The Audacity of Empire

If there is one unmistakable difference between Bush's wars and Obama's wars it boils down to this: we now have a president who can almost perfectly pronounce the names of the cities and villages US troops will occupy and bomb.

Adapted from a talk at a conference titled "Obama's Occupations" held at Pomona College, December 4, 2009.

"Unlike the great powers of old, we have not sought world domination. Our union was founded in resistance to oppression. We do not seek to occupy other nations. We will not claim another nation's resources or target other peoples because their faith or ethnicity is different from ours."

With these words President Barack Obama sought to reframe the imperial ambitions of the United States. He was speaking at the West Point military academy on December 1, 2009. But this was no marker of the change the world was waiting for in American foreign policy. The President was announcing the escalation of the war in Afghanistan, a country US and NATO troops have been occupying and bombing for over 8 years. There will now be at least 100,000 US combat troops in Afghanistan. But Obama would like us to believe they are not actually occupying Afghanistan.

"The people of Afghanistan have endured violence for decades. They have been confronted with occupation—by the Soviet Union, and then by foreign al Qaeda fighters who used Afghan land for their own purposes. So tonight, I want the Afghan people to understand—America seeks an end to this era of war and suffering. We have no interest in occupying your country."

Now that the US will have more troops in Afghanistan than Iraq and almost as many troops there as the Soviets did at the height of their Afghan occupation, it's only fitting that Obama must insist his escalation of war is actually an exit strategy. The only way to end the war is to expand the war.

Far from stirring the comatose anti-war movement out of its long slumber, Obama's Orwellian justification of war was instead sanctified with a Nobel prize for peace. After a perfunctory nod to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Obama used his acceptance speech to launch an unapologetic defense of the notion of a just war, the idea that violence can be sometimes morally justified and necessary. Just as non-violence did not stop the Nazis, he warned, peaceful negotiations will not stop Al Qaeda.

"To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism; it is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man and the limits of reason."

While reason might have its limits, the reach of American empire in its hunt for "Al Qaeda safe havens" is apparently limitless and unconstrained by domestic and international law. As the Obama administration wages a "struggle against violent extremism and diffuse enemies," we can now measure just how far we've come: we've left behind the Bush-era fight against "rogue states" and the "Axis of Evil" only to move into the age of targeting "ungoverned spaces," "disorderly regions," and "failed states." The war on terror may be over but those diffuse enemies could crop up just about anywhere and US Special Forces and unmanned drones are ready to take them out without the slightest concern for due process, legal oversight, or Congressional authorization. Secret prisons in Afghanistan, covert operations in Yemen and Somalia, an undisclosed war in Pakistan, and a rising toll of disappeared, tortured, and dead civilians: Sarah Palin didn't have her notes quite right, this is a snapshot of America's foreign policy with a constitutional law professor at the helm.

If there is one unmistakable difference between Bush's wars and Obama's wars it boils down to this: we now have a president who can almost perfectly pronounce the names of the cities and villages US troops will occupy and bomb. We just can't call it occupation. It's "enlightened self-interest" as Obama emphasized during that same Nobel speech.

"Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: the United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. ... We have borne this burden, not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest."

Should we be surprised? Although Obama was the anti-war candidate compared to hawkish Hillary Clinton and John "bomb, bomb, bomb Iran" McCain, he was no pacifist. Right from the start of the presidential campaign in 2008, Obama pledged to expand the war in Afghanistan and into neighboring Pakistan. And talking to a crowd at an anti-war rally in October 2002 organized by Chicagoans Against War in Iraq the young state Senator was clear about where he stood:

"I'm not opposed to all wars, I'm opposed to dumb wars. That's what I'm opposed to. A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics."

So as NATO and the Afghan army prepare to attack the Taliban-controlled town of Marja this February, perhaps the area's 80,000 residents should take heart that they are fleeing a smart and principled war and not a dumb one based on outright deception. And the families of 123 Pakistani civilians killed by 12 US drone attacks this January should be relieved that they lost their loved ones to a rational and carefully thought-out (but still secret) war and not a rash one based on neoconservative fervor. But such differences are suddenly irrelevant when you're on the receiving end of the bombs.

If we go further back in history Obama begins to sound more and more like every US president before him trying to justify American imperial overreach, cloaking it in the seductive language of liberation. And not very different from those old colonial powers Americans try so hard to distinguish themselves from. To turn to just one example—for history is littered with such empty words—this is what Lt. Gen. Sir Stanley Maude said to the people of Baghdad when British forces entered the city in March of 1917:

"Since the days of Halaka, your city and your lands have been subject to the tyranny of strangers, your palaces have fallen into ruins, your gardens have sunk in desolation and your forefathers and yourselves have groaned in bondage... our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators."

Domination masquerading as liberation is an old propaganda tactic of empires but it rarely works among the populations subjugated by this type of emancipation.


When Obama won the elections over a year ago, it felt like America had entered a new era and many hoped that the age of imperial hubris was over. For at least half of this country it felt like we were emerging from 8 years of purgatory, 8 years of a nightmare under a cabal of rulers we didn't even elect in the first place. America had elected its first African-American president. This was America's historic moment of justifiable pride. A time of change and hope. America would no longer be the international pariah and the war in Iraq could finally end.

Just over a year later in the midst of a continuing recession, rising poverty, and record unemployment, President Obama has proposed a freeze on domestic spending over the next 3 years, with one exception—the war budget. Military spending would grow over three percent in addition to separate funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for a total of over $741 billion.

But, in our desperate search for some evidence of hope and change, some hold on to Obama's pledge to leave Iraq.


Indeed, at his State of the Union address Obama once again said his administration was "responsibly leaving Iraq to its people." He promised that "all of our combat troops [will be] out of Iraq by the end of this August."

Combat troops might be coming home but what about the 120,000 private military contractors in Iraq? Why is their exit not a part of a "responsible" end to the war? There has been an increase of 52% in the number of armed private contractors working for the United States inside Iraq under Obama. After years of public pressure to bring the troops back from Iraq, that might indeed become a reality. But the war and occupation of Iraq will continue, this time with a privatized and unaccountable military force.

Hundreds of Iraqis die every month in bloody bombings that continue to take place every week. We've just stopped noticing them here. The worst brutalities of the sectarian civil war might be over, but if such deadly bombings on a similar scale were taking place almost anywhere else in the world with such regularity, it would be on the front pages of every newspaper. But not Iraq. Not now.

A country devastated by a decade of American and British sanctions and then bombed from above, its people humiliated, arrested, tortured, maimed, and killed with impunity, its infrastructure destroyed, and its natural resources—with the exception of oil of course—polluted beyond use. But that's all irrelevant. Now, Iraq must be repackaged as a success.

What is the reality of life in Iraq today? Do Iraqis have a chance to shape their future? They are ruled by a corrupt government, their armed forces are sectarian, and most households in cities and towns in the country still don't have reliable electricity or clean drinking water 6 and a half years after the invasion. As for the dead, no one knows how many Iraqis have died since the invasion of 2003—at the hands of US forces, private mercenaries, or sectarian militias unleashed by the war. The estimates range from a jaw-dropping 100,000 to a truly staggering 1 million.

But dreams of justice or reparations are in short supply. On New Year's Eve, in a sad coda to a decade of massacres, a Washington, DC judge dismissed the Justice Department's criminal case against 5 Blackwater (now Xe) employees for the fatal shooting of 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad's Nissour Square two and a half years earlier.

Obama has no words for the dead or the families they left behind. But Iraq isn't his war. It was a war of choice, as he keeps saying, and not a choice he made.


Afghanistan on the other hand is a war of necessity and along with Pakistan, is now Obama's war. Since coming to office, Obama has more than doubled US troop levels in Afghanistan by at least 51,000 to 100,000. Meanwhile there are now 101,000 armed private contractors in Afghanistan.

A war of necessity. Obama's own National Security Adviser General Jim Jones said in October that there are less than 100 Al Qaeda members in Afghanistan and they have no ability to launch attacks on the US or its allies. But we have one hundred thousand US combat troops to take on 100 alleged Al Qaeda members. Over a 1,000 soldiers from the most powerful army in the world for each alleged Al Qaeda member. And that's not even counting troops from other NATO countries or the private military contractors.

Obama might have promised to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan by 2011, but a closer look at Pentagon spending tells a different story. Last year the Pentagon awarded nearly a billion dollars in taxpayer money for construction contracts in Afghanistan, most of them on US military bases across Afghanistan. These are not the actions of US military poised for withdrawal. This is preparation for a more permanent presence.

A war of necessity. Have we asked the families of the over 2,000 Afghan civilians who were killed since Obama came to office? As troop sizes increase, as the war waged by unmanned drones expands, it's the civilians of Afghanistan who pay the ultimate price. The exact count of how many have died since the US invasion began in October 2001 is not known but could be in the tens of thousands. Do all those who are left behind think this is the "good" war?

And to those who still have to ask, but isn't life better now than under the reviled Taliban? Better for whom? Yes it's better for the corrupt circle of warlords and drug lords the United States has helped bring to and keep in power. These are men, yes almost all of them men, that Bush helped install after routing the Taliban, with abysmal track records in everything America's pundits and politicians say they want to see in Afghanistan: accountability, transparency, human rights, freedom of expression, women's rights, and democracy.

Who else is life better for? Well certainly for the 101,000 private armed contractors who make a killing off the continued occupation of Afghanistan.

And perhaps most damning of all, 8 years after the US-NATO bombing began, the Taliban and other affiliated armed groups are back and now control over 80% of the country. Many of these groups, now attacking the US-NATO presence in the country, were once on the CIA's payroll. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani were both US allies fighting the Soviets in the 1980s; now they lead two of the biggest insurgent groups allied with the Taliban.

But these militant groups are so ubiquitous and their power so much a fact of life that the Pentagon ends up indirectly funneling millions of dollars to them so that they don't attack the civilian trucking convoys supplying the fast-growing constellation of US bases. Put simply, the Pentagon is ultimately paying the very same Taliban that the US army is supposed to fight.

And what about the women? Zoya, a brave young activist with the underground organization RAWA—the revolutionary association of the women of Afghanistan—has lived under what she describes as three anti-women regimes: the mujahideen (who killed her leftist parents), the Taliban, and now the US-NATO occupation. If the principled goal of this smart war was the liberation of women—then as Zoya and countless other women from Afghanistan have repeatedly emphasized, it's been a colossal failure. Violence against women is incredibly high. Caught between American drone attacks and the institutionalized misogyny of both the armed militias and the Karzai government, more and more Afghan women are trying to kill themselves.


2009 also happened to be the deadliest for occupying forces in Afghanistan. Nearly 500 foreign occupying troops have been killed in Afghanistan this year, 300 of them Americans. Unsurprisingly a record number of soldiers are refusing to deploy to Afghanistan and suicide rates in the army reached their highest ever last year.

Well, one strategy to keep US troops out of harm's way is to increase reliance on high-tech warfare, particularly the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to track and kill humans on the ground. And this is what has been happening in parts of Afghanistan and the border areas of Pakistan. Domestically the cost of this remote-controlled war has been low—the pilots operating the drones are tens of thousands of miles away from the battlefield, cocooned from any possibility of retaliation as the press of a button from Nevada and Virginia drops Hellfire missiles on North and South Waziristan, some of the poorest regions of Pakistan. An estimated 90% of households in the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies live on under $2 a day. These are the landscapes President Obama is now bombing with impunity.

How much easier it is to wage an unmanned war from the skies against a country increasingly demonized by the American media and political class as the true villain of this epic passion play. It's the Pakistani intelligence that created the Taliban, it's Pakistan where most of the Al Qaeda safe havens are, and it's Pakistan that's a nuclear-armed state that could potentially fall into the hands of the Taliban, and by extension Al Qaeda. If Iraq was the dumb war, and Afghanistan was the just war, Pakistan is surely on course to becoming the smartest war of them all.

The military has a surgical name for the drone attacks: targeted assassinations. It sounds clean and neat unlike the messy collateral damage Bush had to deal with in the early years of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Not even one week had passed after Obama's inauguration, and most of the world was still celebrating. But on January 23rd 2009 President Obama authorized his first act of war against a country the US has not declared war with. Over the rest of the year he authorized at least 42 CIA missile strikes inside Pakistan; approximately one bombing a week. That's as many drone attacks as Bush sanctioned in his final 3 years in office. This January, Obama stepped up the strikes, authorizing a record 12 drone attacks in a single month, killing 123 civilians and 3 alleged Al-Qaeda leaders.

Estimates of the total number of people killed in Pakistan by drone attacks since our anti-war president took office range between 500 and 800. That's a lot of alleged high-value terrorists who were targeted for assassination in just over 12 months.

A more careful look at the numbers, however, tells a different story. Military insiders David Kilcullen, a former counterinsurgency adviser to General David Petraeus, and Andrew Exum, a former Army Officer in Iraq and Afghanistan, estimated in May that of the 700 people these strikes have killed in Pakistan since 2006, only 14 were found to be alleged high-value terrorists. That translates into a success rate of 2%, or collateral damage of 50 civilians for each alleged high-value terrorist.

Former champions of the drones are now questioning their efficacy, but are they legal? Phillip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, doesn't think so. He says the Obama administration is violating international law with these indiscriminate attacks.

But the drone attacks show no sign of abating. Instead, the CIA has been authorized to further expand its drone program in Pakistan to keep up with the surge of ground troops in Afghanistan. News reports suggest that American officials could also consider striking the restive province of Baluchistan, an area rich in both natural gas and resentment against the Pakistani state. Since September 11, 2001, in a now familiar narrative, repression and disappearances in Baluchistan dramatically increased under the rubric of Pakistan's domestic war on terror. The CIA and the Pakistani state have both been reportedly training counter-insurgency forces to repress the Baluchi resistance, which the Pakistani state is trying to conflate with the Taliban. And it is from this very same area that American forces have also been reportedly training operatives for another kind of action, attacking Iran.

If the CIA's predator drone attacks weren't enough, the army's top covert operation force (JSOC—Joint Special Operations Command) is also running a similar but separate and even more secret assassination program inside Pakistan. Investigative reports suggest that private military contractors like the notorious Blackwater—now Xe—could be quite centrally involved in operating this program.

All this activity in a country, it bears repeating, the US is not officially at war with.


If we still believe that Obama's promise of withdrawing US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan by 2011 means an end to war and occupation, we are truly living in the United States of Amnesia. What we have is an extremely militaristic president who can shamelessly cite his opposition to the war in Iraq while simultaneously expanding the war in Afghanistan, the illegal drone attacks in Pakistan, a covert offensive in Yemen, and a range of other military activities in a number of other countries, including growing the military presence in Colombia, expanding AFRICOM, and refusing to de-escalate the long-standing US bases in South Korea and Japan.

Empire's footprint is not getting any smaller under Obama. Never mind the fact that he wasn't afraid back in the day before he ran for office of being friends with activists like Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dorn and Reverend Jeremiah Wright or of having dinner with the late Edward Said to discuss Palestinian rights and US support for Israel's apartheid state.

The gap between Obama's stirring rhetoric and disappointing reality is perhaps widest when it comes to Palestine. For it's here that the audacity of empire has always been most stark—in America's indulgent silence toward Israel and mendacity toward Palestinians, in being anything but an honest broker.

On his very first day in office, Barack Obama promised that a "just and lasting peace" between Israel and the Palestinians would be a central goal of his administration. At a rousing speech in Cairo less than six months later he described the situation for Palestinians as "intolerable" and called for a "freeze" on Israeli settlement building. In September, he organized a face-to-face meeting between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in New York and reiterated his commitment to a two-state solution. He also pushed for the renewal of so-called permanent status negotiations, in other words, talks relating to the thorny issues of Jerusalem, borders, settlements, water, and refugees—all issues that Israel has successfully stymied since the start of the Oslo peace process in 1993. At his much awaited speech before the General Assembly, Obama pledged to "break old patterns" and "say publicly what we acknowledge in private" about the conflict.

Perhaps change actually had come to Washington?

Meanwhile Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has continued to build illegal Jewish-only settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem with impunity. The American demand for a freeze in settlement building was toned down in a few months to a call for restraint. After approving the construction of even more Jewish-only units in East Jerusalem, when Netanyahu conceded to a partial 10-month freeze on West Bank settlements, the US administration commended him for his "generous offer". The experts want to know why the Palestinians continue to insist on a complete stop to settlement building. They might want to remember that at the start of the Oslo peace process in 1993, there were just over 116,000 settlers in the West Bank. Now there are half a million settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Meanwhile not a word from the Obama administration about Israel's brutal 22-day assault on Gaza that killed some 1400 Palestinians or Israel's cruel siege—enforced with Egypt's help—on the 1.5 million people living in Gaza. At his speech to the UN this September, Obama said:

"The world must stand together to demonstrate that international law is not an empty promise and that treaties will be enforced."

For a moment I imagined he was talking about Israel's illegal settlements, policies of collective punishment, or Judge Richard Goldstone's final report from the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict that had just come out. But no, Obama was talking about Iran and its nuclear program.

Gaza is a humanitarian crisis, a political disaster, and an enduring injustice paid for by American taxpayers at the rate of $3 billion dollars a year. In 2008 the Bush administration signed an agreement promising Israel $30 billion in aid over the next decade on the condition that Israel use 75 percent of the money to purchase US arms. The Obama administration has shown no sign of changing the terms of this agreement. Besides giving lip service to the idea of a Palestinian state, the administration remains committed to Israel and its security concerns.

So where does our solidarity lie?

The people being displaced, starved, and bombed or those making a killing off the war?

We must refuse the opportunistic nihilism and brutality of groups like Al Qaeda. But what this administration—like those that came before— is doing is forcing thousands of people living in the "ungoverned spaces" of the world to decide between two impossible choices: turning to armed Islamist groups for protection or losing one's home, family, sanity, and life to American-made bombs and secret prisons.

Afghanistan remains the 5th poorest country in the world despite billions of dollars being poured into that country. Hundreds of thousands are still displaced from their homes because of American-led or American-supported military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There still isn't enough cement in Gaza to rebuild the homes destroyed by Israel because the United States continues to support Israel's inhumane blockade of Gaza. And Iraq still hasn't regained pre-war levels of electrical supply.

But the drumbeats of war aren't stopping. We're told that these wars are waged and Israel is supported at all costs in order to protect "our way of life." But the biggest threat to the American way of life isn't coming from anywhere in the so-called Muslim world. It's right here in the United States.

It's the bailout of the super-rich. The inability to provide quality health care to all people in this country. The failure to properly treat veterans with PTSD. The refusal to scrap the Patriot Act. The massive budget cuts that are causing record numbers of Americans to slip unnoticed into poverty, homelessness, and hunger. These are the biggest threats to our way of life.

America's imperial war machine isn't doing a thing to reduce the threats to the American way of life. But it is destroying the possibility for millions of people in other parts of the world to live a decent life.

So is the Obama administration simply continuing Bush-era policies or is it an exacerbation? In Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen it certainly is far worse. We'll only be able to assess the true extent of the difference in a few years. What is dangerous however is how Obama's personal history and charisma have been used to rebrand the deepening tentacles of Empire into something more palatable—peacekeeping, counterinsurgency, training national armies, and democracy promotion. Brand Obama is extremely powerful and seductive. That's probably why it beat Apple to win the advertising industry's best marketing campaign of 2008.

And for those who retain some hope that all the change we want for our lives will come from the ballot box and decisions made at the White House, it's worth remembering the words of Emma Goldman: "If voting changed anything they'd make it illegal"


What physically and politically constitutes an empire is variously defined. It might be a state effecting imperial policies, or a particular political structure. -Steven C. Wyer
This post has helped me for an article which I am writing. Thank you for giving me another point of view on this topic. Now I can easily complete my article. Cheers and thanks for posting something worth reading. Allahabad Bank in Faridabad & Allahabad Bank in Gurgaon & Allahabad Bank in Bahadurgarh We do not seek to absorb added nations. We will not affirmation addition nation's assets or ambition added peoples because their acceptance or ethnicity is altered from ours.

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