Imperialism in the 21st Century

Remarks from a session at the Stop the War Coalition’s June 11, 2011, conference in London on “Afghanistan and the War on Terror: 10 Years On.”

I want to thank the Stop the War Coalition and Lindsey German in particular for having invited me here. And it is an honor to speak together with Steve Bell and Kevin Ovenden, and I’m sorry Joe Glenton was unable to be here. Kevin and I will be on “The Real Deal” with George Galloway tomorrow, so please watch.

Afghanistan was supposed to be the campaign promise that President Barack Obama actually kept. He said he would escalate that war and enlarge the military and strike into Pakistan, and sure enough he did. But he made another promise since the election that we actually want him to keep, and he’s going to violate it before the next election. Clearly we need an activist force apart from elections to address this.

Here’s the promise he made on December 1, 2009: “After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home … [O]ur troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended – because the nation that I’m most interested in building is our own.”

And on April 15, 2011: “I’m confident that the withdrawal will be significant. People will say this is a real process of transition; this is not just a token gesture.”

And his vice president said: “In July of 2011, you’re going to see a whole lot of people moving out, bet on it.”

One reason the only troops I support are the ones who refuse illegal orders like Joe Glenton did is that sending troops off to kill and die has become an end in itself in U.S. politics, detached from any purpose at all. President Obama sent the first additional 17,000 troops before he’d been in office a month and explicitly before coming up with any plan for Afghanistan. He got the total up from 33,700 US troops in late 2008 to 68,000 in late 2009. These numbers do not include tens of thousands of European troops, untold numbers of so-called intelligence personnel, mercenaries hired through the US state department (which is also how the occupation of Iraq will continue) and US defence department contractors almost equal in number to the US troops.

By the end of 2010, according to the US so-called defense department, there were 96,900 US troops and 87,483 supporting contractors in Afghanistan. In rough terms, there are 200,000 Americans now in Afghanistan, against the will of the American people as expressed in every poll.

On December 1, 2009, President Obama said he would “begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011.” In May 2010, Obama said he was “confident” he could meet the deadline. In his January 2011 State of the Union address he said, “This July, we will begin to bring our troops home.”

Some weeks back, the military told the Wall Street Journal that the significant and non-token withdrawal would be 5,000 troops and contractors, or 2.5 percent of the total. This past week the New York Times put the figure at 3,000 to 5,000, or 1.5 to 2.5 percent of the total. Since then we’ve seen countless articles about whether the withdrawal will be serious or insignificant, almost none of which mention any numbers. I guess any number can be significant if you set expectations low enough and claim it’s significant enough times.

The rest of the plan is to withdraw 70,000 troops by 2014 and leave 30,000 there indefinitely. While that doesn’t sound like ending the occupation, it frightens the people who pay for U.S. politicians’ campaigns. A reporter with the Public Broadcasting Service in the United States reports:

“An executive at a small defense contractor recently joked to me, ‘Afghanistan is our business plan.’ I asked him what he would do if the war ended. He stared at me for a moment and said, ‘Well, then I hope we invade Libya.'”

The Libya war probably looks small, and maybe even defensible, to the world in comparison to Afghanistan, unless you’re living in Tripoli or — as I do — near Washington, D.C. The United States Congress has the exclusive power to declare war under our Constitution, but hasn’t done so since December 8, 1941. Since then there has been an ever diminishing pretense of congressional involvement in the decision process. This has culminated in the launching of the Libya War, which was done with a careful avoidance of any appearance of involving Congress at all. This new war violated the Constitution, the Kellogg Briand Pact, the UN Charter, and a 1973 U.S. law called the War Powers Act.

The United Nations passed a resolution for a humanitarian intervention, a no fly zone, a cease fire, an arms embargo, and a ban on foreign ground troops. It was immediately used to bomb civilians, introduce arms, and employ foreign ground troops, not to mention drone bombings and an apparent assassination attempt. I’m all for prosecuting war crimes — I just think you have to prosecute everyone’s, not bomb people to keep them from being raped, whereby you also keep them from making love, eating breakfast, smiling, or becoming grandparents. Even if that resolution legalizes the war from the world’s perspective, and I hope it does not, it does nothing to make it constitutional in the United States.

The War Powers Act would have applied only if Libya had attacked the United States. But everyone pretended this law applied anyway. The War Powers Resolution requires that the President report information to Congress within 48 hours of launching a war, which Obama did — except that he didn’t include most of the information he was required to report. The War Powers Resolution also puts a 60-day limit on unconstitutional war, and that clock has expired.

Two weeks back, the U.S. House of Misrepresentatives passed numerous amendments to the “Defense Authorization Act of 2012.” One amendment made clear that passage of the bill did not authorize war in Libya. Another prohibited the use of U.S. ground troops in Libya. But another amendment required that, upon completion of the war, the U.S. military dig up and bring home the bones of U.S. sailors buried in Tripoli during an earlier war in 1804. How exactly is that going to happen unless the U.S. military gains control of Tripoli? And what is accomplished by refusing to authorize a war that is already underway?

Because Congress has not authorized a dime for the Libya War, NATO nations are being pushed to dump in more funding.

Another section of the same bill (an amendment to strip it failed to pass) effectively gives presidents the power to make wars. This section (#1034) conflicts with the War Powers Act and the Constitution. It might also conflict with a congressional resolution ending or prohibiting a specific war. The President claims not to want this power, and an extremely generous interpretation of a statement from his administration holds that he has threatened to veto the bill over it. This bill goes to the Senate this week.

Oh, and another amendment that I know England will be extremely jealous of created a national holiday in the United States to celebrate the Iraq and Afghanistan wars under the guise of honoring the troops who did not refuse illegal orders. This passed unanimously in the House.

While Section 1034 of the Defense Authorization Act has been sitting in the Senate like several dozen ticking time bombs for future wars, further steps were taken in the House a week ago yesterday, to bolster the imperial presidency. Congressman Dennis Kucinich for whom I used to work introduced a single sentence resolution that said End US involvement in the Libya war in 15 days. And something very strange happened on the way to the forum: the House leadership became convinced that the thing would pass and began to panic. Progressive Democrats and libertarian Republicans (people who oppose all governance including war-making) were lining up together and being joined by dozens of other Republicans who hate President Obama more than they hate peace and justice. So, over night, the Speaker of the House came up with a non-binding resolution that said the war was unauthorized but let it continue, while requesting that the president provide various pieces of information. This toothless gesture passed, and the binding one failed. Thus Congress went on record acknowledging that a war had been illegally launched and choosing to do nothing about it.

This bodes ill for imperialism in the coming decades. (I don’t say century because I don’t think U.S. imperialism will last another century). A military that could be cut by 85 percent and still be the world’s largest, a military that has sliced up the planet, outerspace, and cyberspace into various “commands,” a military that occupies 1,000 bases in other people’s countries around the earth, has been placed in the hands of a single individual, or a series of single individuals who have developed the habit of taking their direction from the military itself.

The U.S. Constitution provides a remedy for this situation. When I was here five years ago, I was carefully informed that the remedy was English or Scottish in origin depending on whether the person I asked was English or Scottish. The remedy, known as impeachment, is of course inapplicable at this point in time, since Barack Obama has not been shown to be engaging in extramarital sex. Progressive activists in the United States refer to him as a scandal-free president.

Or some of them do. Others have planned a Tahrir Square-inspired occupation of Washington D.C. to begin on October 6th — which I’ll talk more about at the plenary later today and which you can read about at

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.