Guest Column



January 21, 2002

When Legions Leave

In one of those speeches so redolent of the classical tradition that you can hardly believe it happened in your own lifetime, the American public were treated, some ten or so years ago, to a truly senatorial disquisition by West Virginia's Robert Byrd. His purpose was to decry the decline, if not fall of American civilization, and to get there he took us back to Rome's sorry fate:

"Vast and admirably organized as the Roman fabric appeared in the provinces and on the frontiers [. . .] rottenness attacked the core of Roman society. The free middle classes of Italy had almost wholly disappeared. Adulation was now the chief function of an obsequious Senate. The people were treated to free bread and circuses, and a rustic yeomanry no longer made up the backbone of the Roman legions. Paid barbarians had become the protectors of Rome. Rome's enemies were no longer on the outside; they were within her bosom.

"Long before [the traditional date for the fall of Rome] 476, the Roman legions had made their final withdrawal from Britain, never to return. Long before 476, the Visigoths established a kingdom of their own in Spain, and the Vandals seized the province of Africa. And long before 476, Attila's Hunnish hordes traveled at will through Rome's frontier provinces and invaded Italy. Even more telling than these military and political signs of decay were the alarms of scholars and social critics."

We can perhaps argue about how important those "alarms" cried out by the Roman equivalents of Gertrude Himmelfarb and Roger Kimball really were, but what we can't – or at least those of us in Britain, and in Spain, and in Africa, can't – dispute is that we knew the empire was over for us when the legions left. If we are to consider the subject of the coming end of American empire with any degree of optimism, what are the chances that Dubya's legions will return home before the new Rome suffers the fate of the old one?

Too often during the "war against terror" the sceptical voices of the right have felt the need to call upon dubious allies like Edward Said to account for the world round them. There are much more useful historical voices we can listen to, and one notable example is the late Nicholas Mansergh, an historian of Britain's imperial decline. One of the key insights of his school was to insist upon the importance of "events on the periphery" to explain why empires act as they do. That is to say, rather than being efficiently run from the centre, most policy decisions are entirely reactive to things that have happened thousands of miles away. Another lesson this school is keen to teach is the importance for any empire of its "willing collaborators": no matter what power the metropolitan state can bring to bear, her imperium ultimately rests upon finding local supporters to prop up that rule.

Well that's as interesting as the price of pork, you might reasonably observe, but what's it got to do with, oh, B52s bombing Afghanistan? Obviously enough, the point is, who's helping the US do this? And once you start "helping" the US in its benevolent mission overseas, how liable are you to escape this particular friendship? That the US needs her friends to carry out her good work is surely evident from the recent importance of Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, and Uzbekistan and Armenia and Azerbaijan, and, of course, good old Britain. A batch of old, uneasy, and freshly minted friends there, but does one ever get to forego friendship with America?

Historically the answer has been no, or not very often at any rate. One country that knows all too well the cost of "benevolent assimilation" with the US is the Philippines, and indeed, she stands out in the postwar period as being the one client to throw off the yoke. There the great sinew of empire was Subic Bay, and, as I say, quite astoundingly, there the Americans left, even though they didn't want to. Now, there's one small qualification to this triumph, and it's that this opportunity for Manila to act only arose because some useful local deity caused Mount Pinatubo's vast volcanic eruption, and this happy fact caused what was intended as a temporary evacuation of the base.

As we all know, Mr. Bin Laden in his foolishness has provided a pretext for renewed American involvement in the Philippines, unconstitutional as that naturally is under local law. Regardless of whether or not it succeeds, it remains illustrative of how irresistible imperialism is once you've acquired the habit. When first America proffered the hand towards the islands during the 1899-1903 conquest, there were those who decried what they were doing.

The military governor of Tabayas, Major Cornelius Gardener, bravely condemned the behaviour of his peer governing the next-door province of Batangas, where the Americans had killed some 100,000 natives. As historian Stuart Miller puts it, Gardener's "motivation was more practical than humane. He argued that the 'bitter hatred' produced by such tactics was not in the best interests of the US in the long run", and here we are with the finishing line almost in sight.

Another, and more recent addition to the roster, is Saudi Arabia. There, overt deployment of military personnel was only effected with the Iraq war of 1991. And, seemingly, Riyadh is asserting herself and she is on the brink of telling Washington to quit the country.

This is one of those things that just breeds conspiracy theories – some hold that maybe the US actually wants out, and that our lunatic neo-con chums are crazed enough to want to see "regime change" happen in Saudi too. After all, and this recent war has reinforced the trend, America has now secured bases in all the Trucial states the British employed on the Arabian fringe, making the Saudis dispensable. Their governments are that bit easier to coerce than the prickly Saudis. So maybe the Saudi commitment has become a liability, and new developments mean it can be shed. But I wouldn't count on it, as that would necessitate the one thing Washington lacks, and that's clever imperialists.

Standing a degree of rank or two above the likes of the Philippines or Saudi you then have those countries (Britain, Japan even) that resemble the old federated states of the later Roman Empire, i.e. the larger and more vicious German tribes, whose usefulness saw them dignified with the status of "partner" in empire. We could all sit back and laugh ourselves hoarse at the idea of Britain or Japan ever attaining the same amount of self-respect as the Philippines, and asking the Americans to leave. When I worked for the current leader of the Conservative party, Iain Duncan Smith – a bog-standard Atlanticist – I would attempt to raise a smile or two by talking to Tory MPs about "occupied East Anglia" (lots of US airbases and intelligence facilities there), and you know, maybe it was the delivery, but I never did get much in the way of mirth.

In Britain we haven't had anything akin to a "Yanqui go home" moment since the morons of CND attacked the deployment of cruise missiles in the early '80s. The Tokyo establishment can be even more relaxed than its London counterpart as most of the disagreeable aspects of an American military presence aren't even on the Japanese mainland, but on far-away Okinawa. My point in stressing all of this is the simple one taught by Mansergh: if there's "guilt" to be shared about for American empire, it's not just Americans who are in the dock. My focus is on my own country, and Britain is, I'm sorry to say, going down for a longer stretch than most.

Even in the small things, we get it wrong. When the Cold War, whatever one thought of that, ended, NATO was in every practical sense obsolete, and the continental commitment embodied in, for instance, the British Army of the Rhine was instantly a relic. Yet it's still there today, defending our German pals from God knows what – the Danes perhaps? Even as lickspittle a creature of American foreign policy as Canada was manly enough to pull all her forces out of mainland Europe. Not us.

What though really riles me about Britain's passivity as an American vassal is that the legions will be withdrawn. At some point, and very soon too, if the United States is to sustain projection of her power overseas, where it matters, she will have to redeploy forces from quaint postings such as the European central front. Thus, what appalls me as a right-wing Tory is that no new national mythos will be made out of this event: far from us having the glorious memory to look back on, in which we asked the empire to leave, we'll be sitting about wondering where it went, and why.

Were I an American patriot, imperialist or not, I'd find it all equally depressing. From the point of view of those patriot-imperialists, there's the small downside to forthcoming events: this is not even especially sensible imperialism. Any foreign policy that lands the US with indefensible central Asian commitments, for example, is quite unutterably stupid.

Yet what separates American empire from, say, the British is that although both were "acquired in a fit of absence of mind", Dubya's lacks in the homeland the extent of popular legitimization that Britain's always had. Whatever harm American imperialism does to the rest of the world, and however much we out there are in part to blame for it, US behaviour abroad as currently conducted is just as popularly unsanctioned as ever it has been, while the US is behaving in its most suicidal fashion yet. When the legions leave Britain and the rest of their soft Western postings, and pitch camp in the East, and when China has had enough of encirclement, and when the Russians find no common cause with those who would occupy satrapies rightfully theirs, my money's on the barbarians winning again.

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Christopher Montgomery is an historian who is currently writing a book on the historiography of the Suez crisis. He has also recently taken some time out to run the Iain Duncan Smith campaign office, and for a while was working in the private office of the Leader of the Opposition. A young representative of the diehard tradition, he believes that Enoch Powell was right on everything apart from immigration.

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