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The Vulnerable Giant

By Ernest Partridge
Co-Editor, "The Crisis Papers."

May 25, 2004

An earlier and lengthier version of this essay was posted in February, 2003, just a few weeks before the outbreak of the the Iraq war. It was a warning against the hubris that led to that war. The essential message has, in the intervening months, become, if anything, more urgent .

Why does the Bush Administration freely invade sovereign countries that it claims "might" be a danger -- some day, if not today? Why does it violate international treaties at will?

Because it CAN, of course! After all, who or what is to stop it?

The military budget of the United States is roughly equal to the sum total of all other military budgets. The United States is thus the "sole remaining super power."

And so, like Lola in "Damn Yankees," what America wants, America gets.

As for the rest of the world, we say: "you are either for us or against us. And if you don't like it, there's really little that you can do about it.   Resist us, and we will rain 'shock and awe' upon you."

Today Iraq, tomorrow the world!

After all, there is no power on earth, either individually or as an alliance, that can overcome the US military in a face-to-face military encounter.

From that compelling fact, the Bushistas conclude: “No power on Earth can challenge the United States hegemony or cause damage to the American economy.”

That conclusion is radically and dangerously false.

All that the first, true, assertion tells us is that no opposing power, with a modicum of intelligence, will directly confront the US military. It does not tell us that opposing nations or alliances are helpless in the face of American military might. They have other, non-military, options.

To shift the perspective, the mere fact that no army, navy or air force can defeat us Americans in battle does not imply that we are invulnerable. Quite the contrary. As we well know, a multi-billion dollar defense and intelligence regime was defeated by box cutters and airline tickets. And the only effective defense against that attack turned out to be the bodies and bare hands of a few courageous private citizens.

What the Bush team fails to appreciate is that the US, while militarily supreme, is otherwise extremely vulnerable. And should the US decide to take on the entire world, the rest of the world, in concert, can take down the US with ease. The “outside world” has two weapons – foreign debt and resource imports -- which, if employed either separately or in concert, will quickly bring catastrophe upon the United States without a shot being fired.

The first weapon involves the US foreign debt, which has grown in the past fifteen years from zero to $2.5 trillion – which is a quarter of the US GDP. At present rates, that debt will increase by another trillion in three years. Given these facts , do we dare to lord it over the rest of the world?  In his brilliant article, “The End of Empire,”  William Greider wryly points out “any profligate debtor who insults his banker is unwise, to put it mildly.”

All that our creditors need do is withdraw their capital from our economy and/or shut their cash boxes and refuse to lend us any more. After that, chaos ensues. As Greider observes, “you can’t sustain an empire from a debtor’s weakening position – sooner or later the creditors pull the plug.”

But if “the rest of the world,” but most acutely, Europe, Russia, China and the Pacific Rim, put the squeeze on us and try to cut us down to size, can’t the US simply say, in effect, “screw you all – we hereby repudiate our debts.” At that point, the US becomes a pariah to international trade and is thereafter, as Sam Goldwin said, “included out.” No more foreign markets to sell our goods and conversely, no more importation of manufactured goods from abroad -- and let us not forget that our corporations have chosen to "outsource" most of our manufacturing industries.  But even more seriously, if we opted out of the international markets, there would be no more imports of essential raw materials – the most essential of all, of course, is petroleum. And note this: now half of our petroleum is imported, as domestic sources approach final depletion.

As we pointed out earlier (in “The Oil Trap”), the lost luxury of driving our SUVs is the very least of our worries when the oil tap is shut off. We quite literally “eat oil,” for petroleum not only carries the food to our tables, it also provides the fuel for the farm machinery and the raw materials for the fertilizer which are necessary for our mode of intensive, industrialized agriculture. In addition, we have foolishly opted to move most of our industrial and consumer products by trucks, rather than rail (which, incidentally, also uses diesel fuel).

So imagine a sudden and unrecoverable loss of half of our petroleum supply. From that moment, we might coast for a few months on the “strategic reserve” – crude oil that has been pumped back into the ground in case of emergencies. But after the reserve is gone, the US economy will collapse, as all inessential use of oil is forbidden, ordinary economic life grinds to a halt, gasoline is severely rationed, and all domestic oil supplies are directed to the task of bringing food and essential supplies to our cities – just to keep our populace alive.

The oil shortage might be further compounded by sabotage of the Alaska pipeline, which supplies approximately one and a half million barrels of crude oil per day. Almost all of the 800 miles of that pipeline is above ground – I know, I’ve driven alongside hundreds of miles of it. A couple of years ago a few rifle shots shut down the pipeline for several days. It is virtually impossible to protect the entire line, and a few well-placed satchel charges or bazooka shots could shut it down for good. 

To put it graphically, the United States is like huge, ugly, menacing mechanical monster, powered by an AC line attached to a wall socket. The poor, cowering, intimidated victims need only notice that the wall socket is right behind them, within easy reach. (Would that I were a cartoonist!).

When the ninety-five percent of humanity that resides outside our borders – or at least a sizeable industrialized portion thereof – decides they have had enough of our bullying, they need only pull the plug, and our vaunted economy, along with our military, will collapse into a ruined heap.

To be sure, such a coordinated act of economic warfare would have serious economic repercussions for the anti-US alliance, though the damage would arguably less than the damage to the United States. After all, we need their raw materials, oil especially, to survive. The "outside world" has no need of our raw materials, and it can readily replicate our technology.  But while the damage to the world economy might be considerable, the American bullying and empire-building might well become sufficiently onerous to the rest of the world that they would willingly suffer the consequences of bringing the US down. After all, any nation that goes to war believes that it is worth the cost of some rather horrific consequences. Never mind that the leaders almost always grossly underestimate the costs to their nation, and care little about the damage and misery that they inflict upon their enemies. The historical fact remains: nations (mis)-calculate the costs, and then willingly go to war. The costs of a bloodless economic boycott would seem to be considerably less than total war.

“Even so, they wouldn’t dare,” replies our irrepressible chicken-hawk. “If they did, we’d nuke ‘em. Just the threat should keep them in line, and should keep the oil coming in.” Sorry, fellas. You see, they also have nukes. Not as many as we do, but so what? With a few hundred warheads, and a reliable delivery to twenty of our largest cities, we will be adequately “deterred.” We have thousands of warheads, but no matter. Just a few hundred will do. More than that would be like adding more rifles to the firing squad.  (See “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Armageddon”).

To sum up:, the mighty American military machine is a paper tiger. No military force on Earth can defeat it, but no such force needs to. Our economy rests upon the willingness of our creditors to continue to put more billions of dollars “on the tab.” In addition, our economy – all of it -- depends totally on the energy supply that “the outside world” consents to sell us.

At any time, a “Coalition of the Fed-Up” can decide to cut off our credit line and/or pull our energy plug from the wall socket. George Bush and his gang of usurpers don’t seem to realize this.

God help us all when the rest of the world comes to appreciate its leverage, and begins to look mischievously at that wall socket.

Copyright 2003 by Ernest Partridge


Ernest Partridge's Internet Publications

Conscience of a Progressive:  A book in progress. 

Partridge's Scholarly Publications. (The Online Gadfly)

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers".



Crisis Papers editors, Partridge & Weiner, are available for public speaking appearances