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The Grim Implications of Obama’s New Defense Plan

January 14, 2012 

Joseph Gersonʻs analysis of the Pentagon’s New Strategic Guidance “The Grim Implications of Obama’s New Defense Plan” has been published in Counterpunch:

In early January the Obama Administration released the Pentagon’s new Guidance, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense. It is clearly designed less to cut U.S. military spending than to reorder Pentagon priorities to ensure full spectrum dominance (dominating any nation, anywhere, at any time, at any level of force) for the first decades of the 21st century. As President Obama himself said, after the near-doubling of military spending during the Bush era, the Guidance will slow the growth of military spending, “but…it will still grow:, in fact by 4% in the coming year.”

The new doctrine places China and Iran at the center of U.S. “security” concerns. It thus prioritizes expansion of U.S. war making capacities in Asia and the Pacific and Indian Oceans, by “rebalanc[ing] toward the Asia-Pacific region…empahsiz[ing] our existing alliances.” This means Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and now Australia and India as the U.S. “pivots” from Iraq and Afghanistan to the heartland of the 21st century global economy, Asia and the Pacific.  The implications for Okinawa and Japan should be clear: Washington will be doing all that it can to ensure that Japan remains its unsinkable aircraft carrier, including pressing for construction of the new air base in Henoko.

READ THE FULL ARTICLE

Obama’s Arc of Instability: Destabilizing the World One Region at a Time

September 19, 2011 

Nick Turse has written another revealing article about the contours and scope of the U.S. empire:

Obama’s Arc of Instability

Destabilizing the World One Region at a Time

By Nick Turse

It’s a story that should take your breath away: the destabilization of what, in the Bush years, used to be called “the arc of instability.”  It involves at least 97 countries, across the bulk of the global south, much of it coinciding with the oil heartlands of the planet.  A startling number of these nations are now in turmoil, and in every single one of them — from Afghanistan and Algeria to Yemen and Zambia — Washington is militarily involved, overtly or covertly, in outright war or what passes for peace.

Garrisoning the planet is just part of it.  The Pentagon and U.S. intelligence services are also running covert special forces and spy operations, launching drone attacks, building bases and secret prisons, training, arming, and funding local security forces, and engaging in a host of other militarized activities right up to full-scale war.  But while you consider this, keep one fact in mind: the odds are that there is no longer a single nation in the arc of instability in which the United States is in no way militarily involved.

Covenant of the Arc

“Freedom is on the march in the broader Middle East,” the president said in his speech.  “The hope of liberty now reaches from Kabul to Baghdad to Beirut and beyond. Slowly but surely, we’re helping to transform the broader Middle East from an arc of instability into an arc of freedom.”

An arc of freedom.  You could be forgiven if you thought that this was an excerpt from President Barack Obama’s Arab Spring speech, where he said “[I]t will be the policy of the United States to… support transitions to democracy.”  Those were, however, the words of his predecessor George W. Bush.  The giveaway is that phrase “arc of instability,” a core rhetorical concept of the former president’s global vision and that of his neoconservative supporters.

READ THE FULL ARTICLE

Thomas Barnett, a military analyst at the U.S. Naval War College had been discussing a similar theory with military leaders.  He wrote an article and later a book entitled “The Pentagon’s New Map”, in which he argued that the new challenge for peace and security was integrating the underdeveloped and unstable countries of the world  – “the gap” – into the “functioning core”.   It is essentially a map of global empire.   Looks like U.S. policies are widening the “gap” so much that it might swallow up everything else, including the so-called “core”.

Killing ‘Geronimo’ over and over again

May 4, 2011 

In my previous post about the killing of Osama bin Laden and the reaction by many Americans, I lamented how:

The jubilation over the killing of bin Laden reminded me of the grisly trophy photos of lynchings with leering faces and tortured black bodies, much like the torture photos to emerge from Abu Ghraib prison or the so-called ‘Kill Team’ photos of Afghan civilians murdered by U.S. troops.

 

But I forgot to mention the racist code-name assigned to bin Laden: “Geronimo”.   Geronimo (or Goyathlay as he was known to his people), the great Apache warrior who resisted U.S. invasion of his peoples’ land and evaded troops for many years, has come to represent indigenous resistance to colonization, and in his surrender, the subjugation of American Indians.   So potent is his symbolism that the elite secret society at Yale, “Skull and Bones” allegedly robbed Goyathlay’s tomb and still possesses his bones.

The Native American community reacted with justifiable horror to the news of Osama bin Laden’s U.S. military code name.   Indian Country Today reported “Bin Laden Code-name “Geronimo” Is a Bomb in Indian Country”:

The US government may have captured and killed Osama Bin Laden with a surgical strike, but it also dropped a bombshell on Native America in the process. “We’ve ID’d Geronimo,” said the voice of the Navy SEAL who reported the hunt for Osama bin Laden was over. The President, and all those gathered in the situation room, waited on edge for the voice to return with the triumphant news, that in fact, “Geronimo” was dead.

According to multiple sources, “Geronimo-E KIA” is the message that was sent to the White House by the strike team to announce that bin Laden, the “E,” or Enemy, was Killed In Action.

As news of bin Laden’s death spread relief across America and the world, revelations that the assigned code name of Enemy Number One was “Geronimo,” a legendary Apache leader, caused shock waves in Indian communities across the country. It is being interpreted as a slap in the face of Native people, a disturbing message that equates an iconic symbol of Native American pride with the most hated evildoer since Adolf Hitler.

The death of bin Laden is arguably the most important news story of the year, and embedded within it is a message that an Indian warrior, a symbol of Native American survival in the face of racial annihilation, is associated with modern terrorism and the attacks on 9/11.

The “bin Laden is dead” news story will make thousands of impressions on the minds of people around the globe, and the name Geronimo will now be irrevocably linked with the world’s most reviled terrorist.

I share the author’s outrage at the symbolic lynching of Geronimo and all native peoples.   Yet, it is an honest reflection of the ethos of the U.S. and its military culture that “Geronimo” was chosen as the code name for Osama bin Laden.  As historian Richard Drinnon noted in his landmark work “Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire-Building“, “cowboys and Indians” has been the racist mythos of U.S. imperialism. From the calvary’s genocidal Indian Wars straight across the Pacific to the savagery of the Philippines War, then on to WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and now Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s been about cowboys versus Indians.  In this narrative, Indians are not real humans. So their slaughter becomes acceptable, even necessary for civilization to proceed, like the clearing of forest for development.

I found it troubling that the Indian Country Today article so readily demonized bin Laden as “the most hated evildoer since Adolf Hitler” in order to set Goyathlay apart as a heroic figure.

If we set aside the unlawful and morally repugnant tactics of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, is not his stated objective – to drive the infidels from the Muslim holy land – the same reason Goyathlay and his band of warriors waged a guerrilla war against the United States for so many years?  In his time, Geronimo was called the “worst Indian who ever lived” by white settlers while he was a hero to Native Americans, all because he resisted the U.S. invasion of native lands and terrorized white folk.  Many in the Muslim world hold up bin Laden and his movement as heroes because they stood up to the western imperialists.

The violence of the colonized is a mirror to the violence of the colonizer, showing us where terror must be defeated, at the heart of the imperial relations that created it.  As long as the U.S. follows the road of empire, the wars will never end, people will resist, sometimes violently, and cowboys will slaughter millions and ravage whole countries over and over again to get Geronimo ‘dead or alive’.

‘Geronimo’ reminded me of the true story of Ko’olau the Leper, a Hawaiian folk hero who contracted Hansen’s Disease and rather than be imprisoned in a leper colony, hid in the Napali coast of Kaua’i.  Over the weekend at the Wai’anae Library there was a reading of “The Legend of Ko’olau” by playwright Gary Kubota.   I was told that the play is very powerful.  Hopefully it will be produced in the near future.

Like Goyathlay (Geronimo), Ko’olau fought off the foreign militia that had overthrown the Hawaiian monarchy when they came to capture him.  Living off the land, he evaded capture for many years until his death by the disease.   In one encounter, Ko’olau shot and killed the sheriff and most of his posse.

So on the topic of outlaws and heroes, I close with some lyrics from Bob Marley’s immortal classic “I Shot the Sheriff”:

Oh, now, now. Oh!
(I shot the sheriff.) – the sheriff.
(But I swear it was in selfdefence.)
Oh, no! (Ooh, ooh, oo-oh) Yeah!
I say: I shot the sheriff – Oh, Lord! -
(And they say it is a capital offence.)
Yeah! (Ooh, ooh, oo-oh) Yeah!

Sheriff John Brown always hated me,
For what, I don’t know:
Every time I plant a seed,
He said kill it before it grow -
He said kill them before they grow.

Lines between intelligence and military functions becoming blurred

April 28, 2011 

The New York Times reports that President Obama will announce that Leon Panetta, director of the CIA, will replace Robert Gates has Secretary of Defense, and that General David Petreaus will become director of the CIA.   But this trend towards the blending of intelligence and military functions is moving into dangerous territory where it is increasingly unclear what legally constitutes war and who are lawful combatants under international law. It is a reflection of the U.S. empire as a permanent state of war.

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President Obama’s decision to send an intelligence chief to the Pentagon and a four-star general to the Central Intelligence Agency is the latest evidence of a significant shift over the past decade in how the United States fights its battles — the blurring of lines between soldiers and spies in secret American missions abroad.

On Thursday, Mr. Obama is expected to announce that Leon E. Panetta, the C.I.A. director, will become secretary of defense, replacing Robert M. Gates, and that Gen. David H. Petraeus will return from Afghanistan to take Mr. Panetta’s job at the C.I.A., a move that is likely to continue this trend.

As C.I.A. director, Mr. Panetta hastened the transformation of the spy agency into a paramilitary organization, overseeing a sharp escalation of the C.I.A.’s bombing campaign in Pakistan using armed drone aircraft, and an increase in the number of secret bases and covert operatives in remote parts of Afghanistan.

General Petraeus, meanwhile, has aggressively pushed the military deeper into the C.I.A.’s turf, using Special Operations troops and private security contractors to conduct secret intelligence missions. As commander of the United States Central Command in September 2009, he also signed a classified order authorizing American Special Operations troops to collect intelligence in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iran and other places outside of traditional war zones.

The result is that American military and intelligence operatives are at times virtually indistinguishable from each other as they carry out classified operations in the Middle East and Central Asia. Some members of Congress have complained that this new way of war allows for scant debate about the scope and scale of military operations. In fact, the American spy and military agencies operate in such secrecy now that it is often hard to come by specific information about the American role in major missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and now Libya and Yemen.

The operations have also created tension with important allies like Pakistan, while raising fresh questions about whether spies and soldiers deserve the same legal protections.

Officials acknowledge that the lines between soldiering and spying have blurred. “It’s really irrelevant whether you call it a covert action or a military special operation,” said Dennis C. Blair, a retired four-star admiral and a former director of national intelligence.  “I don’t really think there is any distinction.”

READ THE FULL ARTICLE

Tomgram: Rebecca Solnit, “The Butterfly and the Boiling Point – Charting the Wild Winds of Change in 2011″

April 21, 2011 

Rebecca Solnit a San Francisco Bay Area activist, artist, geographer and contributor to TomDispatch wrote a beautiful and hopeful article analyzing the wave of uprisings and revolutionary unrest sweeping the Arab world and theorizing about the “unexpected” and “chaotic” nature of revolutionary phenomena, like butterfly wings fluttering in Brazil, changing the weather in Texas…

The Butterfly and the Boiling Point

Charting the Wild Winds of Change in 2011

By Rebecca Solnit

Revolution is as unpredictable as an earthquake and as beautiful as spring. Its coming is always a surprise, but its nature should not be.

Revolution is a phase, a mood, like spring, and just as spring has its buds and showers, so revolution has its ebullience, its bravery, its hope, and its solidarity. Some of these things pass. The women of Cairo do not move as freely in public as they did during those few precious weeks when the old rules were suspended and everything was different. But the old Egypt is gone and Egyptians’ sense of themselves — and our sense of them — is forever changed.

She offers some choice, poetic insights about the alchemical phase shift that transforms fear into hope:

Those who are not afraid are ungovernable, at least by fear, that favorite tool of the bygone era of George W. Bush. Jonathan Schell, with his usual beautiful insight, saw this when he wrote of the uprising in Tahrir Square:

“The murder of the 300 people, it may be, was the event that sealed Mubarak’s doom. When people are afraid, murders make them take flight. But when they have thrown off fear, murders have the opposite effect and make them bold. Instead of fear, they feel solidarity. Then they ‘stay’ — and advance. And there is no solidarity like solidarity with the dead. That is the stuff of which revolution is made.”

When a revolution is made, people suddenly find themselves in a changed state — of mind and of nation. The ordinary rules are suspended, and people become engaged with each other in new ways, and develop a new sense of power and possibility. People behave with generosity and altruism; they find they can govern themselves; and, in many ways, the government simply ceases to exist.

And she offers hopeful advise:

Hard times are in store for most people on Earth, and those may be times of boldness. Or not. The butterflies are out there, but when their flight stirs the winds of insurrection no one knows beforehand.

So remember to expect the unexpected, but not just to wait for it. Sometimes you have to become the unexpected, as the young heroes and heroines of 2011 have. I am sure they themselves are as surprised as anyone. Since she very nearly had the first word, let Asmaa Mahfouz have the last word: “As long as you say there is no hope, then there will be no hope, but if you go down and take a stance, then there will be hope.”

READ THE FULL ARTICLE

Tomgram: Noam Chomsky: “Who Owns the World?”

April 21, 2011 

In the introduction to Noam Chomsky’s article “Who Owns the World?” Tom Englehardt writes:

Military bases R U.S.  Or so it seems.  After the invasion of 2003, the Pentagon promptly started constructing a series of monster bases in occupied Iraq, the size of small American towns and with most of the amenities of home.  These were for a projected garrison of 30,000 to 40,000 U.S. troops that top officials of the Bush administration initially anticipated would be free to hang out in that country for an armed eternity.  In the end, hundreds of bases were built. (And now, hundreds have been closed down or handed over to the Iraqis and in some cases looted).  With present U.S. troop strength at about 47,000 (not counting mercenaries) and falling, American officials are now practically pleading with an Iraqi government moving ever closer to the Iranians to let some American forces remain at a few giant bases beyond the official end-of-2011 withdrawal date.

Meanwhile, post-2003, the U.S. went on a base-building (or expanding) spree in the Persian Gulf, digging in and enlarging facilities in Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, “home” to the U.S. Fifth Fleet.  In that island kingdom, an Obama administration preaching “democracy” elsewhere has stood by in the face of a fierce Bahraini-Saudi campaign of repression against a majority Shiite movement for greater freedom.  Meanwhile, not to be outdone, the State Department decided to build a modern ziggurat in Iraq and so oversaw the construction of the largest “embassy” on Earth in Baghdad, a regional citadel-cum-command post meant to house thousands of “diplomats” and their armed minders.  It is now constructing a similar facility in Islamabad, Pakistan, while expanding a third in Kabul, Afghanistan.

In fact, in the years after the invasion of Afghanistan, the Pentagon, as Nick Turse reported for this site, went on a veritable base-building bender in that country, constructing at least 400 of them, ranging from micro-outposts to monster spreads like the Bagram and Kandahar air bases, complete with gyms, PXs, Internet cafes, and fast-food outlets.  Now, in the tenth year of a disastrous war, the Obama administration is evidently frantically negotiating to make at least some of these permanently ours after the much-vaunted departure of American “combat” troops in 2014.  As in Iraq, American officials carefully avoid the word “permanent.”  (In 2003, the Pentagon dubbed the Iraqi bases “enduring camps,” and this February Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered the following description of the Afghan situation: “In no way should our enduring commitment be misunderstood as a desire by America or our allies to occupy Afghanistan against the will of its people… We do not seek any permanent American military bases in their country.”)

In the article, taken from a speech given in Amsterdam, Chomsky gives a wide ranging, encyclopedic overview of the present global U.S. empire.  He discusses the “Grand Area doctrines” that determine U.S. actions in many parts of the world.   He also skewers the double standards of U.S. conduct regarding nuclear enrichment in Iran, military bases and maneuvers near China, the support of “democracy” in the middle east.  READ THE FULL ARTICLE HERE

Sleepwalking into the Imperial Dark / Will the US extend the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan

April 19, 2011 

In August 2010, when President Obama announced to much fanfare:  “Consistent with our agreement with the Iraqi government, all of our troops will be out of Iraq by the end of next year,” did anyone really believe him?

Earlier this month, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visited Iraq and raised the possibility of U.S. troops staying in Iraq beyond the agreed withdrawal date of 31 December, 2011.

Now, there has been talk of extending the U.S. military presense in Afghanistan beyond the pullout deadline.  Here’s an excerpt of a New York Times article:

Talks on U.S. Presence in Afghanistan After Pullout Unnerve Region

First, American officials were talking about July 2011 as the date to begin the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Then, the Americans and their NATO allies began to talk about transition, gradually handing over control of the war to the Afghans until finally pulling out in 2014. Now, however, the talk is all about what happens after 2014.

Afghanistan and the United States are in the midst of negotiating what they are calling a Strategic Partnership Declaration for beyond 2014.

Critics, including many of Afghanistan’s neighbors, call it the Permanent Bases Agreement — or, in a more cynical vein, Great Game 3.0, drawing a comparison with the ill-fated British and Russian rivalry in the region during the 19th and 20th centuries.

READ FULL ARTICLE

As Ann Wright reported after her last trip to Afghanistan on a peace delegation, the rapid and widespread construction of military bases in Afghanistan did not indicate a plan to withdraw, but rather a plan for a long term military occupation via a type of permanent bases agreement.

As Tom Engelhardt writes in Tom Dispatch “Sleepwalking into the Imperial Dark
What It Feels Like When a Superpower Runs Off the Tracks”
these developments are symptomatic of America’s deep denial of its empire.  He wonders what it must have felt like to be a citizen of an empire in decline:

at some point it must have seemed at least a little like this — truly strange, like watching a machine losing its parts.  It must have seemed as odd and unnerving as it does now to see a formerly mighty power enter a state of semi-paralysis at home even as it staggers on blindly with its war-making abroad.

He concludes:

A post-imperial U.S. could, of course, be open to all sorts of possibilities for change that might be exciting indeed.

Right now, though, it doesn’t feel that way, does it?  It makes me wonder: Could this be how it’s always felt inside a great imperial power on the downhill slide?  Could this be what it’s like to watch, paralyzed, as a country on autopilot begins to come apart at the seams while still proclaiming itself “the greatest nation on Earth”?

I don’t know.  But I do know one thing: this can’t end well.

Alfred McCoy: The Decline and Fall of the American Empire

December 5, 2010 

Tomgram: Alfred McCoy, Taking Down America
Posted by Alfred McCoy at 5:11pm, December 5, 2010.

Trying to play down the significance of an ongoing Wikileaks dump of more than 250,000 State Department documents, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently offered the following bit of Washington wisdom: “The fact is, governments deal with the United States because it’s in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets… [S]ome governments deal with us because they fear us, some because they respect us, most because they need us.  We are still essentially, as has been said before, the indispensable nation.”

Now, wisdom like that certainly sounds sober; it’s definitely what passes for hardheaded geopolitical realism in our nation’s capital; and it’s true, Gates is not the first top American official to call the U.S. “the indispensable nation”; nor do I doubt that he and many other inside-the-Beltway players are convinced of our global indispensability.  The problem is that the news has almost weekly been undermining his version of realism, making it look ever more phantasmagorical.  The ability of Wikileaks, a tiny organization of activists, to thumb its cyber-nose at the global superpower, repeatedly shining a blaze of illumination on the penumbra of secrecy under which its political and military elite like to conduct their affairs, hasn’t helped one bit either.  If our indispensability is, as yet, hardly questioned in Washington, elsewhere on the planet it’s another matter.

The once shiny badge of the “global sheriff” has lost its gleam and, in Dodge City, ever fewer are paying the sort of attention that Washington believes is its due.  To my mind, the single most intelligent comment on the latest Wikileaks uproar comes from Simon Jenkins of the British Guardian who, on making his way through the various revelations (not to speak of the mounds of global gossip), summed matters up this way: “The money-wasting is staggering. [U.S.] Aid payments are never followed, never audited, never evaluated. The impression is of the world’s superpower roaming helpless in a world in which nobody behaves as bidden. Iran, Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, the United Nations, are all perpetually off script. Washington reacts like a wounded bear, its instincts imperial but its power projection unproductive.”

Sometimes, to understand just where you are in the present, it helps to peer into the past — in this case, into what happened to previous “indispensable” imperial powers; sometimes, it’s no less useful to peer into the future.  In his latest TomDispatch post, Alfred W. McCoy, author most recently of Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State, does both.  Having convened a global working group of 140 historians to consider the fate of the U.S. as an imperial power, he offers us a glimpse of four possible American (near-)futures.  They add up to a monumental, even indispensable look at just how fast our indispensability is likely to unravel in the years to come.  Tom

The Decline and Fall of the American Empire
Four Scenarios for the End of the American Century by 2025
By Alfred W. McCoy

A soft landing for America 40 years from now?  Don’t bet on it.  The demise of the United States as the global superpower could come far more quickly than anyone imagines.  If Washington is dreaming of 2040 or 2050 as the end of the American Century, a more realistic assessment of domestic and global trends suggests that in 2025, just 15 years from now, it could all be over except for the shouting.

Despite the aura of omnipotence most empires project, a look at their history should remind us that they are fragile organisms. So delicate is their ecology of power that, when things start to go truly bad, empires regularly unravel with unholy speed: just a year for Portugal, two years for the Soviet Union, eight years for France, 11 years for the Ottomans, 17 years for Great Britain, and, in all likelihood, 22 years for the United States, counting from the crucial year 2003.

Future historians are likely to identify the Bush administration’s rash invasion of Iraq in that year as the start of America’s downfall. However, instead of the bloodshed that marked the end of so many past empires, with cities burning and civilians slaughtered, this twenty-first century imperial collapse could come relatively quietly through the invisible tendrils of economic collapse or cyberwarfare.

But have no doubt: when Washington’s global dominion finally ends, there will be painful daily reminders of what such a loss of power means for Americans in every walk of life. As a half-dozen European nations have discovered, imperial decline tends to have a remarkably demoralizing impact on a society, regularly bringing at least a generation of economic privation. As the economy cools, political temperatures rise, often sparking serious domestic unrest.

Available economic, educational, and military data indicate that, when it comes to U.S. global power, negative trends will aggregate rapidly by 2020 and are likely to reach a critical mass no later than 2030. The American Century, proclaimed so triumphantly at the start of World War II, will be tattered and fading by 2025, its eighth decade, and could be history by 2030.

Significantly, in 2008, the U.S. National Intelligence Council admitted for the first time that America’s global power was indeed on a declining trajectory. In one of its periodic futuristic reports, Global Trends 2025, the Council cited “the transfer of global wealth and economic power now under way, roughly from West to East” and “without precedent in modern history,” as the primary factor in the decline of the “United States’ relative strength — even in the military realm.” Like many in Washington, however, the Council’s analysts anticipated a very long, very soft landing for American global preeminence, and harbored the hope that somehow the U.S. would long “retain unique military capabilities… to project military power globally” for decades to come.

No such luck.  Under current projections, the United States will find itself in second place behind China (already the world’s second largest economy) in economic output around 2026, and behind India by 2050. Similarly, Chinese innovation is on a trajectory toward world leadership in applied science and military technology sometime between 2020 and 2030, just as America’s current supply of brilliant scientists and engineers retires, without adequate replacement by an ill-educated younger generation.

By 2020, according to current plans, the Pentagon will throw a military Hail Mary pass for a dying empire.  It will launch a lethal triple canopy of advanced aerospace robotics that represents Washington’s last best hope of retaining global power despite its waning economic influence. By that year, however, China’s global network of communications satellites, backed by the world’s most powerful supercomputers, will also be fully operational, providing Beijing with an independent platform for the weaponization of space and a powerful communications system for missile- or cyber-strikes into every quadrant of the globe.

Wrapped in imperial hubris, like Whitehall or Quai d’Orsay before it, the White House still seems to imagine that American decline will be gradual, gentle, and partial. In his State of the Union address last January, President Obama offered the reassurance that “I do not accept second place for the United States of America.” A few days later, Vice President Biden ridiculed the very idea that “we are destined to fulfill [historian Paul] Kennedy’s prophecy that we are going to be a great nation that has failed because we lost control of our economy and overextended.” Similarly, writing in the November issue of the establishment journal Foreign Affairs, neo-liberal foreign policy guru Joseph Nye waved away talk of China’s economic and military rise, dismissing “misleading metaphors of organic decline” and denying that any deterioration in U.S. global power was underway.

Ordinary Americans, watching their jobs head overseas, have a more realistic view than their cosseted leaders. An opinion poll in August 2010 found that 65% of Americans believed the country was now “in a state of decline.”  Already, Australia and Turkey, traditional U.S. military allies, are using their American-manufactured weapons for joint air and naval maneuvers with China. Already, America’s closest economic partners are backing away from Washington’s opposition to China’s rigged currency rates. As the president flew back from his Asian tour last month, a gloomy New York Times headline summed the moment up this way: “Obama’s Economic View Is Rejected on World Stage, China, Britain and Germany Challenge U.S., Trade Talks With Seoul Fail, Too.”

Viewed historically, the question is not whether the United States will lose its unchallenged global power, but just how precipitous and wrenching the decline will be. In place of Washington’s wishful thinking, let’s use the National Intelligence Council’s own futuristic methodology to suggest four realistic scenarios for how, whether with a bang or a whimper, U.S. global power could reach its end in the 2020s (along with four accompanying assessments of just where we are today).  The future scenarios include: economic decline, oil shock, military misadventure, and World War III.  While these are hardly the only possibilities when it comes to American decline or even collapse, they offer a window into an onrushing future.

Economic Decline: Present Situation

Today, three main threats exist to America’s dominant position in the global economy: loss of economic clout thanks to a shrinking share of world trade, the decline of American technological innovation, and the end of the dollar’s privileged status as the global reserve currency.

By 2008, the United States had already fallen to number three in global merchandise exports, with just 11% of them compared to 12% for China and 16% for the European Union.  There is no reason to believe that this trend will reverse itself.

Similarly, American leadership in technological innovation is on the wane. In 2008, the U.S. was still number two behind Japan in worldwide patent applications with 232,000, but China was closing fast at 195,000, thanks to a blistering 400% increase since 2000.  A harbinger of further decline: in 2009 the U.S. hit rock bottom in ranking among the 40 nations surveyed by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation when it came to “change” in “global innovation-based competitiveness” during the previous decade.  Adding substance to these statistics, in October China’s Defense Ministry unveiled the world’s fastest supercomputer, the Tianhe-1A, so powerful, said one U.S. expert, that it “blows away the existing No. 1 machine” in America.

Add to this clear evidence that the U.S. education system, that source of future scientists and innovators, has been falling behind its competitors. After leading the world for decades in 25- to 34-year-olds with university degrees, the country sank to 12th place in 2010.  The World Economic Forum ranked the United States at a mediocre 52nd among 139 nations in the quality of its university math and science instruction in 2010. Nearly half of all graduate students in the sciences in the U.S. are now foreigners, most of whom will be heading home, not staying here as once would have happened.  By 2025, in other words, the United States is likely to face a critical shortage of talented scientists.

Such negative trends are encouraging increasingly sharp criticism of the dollar’s role as the world’s reserve currency. “Other countries are no longer willing to buy into the idea that the U.S. knows best on economic policy,” observed Kenneth S. Rogoff, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund. In mid-2009, with the world’s central banks holding an astronomical $4 trillion in U.S. Treasury notes, Russian president Dimitri Medvedev insisted that it was time to end “the artificially maintained unipolar system” based on “one formerly strong reserve currency.”

Simultaneously, China’s central bank governor suggested that the future might lie with a global reserve currency “disconnected from individual nations” (that is, the U.S. dollar). Take these as signposts of a world to come, and of a possible attempt, as economist Michael Hudson has argued, “to hasten the bankruptcy of the U.S. financial-military world order.”

Economic Decline: Scenario 2020

After years of swelling deficits fed by incessant warfare in distant lands, in 2020, as long expected, the U.S. dollar finally loses its special status as the world’s reserve currency.  Suddenly, the cost of imports soars. Unable to pay for swelling deficits by selling now-devalued Treasury notes abroad, Washington is finally forced to slash its bloated military budget.  Under pressure at home and abroad, Washington slowly pulls U.S. forces back from hundreds of overseas bases to a continental perimeter.  By now, however, it is far too late.

Faced with a fading superpower incapable of paying the bills, China, India, Iran, Russia, and other powers, great and regional, provocatively challenge U.S. dominion over the oceans, space, and cyberspace.  Meanwhile, amid soaring prices, ever-rising unemployment, and a continuing decline in real wages, domestic divisions widen into violent clashes and divisive debates, often over remarkably irrelevant issues. Riding a political tide of disillusionment and despair, a far-right patriot captures the presidency with thundering rhetoric, demanding respect for American authority and threatening military retaliation or economic reprisal. The world pays next to no attention as the American Century ends in silence.

Oil Shock: Present Situation

One casualty of America’s waning economic power has been its lock on global oil supplies. Speeding by America’s gas-guzzling economy in the passing lane, China became the world’s number one energy consumer this summer, a position the U.S. had held for over a century.  Energy specialist Michael Klare has argued that this change means China will “set the pace in shaping our global future.”

By 2025, Iran and Russia will control almost half of the world’s natural gas supply, which will potentially give them enormous leverage over energy-starved Europe. Add petroleum reserves to the mix and, as the National Intelligence Council has warned, in just 15 years two countries, Russia and Iran, could “emerge as energy kingpins.”

Despite remarkable ingenuity, the major oil powers are now draining the big basins of petroleum reserves that are amenable to easy, cheap extraction. The real lesson of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico was not BP’s sloppy safety standards, but the simple fact everyone saw on “spillcam”: one of the corporate energy giants had little choice but to search for what Klare calls “tough oil” miles beneath the surface of the ocean to keep its profits up.

Compounding the problem, the Chinese and Indians have suddenly become far heavier energy consumers. Even if fossil fuel supplies were to remain constant (which they won’t), demand, and so costs, are almost certain to rise — and sharply at that.  Other developed nations are meeting this threat aggressively by plunging into experimental programs to develop alternative energy sources.  The United States has taken a different path, doing far too little to develop alternative sources while, in the last three decades, doubling its dependence on foreign oil imports.  Between 1973 and 2007, oil imports have risen from 36% of energy consumed in the U.S. to 66%.

Oil Shock: Scenario 2025

The United States remains so dependent upon foreign oil that a few adverse developments in the global energy market in 2025 spark an oil shock.  By comparison, it makes the 1973 oil shock (when prices quadrupled in just months) look like the proverbial molehill.  Angered at the dollar’s plummeting value, OPEC oil ministers, meeting in Riyadh, demand future energy payments in a “basket” of Yen, Yuan, and Euros.  That only hikes the cost of U.S. oil imports further.  At the same moment, while signing a new series of long-term delivery contracts with China, the Saudis stabilize their own foreign exchange reserves by switching to the Yuan.  Meanwhile, China pours countless billions into building a massive trans-Asia pipeline and funding Iran’s exploitation of the world largest natural gas field at South Pars in the Persian Gulf.

Concerned that the U.S. Navy might no longer be able to protect the oil tankers traveling from the Persian Gulf to fuel East Asia, a coalition of Tehran, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi form an unexpected new Gulf alliance and affirm that China’s new fleet of swift aircraft carriers will henceforth patrol the Persian Gulf from a base on the Gulf of Oman.  Under heavy economic pressure, London agrees to cancel the U.S. lease on its Indian Ocean island base of Diego Garcia, while Canberra, pressured by the Chinese, informs Washington that the Seventh Fleet is no longer welcome to use Fremantle as a homeport, effectively evicting the U.S. Navy from the Indian Ocean.

With just a few strokes of the pen and some terse announcements, the “Carter Doctrine,” by which U.S. military power was to eternally protect the Persian Gulf, is laid to rest in 2025.  All the elements that long assured the United States limitless supplies of low-cost oil from that region — logistics, exchange rates, and naval power — evaporate. At this point, the U.S. can still cover only an insignificant 12% of its energy needs from its nascent alternative energy industry, and remains dependent on imported oil for half of its energy consumption.

The oil shock that follows hits the country like a hurricane, sending prices to startling heights, making travel a staggeringly expensive proposition, putting real wages (which had long been declining) into freefall, and rendering non-competitive whatever American exports remained. With thermostats dropping, gas prices climbing through the roof, and dollars flowing overseas in return for costly oil, the American economy is paralyzed. With long-fraying alliances at an end and fiscal pressures mounting, U.S. military forces finally begin a staged withdrawal from their overseas bases.

Within a few years, the U.S. is functionally bankrupt and the clock is ticking toward midnight on the American Century.

Military Misadventure: Present Situation

Counterintuitively, as their power wanes, empires often plunge into ill-advised military misadventures.  This phenomenon is known among historians of empire as “micro-militarism” and seems to involve psychologically compensatory efforts to salve the sting of retreat or defeat by occupying new territories, however briefly and catastrophically. These operations, irrational even from an imperial point of view, often yield hemorrhaging expenditures or humiliating defeats that only accelerate the loss of power.

Embattled empires through the ages suffer an arrogance that drives them to plunge ever deeper into military misadventures until defeat becomes debacle. In 413 BCE, a weakened Athens sent 200 ships to be slaughtered in Sicily. In 1921, a dying imperial Spain dispatched 20,000 soldiers to be massacred by Berber guerrillas in Morocco. In 1956, a fading British Empire destroyed its prestige by attacking Suez. And in 2001 and 2003, the U.S. occupied Afghanistan and invaded Iraq. With the hubris that marks empires over the millennia, Washington has increased its troops in Afghanistan to 100,000, expanded the war into Pakistan, and extended its commitment to 2014 and beyond, courting disasters large and small in this guerilla-infested, nuclear-armed graveyard of empires.

Military Misadventure: Scenario 2014

So irrational, so unpredictable is “micro-militarism” that seemingly fanciful scenarios are soon outdone by actual events. With the U.S. military stretched thin from Somalia to the Philippines and tensions rising in Israel, Iran, and Korea, possible combinations for a disastrous military crisis abroad are multifold.

It’s mid-summer 2014 and a drawn-down U.S. garrison in embattled Kandahar in southern Afghanistan is suddenly, unexpectedly overrun by Taliban guerrillas, while U.S. aircraft are grounded by a blinding sandstorm. Heavy loses are taken and in retaliation, an embarrassed American war commander looses B-1 bombers and F-16 fighters to demolish whole neighborhoods of the city that are believed to be under Taliban control, while AC-130U “Spooky” gunships rake the rubble with devastating cannon fire.

Soon, mullahs are preaching jihad from mosques throughout the region, and Afghan Army units, long trained by American forces to turn the tide of the war, begin to desert en masse.  Taliban fighters then launch a series of remarkably sophisticated strikes aimed at U.S. garrisons across the country, sending American casualties soaring. In scenes reminiscent of Saigon in 1975, U.S. helicopters rescue American soldiers and civilians from rooftops in Kabul and Kandahar.

Meanwhile, angry at the endless, decades-long stalemate over Palestine, OPEC’s leaders impose a new oil embargo on the U.S. to protest its backing of Israel as well as the killing of untold numbers of Muslim civilians in its ongoing wars across the Greater Middle East. With gas prices soaring and refineries running dry, Washington makes its move, sending in Special Operations forces to seize oil ports in the Persian Gulf.  This, in turn, sparks a rash of suicide attacks and the sabotage of pipelines and oil wells. As black clouds billow skyward and diplomats rise at the U.N. to bitterly denounce American actions, commentators worldwide reach back into history to brand this “America’s Suez,” a telling reference to the 1956 debacle that marked the end of the British Empire.

World War III: Present Situation

In the summer of 2010, military tensions between the U.S. and China began to rise in the western Pacific, once considered an American “lake.”  Even a year earlier no one would have predicted such a development. As Washington played upon its alliance with London to appropriate much of Britain’s global power after World War II, so China is now using the profits from its export trade with the U.S. to fund what is likely to become a military challenge to American dominion over the waterways of Asia and the Pacific.

With its growing resources, Beijing is claiming a vast maritime arc from Korea to Indonesia long dominated by the U.S. Navy. In August, after Washington expressed a “national interest” in the South China Sea and conducted naval exercises there to reinforce that claim, Beijing’s official Global Times responded angrily, saying, “The U.S.-China wrestling match over the South China Sea issue has raised the stakes in deciding who the real future ruler of the planet will be.”

Amid growing tensions, the Pentagon reported that Beijing now holds “the capability to attack… [U.S.] aircraft carriers in the western Pacific Ocean” and target “nuclear forces throughout… the continental United States.” By developing “offensive nuclear, space, and cyber warfare capabilities,” China seems determined to vie for dominance of what the Pentagon calls “the information spectrum in all dimensions of the modern battlespace.” With ongoing development of the powerful Long March V booster rocket, as well as the launch of two satellites in January 2010 and another in July, for a total of five, Beijing signaled that the country was making rapid strides toward an “independent” network of 35 satellites for global positioning, communications, and reconnaissance capabilities by 2020.

To check China and extend its military position globally, Washington is intent on building a new digital network of air and space robotics, advanced cyberwarfare capabilities, and electronic surveillance.  Military planners expect this integrated system to envelop the Earth in a cyber-grid capable of blinding entire armies on the battlefield or taking out a single terrorist in field or favela. By 2020, if all goes according to plan, the Pentagon will launch a three-tiered shield of space drones — reaching from stratosphere to exosphere, armed with agile missiles, linked by a resilient modular satellite system, and operated through total telescopic surveillance.

Last April, the Pentagon made history.  It extended drone operations into the exosphere by quietly launching the X-37B unmanned space shuttle into a low orbit 255 miles above the planet.  The X-37B is the first in a new generation of unmanned vehicles that will mark the full weaponization of space, creating an arena for future warfare unlike anything that has gone before.

World War III: Scenario 2025

The technology of space and cyberwarfare is so new and untested that even the most outlandish scenarios may soon be superseded by a reality still hard to conceive. If we simply employ the sort of scenarios that the Air Force itself used in its 2009 Future Capabilities Game, however, we can gain “a better understanding of how air, space and cyberspace overlap in warfare,” and so begin to imagine how the next world war might actually be fought.

It’s 11:59 p.m. on Thanksgiving Thursday in 2025. While cyber-shoppers pound the portals of Best Buy for deep discounts on the latest home electronics from China, U.S. Air Force technicians at the Space Surveillance Telescope (SST) on Maui choke on their coffee as their panoramic screens suddenly blip to black. Thousands of miles away at the U.S. CyberCommand’s operations center in Texas, cyberwarriors soon detect malicious binaries that, though fired anonymously, show the distinctive digital fingerprints of China’s People’s Liberation Army.

The first overt strike is one nobody predicted. Chinese “malware” seizes control of the robotics aboard an unmanned solar-powered U.S. “Vulture” drone as it flies at 70,000 feet over the Tsushima Strait between Korea and Japan.  It suddenly fires all the rocket pods beneath its enormous 400-foot wingspan, sending dozens of lethal missiles plunging harmlessly into the Yellow Sea, effectively disarming this formidable weapon.

Determined to fight fire with fire, the White House authorizes a retaliatory strike.  Confident that its F-6 “Fractionated, Free-Flying” satellite system is impenetrable, Air Force commanders in California transmit robotic codes to the flotilla of X-37B space drones orbiting 250 miles above the Earth, ordering them to launch their “Triple Terminator” missiles at China’s 35 satellites. Zero response. In near panic, the Air Force launches its Falcon Hypersonic Cruise Vehicle into an arc 100 miles above the Pacific Ocean and then, just 20 minutes later, sends the computer codes to fire missiles at seven Chinese satellites in nearby orbits.  The launch codes are suddenly inoperative.

As the Chinese virus spreads uncontrollably through the F-6 satellite architecture, while those second-rate U.S. supercomputers fail to crack the malware’s devilishly complex code, GPS signals crucial to the navigation of U.S. ships and aircraft worldwide are compromised. Carrier fleets begin steaming in circles in the mid-Pacific. Fighter squadrons are grounded. Reaper drones fly aimlessly toward the horizon, crashing when their fuel is exhausted. Suddenly, the United States loses what the U.S. Air Force has long called “the ultimate high ground”: space. Within hours, the military power that had dominated the globe for nearly a century has been defeated in World War III without a single human casualty.

A New World Order?

Even if future events prove duller than these four scenarios suggest, every significant trend points toward a far more striking decline in American global power by 2025 than anything Washington now seems to be envisioning.

As allies worldwide begin to realign their policies to take cognizance of rising Asian powers, the cost of maintaining 800 or more overseas military bases will simply become unsustainable, finally forcing a staged withdrawal on a still-unwilling Washington. With both the U.S. and China in a race to weaponize space and cyberspace, tensions between the two powers are bound to rise, making military conflict by 2025 at least feasible, if hardly guaranteed.

Complicating matters even more, the economic, military, and technological trends outlined above will not operate in tidy isolation. As happened to European empires after World War II, such negative forces will undoubtedly prove synergistic.  They will combine in thoroughly unexpected ways, create crises for which Americans are remarkably unprepared, and threaten to spin the economy into a sudden downward spiral, consigning this country to a generation or more of economic misery.

As U.S. power recedes, the past offers a spectrum of possibilities for a future world order.  At one end of this spectrum, the rise of a new global superpower, however unlikely, cannot be ruled out. Yet both China and Russia evince self-referential cultures, recondite non-roman scripts, regional defense strategies, and underdeveloped legal systems, denying them key instruments for global dominion. At the moment then, no single superpower seems to be on the horizon likely to succeed the U.S.

In a dark, dystopian version of our global future, a coalition of transnational corporations, multilateral forces like NATO, and an international financial elite could conceivably forge a single, possibly unstable, supra-national nexus that would make it no longer meaningful to speak of national empires at all.  While denationalized corporations and multinational elites would assumedly rule such a world from secure urban enclaves, the multitudes would be relegated to urban and rural wastelands.

In Planet of Slums, Mike Davis offers at least a partial vision of such a world from the bottom up.  He argues that the billion people already packed into fetid favela-style slums worldwide (rising to two billion by 2030) will make “the ‘feral, failed cities’ of the Third World… the distinctive battlespace of the twenty-first century.” As darkness settles over some future super-favela, “the empire can deploy Orwellian technologies of repression” as “hornet-like helicopter gun-ships stalk enigmatic enemies in the narrow streets of the slum districts… Every morning the slums reply with suicide bombers and eloquent explosions.”

At a midpoint on the spectrum of possible futures, a new global oligopoly might emerge between 2020 and 2040, with rising powers China, Russia, India, and Brazil collaborating with receding powers like Britain, Germany, Japan, and the United States to enforce an ad hoc global dominion, akin to the loose alliance of European empires that ruled half of humanity circa 1900.

Another possibility: the rise of regional hegemons in a return to something reminiscent of the international system that operated before modern empires took shape. In this neo-Westphalian world order, with its endless vistas of micro-violence and unchecked exploitation, each hegemon would dominate its immediate region — Brasilia in South America, Washington in North America, Pretoria in southern Africa, and so on. Space, cyberspace, and the maritime deeps, removed from the control of the former planetary “policeman,” the United States, might even become a new global commons, controlled through an expanded U.N. Security Council or some ad hoc body.

All of these scenarios extrapolate existing trends into the future on the assumption that Americans, blinded by the arrogance of decades of historically unparalleled power, cannot or will not take steps to manage the unchecked erosion of their global position.

If America’s decline is in fact on a 22-year trajectory from 2003 to 2025, then we have already frittered away most of the first decade of that decline with wars that distracted us from long-term problems and, like water tossed onto desert sands, wasted trillions of desperately needed dollars.

If only 15 years remain, the odds of frittering them all away still remain high.  Congress and the president are now in gridlock; the American system is flooded with corporate money meant to jam up the works; and there is little suggestion that any issues of significance, including our wars, our bloated national security state, our starved education system, and our antiquated energy supplies, will be addressed with sufficient seriousness to assure the sort of soft landing that might maximize our country’s role and prosperity in a changing world.

Europe’s empires are gone and America’s imperium is going.  It seems increasingly doubtful that the United States will have anything like Britain’s success in shaping a succeeding world order that protects its interests, preserves its prosperity, and bears the imprint of its best values.

Alfred W. McCoy is professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  A TomDispatch regular, he is the author, most recently, of Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State (2009). He is also the convener of the “Empires in Transition” project, a global working group of 140 historians from universities on four continents. The results of their first meetings at Madison, Sydney, and Manila were published as Colonial Crucible: Empire in the Making of the Modern American State and the findings from their latest conference will appear next year as “Endless Empire: Europe’s Eclipse, America’s Ascent, and the Decline of U.S. Global Power.”

Copyright 2010 Alfred W. McCoy

Tomgram: Nick Turse, Off-Base America

November 17, 2010 

http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175321/tomgram:_nick_turse,_off-base_america__/

Tomgram: Nick Turse, Off-Base America

Posted by Nick Turse at 3:30pm, November 16, 2010.

Last year, it was Kuwait, Qatar, and Iraq.  This year, it’s Germany, Italy, Greece, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.  Next year, it could easily be Afghanistan, Pakistan, Diego Garcia, Bahrain, and Turkey.  Or of course they could choose to play in Japan (with a special stop in Okinawa), South Korea, Colombia, and for a little sun and surf, the Bahamas.  And while they’re at it, the same way bands used to love playing the Palladium, they could make a triumphal return to Guantanamo Bay to bring a little cheer back into American lives, just as they did in 2005.  Or they could break out their new camouflage-colored b-ball (which on recent tours sometimes replaces their iconic red, white, and blue one), and as they’ve done in the past, slam dunk their way onto U.S. aircraft carriers on duty in places like the Persian Gulf.

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Tomgram: Juan Cole, The Asian Century?

November 15, 2010 

Source: http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175319/tomgram%3A_juan_cole%2C_the_asian_century/

Tomgram: Juan Cole, The Asian Century?

Posted by Juan Cole at 9:15am, November 11, 2010.

For Barack Obama, midterm 2010 has already been written off as a crushing Republican triumph, but that’s hardly the full story.  After all, approximately 29 million Americans who voted for him in 2008 didn’t bother to stir for him or the Democrats in 2010.  Think of it this way: he’s less a man who lost to the opposition than a man who lost his own dispirited base, much of which is by now thoroughly disappointed, if not mad as hell, and evidently not particularly interested in supporting him anymore.

Like many presidents in defeat, he promptly left town (or “the bubble,” as he’s taken to calling it) for places as far east as possible, in this case all in Asia.  In the wake of an electoral blowout, this previously planned diplomatic journey of goodwill was quickly recast as a search for American jobs.  A little late to launch that search, of course, and India may not be the perfect fit either.   After all, any American who has ever made that desperate call for computer or other technical assistance and found him or herself on the phone with some young person not in Bangor, Maine, but Bangalore, India, probably won’t be overwhelmed by the allure of India’s ability to deliver jobs to the U.S.

Nonetheless, the president gamely arrived in India touting one of two industries which make things that go boom in the dark, where the U.S. still can’t be beat.   No, I’m not talking about Hollywood.  You wouldn’t take Hollywood to Bollywood, after all.  I’m talking about that other American boom-time business under bust-time conditions: the making of high-tech weaponry.  India was once a Russian bailiwick when it came to arms sales, but no longer.  So the president arrived with a Boeing deal to sell C-17 transport planes to the Indian military for up to $5.8 billion (and so, supposedly, create 22,000 new American jobs).  A “preliminary agreement” was inked on this trip, while the two countries agreed on a counterterrorism security initiative, and the U.S. lifted certain export controls on dual-use technology as well.

If weapons sales abroad could pull the U.S. out of its present job doldrums, however, they would have done so long ago.  In the post-Cold War era the U.S. practically cornered the global arms market.  If you want to count on anything, however, count on this: we’d be perfectly happy to arm to the teeth the two great regional rivals in South Asia, India and Pakistan, if they’ll let us.  After all, we arm the world (and worry about it later).  Think of today’s piece by Juan Cole, who runs the invaluable Informed Comment website and whose latest book is Engaging the Muslim World, as a preview presidential tour of the coming ruins of the American empire.  Tom

Obama in Asia
Meeting American Decline Face to Face
By Juan Cole

Blocked from major new domestic initiatives by a Republican victory in the midterm elections, President Barack Obama promptly lit out for Asia, a far more promising arena.  That continent, after all, is rising, and Obama is eager to grasp the golden ring of Asian success.

Beyond being a goodwill ambassador for ten days, Obama is seeking sales of American-made durable and consumer goods, weapons deals, an expansion of trade, green energy cooperation, and the maintenance of a geopolitical balance in the region favorable to the United States.  Just as the decline of the American economy hobbled him at home, however, the weakness of the United States on the world stage in the aftermath of Bush-era excesses has made real breakthroughs abroad unlikely.

Add to this the peculiar obsessions of the Washington power elite, with regard to Iran for instance, and you have an unpalatable mix.  These all-American fixations are viewed as an inconvenience or worse in Asia, where powerful regional hegemons are increasingly determined to chart their own courses, even if in public they continue to humor a somewhat addled and infirm Uncle Sam.

Although the United States is still the world’s largest economy, it is shackled by enormous public and private debt as well as fundamental weaknesses.  Rivaled by an increasingly integrated European Union, it is projected to be overtaken economically by China in just over a decade.  While the president’s first stop, India, now has a nominal gross domestic product of only a little over a trillion dollars a year, it, too, is growing rapidly, even spectacularly, and its GDP may well quadruple by the early 2020s.  The era of American dominance, in other words, is passing, and the time (just after World War II) when the U.S. accounted for half the world economy, a dim memory.

The odd American urge to invest heavily in perpetual war abroad, including “defense-related” spending of around a trillion dollars a year, has been a significant factor further weakening the country on the global stage.  Most of the conventional weapons on which the U.S. continues to splurge could not even be deployed against nuclear powers like Russia, China, and India, emerging as key competitors when it comes to global markets, resources, and regional force projection.  Those same conventional weapons have proved hardly more useful (in the sense of achieving quick and decisive victory, or even victory at all) in the unconventional wars the U.S. has repeatedly plunged into — a sad fact that Bush’s reckless attempt to occupy entire West Asian nations only demonstrated even more clearly to Washington’s bemused rivals.

American weapons stockpiles (and copious plans for ever more high-tech versions of the same into the distant future) are therefore remarkably irrelevant to its situation, and known to be so.  Meanwhile, its economy, burdened by debts incurred through wars and military spending sprees, and hollowed out by Wall Street shell games, is becoming a B-minus one in global terms.

A Superpower With Feet of Clay

Just how weakened the United States has been in Asia is easily demonstrated by the series of rebuffs its overtures have suffered from regional powers.  When, for instance, a tiff broke out this fall between China and Japan over a collision at sea near the disputed Senkaku Islands, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered to mediate.  The offer was rejected out of hand by the Chinese, who appear to have deliberately halted exports of strategic rare-earth metals to Japan and the United States as a hard-nosed bargaining ploy.  In response, the Obama administration quickly turned mealy-mouthed, affirming that while the islands come under American commitments to defend Japan for the time being, it would take no position on the question of who ultimately owned them.

Likewise, Pakistani politicians and pundits were virtually unanimous in demanding that President Obama raise the issue of disputed Kashmir with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during his Indian sojourn.  The Indians, however, had already firmly rejected any internationalization of the controversy, which centers on the future of the Muslim-majority state, a majority of whose inhabitants say they want independence.  Although Obama had expressed an interest in helping resolve the Kashmir dispute during his presidential campaign, by last March his administration was already backing away from any mediation role unless both sides asked for Washington’s help.  In other words, Obama and Clinton promptly caved in to India’s insistence that it was the regional power in South Asia and would brook no external interference.

This kind of regional near impotence is only reinforced by America’s perpetual (yet ever faltering) war machine.  Nor, as Obama moves through Asia, can he completely sidestep controversies provoked by the Afghan War, his multiple-personality approach to Pakistan, and his administration’s obsessive attempt to isolate and punish Iran.  As Obama arrives in Seoul, for instance, Iran will be on the agenda.  This fall, South Korea, a close American ally, managed to play a game of one step forward, two steps back with regard to Washington-supported sanctions against that energy-rich country.

The government did close the Seoul branch of Iran’s Bank Milli, sanctioning it and other Iranian firms.  Then, the South Koreans turned around and, according to the Financial Times, appointed two banks to handle payments involving trade between the two countries via the (unsanctioned) Tehran Central Bank.  In doing so, the government insulated other South Korean banks from possible American sanctions, while finding a way for Iran to continue to purchase South Korean autos and other goods.

Before the latest round of U.N. Security Council sanctions South Korea was doing $10 billion a year in trade with Iran, involving some 2,142 Korean companies.  Iran’s half of this trade — it provides nearly 10% of South Korea’s petroleum imports — has been largely unaffected.  South Korea’s exports to Iran, on the other hand, have fallen precipitously under the pressure of the sanctions regime.  Sanctions that hold Iran harmless but punish a key American ally by hurting its trade and creating a balance of payments problem are obviously foolish.

The Iranian press claims that South Korean firms are now planning to invest money in Iranian industrial towns.  Given that Obama has expended political capital persuading South Korea to join a U.S.-organized free trade zone and change its tariffs to avoid harming the American auto industry, it is unlikely that he could now seek to punish South Korea for its quiet defiance on the issue of Iran.

China is the last major country with a robust energy industry still actively investing in Iran, and Washington entertains dark suspicions that some of its firms are even transferring technology that might help the Iranians in their nuclear energy research projects.  This bone of contention is likely to form part of the conversation between Obama and President Hu Jintao before Thursday’s G20 meeting of the world’s wealthiest 20 countries.

Given tensions between Washington and Beijing over the massive balance of trade deficit the U.S. is running with China (which the Obama administration attributes, in part, to an overvalued Chinese currency), not to speak of other contentious issues, Iran may not loom large in their discussions. One reason for this may be that, frustrating as Chinese stonewalling on its currency may seem, they are likely to give even less ground on relations with Iran — especially since they know that Washington can’t do much about it.  Another fraught issue is China’s plan to build a nuclear reactor for Pakistan, something that also alarms Islamabad’s nuclear rival, India.

Rising Asia

If you want to measure the scope of American decline since the height of the Cold War era, remember that back then Iran and Pakistan were American spheres of influence from which other great powers were excluded.  Now, the best the U.S. can manage in Pakistan is the political (and military) equivalent of a condominium or perhaps a time-share — and in Iran, nothing at all.

Despite his feel-good trip to India last weekend, during which he announced some important business deals for U.S. goods, Obama has remarkably little to offer the Indians.  That undoubtedly is why the president unexpectedly announced Washington’s largely symbolic support for a coveted seat as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, a ringing confirmation of India’s status as a rising power.

Some Indian politicians and policy-makers, however, are insisting that their country’s increasing demographic, military, and economic hegemony over South Asia be recognized by Washington, and that the U.S. cease its support of, and massive arms sales to, Pakistan.  In addition, New Delhi is eager to expand its geopolitical position in Afghanistan, where it is a major funder of civilian reconstruction projects, and is apprehensive about any plans for a U.S. withdrawal from that country.  An Indian-dominated Afghanistan is, of course, Pakistan’s worst fear.

In addition, India’s need for petroleum is expected to grow by 40% during the next decade and a half.  Energy-hungry, like neighboring Pakistan, it can’t help glancing longingly at Iran’s natural gas and petroleum fields, despite Washington’s threats to slap third-party sanctions on any firm that helps develop them.  American attempts to push India toward dirty energy sources, including nuclear power (the waste product of which is long-lived and problematic) and shale gas, as a way of reducing its interest in Iranian and Persian Gulf oil and gas, are another Washington “solution” for the region likely to be largely ignored, given how close at hand inexpensive Gulf hydrocarbons are.

It is alarming to consider what exactly New Delhi imagines the planet’s former “sole superpower” has to offer at this juncture — mostly U.S. troops fighting a perceived threat in Afghanistan and the removal of Congressional restrictions on sales of advanced weaponry to India.  The U.S. military in Afghanistan is seen as a proxy for Indian interests in putting down the Taliban and preventing the reestablishment of Pakistani hegemony over Kabul.  For purely self-interested reasons Prime Minister Singh has long taken the same position as the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives, urging Obama to postpone any plans to begin a drawdown in Afghanistan in the summer of 2011.

The most significant of the Indian purchases trumpeted by the president last weekend were military in character.  Obama proclaimed that the $10 billion in deals he was inking would create 54,000 new American jobs.  Right now, it’s hard to argue with job creation or multi-billion-dollar sales of U.S.-made goods abroad.  As former secretary of labor Robert Reich has pointed out, however, jobs in the defense industry are expensive to create, while offering a form of artificial corporate welfare that distorts the American economy and diverts resources from far more crucial priorities.

To think of this another way, President Obama is in danger of losing control of his South Asian foreign policy agenda to India, its Republican supporters in the House, and the military-industrial complex.

As the most dynamic region in the world, Asia is the place where rapid change can create new dynamics.  American trade with the European Union has grown over the past decade (as has the EU itself), but is unlikely to be capable of doubling in just a few years.  After all, the populations of some European countries, like powerhouse Germany, will probably shrink in coming decades.

India, by contrast, is projected to overtake China in population around 2030 and hit the billion-and-a-half-inhabitants mark by mid-century (up from 1.15 billion today).  Its economy, like China’s, has been growing 8% to 9% a year, creating powerful new demand in the world market.  President Obama is hoping to see U.S. exports to India double by 2015.  Likewise, with its economy similarly booming, China is making its own ever more obvious bid to stride like a global colossus through the twenty-first century.

The Hessians of a Future Asia?

Unsurprisingly, beneath the pomp and splendor of Obama’s journey through Asia has lurked a far tawdrier vision — of a much weakened president presiding over a much weakened superpower, both looking somewhat desperately for succor abroad. If the United States is to remain a global power, it is important that Washington offer something to the world besides arms and soldiers.

Obama has been on the money when he’s promoted green-energy technology as a key field where the United States could make its mark (and possibly its fortune) globally.  Unfortunately, as elsewhere, here too the United States is falling behind, and a Republican House as well as a bevy of new Republican governors and state legislatures are highly unlikely to effectively promote the greening of American technology.

In the end, Obama’s trip has proven a less than effective symbolic transition from George W. Bush’s muscular unilateralism to a new American-led multilateralism in Asia.  Rather, at each stop, Obama has bumped up against the limits of American economic and diplomatic clout in the new Asian world order.

George W. Bush and Dick Cheney thought in terms of expanding American conventional military weapons stockpiles and bases, occupying countries when necessary, and so ensuring that the U.S. would dominate key planetary resources for decades to come.  Their worldview, however, was mired in mid-twentieth-century power politics.

If they thought they were placing a marker down on another American century, they were actually gambling away the very houses we live in and reducing us to a debtor nation struggling to retain its once commanding superiority in the world economy.  In the meantime, the multi-millionaires and billionaires created by neoliberal policies and tax cuts in the West will be as happy to invest in (and perhaps live in) Asia as in the United States.

In the capitals of a rising Asia, Washington’s incessant campaign to strengthen sanctions against Iran, and in some quarters its eagerness for war with that country, is viewed as another piece of lunatic adventurism.  The leaders of India, China, and South Korea, among other countries, are determined to do their best to sidestep this American obsession and integrate Iran into their energy and trading futures.

In some ways, the darkest vision of an American future arrived in 1991 thanks to President George H. W. Bush.  At that time, he launched a war in the Persian Gulf to protect local oil producers from an aggressive Iraq.  That war was largely paid for by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, rendering the U.S. military for the first time a sort of global mercenary force.  Just as the poor in any society often join the military as a way of moving up in the world, so in the century of Asia, the U.S. could find itself in danger of being reduced to the role of impoverished foot soldier fighting for others’ interests, or of being the glorified ironsmiths making arsenals of weaponry for the great powers of the future.

Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History and the director of the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Michigan.  His latest book, Engaging the Muslim World, is just out in a revised paperback edition from Palgrave Macmillan. He runs the Informed Comment website.

Copyright 2010 Juan Cole

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