From the Revolutionary War to the Second World War, there were over 100 US security force interventions abroad to secure American interests, most of these on behalf of capitalists. Beginning as probes but gradually increasing in intensity and duration, during these interventions the US acquired institutional knowledge about how to use force to establish favourable ‘open door’ trade policies in Latin America and Japan for example. Actions in these places were ultimately a result of US foreign policy that was Eurocentric, either for commerce or for confinement to limit European influence in the western hemisphere (Stepak and Whitlack 2012). For example, the 1823 Monroe Doctrine proclaiming the entire Americas to be in the US sphere of influence was addressed to a European audience. Thus European stability and economic growth was to be balanced with a degree of military caution as European powers were prime trading partners but also posed the greatest economic and security threats. As interventions elsewhere in the world were attempts to bracket out European influence, the supposition is that imperial actions in a place often have very little intrinsically to do with that particular location; rather they are indicative of politics orientated elsewhere. This is certainly the case of US involvement in the Middle East against the backdrop of the Cold War or Africa in light of the ‘global power shift’ with China’s emerging power.
Whereas the previous chapter emphasized the extent to which the truly disadvantaged bore the brunt of dispossession and subjugation induced by internal US state coercion, in this chapter, I survey the role of military power and the digital components of imperialism that protect resource extraction or the creation of surpluses. The primary concern is with how militarization facilitates the insidious creep of capitalism in international affairs. Here it is important to examine the coercive elements of foreign labour regimes to illustrate that fully functioning capitalism has a tendency to escape the dependence on free labour power.29
Following the First World War, wherein oil became a strategic resource, imperial powers jockeyed to control the source via dominating the states that emerged from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Initially, Britain had an advantage having occupied Baghdad and Mosul late in the war. Aided by an Arab insurrection and insurgency emanating from a promise of post-war independence, the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France outlined the anticipated spoils of the Ottoman Empire, dividing the region primarily between themselves, with a remainder for Russia. Later the League of Nations provided a mandate system redistributing territory held by the defeated Germans and Ottomans. Mandates allowed colonial administration to continue, but without formal annexation. Among other acquisitions around the world, Britain received Palestine and Iraq, and France received Syria and Lebanon.
Blatant imperial action triggered a number of revolts across the Middle East, but these were suppressed and dissenting nationalists exiled. Still, to deflect the appearance of formal colonial incorporation, the British installed Emir Faisal I as King of Iraq through whom the British were able to attain favourable treaties and concessions. After the Second World War, relative hegemonic decline meant Britain had three primary objectives. The first was to extract as much from the empire before these territories acquired independence. The second was to bolster West Germany as it was a buffer to the USSR extending control over Europe. The third was to manage the ascension of the US, particularly as much British capital fled west just prior to and during the First and Second World Wars (see Tooze 2006 and 2014 for details). Domination of the Gulf was one area gradually ceded to US rule.
When nationalist leaders in Middle Eastern states opposed extraction and exploitation, they were overthrown. The quintessential example is Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran in 1953, two years after he nationalized British Petroleum. The only feasible options for these states were to align with the USSR, another empire, and seek better terms, as did Gamal Abdel Nasser following his 1952 coup in Egypt and nationalization of the Suez Canal thereafter, or to play the empires against one another. In response to this tendency, the US supported the repression of nationalists in their client states, particularly by supplying weapons after worker’s strikes in 1953 in Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
In Iraq, the terms of oil extraction concessions heavily favoured Western conglomerations. As these conglomerations also had rights to many oil fields, maximizing long-term profits determined when particular fields were development. With priority placed elsewhere, the conglomerations installations covered 0.5 of the Iraq concession with no foreseeable plans to expand. Out of frustration, between 1958 and 1963, the Iraqi government asserted its political independence. This involved removing the British right to operate the RAF Habbaniya base and withdrawing the undeveloped concessions from Western oil companies. Four days after Prime Minister Qasim announced the formation of a state oil company he was overthrown in a coup.
Meanwhile, the conglomerations’ oil production did increase, but not nearly to the extent it did in US client states, Iran, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. This meant that Iraq’s yield from the concessions was insufficient to undertake developmental projects and the economy stagnated. Having attained power via a coup, the Ba’ath Party nationalized the conglomerations in 1972, and sought technical assistance from the USSR. For the USSR, this was a good regional development, for apart from extending a buffer to the US, Iraq had vast oil reserves, unlike Syria their other regional client.
This nationalism is not without a broader context. Prior to these events, the 1967 Arab-Israeli War severed diplomatic ties between the US and Iraq, and stoked Arab nationalist anti-Western sentiments. With a retreat from Vietnam, President Nixon’s decoupling the US dollar from the gold standard, and in 1973 in the wake of the Yom Kippur War, in which OPEC countries asserted their independence by instituting an oil embargo against the West unless higher prices were paid. This resulted in an economic recession in 1974 and 1975. Throughout, sensing weakness, subordinate states—particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean—sought to leave the US sphere of influence. As such, the US caved to OPEC, but as a preventative move, the American ruling class begun to take advantage of cheap labour and move some manufacturing abroad to mitigate future boycotts.
The Gulf States’ ruling classes hoarded this new wealth, investing it in Western banks, or purchasing treasury bills. So while the US paid higher prices for oil, most of these funds returned to its financial sector. By contrast, Iraq directed the increased revenue to social spending through infrastructure projects and instituted a domestic industrial policy aimed to lessen imports. It also purchased weapons and undertook a project of military build-up and chemical weapon armament in an attempt to become a regional power. Throughout, the brutal dictatorship repressed dissidents. In 1979, when Saddam became president, military expenditures cost close to 9 per cent of GNP. Meanwhile, in Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was overthrown in a revolution increasing US concerns about a cascade of similar events throughout the region.
The Iranian Revolution and the oil crisis underscored the rationality for US capital to capture the Persian Gulf. Without such control, US capital accumulation would be vulnerable. In 1980, President Carter issued the Carter Doctrine, which stated, that:
An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force (Carter 1980).
Early in President Reagan’s first term, his administration upgraded a Joint Task Force established by Carter to a theater level Command. Central Command has an area of responsibility orientated on the trade flow through the Persian Gulf and is dedicated to analysing and responding to conflicts in the Middle East and East Africa. Initially, one of the Command’s primary planning events was to stop the USSR from capturing Iranian oil fields. Since established, the Command has managed major conflicts like the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War, the Afghan War, and the Iraq invasion and occupation, as well as several other smaller interventions to limit regional terrorism.
Returning to 1980, when Iraq invaded Iran, many Western companies used it as a proverbial gold rush to sell weapons and military technology to arm Iraq for this brutal conflict (see Timmerman, 1992). The US provided Iraq with information on Iranian troop movements acquired by satellite reconnaissance. Crucially, Iraq used chemical weapons on multiple occasions, although the US voted against UN Security Council statements condemning use thereof. There are also suggestions that the US provided battle plans, such as for the capture of the Fao peninsula in 1988 which brought Iran to negotiation. US security forces were even involved in attacking Iranian ships and oil platforms late in the war.30 Nevertheless, Iraq accumulated $80 billion in foreign debt to fund the war. This figure gives some indication of the extent to which Iraq and Iran were socially shattered by the war. Iraq especially had neglected social investment and development of the known existing oil fields had stagnated.
There were several reasons for the US supporting Iraq. The first was that Iraq was a strategic retaining wall for Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, both US client states. (The US arranged for these states to loan Iraq funds for war expenditures). Second, by stoking strategic attrition between Iran and Iraq, the US was able to bleed their military capabilities and cripple the countries. Finally, by keeping Iraq weaker than it would have been if it had not engaged in the conflict helped to maintain conditions were it would be easier for the US to install a military base in West Asia to check, if not shrink, the USSR’s sphere of influence. With this regional consolidation, the US could advance its interest in dispossessing Iraqi’s natural resource endowments.
Given their active role as a buffer for US client states in the region, after hostilities ceased the Iraqi regime presumed there would be debt relief from Gulf States to reconstruct the Iraq economy. But this was not to be as other Arab states increased their production, causing oil prices to dramatically fall, a continuation of a downward trend since 1986. As oil production was half of the Iraqi GDP, this the country’s economy contracted. This increase in production functioned to limit Iraq’s ability to rearm. Once it emerged the Kuwait was slant drilling into the Rumaila oil field, essentially stealing Iraqi oil, Saddam’s regime mobilized to invade Kuwait, using brinkmanship to try bargain debt-forgiveness and curbing other Gulf states’ oil production to increase the price of oil and thereby alleviate Iraq’s fiscal constraints. Seeing no movement on either of these fronts, Iraq invaded Kuwait to dispossess assets and wealth, but this miscalculation afforded the US the opportunity to create a broad-based coalition, including Arab states, such as Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, to uphold the principle of sovereignty.
The US-led coalition began bombing Iraq in 1991. Using a broad definition of military infrastructure, over several weeks the scope and scale of the bombing campaign indicated an agenda of systematic destruction. Once a retreat was ordered, many Iraqi troops fled via Highway 80. In accordance with a standing order to destroy all Iraq military equipment, Coalition air forces bombed and strafed a 60-mile stretch of the highway. Once the carnage was broadcast, the event became known as the Highway of Death. After flying over the area to head to post-war negotiations, General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, remarked that ‘In every direction we could see the burnt out wrecks of military and civilian vehicles that the Iraqis had used to try flee.’ (1992, 482). One reason for the disproportionate brutality of the war to test doctrine and militaries capabilities that they had developed and purchased during the Cold War. How did it work? ‘Beyond our wildest expectation’ Schwarzkopf wrote (1992, 501).
Meantime, as Jean Baudrillard notes in The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (1995), the military press briefings upon which the news media draw from for broadcasting and publication did not correspond with the bigger reality of the conflict, its scale, nor violence. It was a ‘dramatic ritual’, James Compton writes, framed as ‘an emotional confrontation between good and evil, personified in the characters of US President George [H. W] Bush and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’ (2004, 83). In addition, the media emphasis on laser-guided smart bombs—for precise targeting supposedly to limit collateral damage, thus more humanitarian—neglects that about 93 per cent of munitions were unguided, carpet-bombing from B52s. Of the glide bombs, about 70 per cent missed their target causing civilian casualties. Best known is the notorious bombing of the Amiriyah shelter that killed more than 400 civilians in February 1991. (Laser-guided bombs were used). This was but the worst horror of common occurrence (see Human Rights Watch, 1991).
Although there were several reasons for the US not to capture Iraq, chief amongst them was caution at the impending collapse of the USSR. The US had to ensure that there were sufficient troops and resources should they be required for other kinds of missions. Furthermore, Dick Cheney argued, the Coalition did not have enough military resources, nor adequate plans to occupy Iraq, given that an occupation would likely lead to a civil war as the country fragmented: presumably the southern Shiite region would come under the sway of Iran, while Turkey, another US client state, would never permit an independent Kurdist state. Therefore, the US sought options to conclude the war satisfactory.
Throughout the conflict, the US mostly preserved the regime. One possible explanation for this is that the US wanted to create conditions where members of the regime would depose Saddam and a settlement that favoured the US reached. This would account for the concerted efforts to personify Saddam Hussein as the regime. Be that as it may, Saddam Hussein was not deposed, and so President George H. W. Bush called for an internal Iraq rebellion, hoping to provoke the regime’s repression of subjects. It worked. When UNSC 688 (1991) called for Iraq to stop repression, the US and Britain used the resolution as a pretext to implement a no-fly-zone, which nominally limited the Iraq regime from flying north of the 36th parallel or south of the 32nd parallel. The purpose was to use daily bombings to stop Iraq from building air or ground defences in these areas, thus ensuring that if an invasion were to come, it would be easier to execute.
Authorized by UNSC 687, sanctions were to be enforced until Iraq could demonstrate that it had dismantled and decommissioned its ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and missile programs. These had to verified, thus ensuring a protracted process. Sanctions devastated Iraq: in 1993, the economy was a fifth of that in 1979. This forced the Iraqi state to accept the terms of UNSC 986—the ‘oil for food’ programme—but this limited the importing of goods to maintain or restore the civilian infrastructure. Unsurprisingly, this had had an awful cascade of consequences in the agricultural sector and rendered the civil services ineffective. Initially, the maximum amount of money paid annually for oil was $170 per Iraqi, of which $51 was set aside for the UN Compensation Commission, a fund created to compensate victims of the Kuwait invasion. Lastly, a disproportionate amount was directed to the Kurds. What little remained was insufficient for effective governance. Later this cap was raised, but sanctions made the full rehabilitation of the Iraqi oil industry near impossible.
Still, the culmination of sanctions had enormous costs, particularly in human life. Inconclusive estimates range from 345,000-530,000 deaths between 1990 and 2002. While there is considerable partisan disagreement on the absolute numbers, methodology, data collection, generalizations, and caveats respectfully, much of this debate seems to miss the point that quibbling for 200,000 fewer deaths do not lessen the severity, redeem the harm, or rebut the function of the sanctions. When asked about the weight of these deaths by Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright replied, ‘I think this is a very hard choice, but the price, we think the price is worth it’ (see Richman, 2004).
Sanctions presented the US with two binds. First, while they stopped other international investments, they also stopped the exploitation of the existing oil reserves, known to be about 115 billion barrels of oil, and estimated to be twice that. Second, the longer the sanctions were in place, the more deaths accumulated, thus increasing hostility to a US presence when it came. In a Congressional testimony, General Anthony Zinni, then heading Central Command, said that the US ‘must have free access to the region’s resources’ (Testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, 13 April 1999). ‘Free access’ seems to mean direct control of the resources. The 2003 US invasion of Iraq was the geopolitical calculus to ensure an ‘open door’ to exploit oil but also precluding other states, hopefully at a time when US resentment was manageable by an occupying force.
Concurrent with these Middle Eastern developments, in the early 1980s the US involved itself in a proxy war in Afghanistan in an effort to undermine the USSR, itself an imperial power. The USSR invaded to support a client regime besieged by Islamic fundamentalists, lest the country end up improving ties with Iran or China, or even give pause to other states in the Soviet sphere to reposition themselves. Implementation of the Carter Doctrine began by the CIA providing material support to Afghan insurgents. For the US, the effort sought to maintain its Middle East footing and thus access to profitable oil reserves. Alongside the Reagan administration’s decision to reinvest in US armaments, thereby renewing the Cold War arms race that had been cooled by detente, the insurgency was one of the leading causes for the collapse of the USSR.
Still, during a decade of brutal war the USSR did incredible damage to Afghanistan’s infrastructure and government, producing a failed state. Once the Mujahedeen secured power, the country provided a conducive environment for fundamentalist terror networks to grow. One of these networks centered on Osama bin Laden. With the momentum of having defeated the USSR and incensed by the presence of US forces in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, plus the ties between the US and Saudi Arabia ruling class, bin Laden funded and recruited fellow Islamic zealots to create al-Qaeda, a terrorist network. During the 1990s, al-Qaeda bombed the World Trade Center, hoping to collapse the North Tower into the South Tower, as well as several terror attacks in Africa including co-ordinated bombings of US embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi. In response, President Clinton authorized cruise missile attacks on targets in Sudan and Afghanistan.31
Meanwhile, following the collapse of the USSR, the Bush administration had tasked the DoD to review national security policy. Supervised by Paul Wolfowitz, then undersecretary of policy in the DoD, the final report Defense Planning Guidance (1992) indicated that US strategy ‘must refocus on precluding the emergence of any potential future global competitor’ (DoD 1992). In the 1990s, the geopolitical policy introspection among the US ruling class and their agents revolved not around whether imperial action was valid, but which approach was best. Multilateralists argued co-ordinated actions helped legitimate imperial rule, and co-opted other countries into this system. Additionally, the emphasis on human rights, promoting procedural democracy, soft power, and ideology could work to sway other states from the inside out. By contrast, unilateralists saw no need for legitimacy, and that indeed multilateral rule and exercise were an unnecessary constraint that hindered flexible and rapid deployment of resources of rule.
In practice, rule was accomplished using both kinds of approaches as the circumstances and conditions dictated. Nonetheless, conspicuous in both approaches was the emphasis on the removal and reduction of barriers to capital. This process involved the creation of the World Trade Organization to complete a regulatory trifecta including the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to cement global capitalism and transfer the costs of economic crisis to the under-developed world. These expansionary dynamics of capital are consistent with long standing trends in the US social structure, like domestic uneven development. In this respect, neoliberalisation, geopolitical foreign policy, and military actions are three different strategic appearances of the same basic impulse catering towards capital accumulation.
While multilateralists and unilateralists debated, the US put economic distance on its rivals throughout the remainder of the twentieth century to reach an unparalleled pre-eminence that allowed near free reign to pursue ambitions. Zbigniew Brzezinski’s assessment was that ‘geopolitics has moved from the regional to the global dimension, with preponderance over the entire Eurasian continent serving as the central basis for global primacy.’ The US, ‘with its power directly deployed on three peripheries of the Eurasian continent’ was well positioned to establish a ‘hegemony of a new type’, ascending as the ‘the first and only truly global power’. (Brzezinski, 1997, 38, 39). These remarks are indicative of the US ruling class conceiving of its agenda as planetary in scope, and reflecting the accumulative imperative of capital.
The US was perhaps at the pinnacle of its power when bin Laden’s al-Qaeda executed a devastating terror attack in New York on 11 September 2001. Trading on the stock market was suspended for four days. When it re-opened, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell by more than 7 per cent, the worse one day drop up until that point. The US economy contracted by 1.1 per cent in the third quarter of 2011. Still by October 2002, the Dow was down 30 per cent from March 2001. The Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (nd) estimates that the property damage and lost production of goods and services exceeded $100 billion, but factoring in near incalculable stock market losses, the figure approaches $2 trillion.
In retaliation, the US invaded Afghanistan to attempt to kill bin Laden and remove the Taliban government. The US installed Hamid Karzai to head a puppet government. Since 9/11, there has been a noticeable shift in the rhetoric of American statecraft as the libertarian faction of the US ruling class consolidated its ascendance, and used the threat of terror to assert and justify the expansion of overt US imperial power. One area where this is evident is in the National Security Strategy of the United States (2002), which was moulded along the DoD’s Defense Planning Guidance (1992) and Project for the New American Century’s Rebuilding America’s Defenses (2000). In his preamble to the document, President George W. Bush wrote that there was ‘a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy and free enterprise’ (2002, 1). Invoking the common coded connotations for capitalism, President George W. Bush implied that states that refused to integrate along this model were suspect of being a security threat to the US and thus liable to ‘pre-emptive strikes’.
The intellectual background to this unilateral policy comes from many places, but several confluences can be represented by Richard Haass a member of George Bush’s National Security Council. In 2000, prior to being appointed Director of Policy Planning in George W. Bush’s State Department, he wrote that ‘The fundamental question that continues to confront American foreign policy is what to do with a surplus of power and the many and considerable advantages this surplus confers on the United States’ (1999). His recommendation was for the US to openly embrace imperial logic, that being the establishment of a global order to accelerate capital accumulation.
Even liberal multilateral scholars like Michael Ignatieff who observe, ‘states possess independence in name but not in fact. The reason the Americans are in Afghanistan, or the Balkans, after all, is to maintain imperial order in zones essential to the interest of the United States’ (2003a, 61), maintain that ‘America’s empire is not like empires of times past, built on colonies, conquest and the white man’s burden’. On the contrary,
The 21st century imperium is a new invention in the annals of political science, an empire lite, a global hegemony whose grace notes are free markets, human rights and democracy, enforced by the most awesome military power the world has ever known (Ignatieff, 2003c).32
Returning to Haass, he indicated that countries reluctant or refusing to integrate into the US designed world order and allow the exploitation of their resources would be susceptible to ‘regime change’ and ‘nation-building’ As far back as 1994, nation building for Haass involved, ‘defeating and disarming any local opposition and establishing a political authority that enjoys a monopoly or near-monopoly of control over the legitimate use of force’ (Hasss in Foster 2003). As well as creating a market for post-conflict social reconstruction, the bigger prize was opening trade relations and extracting wealth on US terms. Haass writes:
U.S. efforts to use force to bring about changes in political leadership failed in the cases of Qaddafi in Libya, Saddam in Iraq, and Aideed in Somalia. Force can create a context in which political change is more likely, but without extraordinary intelligence and more than a little good fortune, force by itself is unlikely to bring about specific political changes. The only way to increase the likelihood of such change is through highly intrusive forms of intervention, such as nation-building, which involves first eliminating all opposition and then engaging in an occupation that allows for substantial engineering of another society. (Hasss in Foster 2003)
The US has attempted to install markets economies in the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan. All three cases have involved ‘regime change’, to install client governments. In this respect, blatant militarism and state building are a deliberate aggressive attempt to reshape a country to fit the needs of capital accumulation.
Both Haass and Ignatieff allude to the apparently appropriate use to employ military force and hegemonic power to secure conditions for economic dominance and expansion. What difference there is between the two, is where Haass sees no need to morally justify these actions, Ignatieff offers a legitimation exercise for ‘empire lite’ as ‘the lesser evil.’ (2003b, 2004) But irrespective of whether there is a lack of pretence for those like Haass, or the easing of conscience for those like Ignatieff, the outcome is the same: greater intervention to shape other states to suit the needs of the US ruling class. In saying as much Haass and Ignatieff recognize that the expansion of commodification is a feature of the American social structure, and of capitalism in general. That these representatives of various wings of the ruling class agree effectively means that changing electoral representatives will not necessarily blunt this drive. It might change its character and appearance, its tone and rhetoric, but not the intention and function. As 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, John Kerry indicated in his particular campaign he would continue to advance the military occupation of Iraq, but seek a multilateral approach, as if a shared security burden is somehow better for the people living under occupation.
As mentioned, the 2003 US invasion of Iraq was a timely resolution to install a base and expand the US sphere of influence and their regime of extraction. The George W. Bush administration used the opportunity afforded by 9/11 to claim that Saddam Hussein’s regime had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction. Iraq sought to ‘deceive; not to disarm’ as Colin Powell said at the United Nations (Powell, 2003). In a retrospective confrontation of his complicity, Powell admitted that prior to the UN presentation, the George W. Bush administration had already committed to using military force (Breslow 2016).
The US invasion was swift, and a new government was installed. It disbanded the army, purged the civil service of Baath party members, and condoned reprisals. Mass unemployment and an eroding civic infrastructure put conditions in place for the emergence of local sectarian self-defence groups, and resulted in cycles of violence of incomprehensible complexity and politics, made more difficult by Iran supporting factions, and an influx of fanatical ideologically motivated combatants seeking to fight the US. This insurgency compounded the developing civil war. Altogether, the invasion produced a failed state, and over thirteen years led to the deaths of approximately 250,000 according to Iraq Body Count. It was a total civic collapse.
To counteract the insurgency, through 2007–8 the US increased troop numbers in a ‘surge’, but most importantly undertook a program of mass bribery and begun negotiations with Iran. A relative absence of public knowledge about the second and third component has cultivated a myth about the ‘surge’. As Daniel Larison points out,
The mythology is responsible for the hawkish delusion that the Iraq war had been “won” before Obama “lost” it, which gave war supporters an excuse to evade accountability for the catastrophic blunder of the invasion and occupation. (2015)
While somewhat successful in stalling the violence, nevertheless these actions undermined the legitimacy of the new ‘democratic’ Iraq. Not helping matters was Prime Minster Nouri Al-Maliki excluding and permitting state-based reprisals to sectarians and dissidents. All of this ensured that Iraq was unable to govern its territory.
In neighbouring Syria, the Assad family had reigned as brutal dictatorship since 1970, exploiting sectarian divisions and USSR/Russian support to rule. (Since 1971, the USSR, then Russia operated a naval supply base at Tartus, their only Mediterranean facility). From about mid-2011, mass protests invoking the sentiments of the Arab Spring threatened the Assad government, and cultivated fears of reprisals should it fall. Bashar al-Assad deployed the security forces against demonstrators and executed political enemies. Initially the US sought to arm factions opposed to Assad and exploit the opportunity to pry another country from the Russian sphere of influence. While the factional alliances are impossibly complex to follow, what is important is that the country collapsed into a civil war, causing millions of refugees to flee the region, many heading to Europe producing the longest post-war mass migration.
As the Civil War unfolded, ISIS emerged as a leading faction somewhat able to hold territory in both Syria and Iraq thus drawing support and allegiance from other groups. For a variety of reasons, the Iraqi Army generally retreated rather than engage in combat with ISIS. With minimal resistance, ISIS captured Mosul in 2014 and territory in Northern Iraq, eventually threatening Baghdad. As of writing, alongside the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are bombing ISIS on a daily basis. Canada and the US have Special Forces operators deployed. So does Russia. Russia’s involvement is to maintain their client state lest the area become occupied by US and NATO forces. Still, it is a challenging politics, for both Iraq and Syria are failed states, and some members of the Gulf States ruling class fund ISIS. Currently, the US is in a predicament where it desires the fall of the Assad regime, but is also committed to undermining the very forces that could topple his rule.
The threat of ISIS has also provided a public reason to increase American arms sales to US client states. US Arms sales in 2009 were $31 billion, then $21.4 billion in 2010, tripled to $66.3 billion in 2011, more than 75% of the global arms trade (valued at $85.3 billion in 2011).33 In a distant second was Russia, with $4.8 billion in sales. This increase is driven by an arms race in the Middle East, as American client states—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman—respond to the Iranian nuclear enrichment program, ISIS, and internal rebellions in the wake of the Arab Spring. Regarding Iran, these sales primarily consist of aircraft—in 2011 Saudi Arabia purchased 84 advanced F-15s adding to 70 F-15s; Oman bought 18 F-16 for $1.4 billion—and missile defence systems, such as the United Arab Emirates’ purchase of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, a $3.49 billion advanced anti-missile shield that includes radars and is valued at $3.49 billion (Shanker, 2012). The immediate goal is to build, country by country, a regionally integrated missile-shield to protect key sites like oil refineries, pipelines and military bases from missile attacks.
The regional fallout from the Iraq War and Arab Spring, the sectarian proxy wars and the suppression of dissidents in the Middle East has led to more arms sales, the most glamorous being the purchasing of US made aircraft and the missiles to replenish a stockpile depleted from bombings in Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria in 2014. In 2014, Saudi Arabia spent $80 billion on weapons, becoming the fourth largest market for armaments; while the Emirates spent about $23 billion, triple what it spent in 2006. Indeed, American arms manufactures have opened offices in the regions, hoping that sales here will offset shrinkage resulting from a declining US defence budget (Mazzetti and Cooper, 2015). Still, one US policy consideration of Middle East regional arms sales has been to ensure despite sales to Arab states, Israel maintains ‘qualitative military edge’, a long-standing commitment, but enshrined in law since 2008 (Naval Vessel Transfer Act of 2008).
To conclude this section, in the early twenty-first century the US has sought to consolidate a planetary empire, seeking to dispossess and extract has much surplus value as possible from subordinate states, while cornering out rivals. Still, this process has brought about a number of contradictions. The quintessential one, I believe, is capital having no option but to rule with and through states, either by the use of military forces or regulatory bodies. As Ellen Wood puts it,
The very detachment of economic domination from political rule that makes it possible for capital to extend its reach beyond the capacity of any other imperial power in history is also the source of a fundamental weakness... National states implement and enforce the global economy, and they remain the most effective means of intervening in it. This means that the state is also the point at which global capital is most vulnerable, both as a target of opposition in the dominant economies and as a lever of resistance elsewhere. It also means that now more than ever, much depends on the particular class forces embodied in the state, and that now more than ever, there is scope, as well as need, for class struggle (Wood, 2001, 291).
However, the ruling class are seeking to reduce that scope. In reflecting upon ‘the indispensability of continued American leadership in service of a just and liberal order’, and ‘America’s bipartisan commitment to protecting and expanding a community of nations devoted to freedom, market economies and cooperation’, Hillary Clinton believes there is ‘really no viable alternative. No other nation can bring together the necessary coalitions and provide the necessary capabilities to meet today’s complex global threats’ (2014). Reminiscent of George W. Bush’s remarks in the National Security Strategy, what she means is that there is no other social structure suitably amenable for a capitalist ruling class; no other option but uneven development and dispossession will be permitted. Conditional concessions will likely occur, yes, but not at the expense of perpetuating profit.
In pointing out that the US is qualitatively and quantitatively different, Wood’s and Clinton’s remarks, in different ways and for different purposes, highlight how the US is not only driven by the particular interests of capitalists, but it is burdened with the task of facilitating global capitalism in a world divided into competing nation states. The genuine contradiction is that this expansion appears necessary, but it could be otherwise as there is no natural imperative to accumulate.
The US emerged from the Second World War with a nuclear monopoly as well as an extensive system of overseas bases, adding to those acquired during the Spanish American War. As but two examples, Guantanamo Bay and Okinawa have been in operation for near 115 and 70 years respectfully, demonstrating how reluctant the US is to leave a base. It also bears testament to President Truman’s stance that in the post-war era, the US was ‘going to maintain the military bases necessary for the complete protection of our interests and of world peace’ (1945). Indeed, this was more or less the case, particularly during the Cold War when the policy of ‘strategic denial’, was implemented to limit withdrawal from a base lest they become occupied by the USSR. After the end of the Cold War, President George H. W. Bush reiterated that the ‘forward presence’ would be maintained, but with a quarter fewer troops while the Clinton administration addressed this problem by using shorter but more frequent deployments.
Bill Clinton’s administration oversaw the US establishment of bases in Central Asia, continued bombing Iraq, and intervened in Somalia, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and Eastern Europe. In the last case, the Kosovo bombings were formally to stop genocide; it did facilitate the installation of US troops to secure bases in territory previously in Russia’s sphere of influence.
After 9/11 there was a rapid increase in bases, many nominally acquired during occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, elsewise establishing staging posts in countries like Bulgaria and Uzbekistan for the War on Terror. In their 2009 Base Structure Report, the DoD indicated that they had 716 ‘sites’ in 38 foreign counties (2009, 7). While the majority of these were in Germany (235), Japan (123), and South Korea (87), the locations of the remainder range from the United Kingdom and Italy, to Egypt and Djibouti, Bahrain and Oman and several others (see DoD 2009). These are the declared sites, and do not account for CIA drone bases or Special Forces compounds (See Turse, 2015). Besides expected places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, one can cobble together knowledge of drone bases in Burkina Faso, Chad, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Niger from press reports (See Whitlock 2011, 2012, 2014, Whitlock and Miller 2013, Londoño 2014).
But as indicated above it is rare that the US willingly initiates a withdrawal, which means that the latent reason for these bases is to expand a geographic sphere of influence to establish favourable conditions for ‘free trade’. Much of the base development in the early twenty-first century has been using the War on Terror as an opportunity to consolidate capital accumulation in Eastern Europe, as well as to initiate the same process in Central Asia to check China’s westward sphere of influence. For example, bases in Iraq and Bulgaria seek to limit Russian extraction in the Middle East and Eastern Europe respectfully. But Russia and China have sought to counter these efforts. To take a Russian orientated example, in 2014 the Kyrgyzstanian government evicted the US from the airbase in Manas. Rented for $60 million a year, the air base was situated about 400km from the Chinese border and in an area previously part of the USSR. The politics behind this eviction are clear: With the extent to which Kyrgyzstan’s economy depends on remittance from and exports to Russia; Russia’s backing of Almazbek Atambayev in the 2011 election; as well as their 2012 offer to write off $500 million in debt in return for a base for 15 years, it is clear Russia believed the US was encroaching on its ‘territory.’
While the US might have been checked in Kyrgyzstan, it does not mean they have conceded the region. Given relatively more attention in Iraq, the absence of the role of oil and natural gas has been overlooked in the media discussion of the war in Afghanistan. War in this region and regime change has made the construction of the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India pipeline politically possible. The deal for the pipeline was signed in 2002, and construction set to begin in 2006, but was delayed due to Taliban control of the development corridor. Following sustained military pressure by the US and NATO forces, it was possible to begin construction in 2015, and set to be completed in 2019. But like Iraq, without a permanent military presence, it would be near impossible to build a pipeline or further capital’s extractive ends; the goal is to siphon resources from the Russian sphere of influence.
Following bases closures in Panama in 1999, and aware that domestic politics in Latin America states were not conducive to large military complexes, the US used the War on Drugs as a publically palatable pretext to create many smaller bases in Columbia. Known as ‘Plan Columbia’, this initiative has created ‘cooperative security locations’ in Ecuador, Aruba, Curacao, and El Salvador, as well as radar sites in Peru and Colombia. These join bases already in the region in Soto Cano, Honduras, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the Naval station in Vieques, Puerto Pico, which trains Naval Battle Groups before they deploy to the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. Elsewhere, the US military uses bases belonging to Latin American security forces, like the Joint Peruvian Riverine Training Center in Iquitos, Peru.
Bases can also be used to exert regime change. For example, and keeping with the Latin America area, the US aided the overthrow of Honduras’ democratically elected president Jose Manuel Zelaya in 2009. The State Department, under Hillary Clinton, sought to provide a legal justification for the coup, while President Obama recognized the subsequently installed President Lobo.34 This destabilization facilitated organized crime as a power vacuum led to violence competition to control drug trafficking. Alongside state sponsored terror and assassinations targeting journalists and human rights activists, the increase in crime has resulted in Honduras having the highest murder rate in the world. In 2012, 87 Representatives from Congress petitioned Hillary Clinton to suspend military and police aid, but she refused (Frank 2012). The reason for all this, according to Dana Frank (2013), is Honduras is intended to be the first domino to push back against the left-wing governments that swept to power in Latin America from around 2005 onwards. Granted, within this wave, some governments, like Venezuela, are authoritarian and display low levels of institutional investment and capacity building, but several, like Brazil, are democratically legitimate.
Aside from security, citadel like bases cement a country’s status as a client while from a juridical standpoint sovereignty is preserved. Another benefit of bases is the production of favourable military relationship produced through joint exercises and military assistance programs with the host country’s security forces, thus functionally enmeshing them in the US Empire. Bases also allow the US to undertake actions on these bases that is otherwise prohibited in the US. Guantanamo Bay, where prisoners were labelled enemy combatants and so could be held without charge or trial in indefinite detention is the best example. The US can also use these bases to warehouse rapid deployment equipment, for training and the testing of new weapons systems.
There are drawbacks to foreign military bases. The most obvious is 9/11 and the terror directed at the US and its allies. In this instance, the attacks were nominally retaliatory for US bases stationed in Saudi Arabia. The bases are far from populated areas to preserve the appearance of the House of Saud’s rule and sovereignty, but Osama Bin Laden created a rhetoric wherein US security forces presence was an occupation of sacred Islamic sites. There are other less extreme examples too. In countries where US troops are allowed off base, like Okinawa, particular merchants benefit from the commerce, but they do so at the expense of other vulnerable members of the community through generating social problems like forced prostitution. There is therefore a tendency for US bases to become an object of domestic politics, co-currently of opportunity and scorn.
For these reasons, and with an eye to costs and returns, many new US bases are rather minimalist outposts that can be built or discarded as required. Even Afghanistan, where the American Army is expected to be deployed until 2024, follows this pattern. As another example, the USS Ponce, a former transport ship, has been refitted to become a floating forward operating base. Already deployed to the Persian Gulf, capabilities include helicopter pads and maintenance facilities with the addition of underwater diver support, and barracks to support several hundred Special Forces troops. The advantage of this platform is that it is not dependent on foreign nations to provide land for bases. The Navy is requesting a further $1.2 billion in its budget for two similar but purpose built vessels (Shanker 2012b). This is not to argue for the virtue of American citadels occupying foreign soil, but rather to underscore the shift in military planning where flexible base system and deployment schedule mirrors that of ‘flexible accumulation’.
Another blowback results from the culmination of US actions in a particular region. For example, the increased mass migration from Central and South America to the US has much to do with the legacies of US occupation in Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic in the pre-war era, overthrow of governments in Guatemala and Chile in the post-war era, as well as the sponsorship of the Salvadoran and Guatemalan militaries as they committed endless atrocities in the 1980s. Much of this intervention was due to the combination of anti-communism to thwart nationalization of American business interests.
Poverty and crime are endemic by-products as conditions resulting from ‘open door’ principles for ‘free trade’ that in turn create uneven-development and pliable client states. Responding to uneven-development and the market for drugs, it was common to see Latin American special forces, many of whom the US trained at the School of the Americas located at Fort Benning, establish drug businesses. Los Zetas are but the most notorious recent incarnation of this process.
While on the topic, in 2014 mass migration from Central America received considerable media coverage due to approximately 70,000 unaccompanied children, and another 70,000 families being smuggled via Mexico to the US border. In 2016, of the unaccompanied children 28 per cent were from El Salvador, 37 per cent from Guatemala, and 15 per cent from Honduras. To stem this, the Obama Administration pressured the Mexican government to increase the capacity of the Southern Border Plan to apprehend migrants before they reached the US border; capturing about 170,000 people in 2015 alone (see Chishti and Hipsman 2016). Internally, the Obama administration was legally limited from undertaking executive action to provide documentation to 5 million migrants who qualified under the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents program (see US v. Texas, Liptak and Shear 2016). But while advancing that project is commendable, it is hard to reconcile with that same administration’s mobilisation of the security apparatus to intensify mass deportation – about 2.5 million since taking office.
The US international base system is one technique to maintain an economic system predicated upon expanding exploitation and extraction without annexation or colonial settlement, but still exerts political controls over other states. These bases also provide a general condition of coercion that maintain the currents in the existing international system, thus leaving few genuine options for states and regions in the periphery. Overall, bases seek to maintain the political economic hegemony of the US ruling class.
Michael Mann notes how the consequences of climate change will affect food and water supplies, making for climate refugees and amplifying the stakes of existing tensions, conflicts and crises (see Mann and Toles 2016). In the case of crop failure, malnutrition and hunger will be leading drivers of conflicts. Mann and Toles write that ‘Climate change will create more competition among a growing global population for less food, less water, and less land—a prescription for a perfect storm of global conflict’ (2016).
To be sure, the goals of an integrative political economy and the accompanying blowback brings another contradiction into focus. Asked in 1998 whether he regretted supporting bin Laden’s insurgency in Afghanistan given his subsequent turn against the US, Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s National Security Advisor, responded, ‘What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire?’ (Brzezinski quoted in Gibbs, 2000, 241). Events such as 9/11 are by-products, probably inevitable, of this kind of geopolitical exercise of power. Nevertheless, from a cynical geopolitical calculus, perhaps Brzezinski might argue that the prying of Central Europe and Central Asia from the Russian sphere of influence and the creation of US bases in those regions was worth the risk of this blowback. The result of these bases is that Russia is encircled, while China is nearly so. But it comes at the expense of the US homeland being put in direct risk, in effect unleashing a coercive power of the state directed as much internally as externally. As Leo Panitch so eloquently puts it ‘the contradictions of ruling the world are great’ (2003, 233).
In the post 9/11 world less than 1 per cent of Americans have served in the military, these troops disproportionately drawn from economically vulnerable and impoverished communities. This ‘1% army’, has been equipped and mobilized to protect and advance the interests of the economic 1 per cent, the power elite who occupy key positions in the security state. But much how the 0.1 per cent, the super-rich, have an outsized role in shaping the economy, so does 0.1 per cent of the military, Special Forces, have an outsized role in shaping military force. In this section I cover how US Special Forces help enforce the prevailing international division of labour. It is this labour regime that organizes ‘the production of information and information technology today’ (Fuchs, 2016b).
Since the end of the Gulf War, Special Forces have become a key foreign policy instrument, with one analysis calling them the ‘most innovative, subtle, and adaptable instruments of national power’ (2016, 75). Excluding Iraq and Afghanistan, in 2010 near 4,000 Special Forces troops were stationed in approximately 60 to 75 countries, with efforts to expand both of those numbers. Bearing the hallmarks of a flatter organizational structure and close collaborations with intelligence agencies, these units are designed primarily to respond in unilateral direct covert action. Training and joint operations with security partners, frequently the focus of public attention, are legitimation exercises (Scahill 2010). As these forces are rarely accountable to other branches of government, the effective result is a presidency and the security state are consolidating a private military force, near 66,000 personal and expanding, to complement the CIA (Schmitt, Mazzetti and Shanker 2012). This number has doubled since 2001 and includes military personal and DoD employees, with spending in the same period increasing from $4.2 billion to $10.5 billion. With this funding, 12,000 Special Forces troops have been deployed every day since 2003, with four-fifths located in the Middle East conducting multiple raids each week (Robinson 2012). Therefore, it is an uncontroversial observation that the US state is relying upon Special Forces to an unprecedented degree, and this is particularly fruitful in times of fiscal restraint.
As per Jeremy Scahill’s reporting, White House counterterrorism director John O. Brennan has articulated this agenda as the US ‘will not merely respond after the fact’, but will ‘take the fight to al-Qaeda and its extremist affiliates whether they plot and train in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and beyond’ (Scahill 2010). Bureaucratically, this traces to George W. Bush’s administration order called the Al-Qaeda Network Execute Order that permits Special Forces to deploy beyond the battlefield for lethal and covert operations and sanctions cross-border operations. Reflecting on the pace of deployments, General Tony Thomas, commander of US Special Operations Command describes Special Forces as being,
very, very kinetic right now; very direct action because we are trying to rectify five failed states and an extremist phenomenon that’s gone rabid. Once we get that back in the box, eventually, I hope, we can have the right sort of access, placement, connective tissue, to retain stability (Thomas as cited by McLeary and Rawnsley 2016).
Similarly, General Donald Bolduc, commander of Special Operations Command Africa is on record as saying that ‘terrorists, criminals, and non-state actors aren’t bound by arbitrary borders’. Accordingly, he reasons that this requires that Special Forces cannot organize nor recognize traditional borders. ‘In fact’, he says, ‘our whole command philosophy is about enabling cross-border solutions, implementing multinational, collective actions and empowering African partner nations to work across borders to solve problems using a regional approach.’ Supporting African states that are waging wars or fighting counter-insurgency, or rebel forces, Bolduc has said that these forces operate in the ‘gray zone’, which he describes as ‘the spectrum of conflict between war and peace’ (as cited by Turse, 2016).35 Due to social media, ‘secret wars’ are better described as ‘low-visibility wars’; conflicts which attract intermittent attention, but which agenda setting minimizes.
Under President Obama, Special Forces have initiated and intensified these ‘gray zone’ activities. For instance, these forces operate in Somalia, attacking al-Shabaab who have been added to the War on Terror. Around 1,500 disclosed Special Forces operators are deployed in Cameroon, Djibouti, Niger, Egypt, and Libya, many directly in combat roles against African-based terror groups (Obama 2015). But many of these conflicts cannot be ‘solved’ by military power, and US Generals realise this. For example, when testifying at the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Commander of US Africa Command, General Thomas Waldhauser emphasized how economic scarcity drove insurgencies and rebellions. This is particularly acute among African youth, of whom over 40 per cent of the population is below 15 years of age. ‘To protect and promote U.S. national security interests in Africa’, Waldhauser testified,
diplomacy and development are key efforts, and our partnership with the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is key to achieve enduring success. Together, we work to address the root causes of violent extremism, lack of accountable government systems, poor education opportunities, and social and economic deficiencies to achieve long-term, sustainable impact in Africa. (Waldhauser 2017, 2)
Waldhauser is of the opinion that ‘soft power’, that is economic and cultural hegemony was vital to combat African extremism. It is against that background that Waldhauser illustrates the awareness of a ‘global power shift’:
Just as the U.S. pursues strategic interests in Africa, international competitors, including China and Russia, are doing the same. Whether with trade, natural resource exploitation, or weapons sales, we continue to see international competitors engage with African partners in a manner contrary to the international norms of transparency and good governance. These competitors weaken our African partners’ ability to govern and will ultimately hinder Africa’s long-term stability and economic growth, and they will also undermine and diminish U.S. influence. (Waldhauser 2017, 3)
This was a vital concept to keep in mind as President Trump’s budget sought to significantly reduce funding to the State Department’s foreign aid and humanitarian budgets.
Military theorists generally presume that industrial democracies are loath to become involved in protracted conflict. This is because citizens carry the costs in the form of taxation or the loss of life as they directly participate in warfare. This sentiment is attributed to General George Marshall that ‘a democracy cannot fight a seven-year war’. Therefore, democracies use representative oversight, dissent, and protest to safeguard against needless military efforts. However, should the security state desire protracted conflict; one method to alleviate protest would be to insulate the burden of war from the wider civilian population. Ending conscription does so as a professional military removes the immediate responsibility of war from citizens leaving them relatively untouched by combat. In many respects, a professional military suits the ruling class, military officials, and the public. For the ruling class a professional army eases widespread resentment. For the military, it removes ill discipline and insubordination amongst the troops. And the public, professionals especially, would cease to be unwillingly drafted.
Due to domestic politics, in August 2011, the Obama administration began defence spending cuts totalling nearly half a trillion dollars over 10 years.36 In part, the latent rationale is to produce a military that is more efficient by, for instance, eliminating obsolete procurement, closing unnecessary bases, and streamlining commands. Included in this plan is a reduction of military personnel by almost 100,000 by 2017, four fifths of which would be Army personnel.
This budgetary squeeze coincides with the US’s reorientation from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region. While I will detail this development below, put simply, it means that the US state will try to move beyond both counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations and towards more strategic concerns. The ramification for the Army is its attempt to remain central to this new strategic re-orientation while active involvement in major combat operations is curtailed. But given the strategic reorientation, the former Army Chief of Staff General Odierno conceded that the army will be side-lined and relegated to conducting strategically secondary missions such as peacekeeping, regime stabilization, and counterinsurgency (Odierno 2012). Odierno predicts that these operating environments will feature ‘regular military and irregular paramilitary or civilian adversaries, with the potential for terrorism, criminality, and other complications’ (2012, 1).
To meet this diverse mission mandate, the Army is seeking to put logistic hubs in key locations, while units seeking regional alignment will have specialist equipment, and be provided with linguistic and cultural training to attend to different missions and different physical, political, and cultural environments. The goal is to have an army that is used as a deterrent as part of a broader security plan. Odierno says ‘This means maintaining a force of sufficient size and capacity so that potential adversaries understand clearly our ability to compel capitulation if necessary.’ He continues, ‘we will increasingly emphasize activities aimed at deepening our relationships with partners and demonstrating our country’s commitment to global security. Ideally, a focus on prevention and shaping will keep future conflicts at bay’ (2012).
To supplement this regional realignment, the United States has used private military contractors (PMCs)—mercenaries—as auxiliaries to publically claim that they have fewer troops committed to an area of operations. In August 2011, for example, there were more than a quarter of a million mercenaries in Iraq and Afghanistan (Commission on Wartime Contracting, 2011).
By using volunteers and contractors to undertake military labour, the conditions exist to go to war for extended periods without genuine accountability to the public. Indeed, the security state can bypass attempts to garner public legitimacy for conflicts and military interventions. In other words, citizens’ views are not central to ascertaining the costs of military adventurism and occupation. Moreover, a volunteer military tends to encourage the ideologically predisposed to sign up. This further distances the military from the values within American society.
An additional feature of the Army recalibration of military planning and operations are efforts to fully integrate technological capabilities into frontline units, thereby extending advanced technology and the information revolution to the individual solider. Although Odierno admits that goal is still years away from operational deployment, certainly a research agenda involves the construction of an ‘operator suit’ to serve as an infantry force multiplier. Initial specifications for this computerized suit include night vision and other tools to enhance situational awareness, enhanced strength, ballistic protection, and a life support infrastructure. This means that the state requires fewer soldiers to deploy similar levels of force, effectively concentrating the skills and capability of warfare with a selected and narrow warrior elite.
Internally, the state seeks to lionize the military in an attempt to forestall critical appraisals of its activities. This is evident in the rhetorical pairing and purposeful conflation of unreserved support of troops with unreserved support for the operations in which they are involved. These moves seek to quash criticism while ordinary people unreservedly repeat war apologetics, thereby capitulating to ideological dogma. Indeed, the military and its personnel are publically positioned as beyond reproach. The military being a prime delivery instrument of humanitarian aid and the subject of gaming and cinematic narratives assist in internal public relations exercises. This has been so successful that even allegations of atrocities are met with undue suspicion and an unqualified blanket defence before an investigations take place. Overall, this culture of solider worship blinds the public to the realities of war and occupation, obscuring rather than addressing the issue of imperial conflict.
These forces have more presidential access under President Obama than previous administrations, as he is allowing these forces to act in an aggressive, secretive, and pre-emptive manner. Emblematic of this mode of operation is the group formally known as Task Force 714, a ‘direct-action’ unit conducting ‘high-intensity hits’ (Ackerman in Horton, 2010). One should not discount the policy sway of Special Forces in advocating a move away from large missions to more flexible operations (see Ackerman 2009). Special Forces Command has been advocating for more autonomy to position troops and equipment as per their judgement about global affairs (Schmitt, Mazzetti and Shanker 2012), ostensibly to be able to respond rapidly to broad and emerging threats, while avoiding large-scale foreign interventions and occupations. Accordingly, Special Forces are seeking new kinds of missions. However, there is dissent in some areas of the Pentagon—particularly area commanders and the State Department—that believe the request for more autonomy would bypass the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Defence Secretary, thus missing democratic oversight (Schmitt, Mazzetti and Shanker 2012). This issue here is not legitimacy of using covert forces, but who maintains authority.
The political turf wars seem to be regularly won by Special Forces. For example, then Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, upon the request of Special Forces, broadened their operational purview by granting it a global combatant command. In addition to global responsibility, this command status effectively gave Special Forces the ability to reallocate troops to regional commanders, bypassing Pentagon oversight.37 This modification grants Special Forces a greater degree of autonomy to determine threats as per their intelligence operations, although operations would still be directed by the president. This allows Special Forces to conduct missions that could otherwise be stalled by the Pentagon, effectively making them akin to the Praetorian Guard.
The dominant place and influence of Special Forces is so entrenched that the US Army, in an effort to remain relevant, is seeking to train its general-purpose units to provide logistical support, menial labour, and regional specialization to Special Forces units (see Odierno 2012). Cheerleading this development Linda Robinson (2012) remarks,
These changes will allow special operators to deploy in an integrated fashion with other elements of the U.S. government, including conventional military forces, in well-thought-out campaigns that will last not days but years and achieve durable positive effects.
Even as the military downsizes and refocuses on the Asia-Pacific region there is no indication that the Special Forces budget will be reduced, or that unit deployments will be curtailed. Rather it appears that their troop levels will stay consistent, just reallocated to other regions (see Schmitt, Mazzetti, and Shanker 2012). It is envisioned that their missions will be to stay on call for direct action against terrorist targets and hostage rescue operations. Further, using the pretence of training and liaison missions, they will be used to collect information in unorthodox ways. In short, the Obama administration has made Special Forces a central tool in enforcing global rule.
As mentioned, Special Forces operate on the African continent where one of their main tasks is to protect international circuits of production. The conflicts in the Great Lakes region and the Iraq War are associated—even driven to a certain extent—in an international circuit of production that use conflict minerals to create networked and handheld computing (see Fuchs, 2014). These devices are assembled in China using energy secured by the US in Iraq. Furthermore, the Great Lakes War is aided and abetted by arms manufacturers that sell small arms to African countries as a business venture to keep states fragile, and thus make it relatively easier to extract resources and wealth; deliberately destabilized just enough to make resource extraction efficient. Lastly, these international circuits of production have obvious racial significance.
Given a ‘global power shift’, (Hoge 2004) US Foreign Policy is becoming Sinocentric. Arguably, the Nixon administration’s opening of relations with China to exploit a Sino-Soviet split was the first step in the direction, but with the collapse of the USSR, Clinton’s administration deemphasized a Eurocentric posture, and undertook military planning with a rising China in mind (Stepak and Whitlack 2012). This was a defence priority in the George W. Bush administration until 9/11 provided an opportunity to advance interests in the Middle East. However, the Obama administration reinitiated a ‘pivot to Asia’.
This reorientation is present in the various Presidential and Pentagon Strategic documents (see Department of Defense 2012a, 2012b, Daggett 2010, Obama 2007). In much the same way that the US viewed European economic growth and trade as beneficial while being circumspect about security concerns, the US has adopted the same stance to China in an attempt to cater simultaneously towards strategic balancing and economic development. To accomplish this goal, the US will continue trading with China while establishing and maintaining military superiority (see Department of Defense 2012a, 2012b, Daggett 2010). This military presence takes the form of large naval exercises with allies, redistributing troops from Japan and South Korea to the Philippines, and Australia, and other parts of the region, and donating equipment (Burke 2013, Gonzanga 2013). Other actions include deploying littoral combat ships in Singapore. This is because the Malacca Strait is an energy chokepoint for China: as the majority of the country’s energy flows through this region, it is ripe for blockade. These developments are acute additions to an existing infrastructure of bases in Japan and South Korea, and aside to ongoing military support for Taiwan.
Given that much trade travels via sea, the orthodox understanding of global trade is that it is underwritten by naval power. States that have the ability and power to enforce the movement of goods in such a way that they are insulated from regional violence are the economic hegemons. In line with orthodoxy, the US deploys its Navy to enforce trade on its terms. This power is backed by the ability to direct sustained combat operations on, over, under, and adjacent to the sea using naval aircraft, marines, or missiles. China, while not yet possessing the naval presence or the force for direct confrontation nevertheless has, the US believes, sufficient force to disrupt US hegemony in the Western Pacific. This force is characterized by the deployment of the Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier, which reports indicate became combat ready in November 2016. A second carrier is being built (CSIS 2016a). Although the Liaoning is not as capable as US aircraft carriers, it can be supported by land-based aircraft. Finally, China’s military spending went from about 25 billion US dollars in 1990 to over 200 billion by 2015 (SIPRI 2016).
In the 21st century the US stance towards China involves a combination of engagement, interdependence and competition, with the US aware of Chinese intentions to become the regional hegemonic power and so diminishing US influence in the Western Pacific. Much of this comes to a head in the South China Sea as China seeks to use the Spratly Islands to assert its claims within the nine-dash line. Multiple states—like Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia—have claims in the region, and these interests play off one another, increasing tensions. As of late 2016 ‘China appears to have built significant point-defense capabilities, in the form of large anti-aircraft guns and probable close-in weapons systems (CIWS), at each of its outposts in the Spratly Islands’ (CSIS 2016b). The public analysis by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies indicates that,
China has nearly completed structures intended to house surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems on its three largest outposts in the Spratly Islands. The deployment of SAM batteries to Fiery Cross, Mischief, and Subi Reefs would be in keeping with China’s efforts to extend its defense capabilities throughout the nine-dash line. (CSIS 2017)
Periodically the US conducts freedom of navigation exercises with destroyers in the South China Sea or training exercises with carrier battle groups in the Western Pacific (Perlez 2016). Some of these exercises pass well within what would be considered Chinese territory if the US legitimated the claims. The stakes are significant: $5 trillion of trade passes through the South China Sea each year. And so little surprise that the Chinese state spends $10 billion per year on international public relations, some of this is used to recruit client states to support China’s regional interest.
It is with strategic caution over economy hegemony that despite military spending cuts, the Navy will not reduce any of its 11 aircraft carrier task forces (New York Times Editorial 2012), while 34 of the 57 US nuclear submarines are based in the Pacific (Heginbotham and Samuels 2016). Rather, there is renewed investment into these kinds of military resources. Take for instance the new Ford class carrier. This is the first new aircraft carrier class since the USS Nimitz in 1968, and America’s first new carrier of any kind since the USS George H.W. Bush was completed in 2003. At 47,000 tons this carrier class features a redesigned flight deck to launch and recover aircraft far more efficiently than the currently operating Nimitz generation. Additional improvements include new designed propulsion systems, reactors, and radar (Terdiman 2013). Carrier groups are re-locatable airports, bases, and factories and are used to coordinate force projection; a form of twenty-first-century gunboat diplomacy. At the same time, the development of three Zumwalt stealth destroyers will cost approximately $22 billion, and the first is expected to be combat ready in December 2019. Reportedly, these ships can fire precision projectiles 70 miles.
The aforementioned orthodoxy holds that military pre-eminence yields significant economic benefits through reducing security tensions thereby assuring safety to investors. That said, Dan Drezner (2013) is sceptical about the extent to which this naval orthodoxy fulfils the promise of structured economic benefit. Roughly, his reasoning is that international security threats are less likely for stable states, but rather more likely for failing states and those resisting global integration, so there is no need for a sizable naval presence. Here US military bases in the Middle East are intended to safeguard against energy insecurity by countering the hegemony while concurrently deterring Russian or China from entrenching their presence in the region. However, year by year the US becomes less reliant on foreign oil supplies, in part through domestic fracking shale reserves. Presently, less than a quarter of gas consumed in the US is imported, and of that figure less than a fifth comes from the Middle East. So there may be some reconsideration about the degree to which the US needs to secure this region. At the same time, both Russia and China will for the foreseeable future lack the capability to project more than token military power into the Gulf. In Russia’s case this is because of domestic economic weaknesses, and in China’s case, their present priority is the South China Sea. But even then, the resources in this region are consumed more by China and India and decreasingly by the US—so there should be burden sharing.
Nevertheless, Drezner’s argument is one of degree, not one of kind. What I mean is that he does acknowledge how the US Navy allows the US to dictate the terms of global economic and political integration. The purpose of the US Navy is not to expunge rivals, but to use the prospect of force to consolidate control over economic activity, and the standards and norms that govern that activity. David Graeber’s observations about military force and contemporary international political economy complement this view. He argues that a state can use their military power to control financial liquidity.
The essence of U.S. military predominance in the world is, ultimately, the fact that it can, at will, drop bombs, with only a few hours’ notice, at absolutely any point on the surface of the planet. No other government has ever had anything remotely like this sort of capability. In fact, a case could well be made that it is this very power that holds the entire world military system, organized around the dollar, together. (Graeber 2011, 365)
To elaborate, the US uses their money supply to act as an international reserve currency. Much like how once Britain established the gold standard, the network externalities and path dependency of British imperial rule meant that other states had to consider the benefits of monetary convergence, so too do states have to weigh the incentives of monetary convergence on the US dollar. This technique is particularly effective when there is ‘gunboat’ issuing of US treasury bonds as a form of tribute together with the aggressive deployment of financial instruments and institutions in rolling out and maintaining US hegemony.
Considered from this vantage, what appears as the loss of centralized US control of capital is rather a strategy of indirect extraction that involves demanding that other states pay tribute to the US. Within this order, transnational enterprises are enabled by US policy to further entrench indirect rule. In return, the US, through the Navy and other agencies, provides security to corporationsto do business. This is accomplished through either rigging international treaties, capturing international organizations, or lobbying and bullying for favourable business relations in host countries. In short, the US security state seeks to create global governing structures to maintain a rule in which other countries must abide, and in which labour is suppressed, and surpluses are channelled to the US.
How to cite this book chapter:
Timcke, S. 2017 Capital, State, Empire: The New American Way of Digital Warfare. Pp. 99–124. London: University of Westminster Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.16997/book6.f. License: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0