era predecessor. Then
as now, the part of FATA known as Waziristan and the home of Pashtun
tribesmen offered the fiercest resistance.

According to Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould, experienced Afghan hands and coauthors of Invisible History: Afghanistan's Untold Story (City Lights, 2009, p. 317):

 

"If Washington's bureaucrats don't remember the history
of the region, the Afghans do. The British used air power to bomb these
same Pashtun villages after World War I and were condemned for it. When
the Soviets used MiGs and the dreaded Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships to
do it during the 1980s, they were called criminals. For America to use
its overwhelming firepower in the same reckless and indiscriminate
manner defies the world's sense of justice and morality while turning
the Afghan people and the Islamic world even further against the United
States."

In 1932, in a series of Guernica-like atrocities, the British used
poison gas in Waziristan. The disarmament convention of the same year
sought a ban against the aerial bombardment of civilians, but Lloyd
George, who had been British prime minister during World War I,
gloated: "We insisted on reserving the right to bomb niggers"
(Fitzgerald and Gould, p. 65). His view prevailed.

The U.S. continues to act similarly, but with the new excuse that
our killing of noncombatants is a result of "collateral damage," or
human error. Using pilotless drones
guided with only minimal accuracy from computers at military bases in
the Arizona and Nevada deserts among other places, we have killed
hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unarmed bystanders in Pakistan and
Afghanistan. The Pakistani and Afghan governments have repeatedly
warned that we are alienating precisely the people we claim to be
saving for democracy.

When in May 2009, General Stanley McChrystal was appointed as the
commander in Afghanistan, he ordered new limits on air attacks,
including those carried out by the CIA, except when needed to protect
allied troops. Unfortunately, as if to illustrate the incompetence of
our chain of command, only two days after this order, on June 23, 2009,
the United States carried out a drone attack against a funeral
procession that killed at least 80 people,
the single deadliest U.S. attack on Pakistani soil so far. There was
virtually no reporting of these developments by the mainstream American
press or on the network television news. (At the time, the media were
almost totally preoccupied by the sexual adventures of the governor of
South Carolina and the death of pop star Michael Jackson.)

Our military operations in both Pakistan and Afghanistan have long
been plagued by inadequate and inaccurate intelligence about both
countries, ideological preconceptions about which parties we should
support and which ones we should oppose, and myopic understandings of
what we could possibly hope to achieve. Fitzgerald and Gould, for
example, charge that, contrary to our own intelligence service's focus
on Afghanistan, "Pakistan has always been the problem." They add:

 

"Pakistan's army and its Inter-Services Intelligence
branch... from 1973 on, has played the key role in funding and
directing first the mujahideen [anti-Soviet fighters during the
1980s]... and then the Taliban. It is Pakistan's army that controls its
nuclear weapons, constrains the development of democratic institutions,
trains Taliban fighters in suicide attacks and orders them to fight
American and NATO soldiers protecting the Afghan government." (p.
322-324)

The Pakistani army and its intelligence arm are staffed, in part, by
devout Muslims who fostered the Taliban in Afghanistan to meet the
needs of their own agenda, though not necessarily to advance an Islamic
jihad.
Their purposes have always included: keeping Afghanistan free of
Russian or Indian influence, providing a training and recruiting ground
for mujahideen guerrillas to be used in places like Kashmir
(fought over by both Pakistan and India), containing Islamic radicalism
in Afghanistan (and so keeping it out of Pakistan), and extorting huge
amounts of money from Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf emirates, and the
United States to pay and train "freedom fighters" throughout the
Islamic world. Pakistan's consistent policy has been to support the
clandestine policies of the Inter-Services Intelligence and thwart the
influence of its major enemy and competitor, India.

Colonel Douglas MacGregor, U.S. Army (retired), an adviser to the Center for Defense Information in Washington, summarizes
our hopeless project in South Asia this way: "Nothing we do will compel
125 million Muslims in Pakistan to make common cause with a United
States in league with the two states that are unambiguously
anti-Muslim: Israel and India."

Obama's mid-2009 "surge" of troops into southern Afghanistan and
particularly into Helmand Province, a Taliban stronghold, is fast
becoming darkly reminiscent of General William Westmoreland's
continuous requests in Vietnam for more troops and his promises that if
we would ratchet up the violence just a little more and tolerate a few
more casualties, we would certainly break the will of the Vietnamese
insurgents. This was a total misreading of the nature of the conflict
in Vietnam, just as it is in Afghanistan today.

Twenty years after the forces of the Red Army withdrew from
Afghanistan in disgrace, the last Russian general to command them, Gen.
Boris Gromov, issued
his own prediction: Disaster, he insisted, will come to the thousands
of new forces Obama is sending there, just as it did to the Soviet
Union's, which lost some 15,000 soldiers in its own Afghan war. We
should recognize that we are wasting time, lives, and resources in an
area where we have never understood the political dynamics and continue
to make the wrong choices.

3. We Need to End the Secret Shame of Our Empire of Bases

In March, New York Times op-ed columnist Bob Herbert noted,
"Rape and other forms of sexual assault against women is the great
shame of the U.S. armed forces, and there is no evidence that this
ghastly problem, kept out of sight as much as possible, is
diminishing." He continued:

 

"New data released by the Pentagon showed an almost 9
percent increase in the number of sexual assaults -- 2,923 -- and a 25
percent increase in such assaults reported by women serving in Iraq and
Afghanistan [over the past year]. Try to imagine how bizarre it is that
women in American uniforms who are enduring all the stresses related to
serving in a combat zone have to also worry about defending themselves
against rapists wearing the same uniform and lining up in formation
right beside them."

The problem is exacerbated by having our troops garrisoned in overseas
bases located cheek-by-jowl next to civilian populations and often
preying on them like foreign conquerors. For example, sexual violence
against women and girls by American GIs has been out of control in
Okinawa, Japan's poorest prefecture, ever since it was permanently
occupied by our soldiers, Marines, and airmen some 64 years ago.

That island was the scene of the largest anti-American demonstrations
since the end of World War II after the 1995 kidnapping, rape, and
attempted murder of a 12-year-old schoolgirl by two Marines and a
sailor. The problem of rape has been ubiquitous around all of our bases
on every continent and has probably contributed as much to our being
loathed abroad as the policies of the Bush administration or our
economic exploitation of poverty-stricken countries whose raw materials
we covet.

The military itself has done next to nothing to protect its own
female soldiers or to defend the rights of innocent bystanders forced
to live next to our often racially biased and predatory troops. "The
military's record of prosecuting rapists is not just lousy, it's
atrocious," writes Herbert. In territories occupied by American
military forces, the high command and the State Department make
strenuous efforts to enact so-called "Status of Forces Agreements"
(SOFAs) that will prevent host governments from gaining jurisdiction
over our troops who commit crimes overseas. The SOFAs also make it
easier for our military to spirit culprits out of a country before they
can be apprehended by local authorities.

This issue was well illustrated by the case of an Australian
teacher, a long-time resident of Japan, who in April 2002 was raped by
a sailor from the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk,
then based at the big naval base at Yokosuka. She identified her
assailant and reported him to both Japanese and U.S. authorities.
Instead of his being arrested and effectively prosecuted, the victim
herself was harassed and humiliated by the local Japanese police.
Meanwhile, the U.S. discharged the suspect from the Navy but allowed
him to escape Japanese law by returning him to the U.S., where he lives
today.

In the course of trying to obtain justice, the Australian teacher
discovered that almost fifty years earlier, in October 1953, the
Japanese and American governments signed a secret "understanding" as
part of their SOFA in which Japan agreed to waive its jurisdiction if
the crime was not of "national importance to Japan." The U.S. argued
strenuously for this codicil because it feared that otherwise it would
face the likelihood of some 350 servicemen per year being sent to
Japanese jails for sex crimes.

Since that time the U.S. has negotiated similar wording in SOFAs with Canada, Ireland, Italy, and Denmark. According to the Handbook of the Law of Visiting Forces
(2001), the Japanese practice has become the norm for SOFAs throughout
the world, with predictable results. In Japan, of 3,184 U.S. military
personnel who committed crimes between 2001 and 2008, 83% were not
prosecuted. In Iraq, we have just signed a SOFA that bears a strong
resemblance to the first postwar one we had with Japan: namely,
military personnel and military contractors accused of off-duty crimes
will remain in U.S. custody while Iraqis investigate. This is, of
course, a perfect opportunity to spirit the culprits out of the country
before they can be charged.

Within the military itself, the journalist Dahr Jamail, author of Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq
(Haymarket Books, 2007), speaks of the "culture of unpunished sexual
assaults" and the "shockingly low numbers of courts martial" for rapes
and other forms of sexual attacks. Helen Benedict, author of The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq
(Beacon Press, 2009), quotes this figure in a 2009 Pentagon report on
military sexual assaults: 90% of the rapes in the military are never
reported at all and, when they are, the consequences for the
perpetrator are negligible.

It is fair to say that the U.S. military has created a worldwide
sexual playground for its personnel and protected them to a large
extent from the consequences of their behavior. As a result a group of
female veterans in 2006 created the Service Women's Action Network
(SWAN). Its agenda is to spread the word that "no woman should join the
military."

I believe a better solution would be to radically reduce the size of
our standing army, and bring the troops home from countries where they
do not understand their environments and have been taught to think of
the inhabitants as inferior to themselves.

10 Steps Toward Liquidating the Empire

Dismantling the American empire would, of course, involve many steps. Here are ten key places to begin:

1. We need to put a halt to the serious environmental damage
done by our bases planet-wide. We also need to stop writing SOFAs that
exempt us from any responsibility for cleaning up after ourselves.

2. Liquidating the empire will end the burden of carrying our
empire of bases and so of the "opportunity costs" that go with them --
the things we might otherwise do with our talents and resources but
can't or won't.

3. As we already know (but often forget), imperialism breeds the
use of torture. In the 1960s and 1970s we helped overthrow the elected
governments in Brazil and Chile and underwrote regimes of torture that
prefigured our own treatment of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan.
(See, for instance, A.J. Langguth, Hidden Terrors
[Pantheon, 1979], on how the U.S. spread torture methods to Brazil and
Uruguay.) Dismantling the empire would potentially mean a real end to
the modern American record of using torture abroad.

4. We need to cut the ever-lengthening train of camp followers,
dependents, civilian employees of the Department of Defense, and
hucksters -- along with their expensive medical facilities, housing
requirements, swimming pools, clubs, golf courses, and so forth -- that follow our military enclaves around the world.

5. We need to discredit the myth promoted by the
military-industrial complex that our military establishment is valuable
to us in terms of jobs, scientific research, and defense. These alleged
advantages have long been discredited by serious economic research. Ending empire would make this happen.

6. As a self-respecting democratic nation, we need to stop being
the world's largest exporter of arms and munitions and quit educating
Third World militaries in the techniques of torture, military coups,
and service as proxies for our imperialism. A prime candidate for
immediate closure is the so-called School of the Americas, the U.S.
Army's infamous military academy at Fort Benning, Georgia, for Latin
American military officers. (See Chalmers Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire [Metropolitan Books, 2004], pp. 136-40.)

7. Given the growing constraints on the federal budget, we
should abolish the Reserve Officers' Training Corps and other
long-standing programs that promote militarism in our schools.

8. We need to restore discipline and accountability in our armed
forces by radically scaling back our reliance on civilian contractors,
private military companies, and agents working for the military outside
the chain of command and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. (See
Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater:The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army [Nation Books, 2007]). Ending empire would make this possible.

9. We need to reduce, not increase, the size of our standing
army and deal much more effectively with the wounds our soldiers
receive and combat stress they undergo.

10. To repeat the main message of this essay, we must give up
our inappropriate reliance on military force as the chief means of
attempting to achieve foreign policy objectives.

Unfortunately, few empires of the past voluntarily gave up their
dominions in order to remain independent, self-governing polities. The
two most important recent examples are the British and Soviet empires.
If we do not learn from their examples, our decline and fall is
foreordained.

[Note on further reading on the matter of sexual violence in and around our overseas bases and rapes in the military: On the response to the 1995 Okinawa rape, see Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, chapter 2. On related subjects, see David McNeil, "Justice for Some. Crime, Victims, and the US-Japan SOFA," Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 8-1-09, March 15, 2009; "Bilateral Secret Agreement Is Preventing U.S. Servicemen Committing Crimes in Japan from Being Prosecuted," Japan Press Weekly, May 23, 2009; Dieter Fleck, ed., The Handbook of the Law of Visiting Forces, Oxford University Press, 2001; Minoru Matsutani, "'53 Secret Japan-US Deal Waived GI Prosecutions," Japan Times, October 24, 2008; "Crime Without Punishment in Japan," the Economist, December 10, 2008; "Japan: Declassified Document Reveals Agreement to Relinquish Jurisdiction Over U.S. Forces," Akahata, October 30, 2008; "Government's Decision First Case in Japan," Ryukyu Shimpo, May 20, 2008; Dahr Jamail, "Culture of Unpunished Sexual Assault in Military," Antiwar.com, May 1, 2009; and Helen Benedict, "The Plight of Women Soldiers," the Nation, May 5, 2009.]


© 2021 TomDispatch.com
Chalmers Johnson

Chalmers Johnson

Chalmers Johnson was the author of "Blowback "(2000), "The Sorrows of Empire" (2004), and "Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic" (2006), and "Revolutionary Change" (1982).  His final book was "Dismantling the Empire: America's Last Best Hope" (2010). He died on November 20, 2010 at age 79.

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