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Tomgram: Alfred McCoy, Whose Planet Are We On?

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Honestly, it's the sort of thing that would be genuinely funny, if it weren't so grim. You've certainly heard about that deal President Trump made with the Taliban ensuring that the last 2,500 American troops in Afghanistan would be withdrawn by May 21st. It's been in the news for weeks now as a potential crisis for the Biden administration. Whatever may still be up for grabs there, however, one thing was a given: that 2,500 figure. After all, the president signed on to that agreement and who would have had better information about this country's troop deployments than the commander-in-chief? (Let's leave aside, for the moment, the 700 or more U.S. troops left in Syria after American officials assured President Trump that almost all of them had been withdrawn.)

As it happens, only the other day the New York Times revealed that there was indeed a tiny counting error (whoops!) when it came to that number. If you included all the "off the books" special operations forces and various "transitioning" units in Afghanistan, the total was actually" hmmm" 3,500 (if that's even accurate). Not only that, but stationed in numerous other countries "from Syria to Yemen to Mali," as the Times reporters put it, are similarly off-the-books and unacknowledged U.S. military personnel meant to fight America's disastrous global war on terror.

In other words, almost two decades after that "war" across much of the Greater Middle East and ever-expanding parts of Africa was launched by President George W. Bush with the invasion of Afghanistan (a "war" theoretically aimed, according to the secretary of defense of that moment, at 60 countries), presidents may come and go, but the U.S. military just fights on. Engaged as it is in imperial conflicts of disaster, its high command is clearly convinced that it's in charge and the commander-in-chief be damned.

And yet here may be the strangest thing of all: forget those global conflicts (one more disastrous than the next), all those garrisons around the planet, all the invasions and interventions of this century. In this country, the United States is essentially never treated as the great imperial power (or even, at this moment, the faltering one) that it is not in the mainstream media, anyway. And yet if you don't imagine this country as an imperial power of the first order, the history of this planet, of us, makes little sense. Fortunately, Alfred McCoy is a great historian of empire as well as a TomDispatch regular. His previous Dispatch book, In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, followed that most imperial of powers through the last half-century-plus. In his piece today, McCoy gives us a sneak introduction to his new book, an imperial history extending from the 1600s into a future in which the very word "imperial" may lose much of its meaning on a heating planet. That book, To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change, will be published by Dispatch Books in October. In the meantime, you can get your first taste of it below. Tom

Washington's Delusion of Endless World Dominion
China and the U.S. Struggle over Eurasia, the Epicenter of World Power


Empires live and die by their illusions. Visions of empowerment can inspire nations to scale the heights of global hegemony. Similarly, however, illusions of omnipotence can send fading empires crashing into oblivion. So it was with Great Britain in the 1950s and so it may be with the United States today.

By 1956, Britain had exploited its global empire shamelessly for a decade in an effort to lift its domestic economy out of the rubble of World War II. It was looking forward to doing so for many decades to come. Then an obscure Egyptian army colonel named Gamal Abdel Nasser seized the Suez Canal and Britain's establishment erupted in a paroxysm of racist outrage. The prime minister of the day, Sir Antony Eden, forged an alliance with France and Israel to send six aircraft carriers to the Suez area, smash Egypt's tank force in the Sinai desert, and sweep its air force from the skies.

But Nasser grasped the deeper geopolitics of empire in a way that British leaders had long forgotten. The Suez Canal was the strategic hinge that tied Britain to its Asian empire to British Petroleum's oil fields in the Persian Gulf and the sea lanes to Singapore and beyond. So, in a geopolitical masterstroke, he simply filled a few rusting freighters with rocks and sank them at the entrance to the canal, snapping that hinge in a single gesture. After Eden was forced to withdraw British forces in a humiliating defeat, the once-mighty British pound trembled at the precipice of collapse and, overnight, the sense of imperial power in England seemed to vanish like a desert mirage.

Two Decades of Delusions

In a similar manner, Washington's hubris is finding its nemesis in China's President Xi Jinping and his grand strategy for uniting Eurasia into the world's largest economic bloc. For two decades, as China climbed, step by step, toward global eminence, Washington's inside-the-Beltway power elite was blinded by its overarching dreams of eternal military omnipotence. In the process, from Bill Clinton's administration to Joe Biden's, Washington's China policy has morphed from illusion directly into a state of bipartisan delusion.

Back in 2000, the Clinton administration believed that, if admitted to the World Trade Organization, Beijing would play the global game strictly by Washington's rules. When China started playing imperial hardball instead stealing patents, forcing companies to turn over trade secrets, and manipulating its currency to increase its exports the elite journal Foreign Affairs tut-tutted that such charges had "little merit," urging Washington to avoid "an all-out trade war" by learning to "respect difference and look for common ground."

Within just three years, a flood of exports produced by China's low-wage workforce, drawn from 20% of the world's population, began shutting down factories across America. The AFL-CIO labor confederation then started accusing Beijing of illegally "dumping" its goods in the U.S. at below-market prices. The administration of George W. Bush, however, dismissed the charges for lack of "conclusive evidence," allowing Beijing's export juggernaut to grind on unimpeded.

For the most part, the Bush-Cheney White House simply ignored China, instead invading Iraq in 2003, launching a strategy that was supposed to give the U.S. lasting dominion over the Middle East's vast oil reserves. By the time Washington withdrew from Baghdad in 2011, having wasted up to $5.4 trillion on the misbegotten invasion and occupation of that country, fracking had left America on the edge of energy independence, while oil was joining cordwood and coal as a fuel whose days were numbered, potentially rendering the future Middle East geopolitically irrelevant.

While Washington had been pouring blood and treasure into desert sands, Beijing was making itself into the world's workshop. It had amassed $4 trillion in foreign exchange, which it began investing in an ambitious scheme it called the Belt and Road Initiative to unify Eurasia via history's largest set of infrastructure projects. Hoping to counter that move with a bold geopolitical gambit, President Barack Obama tried to check China with a new strategy that he called a "pivot to Asia." It was to entail a global military shift of U.S. forces to the Pacific and a drawing of Eurasia's commerce toward America through a new set of trade pacts. The scheme, brilliant in the abstract, soon crashed head-first into some harsh realities. As a start, extricating the U.S. military from the mess it had made in the Greater Middle East proved far harder than imagined. Meanwhile, getting big global trade treaties approved as anti-globalization populism surged across America fueled by factory closures and stagnant wages turned out, in the end, to be impossible.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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