The Case Against Empire
October 16, 2001
Runs the old lawyers’ joke, “When the facts are against
you, argue the law; when the law is against you, argue the facts; when both the
facts and the law are against you, pound on the table.”
Unable to sell their wider war strategy on logic or principle, the Weekly
Standard has resorted to theatrics. If nothing more, credit
Murdoch’s pet for audacity – and comic relief.
Making “The Case for American Empire,” the Standard
claims, “The September 11 attack was a result of insufficient American
involvement and ambition. The solution is to be more expansive in our goals and
more assertive in their implementation.”
Apparently bin Laden would be collecting good citizen garlands if we
maintained a larger force in Saudi Arabia.
According to author Max Boot, Afghanistan’s current state
is the spawn of American inattention. The
mistake, by his analysis, was not so much arming the mujahedeen as not putting
down stakes until they learned to play well with others. “Afghanistan and
other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign
administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith
helmets,” he rhapsodizes. He’d
do well to read the back of the book.
The twentieth century dawned full of imperial promise, but
within decades the mighty players were but memories. The Austro-Hungarian, German, Russian, and Ottoman empires
that opened the age with such swagger perished soon after in the trenches of
World War I. Japan was smashed in
World War II, and the French and British realms did not long outlive her.
Then finally, after a half-century struggle, we buried Khrushchev, and
America alone remained. The “sole superpower.”
The “indispensable nation.”
With Lenin’s statue toppled, we lacked the clarity of a
Cold War enemy, so set aside defense for an offensive cause:
fashioning the globe after our own democratic image.
Like the jodhpurred Brits who thought to civilize the world by
introducing tribesman to high tea, our intent is benevolent.
Thus we justify intrusion in the noble name of freedom -- and in so doing
re-enact the death march of every empire ground to dust.
Wrote Rudyard Kipling in his prescient “Recessional,”
penned at the height of Britain’s dominance,
“Far flung our navies melt away/ On dune and headland sinks the fire/
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday/ Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!/ Judge of the
Nations, spare us yet,/ Lest we forget, lest we forget.”
But America has forgotten – or considers herself the exception to
history. At present, we maintain
250,000 U.S. military personnel on six continents in 141 nations – foreign
commitments no empire in history has ever sustained.
We have assumed the German role in containing Russia, the
Austro-Hungarian part in the Balkans, the Ottoman commitment across the Middle
East, and the British mandate over the seas.
Yet the Standard contends, “The problem, in short,
has not been excessive American assertiveness but rather insufficient
assertiveness.” No matter than
imposing freedom negates its own definition and that only naiveté would expect an occupied country to thank
rather than revile us. “The
question is whether, having now been attacked, we will act as a great power
should,” the Standard speculates. Not so.
The real question is whether we will act as great powers have – those
powers that are no more.
In 1821, when the Greeks were fighting the Ottoman Turks in
their own war for independence, our finest Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams
wrote, “Wherever the standard of freedom…shall be unfurled, there will
[America’s] heart, her benedictions, and her prayers be.
But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”
The adage holds. The
independent tradition opponents miscast as isolationism is the last line of
defense between America’s superpower status and the fate of empires past.
The day we breach it, we begin to chaperone our own demise.
“Judge of the Nations, spare us yet…”
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