October 11, 2002

Iraq – First Stop on the Road to Empire

We're kicking off our Fall campus tour, and Justin Raimondo is on the road: what follows is the text of a speech delivered on October 9, 2002, at Washington University, Missouri.

Why war? Why Iraq? And why now? As the editorial director of Antiwar.com, and a columnist for that site, half of the many emails I get each and every day address some variation on these three interconnected questions. Of course, I don't have time to answer any of them. It's all I can do to keep up with the latest machinations of the War Party, countering the most recent lies of this administration, and helping to put together a news site that is often updated by the hour. We are all of us caught up in the moment, but it is useful to step back and contemplate the why of it all.

Forget all the technical arguments about weapons inspections, Iraq's alleged nuclear capability, and whether or not we need to get the permission of the UN before we slaughter thousands of innocent civilians and take over a country. There is something quite different about the prospect of this war that sets it apart from all the conflicts the U.S. has entered in modern times. It's something new, and I think we all feel it, and know on it some subliminal level: there's a change in the air, an electricity that some find exhilarating and others find ominous. I count myself among the latter.

This new atmosphere was not created by 9/11, but certainly the explosion that sent the World Trade Center hurtling to the earth spread it far and wide. We are not just talking about war fever here, but of a lust for conquest not seen in this country since the Spanish-American war. And plain old-fashioned greed. We had this debate back in the 1890s: in response to the call of the War Party to annex the Spanish dominions a whole movement arose, organized as the Anti-Imperialist League. It was led by what, today, would be called libertarians, and one of its leaders, one Carl Schurz, had this to say:

"If we take these new regions, we shall be well entangled in that contest for territorial aggrandizement which distracts other nations and drives them far beyond their original design. So it will be inevitably with us. We shall want new conquests to protect that which we already possess. The greed of speculators working upon our government will push us from one point to another, and we shall have new conflicts upon our hands, almost without knowing how we got into them."

"The greed of speculators working upon our government" describes what is happening today to a tee.

In reading the Washington Post the other day, I came across an article describing the open maneuvering going on among the world's oil companies in preparation for the post-Saddam order in Iraq. Iraq, of course, has some of the richest oil fields in the world, and the French and the Russians are afraid they will be locked out of the looting. So they are holding out, for as long as they can, for a bigger piece of the pie, and when they get it the UN will affix its holy seal to the slaughter.

If we think of the coming war as an ordinary street mugging, what we have here is a case of the robbers fighting over the victim's wallet even before the crime has been committed. We haven't seen this kind of grasping greed, at least here in this country, since the turn of the last century, when we had a similar national debate over the same question we are facing now. Will we stay a republic, or take the road to empire?

We hear from the Left that this war is all about oil, but it's more than that. It's true that the main beneficiaries of an Anglo-American victory will be those Anglo-American oil companies Exxon-Mobil and British Petroleum and, as the Old Marxists from the 1930s used to say, "it's no coincidence"! But this reductionist point of view misses the main point of the new post-9/11 interventionism: it is driven, not by profit margins, but by ideology.

The debate that occurred at the time of the Spanish-American war was the first real challenge to the Jeffersonian mindset that had been handed down by the Founders. To keep a good distance from foreign wars and the intrigues of the European states, to keep well out of the quarrels that could entangle and drag the young and vulnerable Republic down into war, debt, and neo-royalism, was the fondest wish of the revolutionaries who founded this nation. Their legacy endured for a hundred years, during which time Americans resisted the fatal temptations of Empire. Then, suddenly, there arose groups who challenged the Founders' sage advice, and sought to overthrow the old Jeffersonian mindset. It was not a popular movement, but a self-described "progressive" trend among the policymaking elite, dedicated to "reform."

The goal of the so-called "progressives" was nothing less than reforming the entire human race. These were the purveyors of cultural "uplift," riding their various hobbyhorses into the glorious future: abolitionists, feminists, prohibitionists, millenarian fundamentalists, militant vegetarians, and, of course, professional intellectuals eager to try out their endless schemes for the "improvement" and uplifting of mankind. It was only natural that these people, having set their sights on saving the nation, would feel compelled to take on the rest of the world.

Many of the same sort of people are in the vanguard of the War Party today. The particulars have changed, but today we have many of the same elements that went into this turn-of-the-last-century "progressive" mix. Certainly the feminists have been vocal in their support of the present administration's war of "liberation" in Afghanistan, and they have also been prominent in calling for its extension throughout the Middle East. See, women are reading in "liberated" Afghanistan! Look! Those poor oppressed women in Saudi Arabia have no rights why don't we go in there and overthrow those male chauvinist pigs!?

Of course, history never repeats itself exactly Marx characterized this sense of historical deja-vu as tragic in the first instance, farcical in the second. But in the case of America, the process seems to have been reversed. For our first venture into empire didn't really pan out. The Philippines proved to be a troublesome province, and, as a business venture, a losing proposition. We disdained Cuba, but took Puerto Rico much to our everlasting regret. Although the Sugar Trust managed to sneak in Hawaii through the back door after a long and bitter debate, there the overtly imperialist impulse petered out.

Those who had argued that the acquisition of an empire would reap economic benefits for America were silenced by the mounting costs of maintaining our new overseas possessions, and by popular opposition. To most Americans, the idea of an American empire was, well, un-American: we, after all, had fought against an Empire to win our independence. Would we now set up an Imperium all our own, and lord it over distant colonies with the same cruelty and stupidity of King George III? Most Americans thought it was not a good idea.

But the idea did not die. Instead, it was transformed into the Wilsonian doctrine of internationalism, a crusade for hegemony that wore the mask of idealism, and fought, not for spoils, or glory, but to "make the world safe for democracy." All the wars of modernity have been fought in the name of a supposedly selfless cause, one based not on national self-aggrandizement but on some exalted universal concept: the Fourteen Points, the Four Freedoms, the fight against communist totalitarianism. These wars were portrayed, not as expeditions of conquest, but acts of self-defense against an implacably aggressive enemy.

And that is what is new or so old that it seems new about Gulf War II: the mask has been dropped, and now we see the face of the monster revealed in all its shameless, leering ugliness. It's as if Dorian Gray has hauled his portrait out of the locked attic and hung it over his mantelpiece.

Behold the neoconservatives, a political sect whose founders deny its very existence and yet whose adherents claim to dominate not only the American Right, but the highest reaches of this administration. There is no such thing as a neocon, says David Brooks, because "We are all neoconservatives now." These former Scoop Jackson Democrats soured on the party of Jefferson and Jackson during the Vietnam era, when the McGovernites started singing "We Ain't Marchin' Anymore," and left just as, in an earlier incarnation, they had left the party of Lenin and Trotsky after declaring that the Revolution had been betrayed beyond redemption. They gave up the dream of socialism, and the lexicon of Marxist dogma, over the years, but lost none of their grandiosity and their self-image as world-conquerors.

For in spite of their many costume changes from the red and pink hues of Trotskyism and Social Democracy, to the gray flannel button down conservatism of National Review and the Weekly Standard there has always been one constant: a passion for war. In the 1930s and 40s, it was a class war. When Irving Kristol and his band of apostate Trotskyists including James Burnham, who eventually wound up as a senior editor of National Review – inveighed against the Kremlin in the 1930s, it was from Stalin's left. Socialism in one country, they declared, was an impossibility: the Revolution had to be exported to Europe, and throughout the world, at gunpoint. In the Soviet Union, they believed, a bureaucratic caste had arisen a new exploiting class that was content to rest on Lenin's laurels and reap the benefits of their privileged position, instead of doing their duty and going out and spreading the Revolution far and wide.

Growing gradually more disillusioned over the years, and more fixated on hatred of their old enemies, the Stalinists, these embittered ex-radicals moved into the far right wing of the old Socialist Party, and wound up supporting the Vietnam war. If you want to discover the Marxist antecedents of neoconservatism, then I would encourage you to investigate the career of Max Shachtman, one of the three founders of American Trotskyism whose personal and political odyssey illustrates how the ideology and leadership of the War Party evolved, not from the Right, but from the far Left.

Ex-radicals are a dangerous lot. Each succeeding generation of disillusioned Commies, from James Burnham to David Horowitz, supplied new cadres consumed by a hatred of their former comrades, and determined to apply the methods of the Communists against their original authors. Half the staff of the old National Review, when it was founded in 1957, were ex-lefties of one sort or another: Frank S. Meyer, for example, a senior editor from the beginning, was once a top honcho in the Communist Party; Willi Schlamm, a German émigré who had been editor of the German Communist Party's newspaper, Red Flag, also played a prominent role in the birthing of Bill Buckley's baby. And it was these people who turned the conservative movement from an isolationist – that is, anti-imperialist – movement, whose foreign policy stance was based on the Jeffersonian distrust of entangling alliances and foreign adventures, into the War Party which is, today, calling for a MacArthur-style Regency from Cairo to Kabul.

During the cold war, these people were quite happy, even though they saw themselves as locked in a desperate battle with a terrible foe. The Soviet Union was their Satan with a sword, and the Devil's defeat required the expenditure of billions, and led to the creation of a national security intelligentsia whose income and prestige depended on the reality of the Soviet threat. The more Communism seemed a looming threat, the more valuable were the services of the various Kremlinologists, professors of Soviet studies, and professional red-baiters, who thrived in the cold war era.

But the neocon boom was soon followed by a great bust, in 1989, when the Berlin Wall crumbled and the Soviet house of cards collapsed with stunning rapidity. Communists all around the world went into shock and this also sent the neoconservatives reeling. Their great enemy was suddenly gone.

So now what?

They had by that time crossed over from the right wing of the Social Democracy to the right wing of the Republican party, and openly declared themselves "conservatives." While giving "two cheers for capitalism," as Irving Kristol once titled an essay, what the neocons were really interested in was foreign policy. They had walked out of the Democratic party in disgust after that party proved insufficiently warlike, and joined the GOP and the Reagan movement, on the strength of what they understood to be Reagan's implacable hostility to the "evil empire" and his willingness to confront it militarily.

Here the leftist roots of neoconservatism still show, in such works as Exporting Democracy, by Joshua Muravchik, published in the early 1990s, which argued that we must sell American-style "democracy" abroad in much the way the Soviets pushed their ideology in the Third World – with a full-scale propaganda apparatus and satellite political parties that get their marching orders from Washington, a kind of Democratic International. Muravchik, a former militant of the Young Peoples Socialist League, points to the examples of Germany and Japan as models for the coming world revolution. Still, after all these years, we hear the echo of Leon Trotsky, the ruthless founder of the Red Army whose crimes might very well have surpassed those of his rival Stalin if he hadn't been knocked out of the running and forced into exile.

It was also during this period that the neocons became dedicated publicists for Israel, a veritable amen corner that shouted its approval no matter what atrocity was committed by the Israelis. In the course of reconciling themselves to bourgeois society, many of these ex-Marxist intellectuals became reconciled also to the faith of their fathers, which meant, for a good many of them, with their Jewish identity.

Aside from the ethnic-religious aspect, neocon support for Israel grew out of two basic factors: 1) the logic of the cold war, with the Soviets supporting the Arabs and the West taking Israel under its wing, and 2) the mental habit of fealty to some foreign utopia. This is a vestigial tendency that survives from their days on the Left, and has merely been transferred to another object of veneration. As a youth, Norman Podhoretz was writing odes to Soviet troops at the battle of Stalingrad, as he tells us in the latest volume of his endless memoirs, and today he is writing odes to the Israeli Defense Force with the same regard for truth and morality.

When the cold war ended, these people were out of fashion, if not out of jobs, as their anti-Soviet fixation became archaic and their role as advocates for Israel became more problematic. For the end of the cold war meant that the interests of the US and Israel began to radically diverge: with the elimination of Soviet communism as an ideological and geostrategic competitor, Middle East politics became much more complicated and multipolar, and America's unconditional support to Israel began to be questioned by U.S. policymakers.

The internationalist consensus had been held together by the cold war, but, with the end of that long struggle, the rationale for our policy of global intervention began to fall apart and, with it, the political alliances of the past half century. Back in 1952, a young William F. Buckley wrote an article for the Commonweal, a liberal Catholic magazine, in which he sought to define the "conservative credo." He paid lip service to those giants of liberty, H. L. Mencken and Albert Jay Nock, even as he proceeded to "prove" that both were irrelevant in the face of the overwhelming danger posed to Western civilization by the Communist threat:

"We have to accept Big Government for the duration for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged except through the instrument of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores."

And you can just forget about opposition to confiscatory taxation. According to Buckley, conservatives had to become apologists for "the extensive and productive tax laws that are needed to support a vigorous anti-Communist foreign policy" and the "large armies and air forces, atomic energy, central intelligence, war production boards and the attendant centralization of power in Washington even with Truman at the reins of it all."

In the name of the emergency in order to smash a terrorist conspiracy against Western civilization conservatives were asked to drop their domestic agenda in favor of a foreign crusade. Most of them willingly obliged. But with the "emergency" finally over, and a host of pressing economic and social problems that had long been festering, most conservatives were with Pat Buchanan, at least in spirit, when he declared it was time for America to come home.

The rumblings on the Right started in the early 1990s, when King George the first launched Gulf War I: most conservatives went along, but a few dissented and there was not much real enthusiasm for America's first major post-cold war intervention, on the right or on the liberal-left.

By the time President Clinton decided to attack Yugoslavia a nation that had never attacked us, and that was fighting the Islamic extremists we are fighting today most on the Right were thoroughly sick of America's globalist pretensions. The Kosovo war was bitterly opposed by many conservatives, and a Republican-controlled House refused to support it. Bill Kristol and the Weekly Standard crowd threw up their hands in disgust, at that point, and declared that they just might leave the Republican party.

More importantly, many conservatives began to rediscover their anti-imperialist heritage and they began to read the writings of the heretofore buried and forgotten writers of a bygone era: their intellectual ancestors of the 1930s, 40s, and early 50s. John T. Flynn, Garet Garrett, Frank Chodorov, and the biggest peace movement in American history. No, not the leftwing hippies of the 1960s, but the America First Committee, that fought against Franklin Delano Roosevelt's rush to get us into the European war – founded in 1940 by buttoned-down conservative businessmen, and nearly a million strong.

The end of the cold war meant that conservatives would inevitably turn away from the Jacksonian and even Wilsonian adventurism that formerly characterized their foreign policy views, and return to their Jeffersonian roots. They began to realize that you can't get rid of big government if you have to run a global empire.

The neocons, for their part, began to hive off into their own sectarian grouplet, obsessed with visions of "national greatness," entranced with the presidential possibilities of John McCain and increasingly irrelevant.

It was a great day, but, unfortunately, it didn't last.

9/11 was a godsend to the neocons. Like a dying vampire that has been given a transfusion of human blood, their movement, which had been in the doldrums, and about to expire, was given a new lease on life. Their twin totems American military might projected abroad, and the sanctity of the U.S.-Israeli alliance were suddenly back in style. Their hatreds of Islam, of so-called "isolationist" sentiment on the right as well as the left were much easier targets. And, best of all, from their point of view, war was on the horizon. Nothing perks up a neocon faster than the prospect of blood: for him, it is like coffee in the morning.

It also meant that the neocons were back in demand as theoreticians, pundits, and purveyors of ideas. The money, the perks, and the prestige began to roll in it was just like old times again. And they wouldn't let this opportunity slip out of their fingers, either. An entire theoretical edifice was created, 9/11 was mythologized as the genesis of a new era, and a new cold war was declared in which the enemy was "radical Islam" or, in many cases, just plain old Islam, per se.

The national emergency was back on again, after a hiatus of a little more than a decade, and conservatives were once again asked to make the same Buckleyite-Faustian bargain: give up your principles, your antipathy to big and intrusive government, your opposition to high tax rates, your devotion to the Constitution in the name of the "war on terrorism."

Communism is dead, but "Islamism" lives! A whole new ideological edifice has been constructed around this concept, one that has all the familiar cold war elements a conspiracy international in scope, an "axis of evil" instead of the Eastern Bloc, a religion that takes the form of an ideology, rather than an ideology that shares many aspects of religion. To top it off, the Islamic threat, like the Commie threat before it, is counterposed not only to Western concepts of "democracy" and modernity, but also to Israel.

The post-9/11 atmosphere has been the perfect time for the neocons to make their mark, and achieve many of their longstanding political goals: they have certainly moved very quickly and effectively. We are on the brink of war with Iraq but that is just the beginning as far as they are concerned. Last year, a whole platoon of them signed a statement issued by the "Project for a New American Century," Bill Kristol's foreign policy thinktank, that had a much longer list of nations belonging to the "axis of evil," and proposing that they ALL be taken out: not only Iraq, but also Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia. This idea is elaborated in a book being touted by the neo-imperialists as their manifesto: Michael Ledeen's The War Against the Terror Masters.

If you want to see a virtual blueprint of the world as it will be when the neocons get through with it, you have merely to take a look at the second half of Ledeen's book, wherein his plans for the Middle East are laid out. Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt all will fall before the power of what he calls America's "creative destruction." That tens of thousands of lives will be destroyed along with the cultural and material foundations of a civilization far older than our own is nothing to him.

The intellectual foundations of this madness were laid down in the immediate post-cold war period: an article by Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan, "Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy," called for the U.S. to set up a "benevolent global hegemony," basically arguing that we must achieve military and political dominance on every continent and actively seek to prevent any nation from becoming even a regional power. With the ascension of King George II to the American throne, this wacky and dangerous theory has become U.S. policy and its first application is in the Middle East, where the President and his neocon advisors are determined to carve out the first overseas provinces of an Empire ruled directly from Washington.

So, what's wrong with any of this, anyway? Why should anyone be opposed to American "world hegemony" after all, it's "benevolent," isn't it? We're a democracy, aren't we, and we're carrying the torch of liberalism and tolerance all across the globe. Who could object to that?

As a libertarian, and as an American, I object to it on the grounds that it is corrupting, in every sense of the word. An empire would subvert the moral, cultural, political, and economic foundations of our republic, and turn us into something we are not: a cruel race of conquerors blinded by hubris and a danger to one and all including ourselves. Let me take these various corruptions in reverse order:

1) Empires are hugely expensive. And the American variety is an odd creature indeed, the only empire in all of human history in which, as Garet Garrett put it, "everything goes out and nothing comes in." Garrett called it "the Empire of the Bottomless Purse," back in 1951, and so it is today, only more so. What other nation in history has gone abroad, not in search of loot, but in order to "nation-build"? We had no sooner defeated Germany and Japan then we launched a massive aid program designed to reconstruct their economy at the expense of American taxpayers. Of course, the Marshall Plan wasn't a totally selfless endeavor: some economic interests, notably exporters, certain investment banks and a few oligarchs of high finance raked in plenty of dough on account of the Marshall Plan, but for the great American majority it was a net loss.

An Empire is a great engine powered by taxation and fueled by bank credit expansion, otherwise known as inflation. In this way, income is redistributed from the middle classes to the rich and the very poor, a vast system of social welfare schemes is set up to subsidize the proletarians and the aristocrats, while ordinary working people pay for it all. In an imperial system which is constantly under attack, from enemies within as well as without "national security" always trumps economic logic, and centralization is the order of the day. The system favors bigness, regulations are written so as to keep others out of the market, and the most productive are not rewarded. Instead, a good deal of their income is confiscated by taxation and bank credit expansion, and those who produce nothing are rewarded: the welfare bum sitting on the curb, and the investment banker whose holdings are magically expanded by government fiat every time the Federal Reserve speeds up the printing presses.

2) Politically, this means a federal government expanded so far beyond the original vision of the Founding Fathers that it would be unrecognizable to them, if they came to life suddenly, as anything other than some nightmarish tyranny. As the great turn of the 19th century liberal Randolph Bourne put it: "War is the health of the State," and each major war in our history has been the occasion for a great leap forward in the power and scope of government. The multiplication and empowerment of myriad federal agencies, the centralization of the decision-making process in Washington, the elevation of the office of President to near Napoleonic heights these trends have been birthed and brought to maturity in wartime.

An imperial state may seem practically immune from foreign invasion although 9/11 forcefully debunked this myth but it is very prone to be conquered from within by two sorts of enemies: big money and foreign lobbyists, often working in tandem. That is precisely what is happening in this instance, as we face a War Party fueled by big money interests that is motivated by a passion for Israel's cause.

Who will benefit from this war? First and foremost Israel. We are solemnly told that the whole world is threatened by Saddam's alleged possession of "weapons of mass destruction" but is this true? Of course not. Whatever missiles he has still functioning have a range of no more than 400 miles barely enough to reach Tel Avi. For that, and not Hoboken, New Jersey, is surely their target. When the first body bags come home from the Iraq war, and the dead are buried, let the following be carved on their tombstones: He died for Israel!

And so, under an imperial system, the government is first bloated beyond recognition, and then subverted by the Money Power and the wiles of foreign lobbyists. They come seeking favors, prostrating themselves before the throne of the American Caesar while their henchmen wheel and deal behind the scenes, ensuring their victory.

We don't have to look very far to see the influence of the Money Power in manipulating us into war. Exxon-Mobil, the oil majors, British Petroleum, Haliburton (Dick Cheney's old company), the burgeoning "homeland security" industry that profits from government efforts to spy on us – the whole Military-Industrial Complex is now becoming the only growth sector in an economy dragged down by war, fear, and crushing taxation.

3) Not much has been said or written about the cultural consequences of the rise of empire. To get an idea of what is happening to American culture, today, you have to go back and read Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Tacitus, or any of the historians of Rome's long descent. Petronius seems so up to date. We are living the American Satyricon, a tale not only of extravagant hedonism, but also of mindless cruelty, overweening vanity, and a prideful vulgarity that characterizes our culture at every level, from the academy to the streets.

Just as coercion introduces distortion and malinvestment in the economy, wherever and whenever government intervenes in the market, so it creates a similar effect in the cultural and social life of the nation. The unworthy become disgustingly wealthy, the worst ambitions are rewarded, and the scum rises to the top of the pond. The resulting distortion is not only economic but cultural, as these values are infused into the arts, entertainment, and the everyday life of ordinary people.

In Rome, they fed people to the lions, and staged extravaganzas of sadistic cruelty as popular entertainment: today, the same sadistic streak is the leitmotif of our culture, as violence for its own sake preoccupies the American imagination not only on television, but in real life. Last month, within an eight week period at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, five murders were committed by Special Operations soldiers returning from Afghanistan they killed their wives, brutally beating, strangling, and mangling them, as if possessed by some demonic force. An investigation into the "causes" of this phenomenon is now underway, but permit me to advance my own theory: that the violence unleashed in America's foreign wars is rebounding back here, in our own country. This is how the quest for Empire corrupts us as a people.

4) Morally, what can we say about a nation that allows its government to rampage across the globe, killing and maiming and calling it "liberation"? What can we say about the character of a people that allows itself to be cowed into submission by hectoring ideologues, and surrenders its freedoms, its honor, and its heritage so easily? How can we measure the moral degeneration of a country that has come so far from its origins as to completely betray and overthrow the principles on which it was founded?

What lies at the end of this road is complete moral as well as political corruption. The war is a fateful turn. The day we set foot on Iraqi soil will mark the end of our old republican form of government, and the beginning of a long, slow descent into the bone-yard of empires.

In 1952, Garet Garrett, a writer of great talent, published a little-noticed pamphlet that prophesized this moment as if he had seen it in a dream:

"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.'"

– 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.