The Folly of Empire

“Neocons do not feel that kind of alarm or anxiety about the growth of the state in the past century, seeing it as natural, indeed inevitable. … People have always preferred strong government to weak government, although they certainly have no liking for anything that smacks of overly intrusive government.”
– Irving Kristol, “The Neoconservative Persuasion

It is said that in every cloud, there is a silver lining. And if there is one to be found in the recent debacle in New Orleans following the hurricane, it is that the president and his neoconservative advisers have received a salient reminder of the limits of government power.

The swift conquests of Afghanistan and Iraq were heady wine to the neocons, who in their exuberant triumphalism soon began arguing that terms such as “imperial decline” and “imperial overstretch” were outmoded, historical artifacts holding no validity for a singular global superpower. In their enthusiastic cheerleading for continued military interventions – ranging from Pakistan to Iran – they have clearly followed the lead of their intellectual godfather, Irving Kristol, who holds that “the ‘national interest’ is not a geographical term” for a great power and that the mere possession of power dictates its use:

“With power come responsibilities, whether sought or not, whether welcome or not. And it is a fact that if you have the kind of power we now have, either you will find opportunities to use it, or the world will discover them for you.”
– Irving Kristol, “The Neoconservative Persuasion”

And indeed, the neoconservatives within the administration have been kind enough to find these opportunities for their fellow Americans. And if the people of Louisiana might prefer to have had the 256th Mechanized Infantry Brigade and other elements of their National Guard at their disposal in New Orleans instead of Baghdad, well, that is simply one of the many sacrifices that Americans will have to make in the exercise of their neonational interest.

Furthermore, there are serious practical, ethical and moral problems with the establishment of an American global empire. First and most obvious, we lack an emperor… or an empress. This quandary is easily resolved, however, and no doubt Hillary Clinton will be pleased to bring an end to the quadrennial turmoil of national elections once she slithers to the Cherry Blossom Throne in 2008.

The practical problem is numbers. America already has over 240,000 soldiers stationed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Germany, Iceland, Panama, Italy, Spain, Japan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Turkey, Hungary, Kyrgyzstan, Qatar, Uzbekistan, and Korea – an estimated 702 bases in 130 countries in all. And yet, U.S. generals have complained from the very start that they did not have enough troops for a proper pacification and occupation of Iraq.

Neocons dreaming of a global Pax Americana have apparently forgotten that when Rome secured a new province, it did so by enslaving a significant portion of the inhabitants and distributing them about the empire, then granting its retired legionaries vast quantities of land and establishing Roman colonies. Somehow, I don’t envision thousands of Manhattanites clamoring for 40 acres of Iraqi real estate, even if it comes with a killer view of the Tigris.

A few advocates of empire cite oil as a justification for establishing a new world order, but the very argument is a monstrous ethical transgression. The oil of the Middle East does not belong to us and no matter how much we might like to believe that cheap gasoline is a national birthright, it is not. Nor is a stable and growing economy a natural right – launching a direct assault on private property rights, even property owned by foreigners in foreign lands, is no basis for a capitalist system that wishes to remain free in the long term. And as for morals, historians are well aware that empire and moral degradation of the people have a tendency to coincide. Empire will not arrest the American decline into immorality, it will only exacerbate it.

Ultimately, the idea of establishing an imperial order is a futile, short-term solution that merely sweeps intransigent problems under the jackboot and postpones them for the future. Moreover, the sacrifice of American liberties that is required for such an establishment is not worth the temporary installation of their watered-down imitations around the world. I close with a note from Umberto Eco, the Italian medievalist, who noted in his 1992 essay “Quanto costa il crollo di un impero?”:

“An empire is always coercive and autocratic: It is like a cover that presses on a boiling cauldron. At a certain point, the internal pressure is too strong, the cover is blown off and there is a sort of volcanic eruption.”

(Reprinted from WorldNetDaily.)