Euro-Red Baiting

With the United States on the verge of another Great Depression, the Know-Nothing opposition to the Obama administration should be worried that we are about to slip into the Third World. Instead, it's fretting about the United States becoming an annex of Western Europe.

TV pundit Sean Hannity has called the stimulus package the "European Socialist Act of 2009." Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer has declared Obama on a "Brussels-bound path." Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who spent $10,000 on a five-day trip to Venice in 2004, is worried that we might all soon suffer the travails of European life if Obama gets his way. (This promped New Yorker commentator Hedrick Herzberg to wonder "whether or not greater income equality, better health, and fewer prisons would really be a dystopian nightmare.")

For this Know-Nothing opposition -- I'm borrowing the name from the mid-19th century nativist political faction -- Europe is a code word for socialism. With their references to the Old World, the Know Nothings are rather desperately trying to update Red-baiting for the 21st century. We are a country with no viable socialist party or labor party. Except for the courageous Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), to declare one's self a socialist in this country is to buy a one-way ticket to the political hinterlands. We are so fearful of the word that we changed the "social sciences" to the "behavioral sciences" just in case someone might get the wrong idea. But whereas Red-baiting was once a mainstream conceit, it now has the whiff of antiquity to it. It is perhaps a sign of how far out into the wilderness the Know Nothings have been cast by the recent elections that they are resorting to what one commentator has called the "bold color concept" of anti-socialist invective.

The Know Nothings may also be expressing a deeper anxiety. They are explicitly worried about social(ist) programs. Deep down, however, they fear that the United States may become, like Europe, post-colonial. They believe, particularly after eight years of surges in Iraq, in Pentagon spending, and in Washington testosterone levels, that cutting back on empire is downright un-American. They fear that Obama wants the full European monty.

True, several European states still maintain large militaries. They contribute to NATO operations. The French behave toward their overseas "departments" like Guadeloupe in a rather high-handed manner, and the Spanish anachronistically maintain control of two cities, Ceuta and Melilla, on the Mediterranean coast of Morocco. But in general, Europe has given up its pretensions to world military dominance, stood up (in part) to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and has shown increasing reluctance to support the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan. Napoleon once disparaged England as a "nation of shopkeepers." U.S. Know Nothings similarly like to bait Europeans for their lack of martial spirit.

At first glance, the Know Nothings shouldn't worry that the Obama administration will bury the U.S. empire any time soon. The new administration released its first budget figures last week and, despite the economic crisis, the Pentagon is still slated to get a raise. For 2010, the Obama administration is requesting $20 billion more in military spending than Congress has allocated for 2009. "While the new administration has slowed the rate of increase in the base military budget," write Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) research fellow Miriam Pemberton and FPIF contributor Suzanne Smith, "it has still requested more money for the Pentagon than the Bush administration ever did." Pentagon chief Robert Gates was overjoyed. He had expected the budget to grow "only at the pace of inflation," according to The Washington Post, and instead, "we've done somewhat better than that."

On other imperial fronts, the administration is surging in Afghanistan and continuing the not-so-secret war in Pakistan. And Washington is showing no signs of scaling back the nearly 1,000 overseas U.S. military bases. "Among the installations considered critical to our national security are a ski center in the Bavarian Alps, resorts in Seoul and Tokyo, and 234 golf courses the Pentagon runs worldwide," writes FPIF contributor David Vine in Too Many Overseas Bases.

In Iraq, which Obama addressed in a speech last week, the administration plans to pull out all "combat troops" within 18 months or so. As FPIF contributor Phyllis Bennis points out, however, as many as 50,000 U.S. "non-combat" soldiers will remain behind. "Those tens of thousands of troops will still be occupying Iraq," she writes. "Doing what? Very likely, just what combat troops do -- they would walk and talk and bomb and shoot like combat troops, but they'd be called something else."

Our imperial mindset extends to the very bedrock of our language. This week, to kick off our new Strategic Focus on empire, FPIF contributor Tom Engelhardt looks at the language of empire. "We don't find it strange to have 16 intelligence agencies, some devoted to listening in on, and spying on, the planet, or capable of running 'covert wars' in tribal borderlands thousands of miles distant, or of flying unmanned drones over those same borderlands destroying those who come into camera view," he writes in The Imperial Unconscious. "We're inured to the bizarreness of it all and of the language (and pretensions) that go with it."

(Tom knows empire. He's co-founder of the American Empire project, which has published a number of books by FPIF regulars like Michael Klare and Walden Bello. And he puts out TomDispatch, an imperial watchdog site that's an indispensable guide to our economic and military overstretch. You can subscribe to it here.)

So, what will we see over the next four years? Is the Obama administration going to maintain the U.S. empire through elevated military spending, maintenance of overseas bases, prosecution of several wars, and widespread use of imperial language? Will he go down in history as the man who turned America into Europe by humanizing our society and putting the "post" into post-colonial? Or, bipartisan to a fault, will he steer the middle course and settle on a kinder, gentler empire? Stay tuned over the next several weeks to FPIF's Strategic Focus on empire for the answers.

Crossposted from Foreign Policy In Focus.

To subscribe to FPIF's World Beat, click here.