June 20, 2003

It's a contradiction in terms
by Justin Raimondo

So Howard Dean and John Kerry are all a twitter over how George W. Bush and his advisors fibbed about "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq. Welcome to reality, guys, but the really big lie is a lot worse than that. Remember how we were supposed to bringing "democracy," not to mention "freedom," to the poor oppressed people of the region? Well, it turns out that was just a lot of hooey, too. Check this out, bro:

"Coalition soldiers raided the distribution center for Sadda-al-Auma newspaper last week, seizing extra copies of its second edition and detaining and interrogating its employees, said staff at the newspaper.

"…Last week the US-led coalition authority brought a strong hand down on the hurly-burly collection of new voices that have cluttered Iraqi newsstands, virtually absent of any advertising, since Saddam Hussein fell. The new law bans incitement of violence against American troops or against any religious, ethnic, or gender group, and prohibits any publication that promotes a return of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party.

"US officials insist the law applies only to material that undermines civil order that is necessary for a free and democratic Iraq and that it is meant to prevent violence.

"'It's not designed to be restrictive,' said Charles Heatly, a coalition spokesman. 'We welcome the emergence of a free press, and we have no intention of stifling free speech.'"

As the Orwell Centenary approaches, it never ceases to amaze me how the author of 1984 could have been so right about so much. The idea of "double-think," that is, of saying one thing while actually meaning the exact opposite, is the zeitgeist of our era. "We have no intention of stifling free speech" – yeah, right. Tell that to Ali Chiad, the 32-year-old guard at the newspaper building, who, according to the Boston Globe, "had been detained, bound, and held for four days while American interrogators asked his superiors questions about the newspaper. He said bags were put over the captives' heads and that troops seized the excess copies of Sadda-al-Auma."

Oh, the joys of "liberation"!

The War Party blithely brushes aside evidence that the President lied to Congress and to the American people about Iraq's alleged WMD. Just be glad that Saddam Hussein, the terrible despot, is gone, we're told, and the Iraqi people are free at last. But are they? Doesn't look that way to me, or to the editorial staff of The Hour (As'saah), which declared "Bremer is a Ba'athist" in a front page editorial that read, in part:

"Only four months ago, the easiest accusation to make against us was that we were agents for America. Today, with the same ease, they put sacks on our heads and accuse us of being agents for Saddam Hussein and the Ba'ath Party.

"There is nothing worse than Saddam Hussein except what we are suffering now, and I hope I will not be surprised tomorrow morning by your soldiers surrounding my building."

There is a distinctly Soviet air to the "democratic" preening of our President and his neocon puppeteers, who prate about "freedom" while Iraqi editors are interrogated at gunpoint, hauled up on charges of "anti-American" "hate speech," and dragged before a "coalition" board of censors. I much prefer the classical Roman-style "might makes right" imperialism to the later British and Soviet models, with their pretensions to cultural and moral uplift. Best option of all would be to ditch the whole concept of building an oxymoronic "American Empire," and restore our old republic, but that doesn't seem to be in the cards, because, you see, we already are an empire, and have been for quite some time.

That's what plenty of leftists who write me say, agreeing with the pro-imperialist Niall Ferguson, for one, who wants us to own up to our imperial responsibilities. The lefties say: we're an empire, and always have been, which is why America is evil, while the neocons agree that we're an empire, have been for many years, yet come to a very different conclusion.

It's funny how intellectual fashions change. It used to be that the accusation of "American imperialism" was sure to bring heated denials from cold war liberals and their conservative brethren: today, it is likely to be met with shrugs, on the part of establishment liberals, and outright enthusiasm from the neoconservative right. The latest bid to crown George W. Bush with laurel leaves and hail the American Caesar is from yet another Brit, the historian Paul Johnson, author of A History of the American People, whose contribution to the literature of neo-imperialism is to propose the creation of an "empire of liberty."

Behold, announces Johnson in The New Criterion, "a new world order," one augured by the American conquest of Iraq and the logical outcome of the post-9/11 era. Is America "creating an empire," he asks, and, if so, "should we regard this process as desirable, even inevitable?" Johnson's answer to both questions is clearly yes, for all sorts of the most repellent reasons.

To begin with, Johnson believes that only empires are truly "sovereign." As he puts it:

"First, it is important to understand what we mean by the word 'empire.' Its core meaning is 'rule,' with the implication 'unqualified rule.' A country designated as an empire is one which possesses numerous territories but, more important, absolute sovereignty over itself."

Yes, but why don't non-empires possess sovereignty over themselves? Well, you see, it all goes back to the English Crown's resistance to the "imperialism" of the Pope in Rome, who insisted on keeping Church lands and income safe from the greed of kings. Thus, when the bankrupt British Crown, having taxed the people into penury, went looking for new sources of loot, and found it in the Church, they declared that "this realm of England is an empire" and promptly arrogated the formerly private sphere of religion to State regulation. Johnson writes:

"This usage came into English in the sixteenth century to designate the unlimited legal power of the Crown in parliament, and the impotence of papal writs. All the major Reformation statutes which repudiated Roman claims contained the word. Thus the statute 24 Henry VII of 1532–1533, Chapter 12, begins: 'This realm of England is an empire.' The Crown in parliament could thus make and unmake bishops, revise doctrine and liturgy, and dispose at will of Church lands, then 20 percent of the total, without reference to Rome."

Johnson celebrates England's withdrawal "from the medieval entity called Christendom" not only because it reined in the power of the Church, as against that of the State, but also because it strengthened London's claim to the New World, against the Papal edict that divided the Americas between Spain and Portugal. In the Johnsonian history of the American people, there never was a Revolution: we were an "imperium" from the beginning. Instead of representing a rebellion against the usurpation of the Church by the British State, the American colonists, in Johnson's view, were "a venture in imperialism under divine sanction."

This would be news to the Quakers of Pennsylvania, the free-thinking nonconformists of Rhode Island, and the Massachusetts Bay followers of the libertarian "antinomian" Anne Hutchinson. You only thought the Pilgrims came to America to escape religious persecution. Johnson is out to correct this misconception: they were really interested in extending the British Empire. The President of the United States recently went on the offensive against "revisionist history" – but his intellectual amen corner, in seeking to rationalize America's Napoleonic foreign policy, seems to have elevated the concept into a high art.

Never mind "taxation without representation," what the American revolutionaries really wanted was to conquer the rest of the continent: "The Americans were more imperialist than the English." Johnson's brief on behalf of "American imperialism" reads like a typical leftist tract turned inside out, with American rapaciousness lovingly detailed. The poor Indians, the British, the French, the Spanish, all fell before the quasi-religious fervor of the American imperialists, who sought to conquer "the whole of the continent."

But how was this accomplished? Largely as the result of a purely commercial transaction, the Louisiana Purchase. We might have taken Alaska from the weakened Russian czar, but instead bought it at a bargain price. This was not imperialism, but entrepreneurialism; the foreign policy of a commercial republic, not an empire. Johnson refers to these purchases as "acquisitive imperialism," but coercion was entirely absent from these transactions, which were agreed to by both parties to their mutual benefit.

But the difference between acts of violence and capitalist acts between consenting adults is lost on Johnson, as it is on so many leftists, who see international trade as international aggression.

So rapacious was the United States, avers Johnson, that "it was a long time before all Americans admitted the right of Canada and Mexico to co-exist with their Union."

This is, without doubt, one of the most viciously anti-American sentiments I've ever come across, as well as being an outrageous inversion of the truth. What the Johnsonian version of history leaves out is the relentless campaign by the British to re-conquer their lost colonies and crush the nascent American Republic.

Canada was a bastion of Tory sentiment, the refuge of those who fought on the British side during the Revolution. Long after Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, the Brits and their Tory fifth column, in league with certain Indian tribes, continued to harass our young Republic from their Canadian base. American "imperialism" in North America was the Republic's response to the threat of European aggression, emanating mainly from the British, but also from the French. (The Spanish hold on their North American and Pacific "empire" was too feeble to ever pose a threat.)

Encircled by the European colonial powers, the Founding Fathers and their heirs fought to defend their Revolution not only against British and French military adventurism, but also against foreign agents and their sympathizers within the country. While radical Francophiles were found among Jefferson's most fervid partisans, the main danger was in New England, where the Anglophile Federalists represented a veritable fifth column that threatened, for a while, to secede and reunite with the Mother Country. Instead of representing "a venture in imperialism," the growth and development of the American Republic was the reflexive and purely defensive reaction of a free people to European incursions, and the threat of Tory restorationists, who sought to destroy the adolescent republic from within.

America, far from being "the beneficiary of imperialism from the start," was the first anti-imperialist state. The revolution that established the U.S. denied not only the authority of kings, but also the very doctrine of empire by divine right that Johnson and his neocon confreres want to revive. Johnson points to the Philippines, and Hawaii, as counter-examples of the American anti-imperialist tradition. But the Philippines ended in a bloody insurgency and American withdrawal, while Hawaii is a net loss to the American taxpayers, along with Puerto Rico and scattered island outposts, a millstone hung 'round our necks.

Johnson gets on his hobbyhorse of "moral imperialism" in his discussion of the British (and, later, Anglo-American) crusade against the international slave trade. He speculates that, had the South not lost the Civil War, the creation of a Southern empire based on slavery would have dominated Central America. But the Union victory meant that the Americans were happily reunited with the Mother Country in a crusade on behalf of moral imperialism, in this case the abolition of slavery worldwide. Alas, however, the Americans fell off the moral imperialist bandwagon when, putting national interests over moral imperatives, they sided with the evil slave-owning Wahabis, after World War II, who ruled Saudi Arabia. In the Johnsonian worldview, the Brits are always right – and the Americans would do well to follow their example.

This nonsense about a Confederate Empire south of the Rio Grande defies both history and common sense. To begin with, it was the Southerners in Congress, along with the New England anti-imperialists, who opposed the absorption of Spain's former colonies because the U.S., they feared, could not assimilate "tropical peoples." Secondly, the British actively aided the Confederacy, not the Union. So much for Johnson's fanciful picture of the world-saving slavery-fighting Brits!

The Boxer Rebellion, the redivision of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the invasion of Japan by Commodore Matthew C. Perry – these are all high points of modern history, as seen from the neo-imperialist perspective, pioneering acts of "globalization." Johnson complains that we didn't take up the Wilsonian project of the League of Nations and so ceded Germany's Pacific colonies to the Japanese – who later used them as bases from which to attack Pearl Harbor. Yet he also extols the opening up of Japan to Western trade, by force, hailing it as an act that helped

"To persuade this hermit state to allow in Western commerce. America had already, in China, engaged in an effort to get the authorities to adopt an Open Door policy to all Western nations as the only alternative to piecemeal colonization. The same arguments applied to Japan, and were taken so seriously by the Japanese elite as to inspire a national effort to industrialize and to build powerful armed forces."

Armed forces, one might add, that struck back at Pearl Harbor, in a classic case of "blowback."

I won't go into Johnson's rather silly attempt to base his theory of imperialism in nature, the behavior of the birds and the bees, and the supposedly built-in expansionism of all living species. The idea that we ought to act like animals, or plankton, is not especially convincing, and hardly merits refuting. And of course, in playing to his neoconservative audience, he is careful to draw a distinction between Western and Islamic imperialism:

"There is an important difference here between the West and Islam. Though Islam is imperialist by nature, it is essentially religious imperialism, ruling through the Islamic state. The West, unlike Islam, underwent both the Renaissance and the Reformation, thereby acquiring strong secular characteristics and refreshing its roots in Greco-Roman civilization, with its respect for impartial and universal law and competing modes of government including democracy.

"Hence in the twentieth and still more the twenty-first centuries, the forms of moral, commercial, and cultural imperialism emanating from the West are essentially secular. We no longer speak of 'Christianizing the world,' a phrase in wide use up to 1914. But 'democratizing the world,' whether spoken or not, is our aim."

World conquest, and nothing less, is the goal of the militant "democratizers." Shorn of its historical and religious ornamentation, Johnson's primal imperialist impulse is a crusade to impose modernity at gunpoint, with US troops in Iraq taking the place of Commodore Perry and his gunboats.

Confusing the spread of American culture with the presence of US troops, Johnson tries to tie his neo-imperialist doctrine to the kite of "globalization," but it won't fly. Culture is carried via commerce, i.e. by means of transactions engaged in by individuals to mutual benefit, not imposed by military conquest. Modernizing the Middle East is not the same as conquering it, and World War IV, as some of the neocons call their cultural and military "war of civilizations," is not going to impose order and the rule of law on the Middle East. Indeed, quite the opposite – chaos and the empowerment of radical Islam – is the likely result.

The contradictory absurdity of Johnson's "empire of liberty" is emblazoned in the headlines, where we read of Iranian students demonstrating against privatization of the state-run university system hailed by the President as freedom-fighters – for opposing the same privatization programs that the Americans ostensibly support everywhere else. Various news articles describe the progress of the Iranian riots in the same way: first, demonstrations against privatization initiatives by the government were called, which only later were joined by "non-students" who raised other slogans, and so the demonstrations "snowballed." This is how the "empire of liberty" spreads across the Middle East – by making common cause with leftist students, and the left-wing terrorist outfit known as the Mujahideen e Khalq, whose fanatic followers have recently protested by setting themselves on fire.

The campaign to recreate the British Empire with its capital in Washington, instead of London, is not going to impress anyone but the Eastern elites, who have long imitated and envied their British betters, and now seek to surpass them. It is a project utterly alien to the American people, however – and especially to those of us who have the distinct luxury of living as far away as possible from the Eastern seaboard, where most of the country's troubles seem to have originated.

The American people are too good to be the rulers of an empire: and, besides that, they can't afford it. Empires are expensive: in the American version, at any rate, there is no incoming tribute from conquered provinces. Everything goes out, and nothing comes in. Who benefits, then, but a few favored government contractors, and the Empire's court historians, like Mr. Johnson, whose Kiplingesque nostalgia for the British Raj is taken seriously instead of being laughed out of court?


Thanks to all who wrote me letters of condolence in response to my column about my recent illness. I appreciate your support more than I can express.

Due to a disagreement with the publisher, my book, The Terror Enigma: 9/11 and the Israeli Connection, which was to have been brought out this year by Verso Books, has been withdrawn. A short synopsis will appear in an upcoming issue of Chronicles.

– 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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