Jacob Heilbrunn: The Left's Flawed View of the American Empire

Roundup: Talking About History

Jacob Heilbrunn, in the Chronicle of Higher Education (5-19-05):

[Jacob Heilbrunn is an editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times and is at work on a book about the neoconservative movement.]

Belief in America's decline is on the rise. The surge began with the Yale historian Paul Kennedy's 1987 best seller The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (Random House), which argued that Ronald Reagan's economic bungling would bring about America's collapse. Shortly thereafter, the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet empire disintegrated. Although Kennedy has since performed a U-turn, other prophets of doom have emerged. Now that another Republican president, George W. Bush, is in his second term, it has become an article of faith among many of his detractors that the United States may be on the verge of ruin.

It would be hard to find a more striking example of this phenomenon than Metropolitan Books' American Empire Project. The series, which is itself starting to appear imperial in scope, boasts eight volumes devoted to showing that the United States is about to receive its long overdue comeuppance. The authors, who include the MIT linguist Noam Chomsky, the Boston Globe columnist James Carroll, and the Asia expert Chalmers Johnson, share the same mission: to dissent from what they see as the stifling orthodoxy of a foreign-policy elite that advocates American propagation of liberty and democracy abroad. The administration's prosecution of suspected terrorists at home and its expansion of military bases overseas are viewed as parts of a coherent and consistent attempt to expand American power as far as possible.

In sounding the tocsin against imperialism, the authors are drawing on a venerable American tradition. The prospect of the United States' going the way of Rome, from a republic to an empire, has long been evoked by foes of expansion. John Quincy Adams, a leading opponent of slavery, fretted that the annexation of Texas would transform the United States into a "conquering and warlike nation." But it wasn't until the 1890s, when the United States, propelled by heady notions of racial superiority and new markets, ran roughshod over the Philippines, Hawaii, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam that foes of imperialism began to gain a real cause. The Anti-Imperialist League decried America's fall from a state of Edenic grace, while Sen. George Hoar complained about "the danger that we are to be transformed from a Republic, founded on the Declaration of Independence ... into a vulgar, commonplace empire, founded upon physical force." It was a complaint that would be echoed down the decades, whether the target of American intervention was Central America, Vietnam, Africa, the Balkans, or the Middle East.

Perhaps no one has been echoing it more forcefully than Chalmers Johnson. Johnson, one of the most vociferous defenders of the Vietnam War, has done an intellectual somersault. A distinguished scholar of Asian affairs who also moonlighted as a consultant to the CIA, Johnson is a marvelously lucid writer. His stock in trade is trying to create shock and awe as he casts his Jovian thunderbolts from on high. Johnson's greatest virtue is that he is incapable of being boring. Whether you agree with him or not is almost beside the point. His latest forays into foreign affairs are directed at prodding Americans to realize that, however battered the republic may be, it can still achieve redemption.

In his earlier work Blowback (Metropolitan Books, 2000), which referred to the CIA term for an operation that has boomeranged, Johnson pilloried America for ignoring the unintended consequences of its actions abroad, including its early support of Saddam Hussein. Now, in The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic, he lambastes America for camouflaging its expansionist aims behind the banners of peace and freedom....

[Peter Irons, author of War Powers, is] an emeritus professor of political science at the University of California at San Diego who has written superb works on the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, now turns to the rise of the imperial presidency. His book is thorough, enlightening, and informative. One can quibble with his conclusions, but Irons deftly traces what he sees as the subversion of the Constitution that has taken place since the founding fathers said that only Congress has the power to declare war.

As Irons shows, the framers almost surely did not intend for presidents to send forces into combat anywhere in the world without the approval of Congress. "The debates in the convention, the later writings of delegates to that meeting, and speeches in the state conventions that voted on ratification of the Constitution," he writes, "leave no doubt that the president's title and role as commander in chief gave him no powers that Congress could not define or limit."

Presidents had encroached upon Congressional powers in the 19th century, but the real birth of the imperial presidency took place in the 1920s. Calvin Coolidge ordered naval vessels to Nicaragua in the 1920s, but Congress opposed intervention; it was a precursor of the fights that would take place between Congressand Ronald Reagan during the 1980s over military aid and advisers to the Nicaraguan contras who sought to overthrow the Sandinista regime. Franklin D. Roosevelt tussled with Congress over aiding the British and French before the United States officially entered World War II, but Irons is equivocal about attacking him for expanding the powers of the presidency. Perhaps that is because, whatever his lapses, FDR was on the side of the angels. How hard, after all, can you be on someone who licked both the Great Depression and the Nazis?...

it is dubious whether Bush wants an empire, or would even be capable of constructing one if he did. The Iraq war was supposed to be a demonstration shot that terrified the rest of the Arab world into reform, not a prolonged occupation. As Michael T. Klare demonstrates in Blood and Oil, the Bush administration's lunatic refusal to consider conservation means that the United States remains absurdly dependent on a shrinking supply of foreign oil. Add that to America's gaping trade and federal-budget deficits, and you've hardly drawn the portrait of an imperial, impervious, and self-sufficient power.

Still, the phrase "blood and oil" is dangerously misleading. The Iraq war was partly fought for idealistic reasons. Bush has shown increased fervor for the democracy crusade in his second term. His support for democracy in the Middle East has received an added boost from the turbulence in Lebanon, where Syrian troops have withdrawn, and prompted a number of his critics to at least wonder, however briefly, whether Bush didn't have it right all along.

In the March 13 Washington Post, for example, the Middle East expert Youssef M. Ibrahim declared, "Regardless of Bush's intentions -- which many Arabs and Muslims still view with suspicion -- the U.S. president and his neoconservative crowd are helping to spawn a spirit of reform and a new vigor to confront dynastic dictatorships and other assorted ills. It's enough for someone like me, who has felt that Bush's attitude toward the Mideast has been all wrong, to wonder whether his idea of setting the Muslim house in order is right."

One searches in vain for such heretical thoughts in the American Empire Project, which remains firmly predictable in attempting to stake out unorthodox positions. The series may reveal less about the decline of America than about the decline of the left.

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