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The Issue is Empire

My commonsense definition of a republic is a free society that is, and feels itself to be, “of the people, by the people, for the people.”  My definition of the modern American condition is the enthronement “of the foreign oil, by the military, for the corporate class.”” target=”undefined”>Chalmers Johnson

     Three key points, please, to get started. 

     First, these symptoms and sorrows of empire are out there in plain sight, and easy to enumerate. 

     Second, plain-speaking thinkers well to the right and others well to the left describe the crisis in almost exactly the same terms.  Susan Sontag sounds shockingly like Pat Buchanan.  On the empire issue,” target=”undefined”>Norman Mailer” target=”undefined”>Kevin Phillips” target=”undefined”>Niall Ferguson” target=”undefined”>”The American empire has a big problem. Not only do Americans not recognize the true character of their own predicament—that un-splendid isolation against which Lord Salisbury warned the Victorian imperialists. The rest of the world now regards the United States as not just an empire but now an evil empire.”

     And third, it’s only the vast, increasingly mindless middle of our media and our politics that refuses to engage the empire question–which refuses, that is, to acknowledge the sad, sore, sinking, pit-of-the-stomach sense that the best of our old American birthright is in jeopardy.

     American imperial adventure is not, of course, brand new.  What is eternally new about empire, however, is the erasure of memory, the air of innocence, the self-deception that says the emergency or the opportunity at hand is unique and inescapable.  In” target=”undefined”>The Folly of Empire: What George W. Bush Could Learn from Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson

     “Only a president deeply ignorant of the past and what it teaches could journey to the Philippines in 2003 and declare that a century ago Americans had ‘liberated the Philippines from colonial rule.’ America’s decision to invade and occupy Iraq wasn’t, of course, a direct result of this misreading of the past. If Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney or Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, the administration’s leading neoconservative, had been aware of the brutal war America had fought in the Philippines, or of Wilson’s misadventures in Mexico, or of the blighted history of Western imperialism in the Mideast, they might still have invaded Iraq. But they also might have had second or even third or fourth thoughts about what Bush, echoing… the imperialists of a century ago, would call ‘a historic opportunity to change the world.'”” target=”undefined”>Chalmers Johnson’s list

     In blatant violation of the United States Constitution, Johnson continues, we have allowed vast appropriations for the Pentagon and the CIA to be hidden from public inspection.  We have tolerated the presidential preemption of Congress in the declaration of war–not just the war on Iraq but the eternal war to nail the last terrorist on earth.  And we seem to have abandoned Thomas Jefferson’s “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.”

     Because empire always expresses itself in culture as well as politics, I would add to my list of current symptoms: a public psychology of domination and humiliation, made visible in the pictures from Abu Ghraib; a political pretense of permanent emergency; a quasi-official theology of sectarian militancy, starting at home; a popular culture of witless borrowing and vulgarity; and a popular journalism (in the radio rant style) of hysteria, commercialism and partisan propaganda. 

     Empire commits us to the continual violation of our own standards.  It enshrines hypocrisy as the norm.  Here is the” target=”undefined”>Pat Buchanan

     “Empire requires an unshakeable belief in the superiority of one’s own race, religion, and civilization and an iron resolve to fight to impose that faith and civilization upon other peoples. We are not that kind of people. Never have been. Americans, who preach the equality of all races, creeds, and cultures, are, de facto, poor imperialists. When we attempt an imperial role as in the Philippines or Iraq, we invariably fall into squabbling over whether a republic should be imposing its ideology on another nation. A crusade for democracy is a contradiction in terms.”” target=”undefined”> Susan Sontag

     In his new book, the rightist” target=”undefined”>Pat Buchanan

     First, on the unilateralist Bush Doctrine issued in September, 2002.  It is “a prescription for permanent war for permanent peace, though wars are the death of republics,” Buchanan

     Second, on the war on Iraq: “…listening to the neoconservatives, Bush invaded Iraq, united the Arab world against us, isolated us from Europe, and fulfilled to the letter bin Laden’s prophecy as to what we were about. We won the war in three weeks — and we may have lost the Islamic world for a generation.” 

     And third, on the war on terrorism: “U.S. dominance of the Middle East is not the corrective to terror. It is a cause of terror. Were we not over there, the 9/11 terrorists would not have been over here… Terrorism is the price of empire. If we do not wish to pay it, we must give up the empire.”

     In a remarkable feat of newspaper journalism,” target=”undefined”>Jay Bookman

     In the Nation magazine’s GOP convention issue,” target=”undefined”>Jonathan Schell

     “…the recent fortunes of the United States have been anything but triumphal. The President’s policies have failed to check the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The entire ‘axis of evil,’ consisting, according to the President, of Iraq, Iran and North Korea, continues to defy his administration in one way or another. In Iraq, the Marines are now at war with the Shiite community the United States supposedly came to save. North Korea has allegedly become a nuclear power, and Iran seems to be heading that way. The traditional alliances of the United States have been shaken. After 9/11, editorialists asked, ‘Why do they hate us?’ Whatever the reasons, ‘they’ have multiplied to include most of the world.”

     Schell continues:

     “In the twentieth century, the peoples of the earth insisted on taking charge of their own countries. Their rebellions were successful against all empires, from the British to the Soviet, every one of which has fallen.

     “In the face of nuclear stalemate at the apex of the global system and universal rebellion at the base, can any imperial project now succeed? What we may in fact be witnessing is not just a contest between an American empire and its particular colonial targets but a final showdown between the imperial idea and what I like to call an unconquerable world, meaning a world that has the will and the means to reject any imperial yoke.

     “Is the United States possibly an imperial power that does not quite possess an empire? Is the American ’empire’ a colossal leftover from a vanishing age?”

     We all seem to know somehow that our country stands in the valley of the shadow of something awful in this 2004 election.  At the heart of our anxiety is not our vulnerability in the world but our power.  It’s this threshhold of empire, which may only be crossed once, that makes this perhaps a world-historical moment.   So how do we put the empire question at the center of the presidential debate?

{ 31 } Comments

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