The un-American Empire

Is America an imperialist country? The Left has long said so. Recently, some “conservatives” have unsurprisingly found the term “ideologically loaded” and suggested it be “retired” from textbooks and, thus “'imperialism' as a characterization of America's modern rise to world power is giving way to 'expansionism,'” reports Brett Michael Dykes (U.S. history textbooks could soon be flavored heavily with Texas conservatism). But these same “conservatives” are also arguing that “Thomas Jefferson [be] no longer included among writers influencing the nation's intellectual origins,” so it appears theirs is a campaign to rewrite American history as “ideologically loaded” as any ever carried out by the Left.

However, there is a much more interesting conservation happening about terms like “empire” and “imperialist” among the factions now coalescing to form what may be a broad-based movement reminiscent of the American Anti-Imperialist Leagueand the America First Committeefrom the turn and middle of the last century. David R. Henderson, writing about the recent conference titled “Across the Political Spectrum Against War and Militarism” (The Left-Right Conference on War), reported, “When Paul Buhle, an historian and, in the 1960s, the editor ofRadical America, the magazine of Students for a Democratic Society, proposed that anti-Imperialism be replaced with anti-Empire, [conservative William] Lind agreed vigorously.”

Kevin Zeese in his report on the sameVoters for Peace-sponsored “meeting of 40 people from across the political spectrum who oppose war and Empire” (Time for a Broad-Based Antiwar Movement), observed:

“Some conservatives warned against describing the United States as imperialist that would get up the hackles of many Americans. But, they were comfortable describing the United States as an empire.

“Personally, I found that of interest. Americans never hear discussed in the media whether or not our country is an empire. And, if we were to have such a discussion, the critical questions would be: Is empire good for us, for our national security, for our economy, for our democracy? Having those questions debated would be a breakthrough in political dialogue.” [Emphasis mine.]

That there exists an American Empire seems an undeniable reality. What Chalmers Johnson described in 2004 as “an empire of bases” then consisted of “702 overseas bases in about 130 countries” in addition to the “6,000 bases in the United States and its territories” (America's Empire of Bases). William Pfaff this year updated the numbers and added that “the United States now has 1.25 million service men and women on active duty, 700,000 civilians in service and supporting roles, and… an unknown number of private and foreign mercenaries… on 800 to 1,000 bases scattered about the world” (A Duped President's Wasted Foreign-Policy Year). The American Empire is thus a given.

Then, is what seems to be a logical extension of that reality, that America is thus an imperialist power, a point that is up for debate?What are these latter, truer conservatives getting at? Isn't a country with an empireipso factoan imperialist country? Perhaps not. The answer to that question may be found by answering the questions raised by the man of the left, Mr. Zeese, as to whether “empire good for us, for our national security, for our economy, for our democracy.”

Is empire good for our national security?

Mr. Pfaff, in the article mentioned above, answered Mr. Zeese's question about national security: “The Americans who today are actually at risk from dangers that have a foreign origin are these hundreds of thousands of people stationed around the world, intervening in the political affairs of other societies.” This “intervening in the political affairs of other societies” also serves to make the world hate us and make Americans less safe at home and abroad. Switzerland has never maintained a military presence in 130 countries and does not seem to have suffered much as a consequence.

The “fight-them-there-so-we-don't-have-to-fight-them-here” argument is so laughable on its face that it doesn't merit serious debate. It is obvious that the only way “they” can get “here” is by us letting them in, as we did with the 9/11 terrorists, who trained in Florida; obvious, except perhaps to those so fearful and gullible to have actually taken seriously “Iraq's unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) program” (Iraqi Drones May Target U.S. Cities).

“Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course,” said our first president (George Washington's Farewell Address), referring to our geography and the prospects for neutrality it afforded. Geography has not changed much, and this same “detached and distant situation” should be used to our advantage, as it always has in the past. Let us rely on geography, not military interventionism. Fred Reed once noted “Americans cannot always distinguish between military prowess and the Atlantic Ocean” (Confessional). Add to that the Pacific Ocean, and the logical conclusion is that we are relatively free of “dangers that have a foreign origin,” unless, of course, we continue to insist on “intervening in the political affairs of other societies.”

Is empire good for the economy?

Recently answering Mr. Zeese's question was that man of the right, Patrick J. Buchanan, with some rhetorical questions of his own, highlighting the absurdity of the “imperial” arrangement (Liquidating the Empire):

“Indeed, how do conservatives justify borrowing hundreds of billions yearly from Europe, Japan, and the Gulf states to defend Europe, Japan, and the Arab Gulf states? Is it not absurd to borrow hundreds of billion annually from China to defend Asia from China? Is it not a symptom of senility to borrow from all over the world in order to defend that world?”

Another answer to that same question came a few years ago from Ivan Eland (Ungrateful Allies):

“Despite plundering their colonies at gunpoint (for example, the Spanish Empire looted the gold from Latin America) and creating sheltered markets for their goods overseas (for example, British mercantilism), even the formal empires of old were not cost-effective, according to classical economists. The informal U.S. Empire that defends other countries abroad using alliances, military bases, the permanent stationing of U.S. troops on foreign soil, and profligate military interventions is even more cost-ineffective. U.S. forces cannot plunder, and rich allies, such as South Korea, excessively restrict their markets to U.S. goods and services.”

Justin Raimondo made the observation that empire is part of “the framework of an international economic system in which the division of labor is roughly as follows: while Asia is the factory of the world, South America the farmland, and Europe increasingly a theme park/museum, the U.S. role is that of world gendarme” (Our Chief Industry: War). Just how being “world gendarme” can sustain a nation of 300 million has never been explained by the supporters of empire. In fact, as the economy tanks, in large part due to taxes to feed the empire, and with fewer and fewer jobs available, more young people will find themselves with no other choice but to become “world gendarmes” in our much-touted “all-volunteer” military. The interests of empire and the economy are clearly at odds.

Is empire good for our democracy?

Finally, to answer Mr. Zeese's last question (leaving aside the point that our country was founded as arepublic), it may be best to turn to the warnings from great Americans of the past. “The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is, in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connexion as possible,” said the Father of Our Country (George Washington's Farewell Address). He continued, “It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” We have had bases in some countries for sixty-five years, that is, for almost one-third of the years that have passed since our first president issued his warning!

Our third president advised us to pursue “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none” (Jefferson's First Inaugural Address). The wisest of our founders, the Anti-Federalists, took their anti-militarism even further. “I abominate and detest the idea of government, where there is a standing army,” said George Mason (Standing Armies And Armed Citizens: An Historical Analysis of The Second Amendment). “Let us then enquire, whether standing armies in time of peace, would be ever beneficial to our country or if in some extraordinary cases, they might be necessary; whether it is not true, that they have generally proved a scourge to a country, and destructive of their liberty,” said another pseudonymous anti-federalist (Brutus on the Evils of Standing Armies). He continued, “The idea that there is no danger of the establishment of a standing army, under the new constitution, is without foundation.”

Less than eight score years later, a president whose very name brings to mind the pragmatic conservatism of the country during the years of his service starkly warned us, “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex” (Eisenhower's Farewell Address to the Nation). Say the words “military-industrial complex” (M.I.C.) today and one is marginalized as a radical and exiled from the political conversation. Ike continued:

The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

What is it good for?

Empire, like Edwin Starr's War, is “good for… absolutely nothing… Say it again, y'all!”

We can answer a resounding “No! No! No! No!” to Mr. Zeese's question: “Is empire good for us, for our national security, for our economy, for our democracy?” Empire may be good for the M.I.C. that Ike warned us about, but it's no good for the U.S.A., or, if you prefer, as I do,America. Empire is un-American! If empire were good for America, Americans would embrace it. But, as Jeff Taylor suggested in his report on the “Across the Political Spectrum Against War and Militarism” conference (Everybody Against Empire), they do not:

“Muscular American imperialism is not a winning issue for any political party. Politicians usually cloak their imperial designs while campaigning because the idea of expending American blood and money in obscure places halfway around the world does not appeal to average Americans. They care far more about practical domestic issues. The U.S. government acting as policeman of the world has never been a popular idea among Americans. It is costly and implies that our own society has reached such a state of perfection that we can easily afford to look elsewhere for problems to solve. Meddling in other people's affairs creates enemies and can actually make our own people less safe. There is a difference between being a helpful big brother and being an arrogant empire. Even if we concede the existence of good intentions on the part of our government, perception becomes reality for people in the rest of the world.”

Is America an imperialist country?

To return to the question that began this essay, we must ask,Cui bono? For America to be considered an imperialist country, it stands to reason that the country would benefit from empire. But it does not. The M.I.C. is not our country.

That patriot of “Little England” G.K. Chesterton said more than a century ago: “The British Empire may annex what it likes, it will never annex England. It has not even discovered the island, let alone conquered it” (Tremendous Trifles).

Can patriots of “Little America” be so optimistic? It often seems that we are, by and large, a conquered people. We are not imperialists, but rather victims of imperialism. It is the blood and treasure of the American people that is being drained to sustain this very un-American Empire.

But rather than succumb to despair in facing off against a seemingly unstoppable enemy, let us remember Justin Raimondo's reminder that all we are up against amounts to nothing more than “a conditioned reflex, a couple of catch-phrases, and Fox News” (The War Party: A Paper Tiger). We have it in our power to save our country and bring this un-American Empire down.

End the un-American Empire!

[First published onLewRockwell.com.]

An American Catholic son-in-law of Korea, Joshua Snyder lives with his wife and two children in Pohang, where he lectures English at a science and technology university. He blogs at The Western Confucian.