Category: empire

Remarks on President Obama’s Speech on Accepting The Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo 12/10/2009

President Obama’s speech on accepting the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, 2009 has generally been reviewed in the US with much glow about its rhetorical heights and appreciation of its depth of thought. I did not watch Obama give this speech. Instead, I turned to the text which I could read at my leisure and without the speechifying fireworks that Obama has clearly mastered.

Although I seem stuck in a reflexive backward glance towards the eight disastrous years of Bush II whenever I evaluate Obama. I am still amazed at the enormous moral and practical abyss we fell through in those years. Obama brushing his teeth in the morning is reassuring in contrast. Nevertheless,  it is worth looking a bit more closely at what Obama did and did not say here. Much has been said of his straight forward assertion that violence is necessary and even useful in a world inhabited by human beings who seem almost genetically predisposed to killing each other off. And, with the invocation of Martin Luther King and the discussion of just war theory, he covers well worn territory, though it is cheering to have a sitting US President talk in this fashion.

Whither the American Empire?

Americans do not like to use the word “empire” in reference to the country’s role in the world. Our Presidents uniformly role out rhetoric that sounds just like Obama’s. Here is a paragraph from his Inaugural speech:

And so, to all the other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born, know that America is a friend of each nation, and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity.  And we are ready to lead once more.

This is heart warming.  But, turning to some of the facts on the ground, as the generals and policy wonks like to say, we have to note that in justus_vs_world-miltary-spending the military dimension alone, there is solid evidence that there is an American empire.

For instance, the US defense budget is not just the largest in the world, our military spending is larger that nearly all of the other countries in the world combined at 48%. See the graph to the left. 1

Are we really spending all of this money for “defense”? Or is it something else that comes closer to empire that is consuming these resources?

Perhaps another statistic will suggest something further of the scope of our empire. Lets look at the enormous, and growing, array of military bases covering the globe. As the Pentagon’s Base Structure Report shows, we have over 750 military bases outside of the US. Leaving aside our bases throughout Europe, Japan, South Korea, and various islands, new bases are being added in Africa and Central Asia as this is written.


  1. The image borrowed without permission from the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation http://www.armscontrolcenter.org/policy/securityspending/articles/fy09_dod_request_global/ []

A New Thought on Terrorism

An article in today’s NYTimes about cyber crime, malware, etc. suggests to me that another line of attack may be through the Internet against our utilities, telecoms, or financial institutions.

There have already been massive attacks against whole countries with successful breakdowns that lasted for hours and days. Ukraine, Lithuania, and Georgia were targets over the last year. My memory is that suspicions fell to the Russian government because the attacks, in these cases massive Denial of Service assaults, appeared to originate from within Russia.

At any rate, add this to your terror worries.

Pondering at the Food Coop

November 1, 2008

So, here I am having coffee and my favorite lunch, a toasted bagel with peanut butter thinking about the approaching election. Finally this will conclude what has been an overly long campaign, but one with enormous pleasures. Assuming that Obama is not just a curiosity to all those throngs at his campaign events, we will have a President who seems bright, competent, and level-headed with an adequate level if toughness. I don’t expect the kinds of policy directions I would like to see. But, after the last eight years, really the last eleven years, just having a competent President not mired in malevolent Millennial daydreams will be a step forward.

Though I am concerned that the present problems facing us may be beyond the present political system to navigate let alone solve.

Just to mention one. Our overseas empire with almost 800 military bases (see the Base Structure Report from the Pentagon for the data) on every continent proves Eisenhower’s point about the military industrial complex, though in truth this confirms what he is said to have wanted to say, “the military-industrial-Congressional complex”. This monster that consumes almost a trillion $s every year (my calculation includes the Pentagon, CIA, NSA, Energy, and other secret intelligence/military enterprises along with the budgets for the War on Drugs and Homeland Security) continues to grow with no evidence that our security is actually improving. To the contrary, it appears that in some quarters our security may be significantly diminished.

A Fog of War or a Fog of Ethics?

Through our friend Esther Hanig we attended a showing of Errol Morris’s new documentary, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara. at the Kennedy Library in Dorchester on December 14, 2003. This documentary is an extended adventure into the historico-biography of Robert S. McNamara, most famous as the Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. The movie intersperses close up head shots of McNamara (always shown off center) responding to questions posed by the interviewer (never seen, but clearly the director Morris) with historical footage and graphics illustrating events or concepts.



McNamara today at age 87 McNamara as Sec. of Defense ca 1966.
Photos appropriated from the New York Times web site


One of the most effective sections reveals McNamara’s role in the planning and execution of bombing campaigns during WWII under the command of Gen. Curtis LeMay. This bombing campaign attacked 67 Japanese cities. Morris uses historical footage of the results and then flashes the names of the Japanese cities with their populations on the screen immediately followed by the names and populations of similar-size American cities. In one night a fire-bombing of Tokyo incinerated 100,000 civilians. In the movie, Mr. McNamara tells Mr. Morris. “Lemay said, `If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.’ And I think he’s right. He — and I’d say I — were behaving as war criminals.” He asks, “What makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?” (thanks for this quote to the movie review article “War and Never Having to Say You’re Sorry” by Samantha Power, Published: December 14, 2003 in the New York Times)

Later, covering the Vietnam War, Morris provides audio tapes of both Kennedy and Johnson speaking with McNamara about the war. These add more fuel to the argument that if Kennedy had lived that he would not have enlarged the US involvement. And, on the other hand, Johnson comes across as clearly responsible. No surprise there.

When asked during the post-screening discussion about why he waited for over twenty years to reveal that he had come to think the Vietnam war a mistake even while still Sec. of Defense, McNamara repeated his claim that as a former Sec of Defense he could not say critical things of the war policy because it would have been giving comfort to the enemy and endangering US troops.

This is a cruel bit of logic.

When McNamara left his position roughly 25,000 Americans had died and probably 10 to 20 times that many Vietnamese. By the time the war actually ended seven years later, more than twice that many had died on both sides. It remains a galling outrage that this man, so intimately involved with the development and prosecution of the Vietnam War, could be seeking absolution twenty years later. It is the minimum we human beings owe to each other that, when confronted with obvious wrong doing, we speak up. This obligation is all the more important for those in positions of power and authority. But, one of Morris’s points in his movie is that evil and evil doers are never quite so easily categorized as might be in an old Western movie.

The end of the post-screening discussions with McNamara displayed this point with fresh vigor. After the program was officially closed, McNamara called for a few more moments of the audience’s attention. He wanted to add to his call for work on developing and deploying a real policy on proliferation of nuclear weapons with a call for international standards for behavior by political leaders enforced by international judicial tribunals. Perhaps we might think of him in the dock for his role in the Vietnam War. Just as a small starting point for the prosecution: during the movie McNamara himself pointed out that more munitions were dropped on Vietnam during the war than all that were used in the European theatre of WWII. And, this, in a country that is just about the same land area as our states of Wisconsin and Minnesota and then, as now, one of the poorest countries in the world.

But, then, McNamara seems incapable of connecting the ethical dots in his own life. How can acknowledge that his role in the fire-bombings of Japan might be considered a “war crime”, his policy in Vietnam wrong, and call for international standards of behavior enforced by international courts??

PS: I highly recommend the movie. It is challenging and very well made.

12172003