Jonathan Schell, who ended his Nation magazine
column, "Letter From Ground Zero," last
February, now takes up "The Crisis of the Republic" in what will be a series
of periodic, longer essays appearing in the Nation under that rubric.
For all its wealth, its power, its dreams of military domination over the last
half-century-plus, the United States, Schell argues in this introduction to
his new series, has misunderstood the nature of power in our time and so has
become "the fool of history." Our tale, as he tells it, is not one of imperial
success followed by crisis, but of a deep and abiding kind of failure; nor is
it a tale of a successful empire now in crisis, but of a failed empire now in
a state of disarray.
In his seminal book, The
Unconquerable World, he suggested just why this was so by tracing the
way, from the late 18th century on, the globe experienced an ever upward ratcheting
of the means of destruction and of the imperial violence that went with it until,
with the coming of nuclear weapons, we reached beyond the limits of power, even
of the planet itself. At the same time, what also ratcheted ever upward was
a kind of "people power," deeply connected to the idea of national sovereignty
and independence, that simply would not (and still will not) give way. It is
in this context that the United States is "too late for empire."
Thanks to the kindness of the editors of the Nation
magazine TomDispatch posts this important essay. Tom
Too Late for Empire
by Jonathan Schell
[This article, which will appear in the August 14/21 issue of The
Nation, is posted here with the kind permission of the editors of that
Anyone who wants to write about the constitutional crisis unfolding
in the United States today faces a peculiar problem at the outset. There is
a large body of observations that at one and the same time have been made
too often and yet not often enough – too often because they have been repeated
to the point of tedium for a minority ready to listen but not often enough
because the general public has yet to consider them seriously enough. The
problem for a self-respecting writer is that the act of writing almost in
its nature promises something new. Repetition is not really writing but propaganda
– not illumination for the mind but a mental beating. Here are some examples
of the sort of observations I have in mind, at once over-familiar and unheard:
President George W. Bush sent American troops into Iraq to find
weapons of mass destruction, but they weren't there.
He said that Saddam Hussein's regime had given help to al-Qaeda, but it had
He therefore took the nation to war on the basis of falsehoods.
His administration says that the torture at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere
has been the work of a few bad apples in the military, whereas in fact abuses
were sanctioned at the highest levels of the executive branch in secret memos.
His administration lambastes leakers, but its own officials illegally
leaked the name of a CIA operative, Valerie Plame, in order to politically
discredit her husband.
He flatly stated to the public that all wiretaps of Americans were
ordered pursuant to court warrants, whereas in fact he was authorizing and
repeatedly reauthorizing warrantless wiretaps.
These wiretaps violated a specific law of Congress forbidding them.
His administration has asserted a right to imprison Americans as well as foreigners
indefinitely without the habeas corpus hearings required by law.
Wars of aggression, torture, domestic spying, and arbitrary arrest are the
hallmarks of dictatorship, yet Congress, run by the president's party, has refused
to conduct full investigations into either the false WMD claims, or the abuses
and torture, or the warrantless wiretaps, or the imprisonment without habeas
When Congress passed a bill forbidding torture and the president signed it,
he added a "signing statement" implying a right to disregard its provisions
when they conflicted with his interpretation of his powers.
The president's secret legal memos justifying the abuses and torture are based
on a conception of the powers of the executive that gives him carte blanche
to disregard specific statutes as well as international law in the exercise
of self-granted powers to the commander in chief nowhere mentioned in the Constitution.
If accepted, these claims would fundamentally alter the structure of the American
government, upsetting the system of checks and balances and nullifying fundamental
liberties, including Fourth Amendment guarantees against unreasonable searches
and seizures and guarantees of due process. As such, they embody apparent failures
of the president to carry out his oath to "preserve, protect, and defend the
Constitution of the United States."
Opposing One-Party Government
The need to repeat these familiar points, as I have just done (while
also begging the indulgence of the reader, as I do), is itself a symptom of
the crisis. The same concentration of governmental and other power in the
hands of a single party that led to the abuses stands in the way of action
to address them. The result is a problem of political sanitation. The garbage
heaps up in the public square, visible to all and stinking to high heaven,
but no garbage truck arrives to take it away. The lawbreaking is exposed,
but no legislative body responds. The damning facts pour out, and protests
are made, but little is done. Then comes the urge to repeat.
The dilemma is reflected in microcosm in the news media, especially television
– a process particularly on display in the failure to challenge the administration's
deceptive rationale for the Iraq War. The reasons for severe doubt were, at
the very least, available before the war, and they were expounded in many places.
More truthful, contrary voices could and did speak up, especially on the Internet,
the freest of today's media. But they were not widely heard. They were drowned
out by the dominant voices in the mainstream, acceding to the deceptions of
power and their variations and derivatives. All over the world, autocratic-minded
rulers, from Italy's former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to Russia's President
Vladimir Putin, have learned that de facto control of the political content
of television is perhaps the most important lever of power in our day. They
have learned that it does not matter politically if 15 percent or even 25 percent
of the public is well informed as long the majority remains in the dark. The
problem has not been censorship but something very nearly censorship's opposite:
the deafening noise of the official megaphone and its echoes – not the suppression
of truth, still spoken and heard in a narrow circle, but a profusion of lies
and half lies; not too little speech but too much. If you whisper something
to your friend in the front row of a rock concert, you have not been censored,
but neither will you be heard.
The one major breach in the monopoly has been made by the Supreme
Court, especially in its decision in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld requiring application
of the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice to detainees.
The decision's reasoning, if it carries the day in practice, would roll back
many of the usurpations by the executive, which has already claimed that it
will apply the Geneva Conventions to prisoners in U.S. custody (though there
is doubt what this will mean) and will seek a constitutional opinion by the
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court on its wiretapping. When the Supreme
Court speaks, it is more than repetition. It is effective action.
Yet in the last analysis, the outcome of the contest will be decided in the
political arena, where public opinion and, ultimately, voters are the decision-makers.
It's notable that the reaction to the Supreme Court's decision in Hamdan
by one Republican congressional leader was to accuse Democrats who applauded
the decision of wanting "special privileges for terrorists."
One-party monopoly of power is not the only inhibiting factor. Any
oppositionist who is honest will keep in mind that a majority, however narrow,
of Americans voted that one party into power in a series of elections. Especially
important was the presidential election of 2004, when many, though not all,
of the abuses were already known. (And then the election itself was subject
to grave abuses, especially in Ohio.) The weight and meaning of that majority
does not disappear because it was demonstrably misinformed about key matters
of war and peace. It's one thing to oppose an illegitimate concentration of
power in the name of a repressed majority, another to oppose power backed
and legitimated by a majority. In the first case, it will be enough to speak
truth to power; in the second, the main need is to speak truth to one's fellow
As the end is restoring the democratic process, so the means should be democratic.
It's true that since 2004 the president's positive ratings in the polls have
plummeted, but there is no guarantee that this shift in opinion will translate
into Republican defeats in the forthcoming congressional election, and a renewal
of Republican majorities in both houses of Congress would add another stamp
of approval to the Bush policies, however misguided.
The mechanisms inhibiting opposition to state power, especially
when backed by electoral majorities, are not something new. Even in the freest
countries there is at all times a conventional wisdom, which may wander more
or less far from reality. Sometimes it strays into a fantasyland. Then marginal
voices (which of course are not correct merely because they are marginal)
have a special responsibility to speak up, and sometimes they shift the mainstream
– as happened, for instance, in the 1960s regarding the Vietnam War and legal
segregation. For the better part of a century, segregation fit squarely within
the banks of the American mainstream. Then it didn't.
A Persistent Pathology
As the mere mention of Vietnam suggests, the repetition dilemma also has causes
that go deeper into the past. I embarked on journalism in 1966 as a reporter
in Vietnam. The experience led, naturally and seamlessly, to a decade of writing
about the war, the opposition to the war and, finally, when the war "came home,"
to the constitutional crisis of the Nixon years and its resolution via Nixon's
resignation under threat of impeachment. The war and the impeachment were connected
at every point. It wasn't just that Nixon's wiretapping was directed against
Daniel Ellsberg, war critic and leaker of the Vietnam-era Pentagon Papers; or
that the "plumbers" outfit that carried out the Watergate break-in was founded
to spy on, disrupt and attack war critics; or that Nixon's persistence in trying
to win the war even as he withdrew American troops from it drove him into the
paranoia that led him to draw up an "enemies list" and sponsor subversions of
the electoral process – it was that his entire go-it-alone, imperial conception
of the presidency originated in his pursuit of his war policy in secrecy and
without congressional involvement.
And now, 30 years later, we find ourselves facing an uncannily similar combination
of misconceived war abroad and constitutional crisis at home. Again a global
crusade (then it was the Cold War, now it is the "war on terror") has given
birth to a disastrous war (then Vietnam, now Iraq); again a president has responded
by breaking the law; and again it falls to citizens, journalists, judges, justices,
and others to trace the connections between the overreaching abroad and the
overreaching at home. In consequence, not only are we condemned to repeat ourselves
for the duration of the current crisis, but a remarkable number of those repetitions
are already repetitions of what was said 30 years ago.
Consider, for instance, the following passage from a speech called "The Price
of Empire," by the great dissenter against the Vietnam War Sen. William Fulbright.
"Before the Second World War our world role was a potential role; we were
important in the world for what we could do with our power, for the leadership
we might provide, for the example we might set. Now the choices are almost gone:
we are almost the world's self-appointed policeman; we are almost the world
defender of the status quo. We are well on our way to becoming a traditional
great power – an imperial nation if you will – engaged in the exercise of power
for its own sake, exercising it to the limit of our capacity and beyond, filling
every vacuum and extending the American 'presence' to the farthest reaches of
the earth. And, as with the great empires of the past, as the power grows, it
is becoming an end in itself, separated except by ritual incantation from its
initial motives, governed, it would seem, by its own mystique, power without
philosophy or purpose. That describes what we have almost become…."
Is there a single word – with the possible exception of "almost"
at the end of the paragraph – that fails to apply to the country's situation
today? Or consider this passage from Fulbright's The Arrogance of Power
with the Iraq venture in mind:
"Traditional rulers, institutions, and ways of life have crumbled under
the fatal impact of American wealth and power but they have not been replaced
by new institutions and new ways of life, nor has their breakdown ushered in
an era of democracy and development."
Recalling these and other passages from Fulbright and other critics
of the Vietnam era, one is again tempted to wonder why we should bother to
say once more what has already been said so well so many times before. Perhaps
we should just quote rather than repeat – cite, not write.
Of course, people like to point out that Iraq is not Vietnam. They are right
insofar as those two countries are concerned. For instance, today's anarchic
Iraq, a formerly unified country now on or over the edge of civil war, is wholly
different from yesterday's resolute Vietnam, divided into north and south but
implacably bent on unity and independence from foreign rule. And of course the
two eras could scarcely be more different. Most important, the collapse of the
Soviet Union has effectuated a full-scale revolution in the international order.
The number of the world's superpowers has been cut back from two to one, China
has become an economic powerhouse, market economics has spread across the planet,
the industrial age has been pushed aside by the information age, global warming
has commenced, and rock music has been replaced by rap. Yet in the face of all
this, American policies have shown an astonishing sameness, and this is what
is disturbing. In our world of racing change, only the pathologies of American
power seem to remain constant. Why?
The Pitiful Helpless Giant
Perhaps a clue can be found in the famous speech that Sen. Joseph McCarthy
gave in Wheeling, West Virginia, in February 1950. This was the occasion on
which he announced his specious list of Communists in the State Department,
launching what soon was called McCarthyism. He also shared some thoughts on
America's place in the world.
The allied victory in World War II had occurred only five years before. No
nation approached the United States in wealth, power, or global influence. Yet
McCarthy's words were a dirge for lost American greatness. He said, "At war's
end we were physically the strongest nation on earth and, at least potentially,
the most powerful intellectually and morally. Ours could have been the honor
of being a beacon in the desert of destruction, a shining living proof that
civilization was not yet ready to destroy itself. Unfortunately, we have failed
miserably and tragically to arise to the opportunity." On the contrary, McCarthy
strikingly added, "we find ourselves in a position of impotency."
By what actions had the United States thrown away greatness? McCarthy blamed
not mighty forces without but traitors within, to whom he assigned an almost
magical power to sap the strength of the country. America's putative decline
occurred "not because our only powerful potential enemy has sent men to invade
our shores, but rather because of the traitorous actions of those who have been
treated so well by this nation." And, he raved on in a later speech, "we believe
that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster. This
must be the product of a great conspiracy, a conspiracy on a scale so immense
as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of
infamy so black that, when it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever
deserving of the maledictions of all honest men."
McCarthy seemed to look at the United States through a kind of double
lens. At one moment the nation was a colossus, all-powerful, without peer
or rival; at the next moment a midget, cringing in panic, delivered over to
its enemies, "impotent." Like the genie in Aladdin's bottle, the United States
seemed to be a kind of magical being, first filling the sky, able to grant
any wish, but a second later stoppered and helpless in its container. Which
it was to be depended not on any enemy, all of whom could easily be laid low
if only America so chose, but on Americans at home, who prevented this unleashing
of might. If Americans cowered, it supposedly was mainly before other Americans.
Get them out of the way, and the United States could rule the globe. The right-wing
intellectual James Burnham named the destination to which this kind of thinking
led. "The reality," he wrote, "is that the only alternative to the communist
World Empire is an American Empire, which will be, if not literally worldwide
in formal boundaries, capable of exercising decisive world control."
McCarthy's double vision of the United States must have resonated deeply, for
it turned out to have remarkable staying power. Consider, for example, the following
statement by the super-hawkish columnist Charles Krauthammer, penned 51 years
later, in March 2001 (six months before Sept. 11). Again we hear the King Kong-like
chest-beating, even louder than before. For the end of the Cold War, Krauthammer
wrote, had made the United States "the dominant power in the world, more dominant
than any since Rome." And so, just as McCarthy claimed in 1950, "America is
in a position to reshape norms, alter expectations and create new realities."
But again there is a problem. And it is the same one – the enemies within. Thus
again comes the cry of frustration, the anxiety that this utopia, to be had
for the taking, will melt away like a dream, that the genie will be stuffed
back into its bottle. For the "challenge to unipolarity is not from the outside
but from the inside. The choice is ours. To impiously paraphrase Benjamin Franklin:
History has given you an empire, if you will keep it." The remedy? "Unapologetic
and implacable demonstrations of will."
We find expressions of the same double vision – a kind of anxiety-ridden triumphalism
– again and again in iconic phrases uttered in the half-century between McCarthy
and Krauthammer. Walt Rostow, chair of the State Department's Policy Planning
Council, articulated a version of it in 1964, on the verge of the Johnson administration's
escalation of the Vietnam War, when he spoke in a memo to Secretary of State
Dean Rusk of "the real margin of influence … which flows from the simple fact
that at this stage of history, we are the greatest power in the world – if only
we behave like it."
Madeleine Albright, then UN ambassador, gave voice to a similar
frustration when she turned to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin
Powell and asked, "What's the point of having this superb military you are
always talking about if we can't use it?" But it was Richard Nixon who gave
the double vision its quintessential expression when, in 1970, at the pinnacle
of America's involvement in Vietnam, he stated, "If, when the chips are down,
the world's most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like
a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will
threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world."
For Nixon, as for McCarthy and Krauthammer, the principal danger
was on the home front. As he said on another occasion, "It is not our power
but our will and character that is being tested tonight. The question all
Americans must ask and answer tonight is this: Does the richest and strongest
nation in the history of the world have the character to meet a direct challenge
by a group which rejects every effort to win a just peace?" And, even more
explicitly, "Because let us understand: North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate
the United States. Only Americans can do that."
The question is how the United States could be a "giant" yet pitiful
and helpless, the "richest and strongest" yet unable to have its way, in possession
of the most superb military force in history yet unable to use it, the "greatest
power the world had ever known" yet at the same time paralyzed. Why, if the
United States has had no peer in wealth and weaponry, has it for more than
a half-century been persistently, incurably complaining of weakness, paralysis,
"Losing" Country X
McCarthy, of course, presented the "loss" of China as Exhibit A
in his display of the deeds of his gallery of traitors. For example, in the
Wheeling speech, he specifically mentioned John Service, of the State Department's
China desk, and charged that he "sent official reports back to the State Department
urging that we torpedo our ally Chiang Kai-shek and stating, in effect, that
communism was the best hope of China." By such false accusations – including
the spurious allegation about the Communists in the State Department – did
McCarthy transpose the "lost" war in China to the domestic sphere, where the
phantom saboteurs of American global hegemony were supposedly at work. Soon,
the Communist tactic of the purge was adopted by the American government,
with the result that many of those most knowledgeable about Asia, such as
Service, were driven out of government.
As has often been pointed out, whether the United States "lost China"
depends on whether you think the United States ever had it. The question has
lasting importance because the alleged loss of one country or another – China,
Laos, Vietnam, Chile, Iran, Nicaragua, Iraq – became a leitmotif of American
politics, especially at election time. In each of these cases, the United
States "possessed" the countries in question (and thus was in a position to
"lose" them) only insofar as it somehow laid claim to control the destinies
of peoples on a global basis, or, as Fulbright said, an imperial basis. But
if there is one clear lesson that the history of recent empires has taught,
it is that modern peoples have both the will and the capacity to reject imperial
rule and assert control over their own destinies. Less interested in the contest
between East and West than in running their own countries, they yearned for
self-determination, and they achieved it. The British and French imperialists
were forced to learn this lesson over the course of a century. The Soviet
Union took a little longer, and itself collapsed in the process. The United
States, determined in the period in question to act in an imperial fashion,
has been the dunce in the class, and indeed under the current administration
has put forward imperial claims that dwarf those of imperial Britain at its
height. It is only because, in country after country, the United States has
attempted the impossible abroad that it has been led to blame people at home
for the failure.
Fortunately, American involvement in China in the 1940s was restricted
to aid and advice, and virtually no fighting between Americans and Mao's forces
occurred. Now that the price of the military intervention in Vietnam – a
much smaller country – is known, we can only shudder to imagine what intervention
in China would have cost. Perhaps one of the few positive things that can
be said about the Vietnam disaster is that if the United States was determined
to fight a counterinsurgency war, it was better to do it in Vietnam than in
China. But even without intervention, the price of China's defection from
the American camp was high. The causes of McCarthyism were manifold, but in
a very real sense, what the country got instead of war with Mao was the "war"
at home that was McCarthyism.
The true causes of the Nationalist government's fall – its own incompetence
and corruption, leading to wholesale loss of legitimacy in the eyes of its own
people – were expunged from consciousness, and the lurid fantasy of State Department
traitors and conspirators was concocted in their place. Then the delusion that
Chiang could return from what then was called the island of Formosa (the Portuguese
name for Taiwan) to retake the mainland was fostered by the China lobby. Delusion
ran wild. Myths were created to take the place of unfaceable truths. The internal
conspiracy to destroy the United States, said McCarthy, was supposedly headed
by, of all people, Truman's secretary of state, Gen. George Marshall. "It was
Marshall, with Acheson and Vincent eagerly assisting," he said, "who created
the China policy which, destroying China, robbed us of a great and friendly
ally, a buffer against the Soviet imperialism with which we are now at war."
And he added for good measure, "We have declined so precipitously in relation
to the Soviet Union in the last six years. How much swifter may be our fall
into disaster with Marshall at the helm?"
Another event, scarcely more than a month before Mao declared the existence
of the People's Republic of China, also fueled McCarthy's theme of thrown-away
greatness. On Aug. 29, 1949, the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb –
Joe-1, named after Joseph Stalin. At once, in an experience strangely parallel
to the loss of China from America's sphere of interest, intoxicating dreams
of atomic monopoly and the lasting military superiority that was thought to
go with it shriveled up. Not superiority but stalemate was suddenly the outlook
– not dominance but the stasis of the "balance of terror."
The outlines of the new limitations soon took shape in the long, wearying,
poorly understood, and publicly disliked Korean War, in which America's atomic
arsenal, whose use was considered but rejected, was no help. The theme of thwarted
American greatness was sounded again, when Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who proposed
using atomic weapons in Korea, announced, "There can be no substitute for victory,"
and was fired by Truman for insubordination. Meanwhile, a connection with the
enemy within was discovered when Soviet spying on the Manhattan Project came
to light. Scientists had long known that there could be no "secret" of the bomb
– that the relevant science was irretrievably available to all – and that the
Soviet Union would be able to build one. The Soviet timetable had indeed been
speeded up by the spying, but now it seemed to McCarthy and others that the
domestic traitors were the prime agents of the sudden, apparent reversal of
American fortune. (Truman sought to compensate for the loss of the atomic monopoly
with his prompt decision to build the H-bomb.)
The full implications of the ensuing nuclear standoff sank in slowly.
As the Soviet Union gradually built up its arsenal, American strategic thinkers
and policy-makers awakened to some unpleasant discoveries about nuclear arms.
The bomb, too, had a distinctly genie-like quality of looking formidable at
one instant but useless the next. Even in the days of American nuclear monopoly,
between 1945 and the first Soviet explosion of 1949, nuclear weapons had proved
a disappointing military instrument. Stalin had simply declared that nuclear
weapons were for scaring people with "weak nerves," and acted accordingly.
And once the monopoly was broken, no use of nuclear weapons could be planned
without facing the prospect of retaliation.
During the 1950s, Dwight Eisenhower tried to squeeze what benefit he could
out of the United States' lingering numerical nuclear superiority with his "massive
retaliation" policy, but its prescription of threatening nuclear annihilation
to gain advantage in far-flung local struggles was never quite believable, perhaps
even by its practitioners. By the late 1950s, a new generation of strategists
was awakening to the full dimensions of a central paradox of the nuclear age:
Possession of nuclear arsenals did not empower but rather paralyzed their owners.
Henry Kissinger remarked, "The more powerful the weapons, the greater the reluctance
to use them," and fretted about "how our power can give impetus to our policy
rather than paralyze it."
Here at the core of the riddle of American power in the nuclear age was the
very image of the pitiful, helpless giant, a figure grown weak through the very
excess of his strength. But the source of this weakness, which was very real,
had nothing to do with any domestic cowards, not to speak of traitors, or any
political event; it lay in the revolutionary consequences for all military power
of the invention of nuclear arms, even if – with a hint of defensiveness, perhaps
– the United States now called itself a "superpower." (The H-bomb was first
called "the super.") Here was a barrier to the application of force that no
cultivation of "will" could change or overcome.
But the policy-makers did not accept the verdict of paralysis without
a struggle. Within the precincts of high strategy, the "nuclear priesthood"
mounted a sustained, complex intellectual insurrection against this distasteful
reality of the nuclear age. Even in the face of the undoubted reality that
if the arsenals were used, "mutual assured destruction" would result, they
looked for room to maneuver. One line of attack was the "counterforce" strategy
of targeting the nuclear forces rather than the society of the foe. The hope
was to preserve the possibility of some kind of victory, or at least of relative
military advantage, from the general ruin of nuclear war. Another line of
attack was advocacy of "limited war," championed by Kissinger and others.
The strategists reasoned that although "general war" might be unwinnable,
limited war, of the kind just then brewing in Vietnam, could be fought and
won. Perhaps not all war between nuclear adversaries had been paralyzed. Thus,
the impotent omnipotence of the nuclear stalemate became one more paradoxical
argument, in addition to those drummed into the public mind by McCarthy and
his heirs, in favor of American engagement in counterinsurgency struggles.
And this time the United States, unprotected by the prudence of a George Marshall,
did go to war.
The results are the ones we know. American military might was no
more profitable when used against rebellious local populations in limited
wars than it was in general, nuclear wars. This time, the lessons were learned,
and for a while they stuck: Peoples, even of small countries, are powerful
within their own borders; they have the means to resist foreign occupation
successfully; military force will not lead them to change their minds; the
issues are therefore essentially political, and in this contest, foreign invaders
are fatally disadvantaged from the outset; if they are not willing to stay
forever, they lose.
The Decline of Power
By the late 1970s, adverse experience sufficient to illuminate the utterly
novel historical situation of the United States in the late 20th century was
in hand. Undoubtedly, it had the biggest heap of weapons of any country. Without
question, they were the most varied, sophisticated, and effective in the world
at their job of killing people and blowing things up. The question was what
the United States could accomplish with this capacity.
Certainly, if a conventional foe lacking nuclear arms arrayed itself in battle
against the United States, it could be handily defeated. That was the mistake
that Saddam Hussein made in 1990 when he sent his army out into the Kuwaiti
desert, where it was pulverized from the air. But few wars in fact conformed
to this conventional pattern any longer. Of far greater importance was what
happened to two kinds of war that had historically been the most important –
wars of imperial conquest and general, great-power wars, such as the First and
Second World Wars. During the 20th century the first kind had become hopeless
"quagmires," owing to the aroused will of local peoples everywhere who, collectively,
had put an end to the age of imperialism. The second were made unfightable and
unwinnable by the nuclear revolution. It was these two limitations on the usefulness
of military force, one acting at the base of the international system, the other
at its apex, that delimited the superiority of the superpower. (The paradox
of impotent omnipotence was even more pronounced for the other superpower, the
Soviet Union, which actually disappeared.)
Very possibly, the United States, with all its resources, would
have been the sort of globe-straddling empire that Joseph McCarthy wanted
it to be had it risen to preeminence in an earlier age. It was the peculiar
trajectory of the United States, born in opposition to empire, to wind up
making its own bid for empire only after the age of imperialism was over.
Though it's hard to shed a tear, you might say that there was a certain unfairness
in America's timing. All the ingredients of past empires were there – the
wealth, the weapons, the power, hard and soft. Only the century was wrong.
The United States was not, could not be, and cannot now be a new Rome, much
less greater than Rome, because it cannot do what Rome did. It cannot, in
a post-imperial age, conquer other countries and lastingly absorb them into
a great empire; it cannot, in the nuclear age, not even today, fight and win
wars against its chief global rivals, who still, after all, possess nuclear
Even tiny, piteous, brutalized, famine-ridden North Korea, more
a cult than a country, can deter the United States with its puny putative
arsenal. The United States, to be sure, is a great power by any measure, surely
the world's greatest, yet that power is hemmed in by obstacles peculiar to
our era. The mistake has been not so much to think that the power of the United
States is greater than it is as to fail to realize that power itself, whether
wielded by the United States or anyone else – if conceived in terms of military
force – has been in decline. By imagining otherwise, the United States has
become the fool of force – and the fool of history.
In this larger context the repeated constitutional crises of the
last half-century assume an altered aspect. The conventional understanding
is that an excess of power abroad brings abuses at home. The classic citation
is Rome, whose imperial forces, led by Julius Caesar, returning from foreign
conquest, crossed the river Rubicon into the homeland and put an end to the
republic. (Thus both the proponents of American empire and its detractors
can cite Rome.) But that has not been the American story. Rome and would-be
Rome are not the same. Empire and the fantasy of empire are not the same.
It is rather the repeatedly failed bid for imperial sway that has
corrupted. It was not triumph but loss – of China, of the atomic monopoly,
among other developments – that precipitated the McCarthyite assault on liberty
at home. It was persistent failure in the Vietnam War, already a decade old
and deeply unpopular, that led an embattled, isolated, nearly demented Richard
Nixon to draw up his enemies list, illegally spy on his domestic opposition,
obstruct justice when his misdeeds became known, ramble drunkenly in the Oval
Office about using nuclear weapons and ultimately mount an assault on the
entire constitutional system of checks and balances. And it is today an unpopular
President Bush, unable either to win the Iraq War or to extricate himself
from it, who has launched his absolutist assault on the Constitution.
Power corrupts, says the old saw. But is power the right word to
use in the face of so much failure? The sometimes suggested alternate – that
weakness corrupts – seems equally appropriate. In a manner of speaking perhaps
both saws are true, for in terms of military might the United States is unrivaled,
yet in terms of capacity to get things done with that might, it so often proves
weak – even, at times, impotent, as McCarthy said. The pattern is not the
old Roman one in which military conquest breeds arrogance and arrogance stokes
ambition, which leads to usurpation at home. Rather, in the case of the United
States, misunderstanding of its historical moment leads to misbegotten wars;
misbegotten wars lead to military disaster; military disaster leads to domestic
strife and scapegoating; domestic strife and scapegoating lead to usurpation,
which triggers a constitutional crisis. Crises born of strength and success
are different from crises born of failure. Fulbright warned of the corruption
of imperial ambition and the arrogance of power. But we need also to speak
of the corruption of imperial failure, the arrogance of anxiety.
What the true greatness – or true power – of the United States
is or can be for the world in our time is an absorbing question in pressing
need of an answer. Our very conceptions of greatness and power – military,
economic, political, moral – would need searching reconsideration. Those
true powers – especially the economic – also have an "imperial" aspect,
but that is another debate. An advantage of that debate is that it would be
about things that are real. Jettisoning the mirage of military domination
of the globe that has addled so many American brains for more than half a
century and also shunning the panic-stricken fears of impotence that have
accompanied the inevitable frustration of these delusions, the debate would
take realistic stock of the nation's very considerable yet limited resources
and ask what is being done with them, for good or ill, and what should be
done. Perhaps it will still be possible to shoehorn the United States into
a stretched definition of "empire," but it would look nothing like Britain
or Rome. Or perhaps, as I believe, a United States rededicated to its constitutional
traditions and embarked on a cooperative course with other nations would find
that it possesses untapped reserves of political power, though it will take
time for American prestige to recover from Bush's squandering of it.
Until very recently those authentic questions went substantially
unexplored outside scholarly journals, and the country instead busied itself
repairing the imperial illusions so rudely dashed by the Vietnam War. Suppressing
the lessons of the Chinese Revolution had been easy, since the United States
had not fought in China. Getting over the lessons of Vietnam took longer.
Many segments of American society, none more than the military, had learned
them deeply and vowed "never again." (The poignancy of the generals' recent
outspoken statement against the conduct of the war in Iraq lies precisely
in the officers' chagrin that they did indeed let it happen again.)
The lessons were formulated in military terms in the so-called Powell
doctrine, requiring that before military action proceeded there must be a
clear military – not political – objective, that there must be a commitment
to the use of overwhelming force and that there must be an "exit strategy."
Nevertheless, in other quarters the lessons were named a "Vietnam syndrome,"
an illness, and other explanations were brought forward. The lessons of Vietnam
were not so much forgotten as vigorously suppressed, in the name of restoring
the reputation of America's military power. Ronald Reagan said of the Vietnam
military, "They came home without a victory not because they were defeated
but because they were denied a chance to win." After the first Gulf War, President
Bush crowed, "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!"
The country was getting ready for the second Iraq War, which violated every
tenet of the Powell doctrine.
A parallel evolution was occurring in the constitutional domain. The lesson
most of the country learned from Watergate and the forced resignation of Richard
Nixon was that the imperial presidency had grown too strong. (In general, our
imperial-minded presidents have had much more success rolling back freedom at
home than extending it abroad.) Dick Cheney, who had served as chief of staff
for President Gerald Ford, drew an opposite lesson – that the powers others
called imperial were in fact the proper ones for the presidency and had been
eviscerated by the opposition to Vietnam and the Watergate scandal. As he has
put it, "Watergate and a lot of the things around Watergate and Vietnam, both
during the 1970s, served, I think, to erode the authority … the president needs
to be effective, especially in the national security area." Taking the Nixon
presidency as a model rather than a cautionary tale, he sees new usurpation
as restoration. In doing so, he brings an old theme back in new guise – that
American weakness in the world is caused by domestic opponents at home. In his
view, domestic subversion – this time of executive authority, not misguided
imperial ambition – is the country's problem.
Can this pattern be broken? Voices are already being heard advising
that the opposition to the Iraq War and the failed vision it embodies should,
with the next election in mind, now embrace a generalized new readiness to
use force. But that way lies only a new chapter in the sorry history of the
pitiful, helpless giant. The needed lesson is exactly the opposite – to learn
or relearn, or perhaps we must say re-relearn, the lessons regarding the limitations
on the use of force that have been taught and then rejected so many times
in recent decades. Only then will we be able to stop repeating ourselves and,
giving up dreams of imperial grandeur, start saying and doing something new.
Jonathan Schell is The Nation Institute's Harold Willens Peace Fellow. He
is the author of The
Unconquerable World, among many other books.
Copyright 2005 Jonathan Schell
This article will appear in the August 14/21 issue of The