Imperial Dominance Disguised as Democratic Deterrence

The Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy Drives Record Military Spending

By William J. Astore

( – Imagine this scenario for a moment: a “great power” watches another major power fight a war in a nearby nation for 10 years before its army limps home defeated and, not so very long after, that country implodes. A little over a decade later, by then unofficially the “last superpower” on planet earth, the second country chooses — yes, you guessed it — to fight its own war in that very same land, which happens to be almost 7,500 miles away by air. Like its predecessor, it, too, finds that, no matter what forces it brings to bear, it simply can’t win. Still, it continues to try for 20 years!

All of that should sound familiar indeed to those of us of a certain age.  And yes, of course, I was referring first to the Soviet Union’s disaster in Afghanistan (much aided and abetted by the CIA and significant American financing of the guerrilla forces fighting the Red Army) and then to Washington’s version of the same disaster. That ended in August 2021 in a chaotic U.S. withdrawal and the complete collapse of the Afghan forces it had been backing all those years.  In the last moments of that defeat an American drone took out a white Toyota Corolla in a neighborhood near the airport in that nation’s capital, Kabul, where the U.S. evacuation was underway. In the process, it slaughtered 10 Afghans, including a “long-time aid worker” and seven children, misidentified as enemy agents on a mission to attack American forces at that very airport.

Oh, and then the U.S. military did its best to bury its own investigation of that small-scale disaster amid the far larger one, something revealed recently by the remarkable New York Times reporter Azmat Khan. And here’s my question to you: What did the U.S. military learn from all that?  The answer is simple enough, as retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, historian, and TomDispatch regular William Astore makes clear today. No matter that this country had wasted $2.3 trillion on its Afghan adventure, its top military officials learned that nothing could stop Congress from appropriating yet more money for a military budget that, at this point, seems headed for the trillion-dollar mark annually. Consider it strange indeed that, in this all-American world of ours, even though this country hasn’t won a war of significance since World War II, the only politicians in Washington – a small number of progressive Democrats like Barbara Lee aside – who display any interest in cutting that budget are in the otherwise disastrous Trumpist Freedom Caucus.  Honestly, what a world!

And with that, I leave you to Astore to consider the Pentagon’s latest assessment of its future and the barrels of money its failures continue to bring in. Tom


More than two millennia ago, in the History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides recounted a disastrous conflict Athens waged against Sparta. A masterwork on strategy and war, the book is still taught at the U.S. Army War College and many other military institutions across the world. A passage from it describing an ultimatum Athens gave a weaker power has stayed with me all these years. And here it is, loosely translated from the Greek: “The strong do what they will and the weak suffer as they must.”

Recently, I read the latest National Defense Strategy, or NDS, issued in October 2022 by the Pentagon, and Thucydides’s ancient message, a warning as clear as it was undeniable, came to mind again. It summarized for me the true essence of that NDS: being strong, the United States does what it wants and weaker powers, of course, suffer as they must. Such a description runs contrary to the mythology of this country in which we invariably wage war not for our own imperial ends but to defend ourselves while advancing freedom and democracy. Recall that Athens, too, thought of itself as an enlightened democracy even as it waged its imperial war of dominance on the Peloponnesus. Athens lost that war, calamitously, but at least it did produce Thucydides, a military leader who became a historian and wrote all too bluntly about his country’s hubristic, ultimately fatal pursuit of hegemony.

Imperial military ambitions contributed disastrously to Athens’s exhaustion and ultimate collapse, a lesson completely foreign to U.S. strategists.