State of the Empire & Fighting to Stay Its Hand

Notes for the Panel Presentation by Max Elbaum at the In It to Win It School – January 29, 2013

*When it comes to war, peace and empire, we are in a very complex, volatile and painful period. One full of violence and brutality, with imperial and colonial military actions and all the racist & Islamophobic outpourings that go with them; ethnic and sectarian religious conflicts; bitter fights over resources; use of terrorism by non-state actors; and extensive state terrorism. For the lives of millions of people, as well as the process of social change, a tremendous amount is at stake in whether that violence is minimized or if it spins out of control.

*This violence stems ultimately from the fact that we live in an era where exploitative and unequal social relations dominate the planet. But it’s not just that general truth. Challenges are exacerbated because we are in a period of reconfiguration of world power.

*Essence of that reconfiguration is that the US – for the last 60-plus years the world’s hegemonic power – is in decline. Power is slipping away from Washington and being diffused over rest of the globe. Not short-term phenomena. A deeply rooted historical trend. What’s more, it’s accelerating, moving faster than had been predicted just a few years ago.

*US still largest economy in world. But GDP was down to 25% world economy in 1990, now down to 20%. In 1945 it was 50%.

*China projected to overtake US as world’s largest economy in five years. That’s a change from projections just a decade ago, when supposed to take place in 2040 or 2050. Accompanied by rise of other BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, South Africa – and global South generally. More and more South-South direct trade & other economic relationships, these used to go through the north.

*Hollowed out economic base US. Manufacturing in huge decline, losing lead in key technology like green energy. US Infrastructure collapsing. While other countries build fast rail, US in the last decade lost two major cities, with no serious government-led effort to rebuild. Does anyone in this room think it is an accident that New Orleans & Detroit were centers of African American life and political & cultural power?

*Economic decline means political decline: Jim O’Neill, chair of asset management at Goldman Sachs, writes: “the world is no longer dependent on leadership US and Europe.” Middle East expert Juan Cole a few months ago: “Just a decade ago the US was castigated by its critics as a hyper-power. Now it is beset by debt, mired in economic doldrums provoked by the corruption of its business classes and on the verge of withdrawing from Iraq and ultimately Afghanistan in defeat.”

*US military power remains unsurpassed. But even that usefulness blunted; military adventure started after 9/11 was aimed at turning Middle East into neocolony and ensure another 100 years of US domination. It was supposed to be one regime change after another. Remember the time when the elite slogan was ‘wimps go to Baghdad, real men go to Tehran”? It didn’t work; in fact, it has in fact shown limits of US military power, over-extended the US politically, militarily & financially and accelerated the US decline. Key factor in sparking Arab Spring, which for all its difficulties and complexities, is an uprising from grassroots that is a threat to empire and of world historic importance.

*So we are in a period of transition from one global arrangement to whatever comes next, a transition where there is a sharp class of class and national interests. The question is not whether those interests clash. They will. But what form will those clashes take, how violent will they be, how fast can US domination be further eroded and how much violence and destruction will accompany that process, who will suffer most, who will gain advantage?

*All intensified by additional factors, I will mention only two:

*Climate Change. Effect on resources and very survivability of many countries. Impact is unprecedented in world history and huge.

*Second, fact that world where main lines of battle were between imperialist camp headed by US and a progressive alignment of non-capitalist states and movements led by leftists is gone. From early 20th century to end of Cold War, battles lines of world took that form. Many deep problems in the socialist, communist and other states and movements of that period. But by and large, stood for progressive economic and social agenda, rights of women, for conducting anti-imperialist struggle based on mass mobilization rather than terrorism against civilians, and as much as they could keeping the liberation fight on the least violent terrain possible, which is always in the interest of the laboring masses, women and children, since it is these already vulnerable constituencies who always suffer most from war and violence.

*But this world is gone. Many parts of the globe, in fact almost everywhere outside Latin America, many if not most of the largest forces confronting US are much more uneven mixture. Other capitalist states, movements based on narrow ethnic or reactionary theocratic principles, no progressive social or economic agenda, and preferring terrorism against civilians to popular mobilization.

*We cannot afford to underestimate how complicated this makes our task of fighting for peace and working to stay the hand of the empire so oppressed peoples around the world have the best possible conditions to chart their own destinies. Here’s the latest example. Many here familiar with Samir Amin, revolutionary intellectual and activist, head of Third World Forum in Dakar Senegal, for decades one of main champions of liberation movements of global South against western imperialism and racism. Amin has come out in favor of the French intervention in Mali, calls for them and allies to sweep to victory over what he deems the greater danger from political Islamists. It’s not a question agreeing with Amin – for myself, I wasn’t persuaded by his article. But when a Samir Amin supports French troops fighting in Africa, one knows that old formulas and simply saying ‘we’re anti-imperialists’ are not adequate to current moment.

Next: How is this period of US decline translating into US politics, both at elite and popular levels; and what does it mean for staying the hand of the empire and antiwar, anti-militarist strategy?

*Start at elite level, where bitter fight underway between two tendencies, the Neoconservatives and the Realists. Both agree on maximizing US hegemony, keeping US number one, defending imperial power and privileges. But big differences over how to do that.

*Neocons look around and believe only way to keep US on top is much more aggressive use of military force. They think problem in Iraq and Afghanistan – to the extent they admit there have been any problems – is that US wasn’t aggressive enough. Same as their line on Vietnam – Washington too squeamish, fought with one hand tied behind its back. Solution in Middle East, Africa, across globe – unleash the military.

*The Neocons have a popular base in the large body of folks who are freaked out by fact that ‘white Christian America’ might not be on top. They see themselves as victims of growing numbers of uppity dark-skinned people abroad at home. These folks are trying not just to keep America number one abroad, or even just to reverse the gains of the civil rights movement and new deal. They are still fighting the Civil War. This conflict has been a central thread of US history and is resurfacing in new forms today.

*One other point: the Neocon and racist right is increasingly intertwined with Israeli right wing. Their Greater Israel project is also based on addiction to permanent war, demonization of Arabs and Muslims, and is a big factor in both world and US domestic politics.

*Then a more realist wing of elite. Want to shore up hegemony but grasp limits of US power in changing world. Want to use a different mix of military force and soft power; less unilateral; and concede in some areas if pressured enough. The folks Noam Chomsky says at least dwell in the real world. They don’t want major invasions – they think those don’t work, are too expensive, drain rather than advance US power. But they still believe in US of military force in other ways. They will use as weapons of choice drones, special ops and high-tech cyber attacks. They try to cultivate client governments and outsource as much of the ‘dirty work’ of repression and killing as possible. They back Israel, but they are not ready as the Neocons are to dispense with notion of cobbling together some kind of two-state arrangement they hope would defuse the Palestinian struggle while leaving Israel in a position of power and privilege. This wing of the foreign policy elite is in power today in Obama administration.

*Very challenging for us. Our agenda opposed to both of these elite perspectives. They want to maintain empire, we are trying to stay its hand and ultimately defeat it. But it is wise to take into account the differences between these two sings in determining our strategy. Here’s an illustration.

*Right now there is a nasty, bullying sanctions regime against Iran, special ops, cyber-war, fanning lies about Iran’s nuclear program. We’re against all that and as often as feasible mount protests against this policy and try to influence public opinion. But here’s the kind of scenario the Pentagon and other elite war-planners have gamed out if the Neocons were in charge. A US air strike at Iranian nuclear sites. Iran in response closes Straits of Hormuz, blocking much of world’s flow of oil and setting off global economic crisis. US, with the backing of the Saudis and other reactionary Gulf states, escalates with troops in order to open straits and overthrow regime in Iran. There are heavy US casualties against fierce Iranian resistance, and also attacks labeled terrorism against US targets, both military and civilian, globally. Wave of Islamophobia and repression here makes post 9/11 look like only a rehearsal. And the Israelis decide that with much of the Gulf and Sunni Arab state leadership lined up with the US against Iran, it’s a good time to expel a million or two Palestinians from the West Bank.

*What we have now, and that scenario, are both in service of empire. But they are not the same in terms of its impact on people’s lives and the terrain on which we fight. Folks have to weigh the meaning of these differences in determining antiwar and anti-imperialist strategy & tactics.

*Which gets to last point. Strategies for staying the empire’s hand here.

Look at some of main sectors and patterns. (For a more in-depth look at this issue, see the recent strategy discussion paper from War Times, ‘New Moment, New Movement,’ on the web here.)

*Already mentioned the hard right, those ready to back any US military action to the hilt. Large base in white Republican areas, hard core Christian and Jewish Zionism and the Israel Lobby.

*Then there is a vast middle. Stretches from sections of white conservative folks even into layers of the constituencies folks in this room are working in. Worried about terrorism and have bought into notions of US #1. But tired of wars, some for at least in part moral reasons, but more commonly because they just didn’t work and they cost too much. This broad layer wants quick wars with no casualties and easy victories; they don’t like difficult, losing wars. After a while most want to make the whole thing go away so the US can “take care of its own.”

*A large sector of folks leaning progressive. Found in constituencies hurt most by empire – immigrant communities, communities of color, working class and the labor movement, large numbers of youth and women overlapping with these other social categories. Oriented toward some kind of change in priorities and US role in world. Sentiments run toward peace rather than war. But many believe the wars are over. And even among those who know they aren’t, attention in today’s period of austerity and economic crisis is focused on urgent fights to protect living standards, against foreclosures and in defense of social programs, labor rights, voting rights, immigrant rights. Main energy is around these so-called ‘domestic issues.’ Even among the relatively small layer that has an orientation toward solidarity with oppressed peoples and critique of US as imperial power, focus is on those fights – for good reason. For many, hope is to build a new progressive bloc, millions strong, program jobs, justice, sustainable world. The challenge before we who believe in peace and international solidarity is to make the issues of peace, cutting the military budget and staying the empire’s hand (opposing US intervention, opposing blank check backing for Israel, opposing US backing for dictatorships and repressive regimes) an integral part of that emerging bloc.

*Means for example broad campaigns against military budget and the bent toward militarism generally. Effective messages are those such as “violence is not a solution to political and social problems in today’s interconnected world”; wars and military spending waste resources for human needs (as in Eisenhower’s speech against the military-industrial complex)”; the US needs a different relationship with the rest of the world, in Martin Luther King’s words, “we will live together brothers and sisters or perish together as fools.” That kind of politics can galvanize not just progressive constituencies. They speak to some sentiments held by the broad middle as well, so they can reach deeply into those millions tired of war. Exploring approaches like this fits in with theme of this week, drawing on Gramsci, figuring out how radicals can galvanize a historic or counter-hegemonic bloc, an alliance broad enough to impact immediate policy and build strength for the long haul.

*Certainly it is also our task is to build left core, expand those with a systemic critique. But too often there is a one-sided focus on that, and we forget that playing the biggest possible role in building the broad front is our best entryway to build the left as well. These processes develop best in tandem, and it’s counter-productive to leave the task of building the broadest front possible to folks to our right. Difficult and complicated as the terrain is right now, because Washington is still trying to retrench from defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan and there are so many in the US tired of wars, there is tremendous potential to make opposition to militarism and imperial adventures an integral part of the jobs-justice-equality-sustainable world progressive front that we can see glimpses of coming together on this country’s political horizon.