Helpless Giant: How Imperial US Elites Tied America Down All by Themselves

By Tom Engelhardt via Tomdispatch

For America’s national security state, this is the age of impunity.  Nothing it does — torture, kidnapping, assassination, illegal surveillance, you name it — will ever be brought to court.  For none of its beyond-the-boundaries acts will anyone be held accountable.  The only crimes that can now be committed in official Washington are by those foolish enough to believe that a government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from this earth.  I’m speaking of the various whistleblowers and leakers who have had an urge to let Americans know what deeds and misdeeds their government is committing in their name but without their knowledge.  They continue to pay a price in accountability for their acts that should, by comparison, stun us all.

As June ended, the New York Times front-paged an account of an act of corporate impunity that may, however, be unique in the post-9/11 era (though potentially a harbinger of things to come).  In 2007, as journalist James Risen tells it, Daniel Carroll, the top manager in Iraq for the rent-a-gun company Blackwater, one of the warrior corporations that accompanied the U.S. military to war in the twenty-first century, threatened Jean Richter, a government investigator sent to Baghdad to look into accounts of corporate wrongdoing.

Here, according to Risen, is Richter’s version of what happened when he, another government investigator, and Carroll met to discuss Blackwater’s potential misdeeds in that war zone:

“Mr. Carroll said ‘that he could kill me at that very moment and no one could or would do anything about it as we were in Iraq,’ Mr. Richter wrote in a memo to senior State Department officials in Washington. He noted that Mr. Carroll had formerly served with Navy SEAL Team 6, an elite unit. ‘Mr. Carroll’s statement was made in a low, even tone of voice, his head was slightly lowered; his eyes were fixed on mine,’ Mr. Richter stated in his memo. ‘I took Mr. Carroll’s threat seriously. We were in a combat zone where things can happen quite unexpectedly, especially when issues involve potentially negative impacts on a lucrative security contract.’”

When officials at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the largest in the world, heard what had happened, they acted promptly.  They sided with the Blackwater manager, ordering Richter and the investigator who witnessed the scene out of the country (with their inquiry incomplete).  And though a death threat against an American official might, under other circumstances, have led a CIA team or a set of special ops guys to snatch the culprit off the streets of Baghdad, deposit him on a Navy ship for interrogation, and then leave him idling in Guantanamo or in jail in the United States awaiting trial, in this case no further action was taken.

Power Centers But No Power to Act

Think of the response of those embassy officials as a get-out-of-jail-free pass in honor of a new age.  For the various rent-a-gun companies, construction and supply outfits, and weapons makers that have been the beneficiaries of the wholesale privatization of American war since 9/11, impunity has become the new reality.  Pull back the lens further and the same might be said more generally about America’s corporate sector and its financial outfits.  There was, after all, no accountability for the economic meltdown of 2007-2008.  Not a single significant figure went to jail for bringing the American economy to its knees. (And many such figures made out like proverbial bandits in the government bailout and revival of their businesses that followed.)

Meanwhile, in these years, the corporation itself was let loose to run riot.  Long a “person” in the legal world, it became ever more person-like, benefitting from a series of Supreme Court decisions that hobbled unions and ordinary Americans even as it gave the corporation ever more of the rights and attributes of a citizen on the loose.  Post-9/11, the corporate world gained freedom of expression, the freedom of the purse, as well as the various freedoms that staggering inequality and hoards of money offer.  Corporate entities gained, among other things, the right to flood the political system with money, and most recently, at least in a modest way, freedom of religion.

In other words, two great power centers have been engorging themselves in twenty-first-century America: there was an ever-expanding national security state, ever less accountable to anyone, ever less overseen by anyone, ever more deeply enveloped in secrecy, ever more able to see others and less transparent itself, ever more empowered by a secret court system and a body of secret law whose judgments no one else could be privy to; and there was an increasingly militarized corporate state, ever less accountable to anyone, ever less overseen by outside forces, ever more sure that the law was its possession.  These two power centers are now triumphant in our world.  They command the landscape against what may be less effective opposition than at any moment in our history.

In both cases, no matter how you tote it up, it’s been an era of triumphalism.  Measure it any way you want: by the rising Dow Jones Industrial Average or the expanding low-wage economy, by the power of “dark money” to determine American politics in 1% elections or the rising wages of CEOs and the stagnating wages of their workers, by the power of billionaires and the growth of poverty, by the penumbra of secrecy and classification spreading across government operations and the lessening ability of the citizen to know what’s going on, or by the growing power of both the national security state and the corporation to turn your life into an open book.  Look anywhere and some version of the same story presents itself — of ascendant power in the boardrooms and the backrooms, and of a sense of impunity that accompanies it.

Whether you’re considering the power of the national security state or the corporate sector, their moment is now.  And what a moment it is — for them.  Their success seems almost complete.  And yet that only begins to tell the strange tale of our American times, because if that power is ascendant, it seems incapable of being translated into classic American power.  The more successful those two sectors become, the less the U.S. seems capable of wielding its power effectively in any traditional sense, domestically or abroad.

Anyone can feel it, hence the recent Pew Research Center poll indicating a striking diminution in recent years of Americans who think the U.S. is exceptional, the greatest of all nations.  By 2011, only 38% of Americans thought that; today, the figure has dropped to 28%, and — a harbinger of future American attitudes — just 15% among 18-to-29-year-olds.  And no wonder.  By many measures the U.S. may remain the wealthiest, most powerful nation on the planet, but in recent years its ability to accomplish anything, no less achieve national or imperial success, has shrunk drastically.

The power centers remain, but in some still-hard-to-grasp way, the power to accomplish anything seems to be draining from a country that was once the great can-do nation on the planet.  On this, the record is both dismal and clear.  To say that the American political system is in a kind of gridlock or paralysis from which — given electoral prospects in 2014 and 2016 — there can be no escape is to say the obvious.  It’s a commonplace of news reports to suggest, for example, that in this midterm election year Congress and the president will be capable of accomplishing nothing together (except perhaps avoiding another actual government shutdown).  Nada, zip, zero.

The president acts in relatively minimalist ways by executive order, Congress threatens to sue over his use of those orders, and (as novelist Kurt Vonnegut would once have said) so it goes.  In the meantime, Congress has proven itself unable to act even when it comes to what once would have been the no-brainers of American life.  It has, for instance, been struggling simply to fund a highway bill that would allow for ordinary repair work on the nation’s system of roads, even though the fund for such work is running dry and jobs will be lost.

This sort of thing is but a symptom in a country of immense wealth whose infrastructure is crumbling and which lacks a single mile of high-speed rail.  In all of this, in the rise of poverty and a minimum-wage economy, in a loss — particularly for minorities — of the wealth that went with home ownership, what can be seen is the untracked rise of a Third World country inside a First World one, a powerless America inside the putative global superpower.

An Exceptional Kind of Decline

And speaking of the “sole superpower,” it remains true that no combination of other militaries can compare with the U.S. military or the moneys the country continues to put into it and into the research and development of weaponry of the most futuristic sort.  The U.S. national security budget remains a Ripley’s-Believe-It-Or-Not-style infusion of tax dollars into the national security state, something no other combination of major countries comes close to matching.

In addition, the U.S. still maintains hundreds of military bases and outposts across the planet (including, in recent years, ever more bases for our latest techno-wonder weapon, the drone).  In 2014, it still garrisons the planet in a way that no other imperial power has ever done.  In fact, it continues to sport all the trappings of a great empire, with an army impressive enough that our last two presidents have regularly resorted to one unembarrassed image to describe it: “the finest fighting force that the world has ever known.”

And yet, recent history is clear: that military has proven incapable of winning its wars against minor (and minority) insurgencies globally, just as Washington, for all its firepower, military and economic, has had a remarkably difficult time imposing its desires just about anywhere on the planet.  Though it may still look like a superpower and though the power of its national security state may still be growing, Washington seems to have lost the ability to translate that power into anything resembling success. 

Today, the U.S. looks less like a functioning and effective empire than an imperial basket case, unable to bring its massive power to bear effectively from Germany to Syria, Iraq to Afghanistan, Libya to the South China Sea, the Crimea to Africa.  And stranger yet, this remains true even though it has no imperial competitors to challenge it.  Russia is a rickety energy state, capable of achieving its version of imperial success only along its own borders, and China, clearly the rising economic power on the planet, though flexing its military muscles locally in disputed oil-rich waters, visibly has no wish to challenge the U.S. military anywhere far from home.

All in all, the situation is puzzling indeed.  Despite much talk about the rise of a multi-polar world, this still remains in many ways a unipolar one, which perhaps means that the wounds Washington has suffered on numerous fronts in these last years are self-inflicted.

Just what kind of decline this represents remains to be seen.  What does seem clearer today is that the rise of the national security state and the triumphalism of the corporate sector (along with the much publicized growth of great wealth and striking inequality in the country) has been accompanied by a decided diminution in the power of the government to function domestically and of the imperial state to impose its will anywhere on Earth.

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

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Copyright 2014 Tom Engelhardt

Mirrored from Tomdispatch.com

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

The Young Turks: “Blackwater Made Death Threats To Keep Money Flowing & It Worked”

5 Responses

  1. As usual you are extremely right. Unfortunately, you do not have a wide enough audience in this Corporatocracy for your wisdom to reach enough people. Otherwise, you would be appearing on the ridiculous Sunday “News” Talk shows instead of the usual lineup of fools and hacks that the Media foists on their audiences. I have little hope our nation will survive much beyond mid-century by which time I will be long gone from this mortal coil. Keep up the good work though. It’s sorely needed.

  2. This has all happened before.

    Read the fascinating book, “The Strange Death of Liberal England”, in which author George Dangerfield practically accused the Conservative Party of sedition in the Irish crisis of 1914, conspiring with the Army to disobey orders to stand against Protestant violence in revenge for the House of Lords losing its Tory-biased veto rights. This happened in a Britain supposedly at the height of its power, with the Liberal Party and its Labour allies representing the vast majority of the population. The entire political culture collapsed in an instant because of a hissy fit from a dying elite. Then WW1 bailed them all out and erased the crisis in a burst of amnesia. But Dangerfield discloses evidence that in August German leaders were misled by the crisis into believing they could avoid British intervention against an invasion of France. So Britain’s vast military might was useless because of the perception that it was a giant crippled by internal turmoil.

  3. Besides the British episode, other empires have ended up paralyzed by the contradictions between their military power and the decline of their economic base, hastened by the greed of corrupt elites.

    Kevin Phillips’ book “American Theocracy” argues that this is pretty much the norm for global hegemons, as the imperial economy become divorced from reality while military commitments go viral. But he specifies the rise of extremist religion as a conservative reaction against the reality of imperial decline as the real poison, a sort of violent national senility that hastens total collapse.

    Although I read the comparison by a former GOP strategist between the GOP and the Spanish Hapsburgs with understandable relish, I read further about the Spanish decline and found that its doom was baked into its foundations, Catholicism or no Catholicism. The Hapsburg model of marrying into territory required all the new acquisition’s existing military commitments to be added to Spain’s own, while the feudal rules governing the marriages prevented an empire-wide tax system to cover the cost. It was never a feasible business model.

    But I suspect every empire has these inherent flaws. America’s model of being a non-empire empire has caused us to adopt the military commitments of the European empires we supplanted (Vietnam, Iraq, etc.). Britain’s trade empire seduced local rulers into handing over valuable ports in exchange for aiding them against their enemies. There is no free lunch in expanding your global influence over alien peoples, except maybe genocide.

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