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The Failure of Empire

The United States is facing the prospect of a major defeat in Iraq that is likely to constitute a serious setback in the ongoing campaign to expand the American empire. Behind the pervasive war propaganda as evidenced in the “victorious” attack on Fallujah lies the reality of a U.S. war machine that is fighting a futile battle against growing guerrilla forces, with little chance for a stable political solution to the conflict that could possibly meet U.S. imperial objectives. Nevertheless, the U.S. ruling class, though not unaware of the dangers, is currently convinced that it has no choice but to “stay the course”—a slogan adopted by both political parties and accepted by virtually the entire economic, political, military, and communications establishment. The reason for this seemingly irrational determination to stick it out at all costs can only be understood through an analysis of the logic and limits of capitalist empire.

The Logic of Imperialism

Capitalism is by its very nature a globally expanding system geared to accumulation on a world scale. Since its beginnings in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries it has been a world economy with an international division of labor ruled over by competing nation-states. Cutting across this global system is a structure of inequality variously described as center-periphery, metropolis-satellite, developed-underdeveloped, North-South—all of which point to the wide gap that exists between states at the center and those in the periphery of the system. From the outset, the leading capitalist states engaged in an outward, imperialistic movement. Precapitalist societies in the Americas, Africa, and Asia were pillaged, their populations enchained, and the plunder sent back to Europe. Wherever possible, noncapitalist societies were destroyed and transformed into colonial dependencies. Meanwhile, the great powers fought over the territories and spoils. As Marx wrote in “The Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist” in volume 1 of Capital:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of blackskins, are all things which characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation. Hard on their heels follows the commercial war of the European nations, which has the globe as its battlefield. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes gigantic dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the shape of the Opium Wars against China, etc.

By the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain, which led the way in the industrial revolution, had emerged as the hegemonic imperial power of the capitalist world economy. In this period the European powers divided up the world, either exercising direct political rule over their colonies or where this was not practicable creating conditions for the subordination of peripheral states to the needs of those at the center by means of unequal treaties. Britain’s most important colonial possession, the jewel of its empire, was India. But Britain also exercised informal economic control in areas that were not formal colonies, as in Latin America. Wealth extracted from these colonial domains flowed into the coffers of the center capitalist nations, enriching them and enhancing their power. British hegemony over the world economy came under increasing challenge in the early twentieth century, particularly from Germany, and collapsed as a result of the First and Second World Wars, to be replaced in the aftermath of the Second World War by American hegemony as the United States rose to dominance over the world capitalist system.

In the immediate postwar world the United States was, in terms of the sheer material force at its disposal, the most powerful nation that the world had ever seen. It accounted for about half of total world output and 60 percent of its manufacturing and had a monopoly over nuclear weapons. In place of the earlier gold standard, the Bretton Woods Agreement enshrined the U.S. dollar as the main international currency, which was backed up by Washington’s agreement to redeem dollars held by the central bankers of other countries for gold. U.S. military bases in the thousands stretched across the globe. U.S. multinational corporations seized control of whole economies in the third world and, although doing so on the basis of so-called “free trade,” were backed up in their economic operations and interests whenever necessary by U.S. military power.

But in many ways U.S. power was constrained. The existence of the Soviet Union, which had arisen out of a socialist revolution in the midst of the First World War, meant that there was another military superpower, which, if nowhere near as powerful as the United States, nonetheless could constrain U.S. actions, placing certain regions off-limits to imperialist expansion, and offering material support to third world revolutions. Still, the real threat to capitalism as a whole and to U.S. global dominance came not from the Soviet Union directly but from the waves of revolution taking place throughout the twentieth century as peoples in Latin America, Africa, and Asia sought to break loose from colonialism or neocolonialism, i.e., from the position to which they had been relegated in the imperialist division of labor. As the United States surrounded the Soviet Union and China with military bases and alliances and at the same time sought to counter revolutions throughout the third world it found itself up against the global limits of its power.

Vietnam and the Limits of Empire

Nowhere were the limits of U.S. power more evident than in the Vietnam War. In that war the United States took over what had been a colonial war on the part of the French, blocked elections from taking place throughout the country as established by the Geneva Agreements of 1954, and divided Vietnam in half, creating a puppet regime in the South. In the 1960s a massive buildup of U.S. troops took place in what amounted to an invasion and occupation of the southern part of Vietnam. Unable to win in a guerrilla war, despite expending more than twice as much explosive power as it had employed in the entire Second World War and despite millions of Vietnamese dead, and unable to succeed at “nation building” in South Vietnam, where it sought to prop up a corrupt regime of its own creation, the United States was compelled by growing dissension amongst the U.S. civilian population and by signs of rebellion within the lower military ranks to withdraw under the cover of the “Vietnamization” of the war. The distortions in the U.S. balance of payments in this period contributed to the diminishing hegemony of the dollar as a world currency and the end of the dollar-gold standard. For decades after the United States began its pull-out from Vietnam, the U.S. capacity to intervene militarily was severely limited by what conservatives labeled “the Vietnam Syndrome”—standing for the unwillingness of the U.S. population to engage in major military interventions in other countries.

The War in Vietnam, like other major imperial wars, revealed the logic and limits of capitalist empire. It is often said that the United States had no significant economic interests in Vietnam that would have justified its major intervention there. Niall Ferguson, a professor of financial history at New York University and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, declares in his new book, Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire, that “The United States lost face [in Vietnam]. That was about all it lost.” Such views tend to reinforce the ideology that since the United States had nothing material to lose in Vietnam it must have been there for no other reason than to promote freedom and democracy. In reality U.S. objectives in Vietnam were dedicated to the maintenance of imperialism as a system. In the broadest sense, this involved strategic goals that have been classically understood under the rubric of “geopolitics,” in which the political, economic, and military requirements of empire are placed within a strategic context that takes into account the geographic, demographic, and natural resource characteristics of particular regions. Such a geopolitical understanding of imperial expansion and defense is of course completely in accord with the necessity of the greatest possible expansion of the capitalist world economy.

The Vietnam War illustrates perfectly the importance of such geopolitical goals. The object of the U.S. intervention was to control the Pacific Rim and to surround and “contain” China as part of a more general geopolitical strategy of global dominance of the “rimlands” of Eurasia—that is, Western Europe, the Pacific Rim, and the Middle East. It was these rimlands that were the main focus of U.S. global military alliances; and it is here that the United States devoted the most resources to establishing and maintaining a military presence. They represented in fact the borders of the imperialist system, in which the United States was the hegemonic power—thus the borders of a loosely constructed American empire.*

Viewed in this way, the enormous commitment of the United States to securing Vietnam as part of its imperial sphere—a commitment maintained over five successive presidencies of both parties—was not simply irrational but part of a larger global strategy. For the U.S. ruling class and its military and foreign policy strategists the defeat in Vietnam is remembered as a major failure in defending U.S. interests. In the 1970s the world capitalist economy entered a long-term crisis or stagnation that continues to haunt its every step. In the same period U.S. economic hegemony slipped. This partial withdrawal of the United States from the world stage after the Vietnam War, as its military interventions were curtailed despite growing revolutionary movements in the third world, was often seen by those at the top of U.S. society and in the military as a source of the general sickness or malaise affecting the U.S. order.

The Return to War

Since the late 1970s Washington has sought to reconstruct its capacity to engage in imperialist wars. Covert wars in Afghanistan and Central America were followed by the direct exercise of American military imperialism in Lebanon, Grenada, and Panama. With the fall of the Soviet bloc and the demise two years later of the Soviet Union itself, the United States moved to fill the vacuum of world power, carrying out military interventions in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, and the former Yugoslavia that would have previously been unthinkable. Following the attacks of September 2001, the U.S. invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq and the construction of military bases in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia constituted a vast expansion of the American empire into hitherto inaccessible regions. Such extension of U.S. imperial power was partly enabled by economic gains—although of a transitory nature—that the United States had made in the 1990s relative to its leading capitalist competitors. It was this that helped give the “antiterrorist” hawks in the administration of George W. Bush the confidence to exploit the fear engendered by the September 2001 attacks to issue the National Security Strategy of the United States of America, in September 2002. This declared that the United States would do all in its power to prevent the appearance of another “peer competitor” in the military realm and would not hesitate to engage in “preemptive” (or preventive) interventions to advance its national security interests. This was nothing other than a declaration of perpetual war, making it clear that the United States was willing to brandish its armed might in order to expand its empire and thus its geopolitical position in the world at large. Never before in the history of the modern world has any nation laid claim to such a far-reaching strategy for indefinite global domination.

Helping to pave the way for this reassertion of U.S. imperial ambitions was a transformation that took place in the dominant historical account of the Vietnam War. Conservative interpretations of the war propounded by the military leadership and rightwing commentators—at first scarcely taken seriously in the public discussion—became more influential and pervasive as memories of the war receded. In the new climate of making America “stand tall” again, the defeat in Vietnam was increasingly relegated to the classic propagandistic category of a “betrayal” brought on in this case by the disloyalty of the media and by extremists within the civilian population.*

The focus of this reinterpretation centered on the war’s turning point in the Vietnamese Tet Offensive of 1968. Tet, it was now said, was a resounding military victory for the U.S. and South Vietnamese military forces, which decimated their National Liberation Front attackers. Yet, in a “betrayal” of the first order, we are told, it was turned into a defeat by the U.S. media and a vocal minority of war protestors, which had the effect of inducing Johnson to throw in the towel. In effect establishment opinion adopted the same verdict on the war offered earlier by General William Westmoreland, commander of the U.S. forces in Vietnam, who wrote in A Soldier Reports (1976) that the Tet offensive represented “a striking military defeat for the enemy on anybody’s terms….Unfortunately, the enemy scored in the United States the psychological victory that eluded him in Vietnam, so influencing President Johnson and his civilian advisors that they ignored the maxim that when the enemy is hurting you don’t diminish the pressure, you increase it.” For Westmoreland, speaking of the Indochina War as a whole, “a lack of determination to stay the course…demonstrated in Cambodia, South Vietnam, and Laos that the alternative to victory was defeat.”

References to U.S. failure to “stay the course” became a major theme of conservative accounts of the war. This phrase had been frequently employed in the war itself. For example, President Johnson had used it in 1967 to convey his resolve to continue the war. In another instance, Townsend Hoopes, the under secretary of the Air Force, had presented Secretary of State Clark Clifford in February 1968 with a strategy for “staying the course for an added number of grinding years” by concentrating merely on controlling populated areas. But the phrase became even more important later on as a hawkish slogan to explain the U.S. defeat. This happened after the noted journalist Stewart Alsop recalled in his memoir, Stay of Execution (1973), that Winston Churchill had stated in his presence: “America, it is a great and strong country, like a workhorse pulling the rest of the world out of despond and despair. But will it stay the course?” Vietnam hawks like Democratic Senator Henry M. Jackson turned to Churchill’s question at every opportunity—insisting that the United States had failed to stay the course in Vietnam and should not make this mistake again.*

So powerful has this right-wing, military understanding of the Vietnam War become that it is now a force to reckon with in the current war in Iraq. Thus when President George W. Bush declared with respect to Iraq in April 2004 that “We’ve got to stay the course and we will stay the course,” his Democratic opponent Senator John Kerry echoed that the United States should “stay the course” in Iraq, adding that “Americans differ about whether and how we should have gone to war. But it would be unthinkable now for us to retreat in disarray and leave behind a society deep in strife and dominated by radicals” (Robert Scheer, “Don’t Stay the Course Senator,”, April 28, 2004; Evan Thomas, “The Vietnam Question,”, April 19, 2004).

The Road to Ruin in Iraq

This repeated insistence on staying the course is sometimes reduced to a mere willingness to countenance continuing bloodshed. According to Max Boot, a senior fellow at the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations, in his Savage Wars of Peace (a title drawn from Kipling’s poem the White Man’s Burden): “Any nation bent on imperial policing will suffer a few setbacks. The British army, in the course of Queen Victoria’s little wars, suffered major defeats with thousands of casualties in the First Afghan War (1842) and the Zulu War (1879). This did not appreciably dampen British determination to defend and expand the empire; it made them hunger for vengeance. If Americans cannot adopt a similarly bloody-minded attitude, then they have no business undertaking imperial policing.”

But adoption of a “bloody-minded attitude”—something that is not lacking at present in Washington—will not save the United States in Iraq. Despite the much proclaimed “victory” in Fallujah—where the level of destruction unleashed against a city in an already occupied country is probably unequaled in modern times—war planners are working overtime to find a way to stave off a defeat that appears increasingly likely. The most important recent treatment of the Iraq War from within the national security establishment has come from Anthony H. Cordesman, a long-time national security adviser for the Department of Defense, specializing in the Middle East and energy issues, who oversaw the assessment of the Yom Kippur War for the Defense Department in 1974. Cordesman is now Alreigh A. Burke Fellow in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and the national security analyst for ABC News. In his report “Playing the Course:” A Strategy for Reshaping U.S. Policy in Iraq and the Middle East (fourth draft, November 22, 2004, Cordesman argues that the United States should not “stay the course” if a pragmatic strategy for success, which he calls “playing the course,” does not work. “The US faces too much Iraqi anger and resentment to try to hold on in the face of clear failure, and achieving any lasting success in terms of Iraqi political acceptance means that the US must seek to largely withdraw over the next two years.” Moreover, given the degree of U.S. failure so far the question of a U.S. defeat in Iraq needs to be considered. “The odds of lasting US success in Iraq,” he states, “are now at best even, and may well be worse. The US can almost certainly win every military battle and clash, but it is far less certain to win the political and economic war.”

Cordesman believes that the United States can only save itself from a clear defeat and the resulting loss of “face” in Iraq by renouncing at once all imperial objectives. As he declared in an interview for the Council on Foreign Relations in late November: “We’ve never said to the Iraqis that we won’t take their oil, that we won’t steal their economy, that we won’t establish military bases, that we’ll leave when an elected government asks us to. We’ve never said that any government that is elected is OK with us.” As he writes in Playing the Course, the United States should “conspicuously” abandon the following objectives: (1) using “Iraq as a tool or lever for changing the region” (2) using Iraq as “a US military base” (3) interfering with “Iraq’s independence in terms of its politics, economics, and above all oil” and (4) blocking “total transparency” in the U.S. relation to the Iraqi economy. U.S. assurances he insists must include its explicit commitment to withdraw entirely from the Green Zone in Baghdad, which cannot be maintained as an imperial headquarters in a supposedly independent Iraq.

The United States, Cordesman advises, should narrow its objectives to the creation of a stable government backed up by an adequate Iraqi military force—even if the new political regime is only moderately better than that of Sadaam Hussein and even if openly antagonistic to the United States. If Washington can “succeed” even to this extent, he says, it can declare “victory” and get out within two years with a minimum amount of damage to its credibility as an imperial power. However, in case it should fail to create a stable political solution or to create an adequate Iraqi army within that period—as now appears most likely—the United States needs to start making plans immediately for what it will do in the case of a clear defeat. “Even ‘victory’ in Iraq,” we are told, “will be highly relative, and defeat,” which can occur in any number of ways as Iraq spins out of control, “will force the US to reinforce its position in the entire region.”

Even more important than the formation of a stable regime, from Cordesman’s standpoint, is the replacement of U.S. with Iraqi forces. “‘Iraqiazation,’” he writes, “either has to be made to work, or Iraq will become a mirror image of the failure of ‘Vietnamization’ in Vietnam: Coalition military victories will become increasingly irrelevant.” After a detailed assessment of Iraqi forces and training he concludes: “the Iraq military and security forces are now far too weak to take over the security mission and will almost certainly remain so well into 2005….The US can only ‘play the course’ effectively if it works out goals and plans with the Iraqi Interim Government that go far beyond the 28,000 man [Iraqi] armed forces—and the roughly 40–55,000 man total of military, paramilitary, and National Guard—the US currently says are ‘required.’”

The truth is that the presence of 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, which has stretched available U.S. forces to the limit, has not been enough, even when supplemented by troops from Britain, to bring the country to heel. “The US has already learned that it can win virtually any direct military battle or clash, but it cannot secure the country….As in Vietnam, if the interim Iraqi government cannot win the political battle, U.S. victories in the military battles become irrelevant.” Given the political turmoil in Iraq and the difficulty of creating any political solution, or even avoiding the outbreak of civil war, Cordesman believes that the United States needs to concentrate on how to shore up its position in the remainder of the Middle East in the event of a defeat:

Fighting a counterinsurgency campaign is one thing; the US must not stay if Iraq devolves into civil war….No one can guarantee success in Iraq; or that Iraq will not descend into civil war, come under a strongman, or split along ethnic or confessional lines….[I]t is one thing to play the game and quite another to try to deal with defeat by reinforcing failure or “doubling the bet.” If it is clear by 2006 that the US cannot win with its current level of effort, and/or the situation serious[ly] deteriorates to the point where it is clear there is no new Iraq government and security force to aid, the game is over. There no longer is time to fold; it is time to run.

If forced “to run,” he says, the United States will have to offer reassurances to the rulers of the “friendly Gulf states and other Arab allies.” It will have to prevent any expansion of Islamic jihad in Afghanistan resulting from Islamic declarations of “victory” in Iraq. At the same time the United States will have to keep Iran from intervening in Iraq. More pressure than ever will be placed on the United States to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem. Finally, the threat to U.S. strategic position with respect to Middle Eastern oil will have to be planned for, requiring that the United States not withdraw from the Middle East but if anything step up its involvement.

No doubt is left in Playing the Course that the major issue for the United States in Iraq as in the Middle East as a whole is oil. Continual attacks on the oil pipelines by the Iraqi resistance have limited the flow of oil from Iraq, undermining one of the principal U.S. objectives, and highlighting the overall U.S. failure. In the event of a clear defeat and a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, the oil situation will become even more critical. “The US,” Cordesman writes “can and must find substitutes for petroleum, but this will take decades. In the interim, the US and the global economy will actually become steadily more dependent on energy imports, and particularly on energy imports from the Gulf.” By the end of 2025 the industrialized countries alone, according to estimates by the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) in its International Energy Outlook, 2004, are expected to increase their petroleum imports from OPEC by an additional 11.5 million barrels a day beyond the 16.1 million barrels a day in 2001, with the Persian Gulf supplying more than half of the increase. North American imports from the Persian Gulf are expected to double over the period. Meanwhile, demand for oil from China and other developing countries is expected to increase dramatically. The strategic importance of oil for the world economy will accelerate accordingly.

In order to meet this demand for additional production, the EIA estimated that a further $1.5 trillion would have to be invested in the Middle East between 2003 and 2030. The long-term potential for investment in the expansion of production in Iraq is greater than elsewhere since many oil analysts and institutes (for instance the Baker Institute, Center for Global Energy Studies, the Federation of American Scientists) believe that, in addition to its proven reserves of 115 billion barrels of oil, Iraq may have, in the 90 percent of its territory that remains unexplored, 100 billion barrels or more of additional oil reserves. (Estimates coming from some agencies, like the U.S. Geological Survey, are less optimistic, with median estimates of additional Iraqi reserves at 45 billion barrels.) According to Cordesman it is the enormous level of investment necessary for the expansion of Middle East oil production, which must occur in order to ensure adequate supplies for future consumption, that is the most pressing “practical problem” presented by the Persian Gulf from the standpoint of the global economy. Not only must such investments be made but they must then be protected. In this regard it would not be easy for the United States to pull out completely from Iraq or to refrain from stepping up its involvement elsewhere in the Middle East if compelled to leave that country.

Relative to most analyses emanating from national security circles in the United States, Cordesman’s Playing the Course has the advantage, we think, of being strong on realism. It is therefore reasonable to ask whether the powers that be in the United States can be expected to follow his prescription, beginning by renouncing all imperial objectives in Iraq. We think this is unlikely to happen. The operational phrase remains to “stay the course.” On March 30, 2004, former secretary of defense under Nixon and Ford, James Schlesinger, and former U.S. ambassador to Russia and under secretary for political affairs under Clinton, Thomas Pickering (the two co-chaired the Council on Foreign Relations task force that produced the report Iraq: One Year Later), editorialized in the Los Angeles Times that Iraq should remain “above politics” and that the United States should “stay the course.” The reasons they offered included preventing Iran from influencing Iraq; guaranteeing “long-term stability in the production and supply of oil” blocking the rise of a new power in Iraq opposed to the United States; and avoiding a perception of American defeat that would serve to destabilize American power and its interests both in the Middle East and globally. In short, the imperial objectives for which the United States intervened in the region must be maintained at all costs.

Nothing coming out of Washington these days suggests that this dominant view has altered in any way. Although it is well understood among those at the top of the social hierarchy that a series of disasters may well await the United States in Iraq if it simply sticks to its guns, to not do so is seen as guaranteeing a still bigger disaster—a confession of defeat that will diminish the future U.S. capacity to make war at will on third world societies and thus to employ force directly as a means to promote its imperial designs. Moreover, there is still the question of Iraqi oil and who will control it. Thus in the ruling class view, even an absolute failure in establishing a stable political regime and the requisite military force to defend it in Iraq does not necessarily mean that the United States should get out. Thomas Friedman, the Op-Ed columnist on foreign affairs at the New York Times, whose views can usually be taken as a good barometer of establishment opinion, concludes a November 18, 2004, report from Iraq with the statement that “Without a secure environment in which its new leadership can be elected and comfortably operate, Iraq will never be able to breathe on its own, and U.S. troops will have to be here forever.” The attitude here is that the U.S. occupation would need to continue endlessly in the case of a failure to realize the goal of a stable political situation in Iraq acceptable to the United States. Given the enormous Iraqi oil reserves Washington could decide that whatever costs it had to pay in Iraq would be amply rewarded in the end.

If the foregoing reading of the U.S. leadership’s current determination to stay the course is right, then the failures to be experienced by U.S. imperialism in Iraq are likely to persist and be all the greater. The continuing presence of U.S. troops will mean that the U.S. military will continue to take its bloody toll (which has already descended to systematic torture and the reintroduction of napalm, outlawed by the United Nations in 1980), and Iraqi opposition to the American “liberators” will only grow. Meanwhile any Iraqi government that is elected under these circumstances will either have to be opposed to the U.S. occupation or lose any claims of legitimacy within Iraqi society. The entire U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq may be creating the conditions for a civil war, lighting a powder keg under the entire Middle East. To get an idea of just how serious this can be one has only to look at present Israeli arming and training of the Kurdish militias, with the object of then setting them—if the need should arise—against the Shiite or Sunni forces in Iraq. Israel’s possession of hundreds of nuclear weapons poses the continual threat of the “Samson option” should that government perceive itself or its occupation of Palestine as seriously threatened.*

Wider speculation at this point would be foolhardy. But there is no doubt that in invading Iraq the United States opened the doors of hell not only for the Iraqis and the Middle East as a whole but also for its own global imperialist order. The full repercussions of the failure of the U.S. empire in Iraq have yet to be seen and will only become evident in the months and years ahead.


* Michael Klare, “The New Geopolitics,” in John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney, ed., Pox Americana (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004), 51–56.

* For a critique of this new conservative/military history of the war see Robert Buzanco, Masters of War: Military Dissent and Politics in the Vietnam Era (Cambridge University Press, 1996).

* The Pentagon Papers, vol. 4 (Gravel edition) (Boston: Beacon Press), 668; Noam Chomsky, “Foreword” in Peter Limqueco and Peter Weiss, ed., Prevent the Crime of Silence: Reports from the Sessions of the International War Crimes Tribunal founded by Bertrand Russell (London: Penguin, 1971), 19; Dorothy Fosdick, ed., Staying the Course: Henry M. Jackson and National Security (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1987), 190.

* Seymour M. Hersh, Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), 356–60, and The Samson Option: Israel’s Nuclear Arsenal and American Foreign Policy (New York: Random House, 1991).

2005, Volume 56, Issue 08 (January)
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