The Neo-Imperialists

Bush’s evolving empire goes well beyond devolving Iraq.

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

Aid and comfort to himself:Administration officials said Bush enjoys surprises and showing himself in charge, and Thursday’s whirlwind trip involved both. The president told reporters on Air Force One afterward that he had watched the landing from the cockpit and had spent weeks quizzing his pilot and military and security officials about the trip’s feasibility, insisting that it be scrapped if it endangered any Americans. ‘I was pretty tough,’ he said.

— Mike Allen, ‘With Iraq Trip, an Afterglow, but Uncertain Aftermath’, The Washington Post

Aid and comfort to the enemy:[A]nother member of the governing council, who asked not to be named, said the ‘excessive secrecy’ surrounding the visit could provide a propaganda boost to the insurgents. ‘They will be able to boast that they forced the most powerful man in the world to come in through the back door,’ he said.

— Michael Howard and Julian Borger, ‘Iraqis Express Cynicism at Bush’s 150-Minute Visit’, The Guardian

At Baghdad International Airport, the president has his triumphant photo-op moment, while in Baghdad our top commander, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez announces that attacks against American troops (but not Iraqis who work with us) have “dropped sharply” in the last two weeks, the weeks of Operation Iron Hammer. (The other day, though, Juan Cole of “Informed Consent” had an interesting alternative explanation:
“[I]t may… be that the end of Ramadan and the arrival of Eid al-Fitr [breaking the fast, a joyous holiday] has drawn even the guerrillas into an endless round of socializing. Contrary to what many Pentagon spokesmen and journalists seem to think, Ramadan and other Islamic holy days aren’t actually very good times to try to mobilize people for secular activities.”)

In the last two days, 2 Japanese diplomats and their driver, 7 Spanish intelligence agents, 2 South Korean electricians contracted by a U.S. company to lay power lines at an electricity transmission station near Tikrit, a Colombian civilian working for defense contractor Kellogg Brown & Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton, and two American soldiers patrolling on the border with Syria have died in a new round of attacks — and that’s without mentioning the many dead Iraqis or wounded Americans. Whether by inadvertence, planning, or more likely a combination of the two, these attacks, like past ones, hit at countries – Japan, South Korea, Spain – where support for American operations is embroiled in controversy and deeply unpopular, clearly attempting to strip away allies and further isolate the occupation forces and their Iraqis.

In the meantime, while American intelligence has been near to nonexistent in Iraq — why that should surprise anyone, given our prewar display of “intelligence” dexterity, bewilders me — fears are rising that our Iraqi opponents have been all too well informed about us. From the suicide bombing right under de Mello’s window at the Baghdad UN offices to the missiles that hit the floor below Paul Wolfowitz’s room at the al-Rashid Hotel, the enemy seems impressively in the know about American (and allied) activities.

In fact, a recent Associated Press report by Jim Krane summarizes Gen. Sanchez thusly on the subject:

“There is no evidence that al-Qaida terrorists have taken part in the long string of attacks on U.S. or Iraqi targets, but some U.S.-trained Iraqi police appear to have coordinated some of those assaults, the top U.S. military official in Iraq said Saturday.

U.S. military officials are concerned that some attacks on Americans have been coordinated by a few of the numerous Iraqi civilians hired by the U.S. military, who may glean intelligence on troop movements and travels of high-ranking officers, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez told reporters at the Baghdad Convention Center.”

This does have a Vietnam-like ring to it and points out the all-too-obvious dangers of “Iraqification,” the hurried half-training of a police force, civil defense corps and army, filled with god knows who, but certainly men you could never be sure were going to fight for you.

Bush’s photo-op in Baghdad was, to mangle a metaphor, the political equivalent of that Dutch boy’s finger in the dike, which, by the way, seems to be springing leaks elsewhere at a rapid pace. Bryan Bender of the Boston Globe, for instance, offers a picture of the war quite unlike the one the administration has been peddling:

“The guerrilla war in Iraq has moved steadily beyond the so-called Sunni Triangle and into areas of the country once considered peaceful, a potentially ominous development for security forces trying to restore order in the country. Since the end of major combat operations on May 1, nearly 40 percent of attacks on US and coalition targets have been outside the Sunni Triangle, home to many remnants of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s regime, according to internal Defense Department reports obtained by the Globe.”

So 40% of the attacks are no longer in the Sunni Triangle. Think about that. No wonder the Bush men are anxiously reshuffling the deck. Unfortunately for them, they don’t all seem to be at the same card table anymore, or even clear about what game they’re playing. At, the conservative William S. Lind recently offered this canny analysis of what’s going on in Washington, where 40% of the infighting has reputedly spread beyond the State Department and the Pentagon.

“What is interesting is that the most powerful man in Washington, Karl Rove, who is President George W. Bush’s political advisor, has apparently figured out that the Iraq war is lost (Afghanistan is not on his political radar screen). Further, he has discerned that if Mr. Bush goes into the 2004 election with the war in Iraq still going on, and still going badly, Mr. Bush is toast. The result was the recent decision to turn the government back to the Iraqis sometime next summer.

Will it work? Probably not. Mr. Rove still faces two big fights, and neither will be easy. The first will be a nasty political brawl with the so-called “neo-cons,” more accurately neo-Jacobins, who gave us the Iraq War in the first place. Their political future is at stake in Iraq, and if we are defeated, they go straight into history’s wastebasket. They are determined to fight down to the last American paratrooper, and once they figure out that Mr. Rove wants out, they will go after him with everything they have…”

But devolving Iraq is only part of a larger imperial picture seldom considered in this country.

The squawking chicken and other jokes (on us) from the new imperial era:

So here’s the chicken joke:

A man with a chicken perched on his shoulder seats himself at a bar and orders a boilermaker. After a few minutes, the chicken suddenly squawks, “Whatever happened to the peace dividend?” The bartender exclaims, “That’s amazing!” The guy with the chicken looks up surprised. “What’s so amazing?” he asks. The bartender says, “I’ve had a lot of talking chickens in this bar, but none of them ever mentioned the peace dividend.” The drinker replies with pride, “Well, he’s always had a mind for trivia.”

Okay, maybe it’s not quite a joke. I’m usually weak on my punch-lines which is no doubt why the phone never rings with job offers from sit-com writing teams. But you take my point. Can you even remember the moment — it was in the Neolithic Age just after the Berlin Wall dropped and the Soviet Union collapsed — that anyone was talking about a “peace dividend”? That was a moment when the Pentagon, resistant to a governmental version of corporate downsizing, was desperately casting about for enemies big enough to fit a Pentagon-sized budget. It quickly settled upon what were then called “rogue states,” now the Axis of Evil plus a few.

I was reminded of this the other day by a reference to that peace dividend in a British Guardian editorial about the $401.3 billion dollar Pentagon budget George Bush just signed into law – and, as the editorial pointed out:

“Amazingly, this figure does not include one-off appropriations for US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan of approximately $150bn. Overall US defence expenditure under Mr Bush is at record levels. It is higher, in relative terms, than equivalent, average American spending during the cold war years when a hostile Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact confronted the US and its allies with thousands of nuclear warheads deployed on land, at sea and in the air, as well as chemical and biological weapons and vast conventional forces.”

The Guardian editorial writers suggest that the 2004 “campaign slogan could almost be: ‘Vote for Bush. It’s really scary.'”

Looking back on the forgotten “peace dividend,” symbol of a thoroughly missed moment, it’s evident that what they got was a massive “war dividend,” while we got stiffed. All you have to do is consider that $401.3 billion, add in the Iraq and Afghan supplementals, toss in the bloated intelligence budget, and various black budgets and slush funds we undoubtedly know nothing about, and then for good measure stir in some percentage of the Dept. of Homeland Security’s militarized budget, not to speak of militarized bits and pieces of other agency budgets and it’s hard not to notice — though, to give them full credit, the media do a great job of trying — that our imperial presence is, essentially, a military one about which (given the levels of funding and corporate/Pentagon corruption) there is nothing Spartan whatsoever.

I’ll also recommend three recent essays on what to make of imperial America: Jonathan Schell explores whether we are a rising empire, a falling empire, or an empire at all. And he suggests provocatively that of the imperial tripod of military, economic, and political power, our imperial presence totally lacks a political leg, which means it’s always in danger of toppling over. He points, for instance, to Iraq:

“The new twist in policy is said to consist of ‘turning over’ power to ‘the Iraqis,’ but it’s not clear that the United States in fact yet possesses political power in Iraq or that the Iraqis in question – all American appointees – have or can acquire stature in their own country. For power, imperial or domestic, is not a fixed asset, like oil reserves, which can be turned over by one owner to another. In truth, the United States, for all its armed might, cannot really be said to exercise political power in Iraq, and it cannot hand over to someone else what it doesn’t yet possess.”

His thoughtful comments, however, appear at the Yale Global website and nowhere else. An excerpt from Chalmers Johnson’s remarkable upcoming book, The Sorrows of Empire, focuses on exactly what those “sorrows” are likely to be, but it too can only be found on-line at the Foreign Policy in Focus Website. And Guardian columnist George Monbiot just wrote his weekly column on why we shouldn’t be trapped in the administration’s “moral” arguments for war in Iraq:

“A superpower does not have moral imperatives. It has strategic imperatives. Its purpose is not to sustain the lives of other people, but to sustain itself. Concern for the rights and feelings of others is an impediment to the pursuit of its objectives. It can make the moral case, but that doesn’t mean that it is motivated by the moral case.”

But you’d be hard-put to find Monbiot’s column here off the Internet. In fact, our empire, whatever it might be and however awesome it might look elsewhere on this planet, is anything but a looming presence in our papers or on TV. It had a brief moment, when the right was touting us as the new Rome, but — I wonder why — that seems to have died down in recent months and with it our global footprint has more or less disappeared from the press. In any case, as best I can below, let me trace out a bit of that footprint, whose shape (to this modest detective) looks distinctly like that of a combat boot or two or three.

Making yourself comfortable on the SOFA:

Start with the fact that we have more than 700 bases abroad. Which means, of course, hundreds of thousands of Americans in uniform (and sometimes their dependents) are scattered around the world. You can get a sense of this from this graphic found at the website. Around that same world, the American government has negotiated Status of Forces Agreements or SOFAs that, in places like South Korea, give American soldiers who commit crimes of one sort or another in peacetime a kind of extraterritoriality and usually prevent them from having to face local courts which would be likely to pass far harsher judgments on them than the American military ever will.

This was a way of life for 19th century imperialists, who, for example, carved out little extraterritorial enclaves all along the coast of China. This was certainly the case of the collapsed empire of the Soviet Union, whose military men led privileged lives elsewhere in the Communist “bloc.” This is the peacetime way of life of the U.S. military whose forces abroad are largely shielded from local judgments. Increasingly, if the Bush administration has its way (thanks to bilateral agreements forced on other nations), American soldiers in wartime will be responsible to no other body, certainly not to the new International Criminal Court, for crimes of war or crimes against humanity.

When you consider whether the Bush administration is planning to withdraw from Iraq or simply planning to conduct withdrawal-like maneuvers with the 2004 election in mind, you should keep your eye on two things we’re incapable of seeing, because they are hardly ever reported on: the permanent bases we’re building in Iraq (see below) and whatever SOFA agreement we may negotiate with whatever new entity is set up (if it is) by next July.

What we do know now is that, despite the deaths of and injury to many Iraqis under questionable circumstances, no American soldier (that I know of anyway) has been punished for any act against the civilian population. Rory McCarthy of The Guardian reports, however, that:

“The US military has paid out $1.5m (£907,000) to Iraqi civilians in response to a wave of negligence and wrongful death claims filed against American soldiers… families have come forward with accounts of how American soldiers shot dead or seriously wounded unarmed Iraqi civilians with no apparent cause. In many cases their stories are confirmed by Iraqi police investigations…. Beyond the initial payments there is little recourse for the families of the dead. No American soldier has been prosecuted for illegally killing an Iraqi civilian and commanders refuse even to count the number of civilians killed or injured by their soldiers.”

And here’s the key passage in McCarthy’s piece:

“Iraqi courts, because of an order issued by the US-led authority in Baghdad in June, are forbidden from hearing cases against American soldiers or any other foreign troops or foreign officials in Iraq.”

This is in essence the equivalent of an imposed SOFA agreement on an occupied land. It is the functional definition not of the rights of an occupying power but of imperial impunity.

Bases as a way of life:

Here’s another of those subjects that is desperately hard to “see,” given our media. The world is our oyster when it comes to bases. They are almost everywhere. And where they aren’t, they are just about to appear. After each of our most recent wars — in Kosovo, in the Persian Gulf the first time around, and in Afghanistan — like some vast creature leaving its spoor behind, we’ve left strings of bases. So, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, we now have bases not only in Afghanistan but in the various ‘stans of Central Asia, where we are quietly dueling the Russians, the former imperial proprietors, for dominance. For instance, in the case of Kyrgyzstan, Pepe Escobar of Asia Times writes, the Russians and Americans have actually opened ofsetting bases.

And keep your eye on Georgia, once also part of the Soviet sphere. There may be more to its “velvet revolution,” Eric Margolis of the Toronto Sun tells us in his most recent column, than meets the eye:

“The latest recipient of Washington’s “regime change” was not some miscreant Muslim state but the mainly Christian mountain nation of Georgia. Eduard Shevardnadze, the 75-year-old strongman who has ruled post-Soviet Georgia’s 5.1 million citizens since 1991, was overthrown by a bloodless coup that appears to have been organized and financed by the Bush administration.

Shevardnadze’s sin, in Washington’s eyes, was being too chummy with Moscow and obstructing a major U.S. oil pipeline, due to open in 2005, from Central Asia, via Georgia, to Turkey. Georgia occupies the heart of the wild, unruly, and strategic Caucasus region, which I call the Mideast North. In recent months, Shevardnadze had given new drilling and pipeline concessions to Russian firms.”

We are, in Chalmers Johnson’s phrase, an “empire of bases.” This is our Great Game, even though there is no longer a Great Imperial Enemy to play it with. But if you read our papers you would have little idea that this was even a noticeable aspect of the U,S. presence abroad. We are now in the midst of what Bryan Bender of the Boston Globe calls the “most sweeping shift in the American military presence abroad since World War II,” and his piece, modest and vague as it may be, is about as good as it gets when it comes to coverage here:

“The military’s new emphasis is likely to be on geographic areas where US forces have increasingly found themselves fighting the global war on terrorism – particularly in the Middle East and Central Asia.

The United States has started expanding its network of small, sparsely populated facilities in Africa, Central and Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. In the last couple of years, US facilities have been established in the Horn of Africa (Djibouti), in former Soviet republics (Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan), and in former Eastern Bloc states (Bulgaria, Romania).”

And yet even in this piece there is nothing on our urge, for instance, to reestablish ourselves in the Philippines where we were forced from our bases in the early 1990s by two formidable powers — a volcanic eruption and a popular democratic one. And, far more important, there is nothing in the piece or in the press on the permanent bases being built in Iraq. For the neocons and other varieties of Washington hawk, Iraq was to be the new lynchpin of an ever more elaborate basing structure in the “arc of instability,” stretching across the world’s oil lands and to the very borders of China.

Take a look at Global Security’s detailed layout of our bases in Iraq, ranging from elaborate semi-permanent structures to emergency landing fields, Iraqi Facilities. There are literally dozens of them. It’s quite remarkable.
But since the people who run our media don’t see us as an imperial entity, the global sweep of, and linkages among these base structures escape them and so no teams of reporters pursue stories about them or make much of anything of them. When bases are reported on at all, they fall into some completely eye-glazing policy-wonk category. And so our empire conveniently escapes our own eyes.


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and billionaires wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2024 demands.

payment methods


Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2024 demands.

payment methods

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.