Logic of Empire

Running the Planet: Not just a job, but an (endless) adventure


Many potential new wars are in play among the neoimperialist foreign policy glitterati, still flying high after the Iraq invasion. It wasn't an obvious and immediate national or international tragedy—after all, the world didn't end, did it? No WMDs were unleashed on our troops or American cities. Because, well, there weren't any, even though the danger (but not, mind you, the "imminent" danger!) they posed was the major excuse for the war in the first place.

But, hey, look what it did to Qaddafi, the essential post hoc justification for the good sense and probity of our latest wave of imperial muscle stretching. He gave up his WMDs after seeing what we did to Saddam. (Except that he apparently was negotiating to do so four years before we pummeled Baghdad.)

Be that as it may, as the empire-builders remind us, the Lessons of Saddam have not yet penetrated the skulls of some other Regimes of Concern, such as Iran or North Korea (both still pursuing nuke programs) or Syria (still Syria, after all these years).

So these days one can read Stephen J. Morris of the Foreign Policy Institute of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins in the Winter 2003/04 issue of The National Interest calling for the military conquest, if necessary, and alone, if necessary, of North Korea. We find Reuel Marc Gerecht of the American Enterprise Institute in the March 8 Weekly Standard, our nation's premier popular journal of empire, regretting that foreign policy "realists" (the scare quotes are Gerecht's) such as Brent Scowcraft and Thomas Pickering seem as if they might adversely influence the Bush administration to not unilaterally invade Iran in order to topple the nuke-seeking Khamenei/Rafsanjani axis.

Indeed, recent developments, such as the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq's approval of a pipeline from Iraq to the Iranian port of Abadan, and the U.S.'s decision not to ask the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to seek UN Security Council sanctions against Iran's nuke program, give flesh to Gerecht's fearful fantasy of a Tehranian Munich.

As for Syria, not yet promoted to full axis membership, President Bush signed the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act, which became law in December. No less an authority than Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz warned last year that "There's got to be a change in Syria," and that it is a "strange regime, one of extreme ruthlessness."

The legal mechanism to influence that change is now in place. The Syria Accountability Act commits America to choose from a laundry list of possible sanctions—including prohibiting any private U.S. investment in Syria and keeping Syrian diplomats under 25-mile-of-D.C.-and-the-UN house arrest—if Syria doesn't make nice with Israel, withdraw from Lebanon, commit to cease developing missiles and chemical and biological weapons, and meet a host of other demands. And we all know what happens after sanctions don't work.

Of course, even the most Made of neo-imperialists don't always get their way from the Bush administration. But the role they've taken on is that of the stern, wise councilor making a potentially feckless and weak Bush stay the course. "Don't go wobbly, George," is the grave message from the ink-and fear-soaked pages of numerous foreign policy white papers and journal articles.

But surely even Bush has noticed that expanding empire has its discontents, as we are now learning even with just Iraq freshly in our belly. There is the financial cost, of course, by some accounts $105 billion and counting. And even your native Quislings don't always stay loyal, as see recent signs that Ahmad Chalabi is becoming more of a Sistani man than a Bush man in his grapplings with the evolving new Iraqi constitution.

Fears and anxieties about American empire don't need to be rooted in any perceived fever swamp, where only openly sinister and nakedly pecuniary motives push American foreign policy. Undoubtedly politicians and their friends in the corporate world try to make the best out of circumstances as they evolve, but still, I imagine that the boys behind Bush could have put their heads together and come up with some other way for his administration to line Halliburton's silken pockets without the huge risks, both geopolitically and in domestic politics, of waging war in Iraq. It is easy enough to believe that the administration's foreign policy actions are driven by a very sincere belief that the world would be a safer, freer, more orderly place under the suzerainty of the United States government, and that this goal is worth pursuing at almost any cost.

But just because the goals of the imperialists aren't nakedly evil doesn't mean their path is wisest for the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of the United States' citizens—you know, those old-fashioned goals for which governments are instituted among men. Immanentizing the Eschaton is not in the current U.S. Constitution, though the Bush men (calling them conservatives or men of the right seems inappropriate) might contemplate adding it by amendment after they are through roadblocking gay marriage.

Running the world is not in most Americans' long-term best interests. One of human civilization's most enduring lessons is that empire cometh before a fall. Exactly what the mechanisms, the trigger points, the precise line of decline and decay will be, it is too soon to predict. There is not some ineluctable "historical law" that says empires must crumble. But they always have before, through the attraction of enemies, the generation of wars, and the consumption of treasure and attrition of influence.

As events in the past few weeks in Haiti show, cleaning up the messes from the messes we tried to clean up earlier is an endless claim on American lives and treasure.

Empire is a burden that is endless and thankless. (The South Koreans we have been defending from North Koran depredations for a half-century? The ones some want us to launch a war to protect? In a 2002 Gallup poll, 53 percent of them disliked the United States.) It's a burden we need not have taken up, and while it's tricky to set down once lifted, that setting down—as gently, but firmly, as possible—should be the primary concern of anyone seeking to succeed Bush.

It's a pity that there is no reason to believe fightin' John Kerry, once again more the man firing ferociously on gooks than the one questioning the wisdom and sanity of that mission, is prepared to surrender the crown of all the kingdoms of the Earth—the crown that even a movie star as big as Jesus wasn't hubristic enough to don when tempted.