The Dilemma of Empire

Which will impale you—humanitarian intervention or deficit reduction?

The word dilemma springs from the Greek for di and lemma, basically a “double proposition.” The idea is that you have found yourself in a situation in which your only choice is between two ‘horns’, and your only question is which horn you would prefer to be gored by? As Americans, we may look abroad to avoid the calamity of Congress, but there we find war. We may look homeward to avoid the horror of industrial warfare, but here we find gangs of elitists jockeying for position in the great race to privatize the commons. We are left to ask ourselves, which is the greater betrayal of our nation’s ethos: our seven decades proclaiming to secure the world for liberty while wrapping its innocents in chains, or the feverish work of capital, over the last four decades, to starve and desiccate and finally inter the American economy in the name of economic freedom? (In terms of violence or environmental destruction there is no contest—there the answer is clearly our commitment to global peace. But our faithlessness on either front is worth a look, if not a judgment.)

Resource Wars Abroad

On the one hand, the profession of peacekeeping. Here we are, several weeks after Obama disgraced the pulpit of international law at the U.N., claiming America has for “seven decades” served as the “anchor of global security.” That effrontery was rich enough, leading anyone with a modicum of nonmainstream education to double over with sudden nausea. As Noam Chomsky recently noted, with his wonderfully toneless derision, that America is “the world leader in spreading destruction and misery.” To that end, last week a handful of Syrian rebel factions banded together, these blood-stained parties of God, rejected American-backed secular rebels, whom they outnumber, and declared themselves for an Islamic state. Surely, the U.S. government will claim it had no hand in the furnishing of weapons or intelligence or training to seething Islamist mercenaries, but likely it has, whether through its Turkish or Jordan-based training sites, or via Gulf allies who have supplied weapons and arms of American provenance.

All of this against a supposedly sovereign state, all for the purpose of isolating Iran as part of our Sunday stroll through the Middle East. Having left Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya in tatters, weakened by outside fomented internecine bloodbaths, we will now topple the Assad regime before moving onto the more complicated showdown with the regional anchor in Tehran. All of this within the few short years of the new century, and all more or less designed to encircle the font of fossil fuels that comprise the Arab-Persian world.

Nile Bowie has usefully explored the progress of American Asia “pivot” designed to envelop China in the warm embrace of its ceaseless belligerence. Likewise, a proxy war between America and China has enflamed Africa, with recent Kenyan mall violence attributable in part to U.S.  intervention in Somalia. On continent after continent, we have brazenly swept aside the fragile conventions of peace to which we are more often than not the principal signatory.

Our Syrian involvement resembles our Cold War modus operandi of undermining Soviet interventions, as in Afghanistan, by supporting anyone with a simmering sense of injustice and a comparably meager fear of death. But elsewhere our evolving drone fleets and special forces apparatus has nicely calibrated our faux humanitarian interventions to match the American public’s war fatigue. The emphasis is decidedly on marketing our wars now—we must produce a frisson of horror in the population, selecting from a cache of media-ready caricatures. There’s the rogue dictator feverishly pursuing a mushroom cloud with mobile labs crisscrossing Mesopotamia. There’s are the turbaned warlords of the Maghreb, capable of the most unspeakable savageries (much like our regional proxies). Now there is the autocratic nepotist in bespoke suit with his thin Arab mustache, coolly dispatching civilians with airy chems. One can summon similar archetypes from our blood-stained past: Gamal Nasser, Jonas Savimbi, Hugo Chavez. The details vary, but the broadly adumbrated image is what counts.

Yet our slimmed arsenal of humanitarian destruction has also produced a slightly more novel effect: Empire creep has become more blatant and unapologetic in the age of Obama. Last week we violated two more sovereign borders with total impunity, capturing an al-Qaeda operative in Tunisia and attempting the same in Somalia, although the operation was rebuffed with American covert forces fleeing from a firefight. Secretary of State John Kerry, with the witless aplomb that has become the hallmark of a once-bright career now veering toward an ignominious grave, said that the Tunisian operation was legal since it was sanctioned under the Authorization of Military Force Act (AUMF) of 2002. This comment should be the subject of a week’s worth of national introspection, but it barely imparted a ripple on the smooth waters of the mainstream media, which daily absorbs a freshet of Congressional and Executive claptrap without the slightest impulse to self reflection.

After all, Kerry had essentially mistaken American law for international law, or traded the latter for the former. If Congress denies the sovereignty of another nation, invading that nation is legal. This notion fails to reflect the most rudimentary grasp of international law. Lacking this sensibility, America will act with complete temerity absent the presence of a military counterweight able to give it pause. The glacial but steady pace of Sino-Russian integration may one day provide this, if it isn’t then too late. (Not that those whose fate it is to fall under the shadow of that hegemon will find life any more pleasant.)

Class War at Home

But what about our commitments to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness within our own borders? Here we are, a couple of weeks of government quietude in our furloughed wake, still more to come, with right-wing zealots gloating at the prospect. Obama and Boehner issue grave apothegms and assume the posture of petulant school kids, awaiting some deity of justice to strike the other down. Meanwhile, delusional liberals, as far-fetched with their ideological assumptions as the Tea Party, furiously expend their energies heaping defamation on the Republican Party, itself one half venal sycophants of capital, the other a fetid swamp of anti-federalists. These two noise factories provide enough fodder to fill the airwaves and preclude informed debate.

Waving their pamphlets of DNC talking points through the brisk air, liberals forget, or overlook, or never learned, that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) commands increasingly poor or near-poverty Americans to purchase healthcare policies that cost too much per month to maintain, and cost too much at the doctor’s office to use. Whether it’s a high premium, stupendous deductibles, or prohibitive co-pays, the ACA is a servile effort to prop up a broken system and preserve the sacred profits of insurance and Big Pharma. Meanwhile, the burden of health will be shifted from the shoulders of business into the hands of the young, who are a trillion dollars in the red to their institutions of higher learning, of whom only 48 percent are employed, of which only half work full time, and for whom median net worth continues to slide.

Fulminating about the socialist outrages of the Obama administration, Republican right-wingers are beholden to the self-defeating ideology of Ayn Rand, which prescribes total selfishness as an elaborately rationalized altruism, the bounty of self-interest delivered through the invisible hand of the free market (all externalities aside). In this context, government is a feckless and misguided arbiter of morality, interfering in the free pursuit of self-interest. The fact that roads are paved, poor are fed, borders defended, and scientific innovation funded by the government does nothing to stem the tide of their ire for the municipal stamp and seal. Behind this obsession with unabridged individualism lies the people’s government-protected trove of national resources, which have been valued at more than a hundred trillion dollars. Whether Tea Party activists realize it, this is the final goal of the think-tank rhetoric that has shaped its ideology.

Little from either camp bears the signature of objectivity, as both work tirelessly to undermine their own objectives. And now the debt ceiling looms. Easily sidestepped through an Executive Order, Obama will employ the faux debt debate to gaze gravely into the cameras and maintain that Medicare and Social Security must be cut, part of the bi-partisan blueprint to ‘starve the beast’. This despite the facts that:

1) America has borrowed profligately from Social Security, leaving its coffers filled with tattered IOUs;

2) The outsourcing of American jobs has decimated both consumer incomes and the tax base, leaving us more in need of free heath care than ever before;

3) Ceaseless wars across the last “seven decades” have spent billions whisked from the higher purpose of social good.

Each of these challenges offers its own solution: stop borrowing from social trust funds; quit offshoring jobs and bring them back; end needless wars and interventions. But each is rejected in its turn. War matters more, since war promises the orgasmic boon of global hegemony. Outsourcing matter more, since offshoring the American economy will line the calfskin wallets of the Robber Barons. Worthless IOUs matter more, since the one percent must be freed from the onerous burden of contributing to the general welfare—and because a desiccated federal system will free corporate America to loot our mineral, gas, and petro wealth.

The debt ceiling will inevitably be raised. The government will inevitably reboot. And the social tragedy of both American economic suicide and foreign slaughter will proceed apace. Nothing of substance will change. Except perhaps the complexion of the swindler in the White House, and the nomenclature of the wealth transfers and humanitarian wars we disguise as altruistic policy—both of which are part and parcel of the imperial project, since war is the vanguard of elite capital; they are no less yoked than the horns of the same bull. If Obama was right about anything at the U.N., it was that America is indeed exceptional. We lead the world in the slaughter of innocents and are the only nation to have voluntarily destroyed our own economy. In the end, though, we can’t even pick the horn that would impale us. If we live abroad, we get one. At home, another. Even our vaunted consumer choice has been swept aside.

Jason Hirthler is a writer, political commentator, and veteran of the communications industry. He has written for many political communities. He is the recent author of Imperial Fictions, a collection of essays from between 2015-2017. He lives in New York City and can be reached at Read other articles by Jason.