Im­pe­ri­al­ism on a bud­get

The Pak Banker - - Front Page -

LAST week’s pres­i­den­tial de­bate bet-ween Pres­i­dent Barack Obama and his Repub­li­can chal­lenger Gover­nor Mitt Rom­ney was sup­posed to fo­cus on for­eign pol­icy, on giv­ing each man seek­ing to lead the world’s sole su­per­power, an op­por­tu­nity to ar­tic­u­late his vi­sion for ex­is­tence in the world at large.

As most com­men­ta­tors not lo­cated on the North Amer­i­can main­land have con­cluded, the de­bate’s avowed theme was mis­lead­ing. What the world got, in­stead, was a smor­gas­bord of coun­tries’ names — Mali and Libya and China and the ‘stans’ — sand­wiched be­tween ma­cho pos­tur­ing of who, if given the op­por­tu­nity, could prom­ise to kill the most peo­ple (if needed of course) in the name of Amer­i­can se­cu­rity.

If you fell asleep you were not the only one, as one satir­i­cal com­men­ta­tor noted. Most un­de­cided vot­ers, those un­cut gems for whom both cam­paigns are toil­ing so earnestly, were prob­a­bly lost to slum­ber af­ter the first 10 min­utes. While there could be many rea­sons for their dis­in­ter­est, re­main­ing ‘un­de­cided’ in the US is in it­self a turn­ing away from things po­lit­i­cal.

The rest of the world had more than mere bore­dom to weep over. The two can­di­dates avoided ar­tic­u­lat­ing, be­yond the most su­per­fi­cial of paeans ( Obama does pro­nounce Pak­istan cor­rectly even if he likes to bomb it by re­mote con­trol), a sub­stan­tive vi­sion of how they dif­fered on the sub­ject (they don’t) or how Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy in any shape or form would be dif­fer­ent for ei­ther man in the Oval Of­fice (it won’t).

In fact, the rea­son for their ca­ma­raderie — Mitt Rom­ney even of­fered a sports­man­like com­pli­ment to Pres­i­dent Obama on his drone do­ings — goes be­yond their cam­paigns. It speaks in­stead of the dif­fi­cult task of be­ing a face-sav­ing, still sav­age, still hege­monic su­per­power when the money for the grand­stand­ing re­quired of the job sim­ply isn’t there.

A case in point was the two can­di­dates’ some­what staged spat over Syria. Gover­nor Rom­ney might have taken some tongueclick­ing plea­sure in im­ply­ing that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion was too late and do­ing pa­thet­i­cally lit­tle to aid Syr­i­ans be­set with a civil war that has killed thou­sands. But there was lit­tle in his ac­cu­sa­tions (re­ly­ing too much on the UN and not be­ing terse enough with Iran) that would lead any watch­ing voter to con­clude that a Pres­i­dent Rom­ney would or­der im­me­di­ate in­ter­ven- tion in Syria with a solid Amer­i­can troop pres­ence.

As far as is­sues of in­ter­ven­tion or for­eign pol­icy are con­cerned, the chal­lenge faced by the two can­di­dates is not each other but the oner­ous task of be­ing suf­fi­ciently im­pe­rial with­out the cash to make the threats and the drama that sur­rounds them suf­fi­ciently for­bid­ding and re­gal.

Drones have solved some of the prob­lem — fly­ing ro­bots that kill can be quite handy in in­tim­i­dat­ing this or that coun­try and count­ing down lists of bearded en­e­mies — but they have their lim­its.

What they can­not do is continue with the im­pres­sion that Amer­ica can still, as Rom­ney put it, “in­stall gov­ern­ments we like” in coun­tries where the old dic­ta­tors sup­ported by the US have be­come dated.

Na­tion-build­ing has proved a costly ex­er­cise and no or­di­nary Amer­i­can, af­ter hav­ing fi­nally wised up to the cost of such ex­pe­di­tionary machismo, is will­ing any­more to pay for it.

How­ever, the de­ba­cles of Iraqs and Afghanistans past have not killed the kick of supremacy nor the ad­dic­tion to a bossy hau­teur. What Obama and Rom­ney must con­struct is a way to be im­pe­rial on a bud­get, to re­tain the trap­pings of supremacy but with­out the in­fini­tude of sur­plus or the naiveté of over­tures that promised to re­make all cor­ners of Iraq or Afghanistan in the like­ness of Ne­braska and Kansas.

What the can­di­dates’ stances demon­strated ( since all their re­sponses can be con­fi­dently known to have been vet­ted by sig­nif­i­cant re­search of the de­sires of the vot­ers they wish to con­vert) is that while the cash for colo­nial­ist ven­tures may no longer be there, the de­sire for them per­sists.

If the Amer­i­can vot­ers of to­day will roll their eyes at the prospect of an­other war or an­other plan for putting troops here or there, it is not be­cause they don’t think such med­dling is wrong. It’s sim­ply be­cause they don’t like the bill they got the last time they or­dered a meal as lav­ish as that. Amer­i­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates are no dif­fer­ent.

If Obama ap­pears less hawk­ish than Rom­ney, less in­clined to prom­ise a bomb­ing of Iran or in­ter­vene in Syria, he worked hard to sound just as mar­tial in laud­ing his trig­ger­happy alacrity in catch­ing Osama bin Laden, in want­ing to spank what­ever other coun­try that hap­pened to have ter­ror­ists holed up. Gover­nor Rom­ney, not hav­ing the burden of a record, did what chal­lengers — es­pe­cially Repub­li­can ones — do: help their con­stituen­cies imag­ine many wars, all of which could still be in­dulged in with­out a con­cern for cost.

It is eco­nom­ics, then, that prom­ises a new kind of su­per­power, an end to the tra­di­tional kinds of wars with hun­dreds of thou­sands of troops, the mil­i­tary in­dus­trial com­plex of old-time im­pe­ri­al­ism fi­nanced by bil­lions of dol­lars and an ac­com­pa­ny­ing ecosys­tem of pup­pet gov­ern­ments and de­fence con­tracts.

The sav­ing-face im­pe­ri­al­ism of the next decade is hege­mony on a bud­get, in­ter­est in the re­mote con­trol, the short­cut, the 100 schools in­stead of the 100-mem­ber leg­is­la­ture.

It is some­thing that looks kind of like democ­racy in­stead of the whole cir­cus of fair vot­ing and le­gal in­sti­tu­tions and other such ex­pen­sive things.

Like a fat, rich man sud­denly find­ing him­self poor, who must eat the salad and imag­ine the steak, who tells him­self that he could still have his steak if he wished and con­vinces him­self that he has cho­sen self- de­nial, the su­per­power on a bud­get must prac­tise a new, frugal, im­pe­ri­al­ism.

This im­pe­ri­al­ism is less grand and more au­to­mated, but per­haps no less cum­ber­some for the world that must en­dure it.

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