Author David Foster Wallace once said that America is, “One enormous engine and temple of self-gratification and self-advancement.” The spectacle of American consumerism comes galloping to mind. But the pageant of gluttony with which we sate ourselves on a weekly basis is a pale reflection, at least in its intensity, of American foreign policy.
Like our national addiction to guns mirrors our international addiction to bombs, so too our appetitive instincts at home merely reflect those same greedy impulses writ large in the global arena. From the soul of the gourmand to the surface-to-air missile, the attitude to the world is the same: take what ye would, all else be damned.
But while consumers might bankrupt themselves on needless consumption, it is the imperial arm of the state that visits mass suffering on innocents abroad. The empire is an ogreish consumer that plods across the landscapes of the planet, disfiguring as it dispossesses, a kind of unreflective Freudian id blindly pursuing its own gratification. Its thirst is unquenchable, its belly ever famished. And, thanks to the power of fiat, this growling Beowulf has unlimited credit with which to bankroll its adventurism. A ravenous profligate thumping through the agoras of the world, claws extended.
But enough with the metaphors. Let’s render it in the dry prose of the national security state: the overarching objective of U.S. foreign policy is to serve as the vanguard of U.S. multinationals and those of its European partners who, it should be said, wish to establish “full spectrum dominance” the world over. A bland and technical way of saying self-aggrandizement, the pursuit of which is as varied as its justifications for war.
But we do not just mean war. Heavens, no. What do you take us for, savages?
American foreign policy is far more nuanced than that. It achieves its ends not merely through military threats and interventions, but also via more subtle forerunners to that last drastic option. Namely, economic siege through illegal sanctions, the covert funding of comprador elites and traitorous organizations within the target country, as well as the procurement of mercenary proxies that we pay, train, arm, and deploy.
Each of these tactics is often preferred to open warfare, partly due to cost advantages and partly to propaganda benefits. Preferably both.
A cloak of exceptionalism
Both parties, Democrats and Republicans, advance the extractive engines of empire behind narratives of human progress, collective prosperity, and individual freedoms, all of which come fancifully to life in so-called ‘free-market democracy’. Judging from its outcomes, this is just a cheap euphemism for corporate autocracy, since it uncouples ballot-box democracy from economic democracy, and the former without the latter is substantively empty.
All of this is a bipartisan, that is to say, nonpartisan commitment. See Rob Urie for a broader look at the policy outcome uniformity of our decrepit duopoly. Chris Hedges, notable scourge of liberal optimism, recently said that thinking that the Democrats would save us is, “a kind of willful blindness.”
Lest there be any doubt that a Biden presidency would entail the same unscrupulous behavior as Trump’s, consider what candidates said about foreign policy in the last large Democratic debate. (Almost all of the candidates might feature prominently in a Biden White House, so their views are still sadly relevant.) The questions and answers were predictably rabid.
Biden roared that there wasn’t a democratic bone in Xi Jinping’s body and called him a thug, but then added we needed to work with him. True diplomacy there. Also a miserly understanding of the Chinese political system. Sanders was hammered for acknowledging Chinese and Cuban educational and economic success, before railing that both countries were dictatorships. Warren blathered on about our “sacred responsibility” and not abandoning our allies.
In other words, revitalize NATO, the global arm of American imperialism. Scripted gibberish. Bloomberg reiterated George W. Bush’s ‘kill them there before they kill us here’ logic. Buttigieg raised the ‘credibility’ issue, insisting we need to restore the respect President Trump has squandered. This typically means destroying a defenseless nation in a chest-thumping show of might. Buttigieg also claimed that we need to listen to our intelligence agencies, nobly setting aside their mounting rap sheet of lying to the public since their infamous creation.
In any event, everyone including Sanders is beholden to some manner of American exceptionalism, though Bernie would be demonstrably better and considerably less volatile, a singular standout in a lineup of grovelers.
But as in 2016, he seems incapable of breaking away to stage a presidential run as an independent. But what do all these dodgy euphemisms translate to in practice? It’s always useful to turn to one of the less politically savvy imperial managers for an answer.
In the wake of President Trump’s illegal act of war and assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani earlier this year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo crooned to the press, “We just want Iran to act like a normal country.” (This is not the first time we’ve implored the Iranians to be “normal.”) Pompeo would have you believe that Iran is a rogue agent of ceaseless intrigue and rascality. However, it has not started a war in two centuries. Nor has it sought nuclear weapons since at least 2003. It has issued a fatwa against such weapons. But it does want nuclear power to fuel its energy grid.
On the foreign front, it has largely been defending Shia interests in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria against western imperialism. Not the worst of sins.
But for Pompeo, resistance to empire is a black mark.
In his version of international affairs, the U.S. and its sensible allies in Europe and the Middle East are ruefully contemplating how to respond to Iran’s unendurable provocations. We call its resistance terrorism. We call its desire for nuclear power a drive for nuclear war. With puckered brow and restless hands, Pompeo’s imaginary community of nations moves agonizingly to check the unbridled expansionism of Tehran.
Fortunately, this jolly cretin has a credibility rating of nil. During a sit-down interview where the estimable insider was regaling a crowd of bourgeois neoconservatives with tales of our international crimes, he laughingly admitted that as CIA chief he consistently lied, cheated, and stole. It was, he noted, the modus operandi of that illustrious presidential paramilitary. The gallery crowed happily in the background.
Pompeo has provided numerous examples of his capacity for mendacity in recent weeks. Even as the coronavirus surged across the globe, he seemed to relish the imposition of fresh sanctions on Iran, a nation in the throes of an epidemic, beset by medical shortages induced by sanctions. Pompeo made it clear Iran would not skirt its discipline by virtue of some misplaced American empathy.
He defends U.S. attacks in Iraq despite its having killed half a million of its kids via illegal sanctions, invaded it illegally, lied about doing it, stole its energy, co-opted its agricultural independence, precipitated the death of a million people inside its borders, generated a refugee crisis, gave rise to ISIS, and flatly refused a demand that it finally leaves.
Yet he says U.S. forces inside Iraq have a right to self-defence. He has positively never laid eyes upon the Hague or Geneva Conventions.
Doubtless Pompeo had little problem with the spineless IMF decision not to extend $5B in loans to Venezuela because it said it didn’t know who was president, Maduro or Guaido.
And he has now partnered with Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell to argue for limited strikes on the Iranian navy, a vulgar kind of opportunism. Now we have two U.S. Navy aircraft carrier strike groups converging in the Arabian Sea for the first time in years.
In a recent speech, the secretary launched into a thumping neo-McCarthyite harangue with a series of dumbfounding paragraphs on how the Chinese are infiltrating our nation, down to the state level, undermining democracy and sowing the seeds of division, among other crackpot piffle. Just days ago he compounded this jackanape rant by claiming that China, Russia, Iran, and others were spreading misinformation about the Coronavirus, as if his own commander-in-chief were not daily gracing the gape-mouthed populace with a potpourri of hearsay and invention.
But then, the secretary is a predictable sort. He’s a bit like a wind-up toy with a butterfly key in his back that, when cranked tight, instantly produces the boorish boilerplate of a PNAC (Project for the New American Century) diehard.
A model for behavior?
Nevertheless, despite Pompeo’s obvious guile, the martinets of mainstream opinion report his utterances as though they were Orphic decrees. Heed the Delphi on the Potomac. Yet Master Pompeo’s words do beg the question: how does a normal country behave?
One naturally assumes that the U.S. is the secretary’s model nation. He’s not going to lift up as his ideal some backwater Scandinavian country like that crazed socialist currently barnstorming round the country. Let’s take him at his word. If the U.S. is the ideal, then what should Tehran do to “act like a normal nation”?
To follow the U.S. example, Tehran should do the following: develop 6,800 nuclear warheads, keep them largely free from international scrutiny, and drop a couple on civilian populations in a needless show of strength directed at one’s supposed ally.
Then it should busily establish hundreds of military bases abroad, including dozens encircling one’s chief adversaries. It will be important as well to argue all along that this aggressive expansionism is actually a series of regrettable defensive maneuvers necessitated by the aggressive expansionism of other nations (whose combined defense spending and foreign military bases do not approach yours).
Should a host country then ask you to leave, as Iraq recently asked America, immediately add more troops to your stealth occupation and simply refuse, citing a need for international stability. Then proceed to invade and destabilize dozens of nations in pursuit of regional and global hegemony.
Internally, you may call it full-spectrum dominance. Publicly, be sure to embellish it with the phraseology of peacemaking. To further buttress one’s behaviour, gravely declare that numberless organizations thousands of miles away from your borders are “imminent threats to national security.” (Even if you “don’t know when and don’t know where” attacks will happen, as Pompeo noted after the Soleimani attack.) Ignore the guffaws from the gallery; they will soon be silenced. Be sure to litter each region with corpses in the name of international security. Don’t do body counts, but if you do, underestimate the collateral damage.
Befriend fascists, back terrorists, jail the brave, honor the craven, revile the rabble, pen odes to oligarchs, fawn upon elites, and abandon the impartial in the cause of objectivity. Censor dissent and call it security. Shutter speech and say it’s liberty.
Should a rabble rouser emerge (as they invariably do) and the supplicant media cannot silence him, embroil him in slander and scandal. Deploy partisan hacks and patriotic bootlickers to seed doubt and fear in the minds of men. Blame foreigners for all domestic trouble. Always blame foreigners.
Then, and only then, fair Tehran, might you accede to the community of the elect, the normal nations.
None of this is to mention what the U.S. has done in Iran itself. It installed the vicious tyrant known as the Shah of Iran, empurpled by the CIA’s overthrow of Mossadegh in 1953. The Shah assembled fascist groups to violently deal with anti-authoritarian protests (not unlike Ukraine of late). Soon the Iranian security services SAVAK was formed. SAVAK was notorious for brutal torture of dissidents. Mossad wrote their training manuals.
The CIA trained them in Nazi torture methods. Since the 1979 popular revolution, Washington has backed Iraq in its war against Iran, levelled murderous sanctions on the country, launched debilitating cyberattacks, funded destabilization projects within its borders, assassinated its scientists, broadcast relentless propaganda across its borders through Radio Europe, falsely smeared it as a nuclear weapons-hungry nation, an existential threat to Israel, and ensnared it in sovereignty reducing inspection regimes via the politically compromised IAEA. And lately, it murdered one of its leading generals, an textbook act of war but for America’s comparative monopoly on Weapons of Mass Destructions.
Pompeo Maximus appears to advise all this because, as we noted, it is precisely what his own country, the normal nation, has done. All to facilitate the singular goal of the plutocrats that own and direct U.S. policy: self-advancement.
A Maxim for Minions
The dictate to foreign nations is the same as to domestic dissidents: Defy empire at your peril. Accept your lot or lose your life. Deny every instinct for justice, fairness, and prosperity you possess. Don’t worry, a 24-7 surveillance state will greatly help you to internalize the right values. Embrace fealty and prosper. Might makes right. It always has. Nothing has changed. But by all means, pretend it has. Hide your subjection, then refashion it as the good.
Unfortunately, one cannot pursue self-advancement without the rhetoric of inclusivity. Happily, the language of mutualism soothes an angry heart. Power prospers best in darkness, as Samuel Huntington once advised U.S. leadership. To that end, become a disciple of the Big Lie. You may be on the wrong side of history, but we’ll rewrite that story soon enough. The pen of posterity is in the hand of the victor. The ink is red, the style dissembling, the story fictitious.
Foster Wallace continued, “In some ways [this engine of self-advancement] works very, very well. In other ways, it doesn’t work all that well because… there are whole other parts of me that need to worry about things larger than me that don’t get nourished in that system.”
Honest words from a searching author, whose own quest evidently ended in vain. The targets of our domestic and foreign policy are the things that don’t get nourished by the imperial system. Nations that ignore the American maxims. Patriots that seek to upend the system of obscene profits. Villages that unwittingly ‘harbor terrorists’.
Notions of collective security, amity between nations, planetary amelioration: these ideas smack of collectivism to the neoliberal imperialist. The collective will stymies the individual will and is synonymous with a falling rate of profit. Hence the need to reinforce the ethos of self-interest. Every nation for itself, every man for himself.
This attitude that Foster-Wallace lamented, so nakedly expressed in our imperial aggression, narrows to a single proposition: us or them. Sheer tribalism. The enemy at home is the freethinking socialist. The enemy abroad is the independent state.
Substituting a congenital liar, with an unstable temperament in clear cognitive decline for narcissistic laissez-faire foot soldier, is no path forward. He would simply disguise our rapacity as a kind of restoration, appease lip-service liberals, and level yet another bill of indictments at recalcitrant populations abroad that stand in the way of elite gratification.
Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry and author of The Sins of Empire and Imperial Fictions, essay collections from between 2012-2017. He lives in New York City and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.