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Imperial Overstretch: George W. Bush and the Hubris of Empire

Imperial Overstretch: George W. Bush and the Hubris of Empire

by Roger Burbach

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George W. Bush has fundamentally changed America's place in the world. In some neo-conservative circles the word 'empire' is back in fashion, and a great republic that broke away from the British empire is now supposed to be proud of its new imperial role. This book explains how the neo-conservatives and the petro-military complex have hijacked US foreign policy. It


George W. Bush has fundamentally changed America's place in the world. In some neo-conservative circles the word 'empire' is back in fashion, and a great republic that broke away from the British empire is now supposed to be proud of its new imperial role. This book explains how the neo-conservatives and the petro-military complex have hijacked US foreign policy. It examines the price that Americans will have to pay for this new era of unlimited US military might - a never ending fear of terrorism; mushrooming defence and security spending; the erosion of civil liberties at home and the deaths abroad of tens of thousands of civilians and military combatants. At the heart of this disturbing and timely book is the ultimate question. Previous empires have foundered on the rock of imperial overstretch - the costs of trying to run and protect empires eventually outstripping the capacity and willingness of the citizenry to pay for them. Is the US in danger of going down that road? Who around George 'Dubya' Bush is pushing him along that path?

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Imperial Overstretch is a brilliantly argued narrative of the past, present and future of the American global imperial project. Indispensable reading!"-author of Declining World Order: America's Imperial Geopolitics

"Roger Burbach and Jim Tarbell provide us with indispensable insights into why, for all its bluster and armed might, the American empire has feet of clay. Provocative and comprehensive, this book is must reading for the global resistance movement."-Walden Bello, 2003 Recipient, Right Livelihood Award (Alternative Nobel Prize)

"A brilliant expose of savage greed and imperial hubris masquerading as the United States of America."-Mike Davis, University of California at Irvine

"Imperial Overstretch is indispensable reading for anyone seeking to understand the underlying motives for the US invasion of Iraq. Placing the Iraqi occupation in the context of the administration's imperial design, the authors highlight the fatal flaws in its' destructive drive for global domination."-Michael Klare, author of Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America's Petroleum Dependency

"Imperial Overstretch is a sweeping view of the history of US empire, the economic and military underpinnings of this empire, and the rise of the petro-military complex under the Bush administration. It is essential reading for those wishing to understand the rise of the neo-cons, the political birthing of George Bush and the imperial hijacking of September 11. But most of all, Imperial Overstretch is an urgent call to the American public to join the global movement against corporate and military domination, to jointly slay the imperial beast that is a menace to us at home and abroad."—Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Global Exchange and the women's peace group CodePink

"As at time when American imperialism is in a particularly brutal and violent phase, this book 0is essential reading."-David Barsamian, Alternative Radio, and co-author with Arundhati Roy of The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile and with Noam Chomsky of Propaganda and the Public Mind

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Imperial Overstretch

George W. Bush and the Hubris of Empire

By Roger Burbach, Jim Tarbell

Fernwood Publishing and Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2004 Roger Burbach and Jim Tarbell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84813-146-0


George W. Bush and the reality of empire

The history of the rise and fall of Empires teaches us that it is when their own citizens finally lose faith in the virtue of infinite war and permanent occupations that the system enters into retreat. Tariq Ali

On 15 February 2003, one month before George W. Bush ordered the 'shock and awe' bombing of Iraq, his effigy, holding buckets of blood and oil, bobbed above the determined crowds in New York City on a frosty winter day. In Manhattan, the city borough that suffered the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, 400,000 people besieged the United Nations, calling for no war. Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu told the crowd, 'We are members of one family ... the human family ... President Bush, listen to the voice of the people ... "Give peace a chance."'

The demonstrators in New York joined citizens from around the world to call on Bush not to pursue his imperial wars in their name. The largest global demonstrations in the history of humanity took place that day. In London alone 1.5 million people turned out, in Spain over a million mobilized, in Berlin the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung estimated that demonstrators numbered half a million. Protests in the United States took place from coast to coast in over a hundred cities (Pitt 2003).

In the nations of the South anti-war demonstrations were also widespread. In Jakarta, Indonesia, 100,000 marched on the US embassy, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, 30,000 turned out, and in Istanbul, Turkey, at least 5,000 demonstrated while thousands more mobilized in other Turkish cities, demanding that the United States not be allowed to station troops in their country to strike against Iraq. In the capitals of Egypt and Tunisia thousands protested against the impending US war, only to be beaten by local security forces. Even in Antarctica, fifty-one demonstrators formed a peace sign in the snow. All told, it is estimated that at least eleven million people demonstrated in seventy-five countries on that historic day. (See, for example, Internet F and Internet I.)

The crowds in New York came to the United Nations to address diplomats questioning the American rush to war. Within the walls of this global contemplative body coalitions were forming to withhold the world's approval of pre-emptive war in Iraq. America's sanctimonious, unilateral aggression had sparked the creation of the largest countervailing alliance since the United States rose to global dominance with the end of the Second World War.

On this sullen Saturday in Washington, DC, the President, who excelled in salesmanship rather than statesmanship, kept to himself. He had only fear to sell. In his weekly radio address he announced, 'Last week the national terrorist threat level was raised to "high" ... informing] the general public to be more alert to their surroundings and prepared for possible emergencies in the event of an attack ... Our enemies are still determined to attack America, and there is no such thing as perfect security against a hidden network of killers' (Bush 2003a). A month later on 16 March, Bush announced the 'moment of truth' for the world on Iraq. The next day he gave Saddam forty-eight hours to clear out. Then the bombs began the horrifying destruction.

After the fall of Baghdad, on 1 May 2003, George W. Bush landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier and with great fanfare proclaimed the end of 'Operation Iraqi Freedom'. Dressed in a military flight suit, he projected the image of a modern warrior king as he got out of the cockpit of a Navy Viking jet. Then, standing in front of a huge banner proclaiming 'Mission Accomplished', Bush, who had dodged the draft as a youth, made a triumphal speech, declaring 'major combat operations in Iraq have ended'.

This carefully orchestrated scene required the USS Abraham Lincoln and its crew to remain at sea off the coast of California for an extra day after months of duty in the Persian Gulf. It seemingly marked the successful conclusion of a long campaign to project US power around the world. Under the guise of a 'war on terrorism, that began with the events of September 11, 2001, the United States had established fourteen new military bases extending from eastern Europe through Iraq, the Persian Gulf, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan' (Siddiqui 2003). The United States had also stepped up its military involvement in other key areas of the world, such as the Philippines and Colombia.

But the United States was in trouble. In the coming days and months after 1 May the emergence of the Iraqi resistance, along with a number of international challenges, indicated that the United States had over-extended itself abroad. By the summer of 2003, twenty-one of the army's thirty-three active-duty combat brigades were deployed in conflictive or potentially explosive areas of the world: sixteen in Iraq, two in Afghanistan, two in South Korea and one in the Balkans. And of the thirty-three active-duty brigades only three were actually free for new duties. Of a total of 491,000 troops, about 370,000 were deployed overseas (New York Times, 21 July 2003). In July 2003 the Pentagon began debating the need to increase the size of the US armed forces and the possible reinstatement of the military draft to meet the need for US troops abroad.

Bush and Imperial Overstretch

A momentous consequence of the belligerent policies pursued by George W. Bush around the globe is imperial overstretch. Bush's adventurism is wreaking havoc on the United States, adversely affecting its standing in the world. Most Americans do not think of the United States as an empire, but the turmoil brought on by Bush's foreign adventures is compelling many to reconsider the US role in the world.

The phrase imperial overstretch first gained prominence in 1987 when Paul Kennedy, a historian at Yale University, published The Rise and Fall of Great Powers. In this book he argued that empires in their waning years engage in overstretch, 'like Imperial Spain around 1600 or the British empire around 1900' (Kennedy 1987). Kennedy did not shy away from comparing these earlier empires to the United States in the 1980s, asserting that because of 'a vast array of strategical commitments' made over the years, the United States 'runs the risk, so familiar to historians of the rise and fall of previous Great Powers, of what might roughly be called "imperial overstretch"' (ibid.).

At the time Kennedy wrote his book the Reagan administration was engaged in a massive military build-up. It sponsored a series of counter-revolutionary wars in Africa, Central America and Asia, attempting to counteract the earlier US setbacks in Vietnam and other parts of the world. Simultaneously, US economic pre-eminence appeared to be threatened by the more dynamic economies of Japan and western Europe.

Interestingly, when Kennedy wrote his tome in the 1980s his first argument in relation to US imperial overstretch focused on 'American obligations in the Middle East. Here is a region, from Morocco in the west to Afghanistan in the east, where the United States faces a number of conflicts and problems whose mere listing (as one observer put it) "leaves one breathless".' In what would be words of premonition for the second Bush administration, Kennedy went on to point out that petroleum 'makes the region very important to the United States, but at the same time bewilderingly resistant to any simple policy option. It is, in addition, the region in the world which, at least in some parts of it, seems most frequently to resort to war' (ibid.: 515–16).

In the short term Kennedy's thesis of imperial overstretch for the United States appeared to be wrong. Like virtually all historians and political observers, Kennedy failed to anticipate the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The success of Bush Senior in the first Gulf war and Clinton's interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo along with a resurgent US economy in the 1990s also nurtured the belief that 'Pax Americana' was once again in fine shape. At the turn of the millennium, Kennedy's argument of imperial overstretch was largely forgotten and appeared to be irrelevant.

The rise of the administration of George W. Bush and its turn to a unilateral, pre-emptive imperial modus operandi re-established the concept of overstretch as the likely outcome of US foreign policy. Placed in power by the vagaries of the US electoral system and the Supreme Court, the Bush administration constructed an aggressive imperial plan driven by neo-conservative hawks touting the righteousness of the American democratic model. Their rhetoric promoted the virtues of spreading liberal democracy across the planet. But the reality of their actions revealed that they were fundamentally intent on advancing the narrow interests of an imperial plutocracy that plunders the planet's resources regardless of the political consequences.

Mythology and the American Empire

This US empire conflicts with the ideals that every American schoolchild is raised upon. Children are taught that, in contrast to brutal human conquests and empires of the past, the United States emerged as the world's first truly democratic society with equal opportunity for all. To this day many in school memorize passages from the Declaration of Independence such as: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed ... with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.'

Then in 1876, on the centennial of the Declaration of Independence, France seemingly recognized this unique role when it gave the United States the Statue of Liberty. The statue inspired Emma Lazarus, a fourth-generation Jewish immigrant in New York, to pen the words on the statue that distinguished the new American colossus from past imperial powers. Her words, impregnated in the conscience of American history, state:

    Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
    With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
    Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
    A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
    Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles.
    From her beacon-hand
    Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
    The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
    'Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!' cries she
    With silent lips.
    'Give me your tired, your poor,
    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
    The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
    I lift my lamp beside the golden door!'

Even when the United States colonized the Philippines and occupied Cuba in the aftermath of the war with Spain in 1898, many in the United States and the rest of the world continued to hope and believe that America would serve as a 'shining city °n the hill' for other nations. The period from 1900 to 1930 did witness repeated military interventions in the Caribbean and Latin America. But when Franklin Roosevelt became President in 1933 and proclaimed the 'Good Neighbor Policy', it appeared that the United States had rectified its wanton ways.

After the Second World War, the United States became the dominant world power, and the new era was dubbed 'the American Century'. Now the United States clearly acted as an imperial nation, flagrantly imposing its will on others, as the violent CIA coups in Iran and Guatemala in the early 1950s confirmed. But here again the US government was able to mask the existence of an empire of 'conquering limbs' behind the rhetoric and fear of the Cold War, asserting that it was a struggle between 'the free world and communism'. Only with the Vietnam war in the late 1960s and early 1970s did the American people question and rise up against the military and the imperial adventures of its leaders.

The Empire of Deceit

Finally, with George W. Bush, under the banner of 'compassionate conservatism', the Christian right and a band of neo-conservatives and militarists seized full control of the government. With the earth-shaking events of 11 September they were able to run wild in promoting the interests of a reactionary, corporate elite on a global scale while cloaking these interests in the rhetoric of the American myths. The back-slapping Texas oilman in the White House was able to foist his views on ordinary Americans because he not only had God on his side but also the Supreme Court, the House of Representatives and Senate, and the most powerful military force in the history of the world.

Bush's pomp on the USS Abraham Lincoln on 1 May reflected what he had learned to do best during the early years of his presidency: project the aura of a true believer bent on a righteous mission of ridding the world of 'evil-doers'. But his speech on the aircraft carrier also revealed the fatal flaw that runs through his presidency – a self-delusional capacity to distort and bend reality to fit his narrow world view.

On the Lincoln Bush asserted that by winning the war against Saddam Hussein, 'we've removed an ally of al-Qaeda'. This statement was a fabrication, perhaps even more of a distortion than the oft-repeated claim that the United States went to war to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. No links ever existed between al-Qaeda and Saddam. But by banging the drums of war with false statements for well over a year before the invasion of Iraq, Bush managed to mobilize and manipulate US public sentiment to back the Iraqi adventure. When the war began over half of Americans mistakenly believed that the Iraqi regime had been involved in the destruction of the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001.

Aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln Bush declared he would continue his global campaign, stating 'the battle of Iraq is one victory in the war on terror', adding: 'our mission continues: al-Qaeda is wounded, but not destroyed'. The image of al-Qaeda would be manipulated ad infinitum in an effort to frighten the American people into supporting continued US adventures abroad. What makes these interventions even more problematic is that they are intertwined with Bush's belief that he is on a divine mission. As Bush told Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas in June 2003, 'God told me to strike at al-Qaeda and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did, and now I am determined to solve the problem in the Middle East' (cited in Kamen 2003). Bush's moral mission is global in scope, extending well beyond al-Qaeda, the Middle East and the Gulf. The war against terrorism is simply the most visible feature, and at times even a subterfuge, for the efforts of Bush and a loyal band of hardcore conservatives to project US power around the world.

Moreover, the Bush administration reflects the core interests of a petro-military complex, a very narrow group of largely national-based economic interests that are not as interlocked with global capital as other business sectors in the United States. It is astounding, but the diverse entity called the United States of America has placed in political power one of the narrowest ruling cliques in recent history. Many of the executive orders and policies, before and after 11 September, have served the narrow interests of this economic group. The US abandonment of the Kyoto treaty to control global warming, the attempts to drill in the Arctic Circle, and calls for the disavowal of nuclear arms treaties in order to pursue a multibillion-dollar Star Wars programme – these and other policies cater directly to the interests of the petro-military complex. And it is this complex which is benefiting the most from the occupation of Iraq and the war without end against terrorism. Small wonder that Germany, France and Russia broke with the United States over the Iraq intervention, recognizing that their interests would be largely excluded once the United States was in control of the Gulf region.

Militarization of the Empire

With the war on terror, the militarization of US foreign policy accelerated dramatically. Early 2002 found 660 soldiers in the Philippines searching for members of Abu Sayyaf, allegedly linked to al-Qaeda. In Kenya, where the United States has used bases since 1980, 3,000 US troops took part in exercises as the Bush administration sought to build a permanent facility there. Thousands more troops were pouring into oil-rich central Asia. Over 4,000 were in Afghanistan and 2,000 in Uzbekistan. The United States also began building a base in Kyrgyzstan to house 3,000 troops, and Tajikistan was considering a long-term base on its soil. On a more symbolic level, it is notable that the established corporate media give extraordinary attention to the press conferences of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld while minimizing the importance of Secretary of State Colin Powell (himself a former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), unless his views clash with those of the Defense Department.


Excerpted from Imperial Overstretch by Roger Burbach, Jim Tarbell. Copyright © 2004 Roger Burbach and Jim Tarbell. Excerpted by permission of Fernwood Publishing and Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Roger Burbach is Director of Research and Publication at the Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA) in Berkeley, California. A historian by training, he was for a number of years a staff member and writer with NACLA, the North American Congress on Latin America. During the 1990s he was Visiting Scholar in Peace and Conflict Studies, and subsequently at the Institute of International Studies, University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of numerous books, including most recently The Pinochet Affair: State Terrorism and Global Justice (Zed Books, 2003), Globalization and Postmodern Politics: Zapatistas versus High Tech Robber Barons (2001) and Globalize This! The Battle against the World Trade Organization (2000) (edited with Kevin Danaher). He coauthored with Orlando Noez Fire in the Americas (1987). Jim Tarbell is a writer and broadcaster based in Northern California. Following spells as a staffer for Congressman Wendell Wyatt (1968-72) and Peace Corps volunteer (1973-75), he founded his own publishing house, Ridge Times Press, in 1981. Amongst many other activities, he is now the editor of the Alliance for Democracy quarterly journal Alliance Alerts, and co-hosts a radio programme on KZYX called Corporations and Democracy. He is the author of a previous book, I Came Not Alone (1994), which tells of ordinary people's experiences of globalization in Latin America, and is currently working on a new book, Democracy versus Empire.
Roger Burbach is director of the Center for the Study of the Americas and a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. He has written extensively on Latin America and US foreign policy for over four decades. His first book, Agribusiness in the Americas (1980), co-authored with Patricia Flynn, is regarded as a classic in the research of transnational agribusiness corporations and their exploitative role in Latin America. His most notable book is Fire in the Americas (1987), co-authored with Orlando Núñez, which is an informal manifesto of the Nicaraguan revolution during the 1980s. With the collapse of twentieth-century socialism in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe he began to study the emergent system of globalization and to write about the new Latin American social movements and the renewed quest for socialism in the twenty-first century. Michael Fox is a former editor of NACLA Report on the Americas. He has worked for many years as a freelance journalist, radio reporter, and documentary film-maker covering Latin America. He is the co-author of Venezuela Speaks!: Voices from the Grassroots (2010) and the co-director of the documentary films Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in the Americas and Crossing the American Crises: From Collapse to Action, both available through PM Press. He is on the board of Venezuelanalysis.com and his articles have been published in The Nation, Yes Magazine, Earth Island Journal, and more. His work can be found at blendingthelines.org. Federico Fuentes edits Bolivia Rising, is on the board of Venezuelanalysis.com, and is a regular contributor to the Australian-based newspaper Green Left Weekly, serving as part of its Caracas bureau from 2007 to 2010. During his time in Caracas he was based at the Fundación Centro Internacional Miranda as a resident researcher investigating twenty-first-century political instruments and popular participation in public management. He has co-authored three books with Marta Harnecker on the new left in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Paraguay. His articles have been published with ZNet, Counterpunch, MRZine, Venezuelanalysis.com, Aporrea, Rebelión, America XXI, Comuna, and other publications and websites in both Spanish and English.

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