The Opportunity Costs of Empire


So far, the large and growing cohort of Democratic presidential candidates have been focused on domestic policies and largely avoided (with the sole exception of Tulsi Gabbard) examining America’s empire.

Conventional wisdom has it that Americans vote their pocketbooksIt’s the economy, stupid. Absent a war or recent terrorist attack, political consultants believe that voters prioritize domestic issues. Right now, this appears to be correct. According to the latest Pew Research poll, the five most important issues for Democrats are–healthcare, education, Medicare, poverty and the environment.

So it’s not surprising that the major Democratic presidential contenders’ campaigns are focusing on economic and other domestic issues. Nor is it shocking that the corporate media is ignoring their stances on foreign policy, and especially ignoring Tulsi Gabbard.

But, the foreign policies that America pursues reflect our values and ultimately our morality, as Martin Luther King expressed in his Riverside Church speech exactly one year before he was assassinated.

At the Riverside Church, Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence, King portrayed the war in Vietnam as an imperial one, prosecuted at the expense of the poor. Vietnam, he said, was “the symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit,” and, if left untreated, if the malady continued to fester, “we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.”

This speech, which has been dropped from the more politically-tame memory of King civil-rights activism, was intensely controversial at the time, angering enemies and supporters alike. Many of his close personal aides felt that he shouldn’t have given it.

The reason for the hostility was the same then as it is now. King made the connection between foreign and domestic policies, drawing clear the inexorable ties between domestic policy and unjust aggression abroad. This link should not be surprising. Everyone from Eugene Debs, to Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn and Paul Craig Roberts have known you cannot sustain freedom at home in a global context shaped by militarism, unchecked corporate power, and empire.

50 years on it’s clear that King’s words were prophetic. “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.”

It’s probably a safe bet that none of the leading Democratic contenders for president will acknowledge this truth. They probably won’t talk much at all about US foreign policies or the fact that the US spends more on war than any other country, largely to maintain our far-flung empire.

But they should. Our foreign policies are simply a reflection on our morality, and an examination of said policies would reveal a sharp contradiction to the feel-good American exceptionalism that passes for reflection.

Not only that but foreign policy is a subject that should put Trump on his back-foot. For all  his campaign rhetoric about ending regime-change wars and nurturing better relations with Russia, Trump has turned out to be just like Obama, who turned out to be just like Bush. It seems that when it comes to foreign policy, US presidents are locked into the Deep-State consensus.

In Trump’s case, the hysteria around Russia-gate has severely limited his options. In my opinion, the three year effort has made it clear that Trump could deviate from the Deep-State script at his own peril.

Still, a lot of Trump’s aggressive foreign policies revolve around domestic considerations. Whether threatening Iran with destruction to please the Jewish neoconservatives, and evangelicals who would welcome Armageddon. Or threatening Venezuela to pander to the right-wing Cubans of South Florida who would celebrate an overthrow of the Maduro administration, these belligerent foreign policies are a way for Trump to appeal for votes ahead of the 2020 election.

It’s not just Trump either. Our bi-partisan, ruling establishment has made it quite clear that the most important thing is an American-empire based on violence.

Unfortunately, for the vast majority of us, endless war for empire has come at an outrageous expense to our soul and our pocketbook. Recently, former US President Jimmy Carter articulated these opportunity costs of empire.

“The US is the most warlike nation in the world, forcing other countries to adopt our American principles. How many miles of high-speed railroads do we have in this country? China has around 18,000 miles (29,000 km) of high speed rail lines while the US has wasted, I think, $3 trillion on military spending; it’s more than you can imagine. China has not wasted a single penny on war, and that’s why they’re ahead of us. I think the difference is if you take $3 trillion and put it in American infrastructure, you’d probably have $2 trillion leftover; we’d have high-speed railroads that are maintained properly. Our education system would be as good as that of, say, South Korea or Hong Kong.”

Carter means well, but I think he’s confusing a bug with a feature of our New World Order.

In George Orwell’s 1984Emmanuel Goldstein explains that the purpose of war, “is destruction, not necessarily of human lives, but of the products of human labour. War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking in the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent.”



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