Tired of Empire?

Last week I wrote about some of the reasons it is just possible that we won’t see another major imperial military adventure during the Bushlet’s second term. The reasons ranged from the second-term blues that afflicts most two-term presidencies, to the resources tied up (or tied down) in Iraq, to the fact that North Korea and Iran are moving toward at least the credible threat of possibly having nuclear weapons, to sagging morale and recruitment problems in the military, especially the National Guard and the reserves.

At the risk of being declared hopelessly deluded, I’d like to extend the thought to suggest that while the United States certainly presides over what by any reasonable definition must be accounted an empire, I suspect that the imperial era will not last all that long. The American people, I suggest, are simply not made of especially stern imperial stuff.

Neocons and nostalgics who still see America picking up the imperial baton from the late and lamented British empire might dream of eternal hegemony and a series of splendid little wars. As they have demonstrated, under certain conditions they can get a critical mass, and probably even a majority, of the American people to go along with a given war. Many Americans still like to think of the country as a pure-hearted avatar of democracy facilitated by force of arms. And many Americans can get downright bloodthirsty (at least vicariously, in that they hang flags on houses and root our "brave boys" on to slaughter) for a while. Indeed, some are bloodthirsty most of the time, ever looking (again, vicariously most of the time) for some villain to kick the crap out of.

But most Americans will not put up with perpetual war for perpetual peace forever. They prefer something resembling real peace, and they’re fond of the material goods that peace and prosperity bring. I say that not critically but with something resembling critical neutrality. Wanting a better television set, a bigger house, or more books might not seem as lofty in some eyes as panting after the glories of world domination or spreading democracy among the benighted of the world. But people who want such things seldom systematically attack the freedoms of others or the countries of others on behalf of their bourgeois desires.

I’m not sure I can prove this. But I have lived in, traveled around, and observed this country with great interest and affection for almost all of my 60-plus years, and I have been a semiprofessional observer for the last 25 years as a daily journalist on a major newspaper. These are impressions, and I’ll take full responsibility if they’re wrong – and I’m more than open to people who can give me reasons to correct or alter them. But they’re not entirely off-the-cuff.

Lack of Imperial Lust

Back in the day, many Britons of notable talent and ambition considered a lifetime of service to the empire overseas to be not only thinkable but desirable. The colonies often provided more opportunity not just for adventure, but for personal enrichment – not to mention a better climate – than the potty little island from which the imperial majesties oversaw the empire on which the sun supposedly never set. It was not unusual for entire families to spend most of their lives overseas – most notably in India, but elsewhere as well – and to think of England as the homeland to which they would retire, preferably with enough money to buy a little country house that could be passed along to descendants.

The privileged and aristocratic in England were trained to think of service to the empire as an obligation, and many of them took the responsibility seriously and sincerely. Many of those who were not so privileged saw military or foreign civil service as a ladder to increased respectability and better economic prospects than they could look forward to if they stayed home.

While there are a few Americans with that kind of wanderlust or desire to spend considerable time in foreign lands, there aren’t all that many, and few who have a real interest in other countries see joining the military as the best way to do it. Most Americans with international interests would rather spend some time traveling hippie-style for a while, getting involved in international business, or making enough money to travel abroad in style.

In the 19th century, our aristocrats within the putative democracy thought it was important that their children take the Grand Tour of Europe to soak up a little sense of tradition and culture and polish their social skills. But few American aristocrats today see Europe as the necessary source of class and polish. Our own country is simply too big, too powerful, and possessed of too many natural wonders and fascinating people for most Americans to have the mild cultural inferiority complex that led so many Americans back then to seek cultural validation, or a little polish on the crudeness of their instant fortunes, in Europe.

Military Attitudes

Many of these attitudes, which some deride as isolationist or parochial, extend to the American military. Again, there are some who seek long careers in the military and think spending a lot of time abroad would be attractive. And there are some, perhaps spiritual descendants of those who participated in what Max Boot calls The Savage Wars of Peace, who simply can’t get enough of battle and conflict. But they are not the majority, even in the military.

Even in our volunteer military – populated mostly by people who want to be there, some of whom may well love combat for the adrenaline rush or whatever – most military people think about returning home from approximately the minute they are deployed overseas. We don’t have many permanent outposts suitable for families, especially in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, so most of those deployed there are separated from their loved ones. Extended tours tend to be viewed with dismay rather than enthusiasm. So far, such news has been greeted with resignation rather than mutinous rumblings, but it hasn’t done much for military morale or recruiting efforts.

The reasons for such attitudes are not difficult to understand. While there are a few military bases overseas where a junior officer can live like a pasha – a ski resort or two in Europe, some of the more tropical bases – for the most part, stateside berths are preferable. The fact that the U.S. empire doesn’t include more than a few outright colonies means there are not as many places for the imperial overseers to gather and be among their own kind, as was the case with the British in India, while still enjoying elements of the exotic. Even in relatively desirable overseas postings, bringing families along involves extra costs and periodic uprooting of children from schools and circles of friends.

These are among the reasons Niall Ferguson, in his book Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire, frets that the United States (which has an abiding illusion, despite World War II and Vietnam, that overseas problems can almost always be handled with a quick and decisive military thrust that kills or neutralizes the bad guys and leaves us free to return home and pretend we had nothing to do with the messy aftermath) will simply not be able to maintain the imperial burden that has been thrust upon it. Indeed, the paperback edition of his book (I’m almost done, and it’s worth reading as the work of someone sympathetic to empires but fairly clear-eyed about what it takes to maintain one) is subtitled "The Rise and Decline of America’s Empire."

Thy Will Be Weak

Add to all this the fact that barely two years after President Bush declared "mission accomplished," and with nation-building amid insurgency still underway, polls are showing most Americans convinced that the Iraq war was not worth the cost in lives and money.

To be sure, the Wall Street Journal, National Review, and the Weekly Standard run occasional articles trying to highlight all the progress being made in Iraq (and Afghanistan) that the "mainstream" media are missing or reporting only sporadically. But while some of these stories of progress are true, and while it still seems possible that the U.S. will be able to hand over governance to something resembling a functioning Iraqi government that is at least somewhat representative, it would be difficult to say the the insurgency is close to being put down or even that the U.S. has anything resembling an accurate handle on how to assess the condition of the insurgency.

To most Americans, that doesn’t look like success or even something that makes the grade in a rough cost-benefit analysis. An attack on American soil could change matters considerably, of course, but at present it looks as if it will be difficult to sell the public on a major military adventure soon. For that matter, it will be difficult to sell the American military on the idea.

It is up to us, those who see war as undesirable on a number of levels – not out of a knee-jerk or ideological response, to build on what is at present a healthy skepticism about getting too deeply entangled in the affairs of foreigners we Americans don’t understand and quite frankly don’t much care to understand. I contend that we have a climate in which it is possible to persuade many or most Americans, including many among various elites, that the U.S. would do better avoiding conflict and trading with foreigners rather than killing them, and that a policy shift in this direction is desirable.

It won’t be the work of a day or a month or a year. But I think the case is quite strong that whereas the United States is bound to be a world power with great global influence, it is ill-suited to be an effective imperial power – and that dabbling further in imperial dreams is likely to undermine the freedoms that have made the country so prosperous and powerful. I still think most Americans agree with us.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).