People are reluctant to admit what they really are, especially 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 claim that insanity or bad parenting is the reason for their crimes. Denying or excusing one’s own guilt is a permanent facet of human nature.
For good reasons, Americans have been reluctant to label our nation an empire. This attitude dates back to the era of the Founding Fathers. According to Daniel McCarthy, editor for the American Conservative, which I also write for, “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 days of Jefferson and Adams, but today Americans are still opposed to empire. Defending the Iraq and Afghanistan wars during his 2004 State of the Union address, President George W. 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.”
More recently, The Wall Street Journal‘s Bret Stephens opined in a piece that the amount of troops America has stationed at the hundreds of bases around the world is but a “fantasy empire” because those soldiers are too few in number and therefore relatively insignificant. Last 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 — these men doth protest too much.
In 2003, The Atlantic‘s Robert Kaplan was perhaps the most clear on this 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 the obvious. In a 1969 televised debate with left-wing intellectual Noam Chomsky, National Review founder William F. Buckley explained the necessity of an 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 necessary for our country to be one, a point of view shared by a majority of conservatives throughout the Cold War era.
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 another to debate whether we should remain one, but it is simply dangerous to pretend that the United States today is anything less than imperial in its scope, psyche, and affordability. Or as Ronald Reagan’s former budget director David Stockman said 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 like liberal Democrats don’t like to be called “socialists” even when they behave as such, it is understandable that most Americans do not like to think of their government as behaving in an imperialistic manner. No one wants to believe the worst of themselves.
But like the first steps that an alcoholic must take — he must admit that he has a problem — it is now healthy to question whether our country has fallen out-of-step with our 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 it? And can we finally admit it?
Jack Hunter is the official campaign blogger for GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul, and he co-wrote Rand Paul’s The Tea Party Goes to Washington. You can hear Southern Avenger commentaries on The Morning Buzz with Richard Todd on 1250 WTMA.