Number 443 November 25, 2009

This Week: The Empire Series, Part II

"Quote" of the Week
"Only The Empire is Eternal"
"They Are Focused on Who They Think Are Threats to Them. Period."


Occasionally USAmericans are allowed to ponder the fact of a U.S. Empire, but we never seem to discuss the morality of Empire, as I discuss in the first essay this week. In the second essay I offer a little case study to help people understand what I call the Imperial Mindset which, although it appears in the media constantly in this country, it's almost always in code.

Welcome to all the new readers! I appreciate any feedback you may have.

That's all for now. More on Empire next week.



"Quote" of the Week:

"Those who speak of an American empire bringing freedom and democracy to the world are talking of dry rain and snowy blackness. In principle and by definition, empire is the negation of political freedom, liberation, and self-determination."

That's Paul Schroeder, Professor Emeritus of History, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, writing for the History News Network in 2003, in an essay called "Is the U.S. an Empire?" He says it's not, and shouldn't be, but instead is a "hegemon" and should be. I don't agree, but if you want to read his essay, it's online.


"Only The Empire is Eternal"

The scariest thing I heard on Halloween this year was a piece on National Public Radio's Weekend All Things Considered. The interview, by host Guy Raz, was headlined "‘Byzantine' Tips For Today's Foreign Policy," and featured the ideas of one Edward Luttwak, whom NPR described simply as an "author" and "Senior Fellow, Center for Strategic and International Studies." He is an author. One of his more notable pieces was a 1999 article in the influential journal Foreign Affairs, headlined "Give War a Chance," wherein he reminded us that "The unpleasant truth is that war does have one useful function: it brings peace."

Luttwak is also a long-time intelligence operative, "one who carries out field operations, extraditions, arrests, interrogations (never, he insists, using physical violence), military consulting and counterterrorism training for different agencies of the U.S., foreign governments and private interests." That's according to a 2008 profile of Luttwak in the Jewish Daily Forward, which noted that Luttwak "enjoys the physical thrill of it all."

In his new book—"The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire"—Luttwak argues that the U.S. could learn some important lessons about managing its empire from the Byzantine Empire, which fell apart 650 years ago, but was quite a force for several hundred years before its demise.

Lessons for the Empire

The same points that Luttwak made on NPR he made more succinctly in an article in the most recent Foreign Policy magazine (November 4 edition). In it, Luttwak says that the "way to run an empire" is the Byzantine way. He offers "seven lessons" that "the United States would do well to heed" as it goes about managing its empire. Here are just a couple:

Luttwak advises U.S. imperialists to make sure to go to war only against the weak. He phrases ut a bit more politely, advising the imperial managers to "avoid battles, especially large-scale battles, except in very favorable circumstances." That is, don't attack any country that might be able to resist. But what if, as in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, initial military victory doesn't settle things, and the people DO resist? That's why Luttwak has seven lessons. Here's another one: Use bribery.

"Subversion is the cheapest path to victory," says Luttwak. "So cheap, in fact, as compared with the costs and risks of battle, that it must always be attempted... Remember: Even religious fanatics can be bribed..." Or, as he says in the NPR interview: "it's quite easy to buy people, much cheaper than to fight them." Easy, that is, if you sit at the top of an imperial world order that shovels wealth from all over the planet to the Imperial Center for use in bribing one's enemies and for the various other tasks needed for maintenance of an Empire.

Are Luttwak's points only theoretical, purely academic? Consider this news report, from the London Times of a couple of weeks ago (November 16th): "British forces should buy off potential Taleban recruits with ‘bags of gold', according to a new army field manual published yesterday." The Times adds that "British commanders in Afghanistan and Iraq have complained that their access to money on the battlefield ... compares poorly with their US counterparts," who apparently have bigger bags of gold to use for "buying off" the enemy.

But how, asks NPR, can a nation afford all of this? Easy, says Luttwak: do "lots of intelligence, lots of monitoring, lots of surveillance, lots of raiding, lots of bribing, lots of diplomacy, lots of going in, and above all, finding two enemies to fight each other or three enemies to fight each other and avoiding that main engagement of troops."

And sure enough, the story broke just this week that this is exactly what is happening in Afghanistan. The headlines on November 22nd read, "Afghan Militias Battle Taliban With Aid of U.S.." That was in the NY Times, which led off its report thusly:

"American and Afghan officials have begun helping a number of anti-Taliban militias that have independently taken up arms against insurgents in several parts of Afghanistan, prompting hopes of a large-scale tribal rebellion against the Taliban."

Meanwhile, in Pakistan, the World Socialist Web Site reported on Monday, November 23rd that

"The Pakistani military offensive in South Waziristan . . . has escalated into a civil war... Islamists and tribal militants now consider themselves in a fight to the death with the pro-US government of President Ali Asif al-Zardari, which has bowed to Washington's demands to deploy overwhelming force to stop the predominantly ethnic Pashtun regions being used to support the Taliban resistance over the border in Afghanistan."

And there you have the Byzantine "Grand Strategy" at work, as the U.S. goes about, in Luttwak's words, "finding ... enemies to fight each other" on the periphery of the Empire. Given these developments, it's likely that President Obama will be announcing that he has chosen one of the lesser options for his Afghanistan strategy, sending something less than the 40,000+ troops requested by the U.S. commander in Afghanistan. After all, Luttwak adds that one of the lessons from the Byzantine Empire is to "not send large bodies of troops, let alone in remote places where nothing important really happens."

Such thinking—in which the only things that are "important" are things that affect the wealth and power of the Empire—is Imperial thinking at its most obvious. The fact that NPR, the mass media outlet of the intellectual classes, offers a sympathetic platform to a key advocate of such thinking tells us how far our culture has come in accepting the legitimacy of being an Empire. No questions are asked, by NPR or any other corporate media outlets, about whether an Empire is just, or moral, or legal, or anything else. All that's necessary now is a discussion of tactics: Should we be an Empire of Byzantine design? Or would perhaps some other way be more effective? Hmmm.... What to do?

Perhaps the most chilling words from Luttwak are found in his final lesson from the Byzantines, Lesson VII. Here it is, verbatim:

"When diplomacy and subversion are not enough and fighting is unavoidable, use methods and tactics that exploit enemy weaknesses, avoid consuming combat forces, and patiently whittle down the enemy's strength. This might require much time. But there is no urgency because as soon as one enemy is no more, another will surely take his place. All is constantly changing as rulers and nations rise and fall. Only the empire is eternal—if, that is, it does not exhaust itself."

My hope is that exhaustion will not be the only factor in the demise of the U.S. Empire, but that a popular movement can be grown that achieves the status and power necessary to rein in the Imperial machine. This series on Empire, of which this essay is a part, is intended as a tiny tug in that direction.


"They Are Focused on Who They Think Are Threats to Them. Period."

I don't claim to know what is going on in Pakistan, but it's clear that whatever is going on, it's substantially different than what most people in the United States seem to think is going on. I'm beginning to suspect that people who try to follow the news about Pakistan may be more confused than people who don't follow it much at all. A couple of recent news stories—or, rather, one story and one non-story—illustrate how it is that people who follow the news often end up being confused rather than informed.

The Story: They're Worried About Threats to Them

The story to which I refer appeared on the front page of the November 16th New York Times under the headline "U.S. Asks More From Pakistan In Terror War." Here's the lead paragraph:

"The Obama administration is stepping up pressure on Pakistan to expand and reorient its fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, warning that failing to do so would undercut the new strategy and troop increase for Afghanistan that President Obama is preparing to approve, American officials say."

Observant readers might notice that there is some dissonance between the headline, in which The World's Only Superpower (TWOS) "asks" a small country for a favor, and the article itself, which speaks (more accurately) of "stepping up pressure" on that country. But we'll leave that aside for the moment.

For now I want to focus on what appeared to be the main point of the Times story, which was to discuss the idea that "Pakistan is returning to center stage in [Obama] administration planning," despite Afghanistan getting most of the media attention here in North America.

The Times says that "American officials have praised Pakistan's leaders for finally launching comprehensive military attacks against Taliban forces," and adds, "But the Americans are now trying . . . to persuade Pakistan to do more," and "not just against the Qaeda leadership," but also against the Afghan Taliban leadership."

The following paragraph is worth quoting in full:

"Representative Jane Harman, a California Democrat who heads the House Homeland Security subcommittee on intelligence and who visited Pakistan last week, summed up the administration's frustrations and her own after meetings with senior Pakistani officials: ‘They are focused on who they think are threats to them. Period.'"

The Times thus reports that leaders of TWOS are "frustrated" that a sovereign country might make their own assessment of the threats they face and how to address them. By allowing this blatant statement of the Imperial Mindset to pass without comment, the Times accepts and, perhaps inadvertently, reinforces such thinking. But that's not the worst of it. And here's where we come to the non-story I mentioned above.

The Non-Story: We Are the Threat

The non-story that gives meaning to the above story came out in early August. When I say it was a non-story, I mean that it was not covered by the U.S. media. It was fairly-well covered elsewhere in the world, certainly in Pakistan. The story was the release of a Gallup Poll, conducted in Pakistan at the end of July and released to the world on August 10th. The poll was commissioned by the Al Jazeera news network (which may explain why it was ignored by the U.S. media), and it asked a number of illuminating questions. The key one in the current context is the question Gallup asked relating to "the administration's frustrations" about the stubborn insistence of the Pakistanis to "focus on who they think are threats to them. Period." Here is the Gallup Question as it was asked of the Pakistani survey respondents:

"Question: Some people believe that the (Pakistani) Taliban are the greatest threat to the country, some believe India is the greatest threat, whereas some believe US is the greatest threat. Who do you think is the greatest threat for Pakistan?"

Is India seen as the greatest threat? After all, there has been endless conflict between India and Pakistan since Pakistan was born 62 years ago, including three outright wars (in 1947, 1965, and 1971). Eighteen percent of respondents do, indeed, see India as the greatest threat to Pakistan.

As the Times reports, the Obama administration is pressuring the Pakistanis to "expand and reorient its fight" against what the U.S. apparently considers to be the greatest threat to itself, and that is the threat posed by the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Are these also seen by Pakistanis as the greatest threats to Pakistan? No, only eleven percent of Pakistanis identified the Taliban as the greatest threat. (Al-Qaeda wasn't even mentioned.)

What, then, do Pakistanis consider to be the greatest threat to Pakistan? 59 percent of Pakistani poll respondents said it is . . . The United States of America.

While this is important information in itself, it's even more important when considered in light of the "frustrations" expressed by U.S. leaders about Pakistani officials who are "focused on who they think are threats to them." Bizarre, no?

Here's another comment in the Times story that inadvertently sheds light on the bizarreness:

"Every time Mr. Obama declares that the United States will not have an ‘open-ended' military commitment in Afghanistan, he fuels a second concern of the powerful Pakistani military and intelligence establishment, which believes the United States commitment is fleeting."

Note that the people who are "concerned" with the idea of the U.S. leaving Pakistan are not the average people who responded to the poll. Those people—who consider the U.S. to be a grave threat—most likely would be happy to see the U.S. military "commitment" to their country come to an end. No, the people who are "concerned" are members of "the powerful Pakistani military and intelligence establishment."

People in this country who follow the news from Pakistan see the world through an Imperial lens. Through this lens the idea that The World's Only Superpower has the right to "pressure" a small country to do its bidding may seem reasonable, even a "duty" of the democracy-loving people who manage foreign affairs.

Seen from within the Empire, Pakistan is seen as a "remote place where nothing important really happens," in the words of Edward Luttwak, quoted elsewhere in this issue. So the only things that merit reporting are things that come from "credible" sources, which are defined as powerful people who are influential within the Empire. That's why we hear what the Obama administration says they want from Pakistan—those are powerful people. But the people of Pakistan have no power, so it merits no mention that they don't want to serve the interests of the United States—let alone that they consider the interests of the United States to be a grave threat to them!

And so it is that most of the best-informed and politically-active people within the United States are allowed to go on believing that the interests of the United States are the only interests that count in the world. And President Obama can say, as he did on November 24th, that "it is my intention to finish the job" in South Asia. The job, unfortunately, is the maintenance of an Empire, and that job will ultimately only bring massive instability, disorder, and war. My discussion of Empire will continue in the next edition of Nygaard Notes.