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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