Date: Wed Feb 04 2009 - 20:21:50 EST
Accepting the End of the US Empire
By Ivan Eland
February 3, 2009
Editor’s Note: While President Barack Obama searches for a path out of
the Bush administration’s economic catastrophe, another painful reality
is drawing less attention: America’s imperial over-extension and the
unsustainable financial burden it has placed on U.S. taxpayers.
In this guest essay, the Independent Institute’s Ivan Eland warns that
America’s economic mess is part of the price being paid for the hubris of
America’s imperial elite, which -- like similar elites in other fading
imperial powers – won’t accept that a global empire has its limits:
When you stop to think about it, people measure how well their lives are
going not by their absolute state of being but by their situation relative
to their expectations.
For example, a poor person in a developing country may be ecstatic about
getting a pair of shoes for the first time; in contrast, a billionaire may
commit suicide after he loses $100 million in a down market.
The same is true for nations. The American elite has enjoyed the United
States’ dominant status in the world since World War II and became
thoroughly drunk with U.S. superiority in the last two decades after the
demise of the Soviet Union left the country as the only superpower.
This elite is resistant to accepting the reality that a multi-polar world
will soon be at hand.
This reality will arrive much sooner if the U.S. does not retract its
informal overseas empire, reduce the bloated defense budget, and act with
more humility overseas.
Even before the U.S.-led global financial meltdown, the far-flung U.S.
empire of overseas military bases, U.S.-dominated alliances, and profligate
military meddling in other nations’ affairs was terribly overextended.
The U.S. accounted for 20 percent of the world’s GDP but 43 percent of
its defense spending.
Yet like the elites of the British and French Empires, which became
exhausted by being on the winning side of two world wars, the U.S. elite
refuses to realize that the country needs to retract its cost-ineffective
empire if it wants to avoid demise as a great power.
After being occupied by the Nazis through much of World War II, the French
ignored their post-war financial precariousness and tried to rekindle their
imperial glory by retaking Indochina.
When the spent French were not up to the task in the mid-1950s, Harry
Truman and his successors made the foolish commitments for the United
States to finance them, assist them, and later take over for them.
Reluctant even then to give up their colonial mindset, the French then
tried and failed to militarily suppress Algerian independence in the 1950s
Similarly, the British attempted to keep their Middle East dominance long
after the sun had set on the British Empire. Even after their ill-fated
invasion of Egypt in 1956 — with the help of Israel and the irrepressible
France — the British didn’t pull back from the Middle East until the
Currently, the United States has its finger in the dike in two pointless
nation-building quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, while Osama bin Laden is
most likely in Pakistan and the U.S. is being severely debilitated by an
economic meltdown at home.
Of course, Barack Obama was not responsible for any of this mess but may
become captive of the interventionist U.S. elite in trying to deal with
Economically, the Bush/Obama period ominously resembles the Hoover/FDR
period, when a common recession was converted into a Great Depression by
interventionist government policies that refused to let natural market
mechanisms bring the country out of the economic slump.
Let’s hope the current economic calamity doesn’t get this bad; but that
we can no longer afford to maintain an extensive overseas empire hasn’t
yet seemed to sink into the minds of the U.S. elite.
Another historical parallel is the Vietnam period, when Lyndon Johnson
tried to run a guns-and-butter policy — funding the Vietnam War and
expanding the government’s reach domestically by funding Great Society
Now, the Bush/Obama governments are trying to fund two wars while also
spending at least $1.5 trillion to trick American consumers into thinking
the government can save them from an inevitable recession — all the while
making that downturn worse. On top of that, the bulge of baby boomers will
soon begin retiring, thus putting pressure on collapsing Social Security
and Medicare systems.
During Vietnam and the Great Society, LBJ honestly — if irresponsibly —
funded the ballooning government with a 10-percent surtax on corporate and
No such honesty has come from the Bush administration, as it cut taxes
while raising federal spending dramatically. Now that an economic meltdown
has occurred, Obama is understandably reluctant to increase taxes — and
has proposed lowering them further — while continuing Bush’s spending
spree to try to fool the country out of its economic collapse.
So we are staring trillion-dollar budget deficits in the face. The federal
budget is $3.1 trillion dollars a year but two-thirds of that is on
autopilot — that is, guaranteed payments to people regardless of economic
conditions under Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, and
unemployment compensation or interest payments on the already staggering
Of the $1.1 trillion that can be more easily altered (discretionary
spending), more than half of that is the monstrous defense budget. Thus,
defense spending should and will eventually become a big target for
Obama’s promised future fiscal restraint.
Obama has good instincts on withdrawing from Iraq but is slowly being
co-opted by the foreign policy elites and military bureaucracy. His
instincts on Afghanistan are likely to be “unhelpful.” He wants to
double down on a nation-building conflict that is stoking Islamist
fundamentalism and will be much harder to “win” than Iraq (although the
U.S. hasn’t won Iraq by a long shot).
Obama needs to wise up, totally withdraw from both Iraq and Afghanistan,
focus on finding bin Laden in Pakistan, withdraw from the U.S. Empire, and
dramatically slash the U.S. defense budget.
The U.S needs to take this revolutionary tack as one step toward renewing
what is still the world’s largest economy — that on which all indices
of U.S. national power ultimately depend.
The U.S. can still be an economic superpower and have much influence in the
world, but the days of being a globe-girdling military power are over. The
U.S. foreign policy elite just hasn’t accepted it yet.
Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent
Institute. Dr. Eland has spent 15 years working for Congress on national
security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign
Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget
Office. His books include The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy
Exposed, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.
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