The Cost of Empire, in Ukraine and At Home

Richard Eskow

At a time when so many Americans are struggling economically, our nation continues to pay a steep price for its global empire – and in more ways than one.

Consider this: On March 12 a bipartisan Senate deal was reached which would extend urgently needed unemployment benefits. Although the measure received Republican support in the Senate, it was expected to meet considerable resistance in the GOP-controlled House.

But activists had been optimistic that public pressure could force the House’s hand. Things were looking, if not rosy, then certainly not hopeless. John Boehner’s objections had already been refuted and Republicans in the Senate were chastising their House colleagues.

This extension is urgently needed. And yet 12 days have passed since the bipartisan Senate deal was struck. A vote isn’t expected until later this week at the earliest. Why the delay?

Chalk it up to the Cost of Empire.

The New Cold Warriors

Apparently there’s been so much old-fashioned military grandstanding over Crimea that they haven’t found the time.

In their hearts, politicians from both parties know that U.S. options are severely limited. While Russia’s actions are brutal and unjust, nobody in either party is advocating direct military confrontation. Beneath the bluster, most elected officials agree on a response that includes diplomatic gestures, stricter sanctions, and emergency loans for the Ukrainian government.

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s recent editorial in Politico was supposed to lay out eight forceful steps the president was supposedly failing to take in Ukraine. But those “forceful steps,” many of which were already underway, turned out to be the kind of diplomatic gestures that lead to Republican mockery when undertaken by Democrats.

The Republicans are rhetorically fiddling while the economy burns. The fact is, there’s not much else that can be done – and they know it.

The Cost of Empire

We pay the cost of empire both directly and indirectly. The full extent of our national security spending isn’t fully known, but a reasonable estimate places the total figure at approximately $1 trillion per year. The published Pentagon budget is only part of the total cost, while NSA and other “black box” budget items make up the rest.

Some of that goes for legitimate defense, but much of it supports a global military presence that is both unneeded and excessive in this single-superpower era. The United States has 702 military bases and a total of 4,471 installations in 68 countries around the world, at an annualized cost of approximately $100 billion.

(The five-month unemployment insurance extension worked out in the Senate, by contrast, would cost only $10 billion or so. But, despite the fact that borrowing rates are still extraordinarily low, it was agreed that the extension needed to be “paid for.” So the money is to come, not from the cost of empire, but primarily through delayed payments to pension funds. Austerity measures help finance imperial grandeur.)

One of the greatest indirect costs of empire is paid in our national attention. This saber-rattling diverts our national conversation away from urgent and fixable economic problems. Long-term unemployment remains at crisis levels. Wage stagnation is strangling the middle class, and debate over minimum-wage legislation is also being sidelined for this imperial posturing.

We urgently need a national debate about economic policy. Instead we’re treated to endless empty tirades from the likes of Sens. Lindsay Graham and John McCain in the Senate, and from Sarah Palin and her ilk in the media circus.

Vlad the Decider

To hear them talk, Russian President Vladimir Putin isn’t just a dictator with dangerous ambitions. He’s the embodiment of existential terror, an incarnation he only assumed after former President George W. Bush proclaimed that he could trust Putin because he had “looked in his eyes and saw his soul.”

The Republican rhetoric has changed, especially from camera-happy pols like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). McCain claims that “to people like Mr. Putin, weakness is provocative.” (The examples of alleged “weakness” change daily, with Sen. Graham’s “Benghazi” claim arguably the silliest of them all.)

McCain adds that “(Putin’s) world is a brutish, cynical place, where power is worshiped, weakness is despised, and all rivalries are zero-sum.”

And yet, for all their harsh talk, Republicans seem oddly infatuated with the “brutish, cynical” Russian. “Putin decides what he wants to do and he does it in half a day,” gushed former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. “He makes a decision and he executes it. Quickly. Then everybody reacts. That’s what you call a leader.”

(Or a “decider,” to use President Bush’s phrase.)

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) said that “Putin is playing chess and I think we are playing marbles … They’ve been running circles around us.” Palin added, “People are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil. They look at our president as one who wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates.”

It’s undeniable: Something about Putin’s bare-chested horseback riding seems to excite our Republican friends. After this I half expect them to finance a remake of Conan the Barbarian. (As it turns out, the star of the original is available.)

Paying the Cost

Anything resembling substance in the GOP’s counterproposals evaporates when exposed to the light. In one of their few concrete rejoinders, House Republicans objected to using the International Monetary Fund to lend money to the Ukrainian government.

But then, cynically, the House GOP agreed to the IMF provision – provided the Democrats agreed to change IRS rules to benefit billionaire and corporate political funders. As the New York Times reported, “Members of both parties have criticized that proposal, arguing that Republican leaders are holding urgent aid to Ukraine hostage on behalf of conservative donors like David and Charles Koch.”

Even national security – a value they claim to hold dear – takes second place to financial interests in John Boehner’s House of Representatives. What were McCain’s words, again? Oh, right: “A brutish, cynical place, where power is worshiped, weakness is despised, and all rivalries are zero-sum.”

That wasn’t the only GOP proposal out there, of course. Some other Republicans want to buy up a bunch of handguns and give them out to Ukrainians. Think of it as “Stand Your Ground,” Cold War-style. What could possibly go wrong? And yet, despite its patent recklessness, even Democrats like Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin thought this out-there idea should be left on the table.

Sometimes we pay for our global ambition in cash. Sometimes we pay for it in attention. And sometimes we pay in lost common sense – and lost time. A number of Democrats, too, have squandered these national treasures on imperial posturing. You won’t hear much talk from either party about letting the world community take the lead on this crisis. Apparently it’s hard to put down the burdens of empire.

Approximately two million Americans are in urgent need of that unemployment extension. Millions more would benefit from other badly needed economic measures. But time is passing and the hour is late. While millionaires on the Hill and on television pose like Roman statues, the nation’s struggling citizens bear the cost of empire alone.


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