News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: American Empire Like the British Empire, says Historian

Sunday, December 18, 2005

American Empire Like the British Empire, says Historian

The current debate about Iraq should be from a different angle than day-to-day, blow-by-blow description of who's killing who. Instead, the debate should be at a much higher level, one that most Americans have not heard about: the American Empire.

This question has floated around in the background, the talk of eggheads and think tanks, for a while now. But it has been tacitly assumed rather than explicitly debated. This should change, and the debate about America as an empire should be discussed, argued, and solved in explicit, up-front news.

If you've ever talked to real people about the American Empire, they often look at you like you're talking Martian. Americans are not comfortable with the idea, as Wesley Clarke has pointed out several places. Yet, it is exactly the reality of this fact that the public needs to come to terms with. Take it out of the backrooms of the insiders and put it in front of the voters--let them decide: are we an empire? should we be? if so, how do we to go about exercising our power as one?

For those who haven't seen the Guardian article on the US empire, see The "US is now rediscovering the pitfalls of aspirational imperialism" by historian Linda Colley.

Two quotes that catch my eye include the following, something I have covered in my review of the movie, Walker:

This week's elections keep open the prospect that Iraq might also ultimately be regarded as a success. But there is an obvious difficulty involved in this kind of aspirational imperialism. It is hard to convince people that you mean them well if you are looking at them down the barrel of a gun. Moreover, imperial idealism frequently loses out to the practicalities of rule. Instead of exporting what they perceived to be rational, modern, humane government to their colonies, the British often found themselves propping up deeply unattractive and corrupt princelings and client rulers because this was the cheapest way of maintaining control. It remains to be seen how far, and how durably, the US will achieve anything better in Iraq."
And the following provides some insight into the role of fear in instilling resepct and security of any imperial venture:
Adam Smith, who distrusted empire, argued that only when "all the different quarters of the world" were able to inspire "mutual fear" would nations finally begin to respect the integrity of each other's borders. In the most horrible of ways, al-Qaida is after a fashion testing this very premise. In the past, the imperialism of the west, like that of the rest, was often difficult - for the doers as well as for their victims; but western states were none the less usually able to dispatch forces overseas against non-western peoples without any fear of being attacked themselves. That kind of immunity is probably now a thing of the past.
I have written several times about the need of fear to form the basis of authority. This does not sit well with many liberals because they think that reason should provide the basis of legitimate control. What much history shows is that humans do not act rationally--at least according to those things that we in the west call reasonable. It is my contention that many people will do evil simply for the sake of doing evil.

But conservatives are no better. They'd have you believe that the fear simply isn't there. That it's the right thing to do because some higher power says it's just or right or somehow God-given. These are just masks for saying that you need to fear what you don't know, which is that any government that cannot inspire fear is without authority.

The refusal to take this debate head on is something that the American people should have some say on. By being left to the eggheads and think tanks a situation arises like the one Walter Lippmann described long ago: the public is a fiction. It's the insiders who make the decisions, and all we do as voters is passively accept or not their decisions.

With the massive spin machine and the manipulation of facts and stories available to political parties, the American public is even more distanced from the real debates than even in Lippmann's time. The question is, "how do we frame the debate" so that the public can get a real picture of what's at stake in being an empire?

Several thinkers have suggested that there are many kinds of empire--in and of itself the concept does not need to resemble those of the past. Bernard Williams has suggested something along the lines of an enlightened empire.

Yet, the debate may be happening because it's already accepted by the insiders of both parties. This tacit acceptance of America as empire is the reaosn why many Democrats are loathe to undermine the basic assumptions underlying America's presence in the Mideast. They accept the notion of the US as empire, but they'd just "do it differently."

So the question of whether the US should be an empire is a done deal for insiders from both sides--now it's just a matter of how to grease the machine and how to make it run.

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