The Logic of Empire

By Jesse Crall

There is a logic to American Empire. It’s the same logic that propels a cheating man to lie to his wife when she asks about unusual Visa charges. Or a bank robber to shoot at a bystander in order to escape. It’s the logic of self-preservation and enrichment, of protecting what exists and moving toward more. Some of us get tripped up by this dynamic because logic doesn’t necessarily equate with good ethics. Certainly not in regards to U.S.-led Imperialism.

A common sentiment during the Trump years went as follows: “The cruelty is the point.” I disagree. This line applies irrationality to the actions of the Trump Administration whereas their decisions often occurred under a very defined logic. We may not like that logic or see it as advancing the interests of a more peaceful civilization. That’s because our intentions and those of our leaders may not intersect. The New York Times Editorial Board explicitly endorses the advancement of capitalism throughout the world. Their collective message serves that objective. The same can be said of the CIA and the State Department. If you don’t support the advancement of capitalism throughout the world, the message and activities undertaken by these groups may seem illogical. But Neoliberalism has advanced throughout the world over the course of my lifetime. Challenges to capitalism have not.

The logic of maintaining troops and bases in Afghanistan began to pale against the logic of withdrawal, even under the rubric of Empire. Too much time, money and energy went into an objective with little hope for improvement. I understand the initial logic of our actions in Afghanistan from the late 1970s into the 21st century: Undermine left-wing governments, engulf the Soviets in a quagmire, create a more malleable government for our economic interests, maintain a physical presence to counter China and Iran, enrich some contractors, control potential mining operations and so on. There were weapons deals, covert training operations, puppet governments, drone strikes…that we know of. 

The rise in opium cultivation immediately after our 2001 invasion speaks to engagements from our Intelligence agencies beyond the bounds of mainstream reporting. We may never know the full scope of our occupation in Afghanistan. But eventually, the benefits of our war lagged behind the costs. The shrewder Neoconservatives largely abandoned the hawkish messaging toward Iraq and Afghanistan. Those who still beat the drum like Eli Lake and Bill Kristol hold some influence but a newer crop on the right turned their attention to China in recent years and found common cause with liberal interventionists. Look at the Hudson Institute and their board members like former CIA director and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. They openly take funding from the governments of Taiwan and Japan in addition to support from weapons contractors. And China dominates their “intellectual” output. 

With defense budgets increasing despite troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, we can hardly expect a wane in U.S. Imperialism. Rather, our attentions are turning elsewhere. Optimistic progressives ready to declare Biden a “realist” react to these shifting objectives in ways divorced from historical perspective. At one point, the attentions of America’s foreign policy establishment centered around Southeast Asia, with invasions, regime change operations and mass bombing campaigns carried out most notably across Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Indonesia. Politicians in both major parties largely supported the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s, with Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon spending the bulk of their presidencies engaged in abject atrocities. But by 1976, arguing for the significant deployment of troops in this region would have marked someone as a foolish dead-ender. Did the close of the Vietnam War signal an end to American Empire? Of course not. It just meant our attentions and resources moved. And despite the failure of that war even on the brutal terms of U.S. Imperialism, we remained the pre-eminent global hegemon for a spell before becoming the sole hegemon by 1991. As we remain today.

Dissent and contradictions exist within our think tanks, Intelligence agencies and lawmaking bodies. But a broader advancement of this Empire prevails. When the foreign policy establishment sought to undermine Donald Trump, the Democratic Party proved a willing partner in spreading narratives about Russia. When the occasional contrasting voice emerged, they found little support and plenty of smears. Ask Tulsi Gabbard, derided as a Putin Puppet by Hillary Clinton and an Assad Toady by Bari Weiss even as she served with the Hawaii Army National Guard. No one from “The Squad” challenged the hawkish sentiments pushed against Trump, nor did Bernie Sanders even as he found himself engulfed in accusations of Russian collusion on his behalf.

While “Russiagate” and the impeachment process brought little more than lies to the forefront, the overall objectives worked. Democrats won back the House in 2018 and the presidency in 2020. I watched Russiagate unfold and found the process illogical and embarrassing. I was wrong. Democrats and various left-leaning civil society groups fundraised heavily off messaging that required little in the way of actual lawmaking. I was searching for logic on my own terms. Democrats pursued objectives on theirs. Our objectives don’t intersect.

Since so many Americans on the left remain loyal enough to ensure massive fundraising hauls and competitive elections, the Democrats lack the incentive to engage differently. They don’t operate on behalf of a better world as I see it, one with restraint and peace building overseas and actions on behalf of the working class and poor at home. Their better world is one in which American Hegemony persists without significant costs to their party and the leaders within it domestically. Massive troop deployments to Afghanistan or Syria might prove detrimental to their electoral success. But sanctions, drone strikes, proxy wars, arms deals and covert regime change operations can continue with little notice or denouncement from the vast majority of their base. The same holds true for the GOP. As long as it remains so, challenges to Empire will exist solely on the fringes. When a system keeps rewarding its operators, breaking it down just wouldn’t be logical.

Jesse Crall

A Los Angeles native, Jesse Crall graduated from UCLA’s English Department before working as a copywriter, script reader and project manager for an engineering firm.

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