Empires get stupider and more corrupt as they age.
Why are US Green Berets, four of whom were recently killed, in Niger? Why does the US have at least 36 bases, outposts, and staging areas in Africa, located in 24 countries? Why does a website, TomDispatch, have to file a Freedom of Information Act request to get that information, which contradicts years of assurances from AFRICOM, the US’s African military command, that the US has only one base in Africa, in the Republic of Djibouti? Why is AFRICOM headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany? How does anything that happens in Niger, or most of the rest of Africa for that matter, affect anyone’s way of life in the US? Why do we say the dead were heroes protecting our way of life when the country where they died poses no threat?
The United States and Niger have a long-standing bilateral relationship. Our militaries have been stalwart allies focused on working together to deter and to defeat terrorist threats in the West African nation and across the Sahel region.
A war on a tactic, terror, can provide the rationale for anything. Terror is ubiquitous, it can be fought anywhere. Anyone who uses or threatens to use violence in furtherance of political or economic ends can be deemed a terrorist. Any “terrorist” who yells, “Death to the United States!” can be deemed a threat to Americans. Terrorism will never be eradicated, so the war against it is perpetual. President George W. Bush even arrogated the right to wage that war preemptively, before terrorists actually struck the US or its citizens. And that’s how the US finds itself in Niger, its “long-standing” and “stalwart” ally that 999,999 out of a million Americans can’t find on an unlabeled map.
The noninterventionist counsel in George Washington’s Farewell Address and John Quincy’s “In Search of Monsters to Destroy” speech has been relegated to the historical dustbin. The latest in a long line of justifications for America making the world safe for democracy, liberty, global order, or some other good thing came from John McCain. It might have come from McCain’s hero, Theodore Roosevelt (except that Roosevelt made no attempt to hide his disdain for those he regarded as inferior races). Or it might have come from Woodrow Wilson, either of the Bushes, or John F. Kennedy.
Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
President John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961
When a nation has 36 military outposts on the least developed continent and over 800 around the globe, its running an empire, not Kennedy’s altruistic crusade. It’s an empire for which the US can no longer afford to “pay any price,” if it ever could. The proponents and many beneficiaries of America’s imperial power recoil at mundane accounting considerations. However, the US government has over $20 trillion in debt, a fair proportion of which funded its empire, and over $200 trillion in unfunded pension and medical-care promises. Its biggest adversary may one day be the credit markets.
Costs are not just reckoned in treasure and blood, but the erosion of the US and its government’s stature in the world, encouraged and hastened by the two countries the US regards as its most threatening adversaries: Russia and China. This week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson journeys to Pakistan “…with a demand that Islamabad do more to eliminate militant havens on its territory…” (Wall Street Journal, “U.S. Refocuses on Pakistan ‘Havens’,” 10/21-22/17 ) Outside of Washington most of us have to offer something to get something. Washington’s potentates demand, with an implicit or explicit “or else.” Military and intelligence capabilities that dwarf the rest of the world’s underwrites the hubris and the “or else.”
It’s ironic that the former exemplars of collectivist command economies, Russia and China, are offering the nations in their Eurasian orbit all sorts of goodies in furtherance of their Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China will upgrade and expand Gwadar, Pakistan’s Indian Ocean port, and has given Pakistan $230 million to build a new international airport there. A 2,282-acre free-trade area is being established, with the China Overseas Port Holding Company holding a 43-year lease. Quite a contrast to the “demands” of the former exemplar of free trade and voluntary exchange, the US.
There are caveats concerning the BRI. It is being spearheaded by the Chinese and Russian governments. The book Successful Government Projects is thin; Government Boondoggles is a multi-volume set. China will write most of the checks, but it’s carrying a huge debt load that will one day implode. Historically the Eurasian region has been riven with conflict, and it’s not clear if those animosities can be submerged. India is leery of playing ball with long-time rival China.
Europe is the terminus for many proposed BRI infrastructure projects, giving the Europeans yet another reason to question their fealty to the US (see “Europe’s Lost Testicles,” SLL). Job-creating and wealth-building trade with the Eurasian axis, including a shot at BRI contracts, or more terrorism and unwanted immigration from getting along and going along with US interventionism in the Middle East and Africa?
The US’s ham-handed Middle Eastern forays have many nations in that region questioning their allegiance to the US and its petrodollar regime. Strategy regarding ISIS in Syria and Iraq has been particularly maladroit. The US was ostensibly fighting ISIS but actually using it as a regime change agent in Syria. With this contradictory policy the US has simultaneously managed to disappoint and anger both its allies favoring regime change via ISIS: Saudi Arabia, the Gulf monarchies, Turkey, and Israel, and its allies fighting ISIS: Syrian rebels, the Kurds, and Iraq. Sunday Tillerson demanded that Iraq expel the Iranian militias that have so effectively fought ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Russia stood by long-time ally Syria and its leader, Bashar al-Assad, allied with Iran and Hezbollah, turned the battle against ISIS, and revealed US prevarications and ineptitude. Is it any wonder that Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and some of the Gulf states are making friendly overtures towards Russia and buying its weaponry, while edging toward the exit on the US and its petrodollar?
And that’s how you lose an empire. Impose prices you cannot pay and burdens you cannot bear upon yourself and your allies. Overestimate your strengths and underestimate your weaknesses. Do the opposite with your adversaries. Demand instead of listen, borrow instead of save, bully instead of bargain, bomb instead of negotiate.
The US could read the writing on the wall, let go of empire, accept inevitable multipolarity, and play a large and constructive role in it. Or it can suffer the fate its tired, delusional Deep State ordains: decay, defeat, the loss of the world’s admiration and respect, and moral, intellectual, and financial bankruptcy. There’s no cause for optimism. On historical form empires get stupider and more corrupt as they age.