THE BLOG
09/07/2010 05:34 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Out of Almost Everywhere?

Many people want to get out of Afghanistan; some guys want us to get out of almost everywhere.

This summer the rise of the American military empire and the reasons for winding it down are examined in a trio of books associated with the website called TomDispatch. From the brilliant proprietor of the site, Tom Engelhardt, comes The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's. And from two of his frequent contributors we have Washington Rules by Andrew J. Bacevich, and Dismantling the Empire by Chalmers Johnson, a coda to his pioneering and celebrated "blowback trilogy."

These books overlap in spirit, though each focuses on a different question: Bacevich, for example, on what he calls "America's path to permanent war," on the change from a reluctance to get involved in foreign adventures unless attacked, through decades of building a network of bases and (despite a loss in Vietnam) an ideology of intervention, to an acceptance of preventive war and "enhanced interrogation techniques" that would allegedly assure our safety here at home.

Engelhardt assembles some of the best of his pieces from TomDispatch, under such titles as "Air War, Barbarity, and Collateral Damage," and "Is America Hooked on War?" (as hooked as an addict, he concludes). This feast of a book can be followed by finding on the web the pieces he's written in the last half year.

Johnson, described by Engelhardt as "the most astute observer of the American way of war I know," describes less about how to dismantle the empire, despite the title of his book, than about why we should urgently do so. Chalmers builds not only on his startling trilogy, but also on the work of investigative reporters and historians such as Steve Coll, Tim Shorrock, and Tim Weiner.

With the caveat that each member of the trio associated with TomDispatch covers somewhat different aspects, let's look at some propositions that inform the trio:

  • That the U.S., which thinks of itself (and which presents itself) as an anti-imperial power, maintains a global network of over 700 foreign bases, which can be regarded as a kind of empire;
  • That this network and a military budget equal to the entire rest of the world combined encourage us to intervene in various countries such as Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan;
  • That in most cases these interventions have been costly failures for us and disasters for people there;
  • That we could do better by spending the money not on "military Keynesianism," but on domestic infrastructure, social needs at home, and new industries that address some problems now largely neglected;
  • That Presidents want to appear "tough"; members of the officer corps, to have opportunities to do what they are trained for; and members of Congress to get reelected, in part by bringing military spending to their districts;
  • That our news media, with some exceptions, do a wretched job of covering the empire, military spending, the wars we fight, and the effect on our republic of a system based on secrecy;
  • That,"until we decide (or are forced ) to dismantle our empire, sell off most of our bases in other people's countries, and bring our military expenditures into line with those of the rest of the world, we are destined to go bankrupt in the name of national defense" (Johnson);
  • That despite these stakes, the ideology of intervention and the military budget (or as Bacevich says, "Washington rules") are no more profoundly questioned in our capitol than the ways of our financial system or our de facto energy policy;
  • That even if a President wanted to end this system, he would be boxed in by "political engineering" of which the Pentagon is a master, by the threat of popular generals to challenge the White House, and by the belief, widely shared, that the U.S. can do whatever it wants;
  • That "until candidates begin losing because angry Americans reject our perpetual wars ... this sort of thinking will simply continue, no matter who the 'commander in chief' is" (Engelhardt);
  • That apart from access to resources, the U.S. sometimes fights mainly to oust a regime it can't control or even, once it enters or starts a war, to prevent damage to its prestige;
  • That most Americans fail ever to see our actions as others do, preferring to believe in our good intentions rather than to examine actual results;
  • That the recent fanfare for the end of the war in Iraq neglects the "enduring" bases, the large number of remaining troops, the almost invisible "contractors," the huge, fortress-like "embassy";
  • That the effort to replace a failed state in Afghanistan with a government friendly to the U.S. is doomed by lack of an adequate partner and of a Afghan military and police that are willing and able to provide security for a central government, by the hatred engendered by what our side dismisses as "collateral damage, by our efforts to stop the main cash crop of the country (opium); and by the proven ability of Afghans to hold off foreign occupiers such as the British and the Soviets;
  • That even if we could accomplish our mission in Afghanistan, terrorist have many other failed states to find "harbor" in.

A limitation of these books is that they don't tell how to roll back the military empire, except for some implications and cursory suggestions. The great strength is that they set forth, and illustrate, a coherent picture you'd never see if you depended on most of TV and the mainstream press.

What is the alternative to the system that's evolved? According to Johnson in the tenth of the steps he quickly outlines, "we must give up our inappropriate reliance on military force as the chief means of attempting to achieve foreign policy objectives."

Inspired by George Kennan, Senator Fulbright, and Martin Luther King, Jr., Bacevich argues that "the proper aim of American statecraft ... is not to redeem mankind or to prescribe some specific world order, nor to police the planet by force of arms," but rather "to permit Americans to avail themselves of the right of self-determination as they seek to create at home a 'more perfect union'" and a way of life based on "humane" values.