Every so often, several seemingly unrelated bits of information come together in such a fashion as to form a coherent, integrated image -- a big picture, as it were. Several days ago, my old friend, retired History professor Milton Cantor, a very distinguished historian of left-wing political movements in the United States, sent me a copy of a long, thoughtful letter he had sent to Senator Carl Levin. In three tightly written single-spaced pages, Cantor detailed the series of votes Levin had taken in the Senate that in one way or another expanded the autocratic power of the presidency and eroded what have always been thought to be the core rights and protections of constitutional government, most notably the Great Writ, as the writ of habeas corpus is called. On the same day that I received the letter, I read a blog post [I cannot now recall which of three or four different blogs was its source] that included a very striking graphic illustration of the size of the military budgets of the twenty or so most geared up nations. Not surprisingly [I actually already sort of knew this], the United States spends annually ten times as much on defense as its nearest competitor, China, and all in all about half of all the money spent on the military world-wide.
Something about these two bits of information coalesced in my mind, and I realized that I was seeing a perfect representation of America's hegemonic imperial status in the contemporary world. Overwhelming military dominance abroad is complemented by the establishment of an imperium at home. The government now asserts openly that it has the right to kill anyone in the world it deems a threat to its imperium, even if that person is a citizen of the United States. The only restraints the state now recognizes on its actions are instrumental -- the opportunity costs of military action, the deleterious effects on the members of the volunteer armed forces.
This is the reality with which we live, and it does not appear that it will change for at least a generation, perhaps longer. To be quite honest, I do not believe there is anything any of us can do to change this reality. I happen to think that Barack Obama is a more benign and less destructive imperial ruler than George W. Bush was or than any of the current candidates for the Republican nomination would be, and that is sufficient reason for me to do what I can to further his re-election. But no one should be under any illusion that either Obama or anyone else who could possibly be elected President, now or for the foreseeable future, will make any fundamental changes in the imperial character of the United States.