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South China Morning Post

Is The US Engaged In Empire-Building?

By Peter Kammerer

January 5, 2003
Copyright © 2003 South China Morning Post Publishers. All rights reserved. 

THE UNITED STATES has no historic parallels. Its all-pervading tentacles of influence are wrapping up ever more parts of the globe, expanding an unrivalled empire. It is more economically, militarily and culturally powerful than anything that has come before. Nations which thought themselves distinct and impervious to foreign influence are falling under the spell.

Those trying to resist the American Empire are finding that one way or another - culturally, ideologically or morally - they are losing the fight. Their resistance is being steam-rolled by public approval.

The hardier holdouts - dictators, religious zealots and terrorists among them - confront the most powerful war machine ever assembled. Through the technological wizardry of pilotless aircraft, smart bombs and guided-missile systems, they are ruthlessly pummelled into submission.

The phenomenon worries not just those facing the ambitions of the world's only superpower, but also those close to its bosom. The excesses of the Roman Empire - gladiatorial contests among them - are not that far-fetched an idea for a nation that wants, and gets, whatever it desires.

Among the detractors are Noam Chomsky and William Blum, on the left of the American political spectrum and, since the 1960s, vehement critics of US foreign policy. Their opposition is rooted in the Vietnam War, which they questioned in books and speeches.

Mr Chomsky's American Power and the New Mandarins was considered by many the most substantive argument ever written against American military involvement in Vietnam. A renowned professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he is just as well known as a prolific author of books on subjects ranging from mathematics to politics.

Mr Blum, who describes himself as a socialist, left his US State Department job in 1967 in disgust at what his country was doing in Vietnam. His book Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions, is considered the definitive work on the intelligence agency's involvement in foreign conflicts.

They share a view that successive US administrations are building an empire, although not using territorial gains as the basis. Instead, it will be built through economic might.

Mr Chomsky is not surprised by US President George W. Bush's desire to overthrow Iraq's Saddam Hussein with military force, saying instead he would have been caught off guard if this was not the plan.

Most of Mr Bush's senior officials and advisers had been in the two previous Republican administrations - those of Mr Bush's father and Ronald Reagan - and were essentially replaying point by point what they had done before, he explained. This included the war on terrorism, which had been declared by Mr Reagan in 1981.

The difference now was that they had the economic means to carry out their policies and lacked the deterrence of the Soviet Union. Militarily, the US was also more powerful than it had ever been, with spending equivalent to the defence budgets of the next 16 nations in the world. The American increase in spending alone, last year, was equivalent to the total budget of any ally of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

"It's a very arrogant and self-confident and violent group of people," Mr Chomsky said. "In the 1980s, when they were much more constrained, they practically destroyed Central America, killing a couple of hundred thousand people and ruining four countries. They were involved in killing about 1.5 million people in Africa supporting South Africa. In the Middle East, they were supporting major atrocities, the same as in Southeast Asia. Now they're much more free."

Unlike the Greeks, Romans and British, the US has not been interested in territorial gains. Its most significant forays started with the defeat of the Spanish in 1898 and the acquiring of the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico. Gains after that were restricted to small, strategic patches of territory in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. With the defeat of Japan and Germany in World War II, the victors - headed by the US and Britain - parcelled up the world, assigning each area by its perceived worth. The function of Southeast Asia was to provide raw materials and resources for the former colonial powers.

"The State Department recognised in 1945 that the Middle East was the main energy resource of the world and that Saudi Arabia alone was what they called a stupendous source of strategic power and one of the greatest material prizes in world history," said Mr Chomsky, whose views are derived from declassified government documents. "They immediately moved to kick out France and to reduce Britain to a kind of junior partner. Controlling Middle East energy reserves has been a centrepiece of US policy since the 1940s."

Mr Blum said the strategy transcended political ideology, and those directing it were not subtle about their motives. They were possibly the most arrogant people to ever lead a nation or empire, he said.

The US had won significant military advantage through engaging in conflicts and then used that to further its economic and political gains.

Following the invasion and bombing of Iraq in 1991, the US had military bases in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. The bombing of Serbia eight years later netted bases throughout Europe and the Balkan region, most notably in Hungary, Macedonia, Kosovo and Bulgaria. From the war in Afghanistan had come military installations in 10 locations, including Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Pakistan.

"They do this in the open and they're not at all embarrassed about announcing to the world that they're doing something for a moral reason when what they wind up with is expanding the empire's territory," Mr Blum said.

The objective was as much for economic as political gain. Those at the helm were closely tied to the corporate world and believed that they had a moral message which the world needed.

"The reports which they put out on a periodic basis speak without any embarrassment of the moral superiority of the US and its ability to spread this over the world," he said.

To this end, free enterprise was not only an economic system but a moral way of looking at the world. Capitalism was equated with democracy and freedom.

Mr Blum said that Washington used its political clout to ensure that aid and loans from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund were available only to countries that followed the precepts of free enterprise and democracy.

Such theories are rejected by the right wing, which comprises a clear majority of the conservative US establishment. While some elements may refer to an "empire", they do not believe the US has any objective towards attaining such a goal.

The Heritage Foundation's John Hulsman has studied US foreign policy from both sides of the Atlantic. A regular commentator in the American media on European security issues and terrorism, he lived in Scotland for seven years while earning academic degrees from St Andrew's University.

He also strongly opposes the views of people like Mr Chomsky.

"American foreign policy is no more ideologically coherent than anyone else's," he said. "The idea that we have a line or a view and that empire-building is a view or the dominant view is simply not true."

Through no strategy of its own, the US had won its superpower status by the unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic falling-by-the-wayside during the 1990s of Europe and Japan.

"We've continued on our own merry way, but the conditions in the world have changed - which relatively, has made our power grow," Mr Hulsman said. "It's not a strategy - except one of tending one's defence."

That said, though, the truth of whether the US is an empire-builder might be revealed with Iraq. The tussling forces within Mr Bush's administration - one neo-conservative, the other realistic - will be forced to show their hand if Mr Hussein is overthrown.

If North Korea, Libya and Syria are the next military targets of the war on terrorism, there will certainly be a feeling of empire in American ambitions. But perhaps the US will help put governments in place and then go back about its protection of national interests beyond its borders, as it has been doing so doggedly for decades.

The answer could be a matter of months away.

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