The Failure of Empire

The United States is facing the prospect of a major defeat in Iraq that is likely to constitute a serious setback in the ongoing campaign to expand the American empire.

By the Editors of Monthly Review
January 2004
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The United States is facing the prospect of a major defeat in Iraq that is likely to constitute a serious setback in the ongoing campaign to expand the American empire. Behind the pervasive war propaganda as evidenced in the “victorious” attack on Fallujah lies the reality of a U.S. war machine that is fighting a futile battle against growing guerrilla forces, with little chance for a stable political solution to the conflict that could possibly meet U.S. imperial objectives.

Nevertheless, the U.S. ruling class, though not unaware of the dangers, is currently convinced that it has no choice but to “stay the course”—a slogan adopted by both political parties and accepted by virtually the entire economic, political, military, and communications establishment. The reason for this seemingly irrational determination to stick it out at all costs can only be understood through an analysis of the logic and limits of capitalist empire.

The Logic of Imperialism

Capitalism is by its very nature a globally expanding system geared to accumulation on a world scale. Since its beginnings in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries it has been a world economy with an international division of labor ruled over by competing nation-states. Cutting across this global system is a structure of inequality variously described as center-periphery, metropolis-satellite, developed-underdeveloped, North-South—all of which point to the wide gap that exists between states at the center and those in the periphery of the system. From the outset, the leading capitalist states engaged in an outward, imperialistic movement. Precapitalist societies in the Americas, Africa, and Asia were pillaged, their populations enchained, and the plunder sent back to Europe. Wherever possible, noncapitalist societies were destroyed and transformed into colonial dependencies. Meanwhile, the great powers fought over the territories and spoils. As Marx wrote in “The Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist” in volume 1 of Capital:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of blackskins, are all things which characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation. Hard on their heels follows the commercial war of the European nations, which has the globe as its battlefield. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes gigantic dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the shape of the Opium Wars against China, etc.

By the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain, which led the way in the industrial revolution, had emerged as the hegemonic imperial power of the capitalist world economy. In this period the European powers divided up the world, either exercising direct political rule over their colonies or where this was not practicable creating conditions for the subordination of peripheral states to the needs of those at the center by means of unequal treaties. Britain’s most important colonial possession, the jewel of its empire, was India. But Britain also exercised informal economic control in areas that were not formal colonies, as in Latin America. Wealth extracted from these colonial domains flowed into the coffers of the center capitalist nations, enriching them and enhancing their power. British hegemony over the world economy came under increasing challenge in the early twentieth century, particularly from Germany, and collapsed as a result of the First and Second World Wars, to be replaced in the aftermath of the Second World War by American hegemony as the United States rose to dominance over the world capitalist system.

In the immediate postwar world the United States was, in terms of the sheer material force at its disposal, the most powerful nation that the world had ever seen. It accounted for about half of total world output and 60 percent of its manufacturing and had a monopoly over nuclear weapons. In place of the earlier gold standard, the Bretton Woods Agreement enshrined the U.S. dollar as the main international currency, which was backed up by Washington’s agreement to redeem dollars held by the central bankers of other countries for gold. U.S. military bases in the thousands stretched across the globe. U.S. multinational corporations seized control of whole economies in the third world and, although doing so on the basis of so-called “free trade,” were backed up in their economic operations and interests whenever necessary by U.S. military power.

But in many ways U.S. power was constrained. The existence of the Soviet Union, which had arisen out of a socialist revolution in the midst of the First World War, meant that there was another military superpower, which, if nowhere near as powerful as the United States, nonetheless could constrain U.S. actions, placing certain regions off-limits to imperialist expansion, and offering material support to third world revolutions. Still, the real threat to capitalism as a whole and to U.S. global dominance came not from the Soviet Union directly but from the waves of revolution taking place throughout the twentieth century as peoples in Latin America, Africa, and Asia sought to break loose from colonialism or neocolonialism, i.e., from the position to which they had been relegated in the imperialist division of labor. As the United States surrounded the Soviet Union and China with military bases and alliances and at the same time sought to counter revolutions throughout the third world it found itself up against the global limits of its power.

Vietnam and the Limits of Empire

Nowhere were the limits of U.S. power more evident than in the Vietnam War. In that war the United States took over what had been a colonial war on the part of the French, blocked elections from taking place throughout the country as established by the Geneva Agreements of 1954, and divided Vietnam in half, creating a puppet regime in the South. In the 1960s a massive buildup of U.S. troops took place in what amounted to an invasion and occupation of the southern part of Vietnam. Unable to win in a guerrilla war, despite expending more than twice as much explosive power as it had employed in the entire Second World War and despite millions of Vietnamese dead, and unable to succeed at “nation building” in South Vietnam, where it sought to prop up a corrupt regime of its own creation, the United States was compelled by growing dissension amongst the U.S. civilian population and by signs of rebellion within the lower military ranks to withdraw under the cover of the “Vietnamization” of the war. The distortions in the U.S. balance of payments in this period contributed to the diminishing hegemony of the dollar as a world currency and the end of the dollar-gold standard. For decades after the United States began its pull-out from Vietnam, the U.S. capacity to intervene militarily was severely limited by what conservatives labeled “the Vietnam Syndrome”—standing for the unwillingness of the U.S. population to engage in major military interventions in other countries.

The War in Vietnam, like other major imperial wars, revealed the logic and limits of capitalist empire. It is often said that the United States had no significant economic interests in Vietnam that would have justified its major intervention there. Niall Ferguson, a professor of financial history at New York University and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, declares in his new book, Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire, that “The United States lost face [in Vietnam]. That was about all it lost.” Such views tend to reinforce the ideology that since the United States had nothing material to lose in Vietnam it must have been there for no other reason than to promote freedom and democracy. In reality U.S. objectives in Vietnam were dedicated to the maintenance of imperialism as a system. In the broadest sense, this involved strategic goals that have been classically understood under the rubric of “geopolitics,” in which the political, economic, and military requirements of empire are placed within a strategic context that takes into account the geographic, demographic, and natural resource characteristics of particular regions. Such a geopolitical understanding of imperial expansion and defense is of course completely in accord with the necessity of the greatest possible expansion of the capitalist world economy.

The Vietnam War illustrates perfectly the importance of such geopolitical goals. The object of the U.S. intervention was to control the Pacific Rim and to surround and “contain” China as part of a more general geopolitical strategy of global dominance of the “rimlands” of Eurasia—that is, Western Europe, the Pacific Rim, and the Middle East. It was these rimlands that were the main focus of U.S. global military alliances; and it is here that the United States devoted the most resources to establishing and maintaining a military presence. They represented in fact the borders of the imperialist system, in which the United States was the hegemonic power—thus the borders of a loosely constructed American empire.*

Viewed in this way, the enormous commitment of the United States to securing Vietnam as part of its imperial sphere—a commitment maintained over five successive presidencies of both parties—was not simply irrational but part of a larger global strategy. For the U.S. ruling class and its military and foreign policy strategists the defeat in Vietnam is remembered as a major failure in defending U.S. interests. In the 1970s the world capitalist economy entered a long-term crisis or stagnation that continues to haunt its every step. In the same period U.S. economic hegemony slipped. This partial withdrawal of the United States from the world stage after the Vietnam War, as its military interventions were curtailed despite growing revolutionary movements in the third world, was often seen by those at the top of U.S. society and in the military as a source of the general sickness or malaise affecting the U.S. order.

The Return to War

Since the late 1970s Washington has sought to reconstruct its capacity to engage in imperialist wars. Covert wars in Afghanistan and Central America were followed by the direct exercise of American military imperialism in Lebanon, Grenada, and Panama. With the fall of the Soviet bloc and the demise two years later of the Soviet Union itself, the United States moved to fill the vacuum of world power, carrying out military interventions in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, and the former Yugoslavia that would have previously been unthinkable. Following the attacks of September 2001, the U.S. invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq and the construction of military bases in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia constituted a vast expansion of the American empire into hitherto inaccessible regions. Such extension of U.S. imperial power was partly enabled by economic gains—although of a transitory nature—that the United States had made in the 1990s relative to its leading capitalist competitors. It was this that helped give the “antiterrorist” hawks in the administration of George W. Bush the confidence to exploit the fear engendered by the September 2001 attacks to issue the National Security Strategy of the United States of America, in September 2002. This declared that the United States would do all in its power to prevent the appearance of another “peer competitor” in the military realm and would not hesitate to engage in “preemptive” (or preventive) interventions to advance its national security interests. This was nothing other than a declaration of perpetual war, making it clear that the United States was willing to brandish its armed might in order to expand its empire and thus its geopolitical position in the world at large. Never before in the history of the modern world has any nation laid claim to such a far-reaching strategy for indefinite global domination.

Helping to pave the way for this reassertion of U.S. imperial ambitions was a transformation that took place in the dominant historical account of the Vietnam War. Conservative interpretations of the war propounded by the military leadership and rightwing commentators—at first scarcely taken seriously in the public discussion—became more influential and pervasive as memories of the war receded. In the new climate of making America “stand tall” again, the defeat in Vietnam was increasingly relegated to the classic propagandistic category of a “betrayal” brought on in this case by the disloyalty of the media and by extremists within the civilian population.*

The focus of this reinterpretation centered on the war’s turning point in the Vietnamese Tet Offensive of 1968. Tet, it was now said, was a resounding military victory for the U.S. and South Vietnamese military forces, which decimated their National Liberation Front attackers. Yet, in a “betrayal” of the first order, we are told, it was turned into a defeat by the U.S. media and a vocal minority of war protestors, which had the effect of inducing Johnson to throw in the towel. In effect establishment opinion adopted the same verdict on the war offered earlier by General William Westmoreland, commander of the U.S. forces in Vietnam, who wrote in A Soldier Reports (1976) that the Tet offensive represented “a striking military defeat for the enemy on anybody’s terms….Unfortunately, the enemy scored in the United States the psychological victory that eluded him in Vietnam, so influencing President Johnson and his civilian advisors that they ignored the maxim that when the enemy is hurting you don’t diminish the pressure, you increase it.” For Westmoreland, speaking of the Indochina War as a whole, “a lack of determination to stay the course…demonstrated in Cambodia, South Vietnam, and Laos that the alternative to victory was defeat.”

References to U.S. failure to “stay the course” became a major theme of conservative accounts of the war. This phrase had been frequently employed in the war itself. For example, President Johnson had used it in 1967 to convey his resolve to continue the war. In another instance, Townsend Hoopes, the under secretary of the Air Force, had presented Secretary of State Clark Clifford in February 1968 with a strategy for “staying the course for an added number of grinding years” by concentrating merely on controlling populated areas. But the phrase became even more important later on as a hawkish slogan to explain the U.S. defeat. This happened after the noted journalist Stewart Alsop recalled in his memoir, Stay of Execution (1973), that Winston Churchill had stated in his presence: “America, it is a great and strong country, like a workhorse pulling the rest of the world out of despond and despair. But will it stay the course?” Vietnam hawks like Democratic Senator Henry M. Jackson turned to Churchill’s question at every opportunity—insisting that the United States had failed to stay the course in Vietnam and should not make this mistake again.*

So powerful has this right-wing, military understanding of the Vietnam War become that it is now a force to reckon with in the current war in Iraq. Thus when President George W. Bush declared with respect to Iraq in April 2004 that “We’ve got to stay the course and we will stay the course,” his Democratic opponent Senator John Kerry echoed that the United States should “stay the course” in Iraq, adding that “Americans differ about whether and how we should have gone to war. But it would be unthinkable now for us to retreat in disarray and leave behind a society deep in strife and dominated by radicals” (Robert Scheer, “Don’t Stay the Course Senator,”, April 28, 2004; Evan Thomas, “The Vietnam Question,”, April 19, 2004).

The Road to Ruin in Iraq

This repeated insistence on staying the course is sometimes reduced to a mere willingness to countenance continuing bloodshed. According to Max Boot, a senior fellow at the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations, in his Savage Wars of Peace (a title drawn from Kipling’s poem the White Man’s Burden): “Any nation bent on imperial policing will suffer a few setbacks. The British army, in the course of Queen Victoria’s little wars, suffered major defeats with thousands of casualties in the First Afghan War (1842) and the Zulu War (1879). This did not appreciably dampen British determination to defend and expand the empire; it made them hunger for vengeance. If Americans cannot adopt a similarly bloody-minded attitude, then they have no business undertaking imperial policing.”

But adoption of a “bloody-minded attitude”—something that is not lacking at present in Washington—will not save the United States in Iraq. Despite the much proclaimed “victory” in Fallujah—where the level of destruction unleashed against a city in an already occupied country is probably unequaled in modern times—war planners are working overtime to find a way to stave off a defeat that appears increasingly likely. The most important recent treatment of the Iraq War from within the national security establishment has come from Anthony H. Cordesman, a long-time national security adviser for the Department of Defense, specializing in the Middle East and energy issues, who oversaw the assessment of the Yom Kippur War for the Defense Department in 1974. Cordesman is now Alreigh A. Burke Fellow in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and the national security analyst for ABC News. In his report “Playing the Course:” A Strategy for Reshaping U.S. Policy in Iraq and the Middle East (fourth draft, November 22, 2004, Cordesman argues that the United States should not “stay the course” if a pragmatic strategy for success, which he calls “playing the course,” does not work. “The US faces too much Iraqi anger and resentment to try to hold on in the face of clear failure, and achieving any lasting success in terms of Iraqi political acceptance means that the US must seek to largely withdraw over the next two years.” Moreover, given the degree of U.S. failure so far the question of a U.S. defeat in Iraq needs to be considered. “The odds of lasting US success in Iraq,” he states, “are now at best even, and may well be worse. The US can almost certainly win every military battle and clash, but it is far less certain to win the political and economic war.”

Cordesman believes that the United States can only save itself from a clear defeat and the resulting loss of “face” in Iraq by renouncing at once all imperial objectives. As he declared in an interview for the Council on Foreign Relations in late November: “We’ve never said to the Iraqis that we won’t take their oil, that we won’t steal their economy, that we won’t establish military bases, that we’ll leave when an elected government asks us to. We’ve never said that any government that is elected is OK with us.” As he writes in Playing the Course, the United States should “conspicuously” abandon the following objectives: (1) using “Iraq as a tool or lever for changing the region”; (2) using Iraq as “a US military base”; (3) interfering with “Iraq’s independence in terms of its politics, economics, and above all oil”; and (4) blocking “total transparency” in the U.S. relation to the Iraqi economy. U.S. assurances he insists must include its explicit commitment to withdraw entirely from the Green Zone in Baghdad, which cannot be maintained as an imperial headquarters in a supposedly independent Iraq.

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