Our Empire, National Priorities, and the Iraq War revisited

Recently I came across the Summer 2023 issue of Jacobin (self-described as “a leading voice of the American left, offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture.”). The lead article is “The Iraq Invasion Twenty Years Later“. This reminded me of all the lies and posturing that led up to the war and the enormous consequences, none of them positive for anyone but the military and military contractors. Here is a summary of some of the costs from the Watson Institute at Brown University1: (click on the links for more details.)

  • Over 940,000 people have died in the post-9/11 wars due to direct war violence, and several times as many due to the reverberating effects of war

  • An estimated 3.6-3.8 million people have died indirectly in post-9/11 war zones, bringing the total death toll to at least 4.5-4.7 million and counting.

  • Over 432,000 civilians have been killed as a result of the fighting

  • 38 million — the number of war refugees and displaced persons

  • The U.S. federal price tag for the post-9/11 wars is over $8 trillion 

  • The U.S. government is conducting counterterror activities in 85 countries

  • The wars have been accompanied by violations of human rights and civil liberties, in the U.S. and abroad

So, this reminded me of the topic frequently discussed here, our US Empire. Americans live in a country consumed with the military and the uses of our military. Yet, this is almost entirely invisible and otherwise hidden behind the ceaseless flag-waving of our politicians and reflexive adulation for our freedom warriors. Yet we do have an empire. Based on our global military and economic dominance.

The Watson Institute at Brown University is out with a new report, “We Get What We Pay For: The Cycle of Military Spending, Industry Power, and Economic Dependence” by Heidi Peltier 2 The report describes the political and government machinery that perpetuates our bloated military. Before diving into the report let’s pause and remind ourselves of some of the facts of the uses of American military force over my lifetime (essentially the entire post-WWII era).

Here is a list of formal military interventions during my lifetime.3

  • Operation Beleaguer in China (1945 – 1949)
  • Korean War (1950–1953)
  • Lebanon Crisis (1958)
  • Vietnam War (1955 – 1975) – note that the US bankrolled the French re-occupation of Vietnam after WWII.
  • Korean DMZ Conflict (1966–1969)
  • Dominican Civil War (1965–1966)
  • Multinational Intervention in Lebanon (1982–1984)
  • Invasion of Grenada (1983)
  • Invasion of Panama (1989–1990)
  • Gulf War (1990–1991)
  • Iraqi No-Fly Zone Enforcement Operations (1991–2003)
  • First U.S. Intervention in the Somali Civil War (1992–1995)
  • Bosnian War (1992–1995)
  • Intervention in Haiti (1994–1995)
  • Kosovo War (1998–1999)
  • Iraq War (2003 – 2011)
  • War in Afghanistan (2001–2021)
  • Second U.S. Intervention in the Somali Civil War(2007–2021)
  • Operation Ocean Shield (2009–2016)
  • International intervention in Libya (2011)
  • Operation Observant Compass (2011–2017) in Uganda
  • American-led intervention in Iraq (2014–present) Part of Operation Inherent Resolve, the Iraqi Civil War, the Spillover of the Syrian Civil War, the War on Terror and the International ISIS campaign
  • American-led intervention in Syria (2014–present) Part of Operation Inherent Resolve, the Syrian Civil War, the War on Terror, and the International ISIS campaign

Then we should take account of some of the CIA actions that we know of over the same period:4

  • 1953 Iran coup d’état
  • 1954 Guatemala coup d’état
  • 1957 Indonesia attempt to overthrow Sukarno
  • 1960 Democratic Republic of Congo involved in the overthrow and murder of Lubumba
  • 1960 U2 overflights of USSR – Gary Powers captured
  • 1960 Nicaragua – assassination of Trujillo, overthrow of government
  • 1961 Cuba – Bay of Pigs invasion
  • 1961-1965 Cuba – sabotage and terrorism
  • 1965 Brazil – coup d’état
  • 1966 Congo – plot to assassinate Patirce Lumumba
  • 1967 US – Operation Chaos – domestic surveillance of anti-war activists
  • 1971 US – domestic surveillance
  • 1973 – overthrow of Allende government in Chile
  • 1970s – Afghanistan – military supplies to Mujahideen
  • 1980s – Nicaragua – support for the Contras, anti-Sandinista guerillas
  • 1985 – Iran Contra
  • 1980 – 1989 – Poland – support of anti-Soviet groups
  • 2001 to date – drone surveillance and airstrikes conducted in dozens of countries – DOD and CIA
  • 2010 – 2012 Arms for anti-government troops in Syria

But there is more. Drone warfare, now on display in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, is a prominent feature of our foreign policy. Since 2007 there have been 278 drone strikes in Somalia, 223 strikes since 2002 in Yemen, beginning in 2014 there have been 14,886 strikes in Iraq and 19,904 strikes in Syria, and there are more.5 It is estimated that more than 8,000 civilians have been killed as collateral damage. Since no states of war have been declared covering these operations, many consider the killings of the targeted individuals and the incidental deaths as extrajudicial and against international law.6

Oh, read a bit further. The US maintains more than 750 military bases throughout the world and dominates the world’s oceans with a naval presence just about everywhere. We have tens of thousands of troops stationed in Europe, South Korea, Japan, and many more countries.  To sustain this, the US, with roughly 4% of the world’s population, spends more on its military than the next ten countries combined.

One is hard put to find much evidence that all of this military activity is actually in defense of the homeland. Do you feel safer after twenty years of the War on Terror and more than $8 trillion spent?7   So how do we justify the past 75 years of American empire?

There is the Henry Kissinger school of realpolitik. Also to be found in many political science and history departments in our universities. This might as well be called the “Big Bully on the Corner” theory. We have a role to play as a world power. We define anything that distracts from or threatens our status as a bully to be a subject for action. We watch the other bullies and create or destroy alliances with them as the facts appear to demand. This is the spheres of influence idea. We speak of this as serving the “national interest” without ever speaking truthfully about what constitutes the national interest. How is it separate from the interests of the global corporations and the billionaire class? Hopefully, adherents to the Big Bully approach are aware that global corporations and the billionaire class are supra-national entities. They don’t live or belong to any country. They are entirely focused on their own self-perpetuation, not that of the US.

The Big Bully Theory led to justifying the Vietnam War (1955-19750) as an effort to keep the dominoes from falling in  Southeast Asia. If Vietnam fell to communist thugs that would inevitably lead to communist regimes throughout the region, in turn all dominated by the big bully in Beijing. The domino metaphor was also frequently matched up with containment. We had to fend of communism everywhere to contain it to its borders in Russia and China. All of this thinking reflects American views that the conflict was a proxy for our conflicts with communism in Russia and China. Then having expended huge amounts of money and manpower in the Vietnam War, America’s credibility as a world power became an issue. Not to mention that Presidents Johnson and Nixon were not going to go down in history as presidents who lost wars.

These are the justifications for dropping more munitions on Vietnam alone than we used in all theaters in WWII! This in a country equal in land area to New England and New York state combined or the states of Wisconsin and Illinois combined or either New Mexico or Arizona standing alone. We sprayed 20 million gallons of the defoliant Agent Orange over Vietnam. The claim was that this would deny our enemies the cover of the forests and also force peasants to relocate to American-controlled cities. With over half a million US troops in Vietnam at the height of the war, the war caused the deaths of nearly 4 million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians with more than 50,000 US troops killed. All of this because the Big Bully, that’s us, perceived a threat and had to maintain his credibility.

Perhaps you adhere to the notion that America is doing God’s work in spreading democracy and capitalism around the world? Kind of hard to explain our continuing support of autocratic oppressive regimes, for example, Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Philippines, Syria. Also kind of hard to justify the blowback on the US economy and society as a result of the globalization of capitalism.

This brings me to President George Bush’s Iraq War (2003 – 2011). Most notoriously this featured extensive lead-up lying about weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Iraq. None were ever found. This was known in advance, but squelched by President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair of the UK.  Claims were also made about Iraqi support for terrorism. Not the terrorism of the September 11, 2001 attack in the US, which was substantially the work of citizens of Saudi Arabia, but alleged support of terrorism against Iraq’s neighbors. In the background as usual, were the oil reserves and oil production by Iraq. Finally, we trotted out our duty to introduce democracy to the Iraqi people.

The US government and its thought leaders jumped on the September 11 attacks as an opportunity to completely replace the key rationale of anti-communism that had explained our role in the world up to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. This is a new war, The War on Terrorism (2001 to date). Today this is a sprawling enterprise involving our presence in 85 countries.79 countries are receiving anti-terrorism training, 41

Then there is the self-perpetuating nature of our military power. This is the central topic of “We Get What We Pay For: The Cycle of Military Spending, Industry Power, and Economic Dependence” by Heidi Peltier.  As suggested by the graphic below this is a political machine that guarantees the expanding funding regime for the military and all of its supporters in the world of the rich and corporations. Then we have the seemingly inevitable requirement for every President to flex our military muscles.  It needs to be wielded because we can, and our political system has devolved control over war as an act of national policy to the Presidential Security State. That’s the enormous machinery of the military, the intelligence apparatus, the internal security forces (Dept. of Homeland Security), and the thought leaders in academia and government. President Eisenhower, WWII military leader,  warned in his farewell address in 1961, “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex.” We have now lived for the fifty-plus years since this warning in the presence of the military-Congressional-Presidential-industrial complex. It is a system that now consumes 55% of the Federal budget and employs 64% of all the people working in the Federal government.8

The Peltier paper includes a chart comparing military spending with other possible uses of Federal funds.

So, there are our real national priorities. A bigger, fatter military.


  1. https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/
  2. Heidi Peltier, “We Get What We Pay For: The Cycle of Military Spending, Industry Power, and Economic Dependence | Costs of War,” Costs of War (Watson Institute Brown University, June 6, 2023), https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/papers/2023/WhatWePayFor.
  3. Adapted from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_wars_involving_the_United_States accessed 7.21.2021
  4. adapted from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Central_Intelligence_Agency accessed 7.21.2021
  5. see https://airwars.org/ for more current reporting
  6. See https://ccrjustice.org/home/what-we-do/issues/drone-killings#:~:text=Since%202002%2C%20the%20United%20States,injured%2C%20including%20hundreds%20of%20children.
  7. You might ask a similar question of our longest war, The War on Drugs, declared by President Nixon on June 18, 1971??
  8. https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/files/cow/imce/papers/2023/Peltier%202023%20-%20We%20Get%20What%20We%20Pay%20For%20-%20FINAL%20-%200608.pdf