David Coates

The Cost of Empire? Extracts from “America in the Shadow of Empires” (forthcoming)

Extract (1) From Chapter 1


One thing that is definitely building up around us is the scale, extent and cost of America’s military role overseas. Historically, that scale was modest and the role was limited – mainly to the Americas and to a number of Pacific islands – but no longer. In the last seven decades – in the lifetime, that is, of the oldest of the baby boomers – the United States has fundamentally reset itself: changing from its interwar isolationism into a global power with an exceptionally large, and in that sense a genuinely unique, global military footprint.

 That footprint is most evident in the wars that the United States has fought since 1941. The list is long and well-known: fighting a world war (alongside a series of major allies) until 1945, then fighting more localized wars (with different allies each time) in Korea (1950-53), Vietnam (1964-75), the Persian Gulf (1991), Iraq (2003-2011) and Afghanistan (since 2001, 4000+ days and counting). Any complete record of U.S. military involvement abroad needs also to include a set of wars that are less generally remembered: a set of more limited military interventions that included Lebanon in 1958, Somalia in 1991 and Kosovo in 1998. Even before the “war on terror” was launched in 2001, the United States had already “employed its military in other countries over seventy times since 1945, not counting innumerable instances of counterinsurgency operations by the CIA.”[i] The number of post-1945 American wars is therefore large – unprecedentedly large indeed in American history – and so too is the number of military personnel consequently involved. Taking all the military services together and drawing on figures in the 2012 Quadrennial Defence Review, “including operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, approximately 400,000 US military personnel are forward-stationed or rotationally deployed around the world.”[ii] If we then add to that the further 1.6 million Americans now working in the defense-related industries on which the effectiveness of the 400,000 depend, [iii] we can see that the U.S. military effort abroad currently directly impacts the lives and careers of probably at least two million Americans.

The American global military footprint is not, however, just a matter of American boots on foreign soil. It is also a matter of foreign real estate held and developed by American arms. Both where the United States has intervened directly, and where in addition the Pentagon has felt U.S. strategic interests require it, post-1945 U.S. administrations have built military bases – and built them in unprecedented numbers. The U.S. military reportedly built 505 bases in Iraq in the years following the 2003 invasion. The U.S. military has currently built more than 400 in Afghanistan;[iv] and globally the total of American military bases abroad is now probably nearer 1000 than the 2008 Chalmers Johnson figure of 865.[v] These bases differ significantly in size, “ranging from micro-outposts to mega-bases the size of small American towns.”[vi] Many of them, therefore, are extremely large: including some that were simply abandoned as U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq in 2011. The 505 bases once in U.S. hands there were down to just 39 by September 2011.[vii] The Al-Asad Airfield in Iraq, for example, is said to cover 25 square miles. When completed, Base Balad covered 15 square miles, and included a football field, a softball field, a movie theater and a 25-meter swimming pool among its major facilities. Construction costs associated with these bases exceeded $2.4 billion, according to an analysis of Pentagon annual reports by the Congressional Research Office. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers alone was responsible for $1.9 billion in base construction between 2004 and 2010.”[viii]

Moreover, in addition to the public face of the American military presence overseas, there is the covert one. Since at least the days of the failed raid to rescue American hostages from Iran in 1980, the U.S. military have trained and used special operations force in an increasing number of countries. During Barack Obama’s first term as president, black-op. teams operated for certain in at least 75 countries (and possibly in as many as 120), up from the 60 into which such units were deployed under George W. Bush. SOCOM, the U.S. Special Operations Command to which they answer, now has some 60,000 personnel and a budget of at least $6.3 billion;[ix] and CIA operations, though never publicly recorded, have now clearly expanded to include the maintenance of secret prisons, rendition and torture.[x] The United States has also covertly financed a series of proxy wars since 1945, arming resistance movements keen to topple regimes that Washington also wished to see removed. Such proxy wars included covert support for the mujahidin in Afghanistan against the Soviets in the 1980s, support that came back to haunt us in a very big way in September 2001. What the resulting US-Afghan war has now added to these covert operations is the development of drone warfare – the planned execution of known militants using technology directed from a very long way away:  directed from military bases near the field of operation or from control centers in the United States itself. Latest reports suggest a significant escalation of such drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and South Yemen in the years since 2008, drone attacks resulting between 2004 and May 2012 in the deaths of anywhere between 2,464 and 3,145 people in Pakistan alone –  a significant proportion of whom, tragically, were either civilians and non-combatants.[xi] The Pentagon apparently had 50 drones in 2000. It now has 7,500. The Bush Administration launched 52 drone strikes. Though the number of drone strikes fell in 2012-13, the Obama Administration launched more than 350 in its first term alone.[xii]

Even when the US military withdraw or downsize in key theaters of war, that no longer means the automatic reduction of the American presence there. The government-licensed flow of arms from U.S. private companies to foreign military forces favored by the United States continues apace.[xiii]  So too does the privatization of many of the military’s original functions – and their retention in place as the U.S. military pulls back – a process of privatization which has now become a key feature of the way in which the United States imposes itself militarily abroad. As Rachel Maddow noted, “in the Gulf War, the United States employed one private contractor for every one hundred American soldiers on the ground: in the Clinton-era Balkans, it neared one to one – about 20,000 privateers tops. In early 2011 there were 45,000 U.S. soldiers stationed inside Iraq and 65,000 private contract workers there.”[xiv] Recent investigative journalism by The Washington Post found that a third of the CIA’s workforce had recently been privatized, and that of the “854,000 people with top-secret clearance in the federal government, 265,000 were corporate employees.”[xv] Likewise, the bipartisan Congressional Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan reported in 2011 that “federal reliance on contractors to support defense, diplomatic and development missions…stands at unprecedented levels. Over the course of the past nine years,” the Commission noted, “contractors have at times exceeded the number of military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan.”[xvi]


The financial cost of all this military activity and presence overseas has been and remains enormous. The official figures for military expenditure are striking, though they tell at best only part of the story. Official figures show the Pentagon budget rising and falling over the years – peaking as would be expected during major wars. They show that as a percentage of U.S. GDP, recent U.S. military spending has moved up and down within a band that runs from 14.2% (at the height of the Korean War in 1953) to 3.0% (in 2000, at the peak of the peace dividend generated by the end of the Cold War). In 2010 that percentage figure was 4.8.[xvii] The equivalent Russian figure was 3.1%, the UK’s was 2.7%, France’s was 2.1%, China’s 1.5% and Germany’s 1.4%.[xviii] As a proportion of global military expenditure, however, the Pentagon’s budget is much higher than that. Currently the United States, with five percent of the world’s population and a quarter of total global economic output, is responsible for over 40% of total global military spending.[xix] In 2010, the United States spent more on defense than the next 17 nations combined; and that military expenditure has escalated dramatically of late, with the base Pentagon budget almost doubling in a decade, from $287 billion in 2001 to $530 billion in 2012. Add to that the cost of two wars – Iraq and Afghanistan together costing roughly $150 billion a year – to take total Pentagon spending “in fiscal years 2010 and 2011 to…about $700 billion, far more than Medicare outlays, which totaled $452 billion in 2010 and $486 billion in 2011.”[xx] So even on official figures, military expenditure is now consuming between a fifth and a quarter of the entire federal budget.

Pentagon spending is not, however, the only element in the overall military spending of the contemporary United States.  If you add on to the Pentagon’s budget the military dimension of the budgets of other federal departments – from the cost of homeland security to the cost of the nation’s 16 intelligence agencies, plus its nuclear program, its veterans support and the interest paid on war debts – it is likely that the current spending total for the U.S. military effort is nearly twice the official figure.  In 2011 therefore, the total becomes $1,398 billion, as against the official $708 billion Pentagon allotment.[xxi] It is also likely that fighting the “war on terror” since 2001 has actually cost the United States upwards of $8 trillion,[xxii] and that the total “black budget” for U.S. spy agencies reached the staggering figure of $52.6 billion in fiscal year 2013.[xxiii] The cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan alone had reached $1.26 trillion by 2011. Given that, it is likely that U.S. military spending currently absorbs almost half of all federal expenditures (48% in 2011), and consumes almost a tenth of U.S. GDP. 

But fighting has costs other than resources spent. It has the opportunity costs of other programs curtailed, and it has the human costs of the fighting itself. Those too have to be factored in to any evaluation of the value and domestic impact of America’s military role overseas.

 Opportunity costs are always hard to measure with precision. The calculation depends on which alternative programs are prioritized, and on the tightness of the causal relationship established/asserted between spending by the Pentagon and the absence of spending elsewhere in the federal system. But costs can be illustrated, and the illustrations invariably suggest that the opportunity costs are/can be substantial. According to the National Priorities Project, for example, “what we’ve spent on the Afghanistan war so far could fund Head Start for all eligible children for 15.6 years.”[xxiv] The cost of maintaining a single soldier in Afghanistan for a year has been reported as currently equivalent to the cost of providing free health care for 588 children or of employing an additional 17 teachers. And the money earmarked for ballistic defense in 2011 could, if earmarked for other things, hire as many as 190,000 extra police officers.[xxv] Most striking of all, if you take the Republican budget passed in the House in 2012, its projections of federal spending by 2040 has discretionary spending (including on the military) equal to 4.75% of GDP and by 2050 to 3.75%. Yet inside that budget, military spending is due to be maintained or even increased, and it already absorbs 4% of GDP. That doesn’t leave much room, or by 2050 any room at all, for a slew of social programs aiding the poor or environmental controls protecting us all.[xxvi]

 Opportunity costs are one thing, the human costs to the people actually doing or directly experiencing the fighting are quite another: the human costs to those killed and to those seriously wounded – physically wounded and mentally wounded. Major wars like those waged in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 inevitably come at a huge human cost, which official figures can only ever hope partially to capture. The American military lost 4,487 dead and 32,226 wounded in action during its stay in Iraq. The American part of the NATO forces in Afghanistan suffered 2000 fatalities in the years to 2012, with other NATO forces losing just over a thousand.[xxvii] But these figures are just the tip of the iceberg. The number of U.S. veterans of those two wars now suffering longer-term physical and mental problems probably approaches 500,000. In other words, one in three Americans deployed in those two wars is now more than likely to be suffering “from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, or traumatic brain injury;”[xxviii] and that number holds true even before we start counting in the scale of post-deployment domestic violence, separation and divorce triggered by the traumas of war.[xxix] In 2012, the number of military suicides (at 349) actually outstripped the number of soldiers killed in combat (229 in Afghanistan in 2012): roughly one military suicide a day.[xxx] Even more telling, the Department of Veteran Affairs reported a suicide rate for veterans of 22 suicides per day in 2012 – 2,700 suicides in total, 22 percent of all the suicides reported that year.[xxxi] In total then, half a million people physically and mentally traumatized: and that is just the soldiers in those two theaters of war. The burden on the civilians in each war-zone was likely heavier still, though less carefully calculated. The number of Iraqi civilian deaths during the American occupation totaled anywhere between 110,000 and 1.2 million, depending on the source used.[xxxii] The number of Afghan civilian deaths is not even known. The number of internally displaced Iraqis was probably 1.25 million. The number of refugees was over 1.5 million.[xxxiii] These are huge numbers, capturing human suffering and distress of the most basic kind.

Two other features of the American military effort need also to be noted before this initial audit is complete. The first is this: American military endeavor has always been high on technology relative to the enemies against which it has been deployed. That was not initially true in the opening years of World War II, and when it was not, American victory proved elusive. But ultimately the Nazi war machine proved incapable of matching the volume and quality of armaments deployed against it by both its Russian and American adversaries; and in all subsequent wars, American men and women in uniform have been equipped with the products of a military-industrial complex that in global terms is second to none. As a proportion of the American manufacturing base, weapons production has long taken the lion’s share of government-sponsored research and development, with the Pentagon effectively acting as the U.S. industry ministry, comparable in impact (on the quality of military output) as was Japan’s MITI in its heyday (on the quality of post-war Japanese consumer output). The current war in Afghanistan has carried that tendency even further, adding drone warfare to the mix of options available to commanders on the ground.  Even before the development of drones, if the calculations of the Congressional Budget office are accurate, the Department of Defense was responsible for nearly half of all federal research and development outlays in 2004 – a year in which such federal outlays made up approximately one-third of all research-and-development expenditures in the U.S. economy.[xxxiv]

There is one final feature of all this military spending and effort on which we also ought properly to dwell – namely the imbalance between resources expended and results obtained. Keeping America safe is not a project that is easy to evaluate. There is no simple way of showing that, had military expenditure and military focus been set in some other way, our national security would have been either enhanced or depleted. What can be shown, however, is the lack of final success on the ground in each theatre of war dominated by U.S. troops since 1945. The 1945 victory that launched “the American century” was in that sense the exception. The Korean War ended in stale-mate. The Vietnam War ended in humiliating retreat. The invasion of Iraq proved a quagmire from which U.S. troops could only slowly be extracted; and the war in Afghanistan is now America’s longest, with U.S. success in establishing total ground control in that difficult country currently being no greater than that achieved by previous invaders: in the nineteenth century the British and in the twentieth the Soviets. American treasure has been lavishly spent, and is still being lavishly spent – treasure which, if not spent on military endeavors overseas, might more properly have been spent on civilian endeavors at home – treasure which has produced no clear military outcome but which comes at the price of other domestic outcomes being either underfunded or not being pursued at all.

Extract (2) From Chapter 8


            The most obvious parallel between previous imperial experience and the post-war American equivalent lies in the realm of the military. As we saw in Chapter 1, the scale of U.S. military operations is truly global, and the cost – financial and otherwise – truly enormous. That enormity has consequences, three of which are particularly telling in the context of a conversation about possible imperial overstretch and subsequent global decline. One consequence turns on the political and economic impact of a large military budget. A second concerns the impact of military practices on core American values and institutions. The third touches on the paradox of the interplay between military strength and national insecurity.

            The most immediate impact of a large military budget is the space it diminishes for public spending of a non-military kind – an impact that is always there in some form but which is particularly acute at moments like now, when military spending has dramatically increased and the size of the federal deficit is a matter of intense political controversy. Military spending did not trigger the financial crisis of 2008 – that was entirely the product of the misbehavior of civilian institutions[xxxv] – but military spending was a significant cause of the modest rise in federal debt which preceded the crisis and the subsequent recession. Federal spending to offset that recession, and the collapse in tax revenues associated with it, did then create a larger federal deficit than is normal in peacetime, and gave rise to fierce political struggles in Washington D.C. on how best to reduce it. The fiercest of the deficit hawks tended to be also the fiercest defenders of military spending, so that the combination of the two put particular pressure on the discretionary parts of the federal non-military budget. A smaller defense budget would have lessened those pressures, but the defense budget is currently anything but small. In consequence, it too fell victim to the sequestration deal forced on a reluctant Administration as the price of allowing the debt ceiling to rise in August 2011 – ironically creating the impression that somehow both military and non-military spending are equally burdensome on the rest of the U.S. economy.

            That impression is false, however, because they are not equivalents, and because the “cuts” in military spending – if the Congressional Budget Office is correct – in real terms will merely take  the Pentagon’s “base budget [to] about what it was in 2007, and…still 7% above the average funding since 1980.”[xxxvi]  As we noted earlier, an enormous academic literature now exists on the interplay between military spending and rates of economic growth elsewhere in the domestic economy, and like all such literatures it sustains more than one conclusion. My own work[xxxvii] suggests – and did long before 9/11 – that after 1945 military spending within the U.S. economy was initially a positive element in the creation and stabilization of an entire social structure of accumulation that brought rising living standards to key sections (the white, male, unionized sections) of the American working class, helping to turn them into the suburbanized middle class now under such pressure today. For a period, the “spin-in” to the domestic economy of advantages created by technological innovations researched and developed in the military-industrial sector more than offset the burden of taxation and misallocation of resources that a large military budget also brought to the table. But only for a period: and that period is now long gone. Now the size of the military budget squeezes out vital social programs, and acts as a barrier to the flexible redeployment of federal dollars that are in short supply. The weight of the military-industrial complex within the U.S. manufacturing sector pulls a disproportionate percentage of American’s limited research budgets and skilled labor away from vital civilian uses, and leaves too large a part of the manufacturing base protected from full market competition by preferential Pentagon purchasing; and the limited multiplier effect of military expenditure as against federal spending focused on civilian needs means that dollars directed towards military purposes do not have the general expansionary consequences that would flow from federal spending directed in other ways.

            The liberal militarism that informed British policy during its imperial period now informs American policy in its imperial moment. Liberal militarism (with the term “liberal” being used in its European rather than American sense, as meaning neo-liberal, anti-statist) relies for its effectiveness on technology and professionals rather than on mass conscript armies, while deploying its sophisticated technology under the banner of a universalistic ideology.[xxxviii]  In consequence and even before the events of 9/11 triggered a renewed U.S. military buildup, government procurement for America’s technologically-sophisticated military accounted for the sales of “more than a half of all aircraft, radio and TC communications equipment; a fourth of all engineering and scientific instruments; and a third of all tubes and non-ferrous forgings manufactured in the United States.”[xxxix] This might have been fine, had it not also involved the neglect by the federal government of the purchasing requirements of the civilian goods sector, had it not also cushioned key parts of U.S. manufacturing from foreign competition, and had it not also concentrated public spending in areas in which the resulting more general “bang for the buck” was remarkably low. The recent work by Robert Pollin and Heidi Garrett-Peltier would suggest that “investments in the green economy, health care and education will produce between about 50-140 percent more jobs than if the same amount of money were spent by the Pentagon.”[xl] So the choices here – effectively between guns and butter – are very real ones, and ones that have been publicly recognized for a very long time. As General Eisenhower put it at the start of his presidency: “every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”[xli] Right now, if Pollin and Garrett-Peltier are correct, $1 spent on the military will generate about 11,200 jobs in the United States, if given directly to consumers to spend will generate 15,100 jobs, and if given to education 26,700 jobs.[xlii] Spending $1 on the military with civilian unemployment at record heights makes less economic sense than the Pentagon likes to claim.


            That would be bad enough if this was the only element on the debit side of the military account; but it is not. The scale and character of the modern American military help erode in subtle but important ways key American institutions and values. President Eisenhower warned as he left office of the corrosive impact on American democracy of the emergence in the 1950s of a powerfully-embedded military-industrial complex. His warning was apposite then, and even more so now. As the late Chalmers Johnson put it, when warning of our impending Nemesis:

unfortunately, our political system may no longer be capable of saving the United States as we know it, since it is hard to imagine any president or Congress standing up to the powerful vested interests of the Pentagon, the secret intelligence  agencies, and the military-industrial complex. Given that 40% of the defense budget is now secret as is every intelligence agency budget, it is impossible for Congress to provide effective oversight even if its members wanted to. Although this process of enveloping such spending in darkness and lack of accountability has reached its apogee in the Bush administration, the Defense Department’s black budgets go back to the atomic-bomb-building Manhattan Project of World War II. The amount spent on the intelligence agencies has been secret ever since the CIA was created in 1947. If our republican form of government is to be saved, only an upsurge of direct democracy might be capable of doing so.[xliii]

The flow of resources from the military budget to civilian contractors is one reason those same contractors spend so heavily on lobbying for yet more resources for the military budget. The numbers of dollars involved here are enormous, “The Pentagon has dispersed around $385 billion to private companies for work done outside the U.S. since late 2001,” mainly on the construction of military bases and heavily fortified American embassies: with almost a third of that money going to just 10 companies (including the most famous recipient, Haliburton).[xliv] At the same time, individual members of Congress have long received (and continue to receive) substantial campaign contributions from major defense contractors: $4.4 million in the 2012 election cycle for members of the House Arms Services Committee alone.[xlv] Funding of this scale necessarily inserts corporate interests between the representative and those he/she represents; and so undermines at home the very democracy that the military expenditure is being used to promote abroad. It is hardly surprising therefore that, in the early drafts of the now-famous Eisenhower speech, the retiring President referred to something he called “the ‘military-industrial-Congressional’ complex, ultimately leaving out the reference to Congress only because of his wish not to alienate “the legislature in his last days in office.” [xlvi] Yet however named, the set of institutional relationships to which Eisenhower drew attention remains a powerful and profoundly undemocratic complex that supplies arms not simply to the U.S. military but also to federally-approved buyers abroad. In 1990, the U.S. had captured “an impressive 37% of the global arms trade. By 2011, the last year for which we have figures, that percentage had reached a near-monopolistic 78%.”[xlvii] It is the scale and character of America’s military-industrial complex that has helped turn us, in the lifetime of a single generation, from the isolationist state of the 1930s to our current global status as producer and distributor of the world’s most lethal arms. If we fear backlash now, it is a backlash in part that we have helped to arm.

There is, of course, still much to admire in the American military, if not in the companies who supply it: not least the patriotism and personal bravery demonstrated daily by the men and women in uniform; and in the role the military plays in training soldiers with vital modern skills,[xlviii] and in providing routes to leadership for minority populations within the United States itself. But not all the practices prevalent in the contemporary American army are to be honored in that way. Note the scale of sexual violence against serving women now at last being recognized, and the volume of mental illness for veterans of both sexes created by the strains of war itself. And sadly, to that litany we now have to add a string of military atrocities in both Middle Eastern theaters of war: a string that includes the random and sustained abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and the desecration of the Koran by drunken American soldiers. It is a string that seriously undermined the effectiveness of the very mission with which the American military was charged: we don’t win Arab hearts and minds by desecrating the Koran.

Moreover, what the military do in public is one thing: what branches of the U.S. armed forces and intelligence services do out of the public eye in something entirely other. As was noted in Chapter 1, the United States has a long track record of assistance and support for military coups and repressive regimes. It is a record that stretches back to at least the CIA-organized anti-democratic coup in Iran in 1954, includes American-connivance at the violent overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, and to this day involves direct U.S. assistance to repressive regimes in the Middle East (to Egypt during the Mubarek years and now again under the generals,[xlix] to Saudi Arabia under The House of Saud).  Indeed, “throughout the Cold War, the United States favored, with some variation, military autocrats in South America, monarchs across the Middle East, and a mix of democrats and dictators in Asia,” regularly “setting aside democratic principles for a realpolitik policy of backing almost any reliable leader.”[l] To that long and murky record we have now added, since 9/11, waterboarding and other forms of torture,[li] rendition, and the planned assassination of Islamic militants. Robert Scheer has written of “America’s global torture network:” 54 countries linked in a network of torture chambers that the United States has authorized.[lii] The inner workings of those torture chambers have been extensively documented by the Open Society Justice Initiative.[liii] We are not Rome, we don’t crucify: but we have water-boarded. We definitely have water-boarded; and water-boarding is definitely torture.[liv] Indeed, American jurists defined it as such when waterboarding was inflicted on U.S. POWs by the Japanese military before 1945 and by the North Koreans later – some Japanese officers were even executed for their role in this particularly heinous crime.[lv] But double-standards as well as violations of human rights have long been associated with the excesses of empire. As Bernard Porter put it: “nothing coming from Abu Ghraib…exceeded in horror certain crimes that were perpetrated under the British in post-Mutiny India, or in 1950s Kenya. This sort of thing is a likely – if not inevitable – side-effect of colonialism.”[lvi] Which is why the more effective way of getting rid of the excesses of empire is not to stop at the punishment of the excessive: it is rather to run down the empire that makes those excesses possible.

Fortunately, under the present Administration the Bush-era toleration of this kind of torture has officially gone.  Unfortunately, it been replaced in centrality in the fight against al Qaeda by White House-cleared assassinations, not just of bin Laden but also of American citizens sympathetic to his cause. We even have an official 16-page ‘white paper’ from the Obama Administration making the legal case for this covert assassination program.[lvii] American citizens abroad (though not yet within the United States itself) can apparently now be legally assassinated if they are thought by an unnamed “high-level official” to constitute “an imminent threat” to this country but cannot realistically be captured: with the decision on “imminence” and “inability to capture” being left ultimately to the President to make alone. With the CIA acting as effectively the President’s secret army, America’s long sequence of wars and covert operations since 1945 has left the executive with war-making powers never anticipated by the constitution’s creators.[lviii]  As Rachel Maddow put it, “war making has become almost an autonomous function of the American state. It never stops.”[lix]  It is a matter therefore of considerable concern that the “war on terror” released by George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11 not only involved the invasion of countries unconnected with that terror. It also gathered to the Presidency new powers of surveillance over American citizens both at home and abroad,[lx] eroded civil liberties, and lethally enhanced the powers of an imperial presidency.[lxi] Ancient Rome had its Principate. We got by simply with the Authorization to Use Military Force Act and the Patriot Act: but in both cases, liberties were lost that will now be extraordinarily difficult to recapture.


            The third consequence of all this military expenditure and activity is so large as to require separate treatment here. It is not simply a matter of the U.S. state exercising hard power as well as soft power abroad. It is also that the exercise of that hard power, and the ubiquitous deployment of military forces to do the exercising, cumulatively erodes the credibility and legitimacy of a soft power message that presents the United States as quintessentially democratic at home and altruistic abroad.[lxii] What large-scale American military endeavors on foreign soil, designed to rearrange other people’s political furniture, invariably do is ultimately fail: the furniture may change but the new furniture is normally less favorably disposed to the United States than was the furniture there before. And what small-scale, covert and targeted American military endeavors on foreign soil invariably do is to kill their terrorist targets, but only in ways that generate yet more terrorists to target.

            The track record of the American military since 1945 has not been a particularly impressive one, and certainly the record since 9/11 has been one more of failure than of success. There have been clear successes: not least the ousting of the Taliban from power in Afghanistan in 2001 and the killing of Osama bin Laden a decade later. But in general the big post-1945 invasions by U.S. military forces have produced stalemates and defeats rather than clear and welcome victories: stalemate in Korea, defeat in Vietnam, stalemate again after the first Gulf War. The American military toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003 – on the face of it, a clear U.S. military victory – but the resulting explosion of sectarian tension, and the steady drumbeat of returning body bags – made that victory very quickly a hollow one. George W. Bush’s announcement of “mission accomplished” was, by common consent these days, at best wildly premature, at worst entirely misleading. For far from achieving outright victory, and far from being welcomed as liberators as Donald Rumsfeld had anticipated, the U.S. military presence in first Iraq and now Afghanistan has simply stoked the fires of anti-Americanism, and over time has strengthened popular support for the very groups, politics and ideologies against which the invasions were originally made. If the United States and its allies invaded Iraq simply to topple Saddam Hussein, they succeeded beyond measure. If however they invaded to find weapons of mass destruction, there were none; and if their purpose in going in – as they quickly claimed it was – was to establish a stable democracy there, the eight-year occupation that followed the invasion must be counted as a total failure. Freedom House, the great measurer of democratic stability and rights, currently grades Iraq as “not free” – scoring badly on both civil liberties and political rights[lxiii] – as well it might, given the on-going and deadly tit-for-tat sectarian violence which remains the dominant feature of life in the Baghdad that U.S-led troops supposedly “liberated” more than a decade ago.[lxiv] The situation in Afghanistan, as America “withdraws,” is, if anything, actually even worst – the Taliban resurgent, the Karsai government shrouded in corruption,[lxv] and poppy production up as never before.  Like the British and the Russians before them, as Gideon Rachman has it, “the west has lost in Afghanistan.”[lxvi]

American troops may be technologically more advanced than the foes they fight – they have a technological edge that the Romans, for example, long ago did not – but as we have seen, from Vietnam right through to Afghanistan today, sophisticated military technology can be more than outplayed by low-intensity guerrilla-style resistance. Roadside bombs can be more potent a weapon than the latest laser-guide nuclear missile. This should not come as a complete surprise: the ubiquity of the U.S. military presence abroad invariably generates – as indeed previous imperial experiences would suggest that it was bound to generate – a powerful pushback by groups directly threatened by that presence. In the specifics of the moment, the current “war on terror” is a war largely pitting professional troops against non-state led religious zealots. In that war, “victory” – if such a thing is possible at all – will be measured ultimately in the numbers of hearts and minds won, rather than in the number of zealots killed. Dead zealots are a powerful recruiting tool for the movement that spawned them. What is being fought over here are degrees of popular homegrown local support – and in that fight, the United States is at a disadvantage when fighting abroad, precisely because it is not local and it is not homegrown. It is external, and its presence is imposed: which is why the latest technological face of U.S. liberal-militarism – the use of drones to assassinate militants, keeping the lives of American soldiers safe by not putting boots on the ground – is a particularly poor choice of weapon for the objectives to which it is being deployed.[lxvii] You do not win hearts and minds by flying a modern equivalent of Hitler’s V2 over villages and peoples who co-exist with political formations like the Taliban or with religious beliefs that are Islamic rather than Christian. What you do when you fly drones around is terrify innocent civilians, kill some of them by mistake, and drive the rest into (at the very least) an anti-American posture. Pushback is inevitable when trying to exercise global power, but that is no reason for adopting a military tactic that can only amplify that pushback – and amplify it at speed.

As the Obama Administration seemed belatedly to recognize, drones do terrible things.[lxviii] They violate the very basic right of a fair trial before sentencing, and do so in a way, as Jimmy Carter said, that “abets our enemies and alienates our friends.”[lxix] It makes our claim to be championing human rights look very bare indeed, and it weakens the capacity of human rights advocates in the countries that the drones hit from challenging internally the jihadists against whom the drones are deployed. Politicians and social movement activists in Pakistan, for example, find it almost impossible to advocate meaningful anti-terrorism policies while the drones violate Pakistani sovereignty by invading its air space. While the drones fly, civil rights activists run the risk of being branded as American lackeys – their own lives put at risk by the very policy designed to strengthen them by weakening support for religious radicalism. As the Yemini student told the Senate Judiciary Committee in April 2013, drones cause hatred of America. “What radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village, one drone strike accomplished in any instant: there is now intense anger and growing hatred of America.”[lxx] The drone strategy is thus both immoral and ineffective. “In return for killing a handful of ‘al Qaeda leaders’ it dramatically increases the ranks of potential anti-U.S. suicide bombers, weakens friendly governments, strengthens U.S. foes, and increases the risk of nuclear materials falling into unfriendly hands.” And it does all that, as Fred Branfman correctly put it, because “its basic premise – that there is a fixed quantity of al Qaeda leaders, adherents and affiliates whose death reduces the threat to the U.S. – is simply wrong.”[lxxi]

This is hardly rocket science (drone science, maybe), and it is certainly not new. Chalmers Johnson, for example, was clear immediately after 9/11 that a powerful military response to the destruction of the twin towers was exactly what al Qaeda wanted the United States to orchestrate. “A second strategic objective of revolutionary terrorism,” he wrote, “is to provoke ruling elites into a disastrous overreaction, thereby creating widespread resentment against them:” hence the title of his book, Blowback.[lxxii] Having learned that lesson the hard way, the tide of war may be receding as the President likes regularly to assert – the troops are at last coming home – but still that tide is only receding in a conventional sense. As we saw in Chapter 1, the covert war is still in full gear.[lxxiii] The use of private mercenaries is still in full flow.[lxxiv] It was even so when the main U.S. theatre of war was Iraq: “it has been estimated that a fifth of U.S. forces deployed in Iraq [were] in fact ‘Greencard soldiers,’ who hope[d] to acquire U.S. citizenship through several years of military service, and that PMCs [private military companies] supplied an additional 20,000 soldiers.”[lxxv] As U.S. troops now withdraw from Afghanistan the same pattern seems likely to hold, with special ops and private companies moving in to fill the space that the troops leave behind. And so long as they do, pushback will continue. So long as we bomb them, they will seek to bomb us. Of course! There are certain things that empires seem never to learn, and this is one of them – but we might have expected more of this empire, given the anger produced here long ago (and now regularly retold) at the use of Hessian mercenaries by the British in the American War of Independence. Why, after all, on Christmas Day 1776 did George Washington cross the Delaware?

The result of all this recent American global military deployment has been the creation of a world in which American power is as much resented as admired. As Robert Cox put it at the start of the Iraq War, “US influence had a benign quality, often welcomed abroad, in the decades following the Second World War. It is now regarded abroad with great suspicion. American values do not now, if they ever did, inspire universal endorsement as a basis for social and political life. Once widely admired, if not emulated, they have become more contested and more ambiguous.” Why? Because “the aggressive application of ‘hard power’ in the last few years has dissipated the gains US ‘soft power’ made in the post-Second World War era.”  The result: “the American Empire may appear as the predominant military and economic force in the world. But it is less stable and less durable than first appears.”[lxxvi] That is quite a price to pay for the unbridled use of military force.

[i] Editors, “After the Attack…The War on Terrorism,” Monthly Review, November 2001, p. 1.

[ii] Quoted in Jack A. Smith, Look Out, Obama Seems to be Planning for a Lot More War, posted on AlterNet May 8, 2010: available at http://www.alternet.org/story/146787    

[iii] This from Robert Reich, America’s Biggest Jobs Program – the U.S. Military, posted August 12, 2012: available at http://robertreich.org/post/938938180


[iv] Peter Van Buren, Imperial Reconstruction and Its Discontents, TomDispatch.com, posted August 16, 2012: available at http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175583


[v] On this, see Chalmers Johnson, 10 Needed Steps For Obama to Start Dismantling America’s Gigantic, Destructive Military Empire, posted on AlterNet August 25, 2010: available at http://www.alternet.org/story/147964.

For the counterargument that base construction is limited and without significance, see Vaclau Smil, Why America Is Not a New Rome. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 2010, p. 49.

[vi] Van Buren, op.cit

[vii] Dan Froomkin, U.S. to Hand Over Iraq Bases, Equipment Worth Billions, posted on The Huffington Post, September 26, 2011: available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/26/iraq-withdrawal-us-bases-equipment_n_975463.html

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Nick Turse, “The Secret War in 120 Countries,” The Nation, August 4, 2011: available at http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175426/nick_turse_a_secret_war_in_120_countries


[x] Juan Cole, “The Age of American Shadow  Power,” The Nation, April 30, 2012: available at http://www.thenation.com/article/167353/age-american-shadow-power


[xi] Seamas Milne, “America’s murderous drone campaign is fuelling terror,” The Guardian, May 30, 2012: available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/may/29/americas-drone-campaign-terror.

For the data on civilian and noncombatant deaths, see the reports by Amnesty International and the U.N., reported in Craig Whitlock, “Drone strikes killing more civilians than U.S. admits, human rights group says,” The Washington Post, October 22, 2013: available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/drone-strikes-killing-more-civilians-than-us-admits-human-rights-groups-say/2013/10/21/a99cbe78-3a81-11e3-b7ba-503fb5822c3e_story.html

[xii] See Scott Shane, “Debate Aside, Number of Drone Strikes Drops Sharply,” The New York Times, May 21, 2013: available at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/22/us/debate-aside-drone-strikes-drop-sharply.html?pagewanted=all

See also Bob Burnett, Obama’s Legacy: Drone Wars, posted on The Huffington Post, January 25, 2013: available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bob-burnett/obamas-legacy-drone-wars_b_2550028.html.   

[xiii] The latest large example of that is the sale of more than $123 billion of US-made arms to Arab governments opposed to the Iranian regime. ( See Roula Khalaf and James Drummond, ‘Gulf in $123bn US arms spree,” The Financial Times September 21, 2010: available at http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/ffd73210-c4ef-11df-9134-00144feab49a.html#axzz2GvFW2wkX)

[xiv] Rachel Maddow, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power. New York: Broadway Books, 2013, p. 206.


[xv] Jim Hightower and Phillip Frazer, “Our taxes pay spies to work for rich shareholders – and pay for the privatization of war itself,” Lowdown, 14(4), April 2012: drawing on work by Dana Priest and William Arkin, available at www.projects.washingtonpost.com/top-secret-projects

[xvi] Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan,  At What Risk? Washington DC, February 2011: available at www.wartimecontracting.gov

[xvii] Robert J. Lieber, Power and Willpower in the American Future. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2012, p. 124.

[xviii] Julian Barnes and Nathan Hodge, “Military Faces Historic Shift,” The Wall Street Journal, January 6, 2012 (the data is for 2009).

[xix] According to figures released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, “World military spending reached a record $1,738 billion in 2011….The United States accounted for 41 percent of that, or $711 billion.” (Lawrence Wittner, The Shame of Nations: A New Record Is Set on Spending on War,” posted on The Huffington Post, April 24, 2012: available at https://www.commondreams.org/view/2012/04/23-2)

[xx] Barney Frank, “The New Mandate on Defense,” Democracy Journal, Winter 2013, p. 51.

[xxi] Data from Where Your Income Tax Money Really Goes, New York: War Resisters League, 2011.

[xxii] If you factor in the $3-4 trillion also spent on veterans, the total bill for the decade since 2001 might run to as high as $11 trillion. All this in Chris Hellman, The Pentagon’s Spending Spree, posted on TomDispatch.com, August 16, 2011: available at http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175431/.  For the Stiglitz calculation, increasing his original cost estimate in his jointly written The Three Trillion Dollar War, see Joseph Stiglitz, The U.S. Response to 9/11 Cost Us Far More Than the Attacks Themselves, posted on AlterNet September 6, 2011: available at http://www.alternet.org/story/152309

[xxiii] Dylan Matthews, “America’s secret intelligence budget, in 11 (nay, 13) charts,” The Washington Post, August 29, 2013: available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/08/29/your-cheat-sheet-to-americas-secret-intelligence-budget/?wpisrc=nl_wonk_b

[xxiv] Joshua Holland, Five Eye-Opening Facts About Our Bloated Post-9/11 ‘Defense’ Spending, posted on AlterNet May 28, 2011: available at http://www.alternet.org/story/151119/five_eye-opening_facts_about_our_bloated_post-9_11_%27defense%27_spending 


[xxv] See for details Making the Progressive Case, op. cit, p. 154.

[xxvi] See Dean Baker, Does Paul Ryan Know What’s In His Budget? Posted on Nation-of-Change, August 20, 2012: available at http://finance.yahoo.com/blogs/the-exchange/baker-does-paul-ryan-know-budget-185617687.html


[xxviii] Dan Froomkin, “How Many U.S. Soldiers Were Wounded in Iraq? Guess Again,” posted on The Huffington Post December 30, 2012: available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dan-froomkin/iraq-soldiers-wounded_b_1176276.html


[xxix] See Mac McClelland, “Hearts and Minds,” Mother Jones, January/February 2013, pp. 17-27,64.

[xxx] Ernesto Londono, “Military suicides rise to a record 349, topping number of troops killed in combat,” The Washington Post, January 14, 2013: available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/military-suicides-rise-to-a-record-349-topping-number-of-troops-killed-in-combat/2013/01/14/e604e6b4-5e8c-11e2-9940-6fc488f3fecd_story.html

[xxxi] Data reported in Ashley Curtin, Comprehensive Study Shows Need for Better Veterans Suicide Prevention, posted on NationofChange, February 7, 2013: available at http://www.nationofchange.org/comprehensive-study-shows-need-better-veterans-suicide-prevention-1360248744

[xxxii] On these widely varying estimates, see Nora Eisenberg, 10 Hard Truths About War for Veterans Day (and Every Other Day), posted on AlterNet November 11 2010: available at http://www/alternet.org/story/148818


[xxxiii] Matthew Duss and Peter Juul, $806 Billion Spent for Hundreds of Thousands to be Killed and Wounded: The Staggering True Costs of the Iraq War, posted on AlterNet December 15, 2011: available at http://www.alternet.org/story/153429   Michael Mann has slightly lower figures for deaths (500,000) but slightly higher figures for refugees – internal 2.5 million, external 2.5 million – all out of a total population of 30 million (Michael Mann, The Sources of Social Power, volume 4. New York: Penguin, 2013, p. 298)

[xxxiv]Congressional Budget Office, Federal Support for Research and Development, June 2007: available at http://www.cbo.gov/publication/18750

[xxxv] See David Coates, Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments. New York: Continuum Books, 2010, pp. 230-72; and David Coates, Making the Progressive Case. New York: Continuum Books, 2011, pp.160-188.

[xxxvi] The Congressional Budget Office, quoted in Mattea Kramer, A People’s Budget for Tax Day, posted on TomDispatch.com, April 11, 2013: available at http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175686/tomgram%3A_mattea_kramer,_a_people%27s_budget_for_tax_day/

[xxxvii] David Coates, Models of Capitalism: Growth and Stagnation in the Modern Era. Cambridge: Polity Press, pp. 201-10. 

[xxxviii] David Edgerton, “Liberal Militarism and the British State,” New Left Review, 185, January/February 1991.

[xxxix] Reich, cited in Models of Capitalism, op. cit., p. 204

[xl] Robert Pollin and Heidi Garrett-Pelier, The U.S. Employment Effects of Military and Domestic Spending Priorities: 2011 Update. PERI, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, December 2011, p. 3: available at http://www.peri.umass.edu/236/hash/0b0ce6af7ff999b11745825d80aca0b8/publication/489/.

[xli] Aaron B. O’Connell, “The Permanent Militarization of America,” The New York Times, November 5, 2012: available at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/05/opinion/the-permanent-militarization-of-america.html?pagewanted=all

[xlii] Robert Pollin and Heidi Garrett-Pelier, “Benefits of a Slimmer Pentagon,” The Nation, May 28, 2012: available at http://www.thenation.com/authors/robert-pollin

[xliii] Chalmers Johnson, Nemesis. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006, pp. 9-10.

[xliv] The quote and the company data in detail, are in David Vine, Baseworld Profiteering, posted on TomDispatch. com  May 14, 2013: available at http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175699/

[xlv] Darren Samuelsohn and Anna Palmer, Defense industry finds few old friends on Hill, posted on Politico, February 25, 2013: available at http://www.politico.com/story/2013/02/defense-industry-finds-few-old-friends-on-hill-87991.html

[xlvi] Aaron B. O’Connell, “The Permanent Militarization of America,” The New York Times, November 5, 2012: available at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/05/opinion/the-permanent-militarization-of-america.html?pagewanted=all

[xlvii] Tom Engelhardt, The Pentagon as a Global NRA, posted on TomDispatch. Com January 13, 2013: available at http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175637/

[xlviii] The U.S. army remains by far the largest developer of labor skills in the entire American economy. 

[xlix] This became an issue of importance after the military coup that toppled Egypt’s democratically-elected President in 2013.

[l] Alfred M. McCoy, ‘Fatal Florescence,” in McCoy et al., op. cit., p. 27. On the murky details, see pp. 26-31.


[li] The details are in Nemesis, op. cit., pp. 33-43.

[lii] Robert Scheer, America’s Global Torture Network, posted on The Huffington Post, February 8, 2013: available at http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/americas_global_torture_network_20130207/

[liii] Open Society Justice Initiative, Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition, February 22, 2012: available at http://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/reports/globalizing-torture-cia-secret-detention-and-extraordinary-rendition

[liv] The Editorial Board, “Indisputable Torture,” The New York Times, April 16, 2013: available at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/17/opinion/indisputable-torture-of-prisoners.html

[lv] Nick Turse, ‘The Hidden History of Water Torture,” posted on TomDispatch. com February 24, 2013: available at http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175653/

[lvi] Porter, op. cit., p. 120

[lvii] Department of Justice White Paper, Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a U.S. Citizen Who Is a Senior Operational Leader of Al-Qa’ida or An Associated Force, February 2013: available at http://jolt.law.harvard.edu/digest/national-security/department-of-justice-white-paper-reveals-united-states-position-on-lethal-force-operations-targeting-u-s-citizens-abroad

[lviii] On this, see Hunt and Levine, op. cit., p. 257.

[lix] Rachel Maddow, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power. New York: Bloomsbury Books, 2013, p.x

[lx] There was particular concern in 2013/14 about reports of an NSA collection of millions of telephone records.


[lxi] For the dangers of this, see Bruce Ackerman, The Decline and Fall of the American Republic. Cambridge MA: Belknap Press, 2010.

[lxii] On this, see Joseph Nye, “Hard Power Soft Power, and the ‘War on Terrorism’,” in Held and Koenig-Archibugi,op. cit., pp. 114-133.

[lxiv] Mehdi Hasan, “The hawks were wrong: Iraq is worse off now Saddam is gone – but at what cost?” The New Statesman, February 14, 2013: available at http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2013/02/hawkswere-wrong-iraq-worse-now. See also Matt Bradley and Ali A. Nabhan, “Violence Reverses Gains In Iraq,” The Wall Street Journal, October 26, 2013: available at http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304682504579153773333835510

[lxv] Dilip Hiro, How the Pentagon Corrupted Afghanistan ,” posted on TomDispatch. com  April 2, 2013: available at http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175677/

[lxvi]Gideon Rachman, “The west has lost in Afghanistan, “ The Financial Times, March 26, 2012: available at http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/ae13198c-74e1-11e1-ab8b-00144feab49a.html#axzz2c8QT3bMX


[lxvii] Details in Nick Turse and Tom Engelhardt, Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare 2001-2050, e-book, 2013.


[lxviii] See See Scott Shane, “Debate Aside, Number of Drone Strikes Drops Sharply,” The New York Times, May 21, 2013: available at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/22/us/debate-aside-drone-strikes-drop-sharply.html?pagewanted=all

[lxix] James Meikle, “Jimmy Carter savages US foreign policy over drone strikes,” The Guardian, June 26, 2012: available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jun/25/jimmy-carter-drone-strikes

[lxx] Ernesto Londoňo, “Drones cause ‘growing hatred of America,’ bipartisan Senate panel told,” The Washington Post, April 24, 2013: available at http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-04-23/world/38764755_1_drone-strike-drone-program-yemenis

[lxxi] Fred Banfman, Obama’s Secret Wars: How Our Shady Counter-Terrorism Policies Are More Dangerous Than Terrorism, posted on Alternet.org, July 13, 2013: available at http://www.alternet.org/story/151596/obama%27s_secret_wars%3A_how_our_shady_counter-terrorism_policies_are_more_dangerous_than_terrorism

[lxxii] Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. New York: Owl Books, 2004, p. xvi.

[lxxiii] For details, see Nick Turse, The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Spires, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.New York: Haymarket books, 2012.

[lxxiv] For details, see Juan Cole, “The Age of American Shadow Power,” The Nation, April 30, 2012 available at http://www.thenation.com/article/167353/age-american-shadow-power


[lxxv] Herfried Münkler, Empires. Cambridge: Polity, 2007, p. 159.

[lxxvi] Robert Cox”Beyond Empire and Terror: Critical Reflections on the Political Economy of World Order,” New Political Economy, 9(3), September 2004, pp. 311-2.

David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

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