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Dare Call It Empire

by Alexander Cockburn

The Bush Gang Dreams of Empire
"Who can doubt that the United States is an imperial power?" Thus writes James Chace in the latest edition of the New York Review of Books. "Empire is back," comes the echo from Professor Alan Wolfe. Suddenly, the word "empire" is everywhere, scattered through the opinion columns like rose petals before a conquering hero.

Of course the United States has been an imperial power for many, many decades, but when Teddy Roosevelt used to blare out the summons to imperial duty like a Roman matron admonishing youth, there was a certain embarrassment at his bluff speech. Congressmen bridled at the thought of ladling out too much gravy to the Army and Navy. Woodrow Wilson substituted more palatable Presbyterian pieties about burdens and duties. Then, FDR founded an even more appealing rhetoric with which to cloak imperial expansion: fighting other empires, a mission that conveniently brought an ever-burgeoning but unacknowledged empire in its wake, some of the most valuable oil-yielding portions ruthlessly excised from the British imperial cadaver after World War II.

In the late 1930s, the editors of Henry Luce's business flagship, Fortune, sidled into the issue of imperial conquest without breaching decorum by using the explosive "E" word: "It is generally supposed," Fortune's editors wrote, that the American military ideal is peace. But unfortunately for this high-school classic, the U.S. Army, since 1776, has filched more square miles of the earth by sheer military conquest than any army in the world, except only that of Great Britain. And as between Great Britain and the United States it has been a close race, Britain having conquered something over 3,500,000 square miles since that date, and the U.S. (if one includes wresting the Louisiana Purchase from the Indians) something over 2,100,000."

I came across this passage quoted by C. Wright Mills in "The Power Elite," but even that fierce Texan radical, writing in the mid-1950s, didn't use the E-word. It wasn't until the 1960s that the most daredevil Marxists, clutching their copies of "Lenin's Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism," accused the United States of being an empire.

In the academies it was a forbidden word. Officially, the only empires on display were those in the museum (the old colonial powers) or headquartered in the Kremlin. After 1989, there was no more Soviet Union, and today, all the folks in Congress are safely bought, forever silenced about costs of the military industrial complex. So America can stand forth, an unashamed empire at last.

Of course the Europeans don't like the new, raw language. The Democrats quaver that proprieties about "our allies" must be preserved, though within distinct limits. In Foreign Affairs for September/October 2002, Michael Hirsh, seeking this balance between deference to NATO and exaltation at America's unchallenged might, rolls out these rotund phrases: "U.S. allies must accept that some U.S. unilateralism is inevitable, even desirable. This mainly involves accepting the reality of America's supreme might -- and, truthfully, appreciating how historically lucky they are to be protected by such a relatively benign power."

The National Security Strategy delivered by President Bush to Congress on Sept. 21 had a briefer and more lissome formulation: "a distinctively American internationalism."

So, is anything new really afoot? Perry Anderson, editor of the London-based New Left Review, remarks in its current issue that the brusque assertion and "exercise of American primacy does require an activation of popular sentiment beyond mere assent to the domestic status quo." The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, afforded the Bush presidency an unparalleled measure of popular support at home for tough American assertion of power in the world.

And whereas the Clinton regime sedulously cultivated liberal internationalism, Bush's entourage contained proponents, notably Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, of a more brazen posture on who exactly is the world's boss. The stage was set for preemptive interventions, far more blatant than the old CIA-organized coups of earlier decades.

The basic aims of American international strategy have changed barely at all since the end of the Second World War. The difference is in the degree of frankness with which the brute realities of world domination are discussed.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor November 19 2002 (

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