Archive for October 1st, 2008

The Empire Wobbles

The term “empire” rubs many people the wrong way.  To some it reflects the idea of moving from a Republic to some kind of authoritarian rule.  To others it connotes a kind of raw grab at territory, annexing and colonizing lands to expand a state’s territory.  To call America an empire is to many an insult against the US, an attempt to denigrate a state that has stood for freedom and democracy for over 200 years.

Yet as I look at the world through vaguely detached eyes, I cannot help but think the term is appropriate.  First, imperialism is not necessarily raw land grabs.  It can include control and extensive influence over foreign governments.  Given that the US spends half of the world’s military budget, has 320,000 troops stationed in over 120 countries, and has dominated world economic institutions and financial markets, the US clearly has global clout that goes beyond national defense.  Americans think of wars as something we fight in some distant land, and were shocked to get even a taste of that kind of destruction on 9-11.  Whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia, Panama, Grenada, Vietnam, or wherever, we have been willing to fight in wars that do not involve major threats to the country.

Rome, it was claimed, never fought an offensive war.  Rome’s empire spread because of barbarian threats, and the need to defeat foes jealous of Rome’s power and wealth.  Moreover, Pax Romana, the Roman peace, was beneficial for the conquered lands, bringing wealth, prosperity, stability and a better life.  This was summed up in a delightful way in the film The Life of Brian by Monty Python, as the Jewish revolutionaries plotted against Rome.  When Reg asks “what has Rome ever done for us,” a long list of contributions are cited, leading to this quote:

All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

Similarly, Americans do not see their country as offensive or aggressive.  To most Americans, such a claim looks downright un-American.  Yet those of us who have spent extensive time abroad and who follow foreign media realize that from the perspective of the rest of the world, the US is a very aggressive, militarist, and myopic state.  The Europeans are amazed by how easily we embrace the idea of military action, apparently unbothered by the harm it does, especially when modern war kills far more civilians than military personnel.  We feel our own pain immensely on days like 9-11, but rationalize the pain we cause others — pain far greater than that felt by us back in 2001.   We rationalize the violence as ‘kicking Saddam’s butt,’ or ‘fighting terrorism,’ and ‘spreading democracy,’ without really understanding what’s going on.  We create a myth of an heroic, peace loving America trying to spread liberty in a dangerous world, a view much like that of ancient Rome.

And, like Rome, the view is not completely wrong.  The US did help rebuild Europe and Japan after WWII, and while I believe the threat from the Soviet Union was overplayed, given the context and the evil of Communism, it’s understandable that the US built a massive military machine, and expanded its stretch across the globe.   I remember when I worked in Washington in the 80s, during the Reagan Administration.  I worked in the Russell Senate office building, and would walk from the Capitol South Metro station past the Capital and Supreme Court to my building.  I loved the evenings, as the sun glistened off the marble, perfectly manicured lawns, creating a sense of majesty and importance.   I also recall getting the sense that the “inside the beltway” crowd was very much focused on power.  Both political parties (it may surprise those who know my political views today, but I worked for a Republican Senator) got into the power games, and I ultimately quit because of my distaste for that kind of lifestyle.  But it was intoxicating.  There was a sense that the US was a Superpower with great responsibilities, and an inherent morality in our actions.

But, of course, power is addictive and can blind people to its consequences.  Publics want to believe their country is great and good, and thus buy the myths without much critical thought.  Any criticism of the US is considered wrong by many; it is simply accepted as a given that we are a bastion of freedom.   Yet somehow that power corrupted us.  It corrupted us as a people, not only moving us away from the desire to build that “city on a hill” and not intervene in the power games of the rest of the planet, but addicted us to the spoils of our massive power — consumerism, cheap oil, and the ability to run up huge debts and trade deficits without having the consequences normal countries face.

The end of the Cold War saw this confidence become hubris, as the US dreamed of using its power to create what President Bush the Elder called a “new world order,” through military means if necessary.  President Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeline Albright infamously said “what is the use of a big army if you don’t use it,” (in the past the use was to deter action against us), and President Bush responded to 9-11 with a bold effort to democratize the Mideast.  At one point Gen. Wesley Clark saw plans to invade up to seven countries within five years, so certain was the Bush White House that US power would work, and that countries would accept democracy if accompanied by American aid.   The result: imperial overstretch, and a corruption of the very values that made us great in the first place.

The US military is overstretched, with families suffering multiple deployments, leading to real hardship and often the break up of military families.  In Iraq violence is down and people hope we can leave soon — but what was gained?  Iraq saw massive death and destruction, Islamic rule is often as tyrannical as Saddam’s, and the country is only nominally a democracy, with different ethnic groups controlling various sections of the state.  The cost: so far about $700 billion (the price of a Wall Street bailout!)  In Afghanistan things are even bleaker, with the US military bluntly saying a surge there can’t work, and that we may lose in Afghanistan — especially as the other NATO forces consider pulling out.

Meanwhile, as noted in “Bailout Blues,” the US economy is starting to finally pay the price from years of imbalances and overcommitments.  Yet the politicians can’t agree on how to solve the problem.  Finger pointing abounds, even to the point that some people claim that House Republicans took a position on one of the most dangerous crises facing the country in recent history because they didn’t like a speech given by the Speaker of the House.  Pettiness over principle.  The empire, it seems, is wobbling.

Ominous signs are in our future.  Global warming, oil shortages as oil production starts to decline, a deep recession due to the credit crisis, and the danger of terrorism remains real and intense. The fears of 2001 have dissipated since no other major strike has taken place on US soil, but there were eight years between the last two attempts on the World Trade Center, and the dangers remain real. Not only haven’t we done enough to secure our borders and ports, but each year technology improves for terrorist tactics, and with our economy weakened, an effective hit could push us even deeper into recession or depression.

Some say Barack Obama represents the kind of change that can put this country back on track. Indeed, his popularity seems to reflect a national sense that we’ve gone the wrong direction. I think, though, it’s wrong to see this as something that can be fixed simply by changing leaders. We need to re-connect with our core values. We need to recognize that it is not un-American to question our penchant for militarism, our choice of war as an instrument of policy (whether by Clinton or Bush), and our national greed and excessive consumption.

We are not Rome in 476 on the verge of collapse, but Rome in the corrupt first century BC, when internal weakness led to the capacity of Julius Ceasar to gain dictatorial control. That saved the Empire, but at the cost of its values. It set up an ignoble end for a great people. We need to avoid going that route, and remember why America succeeded in the first place. Principle needs to gain prominence over power. People need to become more important than stuff. We need to take our values seriously — or else we could lose them.  And losing our values is worse than losing a war, suffering a recession, or losing power.