THE BLOG
11/22/2016 11:33 am ET Updated Nov 23, 2017

How To Finance Your Own Imperial Decline

Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com

It couldn't be stranger when you think about it (which few here care to do). In the latter part of the twentieth century and the first years of this one, Washington did what no power in history had ever done. It garrisoned the globe with a staggering number of military bases in a remarkably blanket fashion (China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, and a few similar places aside). In these years, it just built and built and built. At one point, there were something like 1,000 installations in Iraq and Afghanistan alone, from bases large enough to be small American towns to tiny combat outposts. In 2015, there were at least 800 significant U.S. bases in foreign countries (and more small camps and places where U.S. military equipment was pre-positioned for future use). No great power, not even Britain at its imperial height, had ever had such a global military "footprint," such an "empire of bases," and yet in this country it was as if no one noticed, as if it were of no importance at all. The media rarely even acknowledged the existence of such bases. They were never considered news. They played no part in American politics. They went largely unmentioned in "the homeland," despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of American military personnel, their families, private contractors, and others cycled through them annually.

Particularly in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, those bases reflected a growing belief in Washington that it might indeed be possible for a single nation, the planet's "sole superpower," to militarily dominate the planet, lock, stock, and barrel. As a result, investment in the U.S. military proceeded apace and the urge for it to be everywhere only spread. At one point in recent years, the Pentagon's budget was larger than those of the next 10 countries combined, including a number of allies; and as Nick Turse has reported, by 2015, the Pentagon had created a vast secret military, its Special Operations forces, which played a role in 147 countries, a figure for the record books. Meanwhile, new drone bases (on which we have no count) were being built in significant numbers to ensure that a Hellfire missile could be delivered to anyplace in the Greater Middle East, much of the rest of Eurasia, or northern Africa on more or less a moment's notice. Nor did Washington's efforts stop there. In these last years, the U.S. has conducted bombing campaigns and other kinds of military activities in no less than seven countries.

And yet here's what's notable: unlike other imperial powers with such garrisons in their heyday -- the Romans, the French, the British, the Soviets -- the U.S. managed to dominate next to nothing, to impose its will on no place militarily. Instead, in the post-9/11 era, under military pressure from Washington, country after country, area after area passed into a state of chaos, not order, and it seemed to make no difference what form that pressure took.

Neither this tale of failure nor the costs of such militaristic fantasies to the American taxpayer have yet been fully grasped here. As we enter the new era of Donald Trump, amid a welter of conflicting signals, only one thing seems clear when it comes to the U.S. military. Whatever extreme figures end up in key posts in the Trump version of the national security state, as William Hartung indicates today in "A Pentagon Rising," yet more money will be sent swirling down the Pentagon's drain. It's like going into hock to finance your own imperial decline.