Imperial Overstretch in Iraq, 5 May 2003
With the end of the U.S. war in Iraq the perspective of most commentators across the political spectrum is that the Bush administration is triumphant and can wreck its will on the world. Saddam Hussein is banished from power, the United States occupies Iraq and is sitting on top of the world’s second largest oil deposits. Referring to the failure of European as well as Arab countries to deter naked U.S. aggression, Tariq Ali, in an editorial in the New Left Review of London, writes, "American global hegemony… has never been so clearly displayed."
This is a flawed interpretation of the historic impact of the Iraqi intervention. Rather than the triumph of a new imperial order, the war may actually accelerate the decline of U.S. hegemony. In late 2002, Charles Kupchan, a professor at Georgetown University and a member of the National Security Council in the Clinton administration, released a book titled "The End of the American Era." Cast in mainstream political language, Kupchan argues "Pax Americana" will end due to "the rise of alternative centers of power and a declining and unilateralist U.S. internationalism." Even before France and Germany headed up the Western opposition to the U.S .war in Iraqi, Kupchan asserted that the European Union would be in the forefront of an emergent "multipolar world" that will eclipse U.S. ascendancy in the early part of the twenty-first century.
Events in Iraq with the end of the war suggest that the U.S. occupation will be a bloody one that contributes to the sapping of U.S. global power. No one, including the U.S. anointed ruler, General Jay Garner, is in control. Iraqi schoolboys shake their shoes at U.S. soldiers, chanting in English, "Down U.S.A." Anti- American demonstrators in Shiite and Sunni regions of the country rally against U.S. troops, leading U.S. soldiers to fire on angry mobs, killing and maiming scores. U.S. military officers invariably claim their troops "were fired on first" while Iraqi witnesses state there was no hostile fire from the demonstrators. Even if the U.S. assertions are true, these confrontations have all the markings of colonial wars past. Inevitably the more militant Iraqi opponents of the United States of all political and religious stripes will move among the people, accentuating popular unrest and exacting a toll on the occupying army.
Back in the late 1980s Paul Kennedy, another fairly mainstream scholar at Yale University, asserted in "The Rise and Fall of Great Powers" that empires in their waning years engage in "overstretch." As they begin to decline the dominant powers almost invariably resort to war and belligerency, thereby accelerating their demise as they waste their national treasuries on military spending to the detriment of their economies and their peoples.
The intended implications of Kennedy’s thesis for the United States were apparent at the time his book came out. The Reagan administration was engaging in a massive military build up and sponsoring a series of regional counterrevolutionary wars in Africa, Central America and Asia, attempting to counteract the U.S. setback in Vietnam and other parts of the world. Simultaneously, U.S. economic preeminence appeared to be threatened by the more dynamic economies of Japan and Western Europe. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resurgent U.S. economy of the 1990s, Kennedy’s argument of imperial overstretch appeared to be mistaken and irrelevant. The success of Bush Senior in the first Gulf war along with Clinton’s interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo nurtured the belief that "Pax Americana" was in fine shape. And at first glance, George W. Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq appear to indicate that now more than ever the United States is a potent empire.
In reality the Bush administration’s unilateralist foreign policy represents an effort to reassert a U.S. hegemony that it believes was compromised by the diffusion of U.S. power under Clinton. The neo-conservatives, the driving force behind U.S. policy today, are in fact engaging in foreign adventures precisely because they are fearful that U.S. dominance in the world is being undermined. Major luminaries of the Bush administration, such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Vice-President Dick Cheney, and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz came together back in 1997 to form The Project for the New American Century. Lambasting the Clinton administration for allowing U.S. global power to languish, the founding charter of PNAC declared it is "increasingly difficult to sustain American influence around the world."
Then on the eve of the presidential elections in 2000 PNAC released a special report titled ""Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century." It called for stepped up military spending, the projection of U.S. power around the world, and the use of "constabulary forces" whenever necessary. It became the blueprint for the Bush administration’s foreign policy, particularly after September 11, 2001. Refusing to accept any limits on U.S. power, the neo-conservative’s mission of remaking the world in the U.S. image fits in perfectly with Kennedy’s argument that empires in their final stages bring to the fore bellicose leaders who increase military expenditures and engage in wars that actually accelerate their nations’ demise.
Other commentators and analysts are also suggesting that something is going wrong with the new U.S. imperium. Independent Strategy, a financial research company for institutional investors, argues that the U.S. empire is cresting in a paper that is being circulated in the boardrooms of big investment banks like Goldman Sachs. It foresees heightened global terrorism in response to U.S. unilaterlaism. Independent Strategy also argues that the U.S. economy faces serious economic difficulties due in part to the costs of the war and Bush’s massive tax cuts. The dollar is falling in international markets "because the good empire has the same fault lines as many other empires: unsustainable living standards at the core [that] depend on flows of wealth from the periphery." It adds: "The costs of war and unilateralism will increase the thirst for capital, but reduce the return earned by it."
Paul Kennedy has also reappeared in the public debate with an article in the Washington Post at the end of April in which he points to the state of the British empire in the early twentieth century to argue that the Bush administration is in trouble abroad. Kennedy contends: "The U.S. has taken on military commitments all over the globe, from the Balkans and Kuwait to Afghanistan and Korea. Its armed forces look colossal (as did Britain’s in 1919), but its obligations look even larger. It is small wonder that while liberals protest soaring defense expenditures, the U.S. military repeatedly warns of overstretch and is dismayed at the hawkish calls for further adventures."
Robert Fisk of the Independent newspaper of London, perhaps the premier Western reporter in the Gulf and the Middle East, also suggests in an interview with Amy Goodman of Pacifica Radio that we are seeing history redux in Iraq. In 1917, British troops under the command of Lieutenant General Sir Stanley Maude seized Baghdad. As Fisk points out Maude in taking the city used words almost identical to Bush’s proclamation at the onset of the Iraqi war: "We come here not as conquerors, but as liberators to free you from the tyranny of generations." The British did manage to remain for years, but the region proved to be a political quagmire as ethnic and religious groups fought each other while also attacking the British occupiers.
It is impossible to predict how this new war of liberation in Iraq will unfold. As Robert Fisk says, "my crystal ball has broken a long time ago." Nonetheless even he believes the United States is involved in an interminable conflict in the Gulf, one even more profound than that which the British faced in the early part of the twentieth century.
We should remember that the Reagan administration, in which neo-conservatives also held prominent posts, sent troops to the Middle East in August, 1982 in an effort to exert its influence in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Just over a year later 241 Marines died in a car bomb blast in Bruit, Lebanon and the United States beat a hasty retreat from the region. No doubt the Bush administration is determined to inflict more bloodshed and take more causalities than this as it seeks to consolidate U.S. rule over Iraq. But imperial overstretch and Iraqi resistance will likely provoke ever increasing calls from within the United States to bring the troops home and surely have major implications for the approaching 2004 presidential elections.
Even before the Iraqi war, Charles Kupchan in "The End of the American Era" worried that the tribulations of unilateralism would cause a backlash among the American people, leading to a "new isolationism." Given his ties to the former Clinton administration, he argues that the United States must continue to be active in a multipolar world, pushing a "globalist" agenda, much as his former boss did. However, from the perspective of the anti- globalization movement that erupted on the world stage in Seattle in 1999, a crisis in U.S. foreign policy that compels U.S. leaders to retreat from their military and corporate ravaging of the world would be of enormous benefit to humanity.
Tariq Ali in his editorial in New Left Review calls upon the anti- globalization and anti-war movements to form a broad "anti- imperialist league" to resist U.S. aggression. While he underestimates the importance of the challenge posed by European nations to U.S. hegemony, he does point to the central role of the popular movement in contesting U.S. domination: "The history of the rise and fall of Empires teaches us that it is when their own citizens finally lose faith in the virtue of infinite war and permanent occupations that the system enters into retreat." In the end Ali’s reading of history may be even more useful than the lessons drawn by Kupchan or Kennedy.
Roger Burbach is director of the Center for the Study of the Americas based in Berkeley.