The Decline and Fall of the American Empire — Part III
Welcome to the third installation in this series. In previous installments, we looked at the economic and social dimensions of America’s decline. Today we will examine how military misadventures (a symptom of declining empires) have been launched in response to America’s decline and how it has only exacerbated the problem.
In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the US began to undergo a series of reforms in both its military and intelligence sectors. The Armed Forces were overhauled to create an all-volunteer fighting force, and the CIA (which had had a relatively free hand before and during the war) found its powers significantly curtailed.
However, beginning with Reagan, a new tradition began, which was the use of military force in defiance of international law to enforce economic policy and/or demonstrate military supremacy. Examples of this include the invasion of Grenada in Oct of 1983 and the bombing of Libya in April of 1986. In the former case, the Reagan administration ordered in the troops ostensibly to protect “the 600 U.S. medical students on the island” and put down a Marxist-Leninist junta that had been running the island since 1979.
The invasion was condemned by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, the UN General Assembly, and many other nations who claimed it violated international law. Decades later, legal scholars still agree with this assessment. Not only was there no basis for humanitarian intervention (since there was no reason to assume US citizens were in danger) there was no basis for claiming the invasion was to ensure peace and security since their was no threat to the US.
In reality, Reagan likely ordered in the Marines because he was afraid of another hostage crisis (like what took place in Iran in 1979) and knew that a Marxist junta would not support US economic interests in the region. But most of all, it is likely he was looking to distract people from the Beirut barracks bombings, which took place just two days prior.
This terrorist attack was the result of the Lebanese Civil War that was raging at the time, and in response to the US and France stationing peacekeeping forces there. All told, 241 U.S. military personnel, 58 French military personnel and 6 civilians were killed, making this the most deadly single-day for US forces since Vietnam and WWII.
The bombing of Libya in 1986 was not much different. For years, Qaddafi was seen as a threat to US and Israeli interests, was suspected of starting a nuclear program, and was accused of supporting terrorist organizations (echoes of the Iraq War in 2003). To be fair, Qaddafi was supporting terrorist acts and the US had the documentation to backed that up.
Nevertheless, Reagan responded to a terrorist bombing in West Berlin by ordering a massive air strike against Libya. Once again, they did so despite the objections of the UN and even NATO allies. In total, some 60–75 people were killed, 15 to 45 of whom were civilians, and it did not have the desired effect. Qaddafi’s support of terrorism continued, and included the hijacking of Pan Am Flight 73 (which resulted in the deaths of 20 people).
During the Bush Sr. administration, things did not fare much better. In some respects, his military interventions were clean-up operations from the Reagan administration. In 1989, the US invaded Panama to seize Manuel Noriega, the man who had taken power in Panama between 1981 and 83 with US help. For years, he was the US’ largest ally in Latin America because he supported the “War on Drugs” (despite amassing millions from drug trafficking) and facilitating the transfer of weapons, military equipment and cash to counter-insurgency groups in the region.
However, after years of criminal behavior and his decision to nationalize the Panama Canal, Bush ordered in the troops because of he was becoming a liability. Again, the legality of this operation was dubious at best, since it involved invading another country and abducting the head of state so they could be tried in a US court.
In 1991, Bush was forced to deal with another Reagan-era mess after Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein (another former US ally) decided to invade Kuwait. In 1980, Hussein had chosen to invade Iran, hoping to take advantage of the fact that the country was unstable after the 1979 Revolution. As the war began to go south on him, the Reagan administrations sent Iraq billions in economic aid, “dual-use technology,” military intelligence, special operations training, and weapons.
The weapons included the chemical and biological precursors for botulism, anthrax, and nerve gas, which Saddam proceeded to bombard Iranian cities with and even his own people — the Halabaja Massacre against the northern Kurds. After months of mobilization, the war to liberate Kuwait lasted only 100 hours and was followed by massive celebrations as troops were brought home and the government declared that the U.S. had overcome the legacy of Vietnam.
The reality, however, was anything but pleasant. Over 200,000 Iraqis were killed, captured or wounded, the US was facing sharp criticism over the death of civilians (such as the “Highway of Death” incident) and the Bush administration had concluded a hastily put-together treaty with Hussein that allowed him to remain in power and keep vital military assets (like his attack choppers).
This meant that all the northern Kurds and southern Shias that had been encouraged to revolt against Saddam were now vulnerable to reprisal. And reprisals came as Saddam’s choppers began attacking north and south and people were murdered en masse. This required the imposition of a “No-Fly Zone” to the north and south of the country, and a ten-year embargo that effectively crippled the Iraqi economy and led to many deaths by starvation and lack of proper medical care.
Speaking of which, it was the US decision to station troops in Saudi Arabia to liberate Kuwait (and the Saudi’s decision to allow for permanent US bases there) that turned another Reagan-era ally into a liability. This was Osama bin Laden, a Saudi national who traveled to Afghanistan in 1979 to take part in the war against the Soviets. During his time there, he benefited from the money and weapons shipments arranged by the US government.
In 1988, Reagan’s final year as president, he formed Al-Qaeda for the purposes of waging jihad against what he saw as Islam’s other enemies (which included the US). After Operation Desert Storm, Osama declared war on the US and began spending the next 20 years waging a terrorist campaign against US embassies, US military forces, and US civilians (the most notorious example being 9/11).
This terrorist attack, which cost the lives of over 3000 people, was used as pretext by the Bush administration to invade Iraq for the second time. This was one of two deployments that took place post-9/11, and given the number of troops deployed — 5,500 to Afghanistan, 130,000 to Iraq — it was clear where the administrations priorities lay.
To call the Iraq War a misadventure would be an understatement in the extreme. First, there was the issue of international law, where it is entirely illegal for a state to invade a country on the basis of improving conditions for its people. That same argument was used as a pretext to launch all colonial wars on up to the 1930s (i.e. “we’re civilizing the people”), hence why the international law expressly forbids it.
Knowing this, the Bush and Blair administrations attempted to fabricate a case based on security, claiming Iraq had restarted its nuclear program, was continuing to develop chemical and biological weapons, had ties to Al-Qaeda, and even helped plan 9/11. These were categorically false claims and many were debunked during the lead-up to the invasion (and since). In particular, the claim that Saddam had sought a vast quantity of yellow cake uranium from Niger and that Iraqi officials met with Al-Qaeda in Prague before 9/11.
These claims were based entirely on the testimony of two questionable foreign sources who were in the habit of selling information for money. Claims about the restarted nuclear, chemical and biological weapons research were based on testimony provided by Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress — an organization of ex-pats who had lost their properties and fortunes when Saddam took over.
Most of these people had not been back to their country in over a decade and their group had an obvious agenda. Their main source of information, Iraqi defector Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi (codenamed “Curveball”), also admitted in 2011 that the information he provided on bioweapons was entirely false. The US even installed Chalabi as Iraq’s Minister for Oil after the invasion, a job that mainly consisted of approving contracts for companies with financial ties to Bush’ cabinet.
More importantly, testimony and documents provided by former NSA director Richard Clarke III and former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neil (as well as multiple Washington insiders) indicated that the Bush administration was planning an invasion of Iraq months before 9/11 even occurred. Also, the documents provided by O’Neil included plans to divvy up the countries oil wealth to specific corporations — again, who had financial ties to the Bush admin. In short, 9/11 was used a pretext to conduct an invasion that was already planned out.
Far worse than the false pretext were the disastrous results. Between 2003 and 2011, an estimated 461,000 people were killed as a result of the invasion, post-war rioting and looting, the insurgency, the civil war, and shortages of food, water and medicine. The invasion also led to the creation of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the emergence of ISIS, and the civil war in Syria. The cost of the Iraq war itself is now estimated at about $3 trillion, which was so high in part because of the huge interest costs since the war was financed with borrowed money.
During the occupation, crimes of war were committed by US and coalition forces, particularly in the town of Fallujah. It began with US troops opening fire on a crowd of protesters who were upset over the closing of the local high school. This led to the insurgency in the north, which US forces responded to by dropping white phosphorous on the city, killing and burning many civilians. The scenes from Abu Ghraib and Samara also detail the extensive use of torture and humiliation in order to extract confessions.
It is important to note that this was merely one country specified in the “Axis of Evil” speech, which claimed that Iraq, Iran and North Korea were all complicit in financing “global terrorism”. However, within the context of the neo-conservative movement in general and the Bush administration in particular, the real intent was clear: eliminate all rogue states and secure overseas sources of oil to make the US unassailable.
Much the same is true when it came to “Missile Defense”, which claimed to be about protecting the US and its allies against rogue states like Iran and North Korea. But anyone could see from their deployment that it was all about countering Russian nuclear missiles — should the need arise. This had a terrible effect on relations with Russia and encouraged Putin to step up his bullying and intimidation of neighboring states.
Making the U.S. unassailable in the 21st century was the driving force behind neo-con think tanks like Project for the New American Century (PNAC) since the 1990s. PNAC and others like it were emboldened by the fall of the Soviet Union, the rise of China, and their own revisionist history regarding Ronald Reagan. PNAC played a crucial role in the election of George W. Bush, and many of its signatory members — Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Lewis Libby, Dan Quayle, and Jeb Bush — were prominent members of the Bush administration.
At home, the situation was not much better. Using 9/11 as a pretext, the Bush administration began conducting regular surveillance on US citizens (which included cyber-espionage and warrantless wiretaps) under the Patriot Act. They also legalized torture under the guise of “enhanced interrogation techniques”. These measures eliminated the clause of Habeas Corpus from US law and turned Guantanamo Bay into a notorious torture center, much like Abu Ghraib.
Fortunately, thanks to the severe failures of the Bush Administration — the disastrous post-war situation in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, the Great Recession — Bush became a “lame duck” president during his second term and couldn’t start any more wars (not for lack of trying, though). However, despite the Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008, little changed with Obama as president and Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. While the “war on terror” motif was dropped from the foreign policy lexicon, military force continued to be used as an instrument of policy.
For example, Obama pulled troops from Iraq, but bolstered troop levels in Afghanistan. U.S. forces were since re-stationed in Iraq because of the ongoing crisis with the Islamic State. Obama also continued a protracted air war against Al-Qaeda and affiliates in western Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia using drone strikes. These and air strikes caused an untold number of civilian casualties, did nothing to eliminate terrorist organizations or improve the situation in those countries.
In addition, domestic surveillance did not stop under Obama, but actually expanded in the form of the NSA’s PRISM program. Unlike warrantless wire taps, this program relied on machine learning algorithms to mine personal data for any “suspicious” activity. The data was handed over by the largest U.S. telecommunication companies and internet companies to the NSA’s Cyber Command. The existence of this program only became public knowledge due to the Snowden Leak.
Under Trump, the situation has been different, but by no means better. For starters, he revoked the Obama administration’s policy of reporting casualties from drone strikes (Executive Order 1373), eliminating what little transparency there was in the ongoing “drone wars.” His decision to remove U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan and negotiate with North Korea were hailed by people on the left and right as demonstrating a commitment to end “foreign wars.”
In reality, these decisions demonstrated how easily manipulated Trump is, as well as his criminal negligence and weakness and his admiration of “strongmen” — particularly Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdoğan. In all cases, Trump made huge concession, callously abandoned allies, and even humiliating himself. In his letter to Erdoğan and his tweet to Jong-un, he publicly begged both men to return to the table and strike a deal with him.
His decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan ended a 20-year war (America’s longest) and brought the troops home. However, the way he concede everything to the Taliban set the stage for the disaster that occurred in August 2021. This included the release of all POWs, his agreement to a total withdrawal within months, and the way he left the Afghani government out of the negotiations.
His presidency was also characterized by the most reprehensible and blatant abuses of power and corruption. This only laid bare the extent to which the system and the nature of politics in the U.S. have regressed and declined. But more on that later…
Since 1980, the U.S. armed forces have been involved in twenty-four military operations, ranging from skirmishes, blockades, interventions, and full-scale invasions. These actions have contributed to the collapse of multiple states, the rise of warlords and terrorist armies, growing resentment against the U.S., and the deaths of millions of people.
For the U.S., it has meant thousands of killed and wounded U.S. soldiers, airmen, marines, and naval personnel. The cost of these wars has reached well into the trillions, left countless veterans permanently scared and uncared for, and fed the perception among Americans that establishment politicians are “war-mongers.”
Moreover, since 1980, the U.S. has invaded, bombed, embargoed, or intervened in the domestic conflicts of fourteen Muslim-majority nations, most of them more than once! This statistic alone should silence any doubt as to why Islamic terrorism is a phenomenon that affects America and its allies. Not nearly as much as it affects Muslim-majority nations, mind you, but the point remains.
Stay tuned for the final installment!