If John McCain wins the Republican presidential nomination, it seems to me that the Democrats have only to show the American people this clip:
That alone would be enough to blow the USS McCain out of the water. What with polls showing [.pdf] that most voters want us out by the end of 2008, McCain has set the GOP up for a very big fall. Aside from the unpopularity of such a view, however, let’s examine McCain’s argument on its merits. After all, we’re in Korea, Europe, and elsewhere, and have been since the end of World War II. What’s wrong with establishing and maintaining a semi-permanent presence in our latest conquered province?
In short, what’s wrong with having an empire?
The main objection is that such a ubiquitous global presence would have to mean constant warfare. Empires, once acquired, must be defended, and surely the current worldwide Islamic insurgency that has declared war on us would be provided with plenty of targets, lots of opportunities for mischief, and more than enough encouragement and support from nationalist elements whose resentment of American hegemony over their lands would swell the ranks of our enemies. Iraq didn’t have a trace of al-Qaeda’s presence prior to the U.S. invasion; today, it is ensconced in that unhappy land. Fifty, one hundred, a thousand years of American occupation will not eliminate that kind of resistance: it’s as natural as the reaction of antibodies to the invasion of a foreign virus.
Second, the occupation of Iraq, by itself, is not sufficient to defend our newly acquired province, since the entire region opposes our presence and forces from neighboring countries pose a threat. Therefore, it’s not surprising that we have targeted Syria and are currently engaged in a propaganda war and a low-level campaign of harassment aimed at the mullahs of Tehran. You can’t just invade a country in the middle of Mesopotamia, plonk down some 150,000 American troops, and wait out the resistance for the next century or so: wars don’t respect national boundaries, and the guerrillas we are fighting are not about to stay put. "Hot pursuit" of Iraq resistance fighters, of whichever faction, will necessarily involve crossing those boundaries and eliminating their "terrorist havens." This means expanding the war until the battlefield eventually encompasses a great deal of the region.
In addition to these strictly military problems, there are a host of political problems that come with the occupation. While the "surge" has supposedly calmed the waters sufficiently to give Iraqis the kind of breathing space required to bring about a political settlement and stave off an incipient Shi’ite-Sunni civil war, Iraqi’s political leaders have not stepped up to the plate nor is there any incentive for them to do so. As long as American troops remain on Iraqi soil as the guarantors of the present regime, the Shi’ites have no reason to reach any sort of accommodation with minority religious and ethnic groups. In spite of all our attempts to influence, pressure, and when it comes down to it bully the Iraqi government, the bottom line is that American troops aren’t leaving any time soon, and the Iraqis know it. We have no leverage, and that means a static political situation with hardly any prospects of improvement.
Which brings us to our main point: when the U.S. invaded Iraq, smashed the Ba’athist state, and established itself as the de facto colonial ruler of the country, we exposed the underlying reality of a Seinfeldian "state" that was and is based on nothing. "Iraq" has no real historical existence or legitimacy, except as a province of first the Ottoman and then the British empire. Under Saddam Hussein, it was held together by state terror and the Ba’athist secret police: in the late Iraqi dictator’s absence, the country has, unsurprisingly, fallen to pieces. Like Humpty Dumpty, it cannot be put back together again, and this is the real reason for the failure to reach a postwar political settlement.
The political turmoil unleashed by the invasion is not, unfortunately, limited to Iraq: as I have pointed out on numerous occasions, the breakup of the Iraqi state has unleashed a virulent strain of Kurdish nationalism. This has impacted every other nation in the region, notably Turkey, which has sent its warplanes in answer. Worse, the implosion of the Iraqi state has given the Iranians the advantage in a regional game of "who’s-the-hegemon," giving rise to what the policy wonks are calling the "Shi’ite crescent" and stoking the fires of religious sectarianism. Iraq’s civil war could easily become a regional cataclysm.
These objections apply not just to Iraq, but to almost any country that we invade, occupy, and reign over. Aggression breeds resistance, and the resistance fighters have an inherent advantage in that we’re on their turf. They will never stop fighting until and unless we leave. John McCain may be looking forward to the prospect of a new Hundred Years’ War, but I find it hard to believe that anyone else in America is.
All of these objections to occupying and administering a foreign country are, by themselves, sufficient reason to oppose the imperial project so beloved by our governing elites. However, for libertarians and for those liberals and conservatives who want to preserve our republican form of government the internal consequences of a quest for empire are particularly heinous.
To begin with, the economic consequences of interventionism make such a policy prohibitive. The United States, which is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, simply cannot afford the luxury of imperialism. When all is said and done, the cost of our Iraq misadventure will approach some $2 trillion to say nothing of what a century of occupation would cost us. It boggles the mind.
And that’s just the direct cost. Indirectly, the price of global hegemony is a lot higher. For the creation of an American empire on which the sun never sets would necessitate a huge diversion of wealth and human resources away from productive use and toward military and other government expenditures. The distortion of the American economy that would result would put wealth in the hands of those with government contracts and good government contacts and political pull would replace entrepreneurial know-how as the coin of the realm.
Furthermore, the diversion of all these resources into essentially unproductive i.e., governmental uses would create a whole new class of tax-eaters whose claim to subsidies is founded on the maintenance and expansion of America’s newfound imperial domain. Right now, the numbers of these colonial administrators and commercial outfits geared to providing "services" such as policing the natives and pandering to the needs of troops and government officials stationed overseas is limited, but it is growing by the day. It won’t be long before they begin organizing politically, and acting like any other interest group that concerns itself chiefly with increasing its "fair share" of U.S. tax dollars.
In addition, this rising class of soldier-administrators will be constantly agitating for a more belligerent foreign policy in the name of "defending" the Empire while always looking for new opportunities to expand the frontiers. Imagine an overseas version of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, but with a Washington lobbying operation much more active in the foreign policy field. I shudder to think of it.
The worst aspect of all this is that once the process of what might be called "imperialization" for lack of a better word is allowed to proceed unchecked and unchallenged, it builds political and social momentum until it is practically unstoppable. Calls for increasing the huge pool of resources available to the empire-builders become more frequent and more irresistible, and the transition from republic to empire is made all but inevitable as large sections of the population become economically dependent on military-related industries whose profitability rests on the defense of America’s overseas protectorates.
The militarization of the American economy means we get socialism through the back door, as government planners, not entrepreneurs, increasingly determine the allocation of scarce resources. In this case, however, the real rulers of the coming American dystopia won’t be ensconced in the Bureau of Economic Planning instead, they’ll be issuing edicts from their offices in the National Security Council, the State Department, and the Pentagon.
On top of it all, the growth of presidential power epitomized in the openly authoritarian legal "theories" of the current administration, which give the White House something very close [.pdf] to absolute power in wartime is greatly accelerated by imperialization. Indeed, this has been the main engine of the growing imbalance of power between the three branches of the federal government. They don’t call it the "imperial presidency" for nothing. Every empire must have an emperor or empress. The rise of American imperialism parallels the growing importance of dynastic politics in America, among the more worrying signs that our old republic is on the way out.
A hundred-year occupation of Iraq: John McCain wants to know "What’s wrong with that?" God willing, the American people will tell him.