The US: Too late for empire

by Jonathan Schell

The Nation magazine, August 14/21, 2006


Anyone who wants to write about the constitutional crisis unfolding in the United States today faces a peculiar problem at the outset. There is a large body of observations that at one and the same time have been made too often and yet not often enough - too often because they have been repeated to the point of tedium for a minority ready to listen, but not often enough
because the general public has yet to consider them seriously enough.

The problem for a self-respecting writer is that the act of writing almost in its nature promises something new. Repetition is not really writing but propaganda - not illumination for the mind but a mental beating. Here are some examples of the sort of observations I have in mind, at once over-familiar and unheard:

President George W Bush sent US troops into Iraq to find weapons of mass destruction (WMD), but they weren't there. He said Saddam Hussein's regime had given help to al-Qaeda, but it had not.

He therefore took the nation to war on the basis of falsehoods.

His administration says the torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and elsewhere has been the work of a few bad apples in the military, whereas in fact abuses were sanctioned at the highest levels of the executive branch in secret memos.

His administration lambastes leakers, but its own officials illegally leaked the name of a Central Intelligence Agency operative, Valerie Plame, to discredit her husband politically.

He flatly stated to the public that all wiretaps of Americans were ordered pursuant to court warrants, whereas in fact he was authorizing and repeatedly reauthorizing warrantless wiretaps. These wiretaps violated a specific law of Congress forbidding them.

His administration has asserted a right to imprison Americans as well as foreigners indefinitely without the habeas corpus hearings required by law.

Wars of aggression, torture, domestic spying and arbitrary arrest are the hallmarks of dictatorship, yet Congress, run by the president's party, has refused to conduct full investigations into either the false WMD claims, or the abuses and torture, or the warrantless wiretaps, or the imprisonment without habeas corpus.

When Congress passed a bill forbidding torture and the president signed it, he added a "signing statement" implying a right to disregard its provisions when they conflicted with his interpretation of his powers.

The president's secret legal memos justifying the abuses and torture are based on a conception of the powers of the executive that gives him carte blanche to disregard specific statutes as well as international law in the exercise of self-granted powers to the commander-in-chief nowhere mentioned in the constitution.

If accepted, these claims would fundamentally alter the structure of the US government, upsetting the system of checks and balances and nullifying fundamental liberties, including guarantees in the Fourth Amendment to the constitution against unreasonable searches and seizures and guarantees of due process. As such, they embody apparent failures of the president to carry out his oath to "preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States".

Opposing one-party government
The need to repeat these familiar points, as I have just done (while also begging the indulgence of the reader, as I do), is itself a symptom of the crisis. The same concentration of governmental and other power in the hands of a single party that led to the abuses stands in the way of action to address them. The result is a problem of political sanitation. The garbage heaps up in the public square, visible to all and stinking to high heaven, but no garbage truck arrives to take it away. The law-breaking is exposed, but no legislative body responds. The damning facts pour out, and protests are made, but little is done. Then comes the urge to repeat.

The dilemma is reflected in microcosm in the news media, especially television - a process particularly on display in the failure to challenge the administration's deceptive rationale for the Iraq war. The reasons for severe doubt were, at the very least, available before the war, and they were expounded in many places. More truthful, contrary voices could and did speak up, especially on the Internet, the freest of today's media. But they were not widely heard. They were drowned out by the dominant voices in the mainstream, acceding to the deceptions of power and their variations and derivatives.

All over the world, autocratic-minded rulers, from Italy's former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi to Russian President Vladimir Putin, have learned that de facto control of the political content of television is perhaps the most important lever of power in our day. They have learned that it does not matter politically if 15% or even 25% of the public is well informed as long the majority remains in the dark. The problem has not been censorship, but something very nearly censorship's opposite: the deafening noise of the official megaphone and its echoes - not the suppression of truth, still spoken and heard in a narrow circle, but a profusion of lies and half-lies; not too little speech, but too much. If you whisper something to your friend in the front row of a rock concert, you have not been censored, but neither will you be heard.

The one major breach in the monopoly has been made by the US Supreme Court, especially in its decision in Hamdan vs Rumsfeld requiring application of the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice to detainees. The decision's reasoning, if it carries the day in practice, would roll back many of the usurpations by the executive, which has already claimed that it will apply the Geneva Conventions to prisoners in US custody (though there is doubt what this will mean) and will seek a constitutional opinion by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court on its wiretapping. When the Supreme Court speaks, it is more than repetition. It is effective action.

Yet in the last analysis, the outcome of the contest will be decided in the political arena, where public opinion and, ultimately, voters are the decision-makers. It's notable that the reaction to the Supreme Court's decision in Hamdan by one Republican congressional leader was to accuse Democrats who applauded the decision of wanting "special privileges for terrorists".

One-party monopoly of power is not the only inhibiting factor.

Any oppositionist who is honest will keep in mind that a majority, however narrow, of Americans voted that one party into power in a series of elections. Especially important was the presidential election of 2004, when many, though not all, of the abuses were already known. (And then the election itself was subject to grave abuses, especially in Ohio.) The weight and meaning of that majority do not disappear because it was demonstrably misinformed about key matters of war and peace. It's one thing to oppose an illegitimate concentration of power in the name of a repressed majority, another to oppose power backed and legitimized by a majority. In the first case, it will be enough to speak truth to power; in the second, the main need is to speak truth to one's fellow citizens.

As the end is restoring democratic process, so the means should be democratic. It's true that since 2004 the president's positive ratings in the polls have plummeted, but there is no guarantee that this shift in opinion will translate into Republican defeats in the forthcoming congressional election, and a renewal of Republican majorities in both houses of Congress would add another stamp of approval to the Bush policies, however misguided.

The mechanisms inhibiting opposition to state power, especially when backed by electoral majorities, are not something new. Even in the freest countries there is at all times a conventional wisdom, which may wander more or less far from reality. Sometimes it strays into a fantasyland. Then marginal voices (which of course are not correct merely because they are marginal) have a special responsibility to speak up, and sometimes they shift the mainstream - as happened in the US, for instance, in the 1960s regarding the Vietnam War and legal segregation. For the better part of a century, segregation fit squarely within the banks of the US mainstream. Then it didn't.

A persistent pathology
As the mere mention of Vietnam suggests, the repetition dilemma also has causes that go deeper into the past. I embarked on journalism in 1966 as a reporter in Vietnam. The experience led, naturally and seamlessly, to a decade of writing about the war, the opposition to the war and, finally, when the war "came home", to the constitutional crisis of the Richard Nixon years and its resolution via Nixon's resignation under threat of impeachment.

The war and the impeachment were connected at every point. It wasn't just that Nixon's wiretapping was directed against Daniel Ellsberg, war critic and leaker of the Vietnam-era Pentagon Papers; or that the "plumbers" outfit that carried out the Watergate break-in was founded to spy on, disrupt and attack war critics; or that Nixon's persistence in trying to win the war even as he withdrew US troops from it drove him into the paranoia that led him to draw up an "enemies list" and sponsor subversions of the electoral process - it was that his entire go-it-alone, imperial conception of the presidency originated in his pursuit of his war policy in secrecy and without congressional involvement.

And now, 30 years later, we find ourselves facing an uncannily similar combination of misconceived war abroad and constitutional crisis at home. Again a global crusade (then it was the Cold War, now it is the "war on terror") has given birth to a disastrous war (then Vietnam, now Iraq); again a president has responded by breaking the law; and again it falls to citizens, journalists, judges, justices and others to trace the connections between the overreaching abroad and the overreaching at home. In consequence, not only are we condemned to repeat ourselves for the duration of the current crisis, but a remarkable number of those repetitions are already repetitions of what was said 30 years ago.

Consider, for instance, the following passage from a speech called "The Price of Empire", by the great dissenter against the Vietnam War, senator William Fulbright:
Before the Second World War our world role was a potential role; we were important in the world for what we could do with our power, for the leadership we might provide, for the example we might set. Now the choices are almost gone: we are almost the world's self-appointed policeman; we are almost the world defender of the status quo. We are well on our way to becoming a traditional great power - an imperial nation if you will - engaged in the exercise of power for its own sake, exercising it to the limit of our capacity and beyond, filling every vacuum and extending the American "presence" to the farthest reaches of the Earth. And, as with the great empires of the past, as the power grows, it is becoming an end in itself, separated except by ritual incantation from its initial motives, governed, it would seem, by its own mystique, power without philosophy or purpose. That describes what we have almost become ...
Is there a single word - with the possible exception of "almost" at the end of the paragraph - that fails to apply to the United States' situation today? Or consider this passage from Fulbright's The Arrogance of Power with the Iraq venture in mind:
Traditional rulers, institutions and ways of life have crumbled under the fatal impact of American wealth and power, but they have not been replaced by new institutions and new ways of life, nor has their breakdown ushered in an era of democracy and development.
Recalling these and other passages from Fulbright and other critics of the Vietnam era, one is again tempted to wonder why we should bother to say once more what has already been said so well so many times before. Perhaps we should just quote rather than repeat - cite, not write.

Of course, people like to point out that Iraq is not Vietnam. They are right insofar as those two countries are concerned. For instance, today's anarchic Iraq, a formerly unified country now on or over the edge of civil war, is wholly different from yesterday's resolute Vietnam, divided into North and South, but implacably bent on unity and independence from foreign rule.

And of course the two eras could scarcely be more different. Most important, the collapse of the Soviet Union has effectuated a full-scale revolution in the international order. The number of the world's superpowers has been cut back from two to one, China has become an economic powerhouse, market economics have spread across the planet, the industrial age has been pushed aside by the information age, global warming has commenced, and rock music has been replaced by rap.

Yet in the face of all this, US policies have shown an astonishing sameness, and this is what is disturbing. In our world of racing change, only the pathologies of US power seem to remain constant. Why?

The pitiful helpless giant
Perhaps a clue can be found in the famous speech that senator Joseph McCarthy gave in Wheeling, West Virginia, in February 1950. This was the occasion on which he announced his specious list of communists in the State Department, launching what soon was called McCarthyism. He also shared some thoughts on America's place in the world.

The Allied victory in World War II had occurred only five years before. No nation approached the United States in wealth, power or global influence. Yet McCarthy's words were a dirge for lost American greatness. He said: "At war's end we were physically the strongest nation on Earth and, at least potentially, the most powerful intellectually and morally. Ours could have been the honor of being a beacon in the desert of destruction, a shining living proof that civilization was not yet ready to destroy itself. Unfortunately, we have failed miserably and tragically to arise to the opportunity." On the contrary, McCarthy strikingly added, "We find ourselves in a position of impotency."

By what actions had the United States thrown away greatness? McCarthy blamed not mighty forces without, but traitors within, to whom he assigned an almost magical power to sap the strength of the country. America's putative decline occurred "not because our only powerful potential enemy has sent men to invade our shores, but rather because of the traitorous actions of those who have been treated so well by this nation". And, he raved on in a later speech: "We believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster. This must be the product of a great conspiracy, a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, when it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men."

McCarthy seemed to look at the United States through a kind of double lens. At one moment the nation was a colossus, all-powerful, without peer or rival, at the next moment a midget, cringing in panic, delivered over to its enemies, "impotent". Like the genie in Aladdin's bottle, the United States seemed to be a kind of magical being, first filling the sky, able to grant any wish, but a second later stoppered and helpless in its container. It was to be depended not on any enemy, all of whom could easily be laid low if only America so chose, but on Americans at home, who prevented this unleashing of might. If Americans cowered, it supposedly was mainly before other Americans. Get them out of the way, and the United States could rule the globe.

The right-wing intellectual James Burnham named the destination to which this kind of thinking led. "The reality," he wrote, "is that the only alternative to the communist world empire is an American empire, which will be, if not literally worldwide in formal boundaries, capable of exercising decisive world control."

McCarthy's double vision of the United States must have resonated deeply, for it turned out to have remarkable staying power. Consider, for example, the following statement by the super-hawkish columnist Charles Krauthammer, penned 51 years later, in March 2001 (six months before September 11). Again we hear the King Kong-like chest-beating, even louder than before. For the end of the Cold War, Krauthammer wrote, had made the United States "the dominant power in the world, more dominant than any since Rome". And so, just as McCarthy claimed in 1950, "America is in a position to reshape norms, alter expectations and create new realities."

But again there is a problem. And it is the same one - the enemies within. Thus again comes the cry of frustration, the anxiety that this utopia, to be had for the taking, will melt away like a dream, that the genie will be stuffed back into its bottle. For the "challenge to unipolarity is not from the outside but from the inside. The choice is ours. To impiously paraphrase Benjamin Franklin: history has given you an empire, if you will keep it." The remedy? "Unapologetic and implacable demonstrations of will".

We find expressions of the same double vision - a kind of anxiety-ridden triumphalism - again and again in iconic phrases uttered in the half-century between McCarthy and Krauthammer. Walt Rostow, chair of the State Department's Policy Planning Council, articulated a version of it in 1964, on the verge of the Lyndon Johnson administration's escalation of the Vietnam War, when he spoke in a memo to secretary of state Dean Rusk of "the real margin of influence ... which flows from the simple fact that at this stage of history, we are the greatest power in the world - if only we behave like it".

Madeleine Albright, then United Nations ambassador, gave voice to a similar frustration when she turned to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell and asked, "What's the point of having this superb military you are always talking about if we can't use it?"

But it was Nixon who gave the double vision its quintessential expression when, in 1970, at the pinnacle of America's involvement in Vietnam, he stated, "If, when the chips are down, the world's most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world."

For Nixon, as for McCarthy and Krauthammer, the principal danger was on the home front. He said on another occasion: "It is not our power, but our will and character that is being tested tonight. The question all Americans must ask and answer tonight is this: does the richest and strongest nation in the history of the world have the character to meet a direct challenge by a group which rejects every effort to win a just peace?" And, even more explicit: "Because let us understand: North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that."

The question is how the United States could be a "giant" yet pitiful and helpless, the "richest and strongest" yet unable to have its way, in possession of the most superb military force in history yet unable to use it, the "greatest power the world had ever known" yet at the same time paralyzed. Why, if the United States has had no peer in wealth and weaponry, has it for more than a half-century been persistently, incurably complaining of weakness, paralysis, even impotence?

'Losing' country X
McCarthy, of course, presented the "loss" of China as Exhibit A in his display of the deeds of his gallery of traitors. For example, in the Wheeling speech, he specifically mentioned John Service, of the State Department's China desk, and charged that he "sent official reports back to the State Department urging that we torpedo our ally Chiang Kai-shek and stating, in effect, that communism was the best hope of China".

By such false accusations - including the spurious allegation about the communists in the State Department - did McCarthy transpose the "lost" war in China to the domestic sphere, where the phantom saboteurs of US global hegemony were supposedly at work. Soon, the communist tactic of the purge was adopted by the US government, with the result that many of those most knowledgeable about Asia, such as Service, were driven out of government.

As has often been pointed out, whether the United States "lost China" depends on whether you think the United States ever had it. The question has lasting importance because the alleged loss of one country or another - China, Laos, Vietnam, Chile, Iran, Nicaragua, Iraq - became a leitmotif of US politics, especially at election time. In each of these cases, the United States "possessed" the countries in question (and thus was in a position to "lose" them) only insofar as it somehow laid claim to control the destinies of peoples on a global basis, or, as Fulbright said, an imperial basis.

But if there is one clear lesson that the history of recent empires has taught, it is that modern peoples have both the will and the capacity to reject imperial rule and assert control over their own destinies. Less interested in the contest between East and West than in running their own countries, they yearned for self-determination, and they achieved it. The British and French imperialists were forced to learn this lesson over the course of a century. The Soviet Union took a little longer, and itself collapsed in the process. The United States, determined in the period in question to act in an imperial fashion, has been the dunce in the class, and indeed under the current administration has put forward imperial claims that dwarf those of imperial Britain at its height. It is only because the United States has attempted the impossible abroad that it has had to blame people at home for the failure.

Fortunately, US involvement in China in the 1940s was restricted to aid and advice, and virtually no fighting between Americans and Mao Zedong's forces occurred. Now that the price of the military intervention in Vietnam - a much smaller country - is known, we can only shudder to imagine what intervention in China would have cost. Perhaps one of the few positive things that can be said about the Vietnam disaster is that if the United States was determined to fight a counter-insurgency war, it was better to do it in Vietnam than in China. But even without intervention, the price of China's defection from the US camp was high. The causes of McCarthyism were manifold, but in a very real sense, what the country got instead of war with Mao was the "war" at home that was McCarthyism.

The true causes of the Nationalist government's fall - its own incompetence and corruption, leading to wholesale loss of legitimacy in the eyes of its own people - were expunged from consciousness, and the lurid fantasy of State Department traitors and conspirators was concocted in their place. Then the delusion that Chiang could return from what then was called the island of Formosa (the Portuguese name for Taiwan) to retake China was fostered by the China lobby. Delusion ran wild. Myths were created to take the place of unfaceable truths. The internal conspiracy to destroy the United States, said McCarthy, was supposedly headed by, of all people, president Harry Truman's secretary of state, General George Marshall.

"It was Marshall, with [Dean] Acheson and [John Carter] Vincent eagerly assisting," he said, "who created the China policy which, destroying China, robbed us of a great and friendly ally, a buffer against the Soviet imperialism with which we are now at war." And he added for good measure: "We have declined so precipitously in relation to the Soviet Union in the last six years. How much swifter may be our fall into disaster with Marshall at the helm?"

Impotent omnipotence
Another event, scarcely more than a month before Mao declared the existence of the People's Republic of China, also fueled McCarthy's theme of thrown-away greatness. On August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb - Joe-1, named after Josef Stalin. At once, in an experience strangely parallel to the loss of China from America's sphere of interest, intoxicating dreams of atomic monopoly and the lasting military superiority that was thought to go with it shriveled up. Not superiority, but stalemate was suddenly the outlook - not dominance but the stasis of the "balance of terror".

The outlines of the new limitations soon took shape in the long, wearying, poorly understood and publicly disliked Korean War, in which America's atomic arsenal, whose use was considered but rejected, was no help. The theme of thwarted US greatness was sounded again, when General Douglas MacArthur, who proposed using atomic weapons in Korea, announced, "There can be no substitute for victory," and was fired by Truman for insubordination.

Meanwhile, a connection with the enemy within was discovered when Soviet spying on the Manhattan Project came to light. Scientists had long known that there could be no "secret" of the bomb - that the relevant science was irretrievably available to all - and that the Soviet Union would be able to build one. The Soviet timetable had indeed been speeded up by the spying, but now it seemed to McCarthy and others that the domestic traitors were the prime agents of the sudden, apparent reversal of US fortune. (Truman sought to compensate for the loss of the atomic monopoly with his prompt decision to build the H-bomb.)

The full implications of the ensuing nuclear standoff sank in slowly. As the Soviet Union gradually built up its arsenal, American strategic thinkers and policymakers awakened to some unpleasant discoveries about nuclear arms. The bomb, too, had a distinctly genie-like quality of looking formidable at one instant, but useless the next. Even in the days of US nuclear monopoly, between 1945 and the first Soviet explosion of 1949, nuclear weapons had proved a disappointing military instrument. Stalin had simply declared that nuclear weapons were for scaring people with "weak nerves" and acted accordingly. And once the monopoly was broken, no use of nuclear weapons could be planned without facing the prospect of retaliation.

During the 1950s, president Dwight Eisenhower tried to squeeze what benefit he could out of the United States' lingering numerical nuclear superiority with his "massive retaliation" policy, but its prescription of threatening nuclear annihilation to gain advantage in far-flung local struggles was never quite believable, perhaps even by its practitioners. By the late 1950s a new generation of strategists was awakening to the full dimensions of a central paradox of the nuclear age: possession of nuclear arsenals did not empower but rather paralyzed their owners. Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger remarked, "The more powerful the weapons, the greater the reluctance to use them," and fretted about "how our power can give impetus to our policy rather than paralyze it".

Here at the core of the riddle of US power in the nuclear age was the very image of the pitiful, helpless giant, a figure grown weak through the very excess of his strength. But the source of this weakness, which was very real, had nothing to do with any domestic cowards, not to speak of traitors, or any political event; it lay in the revolutionary consequences for all military power of the invention of nuclear arms, even if - with a hint of defensiveness, perhaps - the United States now called itself a "superpower". (The H-bomb was first called "the super".) Here was a barrier to the application of force that no cultivation of "will" could change or overcome.

But the policymakers did not accept the verdict of paralysis without a struggle. Within the precincts of high strategy, the "nuclear priesthood" mounted a sustained, complex intellectual insurrection against this distasteful reality of the nuclear age. Even in the face of the undoubted reality that if the arsenals were used, "mutual assured destruction" would result, they looked for room to maneuver. One line of attack was the "counterforce" strategy of targeting the nuclear forces rather than the society of the foe.

The hope was to preserve the possibility of some kind of victory, or at least of relative military advantage, from the general ruin of nuclear war. Another line of attack was advocacy of "limited war", championed by Kissinger and others. The strategists reasoned that although "general war" might be unwinnable, limited war, of the kind just then brewing in Vietnam, could be fought and won. Perhaps not all war between nuclear adversaries had been paralyzed. Thus the impotent omnipotence of the nuclear stalemate became one more paradoxical argument, in addition to those drummed into the public mind by McCarthy and his heirs, in favor of US engagement in counter-insurgency struggles. And this time the United States, unprotected by the prudence of a George Marshall, did go to war.

The results are the ones we know. US military might was no more profitable when used against rebellious local populations in limited wars than it was in general, nuclear wars. This time, the lessons were learned, and for a while they stuck: peoples, even of small countries, are powerful within their own borders; they have the means to resist foreign occupation successfully; military force will not lead them to change their minds; the issues are therefore in essence political, and in this contest, foreign invaders are fatally disadvantaged from the outset; if they are not willing to stay forever, they lose.

The decline of power
By the late 1970s, adverse experience sufficient to illuminate the utterly novel historical situation of the United States in the late 20th century was in hand. Undoubtedly, it had the biggest heap of weapons of any country. Without question, they were the most varied, sophisticated and effective in the world at their job of killing people and blowing things up. The question was what the United States could accomplish with this capacity.

Certainly, if a conventional foe lacking nuclear arms arrayed itself in battle against the United States, it could be handily defeated. That was the mistake that Saddam Hussein made in 1990 when he sent his army out into the Kuwaiti desert, where it was pulverized from the air. But few wars in fact conformed to this conventional pattern any longer.

Of far greater importance was what happened to two kinds of war that had historically been the most important - wars of imperial conquest and general, great-power wars, such as World War I and World War II. During the 20th century the first kind had become hopeless "quagmires", because of the aroused will of local peoples everywhere who, collectively, had put an end to the age of imperialism. The second were made unfightable and unwinnable by the nuclear revolution. It was these two limitations on the usefulness of military force, one acting at the base of the international system, the other at its apex, that delimited the superiority of the superpower. (The paradox of impotent omnipotence was even more pronounced for the other superpower, the Soviet Union, which actually disappeared.)

Very possibly, the United States, with all its resources, would have been the sort of globe-straddling empire that McCarthy wanted it to be had it risen to pre-eminence in an earlier age. It was the peculiar trajectory of the United States, born in opposition to empire, to wind up making its own bid for empire only after the age of imperialism was over. Though it's hard to shed a tear, you might say that there was a certain unfairness in America's timing. All the ingredients of past empires were there - the wealth, the weapons, the power, hard and soft. Only the century was wrong. The United States was not, could not be, and cannot now be a new Rome, much less greater than Rome, because it cannot do what Rome did. It cannot, in a post-imperial age, conquer other countries and lastingly absorb them into a great empire; it cannot, in the nuclear age, not even today, fight and win wars against its chief global rivals, who still, after all, possess nuclear arsenals.

Even tiny, piteous, brutalized, famine-ridden North Korea, more a cult than a country, can deter the United States with its puny putative arsenal. The United States, to be sure, is a great power by any measure, surely the world's greatest, yet that power is hemmed in by obstacles peculiar to our era. The mistake has been not so much to think that the power of the United States is greater than it is as to fail to realize that power itself, whether wielded by the United States or anyone else - if conceived in terms of military force - has been in decline. By imagining otherwise, the United States has become the fool of force - and the fool of history.

In this larger context the repeated constitutional crises of the past half-century assume an altered aspect. The conventional understanding is that an excess of power abroad brings abuses at home. The classic citation is Rome, whose imperial forces, led by Julius Caesar, returning from foreign conquest, crossed the river Rubicon into the homeland and put an end to the republic. (Thus both the proponents of American empire and its detractors can cite Rome.) But that has not been the American story. Rome and would-be Rome are not the same. Empire and the fantasy of empire are not the same.

It is rather the repeatedly failed bid for imperial sway that has corrupted. It was not triumph but loss - of China, of the atomic monopoly, among other developments - that precipitated the McCarthyite assault on liberty at home. It was persistent failure in the Vietnam War, already a decade old and deeply unpopular, that led an embattled, isolated, nearly demented Nixon to draw up his enemies list, illegally spy on his domestic opposition, obstruct justice when his misdeeds became known, ramble drunkenly in the Oval Office about using nuclear weapons, and ultimately mount an assault on the entire constitutional system of checks and balances. And it is today an unpopular Bush, unable either to win the Iraq war or to extricate himself from it, who has launched his absolutist assault on the constitution.

Power corrupts, says the old saw. But is "power" the right word to use in the face of so much failure? The sometimes suggested alternate - that weakness corrupts - seems equally appropriate. In a manner of speaking perhaps both saws are true, for in terms of military might the United States is unrivaled, yet in terms of capacity to get things done with that might, it so often proves weak - even, at times, impotent, as McCarthy said. The pattern is not the old Roman one in which military conquest breeds arrogance and arrogance stokes ambition, which leads to usurpation at home. Rather, in the case of the United States, misunderstanding of its historical moment leads to misbegotten wars; misbegotten wars lead to military disaster; military disaster leads to domestic strife and scapegoating; domestic strife and scapegoating lead to usurpation, which triggers a constitutional crisis. Crises born of strength and success are different from crises born of failure. Fulbright warned of the corruption of imperial ambition and the arrogance of power. But we need also to speak of the corruption of imperial failure, the arrogance of anxiety.

What the true greatness - or true power - of the United States is or can be for the world in our time is an absorbing question in pressing need of an answer. Our very conceptions of greatness and power - military, economic, political, moral - would need searching reconsideration. Those true powers - especially the economic - also have an "imperial" aspect, but that is another debate. An advantage of that debate is that it would be about things that are real. Jettisoning the mirage of military domination of the globe that has addled so many American brains for more than half a century and also shunning the panic-stricken fears of impotence that have accompanied the inevitable frustration of these delusions, the debate would take realistic stock of the nation's very considerable yet limited resources and ask what is being done with them, for good or ill, and what should be done. Perhaps it will still be possible to shoehorn the United States into a stretched definition of "empire", but it would look nothing like Britain or Rome. Or perhaps, as I believe, a United States rededicated to its constitutional traditions and embarked on a cooperative course with other nations would find that it possesses untapped reserves of political power, though it will take time for US prestige to recover from Bush's squandering of it.

Restoring illusion
Until very recently those authentic questions went substantially unexplored outside scholarly journals, and the US instead busied itself repairing the imperial illusions so rudely dashed by the Vietnam War. Suppressing the lessons of the Chinese revolution had been easy, since the United States had not fought in China. Getting over the lessons of Vietnam took longer. Many segments of US society, none more than the military, had learned them deeply and vowed "never again". (The poignancy of the generals' recent outspoken statement against the conduct of the war in Iraq lies precisely in the officers' chagrin that they did indeed let it happen again.)

The lessons were formulated in military terms in the so-called Powell Doctrine, requiring that before military action proceeded there must be a clear military - not political - objective, that there must be a commitment to the use of overwhelming force and that there must be an "exit strategy". Nevertheless, in other quarters the lessons were named a "Vietnam syndrome", an illness, and other explanations were brought forward. The lessons of Vietnam were not so much forgotten as vigorously suppressed, in the name of restoring the reputation of America's military power.

Ronald Reagan said of the Vietnam military, "They came home without a victory not because they were defeated, but because they were denied a chance to win." After the first Gulf War, then president George H W Bush crowed, "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!" The country was getting ready for the second Iraq war, which violated every tenet of the Powell Doctrine.

A parallel evolution was occurring in the constitutional domain. The lesson most of the US learned from Watergate and the forced resignation of Nixon was that the imperial presidency had grown too strong. (In general, America's imperial-minded presidents have had much more success rolling back freedom at home than extending it abroad.)

Vice President Dick Cheney, who had served as chief of staff for president Gerald Ford, drew an opposite lesson - that the powers others called imperial were in fact the proper ones for the presidency and had been eviscerated by the opposition to Vietnam and the Watergate scandal. As he has put it: "Watergate and a lot of the things around Watergate and Vietnam, both during the 1970s, served, I think, to erode the authority ... the president needs to be effective, especially in the national security area."

Taking the Nixon presidency as a model rather than a cautionary tale, Cheney sees new usurpation as restoration. In doing so, he brings an old theme back in new guise - that US weakness in the world is caused by domestic opponents at home. In his view domestic subversion - this time of executive authority, not misguided imperial ambition - is the country's problem.

Can this pattern be broken? Voices are already being heard advising that the opposition to the Iraq war and the failed vision it embodies should, with the next election in mind, now embrace a generalized new readiness to use force. But that way lies only a new chapter in the sorry history of the pitiful, helpless giant. The needed lesson is exactly the opposite - to learn or relearn, or perhaps we must say re-relearn, the lessons regarding the limitations on the use of force that have been taught and then rejected so many times in recent decades. Only then will we be able to stop repeating ourselves and, giving up dreams of imperial grandeur, start saying and doing something new.

Jonathan Schell is The Nation Institute's Harold Willens Peace Fellow. He is the author of The Unconquerable World, among many other books.

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