It is the best of times for the American Empire. The United States bestrides the planet as an unrivalled colossus.
Its annual military budget exceeds $650 billion. That staggering sum is greater than the annual military expenditures of the next 25 countries combined. The defense spending of Russia, the superpower opponent of the United States during the Cold War, is now one-twelfth of the Pentagon’s. Russia’s military is struggling against Islamic forces in Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia. Its assertiveness in South Ossetia and Abkhazia are unthreatening to the national security of the United States. Sen. John McCain’s patently absurd exhortation that “we are all Georgians now” during the 2008 presidential campaign, joined in lower octaves by competing politicians, reflected an Empire philosophy in full blossom — inflate danger to frighten the people to justify a global military footprint, control for the sake of control, and ubiquitous encroachments on civil liberties. James Madison, an icon of the American Republic, had warned, “The means of defense against foreign danger historically have become the instruments of tyranny at home.”
The American Empire sports a military presence in 135 countries, which host more than 400,000 U.S. troops. Tens of thousands of U.S. military personnel are abroad to defend the people and interests of South Korea, Japan, Western Europe, Saudi Arabia, et cetera. They are risking that “last full measure of devotion” not to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,” but to protect foreigners against attack, foreigners who pay no American taxes and have no allegiance to America.
Nothing is too insignificant to attract U.S. military attention and concern: puny conflicts between Russia and Ukraine over gas prices or Sevastopol; the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda; mass killings in Darfur; the fate of Kosovar Albanians in Serbia or the Karen in Myanmar; a handful of juvenile al-Qaeda followers in Mali or Mauretania; Maoist terrorism in Nepal; or a refugee crisis in Bangladesh that could be occasioned by global warming — a newly designated national-security threat.
The Empire seeks to control events everywhere on the planet. The idea of neutrality or disinterestedness — the leitmotif of President George Washington’s Farewell Address — has been retired from public discourse. Washington issued a neutrality proclamation in 1794 when Great Britain and France were at war. The United States remained scrupulously neutral when Central and South America were in upheaval against Spain and Portugal for two decades from 1809 to 1829.
In contrast, presidents of the contemporary American Empire concoct national-security interests from trifles as light as air to justify U.S. intervention. The United States transfers arms to the ramshackle and monumentally corrupt government of Somalia fighting for survival against bandits and Islamic extremists. It frets over a border dispute between Eritrea and Ethiopia. It worries over the national-security implications of global warming and AIDS. The vast majority of American citizens— whether Democratic, Republican, or Independent — instinctively assume that the United States should project itself into every nook and cranny of the globe because of its moral superiority and putative aptitude for plucking democracy from despotism.
The American Empire is committed to defend from military attack all 28 members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), including Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Albania, and Croatia. If Russia, today, were to invade Hungary as in 1956, or the Czech and Slovak republics as in 1968, the United States would be at war to fight and die for Hungarians, Czechs, and Slovaks. The United States has corresponding defense obligations to South Korea and Japan. It is the policeman of the world.
The Empire is at perpetual war with international terrorism. The entire globe (including the United States) is a battlefield where military force may be employed and military law may be imposed against any al-Qaeda suspect, including American citizens. Military commissions that combine judge, jury, and prosecutor and that take shortcuts through due process are authorized to try detainees accused of novel war crimes, for example, conspiring to train in a terrorist camp or serving as Osama bin Laden’s driver.
Enemy combatants, i.e., persons “associated” in any way with al-Qaeda, may be detained indefinitely without accusation or trial. When required to defend its enemy-combatant designations in federal courts, the president loses in the overwhelming number of the cases. The Congress of the United States prohibits Guantánamo Bay inmates from being transferred to U.S. soil on the assumption that all are guilty of terrorism even if they have been exonerated. (A temporary provision has been made for transfers for criminal prosecution.)
The detentions of noncitizens who have been illegally detained for long years are regularly continued because the United States refuses to grant them asylum even if they — like China’s persecuted Uighurs — have well-founded fears of persecution, torture, or death if returned to their native countries. The United States no longer welcomes the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to be free as immigrants. The Statue of Liberty’s spirit is honored more in the breach than in the observance.
Detainees may be held completely outside the legal system at Bagram prison in Afghanistan — a first cousin of the Soviet Union’s Gulag Archipeligo limned by Alexander Solzhenitzen.
The state-secrets privilege is invoked by the president to protect executive-branch officials from liability for flagrant violations of constitutional rights, for example, torture, kidnapping, and illegal surveillance. Justice has capitulated to a national-security psychosis.
Secret government is the rule and transparency the exception. The people do not know what the executive branch is doing or why in national-security affairs. They knew nothing of U.S. torture of al-Qaeda suspects or Abu Ghraib interrogation abuses until there were leaks to the media. Ditto for the illegal Terrorist Surveillance Program that flouted the criminal prohibitions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. President Barack Obama is withholding from the public the photographs of U.S. interrogation abuses of detainees sought in a Freedom of Information Act suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The president worries that revealing the wrongdoing might awaken anger against the U.S. military abroad and compel prosecutions of the criminal abusers, as in the My Lai massacre. “Trust me” is the creed of the president and his subordinates.
Even in domestic affairs, the multitrillion dollar financial transactions of the Federal Reserve Board are secret; and the United States does not require transparency in the private use of multi-billion dollar bail-out monies to private businesses under the Troubled Asset Relief Program. The American Empire’s massive secrecy shields public officials from political or legal accountability to its citizen-subjects.
The few members of Congress who are skeletally informed about national-security secrets meekly accept executive-branch edicts to remain silent. By cowardly inactivity or passivity, members become complicit in crimes such as torture or illegal interceptions and retentions of phone conversations or emails that have been shared with them by the National Security Agency or Central Intelligence Agency.
The president asserts executive privilege to prevent his advisors from appearing under subpoena to testify before Congress without provoking congressional retaliation. When former White House counsel John Dean recited chapter and verse of conversations with Richard Nixon in the Oval Office to the Senate Watergate Committee, his testimony was pivotal in uncovering Watergate crimes and repudiating the idea that if the president does it, it is legal.
The president approves bills passed by Congress, but appends signing statements stating his intent to ignore provisions that would confine his discretion in national-security or foreign-policy matters — for instance, placing U.S. troops under UN command or meeting with nations designated as state sponsors of terrorism. The signing statements are tantamount to absolute line-item vetoes, which the Supreme Court held were unconstitutional in Clinton v. New York. They arrogate power over the legislative process to the executive branch by preventing Congress from bundling into one bill provisions the president likes and provisions he dislikes and confronting him with the Hobson’s choice of either taking the good with the bad or taking nothing. In addition, Congress cannot override a signing statement by two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate.
The costs of war
The president enjoys counter-constitutional power to initiate preemptive wars unilaterally to abort pre-embryonic foreign dangers to the United States or its allies. Congress, manifestly intended by the Constitution’s makers to decide on war or peace, routinely funds and endorses by inaction whatever the president ordains. Even presidential lies to obtain congressional authorization for war are accepted with equanimity or droopy resignation by senators and representatives. A bill — the Executive Accountability Act of 2009, which would criminalize intentional presidential lies to Congress or the American people to obtain authorization for war — is greeted largely with congressional yawns and popular indifference.
The United States is at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, deploying hundreds of thousands of troops in utopian quests to transform primitive political despotisms into thriving democracies at supersonic speeds. Thousands of American soldiers have been killed and tens of thousands have been wounded while making the United States less safe by killing innocent civilians and squandering vast resources through military spending.
The war in Iraq was initiated by George Bush through an unconstitutional delegation of authority from Congress. George Washington, who presided over the Constitutional Convention of 1787, lectured, “The constitution vests the power of declaring war in Congress; therefore no offensive expedition of importance can be undertaken until after they shall have deliberated upon the subject and authorized such a measure.” He was echoed by the father of the Constitution, James Madison, who, as president, asked Congress for a declaration of war against Great Britain in 1812. But the Constitution’s text and original intent are impotent against the prevailing orthodoxies of the American Empire, in which overwhelming authority is concentrated in the president because constant war for the sake of control is the Empire’s chief mission.
The Founding Fathers correctly feared that the president would gratuitously initiate war, because military conflict confers on the commander in chief patriotic or jingoistic public support, secrecy, money, appointments, and the tempting opportunity to transform the world.
As in Iraq, in Afghanistan the United States is supporting a hopelessly corrupt, inept, and unpopular regime. The administration of Hamid Karzai has recently stolen an election with a cast of thugs, thieves, and murderous tribal chiefs opposed to the destruction of opium poppies but in favor of a law reducing wives to chattels, including a requirement of spousal permission to leave the house. In neither country is the president able to define military success or progress beyond Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of hard-core pornography: “I know it when I see it.” To paraphrase philosopher George Santayana, a fanatical nation redoubles its efforts when it has forgotten its aim. Thus, Obama escalates the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and corresponding funding of civilian programs as his special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, confesses he is clueless about whether either initiative could plausibly be successful. As with the Vietnam debacle, U.S. failures in Afghanistan engender more of the same flawed strategy, the identical folly pursued by the British and Soviet Empires in that barren and desolate land.
Hundreds of billions of dollars are readily appropriated by Congress and approved by the American people for the Iraq and Afghan wars. Nothing is too expensive when national security is mentioned. U.S. killings of Afghan and Iraqi civilians and interrogation crimes, including torture, at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay, Bagram prison, and secret dungeons in Central and Eastern Europe, have created an indeterminate number of new enemies. The hundreds of billions of dollars spent in Iraq and Afghanistan hunting for al-Qaeda in remote caves and mountains have largely been wasted. But a prime earmark of Empire is to brand as unpatriotic any criticism of actions taken in the name of national security. When the Empire began its baby steps from a republic in the Mexican-American War, President James K. Polk branded as traitors all who questioned his counterfactual claim that Mexico initiated the conflict by killing American soldiers on American soil.
The American Empire is assumed without debate by Congress and the American people to be the right course for the United States. It is no more subject to mainstream dispute than the heliocentric theory of the universe. Congressmen Ron Paul (R-Tex.) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.) are the rare members of Congress who recognize and protest the Empire’s profanation of the nation’s charter documents and signature creed. Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address is emblematic: “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”
The loss of the Republic
It is the worst of times for the American Republic.
The American Republic celebrated the idea that the purpose of government was to secure unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That idea has succumbed to the belief that the mission of the United States is to control and dominate the world through military and economic might at the expense of individual rights, checks and balances, limited government, and transparency at home.
The lion’s share of power was once entrusted to Congress — the branch closest to the people, most readily accountable to constituents, and least inclined towards war. The power of the purse, strict oversight of the executive branch, and the exclusive power to initiate war made Congress the most powerful branch. During the Nixon administration, Congress wielded the power of the purse to end the bombing of Cambodia and to prohibit U.S. ground troops in Thailand. That legislation was followed by the so-called Church Committee hearings, which disclosed massive civil-liberties abuses during 40 years of unchecked spying by the FBI, CIA, and NSA.
But Congress has now been reduced to a political cipher. It appropriates whatever money the president seeks for war or for economic “stimulus.” It holds no serious oversight hearings on the conduct of war by the president; interrogation abuses; criminal violations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act; or the distribution of enormous bailout sums to financially reckless or irresponsible banks or other businesses, or the efficacy of it.
The Republic understood that the informing function of Congress was its most important. Freedom and ignorance are incompatible. Voters must be informed of what the government is doing to inform their political loyalties and activities. As the historian Henry Steele Commager put it in 1972, “The generation that made the nation thought secrecy in government one of the instruments of Old World tyranny and committed itself to the principle that a democracy cannot function unless the people are permitted to know what their government is up to.”
There is only one thing that will restore the safe Republic from the unsafe clutches of the American Empire: an unequivocal repudiation by the American people of a risk-free existence and a quest to dominate foreign lands not through example but by military force or threats.