Friday, December 3, 2010

Empire for Liberty

Revised review of Richard Immerman: Empire for Liberty: A history of American imperialism from Benjamin Franklin to Paul Wolfowitz. Princeton University Press, 2010.

From the standpoint of understanding America’s recent history, Empire for Liberty is an exciting book. American exceptionalism, manifest destiny, liberty, American expansion from a collection of thirteen British colonies to the greatest empire the world has ever seen (though some will argue that point) – all of those things that are so prominent in today’s political maneuverings and pundit rants – are shown to be deeply embedded not only in the American psyche, but in American history. Though some will argue that the U.S. has never sought empire, historian Richard Immerman shows that, in fact, it has been a part of our thinking from Benjamin Franklin and his compatriots to the present day.

What seems to bother its critics is that liberty and empire fit together like oil and water. The notion of empire seems to subvert the whole idea of liberty which, in fact, it does. Yet they are the engine that has driven American commercial, military and political expansionism and dominance from the beginning. The progression and dominance of the American empire have been steady and unyielding from the day the Pilgrims landed on what became the Massachusetts Colony. Anyone standing in the way has been removed, shoved aside or, where possible, assimilated.

Thomas Jefferson, for whom the idea of liberty was of central importance, found it difficult to reconcile liberty and empire. As the American empire expanded, he came to think of it as an empire that would promote America’s concept of liberty around the world. It would be an empire for, not of liberty. And therein lays a major contradiction: Empires have to do with security, prosperity, and the projection of power and greatness; liberty has to do with freedom. America’s claim that it is preserving and promoting liberty leads to conflict when liberty and freedom are defined in American terms and America’s security concerns become paramount, which happened at the beginning of the Cold War when Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles established what Immerman calls an “Empire for Security” to confront the Soviet Union and Communist China that Dulles thought of as empires of evil. From there the U.S. road led to what Immerman calls “the collision of empire and liberty at Abu Ghraib and Guantànamo.”

When an empire promotes liberty it is inevitably paternalistic, dominant and intended to be accepted by others “because it is the best,” which unavoidably leads to confrontation and conflict. As we saw at Abu Ghraib and Guantànamo, it also leads to violations of human rights and excusing (or ignoring) the blatant human rights violations of allies, as the U.S. has done with Israel for over sixty-two years. Both have badly damaged America’s reputation in the world, and both are inexcusable; yet Guantànamo remains unresolved, and Israel continues its predatory treatment of the non-Jewish population of the Occupied Territories without a word of disapproval from the Obama administration, calling our commitment to liberty into question.

It is the chapter on Paul Wolfowitz that is the most revealing in relation to current U.S. history and politics. In his mind there is a dichotomy between America those who are perceived as “evil” (Iran, North Korea and Saddam’s Iraq). Those who are “good” represent America’s politics of liberty, those who are “evil” stand in the way of them. These are defined in terms of America’s missionary impulses of exporting her concepts of liberty and her national interests, which are seen as identical. In Wolfowitz’ mind, “the United States must remain engaged … until it had ridded the world of all those tyrants who [hold] in contempt the values and liberties that the United States [stand] for. Monsters cannot be contained… They [have] to be defanged before they [can] bite. Wolfowitz became a convert to preemption.”[1] “[T]he United States must support constructive policies and programs that [co-opt] potential opposition and [generate] a tidal wave of support for American leadership.”[2] “Destroying monsters” in Wolfowitz’ mind “was the prerequisite for establishing an American empire and an American empire was the prerequisite for an Empire for Liberty[3] No interference was to be permitted.

Wolfowitz’ missionary zeal, combined with his myopic vision quickly became an arrogance that bordered on the delusional. As Immerman says, it “led to what may turn out to be the greatest strategic blunder in U.S. history, a blunder that could prove fatal to the American empire.”[4] The blunder was the decision to invade Iraq, decapitate its leadership, and free its people who, in Wolfowitz’ mind, would welcome the Americans much as the French had done in Paris at the end of World War II. There was no need to plan for an occupation, as the newly-freed Iraqis, grateful for their freedom, would create an American-style democracy to replace Saddam’s dictatorship. Our military would be in and out in six weeks’ time. I still remember Defense Secretary Rumsfeld gleefully chortling about it.

Reality has proven to be quite different. The fragile fabric of Iraqi society exploded in internecine warfare and terror, terrorists swept into the country, thousands of American lives were lost, over a million Iraqis were killed and millions more uprooted and injured. Over seven years later (not six or seven weeks) American troops and installations are still there, though no longer in a combat role. It was an enterprise born of the ignorance of arrogance, an ignorance that blinds its afflicted with the inability to see. Most, if not all of American leadership still doesn’t see it.


[1] Immerman, page 216.
[2] Page 217.
[3] Page 221.
[4] Page 225.

1 comment:

George Polley said...

On American exceptionalism:
Going back to when the first English Puritans landed in America, "exceptionalism" has meant "better than" others in every way. Politically it means "better than" and, viewed from other countries comes across as arrogance, something Americans brag about, a place we look down our noses from. In today's poisonous political parlance, it has become a way of identifying who is "for" us and who is "against" us and is therefore an "enemy" who seeks to destroy us. I've never seen exceptionalism as a healthy concept, but as a built-in instrument of persecution, bullying and privilege.

I had these thoughts while writing the review and decided to leave them as a comment rather than as part of the review.