January 8, 2003

Left and Right get behind an American Empire

The prospect of a war to subdue and occupy Iraq has brought the neo-imperialists out of the closet, so to speak, and inaugurated a new honesty among political commentators on the left as well as the right. As Americans wake up to the brutal reality of a war that could cost half a million Iraqi casualties and hundreds of billions in American tax dollars, the fiction that this has anything to do with "weapons of mass destruction" is swept away as by a cold bracing wind. This will be a war of conquest, as its supporters are now beginning to acknowledge, and the rush is on to rationalize it – and what comes after.

The neoconservatives, always in the vanguard, were the first to proclaim the virtues of the imperial project, but then a lesser goal would be unworthy of the partisans of "national greatness." Max Boot, writing in the Weekly Standard, ideological fountainhead of "national greatness conservatism," enunciated the new imperial paradigm with typically Wagnerian grandiosity:

"Many have suggested that the September 11 attack on America was payback for U.S. imperialism. If only we had not gone around sticking our noses where they did not belong, perhaps we would not now be contemplating a crater in lower Manhattan. The solution is obvious: The United States must become a kinder, gentler nation, must eschew quixotic missions abroad, must become, in Pat Buchanan's phrase, 'a republic, not an empire.' In fact this analysis is exactly backward: The September 11 attack was a result of insufficient American involvement and ambition; the solution is to be more expansive in our goals and more assertive in their implementation."

It is Herr Boot who has it backwards. The United States was born a republic. What it must not become is an empire. Leaving aside his curious inversion of the historical process, however, Boot's program of expansionism as the only foreign policy possible to the U.S., post-9/11, is widely shared not only by neocons but by liberal internationalists of a certain stripe. In a recent Wall Street Journal editorial, Boot explicitly conjured the ghost of Woodrow Wilson as well as Franklin Roosevelt and Reagan to justify his vision of empire, and now he is joined by Michael Ignatieff, director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, and a liberal internationalist of some renown. Writing in the New York Times Magazine, Ignatieff seeks to abolish the last remnants of Bush's campaign promise to implement a more "humble" foreign policy and get the administration to admit to the scope of its ambition:

"Ever since George Washington warned his countrymen against foreign entanglements, empire abroad has been seen as the republic's permanent temptation and its potential nemesis. Yet what word but 'empire' describes the awesome thing that America is becoming? It is the only nation that polices the world through five global military commands; maintains more than a million men and women at arms on four continents; deploys carrier battle groups on watch in every ocean; guarantees the survival of countries from Israel to South Korea; drives the wheels of global trade and commerce; and fills the hearts and minds of an entire planet with its dreams and desires."

One might forgive Ignatieff his conflation of economic and geopolitical power – it is entrepreneurs, and not "the nation," who drive the wheels of commerce – and his rhetorical embellishments (are the golden arches of MacDonald's really the modern equivalent of SPQR?) on account of the value of his underlying insight. Except for the tone of admiration that suffuses his text. George Washington? Toss the old codger onto the dustbin of History! The future has arrived….

Like Boot, Ignatieff dates America's imperial self-consciousness from 9/11/01. America must restore (or create) "order" in the outlying regions of the civilized world in order to protect itself and its interests. Up until now, Americans have been in denial, blinded by their history and self-concept to the reality of their rightful title as global overlords:

"But Sept. 11 was an awakening, a moment of reckoning with the extent of American power and the avenging hatreds it arouses. Americans may not have thought of the World Trade Center or the Pentagon as the symbolic headquarters of a world empire, but the men with the box cutters certainly did, and so do numberless millions who cheered their terrifying exercise in the propaganda of the deed."

Unlike Boot, who is contemptuous of the hatred American power arouses, Ignatieff at least acknowledges it – and then proceeds to justify the Empire, anyway, as the only possible solution to our self-created crisis. The Empire is here, immovable and unalterable, the given, and it must be used to implement liberal ends. This might be described as the Christopher Hitchens school of neo-imperialism, which expects U.S. force of arms to "liberate" every oppressed minority on earth, from the women of Afghanistan to the Kurds of Iraq. This is a vision of American GIs, not as Roman legionnaires waging wars of conquest, but as the Airmen of H. G; Wells' novel, The Shape of Things to Come, who drop "peace gas" on warring tribes of savages.

"America's empire is not like empires of times past, built on colonies, conquest and the white man's burden. We are no longer in the era of the United Fruit Company, when American corporations needed the Marines to secure their investments overseas. The 21st century imperium is a new invention in the annals of political science, an empire lite, a global hegemony whose grace notes are free markets, human rights and democracy, enforced by the most awesome military power the world has ever known."

Groveling before an "awesome" power is the full-time specialty of court intellectuals, such as Ignatieff, who busy themselves prettifying the royal ruthlessness and hailing its unique "new-ness," Ignatieff has given the old imperialism a complete makeover, and gussied up the old tart in regal robes, albeit no less purple. But what is so new about Halliburton, Boeing, and the NGOs – the modern equivalent of United Fruit? The corporate logos have changed, but the reality of war profiteering remains fully operational.

Is the emerging American Empire "a new invention in the annals of political science"? Liberals might be excused for disbelieving the conservative axiom that there is nothing new under the sun, but surely even they, by now, would be more skeptical of the revolutionary mindset. An inability to learn this particular lesson – an inherent naivete that can blossom into a dangerous militance – is, perhaps, what defines the liberal mind: a dizzy utopianism married to a haughty elitism, easily unbalanced and swept away in the emotion of the moment.

Citing Melville from his Ivy League pulpit, Ignatieff grandly avers that this uniquely American Imperium "bears 'the ark of the liberties of the world.'" It is not only a strategic necessity but also moral duty that must drive us ever onward to expand the frontiers of the Empire:

"It remains a fact – as disagreeable to those left wingers who regard American imperialism as the root of all evil as it is to the right-wing isolationists, who believe that the world beyond our shores is none of our business – that there are many peoples who owe their freedom to an exercise of American military power. It's not just the Japanese and the Germans, who became democrats under the watchful eye of Generals MacArthur and Clay. There are the Bosnians, whose nation survived because American air power and diplomacy forced an end to a war the Europeans couldn't stop. There are the Kosovars, who would still be imprisoned in Serbia if not for Gen. Wesley Clark and the Air Force. The list of people whose freedom depends on American air and ground power also includes the Afghans and, most inconveniently of all, the Iraqis."

The example of the Bosnians and their Albanian Kosovar cousins is really too much, especially coming from one of the chief cheerleaders for Clinton's brutally immoral demolition of the former Yugoslavia. Bosnia today is ruled over by a UN dictatorship that presides over fortified cantons of mutually antagonistic ethnic factions. Thanks to General Wesley Clark and his Air Force, Kosovo is a killing field stained with the blood of Serbs and ruled by a murderous drug-dealing thug-ocracy.

As for the Germans and the Japanese, the ultimate irony is that these former empires become republics are rising to challenge their great teacher, a republic become an empire. The Germans criticize and abstain from our Middle Eastern adventure, while the Japanese try to restrain us in Eastasia. Anti-Americanism, in the sense of opposition to U.S. government policies, is growing not only in the Middle East but also in Europe, Japan, and throughout the Anglosphere.

The freedom of many peoples has been paid for in American blood and treasure, but this debt cannot be repaid by making Washington the center of a self-consciously hegemonic power. Preserving the freedom of the American people and their security must be the exclusive task of our military, because any extension of that mission erodes its original purpose. Freedom, as Ignatieff points out, is one casualty of our post-9/11 policy of perpetual war. He wonders aloud whether the mass internment of American citizens deemed "enemy aliens" during World War II could be repeated today.

But these little asides are sprinkled throughout Ignatieff's essay like seasoning on an otherwise unappetizing chunk of tofu, as if to remind us of the author's liberal credentials. The main thrust of this neo-imperialist narrative is carried along by the mystique of its alleged inevitability:

"The problem is that this implies innocent options that in the case of Iraq may no longer exist. Iraq is not just about whether the United States can retain its republican virtue in a wicked world. Virtuous disengagement is no longer a possibility. Since Sept. 11, it has been about whether the republic can survive in safety at home without imperial policing abroad."

So we are "the prisoners of history" after all, as the Old Right author Garet Garrett put it, locked in our Procrustean bed of global alliances and ineluctably drawn into the world vortex by dark forces beyond our control. The pro-war liberal sighs, wishes it were otherwise, and calmly decides that if we're going to have an Empire, it may as well resemble the old British model at its best, rather than, say, the Assyrians or even the Romans.

Hiding behind the veil of historical inevitability, Ignatieff details his comprehensive program for the reformation of much of the world:

"The Turks will have to be reassured, and the Kurds will have to be instructed that the real aim of United States policy is not the creation of a Kurdish state that goes on to dismember Turkey. The Syrians will have to be coaxed into abandoning their claims against the Israelis and making peace. The Saudis, once democracy takes root next door in Iraq, will have to be coaxed into embracing democratic change themselves."

Not only that, but, as this author has argued elsewhere, the U.S. must impose a "peace settlement" in Palestine. "Send in the troops!" he cries. Whether this involves bombing Tel Aviv, or perhaps locking Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat in a room until they agree to our terms, is not quite clear. In any case, there is no logical end to the burdens imposed on this empire of a new type, which is perhaps why Ignatieff's paean to American global power is subtitled "The Burden." "American Empire, get used to it," the magazine cover exhorts us in red-white-and-blue headlines.

The only proper answer is: Never!

The price of empire is more than just our blood and our treasure. It is our very souls. What human being, apart from one maddened by hubris, could greet the news that the Iraq war will cost half a million casualties with indifference? Max Boot, who bemoaned the lack of casualties in the Afghan campaign, will be appeased, but what of Ignatieff and all the other weepy creepy liberals with moral pretensions?

Our souls, our freedoms, our republican legacy, and the wisdom of our forefathers, the Founders of this country: all will be lost in the rush to hail the American Caesar. But even as some vague consensus on the virtues of the New Rome seems to be coagulating, like a scab over the open wound of 9/11, voices of dissent are rising against this supposedly "inevitable" development. Thomas Sowell, the prominent conservative free market thinker and prolific writer, comes out swinging against the neo-imperialist delusion that has galvanized the neoconservatives and now seems to be the driving force behind U.S. foreign policy:

"While the left has done enormous damage to the security of the United States, the political right is not without its problems. Those neoconservatives, especially, who were pushing an activist 'national greatness' foreign policy, even before September 11th, have seized upon that event as a reason for the United States to 'use American might to promote American ideals' around the world.

"That phrase, by Max Boot of the Counsel on Foreign Relations and The Weekly Standard, is breathtaking in its implications. When he places himself and fellow neoconservatives in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson, it is truly chilling."

More chilling still is the idea that such people are in positions of power, and have a real and perhaps decisive influence in putting us on a course bound for Empire. As Sowell puts it:

"The very idea that young Americans are once again to be sent out to be shot at and killed, in order to carry out the bright ideas of editorial office heroes, is sickening."

Sowell is right, and that is precisely what will defeat the War Party in the end. The sheer sight of them, pompously lecturing the American people on their duty to save the world, while we are all made less safe and more vulnerable to a terrorist attack on account of their hallucinations, will eventually prove so sickening that they will defeat their own cause.


Congratulations to Cato Institute senior fellow Tom Palmer for managing to spend an entire hour or so debating "libertarianism" with Jonah Goldberg on PBS Chicago's WBEZ radio without once mentioning the words "peace" or "nonintervention." (Although he did manage to get in a plug for gay marriage). That didn't appease Jonah, however, who got in a complaint toward the end about how Tom and the other guest (Richard A. Epstein) are "wonderful" people, but unfortunately they haven't done as well as the folks over at National Review in "policing their own movement." Goldberg was about to launch into a denunciation of the Libertarian Party and god-knows-who-else when, thankfully, he was cut off by host Gretchen Helfrich. Nice try, Jonah: maybe you can get your buddy John Ashcroft to fill the policing gap. And Tom: you always were a wimp. I see nothing's changed.


Speaking of the radio, last night I did an interview and listener call-in on Washington D.C.'s popular WMAL radio as a guest on the Charlie Warren Show, where I did mention the words "peace" and "nonintervention" – several times.


Check out the top headline on Antiwar.com this morning: "N. Korea Threatens War if US Limits Trade." Isn't it nice to know that someone's standing up for free trade?

– Justin Raimondo

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Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com. He is also the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (with an Introduction by Patrick J. Buchanan), (1993), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against U.S. Intervention in the Balkans (1996). He is an Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Libertarian Studies, and writes frequently for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard.

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