Eye on the Empire
by Alan Bock

November 25, 1999


I wrote last week about the disappointment Steve Forbes has been in his foreign policy statements – essentially embracing Cold War nostalgia and Great Power clichés about the continuing need for the United States to be wary of enemies and especially to pursue a needlessly provocative policy toward China. Last week George Dubya weighed in with what was billed as a major statement of his vision for American foreign policy.

The most disappointing aspect of the speech is the intellectually empty beating of the dead horse of some mythical yearning for Fortress America that the international crusaders seem to descry as a foreboding threat to their desire to find a new crusade with which to prove once again America's greatness. In this Dubya trots out pretty much the same straw man President Clinton, Sandy Berger, Steve Forbes and other keepers of the imperialist flame describe.

The United States, in this version of the correlation of domestic political forces, is at the height of its power and potential to do good in the world. Yet certain narrow-minded, probably bigoted, overly nationalistic, foreigner-hating shortsighted jingoists want to create a "proud tower'' of isolationism and turn the country into a hermit republic that takes no account of and has no commerce with the world beyond its borders. We must beat back these dangerous (although seldom identified unless named Pat) elements who would only bring on a "shortcut to chaos,'' and "a stagnant America and a savage world'' as Dubya put it.


Perhaps we can understand the impulse to denounce but never to engage the straw demon of isolationism. Most of these people were educated in American colleges where, unless they encountered extremely unusual instructors, they absorbed the conventional wisdom about America's role in the world. The country kept to itself during the 19th century but under the Sainted Woodrow it began to grow up, to mature, to take its proper place in the world of nation-states.

Yes, there were a few reactionary elements who resisted the enlightened path of joining the League of Nations after the War to End All Wars. And before the Blessed Franklin got us into WWII there were some scattered America First types who couldn't understand that America was ordained to save the world and lead the world into the paths of righteous engagement. But they disappeared after Pearl Harbor and aside from a few neo-Nazis they haven't been heard from since. All you need to know about them is that they were wrong. It is certainly not necessary for a student of American history actually to read or otherwise encounter any of the material they put out.

The keepers of American foreign policy have been remarkably successful at casting any and all opponents of any imperialist adventure as benighted, ignorant furriner-haters who do not need to be taken seriously. Hardly any American college student has ever read anything put out by the America First Committee or even been informed that it included any elements beyond Ku Klux Klan types. So it's not surprising that they continue to believe that they can defeat the critics with simple demonization rather than by engaging their actual arguments.


The problem – well, so far it's only been a minor problem – for those who want to continue the endless search for dragons to slay and enemies to engage is that with few exceptions the knuckle-dragging isolationist image doesn't fit many of the critics of endless engagement. Most of us have been curious about other countries from an early age and have avidly sought out opportunities to travel and to meet people from other lands. Some of us advocate not only complete free trade – unlimited, unregulated commerce and travel, unencumbered by bureaucratic barriers and nuisances like passports and visas – but support open borders and immigration limited only by economic opportunity.

Actually, my bow to reality on the immigration issue is that I would set up welcome stations on the borders where newcomers would be checked for infectious diseases or membership in terrorist organizations (real ones, not opposition political parties in tyrannies). Then they would be asked to sign a promise not to apply for any help from the government (i.e., taxpayers of long standing) for a certain period of time – five years, ten years, 200 years, I'm open to negotiation – on pain of instant deportation. Those willing to accept these conditions would be welcome.

When I catch the image the constant interventionists want to paint of backward, foreigner-hating isolationists, then, I have a hard time recognizing myself or most critics of the American Imperium. Instead, my experience is that most of them are open-minded, inquisitive lovers of liberty and diversity who somewhere along the intellectual road stumbled into the insight that war and mobilization tend not to be the most fruitful environment for liberty and diversity to flourish.


In addition to reasonably systematic, self-conscious critics of political interventionism, I sense a growing if sometimes unfocused and inchoate sentiment in the United States that it shouldn't be necessary for the country to be, as Cato Institute foreign policy analyst Ted Carpenter has put it "a global armed social worker or the world's 911 number.'' This sentiment has been fed in recent years by the unfocused, unrealistic and fuzzily sentimental excuse for a foreign policy – let's commit our soldiers wherever ethnic hostility is detected, indeed! – pursued in recent years by the hapless, hopelessly ignorant and careless Clinton administration.

So those who detect a threat to the policy of globalism and meddling might be right. And, truth to tell, their tactic of beating on the straw man of knuckle-dragging isolationists has been effective enough to date and could well be the best bet – from a propaganda perspective if not from the perspective of honest intellectual engagement – at keeping the critics marginalized. It certainly wouldn't do to have Justin Raimondo or Ted Carpenter on "Nightline'' offering coherent and in formed criticism next time a war or occupation is imminent. That would just place them on the same plane as the anointed wise men of foreign policy.


Please forgive me one rant before I enjoy a turkey that nourishes rather than the turkeys who nauseate. During Emperor Clinton's triumphant progress through the scene of the Balkan crimes this week, both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times (the two papers besides my own I check every day in paper form) have featured front-page color photos of President Clinton basking in glory and being acclaimed as a visionary world leader.

There was the Great Leader offering his wisdom and beneficence to the cheering throngs at the marvelously picturesque Cathedral of Alexander Nevsky in Sofia, Bulgaria. The next day, he was pictured in both papers – slightly different poses – surrounded by apparently adoring American troops basking in his reflected glory. One may hope those soldiers were shunned by their comrades for their toadyistic behavior, but it's difficult to be confident even of that. Was Stalin ever more glorified or worshipped in Pravda? Was the Cult of Personality ever more obviously promoted by the press actually controlled by the government during Hitler's day? Was any Roman Emperor more adulated by a supposedly independent, skeptical and democratic press? American culture doesn't even provide a slave to ride in the chariot next to Caesar and whisper in his ear as the crowds roar in adoration, "Remember, you are only a mortal.''

To be sure, the New York Times did some reasonably good reporting on the sorry conditions in Kosovo; it wasn't hard to read between the lines to detect utter failure of the NATO mission even as Emperor Bill was proclaiming it a triumph. But the pictures make a more important impression in a culture that, we old fossils must admit, is increasingly visual and decreasingly oriented to writing or even to verbalization.

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