Blogs > HNN > Karen Kwiatkowski reviews Ivan Eland's The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed (The Independent Institute, 2004)

Dec 1, 2004 12:53 pm

Karen Kwiatkowski reviews Ivan Eland's The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed (The Independent Institute, 2004)

Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski (USAF, Ret.) earned her MA from Harvard and is now studying for a Ph.D. at Catholic University. She writes regularly for on defense and security issues.

On Independence Day 1821, John Quincy Adams gave a speech about what America had done and could do for the benefit of mankind.

This speech contained no executive twinkle of utopian Wilsonian intervention, nor furtive whispers of the neoconservative-cherished American-led Democratic International. Instead, Adams provided a theorem of American foreign policy that Ivan Eland proves and explains in logical and highly readable way in his latest book, The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed.

Eland, (Senior Fellow and Director of the Independent Institute's Center on Peace and Liberty) as others before him, seeks a modern and workable answer to the 21st century challenge of American foreign policy. What should it be, what works, what doesn’t work, how might it contribute to a better world? Can Americans conduct a foreign policy that will complement, enrich and strengthen our republic, and if we could, how would it be defined, constrained, and enlarged? Celebrating our American independence in 1821, Adams shared the then actuality of our foreign policy, saying America “Š does not go aboard in search of monsters to destroy.”

Dr. Eland lucidly reminds us why this should be the case today, and coherently puts forth a vision of an American foreign policy that satisfies the framework put forth by the founders, and one that politically and economically will satisfy and greatly enrich both her citizens, and the rest of the world.

In explaining the state of the modern American Empire - fascinatingly, one shown to be clearly modeled on Sparta, not on the great Athenian democracy we might have imagined, Dr. Eland works throughout the book as an educator rather than an advocate. He Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at the Independent Institute, he is uniquely qualified to both educate and advocate, with a doctorate in national security policy from George Washington University, and a long history of researching foreign and defense policy, including experience as the principal defense analyst for the Congressional Budget Office. For the rest of us, The Empire Has No Clothes provides an education sorely needed, and one unlikely to be provided to Americans in any other venue.

Eland’s first two chapters explain what we have become as a nation, and how it happened. He shows clearly that post Cold War America spends far more in real terms for defense than at any point during in the Cold War. He shows exactly how that abnormally large investment directly feeds a narrow elitist subset of political and defense interest groups not only in lieu of, but also to the detriment of real national defense. In fact, as readers reflect on how safe they do or do not feel in American today, Eland’s honesty and objectivity on these points is refreshing; unfortunately, his explanations will confirm for many readers their own non-verbalized suspicions about what Washington is really doing with our defensive resources.

Of course, defense is just a word, and it often has little practical meaning. In the past 100 years, America has nurtured and developed a far-flung military empire, aimed, as was the Spartan Empire less at holding territory than at holding governments. It was founded on alliances with scores of dependents, and is hampered by unbalanced investments in martial security for often-wealthy allies. It is distinguished by an inability to either protect Americans from modern threats or win any kind of occupation or other war against the extremely poor and culturally alien countries in which we seem most interested. Incidentally, in explaining and examining the American empire, Eland points out some unique differences from our closest historical model. The Spartan empire, as with some of the 17th century European models, actually profited for a time from conquest, garnishment and tribute and the ability to influence member nations trade and security policies. Ironically, the American empire has never achieved this enlightenment state, even as her overextension is already entering free fall.

Eland portrays our modern foreign policy in a useful and eye-opening way, allowing us to understand what otherwise would remain a confusing enigma. Our foreign policy is, in a sense, a uniquely American golem bearing democracy and good works at the point of a gun, martial in leaning, without conscience, judgment, ethics or humanity. Brought forth to do good and helpful things, the military-industrial complex and the foreign policy infrastructure have developed lives and untenable desires of their own.

Public choice theory, invoked at various times in the book to explain a foreign policy that for many Americans seems insane, unwise or unexplainable, holds that “when benefits are concentrated among certain influential or well-organized groups and costs are diffused among the entire American public, the vested interests will dictate policy. This maxim is even truer in foreign policy than in domestic affairs.” Lesson one from The Empire Has No Clothes may well be this basic reality check, shattering the oft-heard charge from Washington that to criticize American foreign policy is to rescind one’s love of country. Instead, to loudly criticize elites in Washington and the vested interests is to be most traditionally and satisfyingly American.

In the past 100 years American foreign policy has become progressively more offensive, more militaristic, more expensive, and in every way, less republican, less constitutionally constrained, and with all that, imperial. The facts on the ground in terms of military spending (seven times the next closest spenders, China and Russia, and thirty times that of Iran, North Korea, and Syria combined), military reach (global), and general policies of interference (the U.S. “is the foremost user of economic coercion as a foreign policy tool”) support Eland’s assessment that indeed, our foreign policy is beyond the pale and unsustainable. Several closet imperialistas in the neoconservative camp of both major parties, such as Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations and Victor D. Hanson of the Weekly Standard are frequently referenced. Even they seem to agree, ruefully at times, with the basics put forth in the book.

Thus, we have an empire, of sorts, impossible to pay for or to secure, and remarkably unguided by the kind of great ideas, kings and emperors we might read about or watch on the big screen. America has not been led to empire by some great shared vision or the ego of a larger than life leader. She has been cajoled, sweet-talked, lied to and made afraid whenever it was politically expedient, by bureaucrats and academics and ideologues who never knew war or else relished the fantasy of it.

Randolph Bourne, describing American war and politics circa World War I, wrote, “War is the health of the state.” War, whether on drugs, poverty, terrorism, or evil axes, provides for unquestioned—and unquestionable—state growth and expansion. Unlike incremental state bureaucratic growth under non-war conditions, the existence of a “war” allows for a synchronized popularization of usually unconstitutional growth among a frightened yet nationalistically inflamed populace. War can be a beautiful thing for that bureaucratic elitist and governmentally connected sliver of society that benefits from its pursuit.

Eland explains how imperial and multifaceted “war” serves more than the health of the state. War constitutes the absolute vitality of the chief executive, unrestrained by an independent self-respecting Congress, or an independent, self-respecting judiciary. We often hear George W. Bush describing himself as a “War President.” We rarely stop to examine, as Eland has, what this really means, or to consider that this proud self-assessment is utterly anti-republican and abhorrent to American tradition.

Rejecting an imperial America is, or soon will be, thanks to The Empire Has No Clothes, easy for many of us. Eland clarifies and simplifies why all Americans should resist and oppose political decisions aimed at maintaining and promoting the imperial attitude, and imperial foreign policies. For conservatives, we should fear empire because it breaks the budget and grows government in all directions, at all levels, and permanently. Liberals, he writes, should be infuriated at the hijacking of their values of humanitarianism, human rights and democracy to serve as cover for realpolitik and worse, corporatist and elitist interests of manipulation of markets, government subsidy of business risk, and neoconservative totalitarianism that would recreate, reshape and renew whole countries and cultures. All Americans should be concerned that acts supporting or pursuing empire have the equal and opposite effects of reducing domestic liberty, fraying the constitutional balance of power between Congress and the executive, and destroying, perhaps permanently, our hard earned republic.

In this important book, Eland has stripped the American empire for all to see. While it is admittedly painful, we must boldly direct our gaze at this undressed spectacle. The average American, like the clear- eyed innocent little boy in the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” is completely capable of observing that in spite of what we are told by the echo chambers of administrations from Wilson to Roosevelt to Truman to Nixon to Bush 41, Clinton and Bush 43, in fact the American empire has no clothes. No profit, no richness, no honor, no loveliness, no good works or humanity. In pursuing empire for beautiful and glorious sounding reasons, in fact we have made America a laughingstock, and as a republic, she has grown scrawny and weak.

If we are not to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy, what are we to do? Cartoonist Walt Kelly has provided what may be a sly corollary to Adams’ kind warning, with “We have met the enemy and he is us.” The enemy of the Republic is not found on faraway shores, or in the capital cities of friends and foes, in good thugs who do our bidding and bad thugs who defy us. The enemy is us, and as our current president is fond of saying, we certainly ought to pursue him where he lives, and destroy him. Eland suggests how we might deal with the real problems of American foreign policy, in part by challenging some common assumptions about the world and how it works.

A popular denigration of those who question American empire is to cry “Isolationist!” In fact, Eland colorfully illustrates how the interventionists have done far more to isolate America, in both economic and security terms, than those who caution against empire, while invariably advocating real freedom of commerce and association. Most recently, the Bush administration interventionists have in a very short time done permanent damage to both traditional and modern American foreign relations and alliances. One struggles to imagine how more isolated in the global community America could be, although the increasing unpopularity of our currency might hold our next wave of isolation at the hands of our pompous interventionists.

Eland also illustrates how the Washington explanation of interdependence and globalization as a justification for U.S. dabbling in every one else’s affairs “merely repackages the discredited domino theory of communism’s advance during the cold war.” As in nature, crises of all kinds may actually self contain, heal and dissolve by being left alone with those people most impacted by it. During the Cold War, intervention was the norm, but the end of the Cold War brought new opportunities for so many countries to be simply left alone to resolve their problems. Such fresh thinking is sorely needed in our national conversations and logic.

Our toppling of Saddam Hussein and the Ba-ath Party in Iraq in 2003, and the subsequent and ongoing destruction of that country’s citizens, infrastructure, economy and political institutions by the U.S. military is a prime example of how we generally make things far worse by interfering. Iraq in 2003 was a place where long brutal sanctions had seriously undermined faith in the Ba-ath Party, and tentative evolutions towards democracy in countries from Iran to Qatar to Bahrain beckoned Iraqis of all ethnicities and religions. As one of the best educated, most industrial Arab countries and one with a solid sense of national identity, Iraq was poised for real self-rule, a real republic, with a relevant form of democracy. Our interference, while it preserved Iraq’s trade on the dollar, U.S. access to Iraqi oil and provided new military bases, derailed Iraq’s progress towards democracy rather than expediting it. The Iraq tragedy serves as one of our most blatant examples of American empire unclothed, unrestrained and unattractive.

Eland asks the right questions - as all American do when they reach a certain juncture in life, a place where change must happen, where decisions must be made. Eland demands a reevaluation of our alliances, especially with those countries that don’t need us, or do not reciprocate. He asks that we reevaluate our “vital” interests, and then focus on them alone, even as that surely reduces the bureaucracy firmly dedicated to all the other fluff. Fifteen years after the Cold War ended peacefully, it is both amazing and yet entirely predictable that the Washington defense and foreign policy establishments, in preserving their own interests and funding, would prove too frightened and too gutless to address this fundamental question. Eland asks that we preserve and strengthen our economy, through more open trade policies, and by reducing our exorbitant offensive security budget through reduction of unneeded nuclear capability, unneeded bases and occupations, and unneeded weapons and support systems the Pentagon and the Congress so treasures.

The Empire Has No Clothes is well written, eye opening and patriotic to the bones. Ivan Eland is a problem solver, as well as an insightful analyst. In seeking to solve problems one must understand how the situation evolved, where we went wrong, how we missed those earlier signs of trouble. From this, we can decide what to do, what correctives to implement. While Eland’s prescription for a better American foreign policy is clear common sense and even a bit populist, readers are advised not to hold their breath in hopes that his wisdom will be expeditiously adopted by the foreign policy elites or the military- industrial complex. But it is good to know that we really can trust our own eyes and judgment, and reject the cacophony of claims that the American empire is beautiful, magnificent, and charming. Eland has done a great service to America and our troubled republic by helping us all find our voice, and to perhaps recover our innocence.
Reprinted from, December 1, 2004

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