As TomDispatch’s Nick Turse reminds us today, the United States remains an imperial military presence unlike any other — not just in this moment but in the history of empire. Never has a single country had so many military bases on so many parts of Planet Earth. Consider that a striking fact of 2019, as it was, say, of the 1950s or the post-Cold-War 1990s. How many such bases? As Turse makes clear, no one really knows, possibly not even the Pentagon. And more curious yet, that vast global infrastructure, that “empire of bases” (in Chalmers Johnson’s eloquent phrase), is hardly noticed in what, since 9/11, has been known as “the homeland.” Few here think much about those global garrisons (although hundreds of thousands of Americans have in recent years been deployed to them); the media that cover every presidential tweet as if it were a missive from the emperor almost never mention them, much less report on them; and no one — Turse and a few scholars aside — seems to have the slightest interest in counting them up, much less considering their cost or even the global role they’ve been playing all these years. In domestic terms, they are essentially missing in action, which means a vision of how the United States has positioned itself on this planet is missing in action as well.
With that in mind, let’s acknowledge something else in this strange moment of ours: while that massive (and massively expensive) base structure remains firmly in place, American imperial power is increasingly another matter. It should be clear enough by now that, despite The Donald’s recent dark-of-night selfie drop-in on American troops at al-Assad Air Base in Iraq — as CNN put it, “the dicey security situation still restrict[ed] Trump to a clandestine visit more than 15 years after the American invasion” — he seems to be almost singlehandedly launching the process by which the American imperial system, built up over the last three-quarters of a century, could be dismantled. The Syrian withdrawal and possible Afghan drawdown of troops may just be straws in the wind — but one day, what a wind that could turn out to be!
It’s obvious that the man who ran as the first declinist candidate for president, the only one willing to acknowledge in 2016 that America was no longer quite so “great,” seems intent, however blindly, on beginning that dismantling process. He clearly has an urge to tear down international institutions and dismiss the network of subservient allies Washington had carefully built up for decades to bolster its global power.
Still, don’t label him the dismantler-in-chief quite yet. In the end, Donald Trump may indeed prove to be the American equivalent of one of the mad emperors that helped take down the Roman empire — a Queens-born Caligula. For the time being, however, think of him instead as an envoy for and a message from the unknown gods of the twenty-first century, a symptom of a process that has been going on just out of sight for years. After all, he bears no responsibility for the fact that the self-proclaimed greatest military power ever, in fighting post-9/11 wars without end, has found itself, despite that empire of bases, ever less able to impose its will militarily or otherwise on increasingly large parts of the planet.