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Sleepwalking into the Imperial Dark

What it feels like when the American superpower runs off the tracks.

| Tue Apr. 19, 2011 7:25 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

This can't end well.

But then, how often do empires end well, really? They live vampirically by feeding off others until, sooner or later, they begin to feed on themselves, to suck their own blood, to hollow themselves out. Sooner or later, they find themselves, as in our case, economically stressed and militarily extended in wars they can't afford to win or lose.

Historians have certainly written about the dangers of overextended empires and of endless war as a way of life, but there's something distant and abstract about the patterns of history. It's quite another thing to take it in when you're part of it; when, as they used to say in the overheated 1960s, you're in the belly of the beast.

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I don't know what it felt like to be inside the Roman Empire in the long decades, even centuries, before it collapsed, or to experience the waning years of the Spanish empire, or the twilight of the Qing dynasty, or of Imperial Britain as the sun first began to set, or even of the Soviet Empire before the troops came slinking home from Afghanistan, but at some point it must have seemed at least a little like this—truly strange, like watching a machine losing its parts. It must have seemed as odd and unnerving as it does now to see a formerly mighty power enter a state of semi-paralysis at home even as it staggers on blindly with its war-making abroad.

The United States is, of course, an imperial power, however much we might prefer not to utter the word. We still have our globe-spanning array of semi-client states; our military continues to garrison much of the planet; and we are waging war abroad more continuously than at any time in memory. Yet who doesn't sense that the sun is now setting on us?

Not so many years ago, we were proud enough of our global strength to regularly refer to ourselves as the Earth's "sole superpower." In those years, our president and his top officials dreamed of establishing a worldwide Pax Americana, while making speeches and issuing official documents proclaiming that the United States would be militarily "beyond challenge" by any and all powers for eons to come. So little time has passed and yet who speaks like that today? Who could?


A Country in Need of Prozac

Have you noticed, by the way, how repetitiously our president, various presidential candidates, and others now insist that we are "the greatest nation on Earth" (as they speak of the US military being "the finest fighting force in the history of the world")? And yet, doesn't that phrase leave ash in your mouth? Look at this country and its frustrations today and tell me: Does anyone honestly believe that anymore?

It wasn't a mistake that the fantasy avenger figure of Rambo became immensely popular in the wake of defeat in Vietnam or that, unlike American heroes of earlier decades, he had such a visibly, almost risibly overblown musculature. As eye-candy, it was pure overcompensation for the obvious. Similarly, when the United States was actually "the greatest" on this planet, no one needed to say it over and over again.

Can there be any question that something big is happening here, even if we don't quite know what it is because, unlike the peoples of past empires, we never took pride in or even were able to think of ourselves as imperial? And if you were indeed in denial that you lived in the belly of a great imperial power, if like most Americans you managed to ignore the fact that we were pouring our treasure into the military or setting up bases in countries that few could have found on a map, then you would naturally experience the empire going down as if through a glass darkly.

Nonetheless, the feelings that should accompany the experience of an imperial power running off the rails aren't likely to disappear just because analysis is lacking. Disillusionment, depression, and dismay flow ever more strongly through the American bloodstream. Just look at any polling data on whether this country, once the quintessential land of optimists, is heading in "the right direction" or on "the wrong track," and you'll find that the "wrong track" numbers are staggering, and growing by the month. On the rare occasions when Americans have been asked by pollsters whether they think the country is "in decline," the figures have been similarly over the top.

It's not hard to see why. A loss of faith in the American political system is palpable. For many Americans, it's no longer "our government" but "the bureaucracy." Washington is visibly in gridlock and incapable of doing much of significance, while state governments, facing the "steepest decline in state tax receipts on record," are, along with local governments, staggering under massive deficits and cutting back in areas—education, policing, firefighting—that matter to daily life.

Years ago, in the George W. Bush era, I wanted to put a new word in our domestic political vocabulary: "Republican'ts." It was my way of expressing the feeling that something basic to this country—a "can do" spirit—was seeping away. I failed, of course, and since then that "can't do" spirit has visibly spread far beyond the Republican Party. Simply put, we're a country in need of Prozac.

Facing the challenges of a world at the edge—from Japan to the Greater Middle East, from a shaky global economic system to weather that has become anything but entertainment—the United States looks increasingly incapable of coping. It no longer invests in its young, or plans effectively for the future, or sets off on new paths. It literally can't do. And this is not just a domestic crisis, but part of imperial decline.

We just don't treat it as such, tending instead to deal with the foreign and domestic as essentially separate spheres, when the connections between them are so obvious. If you doubt this, just pull into your nearest gas station and fill up the tank. Of course, who doesn't know that this country, once such a generator of wealth, is now living with unemployment figures not seen since the Great Depression, as well as unheard of levels of debt, that it's hooked on foreign energy (and like most addicts has next to no capacity for planning how to get off that drug), or that it's living through the worst period of income inequality in modern history? And who doesn't know that a crew of financial fabulists, corporate honchos, lobbyists, and politicians have been fattening themselves off the faltering body politic?

And if you don't think any of this has anything to do with imperial power in decline, ask yourself why the options for our country so often seem to have shrunk to what our military is capable of, or that the only significant part of the government whose budget is still on the rise is the Pentagon. Or why, when something is needed, this administration, like its predecessor, regularly turns to that same military.

Once upon a time, helping other nations in terrible times, for example, would have been an obvious duty of the civil part of the US government. Today, from Haiti to Japan, in such moments it's the US military that acts. In response to the Japanese triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown, for instance, the Pentagon has mounted a large-scale recovery effort, involving 18,000 people, 20 US Navy ships, and even fuel barges bringing fresh water for reactor-cooling efforts at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex. The effort has been given a military code name, Operation Tomodachi (Japanese for "friend"), and is, among other things, an obvious propaganda campaign meant to promote the usefulness of America's archipelago of bases in that country.

Similarly, when the administration needs something done in the Middle East, these days it's as likely to send Secretary of Defense Robert Gates—he recently paid official visits to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Egypt—as Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. And of course, as is typical, when a grim situation in Libya worsened and something "humanitarian" was called for, the Obama administration (along with NATO) threw air power at it.

Predictably, as in Afghanistan and the Pakistani borderlands, air power failed to bring about speedy success. What's most striking is not that Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi didn't instantly fall, or that the Libyan military didn't collapse when significant parts of its tank and artillery forces were taken out, or that the swift strikes meant to turn the tide have already stretched into more than a month of no-fly zone NATO squabbling and military stalemate (as the no-fly zone version of war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq stretched to 12 years without ultimate success).

Imperially speaking, two things are memorable about the American military effort in Libya. First, Washington doesn't seem to have the conviction of what's left of its power, as its strange military dance in (and half-out of) the air over that country indicates. Second, even in the military realm, Washington is increasingly incapable of drawing lessons from its past actions. As a result, its arsenal of potential tactics is made up largely of those that have failed in the recent past. Innovation is no longer part of empire.

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