Jacob Heilbrunn

Is America An Empire?

 In a recent Republican debate in Las Vegas, Ron Paul excoriated his fellow candidates for their support for increased military outlays and decried the size of the American "empire." Empires, Paul noted, don't tend to enjoy soft landings, but crash and burn. It is not an uncommon lament. But is America an empire? Does it habor imperial ambitions?

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Jonah Goldberg says the charge is bunk. If it is even a charge. Some neocons such as Eliot A. Cohen and Max Boot have enthusiastically embraced the term. But Goldberg raises an important point. The fact that America is withdrawing from Iraq, he says, shows that it is not an empire, at least in the classical sense:

The charge in recent times has centered on the Middle East, specifically Iraq. The problem is, contemporary America isn't an empire, at least not in any conventional or traditional sense. Your typical empire invades countries to seize their resources, impose political control and levy taxes. That was true of every empire from the ancient Romans to the Brits and the Soviets.

Of the three, America could most closely be charged of trying to "'impose political control." But even there it falls short. Both Iraq and Afghanistan have fractious political systems and their leaders, more often than not, seek to score points with their domestic peanut galleries by dissing America.

Yet countries antagonistic to America surely see it as an empire. For China and Russia, America is a potent adversary. America's military spending dwarfs that of the next ten countries combined. It has a network of strategic alliances in both Europe and Asia. In the Middle East it has a web of alliances as well with Arab states. And it more or less backs Israel unconditionally.

Nor is this all. America also has a crusading doctrine, a rhetorical commitment to extending its values around the globe. You may think those values are not simply benign but a positive good.

But flip the end of the telescope through which Americans like to peer at the rest of the world and contemplate for a moment how an Iraqi might feel about America. Yes, Saddam Hussein is gone. But at what cost to Iraqis themselves whose society may yet lurch back into civil war? No doubt American neocons have already prepared the groundwork for blaming Obama who is allegedly withdrawing precipitously from Baghdad. But the more the Iraq war is scrutinized by historians, the more the likely verdict will be a simple one. The question isn't why Obama is withdrawing from Iraq. It's why America ever entered it in the first place.

The irony is that if America had acted as a traditional empire in Iraq, its motives would have been more comprehensible. The political scientist and former National Interest co-editor Robert Tucker once created a furor in the pages of Commentary by announcing in the mid-1970s that America would be justified to contemplate seizing Saudi oil fields.  But such plans no doubt exist. The Bush administration entered Iraq with more vaporous thinking--on the apparent conviction that ousting an easy target--Saddam Hussein--would result in regime change in Iran.

America may not be an empire, but it acted imperially after the end of the cold war. Hubris set in. The Bush administration represented the apogee of triumphalist thinking, the belief that American ground troops could and should be employed to topple unfriendly regimes. Obama has been more cautious about how he deploys the military, but his caution has prompted his would-be Republican challengers to denounce him for flaccidity in standing up for American values. If one of the Republican candidates other than Ron Paul enters office, Americans will likely be treated to a fresh round of rodomontade about the exceptional nature of America and its duty to smite the unrighteous abroad. America may not be an empire, but it does tend to think imperially.