The Curse of Power

We have all heard Lord Acton’s admonition, "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Most of us believed this referred only to absolute rulers, but its scope is much more widespread. Today the U.S. is the only superpower; as such it has almost absolute power. It can go anywhere, wipe out any state, conquer any army, and ruin any economy with economic sanctions. As such it sees itself as the existential authority, the chosen state, the "city on a hill" that can bring democracy, freedom, and virtue to the world, if necessary through the barrel of a gun.

While the neocons have emphasized the use of power to bring enlightenment to the world, especially the Middle East, the U.S. has a long history of bearing the "White Man’s Burden," of conquering foreign territories, either to bring Christianity to Roman Catholic Filipinos, to annex pagan Hawaii, to install friendly governments in Central America or to rid Cuba of the colonial rule of Spain by installing our benevolent governance. Manifest destiny, a staple of our social studies courses in grade school, led us to remove the uncivilized and pesky "redskins" to fulfill our goal of a coast-to-coast empire.

Between the First World War and the Second, the United States, despite its isolationist foreign policy, never hesitated to send our military abroad. From 1912 to 1933 American marines controlled Nicaragua; Haiti was occupied from 1915 to 1934; from the time of the Spanish-American war until Castro assumed control, the U.S. played a major role in Cuba. Under a U.S. budget bill of 1901, the Platt Amendment reserved the right to intervene in Cuban political, economic and military affairs; it also secured the permanent right to Guantánamo Bay as an American military base.When our leaders today talk about the necessity of maintaining a strong force in Mesopotamia to "pacify" the area, they are following a long tradition.

With the exception of Latin America where, under the Monroe Doctrine, America has imposed its will for at least a century, the U.S. used to be looked up to around much of the world. Currently, as we have extended our reach to their neighborhoods, we are hated in most states. The U.S. military has bases in about 130 countries and on all continents except Antarctica, where we have three "research" stations. Why were we attacked on September 11, 2001? Having stationed our troops in Saudi Arabia, not far from Mecca, enraged the Muslim world. Or as the CIA would say, it was "blowback."

President George W. Bush claimed that al-Qaeda attacked the U.S. because its followers hated our freedoms and our democracy. If so, why have the terrorists never attacked Switzerland, Sweden, Canada, or Norway? Except for the incident in 2001 when the French foiled an attack on the U.S. Embassy, that country has been free of terrorism since 1995. Those countries follow democratic practices and provide freedom for their people, yet they remain untouched by Islamic extremists. Certainly they have as dissolute and erotic societies as the U.S. Terrorists have ignored them because they are not making a military presence felt in the Muslim world.

Except for the attack on the American Embassy, the French have escaped any Islamic violence by staying out of the Middle East and, especially, out of the Iraq conflict. At least in part because of their long traditions of neutrality, Switzerland and Sweden have refrained from sending troops to the Middle East. Neither Canada nor Norway supported the U.S. in this invasion — although their recent participation in the NATO effort in Afghanistan may make them subject to an Islamic attack in the future.

Why did terrorists attack London and Madrid? Britain suffered several terrorist strikes from native Muslims offended by its participation in Iraq. Spain was subject to the bombing of its trains by Islamic fanatics because it too had soldiers helping the Americans in Iraq. Those spared terrorism had no troops on Muslim soil, nor were they following policies hostile towards Arabs.

The first instinct of people when attacked is to retaliate. The natural reaction after September 11 was to go after the perpetrators. Turning the other cheek by withdrawing our forces from abroad is very difficult, if not politically impossible. Many people believe that, since we have the power, we should use it to go after those who brought down the World Trade Center. None of the serious candidates for president argues for bringing all our troops home. In fact, no one is suggesting removing our troops from the Middle East. Repositioning is the furthest that the any one of the candidates will go. Although it may be right and proper to argue that we should remove our troops from foreign soils and adopt a "Fortress America" stance, given the temptation of nearly absolute power this policy would require self-restraint greater than the body politic permits.

If, as seems likely, the U.S. continues to maintain a military presence in that part of the world, it will provide ample targets for Islamic groups to attack and will also provide an irresistible incentive to bring chaos and terror to our shores. Democracy is swell but it does not permit policies that appear to be weak. "We must not cut and run" say the politicians and many voters. Our strength traps us into an "in your face" policy. Assuming that a Democrat wins the 2008 presidential election, will he or she fly in the face of charges of cowardice and weakness to pull our troops out of Iraq and, ultimately, from Afghanistan? I fear not. How long must we spill our blood and treasure in this quagmire? It has already gone on far too long and cost too many lives.