Crisis At Home and Abroad

The American people face the dilemma of the man whose willful apathy allowed him to be robbed of his wealth and status by those closest to him. The dispirited man could choose, as he likely might, to ignore the theft of his identity. He could elect to deny the character inefficiencies that allowed his cherished possessions to be purloined so effortlessly, from beneath his trusting nose. Otherwise, he could admit that something valuable was lost and that he must, once again, try to regain it.

We the American people must make this choice – to concede that the checks and balances of our little-r republican government are eroding, that bits of our democracy and freedom were taken from us with nary a muted objection, and that we must now fight to regain them. Or, we can blithely ignore the situation, until we arrive finally at the constitutional impasse towards which we have been heading, and the principles that define our nation become completely up for grab by those in power.

Nearly everyone – the American electorate, its representative organ in Washington, our military and diplomatic experts, world opinion and the Iraq government itself – resoundingly opposes our presence in Iraq. If one man can lead a nation to war, despite its citizens and legislature, in order to gratify his own ideological predilections and consolidate his own executive power, then do we have a democracy in any meaningful sense of the word? The rift between public opinion and public policy has expanded tremendously in recent years. However, as the ruckus over Bush’s prime-time “surge” reveals, we have not admitted to this democracy deficit, which accompanies, of course, our budget and trade deficits. Instead, we have buried our heads, like the robbed man in denial, within the minutia of logistics. While we debate troop levels, the political fundamentals of our nation crumble. The question is not, How did we lose the war? It is, Why have we waged the war, and at what costs in American treasure, blood and constitutional integrity?

The American struggle in Iraq is less about oil or democracy or terrorism than it is about power. That Bush wanted to invade Iraq before September 11th is a fact beyond dispute. Iraq is but the amphitheater of chaos and blood, not the play itself. The war is about the power of the president as he consolidates his unitary control over the American state. The war is the struggle between republic and empire.

History has proven that the two – republic and empire – cannot not be simultaneously sustained. Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon and destroyed Rome’s republic in order to preserve the empire. Great Britain withdrew forces from around the world in order to renounce its empire and salvage the democracy. Like its predecessors, the United States must make the choice in the tug-of-war between the primacy of its democratic heritage and that of its imperial ambitions.

Empire is defined as a militarized state with a global, hegemonic agenda. The Golden Age of the American Empire thus began, appropriately, with war. World War II taught America the value of a sustained military establishment – importantly, not just as a tool for expansion abroad, but as a means for creating an efficient and obedient society at home. Indeed, the American military establishment did as much to save Europe from the hell of fascism as it did to lift the United States from the hell of poverty. If the New Deal “primed the pump” by providing civil service jobs, then the military economy did the same, with the added bonus of loyalty and national obedience – jobs were supplied to the unemployed from bullet metallurgy to detailing the planes that the government hoped, one day, the workers would die in fighting for their nation. Exiled Polish economist Michal Kalecki described the process of predicating the national economy on the national military establishment as “military Keynesianism,” a tactic which, simultaneously, revitalized both the American and German economies, inaugurating the empire of the former, and collapsing the empire of the later.

The short-term economic gains of a militarized economy are obvious, but the price, paid with our national character of boisterous democracy and grassroots dissent, is insidious. Since its inauguration at the onset of WWII, the behemoth weapons industry – the industry of commercialized violence – has been entrenching itself into the American economy like an octopus, fed by nearly a trillion dollars a year, more than one and a half times all the other countries in the world combined, and smothering our republican virtue. The cephalopodan tentacles reach not just to the thousands of good American families who depend on the manufacturing of weapons for their daily sustenance, but, increasingly, to the capitalists and corporate profiteers, whose businesses depend on the exportation of mechanized carnage. Dwight Eisenhower spoke of the dangers of the “military-industrial complex” in the American state, during his 1961 presidential farewell address:

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

Eisenhower knew that militarism and democracy do not pair well. The arms race has the momentum of provocative rhetoric and the inertia of national loyalty, so it stifles debate. The race depends on a constant state of emergency, and thus plays out most effectively in a simplified world of allies and enemies, terrorists (or fascists or communist) and freedom-lovers. The establishment sustains itself when national prosperity is intertwined with the specter of war, and no one wants to stop priming the pump.

Arming for prospective war tends helps the economy, but it also tends to lead to real war. America has found out that bombs have a peculiar tendency of being dropped. And it is during times of war, when our nation is most vulnerable to evildoers abroad, that the president can arrogate the rights and power of a free state – unregulated speech, open elections, due process of the law – for himself in the name of national security. Thus there exists a feedback loop between the powers of the executive and the size of the nation’s military: the greater the American war machine, then the stronger the executive and the quieter the masses. James Madison warns us:

Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. In war…the discretionary power of the executive is extended…and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people…

In this way, in every way, constitutional crisis at home is inextricably related to military crisis abroad. Take, for example, Richard Nixon whose unlawful expansion of executive might came at a time when the United States was floundering in a likewise debacle of imperial nation-building, Vietnam. His power abuses at home were utterly linked to his power abuses abroad. And so reveals the rift between democracy and empire. Nixon wiretapped Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the pentagon papers; he broke into Watergate to monitor war critics; and he compiled an “enemies list” cataloguing American treason, as troops were withdrawn from Vietnam and bombs were piercing Cambodian skies. Indeed, the overall atmosphere of mistrust and presidential paranoia was borne out of fledgling foreign intervention. The expansion of empire demanded the reduction of democracy.

Nixon's dual crisis abroad and at home is eerily similar to our situation today. In the fall of 2002 the administration announced its National Security Strategy of global dominance: “Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States.” The Bush Doctrine equates to the declaration of unquestioned supremacy. Implied is that no country can ever confront the unipolar power of the United States and, if it does, we retain the right to invade at any moment. Our intentions are so brazen and disrespectful to the premise of a global order that, surely, imperialism will be one of the profound legacies of the Iraq war.

To enforce the Grand Strategy of preventative imperialism, Bush has used executive power as a birthright. Bush's expansion of our military might thus is intimately connected to his expansion of his executive might. He has pitted our empire against our democracy.The enraging narrative of his affront to American democracy -- aggrandizing the powers of the president in war time at the expense of the powers a free state in peace time -- is both over-repeated and undertold. To the minority that cares about the dire state of our union, it has been heard too many times. But the audible silence of our national media and citizenry suggest that the story, both repetitious and unheard, bares repeating: Bush said there were weapons of mass destruction, but there were not weapons; he said that Al Qeada was implicated in 9/11, but it was not; he officially sanctioned torture at prison cells like Abu Ghraib and Uzbekistan; he has detained “enemy combatants” without habeas corpus; he used the National Security Agency to “data mine” American speech, violating an explicit congressional law banning such an action and fourth amendment restrictions of search and seizure; and he has penned secret memos about the use of torture and indefinite imprisonment of soldiers that, if accepted, would fundamental alter the structure of American government. "We're at war," the president maintains. "We must protect America's secrets." The premise of sustained war has allowed the president, in the name of national security, to appropriate the tools of tyranny.

Republic is not feasible with an empire abroad and a congress, corrupted and complacent, that has forfeited its right to regulate the president, whose unilateral aggression, domestic spying, arbitrary violation of federal law and unregulated torture are hallmarks of dictatorship. However, empire itself is no longer feasible – and self evidently not moral. In a post-imperial world, with heightened sensitivity to local autonomy, the United States cannot hope to absorb other nations into its dominion. Also, in a post-nuclear age, it cannot hope to defeat its rival nation-states on the battlefield. We cannot be Rome, in a world so very different. And by reenacting, or, one might say, re-reenactment, the follies of this delusion of imperial grandeur, we pay too high a price with the fabric of our national republic. We should wake from the soporific of empire and resolve to fight to gain back what we have lost, like the robbed man who has dried his tears, stood up from the curve and stares into the sun.



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