Imperial Overstretch:
George W Bush and the Hubris of Empire
By Roger Burbach and Jim Tarbell
Zed Books, London, 2004

by Daniel Leal Diaz

In the optimistically-entitled Imperial Overstretch, Burbach and Tarbell credit the contemporary United States, “an imperial nation, flagrantly imposing its will on others,” with doing so more successfully and universally than any previous empire the world has seen. With the fall of the Communist bloc, the United States appropriated for itself the right to decide which governments are acceptable. For those governments deemed “unfit” to rule their own countries, the United States created the special doctrine of “preventive war,” holding that the US can attack any country that it perceives as a potential challenge to its hegemony.

This American righteousness is ostensibly based on the conviction that the virtues of the liberal democratic model need to be promoted and spread across the planet. For Burbach and Tarbell the real intention behind this democratic rhetoric is to “ensure that the US penetrates other countries’ economies”—the same motive which was behind the imposition of dictatorships in Latin America and elsewhere. The elite catchphrase of “free market democracies” is deconstructed as “controlled democracies that would recognize the prerogatives of international capital.”

The authors trace the rise of this “imperial nation” from its roots, predicated on westward territorial expansion, through the era of gunboat diplomacy in Latin America and classical “Yanqui imperialism” aimed at financial and market penetration, to the global anti-communist crusade of the Cold War. But it was only after the events of September 11, 2001 that the US has emerged as something unprecedented in all human history: a single unchallenged world empire, bent on controlling global oil supplies to assure continued global dominance. Under the guise of the “war on terrorism,” George W Bush—referred to throughout the book as a “dry drunk”—seized the opportunity to implement a project of “universal domination.”

Of the 189 member nations of the UN, the United States already had a military presence in 153. This was insufficient for Bush, whose government since 9-11 “has established fourteen new military bases extending from Eastern Europe through Iraq, the Persian Gulf, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.” As the invasion of Iraq loomed in 2002, former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia James Akin predicted: “The American oil companies are going to be the main beneficiaries of this war. We take over Iraq, install our regime, produce oil at the maximum rate and tell Saudi Arabia to go to hell.”

A central aspect of the book is the attempt to figure out the configuration of Bush’s “dry-drunk twisted view of the world.” More interesting than the question of how being a recovered alcoholic has infected Bush with a personal delusional hubris is that of the political alliance which has come together around his hubristic global program. A significant element of both configurations lies in the relation between politics and religion. The authors identify three principal pillars of this alliance.

The first is the corporate right or “neo-liberals,” who support a global expansion of “free trade” and a return to the values of the 19th century, “when ‘liberalism’ meant the right of wealthy international entrepreneurs to have rights of access to markets and resources anywhere on the planet.” The second are the “neo-conservatives,” the leading policy analysts of the big conservative foundations (funded by the corporate right) which “emulated the CIA’s post-war funding of former communists and leftists to counter the western European communist parties”—but this time to push through a domestic agenda of “American exceptionalism.” The authors dissect the web of these foundations (the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Project for the New American Century) and how their analysts and supporters found their way into the Bush administration (Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Elliot Abrams). The third pillar is the Christian right which “has inculcated the values of the corporate right into its theological fold.” This is the link to a grassroots voting bloc, and Bush’s personal conversion provides this bloc with a personal credibility.

To push beyond this bloc, Bush has played to the politics of fear. At the start of the Cold War, Senator Arthur Vandenberg said that the government had to “scare hell out of the American people” to make them accept the responsibilities of empire. Bush holds the same belief, unveiling the “Axis of Evil” concept to represent the new threat in his 2002 State of the Union address. This strategy of fear was also clearly visible in his State of the Union address in 2003, when he informed the world that “the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Bush added that “evidence from intelligence sources, secret communications and statements by people now in custody reveal that Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of al-Qaeda.” These claims have been largely disproven—but they served their propagandistic purpose, and helped facilitate the current US occupation of Iraq.

But this new imperialism—a “petro-military complex” that rules the world by force, ignoring international law—consumes enormous economic resources. The United States ran a budget deficit of $375 billion in 2003, and has not had a positive trade balance since 1975. “Militarily the US is so strong that nobody can meet it head on,” the authors quote one analyst. “Economically, however, it is vulnerable.” Hence overstretch.

The authors quote Yale historian Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, whose 1987 work they are clearly building on. Kennedy wrote that the United States “runs the risk, so familiar to historians of the rise and fall of previous Great Powers, of what might roughly be called ‘imperial overstretch.'” The United States is seriously overextended, they argue, and what appear to be manifestations of strength might in fact signal strategic weakness.

Other dangers of empire we are clearly already witnessing. Burbach and Tarbell warn: “The American empire, as in the time of Caesar’s Rome, could easily turn against the republic, creating a twisted, conflict-ridden society at war with itself.”

The architects of the new imperialism openly warn against the re-emergence of a second superpower. Burbach and Tarbell quote neo-conservative authors Lawrence F. Kaplan and William Kristol that the US must act to “prevent potential adversaries” from rising to rival or surpass the United States. But Burbach and Tarbell see a new kind of “second superpower” arising from an unexpected place—from below. They write:

“This power is rooted in the mobilization of popular forces on a global scale. It includes the anti-war and anti-globalization movements, the gatherings of the Porto Alegre Forum and a multitude of human rights and global justice organizations…”

The authors may commit the same error here as the neo-liberal and neo-conservative theorists they deride: that of reducing all world conflict to a single dimension. They write:

“There is indeed a global clash occurring. However, it is not between the Islamic and Western worlds, but between international corporate capital and the innumerable cultures, societies and civilizations that are undermined, uprooted and shattered as corporate capital expands its hold on the globe’s peoples and resources… The younger Bush and his ideologues refuse to acknowledge that ‘they hate us’ because of recurring US interventions around the globe, including the overthrow of democratic governments and US support of international terrorism well before the rise of al-Qaeda.”

This analysis is posed against the simplistic “clash of civilizations” theory of the conservative Samuel P. Huntington, which they call a “pseudo-intellectual” thesis that “feeds into xenophobic tendencies among Americans.” But clearly many on the “Islamic” side of Huntington’s equation also view the global conflict as one between the “Islamic and Western worlds,” and cast their own struggle in xenophobic terms.

The authors conclude that it is crucial to reject, demystify and ultimately replace the capitalist system that dominates the world. While acknowledging that this task will likely take centuries, they point to peasant land struggles in Brazil, the Bolivian movement against water privatization, and the emergence of local “alternative currencies” in the barrios of Argentina and the upstate New York town of Ithaca as examples of “de-comodification”—which could finally bring about “an end to the buying and selling of commodities for profit.” They call this struggle for de-comodification “the only way to change the global system of capitalism that burst out of Western Europe half a millennium ago, mediated by conquest and empire.”

Sadly, they don’t go into the specifics of the examples they cite, or elaborate how this process of de-comodification could be implemented. Nor do they sufficiently acknowledge that much of the actually-existing opposition to Bush’s new imperialism on the global stage comes from forces not thinking in terms of de-commodification so much as extreme religious fundamentalism—paradoxically mirroring that which they oppose.

The authors strike a dubious chord when they state “today, in the aftermath of the Iraqi war, it is eminently clear that the United States is in a state of imperial decline.” They argue that we are in an “interregnum” such as that between the first two world wars, that the fundamental contradictions of the global system are yet to play themselves out. But the multi-polar world of the inter-war era was very different from that of the current unipolar reality. George W Bush may have “launched the United States on a path of imperial overstretch,” but the empire is not seriously threatened by any other power. And the grassroots democratic forces which the authors pose in that role, at least potentially, are now subject to their own dangerous overstretch: having to oppose not only corporate globalization but the seemingly unending military crusade.

Burbach and Tarbell look hopefully to a post-imperial planet at the other end of the “interregnum,” writing that “the very concept of empire in any form is proving antiquated and incompatible with the winds of popular change, resistance and upheaval that have been unleashed in the epoch of globalization.” Whether those winds will finally prevail may be determined generations from now.


Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Nov. 1, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution