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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?

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