Is the United States–as so many have said, in celebration or dismay–a planet-mastering empire or not? The question presses upon us as George W. Bush gets ready to descend upon New York for the Republican convention, as he once descended upon the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln under the banner declaring “mission accomplished” in Iraq.
Just as the President’s landing on the Lincoln invited an assessment of the Iraq war, so now his visit to New York invites assessment of the larger, global mission of the Administration. (And, come to think of it, Manhattan island, with its slim uptown and its broad-beamed downtown, is shaped rather like a gargantuan aircraft carrier.) The decision to hold the convention in New York City was apparently conceived as a triumphal return by the nation’s savior to the scene of September 11. But the recent fortunes of the United States have been anything but triumphal. The President’s policies have failed to check the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The entire “axis of evil,” consisting, according to the President, of Iraq, Iran and North Korea, continues to defy his Administration in one way or another. In Iraq, the Marines are now at war with the Shiite community the United States supposedly came to save. North Korea has allegedly become a nuclear power, and Iran seems to be heading that way. The traditional alliances of the United States have been shaken. After 9/11, editorialists asked, “Why do they hate us?” Whatever the reasons, “they” have multiplied to include most of the world.
In the face of so much failure, I wrote recently to my book editor and friend Tom Engelhardt, America’s title to global empire seems at the very least in question. (This column does double duty as the third in an exchange of letters on the subject between me and Engelhardt at his superb website, tomdispatch.com, sponsored by the Nation Institute. The earlier letters can be read at the website under the August 2004 posts.) Engelhardt responded with an eloquent list of America’s imperial assets, including, among other items, its 700-plus military bases, its supine Congress, its nearly half-trillion-dollar military establishment, its division of earth into five military commands, its ambition to dominate space and its militarized political parties.
So the answer to the question, “Is the United States a global imperial power?” must be an unequivocal yes. However, if the question is shifted very slightly, and we ask, “Is the United States a global empire?” the answer is less obvious. Bush’s America plainly has global imperial ambition, but does it have the corresponding accomplishment?
Perhaps the question can be better addressed by dividing it into two parts: first, whether the United States has the wherewithal to play an imperial role, and, second, whether the world is ready to receive American imperial direction. Clearly, the world’s will to resist is as notable as the US will to impose itself. It’s sometimes said that America is militarily strong but politically weak (and economically in a gray zone). Yet even the extent of US military strength, often called unchallengeable, is open to question. The United States definitely has the largest heap of weaponry on the planet. But if, as the remarkable American failure to have its way with the “axis” countries suggests, that military punch cannot produce the desired results, then is it correct to speak so confidently of unlimited military “strength”?