The US: Too late for empire
by Jonathan Schell
The Nation magazine, August 14/21,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
'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
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?"
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
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
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
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
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
is The Nation Institute's Harold Willens Peace Fellow. He is the
author of The Unconquerable World, among many other books.