Skip to content

The Issue Is Empire

     NEW YORK: There’s more than a whiff of Caesarism in mid-town this week, and a lot of the convention Republicans are high on it.

     You catch some of it on TV: the rigid scripting, the air of reverence around Bushes young and old, the endless strumming of war themes, the laugh-out-loud foolishness of the rhetorical over-reaching–First Lady Laura Bush’s remark, for example, that her husband had liberated 50-million people around the world… that the happy schoolgirls of Afghanistan are now safely back at their desks.

     What you don’t see on TV is the first impression on the street: the militarization of Manhattan. Cops as far as the eye can see; cops in riot gear, truncheons at the ready; cops in cars; cops on horseback; Jersey barriers blocking the great avenues; all-night floodlighting around Madison Square Garden; anti-riot orange plastic police netting in which even I got wrapped briefly on my first casual stroll through Times Square last Sunday afternoon. One of the safest cities in the world seems to revel in the notion that it is under siege.

     Which brings me to the theme: is it too late to frame this election game of 2004 as a choice: Empire or Republic?

     These Republicans in convention assembled are unabashedly the party of empire. The grand old party of Main Street–of “church ushers, undertakers… surgeons, Pullman porters, head nurses and the fat sons of rich fathers” in Norman Mailer’s 1960 account–is now the party of enthusiastic imperialists, and probably ought to be renamed.

     The Democrats under John Kerry’s charge have cast themselves as more cautious, more responsible, more reluctant stewards of the same universal, earth-and-space empire.

     Yet most of the people I know would just like to get our country back–“a republic,” as Ben Franklin said, “if you can keep it.” My commonsense definition of a republic is a free society that is, and feels itself to be, “of the people, by the people, for the people.” My definition of the modern American condition is the enthronement “of the foreign oil, by the military, for the corporate class.”

     The deep dread among all sorts of people I know is quite simply that “since 9/11, our country has undergone a transformation from republic to empire that may well prove irreversible,” as Chalmers Johnson summed it up in The Sorrows of Empire. “As militarism, the arrogance of power, and the euphemisms required to justify imperialism inevitably conflict with America’s democratic structure of government and distort its culture and basic values, I fear that we will lose our country.”

     Three key points, please, to get started.

     First, these symptoms and sorrows of empire are out there in plain sight, and easy to enumerate.

     Second, plain-speaking thinkers well to the right and others well to the left describe the crisis in almost exactly the same terms. Susan Sontag sounds shockingly like Pat Buchanan. On the empire issue, Norman Mailer, who calls himself a left-conservative these days, which seems to mean he’s been drifting to the right, resonates with the ex-Republican Kevin Phillips, heading left. Stranger still, the Scots historian and champion of empire, Niall Ferguson, now meets himself head-on in the ruins of our imperial overstretch in Iraq. Ferguson’s hubris confronts Ferguson’s nemesis. He writes:

     “The American empire has a big problem. Not only do Americans not recognize the true character of their own predicament—that un-splendid isolation against which Lord Salisbury warned the Victorian imperialists. The rest of the world now regards the United States as not just an empire but now an evil empire.”

     And third, it’s only the vast, increasingly mindless middle of our media and our politics that refuses to engage the empire question–which refuses, that is, to acknowledge the sad, sore, sinking, pit-of-the-stomach sense that the best of our old American birthright is in jeopardy.

     American imperial adventure is not, of course, brand new. What is eternally new about empire, however, is the erasure of memory, the air of innocence, the self-deception that says the emergency or the opportunity at hand is unique and inescapable. In The Folly of Empire: What George W. Bush Could Learn from Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, the widely respected journalist John Judis writes:

     “Only a president deeply ignorant of the past and what it teaches could journey to the Philippines in 2003 and declare that a century ago Americans had ‘liberated the Philippines from colonial rule.’ America’s decision to invade and occupy Iraq wasn’t, of course, a direct result of this misreading of the past. If Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney or Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, the administration’s leading neoconservative, had been aware of the brutal war America had fought in the Philippines, or of Wilson’s misadventures in Mexico, or of the blighted history of Western imperialism in the Mideast, they might still have invaded Iraq. But they also might have had second or even third or fourth thoughts about what Bush, echoing… the imperialists of a century ago, would call ‘a historic opportunity to change the world.'”

      So what are the critical symptoms of the imperial affliction? Chalmers Johnson’s list starts from the decision not to demobilize at the end of the Cold War. In the Bush I and Clinton administrations, he writes, we managed to stick ourselves with a permanent force of a million soldiers and agents overseas, 12 carrier groups at sea, and more than 700 American bases outside the United States, including 234 military golf courses and the Gulfstream jets to get the generals to the tee on time. In Bush II we have declared ourselves a New Rome, unbound by law, allies or constraints on military force. We have claimed to legitimize “preventive war” and normalized Orwellian phrases like “regime change,” “collateral damage” and “illegal combatants.”

     In blatant violation of the United States Constitution, Johnson continues, we have allowed vast appropriations for the Pentagon and the CIA to be hidden from public inspection. We have tolerated the presidential preemption of Congress in the declaration of war–not just the war on Iraq but the eternal war to nail the last terrorist on earth. And we seem to have abandoned Thomas Jefferson’s “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.”

     Because empire always expresses itself in culture as well as politics, I would add to my list of current symptoms: a public psychology of domination and humiliation, made visible in the pictures from Abu Ghraib; a political pretense of permanent emergency; a quasi-official theology of sectarian militancy, starting at home; a popular culture of witless borrowing and vulgarity; and a popular journalism (in the radio rant style) of hysteria, commercialism and partisan propaganda.

     Empire commits us to the continual violation of our own standards. It enshrines hypocrisy as the norm. Here is the Pat Buchanan version:

     “Empire requires an unshakeable belief in the superiority of one’s own race, religion, and civilization and an iron resolve to fight to impose that faith and civilization upon other peoples. We are not that kind of people. Never have been. Americans, who preach the equality of all races, creeds, and cultures, are, de facto, poor imperialists. When we attempt an imperial role as in the Philippines or Iraq, we invariably fall into squabbling over whether a republic should be imposing its ideology on another nation. A crusade for democracy is a contradiction in terms.”

     Susan Sontag renders her own grim judgment and warning: “It’s really the end of the republic and the beginning of the empire,” she says, likening former president Bill Clinton to Julius Caesar (who crossed the Rubicon in defiance of the Roman Senate) and Bush to Augustus. “I think as long as the U.S.A. has only one political party — the Republican party, a branch of which calls itself the Democratic party — we aren’t going to see a change of the current policy.”

     In his new book, the rightist Pat Buchanan hones what sounds to me like the unspoken leftist critique:

     First, on the unilateralist Bush Doctrine issued in September, 2002. It is “a prescription for permanent war for permanent peace, though wars are the death of republics,” Buchanan writes. “This is democratic imperialism. This will bleed, bankrupt and isolate this republic. This overthrows the wisdom of the Founding Fathers about what America should be all about.”

     Second, on the war on Iraq: “…listening to the neoconservatives, Bush invaded Iraq, united the Arab world against us, isolated us from Europe, and fulfilled to the letter bin Laden’s prophecy as to what we were about. We won the war in three weeks — and we may have lost the Islamic world for a generation.”

     And third, on the war on terrorism: “U.S. dominance of the Middle East is not the corrective to terror. It is a cause of terror. Were we not over there, the 9/11 terrorists would not have been over here… Terrorism is the price of empire. If we do not wish to pay it, we must give up the empire.”

     In a remarkable feat of newspaper journalism, Jay Bookman of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution saw the imperial design in the Bush invasion of Iraq six months before it happened. They didn’t have an exit strategy, he concluded, because they didn’t intend to leave!

     In the Nation magazine’s GOP convention issue, Jonathan Schell wonders if what we’ve come to is an imperial policy without an empire in fact:

     “…the recent fortunes of the United States have been anything but triumphal. The President’s policies have failed to check the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The entire ‘axis of evil,’ consisting, according to the President, of Iraq, Iran and North Korea, continues to defy his administration in one way or another. In Iraq, the Marines are now at war with the Shiite community the United States supposedly came to save. North Korea has allegedly become a nuclear power, and Iran seems to be heading that way. The traditional alliances of the United States have been shaken. After 9/11, editorialists asked, ‘Why do they hate us?’ Whatever the reasons, ‘they’ have multiplied to include most of the world.”

     Schell continues:

     “In the twentieth century, the peoples of the earth insisted on taking charge of their own countries. Their rebellions were successful against all empires, from the British to the Soviet, every one of which has fallen.

     “In the face of nuclear stalemate at the apex of the global system and universal rebellion at the base, can any imperial project now succeed? What we may in fact be witnessing is not just a contest between an American empire and its particular colonial targets but a final showdown between the imperial idea and what I like to call an unconquerable world, meaning a world that has the will and the means to reject any imperial yoke.

     “Is the United States possibly an imperial power that does not quite possess an empire? Is the American ’empire’ a colossal leftover from a vanishing age?”

     We all seem to know somehow that our country stands in the valley of the shadow of something awful in this 2004 election. At the heart of our anxiety is not our vulnerability in the world but our power. It’s this threshhold of empire, which may only be crossed once, that makes this perhaps a world-historical moment. So how do we put the empire question at the center of the presidential debate?

{ 63 } Comments

  1. Anonymous | September 2, 2004 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    Let’s educate each other on the characteristics of empire, let’s remind ourselves of our duty to uphold democracy, and let’s channel our anxiety and fear of empire into a renewed commitment to a future based in traditional American values – democracy, civility, intellectual inquiry and respect for the rule of law.

  2. Anonymous | September 3, 2004 at 3:08 am | Permalink

    The imperial project will fail of course, as you say. But I’m worried about democracy. The continuous war makes erosion of democracy easy amd inevitable. That may be the true agenda….

  3. Anonymous | September 3, 2004 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    The piece on empire is indeed a very interesting one. You identify one of the problems with the neoconservatives in this Administration: their overwhelming lack of awareness of the value of history.

    As history has shown, all empires have eventually fallen and become historical studies. In the early 1990s, as I began my undergraduate degree, I had thought that the US was never an empire. Instead, it was a reluctant leader. As the Cold War ended, leaadership was incumbent upon the US. We have taken that mantle of leadership and either worn it when it was advantageous–the Clinton Administration–or abused it–the current Bush Administration.

    Whatever happened to the realists in our foreign policy establishment–the realists that knew the lessons of history? Where are the Dean Achesons and Henry Kissingers when we need them? Even Paul Kennedy had the foresight to make the claim about the potentially ill effects of the confluence of state wealth and empire.

  4. Anonymous | September 3, 2004 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    What was unique about the American experiment was best summed up in the Gettysberg address: Government, of, by, and for the people…with a “new birth of freedom” as the result. The current Republican Party betrays Lincoln’s vision today, and I agree, the very concept of a republic, and the most basic freedoms of a democracy are now at risk.

  5. Anonymous | September 12, 2004 at 2:23 am | Permalink

    In response to Stephen Nally’s comment, I’m worried about both the failure of the imperial project and democracy. The imperial project, and its failure, has implications far beyond just the United States, its economy or its image in the world. Every day, in many, many parts of the world, people are being killed becasue of policy decisions that were made at the top. And every day that these policies (and thier side-effects) continue, we as citizens of the ‘Western World’ remain responsible.
    However, the question of how to pull the imperial debate into your (I’m an Australian) presidential election, and our own federal elections here in October, baffles me.
    How do you bring such knowledge to so many (apathetic) people between now and October/November?

  6. Anonymous | October 26, 2004 at 1:04 am | Permalink



    From The Los Angeles Times: “Nationwide, at least two polls in the last week showed that newly registered voters favored Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry by double-digit margins. The Massachusetts senator holds an even greater lead, the polls found, among voters 29 and younger… The conclusion is that the new voters and younger voters favor Kerry by a large margin, but historically they don’t actually bother to vote. If they do this time, it could make a big difference.

    Come on people––your vote is essential!

    THERE’S STILL TIME TO REQUEST YOUR ABSENTEE BALLOT in many states if you are registered to vote!
    It’s easy; it’s online.

    Absentee Ballot information online:


    Please e-mail this information to all of your friends! AND VOTE FOR KERRY!!!!

    Your future depends on it!


  7. Anonymous | November 19, 2004 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    Excellent perspectives.

  8. Anonymous | July 23, 2005 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

    A heap of wheat, says the Song of Songs
    but I’ve never seen wheat in a pile :)
    did you like it?

  9. Anonymous | July 24, 2005 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    Nice one, but what about der weg ? anywya, congrats from me.

  10. Anonymous | August 18, 2005 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    News on every hour.

  11. Anonymous | September 9, 2005 at 5:57 am | Permalink

    Business For Sale

  12. Anonymous | September 10, 2005 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    Buy Cellular Phone

  13. Anonymous | March 19, 2006 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    Very nice and informative website.

  14. Anonymous | April 29, 2006 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    Very nice website with a lot of informative response from members

  15. Anonymous | August 22, 2006 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    Very nice blog. I read it every day.

  16. Anonymous | September 4, 2006 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    Excellent site. Would you like to see my ? Cars insurance

  17. Anonymous | January 16, 2007 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

    BB Hotel Home

  18. Make Money On The | April 12, 2009 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    Issue is empire even on internet.

  19. minisite designer | April 12, 2009 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    Well written

  20. LiveThunder | April 12, 2009 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

    I compleatly agree with the article.

  21. Buy WebHosting Today | April 12, 2009 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

    But i dont agree with second paragrah

  22. forex | April 15, 2009 at 1:02 am | Permalink

    I have a question:
    Do you think there still emperor in this modern century?

  23. Andrew | July 31, 2009 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    A very informative article. Thanks!

  24. Casino Themes | August 12, 2009 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    Old story, but a very interesting article.
    Thank you!

  25. Best Online Degrees | November 13, 2009 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    I enjoyed reading your work! GREAT post! I looked around for this… but I found you! :) Anyway, would you mind if I threw up a backlink from my site to your site?

  26. Orange Dentist | November 19, 2009 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

    A friend of mine sent me this link. It was definitely worth reading. I will check out your blog frequently.

    Thanks, Susan

  27. Affiliate Millionair | February 19, 2010 at 2:58 am | Permalink

    Indeed, a very interesting read. Glad it has been archived.

  28. Niche Profit | June 21, 2010 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    thank you for sharing this post with us, I really enjoyed it

  29. Niche Classroom | July 5, 2010 at 4:37 am | Permalink

    This article was written in 2004 but is still relevant today. Incredible.

  30. Fuentes21MARGERY | July 7, 2010 at 12:49 am | Permalink

    I will recommend not to hold off until you earn big sum of money to buy different goods! You can get the loan or just small business loan and feel fine

  31. Free Xbox Live Gold Membership | July 9, 2010 at 6:00 am | Permalink

    Great post giving information on the characteristics of empire, its our duty to support parliamentary government.

  32. Shed Plans | July 9, 2010 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Features of Empires are defined here really a good post. Defines the responsibility of civilians towards the government. Different post with good information.

  33. Hack Hotmail Passwor | July 31, 2010 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    Good one. good to see the changing prespective of politics

  34. Smith Scott | August 2, 2010 at 4:08 am | Permalink

    The Issue is Empire commonsense definition of a republic is a free society that is, and feels itself to be, “of the people. Its a great article to read. Thanks – Hack Facebook Password

  35. Daneil | August 2, 2010 at 4:13 am | Permalink

    Good post. Good to see that people have changed their prespective of looking to politics – Hack Hotmail Password

  36. Smith | August 3, 2010 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    Good to have such information. Looking for more stuff from you. Thanks. – cheaper replica handbag

  37. Doctor | August 23, 2010 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    Gret post :)!!!

  38. H.P. Jones | August 26, 2010 at 6:58 am | Permalink

    I agree with this article.

    I thing I can say that an empire dont have a choice in its leader. It is through bloodline and this is one of it down fall. When the next in line is not a strong leader.

    US elect its leaders :)

  39. Nigga | September 14, 2010 at 7:27 am | Permalink

    Excellent blog (: THX ! THX ! !! ! !!123 1213

  40. Urua | December 7, 2010 at 5:10 am | Permalink

    xbox error

  41. Angelena Tanimoto | December 20, 2010 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    Thank you very much for such a information. I actually enjoyed going through it and definitely will share it with folks.

  42. Alayna Calico | December 22, 2010 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    Cheers for this valuable message. I unquestionably favored reading through it and can discuss it with folks.

  43. google sniper | December 22, 2010 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

    i am going to pass this post along..I can think of a few other people who will enjoy it as much as I did

  44. PS3 repairs | December 28, 2010 at 5:06 am | Permalink

    Haha it’s so funny. I can pass this again. haha/

  45. | January 20, 2011 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

    Thhaks for the great information.

  46. SportsBettingChamp.m | January 20, 2011 at 11:38 pm | Permalink

    Great post!

  47. nikon 5000d | January 27, 2011 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    very interesting read, thanks for posting

  48. Mercado de Divisas | March 2, 2011 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    Good information thanks

  49. Baby P. | March 27, 2011 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Election is always great. its not perfect but people get to choose who get to represent them. Only thing I wish that the party system is dissolve 😀

    Thank you for this fine article it was a wonderful read

  50. news maker | May 12, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    thanks for sharing, was worth the read

  51. Mamie Wythe | May 24, 2011 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    Your use of formatting makes your article simple to read and fascinating. Your content is engaging. I was attempting to find something you might have left out for this data, but you’ve been quite thorough.

  52. Kaycee Hibert | June 22, 2011 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    It only goes to show where theres will theres a way. Keep on trying. How is it possible to find meaning in a finite world, given my waist and shirt size?

  53. Mr. Canon | July 31, 2011 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    Bottom line an Empire is as strong as its leader. If the leader is weak the empire crumbles if the leader is strong and wise the empire will achive greatness.

  54. Fewo Ruegen | August 3, 2011 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    American imperial adventure is not, of course, brand new. What is eternally new about empire, however, is the erasure of memory, the air of innocence, the self-deception that says the emergency or the opportunity at hand is unique and inescapable.

  55. Oro | September 7, 2011 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    I really admire people who know how to write informative and useful articles. Thank You for sharing your knowledge with us! I hope to read more from you!

  56. cheap juicy couture tracksuits | September 29, 2011 at 5:54 am | Permalink

    I am so glad to came across in your blog because I have never seen such fantastic pictures. The flash designs are truly wonderful! I love it all. Thanks for the share. Keep on posting more.

  57. SEO optimizacija | October 30, 2011 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    izrada web stranice, seo optimizacija, zarada na internetu

  58. Izrada web stranica | October 30, 2011 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    izrada web stranica, seo optimizacija, zarada na internetu

  59. skin care for seniors | January 2, 2012 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    The points of interest you present in your article are very impressive. I must agree with you on most of these points and I appreciate the effort you obviously put into this very informative article.

  60. Abogados en Madrid | January 24, 2012 at 4:33 am | Permalink

    So good article. Thanks a lot!

  61. Cuisinart Multiclad | February 22, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Great question and I think you got it right. Thanks.

  62. Strider PREbike Balance Running Bike | March 13, 2012 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    Very interesting post on the Republican convention and their attitude. Thanks.

  63. Vancouver mortgage r | March 28, 2012 at 6:01 am | Permalink

    I began reading through posts and I must say I’m really impressed.

{ 2 } Trackbacks

  1. online golf | November 1, 2009 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    online golf…

    Your topic Liquid Tadalafil:: Online Canadian Pharmacy was interesting when I found it on Sunday searching for online golf…

  2. […] more here: Comment on The Issue Is Empire by Hack Hotmail Passwor Posted on Saturday, July 31st, 2010 Filed under:hack hotmail. […]