Belaboring the Obvious

Monday, August 09, 2010

Are we even capable of recognizing...

... that we are an empire in the midst of collapse?

We stagger from one war to the next, never making a full accounting of costs v. benefits (a fond obsession of every right-wing neocon idiot since Ronnie Raygun's tenure in the White House when it comes to social spending). The cautious advisories of "maybe we can't afford this expenditure of blood and treasure" are drowned out by the shouts of "USA! USA! USA!" from the nationalists and militarists from all strata of society.

We see the degradation of everything from the availability of jobs to public services and, still, we support the expenditure, without the least bit of kitchen-table discussion in the nation's households, of monstrous sums on "defense" which not only keep insane wars going, but also support the destruction of our own civil rights in the process, in deference to the demands of the national security state.

We're dummies. We're funding our own destruction.

The national papers tell us that the government strongly disapproves of Wikileaks telling us unpleasant truths about how we conduct our wars (paid for with our tax dollars), and there's an immediate call from the right wing in the country to kill the "traitors."

What happened to the dispassionate national debate about how to expend both the nation's blood and treasure? Lost in the ozone of propaganda. How about the inverse relationship between the secrecy of government and the defense of our civil rights? Forgotten in a firestorm of legalese prompted by the Federalist Society and the judges it installed on the bench with the help of right-wing administrations.

It's one thing to sacrifice uniformly during times of unavoidable war, and it's quite another to demand sacrifices from the few to accommodate eternal war in order to justify a neverending state of national emergency which, in turn, is intended to justify a continuing attack on our civil rights, rights which, after all, are our political birthright.

And, like dummies, we keep on electing the very people who enable the expenditure of our national blood and treasure on ideological insanity, and refuse, as well, to raise taxes on those who materially benefit from war, neither to pay for the costs of war nor to convince them of the futility of war profiteering.

However, that's only part of what drives us on toward this insane pursuit of war. Economic conquest figures prominently in the equation. We have a business community that depends upon having the economic and military power of the United States government behind it. Just as the foreign policy elite of the country brooks no independent-mindedness from other nations, our multinational corporations tolerate no interference with their aims to exploit resources, natural and human, at home and abroad. The European impetus to conquer the Americas began with the Spaniards in the 15th century and has not yet abated; in the past two centuries, Americans have expanded that obsession from east coast to west coast to the remainder of the world. No one elected us cops of the world, so, there must be another reason to have created nearly a thousand places around the world in which to deposit our military.

Maybe it's to intimidate other nations into doing what our multinationals want. We invaded Iraq to rid the world of weapons that did not exist (and that we knew did not exist), and, in 2002-3, our government tried its best to whip us into a frenzy of fear by claiming a third-rate nation--with a military effectively destroyed by nine years of a war of attrition with Iran, a failed invasion of Kuwait and twelve years of crippling international sanctions and under-the-radar bombings of its infrastructure by us--was an existential and imminent threat to the United States.

And we fell for it. Because we're dummies.

And now, because our forces have retreated to the dozens of bases we built in Iraq and are suffering smaller losses--even when Iraqis continue to die from the violence our invasion unleashed--and which will stay there for as long as the American public tolerates the costs, the right wing tells us we've "won." So, what have we won? Our multinational firms, along with those of a few other countries, will control 60% of the oil of Iraq, and will try to use that control to overproduce so much that OPEC is destroyed, which will return cartel monopoly control of oil production to the exclusive hands of the United States and a few of its favored allies, such as the UK (which would certainly give the Saudi royals good reason to look the other way when the money they supply their religious extremists is used to blow up pipelines and refineries in Iraq).

One also need only to consider the nature of the seemingly arbitrary commands issued by the CPA to tilt trade and investment in favor of American multinationals. Why prohibit Iraqi farmers from saving their seeds except to benefit American firms such as Monsanto? Why allow foreign firms to expatriate 100% of their profits from Iraq? Why institute a 15% regressive flat tax that's been the darling policy of every rich right-winger in the USA? Why take $9 billion in Iraqi oil proceeds and use it as a slush fund for U.S. contractors, with virtually no accounting? Why pursue oil PSA contracts with Iraq when that type of contract traditionally is only used in areas where returns on exploration investment are destined to be minimal at best, while Iraq very likely may have the largest untapped reserves remaining in the world?

And that's just a few of the reasons why our soldiers and our mercenaries will never leave Iraq voluntarily. They won't be leaving because they'll be needed to deter and defend against attacks on "American interests" in and out of the Iraqi oil fields, yes, but, they'll also be needed as a quick-reaction force to attack Iran.

Iran is a particular thorn in the side of the United States--and Great Britain, our witting accomplice in our recent international war crimes. MI6 and the CIA cooperated jointly in 1953 in the destruction of democracy in Iran, because the country's democratically elected leader--with the assent of the nation's parliament--nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (which would later become, hey, surprise, surprise, British Petroleum, later to become just BP). MI6 and the CIA did this in order to preserve the profits of western oil companies, and in doing so, installed through a planned coup a reliably compliant puppet in the form of the former Shah, Reza Pahlavi, a man of near-galaxy-sized self-importance, whose first task was to employ the CIA to help him create Iran's internal police force, the SAVAK, the task of which was to destroy all groups which might threaten Pahlavi's position on the Peacock Throne, including pro-democracy groups. The Shah continued to be a good friend to the U.S. for twenty-five years, first by giving away profits that should have gone to the Iranian people, and second, by returning a goodly number of those remaining oil dollars to the U.S. via purchases of U.S. arms.

Over the course of twenty-five years, the Shah lavished the meager remainder of oil revenues Iran received on himself, his family, various jetsetters and his corrupt friends (the Shah is reported to have spent $300 million on a party celebrating the 2500th anniversary of Persia, a party to which the Iranian public was not invited) while letting poverty in Iran reach crisis proportions (which is the real reason why the Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution succeeded--Khomeini promised Iranians that a return to Islamic law would right the economic wrongs existing under the Shah).

It is for those reasons that the United States has had Iran in its gunsights for the last thirty years, not that Iran might one day, at considerable cost, make a nuclear weapon or two. The foreign policy establishment in this country is still rankled that its coup overthrowing Mossadegh was itself overthrown by a popular movement and that its reliable puppet, the Shah, was deposed. The entrenched hardliners in the U.S. government are determined to return Iran to the preferred status quo. They could give a shit about democracy there. In fact, for twenty-five years, they did their best to undermine democracy in Iran.

The Reagan administration even strengthened the power of the Ayatollah by selling arms and military spare parts to Iran (via arms dealers in that very same Israel that now claims Iran to be an existential threat, despite Israel's undeclared but very real existential nuclear threat to the greater Middle East--including Iran). Perhaps U.S. planners hoped that by giving both countries military assistance, Iran and Iraq would beat each other bloody, and the U.S. could then pick off the loser, thus gaining its desired military foothold in south central Asia (which we seem to have done in setting up Saddam Hussein in 1990 like a tin bear in a penny arcade shooting gallery). Now, it's Iran's turn, because that old slight of the Shah's removal is still stuck in the craw of this country's foreign policy elite. How dare those religious crazies send our favorite son into exile? And then demand that the money he stole from the Iranian people and deposited in the banks owned by some of our foreign policy elite be returned to Iran? The upstarts!

Ah, well, you get the picture. Our foreign policy has little to nothing to do with our espoused values. It does very much have to do with, however, old grievances, imagined and inflated, which the amoral, exceedingly crusty types who hang around Washington pick at like scabs. And it has very much to do with money. Big money.

Perhaps we forget our own history. The American Revolution was not just a rebellion against political tyranny. It was also an overthrow of an economic system which selectively benefitted relatively few people in England. The British East India Company operated by Royal Charter, giving it monopoly advantage in a number of trading areas. Both the King and members of the English Parliament received stock from the company in return for legislative favors. In India, it not only had a stranglehold on trade, it also used its own private army to suppress unrest which endangered its profits and its control over Indian regional governments. When its own army wasn't up to the task, the British Army was dispatched to assist (how many Americans know from high school history that Lord Cornwallis' next assignment after losing the war in the Americas was in India, propping up the private forces of the British East India Company?). It was a huge corporation, and precisely because of its links to British government and the advantages it gained from that link, was much feared by the Founders.

By comparison, in America today, the East India Company would be a flea among elephants. One of the unpleasant conundrums of political life today is that in a nation ruled by law, the way to complete corruption is through the law. Successive Congresses and Presidents have found ways to achieve their aims largely through legal collusion with the corporate world. Want to create the framework for endless war and get campaign contributions for it? Easy--just provide a no-bid earmark to a specific company for defense-related work. Maybe the company's not going to make enough money on doing the nation's bidding? Even easier, designate the no-bid contract as cost-plus, which guarantees a profit and inflates the profit through multiple layers of subcontractors where administrative costs are added on each subcontract, and all perfectly legal. Even if auditors find gross mismanagement, the fines, as compared to the profits to be made, are just a cost of doing business.

The inability to change this system in any meaningful way isn't only frustrating and expensive--it's also a big-ass signpost on the road to complete decay. Fifty years ago, the casual and extensive use of corporate mercenary forces throughout the Department of Defense and the Executive Branch would have been unthinkable. Now, it's not only commonplace, but a commonly accepted practice, as well, almost unremarkable, even though the costs are staggering. That this goes on as a matter of course at the same time that there is sharp debate in Congress on whether or not to pay comparatively small amounts to save the jobs of tens of thousands of teachers, for example, isn't just gobsmacking, it's a big ringing alarm bell that somebody's priorities are wildly fucked up.

We've been on this path since the turn of the last century, and dead earnestly for more than sixty years. It's only been in the last twenty or thirty years or so that the patterns of that neocolonial scheme have become more obvious to the ordinary citizen, and only in the last ten or so that the actions of the government to that end have become sufficiently blatant for a significant percentage of Americans to even notice (and even fewer seem to object). It's only been in this last decade that the phrase "American empire" even appears in print casually and without heavy qualification.

In a way, we're prevented from seeing ourselves as we are now, as a significant part of the world sees us, not just because of the incessant domestic marketing of American exceptionalism, but also because we have what is, I think, a nostalgic view of ourselves. Whenever there's criticism of U.S. actions today, we retreat to what we view as an impregnable defense--the past. We saved the world from tyranny in WWII (even though we forget some allies in saying that). We rebuilt Germany and Japan (well, we actually loaned them the money to do it, and part of the deal was that we helped structure their governments in ways that were suitable to our foreign policy objectives). We once spent a lot of money on foreign aid (never a great deal, actually, especially compared to military aid to some very questionable governments, and a great deal of that foreign aid, even today, not only comes with many strings attached, but often goes into the pockets of American corporations doing work outside the country). We were first to the moon. First with the atomic bomb. We beat polio. Etc.

This has become an almost reflexive defense. We were good world citizens, so we are good world citizens. And yet, a thirty-volume set in small type and quarto format couldn't contain and detail all the instances in which we have behaved with ruthless and exceedingly deceptive self-interest, to the detriment of billions.

A clear sign of our unwillingness to confront our failures, our imperial ambitions and our limitations is to be found in the modern conservative response to internal criticism of the country--it's branded as "America-hating." The phrase is used because of some very mixed motives, certainly, but, it's also meant to shut off debate about the country's faults. It's the macrocosmic equivalent of what goes on every day in dysfunctional families.

There's a huge divide between what we say and what we do, a divide that is growing wider with increased government secrecy and increased dependence upon communications which are increasingly propagandistic in tone and method, which likely explains the huge drop in support for Obama in Muslim countries--and the drop in approval of his performance in office in domestic opinion polls. A country which has invested much in its reputation as an egalitarian and open society doesn't easily admit that its aims are more about conquest and control by subterfuge than spreading democracy.

Maybe we're just in denial, or perhaps we've finally been sucked down into a sticky grand ennui and can't get out of it. Maybe today's versions of bread and circuses have distracted enough of the population that the government is able to operate ever more independently of public opinion. Perhaps we're all just busy scrambling for a living and don't have time to notice the creeping decrepitude around us. Most likely it's a combination of all those things and more.

We're probably not going to notice until the first invasion by this century's equivalent of the Mongol hordes.


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