End of Empire: Spectre of Defeat

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Will the Iraqis humble the mighty US empire? Alex Callinicos investigates.

Something extraordinary has happened in the past three years. On 11 September 2001, we are endlessly reminded, the greatest military power in history was fiercely attacked before the eyes of the world. Its rulers reacted to this grievous humiliation by declaring a global 'war on terrorism' and conquering two 'rogue states' - Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet where are we today? Afghanistan has reverted to what it was before the Taliban seized power - a forgotten disaster area. Much more remarkably, the US-led 'coalition' is faced with the unthinkable in Iraq - defeat. In April the US Marines surrounded Fallujah and prepared to do their worst to this defiant city. What happened next was vividly described by Patrick Cockburn in the London Review of Books:

'Within a few days the Marines had managed to turn the Fallujans, previously regarded by most other Iraqis as dangerous hillbillies, into symbols of a reborn Iraqi nationalism. Far from confining the insurrection to Fallujah, the siege of the city encouraged further risings in Sunni towns and villages along the Euphrates... American soldiers were being killed because their commanders couldn't believe that the rebellion was spreading. The army was still sending convoys of petrol tankers down the highway from Baghdad to Fallujah after guerrillas had taken control of the road.'

The Marines never stormed Fallujah, allowing a militia led by a former Republican Guard general to take control of the city, and leaving its people bloodied but triumphant. As I write, a similar deal may end the stand-off between US forces and the Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr in Najaf. As the new puppet government in Baghdad was announced in early June, the Financial Times reported, 'The consequences of US defeat in Iraq are, in the words of President George W Bush, "unthinkable". Even so, some in the administration have started to contemplate the prospect, while other outspoken war advocates in Washington are already proclaiming failure.'

What on earth is going on? The wheels seem to be falling off the imperialist war machine in Iraq more quickly than the anti-war movement predicted. Of course, in part the deterioration of the situation is a consequence of the triumphalist stupidity of the Pentagon's neo-con chicken-hawks. They put their trust in Iraqi exiles like Ahmed Chalabi and Kanan Makiya, who told George W Bush in January 2003 that the Iraqi people would greet the invaders 'with sweets and flowers'. The current witch-hunt against Chalabi (dismissed cynically by one security expert as 'just another used-up spook') is a displaced expression of Washington's impotent fury at its own miscalculations, which have now also claimed the Director of Central Intelligence, George 'Slam-Dunk' Tenet.

But are there more deep-seated causes of the crisis? Is US imperialism actually weaker than its military might suggests? What help does history offer in answering these questions? The appearance of Niall Ferguson's new book Colossus might therefore seem timely. Interestingly the book's subtitle has changed, perhaps reflecting the Bush administration's growing difficulties: inside it is 'The Price of America's Empire', but on the dust jacket, which was presumably finished after the rest of the book, it reads 'The Rise and Fall of the American Empire'.

Ferguson is a youngish Tory economic historian rather in the tradition of Norman Stone who recently moved from Oxford to New York University. He is quite clever and very prolific, but given to noisy showing off - he loves tables and diagrams that generally prove less than he thinks. Although Colossus is an interesting book, Ferguson manages to say quite a lot of silly, and sometimes even wicked things.

An example of silliness: Ferguson goes to some effort to prove that 'only a quarter of old Europe' opposed the invasion of Iraq. But this confuses governments and peoples. Popular opposition to the war in Iraq was enormous throughout Europe. A recent study by Dominique Reynie of Paris University estimates that in the first three months of 2003, 35.5 million people took part in anti-war demonstrations, over 20 million of them in Europe. More recently the conservative Spanish government was booted out because of its pro-war position. In Poland, the biggest of the 'new Europe' states, a recent poll showed that 63 percent of the population want to see Polish troops withdrawn from Iraq.

Worse still, Ferguson backs up Douglas MacArthur, US commander-in-chief during the early phase of the Korean War in 1950-51, who recklessly provoked China's entry into the war and, after the Chinese had driven the US forces to the bottom of the Korean peninsula, panicked and demanded that up to 50 atom bombs be dropped on Chinese cities. It's not surprising that, after expressing sympathy for what would have been mass murder on an unparalleled scale, Ferguson should also argue that 'the Vietnam War [could] have been won if fought more ruthlessly'.

Presumably all this is intended to prove what a tough guy Ferguson is. His general line is summed up by a chapter called 'The Case for Liberal Empire': the US should stop pussy-footing around and admit to itself and the world that it is an empire whose military power underpins liberal capitalism. In support of this thesis he rehashes the argument of his last book, Empire, which sought to prove how splendid the British Empire was, and in particular to stress its role in the construction of the modern liberal capitalist world economy.

In singing the praises of what he calls 'imperialist globalisation' Ferguson has to skate over some thin ice. Thus he cites Mike Davis's Late Victorian Holocausts, but doesn't confront the devastating evidence that this magnificent book assembles of the central role played by liberal capitalism and British imperialism in the terrible famines that afflicted India, China and Brazil at the end of the 19th century.

The debtor empire

But Ferguson's biggest problem is with the US itself, which he fears just isn't up to the task he has set it. He argues that 'there are three fundamental deficits that explain why the United States has been a less effective empire than its British predecessor. They are its economic deficit, its manpower deficit and - the most serious of the three - its attention deficit.'

Ferguson argues that the Yale historian Paul Kennedy may have been right after all when he predicted in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987) that the US runs the risk of 'imperial overstretch', as its commitments outrun its resources. But the cause of overstretch is less the cost of empire (US military spending is a lower percentage of national income than it was during the Cold War) than the dependence of an economy driven increasingly by personal consumption (up from 62 percent of national income in the 1960s to nearly 70 percent in 2002) on a steady inflow of foreign capital.

The US, says Ferguson, is a 'debtor empire'. Characteristically he puts this down to the excessive generosity of the federal social security system of health provision for the elderly. Much more plausibly the huge US trade and budget deficits reflect the efforts of the American state to keep the economy afloat despite the underlying crisis of profitability and overaccumulation. In recent years the Federal Reserve Board has encouraged the development of speculative bubbles first in the stockmarket and now in housing as a way of boosting upper middle class households' spending.

Whatever the causes of the deficits, their effects are plain to see. Guns and butter - the Pentagon war machine and affluent consumption - depend on the willingness of foreigners to continue lending the US money. This is all the more remarkable, as Ferguson notes, as 'foreign investors seem willing to settle for markedly lower returns when they invest in the United States than the returns Americans get when they invest overseas'. The answer to this conundrum is that 'a substantial and rising share of the foreign holdings of American bonds are in fact in the hands of Asian central banks, which have been buying up dollar assets in order to keep their own currencies from appreciating against the dollar'.

Arguably 'this symbiotic relationship between Asian savers and American spenders' is what keeps the world economy afloat. China, Japan and South Korea export vast quantities of relatively cheap goods to the US. They then lend back many of the dollars they earn to the US, allowing it to carry on buying their exports and keeping their own currencies relatively low against the dollar and thereby maintaining their ability to compete. This growth nexus then provides markets for the manufactured goods of Europe and the raw materials of Russia, the Middle East, Latin America and Africa.

The implication is that if the Chinese economy went bust or if the relationship between Washington and Beijing turned sour, the impact on the world economy could be devastating. But this is a medium-term prospect. It doesn't explain why the US occupation of Iraq is going belly-up now. That has more to do with the second of the deficits identified by Ferguson. The neo-cons' blunders in Iraq have exposed the fact that US armed forces are too small and aren't properly trained and equipped for the role of colonial occupiers into which the Bush administration's strategy is pushing them.

Ferguson's solution to this problem is characteristically crass: 'If one adds together the illegal immigrants, the jobless and the convicts, there is surely ample raw material for a larger American army... Reviving the draft would not necessarily be unpopular, so long as it was appropriately targeted.' Conscript the lower orders, in other words, but leave the upper classes alone.

Ferguson's biggest worry, however, is the 'chronic shortwindedness' that may make the US empire 'the most ephemeral empire in world history'. The US upper classes lack the moral grit that sent so much of the flower of Oxbridge out to the colonies during the heyday of the British Empire:

'Few, if any, of the graduates of Harvard, Stanford, Yale or Princeton aspire to spend their lives trying to turn a sun-scorched sandpit like Iraq into the prosperous capitalist democracy of Paul Wolfowitz's imaginings. America's best and brightest aspire not to govern Mesopotamia but to manage MTV; not to rule the Hejaz but to run a hedge fund. Unlike their British counterparts of a century ago, who left the elite British universities with an overtly imperial ethos, the letters ambitious young Americans would like to see after their names are CEO, not CBE.'

This is a genuinely perceptive comment, but Ferguson doesn't pause to consider the reasons for this contrast. It probably has something to do with the different structures of British and US imperialism. He notes that 'very nearly half the total stock of international capital in 1914 was invested in countries with per capita incomes a third or less of Britain's, and Britain accounted for nearly two fifths of the total sum invested in these poor economies.'

Following the money

Today, by contrast, the bulk of foreign direct investment is concentrated in the rich countries, particularly the US itself - the multinationals shun most of the Third World. The British upper middle classes were following the money when they went out to manage mines or plantations in the colonies, as their US counterparts are today when they stay at home.

The structure of US capitalism may also have something to do with the problem of short-termism that also frustrates Ferguson. As a perceptive article in the last issue of New Left Review points out, late capitalist societies involve 'weak citizenship'. In other words individuals are encouraged to be passive consumers who participate only intermittently, if at all, in public life. Hence the steady drop in voting rates, with the US and its abysmally low levels setting the way for the rest of advanced capitalism.

The result is a political system that the rich find fairly easy to dominate. The downside emerges when the state needs to mobilise the unconditional commitments required to wage a major war. Bush and Blair may ape Roosevelt and Churchill in demanding heroism and self-sacrifice to fight terrorism, but how are ordinary people who have been encouraged to see themselves as privatised consumers supposed to suddenly develop the consciousness of a nation at war - especially when the same politicians also encourage them to 'move on' and focus on domestic issues as if nothing has changed? It's quite a leap from Big Brother to Band of Brothers.

One consequence is noted by Ferguson: 'There are those who insist that the Vietnam syndrome was finally "kicked" in the 1990s. In reality, however, the sensitivity of the American electorate to casualties seems to have grown more acute since the Cold War.' He shows how quickly US public opinion has turned against the war in Iraq - much more quickly than it did during the Vietnam War, even though the casualties were far greater.

The case of Vietnam reminds us how imperialist powers fail. Only very rarely are they defeated on the battlefield. The point of armed resistance is to break the political will of the imperialist rulers to carry on fighting. The Vietnamese national liberation movement won above all because it provoked a huge domestic political crisis in the US.

This pattern is beginning to take shape in Iraq now. Ferguson quotes the American generals who whined that they lost in Vietnam because the politicians wouldn't let them fight the war properly. Don't they teach Clausewitz at West Point? The great Prussian military theorist famously defined war as the continuation of politics by other means. Politics always shapes how wars are fought.

The US forces could have reduced Fallujah to rubble, as they did to Hue in 1968 and the Nazis to Warsaw in 1944. But then any hope of the US creating a viable puppet regime in Iraq would have disappeared as well. As it was, the assault on Fallujah had even the creeps and timeservers on the Iraqi Governing Council in revolt against US strategy.

Politics is even more important in the present 'war on terrorism' than it was in past wars because the present struggle isn't primarily a physical contest between relatively evenly matched rivals, like the gigantic clashes between huge heavily armed conscript armies that dominated the First and Second World Wars. The US is using its relatively small professional armed forces and the vast firepower they command as means of entrenching its political domination of the Eurasian landmass.

But because the aim is political, the struggle is as much to secure the acquiescence of other ruling classes and of public opinion in the US and worldwide as it is physically to destroy anyone who attacks or resists the US militarily. Shaping mass perceptions is therefore terribly important. When negotiating the ceasefire agreement in Fallujah, the US commanders insisted that the Al Jazeera film crew which had been transmitting heart-rending images of the impact of the siege on civilians was expelled from the city.

It is this battle of public opinion that Washington is really losing. The terrible pictures of systematic torture and humiliation at Abu Ghraib have destroyed Bush and Blair's claims to be bringing human rights and democracy to Iraq. Walden Bello has argued that the neoliberal model of capitalism promoted by the US has been suffering a legitimacy crisis that began with the East Asian crisis in 1997-98 and was intensified by Seattle and the emergence of the anti-capitalist movement. The effect of the 'war on terrorism' - fusing together neoliberalism and imperialism in the repellent shape of the neo-cons and their stormtroopers in Iraq - has been further to exacerbate that crisis.

All of this underlines the significance of the anti-war movement in Britain and worldwide. We have been a protagonist in this political struggle for global public opinion, constantly contesting the authority of Bush and Blair. As our enemies reel before the abyss of defeat, it is vital that we carry on the fight.


Alex Callinicos is the author of The New Mandarins of American Power (Polity 2003), £12.99, available from Bookmarks on 020 7637 1848.