Is America going the way of Rome? David Walker, the comptroller general of the U.S., has issued a report that basically answers in the affirmative: "The U.S. government is on a ‘burning platform’ of unsustainable policies and practices," Walker avers, including "fiscal deficits" and "overseas military commitments threatening a crisis if action is not taken soon." If we continue on our present course, Walker warns, we are in for "dramatic" tax hikes, a radical reduction in government "services," and "the large-scale dumping by foreign governments of holdings of U.S. debt." The Chinese certainly concur with that last prediction.
"Sound familiar?" asks Walker. It ought to, he contends, because we are going down the path the ancient Romans took. There are, he says, "striking similarities," including "declining moral values and political civility at home, an overconfident and overextended military in foreign lands, and fiscal irresponsibility by the central government."
"In my view," says Walker, "it’s time to learn from history and take steps to ensure the American Republic is the first to stand the test of time."
The GAO is as close to an objective, nonpartisan agency as the U.S. government or any government could create. It regularly assesses the impact of government policies and legislation passed by Congress, and it is relied on as the final arbiter in matters having to do with the fiscal health of the nation. Our present path, says the GAO report, is "unsustainable," and we can look to Rome as an example of what happens when a republic morphs into an empire: yes, Rome lasted a thousand years, but only half that as a republic, and the second half of its history was generally on a downward path, filled with wars, both civil and foreign, tyrants, and disastrous economic policies, ending, finally, in the sack of Rome by the emperor’s mercenaries.
Walker is hardly the first to draw the parallels between the Roman and American empires: some of us have been making this argument for years. Yet if even our government officials are now telling us that we are on the road to ruin, then shouldn’t we examine the ominous parallels a bit further?
Edward Gibbon, the famous historian of Roman decline, struck a note similar to Walker’s in his multi-volume narrative detailing the decline and fall of the city on the Tiber. “The decline of Rome," he maintained, "was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight."
"Immoderate greatness" now there‘s a phrase that trenchantly and succinctly captures our national ailment. A while ago, the neoconservative blowhards who brought us the Iraq war were promoting their newest nostrum, which they called "national greatness" but what, one wondered, could such a concept mean? David Brooks opined that it might mean building huge, ornate government buildings, such as the Library of Congress. But that benign imagery soon gave way to a darker vision. As columnist Jim Pinkerton put it in a piece on the takeover of the GOP by neoconservative ideologues:
"They have no interest in a minimalist Goldwaterian state; it’s ‘National Greatness’ they crave. These neocons once opined that such greatness might be found in majestic monuments. David Brooks in a 1997 Weekly Standard piece on ‘A Return to National Greatness’ waxed lyrical over the Library of Congress as the embodiment of ‘brassy aspirations of Americans’ and ‘their brash assertion that America was emerging as a world-historical force.’ But after futilely casting about for opportunities on the home front, neocons have settled on the idea that greatness comes from fighting foreign wars."
Pinkerton also recalled the words of Richard Perle, the most obnoxiously aggressive defender of our crazed foreign policy, who took us further down the road to immoderate greatness by declaring, in the wake of 9/11: "This is total war. If we just let our vision of the world go forth our children will sing great songs about us years from now."
Yes, great songs about bankruptcy, arrogance, and how pride goeth before a fall: anthems of faded imperial glory, ballads bemoaning an overweening hubris, and tragic elegies to a legacy of liberty betrayed.
Empires are expensive, and the American imperium is unique in that, as Garet Garrett wrote in 1950, it might be described as "the Empire of the Bottomless Purse," because "everything goes out and nothing comes in." The Romans exacted tribute on their client states and local satraps: we, on the other hand, pay tribute to our "allies," such as Israel and Egypt, the two biggest recipients of U.S. aid (number one and number two, respectively). We are currently fighting a war in Iraq the cost of which will eventually total in the trillions, and there is no end in sight, as the new movie of that title quite accurately puts it.
With a global network of bases, entangling alliances, and long-standing informal military commitments, the U.S. government must finance, maintain, and defend so much that it has reached the limit of its once-considerable resources. We can’t have an empire and maintain our republican character. It is one or the other. This is the essence of Walker’s warning, and one that politicians in both parties will do anything to ignore, since their careers depend on promising the moon. The conceit of our Washington-based elites, their image of themselves as world-conquering, world-saving leaders, who are making history instead of heeding its lessons, prevents them from seeing the oncoming catastrophe. Yet the day of reckoning is at hand
I have always been suspicious although, perhaps, skeptical is a better word of all forms of catastrophism, i.e. the belief that the natural process of history is ushering in an ultimate confrontation between the Forces of Good and the Forces of Evil, a vision of Armageddon that seemed to have more to do with religious belief than empirical observation. Marxism had this built-in mechanism whereby the very nature of the capitalist system which had implanted within it the seeds of its own destruction ensured the triumph of communism.
That, as we have seen, proved false, and I have been just as wary of the libertarian form of catastrophism, which predicts that the expansion of the money supply by the Federal Reserve and the growth of government spending will eventually bring the whole structure of the welfare-warfare state down, and usher in what? A libertarian utopia? Here is where my skepticism kicks in: the result, in my view, is much more likely to be enhanced state authority, and even a new American authoritarianism, coupled with violent upheavals at home and abroad.
Yet this new GAO report lends credibility to the catastrophist scenario, although my contention that the impending disaster is likely to lead to our undoing as a nation remains unchanged. In the past, we have always muddled through somehow. This time, it looks like we might not.
Gibbon has much to teach us, but I have to dissent from his Spenglerian "organic" paradigm of over-ripeness, which posits that prosperity necessarily sets a process of decay in motion: there is no inherent reason why we have to fall from the dizzying heights we’ve reached. We can choose to take another road, away from the conceits of empire and toward reclaiming and restoring our heritage as an explicitly anti-imperialist power, one that abjures the temptations of conquest and avoids falling victim to the excesses of "immoderate greatness."
This entails, first and foremost, giving up our dreams of overseas empire and reining in the delusional ideologues who have seized control of American foreign policy. It means not only withdrawing from Iraq, but also rethinking the very concept of "national greatness" as being inextricably tied to a policy of perpetual war. True greatness, as opposed to the currently fashionable definition, means recognizing our limits: our neoconservative advocates of "benevolent global hegemony" have confused greatness with megalomania.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
The response to our summer fundraising campaign has, so far, been better than I expected but, then again, as the above no doubt illustrates, I tend toward pessimism. And I have to say that the response could be better, especially given the current situation, what with the neocons’ Iraqi adventure imploding before our eyes and the prospect of a new war, with Iran, darkening the horizon.
So I want to send this message to all my readers and especially those who are regular visitors to this space: you can do better than this; I know you can.
It’s important that you act, because we don’t have a whole lot of time. If we don’t, somehow, force U.S. troops out of Iraq, either by defunding the war or by some other act of Congress, the conflict will spread. The War Party is eager to launch an attack on Iran, and if they succeed in doing so, all bets are off. The catastrophic vision outlined above national bankruptcy, the massive dumping of U.S. debt securities by foreign creditors, and an economic downturn that would make the Great Depression look like a Sunday school picnic is all too possible. We aren’t just talking about a war in a faraway place that has nothing to do with your own life and fate: the consequences of our wrong-headed foreign policy of relentless aggression and puffed-up hubris will come back to haunt us, and very soon. Perhaps much sooner than any of us think.
So look: you have a choice. You can ignore our pleas for assistance and convince yourself that the crisis won’t impact you and your loved ones but you won’t be exempt when the entire structure of imperial America comes crashing down.
Or you can help prevent the disorder and destruction that is bound to come with the impending blowback by contributing to Antiwar.com today.
No, you won’t get any guarantees. There is no telling if the growing antiwar movement can or will divert us from the coming collision with economic and social reality. But even if we lose, at least you can say to your children and loved ones that you tried, you resisted, you fought the good fight.
What kind of songs will your children sing? Anthems of hope and renewal, or tragic tunes of disillusionment and regret?
The choice is yours to make.