David Coates

Taking the Imperial out of American Imperialism

“You can do many things with a bayonet, except sit on it.” (Talleyrand)

There is never a good or easy time to argue that the United States should begin to completely reset the character of its foreign policy, especially when the argument being made – as here – is that a key element in that resetting must be a reduction in the scale and role of American arms abroad. Anyone making that kind of case invariably touches a deep American nerve, so that any resulting rebuttal often moves quickly from an argument about facts to one about patriotism.

And it is a particularly difficult time to make such an argument now, for at least two very telling and very new reasons.

One is the recent arrival on the world stage of a particularly horrendous form of Islamic fundamentalism (ISIS), one so grotesque as to regularly behead its captives (including American ones). The second is the mid-term capture of the Senate by the Republicans. The first has created a new threat to less radical Islamic forces in a region long recognized as vital to American interests. The second will strengthen the presence in Washington DC from next January of neo-con Republicans in both the House and the Senate1 – a strengthening that is likely to push US foreign policy on ISIS and other forms of radical Islam in exactly the opposite direction to the one being canvassed here.

Yet precisely because of the latter, this is exactly the moment to raise in a systematic fashion the following set of critical questions. As Republican pressure grows on a beleaguered President to become even more militarily assertive on a range of global issues from the Ukraine to the Levant, we all need to ask ourselves:

Are we currently even in full control of our own foreign policy in the Middle East, or is policy being driven there by the actions of ISIS just as once it was driven by those of Al Qaeda? By launching air strikes against them, are we not actually playing ISIS’s game: winning for them a legitimacy in the region that they would otherwise lack? And even if we are not, how is it that we are once more leading what is at best only a reluctant coalition of the willing, with the US military doing the bulk of the heavy lifting for a group of nations (European and especially Arab) whose direct interest in the defeat of radical Islam is far greater than ours, but whose enthusiasm for the fight is so much less evident than our own?2 And since the current view of the American intelligence agencies is apparently that, even though ISIS is now being attacked by US war planes, it still “poses no immediate threat to the United States,”3 does the current return to extensive bombing runs in Iraq (and now also in Syria) make this third Middle Eastern incursion of US arms in less than two decades Barack Obama’s own version of a “war of choice”?4

Either way, is that military heavy-lifting actually working, or has US military intervention in the region inadvertently become part of (or a major cause of) the problem that military deployment is supposed to resolve? Military interventions invariably solve fewer problems than the neocons of this world are ever likely to admit. Remember Tallyrand’s advice to the leading neocon of his day, the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Certainly, two Middle Eastern wars since 9/11 have so far failed to produce long-term political stability in either of the war zones (Afghanistan5 and Iraq6) in which they have been waged. In fact the data sets run the other way: only last month, the IEP’s latest Global Terrorism Index reported that 2013 “saw the highest number of terrorist incidents since 2000” – less than 1500 in 2000, nearly 10,000 in 2013 – with the bulk of the incidents occurring in countries in which the US has recently waged ground wars (Iraq & Afghanistan), a drone campaign (Pakistan) and air-strikes (Syria). It is data like this that then led the Institute to suggest that US foreign policy, far from reducing the incidence of terrorism in the Middle East, is actually “making the problem worse.”7 They have a point – one indeed, if The Guardian report is correct, that they may even share with at least some unnamed but heavily involved CIA operatives.8

Can the US go on affording the cost of military expenditures of the scale into which we have currently settled, given the attendant domestic problems which are in consequence insufficiently funded or not funded at all? It is not as though the US military is in any way tiny, or that curbing its budgets would somehow leave us vulnerable to stronger opponents abroad. Right now, the United States is responsible for at least 40 percent of total global military spending, and has a military budget larger than that of the next 17 military powers combined (many of whom, of course, are also our allies).9 This, at a time when our transport infrastructure is in desperate need of modernization, our trade deficit with China is at an all-time high, and we are slipping down a series of key international indicators – not least those on educational performance – for want of greater spending and renewed investment. We have so far expended $8 trillion10 on the war on terror, and as we continue to lay out treasure at this unprecedented rate, are we absolutely sure that it is the terrorists we are weakening in the process, rather than ourselves?

Is the US so benign a force globally, and so “indispensable” a nation, as virtually the entirety of our political class continues to insist? And if we are, why is there so much anti-American sentiment among the populations directly exposed to all this benign indispensability? Or are we, like every other major power, ultimately engaged in the pursuit of our own national interest, which only occasionally and accidentally involves us in doing good for others? The post-war reconstruction of West Germany and Japan often figures large in the litany of those convinced that we, and we alone, are the first non-imperial global power; but was that benign reconstruction of former global enemies the exception or the rule? In the wake of so many unsuccessful recent nation-building efforts from Vietnam to Afghanistan, and this side of so many ethically problematic covert operations waged by the CIA, it is a question that needs to be both asked and explored to the full. How benign a global force are we – or can we ever hope to be – as we send black-ops teams into at least 76 countries,11 maintain maybe 1000 military bases overseas,12 deploy drones over other nation’s airspace in both South Asia and Africa,13 and run a secret “black budget” for US spy agencies of over $52 billion: all this in 2013 alone.14

If the answer to any one of the clusters of questions set out above is as negative as some commentators15 have argued, then should we not consider, at the very least, the phased return of the bulk of US military personnel currently abroad, and the closing down of the vast majority of US overseas bases and covert operations? Is it not time to insist that the European Union pick up prime responsibility for handling expansionist moves by a resurgent Russia into territory that is on Europe’s borders but not on ours? Is it not also time to return to the institutions of the international community – especially to the UN – prime responsibility for the protection of basic human rights wherever they are challenged; and time for the United States to restore full funding to those international organizations, the better to enable them to perform precisely that protecting role?

And is it not time to recognize – the horrendous events of 9/11 notwithstanding – that what has turned most manifestations of Islamic fundamentalism from being a regional irritant into a global one threatening American security at home is the sustained US military presence (and active support for unpopular regimes16) in its region of greatest concern: the heart of the Islamic world itself?17 Beheading Americans certainly required a military response: one that was specific, measured and finite. It did not, of itself, require an open-ended commitment to degrade and ultimately destroy. If anyone needed to respond in that longer-term fashion, it was surely those countries and social forces immediately affected by ISIS. It was not the United States itself – and certainly not the United States acting to all intents and purposes entirely alone.

As policy-makers in Washington struggle with how best to respond to ISIS, they would do well to remember that the roots of religious and national conflict, across areas of the globe as contested as the Middle East, go back far in time and remain in their modern manifestations immensely complicated phenomena. If any of those conflicts had ever possessed the possibility of a quick fix, that moment was lost long ago: and now cycles of violence – whether US-initiated or ISIS-driven – are more likely to feed upon each other, deepening and intensifying the problem to which the violence was an initial response, rather than to offer a quick route to a lasting solution. Policy-makers would also do well to remember that, to the degree that political and religious divisions in an area as complex as the Middle East are accentuated rather than reduced by a sustained US presence in the region, plans to lower that presence, rather than to ratchet it up, need to be in the mix when considering how best to keep America safe from terrorism at home.

It is already one of the ironies of the Obama presidency that a candidate elected on a clear mandate to end the war in Iraq should not only have escalated the American military presence in Afghanistan before eventually drawing it down, but should also now be engaged in an air-war with ISIS that covers not just northern Iraq but also Syria. If people elected Barack Obama hoping to see the American military footprint in the Middle East reduced, they must now be sorely disappointed. That footprint is still large, and remains (under this President) open-ended.18 Vice-President Biden even promised an ISIS pursuit “to the gates of hell” if one was needed, and those gates are presumably a long way away. Which is why, among progressives and between the two main parties, the case needs to be made again for a fundamental resetting of American foreign policy into a calmer and less ambitious mold. We need to see created in Washington an overall understanding of American foreign policy that drops the claim about indispensability and returns us – as even a Washington foreign policy insider like Richard Haass has recently argued19 – to a global stance more commensurate with our actual capacities and requirements.

Such a fundamental resetting will not be easy.

It will be difficult in part because this belief that America is a uniquely benign global power – that we are the indispensable nation – is still so firmly entrenched in the entire political class in Washington DC, Democrat and Republican alike. It will also be difficult because, since the collapse of the Cold War standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union, it is no longer the case that half the world is closed-off to American influence and the possibility of direct US intervention. We have got out of the habit of thinking of any part of the world as literally beyond our orbit. And because we have, the problems of every part of the global order do currently end up as agenda items on the President’s desk, so that any resetting of America’s role in the world will necessarily involve a conscious decision to leave certain unsavory stones unturned (as we already do, in fact – in relation to things as important as human rights – with countries beyond our control like Saudi Arabia and China). Decisions about inaction are often as difficult to take as those about action, so neither will be easy.

It will be also be difficult to fundamentally reset American foreign policy because a huge set of institutions and networks have built up in and around Washington DC – all with powerfully expressed vested interests in the maintenance/extension of the US global role – such that any (even cautious and modest) resetting of that role will inevitably meet resistance from well-placed military and industrial sources. And finally, the kind of resetting required will be difficult because any President trying it (and that attempt is only likely to be made by a progressive-minded President) will inevitably be condemned by his/her more conservative critics as the cause of US overseas weaknesses rather than welcomed as a measured response to a set of intractable problems with deep local roots that were not directly of our making. (If you doubt that, go back and watch Republican Party hysteria on Benghazi, or the stridency of John McCain and Lindsay Graham as they put the case for arming the Syrian rebels earlier in the Arab Spring.)

But reset American foreign policy we must. The external rate of failure, and the internal costs of persistence, are now too high for America to continue on its current global course. Just as with the British Empire long ago, those who govern global powers with extensive world-wide responsibilities can always find a reason for going on just as before, never admitting that the responsibilities are now too wide to be adequately sustained. But making that admission is vital at the moment at which the scale of imperial over-reach begins to erode the economic and military superiority on which the global role was initially constructed. America is at such a moment now, which is why it is time for a new and more realistic foreign policy: one that recognizes the necessary limits of US global power and ends the current pretense that all the world’s problems are America’s to bear and America’s to resolve. It is time for less bluster and more sanity in America’s corridors of power.

These arguments are developed more fully in David Coates, America in the Shadow of Empires: to be published by Palgrave-Macmillan on December 10.20


1 Jacob Heilbrunn, “Unvanquished Republican neocons surge back,” The Financial Times, November 11, 2014: available at http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/cdfa287a-68f5-11e4-9eeb-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3JdoiVJXb


2 Anne Barnard and David D. Kirkpatrick, “Arabs Give Tepid Support to U.S. Fight Against ISIS,” The New York Times, September 11, 2014: available at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/12/world/middleeast/arabs-give-tepid-support-to-us-fight-against-isis.html


3 Mark Mazzetti, Eric Schmitt and Mark Landler, “Struggling to Gauge ISIS Threat, Even as US Prepares to Strike,” The New York Times, September 11, 2014: available at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/11/world/middleeast/struggling-to-gauge-isis-threat-even-as-us-prepares-to-act.html


4 Eugene Robinson, echoing the younger Obama’s critique of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, even called it his “dumb war.” in The Washington Post, October 23, 2014: available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/eugene-robinson-fighting-the-islamic-state-is-starting-to-look-more-like-a-dumb-war/2014/10/23/13492d64-5aea-11e4-b812-38518ae74c67_story.html


5 Christopher Ingraham, “It’s official: the US drug war in Afghanistan is a $7.6 billion failure,” The Washington Post, Wonkbook, October 22, 2014: available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/10/22/its-official-the-u-s-drug-war-in-afghanistan-is-a-7-6-billion-failure/


6 Peter Baker, ‘Relief over U.S. Exit From Iraq Fades as Reality Overtakes Hope,” The New York Times, June 6, 2014: available at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/23/world/middleeast/relief-over-us-exit-from-iraq-fades-as-reality-overtakes-hope.html


7 The figures are from the Institute for Economics and Peace, reported by Christopher Ingraham, “After 13 years, 2 wars and trillions in military spending, terrorist attacks are rising sharply.” The Washington Post, Wonkbook, November 19, 2014: available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-apps/imrs.php?src=http://img.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/files/2014/11/terrorism.png&w=1484

8 Trevor Timm, “If you thought the ISIS war couldn’t get any worse, just wait for more of the CIA.” The Guardian, November 17, 2014: available at http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/nov/17/isis-war-cia-arming-rebels-syria


9 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)


10 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


11 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


12 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.


13 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


14 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


15 See, for example, Nicholas Davies, Since 9-11 America’s Insane Foreign Policy – Continued Under Obama- Has Killed a Million and Created ISIS. Posted on Alternet.org, September 11, 2014: available at http://www.alternet.org/world/9-11-americas-insane-foreign-policy-continued-under-obama-has-killed-million-and-created-isisAlso Tom Engelhardt, “Iraq War 4.0?” posted on TomDispatch.com, November 25, 2014: available at http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175927/tomgram%3A_engelhardt,_iraq_war_4.0/



16 Edward Luce, “Obama’s Faustian pact with the Saudis, “ The Financial Times, September 28, 2014: available at http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/bdae33de-44de-11e4-ab0c-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3JdoiVJXb


17 There are parallels in Africa too. For the latest, see Nick Turse, When Is a “Base Camp” Neither a Base Nor a Camp? Posted on TomDespatch.com, November 20, 2014: available at http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/11/20/1346172/-Nick-Turse-When-Is-a-Base-Camp-Neither-a-Base-Nor-a-Camp


18 As the Secretary of State, John Kerry, put it in the wake of the President’s September 10 address to the nation (the one in which he committed the United States to “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy”), “It may take a year. It may take two years. It may take three years. But we’re determined it has to happen.” The Vice-President even swore that the US would pursue ISIS “to the gates of hell” if necessary. The Secretary of State’s remarks were reported by William Greider, “Obama’s Long War in the Middle East,” in The Nation, September 10, 2014: available at http://www.thenation.com/article/181572/obamas-long-war-middle-eastThe full text of the President’s address is at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/11/world/middleeast/obamas-remarks-on-the-fight-against-isis.html


19 Richard Haass, Foreign Policy Begins at Home. New York: Basic Books, 2013. Available at http://www.amazon.com/Foreign-Policy-Begins-Home-Americas/dp/0465071996


20 http://www.palgrave.com/page/detail/?K=9781137482600


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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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