Maintaining the Empire

First it was Press Secretary Robert Gibbs attacking the “professional left” (whatever that means) for wanting to “eliminate the Pentagon.” Then the liberal New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd kicked the left for “constantly sniping at Obama” and for considering “pragmatism a moral compromise.”

Next, pragmatist Senator Harry Reid announced he opposed building an Islamic community center two blocks from Ground Zero in New York, the sort of pragmatism power-Democrats understand, ie. pandering to the intolerant bigot vote in a close election, in Reid’s case against Republican nutcase Sharron Angle.

The fact the New York community center is far from Nevada and is the project of a Sufi element of Islam that preaches peace and love didn’t seem to bother Harry.

The left does not oppose pragmatism or compromise; the left can’t stand the absence of backbone and a moral compass.

Consider the latest on Afghanistan. General David Petraeus is visiting all the major media outlets and employing his charm and facile language skills to deflate President Obama’s stated intent to remove troops from Afghanistan beginning in July of next year.

“I didn’t come out here to carry out a graceful exit or something like that. I came out here committed to achieving our objectives,” Petraeus told David Gregory of “Meet The Press.” And what are those objectives?

“It’s about rooting out every last guy, so that there’s not even somebody who can fire a single, solitary RPG round from some little galat out here.” Then, “If you don’t want to have to kill or capture every bad guy in the country, you have to reintegrate those who are willing to be reconciled and become part of the solution instead of a continued part of the problem.”

So our mission is to reconcile “every bad guy in the country” to our mission and “root out” and kill those deemed irreconcilable. The general now has his “inputs” right; that is, he has tripled troop levels and tripled the civilian commitment and raised the financial input dedicated to training Afghans in the army. He told Gregory he sees Afghanistan as “the longest campaign” in the so-called “long war.”

General Petraeus and Commander-in-Chief ObamaGeneral Petraeus and Commander-in-Chief Obama

This is not the posture of a man even considering the pullout of troops next year. This is a man just beginning something.

All indications are that the commander-in-chief has handed Petraeus the keys to the war, relinquishing his constitutional role as the civilian leader tasked to look out for the whole nation’s best interests — not just the interests of its militarists and imperialists.

“Imperial Grunts” maintaining the empire

All of us “professional leftists” tend these days to avoid use of the term imperial or imperialism when discussing why we are mired down in a place like Afghanistan. No one listens to a leftist using such words. So I’m going to let the unabashed militarist war-lover Robert Kaplan do it for me, since he makes the case much better than I could.

Kaplan’s book, Imperial Grunts: The American Military On The Ground, is the first in a series of books unabashedly on the topic of American imperialism. It is an impressive body of work, involving years of world travel to many very rough and dangerous places. This is how he describes his project:

“I was less concerned with war and conquest than with imperial maintenance on the ground,” he writes. In his journalistic travels, he says, “I wanted to cut myself off from civilians as much as possible.” He wanted to live with American imperial soldiers “on the ground,“ to get to know the 21st Century American military he describes as “a worldwide fraternity.”

Here’s some of his thoughts on the subject:

“Imperialism is but a form of isolationism, in which the demand for absolute, undefiled security at home leads one to conquer the world, and in the process to become subject to all the world’s anxieties.”

Our empire is different from those in the past. “America’s imperium was without colonies, suited to a jet-and-information age in which mass movements of people and capital diluted the meaning of sovereignty.”

The world does not, however, passively reconcile itself to imperialism. “It is the revealed fact of empire itself that spurs those outside it to join forces in opposition.” An empire by its nature creates and unifies its opposition.

Kaplan speaks admiringly of Rudyard Kipling, the poet laureate of British colonialism, and compares him to the US frontier painter Frederick Remington, who he sees as “the Kipling of early American imperialism, turning it from fact into heroic myth.”

Kaplan sees his work in line with Kipling’s and Remington’s. He unabashedly glorifies and mythologizes the rugged imperial defender, then and now. He even sees US western expansion on the North American continent as the beginning of the American empire being maintained today.

“Following their initial settlement, and before their incorporation as states in the Union, the western territories were nothing less than imperial possessions of Washington DC.”

He quotes Winston Churchill on Pashtuns in Afghanistan and compares this tough people to American Indians. Both, he says, “were capable of uniting against the stranger.” He cites Custer’s massacre as an example of this unity against a US imperial force.

In Afghanistan, he bonds with soldiers from a Florida panhandle National Guard special forces unit and explains how elements like this are keeping up the “great southern military tradition that had produced the gleaming officer corps of the Confederacy.”

It is not a great stretch on my part to say Kaplan sees our ruthless slaughter of the Indians and a legacy of southern militarism rooted in a need to maintain a slave economy and the later Jim Crow, KKK order as a golden age legacy.

The picture Kaplan paints is of a glorious imperial expansion that did not stop when Manifest Destiny hit the Pacific Ocean. It went on to the Philippines and other adventures, got mired down and humiliated in Vietnam, secured oil and mineral rights all over the globe along the way, and now finds itself “maintaining” the realm in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Can we afford to maintain an empire?

Leftists like myself agree with Kaplan that we are an empire; we’ve been saying it among ourselves out of the mainstream for decades. Where we disagree is that he thinks it’s a good, healthy state of affairs that should be pursued more robustly. When we voted for Barack Obama, those of us on the left hoped that, despite all the “pragmatic” campaign talk of supporting Afghanistan, he agreed with the analysis that empire was into overreach.

We also hoped, as all presidential candidates do, that when he got to the White House he would re-evaluate and use his bully pulpit to pragmatically ratchet back what has become a bankrupting, runaway imperial monster.

It seems we were kidding ourselves. The best we can ask for, apparently, is a shift from full blown counter-insurgency war noted for development and “nation building” to Vice President Joe Biden’s favorite plan, counter-terrorism, which amounts to a scaled down emphasis on special operations units killing “bad guys.” Add to this an investment in the powerful mythic and imperialist warrior worship constructed by Kaplan and others, and, either way, you’re in the second act of a classic tragedy.

The White House and imperial Democrats avoid any serious response to the antiwar left’s most legitimate questions: whether the escalation of war in Afghanistan is necessary for US security, and whether the more we escalate or imperially invest in the war, the more we won’t be able to leave? And, finally, the biggest question of all: At a time of epochal global economic reckoning, when the US faces a looming dollar and government debt crisis, can the United States any longer afford this kind of very costly imperial overreach?

NBC News says our education system in American “is an embarrassment.” Un-maintained bridges are collapsing; sewer lines are crumbling. Health security for working Americans is still a dream. Alternative energy is still not getting the support it needs. Oversight and regulation of corporate greed is a joke. And the nation needs to make a major investment in jobs.

We are a wealthy, profligate nation running scared. Instead of self-examination, we turn to military solutions and to leaders like General Petraeus who can make us believe in their fantasies, such as the current one that, if we had known then what we know now, we could have won in Vietnam. This is simply preposterous.

General Petraeus’ meteoric career is now so wrapped up in “success” for the counter-insurgency program in Afghanistan that he has no choice but to do what generals do – keep the war going to avoid failure and, for him, an ignoble retirement.

Only the antiwar left and elements of the libertarian right have the temerity to say this stuff out loud.

The antiwar left is like the mythic Greek Cassandra, to whom Apollo gave the gift of prophecy – until she spurned his advances, whereupon he cursed her such that no one would ever believe her or give her credence. In some representations, she goes mad. In Aeschylus’ play Agamemnon, she warns of the destruction of Troy, but no one listens and Troy is destroyed.

President Obama wants to have it both ways: He’s an imperial war president who doesn’t want to play that role. So he stays low while Petraeus lets the air out of his stated plans for withdrawal and readies the nation for more imperial war.

And so empire is maintained and the nation goes further down the tubes.