August 24, 2001

Why was Rome?

I go to a great gym, right here in Pacific Heights, San Francisco, and, because I'm such a regular, I'm pals with a lot of the guys who go there: they know what I do for a living, and often ask: "So, what're you writing about today?" For the past couple of weeks, the most frequent answer to that question has been: "Macedonia – again." "Oh yeah?" said one buddy of mine, with a puzzled look on his face. "So what're we doing there, anyway?"


A good question, one that has no easy answer, or at least one readily accessible to the average everyday American. Mr. Average American thinks we're just a normal country – maybe a bit richer, a bit more powerful, more democratic and a lot easier to live in than the rest of them – but normal nonetheless. He is wrong, dead wrong, at least according to the theoreticians and foreign policy analysts, the professional policy wonks who dominate the councils of state – and, increasingly, the councils of this administration. Well, then, if we aren't a normal nation, then what the heck are we? A recent article in the Washington Post [Aug. 21], "Empire or Not? A Quiet Debate Over US Role," lets the cat out of the bag.


According to the Post piece, calling the US "imperialist" – a staple of the old Commie-Third Worldist lexicon – is "usually meant as an insult," but these days some people are taking it as a compliment. We should be an Empire, argues this "handful of conservative defense intellectuals." The leading advocate of this neo-imperialism, we are told, is one Thomas Donnelly, who represents the "Project for a New American Century," (PNAC) "a Washington think tank that advocates a vigorous, expansionistic Reaganite foreign policy. In ways similar though not identical to the Roman and British empires, he argues, the United States is an empire of democracy or liberty – it is not conquering land or establishing colonies, but it has a dominating global presence militarily, economically and culturally."


The idea of an "empire of liberty" is counterintuitive – and impossible. For no empire could live on the tax proceeds of a parsimonious (or even moderately thrifty) republic. No empire could be governed – or defended – by means of the slow, necessarily deliberative processes that characterize our republican form of government. No Constitution could constrain the power necessary to establish and maintain a global empire. An "empire of liberty" – isn't that what Napoleon sought to establish? And wasn't it he who placed the crown on his own head? What these neo-imperialists hope for, long for, is an American Thermidor: in effect, the abolition of our Old Republic so they can build, in its place, an American Empire. Such a development would have to mean the death of liberty, and for a long time to come.


PNAC asks conservatives to forget the bitter lessons learned during the Clinton era and start afresh. Instead of rejecting the Clintonian ultra-activism of a foreign policy that stuck our noses – and our troops – everywhere from Haiti to Kosovo, we should not only embrace it but accelerate it. Chaired by Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, the PNAC seeks to revive the unlimited military spending that characterized the Cold War era and waxes nostalgic for the time when there was an all-powerful enemy they could point to in order to justify the expenditures. The neoconservatives of yesteryear, in seeking to awaken the country to the alleged need to militarize the economy and engage in a global crusade, founded a now-famous group, the "Committee on the Present Danger," and it is to this tradition that the neo-imperialists harken. Of course, we don't have a present danger – but, no matter. They don't really need a concrete enemy. Now that we're an empire, a lack of imperial will is the main danger. As Kristol and Co. put it in the introduction to their latest manifesto,

"But there is today a a present danger. It has no name. It is not to be found in any single strategic adversary. It does not fit neatly under the heading of international terrorism or rogue states or ethnic hatred. In fact, the ubiquitous post-Cold War question, "where is the threat?" is misconceived. Rather, the present danger is that the United States, the world's dominant power on whom the maintenance of international peace and the support of liberal democratic principles depends, will shrink its responsibilities and, in a fit of absentmindedness, or parsimony, or indifference, allow the international order that it created and sustains to collapse. Our present danger is one of declining military strength, flagging will and confusion about our role in the world."


Ah, yes: the Nameless Danger! Let us name it, then, even if the neos are afraid to. What they seem to be saying, in short, is that we have met the Enemy, and he is . . . us! This is true, but not in the way our neocon friends mean it. For their great enemy, and the enemy of a globalism, is our constitutional form of government, which makes no provision for the kind of foreign policy ultra-activism they recommend. In a republic, the legislative branch has the final say; in an empire, the executive branch reigns supreme. No empire was ever created, or successfully defended, by the careful deliberations of a democratic consensus. No republic sent legions abroad in a quest for conquest and survived in its republican form for very long. Yet they blithely invoke the grandeur of Rome, heedless of that metaphor's ominous portent:

"The 1990s, for all their peace and prosperity, were a squandered decade. The decade began with America's triumph in the Cold War and its smashing victory over Iraq in Desert Storm. In the wake of those twin triumphs, the United States had assumed an unprecedented position of power and influence in the world. By the traditional measures of national power, the United States held a position unmatched since Rome dominated the Mediterranean world."


We all know what happened to Rome, but the authors seem either ignorant of history or insensitive to its somber lessons. One possible cure for victims of such a severe case of amnesia is to lock them in a room with only a complete set of Gibbon's Decline and Fall for company. Imperial overstretch, "blowback," or even relatively simple theorems such as "every action has an opposite and equal reaction" – these concepts have no meaning for the neocon-neo-imperialists. Because, you see, for them, America is the Great Exception. The rules of history, or even of human decency and morality, do not apply to us: for our manifest destiny is nothing less than "world hegemony." (Trumpets blare.)


This is not a foreign policy but a hot air balloon, a giant Zeppelin ready – begging – to be punctured. If some megalomaniac should ever get into the White House (John McCain comes immediately to mind) and launches such an imperialist crusade, the whole misbegotten project would come crashing down in flames shortly afterward – and take us down along with it. The level of taxation required to achieve and sustain "global hegemony" would have to be confiscatory: and it is for this reason that Kristol and his neocons-for-McCain opposed the Bush tax cut. The vision of small (and nonintrusive) government envisioned by most conservatives is just an anachronism as far as these Beltway know-it-alls are concerned: for Kristol and the neo-imperialists, globalization means spreading and increasing the power of the US government all over the globe.


Donnelly argues that "the sooner the US government recognized that it is managing a new empire, the faster it can take steps to reshape its military and its foreign policy, to fit that mission." Never mind a tax cut: in the neo-imperialist view, we can never have enough money for the military, since the maintenance of a world empire requires expenditures without limit. The governing elite of such a global entity, too, must have power without limit, the ability to act swiftly in order to crush the endless rebellions that would spring up – one now in the Balkans, another in the Middle East, yet another in the jungles of South America. It wasn't the Roman Senate that conquered the Known World, but the Caesars who pushed the frontiers of empire to Gaul, Spain, Britain, Germany, Asia Minor, and beyond. So, is this what we have to look forward to – an American Caesar? Let us hope we get a Marcus Aurelius, or perhaps Julian (the "Apostate") – as depicted in Gore Vidal's gem of a novel – instead of a Caligula or a Heliogalabus. I hope we don't get what we deserve, but greatly fear we will have our own Nero soon enough.


Which raises an interesting point. If we're going to have an empire, in everything but name, then why not be honest and abolish the republic? Instead of having a mere President, we could have a King, an Emperor, or perhaps we could invent a whole new title, say "Hegemon-in-chief." We don't have to make the office hereditary, we could still have elections. The US could adopt an imperial system and yet retain all the democratic rigmarole. Americans have always envied the Brits their royal family, and the aristocracy that goes with it: once we come out of the closet, so to speak, as imperialists, why not formalize and systematize this concept by getting rid of our outmoded Constitution – or, at least, amending it to allow Kings, nobles, and all the beribboned frou-frous of a real Imperium?


All this was dismantled, in America, by the Revolution, and strictly forbidden by the Founders. But since the ascension of such people to the highest levels of American government would amount, in effect, to an American Counterrevolution, such a development – the formal abolition of the American Republic – is less outrageous than it sounds. For as Garet Garrett put it, in 1953, in his prophetic pamphlet, Rise of Empire:

"We have crossed the boundary that lies between Republic and Empire. If you ask when, the answer is that you cannot make a single stroke between day and night; the precise moment does not matter. There was no painted sign to say: 'You are now entering Imperium.' Yet it was a very old road and the voice of history was saying: 'Whether you know it or not, the act of crossing may be irreversible.' And now, not far ahead, is a sign that reads: 'No U-turns.'"


Not far ahead? Garrett wrote that in 1952, just as the US was entering on the path to empire. As we enter the new millennium, and stand at a kind of crossroads, the neo-imperialists raise their banner, hoping to attract some would-be Caesar. These people – few in number, but influential in Beltway conservative circles – are very busy. And very well-funded. In institutional terms, conservatives, it seems, are assaulted on every side by "New" this and "New" that – even a "new," frankly imperial "conservatism." This new conservatism is embodied in obscure but very well-funded thinktanks: not only the PNAC (heavily funded by the Olin, Scaife, and Bradley foundations), which is focused on foreign policy, but also the Project for Conservative Reform (PfCR), which concentrates on domestic policy and all but openly styles itself as John McCain's brain trust.


Just as I was finishing up this column, I received a letter from a reader, one Charles Hoffman, writing from New York, who implored me to comment on the Washington Post profile of Donnelly and the PNAC. The piece, he said, "greatly overemphasized the influence of the neoconservative 'global hegemon' position on right-wing thinking, while, except for passing reference to Pat Buchanan's A Republic, Not An Empire, it failed to acknowledge the powerful influence of the non-interventionist movement upon grassroots right-wingers and non-beltway right-wing intellectuals. I know you're busy traveling, but I feel the article needs to be responded to, as it grossly distorts the appeal of the 'global hegemon' position to right-wingers as whole. In my view, it is only the Beltway elites – such as those that run the Washington Post and the Weekly Standard – that are in favor of Empire. The rest of us are anti-imperialist, peaceniks. Please, if you get a chance, respond to this article to clear up the haze."


I'm not traveling, yet, except to the corner store for a pack of smokes, so I trust the above is what you had in mind, Mr. Hoffman. Thanks for your timely letter, by the way. You raise an important point, one that needs to be emphasized and understood, and that is the extreme unpopularity of the neo-imperialist position amongst grassroots conservatives. In the Beltway, this kind of thing may go over well at cocktail parties and at busy little seminars on "The New International Architecture of Power," but the grassroots aren't going for it. And they won't go for it under any foreseeable circumstances. This grassroots "isolationist" sentiment necessarily extends to congressional Republicans, who, unlike Beltway policy wonks, are accountable to the real conservative movement. That's why Bill Kristol once threatened to walk out of the Republican party – because the congressional Republicans led the way in vocally opposing the Kosovo war, and remained skeptical of overseas interventions through the Clinton era right up until the present day. Now, if only the congressional Republicans would accelerate his exit from the party by opposing the war moves of a Republican president....


In any case, the important point to understand is that the champions of imperialism are not particularly interested in rallying the conservative masses behind their imperial project: what they want and need is power, the means to implement their dreams of empire. Conservatives are outsiders, in spite of the Republican hold on the White House, and for their purposes only insiders will do. For now, they seem to have latched on to Mad Dog McCain, the liberal media's favorite Republican, as their potential American Caesar, but this crowd is fickle – remember Kristol's Colin Powell for President boomlet? – and will glom onto anyone or anything in their mad scramble for the White House.


This is a persistent bunch. Losing in the GOP primaries didn't deter them, or even discourage them. Donnelly argues that the Bushies, on the campaign trail, promised withdrawal from the Balkans, but now the "events of the last six months tend to support" the view that the once near-isolationist Bush has "matured" in office and come closer to the neo-imperialists in his actual policies: "Once in office they emphasized that they would not leave before European allies did," the Post informs us, "and they also faced the prospect of becoming more involved in a third Balkans mess, in Macedonia."


Ah yes, Macedonia – we are back to that, now, and perhaps the reasons for our presence there are a little clearer. One group is winning out in the Bush Administration over the relatively moderate ("realist") tendency represented by Colin Powell: the neo-imperialists, centered around defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, are on the rise, and Donnelly gives voice to their platform in the Post: "If Americans thought more clearly and openly about the necessity of an imperial mission, Donnelly argues, 'We'd better understand the full range of tasks we want our military to do, from the Balkans-like constabulary missions to the no-fly zones [over Iraq] to maintaining enough big-war capacity to hedge against the emergence of a major adversary."

If all these "tasks" are to be embraced, if "world hegemony" is now the goal of US foreign policy, then the only proper answer to "Why Macedonia?" is "Why not?" Yes, yes, there are all kinds of subsidiary reasons – economic, ideological, geopolitical – but the truest and simplest answer is: because it's there.

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Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of 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 US 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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