November 24, 2005
On the cusp of that most American of holidays, Jonathan Schell offers
us a "tour" of the American empire -- the global Pax Americana that
wasn't -- and asks a simple question: Where exactly are the monuments
of that empire? If it is now threatened with collapse, what exactly did
I was Schell's editor on his book The Unconquerable World
(published in the spring of 2003), and so, well before the Bush
adminstration invaded Iraq, I had no doubt that our attempt to occupy
an oil-rich land in the heart of the Middle East was bound to fail
disastrously. No one who read Schell's exploration of the last three
centuries of organized violence (and the hesitant birth of non-violent
possibilities on our planet) could have assumed less. He and I often
discussed the nature of the American empire and even exchanged letters
on the subject at Tomdispatch back in early 2004 (Jonathan Schell on the empire that fell as it rose). For his latest Nation
magazine "Letter from Ground Zero" -- which the editors of that
publication have been kind enough to let Tomdispatch post -- I can't
think of a better introduction than some eerily prophetic passages from
The Unconquerable World. (Then, when you've also read his latest Nation
column, take a brief whirl with me past various American imperial
ziggurats and ruins.) While assessing the Bush administration's urge
for global domination and its belief in what he had already dubbed
"disarmament wars" meant to stop nuclear proliferation on the planet,
"Even if we suppose that the United States will
complete the transition from a republic to an empire, there are
powerful reasons to believe that it will fail to realize its global
ambitions, whether idealistic or self-interested. Any imperial plan in
the twenty-first century tilts against what have so far proved to be
the two most powerful forces of the modern age: the spread of
scientific knowledge and the resolve of peoples to reject foreign rule
and take charge of their own destinies. If the history of the last two
centuries is a guide, neither can be bombed out of existence…
"It's difficult to believe that the passion for self determination will
be any easier to suppress than the spread of destructive technology…
Historically, imperial rule has rested on three kinds of domination --
military, economic, and political. The United States enjoys unequivocal
superiority in only one of these domains -- the military, and here only
in the conventional sphere…
"Most important, in the political arena, the United States is weak,
precisely because in the contemporary world military force no longer
translates easily into political rule. 'Covenants, without the sword,
are but words,' Hobbes said. Since then, the world has learned that
swords without covenants are but empty bloodshed. The Romans in ancient
times were able to convert military victories into lasting political
power. The United States today cannot. In the political arena, the
lesson of the world revolt -- that winning military victories may
sometimes be easy but building political institutions in foreign lands
is hard, often impossible -- still obtains. The nation so keenly
interested in 'regime change' has small interest in 'nation-building'
and less capacity to carry it out. The United States is mistrusted,
often hated, around the world. If it embarks on a plan of imperial
domination, it will be hated still more. Can cruise missiles build
nations? Does power still flow from the barrel of a gun -- or from a
B-2 bomber? Can the world in the twenty-first century really be ruled
from 35,000 feet? Modern peoples have the will to resist and the means
to do so. Imperialism without politics is a naive imperialism. In our
time, force can win a battle or two but politics is destiny."
Now set out to tour the failed imperium with Jonathan Schell as your guide. Tom
The Fall of the One-Party Empire
By Jonathan Schell
For some time, I have been suggesting that the aim of Republican
strategy has been a Republican Party that permanently runs the United
States and a United States that permanently runs the world. The two
aims have been driven by a common purpose: to steadily and irreversibly
increase and consolidate power in Republican hands, leading in the
direction of a one-party state at home and a global American empire
abroad. The most critical question has been whether American democracy,
severely eroded but still breathing, would bring down the Republican
machine, or whether the Republican machine -- call it the budding
one-party global empire -- would bring down American democracy. This
week, it looks as if democracy, after years of decline, has gained the
The choice was and remains: empire or republic? Just a few years
ago, the "sole superpower," the new Rome, master of the "unipolar"
world, seemed to many to be bestriding the world. Some, like columnist
Charles Krauthammer, were reveling in the triumph of "the American
hegemon." "History has given you an empire, if you will keep it" he
said, traducing Benjamin Franklin, who had said at the Constitutional
Convention that the United States was a republic if you can keep it.
Others, like writer Michael Ignatieff, in a more somber mood, were
preparing to shoulder the empire's inescapable global "burdens," which
meant "enforcing such order as there is in the world and doing so in
the American interest." Still others, like journalist Robert Kaplan,
were touring the empire's far-flung garrisons, lionizing the "imperial
grunts" and counseling that America's civil leaders should yield to
military direction. Indeed, he said that "the very distinction between
our military and operations overseas is eroding." The model for the
future, he thought, should be the United States' long history of
military intervention in Latin America.
But where is the American empire now, where the new Rome? Where are its
subject peoples, its provinces, its Macedonias and Carthages and
Egypts, its victorious armies and triumphal parades? Where, for that
matter, are its arts and letters, its Colossus of Rhodes, its pyramids?
Where is its Virgil? Would that be Bill O'Reilly, fountain of abusive
misinformation, or Dan Bartlett, the White House Misspokesman? Can
someone give me a tour of this realm? We might begin in Iraq. But
perhaps we had better not. The tour would have to be cut short in the
Green Zone, the American compound in downtown Iraq and the only
"secure" territory in the country. Last week, more than 200 Iraqis were
killed in attacks by suicide bombers (horrors scarcely mentioned in the
debate in this country). As for the Iraqi "government," these quislings
are unable to follow imperial orders -- they are deficient even as
puppets. Their main accomplishment has been to open a torture center,
perhaps in imitation of our own Abu Ghraib, or perhaps following the
model of Saddam Hussein.
Will Afghanistan be the next stop on our imperial tour? This will be
the high point, for the pervasive rule by war- and drug-lords in that
country is mitigated, at least in the capital city, by the
administration of Hamid Karzai. Shall we go, as the President did
recently, to Latin America, which Kaplan recommended as a dress
rehearsal for imperial rule? We'll find that the United States is
despised there, leading to the rise of left-wing leaders from Venezuela
to Argentina. Or should we follow the President to Asia, where, in
defiance of his will, North Korea has built a nuclear arsenal and
China, with its $252 billion in U.S. treasury bills, has emerged as the
financier of the exploding American deficit?
The imperial dreams are in ruins. But the ruins, strangely, are not
of things that were built and then collapsed; they are of fantasies. We
are not dealing here with the decline of a new Rome. It is not that a
great power has been brought down -- although the casualties of the
war, American and Iraqi, have been tragically real -- but that a world
of fancy and fraud has been exploded by facts.
And the one-party state at home? It was not the mirage that the
empire was. The structure of the American state and, to a lesser
extent, the economy, really has been deeply altered. Real hundreds of
millions of dollars have poured into the coffers of the GOP while real
hundreds of billions poured into the pockets of the rich. Real laws
were passed that tore gaping holes in the Bill of Rights. A real shift
of the judiciary toward the radical right was set in motion. An
unprecedented concentration of power -- fusing government,
corporations, the military, portions of the media, and a hugely
expanded secret police apparatus -- was created. And yet this
structure, too, has been shaken by recent events.
As happened in the Vietnam era, the war came home. The
administration's disrespect for law led to law-breaking. Somehow, the
law enforcement system in and around the Justice Department has
retained enough independence to serve as a check on abuses of executive
power. Indictments have been brought, and others are likely to follow.
The mechanisms whereby the foreign debacle has led to the domestic
setbacks for the Administration are complex but the broad outlines are
already clear: The failed empire, in the shape of its failed war, has
driven down the President's support to the point at which others, cowed
until now, feel free to attack him. The institutions of government and
the economy, drawn like iron filings into the magnetic field of power,
failed at first to check the administration. But the public,
represented by opinion polls, has stepped in, and the institutions are
following. Not since the Soviet Union fell fourteen years ago have we
witnessed a greater reversal of fortune.
Unmaking the conglomeration of unaccountable power built up around
the Republican Party in recent years will hardly be the work of a week,
and the outcome is anything but certain. But if the effort succeeds,
historians may one day write that the fake American empire was the
Achilles heel of the real one-party state.
Jonathan Schell, author of The Unconquerable World, is the Nation Institute's Harold Willens Peace Fellow. The Jonathan Schell Reader was recently published by Nation Books.
Copyright 2005 Jonathan Schell
This column will appear in the upcoming issue of The Nation Magazine.
American Ziggurats, Imperial Ruins, and Other Wonders of the Modern Age
By Tom Engelhardt
Bertolt Brecht wrote this of empire long ago:
"Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time?...
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up?"
In the case of the American imperium, such as it is, the builders seem
largely to have been in the hire of our Vice President's favorite
corporation, Halliburton (and its subsidiary KBR). So here's a quick
whirl through the monuments of our empire -- through, that is,
Iraq -- Camp Victory North:
A monument to Halliburton's construction skills and one of the largest
American bases built anywhere in the world since the Vietnam War, Camp
Victory North is little short of "a small American city,"
meant to hold 14,000 troops. It has the only Burger King stand in Iraq
as well as "a gym, the country's biggest PX -- and, of course, a
separate compound for KBR workers, who handle both construction and
logistical support." Its name, with that "mission accomplished" ring to
it, caught the spirit of a moment. When it turned out that victory in
Iraq had, like all those WMDs, gone missing in action, it was redubbed Camp Liberty
(scroll down), freedom evidently being what you get when victory is
beyond reach. Had Bush era military commanders been in a more modest or
even prophetic mood in 2003, they might have named the base Camp
Stalemate, Camp Quagmire, or even Camp Defeat. While the cost of Camp
Liberty remains unknown, literally billions of dollars have gone into
America's "enduring camps" (as they were for a time so charmingly
called lest we have "permanent bases" in Iraq). Monuments to the neocon
empire-to-come, such bases newly built across the "arc of instability,"
elaborately linked into an American global communications network, were
never meant for the likes of Iraqis. Of course, our mega-base in Danang
wasn't meant for the likes of Vietnamese either.
Afghanistan -- "The Salt Pit": An interrogation and prison facility built,
run, and paid for by the CIA, but ostensibly an "Afghan" prison, the
"Salt Pit" was set up inside the shell of an abandoned Kabul brick
factory… It is known that at least one prisoner, left bruised and naked
in his cell, froze to death there under CIA care. Relocated onto Bagram
Air Force Base, a former Russian enduring camp that is now the key
American military center in the country, it remains a marvel of Dick
Cheney's Interrogation World and part of a network of semi-secret
interrogation centers, holding camps, and prisons set up by the U.S.
that has turned Afghanistan, in the words of two British reporters who
visited some of the sites, into the "hub"
of a global interrogation system. Maybe it's not the Hanging Gardens of
Babylon, but hanging from a wall in chains isn't out of the question.
Cuba -- Guantánamo: Located in balmy Cuba is a tropical paradise of a prison, as our Secretary of Defense pointed out.
("Guantánamo Bay's climate is different than Afghanistan. To be in an
8-by-8 cell in beautiful, sunny Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, is not inhumane
treatment.") Built just off-shore from the continental U.S. on
territory ceded to us more or less in perpetuity and, the Bush
administration hoped, just far enough away to be beyond the oversight
of Congress or the courts, it was another KBR construction playground. A "model facility,"
according to former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Richard Myers, it
is a must-stop on any tour of imperial hot spots and highlights. We
suggest you book passage well in advance. The group tours are somewhat
controlled and limited in nature, as a UN rights team found out recently, and air travel conditions to the prison are considered rough. Dog lovers are, however, especially welcomed.
The Bavarian Alps -- Edelweiss Lodge and Resort: For hard-working American military personnel (and fans of The Sound of Music)
tired of holding down a recalcitrant world, a little peaceable kingdom
that offers a few quiet hours zipping down snow-covered slopes or a
wondrous weekend away from it all, without a mortar shell or IED in
sight. In fact, no one should miss the Pentagon's Edelweiss Lodge and
Resort with its Alpental Golf Course, Hausberg Sport Lodge, and (among
its many restaurants) Zuggy's Base Camp, a mountain-style bistro -- not
to speak of the well-advertised guided tours to nearby "Dachau World
War II Concentration Camp" and Hitler's lovely hideaway and aerie,
Berchtesgaden and the Eagle's Nest. ("Service members and their
families on R&R leave or block leave status from Operation Iraqi
Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom and The Balkans are all eligible to
receive this incredible package deal.") Edelweiss is part of another
kind of monumental global network -- Armed Forces Recreation Centers
-- that includes the Dragon Hill Lodge, described this way: "Welcome to
the Land of the Morning Calm in Seoul, Korea. Supporting the Yongsan
military community, Dragon Hill Lodge has a myriad of services
including a first class fitness and health club, restaurants, lounges,
and a specialty shopping mall. The hotel is a pleasant escape from the
bustle and excitement of downtown Seoul."
Something Borrowed (or Empire-on-the-Sly, CIA-Style)
Prisons and torture facilities in such allied countries as
Morocco, Egypt, Thailand, Syria, and elsewhere. Just the perfect place
to send a kidnapped terror suspect, snatched off the streets of any
city in the world.
Airfields in Sweden, Germany, Spain, Italy, Malta,
and other centrally located yet out of the way spots where you can
touch down while secretly facilitating CIA renditions of torture
suspects to the facilities mentioned above -- as well as convenient
fields in such terrorism vacation spots as Baghdad, Cairo, Tashkent and Kabul. Heck what's a little national sovereignty when you're an empire!
Compounds of the former Soviet Gulag (possibly in Poland and Rumania) to stash away prisoners and trigger memories of fallen empires past.
5 Star Hotels
to hang out in (at the taxpayer's expense) while you prepare to snatch
war-on-terror suspects off the streets of Milan or rest up from the
extraordinary exertions of extraordinary renditions.
Touring the Ruins of Empire
Who doesn't like a good imperial ruin? Millions flock to Pompeii, so why not
Sunny Fallujah, once the "city of mosques" with a quarter-million inhabitants, but massively destroyed
in November 2004 by American planes, artillery, tanks, and mortars and
now being picturesquely rebuilt as a giant Orwellian prison-camp city.
Don't miss the retinal ID scans on your way in, but be careful to stay
in your Humvee. Despite the best efforts of the American military, dangers abound.
Copyright 2005 Tom Engelhardt