January 10, 2011
Tomgram: Nick Turse, The Pentagon’s Planet of Bases
[TomDispatch recommendations: If you have a chance, check out "The Tyranny of Defense Inc.," the latest piece by Andrew Bacevich, author of the bestselling Washington Rules, at the Atlantic. It was written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Farewell Address (in which he coined the phrase “the military-industrial complex”), but you also find out about an Eisenhower speech you never knew existed. Don’t miss it. In addition, let me recommend the Coen brothers’s new film, True Grit. Having grown up on Westerns, I’m with the between-the-coasts crowd on this one, and thematically I think it fits in perfectly with TomDispatch: a drunken lout of a U.S. Marshall/nation ready to pull a gun on and shoot anyone, and hard to distinguish from the worst of rogues, could nonetheless still be capable of truly heroic acts. I find that moving and apt. Tom]
India, a rising power, almost had one (but the Tajiks said no). China, which last year became the world’s second largest economy as well as the planet’s leading energy consumer, and is expanding abroad like mad (largely via trade and the power of the purse), still has none. The Russians have a few (in Central Asia where “the great game” is ongoing), as do those former colonial powers Great Britain and France, as do certain NATO countries in Afghanistan. Sooner or later, Japan may even have one.
All of them together — and maybe you’ve already guessed that I’m talking about military bases not on one’s own territory — add up to a relatively modest (if unknown) total. The U.S., on the other hand, has enough bases abroad to sink the world. You almost have the feeling that a single American mega-base like Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan could swallow them all up. It’s so large that a special Air Force “team” has to be assigned to it just to deal with the mail arriving every day, 360,000 pounds of it in November 2010 alone. At the same base, the U.S. has just spent $130 million building “a better gas station for aircraft… [a] new refueling system, which features a pair of 1.1-million gallon tanks and two miles of pipes.” Imagine that: two miles of pipes, thousands of miles from home — and that’s just to scratch the surface of Bagram’s enormity.
Spencer Ackerman of Wired’s Danger Room blog visited the base last August, found that construction was underway everywhere (think hundreds of millions of dollars more from the pockets of U.S. taxpayers), and wrote: “More notable than the overstuffed runways is the over-driven road. [The Western part of] Disney Drive, the main thoroughfare that rings the eight-square-mile base,[...] is a two-lane parking lot of Humvees, flamboyant cargo big-rigs from Pakistan known as jingle trucks, yellow DHL shipping vans, contractor vehicles, and mud-caked flatbeds. If the Navy could figure out a way to bring a littoral-combat ship to a landlocked country, it would idle on Disney.”
Serving 20,000 or more U.S. troops, and with the usual assortment of Burger Kings and Popeyes, the place is nothing short of a U.S. town, bustling in a way increasingly rare for actual American towns these days, part of a planetary military deployment of a sort never before seen in history. Yet, as various authors at this site have long noted, the staggering size, scope, and strangeness of all this is seldom considered, analyzed, or debated in the American mainstream. It’s a given, like the sun rising in the east. And yet, what exactly is that given? As Nick Turse, who has been following American basing plans for this site over the years, points out, it’s not as easy to answer that question as you might imagine. (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Turse discusses how to count up America’s empire of bases, click here or, to download it to your iPod, here.) Tom
Empire of Bases 2.0
Does the Pentagon Really Have 1,180 Foreign Bases?
By Nick Turse
The United States has 460 bases overseas! It has 507 permanent bases! What is the U.S doing with more than 560 foreign bases? Why does it have 662 bases abroad? Does the United States really have more than 1,000 military bases across the globe?
In a world of statistics and precision, a world in which “accountability” is now a Washington buzzword, a world where all information is available at the click of a mouse, there’s one number no American knows. Not the president. Not the Pentagon. Not the experts. No one.
The man who wrote the definitive book on it didn’t know for sure. The Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist didn’t even come close. Yours truly has written numerous articles on U.S. military bases and even part of a book on the subject, but failed like the rest.
There are more than 1,000 U.S. military bases dotting the globe. To be specific, the most accurate count is 1,077. Unless it’s 1,088. Or, if you count differently, 1,169. Or even 1,180. Actually, the number might even be higher. Nobody knows for sure.
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
June 18, 2010
Tom Engelhardt on “The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s”
We discuss the latest in the ongoing US war in Afghanistan, the longest-running war in American history, with Tom Engelhardt, creator and editor of the website TomDispatch and author of The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s. Engelhardt says the US war in Afghanistan has troubling parallels with the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan of the 1980s.
Tom Engelhardt, creator and editor of the website TomDispatch. His latest book is The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s.
JUAN GONZALEZ: We go now to Afghanistan, where the Ministry of Mines has announced Thursday it is taking the first steps toward opening the country’s vast mineral resources to international investors. News of Afghans’ mineral reserves made headlines earlier this week when the New York Times detailed findings of the Pentagon and US Geological Survey that Afghanistan has at least $1 trillion in untapped mineral wealth. Afghan officials suggested the reserves could be worth as much as $3 trillion.
Meanwhile, back on Capitol Hill, debate over the US war effort continues. Senior Pentagon and military officials spoke to lawmakers Wednesday to urge patience and support for their operations. The head of US Central Command, General Petraeus, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the war was moving in the right direction, and they were on track to begin withdrawing forces from Afghanistan by next summer.
GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: The conduct of a counterinsurgency operation is a roller coaster experience. There are setbacks, as well as areas of progress or successes. It is truly an up and down, when you’re living it, when you’re doing it, even from from afar, frankly. But the trajectory, in my view, has generally been upward, despite the tough losses, despite the setbacks.
AMY GOODMAN: For more on the ongoing US war in Afghanistan, the longest-running war in American history, we’re joined now here in New York by author Tom Engelhardt. He is the creator and editor of the website TomDispatch.com. His latest book is called The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s. His latest post on TomDispatch “Call the Politburo, We’re in Trouble: Entering the Soviet Era in America.”
What do you mean? Welcome to Democracy Now!, Tom.
TOM ENGELHARDT: What I mean is that in the Cold War, which we’ve largely forgotten at this point, the Soviet leaders made a kind of a basic miscalculation. They mistook military power for global power. They poured all their money functionally into their military. They got stuck in Afghanistan, very much like us, for ten years. In the meantime, their budget deficits were going up. They were growing—their indebtedness to other countries was growing. Their infrastructure was beginning to crumble. The very society they had built was beginning to crumble. And when the Red Army came out of Afghanistan—it limped out in 1989, after a decade—it basically returned to a country that didn’t exist, because within two years the Soviet Union collapsed.
In Washington, this caught everybody by surprise. Everybody expected the Cold War to go on and on. When American leaders saw this happen, they declared victory. The world was without an enemy at this point. And they—in one of the more striking decisions, I think, that’s been made in many, many years, they decided then to follow the Soviet path. And they began—and they put the so-called peace dividend in a ditch, and they began to pour money, successive administrations, as we know, up through the Bush administration into today, into the American military, while budget deficits rose, indebtedness rose, infrastructure crumbled, and the society began to—you know, began to weaken. Now, the United States is not the Soviet Union. It was always by far the more powerful country. And it isn’t today the Soviet Union in 1989 or 1991. But it is striking that our leaders, in declaring victory, decided to go down, in essence, the Soviet path, which was the path to implosion.
JUAN GONZALEZ: You spend quite a bit of time on the book in one chapter talking about the language of war and how the American media portrayed Muslim resistance fighters in other wars, initially in the first war in Afghanistan against the Soviets—
TOM ENGELHARDT: Yes, yes, yes.
JUAN GONZALEZ: —and in Chechnya, as well. Could you talk about the language of war?
TOM ENGELHARDT: Well, you know, if you go back, in the 1980s, of course, we were supporting many of the very people we’re now fighting. And at that point, they were not Muslim extremist whatevers. They weren’t Islamic totalitarians. They were—well, the President said it at the time. That was President Reagan. He called them “freedom fighters.” And when you look at the language in the press for these very same people doing many of the very same things, they were—it just happened to be against the Soviets—car bombs, camel bombs, bike bombs, suicide attacks, so on and so forth. I mean, and this included Osama bin Laden and so on and so forth. They were portrayed as resistance fighters. You no longer—you would never say the word “resistance” fighter with—put with the Taliban, nor, to give you an example in the Iraq war—it was very interesting. The phrase that the military often used for those they were fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan is they referred to them as “anti-Iraqi forces” or “anti-Afghan forces,” as if they were foreigners. And, of course, nobody would refer to us as anti-Iraqi forces or foreign forces or anything of the sort.
I mean, there’s a whole language that goes with American-style war. To give you just a simple example, and you hear it relatively often, when things start to go badly, American officials—Robert Gate said it relatively recently—say, let’s put an Afghan mask—an Afghan face on the war. And that’s just a commonplace thing. And it means, let’s get an Afghan out front. But if you think about that phrase for a minute, an Afghan face is, of course, a mask over really an American war. And often the words that they use, the images that they use, are very telling, if you just look barely under them, about what they think about who’s actually running what war. I mean, you can really see in our language that we feel this is ours, it should be ours, you know, it’s our war. I mean, this has—the Afghans are ancillary to the war we’re fighting.
AMY GOODMAN: How do you propose pulling out? How do you propose Obama get out?
TOM ENGELHARDT: Well, let me say, as a start, that one of the problems with answering a question like this is, you know, basically, we’ve never tried it. I mean, in other words, it’s like talking about peace. All the money goes into war. So, you know, and in addition, as you try to get out, as was true in Vietnam for years, future fantasies are put forward: you know, there’s going to be a bloodbath, terrible things will happen. We don’t know what actually will happen in Afghanistan, if we were to pull out. We know what’s happening now, and it’s quite terrible, and it’s actually devolving. I mean, I think it’s perfectly reasonable, whether you—I mean, you could simply announce a withdrawal, a reasonable withdrawal schedule, and pull out American troops. You could offer—you could offer money. We really don’t know. I think it’s very unlikely, for instance, that the Taliban would simply take over the country. They didn’t the last time. They might get part of the country, but not all of it. We really don’t know what would happen. We just know that this will otherwise be a trillion-dollar war, which, like the Soviet war, will go on forever and ever. I mean, the Soviets, from about 1986 on, for about the last three or four years, they wanted to get out. The Soviet leadership, you look at their documents, they want to get out, but they can’t muster the will. They keep worrying, will Afghanistan be stable?, etc., etc. It goes on for years. And the problem isn’t how will we get out of Afghanistan, but when Obama decides he wants to, it’s going to be difficult.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And this most recent announcement about the vast mineral wealth—
TOM ENGELHARDT: Yes.
JUAN GONZALEZ: —in Afghanistan, especially coming, the timing of it, as the war is actually not progressing as well as the Obama administration had hoped, is it your sense that this was more sort of rallying the corporate and financial elites of the world to take more renewed interest in supporting the US effort?
TOM ENGELHARDT: I’m want convinced it’s going to have that effect, actually. First of all, as you can see from the Times today—the Times had a piece on it today—and as was true with Iraq, it’s very hard to get Western, these big Western mining companies, to come into a situation where, you know, the lithium that they’re talking about is basically under lands that basically are Taliban-controlled right now. They don’t want to send their people in there. The people who might come in are the Chinese, maybe, who would be willing to take more risks, or various state mining interests that we wouldn’t be interested in. So I’m not sure this is a great benefit in that sense.
Secondly, you know, to get—in a country with almost no infrastructure and no mining infrastructure to get anything out of the ground there, I mean, I’m sure you’re talking a—you’re not talking about now, you’re not talking about something striking that’s going to happen now. I think—yeah, I mean, it was a kind of a good news story at a bad news time, and it is significant that there’s all this stuff under Afghanistan, which was known—
AMY GOODMAN: It’s not as if it wasn’t known.
TOM ENGELHARDT: No.
AMY GOODMAN: And the question is why it’s being raised as a story now, if not to justify the US’s continued presence, that maybe the US can get these natural resources.
TOM ENGELHARDT: Let’s point out that it was known by the Russians. You know, in the Russian war, the Russians knew this. I mean, I’m struck by one small thing. Mikhail Gorbachev, the Russian leader who did finally get them out, his term for Afghanistan was “the bleeding wound.” Our Afghan war commander recently referred to his kind of pet offensive in the small southern area of Marjah, where they threw in 15,000 troops in the spring, declared it a victory, and now find out that things are not going well, he’s called it a “bleeding ulcer.” There is kind of an eerie parallel there, and it reminds us that both countries will now have been in a war in Afghanistan, a place known as the graveyard of empires, for a decade.
AMY GOODMAN: You talk about, finally, garrisoning of the planet.
TOM ENGELHARDT: Yes. Well, the American way of war, which is the title of my book, is based on something that, in the United States, we have basically no interest in. Unless a base closes in the United States, and then there’s an enormous uproar, a military base, we really don’t think about much our basing policy around the world. And yet—
AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds, then we go to a web special after.
TOM ENGELHARDT: And yet, we have maybe up to 1,200 bases, depending on what you’re counting, maybe even more, around the world. We basically garrison the planet. Washington is a war capital. We are in a state of war. We don’t know it.
AMY GOODMAN: Tom Engelhardt, congratulations on your new book, The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s. We’re going to continue this after the show and put it up at democracynow.org.