Behold Caesar

by Richard Heinberg
Dissident Voice
October 12, 2002


These days, Julius Caesar and ancient Rome seem to be on the minds of political commentators around the globe. A London Guardian opinion piece from September 20 was titled “Hail Bush: A New Roman Empire,” while Jay Bookman explains “The Bush Plan for Empire,” and Michael Lind asks rhetorically, “Is America the New Roman Empire?” 

It was Caesar who transformed the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. A brilliant general, he waged campaigns throughout modern-day France, Germany, Britain, and Turkey. In 46 BCE, he had himself appointed Imperator for life. Two years later, he was assassinated by a group of conspirators who believed they were striking a blow for the return of the Republic. Thirteen years of civil strife followed. The Republic was finished, but the Roman Empire persisted for another four centuries. Caesar had transformed his world; he was, for a brief time, the most powerful human being in the Western world.

Today the American Republic appears to many pundits to be at a juncture somewhat comparable to the one that Rome confronted in 50 BCE. The analogy is exceedingly imprecise, however: the US is vastly more fearsome than Rome in every respect, possessing weapons no ancient emperor could have dreamed of. Moreover, the American leader, George W. Bush, is far from being a brave and tactically brilliant general, as Caesar was: Bush spent the Vietnam War drinking, snorting coke, and going AWOL from the Texas National Guard. Caesar was also an eloquent orator; the current American leader’s abilities in this regard hardly require description.

Nevertheless, Bush has seized leadership of his nation and seems determined both to extend its global influence militarily, and to undermine its democratic institutions, just as surely as his ancient counterpart did. Today, the American administration is preparing to launch a war in the Middle East to advance its imperial ambitions, and is suppressing dissent at home in every way possible.

But while Caesar was frank in his war aims—he promised the citizenry colonies, tribute, and slaves—the Bush crowd cloaks its goals in a fog of shifting pretexts.

We are perhaps witnessing a new phase of Pax Americana. But this new order of the world is—for reasons discussed below—destined to persist for far less than four hundred years. And, as was the case with Caesar, victory may come at a high price; though in this instance, it is a price we all will pay.

Rationales for War

War is no small matter for a nation; in the present instance, it is estimated that a new Iraq might cost the US $200 billion or more. Leaders must have good reasons for such an investment. So far, the US Administration has offered five reasons why Iraq must be attacked. They are as follows:

1. Iraq is in violation of UN Security Council resolutions.
This is true; Iraq is currently, for example, violating Resolution 687 (01/06/91), establishing UNSCOM; and Resolution 1060 (12/06/96), which was a condemnation of Iraqi refusal to grant inspection access. But these facts do not constitute a believable pretext for war, because Iraq is far from being unique in its violation of UN resolutions. Turkey and Morocco are currently in violation as well. And still another nation in the region, Israel, has refused to comply with literally dozens of UN resolutions, some dating back nearly 50 years. Why single out Iraq?

2. Iraq has refused UN-mandated arms inspections.
This, of course, is the essence of the particular UN resolutions that Iraq has violated. Arms inspections were mandated by the terms ending the Gulf War of 1991, and inspectors have been absent from Iraq for the past four years. But again, this makes no sense as a pretext for a renewed war. Iraq did comply with inspections up to a point, and evidence suggests that those inspections were working: according to some estimates, 90% to 95% of Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons were eliminated, and its nuclear program was almost completely dismantled. When the UN withdrew inspectors in 1998, independent investigations confirmed Iraqi claims that members of the inspection team were “spies” reporting directly to the CIA and to Israeli Mossad. One inspector even left behind a homing device to provide guidance for US bombers, which attacked Iraq in December 1998 during Operation Desert Fox (which, because it played out during the scandal surrounding President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, was often described as a “wag-the-dog” ruse).

In mid-September, 2002, Iraq agreed unconditionally to the return of weapons inspectors; however, the US responded discouragingly. American secretary of state Powell said that, if UN inspectors attempt to return to Iraq, the US would “move into thwart mode.” Before inspectors are allowed back in, the Bush administration is demanding the passage of a new UN resolution that is virtually guaranteed to be unacceptable to Iraq (for example, it calls for the US to have representatives on any inspection team, for the inspection teams to set up militarily protected bases and travel corridors in any part of the country they choose, for Iraq to permit unrestricted landing of all aircraft, including unmanned spy planes, and for the US to be able to remove any Iraqi citizen from the country for questioning—all of this effectively dissolving Iraqi sovereignty and amounting to a de facto military occupation; if Iraq were to balk at implementing even the smallest detail of the resolution, member states would automatically be entitled to use “all necessary means” to enforce it). The resolution is designed not to make inspections more effective, but to eliminate them and ensure that war ensues

3. Saddam Hussein is a brutal dictator who killed his own people.
True enough. But again, as a pretext for war this doesn’t make sense. Saddam was just as evil in the 1980s, when he was using poison gas on the Kurds in his northern territories. But then the US approved of him, offering logistical support as well as aid in establishing chemical and biological weapons programs. The US has supported many evil dictators over the years; why attack this particular one now? Is there a sudden crisis of evilness that must be addressed militarily and immediately, even to the point of killing perhaps thousands or tens of thousands of innocent civilians in the process?

4. Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that pose a threat to his neighbors and to the American people.
But, as documented by the UN and the CIA, Iraq has far less capability in that regard now than in 1990. As noted above, many of Iraq’s WMDs were covertly supplied by the US. The US itself has vast stores of nuclear weapons, and is the only nation to have used such weapons against a civilian population. Of the countries in the Middle East, Israel has by far the largest inventory of WMDs; yet the US has not proposed that Israel be attacked for that reason. Oddly enough, Iraq’s neighbors do not appear concerned about the threat posed to them; indeed, most of them are pleading with the US not to attack. And no credible analyst has suggested that, even if Iraq does possess remnant WMDs, its leaders have either the ability or the intent to use them against US citizens, absent a large-scale attack.

5. Saddam Hussein provides aid to the terrorists who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks on the US.
According to polls, nearly 70% of the American people believe that this is the case, and administration officials have made claims to this effect on several occasions. However, no one has supplied credible evidence for the assertion. Moreover, any such link would be counterintuitive. Osama bin Laden and other radical Islamists detest secular Arab states, of which Iraq is one of the foremost. And secular Arab leaders, in turn, fear and despise the radical Islamists. It was Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi—not George Bush or Bill Clinton—who was the first world leader to call for the arrest of bin Laden, in 1994, following terrorist attacks on his nation. Why would Saddam aid his own sworn enemies? Two other nations in the region have been shown to have much more credible links with al Qaida—Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Why is Bush not demanding attacks on these countries?

If none of these stated rationales is the true reason for Bush’s insistence on war, then the identification of his true motives requires some speculation.

Quest for Empire

Several recent articles, noting the flimsiness of the official war rationale, have discussed possible underlying psychological drives. One writer (Mike Hersh, of Online Journal) tells us that White House insiders privately assert that Bush is “out of control.” In prepared speeches, Bush dutifully reads the litany of Saddam’s violations and crimes. But in a recent off-the-cuff comment (9/26/02), Bush is reported to have said simply, “This is a guy that tried to kill my dad,” referring to a purported failed 1993 assassination plot against ex-president Bush. (
The only pieces of evidence ever brought forward for the existence of such a plot were confessions extracted by Kuwaiti torturers; nevertheless, Clinton retaliated with missiles, which hit a residential area and killed eight Iraqi civilians.) Is mere personal revenge the underlying motive for Bush’s war?

Revenge may indeed be a contributory factor—at least in the tiny mind of George W. Bush himself. But it is important to remember that many government officials who do not share a personal grudge against Saddam are promoting this war. This is a project that has emerged from a consensus of strategists whose purposes are undoubtedly more sophisticated than the pursuit of a family feud. Since official statements give us almost no insight into the real reasons why the American leadership is determined to pursue an expensive and risky war halfway around the world, one must indulge in a little informed speculation. In what ways might Bush or the people close to him have something to gain from such a war?

When we pursue this line of thought, three clear possible motives quickly come to mind:

1. Party politics and power.
The American economy is in terrible shape now, with the stock market at levels not seen since 1997, corporate bankruptcies accumulating weekly, and revelations ongoing about corporate accounting fraud at the highest levels. A projected trillion-dollar government budget surplus has become a trillion-dollar deficit in a mere eighteen months. As the bubbles of the exuberant 1990s burst one by one, many economic analysts believe that the entire world may be teetering on the brink of a depression at least as serious as that of the 1930s. This should be horrific political news for the party in power. However, with Americans’ attention riveted by the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Bush and the Republicans have had to endure scant scrutiny. The White House occupant’s handlers cannot help but have noticed that terrorism and war do wonders for the leader’s poll numbers, while economic headlines do the opposite. An obvious strategy: find ways to dominate the news with fear-inducing, patriotic war talk. David Morris, writing on Alternet, opines that Bush’s saber rattling is all about politics, and suggests that, after the November elections, weapons inspectors will return to Iraq and threats of attack will subside.

There’s no question that war is good politics, but are there other motives at work that might result in Bush’s threats actually being carried out?

2. Global dominance.
The foreign-policy advisors surrounding Bush all share views typified in a report, “Rebuilding America’s Defenses,” issued in 2000 by the Project for the New American Century. The report calls for American military dominance of Earth and space, pre-emptive strikes on any potential rival, unquestioning support for Israel, and the ignoring of international opinion in the pursuit of US strategic objectives. Most of the report’s authors (including Paul Wolfowitz, deputy defense secretary) are now highly placed administration officials, and the document itself is closely echoed by the official National Security Strategy, released by the administration on September 20. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and the rest appear to view Iraq as a symbolic challenge to US hegemony, Saddam Hussein having survived one US-led attack and over ten years of punishing economic sanctions. The toppling of his regime thus represents a test of the aggressive new American strategic doctrine.

In this view, an attack on Iraq serves an emblematic purpose, sending a message to the rest of the world saying, Defy us at your peril. Yet still something is missing. Why imperil the US economy to project US military might if there is nothing concrete to be gained thereby?


3. Oil. Here, perhaps, we get to the real nub of the issue. The US needs oil; its wealth was built on energy resources and on its ability to deploy technologies to use those resources (cars, planes, and industrial machinery). American oil production peaked in 1970 and now the nation imports well over half of what it uses. In order to maintain its global dominance, the US needs to be able to control global oil prices. However, since the 1970s, the OPEC countries of the Middle East, by virtue of their immense petroleum reserves, have had that power. It is Saudi Arabia, as swing producer, that has opened or closed the spigot to enable economic booms (the mid 1980s and the mid- and late 1990s) or provoke recessions (1973, 2000). Now Saudi Arabia teeters, beset by a growing and youthful population, dwindling per-capita incomes, and simmering Islamist radicalism.

Iraq has reserves second only to those of Saudi Arabia. Because of the war with Iran in the 1980s and sanctions in the 1990s, those reserves are not as fully exploited as those of other nations in the region. This makes Iraq a prize for the taking—a fact not overlooked by Russia and France, which also covet its future oil production. If the US could install a compliant puppet regime in Baghdad, it could break the back of OPEC, establish its position first in line ahead of Russia and France, and weather any potential upset in Saudi Arabia.

Upon entering office, Dick Cheney, chair of the White House Energy Policy Development Group, commissioned a report on “energy security” from the Baker Institute for Public Policy, a think-tank set up by former US secretary of state James Baker. The report, “Strategic Energy Policy Challenges For The 21st Century,” issued in April 2001, concludes: “The United States remains a prisoner of its energy dilemma. Iraq remains a de-stabilizing influence to . . . the flow of oil to international markets from the Middle East. Saddam Hussein has also demonstrated a willingness to threaten to use the oil weapon and to use his own export program to manipulate oil markets. Therefore the US should conduct an immediate policy review toward Iraq including military, energy, economic and political/ diplomatic assessments.”

Cheney, the former CEO of the Texas oil firm Halliburton, was advised principally by Kenneth Lay, the disgraced former chief executive of Enron—the US energy-trading giant that went bankrupt following the revelation of massive accounting fraud. Other advisers included Luis Giusti, a Shell non-executive director; John Manzoni, regional president of BP; and David O’Reilly, chief executive of ChevronTexaco.

The Baker report refers to the impact of fuel shortages on voters and recommends a “new and viable US energy policy central to America’s domestic economy and to [the] nation’s security and foreign policy.” It also says that Iraq “turns its taps on and off when it has felt such action was in its strategic interest to do so,” adding that there is a “possibility that Saddam Hussein may remove Iraqi oil from the market for an extended period of time” in order to raise prices. “Unless the United States assumes a leadership role in the formation of new rules of the game,” the report warns, “US firms, US consumers and the US government [will be left] in a weaker position.”

No doubt all three of these latter factors have converged to galvanize the current Bush policy toward Iraq. In light of these powerful motives, publicly stated concerns about Iraq’s violation of UN resolutions and its possession of WMDs pale in significance. The administration has compelling reasons for its attack on Iraq; otherwise it would not invest so much financial and political capital in the effort. It is a shame, however, that those reasons cannot be shared publicly; if they were, an interesting debate might ensue. As it is, politicians and press commentators alike are in the awkward position of having to state plausible-sounding opinions about inherently implausible statements and rationales issuing from the administration. The ensuing charade is painful to witness.

The War’s Likely Progress and Consequences

Absurd as its rationales may be, the war itself is a deadly serious prospect. What might happen if efforts to dissuade the Bush administration fail?

If the war goes according to plan, it will be over in just a few weeks. An overwhelming air attack will be followed by an invasion of ground troops mopping up Republican Guard resistance in the cities. The Iraqi people themselves will welcome American troops with open arms, delighted to be rid of their tyrant.

Other nations in the region will be cowed into obedience by this show of strength; or, if their regimes display weakness or intransigence, they can be overthrown as needed.

Early in the hostilities, and perhaps prior to their commencement, president Hugo Chavez of Venezuela must be ousted (and killed) so as to terminate his nationalist and leftist influence on OPEC policies and ensure the free flow of oil from his country to the US during the course of the conflict in the Middle East.

Also early in the hostilities, Israel must be expected to take advantage of the exclusive focus of world attention on Iraq by militarily pushing virtually the entire Palestinian population out of the West Bank and Gaza, perhaps into Jordan, thus solving the “Palestinian problem” once and for all.

According to analysts at
STRATFOR (the online strategic forecasting service), Dick Cheney and his advisors are working on a long-term plan for post-war Iraq. The currently favored approach is to unite Iraq and Jordan in a pro-US Hashemite kingdom. The southern Shiite and northern Kurdish areas, where most of Iraq’s oil is located, present a dilemma: the former must be prevented from uniting with Iran, the latter from uniting with Kurdish areas in Turkey and agitating for a Kurdish state. Both must be granted some sort of limited autonomy but kept under close US control.

With Iraq’s oil resources now accessible to American oil companies, and with Chavez gone from Venezuela, the power of OPEC will have been crushed. Oil prices will fall and the American economy will be saved from ruin (for the time being). American oil companies will grow rich. With large numbers of troops now permanently stationed in the Middle East, the US will have become an overt military empire.


That is the outcome if everything goes as expected. Unfortunately, however, a new Iraq war would hardly be the first unprovoked US military adventure, and experience has shown that such adventures often don’t go according to plan (does the word Vietnam ring any bells?). What could go wrong in this instance? One hardly knows where to start.

What if the Iraqi people decide to resist invasion rather than welcoming their American
liberators? The campaign could become a house-to-house urban war of attrition with mounting casualties on both sides. At the same time, Saddam Hussein, realizing that he is done for, might well decide to unleash every weapon in his arsenal, with the hope of provoking the widest possible conflagration in the region. The US would then need more than the minimal 200,000 ground troops it is now planning to deploy, and the draft might have to be reinstated. That would in turn provoke more anti-war protests at home, and thus necessitate more government repression. If other states in the region are overthrown by Islamist opposition movements as a result of popular uprisings triggered by the war, efforts by the US to occupy those nations might seriously overextend American forces; then, rather than face defeat on any front, commanders might resort to the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Israel, perhaps finding itself under attack from Arab neighbor states, might itself decide to unleash some of its 200 or so nukes. At the same time, popular outrage throughout the Arab and Muslim world at US actions might result in a dramatic increase in anti-American “terrorism” worldwide. Pakistan, which (unlike Iraq) does have functional nuclear weapons, could easily fall to the Islamists; if that were to happen, a nuclear device would probably come to the hands of al Qaida in short order. Not only would the US economy be shattered by high oil prices and the costs of war, but American cities, and citizens abroad, would be imperiled.

In sum, an outcome in which a years-long World War is triggered, with multiple nuclear weapons being detonated and hundreds of thousands or millions being killed, may be about as likely as that in which everything goes as the war planners hope.

All of this to maintain and extend the power of small group of criminal ideologues in Washington, and to keep American motorists fueled up and mobile for another decade or so.

Who Wants This War?

The potential consequences of the imminent American attack on Iraq are fairly evident to people in most nations around the world—except the people of the US. Here, politicians and pundits alike drone on about the menace of Saddam, while virtually no one dares mention the far greater menace to global peace posed by the geopolitical strategists in the White House. The American people are deeply unaware of their predicament; with the encouragement of television they are—as more than one commentator has put it, and on more than one occasion—“sleepwalking through history.” One might get the impression that this is a nation of imbeciles (and this does seem to be the view from the rest of the world); but Americans aren’t inherently any more stupid than anyone else. They are being deliberately and systematically dumbed down. Their attention is distracted and manipulated from morning till night by slick PR professionals in both corporate and government offices.

One tool in the arsenal of these professional opinion shapers is the poll. These days we are told that most Americans favor an attack on Iraq, and most think that Mr. Bush is doing a splendid job in leading this brave nation. The polls tend to be deeply disheartening to those who make any attempt whatever to see current events in historical and international context. But one has to view the polls in perspective. What are people actually being asked? Perhaps if questions were rephrased, answers would be more meaningful. What if a random sample were asked, “Do you get your news from alternative sources and think critically about world issues?” The portion of the sample that replied affirmatively might almost exactly correspond with the 40% of the population that is reputed to disapprove of the “president’s” job performance. Other possible questions: “Do you watch lots of television and pay minimal attention to civic and world affairs? Are you so absorbed with work and family that you just don’t have time to think about much else?” Those who gave an affirmative reply to those questions would, one might well guess, correspond almost identically with the 60% who are said to approve of Bush and his war plans. The latter group is, in effect, saying to pollsters, “Yeah, sure, whatever.” (“Do you approve of the way the ‘president’ is doing his job?” “Yeah, sure, whatever.” “Do you want a World War to erupt in the Middle East?” “Whatever.”)

Meanwhile the overwhelming majority of letters, phone calls, faxes, and e-mails that have recently poured into the offices of the “president” and members of Congress, as a congressional bill authorizing war was being debated, expressed opposition to an attack. Even senior CIA and Pentagon officials expressed skepticism. Global opinion remains almost unanimously anti-war. It appears that nobody wants this war except the tiny circle of far-right strategists surrounding Bush. Yet no one appears able to stand up to these people forcibly enough to stop them. Most of the Democrats in Congress, like Bush, are simply watching the polls and looking toward the November elections; there’s no political capital to be made by taking a strong anti-war stand. So the Bushies will probably have their war. And heaven help us all.


Sic Transit Imperium Americanum

George W. Bush aspires to be a Caesar, make no mistake about it. But despite his bellicosity and imperial pretensions, the comparison with Julius utterly fails. Bush jr. perhaps bears more resemblance to some of the feeble and dissolute hereditary emperors of the third century, men whose names are familiar now only to specialist historians.


In reality, the American empire passed its zenith in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as US oil production peaked and the nation squandered its financial wealth on a pointless war in Southeast Asia. Since then, as its petroleum resources and gold reserves have dwindled, the US has been steadily losing ground both politically and economically. Post-peak America is awash in debt, dependent on imports, and mired in corruption. Nations around the world fear its military and watch its television shows, but ridicule its leaders and policies. The far-right ideologues who have hijacked the political and strategic leadership of the country fancy themselves as establishing an American empire, whereas they must know in their heart-of-hearts that they are merely presiding over that empire’s inevitable twilight. Their chest-thumping patriotic triumphalism would be pathetic if it were not so profoundly perilous. The gambit of an Iraq war is a desperate measure, a floundering attempt to maintain power and authority that are fast slipping away. But, like the flailings of a person caught in quicksand, these efforts can only hasten the undertow. The US can still destroy, but cannot control the rest of the world. Bush, after all, is just a Caesar wannabe with nukes.

The fall of Rome occurred over several centuries. The fall of imperial America will be much more dramatic and impactful, and much quicker, lasting only decades at the most. What a shame that such a momentous time in the history of the world should be presided over by people who are not only greedy and ruthless (one can almost take that for granted), but talentless and unimaginative as well.

Richard Heinberg
is a journalist, educator, editor, lecturer, and musician based in Santa Rosa, California. He has lectured widely, appearing on national radio and television in five countries. He is on the faculty of the New College of California, where he teaches courses on Energy and Society, and Culture, Ecology and Sustainable Community. Heinberg writes and publishes The MuseLetter, “a monthly exploration of cultural renewal,” where this essay first appeared. Dissident Voice very highly recommends and encourages folks to check out and support The MuseLetter. Email: