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A dying empire is a dangerous empire

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US and western news agencies tell us that the news of bin Laden's death brought many to the streets in US cities. What are they celebrating? The end of a 10-year-old war that has eviscerated middle-class America? Photo: Al Jazeera/AFP

After the triumphalism of the Abbottabad strike, the cold reality of overshoot – In recent months the signals from what America sometimes calls its heartland have been worrying, downright alarming. Manufacturing in the USA is down to a shadow, as a percentage of GDP, of what it used to be 25 years ago. The services economy – which the Bretton Woods twins, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, have prescribed to developing countries and then arm-twisted them for it – creates few new jobs and negligible new savings in the USA. First under George Bush the younger, and then under Barack Obama, social sector spending and support has been dwindling.

Working class America, burdened by a decade of wars their government has pursued all around the world, has been brought to its knees with a new round of cuts imposed by the latest in a growing line of war-mongering US presidents. For them, whether Obama is Republican or Democrat makes little difference. Why this is so can be seen from news reports found in the local and independent-minded newspapers (those that still exist) in that country: “Tennessee’s legislative onslaught against teachers”, “Wisconsin Senate rams through anti-worker bill”, “Idaho students walk out over education cuts”, “Momentum builds for austerity budget in California”, “Several thousand demonstrate in Columbus, Ohio” and “Ten thousand attend protest at Indiana statehouse”. These tell the tale of the effect at home of long years of warring abroad.

Today, apart from automobiles, aircraft jet engines and weapons (and, yes, nuclear reactors) there are few material goods the USA gives the world. It gives the world a great deal of weapons to kill, annihilate, destroy and burn, and it pursues this export of death-dealing with heavy-handed foreign policy and ham-fisted trade ‘negotiations’. But Americans, those who want to pursue humble professions and vocations that have nothing to do with their country’s export priorities, must buy some basics for their survival. That is when they contribute to the most visible symbol of imperial overstretch – the USA’s trade balance with its biggest trading partner, China. Rising steadily over 20 years, the US-China trade imbalance (when viewed with American eyes) dipped only slightly after 11 September 2001. In 2008-09, the dip was far greater, but the graph was much higher then, and stands today at just under US$300 billion.

Osama bin Laden, a picture from the Gulf News Archive

It is not a sight to soothe the riled and roiled states of today’s American heartland. Nor does it help the average American that the monetarily unhinged policies of Bush the younger, wherein he forgave the rich their taxes in order to submit the poor to more of them, have been enshrined as principle by his democrat successor, a man whose forefathers were Kenyan. It does not help, as the magazine Mother Jones says, that a New York janitor making slightly more than US$33,000 a year pays an effective tax rate of nearly 25%, but the effective tax rate for a resident of a Park Avenue building, earning an average of US$1.2 million annually, must complain about a 14.7% tax burden.

Perhaps the last word in cold spending logic should come from the Swedes. Two months ago the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) released its latest report on international military expenditures. World military spending rose only 1.3% in 2010 to US$1.63 trillion, after average annual growth of 5.1% between 2001 and 2009, said SIPRI. The USA remained by far the biggest defence spender in the world – US$698 billion – and accounted for almost all of global growth in military expenditure in 2010, an increase of US$19.6 billion out of the US$20.6 billion global increase. Today, the USA’s defence budget is 4.8% of its GDP, its budget has increased 81% since 2001 and is six times greater than that of China, the next biggest spender. In contrast, in Europe, military spending fell by 2.8% as governments cut costs to address soaring budget deficits.

A man watches television news on the death of Osama bin Laden in Peshawar, Pakistan. Photo: Al Jazeera/EPA

This is the tenth year since the ‘war on terror’ was declared by No 43, Bush the younger, and it tells us much that all of them, from No 32 during World War Two, have begun or continued wars and military campaigns. No 44, the current president, claimed righteously that the USA “went to war against Al Qaeda to protect our citizens, our friends, and our allies”. This is the same claim made by NATO in and about Libya. It has been repeated wherever, in the last half-century, imperial America has wanted to seize economic resources or prevent others from doing so. That is why US armed forces in Afghanistan have tripled since Obama took office. After Abbottabad, nothing in the remarks made by No 44 and his staff and generals have suggested in any way that the killing of bin Laden will lead to a significant change in American foreign policy, let alone an end to the relentless expansion of military interventions.

The announcment of the killing of Osama bin Laden is being underlined by the US Department of State as a milestone in America’s ‘war on terror’. In a campaign that is now in the last half of its tenth year, the costs of this ‘war’ have dwarfed most modern reckoning of conflict. Independent estimates place the cost of the US military engagement in Iraq at over US$780 billion since 2001, and at over US$400 billion for its deployment in Afghanistan over the same period. At more than US$1.1 trillion the sober question that is certainly being asked by those at home in middle America is: has it been worth it to reach this milestone? Perhaps a more accurate question will be: if the death of bin Laden indeed signals the final demise of the al-Qaeda network, what will it take to wind down these wars until the last American soldier goes home?

It will be some time before either of these are answered with some degree of belief, or or trust in Washington’s governance of its military-industrial complex. The US and its allies will enjoy a self-congratulatory glow in the short-term future but, far to the west of Abbottabad, the long-term future of northern Africa is being determined by means no less violent than those which removed forever bin Laden. We would like, as rational and peaceable folk, to agree that war and economic stability, that protracted conflict and human development do not and cannot coexist. Yet for the last decade, the world’s richest countries and most militarily ambitious have done their best to tell us the opposite.

A key influence on bin Laden was Dr Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian professor and member of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood. Photo: Al Jazeera

In the aftermath of the Abbottabad strike, which is the truer reflection of our times? Agencies of the United Nations, those primarily concerned with helping people live better, healthier, safer lives, have spared no effort in telling us that more, not less, needs to be done for the world’s poor and vulnerable. If the death of bin laden is also a signal that obscenely enormous military spending will now be used to feed the hungry, teach the young and give them a greener future, then perhaps we can indeed call it a milestone.

Any rendering of separatist groups, of insurgencies, of terror networks and their anarchist ideologies however informs us that a milestone, even one as important as this, is only a milestone. While for most governments in the Middle East the al-Qaeda and its allied organisations was a persistent and highly dangerous group under a bin Laden alive, without him it is hardly likely to be less so. The decade since the 11 September attacks has been as remarkable for the new insights into ideology-based armed insurrectionists as it has been for the huge resources it has required to tackle them, not always successfully.

Less than 24 hours after the Abbottabad strike, geo-political analysts and experts on extremist networks were already providing their immediate reaction: be cautious in assuming the damage done to al-Qaeda and be circumspect when predicting the strategic and security consequences of bin Laden’s death. For those entrusted with providing security to their country’s citizens in the face of extremism, the first assessment will be whether bin Laden is considered a martyr whose methods are to be emulated, or whether those who are influenced by al-Qaeda will value economic opportunity more than taking to the gun. It is a difficult assessment to attempt for in the Arab region, as the Arab Human Development Report 2009 underlined forcefully, human insecurity is reflected in the economic vulnerability of one-fifth of the people in some Arab states, and more than half in others, people whose lives are impoverished and cut short by hunger and want.

It is likely, although such a likelihood flies in the face of sanity, that the US regime does not recognise the problems facing us all, many of which have been central to campaigns by United Nations agencies and development organisations, including USAID. Less than two months ago, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reminded world leaders: “Millions of people have been pushed into poverty by the latest food price rises. I am especially concerned about the poorest households that often spend three-quarters of their income on food. When prices go up, they go hungry.”

And yet the World Food Programme late last year had to make hard decisions about who to abandon to starvation for lack of money to buy food aid with. Nor is that the only concern. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has set up a new fund aimed at mobilising resources to help developing countries mitigate the impact of global warming, to help the transition to low-carbon futures – a seventh of the US annual defence budget will keep it on course for five years, benefiting millions. These are the greater challenges, solved not by attack drones and aircraft carriers, but by co-operation and sharing of ideas in a climate of peace. But No. 44, true to presidential form, will have none of it, just as he won’t from the people of Wisconsin, Idaho and Ohio.

2 Responses

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  1. Excellent posts, excellent conclusions.

    Eisenhower back in the ’50s was already predicting the dangers of the military industrial complex.

    The ‘Arab Spring’ came about because of world hunger as the catalyst. We need to be paying attention to what things are solutions and what things are the actual problems.

    Dog Gone

    May 3, 2011 at 22:28

    • Dear Dog Gone, thanks much for the note. This post is a longer version of a comment I wrote for the Khaleej Times of Dubai. Do you have the reference of the Eisenhower warning? It will be useful to broadcast it to others who feel similarly about the colossal waste of scarce money on more war. Regards, Rahul

      makanaka

      May 3, 2011 at 23:42


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