“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
When Karl Rove gave that memorable quote to Ron Suskind, in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, the Bush Administration was chock full of smug neoconservatives who were at the height of their hubris.
How things change. The US may be an empire but, as events since that statement have demonstrated, we’re not a particularly competent or benign one.
Tom Engelhardt, writing at Tom Dispatch since 9/11, has made it his mission to illustrate just how bad we are at empire.
“Nowhere is there a hint of Washington’s Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East, no less globally. In fact, across a vast and growing swath of the planet, stretching from South Asia to Africa, from Iraq to Ukraine, the main force at work seems not to be the concentration of power, but its fragmentation, its disintegration, before which Washington has proven remarkably helpless.”
Why is that?
Greedy-Ideology, that’s why.
We can’t do empire competently because our “history making” elites are in thrall to ideology and to greed: the spawn of free-market magic thinking and the old-fashioned American desire to make a buck.
So, we make an ungodly hash of interdiction and nation-building, even humanitarian intervention.
Let’s examine the invasion and occupation of Iraq to observe this greedy-ideology in action.
After the invasion, rather than heed the military and academic experts who advocated a large occupation bureaucracy, we opted for lean oversight courtesy of the neocons who don’t believe in government. Then we decided to disband the Iraqi army because as Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld so memorably put it, freedom is untidy, and outsourced the whole security thing to for-profit contractors, like Blackwater. And we know how that worked out.
But, and here’s where it gets nuanced and well, ugly. Empire does work for a segment of the US. Let’s call them, oh, I don’t know, the one percent. For them, the political economy of empire has been working rather well. The beneficiaries of empire includes: finance, the oil and gas industry and the military, industrial complex, with high-tech along for the ride. Examining these sectors, we can see that even as they bobble the maintenance of empire in a manner that even average, unengaged Americans can’t ignore, they personally benefit. Even as our imperial management fails and our clients fragment and our control disintegrates, our elites are becoming fabulously wealthy.
I’m obliged, it seems, to paraphrase President Eisenhower yet again: “The danger comes not from commerce itself, but from the extraordinary concentration of wealth and power that has accrued in recent decades to corporations and their Wall Street investors.”
The vast inequality that has built up here in this country is a direct result of the political economy of empire that enriches certain segments of the power elite. Unfortunately, the US empire is subject to the same force that’s decimating the rest of America: looting, as far as the eye can see. I refer you to a seminal paper by economists George Akerlof and Paul Romer describing the perverse incentives that allow elites to run a firm-or an empire-into the ground while they personally benefit. Looting: The Economic Underworld of Bankruptcy for Profit.
Our theoretical analysis shows that an economic underground can come to life if firms have an incentive to go broke for profit at society’s expense (to loot) instead of to go for broke (to gamble on success). Bankruptcy for profit will occur if poor accounting, lax regulation, or low penalties for abuse give owners an incentive to pay themselves more than their firms are worth and then default on their debt obligations.
Indeed, I propose that looting is enabled by greed and ideology as a general truism. And it’s not just a phenomenon relegated to empire. Look around and you will start to observe looting everywhere.
Last week we discussed a compelling and disturbing article by Matt Stoller at Naked Capitalism, about the ramifications of recent US foreign policy. As Stoller relates, we’ve never had an adult conversation in this country about empire. Instead we’ve been treated to, censorship and propaganda.
“As we’ve by now noticed, America has been on a glide path of dishonest policy-making since 9/11. One can imagine a different way of doing this. Imagine if the public had known that it was elements of the Saudi government who actually supported this attack. Imagine if they knew of the incredibly tight intertwining of Saudi elites with US elites, the Saudi extra-constitutional slush fund, petrodollar terrorism diplomacy, the long alliance with theocracy, and so forth. There would have had to be a reckoning for this mess of contradictions. Perhaps the public would have endorsed this deal. Perhaps the public would have accepted cheap gasoline in return for, as Ken Silverstein calls it, “The Secret World of Oil.” Rick Perlstein, in the book The Invisible Bridge, showed how the public tried to reckon with Vietnam, but then decided to turn away from truth in the 1970s, and to Ronald Reagan’s narrative of an America without flaws or limits. Perhaps that’s what would have happened, again, after 9/11.
But the public never got the chance for a reckoning. As in the 1970s, we never got a chance to understand the real costs of our geopolitical arrangements, and to examine alternatives. That was left to the fringes, for another ten years or so. Instead, what happened was a mixture of propaganda and censorship.”
The American public has not been given a chance for a reckoning, I suspect, because the nature of our empire and the small group it benefits, would have thereby become apparent which is, of course, that which Shall Not Happen.
Here is Yves Smith, the host of Naked Capitalism, commenting on the likely effects of the political economy of empire.
“(Stoller) calls for more open discussion of the US foreign policy and the ever-rising cost and increased difficulty of maintaining our empire. Unfortunately, that also means looking at the implications of life with more costly oil. There are far too many powerful people who stand to lose if that were to come into play faster than it absolutely has to, which means propaganda and dissimulation are likely to continue to be the order of the day.”
If we the people want to address any of the horrific disasters coming down the pike–global warming being the most obvious– then we must confront the American empire, what it exists for and whom it benefits.
Otherwise, greedy-ideology will triumph.