Published on Sunday, August 10, 2003 by the Washington Post
A Debate Over U.S. 'Empire' Builds in Unexpected Circles
by Dan Morgan
At forums sponsored by policy think tanks, on radio talk shows and around Cleveland Park dinner tables, one topic has been hotter than the weather in Washington this summer: Has the United States become the very "empire" that the republic's founders heartily rejected?
Liberal scholars have been raising the question but, more strikingly, so have some Republicans with impeccable conservative credentials.
For example, C. Boyden Gray, former counsel to President George H.W. Bush, has joined a small group that is considering ways to "educate Americans about the dangers of empire and the need to return to our founding traditions and values," according to an early draft of a proposed mission statement.
"Rogue Nation," a new book by former Reagan administration official Clyde Prestowitz, president of the Washington-based Economic Strategy Institute, contains a chapter that dubs the United States "The Unacknowledged Empire." And at the Nixon Center in Washington, established in 1994 by former president Richard M. Nixon, President Dimitri K. Simes is preparing a magazine-length essay that will examine the "American imperial predicament."
The stirrings among Republicans are still muted. Most in the GOP -- as well as a large number of Democrats -- support bigger military budgets and see no alternative to a forceful U.S. role abroad. But those leading the debate say it is, at the very least, bringing in voices across the ideological spectrum for a long overdue appraisal of what the nation's role should be.
After World War II, the United States was instrumental in setting up a web of international economic, military and political organizations founded on American principles of democracy and free markets. To combat communist influence, real or imagined, the United States also used covert operations to undermine or topple governments in Iran, Guatemala, Congo, Chile and other countries.
While U.S. influence was vast, many scholars deny that it constituted an "empire," which the dictionary defines as a group of countries or territories under a single sovereign power.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq with few allies may be the immediate cause of heightened interest in the topic of empire. But there is broad agreement that the United States' drift toward empire -- if it has occurred -- long predates the Bush administration.
According to Christopher A. Preble, director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, which espouses libertarian views, the United States should have faced this issue when the Soviet Union collapsed.
"That's when we should have had a discussion," he said. "Instead, we maintained all our Cold War commitments and added new ones, without much of a debate at all."
The United States retained its worldwide network of spy satellites, ballistic missile submarines and aircraft carriers, and stationed several hundred thousand troops in dozens of countries. After dipping sharply in the early 1990s, the military budget began rising after Bill Clinton was reelected president in 1996.
Between the end of the Cold War and the start of the current presidency, the U.S. military intervened in Panama, Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo. In Panama and Haiti, the United States ousted dictators and installed its handpicked successors. In Somalia, a humanitarian mission to protect relief supplies for famine victims became a hunt for a warlord that led to U.S. deaths and withdrawal. In the former Yugoslavia, the United States intervened on humanitarian grounds but has remained to keep order and provide civic stability.
Preble considers the U.S. ouster of the Taliban from Afghanistan a legitimate response to the terrorist threat after Sept. 11, 2001. But the longer the United States remains in Afghanistan and Iraq, he says, the more it looks like an "occupier" -- a term associated with imperial powers.
For ideological conservatives, the United States' vast global commitments should pose a difficult philosophical dilemma, Preble said. "You cannot be for a system of limited government at home and for maintaining military garrisons all over the world," he said.
Not so, say many "neoconservatives," members of an amorphous political group that has its origins in the defection of left-wing Democrats to the GOP during the Cold War. Neoconservatives tend to favor the use of U.S. power to spread American political values, preempt hostile nations' ability to threaten the United States with weapons of mass destruction, and rebuild nations in America's image.
Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has put forward the idea of a U.S. "empire of liberty" to spread democracy around the world. On National Public Radio's "Diane Rehm Show" last month, Boot called for a doubling of U.S. military spending to carry out America's global commitments.
The label of empire does not bother William Kristol, a neoconservative leader and editor of the Weekly Standard magazine. "If people want to say we're an imperial power, fine," he has stated.
There are echoes of President John F. Kennedy -- and of the more zealous elements of President Woodrow Wilson's foreign policy -- in the neoconservative vision, said Ivo H. Daalder, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Kennedy pledged in his 1961 inaugural address to "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty." Wilson believed World War I could "make the world safe for democracy."
But Daalder said there is a key difference. Kennedy and Wilson believed in the benefits of working through international organizations, while neoconservatives want the United States to act alone. "They're democratic imperialists," Daalder said of the neoconservatives.
Oxford University historian Niall Ferguson, author of "Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power," says the United States should stop denying its imperial role and study the good the British Empire did in spreading prosperity and progressive thought in the 19th and 20th centuries. Ferguson recently took the pro-empire case before a packed auditorium at the American Enterprise Institute, where he debated scholar Robert Kagan on the proposition, "The United States is and should be an empire." At the conclusion, the audience was polled and rejected the proposition.
Broadening this debate is the goal of the infant Committee for the Republic, whose members include Gray; former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia Charles W. Freeman Jr.; Stephen P. Cohen, president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development in New York; William A. Nitze, son of Paul Nitze, the Reagan administration's top arms control negotiator; and John B. Henry, a Washington businessman and descendant of Revolutionary War patriot Patrick Henry. Members have met over lunch and are drafting a manifesto. A draft of the mission statement says, "America has begun to stray far from its founding tradition of leading the world by example rather than by force."
Henry said the group may set up a nonprofit organization and could sponsor seminars examining how imperial behavior weakened earlier republics, such as the Roman Empire. "We want to have a great national debate about what our role in the world is," Henry said.
James M. Lindsay, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says the United States veered away from the founders' notion of avoiding foreign entanglements more than a century ago, when it went to war with Spain in 1898. "America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy," a book by Lindsay and Daalder, finds parallels with the past in the foreign policy disputes taking place inside the Bush administration.
After World War I, Wilson fought for U.S. membership in the League of Nations but was outmaneuvered by Senate Republicans led by Henry Cabot Lodge (Mass.). Wilson and Lodge wanted the United States to exercise power overseas, but Lodge feared the league would limit the United States' freedom of action.
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