Letters from America, take nine: A crisis of US imperialism.

The deaths of four US servicemen in Niger has brought attention the fact that the US military operates in far more places and in far more numbers than the public, and apparently senior members of the US Congress (which supposedly has oversight responsibility for US foreign military deployments) are aware of. Estimates of US bases abroad range from 800 bases in 70 countries to 900 bases in 130 countries, with anywhere from 250 thousand to over 750 thousand troops deployed overseas a given time (the total of bases on foreign soil operated by other countries is around 30, mostly by former colonial powers). The reason that the figure varies is that the Pentagon refuses to reveal the precise number of clandestine or “lilly pad” bases (less than 200 troops on station), so the numbers publicly acknowledged are grounded in the permanent installations the US maintains in places such as Okinawa, Spain, Germany, South Korea, and the United Kingdom.  This does not include CIA paramilitary forces operating abroad, which are roughly thought to be in the hundreds.

The ambush that killed the four US Army Special Forces (SF) sergeants was staged during a routine “train, advise and assist” (TAA)/reconnaissance mission in the Southwestern border with Mali. They were part of a 12 man Green Beret team accompanying a 30 man Nigerien partner unit during a routine meeting with local leaders in the village of Tongo Tongo, part of an area in which Daesh is known to operate on both sides of the border (but which until this particular attack had not been sighted near Tongo Tongo during 29 previous patrols). The SF team was part of an 800 strong US military presence in Niger under the jurisdiction of the US African Command (AFCOM) deployed there to help the Nigerien and French militaries fight Daesh as it seeks safe havens in relatively lawless or stateless parts of Subsaharan and West Africa. The SF team/partner  platoon were attacked after they left the village on their way back to tactical HQ.

Leading figures in US Congress, including Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) claim that they were not briefed on the mission and have not been given answers as to what went wrong. Press attention has focused on the insensitive treatment of one widow by the President once her husband’s body was returned to the mainland, why one of the soldiers was left behind during the evacuation (he was later found dead a mile from the ambush site) and the fact that “no one knew” about the US military presence in Niger. In fact, most Americans and the President himself were unaware of what Niger was until the ambush. Now, partisan rebukes are being thrown and answers are being demanded. Yet, with only one percent of the US population directly connected to the US military as serving personnel or immediate relatives of those doing so, it is not entirely surprising that the public and corporate media are unaware of the full extent of US military activities outside of the open conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

A bit more surprising is the apparent Congessional ignorance of what is happening in AFCOM’s area of responsibility (AOR) or the rules of engagement (ROEs) under which that SF team and other troops operate (that is relevant because it turns out that the ill-fated patrol had no US close air support and required French air assets to come to its assistance more than an hour after the ambush began). Since it is routine for the Pentagon to provide off-record briefs to the Armed Services Committees of both deliberative chambers on military operational matters abroad, this seems unusual unless there was a highly classified scenario being developed in that part of the world.

The surprise and arguments about the ambush in Niger–“Trump’s Benghazi,” as some are calling it–obscures an underlining fact: US imperialism is in crisis. It may or may not be terminal and it may or may not be positive for world peace, but the reasons for the crisis are worth exploring.

The crisis of US imperialism (or neo-imperialism, should one want to be pedantic) is rooted in both domestic as well as international factors. Domestically, the long era of “liberal internationalism” is over, and so far nothing as emerged by way of a coherent foreign policy and military strategic doctrine to replace it. Liberal internationalism, which emerged during the Cold War and remained as the guiding principle of the US approach to international relations until Donald Trump entered presidential office, is premised on the belief that the US has a special responsibility to engage in the international system in order to safeguard and expand a liberal democratic order based upon market capitalist principles. This was evident in the US role in creating international institutions such as the UN, WTO and IMF but also in its role as the ‘world’s policeman.” The idea was that the US, as the world’s superpower, had the responsibility to promote and maintain a system that, if not made in its image, was supportive of the liberal mores that it espoused, especially when these were challenged by actors with less noble motives. Many might disagree with both the premise and practice of liberal internationalism, but that is what guided US foreign policy and military diplomacy for almost a half century.

The liberal internationalist (some call it interventionist) consensus spanned both major parties and the foreign policy elite in Washington and in academia. But with the emergence of an economically nationalist and neo-isolationist “America First” Alt-Right led by the likes of Steve Bannon and endorsed by Trump, the consensus has broken down. Where American neo-conservatives and neo-Wilsonians, neo-realists, idealists and constuctivists could all paper over their differences under the umbrella of liberal internationalism in pursuit of US global hegemony, they are repudiated in their entirety by the America Firsters. However, other than the appeal to economic nationalism, xenophobia and a “strong military,” the latter are themselves unsure how to approach world affairs. This is seen in the Trump administration’s ad hoc approach to assorted foreign policy issues as well as in the lack of high and upper management level appointments in the foreign policy and national security bureaucracies (over 250 such positions remain unfilled ten months after Trump’s inauguration).

By way of default, the US imperial reach is increasingly maintained by the military rather than the diplomatic corps. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has decimated the upper ranks of the foreign service in favor of relying on a small cadre of trusted advisors, only a few of whom have the type of diplomatic experience that a career foreign service officer would have. In parallel, Trump has staffed the White House and Pentagon with retired and active duty generals, even in positions traditionally filled by civilians. The combination, when added to the lack of strategic vision and baseline foreign policy principles, has resulted in the conduct of US diplomacy led by military threat or fiat, as opposed to military diplomacy being subordinated to and guided by broader strategic and diplomatic objectives.

This is a major sign of weakness because the role of global hegemon requires that the majority of other states and international actors support US leadership and eventually accept and share its values as organizing principles for the international order. That is how the difference between “super” and “great” powers is drawn: “super” powers intervene in the international community in order to maintain and defend systemic interests grounded in the promotion and acceptance of shared perspectives and values, whereas “great” powers intervene in the international community to promote national interests in the absence or rejection of universal standards. Both approaches are grounded in realpolitik, but only the former is hegemonic because it relies more on diplomatic cooperation than military coercion.

Evidence that the US is declining in influence and moving from a “super” to a “great” power is seen externally. The return or rise of old and new powers has shifted the international system towards multipolarity after a decade or so of post-Cold War unipolarity. The US may still be central to the strategic equation inherent in the emerging mulitipolar system but it no longer dominates it. The endless wars since 9/11 have sapped its finances and public morale and demonstrated that its much proclaimed capability to fight and win 2.5 major regional conflicts (MRCs) was baseless in fact (the 2.5 MRC scenario was premised on the US simultaneously fighting and winning two major and one minor conventional regional conflicts alone and against any combination of adversaries. Unfortunately for US military planners and the troops that were deployed under that strategy and unlike Saddam Hussein’s forces, various enemies refused to cooperate by fighting the way they were expected to fight). And while its blood and treasure were and are drawn in dozens of conflicts such as that in Niger, other states push economic development and  military modernization as the path towards great power status.

Although it remains a potent, perhaps unchallenged fighting force under the right conditions, the impotence of the US when it comes to imposing a preferred political solution in the wake of military conflict has been noted by allies and adversaries alike. The latter now challenge the US more and more, in places both far from and near to what should be essential US national interests. They include states as well as non-state actors, and they undertake covert and overt hostilities against the US on several dimensions across multiple fronts, be they cyber, kinetic, economic or diplomatic. The US is increasingly unable to respond symetrically and effectively to these challenges even with a forward military presence spread across the globe.

The problem of US challengers acting with relative impunity in a multipolar world is not its only concern. US allies no longer see its as a reliable partner. This is largely due to the deleterious impact of the Trump presidency on the US reputation, but it is not reducible to it. Allies and adversaries can all see the political polarization within the US, the increase in racial and ethnic tensions, the growing economic inequalities, the culture clashes over traditional values, the overtly tribal nature of interest group intermediation, and the overly violent nature of a popular culture enabled and promoted by weapons manufacturers and the lobbies that use fear-mongering and mythology on their behalf to keep the culture of violence alive and growing. These internal contradictions all spell out the weakness of a society in decline. For many at both home and abroad, the US gives all the appearance of being Rome before the Fall.

It seems that the mainstream media and the public that watches it are slowly cottoning on to this fact even if the political class does not want to admit it. The lack of victories abroad, the lack of information about what the US military does and where it does it (even as the Trump administration authorises expanded CIA paramilitary operations, including drone hunts of suspected extremists), and the notion that the more the US tries to maintain its international position the more it weakens itself on the home front, appear to be gaining traction in the social consciousness. There is more open wondering about “why are we there and what purpose is being served” as opposed to the “if not us, then who” rationales that have dominated public discourse for the past decades. And even though concerns about terrorism remain strong, it is harder for people in the US to rationalize and support policies that claim that tribespeople with pre-modern social organizations in West Africa (or Afghanistan for that matter) are, through a long string of connections, a potential existential threat to the US mainland and its way of life.

Eroded from within and challenged from without, it appears that for this era of US (neo) imperialism, twilight has arrived. The question is what comes next, because if one thing is proven in history is that Empires in decline seldom go quietly into the night. And night is approaching, fast.

Postscript: The radio interview that prompted this reflection (and which covers more than this particular subject) can be found here.

12 thoughts on “Letters from America, take nine: A crisis of US imperialism.

  1. As usual your analysis is good and interesting reading. I disagree completely with your conclusions. I am sure the villagers of Niger are pleased to find that hard nosed American soldiers are fighting and dying on their behalf to defend them against Daesh. Better that than the pious hand wringing of a million smug diplomats and politicians wringing their hands over Rwanda or presidential wives posting bring our girls home on social media. The pious virtue signalling makes me sick.
    Whilst I have sympathy for the mother who lost her son Shen chose to have a politician in the car on her way to pick up her sons remains and the advice Trump gave her was based on a military man who had lost his own son.
    America is better off without the pious diplomats spouting bullshit and better quietly getting on with placing military people where they can provide real security. That gains infinitely more respect from the oppressed around the world than sanctimonious words and no help.

  2. Hi Phil, nice to hear from you again. The US mission in Niger has been there for ten years, although increased in size during the last 3 years. If daesh is finding safe havens along the Niger/Mali border, then perhaps the villages in the region are not as welcoming of the US presence as you believe.

    Also, in democracies the military is subordinate to civilian authority, so by definition politicians are involved in military matters even if it is just to rubber stamp the decisions of the uniformed crowd. Plus, if we consider that all foreign conflcits ultimately boil down to matters that have a diplomatic as well as kinetic side, then diplomats have a role to play in the prosecution and adjudication of such events.

    As for the politician in the car with the widow. She was a long time family friend and was there in that capacity. And regardless of who she is, trump revealed himself yet again to be an insensitive, callous jerk.

  3. “America is better off without the pious diplomats spouting bullshit and better quietly getting on with placing military people where they can provide real security. ”

    Other countries have experimented with letting military professionals formulate security policy without reference to civilian perspectives and needs. It hasn’t ended well.

    Pablo, with his particular interest in Latin America in the 70s and 80s, is particularly well placed to comment on this.

  4. Anybody that thinks the U.S. and Daesh are opposed forces obviously hasn’t been paying attention. They conveniently appear where U.S. foreign policy seems to require them to be.
    A (how many nation?) U.S. led coalition has achieved nothing compared to what the Russian/Syrian/Hezbollah combination have achieved in Syria in just the couple of years they have been there.
    And if you think a U.S. presence in 53 of 54 African countries is in order to `defend them against Daesh’, you’re delusional, pure and simple.

  5. Many think the U.S. employs the disruptive element of the Daesh in order to provide them with a control element, but I think there’s a bit more to it than that.
    Many seem to agree.
    Iraq, for example, purchase a number of Pantsir (SAM) units from Russia to combat a party that had no air force?
    There have been any number of claims of U.S. (and British) choppers and aircraft dropping off supplies, and U.S. choppers in any number of localities, picking them up and dropping them off at other locales.
    Iraq made a statement to the tune that if any more of it was seen, the offending craft would be shot out of the sky.

    And, yes, they get dropped off everywhere. They were seen being dropped off in Afghanistan, where they are now gathered on the northern and western borders, i.e., in close proximity to the CIS states and the Iranian border. What a coincidence!

    Also, their appearance provided the rationale for the U.S., France, and Britain to re-intervene in Libya. Now the U.S. has managed to make its way down to the Niger where the world’s largest underground Uranium mine exists, along with many other mineral assets. Of course, `terrorism’ conveniently appeared on either side, in Mali and Chad. And the Niger is immediately north of Nigeria where, a few years back, the national leadership declined the U.S. trade in GMO corn, but a deal was done, and now the U.S. has direct access to the Nigerian oil asset which puts all their other very considerable mineral assets to the pale.

    Should we mention Georgia? Where the Daesh have a training camp in the mountains just south of Dagestan and Ingushetia? Now, how did they manage to get there?
    Of course, the U.S. presence in Georgia would have nothing to do with that.

    And acquaintances in the Balkans tell me they’re also being trained by NATO in Kosovo.

    This just off the top of my head.
    There are plenty of other examples.

    Do you think the attempt to federalise Syria will go through?
    Look at it!
    1.5 times the size of the state of Pennsylvania, and the U.S. wants to carve it up.
    A pity it’s not going to happen.

  6. `Fighting Daesh’, my arse!
    If they were ever serious about that they would have immediately teamed up with Russia when they entered the fray.

  7. “Many think the U.S. employs the disruptive element of the Daesh in order to provide them with a control element, but I think there’s a bit more to it than that.”

    So what do you think is the situation exactly?

    You listed a lot of instances that you believe show US-NATO support for ISIS, but you didn’t explicitly say what you think the US gains from this (beyond control, but you already mentioned you don’t think that’s all there is to it)

  8. Well, where do you want me to start?


    Daesh/Boko Haram/Al Shabaab are just a tactic in a much larger scenario.

    Where it all begins is here:


    with a debt the U.S. is totally incapable of resolving within its own national boundaries. And this doesn’t even begin to state the case. When all future social security and other commitments, which have to be met are factored in, you’re looking at a figure much closer to $60 trillion.
    There were a couple of options available to resolve this: the U.S. could have stretched out a hand and asked friends for help, or, they could embark on a rabid, overly aggressive, international expansionist programme in an endeavour to seize the necessary assets.
    The former would have necessitated accepting a position of equal partnership in the world, so this was seen as unsatisfactory. The second option, preserving the position at the top of the heap, the only one considered.

    A small aside here: the `discovery’ of Afghan mineral wealth was no discovery. The U.S. knew this from Soviet assay reports, submitted to the World Bank, in order to gain finance to work the extraction.

    If you want motive, there it is.

    It’s the same scenario with Iran.
    There was never a problem with nuclear weaponry there.
    The `Supreme Leader’ issued a Fatwa stating that nuclear weapons were contrary to the way of Allah and were never to be made or employed by Iranian forces.
    What this means is if anybody, repeat, anybody, were to be found doing so, they would immediately lose their heads.
    All that was about was the U.S.the U.S. wanting back what it once had, the world’s fourth largest oil production (4.2 million barrels/day) on the same terms they had it before, next to nothing, other than a few back pocket payments to the Shah for facilitating it. And Britain, no more than a lapdog these days, only too happy to help, because that’s where BP got started.
    But now, there’s a deal sweetener, the largest gas field in the world, the south pars, which only Iran and Qatar have access to (Yes! Qatar!)

    Of course, the pipeline from Qatar, through Saudi Arabia, then Iraq, then the new `Kurdistan’ and on into Europe would be highly desirable in further isolating Russia financially, and geopolitically. But Assad wouldn’t play, so Assad had to go, and the new Kurdistan concept isn’t sustainable, any more than it is in Iraq.
    The SDF simply don’t have the man power to cover an area that vast, and the U.S. will not risk going up against Russia, let alone Russia and China.

    Oh, yes, China!
    We must control the trade traffic through the Straits of Malacca because we can’t allow China to grow out of our control, can we?

    How much do you need?
    All you have to do is open your eyes.
    It’s everywhere you look.

  9. So you see the USA as being able to gain the currency needed to pay off its debt by seizing direct control of mineral resources in Third World countries and selling them for a profit?

    Is this what was done in Iraq and Afghanistan?

  10. `

    So you see the USA as being able to gain the currency needed to pay off its debt by seizing direct control of mineral resources in Third World countries and selling them for a profit’?

    No, but the U.S. does.
    You are aware, for example, that it was the U.S. that initiated the split between north and south Sudan, and this because all the oil is located in the south?

    `Is this what was done in Iraq and Afghanistan’?

    This was the original aim, but theory is not working out in practice.

  11. I wonder why the USA keeps following a policy that has never worked?

    And why don’t other nations with similarly large public debts try the same thing? Russia has 600 billion USD in public debt but they’ve never pursued this path… or have they?

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