Twilight Saga of the American Empire?

Reviews of Andrew J. Bacevich, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (Metropolitan Books, 2010); Philip S. Golub, Power, Profit & Prestige: A History of American Imperial Expansion (Pluto Press, 2010); Chalmers Johnson, Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope, (Metropolitan Books, 2010).


America’s supreme position in the world is coming ever more into question everywhere. The Pax Americana in place since the aftermath of World War Two no longer seems viable. Things are in transition. The future looms more ominously than we would like. The center, as Yeats wrote, cannot hold – and perhaps, neither can the Right, which has presided over this growing mess for most of our lives.  Three recent noteworthy volumes by Andrew Bacevich, the late Chalmers Johnson and Philip Golub, offer interesting snapshots of the precarious present moment and sharp overlapping histories of how we stumbled into our plight.

Chalmers Johnson, who died last November, was a scholar best known for his book Blowback, which introduced the wider American public to the hitherto peculiar idea that the unpleasant things the United States does around the world can and do have grave repercussions for the United States itself. The notion of ‘blowback’, which is an insider intelligence agency term, arose especially out of the 1980s Afghan insurgency that the U.S. fed in order to oust the Soviets, only to have these same extremists afterward turn their gun sights on U.S. infidels. Andrew Bacevich is a retired U.S. Army Colonel, former instructor at West Point, and history professor at Boston University. Bacevich, formerly a self-confessed unquestioning functionary, hit a personal and anguished crossroads as the second Iraq War got under way, finding himself opposed to the extremely ill-advised U.S. course of action. He also, tragically, lost a son in that war.  Philip Golub is a professor of International Relations at the American University in Paris and a long-time contributing editor at the monthly Le Monde Diplomatique.

Bacevich and Johnson, as former true believers in establishment shibboleths, retain an abiding respect for what they see as the allure of the ideals of America, however great the shortfalls from reality, but both men argue ruefully that at this current moment those ideals are being cast aaway altogether. Their books have different focal points; Bacevich’s being the Washington power structure since World War II while Johnson writes on the parlous state of the U.S. empire. Regardless, there is a pronounced and unavoidable overlap. They both denounce and dissect the rash global war that Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney and their neocon comrades launched in the fall of 2001. Bacevich notes, “By the time Barack Obama succeeded George W. Bush as president in January 2009, the phrase global war on terror had become an epithet, redolent with deception, stupidity, and monumental waste. Soon thereafter it faded from the lexicon of American politics.”(166) As no small consequence, he argues, there is an ebbing in real U.S. power. The authors argue that for the United States to advance safely into the future, it urgently needs to undo the imperial character that openly has come to constitute it. They are not especially optimistic about remedies.

The Past 60 Years

Bacevich opens his book with a personally candid chapter called “Slow Learner” where he describes his eye-opening tour of East Berlin near the end of the Cold War. He tells how he realized that the Soviet powerhouse the West was living in mortal terror of was in reality a fragile shell afflicted by archaic rules, disintegrating infrastructure, and economic stagnation. Similarly, Johnson notes, “To the dying days of the Cold War, every estimate of Soviet strategic nuclear forces overstated [emphasis in the original] the rate at which Moscow was modernizing its weaponry.”(77) These realizations, and the post-collapse revelations of the abysmal shape of the Soviet economy, were staggering ones for his world-view. Given that the magnitude of the Soviet threat was hyped and hyper-hyped — though the brinksmanship was quite real  — one becomes haunted by the question: all this fear and trembling (and endless spending) for what?

Bacevich takes us on a brisk tour of U.S. foreign policy from the end of World War II down to today. Along the way we meet the likes of the Strategic Air Command’s, Curtis LeMay, the CIA’s, Allen Dulles, the Defense Department’s, Robert McNamara, Donald Rumsfeld and David Petraeus. All these eminent gentlemen come in for well-warranted and penetrating ridicule.  When Bacevich, a veteran, writes about the U.S. in Vietnam one is struck by how this experience still casts a large cautioning shadow for him but not for the Bush White House. Vietnam was a major defeat for the U.S. and yet its hotly disputed legacy continues to (mis)inform and shape policy. Thomas Ricks’ book, The Gamble, on the surge in Iraq has some stunning quotes from the military and diplomatic leaders showing how frightened they were of a catastrophic defeat in 2006. One gets a keen sense of how Vietnam is both a reference point and a negative catalyst amplifying the U.S.’s constraints. One can only imagine the impact within U.S. society if American casualty figures from Iraq or Afghanistan were in the tens of thousands, as they had been during the Vietnam war. This alone underscores the limits the U.S. has in projecting its power as it moves into the new millennium. To be an empire means fielding an imperial army. The U.S. right now is experiencing some dangerously unacknowledged constraints in its ability to do that.


It is worth remembering this fact when Johnson writes that George W. Bush and his administration “drove the country as close to the precipice as was humanely possible.”(3) It is shocking to consider the launching of two major wars in the span of two years along with the threats against Syria and beyond at the triumphalist conclusion of the initial U.S. invasion of Iraq  — to say nothing of emboldening of Israel to drive into Lebanon in 2006 and then the saber rattling at Iran. The U.S. made quick work of invading, toppling regimes and killing thousands of people, but found itself incapable of constructing the kind of pliant pro-Western regimes they hankered after. It brings to mind Eric Hobsbawn’s observation, “Arms have often established empires, but it take more than arms to maintain them, as witness the old saw dating back to Napoleon: ‘You can do anything with bayonets except sit on them.’” (53). The U.S. is only now beginning to extract itself from Iraq, and to a lesser degree, Afghanistan. All this will have lasting repercussions, hitherto denied, for the projection of power.

Events of 9/11, Bacevich writes, constituted “a moment that created an opening to pose first-order questions.”(73) Though he does not elaborate what those question might be the framework of his book suggests: Why did this attack happen? Who are these enemies that despise the U.S. to such a degree that they would do something so atrocious? Why is the twenty-first century still affected by a religion based on the seventh-century? And so on.

Of course these sobering kinds of questions were never asked. Rather we got the Rumsfeld defense department touting the impact new technology would have in fighting easy wars. The book quotes Lt. Gen. Robert Wagner on the Rumsfeld war-fighting doctrine, “Our operations in Afghanistan and Iraq [have demonstrated] operational attributes that an adaptive joint force must possess in the modern Battlespace.” (176) Bacevich correctly calls such utterances as, “jargon tricked out as profundities.”

Bacevich is not in the thrall to General David Petraeus either. He points out that what happened in Iraq under Petraeus and the surge was a matter of good timing in which an important section of the Sunni population broke with Al Queda, at the same time as the Shia drew closer to Iran. It was in that context that the security work of the population undertaken in the surge was able to get some purchase — it hardly qualifies as victory. He offers a revealing quotation from Chairman Petraeus, “Perceptions of reality more so than objective reality, are crucial to the decisions of statesmen.”(194)

This is nothing more than a restating of the crudest concept of American pragmatism, i.e., if it seems true, it is. This concept, however, requires some exploration. A good example of ‘generating perception’ can be seen in Obama’s August 2010 statement declaring an end to the combat mission in Iraq, “[U.S. forces] defeated a regime that had terrorized its people. Together with Iraqis and coalition partners who made huge sacrifices of their own, our troops fought block by block to help Iraq seize the chance for a better future. They shifted tactics to protect the Iraqi people, trained Iraqi Security Forces, and took out terrorist leaders. Because of our troops and civilians  — and because of the resilience of the Iraqi people  — Iraq has the opportunity to embrace a new destiny.” Of course the actual situation is quite different. It is the story of a brazen imperial adventure that unsuccessfully attempted to redraw the map of the Middle East that has left in its wake an underlying instability in that country, lead to major geopolitical shifts in the region (a more powerful Iran for one), and the real loss of American power and legitimacy. All efforts by Petraeus, Obama, and other like to cast success as failure, cannot dispel that underlying reality.

Washington Rules

The central thesis in Bacevich’s book is that there are in place “Washington Rules,” consisting of a credo, that U.S. alone must lead in the world, and a trinity: “global military presence, global power projection, and global interventionism.”(12-14). These haughty rules are at the heart of the problem that needs to change if the U.S. is to advance into the future in tune with what Bacevich feels are the country’s founding principles. What he does not explore much is the underlying need of the U.S. elites to dominate the world economically.

At one point Bacevich offers a revealing quote from Obama from December 2009, “The United States of America has underwritten global security for over six decades  — a time that, for all its problems, has seen walls come down, and markets open, and billions lifted from poverty, unparalleled scientific progress and advancing frontiers of human liberty.” Obama’s key point is the opening of markets, i.e., the U.S. is not projecting power for the sake of it or because it is on some type of self-perpetuating dynamic (though there are elements of that), but in order to reap rewards in wealth. It is from this that the larger policy springs. That is not to say it only resides in the drive for profit, or to say that politics does not play an independent role at times, but it is the case that something is driving this, and it is the drive for accumulation.

For his part Johnson addresses the underlying economic interests. He writes, “The fact that we did not modernize or replace our capital assets is one of the main reason why, by the turn of the twenty-first century, our manufacturing base had all but evaporated.” (145) This is a strikingly simplistic assertion. The drive to extract surplus value  — which can only be got from labor power in its myriad forms  — is what drove manufacture to places like Indonesia and China. This underscores how the decline of U.S. hegemony is part of a larger transformation going on. In that regard Frederic Jameson in his Valences of Dialectics is worth pondering. Jameson points out that Marx  — in contrast to some of the more “triumphalist” passages in Capital, “tirelessly insisted on the significance of the world market as the ultimate horizon of capitalism.” (370) It is beyond the scope of this essay to delve fully into this, but the strength of American power cannot be understood outside the overall process of capital accumulation, a process that continues in its increasingly globalized character at the same time it is crashing against it own limits. In that regard the banking crisis of 2008 seems more a bellwether of things to come.

Dismantling the Empire?

Here we address Chalmers Johnson’s central thesis. He writes, “The real reason for constructing [a] new ring of American bases along the equator is to expand our empire and reinforce our military domination of the world. (119)” So far so good, but then he tells us, “If the U.S. nuclear stockpile consisted of several hundred weapons rather than several thousand, would the United States find itself appreciably more vulnerable to nuclear blackmail or attack? Were the United States, sixty-plus years after the end of World War II, finally to withdraw its forces from Germany, Italy, and the rest of Europe, would Americans sleep less easily in their beds at night?” Here we see Johnson at once reject the situation, but accept the rationale. The U.S. can still have a preeminent place in the world, but with a much smaller imperial footprint. In that respect Johnson (among others) offers England at the point it began to shed its empire as a positive model.

This is an artful reimagining. England did not just give up its empire. Through the course of two horrific world wars  it militarily lost it. That it was not quite as catastrophic as the fall of some empires is historically specific. Had it not been for the peculiar mix of the United States  — driven by its own national interests  — coming to its rescue during World War II and the need to contain the Soviet Union, the fate of England would likely have been messier. That did not happen so there is not much use speculating what that would have looked like. However it underscores this process of ‘shedding’ an empire tends to be a wrenching and potentially calamitous process.

The bigger point though is that the suggestion that one can peacefully shed an empire and convert into something idealized suggests wanting to look at the monstrousness of all this and walk away saying this doesn’t have to be a monster, that this isn’t of a piece.

The “American Century” has been a parade of horrors: Korea, the invasion of the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, the Iraq I, Afghanistan, Iraq II, along with coups, assassination and other dirty work. Yet neither Bacevich or Johnson want to entertain the idea that the problem  — rather than Washington Rules or the military industrial complex  — is the American ideal itself. The idea of America as a ‘shining city on the hill’ that exists as humanity’s highest achievement  — stands against the actuality that that achievement has always been driven by rapacity. It led to the expropriation and near elimination of the native population, the enslavement of multiple generations of slaves, the grabbing of country-sized swaths of land from Mexico, taking the Philippines and Hawaii, down to the ‘empire of bases’ today from Germany to Okinawa, to Colombia to Guam. A frank look at this would suggest we aim to achieve something higher. What that is exactly is not at all clear, but such are the questions that people of good will like Chalmers Johnson and Andrew Bacevich ought to be asking.


Golub is not burdened with such illusions. His book fills in a lot of the spaces that Bacevich & Johnson step or gloss over. Golub is not approaching things from the point of the rarefied “American Experience.” He levels a harsher and more honest critique. He writes, “Even a cursory glance shows that from the 1950s until today, the United States has either been at war, supporting war-making or sustaining predatory states almost constantly in one part of the world or another of the ‘Far Empire.’” (78) He outlines the countries, from the Philippines to the Congo, to Laos to Panama, where the U.S. has stuck its predatory nose.

Yet there is an underlying idealism (both philosophically and popularly understood) in his analysis. Golub favorably quotes Hannah Arendt, speaking about the US. in the Vietnam that it, “sought to demonstrate the will and ability…to have its way in world affairs,’…“to behave like the greatest power in the world for no other reason than to convince the world of this simple fact.’”(130) In many ways Golub flattens out the concepts of Power, Profit and Prestige, rather than constructing a dialectical array. The Arendt quote suggests that prestige is an end in itself. Rather than an augmenting factor in service of larger aims, i.e, the drive for profit for the overall ability to accumulate. One is reminded of the quote in the Autobiography of Malcolm X, “To the hustler, reputation is everything.” True, but that reputation is in service of something, the business of hustling. In the end Golub comes to a conclusion close to Johnson’s that the U.S. can somehow decide to stop being imperialist, “An ordered pluralism cannot emerge if the U.S. does not disengage from empire.”  Given the history of the last century, and the U.S.’s history in particular one is left scratching their head as to the basis, even remotely, of such a sunny prospect.

The Moment

Recently Slavoj Zizek writing in, Living in the End Times, noted “The American Century is over and we are entering a period characterized by the formation of multiple centers of global capitalism: the U.S., Europe, China possibly Latin America, each of them representing capitalism with a specific local twist” (168)… This is why the present situation is potentially more dangerous than it may appear.” Bacevich understands this on a basic level when he writes, “Promising prosperity and peace, the Washington rules are propelling the United States toward insolvency and perpetual war. Over the horizon a shipwreck of epic proportions awaits.” (250). For his part Johnson tells us that, “If we do not learn from their examples, our decline and fall is foreordained.”

This is a dire assessment. We need to envision a world different from the one we currently occupy. Whether that is ultimately a better one rests on many things, not the least of which is how we understand the world we actually inhabit. These books offer keen insights and analysis towards that. The need to ask first order questions remains.


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

By Kurt Jacobsen: A Rambling Introduction

By Paul Hoover: The British Small Arms Company: A Motorcycle Memoir

By Andrey Gritsman: Stranger at Home: Poetic Sensibility across Cultures and Languages

By John Nichols: Epistles from the Roadside

By Leonard Quart: Revisiting in the Heat of the Night

By John Long: Got My Kicks on Route 66

By Max Vanzi: Traipsing after Sawada: An American Foreign Correspondent’s Memoir

By Phaedra Greenwood: Two for the Road

By Warren Leming: Looking for Woody

By John Sinclair: Still on the Road

By Anne Waldman: Interview with Anne Waldman: On All Kinds of Roads

By Thomas de Zengotita: Modernism Revisited: Artistic Works, Academic Disciplines, Divided Minds

By Vincent Czyz: Plato’s Gospel

By Joseph Lowndes: Looking Forward to the History of the Tea Party

By Stephen Eric Bronner: On Judging American Foreign Policy: Human Rights, Political Realism, and the Arrogance of Power

By John Clark: Bad I.O.U.: Badiou’s Fidelity to the Event

By Carmen Francesca Banciu: Pollen and Diamonds

By Aaron Leonard: Twilight Saga of the American Empire?

By Lawrence Davidson: Review of Basem Ra’ad, Hidden Histories: Palestine and the Eastern Mediterranean.

By John Ehrenberg: Tristram Hunt, Marx’s General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels

By Denise Poche Jetter: Steven Shapin, Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as if it were Produced by People

By Jason Scott: Megan Boler, Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times