Confronting American empire

Jack Hunter Contributing Editor, Rare
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People are reluctant to admit what they are when what they are is considered bad. Alcoholics often have a laundry list of excuses for their alcoholism. Adulterers often justify their cheating by blaming inattentive spouses. Murderers often plead that insanity or bad parenting is the real culprit.

Denying or excusing one’s own guilt is a permanent facet of human nature.

Understandably, Americans have long shirked the idea that their country is an empire. This is an attitude that dates back to the founding era. As Daniel McCarthy, the editor of The American Conservative, has noted:

Jefferson may have mused about an empire of liberty, but the founding generation and their sons rejected the imperial ways of Europe: America would be an exception to the entangling alliances of the European state system. Unlike every great power of the Old World, America would not seek hegemony. Were she ever to become “dictatress of the world,” John Quincy Adams warned, “she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”

Needless to say, much has changed about America and the world since the 18th and 19th centuries, but even today our rhetoric reflects our historic antipathy to the concept of empire. Defending the Iraq and Afghanistan wars during his 2004 State of the Union address, President Bush said: “Our country does not seek the expansion of territory … [but] to enlarge the realm of liberty … We have no desire to dominate, no ambitions of empire …”

Bush’s denial that America is an empire has been reflected in some recent opinion columns. The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens opined in a piece earlier this month titled “Ron Paul’s Fantasy Empire” that the amount of troops America has stationed in hundreds of bases around the world, often cited by the Texas congressman, are actually few in number and therefore relatively insignificant. This week, columnist Steven Crowder of Andrew Breitbart’s BigGoverment.com seconded President Bush’s point, saying that America “is no empire at all. The United States boldly walks in through the front door of these countries, provides unprecedented aid and/or overthrows their evil governments in an attempt to rightfully give power back to its citizens …”

To note that America is a different or unconventional empire is one thing. But to deny it altogether, well — doth protest too much.

In 2003, The Atlantic Monthly’s Robert Kaplan weighed in on the subject: “It is a cliché these days to observe that the United States now possesses a global empire — different from Britain’s and Rome’s but an empire nonetheless. It is time to move beyond a statement of the obvious.”

Kaplan is not the first to state or notice the obvious. In a 1969 televised debate with leftist intellectual Noam Chomsky, National Review founder William F. Buckley explained the necessity of American empire after World War II: “We became an imperial power, Mr. Chomsky, in the sense that we inherited primary responsibility for any chain of action that might involve us in a third world war …” Buckley’s point was not that America wasn’t an empire, only that it was right or necessary to be such for a time — a point of view shared by a majority of conservatives throughout the Cold War era.

But should America remain an empire forever? Conservative author and philosopher Russell Kirk asked at the end of the Cold War in 1991:

But there remains an American Empire, still growing — though expanding through the acquisition of client states, rather than through settlement of American populations abroad … In short, although we never talk about our empire, a tremendous American Empire has come into existence — if, like the Roman Empire, in a kind of fit of absence of mind. No powerful counterpoise to the American hegemony seems to remain, what with the enfeebling of the U.S.S.R.

And this is where we stand today. It is one thing to say that America was justified in becoming an empire after World War II, and it is one thing to debate today whether we should remain one. But it is quite another thing — even dangerous — to pretend that America is now anything less than imperial in its scope, psyche and affordability.

Or as Ronald Reagan’s former budget director David Stockman put it bluntly in 2010:

The Cold War is long over … The wars of occupation are almost over and were complete failures — Afghanistan and Iraq. The American empire is done. There are no real seriously armed enemies left in the world that can possibly justify an $800 billion national defense and security establishment, including Homeland Security.

Just as liberal Democrats don’t like to be criticized as “socialist” even when conservatives almost uniformly recognize them as behaving as such, it is understandable that most Americans don’t like to think of their government as behaving in an imperial manner. No one wants to believe the worst of themselves.

But just as an alcoholic must begin the recovery process by admitting that he has a problem, we must question whether our country has become abnormal or at least out-of-step with its founding principles. In fact, it is long past time to ask such questions.

Were the founders right about empire? Must America remain one? Can we afford to?

And can we finally admit it?

Jack Hunter writes at the “Paulitical Ticker,” where he is the official Ron Paul 2012 campaign blogger.