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How Much Does the U.S. Empire Cost?

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When he travels abroad, Barack Obama is the consummate pitchman. He tells stories, he cracks jokes, he delivers mini-lectures with a light touch -- all in the service of selling product. It's not an easy job. Imagine trying to sell GM cars after Ralph Nader's attack on its Corvair in the 1960s, or shilling for Nestlé after the infant formula boycott of the 1970s and 1980s. Obama's product -- America -- has taken a beating in the marketplace over the last eight years or so. The president has to do some serious rebranding.

Like any good ad-man, Obama does two things. He makes the audience feel good. But the people listening to him must also feel that something is missing in their lives, something that only Obama and his product can give them. If I get his product, the potential consumer thinks, perhaps I'll be as young, handsome, talented, and powerful as he is.

In his address over the weekend to the Ghanaian parliament, the president was careful to emphasize that "Africa's future is up to Africans." The United States is all about respecting self-determination. "America will not seek to impose any system of government on any other nation," he intoned. "The essential truth of democracy is that each nation determines its own destiny."

We're not telling you what to do, Obama insisted. But still, you have to get rid of your dictators, your corruption, and your bloody conflicts. And boy, do we have just the product for you!

Obama didn't "apologize for the CIA's role in overthrowing the democratically elected government of Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah in 1966 to satisfy Cold War strategic interests," as Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Charles Abugre recommended in What Obama Should Say in Africa. "While he's at it," Abugre writes, "he should apologize for the role the CIA played in removing Patrice Lumumba from power in 1960 and the resulting mess that is today's Democratic Republic of the Congo."

Obama saw no need to apologize for past product defects. He's not peddling the ugly old empire that tortured people at the Guantánamo detention facility and the Abu Ghraib prison, meddled in elections past, and is embroiled in its own bloody and expensive conflicts. It's Empire 2.0.

Well, of course, he didn't say "empire." That's what rebranding is all about. Consider what the president had to say about one of the new services that Empire 2.0 offers: the Pentagon's new U.S. African Command (AFRICOM). "Our Africa Command is focused not on establishing a foothold in the continent, but on confronting these common challenges to advance the security of America, Africa, and the world," Obama said.

Partnership sounds nice. But as FPIF contributor Gerald LeMelle argues in Revealing the Real Africa Policy, the administration's Africa agenda make "no reference to the recent FY 2010 budget that doubles the size of AFRICOM's funds. Nor does it mention the doubling of financial support for counterterrorism projects throughout the continent -- including increasing funds for weapons, military training, and education at a time when U.S. foreign aid money is stagnating."

And despite his pointed remarks against dictators and military conflicts, Obama neglected to mention Uganda, where AFRICOM supports the Ugandan People's Defense Forces (UPDF) with arms and training. "Northern Ugandans have innumerable stories about the abuses committed by the UPDF in their communities," writes FPIF contributor Beth Tuckey in Denouncing Dictatorship in Uganda. "Although the UPDF's behavior has been slightly better in recent years, it would be a mistake for the United States to train and equip such a force for combat. Museveni has shown no interest in relinquishing his presidency, and yet the United States continues to shower his so-called democracy with aid and military support."

Let's translate the ad-speak. Partnership means: We give you weapons and training and you give us oil. "The U.S. Africa Command claims to 'help Africans help themselves,'" FPIF co-director Emira Woods writes in Obama Visits Africa's 'Oil Gulf.' "The command lists humanitarian missions like dental clinics, building of schools, wells, etc. What is more opaque is the intent to train and arm proxy militaries that can secure and sustain the ever-present fix for the U.S. addiction to fossil fuels."

In Nigeria, which will soon provide up to one-quarter of all U.S. imported oil, the government recently launched a full-scale offensive against armed resistance groups in the oil-rich Niger Delta. The Nigerian government receives official military assistance from the United States, as well as tens of millions of dollars in commercial U.S. military sales. "Peaceful resistance of minority ethnic groups across the Niger Delta has been met with brutal military repression and the broken promises of oil companies, with no opportunity for dialogue or genuine negotiation in 50 years," writes FPIF contributor Kia Mistilis in Niger Delta Standoff. "In this environment, the armed resistance group, the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta Peoples (MEND) emerged in 2006. The group targeted oil installations and caused a 40% drop in supply, from 2.4 million to 1.3 million barrels per day" (a 60-Second Expert version of her commentary is here).

So, the United States is indeed helping Africans help themselves...to natural resources and the labor of the disenfranchised.

And don't forget the fine print at the bottom that tells you about the hidden costs to the U.S. taxpayer for military partnerships and access to oil. After all, the new African Command is only the tip of the imperial iceberg. According to a new FPIF Special Report by Anita Dancs, the United States is spending a quarter of a trillion dollars every year to maintain a global military presence. That's $250 billion worth of troops, equipment, fleets, and bases.

"Military strategy documents ascribe the vast presence overseas to projecting power and countering threats outside of U.S. borders before they can enter within the border," Dancs writes in The Cost of the Global U.S. Military Presence. "But as potential threats become increasingly nonconventional, defending the nation requires better intelligence, international policing, diplomatic efforts, and international cooperation, not a large military presence that irritates regional sensitivities."

When he travels to Ghana and elsewhere, Obama isn't only selling America to Africans. He's selling the new and improved American empire to Americans. We're the ones who have to pony up the $250 billion annual fee for this global garrison.

And like any good sales rep, he doesn't give you the price up front. "Don't worry," he tells you, handing over a pen and the bill of sale. "You won't have to pay immediately. Heck, you won't even have to pay most of the debt. Those your kids over there? Let's just make an extra copy of this agreement for them...."

Crossposted from Foreign Policy In Focus, where you can read the full post.

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